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An Inquiry Into How Players are Ranked

Perspective
How we rank players in our own minds can tell us a lot about what we value in a ballplayer. For decades the statistics that mattered to sportswriters and the public at large were those that were simple, easily understood, and still relevant to the game. Stats like batting average (AVG), runs batted in (RBI), and home runs (HR) were regularly quoted when writing articles or voting for MVP awards. Each of these numbers tells a piece of the story of what a ballplayer is. AVG shows a players ability to put a ball in play and reach base, RBI is a representation of run creation and hitting while men are on base in front of you, and HR show your power in hitting.

These numbers still hold great significance today. That said, they are not flawless expressions of player prowess with the bat. A player could have a high average and still struggle to get on base often due to strikeouts or weak contact. RBI is often a product of opportunity as much as hitting success. After all, you can still receive RBI when creating an out. HR meanwhile can be a very one-sided affair if your average is low, leading to an all-or-nothing scenario for a hitter.

I’m not trying to disparage anyone from using AVG, RBI, and HR in a debate of great players, but when you use them keep in mind that they make up only a fraction of what a ballplayer can be.

Modern statisticians have begun using much more advanced numbers like WAR or OPS+ to determine a players quality. These numbers take into account positional skill differences, park factors, and many other aspects of the game. Much like the traditional stats mentioned before, these stats have both positive and negative aspects to them. No one stat can give you a complete picture of a player’s skillset and value.

Whenever an article comes out discussing the quality of a player’s career or season we often get quotes like these:

“Since Trout debuted in 2011, he leads all players with 37.9 WAR. Further, that 37.9 WAR through Trout’s age-23 season are the most by a player in the modern era.” — ESPN Stats & Information

OR…

“Harper finally displayed his prodigious tools last season, as he led the National League in runs (118) and home runs (42) while leading MLB in OBP (.460) and slugging percentage (.649).” — ESPN Stats & Information

While all of the numbers in these quotes are valuable, and even more so impressive, they come with very little context with respect to the league as a whole. It’s great that Trout has 37.9 WAR since 2011, but who is second? And by how much is he second? So Harper led the league in OBP, but what was the league average? Or how many plate appearances did he have? Did he miss any time with injury?

Each of these questions would further add to our understanding of the value and quality of the players mentioned, but that information is never going to be answered in this context. Additionally, this practice of “cherry picking” the best stats to fit our argument negates the whole and presents the players out of context. For example, these numbers neglect the fact that Harper struck out about 25% of the time that season. Even by today’s standards that is a lot of strikeouts. I understand of course that a lawyer is never going to give out unnecessary information about a client’s failings, but in the context of ranking players it is paramount that we take into account as much of the information as we can. Ultimately, we find ourselves back where we started.

If all stats are flawed, then how are we to determine an adequate ranking for players? I propose that we use more stats. That’s right. More stats, not less.

When you fixate a ranking on a single stat, then that stat accounts for 100% of your result every time. It doesn’t matter if the stat is meant to incorporate a host of stats together. Your results are the result of a singular point of reference. If you use three stats, then each is equivalent to one-third of your conclusion.

What would happen if we used 20 different stats to determine a ranking? While each individual stat is devalued, the whole average together will give us a better understanding of the whole spectrum of a player’s ability in the game. Be warned…results may incite head-scratching.

There is a great axiom in the world of baseball stats that goes something like this: “Just because a stat has Babe Ruth at the top and Mario Mendoza at the bottom does not mean it is a good stat.” Like all statistical analysis, take this one with a grain of salt.

Methodology
My process here is rather simple. Take a group of player data, a single year or all-time, across 20 stats. Rank each player individually against the others in the set from 1 to the total number of players across all the data. Finally, average each player’s rankings across the 20 stats. Our result…rAVG (Rank Average).

For ease in data gathering and processing, I’ve decided to use the 19 dashboard stats from FanGraphs plus hits to make 20 total stats. For all-time stats, the pool of players has been limited to players with a minimum of 5,000 plate appearances.

Notes:
• Each position has t50/b50: how many times a player ranks in the
  top 50 or bottom 50 across all categories.
• * denotes active player.

All-Time • Position Players (895 total)

Name - Pos
rAVG
t50
b50
1
Willie Mays - OF
93.2
17
0
2
Barry Bonds - OF
95.3
16
0
3
Tris Speaker - OF
105.3
15
0
4
Rogers Hornsby - 2B
110.7
16
0
5
Stan Musial - 1B/OF
113.6
17
0
6
Ty Cobb - OF
118.2
16
0
7
Alex Rodriguez* - SS/3B
118.9
15
1
8
Honus Wagner - SS
133.1
14
0
9
Mel Ott - OF
136.2
15
0
10
Eddie Collins - 2B
136.6
16
0
11
Babe Ruth - OF
137.2
16
1
12
Hank Aaron - OF
143.6
14
0
13
Mickey Mantle - OF
147.7
15
1
14
Ted Williams - OF
150.2
16
2
15
Lou Gehrig - 1B
156.1
15
1
16
Charlie Gehringer - 2B
158.5
13
0
17
Larry Walker - OF
159.7
13
0
18
Chipper Jones - 3B
162.4
15
0
19
Frank Robinson - OF
163.2
14
1
20
Jimmie Foxx - 1B
167.8
16
1
102
Mike Piazza - C
272.7
9
2

Thoughts

  1. Larry Walker. At first glance this list appears to contain all the requisite names for a best-of-all-time list… that is until you reach #17 Larry Walker. I can assure you that I have not fudged the data in anyway. I, like you, are equally as shocked to find Mr. Walker parading alongside greats like Ruth, Mays, and Gehrig. Maybe we all should re-evaluate our opinions on Larry Walker.
  2. Mike Piazza. I have included him at the bottom of the chart, because he is the highest-ranking catcher of the 73 that met the 5,000 plate appearance requirement. While ranking #102 would appear to be a slight to him, when viewed in the context of the total list of 895 players…Piazza ranks in the top 12% of all players in history.
  3. Babe Ruth. Many of you, me included, probably feel that there is no way that the Great Bambino could rank outside of the top 10 all-time. I will remind you that this list is a ranking of statistics. It cannot evaluate impact on the game, cultural relevance, or popularity. It simply counts each stat as 5% of the whole and spits out a result. A closer look at Babe’s numbers and you will find that he was a terrible baserunner (SB & BsR) and his defense left much to be desired as well. Out of 421 outfielders he ranks 229 in SB, 411 in BsR, and 110 in Def. All this serves to remind me that no player, however great they might be, is without deficiencies.

Conclusion
As part of my research into this topic I ran numbers for each of the nine positions all-time and the cumulative all-time list seen above. In order to keep this article from becoming a novel, I’ve chosen to only include the top 20 of all-time here. The rest of this information will be available for viewing some time in the near future either on here or on my website.

While I may not agree entirely with the outcomes of this exercise in rankings, I do feel that it has caused me to better consider the totality of a player’s stat line rather than a few simple metrics. No one stat can give you a well-rounded, complete view of a player’s value and skill.

I await your fevered comments below.