The most consistently *good* player ever? (Part 1)

There’s a player who’s not in the Hall of Fame, even though his career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is: six more than the average HOF position player; more than 13 of the 18 HOF second basemen; and more than any other eligible HOF reject besides PED suspects.

The reason usually given for his exclusion is that he had no great years and few truly outstanding ones. I’m not here to dispute that point, and this article is not an argument for putting him in the Hall.

Instead, I’m exploring whether Lou Whitaker was the most consistently “good” position player in MLB history.

 

Caveats:

  1. This analysis focuses on WAR, using the Baseball-Reference method. If you prefer the FanGraphs method, know that Whitaker rates a little better over there. If you’re skeptical of defensive WAR ratings, know that more than 80% 77% of Whitaker’s WAR value comes from offense; WAR agrees with the popular view that Whitaker was a good, not great, defender. (For instance, among all 2Bs in the 1980s, Whitaker and Willie Randolph are tied for 2nd in dWAR, but far behind #1 Frank White and very close to the #4-5 guys.)
  2. You may know that I’m a Tigers fan, that Whitaker broke in when I was 13, and that I have advocated his election to the Hall of Fame. I’m trying hard to be objective here, but it won’t surprise me if you find some hint of bias.

Number of “good” seasons

Has anyone produced more “good-but-not-great” seasons than Whitaker? In his 19-year career, Whitaker had:

  • Twelve seasons with 3.0 to 5.0 WAR — the most such years in MLB history. (Three others had 11, and two had 10.)
  • Fifteen seasons with 3.0 to 7.0 WAR — again, the most such years in MLB history. (Two others had 14, and two had 13.)

Why those WAR ranges? The floor of 3.0 WAR is a generally accepted standard for a good season by a regular. (See chart.) In a given year, between one-quarter and one-third of those playing 100+ games will register at least 3.0 WAR; it was 29% last year, 28% since 2000, 27% during Whitaker’s career. (The 3-WAR floor is unfair to players before 1884, when the schedule was much shorter, but I can’t help that; if you want to show that Joe Start fits this bill better than Whitaker, go to it.)

I set the first ceiling at 5.0 WAR representing the rough minimum for MVP selection. During Whitaker’s career, 31 of 35 position-player MVPs had at least 5.0 WAR. A player with 3 to 5 WAR has a good chance of being an All-Star, but is unlikely to be in the MVP discussion.

I set the second ceiling at 7.0 WAR representing the rough minimum for a league leader. During Whitaker’s career, 34 of 38 league WAR leaders had at least 7.0 WAR, and all had at least 6.4. There were about four 7-WAR seasons per year during Whitaker’s career.

And for what it’s worth, if we split the difference and count seasons with 3.0 to 6.0 WAR, Whitaker is tied for the all-time lead with two others, at 13 seasons.

So Whitaker has a claim to the most “good-but-not-great” seasons. How does he fare on consistency?

Consistency of “good-or-better” seasons

For this test, I set a preliminary standard of 100+ games, and a secondary standard of 2+ WAR per 100 games (which of course equates with 3 WAR per 150 games). I gathered the players with the most years of 100+ games, then counted the times they reached that WAR rate.

There are 199 players who had at least 14 seasons of 100+ games.

Nine of them met the WAR standard in every one of those years. Eight of those nine are inner-circle HOFers, or at least have the 100-WAR credential; the other is Jeff Bagwell. All of them had many great seasons. (Even Bags had four 7-WAR years, which only 36 other players in history have done.)

These next seven players met the 2-WAR/100-G standard in all but one of their 100-game seasons. They’re ordered by number of years meeting the standard, with their career WAR/100 in parentheses:

Again, all these guys enjoyed many great seasons — all cleared 90 career WAR with ease, and are (or will be) HOFers — except Whitaker.

The point: Almost all players have significant ups and downs in their career, so those who consistently reach a given WAR threshold almost have to average quite far above that threshold. Whitaker is the leading exception to that rule.

Compare these charts of Sweet Lou and A-Rod, who both have 16 years of 100+ games, with 15 of those at 2+ WAR per 100 games. The charts show each player’s 100-game seasons only, not chronologically but ordered by WAR/100 G, from lowest to highest. The red line represents their career average of WAR/100 G.

First, the superstar:

As shown before, A-Rod has been very consistent, meeting the “good” standard in all but one of his 100-game years. Even so, his chart shows a fair amount of variation from his career average.

Now, Sweet Lou:

Eleven of Whitaker’s 16 full years fall within a range of +/- 12% of his career average. Throw out his high and his low year, and the other 14 fall within +/- 31% of his career average. Now, that’s consistency.

____________________

So far, we’ve looked at frequency and consistency of good seasons, and Whitaker’s seems to have a strong claim to the title in question. In Part 2, I will:

  • look at the rarity of amassing so much WAR without any great seasons;
  • compare Whitaker to his contemporaries, both at second base and beyond; and
  • look for current players who fit this mold.

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76 Comments on "The most consistently *good* player ever? (Part 1)"

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bstar
Guest
Good job, John. You’ve convinced me Whitaker is the most consistent good player ever (which makes him very good to great overall, in my construct). I thought Eddie Murray would be on the list of near-misses for both the 3-5 WAR years and the 3-7 ones, but he just misses. If you include Murray’s two 2.9 WAR seasons, he does have 13 seasons between 2.9 and 7 WAR. To back up your argument for Whitaker, here’s his WAR graphs from Fangraphs. Look at the second one, the cumulative WAR graph. The almost-perfectly straight slope of the line really underscores Sweet… Read more »
Hartvig
Guest

Great pickup on Murray- another of the poster boys for consistency.

If we were to form a team Wagner would be perhaps the most consistent but maybe not what is meant by the idea behind the article. Jeter or Reese would be maybe a little better matches than Whitaker’s former Keystone partner. Luis Aparicio would be another. At third Ron Cey or Bob Elliott would be good candidates if you consider Ron Santo to rank a notch higher on the greatness ladder.

Ed
Guest

Palmeiro is another one. Twelve seasons between 3-7 WAR, plus a season of 2.8 WAR.

PP
Guest

Schmidt had 14 straight yrs of 4.7 to 9.5 according to BBREF. 13 of those 14 were above 5.8.

Hartvig
Guest

Schmidt, like Wagner and maybe even Santo, kind of crosses from the *good* level into *great* territory tho (Santo’s stretch wasn’t near as long however).

I just glanced at Henry Aaron’s numbers- he had an almost identical stretch to Schmidt’s (4.7 to 9.1) that went 17 years & all but 1 was 5.9 or above.

Bryan O'Connor
Editor

That second graph is amazing. Murray’s looks similar (and rides a little higher) until age 34, when he trails off a little, but sticks around as a somewhat useful player.

Tubbs
Guest
Nice to see Whitaker getting some attention. I’ll be interested to see how he does in 2016 when he’s eligible in the Expansion Era Committee Vote. Hopefully Cox, Torre, LaRussa all get in on 2013 ballot so that 2016 won’t be so crowded. I’m not sure how Marvin Miller’s passing will affect his vote total but either way with likely holdovers Dwight Evans, Keith Hernandez, Ted Simmons, and Dave Concepcion, Whitaker will join a stacked ballot in 2016. Also, the Expansion Era will elect ugh Bud Selig when he retires which will likely make him eligible in 2016. Whitaker is… Read more »
MikeD
Guest

It was when Whitaker fell off in rapid order that I wondered if all candidates should have two years on the ballot, falling off in year two if they don’t get five percent. I suspect if a very good player, who some consider Hall-worthy, falls below 5% in year one, it might create a push in year two, hopefully giving the player extra life while his case is debated.

Yet despite that, I’m guessing any player who is one and done has substantial issues to overcome in the collective mind of BBWAA members, so it probably wouldn’t make much difference.

Bryan O'Connor
Editor

“I suspect if a very good player, who some consider Hall-worthy, falls below 5% in year one, it might create a push in year two, hopefully giving the player extra life while his case is debated.”

You mean like Kevin Brown last year? I dislike Brown as much as the next guy, but he’s well above the borderline, as evidenced by his 136 Hall Rating at Hall of Stats. Whitaker’s 142 is even better, but as John notes above, he was more consistently good, while Brown had five straight seasons of 5.9 or more WAR, peaking at 8.3.

MikeD
Guest
Brown is certainly another and more recent one. Many believe a HOFer is a HOFer, and if there’s any question about a player being a HOFer, then he isn’t a HOFer. Under that way of thinking, every player should be elected on his first year of eligibility and there would be no need for fifteen years on the ballot. Nice in theory but not in reality. I understand mosc’s point about clearing the ballot, but I don’t see a major problem if players were given two years to register five percent, especially if an additional requirement was added, such as… Read more »
mosc
Guest

You have to clear people off the ballot or else you end up with the same problem you had when they first started voting: 10 people only leaves off Babe Ruth on a couple ballots. Whitaker’s not getting voted in by the 75% process. If you reduce the hall to the players who actually were, he’s not not that close. Maybe he gets in through the back door, more power to him. The front door was rightfully shut in his face.

MikeD
Guest

I’m not quite sure what you mean by “rightfully shut in his face.” If by that you mean he didn’t get 5% to stay on the ballot, then you’re correct. He was not elected and dropped off the ballot based on the way the rules are currently constructed. If by “rightfully shut in his face” you mean he doesn’t deserve to be in the HOF, well that’s a whole different discussion.

MikeD
Guest

Interesting, as usual.

Among current players, I’d guess Jeter might fall into metronome consistency category.

Ed
Guest

John – Great analysis and I look forward to reading the second part. One question: you state that over 80% of Whitaker’s value comes from offense. How did you calculate that? Thanks!

Ed
Guest
How about “Consistently Very Good”? Using John’s definitions and looking at seasons between 5-7 WAR, I get the following list: Cobb: 10 Ott, Speaker: 9 Frank Thomas, Edgar Martinez: 8 Abreu, Larkin, Henderson, Molitor, Kaline, Ashburn, Mize: 7 I actually did this search specifically because I was interested in seeing where Abreu would rank. I expect him to get almost zero support for the HOF and perhaps he doesn’t belong. But I do think he was criminally underrated during his career. BTW, his 7 seasons of 5.0-7.0 WAR were done consecutively. The only other person on the list with 7… Read more »
mosc
Guest
Abreu and Sheffield are chronically underrated. Sheffield has steroids stuff but I don’t think I’m the only one who noticed a much smaller Abreu showing up in 2006 and from then on. Sheffield either found safe stuff to use or was never really a big benefactor from it anyway because his late career power numbers were pretty typical for a guy in his late 30s. Slugging .450 at age 40 well after the steroid era in that big NYM ballpark I hope opened some eyes as well to someone who was always a good power threat with BB>SO OBP goodness.… Read more »
Lawrence Azrin
Guest

Sheffield had defensive shortcomings that cut down his overall value, though they seem considerably overstated by the Rfield WAR in B-R. AFAIK, -195 runs is the worst Rfield ever?

Frank Thomas was absolutely AWESOME in his twenties and looked like he was in that Ruth/Williams territory as one of the best hitters ever, but after age 32, injuries and a big drop in BA dragged him down from awesome to very good-to-excellent. He could always walk and hit for some power.

Ed
Guest

Abreu was also underrated because he was a multi-talented player who lacked one outstanding skill.

BTW, I know I’m a broken record on this but you can’t look at dwar by itself because it includes the positional adjustment. In Thomas’ case, most of the -23 dwar comes from the negative positional adjustment of being a DH for much of his career. In the field he had -65 fielding runs, which translates to a loss of about 6 or 7 WAR, not 23.

bstar
Guest
Mosc, the same metrics that you say are absurdly stupid are agreeing with you, that Abreu was a fine outfielder when he was younger. As Ed points out, Rfield is really the column you should be looking at for fielding prowess. Let’s look at Abreu before and after age 30. Rfield up to age 30: +62 fielding runs Rfield past age 30: -61 fielding runs Rfield for career: +1 fielding runs Abreu is actually quite the poster child for how outfielders age. He doesn’t have one negative Rfield until he gets into his 30s, and after that he would never… Read more »
mosc
Guest
I actually like the defensive metrics for comparing within a position. The issue for me is when they are used to offset their offensive stats and especially so when it is compared to other players who play different positions. Defensive stats work well at telling me who was the best defensive left fielder or something, they just don’t do a damn bit of good including in the total value of that player and are completely meaningless in comparing the total value of that left fielder against a catcher. The problem with dwar is it’s used as position independent and because… Read more »
mosc
Guest
I didn’t realize the total chances were higher for LF, I stand corrected there. But covering first is not easy on any play starting on the mound. Lazy fly balls to left or cutting off a base hit and throwing to the middle infielder are pretty easy plays. There are great defensive plays in left probably more often than from the mound but the routine plays are more difficult for the pitcher. So what I’m saying is a gold glove pitcher adds more defensive value than a gold glove left fielder. Course, the pitcher is only on the field for… Read more »
Jason Z
Guest
On June 14, 1997 I attended a game between the Yankees and Marlins in Miami. No record exists because the game was rained out after 1 inning. But what an inning. The Yankees scored four runs in the top of the first. The Marlins came up and scored five runs in the bottom of the first, then the rain came, and the game was cancelled. Even so, events transpired, including something I will never forget. Gary Sheffield came up with the bases loaded against David Wells. He failed off two pitches into the upper deck down the left field line.… Read more »
deal
Guest

Whitaker’s Career oWAR ranks 65th all-time, yet he only has one career offesive category that ranks in that range – Walks 57th.

Played a long time and has reallly good career numbers for a guy that only recieved MVP votes in one season.

The man retired with an active string of 5 consecutive years of 120+ OPS. I would think that is not very common.

Richard Chester
Guest

In his last 5 years Whitaker had a minimal seasonal PA total of 285. Using that as a seasonal cut-off there have been 5 other players with their last 5 years of 120+ OPS or better in the ML (Federal League excepted). They are Larry Walker, Roberto Clemente, Mickey Mantle, Roy Cullenbine and Bob Johnson.

deal
Guest

Thanks Richard – I love this I come up with some crazy hypothesis/Question and by lunch time somebody has an answer.

Roberto Clemente would have been the one folks could figure out.

Who knew that Mantles final years remained so Productive – despite a pretty low BA he still got walked a lot. In that pitching dominated era his AVG was probably not that far below the rest of the leagues.

Richard Chester
Guest

It’s really easy to find those players if you are a PI subscriber.

Lawrence Azrin
Guest

His last two years Mantle’s BA was .245 and .238, but still seven and five points above the AL average. He never had a year where his BA was less than the league average.

His OPS both years was well over a hundred points better than the league-average.

Jimbo
Guest

The hitter-anemic 60’s made Mantles final years look much worse than they really were. Maybe in a different era he wouldn’t have felt so diminished and might’ve played a few more years?

mosc
Guest

Mantle was done for non-baseball related reasons and being hobbled in the pre-DH era. Also, his strikeouts were racking up and that was thought of very negatively in his era. We look now at the walks and say his plate discipline was excellent but he was ragged on for it. I think in today’s era he would have swung away even more, been forced to stay sober, and would have been impossible for Barry Bond’s late roiding to keep up with for career HR’s.

Jason Z
Guest

I think Mantle’s retirement was the result of two things.

He had been playing in pain for a long time and probably had enough.

Also, he was very frustrated that his career average had fallen below .300 (.298)

Probably didn’t see a pathway back to .300.

mosc
Guest
He couldn’t get out of the box barely at all by the end. His power, his eye, bat speed, they were all still enough to keep going. Obviously the power was down due to age but still productive. His BAbip dropped to a career worst .262 in ’68. I think his next season would have been pretty ugly. Nobody wants to see a hero playing below league average. I don’t think he was ever that comfortable at first base either. Pepitone was not mantle with the bat but he was a very good defensive first basemen displaced to an outfield… Read more »
Doug
Editor
If you look at number of qualifying seasons among the last 5 at 120+ OPS+, only Bob Johnson meets these criteria for all 5 seasons. And, he did so at age 35-39. Nobody has done this in 4 of the 5 last seasons since the 1950s. Rk Yrs From To Age 1 Bob Johnson 5 1941 1945 35-39 Ind. Seasons 2 Jackie Jensen 4 1956 1959 29-32 Ind. Seasons 3 Ralph Kiner 4 1951 1954 28-31 Ind. Seasons 4 Roy Cullenbine 4 1943 1947 29-33 Ind. Seasons 5 Lou Gehrig 4 1935 1938 32-35 Ind. Seasons 6 Bill Terry 4… Read more »
deal
Guest

Lot of early retirees in the list. Gehrig is the big one of course. Shoeless Joe ejected. Kiner Injury. Jackie Jensen Fear of flying.

Clemente would be on the list if the threshold is reduced to 400 PAs. After age 32 he never played more then 140 games.

Richard Chester
Guest

Harry Heilmann is another early retiree. He retired after the 1930 season at age 35 due to arthritis. In 1932 he made an ill-fated comeback attempt and had to quit again after only 15 games with a 58 OPS+.

Ed
Guest

Wonder if Roy Cullenbine is the only guy to get released after three straight seasons of 4.0+ WAR?

Richard Chester
Guest

Cullenbine and Clemente are the only players with a WAR of 4+ in each of their last three years. So Cullenbine is the only guy to be released. In his last year, 1947, Cullenbine batted .224 with an OBP of .401. That is the lowest BA for a player with a .400+ OBP. He received 137 BB, the most ever for a last season.

Richard Chester
Guest

Cullenbine set another record in 1947. His 22-game streak of at least one BB broke the record then held by Ted Williams.

Bryan O'Connor
Editor
Whitaker’s might be the first case in which sabermetrics build a reasonable Hall of Fame case for a player who didn’t seem to have one previously. People talk about Blyleven being a SABR-darling, but the guy threw 60 shutouts and had ten seasons with an ERA below 3. We don’t need park and era adjustments to know that he was an all-time great; we just need to stop caring about wins and losses (though Blyleven had a ton of wins too). In Whitaker’s case, he’s got no black ink (except for co-leading the league in games played in a strike-shortened… Read more »
Ed
Guest

Bryan – Perhaps but I think John’s post is the sort of thing that works against Whitaker. The reason he didn’t receive much support when he was on the ballot is because he was perceived as a good, but not great player. This just reinforces that perception.

Bryan O'Connor
Editor

Ed, I think we basically agree here, but before WAR, we didn’t have a method of comparing the cumulative value of a long, good-but-not-great career to a short-but-high-peak guy. I’m actually on the fence about Whitaker’s candidacy, but the fact that he earned more WAR with his good-but-not-great play than Frank Thomas or Reggie Jackson or Roberto Alomar tells us something we didn’t know when Whitaker was first on the ballot, doesn’t it?

mosc
Guest

Whitaker and Trammel probably go in together on some veteran committee type thing. That’s what I would think. Maybe one focused on using proper statistical analysis on the era between the lowered mound and the syringe?

Doug
Guest

Indian Bob Johnson is another player of this mold.

Played only 13 seasons, but all were above 502 PA. 11 of the 13 seasons were between 3 and 7 WAR – the other two were 2.5 and 2.7. 11 of his 13 seasons were also between 125 and 147 OPS+ – the other two were 156 and 174. All of his seasons had an OBP above 0.350, and 11 of 13 seasons had a slugging percentage above 0.450.

mosc
Guest

Is there a player in baseball history with a bigger percentage of his total WAR being cut by WAA than whitaker? Some minimum cuttoff, say 30 career war. What’s whitaker at like 50% of his war being cut by going to WAA?

Baltimorechop
Guest

BREF doesn’t have a WAA option in their player index, unfortunately.

Whitaker has 71.4 WAR, 42.8 WAA (just under 60%)
Reggie Jackson (first guy i clicked on) 68.4 WAR, 35.4 WAA 51.7%

Yet Reggie made that top 50 “Inner Circle” hall of fame list, and Whitaker still has to buy a ticket to get in the hall. Free your mind.

Baltimorechop
Guest

More guys under Lou:

Biggio: 62.1 29.1 (47%)
McCovey: 60.7 30.4 (50%)
Murray: 63.4 27.4 (43%)

all % are rounded and from Hall of Stats.

Baltimorechop
Guest

Sorry to keep going, but here are more players with worse WAA % than Whitaker:

Yaz 56%
Gwynn 56%
Banks 45%
N Ryan 44%
Killebrew 50%
Koufax 57%

All of them in the inner circle top 50 (though, I think I only voted for Yaz)

Ed
Guest

Omar Vizquel has 40.5 career WAR but only 12.8% via WAA.

Baltimorechop
Guest

Maz 14% 32.3 4.7

Gaines may be the winner, 34. 1.9. 5.6%

Baltimorechop
Guest

Boo autocorrect, Harold Baines

mosc
Guest

Interesting stats. Defense is jading things too much. All the guys showing up here are poor defensive players compared to a consistently excellent defensive players. All the guys listed hit better than Whitaker I’d say.

Ryan shouldn’t get penalized for being a league average pitcher in his 40s. He was in his 40s!

Brent
Guest

Huh, guess the wrong Detroit second baseman has the nickname “Mechanical Man”.

birtelcom
Editor

Most seasons with an OPS+ over 100 but below 142:
17 Gwynn, Whitaker, Sam Rice
16 Darrell Evans, Yaz

no statistician but
Guest
I’m late to the debate, but here are a few observations: Going strictly by WAR, a cumulative interpretive stat, is a method that rewards longevity and consistency, and while it opens our eyes to someone like Whitaker, it also has the power to overvalue someone like Whitaker. Here is where I’m cruising into dangerous waters, but I’ll go on to say that a player who flew so consistently beneath the radar of widespread appreciation in his career—5 times an All Star, only once in an MVP vote (eighth place)—may possibly seem better in hindsight than he actually was in the… Read more »
Baltimorechop
Guest

Re: war overvaluing Whitaker

Hof-Ers with more PA but less war than Lou

22

Appling, Gwynn, Reggie, Banks, alomar, Dawson, Frisch

Non Hof-Ers with more war in fewer PA:
Pujols and bagwell. Just 2

Hof-Ers with more war in fewer PA:
9. Only 11 guys had more war in fewer PA period.

In what way does WAR favor Lou?

no statistician but
Guest
Baltimore: I’m not sure I follow your argument. If I had claimed that WAR overvalued Whitaker, which I did only in a conditional sense, your saying that his WAR is superior to those of other players could logically be used in an argument to support the position that WAR overvalues Whitaker. I think. The main point of JA’s analysis is that in the long term Whitaker was consistently good, played at a high level every year and played for a pretty long time. My point was not that Whitaker particularly, but someone like Whitaker, could be both undervalued, which Whitaker… Read more »
Baltimorechop
Guest
My point is that the idea that war overvalued Lou is based around it rewarding his longevity. Yet, many significant hall of famers have fewer war in more plate appearances. Additionally, only 11 players total have scored more war in fewer plate appearances. Lou’s criticism is entirely based on his supposed unspectacular play over a long career. Were that the case, there should be many non hall of famers who out war’ed him in fewer plate appearances. I guess if one has no faith whatsoever in war they could say it favors Lou in a general sense. He may not… Read more »
Voomo Zanzibar
Guest
Mike Felber
Guest

If you prioritize peak value, maybe he does not make it. For me he does. Above average HOF man in career value, but lower peak. Avergae them together, barely better than the average HOF 2B

Second Base (11th), 71.4 career WAR/36.5 7yr-peak WAR/54.0 JAWS
Average HOF 2B (out of 19) = 66.0 career WAR/42.8 7yr-peak WAR/54.4 JAWS
Similarity Scores
Explanation of Similarity Scores

Doing it with good WAR per PA does it for me. If he just played forever, I would say no.

leatherman
Guest
I just wanted to add Bobby Grich into the discussion. His career wasn’t quite as long as Whitaker’s, but his peak was much higher. Grich accumulated 33.3 WAR (6.7 avg) in five seasons from 1972-1976, while Whitaker’s top five season total was just 24.5. In the 15 seasons from 1972-1986, here are Grich’s WAR values: 5.6, 8.0, 7.0, 7.0, 5.7, 1.3 (injured, 52 games), 3.1, 5.7, 3.9, 5.3, 3.4, 4.1, 1.6, 2.7, and 1.8. His career WAR total of 67.3 (including 16.2 dWAR) is close to Whitaker’s 71.4 (15.4 dWAR) as well. They were very similar, but Whitaker played three… Read more »
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