Monday, March 30, 2009

Families of Deadballers

For the second year in a row, famed baseball analyst Bill James has put out his book, The Bill James Gold Mine. Lame title, great book. The book contains all sorts of statistical nuggets - some interesting, some ridiculously esoteric - as well as the great writing that I enjoy so much about Bill James.

One of his essays is about finding similarities of ballplayers. James undertakes a way of grouping ballplayers according to the distribution of extra base hits. For example, most ballplayers have an extra base hit ratio of 6-1-3. That is, they homer about half as often as they double and three times as much as they triple (6 2B, 1 3B, 3 HR). James breaks everyone down that way (with explanations of how he rounds) and groups players by ratio. Because some groups are bigger than others, he narrows them down by OPS. Very fun exercise to find players who are like one another.

I decided I wanted to do this but only examine those ballplayers who played during the Deadball Era (which I define as 1901-1920). Those distributions are very different because you didn't have guys homer as much. I wanted to see what those distributions were like. I took the career numbers of everyone who played at least one season during the Deadball Era and found their group for all players with 1000 or more plate appearances. I included stats from the 19th Century and post-Deadball mostly because I was interested in the latter. Babe Ruth was the first premier power hitter but I wanted to see who else from the Deadball Era was an "early adopter" of the power hitting change, if anyone.

By limiting my era, I ended up with far fewer groups than James, even without breaking down by OPS.

My groups were 910, 820, 811, 802, 730, 721, 712, 640, 631, 622, 613, 550, 541, 532, 523, 514 and 415. Sixteen groups in all. 721 was the largest group with 170 players followed closely by 631 with 169. That was 339 (52%) of the 649 players right there.

Three groups consisted of a single player. Not surprsingly, 415 was Babe Ruth. 550 was an outfielder by the name of Tom Long who spent three seasons with the St. Louis Cardinals. Long led the league in triples in 1915 with 25. He had 47 career doubles, 49 triples and six homers. 802 consisted of Brooklyn pitcher Dazzy Vance who knocked out seven homers during his career.

514 and 613 had four players each. I assumed these to be the aforementioned "early adopters". The 514s were Cy and Ken Williams, Pat Collins and Lefty O'Doul. O'Doul was a great minor league slugger who only had 28 at bats in the Deadball Era during which he hit zero homers. Pat Collins was a reserve catcher for the Browns and Yankees and had no homers in 49 Deadball at bats.

Cy Williams was already a top power hitter in the Deadball Era, leading the league in 1916 and 1920 and finishing second in 1915 and 1918. He led the league in homers in 1923 and 1927 as well. Ken (no relation) could not seem to hold a major league job during the Deadball Era (he reached the majors in 1915 at age 25 but didn't stick for a full season until he was 30). He then started swatting taters in 1921 and led the league in 1922 with 39.

The 613 group had Earl "Oil" Smith, Dutch Zwilling, Highpockets Kelly and Hack Miller. Smith was another backup catcher, Miller had two power-hitting seasons with the Cubs after 32 Deadball at bats and Zwilling was a slugger in the Federal League and then vanished from the majors. Kelly was a non-entity during the Deadball Era but became a player much in the mold of the 613 hitters of today. He is in the Hall of Fame.

So much for my early adoption theory.

Rounding out the small groups were 523 (Gavvy Cravath, Jack Fournier, George Harper, Rogers Hornsby and Tilly Walker - all but Harper were stars), 640 (Harry Bay, Bruno Betzel, Bob Ganley, Eddie Mulligan, Jim O'Neill, Fred Payne, Red Shannon and Jim Stephens), 712 (Lute Boone, Jimmy Dykes, Fred Luderus, Art Nehf, Jack Quinn, Bill Sherdel, Jimmy Walsh and Art Wilson) and 910 (Johnny Bassler, Eddie Cicotte, Howard Ehmke, Hunter Hill, Earl Moore, Muddy Ruel, Urban Shocker and Roxy Walters).

640 are largely short-time players which surprises me. I would think 640 guys would be useful and plentiful in the Deadball Era. 712 is an interesting blend of players with few similarities. 910 are a combination of long-time poor hitting pitchers and really, really, really bad hitters. Check out Hunter Hill's magnificent 1904 season. Actually, Johnny Bassler is a unique player in this group. He was a catcher for the Tigers and a career .300 hitter, virtually all of it in the 1920's. He's definitely an oddball player in any era.

At least for those playing in the Deadball Era, this type of grouping doesn't seem to work without further breaking things down. The majority of the Hall of Famers of this era are 721 or 631.

Something of note is the batting average breakdown by triples and homers. For those with 60% of their extra base hits coming from 3B and HR (Ruth), the batting average is .342. The batting average for those whose hits are half doubles, half triples and homers is .287. Oh heck, here's a chart:

60% .342
50% .287
40% .285
30% .269
20% .254
10% .243

It wouldn't surprise me if this is because the guys who hit for more power played in the 1920's when overall batting average was higher. I may run this all again and restrict the statistics to just the Deadball Era and see what happens.

I also thought I'd take a look at this from a team standpoint. I didn't expect much variation here and what variation there was, I expected to be due to ballpark effects, something that you saw a lot of in the Deadball Era due to parks being fit into tracts of land on city blocks and such.

Of the 336 teams during the Deadball Era, 143 were 631 and 126 were 721. Big surprise there.

There was one 523 team, the 1913 Cubs, which seem to have been largely influenced by Vic Saier's oddball season. In 1912, Saier's ratio was 25-14-2. In 1913 it was 15-21-14. In 1914, 24-8-18. All for the Cubs. Same stadium. Go figure.

Most of the other small groups were of similar nature. Looking at it from year to year, teams tended not to stray from the 631 and 721 patterns.

There are some interesting team traits. The White Sox from 1905-1910 were either 730 or 820. The Reds were 631 for 17 of their 20 Deadball seasons. The Phillies, playing in the hitters' haven of the Baker Bowl posted 5 of the 11 team seasons with 20% home runs.

Fun exercise to do even though I don't feel like I found too much of interest. It might be worth looking at only Deadball Era statistics on an individual basis and see who, if anybody, stands out. I do think that this methodology makes it difficult to distinguish players from within the era and requires other breakouts to differentiate between groups of like players.

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