February 9, 2003

Today’s Big Deal But Back Then
by Steve Lombardi

During the time between Alex Rodriguez’ 1996 American League Batting Title and Miguel Tejada’s 2002 American League MVP Award, it was quite the popular fancy to trumpet and celebrate the offensive exploits associated to the gaggle of hitting-minded shortstops of that time - - most notably Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and the aforementioned Messrs. Rodriguez and Tejada.  (And, the conversation may just carry beyond 2002.  But, since this is being penned in 2003, we cannot assume that each of these SS will continue great production into the future.  A severe beaning here, a drug dependency there, a torn ACL ligament anywhere can change everything.)

However, with no disrespect meant towards Rodriguez and company, the period 1996 through 2002 was one of the more explosive run producing periods in the history of baseball.  Everyone’s numbers were gaudy – just about every hitter.

This begs the question, at least to me, “Who were the best hitting shortstops in a period less favorable to hitters?”

What better place to look than the “Dead Ball Era”? 

This era spanned from 1901 through 1919.  Balls were used as long as possible in play.  Runs were scarce and homeruns were far and few between.  Pitchers were allowed to use altered baseballs and trick pitches.  The "scientific" method (or what is referred today as "small ball") was the primary method of play - advancing runners, stealing bases, playing for one run, etc. 

The average Slugging Percentage during this time was .332.  Compare that mark to the .426 average Slugging Percentage of period 1996 through 2002.  Different times, indeed.

For purposes of this study, we will use 5,000 Plate Appearances (PA) during the Dead Ball Era as a cutoff.  For the first pass at this effort, we will examine “Offensive Winning Percentage” of Dead Ball SS with 5,000+ PA. 

A player's Offensive Winning Percentage equals the percentage of games a team would win with nine of that player in its lineup, given average pitching and defense.  The formula is the square of Runs Created per 27 Outs, divided by the sum of the square of Runs Created per 27 Outs and the square of the league average of runs per game.

The top of the list are: Honus Wagner (.765); Bobby Wallace (.532); Art Fletcher (.516); and Freddy Parent (.501).

Not coincidently, these four were the only SS (with 5,000+ PA during 1901-1919) who had an OPS (On Base Average plus Slugging Percentage) above the league average.

It is significant to note that four other SS (with 5,000+ PA during 1901-1919) registered a few crooked numbers on the board during their time.  They are Joe Tinker, Donie Bush, Mickey Doolan and George McBride.

However, in reality, most of their “counting stats” were the accumulation of playing time.  After Honus Wagner and Bobby Wallace, the quartet of Tinker, Bush, McBride and Doolan played the most games at SS from 1901 through 1919.

In fact, by the measure of most qualitative offensive performance stats, Mickey Doolan and George McBride were terrible batters.  Players at SS today most comparable, at a quick glance, would be Mike Bordick and Royce Clayton.  Joe Tinker and Donie Bush were better hitters than Doolan and McBride; but, they were not as good as Wagner, Wallace, Fletcher and Parent.  Again, quickly, if you had to match up Joe Tinker and Donie Bush with shortstops of today, Edgar Renteria and Omar Vizquel would be a good example.

Since we are playing connect the shortstops, one may wonder where Fletcher, Parent, Wagner, and Wallace match up with today’s fearsome foursome of Jeter, Garciaparra, Rodriguez, and Tejada.

Limiting it to only these four from each era, and forcing the pairings, here is the result:

Honus Wagner would be Alex Rodriguez.  Bobby Wallace would be Nomar Garciaparra.  Art Fletcher would be Derek Jeter.  And, Freddy Parent would be Miguel Tejada.

Do not be mistaken – on half of these couplings.  Nomar Garciaparra is by far a better hitter than Bobby Wallace.  If forced to put a number on it, one would not be too extreme to say Nomar (to date) has been ten times more productive (relatively speaking) than Wallace was during the Dead Ball Era.  Also, Derek Jeter is a much better offensive performer (again, to date) than Art Fletcher was from 1901 through 1919. Just as much as Garciaparra was over Wallace.  (A shortstop from today who matches up closer with the bat to both Wallace and Fletcher would be Rich Aurilia.)

This comparative effort was merely taking the top four for each era, today's group forged by conventional wisdom and popularity and yesterday's gang by statistics and fact, ranking them in order, and then having them parade by in groups of two.  It was never meant as a method to find a mirror image on the other side of the time tunnel.

However, interestingly, the joining of Honus and A-Rod, as well as Parent to Tejada, is not that far off.  For example, using OPS and Runs Created per Game (RC/G), both above league averages, yields some similar marks.

To date, Alex Rodriguez has a +.182 OPS above league average.  In the Dead Ball Era, Honus Wagner’s mark was +.188.  Rodriguez’ RC/G above league average is +2.93.  Wagner’s was +3.79.

To date, Miguel Tejada has a +.013 OPS above league average.  In the Dead Ball Era, Freddy Parent’s mark was +.007.  Tejada’s RC/G above league average is -0.03.  Parent’s was -0.08.

That’s pretty darn close on both counts.

It appears that today’s “big deal” is not as unique as some may believe.

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