A few people have written in to ask about the methodology behind the 500 walks for 325 singles … which is kind of tragic because, of course, this is ME which means there IS no reasonable methodology.
But since people have written in, here is my thinking about the basic concept.
1. We estimate that 500 walks equals 325 singles. Bill James mentions that smart people have come up with this formula, which as Tom Tango points out really comes from Pete Palmer’s linear weights.
Pete estimates that a walk is worth .32 runs.
500 x .32 = 160 runs.
Pete estimates that a single is worth .48 runs.
333 * .48 = 160 runs
So, by linear weights, 500 walks would equal 333 singles. But to round it out — and because many people seem utterly incapable of appreciating the concept that a walk is worth anything close to a single* — we go with 325 singles.
*Quite a few people wrote in to make this very point — that a single is better than a walk. They then give reasons why it’s better than a walk. They then say that beyond those reasons there are fuzzy intangible reasons (such a fielder making an error on a single or the psychological effect of a single on a pitcher’s psyche) that a single is better than a walk.
I thought it was obvious from the first point: A single IS better than a walk. That’s the whole point of this thought experiment. That’s why you have to trade 500 walks for only 325 singles. That exchange rate is based on some pretty intensive study of the game. If you think the exchange rate is too high, OK. If you think the people who broke down the game bit by bit by bit to come up with the exchange rate didn’t consider the psychological effects enough, OK. But at some point don’t we have to concede that walks have some value compared to singles? Saying that walks are only worth about 65% as much as singles actually seems low to me, but I’m willing to go low to make the point.
2. Numerous people wonder what happens to the 175 plate appearances that are voided when we trade in the 500 walks for 325 singles. I don’t have the math chops to answer the question properly but it seems to me they have to just go away. We can’t count them as outs because they’re not outs. The formula is not “(500 walks) = (325 singles + 175 outs).” No, it’s a straight up trade.
I think the hardest part of this to mentally overcome is — this is a VALUE swap. This is not a literal swap. You are not, in fact, trading 500 walks for 325 singles. Someone wrote in to say that if Harold Baines made this trade, his 325 extra hits would push him over 3,000 and make him a sure Hall of Famer. But, as I see it, this is not at all how it works. You are not literally getting 325 extra hits (and if you were, 3,000 hits would not longer be as meaningful anyway). All we are trying to do here is move VALUE from one column to another. The overall picture should not change. We’re just trying to look at the same thing in a different way.
Think of it as red marbles and blue marbles. Say that a red marble is worth about a dollar. And the blue marble is worth about 65 cents.
Player 1 has 1000 red marbles and 400 blue marbles. That’s worth $1,260.
Player 2 has 800 red marbles and 800 blue marbles. That’s worth $1,320.
Now, let’s say that because of bias against blue marbles, most people remain CONVINCED that the first player is more valuable. People just don’t believe in blue marbles, don’t think they’re worth that much (or anything at all). They only care about red. And look: Player 1 has more red marbles. So Player 1 goes to the Hall of Fame while Player 2 falls off the ballot and is consigned to spending a life in Internet blog limbo being praised by obscure baseball writers with nothing else to do but come up with examples about FREAKING MARBLES. What is this, 1913? Spanky and the gang coming over? The Great Brain? Who plays marbles anymore?*
*Actually, my youngest daughter — for reasons I cannot quite fathom — brought home a book about marbles which included a small bag of marbles. And so we ended up playing marbles. This blog, as always, comes right out of my life.
Back to the marble experiment: One way you might try to PROVE that Player 2 is more valuable is to come up with a conversion rate and have him cash in those blue marbles for red so that people might get a different perspective. In this case, like in the walks for hits case, 500 blue marbles would be worth roughly 325 red ones. And that’s the whole trade. You don’t worry about the 175 fewer marbles that you’re getting. The point is value.
3. I think the biggest problem will all this is that none of this should be necessary. We should be able to look at the many, many stats we have — OBP, SLG, WAR, OPS+, wOBA, RC, VORP, ETC. — and come up with a pretty good picture of the player. But, the reality is that there are biases that are just difficult to overcome, and one of those is putting the proper value on walks. I am often reminded of Leigh Steinberg’s famous story about negotiating with Cincinnati owner Mike Brown — anyway, I’m pretty sure it was Steinberg who told me this. Brown had taken one of the Steinberg’s clients with a very high pick, and he sat down with Mike at their first negotiation and said something like: “OK, let’s get started.”
And Mike said: “I am wondering why we have to give a player a large signing bonus when he has never played a down in the NFL.”
That was the starting point of negotiations: The elimination of signing bonuses. It’s like the negotiation was starting in 1958, like the first offer was for room and board. That’s how I feel sometimes when it comes to walks. People — real baseball fans in 2011 — will actually say things like, “Anyone can talk a walk,” or “what’s the big deal of watching four bad pitches go by?”
More astute baseball fans will downplay the walk totals of power hitters because apparently much of their walking is simply pitchers refusing to face them. But the walk rates of power hitters shifts madly — just among the 300-home-run club from Pudge Rodriguez (5%) to Ted Williams (20.6%). Andre Dawson didn’t walk. Jim Rice didn’t walk. Orlando Cepeda didn’t walk. Ernie Banks didn’t walk. Dave Kingman didn’t walk. Lee May … Willie Horton … Dave Parker … Matt Williams … Joe Adcock … some of the most intimidating hitters in the history of the game did not walk hardly at all. Walking is a real skill.
Let’s face it: Many people just don’t like walks. There’s something insubstantial about them; for many a walk is like getting on base on a technicality. And that’s OK. You don’t have to like walks. I don’t like pennies. I think they’re pointless and stupid; they clog up my pockets and my car ashtray, they clang around in the dryer, they drive me nuts. But 100 pennies is a dollar … 10,000 pennies is $100 … and a hundred million pennies is a million dollars. And if you are 12 cents short of a toll, you would be happy to find 12 pennies.
A walk is worth a lot more than a penny. A walk, I think, is worth a lot more than most people realize. That’s why I did this crazy exercise. To make that point.
OK … so now we’re through the explanations, we have come this, I figure I might as well go all the way and figure out something like a true batting average for every player with more than 5,000 plate appearances. This is just a simpler and dirtier version of some of the much, much, much better offensive stats out there like wOBA. All I did was trade in all of a players walks for singles … at a .65 exchange rate. That gave me a value batting average and a value slugging percentage (on-base percentage is now irrelevant). I multiplied those two numbers which gave me … something or other, I don’t really know. But it’s kind of a cool list. I’ll give you some of the highlights below.
First I’ll tell you: The best value batting average, as you might have guessed, belonged to Ted Williams (.440). The best value slugging percentage, as you might have guessed, belonged to Babe Ruth (.732). The worst value batting average belonged to the late great George McBride, who must have been the greatest fielder in the history of baseball because from 1911-14 he hit .220/.290/.270 … and he got MVP consideration EVERY YEAR. George McBride’s value batting average (.254) was quite a bit lower than anyone else’s. McBride’s value slugging percentage (.298) was BY FAR the worst in baseball history.
OK, so we’ll give you a list of the best players … skipping around after we get through the top few. The score is their 300*(value batting average * value slugging). Why 300? No reason — it just gave the numbers a little more oomph — I like showing Babe Ruth’s score a 95.0 rather than the percentage (.317). The order would be the same either way.
One more thing: These numbers are raw — I don’t have the math skills to consider park factors or era or any of that. I don’t really have the math skills to do what I’ve done. And so these numbers are skewed toward big offensive eras. If someone wants to do this with era and park considered … I’ll happily give you the blog for a day.
1. Babe Ruth (95.0)
2. Ted Williams (90.7)
3. Lou Gehrig (83.1)
4. Barry Bonds (79.5)
5. Albert Pujols (78.0)
— Yep, there’s Pujols. Fifth on the list. I don’t know what’s going to happen with the contract — I think the smart thing for him to do is stay in St. Louis. But I do know that another three or four more years of playing at his ordinary pace, we will have to start talking about whether Albert Pujols is the greatest hitter in baseball history. We really could start talking about it now.
6. Jimmie Foxx (77.1)
7. Rogers Hornsby (74.4)
8. Hank Greenberg (73.2)
9. Manny Ramirez (71.0)
— I think it’s fair to say there has never been another player like Manny Ramirez. I actually heard a couple of people arguing about whether Manny will ever go to the Hall of Fame. He has the steroid stain, he was a goofball, he often played defense with heroic indifference. And he almost always played for winners, and he’s one of the greatest hitters in the history of the game. How do you solve a problem like Manny?
10. Todd Helton (70.6)
— Here’s the irony of Coors Field: It undoubtedly helped players put up ENORMOUS numbers. And at exactly the same time, it undoubtedly made those numbers look like mirages. Todd Helton’s career numbers are .324/.424/.555 which are absurd. And you get the sense that if he had put up significantly WORSE numbers but played his whole career somewhere else, his career might be valued higher.
11. Mickey Mantle (70.3)
12. Frank Thomas (69.7)
13. Stan Musial (69.6)
14. Joe DiMaggio (67.9)
15. Mark McGwire (67.5)
16. Jim Thome (66.9)
17. Ty Cobb (66.7)
— If you told pretty much any baseball fan that you think Mark McGwire or Jim Thome was a better hitter than Ty Cobb, they would think you were off your rocker. And they might be right. But Cobb played a long time ago and baseball was a very, very different game. There was a much smaller pool of players to choose from — not only because the game did not include African Americans or dark-skinned Latinos, not only because the game did not extend out to other countries, but also because America was a much smaller country. There were only 83 million people living in America in 1905, when Cobb entered the Major Leagues. The game was played in the day, in the East, with a dead ball for most of Cobb’s years. I don’t have any reason to believe McGwire or Thome could have gone back to that era and played as well as the rough-and-tumble Cobb. But, similarly, I don’t have any reason to believe Cobb could be transported to our era and be as valuable as Thome or McGwire.
18. Lance Berkman (66.7)
19. Larry Walker (66.0)
20. Mel Ott (65.9)
— From here on, we will pick out a few interesting players. You have probably noticed that just about everyone on this list is from a certain time period — either the 1920s and 1930s or the Selig Era. Those were just the big offensive eras. There is nobody yet on the list who played predominantly in the 1970s, for instance. Only Mantle among the list so far got significant at-bats in the 1960s, and he was a very different player after 1961 (.277/.412/.508) than he was through 1961 (.308/.429/.579)
21. Chipper Jones (65.7)
— Wildly underrated even by people who pause to call him wildly underrated.
23. Jeff Bagwell (65.4)
— Third guy on the Hall of Fame ballot. Even beyond steroids, the numbers of the era were dramatically inflated. Rob Neyer brings up the point — and he’s right — that even forgetting PEDs we should try to keep the numbers of the Selig Era in context. A pitcher with a 2.50 ERA during Deadball is viewed very differently. A hitter with a .500 slugging percentage during the Selig Era should probably be viewed differently as well. Maybe, in the end, that is how we will all come to some consensus on the era — by simply marking everyone down a certain percentage.
28. Alex Rodriguez (64.5)
— Question for you: What has a better chance of happening?
1. Tiger Woods breaks Jack Nicklaus’ major record.
2. Alex Rodriguez breaks Barry Bonds’ home run record.
31. Willie Mays (63.7)
— Someone could say that a system that ranks Willie Mays this low is, by definition, faulty. I would not disagree with that. This system is ridiculous.
37. Hank Aaron (61.9)
38. Albert Belle (61.5)
— How about this combination?
49 Dick Allen (60.4)
50. Gary Sheffield (60.2)
— Or this one?
54. Mike Schmidt (59.6)
— I was surprised he scored this low. But even with all his walks, his value batting average was “only” .344.
60. Jackie Robinson (58.3)
— He really was a great player even beyond his contribution as a pioneer.
69. Wade Boggs (57.6)
— The only player in the Top 84 who did not value slug .500.
82. John Olerud (56.6)
— He’s the guy who started this whole mess … Bill James thought that people were not valuing Olerud properly. On this list he ranks one below Juan Gonzalez, and one spot above Eddie Collins.
102. Al Kaline (54.6)
103. George Brett (54.6)
— Ridiculously low for two all-time greats. Their just wasn’t much offense going on during their eras.
167. Roberto Clemente (51.4)
— And if Kaline and Brett’s low ranking wasn’t enough to make you mad … hey, I’m just recording what those numbers show. This is as good a time as any to remind you that we are only talking offense here — and in a limited way. We are only talking about average and walks and power. There’s no measurement of speed or defense or arm, we’re not trying to say who are the best players but simply trying to find the hidden value of players who walked a lot. Clemente did not walk at all. His power numbers were crushed by the pitchers era he played in. This isn’t his kind of list.
196. Robbie Alomar (50.3)
197. Harold Baines (50.3)
— A couple of Hall of Fame ballot guys, the top guy got in, the bottom guy got knocked off the ballot. Of course, the top guy could run a little and played some pretty good defense.
247. Ichiro Suzuki (48.9)
— Like Clemente, this exercise doesn’t really do him justice. He doesn’t walk or hit with power.
265. Andruw Jones (48.5)
— The newest Yankee is two spots above Alfonso Soriano, three spots ahead of Tino Martinez.
291. Bobby Grich (47.9)
292. Lou Whitaker (47.9)
— Snubbed Hall of Fame victim Grich please meet Snubbed Hall of Fame victim Whitaker.
299. Tony Perez (47.6)
— I love Doggie, love the guy, and am very, very happy that he is in the Hall of Fame. But there’s no question that he’s one of those players — like Catfish Hunter, like Kirby Puckett, like Jim Rice, like a bunch of guys from the 1940s — who inspires lobbyists to crow about various other borderline candidates.
315. Johnny Damon (47.1)
— Reports have him signing with Tampa, which means he will be playing for his fourth different team in seven years. I do believe Johnny Damon will get to 3,000 hits. He is 429 hits short, and he’s just turned 37, and I have to think he has three years left in him — Bill James estimates his chances at 3,000 hits at 57%. Interesting though: I used to think that, hey, if Damon gets to 3,000 hits he would probably get to the Hall of Fame. That’s not to say I think Damon is a Hall of Famer. But it’s still a TINY group of players who have 3,000 hits — only 24 since 1900 — and truth is that every eligible 3,000 hit guy in the last 50 years not only went into the Hall but went first ballot.
UNTIL this year …when Rafael Palmeiro got almost no support despite his 3,000 hits. Now, Palmeiro’s lack of support has nothing whatsoever to do with his numbers. His perception problem is more chemical in nature. But I can’t help but think that once you exclude one 3,000-hit guy, for whatever reason, the standards change. Until 1991, every single player with 400 homers was inducted into the Hall of Fame. This caused a now-funny bit of Millennium Bug panic when Dave Kingman hit his 400th homer. What would the votes do? Dave Kingman was clearly not a Hall of Famer. But he hit 400 home runs! What would the voters do?
What the voters did was give Kingman exactly three votes. And from that point on, 400 homers was no longer a Hall of Fame standard. Darrell Evans hit 400 homers, and he walked a lot (Evans value is 47.9 — excellent for his era), and he offered defensive value, especially in his younger years. He got eight votes. The 400 home run line no longer existed, not because it meant less but because a one-dimensional slug like Dave Kingman achieved it. I think Palmeiro’s 3,000 hits — though it has nothing to do with the achievement — will end the 3,000-hits as automatic Hall of Famer standard as well.
322. Ryne Sandberg (46.9)
— I have a friend, a Cardinals fan, who has what even she would admit is an unhealthy dislike for Ryne Sandberg. When I once mentioned that maybe Sandberg could manage the Cardinals after La Russa left, she gave me a very dangerous look.
361. Cal Ripken (46.0)
— At age 30, Ripken was hitting .279/.349/.467 … which probably doesn’t look like much now, but that was after the 1991 season and it meant that he had a 126 OPS+. For a good defensive shortstop who played every single day, those were pretty extraordinary numbers, almost unprecedented numbers. You really had to back to the young Ernie Banks to find a shortstop who was that good as hitter for more that just a handful of years (Robin Yount became a terrific hitter his last five years as a shortstop; Rico Petrocelli had his moments, etc).
After age 30, Ripken hit .271/.329/.424 … which is certainly worse, but not seemingly that much worse. Take out his last two years and the line is .276/.336/.428 — about the same hitter but with the inevitable loss of power. His OPS+ after age 30? A not-so-robust 94. Ripken did change, no question. He lost much of his defensive footing, and his power dropped, and he never had a great year after 1991. But while everyone talks about how much Ripken changed, I think the era changed ever more.
665. Omar Vizquel (37.3)
759. Rabbit Maranville (33.2)
— I was just reading somewhere … Omar Vizquel has a chance this year to tie a couple of players (Luke Sewell and Rabbit Maranville) for most season in a career with an OPS+ less than 100. Sewell was a remarkably powerless catcher (he hit 20 homers in more than 6,000 plate appearances) who every now and again would hit for a decent average and suddenly get MVP consideration. He must have been some kind of remarkable defensively. Maranville is one of the early legends of the game, a Hall of Famer, a defensive marvel, a topic of many stories, despite his career 82 OPS+.
Vizquel is one of the legends of his time, he has been a defensive marvel and a topic of many stories despite his career 83 OPS+. Vizquel is a lot like Rabbit Maranville. The differences come from era (Maranville spent a lot of time in deadball). Realistically, neither one could hit, but they both “didn’t hit” for a long time. Both left people awestruck with their defense. Both did things on the field that stick with you. I suppose that it comes down to this: If you think Rabbit Maranville belongs in the Hall of Fame, you probably should think Omar Vizquel belongs. If not … not.
802. Ozzie Guillen (29.7)
— “I couldn’t hit for %##%@^#%.”
813. Mark Belanger (26.6)
814. Sandy Alomar Sr. (26.1)
815. Mickey Doolan (25.9)
816. Ed Brinkman (25.8)
817. George McBride (22.8)
— And that’s the end of the list.