June 22, 2007

Best Player?

Here's the current poll question on the front page of ESPN.com today:

Healthy and in his prime, which player would you want on your team?
-Barry Bonds
-Ken Griffey Jr.
-Alex Rodriguez
I thought about it for a second...and then for another couple minutes...and I still couldn't decide. I'm a little young to remember Griffey in his prime, but I know he was an outstanding player. Bonds' offensive numbers are unbelievable, but that was in an era (21st century) where lots of people were putting up great offensive numbers, and he was a bad defender (at a relatively easy defensive position), while the other two were excellent defenders at tough positions. Let's break this thing down, stat-wise, using a player's five best consecutive years as his "prime".

Barry Bonds: Bonds was a great player in the 90's, but according to his stats, his peak years were his 2000-2004 seasons. During these years, his average line was .341/.535/.782 (BA/OBP/SLG), which is absolutely ridiculous. For five years, he was getting on base more often than he was getting out. That's just amazing. His OPS for those five years - again, five whole years - was 1.317. I try to refrain from hyperbole, but I honestly don't think I'll see anyone string together five offensive seasons like that in my lifetime.

Young Bonds was a great defender, but 21st century Bonds was nothing close to that. During these peak years, Bonds was a combined -8
FRAA (Fielding Runds Above Average), which is actually a bit better than I thought. His baserunning skills were obviously almost gone by this time as well, but neither defect really comes close to cancelling out his hitting skills.

Let's look at some of the more advanced stats. His
OPS+es from 2002, '01, and '04 are first, second, and third respectively all-time at 275, 262, and 260. (An OPS+ of 100 is league-average; the stat is adjusted for the league so it is comparable between eras.) And his 2003 OPS+ was 231, tied for 10th all-time. His 2000 OPS+ was "just" 191, good for 90th all-time, meaning that Bonds was in the top 100 for all five of his peak years. Neither A-Rod or Griffey have any seasons in the top 100. That's pretty good. Bonds' adjusted EqA was over .400 every year from 2001-2004, including two years above .450 ('02, '04). EqA takes into account all offensive contributions from a player, and is evaluated on the same scale as batting average; i.e., a .260 EqA is about average and a .300 EqA is roughly all-star caliber. So when a player posts a .456 EqA, like Bonds did in 2004, it means he's having possibly the greatest offensive season of all-time. Let's take a stat that includes defense as well: WARP3. WARP (Wins Above Replacement Player) takes into account all contributions by a player, including defense, and it is possibly the most complete measure of a player's value avaliable. Bonds' WARPs during his peak ranged from 11.7 to 16.2, meaning that, for those years, Bonds alone gave the Giants 12-16 more wins than a replacement player (i.e., a AAA player or a mediocre utility guy) would have.

Here's Bonds'
Baseball Prospectus player card, where I got all the info from; all the stats I used were adjusted for all-time.

Ken Griffey Jr: Griffey is known as the best all-around player in the 90's, and that is probably an accurate label. We have to cheat a little bit for Griffey, as he was hurt in 1995, so I'm going to use 1993-1998, excluding '95, as his prime years. This does include the strike-shortened '94 season, but all the stats I'm using are rate statistics, so that shouldn't make a difference. His average stat line over those years was .304/.390/.635, which isn't really even comparable to Bonds' raw line. Griffey was playing in the rather spacious Kingdome and in a less hitter-friendly era, but his OPS+ numbers still don't really compare - a peak of 172 in '93.

Still, Griffey gets a lot of points for being a great defender at a very important defensive position (center field). His FRAA is less than I thought it would be (a combined +12 over those five years), but he still gets a lot of points for being above average at a position that is tough to play. This is kind of off-topic, but Griffey's defense has been awful since 2001 - a combined -75 since then.

Griffey's EqA over those five seasons was very consistant - a low of .325 in '98, and a high of .345 in '94. Those are great numbers - a five-year peak like that, combined with a couple other good seasons, should make you a hall-of-famer. But they aren't even in the same spectrum as Bonds' EqAs. If you look at WARP3, the numbers get closer, however. Because Griffey's defense is factored in, the two players are actually comperable - Griffey's numbers range from 10.5 to 12.6, with three of his five years being above 12. Those are five great seasons, but they're still pretty significantly less than Bonds'. Looking at the numbers, I can't find any way to justify choosing Griffey over Bonds.

A-Rod: A-Rod's 2007 may change things somewhat, but for now, his peak years are 2000-2004, ironically the same years as Bonds'. His average line: .304/.396/.593. Again great numbers, very similar to Griffey's, but nowhere close to Bonds. His OPS+ numbers are even less impressive, But remember, A-Rod was a shortstop (the toughest defensive position besides catcher) for the first four of these years, peaking at "only" 167 in 2000. A-Rod gets kind of unfairly hurt by this system because his 2004 season wasn't that great; if I was able to include his 2005 MVP season, all his numbers would go up. But at this point I'm kind of stuck with the system I arbitrarily made up.

However, you have to remember that A-Rod was a shortstop (the toughest defensive position besides catcher) for the first four of these years, and he was a great shortstop to boot. His combined FRAA for those four years: +31, including an amazing +15 in 2000, his last year in Seattle. (Random note: he was awful last year at third, with a -18 FRAA - that means he cost the Yankees almost two full wins with his glove. Random note #2: In 2003, the year before A-Rod came to the Bronx, he posted a +8 FRAA. Jeter posted a -23. Guess who moved to third base?)

A-Rod's EqAs are relatively uninspiring for those five years, trending downwards from a .346 in 2000. But WARP3 likes him much better, because of his outstanding defense. His low was 10.0 in 2004 (although he went on to post a stellar 12.9 the next year), but his 14.6 in 2000 was outstanding. Overall, here's the average WARP3 for these three players during their peak years:

Bonds: 14.3
Griffey: 11.7
A-Rod: 12.9

So, based on these numbers and the others, I have to go with Bonds #1, A-Rod #2, and Griffey #3, and it's actually not even that close. Sure, Bonds probably used steroids, but that doesn't really matter in this discussion (and how can you be positive the other two didn't?).

Naturally, here's how the voting looks: Griffey - 57%, A-Rod - 30%, Bonds - 13%. What did you expect?

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