I am a relatively young baseball fan. As a consequence, there are a lot of players that I missed out watching first hand. Lucky for me that baseball is a sport steeped in numbers. People are biased in their recollections, but past numbers are static and simply awaiting for us to come along and figure out ways to interpret and compare them.
Sure there are the enduring numbers stuck forever on the backs of old baseball cards, but one of the revelations that comes from diving into the rabbit hole of sabermetrics is the realization of how little those oft-quoted numbers actually tell. It’s not just the standard RBI and pitcher Wins are overrated stats mantra, but the importance of era-context that’s left to the individual consumer to internalize and adjust for, if he or she is even aware of it.
It is less a problem these days I feel. For one, advanced analysis is being disseminated more widely, but even the general public has a pretty good intuitive grasp that the “steroid” era provoked numbers that are hard to compare directly across the board and that humidor-free Coors Field was a figurative launching pad that couldn’t be taken seriously. We are getting good at putting present players in proper contexts. Sometimes though, I forget about the past and how our methods today work for those static numbers back then too. That is when I go digging around databases looking for surprises.
That Wade Boggs was an excellent player is not a surprising statement. Perhaps the magnitude of his dominance, as measured by our current metrics, is however. And given that it was before my time, the swiftness of his rise caught me off guard. Breaking into the Majors at 24-years-old, Boggs batted almost .350 with an on base rate over .400 in roughly half a season. Instead of that being one of those stories about a flash in the pan rookie though, Boggs would only get better.
The 1983 season saw Boggs hit .361/.444/.486. It was the first of what would be five times leading the American League in hitting and six times leading in getting on base. We only have Sean Smith’s fielding numbers to tide us over during those years, but combined with playing third base and his tremendous hitting, Boggs finished second in WAR (to Cal Ripken) that season among all hitters in baseball.
Boggs would drop to 12th in WAR in George Orwell’s dystopian year, but he rebounded over the next five seasons to finish second, first, first, first and second. From 1986 through 1988, Boggs lead baseball in WAR each season and combined finished a whopping seven wins ahead of the next best hitter. He was prevented from grabbing the title of best overall player according to WAR by his teammate Roger Clemens.
Only Barry Bonds (2001-4) has grabbed the MLB WAR pole position in three consecutive seasons since Boggs did it. Now, Wade Boggs was no Barry Bonds, but he sure was more impressive than I had been giving him credit for and in fact, if not for the three years of age difference, Boggs is a very similar player to Albert Pujols.