Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 7, First Base

Ah, the eternal question: "Who's on first?"

Along with designated hitter and the corner outfield spots, first base has historically been on the bat before all else positions. So, not surprisingly, three of the top ten hitters (by era uncorrected consolidated battings stats like OPS+ and wRC+) of all time are first basemen.

While cases can be made for other players, particularly multipositional players like Musial, Mantle and Foxx, the argument for the best first baseman in MLB history boils down to two players: Lou Gehrig, Albert Pujols. It's a tight enough race that I'm going flip my usual format and have the player discussion mostly before making my selection.

First, some raw batting numbers:

Albert Pujols (at time of writing): .325/.416/.609/455 (avg/obp/slg/HR)

Lou Gehrig: .340/.447/.632/493

It's clear that the Pujols's bid for a roster slot depends heavily on correcting for the different eras he and Gehrig played in, as well as their relative contributions on defense. League and era context matters and that adds an addition wrinkle:

Sadaharu Oh: .301/.445/.634/868

Yes, that's 868 home runs. If context didn't matter, the choice for first base would be easy: Sadaharu Oh, hands down.

Since context does matter, we'll have to look at the context.

Some of that is fairly straightforward: wRC+ allows us to compare batters to their contemporaries, but is only available for the MLB players.

Gehrig: 174

Pujols: 167

Compared to their peers, Gehrig has some advantage over Pujols with the bat. It's not a large difference, though, and league average normalization still doesn't account for the relative qualities of average talent in different eras. Throw in Pujols's apparent advantage in defense, and the fact he plays against talent drawn from a much larger population and I'll call it a wash.

However, wRC+ weights events according to their value in a league average context. For the greatest possible team, the offensive environment is considerably more potent, so not getting out (and getting on base) is an even more valuable skill than normally.

From 1923 to 1938, Gehrig's career before his disease disabled him, MLB average OBP was 0.3448, so Gehrig's .447 was about 1.30 times better than his peers.

Pujols plays in the modern context and across his career, OBP has averaged 0.3304. We put Gehrig in the Pujols modern context, at least compared to their respective peers, by multiplying 1.30 by .3304 to get Gehrig's equivalent modern OBP as .428. So, neglecting the talent difference of the eras (and it's hard to quantify), Gehrig's equivalent OBP is notably higher than Pujols. With the rest of the line up filled by the other greatest hitters of all time, that's suggests Gehrig would be a better choice than Pujols.

But oh, what of Oh? To even begin our comparison, we need a projection of how Oh would have done in the MLB. Fortunately, Jim Albright has already done such a projection, based on the relative performances of MLB players who moved to Japan and explained in part 2 of his discussion of Oh's Cooperstown qualifications. Albright figures Oh's hypothetical MLB career would've resulted in a .279/.412/.484 with 527 home runs line from 1962 to 1980. Clearly, Oh's slugging takes a fairly severe hit, though the 1960s and 70s were low power eras, so the effect is exaggerated some.*

*I'd like to go back and calculate Oh's normalized slugging in an MLB context and make an attempt at estimating his Runs Created value as well. I'd probably use a normalized gross production average (1.8*OBP+SLG)/4 as a first cut, as it should be on approximately the same scale as OPS+ and wRC+. But I've put enough time in this already, for now.

What's more important in this context is Oh's projected OBP compared to the MLB average for those years. Dropping his weaker age 39 and 40 seasons (largely for a better comparison with Pujols and Gehrig), Oh projects to have been about 1.32 better at getting on base than the average major leaguer oh the time. Set in the modern context, that would give Oh an OBP of 0.435, higher than either Gehrig or Pujols.*

*As discussed later, Albright was extra conservative about walk rate. Even if Oh's actual walk rate was used (rather than correcting for the differences in leagues, which would favor Oh), his on base ability projects to about 1.36 times MLB league average, or a .450 career OBP if set in the modern .330 OBP league average context and about .470 in Gehrig's time. It is not unreasonable to conclude that Sadaharu Oh's eye for the strike zone and on base skills were on the level of Wiliams and Ruth*/

And Oh's projections are for years well into the post integration era, so the average talent level they are based on is higher than Gehrig's time, though likely somewhat lower than now. Still, given the offensive context of this potent team, Oh's on base ability gives him the advantage.

By nearly accounts, Oh's defense was well above average. Giving him credit for a modest 5 runs saved above average per season seems reasonable. Added to Albright's projection, that leave Oh with about 80 runs saved above average on defense, making him comparable to Pujols. Even as a league average first baseman, Oh's bat still gives him an edge over Pujols in this line up.

There's also one more card in Oh's hand. While Pujols appears to be leaving his peak performance period, his career line is currently little affected by it. Gehrig died rather tragically had his career and life cut short by his disease and so didn't really have the typical post peak tail. Oh, instead, played for 21 seasons in NPB and demonstrated the ability to play at an elite level into his late 30s.

Selection Sadaharu Oh

The greatest slugger in Nippon Professional Baseball history, with 868 home runs, Oh makes the roster not on his power, but on the strength of his on base ability. His career NPB line of .301/.445/.634 with 868 home runs is not far from what might have expected from Lou Gehrig had he played another 7 years. Jim Albright projects Oh's hypothetical career in the MLB as 0.279/0.412/0.484 with 527 home runs from 1962 to 1980.* Normalizing Albright's numbers by league average, and Oh's ability to get on base (in comparison with his peers) exceeds even Gehrig. In the greatest possible team run scoring context, that's enough. Oh's strong defensive reputation is an additional perk, though.

*Albright was actually conservative in his walks estimates. While he found that players are more likely to walk in the MLB context, he didn't correct Oh's walk totals for either the league difference, actually in Oh's favor, or the extra playing time. Since more walks means fewer at bats, Oh's entire line improves. Just extrapolating Oh's walk rate (at 20.5% behind only Ted Williams's 20.6% among MLB batters) without accounting for the league difference gives a career stat line of 0.287/0.433/0.497

Unlike the Negro league greats who didn't later play in the MLB, Oh (and other Japanese players) actually did play against MLB baseball teams in exhibition games, usually against higher quality teams. His 426 PAs in these games provide nearly a full season's worth of data and help validate Albright's projections: .260/.413/.524 with 25 home runs and 14 doubles from 1960 to 1979. Note, though, that these games were usually held in the smaller Japanese ballparks of the time.

The left handed Oh's best season probably was 1974. His NPB line of .332/.527/.761 with 49 home runs in 130 games projects to .301/.474/.539* with 32 home runs in 162 games in the MLB. That would be good enough to lead the league in OBP (over Rod Carew) by 31 points and place third in slugging, after Dick Allen and Mike Schmidt. As a rough estimate, that's about 192 wRC+. Compare that to Joe Morgan's MLB leading 171. A fantastic peak season.

*Even with Albright's conservative walks estimate

If you like awards and championships: 9 NPB MVPs, 9 Gold Gloves and 11 Japan Series Championships with the Yomiuri Giants.


Lou Gehrig

When I woke up this morning, Gehrig was my selection.

The most legendary of all first basemen, Gehrig, a left handed batter, shined brighter among his peers that even Oh and Pujols. In addition to playing in 2130 consecutive games, the Iron Horse had four seasons with an fWAR greater than 10, a hall of fame worthy achievement in itself. The best of those was probably the Murderous Row campaign of 1927, when Gehrig hit .373/.474/.765/210 (avg/obp/slg/wRC+). Gehrig's optimism and character in the face of a debilitating, terminal disease have justly added to the legend of a truly elite ballplayer.

Gehrig's career line is the best in MLB history for a first baseman: .340/.447/.632/147 with roughly average defense for 125.9 fWAR in only 14 mostly full seasons of play time.

Albert Pujols

Despite being only league average with the bat this season, The Machine is in the midst of a clear Hall of Fame career. Never accruing less than 6 fWAR in a season from 2001 to 2010, Pujol's current .325/.416/.609/164 line with 88.5 fWAR puts him behind Gehrig in value at first base. While Pujols's peak offensive seasons haven't been quite as valuable as Gehrig's, with only the 2003 season (.359/.439/.667/185) exceeding 10 fWAR, his strong defense (almost 70 runs saved above average) and greater talent pool Pujols has faced make a strong argument for Pujols as a co-equal with Gehrig as greatest MLB first baseman of all time. And he stands well with Rogers Hornsby as the greatest right handed batter as well.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 8, Catcher

Catchers may be the least appreciated position in baseball. Catching body destroying work, and unlike other position players, catchers are involved in every single pitch. Every pitch that isn't hit and some that are opportunities for a catcher to make a mistake... or a big play.

A truly bad catcher can cost you severely: passed balls and wild pitches, dropped third strikes, poor game calling and an inability to control the running game can cost a team dearly (though no catcher at the major league level is actually bad). Not surprisingly, a catcher's bat is often secondary to role behind the plate. As a result, truly potent offensive catchers are rare and cherished resource at the major league level.

At the same time, a big bat or the ability to get on base can cover a few mistakes behind the plate. Particularly given the sort of line up that surrounds our catcher, those offensive skills are even more valuable normal. A strong argument can be made for true bat first catcher since his hits and home runs are morely to find runners on to score and the outs he doesn't spend mean more plate appearances for the hitters of the Ted Williams variety.

Selection Johnny Bench

That said, I've chosen to be cautious in my catcher selection and taken the best all round catcher of all time, Johnny Bench. His bat, while not as big as some, is still powerful. And his defense -- his ability to control the running game in particular -- is not something I want to risk doing without. Particularly since I've already got a high OBP, bat first catcher in Joe Mauer, I'll take Bench.

Johnny Bench is probably the best catcher of all time. His defense seems to have been above average to explemplary, never below average until his final two seasons and four times above 10 runs saved above average according to Fangraphs, totally 71.0 runs saved above average. His offense wasn't bad either, with a career .267/.341/.476/125 (avg/obp/slg/wRC+) and a peak in 1972 of .270/.379/.541/155 to go with 13.0 runs saved above average and an fWAR of 10.2, the best season ever by a catcher. He's also the career leader in fWAR at catcher, with 81.5.


Mike Piazza

Given the run scoring environment created by the rest of the line up, there's a strong argument to be made that a bat first, (relatively) bad defensive catcher would more than make up for his flaws behind the plate from the box next to it. Piazza is the premier, bat first, glove... somewhere down the line catcher. Defensively, he appears about as far below average as Bench was above it with Fangraphs estimating that Piazza was worth a 62.9 runs below average behind the plate, though his poorest defensive years all came later in his career.

But, wow, could he hit. His .308/.377/.545/140 line is the best ever for a catcher with over 1000 games. Piazza's best season was probably 1997: .362/.431/.638/183 and roughly average defensively for 9.4 fWAR, the 2nd best season for a catcher, ever, after Bench's 1972.

Gene Tenance

Tenance is one of those forgotten greats that you might rediscover looking through Adam Darowski's Hall of wWAR or by sorting catcher's by OBP. Tenance is one of the player's most shorted by the "Batting average is the best offensive stat" crowd, with a lifetime .266 batting average, but an OBP of .388, a slugging of .429 and wRC+ of 138, just behind Piazza. With roughly average defense across his career, Tenance makes a good alternative for offense first catcher to Piazza without being quite the defensive liability Piazza seemed to be.

Furthermore, in this line up, simply not getting out is worth even more than it is normally, and Tenance's .388 OBP leads all catchers with at least 1000 games in the post integration era (though Joe Mauer is only 22 games away from 1000 at the time of writing).

Josh Gibson

Arguably the greatest Negro league player to never get his opportunity in the traditional big leagues, Gibson's power hitting ability is most often compared to Babe Ruth's. Gibson died young, of a stroke at age 35 and lived and played the last few years of his life with a diagnosed brain tumor. His Negro League line looks strong: .359/.413/.644. Roy Campanella, an excellent player and a good choice in his own right, managed only .314/.346/.481 across his Negro League time, though that was quite early in his career. More on Gibson.

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 9, Designated Hitter

I have mixed opinions about the designated hitter rule. I don't really mind it, as it gives players like Jim Thome and Edgar Martinez the ability to contribute for longer or more often than they would have otherwise, most due to injury risk or age. At the same time, it's an impure hack, particularly the way it's implemented. The DH can only hit for the pitcher, for instance. And it removes tactical tradeoffs that would otherwise matter. And some pitchers can actually hit, too.

So the current situation works well for me, with about half of baseball using it and the other half playing the more pure, tacitcal version of the sport. That's why I chose the 81 games with DH, 81 without hypothetical season. I think it well reflects the effect of the DH on the game. Naturally, the DH is a going to be one of the biggest bats on the team, so I have the added wrinkle of what to do with him when the DH isn't allowed.

There's also the question of whether the DH must have had significant time actually being a DH. That's not an unreasonable requirement, but given that it's a new rule only used in one league and that I'm putting together "the greatest possible baseball team", I decided not to use it.

Selection Ted Williams

Ted Williams is the greatest batter of all time. Admittedly, it's a tight race at the top, with Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds being the most notable competition. Throw in Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Mickey Mantle and Ty Cobb, and I think you have most of the major candidates.*

*This is a wonderful and multilayered argument, and one can make good cases for most of these players and a fair number more: Musial, Mays, McGwire, Pujols, Frank Robinson... even the underrated Dick Allen.

My case for Williams over the competition is thus:

  1. Williams is either 1 or 2 all time in the important batting stats: 1st in OBP and 2nd in SLG, wOBA, wRC+ and OPS+. The only player ahead of Williams on any of these lists is some guy named George Herman Ruth.

  2. Independent of context*, the most important batting skill -- the one most important to scoring runs -- is the one Williams leads everyone in: on base percentage. This is because not only does getting on base enable the batter to score, it means he didn't get out. I'll have to sit down and actually do the math sometime, but as OBP goes to one, runs scored per game, inning and out all go to positive infinity. And a high OBP drives up the chances that follow batters will 1) get addition plate appearances and 2) have runners do drive in. A player with a high OBP makes the entire offense more potent. (As does a player with a higher, say, slugging, but the effects aren't as great).

  3. Williams played in a more difficult era than Ruth in particular. While the normalized stats account for some of the difference, segregation in particular casts some doubts on the validity of Ruth's numbers. I'm sure he still would've been brilliant, but excluding black players both decreased the quality of the pitching (and perhaps defenses) Ruth faced and lowered the average hitting stats which Ruth's numbers are normalized against. It's not a large difference, but it eats into Ruth's small advantage.

Also, the majority of Williams career occured during the post-integration, pre-expansion era, where the average player quality was boosted compared to earlier eras because of integration and boosted compared to later eras because expansion hadn't diluted the average quality of the opposition.

Era arguments can be used against Williams, too, of course. Ruth suffers (very slightly) from plate appearences made during the deadball era and old style home run rules where balls that went foul after leaving the park were still foul. Williams's early seasons were also during the segregated era. And Williams faced few Latino and no Japanese players. In general, later eras have larger populations from which to draw players and so the top 400 players in the world are even farther above the mean player than they were in the past. Modern technology, including game advances, health advances and information technology like video also improve the performance of the average major leaguer (and make era to era comparisons harder). There's also the question of what would the past greats done in the modern context? Pie Traynor with a modern glove, Dizzy Dean with a modern pitching coach and medical staff, Koufax with modern surgery and a two seamer, etc, etc.

  1. William's lost much of his peak to military service and two different wars. Across 1941, 1942, 1946 and 1947, Williams averaged .360/.506/.669/214 (avg/obp/slg/wRC) in 2642 plate appearances at 660.5 PAs a season. Give Williams credit for 660 PAs for 1943, 1944 and 1945 at that rate, and his career line bumps up to .347/.486/.640/193, which roughly halves the distance in wRC+ between he and Ruth's .342/.474/.690/197. This improvement also sets him farther ahead of batters who played in later, presumably more difficult, eras.

A similar excercise can be done for William's Korean service, but it's less clear which years to choose for the reference points. His service also exacted a cost in training time, travel, etc, that's harder to account for.

*Of course, context matters. And I don't mean protection, as that generally has at most a rather small effect. Nor am I addressing the league context, though that is important. Rather, I mean that the batter's teammates matter. On a high obp team, say of Ted William's clones, an individual's OBP matters more. As his teammates are less likely to get out, he'll score eventually, even it takes four singles or walks.

On a low OBP team, power, particularly home run power, matters more. On a team of Ozzie Guillen's, where there's rarely anyone on base when our hitter comes up and the players behind him are almost pathologically unable to advance him, merely getting on base doesn't help much. However, home runs (guaranteed run) and extra base hits followed by productive outs (double, advanced to third on ground out, sacrifice fly) can still generate runs.

So, when choosing between Williams and Ruth (accepting the validity of their raw stats), the better choice really depends on their teammates. In other words, "the greatest ever" question, in team sports in particular, is generally ill defined.

For his career, Williams hit .344/.482/.634/189 and netted 139.8 fWAR. Peak doesn't really fit Williams, "mountain range" might be a better choice. When choosing between his best years, though, his famed 1941 season (.406/.553/.735/221 for 11.9 fWAR) and his post integration masterpiece in 1953 (.388/.526/.731/223 for 10.3 fWAR) are my favorites.

So, even if I haven't convinced you that Theodore Samuel Williams is the greatest batter of all time, you ought to agree he's a top 2, top 3 sort of guy. And since I'm picking a team here, you'll probably see your top guy too.


Column A: Your pick for "Greatest batter of all time" not otherwise on your roster.

Column B: Great batters who actually spent time at designated hitter.

Frank Thomas

The Big Hurt is the most potent player to spend a significant fraction of his play time at DH, with a career .301/.419/.555/154 line for 76.2 fWAR. He has a legitimate case for best right handed hitter of all time. Thomas's best year was 1994, hitting a Williamseque .353/.487/.729/204 for 7.3 fWAR in just 113 games due to the strike shortened season.

Edgar Martinez

DHs become DHs for a variety of reasons. Martinez, a decent enough fielder at third base, moved to DH due to lingering effects of a hamstring injury in 1992. Taking him gives one more infield flexibility and a still fantastic bat. The right handed Martinez owns .312/.418/.515/148 career line for 69.9 fWAR with his best year probably being 1995: .356/.479/.628/184.

Martinez is notable for not seeing signficant play time until he was 27. It's hard to say what playing earlier would've done to his career rate stats, as batter peaks often occur near 27, but his counting stats would probably put him solidly in the Hall of Fame.

Jim Thome

Some players earn immortality by being memorable. Some earn it by being great. Thome can claim those, but as far as anyone can tell, he might actually be immortal, as he's still a good hitter in his age 42 year. Thome's ongoing 22 year career includes a peak season in 2002, where he hit .304/.445/.677/188 mostly at first base.. Here, Thome provides a left handed option for the DH slot with actual DH experience, in addition to his time at 1st and 3rd, hitting .277/.403/.556/145 for his career so far.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 10, Opening Day Starter

I've gone over my general starting pitcher considerations here.

Selection Pedro Martinez

Baseball's Killer Rabit of Caerbannog. Does this guy look scary to you? No, he's... small and cute, just like a bunny. One more reason to love baseball, it's not your size that matters. Hell, he looks like a ten year old next Randy Johnson. But that doesn't matter, he's the ruiner of worlds.

Pedro Martinez is the greatest player I've ever seen on a baseball diamond. In fact, he's the greatest pitcher of all time, hands down. Utterly dominant for an extended period of time, in an era where even the transpacific barrier had fallen, the only weak spot in his resume is his relatively light workload. While his career stretched across 18 years (he actually came up with the Dodgers in 1992), he only pitched 2827 innings. Part of that is due to modern pitcher usage, where any season over 200 innings pitched in notable, and part of that is due to injury difficulties.

But when Pedro played, and he played a lot, with over 100 innings pitched every year from 1993 to 2006, he was the best ever. Particularly from 1997 to 2003, when his ERA was greater than half league average only twice (and even then, only 61% of average, at most). His FIP stayed in a similar range, so it's extremely unlikely that his defense was making him look good. Of course, when your pitcher is striking out 37.5% of the batters faced, as Pedro did in 1999, you don't get many opportunities to effect his ERA.

Pedro is the exemplary power pitcher with strong control and great stuff. His career strike out rate is 27.7% with a walk rate of only 6.7%. That translates to 10.04 K/9 for only 2.42 BB/9. While a heavy fly ball pitcher, Pedro managed to suppress home runs per fly ball a fair bit, only allowing 8.9% of flies to leave the yard, but that doesn't matter as much given his strikeout rate.

Pedro has the odd distinction of having better numbers in the AL than in the NL. Not only that, he posted his best raw numbers playing at Fenway Park half the time. When we correct for park factors and league average, well, like I said, Pedro Martinez is the best ever.

Early on, Pedro threw in the high 90s with movement, mulitple pitches including a fastball, a slider/cutter, a curveball and a change up. Even with his dominant fastball, Pedro threw his entire selection, and quite often. Pitch type data only goes back to 2002, and from then on, Pedro through his fastball no more than 60% of the time. Of course, it was averaging only 90.7 mph in 2002 and continued to decline. But even at that velocity, [pitch type linear weights](http://www.fangraphs.com/library/index.php/pitching/linear-weights/, which estimate how many runs a pitcher saved based on that pitch, estimated that Pedro's fastball was elite, saving 20.3 runs across the season above average, or about 1.12 runs per 100 times thrown. From then until 2009, a mostly post peak Pedro still averaged an above average fastball, slider, curve and change up. Power, control, repertoire, Pedro Martinez had it all.

For his career Martinez has the best normalized rate stats of any pitcher in history, with a career 2.93/2.91/67/67 (ERA/FIP/ERA-/FIP-). That is to say, average Pedro Martinez only allowed two-thirds the runs that everyone else did and did so without the benefit of a better than average defense or pitcher's park. He did this by striking out over ten batters per nine innings, only walking about 2.4 and giving up a home run in less than 9% of the innings he pitched in (on average). As for his best season, take your pick between 1999 or 2000. In '99 Martinez obtained half his outs via strikeout. 13.20 K/9. 1.56 BB/9 (that's 8.46 K/BB) and only 0.38 HR/9. His '99 FIP- is the lowest since 1884* at 30. In 2000, his strikeouts were down ("only" 11.78 K/9) and his homeruns were up (still just 0.78 HR/9), but his control was even better at 1.33 BB/9. And he had better luck in both strand rate (86.6%) and balls in play (a low, low .236 for a batting average against of just .166). Pedro's 2000 is the lowest WHIP since 1884, at 0.76 and the lowest ERA- at 35. Martinez's 1999 line: 2.07/1.39/42/30 in 213.1 innings pitched for 12.1 fWAR. His 2000: 1.74/2.17/35/46 in 217.0 innings pitched for 10.1 fWAR.

*The 1884 anomally was caused by the short lived Union Association's Milwaukee franchise, who only played 12 games. It doesn't really count. The top five actuals season all belong to Martinez and Randy Johnson. I can't believe I didn't originally have Johnson on my team.

Good defense, bad defense, it doesn't matter. Pedro Martinez was the best pitcher of all time.


Bob Gibson

Dominance. When in comes to dominance, I think one pitcher comes up more than anyone else: Bob Gibson. Best known for his famed 1968 season, where he set the ERA record of 1.12 in over 300 innings pitched, Gibson had the stuff to dominate, posting a FIP- below 70 every year from 1968 to 1970 and averaging a FIP- of 81. That's 7.22 K/9 across his career, including his weak '74 and '75 seasons. Gibson generally struck out 20% of the batters he faced before '74. What made him so dominant around 1968 was the combination of his control peaking, with only 1.83 BB/9 that year and great luck on balls in play, with hitters only managing .230 when they put the ball in the field. His home run suppression was almost always strong, with only a career 0.6 HR/9.

Bob Gibson was a great pitcher with a good peak. A lifetime line of 2.91/2.89/78/81 he was in the right place at the right time for his famed 1968 season: 1.12/1.77/38/65.

Bert Blyleven

Choosing pitchers is definitely the hardest part of this endeavour. I was actually swinging back and forth between listing Blyleven, Kevin Brown or Bret Saberhagen as the alternate. There are good cases for all three. And I think I would go back and switch out a couple of my picks today, all things considered. But that's for another time.

Blyleven was a very good to great pitcher for a very long time. Across 23 years, he managed to pitch 4970 innings. While his ERA occasionally exceeded league average, his FIP suggests that the blame for that should lay on his defense more than him. He was at worse, league average and at best, well, great. Take his 1973 year: 2.52/2.32/63/59 with 325 innnings pitched. Or 15 years later, his 1989 year: 2.73/3.08/72/83. And he manged to be above average to great for all 23 years, for a total line of 3.31/3.19/85/81. About time he got in the Hall of Fame.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 11, 2nd Starter

I've gone over my general starting pitcher considerations here.

Selection Walter Johnson

As I've stated, I deduct value from both dead ball era players and pre integration players. Walter Johnson played more than half his career in the deadball era and had nearly all of his brilliant years during that time. In fact there's a distinct drop in his performance (compared to league average) between 1919 and 1920. 1919 was maybe his second best year ever, with a 1.49/2.07/47/66 (ERA/FIP/ERA-/FIP-). 1920, the first year of the live ball era, he managed only a 3.13/2.78/84/78 line. Still good, but the dominance he showed before then never really returned, though his 1924 2.72/3.31/67/84 year is nothing to sneeze at.

Even so, deadball baseball was still modern style baseball. And Johnson may have suffered an injury at the same time the balls became livelier, as he only pitched 143 innings in 1920 after pitching at least 250 and generally far over 300 for the previous 11 years. Or maybe it was just wear and tear, as Johnson clocked a 90+ mph fastball in years before the world's first kinesiology department. One shudders to consider what he may have done after a year of Mike Maddux's or Dave Duncan's attentions.

Either way, Johnson was the dominant pitcher of his time. His career was 21 years long and he still managed a lifetime 2.17/2.36/67/75 line. I'll take it, particularly with a modern defense. The dominant strike out pticher of this day, he had a 12.6% K rate going back to 1916 (before then, batters faced was not recorded) and 6.4% walk rate. Excellent control for any time period. If he's a little too hittable in the starting line up, I'll switch him into the bullpen. With his side arm motion, velocity and strong control, he'd be murder on right handers, for sure.

Pete Alexander

Look, would you want to be called Grover Cleveland? Him neither. Like Johnson, Cleveland was a dominant deadball pitcher who became merely great after 1919. His career line is a little off Johnson's, at 2.56/2.85/73/81, but he was just as dominant during the deadball era. His best year, in 1916, he managed 1.55/2.12/43/62. Generally, the same caveats apply as Johnson, though the bullpen fallback might not work as well, as I don't think Alexander had such a side arm motion.

Roy Oswalt

One of two pitchers playing today with over 2000 innings pitched with both an ERA- and a FIP- lower than 80* (the other being named Roy as well. If you want your kid to pitch, name him "Roy Johnson"). Oswalt (Weir is he from, anyway?) is a statistical chimera, swinging from flyball to groundball back to fly ball pitcher in his career. And his strikeout rate has fluctuated between over 9 K/9 and just below 6 K/9, his control has remained consistently good at about 2 BB/9. Oswalt has also managed to be hard to square up on, with a lifetime batting average against of .249. It will be interesting to see if he can deal with his back issues enough to make a difference for the Rangers this year. A lifetime 3.21/3.35/76/78 pitcher, Oswalt's best year has probably been 2002: 3.01/2.99/71/68

*Johan Santana will make it in another 14 innings.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 12, 3rd Starter

I've gone over my general starting pitcher considerations here.

Selection Sandy Koufax

When it comes to "best ever" discussions, there are often two competing philosophies: what was a player's peak versus how long was the player good. Dominance versus duration, if you will. Of the players on my roster, Koufax is the one most firmly in the dominance camp. He only pitched for 12 seasons and the first few were more promising than great.

For the first six years, Koufax pitched like Nolan Ryan's left handed kid brother. Lots of strikeouts, sure, but lots of walks, too. Then, around 1961, Koufax figured it out. His walk rate dropped from 13.3% in '60 to 9.0% in '61. And it kept dropping, hitting 4.8% in '63. And then it stayed low. Still a lethal strike out pitcher, by 1962 Koufax was the best pitcher in baseball since Walter Johnson. And so he remained until 1966, when arthritis forced his retiredment at age 30. For six years, from 1961 to 1966, Koufax not just great, but legendary.

Koufax's legend and career line, 2.76/2.69/75/75 (ERA/FIP/ERA-/FIP-) benefit from his retiring at his peak. After all, Steve Carlton had as many great seasons and a much longer career. However, even had he not been arthritic and pitched another five to ten years, even had he lost some of his stuff, I doubt Koufax would've lost the incredible control he had learned. And he would have had more years of both power and control to balance the effect of his early wildness on his career line. His career 2.93 K/BB isn't the Koufax we remember. 5.38 K/BB, put up in his penultimate, 1965 season... that's the utterly dominant mix of power and control that Sandy Koufax deservedly conjures. That season is as characteristic of his amazing '62-'66 run as any other: 2.04/1.93/63/63. It was his strikeout peak, with a 29.5% K rate.

So it is Koufax over Carlton. Lefty was great for a long time, but some time around 1961, Sandy Koufax transcended the art of pitching.


Steve Carlton

Another legendary lefthander, Carlton was a very good to great pitcher, but mostly in the duration over dominance category until later in his career. Starting in 1977 (or maybe 1980, depending on how much you wish to credit good fortune and defense) to 1983, Carlton enjoyed a stretch of dominance just shy of Koufax's lofty peak.

I say mostly because Carton's 1972 season is one of the greatest of all time. 1.97/2.01/55/60 with with 346.1 innings pitched. (That's the kind of season that destroys pitchers, look at Bob Feller's 1946.) It's the second lowest FIP- of any season since 1920 (the live ball era) with over 300 innings (Bert Blyleven pitched just over 320 in 1973 and was one point of FIP- lower). It's also the 7th lowest in ERA-. 346.1 innings of dominance. It's worth noting that were bad that year, average fielding and poor hitting (a team wRC+ of 80) with a team record of 59-97.

Carlton's career line, across 24 seasons, is brought down a bit by his post Phillies struggles from 1986 to 1988, but is still a strong 3.22/3.15/87/86.

Dwight Gooden

You might call Doc Gooden the mirror image of Sandy Koufax. Not only is Gooden right handed where Koufax was a lefty, Gooden's career looks like an inversion of Koufax's. For the first 5 years, Gooden was brilliant, particularly his first two. Then, perhaps because he was overpitched, perhaps because he lived too hard a life style of the field, Gooden fell to earth. By 1993, Gooden was struggling to be a league average starter*, though he hung on even as his control left him (and managed to stay effective until 2000) in another mirror to Koufax's career. Even with his struggles, Gooden's career line is strong 3.51/3.33/90/84

Gooden started his career as best pitcher in baseball. His 1984 rookie season has to be the best by a pitcher, ever: 2.60/1.69/74/49 with a 31.4% K rate and 218 innings pitched.

*For what it's worth, an average major league starting pitcher -- or any player -- is already a great player. At the major league level, the talent distribution isn't symmetric, it's greatly skewed. Roughly 70-75% of major leaguers are below average.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Some Learning Programming Via Videogames Links

A coworker recently asked me about approaching programming through making video games. This is what I put together:

If you're looking for tools to encourage learning to program via making computer games, Invent With Python is likely the best fit. It's a book written specifically with the goal of teaching programming skills through game creation and it's F/OSS. Python has really gained a strong foothold as a teaching language with strong practical applications, too.

As an immediate impetus, there's the Liberated Pixel Cup. It's a competition to create game content and put together games using that content.

Invent With Python

Making Games With Python & Pygame: Sequel to Invent With Python. Includes source code and discussion for various simple games.

Pygame: The actual Python game engine used above. Quite powerful,

Other Python Programming Books/Resources

Using Pygame

Game Programming: The L Line, The Express Line to Learning

Introduction to Programming Using Python and Pygame

Without Pygame

Snake Wrangling for Kids: Learning to Program with Python: Python programming book oriented at kids, ages 8 and up.

A Gentle Introduction to Programming Using Python: The MIT OpenCourseWare Introduction to programming class. Very useful.

Learning Python: In many ways, the book for Learning Python. It's not as beginner oriented and it's not F/OSS.

The Python.org Tutorial and

Python Docs. (These are Python 2.7. Python 3 might be more useful)

Learn Python The Hard Way: One more online book oriented at beginners. Reasonably popular.

Python Wiki Beginner's Guide: An amalgamation of Python beginner's resources.

Python Wiki PythonGames Entry: Discussion on both Python games and game development resources.

Other Programming Language/Intro to Game Creation resources

I found surprisingly little outside of the Python sphere. There's a lot of game development stuff, of course, but little is beginner focused.

Game Maker's Apprentice: Introductory game programming text for Game Maker (Delphi based) proprietary game making software. Very well reviewed.

C Programming's Game programming page: Not really intro oriented and Microsoft focused.

Beginning C# Game Programming: C# intro book. Comes with mixed reviews and apparently has a lot of errors.

MSDN Beginning Game Introduction: Microsoft's Beginning Game development introduction

GUI based game creating environments

Game Editor: F/OSS 2D game authoring

Game Maker: Education oriented, but proprietary, game design software that uses it's own, Delphi based scripting language.

Maker3D Crossplatform 3D RPG. Might be good, looks a bit scuzzy to me.

RPG Maker: Long running RPG creator series. Largely Japanese.

Wikipedia RPG Creation Software Page

Advanced Topics

Programming communities/sites


Reddit is a user moderated community with lively discussions with a wide variety of talented contributors. Particularly in technical subreddits such as /r/programming, industry leading experts show up regularly in discussions and often offer a lot of help. It also contains the dregs of the internet, as any such open site does.

Learn Programming

General Programming

Game Development Reddit

Gaming Developer communities/sites

PyWeek: Python Game Programming Challenge community with bi-annual challenges.

AltDevBlogADay: A daily blog with a lot of useful discussion on game design, development, marketing, etc. Very, very good.

GameDev.net: A game development community.

Gaming/Graphics Engines

Panda3D: F/OSS game and simulation engine originally from Disney and now maintained by Carnegie Mellon. C++ under the hood, but intended to be called from Python. Apparently very powerful with several successful commercial games using it.

CrystalSpace: F/OSS realtime 3D graphics SDK. Related is CEL which extends Crystal Space into the game engine realm and includes bindings for Python.

OGRE: F/OSS 3D rendering engine only. C++ based.

Bullet: Commonly used (within gaming industry)F/OSS physics engine with rigid body and soft body support as well as collision detection.

Other tools/Resources

Blender: F/OSS 3D content creation suite. Scriptable with, yes, you guessed it, Python. Related is the Game Blender, a game engine.

OpenGameArt.org: Community and repository for open access art resources. Also hosts the Liberated Pixel Cup.

ccMixter: Community and repository for Creative Commons licensed remixable sound and music pieces.

The Freesound Project: Like ccMixter, but only with sound samples.

Hackable Games

Games and simulators that are open source and useful to look at, perhaps.

Flight Gear: F/OSS flight simulator. Highly detailed, written in C++.

Frets On Fire: Mostly F/OSS music rhythm game built using Python and Pygame.

The Quake/IdTech Family: Open source releases of the game engines behind id's Quake family of first person shooters

Battle For Wesnoth: F/OSS turned based strategy game. Lively community and easily created campaigns plus scriptability (through Lua) and it's own mod community.

The Spring Engine: A F/OSS real time strategy (RTS) game engine and framework. Spring:1944 is one standout game built on the engine. Of note, the computer controlled enemies can be scripted with Python, C++, Lua and Java derived languages.

Widelands: A newer and slower F/OSS RTS game than the Spring derived games.

Cube 2: Sauerbraten: Another F/OSS FPS engine and game.

FreeCiv: Empire building turnbased strategy game


I've written the post in the Markdown, um, markup language. There are a variety of tools to convert Markdown into other formats, like HTML or PDF. I use pandoc. There's also a web based converter.

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 13, 4th Starter

I've gone over my general starting pitcher considerations here.

SelectionRoger Clemens

You can make a strong case for Clemens as the greatest pitcher of all time. Remarkably Durable across 24 seasons, Clemens replaces Maddux's long, gracious career arc with 3 distint peaks, centered around late 80s with the Red Sox, his two years with the Blue Jays in the late 90s and a smaller one with the Astros around 2004. Powerful, with overwhelming stuff, he was hard to square up on, with only a 0.66 HR/9 rate. His fly ball tendencies, high strike out rate (8.55 K/9, 23.1%), ruggedness and somewhat lesser control (both with the ball (2.89 BB/9) and with his bat hurling temper) remind me of, well, Curt Schilling on steroids. It's worth noting that the considerable majority of Clemen's innings were in the American League, so that 8.55 K/9 is somewhat depressed compared to Schilling's numbers.

Still, an amazing athlete and pretty much the definition of power pitcher, Clemens commands a spot on this team. His career line of 3.12/3.09/70/70 (ERA/FIP/ERA-/FIP-) with 145.5 fWAR is overwhelming. His best season is a hard choice, but I'll take 1997 with the Blue Jays: 2.05/2.25/45/50 for 11.1 fWAR. Roger Clemens, the Rocket, too close to the edge for comfort but damn impressive to watch.


Tom Seaver

There are two Tom Seavers. The demigod that pitched for the Mets and mere human baseball star that pitched for everybody else. It's the demigod that earns the mention here, particularly for his 1.76/1.93/51/59 line in 1971, with a K/9 rate of 9.08 and a BB/9 rate of 1.92. The human's tenure brought that down to 2.86/3.04/79/85 for his career, but it's still enough to rate Seaver among the greatest pitchers of all time.

Nolan Ryan

Ryan, on the other hand, managed to remain inhumanly overpowering for over 25 years. He just had issues with that, you know, strike zone thing. He got better at it, though, going from a BB/9 rate of 6.87 with the mets in 1970 (his worse year) to a BB/9 of less than 4 for most of the 80s and early 90s. Still high for anyone else, Ryan was so hard to hit (lowest batting average against of all time at .200, a K% of 25.3%, and a K/9 of 9.55), he still managed to be a great pitcher without the control. His lifetime line of 3.19/2.97/90/84 suggests that he was maybe somewhat better than his ERA would indicate, but it's not quite enough to get him on this list. If you can only take pitchers over 40, though, he's a definite pick up. His best season was probably in 1987, 2.76/2.47/69/62 with a 11.48 K/9 (that's a 30% K rate for a starting pitcher). The Ryan Express was 40 years old.

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 14, 5th Starter

Now we've reached the starting pitcher slots. The slots are roughly in inverse order of rotation spot, so today we select the 5th starter. Since the requirements of a starting pitcher are pretty much the same for all five, I'm going to discuss a couple of alternative for each slot, but there's nothing special about any of them, they're all starting pitchers. I might do left handed alternatives with any left handed starters I might select.

Obviously, starters selections need to be actual starters. Mariano Rivera would make a poor choice, I think. Or at least a hard to justify one. Other than that, I favor picking the pitchers with high values. Pitching WAR is a good start, but I'm going to favor rate stats combined with extended track record. So my starters tend to have a strong career with a decent length and a high peak. The pitcher's bats actually do matter, but only half as much as they would in a no DH season, since I'm splitting the season into 81 games with DH, 81 games without. Pitcher fielding also adds some value.

I definitely favor liveball pitchers over deadball era, and I don't even consider pre 1900 performances. Apologies to Rube Waddell and Cy Young. Preintegration performances are also discounted some.

Selection Greg Maddux

Possibly no pitcher combines peak and extended performance like Greg Maddux. His peak was longer than many All Stars' careers. From 1990 to 2001, Maddux had an fWAR over 5.7 every single year. For seven of those years, his ERA (and FIP) was less than 3.00.

Maddux's peak even had it's own peak, with his normalized ERA and FIP coming in at or below 70 every year from 1992 to 1998. And that's just the peak. In his 22 qualifying seasons, Maddux was never worse than league average. Longevity, check. A brilliant, extended peak, check. How'd he do it?

Well known as a thinking man's pitcher, Maddux never excelled at getting strikeouts. No doubt Maddux was a great observer of hitters with the ability to spot and exploit weaknesses. Legned has it that he basically outthought hitters, setting them up months in advance so that they would feel comfortable in a high leverage situation later in the season and then turning the tables. While probably apocryphal, the legend couldn't hurt Maddux, as any hitter who believed it would set himself up, no input from Maddux required.

While batted ball data is only available after Maddux's peak, it's clear that did a good job keeping the ball on the ground in those years, though not a great one. Maddux did seem to thrive on location and movement, though, particularly during his peak. His lifetime batting average on balls in play is somewhat lower than average at .281, which, combined with his low home run rate (0.63 HR/9 for his career and atn amazing four homeruns in 202 innings pitched in 1994) and only moderate strike out rate (16.5% for 6.06 K/9), suggests that Maddux not only induced weaker contact on fly balls, but had fairly strong groundball tendencies during his peak years. Maddux is the sort of pitcher who will be that much better pitching in front of a strong defensive infield, so he may see more starts with Ozzie Smith behind him than the other starters.*

*For similar K% and HR/9 rates, groundball pitchers will show higher batting average on balls in play than fly ball pitchers because groundballs in play are much more likely to be hits than fly balls.

Maddux's most obvious trait as a pitcher, though, is his extreme control. He walked only 4.9% of the batters he faced across his career at only 1.8 per 9 innings. That control combined with his ability to keep the ball in the park meant that while Maddux relied on his defense to the make the play, he gave them the opportunity to do so as well.

I should note that while Maddux didn't exhibit legendary strikeout "stuff", his fastball started out around 93 mph early in his career and still ran about 86 mph at the end of his career with the Padres. And his offspeed pitches had plenty of separation (at least at the end of his career) with his Padres tenure curveball averaging 73 mph and both his changeup and slider average about 80 mph. Maddux is the paragon of the "hit your spots, change speeds, know the hitter, have movement on the ball" skillset and, as a result, is a strong candidate for greatest pitcher of all time. He definitely deserves his spot on this team.


Curt Schilling

In many ways, the fly ball version of Greg Maddux, Schilling effectively traded Maddux's lower home run rate for a higher strike out rate. Still, lots of control (1.96 BB/9) and a lot of strikeouts (8.6 K/9). He was also some what less durable than Maddux across his career and took some time to work out his early control issues. Still, a surprisingly underrated pitcher who ought to be a no doubt Hall of Famer on his regular season performances alone, I suspect what will eventually get Schilling in are his famed post season performances with the Diamonbacks and the Red Sox. An amazing pitcher overall, with a career line of 3.46/3.23/80/74 and 86.1 fWAR. His best year was maybe 2001, maybe 2002, when he posted lines of 2.98/3.11/66/68 (7.6 fWAR) and 3.23/2.40/75/54 (9.7 fWAR), respectively.

He also hurts my theory about fly ball pitchers having lower batting average balls in play, with a .293 lifetime compared to Maddux's .281. Maybe Maddux really was that good at inducing weak contact. Oh, and Schilling is a wonderful case study for how the DH effects pitching stats. Going from NL to AL in 2004, his K/9 stable around 10.5 for the last three years, dropped to 8.2ish for the next 3. Facing pitchers can really buff your strikeouts.*

*Nolan Ryan pitched 2737 innings in DH era AL. At 2 K/9, that cost him another 608 or so strikeouts.

Roy Halladay

Halladay is another pitcher with strong similarities to Maddux. High control, good but not great strikeout rate, high groundball rate (that's been on the decline) and good home run suppression. Halladay makes a good choice for the same reason Maddux does, though his true talent might be a smidgen or three less. Likely Hall of Famer, with a career 3.25/3.31/72/75 line and 71.3 fWAR in 14 years. His best year was arguably 2011: 2.35/2.20/61/56 for 8.2 fWAR.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 15 Backup Catcher

One of the reasons I've always been frustrated by the eight+pitchers all time teams is the absence of the backup catcher. Such rosters may include a couple of starting pitchers and maybe a reliever or three (and maybe even a couple of bench bats), but who warms up the relievers? It gets even better as the rosters begin to include full rotations and reasonable bullpens. Then, it's plausible that the pitching staff can cover a full season and it's not beyond the realm of possibility that all seven nonbattery players could manage a 154 or even 162 game season.

But nobody is going to catch 162* games in a season. Nobody who wants to actually use their legs in the future, anyway. Catching is gruelling, body destroying work and catchers are largely underappreciated by baseball fandom. Anything roster claiming to be a baseball team ought to have a backup catcher.

*The highest is 160, caught by Randy Hundley in 1968. In 1944, Ray Mueller and Frankie Hayes caught all 155 of their team's games.

I figure that 32 starts is a good estimate for a backup's playing time. Of course, a defensively oriented backup might be brought in as a late inning replacement (Yadier Molina in for Mike Piazza sort of thing) and a gifted bat could expect to see time as a pinch hitter or maybe even DH given a perfect storm of injuries. I estimate a light hitting backup might see about 150 plate appearances (though with the difficulty of getting my line up out, it might be noticably more), and a heavy hitter

Selection Joe Mauer

Despite his merely average 2011 and his mysterious weak leg disease, Mauer has returned to form as an excellent offense first catcher with apparently decent defense. (Catcher defense is notoriously hard to quantify). He's averaged just under 5 fWAR as season for the past 8. His batting like is strong: .322/.403/.468/132 (avg/obp/slg/wRC+). And Mauer has had a high peak so far, hitting .365/.444/.587/170 in 2009, good for a 7.9 fWAR season and an MVP.

While Mauer isn't much of a home run threat, he's 22.8% line drive rate is exceptional.* A high contact/high OBP line drive lefty, Mauer makes an excellent lefty bench bat when he's not starting at catcher. His OBP is main driver in this selection, as the power in the rest of the line up drives up to the value of getting on base. Mauer's handedness is a big part of the reason I picked him, as not only could I use a lefty on the bench, my starter selection is right handed, so I can pick starter off days to gain platoon advantage.

* Damn, I wish we knew Stan Musial's line drive rate. Let's set the over/under at 30%. I'll take over.


Ivan Rodriguez

The obvious choice for the more defensively minded backup, our still rudimentary estimators of catcher defensive value peg Pudge as the greatest defensive catcher of all time with something like 166 runs saved above average. His caught stealing rate for his career is an impressive 45.68%. His defensive reputation and career batting line .296/.334/.464/104 belie his considerable batting peak, with his best qualifying season being 2004's .334/.383/.510/134. His durability was also exceptional: 2348 games started at catcher (most all time), 7 at first base and one a second base (where he had 1 put out).*

*For the 2006 Tigers. Presuming Brandon Inge was at third, one wonders if Jim Leyland could've swung an "all catcher infield".

Eventual Hall of Famer (and owner of a career 73.9 fWAR) Rodiguez's big weakness was lack of plate discipline, with only a 5.0% walk rate. Even so, he's an excellent pick, with unprecendented durability, elite defense and a strong bat, he's just not the best fit for my line up.

Mickey Cochrane

Cochrane profiles a lot like Joe Mauer, but from the pre-integration era (points off) and without the 170 wRC+ season. A good choice, particularly if love you OBP (and I do).

A power bat

If you prefer that your backup catcher be a huge bat of the bench, even if he's (relatively) defensively weak, Mike Piazza makes a good choice. Life time .308/.377/.545/140 is great line for anybody, with a fantastic peak in 1997 of .362/.431/.638/183. Then again, he's a righty, doesn't quite match Mauer on OBP (I conject I'll have plenty of power either way, I'll take saving my outs) and you might want to take Jimmie Foxx, anyway. Only 108 games at catcher across his career, we know at least that he was familiar with the position and astronomical (though again pre-integration) career batting line of .325/.428/.609/159. Josh Gibson, too deserves a mention.

Jose Molina

In many ways, the opposite of all of the other options, Molina seems a strange pick. A career batting line of .238/.286/.342/66 and a career fWAR of 4.7 make him appear, in some ways, to be the canonical backup catcher, Molina actually can be justified as an avant garde choice. It seems that Molina's hidden value lies in his ability to frame pitches. The Rays certainly think so, as his current .196/.278/.309/67 batting line isn't very enticing. From the Mike Fast's linked article:

Catchers appear to have a substantial impact on the success of their pitchers through their ability to gain extra strike calls from the umpire. This is an important factor to consider when valuing the contributions of catchers to a team. We have identified at least two specific techniques that affect catcher performance in this arena. Given the important impact on major-league teams, further research along that line is warranted.

Fast estimates that Molina's pitch framing ability is worth about 35 runs above average per 120 games caught. That's substational (and shows how much more work needs to be done on catcher defense, as that outweighs all of the components of catcher defense that we do account for by a signficant margin). That comes .032 runs per inning saved above average.

So, if you're an uncaring manager who cares not for your starter's knees or needs, or you just like he can take it, you could use your starter or maybe your utility player for nearly every regular season start and use Molina as a late inning shutdown catcher. Assuming he averaged 2.0 innings of catcher relief per game for, say, 150 games, that's worth about 9.7 runs above average defense (roughly an extra win across a season) and hopefully keeps his lousy bat out of the lineup. Given the higher leverage of late situations, that significant improvement to pitching performance that Molina provides could actually be worth more. Just warm him up with the shutdown reliever and play "Hells Bells" as your shutdown battery takes the field.

The pitchers might love it, too. Even for Marianno Rivera, the difference between Jose Molina and a league average catcher is 0.29 ERA, which would put him at 1.92 ERA (and presumably lower his FIP by the same, given that pitch framing largely effects strike outs and walks).*

*So what's the difference between Jorge Posada, an apparently bad pitch framer, and Jose Molina, a great pitcher framer on Rivera's ERA? Calculate Rivera's Earned runs per inning, Posada and Molina's Pitch Framing runs saved per inning from Fast's data and determine their difference. Subtract that difference (or rather it's absolute value) from Rivera's ER per inning and multiply by nine. I get 1.50. A lifetime ERA of 1.50. High leverage, shutdown catchers (or rather shutdown batteries) are either the wave of the future or the impetus for the next sea change in baseball with automated strike calling. You read it here first.

Jose Molina, so damn crazy, it just might work.

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 16, Yet Another Lefty Relief Pitcher

It's easy for a manager to over manage. Most of the time, it's best to let your starters play. They are your starters for a reason, so assuming you haven't made bad line up selections substitutions usually mean taking the bat out of a better player's hands. One area where a manager must make substitutions is with pitcher substitution. Not only must the manager know when his starter has had enough, he must pick the right pitcher to follow him. (And, without the DH, decide when it's advantageous to trade out even an effective pitcher for a pinch hitter).

The manager has control of a couple of factors. He can pick when he makes the substitution and who he puts in. This allows the manager to play the platoon match-up based on the upcoming batters. Having a lefty and a righty available in the bullpen means that, for at least two of the next three batters (barring switch hitters), he has the (very real) platoon advantage. And if you're starter is tiring, you can use every advantage you can get.

I don't mean to say that each pitcher should be a one out specialist, but rather given an all time great lefty and an all time great righty in the bullpen, picking the pitcher with the platoon advantage against more upcoming hitters makes good sense. And since I have my pick of the all time greats, I might as well take advantage.*

* And one more tiny thing: if my opponent knows I play the platoon advantage, he may feel compelled to always splitting his batters left-right-left-right. As dangerous as Williams-Mays-Ruth-Pujols may be, it's not quite as dangerous as Williams-Ruth-Musial-Mays, particularly against a right handed pitcher.

So, without any better justification than the above, I decided that my last bullpen slot should be a left handed pitcher. Well, that and there are some amazing LHPs to choose from.

Selection: Lefty Grove

Arguably the best LHP ever, Grove curiously gets left out of a lot of greatest of all time discussions. Perhaps because he pitched during a strong hitter friendly era, perhaps because he predated the Cy Young award or perhaps because his 300 wins (note: this is in no way an endorsement of traditional pitcher wins as a useful statistic, it's not), didn't stand out as much against the backdrop of the prior generation's greats like Walter Johnson and Christy Mathewson (or the next generation's Warren Spahn) and their astronomical win totals. Grove's career was also "only" 17 years long, which hurts him some in the various counting stats

But for those 17 years, Grove was amazing. His lifetime pitching line: 3.06/3.36/69/77 (ERA/FIP/ERA-/FIP-) puts him among the greatest starters ever and trailing only Randy Johnson and the brilliant but brief Sandy Koufax for post 1900 lefties in normalized FIP and beating them both in normalized ERA.* His peak wasn't bad, either, with a 2.06/3.01/47/71 in his 1931 MVP season (that's an ERA less than half league average). His FIP suggests he may have been a bit lucky that year and prefers Grove's also excellent 1930 season (2.54/3.09/53/64) as a more standout -- if slightly less effective -- performance.

*The relative merits of FIP and ERA over an entire career are definitely up for debate. Both try to correct a pitcher's performance for the vagaries of defense to provide a truer measure of a pitcher's performance than simple runs scored against average. FIP is a better predictor of future ERA than ERA for most pitchers, but some pitcher's consistently out perform their FIP.**

**And then there's xFIP. There's always room for improvement, we're pretty much always wrong, but we can be less wrong


Warren Spahn

Here's a fun debate: What are better, the quotes by Warren Spahn or the quotes about him?

exempli gratia:

By Spahn:

He was something like zero for twenty-one the first time I saw him. His first major league hit was a home run off me and I'll never forgive myself. We might have gotten rid of Willie (Mays) forever if I'd only struck him out.

I'm probably the only guy who played for Casey before and after he was a genius.

Regarding his encounters with pre and post Yankees Casey Stengel.

About Spahn:

I don't think (Warren) Spahn will ever get into the Hall of Fame. He'll never stop pitching.

--Stan Musial

He's not in the film, but he's still our all-time favorite left-hand pitcher.

--The producers of Naked Gun

And of course, "Spahn and Sain and Pray for Rain"

The quotable, talented, immortal Spahn is considered by many to be the greatest lefty of all time. But... the stats don't bear that out. While a deserving Hall of Famer in my mind, Spahn is the personification of the Very Good Accumulator*, with a career pitching line of 3.09/3.44/84/94. Even his two exceptional years by ERA-, 1947 and 1953, look like years that combined very good pitching with vergy good luck (with FIP- of 82 and 75, respectively). Twenty one years as a starting pitcher is an amazing accomplishment in itself, but Spahn's consistent career is somewhat lacking in peak performance to make this team.

*Next time you think or hear "It's not the Hall of Very Good" or "He's just an accumulator" regarding a Hall of Fame candidate, ask "Well, what about Warren Spahn?"

Clayton Kershaw

At the moment, Kershaw trails only Randy Johnson, Grove and Koufax in the normalized ERA and FIP among modern left handed starters. While it's early in his career, Kershaw was deserving Cy Young winner last year with a 2.28/2.47/62/66 line. Time will tell if he ends up being an all time great, but if you're looking for the next great left hander, Kershaw is your best bet.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 17 Swingman

Picking pitchers is a surprisingly difficult proposition. There aren't really clearly defined roles or necessary considerations the way there with position players. Pitchers pitch, largely, and while some may excel in certain things and in certain cases. By and large, a great pitcher is a great pitcher. Rivera, arguably, is an exception to this rule -- his one perfect pitch seems to have made him a genius reliever but not such a great starter. Who knows, though, what would have been had he stayed in the starter role. That cutter, with a decent sinker and changeup? Not a starter I'd want to face.

The whole point of a bullpen is that it can be used in anyway you imagine. So it's useful to have flexible pitchers. As such, I'm labelling one of my slots "swingman" and aiming it for the sort of pitcher that is both a first class starter and a shutdown reliever. Few pitchers have shown the flexibility to do both.

Selection: Satchel Paige

It may be that Leroy Robert "Satchel" Paige was the greatest pitcher that ever lived. Anecdotally, the case is strong. I'll let a Hall of Fame quality storyteller relate Paige's fastball:

I'm going on faith here, obviously, but think about this: Satchel Paige became a legendary pitcher even though (1) He spent his prime playing in Negro Leagues where few media members saw him; (2) He really did not throw anything but a fastball. The second part is what's so intriguing: Paige named his pitches -- Bat Dodger, Midnight Creeper and so on -- but best anyone can tell they were all fastballs thrown at various speeds and with remarkable command. When Paige was asked about how he changed his grips, he would scoff and say he just grabbed the baseball and threw it. I don't know that it was quite THAT casual, but I do think Paige basically threw fastballs and only fastballs until later in his career. Basically every player who faced that fastball -- from DiMaggio on down -- said it was unlike anything they had ever faced, that it was on top of them before they could react, that it was by them before they could blink. And his control was exalted; the story went that he would warm up by throwing fastballs over stick of chewing gum.

I sometimes wonder, by the way, if Paige's fastball was a lot like Mariano Rivera's cutter.

--Joe Posnanski

The data isn't bad either. In 476 innings pitched in the majors -- a pittiance that at least demonstrates the injustice of segregation -- Paige posted a 3.29/3.27/81/81 (ERA/FIP/ERA-/FIP-), all over the age of 40. He mixed in starts and relief apperances, demonstrating his swingman ability at an age many greats are long out of baseball.

There is also the Negro league data to consider. Paige allowed an average of 3.22 runs per 9 innings (not earned runs, but all of the runs, regardless of fielding mistakes) across almost 1300 innings pitched in the Negro Leagues. His strikeouts per 9, 8.1, and his walks per 9, 1.7 suggest a pitcher with excellent stuff and fine control.

As Paige was primarily a fastball pitcher, I'd likely prefer using him in a relief and long relief role to avoid giving opponents too many looks at his (many different) fastballs. But I have faith in his ability to start as necessary and so he gets my nod at swingman.


John Smoltz

Former Cardinal John Smoltz originally occupied the slot Billy Wagner now has, when it was my swingman spot. Though I could not resist or avoid the Wagner temptation, Smoltz has a deserving case for almost every role a right handed pitcher can be shoehorned into. Switched back and forth between starter and closer through out his Braves career, Smoltz never lost his effectiveness, even in his unlucky final season, where a 6.35 ERA belied a 21.2% K rate and a 5.2% walker rate, good for a 3.87 FIP. Smoltz was a very good to great starter and an utterly amazing reliever, particularly his 2003 year where he posted a 1.12/1.54/25/35 pitching line in 64 innings. Not even Mariano Rivera had a peak that high as a reliever. Smoltz's best year as a starter probably came in 1996: 2.94/2.64/69/60 with 253 innings pitched. Across his 21 year career, Smoltz averaged 3.33/3.24/81/78.

Smoltz's shutdown/meltdown ratio is worth noting too, 131/20. That's mindboggling high. It's over 6 to 1, and even Rivera only manages just under 5 to 1. Smoltz probably represents one of the best arguments against Rivera as "greatest reliever/closer of all time." Oh, and Smoltz's bat was (relatively) decent as well, with Fangraphs putting him at 7.5 batting Wins Above Replacement.

An incredible pitcher with amazing peaks as both a reliever and starter, Smoltz makes a great swingman choice. Maybe we could go back and make this a 26 man roster.

Hoyt Wilhelm

Knuckleballers seem like a natural choice for a swingman. Their arms are effectively rubber, allowing them to plug into the rotation as necessary and the shear alienness of their pitches is only exacerbated by coming in as relief for a fireballer. Hoyt Wilhelm is the prototypical swingman knuckleballer, with plenty of innings in both relief and as a starter. For his career, wilhelm produced a 2.52/3.06/68/81 line, and it's worth noting that fielding independent metrics like FIP may have issues with knuckleball pitchers. Either way, Wilhelm was a durable, flexible and effective pitcher and the best choice for a knuckleballer if you require one for you team. Given the heat the rest of the team is throwing, I'd bet Wilhelm would be even more effective.

Thursday, June 7, 2012

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 18 Relief Pitcher/Strikeout Master

While I've tried to come up with specific roles for my relief pitchers, the intent is to give me tactical flexibility rather than limit their actual use. It's nice to have situationally useful strengths, but one should be careful not to trade off too much general ability for them. So all of my picks are made with the understanding that the pitchers be good in general, as well.

Originally, I had the next for slots listed just as relief pitcher, but I've come up with a few more situations I'd like to have the right tool for the job in. For instance, it would be nice to have a pitcher who's so good at generating strikeouts that he's your go to guy for situations such as runners on 2nd and 3rd, no outs. And it would be nice if he didn't issue too many walks, either. Being able to throw multiple innings or start is a plus, too. One man stands out above all the rest:

Selection: Randy Johnson

Wait, I've already picked Johnson. Hmmm. Let's try this again:

Selection: Billy Wagner

Originally, Wagner wasn't on my roster. He was always a bridesmaid, never a bride. But Wagner was (and probably still could be) a fantastic relief pitcher. He actually does possess the highest career strikeout rate of all time (33.2%) and a good walk rate (8.3%). And he kept popping up: Ridiculous against lefties but still strong against righties, crazy high K rate, excellent relief record, tiny ERA and FIP. Wagner is basically the relief pitcher alter ego of Randy Johnson. And I couldn't avoid him in searching for great pitching performances if I tried. I've written about him twice already, so I don't feel the need to say more.

I do need to note that he'd be used more as a LOOGY than Johnson, with Johnson getting longer relief appearances and some starts. And next week, who knows, maybe I'll decide that Johnson is my starter. Or that my entire pitching roster consists of 4 clones each of Johnson and Pedro Martinez with a Mariano Rivera, a Brandon Webb and a Phil Niekro thrown in to leaven the mix.


Sergio Romo

A quick glance through the K% and BB% columns on Fangraphs and one pitcher stands out quickly. Sergio Romo has a 31.2% K rate with only a 5.7% walk rate. That's fanastic and makes him ideal for this sort of role. Except... Romo, a right handed pitcher, has had much greater success against righties than lefties. A 2.17/2.29/54/57 (ERA/FIP/ERA-/FIP-) overall, he's had only 65 innings versus lefties (and about 120 versus right handers) in his career. For such small sample sizes, xFIP (expected FIP), which regresses the batted ball data (like home runs per fly ball) used by FIP, performs better. Romo's xFIP versus right handers is excellent 2.80, but an merely ok 3.92 versus lefties.

Of course, on a roster with Randy Johnson available, you could use Romo as a right handend strikeout pitcher. He compliments a pitcher like Johnson (or Wagner) extremely well. If one uses Johnson as a starter, the Romo/Wagner/Rivera combination is a fantastic relief triad. Be warned, though, that Romo's career has been short and he could still flame out. Mark Prior did.

Any great power pitcher

Johnson or Pedro Martinez being the leading cadidates, Lincecum, Koufax, Clemens, Curt Schilling and Johan "Met's First No-hitter" Santana all bring good combinations of control and strike out stuff. Of course, some of them are still haven't experienced the valleys of their careers yet. And, of course, they all make good choices as starters.

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 19 Fireman/Closer

One of the perpetual debates in baseball is: "Are your five best pitchers always your starters?" And generally, the answer seems to be yes. But there are exceptions, pitchers with a limited repertoire, exceptionally young pitchers or pitchers with durability limits tend to perform better as relievers. Another debate is "when do you use your best reliever?" Often times, you'll want to use him in high leverage situations, generally late and close situations. Sadly, poorly defined statistics like the save have confused the issue and excellent pitchers that might otherwise prevent lead loss or keep a one run defecit from becoming too large to overcome are reserved only for situations that can get the pitcher a save. This has lead to the movement from using firemen to using closers. Personally, I'll take the fireman role.

Regardless, some pitchers have shown that they excel in the clutch (that's not to say that don't excel at other times, of course), and it's these pitchers that qualify for the fireman role. Pretty much any great starter would qualify, of course.

In addition to situation agnostic pitching stats, relievers are measured by their contribution to the odds of their team winning. The basic concept is called Win Probability Added (WPA) and it's a measure of how much the pitcher increases an average team's probability of winning according the location of runners (the base states), the number of outs, the inning and the score. A player with a positive WPA leaves his team in a better position to win the game while one with a negative WPA leaves them in a worse position. Batting WPA is similar, except it is added or deducted per plate appearance or stolen base attempt. No one has managed to add in fielding WPA yet. WPA data goes back to 1974.

There's also derived stats called shutdowns and meltdowns that are essentially better versions of saves and blown saves. A pitcher gets a shutdown if he increases his team's chances of winning by more than 6% and a meltdown if he lowers them by more than 6%. I used these stats in addition to context independent stats such as ERA, FIP and WHIP.

It's important to note that WPA and associated stats are much more descriptive than predictive.

Selection Mariano Rivera

It's hard to pick anyone else. There are definitely greater pitchers than Rivera, but it's hard to say any of them would actually be better over one inning. Pedro Martinez, maybe. Such a pitcher would probably end up as a starter, anyway, though. Rivera's cutter is legendary and it's effective against both handed batters. He uses some other pitches, including a fastball, but his placement and movement on the cutter make it maybe the most feared pitch in baseball history. Strong control, good stuff (though not really swing and miss, only a 8.26 K/9 rate) and the ability to induce weak contact have made Rivera the greatest relief pitcher of all time. And truly great enough to make this roster.

His career pitching line is 2.21/2.75/49/62 (ERA/FIP/ERA-/FIP-). Teams have scored less than half as many earned runs against Rivera compared to an average pitch across his career. He's also got good ground ball tendencies, creating 53.2% ground balls and only 30% fly balls and with only 6.1% home runs per fly ball, he's rarely homered on. Truly a hard pitcher to turn the game around on.

Used almost exclusively in high leverage situations, he's really given his team a boost. His total WPA is 54.70 (according to Fangraphs), in the same neighborhood as batters like George Brett and Eddie Murray. For pitchers, he's second only to Roger Clemens and just ahead of Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson.

From a shutdown/meltdown standpoint, Rivera is 547/113. That is to say, he's left his team with a signficantly better chance to win almost five times as often as he's significantly hurt them. Not surprisingly, he's the all time Shutdown leader (ahead of Trevor Hoffman and Lee Smith), but nowhere near the meltdown leader. Simply put, Marianno Rivera is the greatest high leverage pitcher since 1974 and probably of all time.

And everybody knows it.


Billy Wagner

If you want a few more strike outs from your fireman/closer or think you're going face a unusually large number of left handed batters, Wagner makes a good choice. His lifetime K/9 is 11.92 (33.2%) and he's one of the few relievers that have a claim to match Rivera on ability, if not as much on longevity. His FIP- (normalized fielding independent pitching, lower is better) is only one higher than Rivera's. His Shutdown Meltdown ratio is also a great 389/100 (3.89) (higher than likely Hall of Famer Hoffman) which, while higher than nearly everyone else, is still less than Rivera's 4.84.

Context independent pitching line: 2.31/2.73/54/63.

WPA added: 28.78

Nolan Ryan

When it comes to stuff, it's hard to find a better pitcher than Nolan Ryan. Ryan is the hardest pitcher to hit in the history of baseball, with a batting average against of only .200 and a strike out percentage of 25.3%. More than one of every four batters Ryan faced as a starter struck out against him. Relievers, who rarely face the same batter twice in a game, usually get a big boost in K%, so we'd expect Ryan to do so, too. Ryan's glaring weakness, though, was his high walk rate (12.4%), granting 4.67 free bases per 9. Exceptionally durable (and the all time leader in both strikeouts and walks), Ryan is a Hall of Fame starting pitcher, but not an all time top 10 in terms of results. But I imagine that as a reliever, particularly used more like a closer than a fireman, coming in with the bases empty in the 7th or later to protect a lead, he'd be amazing. No batter getting the opportunity to adjust and knowing that even a walk or two doesn't help if no one can make contact to drive them in.

Pitching line (as a starter): 3.19/2.97/90/84

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Greatest Possible Baseball team: Slot 20, Fourth Outfielder

For a full season, 3 outfielders are never enough. Fourth outfielders need the defensive chops to play any of the 3 spots and preferably a good bat as they'll get their fair share of starts. It's even better if the 4th outfielder has a complimentary skill set to the rest of the outfield or exceptional defense, allowing him to replace a weaker defensive player in the field as a late game substitution.

Selection Willie Mays

Willie Mays is the greatest centerfielder of all time. He's also the most complete player at any position, the (arguably) second best bat at his position and the second best defender at his position of all time. Not surprisingly, he was originally my starting center fielder, but on further reflection (and watching certain friends' bench selections), I realized that, in the context of this lineup, he was only the second best choice. Still, that made him the automatic choice for fourth outfielder. Willie was a career .302/.384/.557/157 hitter in a 21 year, 2992 game career. Additionally, Fangraphs credits him with 185 runs saved over the average centerfielder. It's worth mentioning that Mays had 7 years with a Wins Above Replacement* (WAR) greater than 10 (deep MVP territory) and a lifetime WAR of 163.2. That's 4th overall, in a practical tie for 3rd with Ty Cobb. Also note worthy, he's the highest ranked right handed batter in terms of WAR. Oh, and he hit 660 home runs and stole over 300 bases. The man knows how to play baseball.

His peak was pretty high, too. His best season was probably 1965, one of his two seasons with more than 50 homeruns. His batting line was .317/.398/.645/187 and he had about 15 runs saved on defense.

*This is important. If you don't know what WAR is, please click the link. Briefly, it's an estimation of a player's contribution to team wins above a replacement level player (roughly an average AA player). WAR is according to Fangraphs.


Andruw Jones

Wait, Willie Mays is the second best defensive center fielder of all time? Who could be better? It turns out that Andruw Jones had probably the greatest 11 year stretch of defensive dominance of any player ever, averaging 25 runs saved above average** per year. In triple crown stats terms, it's equivalent of adding 21 home runs and 25 RBIs every season without changing his average. Or 75 extra stolen bases.

Jones is also an excellent example of a great player who's batting average is slightly below average. His .256/.338/.488/112 batting line is merely good, but it's definitely above average. Add in the value of his defense, and Jones is clear Hall of Famer, even with his ugly 2008 season with the Dodgers. While he's still putting together strong seasons as a part timer, his best full season was 2005, with a .263/.347/.575/133 batting line and 26 runs saved above average.

Jones was my original pick for 4th outfielder, but he wasn't going to hold the position when Mays was available. If you plan on using your 4th outfielder almost entirely as a defensive replacement, Jones is the pick for you.

** Since runs saved (above average) is in units of runs, we can approximate the value of a player's (above average) defense by adding stolen bases (or converting some singles to homeruns). The advantage of the stolen base methodology is that it doesn't effect the player's batting rate stat and it's an easy conversion. For every run saved, add 3 stolen bases (or 0.85 home runs (not hits, just convert singles to homeruns)). So we can treat May's as league average defender if we credit him with an extra 555 stolen bases (or another 150 or so home runs).

Stan Musial, Ty Cobb

Or several other all time great outfielders with centerfield experience. Musial and Cobb are left handers and a little better with the bat (for their times) than Mays. I tend to discount deadball and pre-integration performances some, so I don't give Cobb quite the respect his .366/.433/.512/171 batting line otherwise deserves. Also, Cobb was a jerk and that's being nice. Musial, baseball's valiant knight, had a more legitimate .331/.417/.559/158 line. He's a good pick if you prefer a left hander for your 4th outfielder. Or if you're such a Dodger zealot that Mays and Jones are anathema to you.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Greatest Possible Baseball Team: Slot 21 Utility Infielder

Most teams carry back up infielders. Starters need rest days, days off or they get injured or can't meet the demands of baseball's gruelling schedule for a couple of games. I look forward to the national furor over the first MLB player to take maternity leave.

Anyway, having a player that can master any infield position (first, second and third bases, as well as shortstop) is a huge asset. And if that player happens to be a true defensive wizard*, then they add the very useful tactical option of being a defensive replacement. Doing so late in the game reduces the load on the starters and keeps them (hopefully) healthy, while maximizing the team's situational strengths. After all, once you take the lead, the only way to lose it is by giving up runs.

So my ideal utility infielder is a masterful defender who's got the chops to handle any of the four positions. His primary use will be as a defensive substitute. He needs a decent bat, particularly in this line up, for those days where he's spelling a starter.

Selection: Ozzie Smith

Perhaps no other player is as well known for his defensive ability as the Wizard. An incredible athlete with fantastic range, a cannon arm, a fantastic glove and excellent judgement, reasonable estimates place Ozzie's defensive value between 150 and 240 runs prevented above average across his career. Call it ten runs a season better than average, every season for 18 years. That's phenomenally rare. Fangraphs puts his peak defensive year as 1989, when they estimate he saved 32 runs. Even only coming in the 7th inning and later, Ozzie would be worth about 10 runs on defense over an average defender. That's at least an extra win (across an average season) created by just the glove of bench player. I suspect it might be worth more, as Smith would spend his time fielding in higher leverage situations.

While his defense is universally lauded, his offensive contributions are too often overlooked. Admittedly, for his first 6 or so years in the majors, Smith struggled offensively. By 1984, though, Smith had developed into an above average offensive player with a sustained peak between 1984 and 1992. While always lacking for power, Smith managed to combine an excellent batting eye with excellent speed on the base paths (580 SB). Oddly enough for a player of his speed, he did so with a surprising low batting average on balls in play, only breaking .300 three times. Even in his final season, in 1996, Smith was an offensive threat, posting a .282/.358/.370/97 (avg/obp/slg/wRC+).

Across his career, including his offensively anemic Padres tenure, Smith posted a .262/.337/.328/94 line. In his best year with the bat, he hit .285/.380/.367/122. And Smith's ability to get on base better than 35% of the time for pretty much his entire Cardinals career is even more useful talent in the line up of this team.


Brooks Robinson

By many accounts and metrics, Mr. Hoover was the greatest defensive player ever. Fangraphs estimates he saved 294 runs above the average 3B across his career. And he had two seasons above 30 runs saved (1967 and 1968) in an environment where runs were even more precious than they are today. And he had an above average bat. Where Ozzie had speed and a discerning eye, Brooks had some power, hitting 268 homeruns and possessing a career batting line of .267/.322/.401/105. His peak year offensively came in 1964, when he hit .317/.368/.521/145 with 28 homeruns, played his usual excellent defense and won the MVP.

It's worth noting that Robinson's runs above average is calculated against third basemen, rather than all defensive players. While I have no doubt he would've been strong shortstop as well, I don't see him handling it as well a Smith. Or the guy who was playing shortstop along side Robinson much of the time, a guy named...

Mark Belanger

The other greatest defensive shortstop of all time. Belanger didn't see as much play time in his career as Smith, so his lifetime 241 runs saved is very impressive, but unlike Smith or Robinson, his bat was generally weak (.228/.300/.280/72). Defensively, his best year may have been 1975 with 35.0 runs saved above average (from Fangraphs), making him an All Star worthy shortsop with only a .226/.286/.276/70 batting line. Belanger is your guy when defense is your only priority. Belanger isn't a Hall of Famer, though he and Robinson probably deserve a fraction Jim Palmer's plaque.**

Speaking of Palmer, did he not have the best luck with defenders? He started his career with the greatest defensive pairing of shortstop and third baseman ever behind him and ended it with the (arguably) greatest defender to split his time between shortstop third base. Who is, incidentally, also an alternate:

Cal Ripken Jr

Frankly, Ripken's offense is slightly overrated. He's definitely the best bat on this list, but not by a wide margin, at least averaged across his career, hitting .276/.340/.447/111. Of course, that was an average across a 20 year career where Ripken played EVERY SINGLE GAME for 16 years. The Iron Man probably traded reliability for peak performance, but his peaks were quite high, most notably his 1991 season, where he hit .323/.374/.566/156 which was also his best year defensively, saving 23 runs above average according to Fangraphs -- arguably the best season ever from a shortsop.

Regardless, neither Ripken's durability nor defense were in any way overrated: 2632 consecutive games and about 180 runs saved above average (Fangraphs again). Ripken is a worthy choice as starter at shortstop (particularly for his peak season) and makes an excellent choice for utility infielder.

*Yes, this is a foreshadowing clue. **For what it's worth, Palmer's ERA is about 80% of what his Fielding Indepedent Pitching (FIP) estimates what it would be with an average defense behind him. And wow, how did Baltimore end up with something like a third of the 10 all time greatest defenders?