High Heat Stats takes a look at the most overrated and underrated hitters in baseball history, by comparing career Wins Above Replacement to baseball-reference.com’s ELO player rankings. For those that don’t know, baseball reference has a rating page where you can vote, in head-to-head style, on two players as to who was better. That page presents you with career numbers for both players (which the reader may or may not wish to review in detail). Those head-to-head votes then play into how the player is rated, in what is called an ELO style ranking system. For your purposes, think of it as a “wisdom of the crowds” approach.
So, what High Heat Stats is doing is looking at how the player is rated by the wisdom of the crowd who frequents baseball reference, versus that player’s career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) to see who might be overrated by the voters.
Of course, as noted above, these are probably knowledgeable voters, and they also have access to WAR as well as other conventional stats before voting on players. In this case, I think more often than not, the crowd is improving what a ranking like just looking at raw total career WAR (simply adding every season’s WAR for a player’s career) would provide.
If you just add WAR for each year, you are going to value players that stick around and play longer as being better, all other things being equal. A player that gets ill or injured at age 35 could have less total WAR than one who played to 41 with decent but not great seasons, but might have been a better player in his prime.
Let’s take Ted Williams. Williams missed all or parts of five different seasons while serving in the military, including three straight from ages 24 to 26. If I look at total WAR, yes, with five less seasons, Williams does not end up in the top 3. But if you weight his ten best seasons, with the best counting for 100%, 2nd best for 90%, etc., he checks in even with Willie Mays, and just behind Cobb. Considering that he missed three seasons in his prime as well, it’s easy to see why he is rated where he is.
This study says Williams is overrated; the voters, with access to Williams’ WAR, are saying that just totaling career WAR underrates Williams, and the baseball-reference voters are more likely right.
Same with Gehrig–out of the game before his 36th birthday because of the disease named after him. A weighted look at WAR, rather than just the total, shows he is properly being weighted ahead of other players who had a higher career WAR, because he was better through age 35.
DiMaggio is between Mike Schmidt and Frank Robinson in the rankings, and that seems about right, considering his military service time and earlier retirement. Or take Roy Campanella, who total WAR would say is about the 500th best player, but the voters are saying is about #78. “Campy” only played 10 years, shortened on the front end because his mother was African-American and he didn’t get his chance until a year after Jackie Robinson at age 26, and shortened tragically on the back end by the car accident that left him paralyzed.
Well, if we look at the other catchers, who did not have those issues, that rank in career WAR in that 70 to 100 range where the voters place Campanella, we get Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, and Ivan Rodriguez. Using the 10 best seasons, weighted, I get Campanella at 4.9, Bench at 6.6, and Fisk and Rodriguez at 5.4. Considering that many of those best seasons for the other three players came at an age when Campanella was barred by racist policies, I think the voters have properly placed him. It is career WAR which underrates Campanella, so the conclusion is backward.
I’ve got some other wonkier criticisms. I don’t think it is right to compare Williams to Ruth’s WAR as a baseline in determining overratedness, when the voters have properly ranked him behind Ruth, and I would have used career WAR tables, rather than the moving target of ranked players in the immediate vicinity, which led to things like Mike Greenwell being compared to better players than Tommy Davis, and thus being called more overrated, even though he was ranked lower in the player ratings.
I think it was an interesting project, but I would have liked for “overratedness” to be compared to a weighted WAR that took into account peak value and minimized things like war service and shortened careers. I think voters tend to consciously or subconsciously take those things into account, and I think they tend to be right. Better to play (or live) well than play (or live) long, if you have a choice.
[photo via Getty]