Posted on 24 November 2011.
Neifi Perez was actually a good defensive shortstop. Amos Otis wasn’t as good a centerfielder as he was reputed to be. And Frank White wasn’t as good with the glove as some of his1970s second base contemporaries.
Those are just some of the assertions by Michael A. Humphreys in Wizardry: Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Fielders Revealed.
(Humphrey’s starting lineup of all-time greatest is at the end of this article)
The development of sabermetrics has changed how we analyze and discuss baseball. But I must be honest that when I try to study overly sophisticated statistical measures, my head sometimes starts to spin and my eyes go out of focus. As a writer, I tend to want to leave the heavy lifting to someone else, focusing more on the story, less on the calculus.
But I was intrigued enough by Humphrey’s individual defensive rankings in his recent book that I gave it a casual perusal, skimming the math to get to the findings.
My personal opinion: there are two sides to the coin of player analysis. You may prefer one over the other, but no matter what you believe, the beauty is in the debate.
Like the classic argument of “Who was better? Williams or DiMaggio? Mantle or Mays?” There is joy to be had in comparing the greatness of individuals.
Some would rely upon the eye-test. A Supreme Court Justice once reportedly said concerning pornography that he couldn’t define it, “but I know it when I see it.” Applying this logic to player analysis, some fans base their judgments upon what they see. Or what others have seen. To them, the eye doesn’t lie.
Problems with this approach are that our opinions are skewed by perception, legend, bias, etc. Evaluation of Negro league players depends almost entirely upon this method. Statistics mean virtually nothing when trying to include a Satchel Paige or a Josh Gibson in the discussion.
And it would seem obvious that some players benefit from perception, while others are penalized. Some guys make great plays look easy, while others seem constantly to be diving and grinding. That perception affects our judgments.
On the other hand, some fans choose to eschew subjective observation, relying instead upon complicated formulas to render empirical judgments.
But as Mark Twain famously said, “There are lies, damn lies, and statistics.” Sometimes, it would appear, sabermatricians endanger themselves of missing the forest for their study of the trees.
Mr. Humpreys would fall in the second category. Using his “Defensive Regression Analysis” and accounting for everything from the stadiums to the Dead Ball Era to his “Talent Pool Adjusted Runs” (having to do with integration), Humphreys does more calculating than a NASA engineer.
Ready for his sales pitch?
“Michael A. Humphreys shows how to apply classic statistical methods to estimate runs saved by fielders going back to 1883. Humphreys tests his results against other fielding measures, including published ratings based on proprietary batted ball location data, and explains their respective strengths and limitations… Position by position, Humphreys identifies and profiles the greatest fielders of all time…”
My eyes just went bleary. Are you like I was, ready to skip the math lesson and get on to what we really want to see – where Kansas City Royals rate according to Mr. Humphreys?
What he found was certainly intriguing.
My favorite of Humphrey’s conclusions was that Willie Wilson was the second greatest left fielder of all time.
“Wilson also saved more runs in left field per 1450 innings than any other left fielder in history; the only reason Wilson isn’t the greatest left fielder in history on a career basis is because his team moved him to center… could credit Wilson with another dozen or so runs for holding base runners, which makes sense because Wilson could cut off batted balls that dropped in for hits and get them back into the infield so quickly.”
Also on the plus side for Royals fans, George Brett was twelfth in the Modern Era (1969-1992).
Humphrey’s formulas show Rey Sanchez (KC from 1999-2001) was the best defensive shortstop of the contemporary era, and second greatest ever.
That’s cool. But according to the same standard, Neifi Perez was fourth best in the contemporary era. You’ll have a hard time convincing many KC fans of that.
There were other findings Royals fans will take exception with.
Humphrey states Otis was greatly overrated as a centerfielder.
“The Historical Abstract describes Otis as a ‘magnificent’ fielding center fielder, but (various statistical standards) indicate otherwise. Otis was a solid fielder until about 1976… Otis fell off after age thirty, as seems to happen to many center fielders, and consistently played worse than his backups…”
Freddie Patek also appears to have been overrated, according to the stats. Either Humphrey’s standards are wrong, or else the perception of Patek was, because it was his glove that kept him the lineup while his bat was certainly a detriment.
Most shockingly, White was rated EIGHTH in the Modern Era at second base, judged by one statistical measure. White may be an example where statistical measures just can’t tell the whole story.
Humphrey rates White ninth overall, which isn’t bad. But amazingly, three players who played the same position in the same league at the same time – Lou Whitaker, Willie Randolph, and Bobby Grich – were ranked higher. That means that, according to Humphrey, while White was winning those eight Gold Gloves, he was actually getting outplayed by several other guys in the same league.
I don’t buy it.
There are many other controversial findings in the book.
Humphrey believes Gold Gloves don’t go to the best defenders. He says they tend to be given to good all-around players who had an exceptional season defensively in the early stage of their career. From that point on, they continue to win them repeatedly even when their skills decline.
His greatest case in point: Ken Griffey, Jr. Griffey won 10 straight Gold Gloves, but according to Humphrey’s analysis, Junior “was never clearly better than average when he was winning all those Gold Gloves.”
Other vastly over-rated centerfielders include Torii Hunter (9GGs). Steve Finley (5GGs) and Bernie Williams (4GGs). Humphrey says Joe DiMaggio was over-rated as a center fielder, and was actually not as good at the position as his lesser-known brother Dom.
According to Humphrey, Johnny Bench doesn’t make the top ten at catcher, while contemporaries Gary Carter, Jim Sundberg, Steve Yeager, and Bob Boone do.
Of interest to Cardinal fans:
Humphreys finds Albert Pujols the third greatest defensive first baseman of all time. He says Pujols should be considered the greatest all-around player to ever play the position.
I’ll keep Cardinal fans waiting to see who Humphrey has number one at first base.
By one standard of measurement (Talent Pool Adjusted Runs), Frankie Frisch came out as the greatest second baseman of all time.
Shortstop Marty Marion came out on the short end of some statistical analysis, which Humphrey tried to address.
At third, Scott Rolen ranks sixth best all time, while Terry Pendleton comes in tenth. Ken Boyer ranked third among third baseman in the Transitional Era (1947-1968).
Vince Coleman and Lou Brock are considered liabilities in left field, according to Humphrey’s research, while Lonnie “Skates” Smith was actually on the plus side.
Stan Musial was a very solid left fielder, while his contemporary Ted Williams was one of the worst at the same position.
Brian Jordan was ranked the sixth best right fielder of all time, while Reggie Sanders was rated ninth.
Jim Edmonds was viewed very favorably defensively and deserves Hall of Fame consideration, according to Humphrey.
What may seem like heresy, Humphrey’s system finds Ozzie Smith behind Mark Belanger in the Modern Era, and just ahead of Garry Templeton, the much better hitter he replaced. On Humphrey’s all-time list, Smith ranks third.
If you are like me, you may not agree with some of Humphrey’s conclusions. But let me remind you, these are not his OPINIONS. They are his FINDINGS, based on statistically thorough, yet unbiased, mathematical processes.
Are you ready for Humphrey’s starting lineup of the greatest fielders of all time, based strictly on his statistical research?
C: Ivan Rodriguez
1B: Keith Hernandez
2B: Joe “Flash” Gordon
SS: Mark Belanger
3B: Brooks Robinson
LF: Rickey Henderson
CF: Andruw Jones
RF: Roberto Clemente