Frank Robinson had some of the best seasons in Cincinnati Reds history. Image by wallyg via FlickrNote: I'm extremely pleased to post this guest article written by reader Greg in Atlanta. He and I have spent a lot of time chatting about WAR in the past, and as a result of his work he wrote this really exciting article (the first in a series) and asked me to post it. If you run one of the "real" blogs out there, please give this a link so it gets the eyeballs it deserves. -Justin
WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is rapidly become one of the more widely accepted measures of player value in the analyst community. Developed by Tom Tango and a number of collaborators at The Book blog, WAR accounts for every measurable contribution a player can make, including baserunning, defense, park and league context. Rallymonkey at Baseball Projections recently developed a method to develop WAR estimates for the entire Retrosheet era, and more recently extended the WAR estimates back to 1871. Sick of trying to decide whether Willy Taveras or Corey Patterson was the worse player, or wondering what interesting way to misuse his players Dusty is going to come up with next, I purchased his database and began to research the Reds of the past. This is the first of hopefully a series of articles on how WAR evaluates the Reds back to 1890. Anyway, here’s a look at best position player seasons for the Reds since 1890.
Top 15 Reds Seasons 1890 – 2008
1. Joe Morgan 1975 – 12.0
2. Joe Morgan 1972 – 10.0
3. Joe Morgan 1976 – 10.0
4. Joe Morgan 1973 – 9.9
Are you annoyed that Cardinal fans get to enjoy having Albert Pujols on their team? Do you wonder what it would be like to have the best player in baseball on the Reds? In the mid-seventies, Reds fans got to enjoy that with Joe Morgan. His 1975 season is the 12th best since 1890, trailing only seasons by Ruth (4), Bonds (3), Mantle (2), Hornsby and Carl Yasztremski (one each). Morgan had the top WAR in baseball all four years. 1976 seems to be a better season offensively than the others (a year where Joe led the league in OBP and SLG), but WAR sees his defense as being better in the earlier seasons. Morgan was a player that gave you 7-8 wins a year just with his bat, and added wins for baserunning and defense.
5T. Johnny Bench 1972, Joe Morgan 1974 – 9.1
In 1972, the Reds had the first and third best position players in the majors, with Morgan and Bench (Dick Allen edged Johnny for second). Bench had years with similar counting stats, but WAR sees 1972 as by far his best offensive year. Bench was regularly 10 runs above average as a catcher. As for Joe’s 1974 season, you know you are good when your off year is tied as the fifth best season in team history. No wonder the Reds didn’t win in 1974, Morgan only ranked second in baseball (behind Mike Schmidt’s first of many great seasons).
7T. Frank Robinson 1962, Pete Rose 1973 – 8.5
Frank Robinson won the MVP in 1961 when the Reds won an unlikely pennant, then had a better year for team that won five more games and finished fourth in the MVP. Maury Wills (6.1) won the MVP based on the novelty of his 104 steals, but Frank had a better year. In addition to his outstanding bat, Robinson was an above average baserunner and fielder with the Reds. He averaged 6.1 WAR in 10 seasons with the Reds. The Reds haven’t had a position player post a 6+ WAR season since Barry Larkin in 1996. WAR sees 1973 as Pete’s best year - and again the difference was his defense. Pete had better offensive years, but WAR sees 1973 (and 1974) as Pete’s best years with the glove.
9. Cy Seymour 1905 – 8.4
Cy Seymour was a converted pitcher, who spent most of his career with the Giants. Bill James has cited this season as one of the great fluke seasons of all time (and it was four full wins better than his second best season) – he led the league in average, hits, doubles, triples, and RBI (missing HR and a Triple Crown by one to teammate Fred Odwell). He was second in WAR for the season behind Honus Wagner
10. George Foster 1977 – 8.2
This was George Foster’s 52 home run season, and WAR gives Foster a considerable amount of credit for his defense that year. It would shock Mets fans, but according to WAR Foster was a very good outfielder with the Reds. Sparky thought so too, as George started 252 games in CF during his career with the Reds.
11. Ted Kluszewski 1954 – 8.1
Ted Kluszewski was a power hitter that analysts and Marty could love – he hit for a good average, took some walks, and hardly ever struck out. In 1954, he struck out 35 times vs. 78 walks, and led the league with 49 homers and 141 RBI. He finished second in NL WAR and in the MVP vote behind Willie Mays. Big Klu was a Hall of Famer at his peak, but due to back problems was unable to sustain a peak long enough to make it to Cooperstown.
12 – Eric Davis 1987 – 8.0
Eric Davis in 1987 was the best player I ever saw. He accumulated his 8.0 WAR in 129 games, as his season essentially ended in early September when he hit the bricks at Wrigley making a game saving catch. For a year with a .991 OPS, 50 steals in 56 attempts, and a Gold Glove with a second place team, Eric finished 9th in the MVP vote. In one of the most inexplicable MVP votes ever, Andre Dawson (2.7) won based on the strength of a 137 RBI season for a last place Cubs team. According to WAR, he wasn’t one of the top 30 position players in the NL that year.
13T – Johnny Bench 1974, Frank Robinson 1961/1964 – 7.6
Most observers would assume Bench’s 1970 season was his second best, but his 1974 was slightly better relative to the league and in most other metrics. He ranked 4th in the NL in WAR that year, behind Schmidt, Morgan, and Jimmy Wynn. The only real difference between Frank Robinson’s second and third best seasons was the context – by 1964 baseball was deep in the second deadball era.
Anytime I look at a leader list, I want to see the trailers. So here are the five worst Reds position player seasons from 1890-2008, as seen by WAR:
Juan Castro 2001 – (2.1)
Juan Castro helped drag the Reds away from contention for 8 seasons (he was below replacement level in 7 of them). 2001 was his “peak”, where he combined a .562 OPS (OPS+ of 42) with below average defense. Castro had a great defensive reputation (how else could he have stayed in the majors?) but the WAR defensive metrics considered him as average to below average. He was tied as the worst position player in the league in 2001 with Peter Bergeron of the Expos (211/275/285).
Wally Gilbert 1932, Mark Koenig 1934, Bobby Tolan 1973 – (2.3)
Wally Gilbert was a light hitting third baseman who finished his career with the Reds in 1932. In a league that hit .274, Wally put up a 214/252/274 season (43 OPS+) as the regular third baseman. His backup (Andy High) was worse (188/276/230) so it’s not like the Reds had options. 1932 was the second of four straight last place finishes for the Reds. Mark Koenig was a major contributor to the fourth of those last place finishes by combining a Willy Taveras like bat (without the steals) and a brutal glove (-15 runs in range factor). Unlike the other two, Bobby Tolan was a very good player for the Reds, and a key member of the 70 and 72 pennant winners. But in 1973, he wiped out, putting up a 206/251/304 season in 501 plate appearances. The Reds still won the division despite gaping holes in CF, RF, and 3B. All three were the worst position players in baseball during their awful seasons.
Tommy Helms 1970 (2.5)
The Reds won the 1970 pennant despite carrying a player that was nearly 3 wins below replacement. Helms couldn’t hit, and his defense was of the “good fielding percentage, no range” variety. Think the Reds improved any when he was replaced with Joe Morgan? From a statistical perspective, Helms (along with Wayne Granger) are the least deserving members of the Reds Hall of Fame.
Next time – the best pitcher seasons for the Reds.