Cal McVey was the second best hitter in the 1870's. Who was first? | Photo credit: Wiki Commons.
Last week Matt Klaassen modestly posted the weights for Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) from each season in recorded baseball history spanning nearly 140 years from 1871 to 2010. I've loved the wOBA statistic for a while now, and since that's my offensive metric of choice for modern-day players, I decided to apply this to the 19th century hitters.
The quick back round on wOBA is that it is an offensive metric scaled to mirror On-Base Percentage, created by Tom Tango, but is created from Linear Weights. The run value of an out is fixed as zero in the formula and the weights of the rest of the inputs in the formula are relative to that. If you'd like to read more, I'd recommend the Saber Library which is, for my money, the best online Saber-tutorial material on the internet super highway.
I'm going to start with the very beginning: 1871-1879.
I've covered some of the guys that pop up on this list in my look at total Wins Above Replacement of 187-1870 from the fall. The table below are the top 10 wOBA's as well as columns for Runs Above Average (RAA) and Runs Above Average per 700 plate appearances (RAA/700). My values are not park adjusted. I elected to not use stolen bases or caught stealing. There's stolen bases for all of the years I looked at, but caught stealings disappeared around 1875, so instead of including it in some years but not others, I'm disregarding it completely.
Ladies and gentlemen: Meet Charles Roscoe Barnes. He started playing baseball around 1866 and became one of the biggest - if not the biggest - star in the first decade of pro baseball. Barnes owns four of the top ten offensive seasons as judged by raw wOBA, topping out with 1873's .485 wOBA. In fact, the book A History of the Boston Baseball Club, penned in 1897, called Barnes the best second baseman the game ever had. He played all but two of his nine seasons in the National Association, and given it was the earliest decade of organized professional baseball, quality of competition is a factor. Still, Barnes should probably have his spot in the Baseball Hall of Fame for being the first major star in pro ball.
The following table looks at the entire 1870's as a decade, as sorted by Runs Above Average.
Ross Barnes: A cut above the rest. To put his near 53-run lead over second place Cal McVey in perspective, it's nearly the same amount Albert Pujols leads Barry Bonds by for the 2000's (which says even more about Bonds' dominance given he's been out of the game a few years).
Cal McVey is second on this list who, like others, played all around the diamond. He finished his career with 186 games at first base, 183 at catcher, 110 in the outfield, 84 at third base, and a smattering at shortstop and second base. He also threw 176.1 innings over four seasons and 34 games. McVey was apart of the (in)famous Cincinnati Red Stockings who were the first professional baseball team in the later 1860's. The Red Stockings barnstormed around the country, but McVey earned much less money than his more veteran teammates. At 21, the National Association started and the timing couldn't have been better.
McVey's career peaked in 1875 where he put up 5.7 WAR in 390 PA's on the back of 50 batting runs. His wOBA worked out to 40.6 RAA that year which was a pace of 72.8 per 700 PA's.
Next week, I'll look at 1880-1889.