April 22, 2004
BASEBALL: Valuing Tony Gwynn and Tim Raines
Geoff Young at Ducksnorts has some well-deserved fun at the expense of Baseball Prospectus' comment that Ichiro Suzuki "is the player people think Tony Gwynn was." Now, it's true enough that Gwynn's high batting averages led many casual observers to overrate him over the years. But BP's disdain for Gwynn goes overboard, and shows a real lack of appreciation for the man's talents, as well as for the broader point: the value of batting average.
Which presents two questions. The first is about batting average itself. As I noted three years ago in my tribute to Ichiro, the hallowed place of batting average in the minds of sportswriters can be traced to the fact that, back when the game began in the 1870s and early 1880s, the ability to "hit 'em where they ain't" really was the game's one and only really critical offensive skill.
Guess what? For all the uses of power, speed and patience, it's still the most important skill. Don't believe me? Simple math tells the story. Let's look at the league totals for 2003:
Yes, I know this is a crude calculation, but it makes the point (in fact, Hits still outweight Extra Bases if you add the number of home runs to the latter and subtract it from the former, even in our homer-happy era). While there are exceptions (like the extreme case of Barry Bonds), the ability to get hits is still the most valuable single skill in the offensive toolkit.
(The other major objection to batting average, set out at some length in the Orioles team comment of this year's Prospectus, is that the ability to hit singles, doubles and triples is a more volatile and less dependable skill from year to year. That's a valid objection, but it's a far cry from showing that it's not a statistically significantly measurable individual skill).
Anyway, the other question raised is about Tony Gwynn himself - how good was he? I've been looking at Gwynn in the context of comparing him to Tim Raines, for purposes of explaining Raines' Hall of Fame candidacy, and I'll admit that I was surprised myself to see how well Gwynn stacks up. Rather than a systematic analysis, let's just show how a variety of different career offensive measures stack up both Gwynn and Raines against four other similar recent players of undeniable Hall of Fame credentials - Rod Carew, Wade Boggs, Paul Molitor, and Pete Rose. I'll throw Ichiro's numbers through 2003 in the mix just to fill things out.
Let's look at the raw numbers first:
(TOB=Times on Base)
At first glance, aside from the massive size of Rose's career and Boggs' superior OBP and lack of steals, what's remarkable is how similar these guys look. Continued tomorrow - some more sophisticated measurements.
Who knew Gwynn stole that many bases? Wow. And Boggs? A guy that was on base forty percent of the time over 18 seasons should have ended up with more than 24 steals just by botched hit and runs or something. that's quite an indicator of either an astounding lack of athleticism (speed) or the disdain for the running game in Boston. Or both. And if Boggs was really that slow of foot (slow afoot?) his numbers are even a bit more impressive (as far as hittin' it where they ain't) compared to a beat-it-out guy like Ichiro.
I just noticed the name of the site that started your post. I've never heard anyone but Harrelson doing White Sox games on the radio use the term "ducksnort." Living in Michigan now, I can occassionaly get a signal from Chicago or Cleveland and listen to better games than the Tigers (til this year!). Harrelson has to be far and away the most grating radio man I've come across, and his overuse of "ducksnort" is the primary reason.
I always liked Gwynn. I know the Mets could never seem to get him out in a big spot (although the same was true of Raines in his prime) and he was a key cog in taking two mediocre Padres teams to the World Series.
Itís also notable that he was on his way to his best all-around season before the strike in í94.
My general sense, which I may or may not get around to elaborating on in detail, is that Raines was a better player at his peak but Gwynn retained more of his value as he got older; unlike Raines, Gwynn was never a part-time player, at least not until the very end.
My general sense, which I may or may not get around to elaborating on in detail, is that Raines was a better player at his peak but Gwynn retained more of his value as he got older
I tend to agree with this, but I'm one of those who thinks that Gwynn is vastly overrated. A HOFer to be sure, but the idea that he was the best pure hitter of his time is laughable. His career OBA and SLG of .388/.459 compare to Rusty Greer's of .387/.478. Of course, with Gwynn, you had 20+ years of Rusty Greer. But is 20+ years of Rusty Greer such a good thing? I mean, Greer was a fine player when healthy, but hardly what I'd consider one of the best players of his era, much less all time.
Tim Raines should be considered for HOF status on base stealing and scoring supremacy and team success. He has the highest SB percentage of anyone over 300 SBs (plus almost anyone under 300) and he could hit much better than many rabbits like Vince Coleman or Otis Nixon. He hit for a better lifetime average than Lou Brock. Because of the strike of '94, Lupus complications at the end of the 90s, and so many years on Astroturf and related injuries, he missed out on 3,000 hits. Nevertheless, how many players finish over 2600? Not many.
He healped four division winners after his peak as a seven time All-star and his last team he played for went on to win the World Series the season after he retired. Do you think his expertise and experience helped the Marlins in 2003? He was an extra coach for them as a pinch hitter in 2002.
Raines achieved more team success than Gwynn and I believe it is no coincidence. Speed and consistent danger to score wins games; Raines scared people more than Gwynn, and just that psychological threat helped his teams get other people scoring and RBIs (see Dawson, Wallach, Thomas, Jeter, etc). Gwynn's singles were much less threatening than Raines's walks. The difference between the two is that pitching could withstand Gwynn's singles because they would not cause as much damage. Walking Raines, as he is one of the 40 most prolific of all time, made for a battle on the bases, getting inside pitchers' heads, and generated runs. The second time Gwynn made it to the the World Series was Raines's second championship ring. Coincidence?
Both Gwynn and Raines go to the Hall. Perfection is hard to achieve like these two did, albeit with differing strengths.