Sunday, May 12, 2002

Eddie Stanky, all time great

Some of you have no idea what that title is about. Heathens! (In case that results from a Y-chromosome deficiency, I'll refer you here.)

Those of you who are hardcore baseball fans might be smirking at this title. Eddie Stanky, the Brat? A guy who retired almost 50 years ago with 29 career homers and a .264 batting average? Well, bear with me.

I'm a red-blooded American who's interested in history of all sorts, so I find baseball history irresistible. You can fill shelf after shelf with baseball books (even George Will has written two) and there's still always something new. There are plenty of websites too, like the "Baseball Reference" one used earlier and permalinked on the lower right side of this page.

I'm also a numbers kind of guy, and no sport generates them like baseball. There are plenty of raw statistics, and then there are guys like Bill James who are everlastingly concocting new ones. It's to the point where they've even had to coin a new name for the field - sabermetrics (where the "saber" comes from the Society of American Baseball Researchers).

Bill James is an opinionated and prolific "sabermetrician". He released "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" earlier this year, in which he provides his ranking of the 100 best players of all time for each position. What's more, he provides anecdotes about all of these.

James's big thing nowadays is something he calls "Win Shares". It's some sort of uber-statistic which attempts to rank a player's overall value to a team in a way that transcends eras, stadiums and positions. Was Ty Cobb better than Pete Rose? James will determine the answer for all time...

James ranks Eddie Stanky 34th all-time among second basemen. Joe Morgan is #1, Jackie Robinson is #4, Craig Biggio is #5, Ryne Sandberg is #7. Want more? Buy the book, tightwad.

James isn't the only one with an opinion though. Now we have "Clearing the Bases" by Allen Barra. Barra complains that most sports point to fairly recent players as the all-time greats, but baseball points to long-dead heroes like Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb and Honus Wagner. Barra argues in favor of more contemporary players, noting changes in the number of competitors, the impact of integration, and the accumulated wisdom of experience in their favor. So he throws out a lot of old-timers who played in days when the batter could specify the pitch, or fielders didn't wear gloves. He also scoffs at a lot of traditionally revered statistics like batting average and RBIs in favor of newer ones like on-base average.

OK, let's take a look at on-base average. After you pitch the old old-timers Barra's way, long retired players still dominate the list, with Williams, Ruth and Gehrig in the top three slots. But next comes Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez is 7th, and Jeff Bagwell, Wade Boggs, Barry Bonds and Jim Thome all show up in the top 25.

Back to our hero. Eddie Stanky retired in 1953, years before I was born, so all I knew about him were anecdotes or quotes something like "He can't hit, he can't throw and he can't run, but the little guy sure does kill you". It turns out that Stanky is 27th all-time in on-base average at .410, tied with quite respectable company - Harry Heilmann, Charlie Keller, and Jackie Robinson.

I'm sure we're not through coming up with innovative baseball statistics. OBA is actually kind of dated by now - Barra says Branch Rickey used to argue that it was superior in his time. Nowadays SLOB is getting more popular, and it'll be interesting to see how well Bill James "win shares" work.

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