Unblurring History: Bill James Puts Too Much Weight on Length of Career

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Unblurring History: Bill James Puts Too Much Weight on Length of Career
(Photo by Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

First of all, I want to let it be known that the respect that I have for Bill James is great.

He's arguably the most respected baseball historian alive and is the "godfather" of the modern rating system, saber metrics.

Having said that, in order to build upon what he started, we first must find the flaws in his system.

The major flaw that we will discuss in this article is the weight he puts on length of career.

To me, James rates the best "careers" of all time, but he doesn't always rate the best "players" of all time.

I understand we have to adjust for long careers when a player is no longer putting up the dominant numbers he might have early on.

Here it is, simplified: If a player appears in 2,000+ games, but dropped off in his last 200 games, we simply take out the last 200 games to find that player's "true" numbers.

That's career adjustment 101, I think we all understand that.

For example, Pete Rose ended his career with a .300 batting average, but if you adjust his career and take out some late seasons, we know that he was a .310 hitter. His other numbers also get better along with his average, including runs per at-bats, RBI per at-bats, etc.

At the same time, James' system makes it impossible to adjust for a player who had a shorter career, appearing in 1,000 games or less.

Here are two players, one with a long career and one with a short career, that we will use as examples of James and his weight on length of career.

 

Brooks Robinson

James calls Robinson an A- defensively in his Win Shares book. I think he's an A +, but we'll stick with James' grade.

Most call him a B- offensively, while some would argue he wasn't even that good. Again, I think he was better than most give him credit for, but we will stick with that grade as well.

Robinson is an A + in length of career, and thus James calls him the fifth best overall third baseman in the history of MLB—an A+ overall.

So, without length of career: A- (defensively) plus B- (offensively)= A + (overall)

Doesn't jive without length of career, does it? Now if you throw in length of career, then it starts making sense.

A- (defensively) plus B- (offensively) plus A+ (LOC) = A + (overall)

That makes more sense. But that's not telling us who the best players were, right?

It's telling us who had the best career. There's a difference.

 

Bill Lange

James calls Lange an A + defensively in his Win Shares book. I agree, most do.

Lange was one of the best defensive center fielders in history, no argument here.

Lange was also an A+ offensively. With all the knowledge of the game that James possesses, he'd call him an A+, too.

But James rates him about the 60th best overall center fielder in history—about a B+ overall.

Unfortunately, Lange only played in just over 800 career games, an F in the length of career category.

So without length of career: A+ (defensively) plus A+ (offensively) = B+ (overall)

Again, it doesn't jive without length of career. But if you throw in length of career, it starts making sense.

A+ (defensively) plus A+ (offensively) plus F (LOC) = B+ (overall)

That makes more sense.

 

James ranks the best career ever, not the best player ever. It's not what we were trying to tell people right?

It's not what I wanted to know when I read his book.

What's amazing is that most historians follow these same guidelines. It's the "accepted" way to rate players, and we need to change that.

Again, I love and respect James' work, but he can't tell me a guy like Ray Lankford was a better overall center fielder than Bill Lange.

I don't think James even believes that to be true, but the length of career puts Lankford ahead of Lange in most rating systems.

Did Lankford have a better "career" than Lange? Yeah, maybe so.

Was Lankford a better overall player than Lange? No.

Lankford was a heck of a player, but it's unfair to call him the better center fielder simply because he played more games than Lange.

There are dozens of position players like this that we could bring up, and that's not even mentioning starting pitchers like Smokey Joe Wood with short careers.

Many historians will rate Burleigh Grimes higher than Wood. Again, historians don't believe Grimes was better than Smokey Joe, they just think he had a better "career.”

What are we doing blurring history like this?

Change the names of these books to the best "careers" ever, because they're sure as hell not the best "players" ever.

Respectfully yours.

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