Tom Tango, as he so often does, sparked an idea. Well, actually, a reader of his did. The reader pointed out -- and this seems almost too good to be true -- that Adam Dunn and Juan Pierre have almost exactly the same Wins Above Replacement. And it’s true both in Baseball Reference WAR (bWAR) and Fangraphs WAR (fWAR).
Dunn: 16.6 bWAR, 23.2 fWAR.
Pierre: 16.6 bWAR, 23.3 fWAR.
This is fantastic because Dunn and Pierre each have been written about so much, at least on the Internet, that in a way they have become more than just ballplayers. They have become symbols for a way of playing baseball. And their ways of playing baseball are almost polar opposites.
Dunn’s career value is basically tied up in his ability to hit home runs and walk. He can’t run, can’t field, has led the league in strikeouts four times. He’s also got a lifetime .367 on-base percentage because he has walked more than 1,200 times and he has hit 436 home runs -- eight times he hit 38 or more in a season.
Pierre’s career value is basically tied up in his ability to to hit for average, run like the wind and play center field to at least a draw despite throwing problems. he has absolutely no power, is allergic to the walk, and has a career 84 OPS+. He’s also got a .295 career batting average, more than 2,200 hits, and he has stolen more than 600 bases -- nine times with 40-plus in a season).
You may not care much for WAR as a metric. But the fact those two have registered almost identical value is poetic and lyrical and perfect. Through the years -- and I’ll generalize for a minute here -- people inside baseball have lamented Dunn’s low batting average, his hyper-willingness to take a walk even in RBI situations, and his outward demeanor and dreadfulness in the outfield (Who can forget J.P. Ricciardi’s “Do you know the guy really doesn’t like baseball that much?” comment). And people outside baseball have said, “Hold on a minute here. The guy gets on base. The guy hits home runs. He may not be perfect, but there’s value here.”
Meanwhile people outside baseball have written extensively about Pierre’s inability to walk, his relative ineffectiveness as a base stealer (he has led the league in steals three times but has led in caught-stealing seven times -- for his career he has been successful just 75.1% of the time, which is close to the cutoff point where stolen bases don’t actually help a team), his almost comically weak arm. And people inside the game have said: “Hold on a minute here. The guy’s close to a .300 hitter, he steals bases, he hustles, he can run down balls in center or left, he has leadership skills, this guy can play on my team anytime!”
Like I say, you may not like WAR. But the fact that Adam Dunn and Juan Pierre match up is fantastic. It’s like Ginger vs. Mary Ann. It’s like REO Speedwagon vs. Styx. It’s like Grisham vs. King. It’s like John McEnroe vs. Johnny Miller. It’s endlessly fascinating, and if someone asks me (as Tom Tango did) which player I would have wanted for their entire career, I would have to say what WAR says: It’s an exact tie.
Here are a couple other awesome WAR pairs.
Lonnie Smith: 38.5 bWAR, 35.0 fWAR
Mark Belanger: 41.0 bWAR, 34.9 fWAR
Their Baseball Reference WAR numbers are slightly off, but close enough -- great matchup here. Lonnie Smith was one of the indelible players of his day. They called him Skates because of his unique ability to fall down in the outfield, Despite this somewhat troubling glitch in his game -- Smith was charged with 54 errors between 1982 and 1986 -- Smith was extremely fast, a disciplined hitter. and a valuable player. In 1982, for the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals, he posted a .381 on-base percentage, scored a league-leading 120 runs, stole 68 bases (though he was caught 28 times) and finished second in the MVP voting. And that wasn’t his best season -- in 1989, he hit .315, led the National League in on-base percentage, banged 21 homers, stole 25 bases and scored 89 runs.
Mark Belanger was one of those rare players who looked EXACTLY as good as he was. He couldn’t hit at all, but he was an absolute artist at shortstop. That was his reputation when he played. That was what the numbers of the time said. That was what the next generation of numbers said. And that’s what the current numbers say. His 68 OPS+ is the sixth-lowest for anyone who got 6,000 plate appearances in the big leagues. But the 240 runs that WAR says he saved defensively is second only to his teammate Brooks Robinson (and one ahead of the Wizard, Ozzie Smith). He was such a glorious defensive player that his manager Earl Weaver, who despised the bunt, would allow Belanger to lead the league in sacrifice hits twice.
Bill Mazeroski: 36.1 bWAR, 30.9 fWAR
Frank White: 34.8 bWAR, 31.1 fWAR
I wanted to do a pair that made visual sense -- White and Mazeroski were essentially the same player in different spaces. Mazeroski was a brilliant defensive second baseman who did not get on base and offered occasional offensive value. Frank White was a brilliant defensive second baseman who did not get on base and offered occasional offensive value. Maz had an 84 OPS+ and hit 138 home runs -- and another in the postseason that is one of the most famous in baseball history. White had an 85 OPS+ and hit 160 homers -- he has slightly lesser postseason glory, he won the ALCS MVP in 1980 and batted cleanup in the 1985 World Series. Maz won eight Gold Gloves and was better than any second baseman ever at turning the double play. White won eight Gold Gloves and sort of invented a new way to play second base on artificial turf.
Maz is in the Hall of Fame. White has never really had his Hall of Fame case considered. There is a group in Kansas City trying to change that now -- they are pushing hard to have the Veteran’s Committee take a serious look at Frank’s career. Frank is a friend so I’m rooting for him, but I am a bit ambivalent about the whole thing. I don’t think “If he’s in, then he should be in” comparisons are of much use, and, anyway, I don’t think Mazeroski should be in the Hall of Fame. Maz was a fantastic player and he’s a wonderful guy by all accounts and his Mazeroski Baseball magazine literally changed my life. But I just don’t think he hit enough. Still, he is in. Frank White was basically the same player.
Hal McRae: 27.8 bWAR, 28.7 fWAR
Clete Boyer: 27.7 bWAR, 29.6 fWAR
Hal McRae was one of the first full-time designated hitters. He actually played five positions in the Majors (second, third, and all three outfield spots) but essentially after 1975, he was a DH. McRae was a really good hitter. He lost the 1976 batting title on the last day -- it was extremely controversial at the time and McRae believed racially motivated -- but he still led the league in on-base percentage. The next year, he smashed 54 doubles to lead the league. In 1982, he led the league in doubles and RBIs. From 1974 to 1982, he was a .300 hitter (.299 to be precise) with good power. But for the Royals at the time, McRae was something more. He had come from Cincinnati, where he watched the way the Big Red Machine played baseball. He brought that to a Kansas City expansion team. He was the leader, the force of nature, the guy who broke up double plays with fury, the man who ragged any teammate who dared try to sit out for some nagging injury, the player who taught the Kansas City Royals how to play winning baseball.
“Let’s settle this under the stands,” New York’s Cliff Johnson said to him before a playoff game in 1977 -- this after McRae had barreled into the Yankees shortstop on a double play to send a message.
“Cliff,” McRae said calmly. “I don’t fight extra men.”
Clete Boyer was the youngest of the three Boyer boys -- Cloyd, a pitcher, was 10 years older, and the great Ken Boyer was six years older -- and maybe that was the reason he was pretty wildly overlooked. He also had the misfortune of being a defensive genius at third base precisely at the time that Brooks Robinson was a defensive genius at third base. In fact, Boyer and Robinson were born three months apart in towns about 250 miles apart. They both signed in 1955. They both made their major league debuts at 18 (Boyer was a bonus baby which meant the Kansas City A’s HAD to keep him in the big leagues). Boyer played shortstop and second base as well as third -- Robinson was mostly a third baseman (though he played a little at second).
Robinson became an everyday player in 1958 for the Orioles. Boyer was traded to the Yankees in 1957 -- this in the day when every good player in Kansas City was traded to the Yankees -- and so he did not become a regular until 1960.
In 1960, Boyer hit .242 with 14 home runs, played brilliant defense at short and third, and the Yankees won the pennant.
In 1960, Robinson hit .294 with 14 home runs, played brilliant defense at third, and he won the Gold Glove.
In 1961, Boyer hit .224 with 11 home runs and, by the numbers, had one of the greatest defensive years ever for a third baseman. And the Yankees won the World Series.
In 1961, Robinson hit .287 with seven home runs and, by the numbers, was outstanding at third base. He won the Gold Glove.
In 1962, Boyer had one of his best offensive seasons -- .272/.331/.413 with 18 homers -- and again was an absolute marvel at third base. The Yankees again won the World Series.
In 1962, Robinson hit .303 with 23 home runs and was his usual fantastic self at third base. He won the Gold Glove.
You get the point. Boyer was probably Robinson’s equal defensively throughout the early 1960s, maybe even a tick better some years. But Robinson was a better hitter, and the narrative had been written. Robinson won the Gold Glove every year from from 1960 to 1975. I believe Robinson is the greatest defensive third baseman who ever lived, but he probably wasn’t better than Clete Boyer every single season (or, for that matter, better than Graig Nettles or Buddy Bell throughout the first half of the 1970s). Boyer finally won his first and only Gold Glove in 1969, after he had been traded to the National League Atlanta Braves.