Sabermetric History: Using WAR to Remember Forgotten Greats

It's hard to believe Bernard Gilkey's 1996 was better than Manny Machado's 2015. (via Matthew Straubmuller)

It’s hard to believe Bernard Gilkey’s 1996 was better than Manny Machado’s 2015. (via Matthew Straubmuller)

This year, rated by FanGraphs WAR, Manny Machado was the sixth-best player in baseball, at 6.8 wins. Machado is certainly well-known among Hardball Times readers, but outside of Charm City and the sabermetric blogosphere, he’s not quite a household name.

Fame is a tricky thing. For the first century and change of organized baseball in America — let’s say from the 1870s to the 1990s — the main barometers of individual player success were baseball card stats like wins and losses and ERA, batting average and RBIs. Those are the kind of numbers, not to put too fine a point on it, that in the sabermetric era give numbers a bad name. Of course, the best players of all time tend to have good baseball card stats as well as good modern stats, because they were incredibly good. Just look at Lou Gehrig’s RBI numbers. Then look at his WAR numbers. They’re equally pornographic.

But a lot of players get left behind in that analysis. Eddie Stanky never drove in more than 53 runs in a season, but he was a three-time All-Star who led his league in walks three times and finished with an incredible .268/.410/.348 triple slash and 37.7 career WAR. That’s despite the fact that he played only 11 seasons and had more than 400 plate appearances in only seven of them. He’s a classic sabermetric hero, the kind of guy traditional statistics didn’t value nearly as much as modern stats do. (His peers valued him plenty, though, as evidenced by his All-Star selections and his third-place finish in the 1954 MVP race.) Applying WAR retroactively, we can find a lot more guys who deserve to be remembered much more than they have been.

Take, for example, the Machado level — the sixth best hitter in all of baseball by WAR each year. Looking at the position player leader boards for each season of the 20th century is a fascinating exercise. Hall of Famers sit side-by-side with under-appreciated All-Stars like Darrell Evans and injury-wracked would-have-beens like Tommy Davis. Looking at the men who finished sixth in every year yields a list of almost-legends. Here are a few of them, grouped into categories for fun.

It’s a real shame ballplayers aren’t named “Heinie” any more

Heinie Manush, 1928 (6.9 WAR) — If you know a bit about baseball history, you’ve probably heard of Heinie Manush, whom the Veterans Committee elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964. His real first name was “Henry,” like most of the Heinies in baseball history. (Heinie is short for “Heinrich,” the German form of “Henry.”) Baseball-reference lists 23 major league Heinies, the last of whom played in 1944. The first half-century of major league baseball was strongly German and Irish, as those were two of the biggest immigrant groups to come to the United States in the late 19th century. Baseball was one of the great assimilators into American society: there was no better way for a kid to become an American than to play baseball. As German immigration slowed, Germans’ proportional representation in baseball lessened. Tragically, that has led to baseball going more than 70 years without a Heinie.

Heinie Groh, 1917 (6.9 WAR) — By WAR, Groh actually had a more effective career than Manush, 50.4 to 43.1. Groh retired just 12 years before Manush, but their careers were worlds apart: Manush retired in 1939 with a .330 batting average; Groh left in 1927 with just 26 career home runs. Sean Lahman has called him the “National League’s best third baseman of the Deadball Era.” Indeed, he has the most WAR of all of his fellow Heinies, and that’s one record that may never be broken.

No, not the famous one — the other one

Bob Elliott, 1947 (6.4 WAR) — The Boston Braves’ Bob Elliott won the MVP in his first season with the team in 1947, though he had only the fifth-highest WAR total in the National League. (The highest total belonged to the Reds’ Ewell Blackwell, but then as now, voters may have been a bit wary to give the award to a once-a-week pitcher rather than a position player.) Elliott was, in fact, the first third baseman to ever win the NL MVP award, and he did it even though his team finished only third. “Only,” that is, except that it was the Boston Braves, consistent cellar-dwellers who, prior to their 86-win, third-place finish in ’47, had not finished as high as third, or won as many as 86 games, since a third-place finish with 89 wins in 1916.

Nicknamed “Mr. Team” by his teammates, Elliott may have been the single biggest reason that the 1948 Braves won their first pennant since the Miracle of 1914. (Coincidentally, he arrived in Boston a year after the comedian Bob Elliott — Chris Elliott’s father, Abby Elliott’s grandfather — got his first radio show with his comedy partner, Ray Goulding, on Boston’s WHDH.)

George Burns, 1917 (6.7 WAR) — A bit like the Bobby Joneses and Alex Gonzalezes, Giants outfielder George J. Burns’s career overlapped almost entirely with that of an American League first baseman, the 1926 MVP, named George H. Burns. (The comedian George Burns, who was born Nathan Birnbaum, apparently claimed that his choice of stage name was partly influenced by the baseball Burnses.) But the Giant was by far the better of the two; in fact, he was apparently one of John McGraw’s favorite players; Muggsy called him “one of the most valuable ball players that ever wore the uniform of the Giants.” Of course, that didn’t prevent the famously unsentimental McGraw from trading him in 1921 for Heinie Groh.

Bill Bradley, 1904 (6.3 WAR) — All but forgotten now, Bradley was a devastating player before illness and injuries sapped his effectiveness. From 1902 to 1904, he averaged 6.6 WAR a year for Cleveland. (The official name of the club may have been the Bluebirds, but in 1902 they were known as the “Bronchos” — a variant of “Broncos” — and in 1903 and 1904 they were known as the Naps, after their best player, Napoleon Lajoie, namesake of the blog

How good was Bill Bradley in his prime? In 1904, a fan asked Jimmy Collins — a third baseman and future Hall of Famer — who the best third sacker in the game was, and he replied, “Well, if I could field and bat like Bradley, I should lay claim to that title myself.” Sadly, 1905 was Bradley’s last great season, though he was only 27 that year. His defense and skill as a sacrifice bunter kept him in the game for another decade, and he retired after the 1915 season, 28 years before the birth of the future Rhodes Scholar, basketball Hall of Famer, U.S. senator, and presidential candidate who shared his first and last names.

Better careers than you realized

Bernard Gilkey, 1996 (7.6 WAR) — You almost certainly remember Gilkey, a journeyman outfielder who played for five teams in 12 years from 1990 to 2001. He had a good glove to go along with decent speed and power; he retired with 118 homers and 115 steals. Nothing came easy, though: as the Cardinals Encyclopedia notes, he was much more highly regarded as a basketball player than a baseball player — even his own father thought that his older brother was a better baseball prospect.

The Cardinals signed him after his senior year of college as an undrafted free agent, and from his first full season in 1992 to his last year with the Cards in 1995 he averaged 2.8 WAR a year. But they traded him to the New York Mets, and for one glorious season, the 29-year old whom no one drafted put it all together: 23 fielding runs above average, 30 homers, 117 RBI, 108 runs, a .317 batting average, career highs in virtually everything. The following year saw the release of the movie Men in Black, which features a cameo by Gilkey, playing left field as a spaceship flies overhead. While he is distracted by the ship, the ball hits his head. That may not have been fair to his glove, but celluloid immortality was a fair reward for the incredible year he’d had. As Amazin’ Avenue wrote in 2011, “it was perhaps the greatest single season by a non-pitcher Met ever. Ever.”

Ben Oglivie, 1980 (6.6 WAR) — A native of Panama, Oglivie taught himself English by becoming a voracious reader. But he had the misfortune of being a young outfielder for the Red Sox at a time when their three outfield spots were filled by Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Smith and Dwight Evans. After playing him sparingly for a couple of years, Boston traded him to Detroit, who used him as a platoon player for most of the rest of his 20s.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Finally, the Tigers traded him to Milwaukee, where, as a 29-year old, he saw 500 plate appearances for the first time. He burst out with a league-leading 41 home runs in his third season in Wisconsin, becoming a first-time All-Star at the age of 31. Sports Illustrated rewarded him with an article calling him the “philosopher-home run king of baseball,” noting that in addition to his extensive reading in philosophy, he was also a devotee of Jeet Kune Do (the martial art invented by Bruce Lee) and a whiz at The New York Times crossword. If he could have gotten as many at-bats in his 20s as he did in his 30s, he might have had a much better career.

Max Bishop, 1931 (6.2 WAR) — Max Bishop actually had a very good career, retiring with 37.5 WAR. But I had never heard of him before writing this article, and I’d remember if I had, considering that he has one of the most perfect baseball names of all time. (It’s not quite as good as Max Pentecost, but Max Bishop still sounds like the name of a comic book character played by Chris Pratt or Chris Evans in a $200 million tentpole summer movie.)

He was nicknamed “Camera Eye” due to his extraordinary batting eye. He’s the only player other than Ted Williams to finish his career with a walk rate of 20 percent. He didn’t really have power or speed, but he was a fine-fielding second baseman, and all he did was get on base. He retired with a career OBP of .423 — 16th-best of all time. When future Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Grove was asked what made him such a tough out, he reportedly replied: “I can’t figure it out myself. This Bishop just stands there and takes ’em and the umpires call ’em balls.”

Who was that?

Tommy Davis, 1962 (5.8 WAR) — A Brooklyn boy who signed with his hometown team and debuted just a couple of years after they moved 2,500 miles west, Davis won batting titles in his third and fourth seasons in the majors. (As his SABR bio notes, he nearly signed with the Yankees, but a phone call from Jackie Robinson himself worked to seal the deal for the Dodgers.) His 1962 was particularly fine, as he played 163 of the Dodgers’ 165 games — the year ended with a three-game playoff to break a tie with the Giants — and he hit .346 with 27 homers and 153 RBI, the highest total in the NL since 1937.

Unfortunately, just two years later he broke his ankle, lost most of his power and defense, and was a below-average player for most of the final decade of his career. He was basically an old-fashioned place hitter: he didn’t have a ton of power and hardly ever walked or struck out (career .111 ISO with a 4.9 percent walk rate and 9.7 percent strikeout rate), but he hit for a high batting average — career .294 — which may have been why he kept getting at-bats, despite the fact that in eight of his final 11 seasons, he had fewer than 1.0 WAR.

Solly Hemus, 1952 (6.5 WAR) — I have to admit, a major factor in the players I decided to write about for this article was the quality of their name, and Solly Hemus has an 80-grade baseball name. He’s also neck-and-neck with Andre Ethier — 23.8 WAR for Hemus, 24.1 for Ethier — for the title of best baseball player ever born in Phoenix. He was nicknamed “Mighty Mouse” and “The Little Pepper Pot” due to his diminutive stature, just 5-foot-9, and his fiery disposition.

He actually played only three full seasons, 1951-1953, and was terrific in all three, amassing 15.5 WAR, flashing a fine glove and a solid bat. But he got a very late start to his career and he turned 30 at the beginning of the 1953 season. He spent the next six years of his playing career as a backup and his final year as a player-manager. He led the 1960 Cardinals to a third-place finish, but clashed with Bob Gibson and Curt Flood. He was fired the following season and, headstrong as ever, he left baseball altogether. He then went on to a successful second career in the oil business.

Lonny Frey, 1940 (6.2 WAR) — Not well-remembered now, Lonny Frey (pronounced “Fry”) was one of the best second basemen in the National League before World War II. It was quite a transformation for the man who had come up with the Dodgers as a stone-gloved shortstop. In his book “The Boys of Summer,” Roger Kahn writes that people used to say about him, “There’s an infielder with only one weakness. Batted balls.”

In 1938, he was sold to the Cincinnati Reds, and his SABR biography notes that after his new manager, Bill McKechnie, shifted him across the bag to second base, he quickly became one of the best players in the league, being named to three All-Star teams in his first six years in Cincinnati. His 1940 campaign was the best of all, as his sure glove helped key the Reds to their first World Championship since 1919 — the year that the Chicago White Sox allegedly took gambling money to lose the World Series. He remained a very good player through 1943, but he spent the next two years in the military. When he came back from the war, he was in his mid-30s and his best baseball was behind him. He passed away in September 2009, at the age of 99.

That’s 11 players, each at one time among the very best in the game for one season. Injuries, circumstances, and a World War may have conspired to keep them from the top of the leader boards in subsequent years, but they had their moments in the sun, at the very top of their profession. It’s worth remembering them.

Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times.
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8 years ago

Great aside from the line about the black sox. They DID take gambling money to lose the world serie . You can add allegedly to buck Weaver but there’s no doubt at all that several of them did. It’s been exhaustively researched and basically proven beyond any shadow of a doubt including several confessions.

A court of laws decisions do not equate to the truth of the matter.

Many of my favorites here as well

Marc Schneider
8 years ago
Reply to  Bpdelia

I agree with you in general, but, to the extent you are relying on “Eight Men Out” (both the movie and the book on which it is based), there is some question about their veracity. Eliot Asinof apparently made up some of the events in the book-such as the scene with Joe Jackson and the little boy coming out of the courthouse. But, yes, I think there is little doubt that they did throw the series. You said to add allegedly to Buck Weaver, but you could say the same about Joe Jackson, who led both teams in hitting during the Series. The book (I’m not sure about the movie) suggests that Jackson sat in on the meetings with the gamblers, but some later research has apparently brought that into question. Also, the story about Lefty Williams being approached by gamblers before the last game and threatened with harm to his wife if he did not lose also apparently did not happen.

8 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

The players considered themselves victims and underpaid due to the unfair reserve clause which prevented them from getting paid at market rates. You can bet that gambling was rampant through much of baseball history as a result of the unfair wage system that required players to work in the offseason to make ends meet. Players and coaches just got smarter about not getting caught, and baseball for the most part preferred to overlook it since the only way to solve it was to pay players their fair share.

Its only been since the late 80’s with free agency and after the owners collusion got exposed and busted that gambling has probably been wiped out among players since this is when they started getting paid real money

Tramps Like Us
8 years ago
Reply to  pft

Gambling can, in certain people, become addictive behavior, not unlike alcohol or drug abuse. The amount of money a person makes doesn’t factor into it for certain personality types.

a real truther
8 years ago
Reply to  Bpdelia

Bpdelia, thank you for the reassertion of the certainty of the black sox scandal. Too many people get their history from movies. JFK was shot by a lone gunman, despite the profit driven myth of Oliver Stone.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago

Damn, Alex, I didn’t even know Chris Elliott had a grown daughter comedian. This shows (1) my age; and (2) the fact that I haven’t watched SNL for years. Thanks for making me feel old.:)

Eddie Stanky was one of the those guys that non-Sabr analysts like Harold Reynolds love. It’s interesting to know that he actually was a pretty good player.

Bob Gibson and Curt Flood hated Solly Hemus, who was managing the Cardinals when he and Flood came up. They thought he was racist-which could probably have been said about a significant proportion of managers at the time.

As for Tommy Davis, I think his main claim to fame now is that Jim Bouton said a lot of good things about him in “Ball Four.” At least he is not known, as Willie Davis is, for making three errors in one inning in the World Series. I would bet that one of Jackie Robinson’s selling points for the Dodgers over the Yankees was something like, “you don’t want to be a black player on the Yankees.”

8 years ago

This reminds me on one of the first articles on this site, the one by Steve Treder about “spike” and “fluke” seasons, most notably Billy Grabarkewitz, who had 6.5 WAR in 1970. And a career WAR of 5.9.

8 years ago

Something Leo the Lip said about Eddie Stanky has stuck in my memory for decades. “He can’t hit, he can’t run, and he can’t field. All he can do it beat you.” Or something like that, I seem to recall, but I will be the first to tell you that your memory can play tricks on you. I was unable to find the quote online…

The 1976 United States House of Representatives Select Committee on Assassinations (HSCA) completed its investigation in 1978 and issued its final report the following year, concluding that Kennedy was probably assassinated as a result of a conspiracy. If a “lone gunman” killed JFK it was not Lee Harvey Oswald because he was given a paraffin test that day and no nitrates were found on his face, which is impossible if one has fired a rifle. Not to mention the fact that there was a picture taken of the front of the Texas School Depository at the time of the assassination in which the aforementioned Oswald can be found on the front steps, surrounded by co-workers, Mr. Real Truther.

Marc Schneider
8 years ago
Reply to  BaconBall

I’m not going to get into this, but there have been numerous books debunking the various conspiracy theories about the JFK assassination. The evidence is overwhelming that it was Oswald. If you choose not to believe that, fine, but don’t pretend that the evidence isn’t there.

8 years ago
Reply to  Marc Schneider

Yeah, but nobody has proved that nobody was backing Oswald or that Oswald acted alone. Lack of evidence is not proof enough to debunk a theory. The only think that can disprove a theory is evidence that shows it is false

Jason B
8 years ago
Reply to  pft

At the same time, though, not being able to disprove a theory doesn’t lend credence to that theory, either. I can’t disprove that intergalactic aliens were controlling Oswald that fateful day, but I wouldn’t put a lot of confidence in that “theory” either…

I think that’s where a lot of people try to claim a decent case for this or that theory; the fact that their pet theory hasn’t been falsified, or may not even be falsifiable at this point, over fifty years later. While it doesn’t hurt their case that their theory can’t be disproven, they do need to provide some compelling evidence beyond “Well, you can’t PROVE it didn’t happen!”

8 years ago

I loved Bernard Gilkey’s cameo in Men in Black. I was so happy to see that they used an actual major leaguer, one whose cards I owned, rather than an actor pretending to be a ballplayer.