Michael Hoban, Ph.D / Hall of Fame
and the Gold Glove
Best Hitter of the Past Decade
The Win Shares System
Can ARod Catch Honus?
Adapted from Fielders Choice: Baseballs Best Shortstops (Baseball Concepts:2003)
By Michael Hoban, Ph.D.
A new book has reinforced the belief that HonusWagner is the greatest all-around shortstop (hitting and fielding) who ever played the game of baseball at the major league level (Cal Ripken Jr. is a distant second). Wagner played from 1897 to 1917 primarily for the Pittsburgh Pirates. During the 20th century, he was by far the best hitting shortstop of all time. He won the batting title in the National League eight times during his career and he is #13 among the best hitters of all time. And he is also #10 in fielding among those players who have played shortstop in the major leagues for an extended period of time (he played 1887 games at the position).
These facts (among many others) are established in Fielders Choice: Baseballs Best Shortstops by Michael Hoban, Ph.D., a professor of mathematics and a serious baseball researcher. Dr. Hoban is a member of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research) and the author of Baseballs Complete Players (McFarland: 2000(.
One of the more amazing facts of Wagners career is that he did not begin to play shortstop on a full time basis until 1903 when he was 29 years of age. Add to that the fact that Honus had his best hitting season at the age of 34 in 1908 and his best defensive season at the age of 38 in 1912 and you realize what a special talent he was.
But another very special talent has emerged at shortstop over the past seven years in the person of Alex Rodriguez. Already one of the best hitters in the game today (at any position), ARod has improved his fielding to the point where he is one of the best fielding shortstops playing at the present time. (He won his first Gold Glove in 2002 and deservedly so since he was the best fielding shortstop in either league.)
And so it is natural for fans to wonder if Alex has any real chance to displace Honus as the best all-around shortstop in baseball history. This is particularly so since ARod was only 27 years of age at the end of the 2002 season and had already played 1109 games at the position.
The new book, Fielders Choice, now gives us the tools to look at this question in a new light and to come up with an answer based on a serious analysis of the numbers. And it is somewhat surprising to note that ARod does seem to have a shot (however difficult) of challenging Honus for the title of the greatest shortstop ever.
Lets look at hitting first. In the book, Professor Hoban introduces a new metric called Batting Proficiency (BP) for measuring a players hitting success for each season. Obviously, the book gives the full rationale and details of the metric, but here we will indicate that BP essentially combines on-base percentage, slugging average and runs created in a balanced manner (properly adjusted for season and league). It then translates the number into a batting average type number so that 300 represents a very good hitting season. According to the his batting proficiency, Honus Wagner is the #13 most proficient hitter of all time (Babe Ruth and Ted Williams are #1and 2, respectively). And Honus (at 325) is the only shortstop among the 37 players in history to have a ten-season BP average of better than 300.
Now, what is an appropriate way to compare ARod and Honus as hitters? As we just noted, Wagner has a BPR (batting proficiency rating) of 325 for his ten best seasons (and this is the thirteenth best in history). The next two best hitting shortstops are Ernie Banks and Arky Vaughan both with a BPR of 280 based on their ten best seasons. But, of course, Alex has not played ten full seasons yet. In fact, he has not played even half the seasons that Honus did. So it would appear appropriate to look at ARods five best hitting seasons to date and to see if he would have a chance to catch Wagner if he had at least five more seasons at the same rate.
Using this process, we find that for his five best hitting seasons so far (out of seven full seasons), Alex has an average BP of 322. Compare that to Nomar Garciparras 292 and Derek Jeters 270.
If we look at only the five best hitting seasons of the top hitting shortstops, here is the average BP of each.
Honus Wagner 342
Alex Rodriguez 322
Ernie Banks 308
Arky Vaughan 306
Nomar Garciaparra 292
So, if we assume that Alex can keep up this same hitting pace for at least five more seasons, he will be at 322 but will still fall short of Honus ten-year BP of 325. Now, that is kind of interesting because ARod has had some fine hitting seasons so far. Of course, it is possible that he will improve his production over the next few years since it can be argued that he is just now entering his prime as a player but, of course, there is no guarantee of that.
Ok, now what about fielding? In the book, Professor Hoban introduces a system called the CDT (Career Defensive Total) for determining who were baseballs best defensive shortstops. The system uses the fielding numbers that the players have put into the books as well as two key comparative statistics: the fielding percentage and the range factor compared to the league for each season. Ozzie Smith emerges as the #1 defensive shortstop of all time not a great surprise to too many followers of the game. But the #2 player is a relative unknown to most fans. Walter (Rabbit) Maranville played shortstop from 1912 to 1935 with remarkable agility and effectiveness. The fact that Ozzie played towards the end of the century and the Rabbit towards the beginning helps to illustrate how balanced the system really is. Under the CDT system, Honus Wagner emerges as the #10 best defensive shortstop in baseball history for his career.
The CDT system establishes a score of 800 as indicating that a shortstop had a very good defensive season. If a shortstop averages better than 800 for ten seasons, this indicates that he is an outstanding defensive player. Honus averaged 862 for his ten best fielding seasons. And for his five best fielding seasons through 2002, Alex Rodriguez had averaged 831. Which means that if he can continue this performance for five more years he would establish himself as one of the best defensive shortstops of all time.
In the book, Dr. Hoban compares the shortstops as all-around players by combining their hitting and fielding accomplishments (their BP average plus 25% of the CDT score). Following that model, we can compare ARod and Honus as follows.
Honus Wagner 325 + 216 = 541
Alex Rodriguez 322 + 208 = 530
What this means is that if ARod continues to hit and field at his current pace, he will wind up as the second greatest all-around shortstop of all time behind Honus.
But we have seen that Wagner did not have his best hitting season until age 34 and his best fielding season until age 38. And it would seem that Rodriguez (at age 28) still has at least a few of his most productive years ahead of him.
Therefore, it seems reasonable to state that Alex Rodriguez has a good chance to displace Honus Wagner as the greatest all-around shortstop of all time.
Michael Hoban, Ph.D is Professor Emeritus of mathematics at the City University of N.Y. He has been an avid baseball fan for over 60 years and has become a serious baseball analyst for the past 10. He is the author of two baseball books: BASEBALL'S COMPLETE PLAYERS (McFarland: 2000) and FIELDER'S CHOICE (Booklocker: 2003).