Best Value?

Recently I've come to the realization that fans have a tendency to grant a value premium to players who qualify in some way as the 'best' at what they do, even in situations where a value premium isn't really justified.

The specific situation that got me thinking about this is a friend's question about the likelihood that Barry Larkin, the longtime Cincinnati shortstop, will be elected into the Baseball Hall of Fame when he enters the BBWAA ballot for the first time next year.

Larkin's biggest challenge in getting into the Hall of Fame is likely going to be the same challenge he had at being recognized as the best shortstop in the National League during his career -- for a number of years, Larkin was a contemporary of Ozzie Smith, who was named to the Hall of Fame in 2002. Larkin and Smith aren't quite as contemporaneous as I remembered -- when Smith finished second in the MVP vote in 1987 for helping the Cardinals win the NL pennant at age 32, Larkin was finishing his first full season in the major leagues at age 23. Still, Larkin and Smith played in the same league -- in the same division, even -- for about a decade until Smith retired after the 1996 season.

There was nothing wrong with Barry Larkin as a player -- he finished as a career .295/815 hitter with a career OPS+ of 116, and in over 2000 career games at shortstop he had both a range factor and fielding average above the league average. Unfortunately, he was continually compared with Smith, who played the same position and was considered one of if not the greatest defensive shortstops ever to play the game.

Now there's certainly a reasonable argument to be made in favor of the premise that Smith was the greatest defensive shortstop ever; that's not the problem. The problem is, if you look at Larkin and Smith without taking into consideration that Smith was one of the greatest defensive shortstops ever, you find that the two men were of surprisingly comparable value:

- Both men played 19 major-league seasons, and were full-time players into their late-30s
- Both men were frequent All-Stars: Smith was named to 15 All-Star rosters, playing in 14 games and starting 11 straight; Larkin was named to 12 All-Star rosters, playing in 9 and starting 5
- Smith probably should have won the MVP award in 1987 (Andre Dawson won it in his first season playing in Wrigley Field after a career to that point in Montreal); Larkin won one MVP award in 1995 as the Reds advanced as far as the NLCS before being beaten by the Braves.

Here's the kicker, though: Smith, in 19 seasons, amassed a total of 320 Win Shares, a tremendous number.

Larkin amassed over 330 Win Shares in his 19 seasons.

If you're a 'believer' in Win Shares, that right there should cinch it. Perhaps you're not, though, and you want to know how Larkin could be considered at least as valuable if not more valuable than the greatest defensive shortstop in baseball. Let's take 1992 as an example:

In 1992, Ozzie Smith hit .295/709 and amassed 72 Runs Created. His OPS+ tallied out at 105, which compared to his career average showed that '92 was one of Smith's better seasons with the bat. in the same season, Larkin hit .304/831, amassing 94 Runs Created with an OPS+ of 132, also an above-average season with the bat. That 22 run difference is not insignificant -- as a comparison, the difference between Nick Punto's 2006 batting numbers and his 2007 batting numbers equals 23 Runs Created.

So if you're going to argue that Smith was not just more valuable but significantly more valuable than Larkin in 1992, you have to be able to argue that Smith's fielding was worth significantly more than 22 runs over Larkin's fielding.

- Smith made 232 putouts and registered 420 assists in just over 1150 defensive innings while committing just 10 errors. He won his 13th consecutive Gold Glove for this performance
- Meanwhile, Larkin made 233 putouts and registered 408 assists in just over 1200 defensive innings while committing just 11 errors.

Smith's defensive numbers are clearly better than Larkin's, but are they over 22 runs better? I think that's a hard thing to argue. Win Shares has a comparison between the two men -- Smith is listed as having put up 20 Win Shares for the Cardinals in 1992, while Larkin led the Reds with 32 Win Shares that year. Of course, if you didn't believe the Win Shares analysis for their respective careers, you're not necessarily going to believe this single-season analysis, but the question stands: if you think Smith was a better all-around shortstop than Larkin, in 1992 or in his career, how do you justify that without giving Smith what amounts to a 'bonus' for being the best at what he does?

The key here is that being the best at something doesn't, in and of itself, provide any value to a ballclub, though fans will often assume that there is some bonus value involved in being the best.

Take, for example, the expectation for the Twins in 2007. They had just come off a magical season where they rallied from far back in the division to win on the final day of the season. On Opening Day 2007, the Twins performed a ceremony where they awarded the league's batting title, MVP award, Cy Young award, and Gold Glove in center field to their own players.

If we have all of these players who are the best at what they do, went the argument, how can we not be the best team in the division?

Well, we weren't -- not anywhere close to it based on the end-of-season standings.

The point where this really strikes home, though, was in some folks' reaction to the signing of Adam Everett as a free agent. Everett was known not to be a hitter, but his reputation as an 'elite' defensive player, arguably the best shortstop in the National League (despite not having won even one Gold Glove) convinced some folks that even if his bat was no better than Nick Punto's, his glove would help the team's bottom line.

Let's ignore, for the moment, Everett's injury troubles that have markedly reduced his defensive prowess thus far in 2008. If Everett was the defensive wizard that he was alleged to be, would that really have helped the Twins in the win column? Let's do a Player A/Player B from 2006, the last season in which Everett was fully healthy, as an example: (all stats courtesy of the Hardball Times)

Player A: 1292 defensive innings, 202 putouts, 479 assists, 104 double plays (44 started, 60 turned), 396 balls in zone, 60 plays out of zone, RZR .891
Player B: 1356 defensive innings, 241 putouts, 493 assists, 111 double plays (59 started, 52 turned), 458 balls in zone, 53 plays out of zone, RZR .819

Other than that RZR rating, these guys look pretty close, don't they? The biggest difference between the two players that accounts for the RZR rating is that player A -- Everett -- committed 6 errors in 2006 while player B committed...14 errors. Player B had an extra 62 balls hit into his zone, but he also made 53 more plays than Everett. Player B committed eight more errors, and allowed 9 other balls hit into his zone to go through, ostensibly for hits. (Player B also made fewer plays out of zone, but the idea behind tracking the zone in which the ball is hit is not to penalize a player for not making plays that arguably aren't his responsibility, so we'll ignore them for this comparison.) How many runs does that add up to? I'd say 20 runs would be a very generous estimate and the actual number would likely be less than that.

Player B is Michael Young of the Texas Rangers, who hit .314/814 and made over 100 Runs Created for the Rangers that year, while Everett hit .239/642 and created just 53 runs. The difference between Michael Young's bat and Adam Everett's bat was well over twice as valuable to the Rangers in terms of runs than the difference between Adam Everett's glove and Michael Young's glove was to the Astros, even using the generous estimate we arrived at above.

If I may be allowed one more visit with Win Shares before this essay ends: Everett's 2006 season was rated as worth 12 Win Shares to the Astros. Meanwhile, Jason Bartlett's 2006 season was rated as worth 13 Win Shares to the Twins.

There is no additional player value that comes from simply being 'the best' at something.

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