Marty Lurie Talks San Francisco Giants Baseball

Waiting For The Next Craig Biggio by Rick Kaplan

Rick Kaplan
Staff Writer

OAKLAND (May 30) – Measuring greatness is tricky business.

Bill James, writing in his epic New Historical Baseball Abstract in 2001 called Craig Biggio “the best player in major league baseball today.”

Not Barry Bonds. Not Ken Griffey, Jr. Not Ichiro. Not fellow Houston Astro Jeff Bagwell.

James instructs us that we can dismiss Griffey’s 56 home runs in 1998 – Biggio had 20 – and concentrate on Biggio’s lead in doubles (51-33) and singles (137-88). By the time we are done with Biggio’s margin in steals and hit-by-pitches, Griffey has practically retreated to journeyman status on James’ mysterious index of true baseball value.

Click below for more!Somehow, to James, all the above adds up to Biggio being a more “winning” player.

There are probalby relevant courses at Cal in the graduate statistics department if you want to spend your summer boning up.

In 2002, Biggio hit .253, with 15 HRs and 58 RBIs, and a .330 OBP (On Base Percentage). Interestingly, when James wrote his 2003 post-script to a new edition, he didn’t edit his earlier remarks.

Maybe it’s because Biggio was hit by seventeen pitches in 2002.

James, considered the ranking savant of New Age baseball statistics in some circles, is in love with something he calls the “little stats.” Based on these little stats, especially HBP (hit by pitches) and GDIP (grounded into double plays), after reflecting on Biggio’s 1997 campaign, in which he was hit by 34 pitches and went the entire season without grounding into a single double play, Bill James ecstatically proclaims Biggio to be “the best little stats player in baseball history.”

OK, fair enough, he’s the best little stats player in history. I admit, that’s sort of interesting.

But he’s not done. James then uses these ‘little stats’ to prove that Biggio is a better player than Jim Rice.

Now that is just plain crazy.

The point of all this is that you can make statistics, the dear friend of baseball fans worldwide, say almost anything you want about who is great and who is not.

For example: 341 wins, 172 losses. A .665 winning percentage. Pretty heady stuff.

But, is Roger Clemens that good?

I wonder if Dave Stewart thinks so. He was 8-0 in head-to-head battles while Stew hurled for the A’s and Clemens for the Bosox back in late ’80s and early ’90s.

I recall some time in the mid-1990s when a letter writer to the Oakland Tribune claimed that he had researched Clemens’ eighteen ‘most pivotal’ (pressure) starts up to that time (for example, the sixth game of the World Series in 1986, which later ended as what will always be known as ‘the Bill Buckner game’, when Clemens inexplicably asked to come out after the seventh inning with a one run lead) and found that he was the winning pitcher in TWO of those games.

Somehow a fantasy has grown up around Clemens, especially during his time in New York, a myth fueled by those gaudy stats, a fawning press, and an arm suspiciously possessed of eternal pitching life, that he is in fact a “big game pitcher.” El Duque was the big game pitcher on the Yankees. Clemens was the big NAME pitcher. He just got some easy wins when the Yankees were up 2-0 or 2-1 in the Series.

The more recent clobbering in the 2004 All-Star game in Houston at the hands of the AL, or the pitiful losing performance against Mexico in the 2006 WBC semi-finals are more typical of his big game pedigree. (And I feel certain if he tries to come back to the Ameican League he will last about one month before some ‘ailment’ puts him mysteriously and permanently on the DL)

Statistics can lie.

Right now we are in the middle of a massive media barrage around Albert Pujols home run pace. The words “greatest player ever” are being thrown around like so much confetti after every dubious home run, much like they were during strangely similar media orchestrated marches toward greatness for Bonds, McGwire, and Sosa.

Hmmnnn. Do you ever wonder what’s goin’ on?

Is there a standard of greatness that is free from the skewing of mini-mallpark fences, free of marketing agendas, of protracted and pointless investigation of juiced bats and balls and bodies?

After all, this is supposed to be fun, isn’t it? If you think you don’t believe in performance enhancement, look in the mirror or at least in your checkbook.

Here are the three criteria I would propose for measuring the “greatness” of a baseball player:

1. Would you pay to see the player?

2. Is team success associated with the player?

3. Has the player consistently displayed at least three of the classic five tools (hitting for average, hitting for power, speed, catching the ball, throwing the ball) during the course of a career?

Let’s stick to performance on the field and lose the righteousness, especially when apparently we are overlooking all the indiscreet nonsense that has gone on during the previous 140 years of our beloved game. (Please review my previous articles on the Barry Bonds/steroids saga here on; “Blaming Barry – appears as “Loveofthegame welcomes Rick Kaplan,” “Bud Selig’s Glass House,” “Bonds V. Board of Education,” and “The Supreme Court of Baseball.” )

A player that meets these three criteria over the course of a career should be considered for “greatness,” and, for that matter, the Hall of Fame. And those that don’t (some of whom are already inducted) don’t belong. But, of course, we ain’t kickin’ them out.

By these standards, Pujols can be considered. Maybe Andruw Jones. And Vladdie. Career DHs can’t be (Thank-you Ed Stern.) Clemens will get in on the first ballot, but it really bothers me, and maybe that’s the A’s fan in me taking over. I realize objectively that in his case the stats are just too overwhelming, regardless of his heart. But forget about McGwire, or Ryne Sandberg, or Gary Carter.

For me, by these guidelines, Willy Mays and Babe Ruth are the greatest MLB players in the history of the game. I can’t say a lot about the Negro League players such as Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston because I just don’t know much about them. And that’s a little sad, isn’t it?

But the only player that comes to mind who can compare to Ruth and Mays, using these criteria, is Reggie Jackson. The .262 lifetime BA doesn’t detract. He made every team he was on better. This may be the criteria that Barry slips up on.

Surprised? Ready to argue? That’s part of the fun.

I think some people might also include Roberto Clemente.

A lot of this is about gut feelings, not stats. Our hearts and our brains tell us who is great.

Let me ask you a question, as one baseball trickster to another: With the game on the line with two out in the bottom of the ninth and the tying run at second, who do you want up for your team?

Craig Biggio, or Jim Rice?


1 Anonymous { 05.31.06 at 5:22 pm }

Who is the best clutch hitter in the game today? I would go with big papi,David ortiz. Is he a hall of famer? Probably not.
What about Edgar Martinez. He was deadly but played as a DH.Will he make it to the hall?
As for Clemens,the A’s had his number.Dave Stewart who had 4 years straight with 20 wins never won a Cy Young but
was the guy you would go to in the clutch. Will he make the hall? Probably not. Liked your article .Keep up the great writing.
Jerry Feitelberg

2 Anonymous { 06.02.06 at 3:30 pm }

Rick; I’ll take Jim Rice. Having said that, your article was right on the money. Your three tests for greatness go beyond the stats and are far more meaningful. How about Jackie Robinson? I would pay to see him play, any day.


P.S. I just read your Supreme Court article. Great !

3 Anonymous { 06.05.06 at 4:37 pm }

Thanks for your comments and feedback Jerry. I’m right with you about Stew. Too bad he didn’t have one more strong year, and he might have had a shot at the Hall. I realized after writing the article that I kind of omitted a standard for greatness for pitchers, but it would include command of a number of pitches, heart/big game type of history, what else? Sounds like Dave Stewart (I am such an unabashed A’s phile). I guess somebody like Jack Morris might be a good example of someone less obvious. I don not support the Bert Blyleven movement. I would have to say that if David Ortiz had six or seven more years like his recent couple then I would waive the no-DH rule! ( Edgar Martinez is probably a good example of why DHs are dubious choices. Nice guy, and he was great to watch hit, but he seemed to have little impact – unlike Ortiz – and his teams didn’t win very much. ) But I still really hate the Red Sox. Thanks again, and keep up your informative comments.

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