This is a story about spring, baseball and the first wonderful and crazy argument of the new year. Baseball, I think, is the best argument game we have going. Sure, in other sports you can argue Tiger vs. Jack or Sampras vs. Federer or Montana vs. Unitas or whatever. But after a while it kind of fizzles out. You don’t really hear people arguing about who was the best pulling guard in NFL history or who was the best on-the-ball defender in the NBA. But I’ve had an argument going with a friend about whether Cory Snyder or Jesse Barfield had a stronger arm for about 10 years. And every year, right around this time, when the trees start to show a little color, when light starts to last into the early evening, we fight about it again.
In baseball, see, arguments just don’t fizzle out. No argument is too bizarre or blasphemous or insignificant. I think of the scene in the movie Radio Days — second Woody Allen reference in recent days — where the narrator talks about his parents could find ways to argue about anything.
“Are you telling me you think the Atlantic Ocean is greater than the Pacific?”
“No, have it your way … the Pacific is greater.”
That’s baseball. The other day, my e-migo and writing hero Charlie Pierce griped on Facebook that he found himself stuck in an argument with people at a Web site. The argument?
Who was better: Jim Rice or … MIKE CAMERON?
Yeah, Mike Cameron.
Could you imagine an argument like that happening in any other sport? Not a chance. Nobody would argue that Mark Rypien was better than Dan Marino or that B.J. Armstrong was better than John Stockton. But in baseball, this kind of argument can get going. I didn’t actually see the details of the argument (I only saw Charlie’s Facebook entry about it) but I’m pretty sure I know how it was fought. I suspect the pro-Cameron side was built around his all-around play and the stats that measure such things — particularly’s baseball’s l’enfant terrible statistic, Wins Above Replacement (WAR).*
*I tweeted this: “Just found out “This Means WAR” isn’t about baseball stats. Had imagined Reese Witherspoon playing UZR. Sigh.”
Mike Cameron, you see, has a higher lifetime WAR than Jim Rice.
Baseball Reference WAR*
— Mike Cameron: 46.7
— Jim Rice: 41.5
*It should be pointed out that WAR on the Fangraphs site — which many prefer — has Rice ahead by a bit 56.1 to 52.6. I suspect for Jim Rice fans, that’s still way too close.
I didn’t actually see Charlie’s response to this bit of sacrilege, but I suspect it was along the lines of, “Are you &$#&$^ kidding me? Mike Cameron? Over Jim Rice? Are you $@#&(^$& insane? WAR? You’re damn right this is war!”
I feel a connection to both sides of the argument; I think this is one of the reasons why I love baseball so much — because I find both sides of the argument so enjoyable. I love that there are people out there arguing Mike Cameron over Jim Rice because it’s counterintuitive and maddening and filled with logical jabs that are surprisingly difficult to fend off. But I also I love that there are people like Charlie out there who are passionate and outraged and filled with the indignant love of a baseball fan who knows in the gut what is right and what’s ludicrous.
In fact, I’ll bet that when you first saw the topic — Rice vs. Cameron — that you had one of those two reactions. You either thought, “Hmm, Cameron over Rice, interesting, I wonder how they tried to make that argument,” OR “That’s the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard in my life and anyone who would even TRY to make an argument like that should be locked up*.”
*Preferably in their mother’s basement.
I think, in many ways, baseball arguments come down to context. I hear all the time about how baseball fans are “stat people” and “anti-stat people,” but I don’t think that dividing line exists. I’ve never met a big baseball fan who didn’t care about baseball stats. Ever. I’m not even sure how you can BE a big baseball fan without caring about stats. If someone asked, “How many hits did Pedroia have today?” what baseball fan would answer, “Oh, I don’t know, I didn’t count those?”
Of course it is true that many baseball fans don’t care about ADVANCED stats — any stats they view as unnecessarily complicated or beside the point — but they still care about stats. The most virulent anti-stat people I know are often the first to reminisce about Ted Williams’ .406 average or Bob Gibson’s 1.12 ERA or to rage about the tainting of Hank Aaron’s and Roger Maris’ home run records.
I can tell you that my friends who don’t like the new baseball statistics aren’t anti-stat. They are — and I say this with great affection; these are my friends — they are anti-context. They like their statistics to be uncomplicated. Palpable. They like baseball when wins express a pitcher’s ability to win games, where RBIs count the audaciousness of a batter with runners on base, where a .300 batting average represents batting excellence. They are not especially interested in how those numbers (and the players themselves) are affected by time, place, ballpark, luck, opportunities, the team around them or anything else. In the words of another e-migo, Glenn Stout, from the Charlie Pierce Facebook thread: “Baseball is an art, not a science.”
But there are those of us who think baseball has at least a little science in it. We like to poke behind curtains.
An example: Petco Park in San Diego is probably the toughest hitting park in baseball right now. It’s a big park anyway, and the sea air and low altitude smother batted balls. It’s a tough hitter’s park. So what? Well, I would argue that as long as Petco Park is this tough on hitters, it will be very difficult — nearly impossible, really — for a Padres hitter to win the MVP award. They’ve been playing in Petco since 2004, and one Padres hitter has finished in the Top 5 of the MVP voting (Adrian Gonzalez finished fourth). As long as that park stifles hitters to this extent, I would guess a Padres hitter will not win an MVP award.
Now move 1,163 miles East to Texas. The Ballpark at Arlington might be the best hitting ballpark in baseball. It’s certainly right around the best. And since they built the Ballpark at Arlington in 1994, Texas Rangers players have won FIVE MVP awards. Yeah. Five. That’s more than the Red Sox and Yankees combined over that time. I’ll repeat that in case you missed it. Since 1994, the Texas Rangers have won more MVP awards than the Red Sox and Yankees combined.
Now, flip it. As mentioned, the Padres have been in Petco Park since 2004 — not that long a time. But in that time they have won a Cy Young (Jake Peavy), they almost won another (Trevor Hoffman barely finished second one year), and Mat Latos received some Cy Young consideration as a 22-year-old. The Rangers, meanwhile, have never won a Cy Young award and going going back to the start of the Ballpark at Arlington, only one Rangers pitcher even finished in the Top 5 in the vote getting (Aaron Sele finished fifth one year).
So, what does this mean? Well, it could mean that the Rangers are much better at developing hitters and the Padres much better at developing pitchers. In fact, it probably does mean that.
It could also mean that the ballparks play a huge role in the players achievements and statistics and that to see the players true value you can try to look beyond such quirks. In fact, it probably means that too.
This kind of context-driven stuff all over baseball. In basketball, there’s great pride in the fact that the rim is always 10 feet high (as proven by Gene Hackman in “Hoosiers”), and a football field is always 100 yards long, and a hockey goal is always 6 feet across and 4 feet high. Baseball also has its constants — 60 feet 6 inches, 90 feet between bases, home plate is always five-sided and 17 inches across — but the measurements of the parks, the altitude, the weather, shapes, these things differ pretty wildly. So while we compare players stats all the time, they are playing somewhat different games.
Fenway Park is a great hitters park — and, yes, 24 Red Sox hitters have won batting titles through the years. Oakland is a terrible hitters park, in large part because of all the foul ground, and no Oakland A’s player has ever won a batting title. . Coors Field is wonderful for hitters — since 2000, 26 Rockies have hit .300 over a full season. Dodger Stadium is wonderful for pitchers — since 2000 just 10 Dodgers have hit .300 for a full season. Wrigley Field can be a home run haven when the wind is blowing out — the Cubs have had five home run champs since 1969. Kauffman Stadium (with the exception of the few years when they moved the fences in) is huge and a place where home runs die at the warning track. The Royals have never had a home run champion.
Then again, the Cubs have not had an ERA champion since World War II ended, and the Royals have had three in their relatively short history.
Like I say, this stuff is all over the place. There are those who are constantly trying to get beyond the biases. They question conventional wisdom, they try to work out ways to equalize things, they think about the game in different ways. For them (for us) that’s fun and fascinating and joyful. Meanwhile, there are those who think that those efforts to equalize baseball are just silly and pointless, it’s a quest that can never lead to any real answers, it’s a quest that takes joy away from baseball. For them (for us) baseball is meant to be enjoyed, like art.
Jim Rice was unquestionably a better hitter than Mike Cameron. Everybody knows that. Even if you neutralize their offensive numbers — which, admittedly, is already playing with the numbers more than many would like — Rice hit for a much higher average, got on base more, slugged 50 or 60 points better. No, it’s not close. Rice led the league in homers three times, in triples once, in total bases four times, in RBIs twice and so on. Mike Cameron never led the league in anything good (he did lead the league in strikeouts once) and only once finished in the Top 5 in anything good (fifth in triples one year). No, it isn’t close.
But, yes, there are a few other considerations. Maybe you care. Maybe you don’t. Rice spent his entire career in Boston, where he played half his games in that hitter’s haven that is Fenway Park. If anything Fenway was a better hitter’s park in Rice’s day than it is now. Take a look at these two sets of numbers:
1. .255/.353/.462 with 203 doubles, 28 triples, 155 homers.
2. .277/.330/.459 with 166 doubles, 35 triples, 166 homers.
Hmm. That’s pretty close despite the batting average difference. Player 1 has more extra base hits in fewer games with a measurably better on-base percentage. Those are, of course, the two players’ road numbers — Player 1 is Mike Cameron, Player 2 is Jim Rice.
Then, well, there are still other considerations. You can’t just compare their raw numbers — Cameron played in a much bigger offensive era than Rice. Adjusted OPS+ takes into account ballpark and era. Rice had a 128 OPS+. Cameron’s OPS+ is 105. That’s an enormous difference — Rice was a much better hitter than Cameron.
Then there’s the stuff that isn’t about hitting — Cameron was a much faster and better base runner — he stole almost 300 bases in his career, and he scored runs at about the same rate as Rice even though he hit 100 fewer home runs one his career. Cameron hit into 200 fewer double plays than Rice.
Cameron was also much better outfielder. Cameron played centerfield, and he was an exquisite fielder. Rice played left field, and his defense has been the subject of much discussion — he was probably a better outfielder than generally viewed at the time, but he certainly did not approach Cameron’s defensive class.
Does this make Rice vs. Cameron a toss-up argument? I don’t think so. Rice was a great hitter. Cameron was not. Charlie wrote on Facebook, no GM in his right mind would trade Jim Rice in his prime for Mike Cameron in his prime. I think he’s probably right. It seems to me that the argument ends where it begins — if you had a choice you would take Jim Rice over Mike Cameron every day of the week …
… unless … well …
… unless you already had a left-fielder and really needed a center fielder. You couldn’t really put Rice in center. You would really have no choice but …
Yes, baseball really is a wonderful game to argue about.