Monday, February 23, 2009

What's In a Name?

I was using the depth charts at to help guide my pre-season predictions, and happened to notice that on their team pages, they list a number of facts: location, park, owner, GM, spring training site, etc (for example, here is the Rangers page). The one that caught my eye was "World Championships". They list Oakland as having won nine world championships, which means they are counting the titles earned when the franchise was based in Philadelphia. However, the Twins are listed with just two titles, meaning that they are ignoring the 1925 victory of the Washington Senators. The Braves are listed with three, which means they counted both 1914 Boston and 1957 Milwaukee.

As others have pointed out, the matter of franchises moving causes a lot of problems for record-keepers. On the one hand, in modern times at least, it is clear that the franchise is the same. The front office personnel move, the players move, the minor league affiliates stay tethered, etc. In nineteenth century baseball it was more difficult, as sometimes a franchise would said to have been sold back to the league or to a different city (as is the case with Worcester/Philadelphia between 1882 and 1883), and some people like to consider this a franchise shift. But it is usually closer to reality in those cases to say that one club folded, and the league simply added a new club in its place.

Of course, even in the modern era it can get confusing, if the league decides to get involved as in the case of my NFL team, the Cleveland Browns. You probably know that in 1996, the Browns ceased playing, and the personnel went to Baltimore and became the Ravens. But the NFL specifically stated that all tradition, colors, and records would stay in Cleveland for whenever a replacement franchise was obtained (we’re still waiting).

There are a number of different philosophies that someone in charge of these sorts of records could adhere to; I’ll sketch out a few, but they are hardly exhaustive:

1. The franchise is the same, no matter what--this is the philosophy that most recordkeepers use. It doesn’t matter if the team moves or not, they are still the same--the Nationals retain the history of the Expos, and the Twins should be entitled to the history of the Senators.

Pros: It models the reality that these are businesses, and sometime businesses move or change their names, but fundamentally remain the same.

Cons: Do the Twins’ fans care that the Senators won the World Series in 1925? Don’t the Senators have a lot more in common with the Nationals (and the second incarnation of the Senators), even if there is no direct lineage between the two? This point of view is all business and no soul.

2. Same as #1, except you obey the league when it tells you differently. If the Browns franchise is said to be on hiatus for three years, you roll with that, even if what happened to the management and personnel of the team is no different than what happened to that of the Houston Oilers or St. Louis Cardinals.

Pros: You get a pat on the head from the commish.

Cons: What makes the case of the Browns different than the case of the Oilers? Sure, the NFL promised Cleveland a new team, but Houston got one eventually too, and Cleveland didn’t (yes, I’m bitter, and I’m going to beat this into the ground). What if the league or the team claims something absurd, like that the Cincinnati Reds we know today, which started major league play in the 1882 AA, are direct descendents of the Red Stockings of 1869?

3. The franchise is the same if they maintain roots to the first location, like retaining the nickname (this seems to be the philosophy used by Sportsline, as the Braves, A’s, Dodgers, and Giants get to retain their titles, and they also retained their nicknames. The Twins are the only team that has ever won a World Series in one city, then moved and changed their name, so we can’t check to see if they are consistent on this policy).

Pros: I have no idea.

Cons: What if the original teams had been called the Washington A’s and the Philadelphia Keystones instead of the Washington Senators and the Philadelphia A’s? Today we might well have the Minnesota A’s and the Oakland Oaks. (The Los Angeles Lakers and the Utah Jazz may dispute this point.) But would it really matter?

One complaint that has been leveled about the Giants’ move to San Francisco is that they have done a poor job of retaining the New York heritage and properly celebrating McGraw, Mathewson, and the like (I’m not making this claim myself, just repeating what I’ve heard others say--I'm not a Giants fan and am in no position to make this kind of assessment). On the other hand, the Dodgers have been praised for trying to keep their Brooklyn roots in view. Is keeping the nickname enough, if you pretend that the old history doesn’t exist or push it aside?

Nicknames, particularly in early baseball, were somewhat specious. They weren’t official, they changed on the whims of newsmen, etc. Even if they were firmly established by 1920 or so, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to use them as the defining characteristic of a franchise. And what to do about name changes for teams that don’t make a geographical move? Teams like the Devil Rays have tried to change perception and tweak their identity by changing their nicknames. They are just the most recent example; the Astros nee Colt .45s are another, as were the short-lived Boston Bees and Philadelphia Blue Jays. I don’t think anyone would seriously try to claim that the 1964 Colt .45s and 1965 Astros should be looked at as different teams.

4. Make location the defining characteristic. If the team moves, the records start over, regardless of whether they keep the name or any other factor.

Pros: This viewpoint recognizes that the team's location is of paramount importance, but also recognizes that each franchise is unique, and doesn't lump seperate entities together simply because they played in the same city. It recognizes that the Oakland A's have a unique history that they started writing in 1968. You could also of course maintain a set of records for the "A's franchise", and a seperate set of Philadelphia, Kansas City, and Oakland records.

Cons: With the compromise of keeping records for the franchise overall and in just one select location, this seems to me to be the best solution, so I will certainly welcome any drawbacks you see in the comments.

5. Recognize that there are at least two distinct ways to look at it: from the perspective of the franchise, and from the perspective of the city. Have two different sets of records.

Pros: It best models reality. In one sense, the Twins clearly are the same club as the Senators. They moved and Calvin Griffith and Harmon Killebrew came along, and if you were trying to handicap the 1961 AL pennant race you wouldn’t have treated them as an unknown or as an expansion team.

And from the other perspective, Walter Johnson has nothing to do with Minnesota. Fans can take pride in their team’s history, but generally can only truly cherish what they themselves have experienced. And no one in Minneapolis in 1925 shed a tear when the Senators won it all, as they had no idea that 36 years later that franchise would shift west to their town. And Washingtonians may be old enough to remember Frank Howard’s moonshots, or were told about it by their father and have considered it their baseball heritage, even if the team they now root for used play in Montreal.

From this perspective, the modern day Browns descend from the pre-1996 Browns (but also the Cleveland Rams and Bulldogs). And the Ravens spiritual roots trace back to the Colts.

Cons: It’s confusing. It takes up more space, and sometimes there should be even more nuance (speaking from experience as Cleveland fan, no one really cares that the Rams won the NFL championship while they were here. Most people treat Cleveland pro football history as truly having begun in 1946 with the founding of the Browns. Perhaps this was different when there were still a lot of people who remembered the Rams, but it’s no longer the case). So in that case, I could add a sixth approach, which is simply to have no strict policy and to judge each case individually. That may be satisfying on some level, but for a reference work, I think most people would agree that it’s better to have clear guidelines.

Most record books go with either approach #1 or approach #4, and I have no problem with that. However, the tack taken by Sportsline (again, they're using #3, as best I can tell), which considers the Twins to have won two World Series and the Giants to have won five doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. And don’t even get me started on the fact that they completely ignore the nineteenth century.

Monday, February 16, 2009

Hunting Wolverines

On Friday, the 126th season of Ohio State baseball will begin. The first 125 years have been successful--fifteen Big Ten titles, eight Big Ten tournament titles, four College World Series appearances, and the 1966 national championship speak to that. Recent history has been quite good as well; head coach Bob Todd is now a member of the College Baseball Hall of Fame and boasts a record of 831-435-2 with seven Big Ten titles as he enters his twenty-second season as head coach. He is easily the school’s all-time winningest coach, and he also boasts the highest W% of any Buckeye leader with one hundred or more wins.

However, the luster of the program has dimmed a little big in recent seasons. The Buckeyes have finished the last two Big Ten campaigns at 15-15 and have not captured a regular season title since 2001 (although OSU has four tournament crowns in that period). Last year was particularly frustrating as the Bucks finished second in the Big Ten in EW%, but were unable to convert their run differential into wins at the expected rate. And to make matters worse, the forces of evil to the north have run roughshod over the entire Big Ten over the last two seasons.

In 2008, the OSU offense was fourth in the Big Ten with 6.6 runs/game, just ahead of the 6.5 average. In continuation of a multi-year trend, the Bucks got runners on base (.318 BA to lead the B10, .389 OBA was second by just a point), but were dreadful at advancing runners once they got there (dead last in the conference with a .093 ISO, fueled by just 19 home runs, the fewest hit by a Buckeye team since 1980). The biggest hindrance to the team’s performance over the last 3-4 years has been a lack of power. It is a glaring weakness that needs to be addressed if OSU is to emerge as a top-flight offense.

At catcher, sophomore Dan Burkhart returns for his second year. He contributed -8 RAA in 2008, and the Bucks will certainly be hoping for improvement at bat, although reviews of his work behind the plate are generally positive. At first base, senior captain Justin Miller is firmly entrenched, coming off of a season in which he led OSU in just about every important offensive category except walk rate. He also served as catcher occasionally to spell Burkhart, but committed nine passed balls in limited time and thus it’s unlikely that he will be asked to don the tools of ignorance in 2009. That leaves juniors Shawn Forsythe and sophomore DJ Hanlin as the backups with sophomore Nathan Grove and freshman David Fathalikhani also on the roster.

It is not entirely clear how the other infield positions will be filled. One certainty is that junior Cory Kovanda will be at second base; last year he emerged as an important part of the offense with a .438 OBA, fueled by a team-leading 37 walks. His double play partner will be either fellow junior Cory Rupert or sophomore Tyler Engle. Engle moved Rupert off of his shortstop position to the hot corner last year, but contributed little offensively (-12 RAA). It is possible that Rupert will play short, which would leave junior Brian DeLucia, who mashed out a RG of 8.8 (albeit in just 71 PA) at third. In any case, the primary infield reserve will be whichever of DeLucia and Engle are not in the lineup, with Engle covering the middle infield and DeLucia the corners. Other reserves include junior Ben Toussant and freshman TJ McManus at first, sophomore Matt Streng in the middle, and freshmen Brian Cypret (son of assistant coach Eric), Brad Hallburg, and Zach Nowland also on the roster.

The outfield has lost its anchor, JB Shuck, to the Astros. That leaves an opening in center field that will be filled by junior Zach Hurley, who was essentially an average hitter last season but seems to have the potential to be a lot more and had played well over the summer. He will be flanked by some combination of senior Michael Arp (who benefited from a flukish .367 BA in 2008), junior Ryan Dew (who struggled at -8 RAA despite seemingly having the talent needed to be a solid contributor), and junior college transfer Michael Stephens. The odd man out will probably see the majority of at bats at DH, although DeLucia could be in that mix as well. His JUCO stats indicate that Stephens has a good bat, although with doubles and not homer power, the Buckeyes are still missing the big power bat they so desperately need. Outfield reserves will include junior Chris Griffin and freshman David Corna (also on the roster: sophomore Brad Brookbank and freshman Joe Ciamacco).

On the mound, coach Todd will have to do a staff overhaul. Shuck and senior Dan DeLucia were the top two starters in ’08, but both were drafted and have moved on to pro ball. Another one of the four weekend starters (the change in the Big Ten schedule format means that just three weekend starters are now necessary), Jake Hale, will move into the bullpen. That leaves sophomore Dean Wolosiansky (+7 RAA) as the only sure member of the rotation. He may well be joined by fellow sophomores lefty Andrew Armstrong and righty Drew Rucinski. Both were average last season, which is promising for freshmen, but it is still a very young rotation and it’s hard to classify it as anything other than a question mark.

The bullpen will be anchored by senior Jake Hale. Hale was a starter as a freshmen, assumed the closer role as a sophomore, was moved back to starting during that season, and served as a starter last year. The roller coaster ride will continue, and it’s not a move I would make. Hale was +5 RAA last year and is a tall, lanky pitcher with plenty of endurance. Moving him to the pen seems to be something of a waste.

The rest of the pitchers will all be competing for spots as midweek starters and key relievers, although promising but wild (+6 RAA, but 31 W and 51 K in 40 IP) sophomore Alex Wimmers is a good bet to be the key right-hander in front of Hale. Eric Best, a junior lefty with a similar profile to Wimmers, could be a good complement to him but may well find himself starting.

Hopefully junior lefties Josh Barerra and Theron Minium, who each had a promising freshman campaigns but were derailed last year by injuries, can claim key roles. The other pitching options have little to no experience and are all righthanders: Taylor Barnes (JR), Ross Oltorik (FM, and also a walk-on quarterback for the football team), Eric Shinn (SO), and Jared Strayer (SO).

OSU opens the season in the first Big Ten/Big East challenge, in which they will face Notre Dame, UConn, and Cincinnati. The next weekend (beginning February 27), the Bucks will be at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville for their tournament--two games against the hosts, and single encounters with George Mason and UConn. The weekend of March 6 will see OSU in Winter Haven to face Rhode Island, Northeastern, Maine, and Central Michigan. The weekend of March 13 will feature Indiana (a non-conference encounter that will extend a string of consecutive seasons playing IU that began in 1944), Hartford, and a twin bill against Army played in West Palm Beach.

The traditional spring break trip will see the Bucks return to Winter Haven on March 20 to face Indiana again, a twin bill against Army, and Hartford. They will then move on to Orlando for a single game with Rollins and down to Coral Gables for one game against the University of Miami.

The Big Ten schedule will be significantly different this year, as the conference has moved from a four game series format (with a Saturday doubleheader consisting of two seven inning games) to single nine inning games on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. The Bucks open March 27 at Penn State and continue Big Ten play over the next seven weekends. The sequence will be: at Minnesota, Michigan State, at Purdue, Northwestern, the forces of evil incarnate, at Illinois, Iowa.

OSU’s home opener at Bill Davis Stadium is March 31 against Xavier, and Marshall will follow the next day. The other midweek opponents are Morehead State, Bowling Green, Ball State, Akron, @Louisville (reciprocating the Cardinals’ 2008 visit to Columbus), and Eastern Michigan.

The Big Ten tournament will open on May 20 and for the first time will be played at a non-campus site (traditionally, the regular season champion serves as tournament host if possible). Happily for the Buckeyes, that neutral site will be Huntington Park, the new downtown Columbus home of the Clippers.

There seems to be a cautious optimism among OSU fans this season, but for once, I cannot share it (usually I am extremely bullish on the prospects of all OSU sports teams). I don’t see where on the diamond the Buckeyes will be significantly improved from 2008. The offense has the potential to put up more runs, but without a significant increase in power it will be a struggle, and I don’t see where that power will come from. The pitching staff is deep and has a number of talented arms, but replacing three starters (DeLucia, Shuck, and Hale as he is the closer once again) is a difficult challenge. I certainly hope that I am wrong, but I don’t see OSU contending for the Big Ten title. However, a top six finish and the accompanying conference tournament berth should be attainable. The combination of the tournament being played on friendly turf and OSU’s recent success in the event (a win in ’09 would be the Bucks’ fourth consecutive odd year triumph; I see no predictive value in that, of course) may make a tournament run the best hope for making 2009 a memorable season in Columbus.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Numbers are Just Numbers, and That's All They Ever Were

It is my contention that if you took a systematic poll of sabermetricians or sabermetrically-inclined fans, you would find that as a group, sabermetricians are much less militant on the steroids issue than the average fan. This survey has never been taken, and it is possible that I am wrong about what it would find. I certainly am not claiming that there is a proper sabermetric position on steroids, or that there aren’t good sabermetricians who despise steroids use. But I’m going to assume that I’m right, for the sake of argument, and proceed from there.

So why is this? If I was being particularly arrogant about it, I would try to claim that sabermetricians are more logical than the average baseball fan, and that logic leads one to an apathetic position on the matter. But that would be self-serving, and it’s probably not true, even if I’d like it to be. In my own case, my steroids nonchalance is based in politics, more or less--a hatred of government regulating what people can put in their bodies (or just about anything else), a fear of invasive drug testing when it is implemented because of state edict rather than private economic concern. And none of that has anything to do with sabermetrics.

A less self-aggrandizing and more satisfying explanation (although potentially not any more plausible) is that sabermetricians are far less likely to feel violated by “tainted” records. One of the most common laments of the anti-steroids crowd is that steroids have cheapened and degraded statistics. “No longer,” they say, “can we compare the records of Babe Ruth and Jimmie Foxx to those of today’s great sluggers.”

And so if you have made a career largely out of pointing out frivolous, meaningless, but occasionally interesting or entertaining statistical factoids, as Jason Stark has, you just might think that the statistics themselves are of paramount importance. And so you will respond to additional steroids news by going absolutely off the reservation:

What compares to it? The Black Sox? This is worse. Game-fixing in college basketball? This is worse. Nominate any scandal in the history of sports. My vote is still that this is worse.

How detached from reason does one have to be in order to believe that players taking substances that weren’t explicitly banned by MLB in an attempt to improve their performance on the field is worse than players attempting to intentionally lose games? It is impossible for me to comprehend anyone actually believing this. If they do, I am at a loss at how to reason with them, as the worldview from which they must begin is irreconcilable with my own.

Of course, Stark does not explicitly say that his angst arises from the destruction of the numbers he enjoys so much, and if you want to accuse me of putting words in his mouth, I’ll take the arrows. But he does say:

Once, the numbers of baseball used to mean something special and magical. And the men who compiled those numbers were transcendent figures in American life.

I enjoy playing around with baseball stats, with no objective and just for sheer amusement, from time-to-time too. But I don’t kid myself about it. Those statistics were compiled in a specific time and place, with each player from year-to-year, from game-to-game even, in a unique context.

If the numbers themselves, rather than the people that compiled them and the wins they contributed to, ever were magical to you, then I have no sympathy for you. You should have known better. If you ever believed that Pete Rose collecting his 4,192nd hit (*) ever meant anything more significant than that he had compiled more hits than Ty Cobb, then you were horribly misguided. It surely didn’t make Rose a better overall player. It didn’t make Rose a better offensive player. It didn’t make Rose a better player at the isolated skill of collecting base hits. It simply meant that he had managed to collect more of them.

Having more hits or home runs does not make someone a better or more valuable baseball player. It can certainly be evidence that speaks to those questions; I am certainly a big believer in the premise that the objective record of what occurred on the field (statistics) can tell us a great deal about those questions. But the context in which they were compiled is an absolutely essential consideration. In the case of Rose versus Cobb, one factor that has to be considered is the number of opportunities each man had. Everyone inherently recognizes this one, particularly on the question of hits thanks to the ubiquitous nature of batting average. But that is far from the only contextual factor in play--the league environment and the impact of the park in which a player performs are crucial as well, and of course you can dig deeper still.

And it is that subtle distinction, the recognition of the importance of context, which marks the biggest difference between how sabermetricians view statistics and how other baseball fans view statistics. Sabermetricians are always considering context; non-sabermetricians are intermittently concerned about context, usually when the point of view they’re espousing will benefit. It’s not that they don’t understanding the importance of considering context; I think most people do. It is more a matter of not reflexively considering context, and all too often neglecting to ever consider it.

The so-called steroids era has thrust the issue into the limelight, though. Suddenly, everyone is aware that numbers can’t be taken at face value. Unfortunately, many of the fans who have recognized this may have only done it because they believe the specific player cheated or that all players must be viewed with a jaundiced eye because of their era. My hope is that it will compel some of them to always consider the era in which a man played, the parks he played in, and the way the game was played at that time.

Baseball statistics are simply counts of what a player or team has done on the field. They can be fiddled around with and enjoyed, or they can analyzed and enjoyed in an attempt to relate them to the goal of the game (which is to win), or they can be ignored. But they cannot be taken (at least not rationally) as magic numbers capable of make comparisons at face value without any interpretation.

If you lament the use of steroids because they result in an unfair advantage or are illegal or set a bad example for children, or some other reason, I disagree with you. But I don’t inherently write you off as a fool; we happen to have a difference of opinion. But as for the minority that decries the damage to the sacred records…

Stark also laments the fact that he believes a number of players who hold or held important records (Rose, Bonds, Sosa, ARod, Clemens, McGwire) will not be in the Hall of Fame. While I suppose it can be inferred that he agrees with this decision, I think it is worthy pointing out that the only way all of those men, sans Rose, will be left out of the Hall of Fame, is if Stark’s brethren in the BBWAA choose to keep them out. It is not inevitable that they be excluded--indeed, somewhere around a quarter of the voting writers are voting for McGwire. Their exclusion from the Hall will be a result of the mindset of observers, and not a natural consequence. And if you think that the identities of the players in the Hall of Fame is of grave importance…well, I’ve written about that before.

(*) Of course, Cobb is now credited with 4,189 hits, so Rose had already broken the record when he got the “historic” hit. There is a minority of people who complain about such corrections to the historical record, sometimes based on a similar mindset to the one described above: a belief in the sanctity of the records themselves.

Finally, I have two quick opinions on other aspects of the ARod story and the surrounding furor.

1. The most disturbing aspect of this story, by far, is not that ARod tested positive for steroids, it’s that a supposed non-disciplinary and anonymous round of testing was obtained by the government and leaked to the media. The real villains of this story are the leakers, and those that enabled them.

2. Even if the premise that steroids need to be removed from the game is accepted, it needs to be remembered that this test came before penalties were implemented in the rules. Therefore, it is ridiculous to use this test to draw any conclusion about the efficacy of the current testing policy or the associated penalties.

Monday, February 02, 2009

The Ten Years War

For once, I’m going to attempt to be early to address a topic instead of late. I am usually pretty reactionary; something will happen, everyone in the world will weigh in on it, and then I come in a month later when no one cares anymore (not that my take on it would have been particularly interesting if it were timely). This time, I hope to beat the rush by six or seven months.

Since we are now in 2009, I believe it is safe to assume that we will be treated to a number of pieces on “X of the decade”. The team of the decade, player of the decade, trade of the decade, left-handed sidearming reliever of the decade, etc. This is all well and good, and harmless enough; there’s nothing wrong with frivolous baseball discussions and there’s certainly nothing wrong with putting things in (short) historical perspective.

The key word is “frivolous”. Once the question is allowed to take on greater significance (like being used as a Hall of Fame argument, with Jack Morris as “Pitcher of the Eighties” (*) the prime example), then I have problems with it.

Being the best over a ten-year period is certainly a noteworthy accomplishment. The problem is that the decade approach to issue emphasizes one particular period over all others. Take for instance the fact that Mark Grace led MLB in hits for the 1990s (he had 1,754, seven more than Rafael Palmeiro). In fairness, if anyone has used this to proclaim Grace’s greatness, it has not gained much traction, but still, it sounds a lot more impressive than it actually is. The next six men on the list (Palmeiro, Biggio, Gwynn, Alomar, Griffey, and Ripken) all had more career hits than Grace.

Yes, the list is for hits in the 1990s, not career hits, but this is not a case of getting Grace plus a bunch of guys near the end of their careers or just getting started. With the exception of Ripken and possibly Gwynn, the 1990s were the prime decade for all of them (and Ripken and Gwynn were both productive throughout the decade). It just so happens that for those ten seasons, Grace had a few more hits.

If you look at the ten years from 1989-1998, Grace is third with 1,731 hits, 46 behind Gwynn. The ten years from 1991-2000? Grace (1,715) and Palmeiro (1,719) trade places. So what is it exactly that makes the ten year period from 1990-1999 more important than periods offset by just one year on either side? “The ‘90s” sounds a lot better than “the ten years beginning with ‘89”, but there is no real distinction. By picking out “the ‘90s”, we get the one ten year period in which Mark Grace happened to lead the league in hits. It would be much more impressive is if you could find a player who led the league in hits over multiple ten-year periods. By not examining any other time period, Grace is held up as a singular player, when he should be viewed in a group with other ten-year hit leaders around the same time (for the ten year period beginning with 1988, the leader is Molitor; 1989--Gwynn, 1990--Grace, 1991--Palmeiro, 1992--Alomar).

Organizing history into workable periods can be helpful, but doing it based on endpoints that happen to make a nice numerical cohort (namely, the same digit in the tens place) is a crude way of doing so. If you intend to put any stock in the exercise, why not go through the trouble of dividing time on the basis of important changes in the game? It might be helpful to start a new “era” of baseball history sometime around the middle of the 90s, with events like the strike, the offensive explosion, the influx of Asian talent, the two expansions, and the purported steroids era all as possible markers of a historical shift. I’m not advocating placing too much stock in this sort of classification (for the purposes of establishing statistical leaders, not constructing a historical narrative), either, but if you must break up time into rigid segments, I believe it’s a better way to go.

I’ve been assuming throughout that the “decade” is a natural way to divide time, but who can forget the fascinating (**) arguments that erupted over what constitutes the decade? This issue popped up a lot in 1999 and 2000 as people debated when the third millennium actually began. Since there is no year zero AD (CE if you must, but if you must, please leave), if you actually start counting off ten years to define your decades, the first would be years 1-10, which would eventually lead you to 2001-2010 as the current decade. Furthermore, there’s really nothing to stop you from re-centering the entire calendar of Western Civilization and declaring that the year we call 34 BC should be year 1, and starting from there.

Don’t get me wrong; I have no qualms about calling this the year 2009. The preceding digression is just intended to drive home the point that no specific ten year period is inherently significant solely because of the digits we use to represent it.

In that vein, George Brett’s Hall of Fame plaque includes the tidbit that he was the “first player to win batting titles in three decades (1976, ’80, ’90). There have been objections to this statement on the grounds I described above--a non-negligible portion of observers claim that ’76 and ’80 are in the same decade. Regardless, it’s a fairly impressive feat, but what impresses me about it is that he had batting titles separated by fourteen years, not that the three each fell in a different decade. That’s a long time to be a candidate to lead the league in anything.

However, Ted Williams won batting titles separated by seventeen years (’41 and ’58), and Stan Musial matched Brett at fourteen (’43 and ’57). Brett still has one of the longest gaps between first and last titles, but it’s no longer a historical oddity. And Williams and Musial both won a bunch of them, not just three, the bare minimum needed to have any chance at three decades. The distinction I draw is that Brett’s feat is an ok trivia question, but a really stupid thing to put on someone’s Hall of Fame plaque.

Another issue raised by the decade family of questions is sort of related to the classic career v. peak value issue. Let’s say we were going to pick the player of the ‘00s, as of this moment (I’m writing this in January). Should our pick be the player who contributed the most value over the course of the decade? Should it be the player who was the most valuable in his decade prime, whether he played for the whole decade or not? Should it be the best player, over the course of a full career, for whom this was his most productive decade, even if somebody was more productive in this decade. If you use the first definition, then Jack Morris is a *potential* choice for pitcher of the 80s, and Roger Clemens is probably a poor choice. If you use the second definition, then Clemens or Dwight Gooden is probably your guy (please don’t argue with me on the specific names here; I don’t care and I didn’t check to see which I would pick if I had to). If you use the third definition, you could make an argument along the lines of “I think Hank Aaron was more valuable than Willie Mays in the 1960s, but I also think Mays was a more valuable player over the course of their entire careers, and therefore Mays is the player of the ‘60s.”

If you think it should be the player who added the most value in the decade, period, then what do you do about Albert Pujols (let alone Barry Bonds)? Ignoring fielding (but considering position), I have Alex Rodriguez at 70 WAR and Pujols at 71 WAR for 2000-2008 (those figures are a little higher than most, because I’m using a lower RPW than most people; the specific numbers aren’t really the point). That is too close to call, but consider that Pujols did not play at all in 2000. What if ARod was at 75 WAR and Pujols at 71? That’s still well within a margin of error, but it would make it makes ignoring ARod’s advantage a little tougher. A one win difference is easy to waive off with “He did that in eight seasons rather than nine, but one extra season of 4 WAR is a darn good season.

Another point which should be obvious but that I’ll mention anyway is that the used of a fixed decade period can be a boon to players based on their birthdays. ARod, born in 1975, went from 25 to 34 in the 00s. This is a good ten-year stretch to have considered, as it safely includes his expected peak seasons and avoids seasons in which he would be very young or very old. What about a player like Hanley Ramirez, though? Born in 1983, the 00s are his age 17-26 seasons. And the 10s will be his age 27-36 seasons. Even if Ramirez is the best something (shortstop, maybe even player) in the majors over a legitimate stretch, there is a non-negligible chance that he will never be the “shortstop of the decade” simply because of how his age corresponds to the definition of decade in use.

I chose to highlight ARod/Pujols precisely because it’s so close that it’s easy to justify Pujols if you’d like. But what happens when the difference in playing time is more profound? I previously mentioned Roger Clemens v. Jack Morris for “pitcher of the 80s”. Do Clemens’ brilliant seasons make him better, or do you go with Morris because it’s hard to take a 95-45 pitcher over a 162-119 pitcher? We can all agree that Clemens was a much greater pitcher than Morris, and over each of their best ten-year periods, but if we limit ourselves strictly to just 1980-89, we almost are forced to honor Morris and not Clemens.

The career v. peak issue is a legitimate one, one which is largely a matter of personal preference and on which many reasonable people arrive at very different preferences. Why muddy the waters even more by forcing comparisons into arbitrary timeframes?

My protestations aside, the end of the year figures to yield an explosion of “X of the decade” stories. Hopefully, they will be offered in the spirit of fun, not profundity, and everything will be kept in perspective. The good news is that it’s just baseball, not a war, and so the worst thing that can happen is that we get treated to a number of ridiculous and overly serious choices from the media and groups of fans. Like the Sporting News choosing Pete Rose as “Player of the ‘70s” over two superior teammates. Or the players selecting Ken Griffey, not Barry Bonds, as “Player of the ‘90s”. And who could forget the “All-Century Team”, in which a group of experts had to be impaneled to avoid leaving Lefty Grove, Christy Mathewson, Stan Musial, Warren Spahn, and Hans Wagner off the team in favor of Sandy Koufax, Nolan Ryan, Ken Griffey, Bob Gibson, and Ernie Banks? I’ll embrace these opportunities to chuckle, even as I shake my head at the thought-process that generates them.

(*) Tango wrote a piece for the Hardball Times about Jack Morris and the “Pitcher of the Eighties”, which addresses the arbitrary definition of a decade and the silly emphasis placed on it.

(**) Fascinating in the sense of arguing over the pronunciation of "tomato".

The National Pastime Almanac is a very handy tool for answering questions like “Who had the most hits between years X and Y”, and it was the source for the data in this piece. If you are not a database whiz and like to fiddle around with the numbers, I highly recommend it. And it’s free.