This begins with Carlos “El Caballo” Lee, who recently hung up his horseshoes after a shapely, if unspectacular, 14-year career. Here are Lee’s home run numbers*:
16 24 24 26 31 31 32 37 32 28 26 24 18 9
My, I thought upon seeing these, that’s beautiful; Carlos should get some credit for sculpting such a sequence. Sure, symmetry like this is largely coincidental, but it doesn’t come together without a certain amount of honest consistency. One gets the feeling that, while El Caballo may not have been the greatest hitter ever, he was one of the most self-actualized, or something.
So then there is this question: what player has boasted the most beautiful career? And how exactly would we quantify such a thing? Well, here is what I did. I looked at the career WAR curve of every player with 30+ career WAR (about 500 hitters and 300 pitchers, for the record). I assumed that long was preferable to short, that smooth was preferable to jagged, and that gradual was preferable to abrupt. Then some math was required, but this is Notgraphs, so I made up two half-assed metrics: Years Per Inflection Point (YPIP) and Standard Deviation of Increases and Decreases (SDID). YPIP measures how often a curve changes direction; for Lee’s home run numbers, it would be 14/1 = 14. SDID measures the variation in year-to-year changes, independent of direction; a player with big spikes and plateaus in WAR gets a higher (worse) number than one with a steady climb. Then I ranked all the players by each metric, added the two ranks together, and found the lowest total. As you’ve already discerned — edging out such lovelies as Billy Nash and Dom DiMaggio — it’s Ivan Rodriguez:
That is one hell of a picturesque curve. The El Capitan of careers, you might say. Its one real blemish, courtesy of a herniated disk in 2002, somehow only serves to accentuate its elegance. Pause for a moment, if you would, to appreciate the work, the focus, the resolve, required to follow such a trajectory — one that so closely approximates the ideal. And by a catcher!
Because you were wondering, the ugliest curve belongs, ironically, to a man whose very name connotes the beautiful: Adrian Beltre.
One might pause there and say, but wait! Beltre’s career has been so interesting — and while there’s something undeniably noble about Pudge, there’s also something boring about a man who unfolds his potential in such predictable fashion. I would agree. Ugliness is more interesting than beauty. Let’s move on.
The Most Beautiful Pitcher, winning out rather handily over Addie Joss and Jack Stivetts, is Howard Ehmke: a solid pitcher for some undistinguished AL teams of the twenties, who finished his career with 166 wins and 166 losses. Regard this august profile:
At the other end of the spectrum is Jon Matlack, who finished with similar equipoise — 125-126 — but took a much rockier road to get there:
So what do we do with this? Can beauty be predicted? Is it desirable? Is beauty truth? Is this getting too serious?
* Props to commenter Semi Pro for pointing this out.