The brilliance of Bill James

To the average baseball fan, the name Bill James doesn’t mean much. But to those who are avid fans, who love statistics and Hall of Fame elections and the history of the greatest game on earth, Bill James is an icon. He is to baseball what Steve Sansweet is to Star Wars.

James has come up with some very interesting statistical analyses for baseballers, including the Hall of Fame monitor and similarity scores (click on each for an explanation from baseball-reference.com). The HOF monitor is designed to show how likely a player is to make it to Cooperstown based on statistics, while similarity scores show how a player compares to other major leaguers. I’m having some trouble wrapping my noggin around some of these, for example…

Barry Larkin, one of the best in the Reds’ franchise over the past 30 years, has a Hall of Fame monitor of 118.5 (a likely HOFer has a score of greater than 100). Looking at his similarity scores, he is most similar to Alan Trammell, another phenomenal shortstop in the pre-power era for the position whose HOF monitor is also 118.5. Number two on the list is Ryne Sandberg (157.5 HOFm), who was elected to the Hall last year. Then you have Derek Jeter (221.5 HOFm), one of the most exciting players in the game today. Drop down just a little bit to the seventh most similar player, and you have B.J. Surhoff (28.5 HOFm). This is where I have trouble understanding. If Surhoff is so similar, why isn’t his HOFm higher?

Maybe someone with a more mathematical mind can explain it to me. Looking at Surhoff’s stats, he was decent. Ten fewer home runs than Larkin, nearly 200 more RBIs. Batting average wasn’t bad at .282, compared to Larkin’s .295. Yet no one ever mentions the HOF when discussing Surhoff. Who am I kidding, no one even discusses Surhoff. But Larkin is thought to be a second- or third-ballot inductee. Is it all geography? Do I hear more about Larkin because I’m in the Cincinnati area? Do Brewer and Oriole fans discuss Surhoff’s HOF prospects?

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About JT

Christian. Husband. Dad. 911 dispatcher. Baseball fan. Horror nut. Music nerd. Bookworm. Time Magazine's 2006 Person of the Year.

Posted on February 5, 2008, in baseball and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 7 Comments.

  1. It’s pretty simple.
    Similarity scores only capture the extent to which 2 players share similar batting numbers (ABs, Hs, RBI, Avg., etc.). In theory, you could have has many comps as there are players who’ve played. The numbers for the #1 comp should look pretty similar, the numbers from the 1,000 comp not so similar. So the question is where you draw the line. From what I remember, even by the 3rd or 4th comp the comparisons are often not that close.
    The bigger issue though is what similarity scores do not measure. Larkin was acknowledged as one of the best defensive players at the most important position. He won multiple Gold Gloves. Surhoff was always an average to below average fielder, and, in fact, switched positions over his career.
    Larkin was considerably faster. This is partly reflected in SBs, which are part of a similarity score, but also in running the bases. Anyone who watched Larkin run from first to third and saw Surhoff pull up at 2nd knew they were watching two different players.
    Larkin was also hailed for his leadership and character. His actual numbers are really borderline Hall of Fame. I think it will be the leadership/character issue that gets him in. Not to say that Surhoff lacked character, but he was never looked at by his peers and the media in the same way.
    Finally, and this wraps back to Bill James, similarity scores (usually) ignore position. Surhoff is a little tricky because he could be a C, could be a thirdbaseman. If you think of him as a catcher, his numbers early in his career compared favorably to other catchers (although certainly not dominant). As a thirdbaseman, he was actually a sub-par player. Larkin, on the other hand (and as you note), was not only a very good hitter (often hitting 2nd or 3rd in the lineup), but as a SS in the time he played, a dominant hitter at his position.

  2. Surhoff played more games as a left fielder than at any other position.

    66% of his games were played as a LF, a corner IF, or a DH and he appeared in one All-Star Game.

    Larkin was a Gold Glove winning shortstop with 12 All-Star Game appearances, nine Silver Slugger Awards and an MVP trophy.

    This is a tongue-in-cheek article, right?

  3. it’s because BJ was a corner outfielder with average defence and not enough power for what’s ‘traditional’ at that position. On the other hand, Larkin hit well above what’s ‘traditional’ for a shortstop, in addition to playing pretty good defence at a premium position.

  4. Well, I cannot speak to Surhoff’s defense or base running skills, but these were two areas where Larkin excelled. Add to this Larkin being a clear leader on the Reds throughout his full career, and a great ambassador for the game, and Larkin does have some intangibles at work in his candidacy. He did lead the Reds to two World Series titles and was named NL MVP one year so he embodies some special moments in baseball history. I followed the Reds very closely from 1984 until 2006, and to me, Larkin represents the best aspects of the national pass time. I can’t speak to Surhoff’s career with the same level of knowledge but to my mind the Hall of Fame was built to honor men like Larkin.

  5. There is a positional adjustment made in the scores. The webmaster at http://www.baseball-reference.com notes that he figures out some sort of average adjustment based on number of games played at each position, whereas James used the primary position only for the adjustment.

    The leadership is certainly important, and heavily in Larkin’s favor…but what about to people outside of Cincinnati? I’m not sure where you are commenting from. Was his leadership evident to those in New York? Los Angeles? Houston? Yes, Larkin was a 12-time All-Star, but who was competing against him for that position?

    Is it tongue-in-cheek? To a certain extent, but not completely. I’m just looking at the stats. While there is a huge difference between baserunning stats, the power numbers and even hitting are very close. While Larkin was dominant at his position during the majority his career, who was competing against him? That’s where I’m struggling.

    This kind of thing should not prevent me from sleeping.

  6. Who was competing against Larkin for All-Star votes at shortstop?

    Larkin’s career spanned 1986 to 2004, although his first full year was 1987 and he was only a full time player one year after 2000.

    Ozzie Smith played until 1996, but his last full-time season was 1993.

    So eight of Larkin’s 15 (full) seasons overlapped Ozzie’s.

    Jay Bell had a pretty good career, and it spanned pretty much the exact same years as Larkin’s.

    I can’t think of many other guys’ careers that coincided with Larkin’s, but as a St. Louis Cardinals fan, I have a high opinion of Larkin whereas I just considered Surhoff as a “solid starter” type player.

  7. Hey Joe, thanks for the response. It’s nice to know that Larkin got some good respect outside of Cincy. I realized there was some overlap between Larkin and Ozzie, but they were really two different types of players, so I didn’t really want to compare them. Jay Bell (he was with Pittsburgh, correct?) was decent, I agree, but not in the same league as Larkin (or at least I thought…I would have to look at the numbers to be sure). Shawon Dunston was playing SS for Chicago around that time, but I only know that because I was a huge Cubs fan during the late 80s/early 90s. I can’t name the starting SS for any other NL team (although I probably could have back then). So again, being the dominant shortstop in the NL wasn’t really all that spectacular.

    Please don’t read into this that I don’t like Larkin. I do, I’m a big fan and hope he makes it to Cooperstown. But I still wonder how much of my appreciation for him comes from the home-grown player aspect. I’d like to hear some American League fans weigh in…is Barry Larkin anything to you?

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