Thursday, November 29, 2007

Runs Above Replacement and the Ruth/ Bonds/Williams Debate

After yesterday's foray into WARP3 and the 150 threshold, today we'll look at the three greatest players ever based on Runs Above Replacement per game (RAR/G). Baseball Prospectus keeps track of Batting Runs Above Replacement (BRAR), and Fielding Runs Above Replacement (FRAR). It also uses a stat called Pitching Runs Above Replacement (PRAR), but the metric is obviously very, very different and not useful to compare pitchers to hitters. I'm going to compare the three greatest players ever based on RAR/G. To show the differences between the players, I'll multiply their per game number by 5000 to get a total.

Conventional wisdom considers Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, and Steriods Barry Bonds the best three players ever. I will try to ascertain how great each player would have been without his "special" circumstances: Ruth being a pitcher for the first six years of his career, Williams fighting in two wars -- including WWII during his absolute prime -- and Bonds using the juice. Here we go.

Career Value

1) Babe Ruth - I think we all know his story. Ruth pitched primarily until 1920 (although he played a number of games in LF in 1919, his last year in Boston). Let's look at his total BRAR plus FRAR. His total RAR was 1877, which divided by his 2503 games is a RAR/G of .749 or 3750 RAR over 5000 games. That's the best ever.

Let's say we ignore his pre-Yankee seasons, then he had a total of 1648 RAR in 2139 games. His per game number was .770, and his 5000 game mark is 3852, which is almost 200 runs better than the next best player.

The problem is that Ruth's first seasons were valuable and he might have made the Hall as a pitcher. However, it's very hard to compare pitchers and batters. So what can we do to more accurately reflect Ruth's career?

Well at the very least we could give him the non-pitching RAR for his season in 1919. He played 130 games and had 115 BRAR plus FRAR for a .884 RAR/G. If we add the RAR and the games to his career totals, that bumps up his total RAR/G to .776 and 3885 over 5000 games. That's an amazing total.

What about the rest of his Red Sox career? He played 4 full seasons prior to 1919 in which he accrued 112 runs in 256 games for a per game average of .437. That's not awful by historical standards, but it way below Ruth's career numbers. We can't just assume Ruth would have put up his 1919 or 1920 numbers when started at the age of 19 in 1914, but we also can safely assume that if he wasn't a starting pitcher, he probably would have been closer to his 1919 season than his 1915-18 seasons. Since Ruth comes out head and shoulders above everyone else, there's really no reason to speculate too much. We can safely assign Ruth the spot as the best player to ever play Major League Baseball.

2) Barry Bonds - His steriod years really helped him out, but he was a great hitter before steriods and was always a great fielder. .725 RAR/G, which is 3627 over 5000 games and the second best ever. Interestingly if we only took Bonds' first 15 seasons (before we have evidence of steriod use), his per game numbers are still better than Williams'. 1494 RAR divided by the number of games he played (2143) = .697. Multiply by 5000 and we get 3486, which is still better than the mark Williams put up. Bonds probably would have played a few more seasons at less than average peformances, so his RAR/G would have dropped. Would it have gone down enough for Williams to catch him? That's the big debate. Anyway, Bonds was a HOFer before the steriods, no question about that.

3) Ted Williams - Williams was an amazing hitter who lost 5 prime years to WWII and the Korean War. He a .661 RAR/G and 3309 RARs over 5000 games. The gap between Williams and Bonds is larger than the one between Ruth and Bonds. Williams' RAR would have been higher if he hadn't missed prime seasons in the military and, as we have seen, Bonds' would have been lower if he wasn't juicing.

In fact, let's try to figure out where Williams would have been had he not served his country. He missed three whole seasons 1943-45. Those weren't just any 3 seasons; 42 and 46 were his two best years according to WARP3 and RAR. So let's assume he would have performed as well from 43-45 as he did in 42 and 46. Williams' total RAA in those two years was 277. He played 150 games in both years, so he averaged .923 RAR/G in those two seasons. Assuming he would have played 150 games in the three missing years, he would have added another 416 RAR to his career numbers giving him 1933. Add another 450 games to his career games played total and he would have played 2742 games. RAR/G= .704, multiplied by 5000 is 3525.

But we can't stop there. Williams also missed major chunks of 52 and 53 in the military. He barely played 50 total games and under weird conditions, so let's throw those numbers out. Let's perform the same experiment. In 51 and 54 he totaled 178 RARs over 265 games or .671 RAR/G. So he should have added another 178 RAR to his career. Where does that leave him? With 3007 games played and 2111 RAR for an average of .702 per game and 3510 over 5000. Still worse than juicing Bonds but better than Bonds before the steriods.

So it's safe to say that Ruth is the best player followed by Bonds and then, trailing very closely behind, Williams. Bonds vs. Williams is very close, so it depends on how much people value Williams' missing years and Bonds years on steriods.

Peak Value

Quickly, it'll be fun to compare Ruth vs. Bonds in peak value. We can't really include Williams because his peak years were spent flying fighter planes for the U.S. military. So let's take Bonds steriods seasons (2001-04) and see how they compare to Ruth's best 4 consecutive year period.

During those four years Bonds accrued 542 RAR in 573 games. That's .945 per game and 4730 RAR over 5000 games. Not bad.

What about Ruth? Ruth's best consecutive seasons are 1921-24, when he garnered 524 RAR in 567 games for a per game rate of .924 or only 4621 RAR in those years. So yes, Bonds' steriods seasons are probably the best four consecutive seasons in the history of major league baseball.

If we take each players best five seasons the equation changes drastically. Bonds best 5 seasons were 1992-93, and 01-03. In those five seasons he had a total of 691 RAR in 725 games for a per game average of .953 or 4766 over 5000 games. That's a little better than his best four steriods seasons.

Ruth's best five years, 1920-21, 23-24, and 27, are amazing. He scored 732 RAR in 750 games and his average per game was .976 and over 5000 games it was 4880. Just unbelievable.

One last thing. Imagine Williams played those 3 seasons for 43-45. If everything remained equal, he would have played 750 games over those 5 seasons and scored 692 RAR. His total over 5000 games? 4615. Not bad, but Bonds is better. So peak value we'd have to go with Ruth, followed by Bonds and then Williams.

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