Should Baseball’s segregation negatively impact our evaluation of Babe Ruth’s statistics?

In a recent article, ESPN’s Buster Olney wrote of ranking Babe Ruth among the all-time greatest baseball players that, “it’s difficult to put him at the top of this list when he played in an era of segregation”. The assumption is that it was easier for Ruth since many great players were not allowed to play in major league baseball. It is true that we will never know how players like Josh Gibson and Cool Papa Bell, stars of the Negro League, would have lined up against the likes of Ruth and Cobb because they did not play against each other outside of exhibition games. While the assumption underlying Olney’s statement is undeniable, this article seeks to make a counter argument that may offer as much weight for Ruth’s excellence. There are a few issues that can be explored:

1) In Ruth’s favor: The best athletes in the country commonly played professional baseball during Ruth’s time. Although there were other professional sports, baseball players made more money and garnered more fame than football players or olympic athletes. Currently, Major League Baseball is second (as of 2014) in average career earnings behind Basketball. Hockey, Football, and likely global soccer leagues are not far behind. This means that baseball has real competition from other sports for the best athletes. This would suggest that Ruth’s statistics might be even greater if he played in the modern era since some of the pitchers he could have faced today have opted for a career as an NFL quarterback instead.

2) Against Ruth’s dominance: The growth of baseball around the world (especially in Japan, Korea, and the Caribbean) means that the talent pool now is much richer than in Ruth’s time. Athletes from many of these areas would have either not played competitive professional sports, or would have played something other than baseball in Ruth’s time.

3) In Ruth’s favor: Ruth’s barnstorming tours of Japan were key in the growth of baseball in that country. This doesn’t help his stats, but shows that he was always willing (especially when the money was better than playing domestically) to take on all comers around the world. It seems clear that Ruth would have likely have preferred the greater money and fairness that would have come from playing with players disallowed in the major leagues.

4) In Ruth’s favor: The outstanding statistics of the stars of the historical Negro Leagues must also be examined with some caution. Would Josh Gibson have hit as many home runs if he had faced major league pitching on a daily basis? The argument goes both ways. If Ruth’s numbers take a hit then so should the numbers of players like Satchel Paige.

This is not to say that Ruth’s statistics would have been the same or even greater if he started his career in 2016, but it is to say that segregation alone should not diminish the evaluation of his numbers.

John’s Coppolella’s Strategy for the Turnaround

Two big points from the John Coppolella, the Assistant General Manager interviewed during this weekend’s Nationals series.

  1. The Braves minor league system has gone from 29th in the majors (out of 31 teams) to Keith Law of ESPN ranking them 2nd this summer after the draft.
  2. The (the Braves) are not looking to a 5-7 year rebuild a la the Astros and the Cubs, but two down years followed by success.  Getting rid of the contracts they had to provide flexibility going into the 2017 seems like the way to go.

In the meantime, to be honest, I’m only watching the Braves games on the At Bat app that they win.  Which means I’ve been watching a whole lot.  A watch a few live, but the pitching has been fairly depressing the last month or so.  They have traded their two best bullpen arms (Avilan and Johnson) and a middle-of-the-rotation starter (Alex Wood), along with a bunch of their veteran hitters.  The team can’t score enough, and they simply have no good options for relied in close games.  Arodys Vizcaino is not quite there, but may end up finding success in limited middle relief situations.

In the coming weeks, I’ll be providing some more analysis of their prospects and the possibilities for the future.

Hope is still alive, but at this point… wait ’till next year.  (or maybe 2017)

How I Voted for the Braves “Franchise Four”

As part of this year’s all-star game, Major League Baseball is asking fans to vote for their franchise four, the top players in the history of their franchise.  I assume the purpose of this exercise is to help celebrate the history of a franchise, but it appears to be designed to maximize the chance that the persons chosen are alive and able to be on the field during game.  Here are the nominations on the Braves franchise four page (I’ve also included the stats from that page):

Hank Aaron: .305 AVG, 755 HR, 2,297 RBI

Eddie Mathews: .271, 512 HR, 1,453 RBI

Tom Glavine: 305 Wins, 3.54 ERA, 2,607 Ks

Dale Murphy: .265 AVG, 398 HR, 1,266 RBI

Chipper Jones: .303 AVG, 468 HR, 1,623 RBI

John Smoltz: 213 Wins, 3.33 ERA, 3,084 Ks

Greg Maddux: 355 Wins, 3.16 ERA, 3,371 Ks

Warren Spahn: 363 Wins, 3.09 ERA, 2,583 Ks

There are lots of problem here, but let me list a few of my opinions:

1) The stats they have chosen are misleading.  For example, using batting average to describe Dale Murphy’s contribution in the 1980s is like saying that Home Run Baker was a terrible home run hitter because he only hit 96 career home runs.  That would overlook the fact that he lead the American League in Home Runs in 1914 with 9.  Yup, nine.  Nobody hit a lot of home runs in the dead ball era.  In 1982 and 1983, Dale Murphy won consecutive MVPs with a .281 and .302 batting average.  In both years he hit 36 Home Runs.  The National League collectively hit .258 in 1982 and .255 in 1983.  In 1930, the National League collectively hit .303.  In 1999 (perhaps at a peak of the so-called “steroid era”) the league average was .266.  So Murphy had a batting average which tied for 6th in the NL, and it was lower than the league average in 1930.  Even if we forget the specifics, this should make clear that “Franchise Four” needs statistics that more easily show players of different eras.

Here’s what this list would look like if we went with a franchise WAR contribution list from :(players in bold are not on the MLB list)

1. Hank Aaron (142 WAR)

2. Kid Nichols (108 WAR)

3. Warren Spahn (99 WAR)

4. Eddie Mathews (94 WAR)

5. Phil Niekro (89 WAR)

6. Chipper Jones (85 WAR)

7. John Smoltz (70 WAR)

8. Greg Maddux (67 WAR)

The next three are: Glavine (64), Andruw Jones (60), Murphy (46).

Keep in mind the career WAR emphasizes long-term contributions over short-term dominance, but our MLB list still seems odd.  Kid Nichols and Phil Niekro (who is alive) aren’t on the list, but Dale Murphy is on the list over Andruw Jones who was a statistically better player.

Of course this is a fan vote, and Dale Murphy is a favorite of every Braves fan who watched him play.  In an era of cocaine abuse and sandpapered baseballs, he had the wholesome image that every dad wanted their children to emulate.  He belongs on the list.

2) So who the heck is Kid Nichols?

Glad you asked.  He might be the best pitcher you’ve never heard of.  He played for the Braves (when they were the Boston Beaneaters) from 1890 until 1901.  In that time, he had a record of 329 Wins and 183 Losses, with an ERA of 3.00 in 621 Games, 532 of which he started and completed.  He is 17th all-time in career WAR.  He lead the National League in WAR three times, and was in the top 10 in the League 11 times.  He is 7th all-time in career wins.  He is 15th in all-time career ERA+, which is ERA adjusted for ballparks.  He lived long enough to be inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 1949, four years before his death.

3) So what would you do with this list, tough guy?

There’s not too much wrong with the list.  I’m fine with the 8 they chose, but they should include better stats.  They should say that Murphy won two consecutive MVPs and 5 consecutive gold gloves.  That Maddux won 3 consecutive Cy Young awards for the Braves, that sort of thing.  I would also kick Glavine and Maddux off the list for Nichols and Niekro.  Glavine’s stats aren’t as good as either, and Maddux did too much work for other teams.  This is a franchise list, not a list of great players who spent some time with your club.  That being said, I voted for Aaron, Murphy and Spahn.  (Yes, I grew up in the 1980s and Murphy is a hero of mine).  And yes, I wrote in Kid Nichols.





26 Different Batting Orders in 26 Games means….

Cut4 wrote up the situation.  The Braves have used 26 different combinations of batters in the first 26 games of the season.  If you’re a nerdish baseball fan like myself, you thought “I wonder how many combinations are possible?”  Well, the answer is 741,354,768,000 if you just solve for permutations of 9 batters from a 25-man roster.  Of course, it’s only 362,880 combinations if you have the same 9 players in every game.  If we take the 741 billion number, we can reach new levels of nerd-dom rather quickly.

If Freddie Gonzalez had cloned players delivered daily to the ballpark (so they never went on the disabled list, grew old, or retired), how long would it take Freddie (or the future clone-Freddies) to get through all of the 741 billion combinations?  If they only played 162 games every year and never reached the playoffs (today’s roster, remember), it would take the Braves just over 4.5 billion years to use all of the combinations.  Astro-physisicist types suggest that the sun only has about 5 billion years of hydrogen left.  We have to get on this.

If we cloned our best possible lineup and got rid of all platoons, it would only take 2,240 years to use up all of the possible combinations.  That means on the 27th game of the season in the year 4255 we would end up repeating a line-up.

By the way, based on season-to-date WAR, that lineup would (arguably) be Shelby Miller pitching to Bethancourt, with Freeman, Peterson, Simmons and Kelly Johnson in the infield, with Gomes, Maybin and Markakis in the outfield.

How are the platoons for the Braves working out? keeps data on wins above average (WAA) for each player, but for a team like the Braves with so many platoon positions, the better chart is the Wins above average for each position.  Here’s what the information for the National League looks like as of this morning:



In this chart, the blue bars are the current National League averages, and the red bars are the current Atlanta Braves WAA for each position.  What we see is that every platoon position (2B, 3B, LF, CF) are all underperforming.  Andrelton Simmons is dominating, and the bullpen as a group, Nick Markakis in Right Field and Freddie Freeman are all exceeding the league average.  The Braves biggest disappointment would appear be to be 3rd base, where Chris Johnson (24 plate appearances), Alberto Callaspo (24 as well) and Philip Gosselin (5) have a combined -0.4 WAA in all bats.

Braves Proving Doubters Wrong… For Now

The Braves are now 8-4 after wrapping up their 3-game series in Toronto with 2 wins.  They are now:

  • 4th in the League in runs scored per game
  • 3rd in the League in home runs
  • 6th in stolen bases
  • 4th in fewest men left on base
  • 5th in fewest runs given up per game
  • 8th in ERA
  • 1st fewest defensive errors
  • 3rd in defensive efficiency

What can we conclude?  The Braves’ pitching has been solid, but not dominating.  Their bullpen has been better than it can be expected to be for the rest of the season, and the offense has been better than could’ve been expected.  Most likely, the starting pitching will improve, the bullpen will fall back closer to league average, and the offense will have to lean more on run manufacturing rather than power.  That will all happen if these various part of the team “regress to the mean” as the saying goes among statisticians, but we know that the games must be played on the field, and not on a spreadsheet.

Discussion – What (if anything) went wrong in the Frank Wren era?

Ken Rosenthal wrote a great piece breaking down the Braves’ offseason moves.  The thesis is that the problem may not have been the farm system, since it has produced so many great prospects that made it to the majors.

I agree the Braves farm system has been excellent, but those in the know seemed to think that the next five years don’t look as bright.  In addition, a key factor seemed to be interpersonal issues with their GM, Frank Wren.  Check out this story from Baseball America.  A key section:

“More than 22 years in the Braves organization, including 11 as scouting director, ended with Clark resigning over a “difference in philosophy” with the direction the Braves were headed under general manager Frank Wren.

When the Braves fired Wren and his assistant GM Bruce Manno in September and began restructuring their front office, all it took was one phone call from team president John Schuerholz to get Clark back.”

So it would seem that interpersonal issues made a big part in the decision to move on from Frank Wren.  In the final analysis, it seems as though a likely breakdown of “what went wrong” would go something like: 1) Wren’s inability to get along with colleagues, 2) Wren’s signing of big money free agents that flopped terribly, and 3) the Braves’ inability to replenish their farm system under Wren’s leadership.