BOOK: Wizardry…evaluating players’ DEFENSE…finally: “…the REST of the story…”


Finally, someone has devised a method to evaluate and codify fielding in baseball; in the near future, it may change who gets into the Hall of Fame. WIZARDRY is like two books, or like taking a pre-requisite Accounting 100 course, before you get the good stuff: Baseball’s All-Time Greatest Fielders Revealed. [the book’s subtitle.]

If you are not into deep-drill SABRmetrics, your eyes will glaze over frequently during the first 150 pages and you may give up on the book and miss the fascinating and controversial rankings of the best fielders in history, by position.

You might want to cut right to the “genuine crème” filling [pg. 151], where the Michael A. Humphreys [a born-in-Brooklyn, pro accountant, Mets’ fan] delivers the goods [and the bads] that provide endless fodder for arguments; a copy of this book should be required for every bar in the country.

Sox fans will want to know how their heroes matched up against every player in MLB history and, while it would be unfair to give away the “answers,” a few fun facts [especially about Derek Jeter] for the Red Sox Nation seems reasonable:

George Scott finishes #8 at 1b, ahead of Gil Hodges, Wally Pipp, Hank Greenberg and Vic Power. Ahead of “The Boomer,” are Pujols #3, Fred Tenney #2 [1904-11, Boston Braves, NL] and Pete O’Brien [1984-93]. Many players who are in the HOF [mainly on the basis of their offense] fall way down on the defense stat list and guys who best them are surprising.

"“…putouts are essentially meaningless for infielders, because the almost always result from a skill play of another fielder.” says Humphreys."

Carlton Fisk did not make the Top 40 at catcher and the author says this about Gary Carter [#11]:

"“I don’t think any catcher in Major League history, including Yogi Berra, ever put together a string of nine consecutive full-time catching seasons remotely of the overall [offensive and defensive] quality and consistency of Carter’s 1977 through 1985 season.”"

Based on defense only, Johnny Bench finishes #14 on the list behind #13 Thurman Munson; sandwiched between Carter and Munson: Rick Dempsey.

"On Piazza: “a pretty good catcher even though he was possibly the worst-ever catcher with a long career at controlling the running game.” And, did not make the Top 40 list."

Yes, you will be surprised by some of the rankings, but remind yourself that these are only based on defensive performance.  Here is a shocker: Yaz did not make the Top 40 fielding LFs [in the Contemporary Era]; Johnny Damon made #14 and, at #40: Manny…Ramirez. Offensive powerhouse Gary Sheffield: “cost his teams about 100 runs in the OF.”

The author’s decision to create separate lists for different historical periods complicates matters: Barry Bonds is the #1 rated LF in the Contemporary Era, while Roy White takes first place on the Modern Era list, followed by Rickey Henderson. Ironically for Sox fans, the 14th best LF in that era was Billy Buckner. The Fifties and Sixties are labeled the Transitional Era, where we find Yaz at #30 and former Negro League star, Monte Irvin, in second place. The author does offer an “All Time” list for every position as a grand finale for each chapter; the Era rankings offer plenty of clues.

"About the Green Monster factor, the author says: “…reduces left fielder defensive runs by about 10 runs per 162 games…in 2007 [John Walsh estimated that]…Yaz saved another 35 runs by holding runners…”"

In RF, Contemporary Era, two Sox made the Top 40: Troy O’Leary [#23] and, wait, at #24…Manny…Ramirez. For the Modern Era Dwight “Dewey” Evans slots in at #8 behind Barfield, Bonds, Armas and, wait…Joe Orsulak. Transitional Era list: Clemente, Aaron, and Kaline lead the pack with Tony Conigliaro in the 34 slot.

In CF, Contemporary Era, former Sock Darren Lewis finished 8th with Beltran up in 5th; these defenders finished in the top three slots: Andrew Jones, Mike Cameron, and Jim Edmonds. Milton “It’s Just a Game” Bradley made the Top 40, although he always seemed a little too defensive. Ken Griffey, Jr. finished #53 on the list and the author comments:

"“Junior genuinely excelled a throwing out and holding base runners. Junior received 10 Gold Gloves…but was never clearly better than average…Junior was a poor center fielder…he’s the Jeter of the outfield.” [OOOooo…Snap!]"

And, here’s the best part for Sox fans, on the list of 53 Contemporary Era shortstops, Derek Jeter finishes LAST! [Snap! And Double Snap!] Jeter is bested by the likes of Jeff Blauser, Edgar Renteria, Julio Lugo, Nomar Garciaparra, John Valentin, and Alex Cora.

Recent Hall of Fame electee Barry Larkin finished #2 in the All Time list to…wait…Rey Sanchez [Mets, 1998].

On the Modern Era list, Sox alum Rick Burleson checks in at #20, just ahead of the historically “offensive” Bucky Dent. In WIZARDRY, “The Wiz” of St. Louis, Mr. Smith places second, followed by Gary Templeton and Dave Concepcion. [An Oriole SS from 1974 was #1.] Ripken? Just two slots ahead of Burleson at #18.

"Did you know that: “In July, 1985, Ozzie [Smith]…damaged his rotator cuff…he refused to tell anyone…so opponents would not try to take advantage of his weakened arm. [For ten years] he played through pain, avoiding using his right arm for everyday life.”"

Johnny Pesky finished #14 on the Transitional Era shortstop list with Rizzuto #2 and a peer-favorite in #1 [Reds, 1958].

For the Modern Era Dwight “Dewey” Evans slots in at #8 behind Barfield, Bonds, Armas and, wait…Joe Orsulak. Transitional Era list: Clemente, Aaron, and Kaline lead the pack with Tony Conigliaro in the 34 slot.

OK, just one more: Top Centerfielders of All-Time. Willie Mays at #3; are you frackin’ kidding me?! Tris Speaker, with Boston from 1908-1915 finishes ahead of Mays [and there might be a good argument there]; but, the #1 CF of All-Time played for the Atlanta Braves in 2002? Baseball Reference ranks this CF #203 on its All-Time Rank (Among Batters) and his lifetime BA is .256, fielding percentage: .990 to Mays’ .981.  But, Mays is in the HOF and this CF will need to pay admission to get in to look at Willie’s glove. So, the the author I say: Andruw Jones, the Top Center fielder of All-Time? Really, Mr. Humphfreys ? Really? Yes, replies the author and he makes his case.

"A Boston Braves player, Herman Long, 1893-1902, is a defensive record holder: total errors in a career, at all positions; in 1893 he racked up 98 errors with the Boston Braves."

While you may not agree with the author’s rankings [Willie Mays the third best CF of All-Time? Really, Mr. Humphreys? Really?] you will be impressed with his numerous numeric proofs.  What makes this book significant in the literature of baseball is that someone has provided a method to evaluate the defensive performance of baseball players; until now, whether Mantle was better than Dimaggio, or Mays was better than Snider was only a question of their offensive stats, but, thanks to the author, we can now include the other half of the game, the defense, in our arguments.

LISTEN:  This new availability of defensive performance may someday become an important co-factor in deciding who is worthy of entering the Hall of Fame; what else in life is more important than that?


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Fine Details  · Last Updated Feb 7, 2012, 5:11PM