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Comparing hitting across generations: neutralized hitting

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When we compare players across different baseball eras, is there a way we can make more accurate comparisons between them?

This guy would have been a good hitter in any era of baseball
This guy would have been a good hitter in any era of baseball
Ed Zurga

I hate winter and everything about it. I hate cold, snow, ice and bulky clothes. My least favorite day of the year happens to be today (Sunday), the first day after the time change when we lose an hour of sunlight at the end of the day, and I don't care that Daylight Savings Time is a man-made invention. I don't ice skate, ski, snowmobile, cross-country ski, play hockey or curl. This is why I live in Iowa.

One great aspect of winter is it gives me time to research baseball's past. Most of my posts for the next month or so will be Hall of Fame-based -- not because I consider the Hall to be the ultimate shrine and symbol of a player's career, as much as a way to view a player's career and see how well he stacked up, not only to his peers but to the best players in history.

Context is the most important thing to me when reviewing players -- did what a player accomplish really set a standard, or was he just part of overall historical trends? Batting averages and home run totals rise and fall, and it helps to have a yardstick with which to compare careers. One of the backwaters at Baseball-Reference allows users to neutralize a player's career stats to different eras, and even different parks. This provides one way in which to put Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth on a relatively equal footing to see how they compare.

This chart shows the average number of runs per game throughout baseball's history:

Runs per Game

As fielding improved, errors -- and thus unearned runs -- decreased, such that by the time the American League was formed in 1901, teams were scoring around five runs per game. The Live Ball Era that began in 1920 wasn't as much a lively ball as a cleaner one, one not covered with spit or mud and scratched with every device pitchers could find. A cleaner ball was easier to see and hit. There were ebbs and flows over time, and currently there's been a sustained decrease in offense since around 2007, with average runs per game down 4.07, the lowest since the strike-shortened 1981 season. What's causing it -- better pitching? Worse hitting? The answer, of course, is yes, and many other factors as well.

Using neutralized hitting places all hitters in the same context to see who were beneficiaries of when and where they played and who were penalized. This first table shows players who were most hurt by playing in the wrong place, time or both:

Player From To PA HR RC BA OPS nHR nRC nBA nOPS dRC
Deacon White 1871 1890 6973 24 901 .312 .740 40 1291 .272 .642 43.3%
Paul Hines 1872 1891 7470 57 980 .302 .749 83 1326 .268 .660 35.3%
Jim O'Rourke 1872 1904 9052 62 1263 .310 .775 90 1573 .268 .668 24.5%
Ed Konetchy 1907 1921 8663 74 1052 .281 .749 83 1236 .294 .781 17.5%
Heinie Groh 1912 1927 7034 26 843 .292 .757 28 983 .301 .778 16.6%
Sherry Magee 1904 1919 8542 83 1136 .291 .790 91 1315 .304 .822 15.8%
George J. Burns 1911 1925 8250 41 987 .287 .749 48 1140 .293 .765 15.5%
Hal Chase 1905 1919 7938 57 920 .291 .710 63 1061 .301 .734 15.3%
Larry Doyle 1907 1920 7379 74 938 .290 .765 84 1075 .300 .791 14.6%
Dode Paskert 1907 1921 6998 42 748 .268 .711 47 857 .276 .731 14.6%
Steve Garvey 1969 1987 9466 272 1232 .294 .775 283 1401 .300 .788 13.7%
Frank Howard 1958 1973 7352 382 1112 .273 .851 407 1263 .285 .885 13.6%
Frank Schulte 1904 1918 7417 92 843 .270 .726 100 954 .279 .749 13.2%
Tommy Davis 1959 1976 7736 153 922 .294 .733 158 1042 .303 .755 13.0%

RC=runs created   Actual values are on left, n indicates values in a neutral stadium in the 2014 run environment (4.07 runs/game). dRC=percent difference in runs created. Click here to see how these values are calculated.

My primary measure is runs created, a Bill James invention. As the first chart showed, runs have always been scored, it's just how that changes. I was looking for the difference in actual runs created as opposed to how many runs would have been created had the player played in a neutral hitting park in 2014. Using Deacon White as the example, he created 901 runs in his career, but had he played his career in Camden Yards (very close to a neutral park) in the 2014 run environment, he would have created 1,291 runs, a 43.3 percent difference.

All these players played in eras or conditions that featured less offense than in 2014. In addition, neutralizing everything to a 162-game season will make for dramatic increases for the 19th Century players. Steve Garvey, Frank Howard and Tommy Davis all played during the mini-Dead Ball Era of 1961-1968, played many games at hitter-unfriendly Dodger Stadium, or both.

We really don't care all that much about players from 100 years or so ago, since no one alive saw them play, and even if they did only saw a fraction of the players. This table shows players whose careers began in 1970 or later:

Player From To PA HR RC BA OPS nHR nRC nBA nOPS dRC
George Hendrick 1971 1988 7834 267 1015 .278 .775 284 1140 .283 .789 12.3%
Garry Templeton 1976 1991 8208 70 827 .271 .673 71 916 .275 .680 10.8%
Buddy Bell 1972 1989 10009 201 1217 .279 .747 212 1333 .284 .759 9.5%
Dave Winfield 1973 1995 12358 465 1813 .283 .827 484 1978 .287 .837 9.1%
Tony Pena 1980 1997 7073 107 688 .260 .673 111 750 .259 .670 9.0%
Cecil Cooper 1971 1987 7939 241 1134 .298 .803 249 1235 .302 .811 8.9%
Jose Cruz 1970 1988 8931 165 1224 .284 .774 182 1325 .294 .801 8.3%
Tim Wallach 1980 1996 8908 260 1043 .257 .732 276 1122 .260 .739 7.6%
Carney Lansford 1978 1992 7905 151 1009 .290 .753 158 1085 .297 .769 7.5%
Chris Chambliss 1971 1988 8313 185 1038 .279 .749 193 1116 .283 .760 7.5%
Cesar Cedeno 1970 1986 8133 199 1144 .285 .790 212 1229 .294 .812 7.4%

There are a number of players who played a significant number of games in hitter-unfriendly parks such as the Astrodome. Most of these players were near the beginning of this time span because offense started creeping up around 1980.

There's usually no greater meaning other than to note that when making cross-generational comparisons between players ("Ty Cobb didn't hit near the home runs as Ken Griffey Jr. -- how can you call him one of the greatest center fielders ever?"), the context in which they played needs to be taken into account. In that example, Griffey was credited with 1,994 runs created, and if he had played all his game in a 2014 neutral park run environment, would have created 1,832 -- among the best of his generation. Cobb's numbers are 2,517 (actual) and 2,664 (neutral) -- among the best ever. Context matters.

So who benefited most from when and where they played?

Player From To PA HR RC BA OPS nHR nRC nBA nOPS dRC
Todd Helton 1997 2013 9453 369 1848 .316 .953 314 1403 .284 .862 -24.1%
Hugh Duffy 1888 1906 7841 106 1237 .326 .837 101 973 .275 .714 -21.3%
Tommy Tucker 1887 1899 7273 42 832 .290 .737 43 668 .247 .634 -19.7%
Larry Walker 1989 2005 8030 383 1619 .313 .965 344 1305 .287 .889 -19.4%
Herman Long 1889 1904 8505 91 985 .277 .718 87 795 .238 .620 -19.3%
Billy Hamilton 1888 1901 7608 40 1225 .344 .888 40 998 .295 .773 -18.5%
Ed McKean 1887 1899 7626 67 1046 .302 .781 67 856 .259 .675 -18.2%
Eric Young 1992 2006 6996 79 903 .283 .749 79 739 .264 .704 -18.2%
Bobby Lowe 1890 1907 7766 71 831 .273 .685 66 684 .240 .603 -17.7%
Earl Averill 1929 1941 7221 238 1323 .318 .928 215 1090 .285 .838 -17.6%
Jason Kendall 1996 2010 8702 75 1112 .288 .744 72 920 .275 .715 -17.3%
Juan Pierre 2000 2013 8280 18 989 .295 .704 18 825 .282 .676 -16.6%
Arlie Latham 1880 1909 7524 27 773 .269 .676 26 645 .223 .566 -16.6%
Brady Anderson 1988 2002 7737 210 1118 .256 .787 202 935 .247 .759 -16.4%
Cupid Childs 1888 1901 6766 20 910 .306 .805 20 763 .264 .704 -16.2%
Chuck Knoblauch 1991 2002 7387 98 1072 .289 .783 97 899 .276 .751 -16.1%
Charlie Gehringer 1924 1942 10244 184 1715 .320 .884 170 1439 .291 .807 -16.1%

It's no secret Coors Field is an extremely friendly hitting park, and the numbers bear out the advantage Todd Helton and Larry Walker (and to a lesser but still significant extent, Vinny Castilla and Dante Bichette) had in playing half their games in that launching pad. There were, er, other issues that made the period from 1995-2007 among the most robust offensive periods in baseball history, which is why players from that time frame are liberally represented. I expected to see players from the 1930s, but was surprised by the number from the 1880s -- I always forget that just because they didn't hit home runs, didn't mean they didn't score runs.

In my future posts, I'll introduce other ways to evaluate the current crop of Hall of Fame candidates, as well as evaluate past selections. This can help place players in context of not only their peers (the primary consideration), but for all historical players. In general, I believe it's unfair to compare players to those of past generations, because conditions are too far different. I'll go even further in stating about as far back as I'll go in pitcher comparisons is around 1950, but I'm getting ahead of myself. It's these kinds of issues that need to be thoroughly investigated as Hall of Fame discussions come around.

It was 24 degrees when I left the house Saturday morning for Bible Study, too cold for November 1st. The day I fear will be in a couple of months when I say to myself "High of 20 -- hey, not bad!", because that's the sign I've officially given in to winter. But I'll have baseball to write about, which will give me great solace. Now if it could only get the snow off my driveway.

All data from Baseball-Reference. Any mistakes in compiling or amalgamating the data are the author's. To see more of the data, go to this Google Docs spreadsheet. A Tableu data viz can be seen here, and is also linked to the spreadsheet.

Scott Lindholm lives in Davenport, IA. Follow him on Twitter @ScottLindholm.