Friday, October 21, 2005

Current players Pt. 3

Barry Bonds
Yes, Bonds was a Hall-of-Famer before his career mysteriously revitalized in 2001. In fact, I could argue that the best player of the 1990s was not Ken Griffey, Jr.; it was Barry Bonds. This was true and readily apparent even before their careers went zooming off in opposite directions in 2001. This is fodder for another article, but suffice to say that Bonds' career was Cooperstown-worthy before he hit 73 HR and became one of the most dominant players in sports history.
We can't question Bonds' quality; if he's not a Hall-of-Famer, no one is. It's a matter of steroids. Bonds' temperament and demeanor really kept people from recognizing his long-term value, as they just didn't accept that such a difficult person was better than good ol' Junior. But it's true.
So steroids it is. In short, Bonds was such an enormously amazing player, we have to have more evidence to keep him out of the Hall. Yeah, I know, no one really doubts that he did steroids. His is the only case where the statistical evidence itself is proof enough of steroid use (no one has ever brought their career to a whole different plane at age 35).
But even with all of this, can we really keep Barry out of the Hall? I'm not going to throw out the sensational garbage about Barry being an "insult to the game." It's not as simple as that. Much as I might dislike him and all that he stands for, I just can't make a good enough case to keep him out of Cooperstown. He was just that damn good.
Rickey Henderson
Retired 2003 Eligible for Hall December 2008
Why is everyone suddenly not sure if Rickey Henderson is a Hall-of-Famer? Hall voters typically overestimate the importance of stolen bases and "small-ball." Why in the world isn't Rickey Henderson getting his due as one of the 15 or 20 best players ever? He was the best leadoff hitter of all time, with a .401 career OBP (against a league average of .334), stole an all-time record 1406 bases (with an 81% success rate) and even had pretty good power, hitting 297 career HR and sporting an above-average .419 career slugging percentage. He's the all-time leader in runs scored, has 3,055 career hits, and his second all-time with 2,190 walks.
What's the problem?
Tim Raines
Retired 2002 Eligible for Hall December 2007
Somebody asked me once who the best player not in the Hall of Fame was. I said something like Bert Blyleven or Dick Allen at the time. But in 2007, the answer will be Tim Raines. And it won't even be close.
Raines wasn't just a great player, he was an excellent player. The problem was that his skills were nearly identical to Rickey Henderson's; stolen bases, walks, and a great leadoff hitter. This wouldn't be such a problem, except that their careers coincided almost perfectly. Henderson played from 1979-2003. Raines played from 1979-2002. It's some bizarre coincidence that two amazing players with almost the exact same skills would be in the major leagues at exactly the same time.
But it's bad news for Raines. Bad news because Raines wasn't as good as Rickey. I'd rate Rickey the 4th-best LF of all time (behind Ted Williams, Bonds, and Stan Musial), and Raines would probably be 6th (behind Carl Yastrzemski and ahead of Willie Stargell). Raines just wasn't quite as good as Rickey, and that's how people think of him: not good enough. Raines never won an MVP (although he deserved to woin at least one, maybe two), whereas Rickey was the AL MVP in 1990 (and he deserved probably two more). And if the voters aren't sure about letting Rickey in, Raines doesn't stand a chance. And that's an absolute tragedy, but Tim Raines is a Hall-of-Famer just as much as anybody.
Luis Gonzalez
No, Luis doesn't belong in the Hall, but he's had a fine career. Even before he had a breakout year with Arizona in 2001, Luis was a quality hitter for quite a while. He's at the top of the list of "Guys who Aren't Hall-of-Famers, But We Like Them a Lot Anyhow."
Albert Belle
Retired 2000 Eligible for Hall: December 2005
No, I don't think Albert belongs in the Hall of Fame. But if he'd played a full career, he probably would have earned a spot. As it is, he retired at age 34 with some good seasons still left in him. As it is, he hit at a career 369/564/295 clip. People let Albert's attitude get in the way of their opinion of him. And while it's true that Albert had one heck of an attitude problem early in his career, I don't remember hearing anything really negative about him after he left Cleveland and went to the White Sox. And as I mentioned earlier, a player's personality doesn't have as much effect on wins and losses as we think.
I mentioned race in passing as an issue in the Dick Allen comment. I think it applies to Albert as well. No, I don't think everyone hated Albert just because he was black. But I think that a lot of people (whether they admit it or not) see black people as violent and scary. When we see someone or meet them, we project onto them all of our opinions about their race, sex, ethnicity, etc. When we see a black man, our thinking about all black men will color our perceptions of the individual. This is an unfortunate psychological fact, which is further compounded by everyone's refusal to admit it, especially about themselves.
When Albert Belle comes along and has an attitude, we look down upon him and see him as a menace. This is not just because of Albert, but because of our subconscious beliefs about all black people. If Albert were Norwegian, we would be much less likely to draw conclusions about his attitude, because we don't have a preconceived notion of Norwegians. It is not race exclusively; no one (well, almost no one) looks at Albert and says, "I hate him because he's black." But we let the fact that he is black color our opinions and the conclusions we draw about him.
We're much more likely to see a black man as a threat and an attitude problem; police are more likely to shoot a fleeing suspect who is black. Albert's actions and attitude would be, in my opinion, much less of a problem if he were white. Albert would not have gotten nearly as much negative publicity if he were white. We tend to excuse, and sometimes admire, white people who are fierce or show a bit of an attitude. Quick, think of a white person in sports accused of being an "attitude problem." Can't think of one? How many blacks can you think of? Allen Iverson, Dick Allen, Albert, Milton Bradley, Bonds, etc. This is because a double standard exists for blacks and whites. Get an image in your head: a player who constantly fights, sometimes even physically, with teammates, someone whose tirades on the baseball field are violent spectacles, someone who is considered to be quick to anger and even physically threatening. Now, am I describing Milton Bradley . . . or Billy Martin? One is a disgraced player seen as a big problem who will likely be traded. The other is a hero, whose antics are tolerated and even celebrated (imagine Bradley getting a job as a manager). Of course, these are just two examples. They don't prove anything. But imagine one thing for me -- imagine if Billy Martin were black. Would he be seen as a gutsy fighter? Or as a menace to the game and a felon to be prosecuted?
These thoughts do not make us sleep sound in our beds. They make us question ourselves to see if, perhaps, we ourselves are part of the problem. Few people are brave enough to do so, as evidenced by the millions of white people who refuse to admit that they harbor even a tinge of racism, and even scoff at those who look to point it out. I don't know how many times I've heard someone say, "I'm not racist, but..." and then reel off a racist remark.
Baseball is not in the business of solving problems. It is in the interest of covering them up so it can make money. Baseball will never admit to a race problem, and if it does pop up (Al Campanis), it is said to be just one person's view. This may not have much to do with Albert Belle, but it's something that needs to be said. I wish someone had said it before now.
Other active left fielders with notable careers are Moises Alou and Brian Giles. Giles, despite being one of the most underrated players in history, does not look like he'll earn a Cooperstown spot. Alou's had a good career, but ain't even close.
Bernie Williams & Ken Griffey, Jr.
What if I were to tell you that Bernie Williams belongs in the Hall of Fame? Would you believe me? I don't think I can convince you otherwise if you don't agree. But look at what Bernie done in his career. Compare his career to Ken Griffey, Jr.'s. They are so close as to be disturbing. Williams' career hitting line (thru 2004) is 388/488/301. Griffey's is 377/560/292. Griffey has a big edge in slugging, but Bernie has a better OBP and average (which is more important). Griffey has played in much friendlier hitting parks than Bernie, who doesn't get a lot of help from Yankee Stadium, despite being a switch-hitter. Griffey has a small edge and baserunning and a big edge in defense. But Griffey's defense has been horribly overrated by people who decided he was the next Willie Mays when he came up as a rookie and haven't let his actual play in the field change their minds. Griffey is a perfect example of marketing out of control; I'm sure he sells a lot of tennis shoes, but people actually started believing he was the best baseball player in years. But I'll say this: It doesn't matter how many things you do well; it matters how well you do them. Griffey was a 5-tool player, but NOT ALL TOOLS ARE CREATED EQUAL. Hitting is the most important thing BY FAR that anyone can do, and if Griffey was a better hitter, it wasn't by much. But Williams was actually more consistent; while Griffey has had a lot of trouble with injuries (even before Cincinnati), Bernie has been (before this year), a consistently great player. He hasn't had any one season better than Griffey's best, but the whole might be better than the sum of the parts.
So I'll agree that Griffey was the better player. And I think he belongs in the Hall of Fame. But so does Bernie Williams.
Rant Detour
Now I'll tackle the subject I mentioned earlier: the myth that Griffey was the best player of the 90's. Forget about what's happened since 1999; forget that Barry Bonds became the best player since Ruth and that Griffey became a colossal disappointment in Cincinnati. Considering what we knew after the 1999 season: who had the better career, Griffey or Bonds?
Barry Bonds, and it's not even close. And wouldn't you know it, the MVP voters agree with me? I count 1 for Griffey and 3 for Bonds, a pretty commanding lead. And yet the same people who voted on these awards were calling Griffey the Player of the 90's in unison. Why?
Well, if you mean the best player of the 90's, it's Bonds, as I said. But I think they really mean the player they liked the most. And these two are often confused. Even sportswriters are confused into thinking that exciting players are good players. You'd think, from listening to commentators, that two of the most high-impact players in the game are Dave Roberts and Scott Podsednik. Because they both lay down bunts, steal bases, and do "all of the little things." This may be true, but there's a reason they call them the "little" things. The reason that Podsednik and Roberts do these things is that they can't do the most important thing: THEY CAN'T HIT! Roberts has never been an above-average player, let alone an excellent one. And Podsednik gets caught stealing too often for even his stolen bases to mean a whole lot. So give me big ol' boring Adam Dunn any day.
So let's agree that we mean the best player, not the player who is really nice and much more likely to lead an ad campaign and answers my questions in the locker room. Here is my proof that Bonds was the player of the 1990s.
Hitting-wise it's not even close. Bonds did everything well. He was a great slugger, he hit for a high average, he drew lots of walks, and he didn't strike out often. His hitting stats are similar to Ted Williams'; everything looks good. He was also a good base stealer; he stole 460 bases with a 78% success rate. He had 8 Gold Gloves, although this is an egregious case of a player winning a Gold Glove with his bat. Bonds was above-average in left field, but it's a fantasy to suggest that he deserved 8 Gold Gloves.
So this is our picture of a pre-2000 Bonds. He was an all-around amazing hitter with very good base-stealing and above-average defense. Through the 1999 season, Bonds had a career 409/559/288 hitting line (league average 334/407/266). He had 445 career HR, 460 SB, 2,010 hits and 1,430 BB against 1,112 K. He had won 3 MVPs and 8 Gold Gloves.
Ken Griffey, Jr. was a good hitter. He was an excellent slugger, but he was not an all-around threat. He hit for a high average, but not that high. He drew walks, but not that many. And he struck out much more often than Bonds. Griffey stole some bases, but not that many (Griffey's speed was the most-exaggerated part of his game). He was a fine center fielder, but he was not that great. The metric of Fielding Runs gives Griffey a total of 27 through the year 1999. Bonds has 51, nearly twice as many. Griffey won 10 Gold Gloves, although he and Bonds both benefited from their hitting prowess in this department.
So here is our picture of a pre-2000 Ken Griffey, Jr. He was a true slugger who otherwise hit pretty well with decent stealing abilities and solid defense. He had a career 380/569/299 hitting line (league average 338/415/268). He had 398 career HR, 167 SB (for a 74% success rate), 1,742 hits and 747 BB against 984 K.
Are there any other factors to take into account? The most important is that Bonds was hitting in the National League, Griffey in the American. So we must adjust Griffey's hitting stats downward to get an accurate picture. Another important point is that Bonds is 5 years older than Griffey; he got to the majors in 1986, Griffey in 1989. So we would expect Bonds' raw numbers (HR, SB, etc.) to be a little higher for this reason. But we would expect Griffey's percentages (OBP, SLG, AVG) to be higher, since he was younger by the time the decade ended. Griffey had not spent many years declining, whereas Bonds was 35 years old, and his declining years had brought down his OBP/SLG/AVG from where they were in his prime.
Given all of this information, what is our decision?
BONDS: 409/559/288, 445 HR, 460 SB (78%), 51 Fielding Runs, 1430 BB:1112 K, 3 MVP, 8 GG.
GRIFFEY: 380/569/299, 398 HR, 167 SB (74%), 27 Fielding Runs, 747 BB:984 K, 1 MVP, 10 GG.
It's a landslide folks. Griffey doesn't even have a clear advantage in defense, the one aspect even I anticipated he would get the edge. Even if you think the defensive stats are wrong and Griffey really was great (remote but possible considering the accuracy of defensive stats), Bonds has a strong edge in baserunning, with a huge advantage in stolen bases and even an advantage in success rate. But the hitting is ludicrous; Bonds wins easily. The advantage of 29 points in OBP are almost enough, but when you consider that Griffey hadn't entered his decline phase yet and had the advantages of the AL, even his slim lead in SLG and AVG are rendered insignificant. There is simply no other reasonable conclusion to the question of who the greatest player of the 90's was.
The conventional wisdom is that Griffey was the greatest player of his era and then struggled in Cincinnati, whereas Bonds was just plain good before his breakout 2001. This is hogwash. Bonds was the best player of the 90's far and away, and Griffey's reputation is based on the bizarre fixation for well-rounded players. People decided Griffey was the best player in baseball when he arrived in Seattle in 1989. And he played well enough to keep that lie alive, in spite of what Barry Bonds was doing. I'm in the business of destroying misconceptions, and I hope this one dies someday. If I've played any part in bringing that about, then this blog has not been for nothing.

OK, so I went on a bit there. To sum up the center fielders:
Jim Edmonds
I think he belongs in the Hall so long as he keeps up what he's doing now for a few more years. He was one of the 10 best players in baseball even back in Anaheim, combining great defense with superb hitting (just check out his hitting stats). The one thing he didn't have was a big, MVP-caliber year, which he furnished in 2004. Too bad two other guys did it on the same team.
Other active center fielders with significant careers are Steve Finley and Andruw Jones. Finley is good, but no Cooperstown. Andruw will probably get there, because he stands a good chance at 500 homers. But his defense is starting to seep away, and we'll soon be left with a one-dimensional slugger who hits .260 and strikes out a lot. And unless Andruw can hold onto his defense, he'll just be another, less valuable, Sammy Sosa. And was Andruw as good defensively as they say he was? It's just possible that he was better.

Back tomorrow with RF and C. Who knew I could fit 2 rants in one entry?

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