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Inevitable in 2010: Alex Rodriguez and 100 WAR

Wait, who's this guy? Yup, I'm new here and this is my very first post. I'm Adam and I blog at BaseballTwit and tweet as @baseballtwit. I've written about baseball off and on for years, but something got me into it again. What did it? It was Wins Above Replacement and the work that Sky did with it here. The way I see it, there are basically two types of baseball research: projection of the future and analysis of the past. I'm all about analysis. That's right, I'm here to talk about the past.

I love a good Hall of Fame debate and I love comparing players (regardless of position and era). Those debates were fun when all you had were offensive counting stats. Now that we have something like WAR at our disposal, it is even more compelling. WAR has given me the opportunity to do things like see whether or not the Hall of Famers elected (primarily) for their defense really were that good with the glove.

So now that I've told you how much I enjoy writing about the past, let me start by writing about something that will happen this year. The first time I ever had anything appear on this site was when Dan Turkenkopf posted a few milestones I had tweeted. For me, the most compelling milestone set to occur in 2010 has nothing to do with home runs, hits, or victories.

According to Rally's historical WAR leaderboards, Alex Rodriguez will pass Cap Anson to move into 20th all time in career WAR among position players. By doing so, Rodriguez will become the 20th position player to accumulate 100+ WAR in a career. What struck me about this was not that Rodriguez was joining even more elite company, but the fact that Anson was able to put up that kind of WAR, considering the era he played in.

Cap Anson, of course, played his entire career in the 19th century. He became the first player to collect 3000 hits and finished his career with a .333 average, a 141 OPS+, over 3400 hits, and over 11,000 plate appearances in his record 27 seasons. Anson's longevity would be considered remarkable even today. But think about all the factors he had going against him, playing in the 19th century:

  • Shorter schedule. Anson played in all of his team's games in 1871. All 25 of them. He was 32 before he played 100 games in a single season. It wasn't becuase of injury—it was because his team didn't play 100 games until that year. He still managed to play in over 2500 games, good enough for 46th all time.
  • Volatile alignment. Back then, you didn't have the same franchises year after year. After Anson's rookie year with Rockford, he signed on with Philadelphia and Rockford folded. He stuck with Philly for a few years until signing with Chicago of the National League (as the National Association disbanded). He then stayed with Chicago for the rest of his career, but the rest of the league was still rapidly evolving.
  • Lack of conditioning. I'm not saying 19th century players were out of shape. They just didn't train like athletes do today.
  • Primitive medical services. There weren't any Tommy John surgeries back then. Heck, there wasn't a Tommy John yet. Often, if you got hurt you were done. Anson managed to play in 93% of his team's games over those 27 years.

All of the above makes Anson's 99.2 career WAR even more remarkable. How did other 19th century stars fare? I'm glad you asked. Here are the top ten (exclusively) 19th century position players by career WAR:

  1. (#20) Cap Anson (1871-1897) — 99.2 WAR
  2. (#29) Roger Conner (1880-1897) — 87.1
  3. (#114) Jack Glasscock (1879-1895) — 58.6
  4. (#118) Bid McPhee (1882-1899) — 57.8
  5. (#156t) Buck Ewing (1880-1897) — 51.8
  6. (#179) King Kelly (1878-1893) — 48.4
  7. (#195t) Harry Stovey (1880-1893) — 46.8
  8. (#207) George Gore (1879-1892) — 45.9
  9. (#209) Mike Ternan (1887-1899) — 45.6
  10. (#212t) Mike Griffin (1887-1898) — 45.1

Anson ranks 20th all time while Conner is 29th all time. Then, there's a huge dropoff. Opening up the list for guys who played most of their careers in the 19th century, we add Jesse Burkett (#62 all time, 1890-1905, 67.7 WAR) and John McGraw (#175t, 1891-1906, 49.1 WAR). Still nobody who comes close to Anson and Conner.

As a Red Sox fan, it pains me a bit to see A-Rod moving into the WAR Top 20. Alas, it's not like Cap Anson was a guy you could feel all warm and fuzzy about either.