Wednesday, July 13, 2011

#39: Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century by Allen Barra

New York: St. Martin's Press, 2002. 261 pages

Allen Barra is a well known writer and contributor to MLB radio and, and in this book sets out to tackle some issues such as:

1. Was Babe Ruth as good as we think he was? Or, "Getting Tough With Babe Ruth".
2. 61*: Or, Should Roger Maris Be in the Hall of Fame?
3. Why can't they go nine anymore?

Granted, this book was written in 2002, but the baseball writings do not hold up very well. Barra emphasizes his and a colleagues creation, SLOB (Slugging pct*On Base Percentage) as the "best correlating stat to run production." I had never heard of it before I picked up the book. Barra also claims to have developed several similar stats to Palmer's Linear Weights and Bill James Runs Created "years before I James wrote his first Baseball Analyst". Well, that may be, but that is another debate. Barra's tone throughout is somewhat whiny. But, on to one of the "debates" as an example of the problem of this book.

Barra's Best Player of the 20th Century"? Mike Schmidt, third baseman of the Phillies. An inspired choice, and I certainly agree that Schmidt is hands down the best third baseman of all time. The problem lies in this line, in comparing Schmidt to Babe Ruth: "Assume they are both playing in an era of relief pitching and night ball, with black and Latin players thrown into the mix. Then look at that overweight guy in right field, and look at that sculptured athlete at third base and ask yourself...if evolution works in reverse." (132)

Well, well. I call bull shit on that. Barra compares any number of great players to Schmidt in leading the league in HR, BA, RBI, R, OBA, SLG, SB and MVPs. He neglects to compare Schmidt to Ruth in these categories. Let me do the heavy lifting here:

Home Runs: Schmidt 8, Ruth 12. Advantage The Overweight Guy
Batting Average: Schmidt 0, Ruth 1. Advantage The Overweight Guy
Runs Batted In: Schmidt 4, Ruth 6. Advantage The Overweight Guy
Runs: Schmidt 1, Ruth 8. Advantage The Overweight Guy
On Base Percentage: Schmidt 3, Ruth 10. Advantage: The overweight Guy
Slugging Percentage: Schmidt 5, Ruth 13. Advantage The Overweight Guy
Stolen Bases: Schmidt 0, Ruth 0. Push
MVP: Schmidt 3, Ruth 1. Advantage Schmidt

I consider Mike Schmidt the best third baseman in history, bar none. I am also tired of people such as Barra bagging on Babe Ruth. Ruth was the dominant player of his time; who won MVPs during Ruth's career? People such as Lou Gehrig (1927), Jimmy Foxx (1932 and 1933), Walter Johnson (1923), Mickey Cochrane (1928); all members of the Hall of Fame. I agree that the idea that a man who ate hot dogs and banged everything with two legs 80 years ago being considered the Greatest Player of All Time sounds preposterous. What Barra fails to consider is sabermetric analysis, which he somewhat smugly says he does not put stock in. Ruth was one of the best pitchers in baseball before Ed Barrow made him an outfielder. In 1916, Ruth won 24 games. In 1919, while he was busy leading the league in home runs, he won 9 games as a pitcher.

Casting aspersions on Ruth for not having to play games at night or against black players is fine, but analytically suspect. It was not his fault, and he should not be blamed for this. Compare his stats, or normalize them to the 1970s, and Ruth would still be a great player, his conditioning notwithstanding. Barra fails here because he does not considerer the power of statistical normalization. His Ruth is a bumbling fat man, lucky to not face black pitchers or play under the lights. Again, not his fault.

It is also interesting to read Barra's article which casts Roger Clemens as the best pitcher in history. Lefty Grove was better, even in 2002 when this book was written, regardless of Roid Roger's alchemical career. Barra argues that the Sandy Koufax could not be better than Roger Clemens because "the 1960s were the worst decade for hitters in the entire century." (174) Two points:

1. Any poor bastard that played between 1902 and 1910 would beg to differ. It is not called the "Dead Ball Era" for nothing. Try hitting Three Finger Brown or Rube Waddell with a dirty ball.
2. Between 1928 and 1931, Lefty Grove won 103 games and lost 23. His earned run average in those years was a combined 2.39; this is roughly 70% below the league average. Oh, and while Grove won 28 games in 1930, he also saved 9 games because Connie Mack saved him for clutch situations. But all this does not matter, because the 1990s were a better decade for hitters. The 1930s were the highest scoring decade in the 20th century, when the best pitcher was Lefty Grove.
3. Extra Point: has developed a stat called "Wins Above Replacement". This is a measure of how many wins a player contributed to their teams in a season over and above what a league average player would have. Anything over 8 wins is a MVP caliber season. Grove did this 5 times, Clemens 3.

The chapters where this book actually works seem tacked on at the end. They are considerations of Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain and an article extolling Walter Payton as the best of all time in football. I agree with Barra's conclusions on both. The rest does not age well.

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