A few weeks ago Adam Darowski wrote a wonderfully entertaining article for High Heat Stats celebrating the very underrated career of right-handed pitcher Rick Reuschel. In his piece, Adam suggests that Reuschel's legacy has been unfairly marginalized for several reasons-- mainly pitching in front of terrible defenses and insignificant ballclubs. I followed up on that theme a few days later by attempting to show what Reuschel's ERA+ would have looked like had he played in front of average defenders for the entire length of his career, and along the way I found myself increasingly interested in the dilemma Reuschel presents.
What really makes his type of career so fascinating is that there is such an enormous disconnect between Reuschel's numbers and our impressions of his value. Adam (perhaps even hesitatingly) lays out several convincing arguments that suggest Reuschel was a Hall of Fame talent over the course of his career, but certainly it feels as though no one remembers him that way. Certainly the BBWAA felt he was no where near that level back in 1997 when only 0.4 percent of its members voted to enshrine a plaque with his name on it in Cooperstown.
So naturally this led me to wonder, what other Reuschels are out there? What other players have slipped passed us, posting clandestinely superlative numbers while we were looking the other way?
ELO vs. HOS
In order to do this, however, we would need some form of subjective measurement to compare it with the objective. The best quantification of subjective opinion that came to mind is the EloRrater located at Baseball-Reference. For those who don't know, the EloRater is an evaluation system based on a voting system where fans choose one player over another. It is constantly changing as new votes are computed, and my numbers here were downloaded as of Sunday, February 10, 2013 2:22 pm.
Right now, Babe Ruth sits atop the Elo rankings with a score of 2750, while a player like John Lowenstein ranks 1036th all-time with a score of 1360.
I decided to compare this "subjective" score with the best all-encompasing career evaluation system I could find-- the Hall Rating from the exquisite Hall of Stats website. Each player's Hall Rating is based off his career WAR totals (as calculated by Baseball-Reference), which are then adjusted to appropriately weigh peak value, era adjustments, and several other necessary factors to evaluating career merit.
Because these two unique rating systems are so different, I compared the z-scores for 2915 players ranked in the EloRater to the z-scores of their Hall Rating to achieve our overrated score (z-DIFF). The players that were rated significantly better under the fan-propelled Elo system were as follows:
Most Overrated Players since 1900
Not surprisingly, sabermetrics' favorite RBI king Joe Carter tops the list. Carter is notoriously revered in certian baseball circles for his clutch abilities that have been shown to be largely dependent on excess of opportunity more than anything else. Armed with this reputation for timeliness and the powerful images of what is arguably the most dramatic home run of all time, it is almost to be expected that baseball fans rate Carter so approvingly. But with a Hall Rating of just 28, which is on par with the career of Marlon Byrd, it's no wonder the hero of the 1993 World Series rates as the most subjectively overrated player in baseball history.
Michael Young at #3 also seems very fitting. Perhaps no other active player embodies the new age vs old school entrenchment in baseball culture today more so than the former Texas Ranger. His detractors will likely point to his miserable defense and Arlington-inflated power numbers as the main source of his misrepresentation in the mainstream, while Young's supporters point to his-- well, I'm actually not sure what they point to anymore to be perfectly honest with you.
Paul Konerko at #5 is a name that surprised me a bit. Fans tend to skew significantly towards more recent players in these Elo ranking battles, so that may explain part of why Konerko's appearance is so high on this list. But I'll also admit to experiencing a minor case of astonishment when I saw his abysmal Hall Rating of just 36. This should be especially controversial to White Sox fans here in Chicago, where the murmurs of his possible retirement after the 2013 season have been met with considerable talk of his Hall of Fame worthiness.
Roy Campanella is the first Hall of Famer to make the list, and his impressive ten year run for one of baseball's most storied franchises is often considered one of the best careers for a catcher. It's likely that fans weighted Campnella's earlier seasons in the Negro Leagues as well as the tragic reasons behind his premature departure from the game when ranking the long time Brooklyn Dodger. These non-empirical factors are obviously not considered in the more objective analysis used by Darowski.
At #13, I've seen plenty of internet brouhahas involving opinionated Yankees fans brazenly defending the honor of Don Mattingly, so no surprise there either. While positional adjustments seem to have hurt Mattingly more than anything else, it's likely that Adam Dunn at #19 makes this list on account of his oft-overlooked ineffectiveness in the field. To date, Dunn has managed -152 defensive runs in just 12 seasons-- the impact of which I imagine the EloRaters have not fully appreciated.
Harold Baines was a fine hitter, but he is penalized heavily for the one-dimensionality of his game under modern evaluation methods. He places a hair in front of another long time DH, Don Baylor at #24.
The fans are apparently also big on David Price at #25, but the Hall of Stats maintains that it would like to see more out of the young left-hander before jumping to conclusions. Meanwhile, at #28, it seems baseball was not blessed with seeing enough of Satchel Paige for the Hall of Stats to give him his proper due.
Finally, at #30, the list closes just as it began with a player known primarily for a timely home run with dramatic world championship implications. Bill Mazerowski, the hero of the 1960 World Series, was known mostly for his excellent defensive abilities, but the fielding evaluation methods used at Baseball-reference do not appreciate his glove as well other defensive metrics like Baseball Prospectus's FRAA for instance. This leaves Mazerowski with one of the lowest Hall Ratings for an actual Hall of Famer, something fans seem eager to overlook.
Interestingly, this method did not produce a similarly expected group of names for the most underrated players in baseball history. With the exception of the first player on the list (who is certainly devalued by the fans for obvious reasons), it would seem that the Hall of Stats and EloRater believe we do not truly appreciate the greatest superstars of the game as much as we should:
Most Underrated Players since 1900
It's not a shocker to see that the fans have taken some of their frustrations out on Barry Bonds in the Elo ratings, and Clemens at #3 is no surprise either. But Babe Ruth at #2 is a bit of a mystery. Is it possible that the greatest player of all-time is actually being underrated by baseball itself? Is it even conceivable that the Babe is better than we give him credit for?
Even as we move down the list, however, we find a whole slate of names that should be anything but underrated-- Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, Hank Aaron?
I would understand certain superstars of the dead-ball era being underrated-- names likePete Alexander and even legendary Rogers Hornsby, for instance. But Ty Cobb? They even made a movie about him starring Tommy Lee Jones!
Beyond the top ten, things seem to make a bit more sense at least: Phil Niekro, Pedro Martinez, Bert Blyleven, and Alex Rodriguez make up an interesting bloc from #19 to #22, with Curt Schilling not too far behind at #24.
Rick Reuschel, incidentally, ranked as 43rd most underrated player of all-time.
I enjoyed this fun little exercise a great deal, but I'd like to tweak the method here and improve it as best as we can. If you have any suggestions as how to better compare the two very different systems, I'd love to here from you in the comments or via twitter.
The argument between our perceptions and the raw data of baseball really is one of the more fascinating aspects of the game in my opinion, and it's something I'd like to explore more often in the future. i really do believe that the more we understand about why we feel a certain way about a player despite objective analysis suggesting the contrary, the more we understand the way we interpret the game. I realize that sounds incredibly corny, but I think it's an important question to ask-- what lies do we enjoy telling ourselves?
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Thanks again to Baseball-Reference and the Hall of Stats for making all their data free to play around with.