Guess The Players: Two Right Fielders
Baseball players are meant to be compared.
That should be pretty obvious, right? We started keeping track of statistics to do exactly that. Who won the most games? Who had the highest batting average? And so on. We developed awards for the same reason. Who was the best pitcher of 1963? Who was the Most Valuable Player in the league in 1941? Who was the best rookie? Who was the best defensive shortstop?
You get the point. Fans have come to expect that players’ accomplishments will be compared to their peers. It’s a feature of the sport.
Comparisons are often abused, or manipulated, or twisted to prove points that aren’t otherwise valid. Bill James most famously made this point in his Hall of Fame book. He called it the “We-Can-Make-A-Group Argument”, and it’s used to dishonestly place an otherwise dissimilar player into a group of much, much better players by manipulating the qualifications for the group. One of his many examples was this:
“Did you know that Amos Otis is the only player in baseball history who had 2,000 hits, 1,000 RBI, 300 stolen bases, 175 homers and a .340 on-base percentage and is eligible for the Hall of Fame and isn’t in?”*
(*By the way, this is no longer true. Since that book was published, Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Bobby Abreu and Johnny Damon have all turned the trick but been passed over for the Hall of Fame. Odd that of the 6 players in this category, 3 played center field for the Royals for part of their careers. Looks like discrimination against fine barbeque locations to me.)
Anyway, you see the point. At the time James wrote that, the only players in that group were Willie Mays, Joe Morgan, and Amos Otis. I don’t think I need to elaborate on how different Amos Otis was from the greatest center fielder ever and (arguably) the greatest second baseman ever. Otis is included in the group only because the qualifications for the group had been manipulated to include him.
All of this is to make clear that I don’t want to play that game here. When I compare two (or more) players, which is pretty much the reason why baseball began compiling statistics in the first place, my purpose is to illuminate, not deceive. I won’t be pulling the sorts of tricks that James identified.
So let’s do the most basic sort of comparison - One player to direct peer. And by that I mean that both players played the same position (right field in this case) in the same league, at the same time. For 12 seasons, each was the primary right fielder for an American League team. Here are their numbers for those 12 years:
It’s pretty obvious from these offensive numbers that the second player was the better hitter. He had a better on-base percentage, a better slugging percentage, stole a few more bases at a better success rate (though neither were any good at it), hit into fewer double plays, walked more, and had a better OPS+, which means that once hitter- or pitcher-friendliness of their home ballparks are accounted for, he was 34% better than the league average while the first player was only 21% better.
A couple of other factors need to be thrown in. First, defense:
If you think these numbers don’t seem right, you’re correct. The second player, the one with 5 Gold Gloves, is widely considered one of the finest defensive right fielders ever. The -20 fielding runs and -9.7 dWAR is a bit of an optical illusion. For the first 7 of these 12 seasons, his fielding runs total was +11. All of the negative numbers were compiled in his final five seasons, when he was moved out of right field and was played at first base or DH most of the time.
And that disparity is explained by the other factor that needs to be considered: These were the final 12 season’s of Player 2’s career, while they were the first 12 seasons of Player 1’s career. Player 2 was between the ages of 28 and 39 during these seasons. Players 1 was in his prime, between 21 and 32 years old.
I probably spoke too soon, because there are another couple of considerations. The first is accolades. Player 1 never led the league in anything except slugging percentage, which he did once, while Player 2 led the league in games played (2x), plate appearances (2x), runs (1x), homers (1x), walks (3x), on-base percentage (1x), OPS (2x), and total bases (1x). Player 1 finished in the top-10 in MVP voting twice, with a high mark of 9th, while Player 2 had four top-10 MVP finishes, with a high finish of 3rd.
Post-season play is also a consideration. Here are those numbers:
Neither was terribly heroic in the playoffs during these years, but Player 2 clearly had the better numbers.
Okay, so all of this obviously begs the conclusion that Player 2 was quite a bit better than Player 1. The advanced metrics bear that out. Player 2 had a WAR total of 43.8 for these seasons, while Player 1 totaled just 26.4. That’s an enormous gap in overall value.
But, as I alluded to earlier, these weren’t their full careers. These 12 seasons are just the years they were direct peers of each other. Player 1 played for another 10 seasons after Player 2 retired, and Player 2 had played for 8 seasons by the time Player 1 began his career. So what did their extra years looks like?
Those are their traditional hitting stats as well as the defensive and advanced stats. I include both to illustrate two things. First, Player 1 continued his good hitting basically through the end of his career. He was very much the same as an older player as he was as a younger one. That’s remarkable consistency and longevity. Player 2, on the other hand, wasn’t as good as a younger player as he was later in his career. His 112 OPS+ was still fine, but it paled in comparison to the 134 figure he posted in his final 12 seasons.
The second thing I wanted to illustrate was that remarkable defense for Player 2 that I alluded to earlier. In his first 8 seasons, he compiled 87 fielding runs and 5.9 dWAR, while winning 3 more Gold Gloves. That defense, when added to his still above-average offense, let him compile 23.4 WAR during these seasons, 11 more than Player 1, who was a full-time designated hitter for all of his final years.
It should be inescapable at this point, that Player 2 was better than Player 1. It seems inconceivable that anyone who knows anything about baseball can look at these two careers and conclude anything else.
When each became eligible for the Hall of Fame, the Baseball Writers Association of America treated them pretty much that same. Player 1 got 5.3% of the votes in his first year, and hung around that mark (5.2, 5.9, 6.1) before falling to 4.8% in his fifth year and dropping from the ballot. Player 2 started about the same, 5.9%, jumped up to 10.4% in his second year, then sort of inexplicably dropped to 3.6% in year three and fell off the ballot.
The big reveal, for those who haven’t figure this out already, is that Player 1 is Hall of Famer Harold Baines, and Player 2 is non-Hall of Famer Dwight Evans.
This is, of course, bananas.
Baines was elected in 2019 by the horribly-named Today’s Game Era Committee. Sitting on that committee were his former manager (Tony LaRussa), the owner of his first team (Jerry Reinsdorf), the general manager of one of his teams (Pat Gillick). He got the minimum 12 of 16 votes necessary to be elected. The same committee, voting three years earlier, had given Baines less than 5 votes, but that group of voters didn’t include LaRussa or Reinsdorf at the time, so it’s pretty easy to see what happened. Those two guys joined the committee and twisted a lot of arms to get one their favorite guys elected when no previous voting body had ever seriously considered him.
Evans, meanwhile, still sits on the outside looking in. He was a finalist on the Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot in 2020, but got only 8 of 16 votes and wasn’t elected. He had one former teammate on that committee, Dennis Eckersley, but no former manager, or owner, or GM to push his candidacy.
And so Harold Baines get a plaque in Cooperstown, and Dwight Evans, a demonstrably better, more accomplished player who was a direct peer of Baines, keeps getting passed over.
Maybe some future committee with be stacked with some of Evans’ old pals, but I’m not holding my breath
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