Thursday, March 13, 2008

Stat One: a horrible attempt at a baseball book

I have not done a book review in some time and since it is baseball season, I need to sneak in this review. I could not help myself on a recent business trip. I picked up Stat One by Craig Messmer. The book examines the best players at all positions excepting pitcher. After taking you through the eight positions and giving you the top ten at every position and a discussion of them, he gives a section to those who are considered multi-position like Pete Rose and Rod Carew. He also takes a short chapter on the Negro League Players and Players before the World Series era beginning in 1903. Those last two sections of people are not eligible to make his Top 100 players of all time list. He then proceeds to produce that list.

Now let me end the suspense and tell you that Mr. Messmer puts Babe Ruth as the best player of all time and his top 3 of all time are all Yankees (Dimaggio, Gehrig, and Ruth). Sadly, he does not deduct for steroid use and Barry Bonds ends up number 5 all time. Needless to say, I hated the book. Let me list a few reasons why.

1. His choices did not make any sense. One can agree with some of his position choices, but in the end they were way too subjective for me. Take First base. We can all agree that Lou Gehrig deserves to be in the number 1 slot for that position. Fine. However, Messmer puts Mark McGwire at 6 and Albert Pujols at 4. He leaves George Sisler out of the top 10 and has him ranked only as a Category 4 player (Category 5 being best). Sisler is a player you may not have heard much about. Sisler once had 257 hits in one season, a record until recently. Sisler hit over .400 multiple times in his career and was over .350 five times. He was over .300 13 different seasons. He is punished in this book because his run production dropped as he got older and for his lack of homerun power. Mark McGwire’s career batting average is .262. Yet, somehow Sisler is not in the top 10 best first baseman and McGwire is? Please. Plus, Pujols is still playing. If Sisler gets punished for failing to produce as he aged, where does that leave Pujols who has yet to face that criteria? That seems unfair, and completely subjective.
2. Bad editing. We can stick with this same category to continue the examples. Messmer states at the end of Sisler’s entry, “He had negligible power, however, and that prevents him from placing in the top five for this position. He does make the top 10, though” (pg.64). Fine. Let us check where he falls in the Top 10 first basemen. Here is the list in descending order. Jim Bottomley, Bill Terry, Eddie Murray, Johnny Mize, Mark McGwire, Jeff Bagwell, Albert Pujols, Hank Greenberg, Jimmy Foxx, and Lou Gehrig. George Sisler does not appear on the list. You can look up later that George Sisler is the 74 best player of all time and Jim Bottomly the 71st. So, despite the comment that Sisler makes the Top 10, he does not. That stuff should be caught.
3. His main stat. Messmer is of the new sabermetric school that thinks regular stats stupid. However, most sabermetric stats are designed to favor the homerun, and thus the newer players. Messmer is no different. He uses a stat called P/E Average. It is (net runs + net runs + complete bases) / plate appearances. The question is does this really show us how good a player is or how good his team is? Net runs is Runs Batted In + Runs Scored – Homeruns. Now we can take the example of First base since we are already familiar with it. George Sisler may have been one of the best hitters in the game, but he played for the St. Louis Browns, one of the worst teams of all time. Thus, there are less people on base to drive in and less people who are able to drive him in once he was on base. Thus, his Net Runs will be low. Mark McGwire was always on a better team. Yet, ignore that fact for a minute. McGwire can post a better P/E average simply by hitting homeruns. That gives him higher Net Runs despite being on an equally bad team. Thus, McGwire can look like the better player, but actually be a worse hitter. Put him on a better team with the likes of Ricky Henderson, and all of a sudden McGwire can have an extremely high P/E compared to Sisler. But, if Sisler played with Ricky Henderson it would be a different story.
4. He also uses a silly stat that is called MVP share where he gives you points for every vote someone cast for the player for MVP. Since the MVP did not exist until late in baseball history, it favors the modern players.
5. Has some sort of Yankee bias. It is fairly clear from putting the best three players of all time as Yankees and he also has Mickey Mantle in the Top 10. No one in their right mind thinks Joe Dimaggio was better than Ty Cobb. He lays out the case for the two side by side. For Cobb he mentions .366 lifetime batting average (highest ever). 892 stolen bases (2nd best ever), 4,189 (2nd ever), unanimous MVP in 1911 and triple crown winner in 1909 (no MVP award given in that season) and on retirement he held or shared more records than anyone. Dimaggio’s credentials? 10 Pennants and nine World Series. Is that a Dimaggio accomplishment or a Yankee accomplishment? Are we punishing Ty Cobb for playing for the Detroit Tigers? How many Hall of Fame players did Dimaggio play with? How many did Cobb? Would that not make a difference if the qualification for best centerfielder ever had to do with team victories? Dimaggio gets credit for missing seasons because of WWII, but Cobb does not get credit for missing a season for WWI, nor does he get credit for actually getting hit with mustard gas during the war that damaged his lungs and ended the career of Chris Matthewson, who was with Ty. Dimaggio played baseball at Pearl Harbor during WWII. Pretty dumb in my opinion.
6. Ignores advice of the ancients. This is what Messmer writes about Cobb, “The fact that [Cobb] received more Hall of Fame votes that Babe Ruth and Walter Johnson in 1936 says something to me that I can’t ignore” (pg. 242). Yet, he does ignore it and puts Babe Ruth as the best player ever leaving Cobb at 6 behind Ted Williams and a trio of undeserving Yankees including Babe Ruth. In other words, despite saying he cannot ignore that the sports writers of 1936 thought Cobb a better baseball player than Babe Ruth, he ignores it completely and puts Ruth as a better ballplayer.

There are a lot of those kind of example in this book. This guy is out of his mind. I still await a book that will not reward the Homerun, the modern player, and take a look at real stats to discuss who is the best of all time.


Anonymous said...

The biggest problem with his P/E number is he adds up bases in one part of his formula and subtracts from that "caught stealing".

Subtracting outs from total bases?

That is apples and oranges. He gives equates the value of a stolen base for the offense to the value of a caught stealing to the defense.

That's just terrible.

Anonymous said...

This was a horrible attempt to criticize a book. Stat One does make sense and lets face it some if not most of the best baseball players were on the Yankees. Not the Yankees fault they other baseball teams as a farm system.