Sunday, March 05, 2006

A Major Mistake

Pretend for a moment that next season, a new baseball league is formed.

This new league will exist for exactly one season, during which many of its teams will cease to exist or re-locate in mid-season. Replacement teams in replacement cities will be hastily formed, some playing as few as nine games, but those games will be included in the standings nonetheless.

Administration of the league will be shoddy, at best. No statistics will be kept for RBI, or strikeouts, or double plays, or stolen bases. Of the twenty-two men who will come to bat for the league champion, it will be unclear from league records which side of the plate eight of them bat from, including the starting catcher and left fielder. Three men from the eleven-man pitching staff also won’t be identifiable as lefty or righty.

The players will be comprised of journeymen, some of them with brief, undistinguished major league experience, but over two-thirds with no big league experience of any kind. For instance, the starting shortstop on the league champion will be a 22-year old whose sole year of professional baseball experience will be this one season in this new league.

For the sake of argument, let’s say that the level of talent is such that almost two-thirds of the players will never be given another chance at the big leagues. The league’s MVP, upon returning to the National League, will manage to hold a job as a regular for just three more seasons, and won’t post an OPS higher than the league average after age 29. Someone like Ryan Freel, currently the primary bench player for the Cincinnati Reds, can be one of the league’s stars. He will be the league’s best third baseman, starting at that spot for the league champion, and he will finish in the top-five in the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, doubles, home runs, and walks. His batting average will be nearly 50 points higher and his OPS 140-points higher than his career marks in the National League, in large part because the new league’s teams average nearly six runs per game. After the league disbands, Freel will return to the National League, but will last parts of just two more seasons, hit .186, and retire.

Now imagine that, forever more, baseball historians would consider Freel’s season in this rogue league to be the functional equivalent of Albert Pujols’ rookie season.

All together now…“Huh?”

Before you call me crazy, let me assure you that I’m not making any of this up. This exact scenario has already happened.Way back in the 19th Century, back before the major leagues were as organized as they are today, there was a one-year blip just like the one described above. Its was called the Union Association, and, incredibly, it is considered to be a “major league” to this day.

In perhaps the first instance of players feeling crapped on by ownership, the Union Association formed in late 1883 with the intent of raiding disgruntled players from the National League and American Association, the two recognized “major” leagues, both of which exercised reserve clauses in their player contracts. Such a clause tied players to a team until that team didn’t want them anymore, a situation that would be so for almost 100 more years, and it never sat well with players. Many of them hated it enough to give the new league a look.

The problem for the Union Association was that few of those established players took them up on their offer. Of the 238 different positional players who played at least one game in the Union Association, over 68% had never played major league baseball. Of the group that did have big league experience, few had played much. They averaged just 105 big-league games upon joining the Union Association. When the players with no previous experience were counted, all of the hitters in the league averaged just 33 games of major league experience.

The talent level was such that one of the league’s few players with real major league experience, Fred Dunlap of the St. Louis Maroons, had little problem establishing himself as the league’s best player. With four years as the regular second baseman for the National League’s Cleveland Blues under his belt, he easily led his new league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, runs, hits, total bases, doubles, home runs, adjusted OPS, runs created, extra-base hits, and time on base. A solid player in Cleveland, Dunlap suddenly was Babe Ruth in the Union Association. His .412 batting average was 86 points higher than his previous career best. His OPS+ mark of 250 was higher than all but one of the seasons in Ruth’s career. Upon returning to the National League the next year, Dunlap’s OPS+ was halved, to 122, a mark he never matched again.

And that was the league’s best player. Lesser lights were much less distinguished. Orator Shaffer finished second in most of the league’s hitting categories, despite being a 32-year old journeyman outfielder who had already played for eight big league teams. His OPS+ the previous year was 103, barely above league average and just fifth-best on his 1883 Buffalo Bisons team, yet he managed to bat .360 in the Union Association, 85 points higher than his career mark, and his OPS+ of 196 was a mark never glimpsed by the likes of Hank Aaron, Willie Mays or Joe DiMaggio. Upon returning to the big leagues, Shaffer batted .249 and had an OPS+ of 100, both league-average marks.

The career record of Harry Moore, the starting left fielder for the Washington Nationals, reads pretty quickly:

Debut – April 17,1884
Final Game – October 19, 1884
Bats – Unknown
Throws – Unknown
Birth – Unknown
Death – Unknown
Major league games before joining the Union Association – zero.
Major league games after leaving the Union Association – zero.

And that, ladies and gentlemen, was the Union Association’s third-best hitter, with a batting average of .336.

It should be abundantly clear that the talent level in the Union Association was nowhere near that of the major leagues. It was essentially Triple A. And yet, there are the stats from the Union Association in “Total Baseball”, next to the numbers players posted in the National League, American League, and every other league that could reasonably be called “major”.

Some may not consider that to be a big deal. I do, and not because the numbers in question affect any records or corrupt any career marks. They don’t. But as long as the UA is considered a major league, historians and statisticians are going to have to account for it. They have to measure its players and compare them to players from real major leagues. The results are often ridiculous.

For instance, remember the Ryan Freel example? The player in question was Jack Gleason of the UA’s St. Louis Maroons. Prior to jumping leagues, Gleason was a mid-level starter in the American Association, at the time a major league. After a one-game debut in the National League at age 22, Gleason failed to make a big league roster again for five years. He resurfaced as the third baseman for the American Association’s St. Louis Brown Stockings in 1882, batting .254 and posting an OPS that was about 5% better than the league average. After a slow start the next season, he was dealt to the Louisville Eclipse and had a solid year, batting .299. His OPS was 31% higher than the league average, a very respectable mark, but apparently he wasn’t kept very happy by his new club because he bolted for the UA when the opportunity presented itself.

Gleason was easily the UA’s best third baseman. He batted .324, fourth-best in the league, and posted an OPS+ mark of 164. The Maroons were easily the best team in the league, so when the UA folded after its only season, the National League absorbed the Maroons as a new addition. Gleason went with them, but could never replicate his success. He played just two games for the Maroons in 1885. The next year proved to be his last in the majors, when he batted a terrible .187 as the regular third baseman for the Philadelphia Athletics of the American Association.

That’s it, the entire career of Jack Gleason summarized in two paragraphs. It was an unremarkable career in every respect, but for his one season of glory in the UA. A good comparison for Gleason would be Keith Miller or Dirty Al Gallagher. Solid utility players who aren’t memorable in any way, unless you count Gallagher’s classic nickname.

But since Gleason’s great year happened in a minor league that is improperly called major, he gets analyzed by all the new-fangled sabermetric measurements. According to Bill James’ Win Shares measurement, Gleason’s 1884 season accounted for 20 win shares. Since win shares are a counting statistic, it matters that Gleason compiled his total in just a 113-game season for his club, because those twenty win shares would interpolate out to 29 in a modern 162-game season. To give you some perspective on that number, it’s the same total Albert Pujols managed in 2001. To refresh your memory, that was Pujols’ first season, one in which he hit 37 homers, drove in 130 runs, batted .329, slugged .610, finished in the top-10 in the league in average, slugging, hits, total bases, doubles, RBI, runs created, extra base hits, time on base, OPS, and adjusted OPS, made the All-Star team, won the Rookie of the Year Award and the Silver Slugger, and finished fourth in the MVP voting. And, according to Win Shares, it was the functional equivalent of Jack Gleason’s nifty season in a high minor league called the Union Association more than a hundred years earlier.

Fred Dunlap, clearly the UA’s best player, had 38 win shares in the Maroons’ 113 games, which equates to 54 in a full 162-game season. That’s the same number Barry Bonds posted in 2001, the year he hit 73 home runs. Yes, according to the measurement system currently considered to be the most advanced in the history of baseball analysis, Fred Dunlap’s best year and Barry Bonds’ are equals.

Congratulations. You have just read the first sentence ever that included both Fred Dunlap’s and Barry Bonds’ names.

I, for one, am tired of this kind of silly game. It’s foolish to say that the best player in a league full of minor leaguers is the equal to the season that gave us the all-time home run record. It is both asinine and easily fixed.

Hit the Delete key, all of you guys over at “Total Baseball”. Remand the Union Association to history’s dustbin, where it belongs.

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