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Player comparisons aren't just for projecting the future

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Player comparisons are usually evoked to project future performance, but they can also be used to understand moments from baseball's past.

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Player comparisons are both useful and fun. They take advantage of our brain’s inclination to understand something either unfamiliar or unknown by way of creating a relationship to something more familiar and known. For instance, we know what it means when Mike Trout is compared to Mickey Mantle because we have Mantle’s complete playing record, and we are able to contextualize it with others. The Trout-Mantle comp points to two traits that usually accompany player comparisons. First, we hear about them most for well-known players—such as Mickey Mantle and Mike Trout. And second, they are usually designed to tell us something about what might happen in the future. Comparing Trout to Mantle is mostly about Trout’s potential to be an all-time great.

This article is about player comps, but it focuses on less celebrated players rather than great ones and looks back rather than forward. Ordinary players from the past don’t come with the legendary reputation of players like Mantle; however, we’re pretty familiar with ordinary players of the present. By drawing a comparison between ordinary players, we can better understand the ballplayers who populated the thick, mundane, middle of years past. Of course, the player from the past needs to have done something—just one thing—to stand out.

Bucky Dent had a decidedly unspectacular career, though there were some highlights. Dent debuted for the Chicago White Sox in 1972 but played with rookie status in 1973. In that season, the shortstop hit .274/.316/.347 with an OPS+ of 89. He finished second in American League Rookie of the Year voting that season. During Dent’s 12 year career, he was an All-Star three times, in 1975, 1980, and 1981. His best season was 1980, when he was about a four win player. One thing remained consistent throughout Dent’s career: He didn’t hit many dingers. In seven of his 12 seasons, Dent accrued more than 400 plate appearances, and the most home runs he ever hit in a single season was eight. He had 40 for his career.

But nobody remembers Bucky Dent for not hitting homers; he’s remembered for hitting one home run in particular. In 1978 the Yankees and the Red Sox squared off in a game 163 to determine the winner of the American League East. What happened in that game is well known. The Red Sox had a 2-0 lead heading into the seventh inning. It was then that Dent, who had a slugging percentage under .320 and four home runs on the season heading into the contest, hit a three-run home run to give the Yankees the lead. It did more than just that though—the homer deflated the Red Sox. The Yankees withstood a late Red Sox rally, took the game, and eventually won the World Series. Thereafter, the light-hitting shortstop received an epithet around New England that captures how much the dinger stung and how much of that had to do with the person who hit it: "Bucky fucking Dent".

We know that Dent wasn’t a masher who mashed a critical home run, but we can get a better grasp of what that meant by finding a contemporary comparison. To find our man, I isolated Bucky Dent’s performance into a three year sample surrounding the big event, 1977-1979. The year before the event is significant because it’s part of what made Dent familiar; the year after is important because it showed that he remained the same player. He was who he was. In those three years, Dent hit .240/.292/.319, good for a .611 OPS and an OPS+ of 69. He hit 15 homers. To get our contemporary Dent, I used Baseball Reference’s Play Index to identify an active shortstop with a similar batting profile and playing time since 2012. I searched for players who manned shortstop at least 70 percent of the time and have posted an OPS+ under 70. The search yielded one player, who hit a very similar 232/.278/.329 in a few hundred fewer plate appearances. Our guy has OPS’d .606 and has an OPS+ of 70. Like in Dent’s three year sample, he’s hit 15 home runs. Our modern day Bucky Dent is Clint Barmes.

Or, rather, Bucky Dent was the Clint Barmes of the mid-1970s. Knowing that Dent had a similar player profile to Barmes allows those of us who weren’t around to observe to get a better handle on Dent’s historic home run. But we can do even better by creating a situation that at least dimly reflects what happened in 1978.

Finding an ersatz 1978 Red Sox club is easy—it’s the 2015 Cubs. It has to be the Cubs. There’s no other National League team similarly championship deprived as the Red Sox were in 1978. The stakes need to be similar as well. While the 1978 game was a game 163 prior to the ALCS, a game 163 in 2015 means the chance of playing another elimination game followed by a five game set. This game has to be game five of the division series—an elimination game for the chance to play in the NLCS.

★★★

It’s game five of the NLDS between the Chicago Cubs and the San Diego Padres. The Cubs held a playoff position for most of the season. That wasn’t so for the Padres, Barmes' club, who needed to get hot and stay hot from mid-July on to make the playoffs. The Cubs take a 2-0 lead into the seventh inning and need nine more outs to move to the NLCS. The leadoff batter flies out, cutting that magic number to eight. The next two batters single, but the next batter flies out—seven outs to go. With two on, but with two outs, the Cubs are fortunate enough to be tasked with getting Clint Barmes out to end the inning.

The Cubs’ win expectancy stood at 82 percent. Throw in the context of facing a light-hitting shortstop and it might be even more. But then, Barmes gets a pitch right down the middle. Unexpectedly, especially from him, he drills it to left field. In a way, it’s an undramatic home run. There was no real doubt that it would make it over the left field wall. As soon as Barmes hit it, the crowd released a collective groan. The Cubs' defenders on the field suffered from a temporary case of wobbly knees. They wanted to literally collapse, but the fielders reminded themselves that they had to suffer through the remainder of the game standing up. It didn’t end the game, but it felt like it. The dinger gave the Padres the lead. It increased their win expectancy from 18 to 64 percent. Suddenly, the Cubs had nine outs to work with to score at least a run in order to salvage the season.

And all this happened in the matter of a moment—everyone’s disposition changed seconds after the ball came off Clint Barmes’ bat. Clint Barmes, who once posted an OPS under .600 as a member of the Colorado Rockies. Clint Barmes, who has just three more career home runs than sacrifices. Clint Barmes, who didn’t even hit a home run in 2014, ended the Cubs' season with a dinger. Clint fucking Barmes.

★★★

The Barmes-Dent comp enables us to get Bucky Dent and his last of five regular season home runs in 1978 just a little bit more because we get Clint Barmes. The best part of this sort of reverse comp is that it can be repeated with different players at different times. Bucky Dent, by dint of his game 163 home run, will always be remembered. Barmes hasn't done anything to stick in baseball's collective consciousness, so this comp won't make a lot of sense in 25 years. But there will always be a revolving cast of light-hitting shortstops to draw a comparison. At different times, different players will resonate.

It’s cliché to say that "history is alive," but it's true. Drawing player comparisons across time not to project the future but to understand a moment in the past animates baseball history.

★★★

Eric Garcia McKinley is a contributor to Beyond the Box Score. He writes about the Rockies for Purple Row, where he is also an editor. He once believed that Clint Barmes was the future of the Rockies. You can find him on Twitter @garcia_mckinley.