Fun Pairs

Tom Tango, as he so often does, sparked an idea. Well, actually, a reader of his did. The reader pointed out — and this seems almost too good to be true — that Adam Dunn and Juan Pierre have almost exactly the same Wins Above Replacement. And it’s true both in Baseball Reference WAR (bWAR) and Fangraphs WAR (fWAR).

Dunn: 16.6 bWAR, 23.2 fWAR.

Pierre: 16.6 bWAR, 23.3 fWAR.

This is fantastic because Dunn and Pierre each have been written about so much, at least on the Internet, that in a way they have become more than just ballplayers. They have become symbols for a way of playing baseball. And their ways of playing baseball are almost polar opposites.

Dunn’s career value is basically tied up in his ability to hit home runs and walk. He can’t run, can’t field, has led the league in strikeouts four times. He’s also got a lifetime .367 on-base percentage because he has walked more than 1,200 times and he has hit 436 home runs — eight times he hit 38 or more in a season.

Pierre’s career value is basically tied up in his ability to to hit for average, run like the wind and play center field to at least a draw despite throwing problems. he has absolutely no power, is allergic to the walk, and has a career 84 OPS+. He’s also got a .295 career batting average, more than 2,200 hits, and he has stolen more than 600 bases — nine times with 40-plus in a season).

You may not care much for WAR as a metric. But the fact those two have registered almost identical value is poetic and lyrical and perfect. Through the years — and I’ll generalize for a minute here — people inside baseball have lamented Dunn’s low batting average, his hyper-willingness to take a walk even in RBI situations, and his outward demeanor and dreadfulness in the outfield (Who can forget J.P. Ricciardi’s “Do you know the guy really doesn’t like baseball that much?” comment). And people outside baseball have said, “Hold on a minute here. The guy gets on base. The guy hits home runs. He may not be perfect, but there’s value here.”

Meanwhile people outside baseball have written extensively about Pierre’s inability to walk, his relative ineffectiveness as a base stealer (he has led the league in steals three times but has led in caught-stealing seven times — for his career he has been successful just 75.1% of the time, which is close to the cutoff point where stolen bases don’t actually help a team), his almost comically weak arm. And people inside the game have said: “Hold on a minute here. The guy’s close to a .300 hitter, he steals bases, he hustles, he can run down balls in center or left, he has leadership skills, this guy can play on my team anytime!”

Like I say, you may not like WAR. But the fact that Adam Dunn and Juan Pierre match up is fantastic. It’s like Ginger vs. Mary Ann. It’s like REO Speedwagon vs. Styx. It’s like Grisham vs. King. It’s like John McEnroe vs. Johnny Miller. It’s endlessly fascinating, and if someone asks me (as Tom Tango did) which player I would have wanted for their entire career, I would have to say what WAR says: It’s an exact tie.

Here are a couple other awesome WAR pairs.

Lonnie Smith: 38.5 bWAR, 35.0 fWAR

Mark Belanger: 41.0 bWAR, 34.9 fWAR

Their Baseball Reference WAR numbers are slightly off, but close enough — great matchup here. Lonnie Smith was one of the indelible players of his day. They called him Skates because of his unique ability to fall down in the outfield, Despite this somewhat troubling glitch in his game — Smith was charged with 54 errors between 1982 and 1986 — Smith was extremely fast, a disciplined hitter. and a valuable player. In 1982, for the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, he posted a .381 on-base percentage, scored a league-leading 120 runs, stole 68 bases (though he was caught 28 times) and finished second in the MVP voting. And that wasn’t his best season — in 1989, he hit .315, led the National League in on-base percentage, banged 21 homers, stole 25 bases and scored 89 runs.

Mark Belanger was one of those rare players who looked EXACTLY as good as he was. He couldn’t hit at all, but he was an absolute artist at shortstop. That was his reputation when he played. That was what the numbers of the time said. That was what the next generation of numbers said. And that’s what the current numbers say. His 68 OPS+ is the sixth-lowest for anyone who got 6,000 plate appearances in the big leagues. But the 240 runs that WAR says he saved defensively is second only to his teammate Brooks Robinson (and one ahead of the Wizard, Ozzie Smith). He was such a glorious defensive player that his manager Earl Weaver, who despised the bunt, would allow Belanger to lead the league in sacrifice hits twice.

Bill Mazeroski: 36.1 bWAR, 30.9 fWAR

Frank White: 34.8 bWAR, 31.1 fWAR

I wanted to do a pair that made visual sense — White and Mazeroski were essentially the same player in different spaces. Mazeroski was a brilliant defensive second baseman who did not get on base and offered occasional offensive value. Frank White was a brilliant defensive second baseman who did not get on base and offered occasional offensive value. Maz had an 84 OPS+ and hit 138 home runs — and another in the postseason that is one of the most famous in baseball history. White had an 85 OPS+ and hit 160 homers — he has slightly lesser postseason glory, he won the ALCS MVP in 1980 and batted cleanup in the 1985 World Series. Maz won eight Gold Gloves and was better than any second baseman ever at turning the double play. White won eight Gold Gloves and sort of invented a new way to play second base on artificial turf.

Maz is in the Hall of Fame. White has never really had his Hall of Fame case considered. There is a group in Kansas City trying to change that now — they are pushing hard to have the Veteran’s Committee take a serious look at Frank’s career. Frank is a friend so I’m rooting for him, but I am a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. I don’t think “If he’s in, then he should be in” comparisons are of much use, and, anyway, I don’t think Mazeroski should be in the Hall of Fame. Maz was a fantastic player and he’s a wonderful guy by all accounts and his Mazeroski Baseball magazine literally changed my life. But I just don’t think he hit enough. Still, he is in. Frank White was basically the same player.

Hal McRae: 27.8 bWAR, 28.7 fWAR

Clete Boyer: 27.7 bWAR, 29.6 fWAR

Hal McRae was one of the first full-time designated hitters. He actually played five positions in the Majors (second, third, and all three outfield spots) but essentially after 1975, he was a DH. McRae was a really good hitter. He lost the 1976 batting title on the last day — it was extremely controversial at the time and McRae believed racially motivated — but he still led the league in on-base percentage. The next year, he smashed 54 doubles to lead the league. In 1982, he led the league in doubles and RBIs. From 1974 to 1982, he was a .300 hitter (.299 to be precise) with good power. But for the Royals at the time, McRae was something more. He had come from Cincinnati, where he watched the way the Big Red Machine played baseball. He brought that to a Kansas City expansion team. He was the leader, the force of nature, the guy who broke up double plays with fury, the man who ragged any teammate who dared try to sit out for some nagging injury, the player who taught the Kansas City Royals how to play winning baseball.

“Let’s settle this under the stands,” New York’s Cliff Johnson said to him before a playoff game in 1977 — this after McRae had barreled into the Yankees shortstop on a double play to send a message.

“Cliff,” McRae said calmly. “I don’t fight extra men.”

Clete Boyer was the youngest of the three Boyer boys — Cloyd, a pitcher, was 10 years older, and the great Ken Boyer was six years older — and maybe that was the reason he was pretty wildly overlooked. He also had the misfortune of being a defensive genius at third base precisely at the time that Brooks Robinson was a defensive genius at third base. In fact, Boyer and Robinson were born three months apart in towns about 250 miles apart. They both signed in 1955. They both made their major league debuts at 18 (Boyer was a bonus baby which meant the Kansas City A’s HAD to keep him in the big leagues). Boyer played shortstop and second base as well as third — Robinson was mostly a third baseman (though he played a little at second).

Robinson became an everyday player in 1958 for the Orioles. Boyer was traded to the Yankees in 1957 — this in the day when every good player in Kansas City was traded to the Yankees — and so he did not become a regular until 1960.

In 1960, Boyer hit .242 with 14 home runs, played brilliant defense at short and third, and the Yankees won the pennant.

In 1960, Robinson hit .294 with 14 home runs, played brilliant defense at third, and he won the Gold Glove.

In 1961, Boyer hit .224 with 11 home runs and, by the numbers, had one of the greatest defensive years ever for a third baseman. And the Yankees won the World Series.

In 1961, Robinson hit .287 with seven home runs and, by the numbers, was outstanding at third base. He won the Gold Glove.

In 1962, Boyer had one of his best offensive seasons — .272/.331/.413 with 18 homers — and again was an absolute marvel at third base. The Yankees again won the World Series.

In 1962, Robinson hit .303 with 23 home runs and was his usual fantastic self at third base. He won the Gold Glove.

You get the point. Boyer was probably Robinson’s equal defensively throughout the early 1960s, maybe even a tick better some years. But Robinson was a better hitter, and the narrative had been written. Robinson won the Gold Glove every year from from 1960 to 1975. I believe Robinson is the greatest defensive third baseman who ever lived, but he probably wasn’t better than Clete Boyer every single season (or, for that matter, better than Graig Nettles or Buddy Bell throughout the first half of the 1970s). Boyer finally won his first and only Gold Glove in 1969, after he had been traded to the National League Atlanta Braves.

45 thoughts on “Fun Pairs

  1. W. Blake Gray

    Just for the record, let me confirm that you’re saying that a New York Yankee was not as appreciated by the national media in the early 1960s as a Baltimore Oriole.

    I guess we all know how those 1950s Orioles teams had put them at the forefront of national attention, while the Yankees struggled for recognition.

    Reply
    1. W. Blake Gray

      Uh, yes?

      It’s hard for me to believe that if Clete Boyer was better than Robinson defensively, the NY media wouldn’t have pounded the idea home. You’d think his weak hitting would have enhanced this story, as he must have been in the Yankee lineup for some reason.

      I can believe Brooks Robinson might have gotten some of his last Gold Gloves on reputation. But in 1960? Seriously?

      Reply
    2. Robert

      In the 2000s we have gold gloves being awarded to head scratching winners, usually because they can hit. I seriously doubt we were talking about an efficient market for voting in the 60s. Though, to be fair, Joe says they were pretty close and it’s likely that Boyer deserved consideration in some of those years. That’s probably a fair assessment and not strongly stated enough to generate much contentiousness, unless you’re just looking for it.

      Reply
    3. W. Blake Gray

      Is this contentious? Joe didn’t say “Boyer deserved consideration in some of those years.”

      Joe wrote, “Boyer was probably Robinson’s equal defensively throughout the early 1960s, maybe even a tick better some years.”

      But the evidence he gives is all OFFENSIVE stats. So what he’s saying, apparently, is that BECAUSE Robinson was a better hitter, Boyer was a better fielder. Go back and read it again.

      Agreed that Gold Gloves get awarded through laziness, inertia and reputation. But for people of the time to choose Robinson, in his second full season for a team having its first good season ever, over a starter on a Yankee pennant winner, I just don’t think you can dismiss that.

      Reply
    4. Stephen

      “Just for the record, let me confirm that you’re saying that a New York Yankee was not as appreciated by the national media in the early 1960s as a Baltimore Oriole.”

      Try this: “The possibly most written about New York Yankee, after Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Roger Maris, Elston Howard, Moose Skowron and whatever pitcher broke through with some wins (Ralph Terry, Jim Bouton, etc.) was not as appreciated as the most written about Oriole.”

      Reply
    5. Ian R.

      “But the evidence he gives is all OFFENSIVE stats. So what he’s saying, apparently, is that BECAUSE Robinson was a better hitter, Boyer was a better fielder. Go back and read it again.”

      I read it again. Joe is saying that because Robinson was a better hitter, he got more recognition and ended up with the Gold Glove. There are plenty of examples (Jeter being the most prominent) of players who’ve won the Gold Glove because of their play at the plate.

      Reply
    6. Which Hunt

      I think Jeter won a couple Gold Gloves based on one play he made in the playoffs vs. the A’s. That play was all anyone who thought Jeter was a wizard in the field would ever talk about. Well, that and his overall undeniable clutchiness.

      Reply
  2. Unknown

    As to the question of which one you’d take for their whole career – Dunn or Pierre – it’s interesting to me that they accumulated their WAR over a very similar number of seasons and plate appearances. So it indeed would be pretty close to a wash. However, I’d say the answer for me would depend on which league my team played in. If you could have a whole career of Dunn playing DH, that would cut out his vast negative value in defense. He has 33.6 oWAR, and I assume DHs get dinged for not playing the field a bit, so that wouldn’t be his entire total, but I would definitely take Dunn’s career over Pierre’s if he could DH the entire time. But if, as he has, most of his playing time comes in the NL, then yes, it’s about a wash.

    Reply
  3. BobDD

    Going on memory (a dangerous thing indeed), but I believe Bill James once noted that twice Mark Belanger had the only hit in a game against Nolan Ryan, breaking up a no-hitter in the 8th inning of a game, and another time in the 9th inning.

    Reply
    1. fivetwentyone

      I looked at retrosheet and I dont see it. Duane Kuiper did, however, May 5th, 1978. heres the full list I got, Nolan Ryan 1 hitters and which batter got the hit.

      game_id namefirst namelast
      ——————————-
      NYN197004180 Denny Doyle
      CAL197207090 Carl Yastrzemski
      CAL197308290 Thurman Munson
      CAL197406270 Alex Johnson
      CAL197704150 Bob Stinson
      CAL197805050 Duane Kuiper
      CAL197907130 Reggie Jackson
      SDN198208110 Terry Kennedy
      HOU198607220 Mike Fitzgerald
      TOR198904230 Nelson Liriano
      MIL198904120 Terry Francona
      SEA198906030 Harold Reynolds
      TEX199004260 Ron Kittle

      Reply
    1. Ian R.

      Dusty would take Pierre, stick him in center field despite his noodle arm, and have him lead off because he’s a center fielder. (To be fair, Pierre has actually posted decent OBPs for much of his career.)

      Reply
    2. Eric

      As a lifelong Reds fan, when I saw Ian R.’s comment, I thought, Dusty wouldn’t just bat Pierre lead off, he would call on him to be MORE aggressive, and lower his already miniscule BB%. Then, I happened to notice that in 2006, Juan Pierre actually DID play for the Chicago Cubs and then manager Dusty Baker. Dusty DID bat him lead off 159 games, and DID play him in CF. And in 2006, Pierre posted the lowest BB rate of his career, coming in at 4.3%. His BB rate in every other season? 5.75%. Dusty Baker everybody.

      Reply
  4. Damon Rutherford

    It’s like Grisham vs. King.

    I’m thinking it’s not like Grisham vs. King because King >> Grisham in virtually every subjective/objective metric/standard you want to use: book sales, movie quality, quantity, box office take, influence, fame, peak, longevity, etc.

    Reply
    1. clashfan

      I don’t think it’s fair to use movie quality and box office receipts when evaluating authors.

      For that matter, book sales is probably not a very good barometer, either. I mean, Fifty Shades of Grey sold a bajillion copies.

      Reply
    2. Damon Rutherford

      I can see that, though I was throwing out examples. How would you evaluate authors, then?

      And my main argument is that unless you ask who writes better books about the law and lawyers, King is likely to win against Grisham.

      Reply
  5. ethegolfman

    BobDD – cool sounding stat but not true re: Belanger/Ryan. I checked game logs from 1972-1979 when Ryan was with the Angels. He had 2 games where he only allowed 1 hit against the Orioles but each were only 2 inning starts where he was yanked and in neither game did Belanger get the only hit. He did pitch a 2 hitter against the Orioles but Belanger was hitless. He also threw a no-no against on Orioles on 6/1/75 but of course, no hits in that game.

    Shame because it is a cool sounding stat

    Reply
  6. ethegolfman

    Pairs – how about Maddux with 104.6 bWAR and Randy Johnson with 104.3 bWAR. Their k/BB is pretty similar at 3.37 v 3.26 but how they got there could not be more different. Maddux was a little more stingy on the long ball

    Reply
  7. fivetwentyone

    so as far as I can tell Mark Belanger had the only hit in a 1-hitter in only one game,
    Aug 20, 1968
    .

    Eddie Milner and Cesar Tovar did it 5 times.

    Tovar,
    BAL196908100
    WS2196704302
    MIN196905150
    WS2197008130
    TEX197505310

    Milner,
    CHN198204280
    LAN198206110
    CHN198308240
    ATL198406140
    LAN198608020

    this is the complete list of players (after 1950) who did it 3 times or more,

    Rico Brogna
    Al Bumbry
    John Flaherty
    Gary Gaetti
    Ken Griffey
    Tony Gwynn
    Jerry Hairston
    Rickey Henderson
    Reggie Jackson
    Wally Joyner
    John Mayberry
    Dan Pasqua
    Tony Perez
    Luis Polonia
    Harold Reynolds
    Tony Taylor
    Michael Young

    Reply
  8. simon

    How about a couple of Canadian boys:
    Jason Bay 24.3 bWAR / 20.3 fWAR
    Justin Morneau 23.4 bWAR / 20.0 fWAR

    A couple of buddies made a bet back in 2006 of who would finish with more HR. At the time, Bay was ahead, but Morneau was younger. It looked like Morneau had it locked up until he got concussed. Now it’s looking like Bay may not get another shot. As of now, Bay has 222, Morneau has 221. It’s been a good bet!

    Reply
  9. Ian R.

    Here’s one I like:

    Dave Parker: 40.0 bWAR/41.1 fWAR
    Dave Concepcion: 40.0 bWAR/39.7 fWAR

    That’s in an almost identical number of games (2488 for Concepcion, 2466 for Parker). The process couldn’t be more different – a power-hitting outfielder versus a slap-hitting middle infielder – yet in terms of results, they’re identical twins by bWAR.

    Reply
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    Reply
  11. Kent

    Does the Adam Dunn and Juan Pierre conversation remind anyone else of the Nintendo NES Hockey game with the three player types – average, skinny and fat?*

    In that game, you built your team around three player types – one was fast but had a weak shot and got knocked down easily, another was very strong with a super slap shot, but didn’t skate fast. The third was a mix – an all-around player.

    Trade-off decisions like those have always been fascinating to me in sports, and by extension sports video games.

    *Not that I’m referring to Dunn as fat, of course.

    Reply
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