Comparing eras not suggested

While it's fun to compare players from different eras, it's really not the best way to evaluate their careers.

Originally Published: February 20, 2004
By Rob Neyer | ESPN.com

In response to my article ranking the greatest players in baseball history, the most common e-mail were those inquiring about specific players; namely, what happened to Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, and Joe DiMaggio.

Well, all I can tell you is that they just missed, and all of them for essentially the same reason: their careers weren't quite long enough. This is rarefied air, and just one small negative is enough to get you booted off the island. Hornsby's last big season came when he was 34 (plus he wasn't much with the glove), DiMaggio's when he was 35, and Gehrig's when he was 35. That's not to say these guys weren't all great players, because of course they were. But better than Henry Aaron or Stan Musial? No.

    Rob,

    I just wanted to give you my two cents on the best players of all time. I know this takes a lot of the fun out of it but ...

    The best players are all the guys playing today. If you had your choice of being operated on for an unspecified malady by the best doctor from 50 years ago or the best doctor today, which is it gonna be?

    Look, you have Classic Sports, right? Do you ever watch those old tapes of the Bill Russell/Bob Cousy Celtics? The idea that Cousy could guard Allen Iverson, or that Russell could hang with Shaquille O'Neal is laughable. Have you ever seen Wiillie Mays? The guy is 5-foot-10 and 190 pounds -- he just can't be the best player ever. It's the way the world is: bigger, better, stronger, faster.

    Indeed, technology is part of the reason today's players are better. However, by my way of thinking, the question should be, "How would the Babe do against the Unit swinging his 69oz bat?" Not well, would be my best guess.

    Anyway, just my thoughts ...

    Jon

You're right, Jon. I believe that if the '03 Devil Rays played the '27 Yankees in a best-of-seven Time Machine Series, the Rays would sweep the Bombers, and the scores would be lopsided. If Babe Ruth had to face, say, Victor Zambrano, he would swing at three of Zambrano's low-90s sinkers and trudge back the bench, muttering to himself about pitches he couldn't even see, let alone hit.

You're right about something else: this does take a lot of the fun out of it. Because it's fun, we do pretend that comparing players from different eras has something more than theoretical relevance, and it's not just baseball. Aren't there people who still argue that Johnny Unitas was the greatest quarterback, and that Bill Russell was the greatest center? So when we talk about "greatest," I think it's appropriate to compare a player to his peers, while recognizing that it's easier in some eras than others to stand out.

    Rob,

    Does Win Shares account for ballpark effects? The conventional wisdom would say that Ruth was enormously helped by Yankee Stadium's ridiculously short porch in right field back then while Mays was substantially hurt by Candlestick Park's swirling winds. Similar arguments apply to Aaron and Mickey Mantle, too. Just wondering your thoughts ...

    Lincoln Combs
    Tempe, Ariz.

Win Shares does account for park effects, Lincoln. Granted, any such accounting is going to be somewhat crude because a particular ballpark doesn't affect each player in exactly the same way. However, in the case of Ruth, there's actually not much evidence that the Conventional Wisdom bears much relation to what actually happened. Yes, Yankee Stadium had that short porch in right field; in those days, it was only 295 feet down the right-field line. But what's not often mentioned is that the distance increased quickly as the fence swung around toward center. It was 429 feet to deep right center, and 490 feet to straightaway center. Sure, if you could pull every pitch down the line (and keep the ball fair) you could really make hay. But who can actually do that with great consistency? The game's not that easy, even for the Babe.

And the proof's in the numbers. Ruth played his home games in Yankee Stadium from 1923 through 1934. In those 12 seasons, he hit 259 homers at the Stadium ... and 252 on the road. What's more, considering his entire career -- with the Red Sox, with the Yankees including three seasons when his home ballpark was the Polo Grounds, and at the end with the Braves -- Ruth actually hit more homers on the road. (This is mostly because Fenway Park was almost impossible for a power hitter; in five full seasons with the Sox, Ruth hit 38 homers on the road, and only 11 at home.)

So whatever else you want to say about Ruth, you can't really argue that he was merely a product of Yankee Stadium. (By the way, the same goes for Gehrig, who spent his entire career with Yankee Stadium as his home ballpark. Gehrig hit 251 homers at home, 242 on the road.)

Oh, and I've written about Mays and Aaron before. There's little evidence that either suffered, considering their whole careers, from their home parks, as both hit slightly more homers in home games than in road games.

And finally, because writing about the Yankees is both what I love most and what I do best, let's return to the present and address the question, "Just how good is this new-look lineup?"

    Rob,

    The Yankees have two big holes in the batting order, don't they? After trading their second baseman away, that is obviously a big hole. But isn't left field a big hole, too? The 2003 Yanks were 24th of 30 MLB teams in offensive production based on the runs created quick formula (25th looking at OPS). Is Hideki Matsui that good defensively? Are they trying to give him another chance to hit better in 2004? Why does he get such patience from the organization? Did George Steinbrenner decide to get him over the wishes of others?

    Pat

You ask a lot of questions, my friend. My answers: yes, yes, no, yes, because people think he's good, and I don't know.

Was Steinbrenner the driving force behind the signing of Matsui? If he was, I certainly wouldn't blame him. In 2002, Matsui batted .334, hit 50 home runs, and drew 114 walks. In only 140 games. OK, so they don't play the same brand of baseball in Japan that's played on this side of the Pacific, but there was still pretty good reason to think Matsui would thrive over here.

Of course, he didn't. Oh, he didn't play poorly. Not at all. Most teams would be happy with .287-16-106 Triple Crown stats, and Matsui's .353 OBP was solid, too. But for $6 million (Matsui's salary last year)? I think the Yankees were looking for more than a .435 slugging percentage from their left fielder. Granted, Matsui played every game and gave the Yankees a bat in center field while Bernie Williams was out of action, and considering those things he might have been slightly more valuable than his percentages might suggest.

But the Yankees are paying $7 million to Matsui this season. And while it's true that the money is inconsequential to them, it's also true that the job in left field is not. If the Yankees have the Japanese version of Hideki Matsui in left all season, they might indeed score a million runs, as everyone's predicting. But if they again have the North American version, they probably will not.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes three columns per week during baseball's offseason. This spring, Fireside will publish Rob's next book, "The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers" (co-authored with Bill James); for more information, visit Rob's Web site. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.

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