April Fools (04/01/01)
I have been saying for a few years now that we are in a Golden Age of Baseball. Certainly not in terms of the intelligent governance of our pastime - the owner's solutions for interleague play, revenue sharing, the unbalanced schedule and now their consideration of league contraction and a talent compensation draft are more reminiscent of Lords of the Flies than Lords of the Realm.
No, baseball is not in good hands there. But in terms of the talent on the field, we've got a big piece of the rock.
But some people have taken it too far. They are saying that many of the players we are watching now are the greatest ever. Take Barry Bonds for instance. A number of respected commentators have posited that Barry Bonds is the best left fielder ever, better than even Ted Williams. They point to his fielding and baserunning as the difference makers. It's odd, but these same commentators take just about every other opportunity to devalue those same skills. But lets look at the argument.
While it's not a perfect measure, Total Player Rating is a nice way to express a player's total contribution to his team's chances of winning. It incorporates everything he does on the field in terms of runs created and runs prevented relative to league average and expresses those actions in the form of extra wins.
As of last year, Barry Bonds has a career TPR of 89.4. And he's still got a few years left in his brilliant career. Ted Williams career TPR is 83.0. Case closed, right?
Not so fast. Williams missed four and a half years of his career to service to his country. He was a Marine fighter pilot in both World War 2 and the Korean conflict.
But the experts either seem to think that Williams either wouldn't have posted any TPR during those lost years, or that his TPR would have been so low that even had he played, it would only have "pushed his TPR to perhaps over 100".
In 1942, Ted Williams was 23 years old. He hit .356 and posted on base/slugging percentages of .499/.648. That was good for a TPR of 8.1. The year before, he posted a TPR of 7.9. He missed the next 3 years of baseball flying missions against the Axis powers. In his first year back from the war (1946), he didn't miss a beat, posting a TPR of 7.9. Assuming that he would have continued to produce at his established level of 1941-42, those 3 years missed cost Williams 24.0 points of TPR. "Perhaps over 100", you say? My math puts him well over 100. But we're not finished.
Williams also missed time in the 50's to service in Korea. His TPR in 1951 was 4.5. His first full year back (1954) he posted a TPR of 5.0. I think it's safe to assume that he would have continued to produced somewhere in that neighborhood in 1952 and 1953. How about we take an average of the 2 and say 4.75. He did play some in those years, accumulating 1.7 in TPR in just 101 ABs, so we'll have to subtract that and add in the extrapolated full year TPR.
So all totaled, Williams lost time to service to his country cost him roughly 31.8 points in TPR. That would have given him a career TPR of 114.8, a very conservative estimate. How many players miss 3 years of baseball and come back playing at the same level as when they left it? Most players skills erode so much after just one year off, it takes them at least a year to regain their old form. Some never do. Had his career not been interrupted, there's a very high degree of likelihood that he would have posted higher TPRs in those missing years and the years that followed. A career TPR of 120+ would not be too optimistic. "Perhaps over 100"... indeed!
OK, now for Mr. Bonds. He's already got 89.4. He's a few years off his peak production, posting a TPR around 5.0 the past 2 years. He's 36 years old this year. At his current rate, he'll need to play 5 more years to catch Williams' conservative projection, at least 6 to reach his more reasonable one. That means that these experts expect him to be hitting 49 homers a year (as he did last year) when he's 41 years old. Considering the major league records for home runs in a season by 39-, 40- and 41-year olds are 40, 34 and 29, I have to wonder: who's being too optimistic?
And given Bonds' poor relationship with the press, does anyone really think he'll stick around for 5 more years? There's a possibility, certainly. He's got almost 500 home runs - 494 to be exact - and he's said before that he'd like to catch his godfather Willie Mays in that category. Mays finished at 660. Given the recent run scoring environment, he could possibly reach that goal in 4 years. But then what? Aaron is out of reach. Ruth would still be 2 years away. Would Bonds keep playing for the joy of facing the press that embraces him so dearly everyday? Somehow, I don't think so. Bonds says he's desperate for a championship ring. He'll stick around for that, won't he? Bonds' contract with the Giants is up pretty soon. The Yankees need a left fielder, Bonds wants a ring... you do the math. He'll get a ring before he'll get to Mays.
Playing in the most offensively oriented era in the history of baseball, Bonds has posted a career on base of .412 and slugging of .567. Williams marks in those categories, which came in a more balanced era, are .483 and .634. Even ignoring the difference in eras, it's funny that they argue that stolen bases and defense can make up that much ground (OPS difference of .138) when it comes to the overall value of the player. I guess I'll have to bring this disparity up next time I hear one of them insist that Brian Giles (career OPS of .961) is more valuable than Andruw Jones (career OPS of .838).
Look. Bonds is a great player. He does everything well. He's led the league in slugging 3 times and in on base 4 times. He's won numerous Gold Glove awards. But they're comparing him to Ted Williams. Never a threat for a Gold Glove award, but he led the league in slugging 8 times and on base 12 times, and that's with missing 5 peak years of his career.
Sorry guys, but Mr. Bonds still has a ways to go before supplanting the best hitter who ever lived as the best left fielder ever. Game, set and match point for the Splendid Splinter.