Sunday, April 6, 2008

How Good Was Honus Wagner Compared To Today's Players?

Professional baseball has been with us for over a century and Honus Wagner was one of the sport's earliest stars. But how good was he compared to the players in today's game? How can you compare players from one generation to the next?

Bill James, one of baseball's most famous historians, recently came up with a framework for measuring the effectiveness of players from different eras in his book "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract." (As a side note Bill James was named to TIME Magazine's 100 Most Influential People list in 2006 for the work that he did). To rank the greatest baseball players of all time James used two key ratings: Runs Created and Win Shares.

Runs Created

Bill James maintains that a batter's job is not to get hits but to create runs. You could get all the hits you want but if they are not translating into runs for your team, does it matter? His argument is that the job of the batter is to generate runs which is how a hitter's value should be measured. The formula to figure out how many runs are created by each batter is:
(Hits + Walks) x (Total Bases) / (At Bats + Walks)
Win Shares

Bill James also create the Win Shares system which assigns a numerical figure which represents the value that a player brings to his team in any given season. It is a more complicated formula that looks at the number of wins that a single player is responsible for bringing to his team. In other words, if Honus Wagner were replaced with a league average shortstop, how many fewer wins would Pittsburgh have had?

How Does Honus Wagner Fare?

According to career Win Shares, the top 10 list are:
  1. Babe Ruth - 758
  2. Ty Cobb - 726
  3. Honus Wagner - 655
  4. Henry Aaron - 641
  5. Willie Mays - 641
  6. Cy Young - 635
  7. Tris Speaker - 633
  8. Stan Musial - 604
  9. Eddie Collins - 572
  10. Mickey Mantle - 565
If you look at Win Shares over five consecutive seasons, Honus Wagner actually leads the list:
  1. Honus Wagner - 1904-1908
  2. Babe Ruth - 1920-1924
  3. Ted Williams - 1941-1948
  4. Walter Johnson - 1912-1916
  5. Mickey Mantle - 1954-1958
  6. Ty Cobb - 1907-1911
  7. Tris Speaker - 1912-1916
  8. Willie Mays - 1962-1976
  9. Eddie Collins - 1911-1915
  10. Stan Musial - 1944-1949
The Greatest Players Of All Time

Bill James concluded his book by creating a list of the 100 Greatest Players of All Time. The top 10 were:
  1. Babe Ruth
  2. Honus Wagner
  3. Willie Mays
  4. Oscar Charleston
  5. Ty Cobb
  6. Mickey Mantle
  7. Ted Williams
  8. Walter Johnson
  9. Josh Gibson
  10. Stan Musial
Conclusion

According to Bill James, one of baseball's greatest historians, after years of research and analysis, his conclusion was that Honus Wagner was the second greatest baseball player of all time, behind only the legendary Babe Ruth.

Among baseball fans, the discussion of who is the greatest player of all time is one that will continue for decades to come but if anyone was going to put together an accurate framework for measuring players across different eras, James is the man for the job.

For more information, please refer to Bill James' book "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract."

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