“Unless you think you can do better than Tolstoy, we don’t need you.”
– James Michener, advice to aspiring writers
You may have noticed, dear readers, that nowhere in the previous quotation does our historical novelist friend mention statistics. Indeed, it’s a well-known rite of passage for each intrepid, young baseball writer to craft his or her own statistic, much as the children of olden times smithed silver goblets or shot bears.
My quest began, as all sources of intellectual thought and debate in our modern times, with the AL MVP debate. My target was neither the loathsome RBI-proponents who back Miguel Cabrera nor the equally loathsome trigonometry professors who support Mike Trout. Instead, my target was those lofty journalists and philosophers who preferred to stay above the fray by positing that the AL MVP race didn’t really matter anyway. It’s not cool to care about awards, after all. Winning and process reign supreme; nationwide validation for one’s achievements is meaningless if not conceited.
But it does mean something. Look at Detroit’s own Alan Trammell: if he had won the 1987 AL MVP over RBI-machine George Bell, it would have changed the face of his Hall of Fame candidacy. He wouldn’t have been plagued by the consistent, good-but-not-great label that wore the creases into his face and killed his chance at immortality. Not even learning that Wade Boggs took the WAR crown in ’87 could quench my newfound thirst for justice.
And so it is with both pleasure and light self-satisfaction that I present, with my colleague Joel (twitter: @CajoleJuiceEsq), FanGraphs’ newest statistic: FAME, or the Fanfare and Acclaim Metric Extraordinaire.
FAME is similar in spirit to Bill James’ Black Ink, a fun little metric that counts the number of times a player has led the league in a variety of statistics. Rather than reading the back of a baseball card, however, FAME contends with the ballot: its aim is to calculate, with absolute precision, the amount of acclaim a player received from the media during his career. Essentially, we’re looking at how much a player was being talked about in their own time, thus creating the legacies that survive to today. Though for now it’s limited to hitters, the scoring system is simple and fun to calculate, and can be arrived at as follows.
A player shall receive:
- Twelve (12) points for winning an MVP award
- Four (4) points for a top-5 finish
- Two (2) points for a top-10 finish
- Four (4) points for winning a ROY award
- Three (3) points for each All-Star game appearance
- Two (2) points for winning a Gold Glove
- One (1) point for winning a Silver Slugger
- Two (2) points for each World Series ring
- One (1) point for each World Series loss
- One (1) point for having a well-known, memorable nickname
- Two (2) points for reaching the 3,000 hit milestone
- One (1) point for reaching each of the 400/500/600 HR milestones
Simple, right? Gaze upon the top 25 FAME scores of all time (and click, dear reader, for the purposes of embiggenation):
This is perhaps not the most terribly surprising list. Which is good! If this list were topped by Sid Bream, it would perhaps suffer somewhat in terms of credibility. It does have a few foibles: men who played before the 1930s are largely missing from the list, because they didn’t have that many awards to win. The MVP in its modern incarnation was born in 1931, and the first All-Star game was two years later. The variety of awards in modern times provides a slight modern bias to the numbers, in keeping with the temporal, fickle nature of fame.
Where the data gets a little more interesting, however, is when we look at which players have earned more than their fair share of fame, as compared to their WAR (40.0+):
Yogi doesn’t even get any credit for his aphorisms, and yet he’s well ahead of his peers. Three MVPs will do that (two that probably should have gone to Ted Williams and the other to Mantle) and fourteen trips to the World Series help keep your name in the papers. Beneath him are four players with abbreviated careers; Ichiro, for example, served his apprenticeship outside of WAR’s watchful eye and then emerged to collect hardware with his “rookie” season. Puckett, Mattingly and Murphy departed early for their various reasons, rather than toil on into obscurity.
On the other end of the spectrum, doomed to anonymity:
Poor Tony Phillips couldn’t even land a position, let alone an award. In fact, if not for the Athletics’ mini-dynasty of the turn of the 1990s, Phillips would have somehow gotten a FAME of zero, despite earning a higher WAR than the aforementioned Puckett and friends. There’s a pattern here at the bottom: we see a lot of guys who developed into great players in their thirties but were never able to shed the reputations of their twenties. We also see J.D. Drew, because even statistics like to troll now and then.
Someday, I’ll examine what the FAME ratings would look like in a world not set upon destroying Alan Trammell: that is, one in which the MVP and ROY votes had been accorded to the player with the highest WAR. For now, if you’re interested in the numbers, or want to look for errors in our formulas, the FAME database for hitters with 40+ WAR can be downloaded here. If you have ideas or criticism about the categories or weights, please include them in the comments.