As long as you donâ€™t take it too seriously, arguments over the relative values of baseball players is some of the best fun and greatest conversation that you can ever have. By far, the best discussions are when both of you know the statistics concerning the players, the timeframe when they played and some of the characteristics of the ballparks they played in. In those cases, there has never been a way to definitively settle the issues, because there was no way to quantify the differences between playing in the different eras and places. While this book will not settle all of those issues, there are some powerful arguments that are difficult to refute.
Schell performs a thorough examination of the hitting data, weights it according to reasonable formulas and then cross references it to the era, thereby removing many of the inherent biases in the statistics. For example, a batting average gives equal weight to all hits, from a single to a home run. The on base percentage is a better indication of worth, because it includes the sometimes-frequent offensive weapon of the base on balls. However, it also considers only reaching first base to be equivalent to the home run. The slugging percentage differentiates between the different types of hits, so it has an advantage in that area, but it can overstate the value of a player who homers a lot when the bases are empty, but who strikes out when the bases are full. It is similar to the various measures of the center in statistics. The mean, median and mode all measure the center of a collection of data points, but none is a definitive measure and it is sometimes difficult to combine them in a meaningful way.
By using weighted formulas that incorporate several aspects of a hitterâ€™s statistics, when and where he played and using distributions, Schell is able to compute results that allow for a reasonable ranking of the all-time best hitters. He uses one primary assumption: â€œAfter adjusting for ballpark effects, a pth percentile player in one year is equal in ability to a pth percentile player in another year for each basic offensive event.â€ After the application of all the formulas, the end result is a list of the top 100 batters of all time. It will be no surprise to baseball fans that the top five in order are: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Rogers Hornsby, Barry Bonds and Lou Gehrig. The only surprise to me was that Sammy Sosa was not in the top 100.
Schell is thorough in his analysis, even attempting to quantify the nebulous uncertainty of the clutch hitter, one who gets the hit when the game is on the line. There are an enormous number of charts, tables and graphs in this book as well as some occasional heavy statistics jargon. However, it is one of the best baseball books ever, from now on, this is my reference bible when I am in a debate over who was the best player of all time.
Charles Ashbacher (firstname.lastname@example.org) teaches at Mount Mercy College in Cedar Rapids, Iowa.