The book: “Baseball Greatness: Top Players and Teams According to Wins Above Average, 1901-2017”
The author: David Kaiser
How to find it: McFarland Books, $35, 250 pages, released Feb. 16.
The links: At Amazon.com, at the publisher’s website.
A review in 90-feet or less: In one of the most unassuming yet powerfully potent paperbacks anyone can possibly find and reference today to win a baseball argument, SABR veteran Kaiser, a 70-year-old university history professor and well-received author from Watertown, Mass., almost single-evenhandedly waters down all the arguments that Wins Against Replacement (WAR) is a superior measurement of one’s greatness when compared to how Wins Above Average (WAA) determines the greatness of a player within the context of his team’s success.
Individually, WAR has taken sabermetrics to new levels of understanding about an individual performance. But what if this guy’s team doesn’t win? Isn’t that the point of the game?
WAA, a Pythagorean formula that can be applied to any player in any era, is simple: Expected winning percentage equals teams runs scored squared divided by the sum of teams run scored squared and teams runs allowed squared. It has since been modified to substitute 1.82 for 2 as the exponent, but … you get the general point and decimal points. Hopefully.
If not, Kaiser has a basic explanation in the intro, but a much more detailed breakdown in the appendix.
He takes us chapter by chapter, era by era as determined by sociological experts (The Lost Generation, Boomers, Gen X, etc.) and redefines what players contributed the most to their team’s successes by running these new set of numbers.
Trust us, it’s not all that difficult to digest.
Just know that for someone to have star-season status in Kaiser’s calculations, he must have a 4 WAA, meaning his team probably won four additional games because of him in the lineup rather than an “average” player.
With that, Kaiser’s standard for greatness is a player who has five or more seasons of a 4 WAA or better, a standard he calculates has been met 93 times in baseball history so far (that’s one half of one percent of all who have played). There have been 1,773 “superstar” seasons posted by players since 1901, about 15 per year.
Take it for what it’s worth with this quote as well from Kaiser:
“With the obvious exception of track and field, there are few if any human endeavors, inside or outside of sport, in which performance can be measured as accurately as in baseball. And now, with more than a century’s worth of evidence upon which to draw, using simple, powerful statistical methods, we find, generation after generation, an astonishingly small number of men who are much, much better than everyone else, and who indeed have shaped the broader story of winners and losers to a remarkable extend. … This book is about how great players make great teams. Historically, hitters have been more important than pitchers, all the more so because great pitchers very rarely remain great for very long.”
And with that, a few intriguing things to note from Kaiser’s findings that relate to Dodgers’ history:
= “No modern player has been treated more unfairly by Hall of Fame voters than Jim Wynn.” (page 134) Kaiser points out that Wynn had seven seasons over 4 WAA, and his 6.6 WAA in 1965 exposes the fact that “there is not one other player in the history of major league baseball, including Joe Jackson and Wynn’s contemporary Dick Allen, who has ever had such a season and is not in the Hall of Fame.” Wynn’s 5.2 WAA with the Dodgers in their 1974 NL pennant run was superior to what NL MVP Steve Garvey and Ron Cey combined with a 4.6 WAA that year. Cy Young reliever Mike Marshall (1.4 WAA) was half of starter Andy Messersmith (3.1 WAA), and at no time did Don Sutton have a “superstar season” in his career despite winning 300 games (his best was 3.9 WAA in 1980).
To reinforce Kaiser’s appraisal of Wynn, he says again on page 139 when assessing players of the “Silent Generation” – “Jim Wynn has been treated more unfairly than any player in the history of the game. … He became eligible for the BBWAA ballot in 1983 and immediately dropped off of it without receiving a single vote. Wynn had seven superstar seasons to (Dick) Allen’s six, he played more games than Allen and scored more runs … he drew far more walks. He played center field … Wynn never caused any trouble for anyone. There is still time to remedy this huge injustice and put him in the Hall where he belongs, before Allen goes in.”
= Maury Wills was “one of the most overrated players in the history of baseball” (ironically, on page 104) because, aside from the stolen bases, his “value as a hitter was negligible” and he was “a very average fielder. His best season was a 2.6 WAA in 1965, yet he won the 1962 MVP because of his stolen base record when Tommy Davis had a 5.1 WAA, compared to Willie Mays’ 7.1 WAA.
“Wills was never close to a great player,” Kaiser contends.
= Gil Hodges was equally as valuable to the team in his playing days as was Duke Snider. From 1951-55, Hodges had five straight “superstar seasons” and “there is no doubt that Hodges belongs in the Hall of Fame.” Interesting also in that Kaiser adds a footnote, apologizing for having argued against Hodges’ induction based “on inadequate statistical analysis” on the SABR listserv. His new WAA stats have changed his tune.
= The Dodgers had 16 superstar seasons from 1949 through 1956, while the Yankees had eight. But the Yankees beat the Dodgers in four of five World Series played in that time.
= Willie Davis posted his only “superstar season” in 1964 but “he was their most underappreciated asset,” saving the team in double-digit runs with his defense.
Kaiser is generous in giving credit to those who’ve brought him to this place in the sabermetrics field, starting with Bill James, but also including Dick Cramer, Michael Humphreys (who cracked the code of measuring glove greatness with Defense Regression Analysis in his 2012 book “Wizardy”), Sean Forman (baseball-reference.com) and Dan Hirsch (seamheads.com), the later two for delivering ways to put raw data into spreadsheets.
But ultimate it’s Kaiser who has what amounts to a book that should be studied in depth by one with a Hall of Fame vote.
How it goes down in the scorebook: A twin killing when matched up with Jay Jaffe’s “The Coopersdown Casebook: Who’s In the Baseball Hall of Fame and Who Should Be In and Who Should Pack Their Plaques,” which came out last summer and we reviewed here.
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