JAWS and the 2020 bWAR Update, Part 1

Poor Ernie Lombardi. The heavyset and heavy-hitting Hall of Fame catcher, who owns two of the position’s eight batting titles, was the player hardest-hit by Baseball-Reference’s latest update to their version of Wins Above Replacement. B-Ref rolled out a whole series of adjustments, both to current players and long-retired ones, into one big release earlier this week, which it explained via a Twitter thread on Tuesday morning and expounded upon at the site. Thanks to additional play-by-play baserunning and caught stealing data, Lombardi, whose career spanned from 1931-47, saw his career WAR total drop from 46.8 to 39.5. Well, he didn’t actually see it, as he’s been dead since 1977, but you know what I mean.

B-Ref’s version of WAR is different from that of FanGraphs, of course, though you may have noticed that our site also updated its Defensive Runs Saved totals after Sports Info Solutions made major changes to its flagship stat, in part to account for defensive shifting. I’ll get to that aspect in a separate follow-up post, but for the moment my concern is how the B-Ref changes affect my JAWS system for Hall of Fame evaluations. The overall answer is “not a whole lot,” though individual player WAR and JAWS, and thus the standards at each position, have shifted a bit, creating a ripple effect throughout my system. With no new baseball for the foreseeable future, it’s worth taking an inventory of these changes, in part because they give us a chance to dig into some baseball history and provide a bit of an escape from our current realities.

Incidentally, the Hall of Fame itself closed indefinitely as of Sunday, March 15, and has already canceled its 2020 Hall of Fame Classic Weekend, which was scheduled for May 22-24. Among other things, that weekend was to feature a seven-inning legends game featuring Hall of Famers and former major leaguers and a “Night at the Museum” program. Induction Weekend, scheduled for July 24-27, is still on the calendar and will hopefully take place as planned, but right now, there are no guarantees. Given that the advanced ages of many Hall of Famers put them at the highest risk for COVID-19 infections, attendance among the game’s legends could be more sparse than usual.

Lombardi’s 7.3-WAR change was the largest of any position player in either direction, positive or negative (you can view the full spreadsheet here via Google Docs). His total is one of just five — from among 19,682 players in all dating back to the birth of the National Association in 1871 — that moved by at least four wins in either direction. Hall of Fame shortstop Arky Vaughan, whose 5.1-WAR jump was the third-highest swing, was one of a handful of other denizens of Cooperstown among the 43 position players whose career WARs changed by at least 2.5.

Hall of Fame Position Players Most Affected by 2020 bWAR Update
Player Pos. Yrs WAR old WAR new Dif
Ernie Lombardi C 1931-1947 46.8 39.5 -7.3
Arky Vaughan SS 1932-1948 72.9 78.0 5.1
Lloyd Waner CF 1927-1945 24.1 27.9 3.8
Gabby Hartnett C 1922-1941 60.1 56.9 -3.2
Earl Averill CF 1929-1941 48.0 51.1 3.1
Charlie Gehringer 2B 1924-1942 80.7 83.8 3.1
Mel Ott RF 1926-1947 107.8 110.7 2.9
Tony Lazzeri 2B 1926-1939 50.0 47.3 -2.7
Jimmie Foxx 1B 1925-1945 95.8 93.1 -2.7
Luke Appling SS 1930-1950 74.5 77.1 2.6
Rick Ferrell C 1929-1947 33.7 31.1 -2.6
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
See this page for the full inventory of updates.

Separately, five currently active players are within that 2.5-win range in either direction, namely Josh Donaldson (-3.8 WAR), Carlos Correa (3.6), Scooter Gennett (-3.4), Jonathan Schoop (2.9), and Nick Castellanos (2.6). Again, the impact upon them is worth a closer look in an upcoming piece; we’ve got nothing but time to tackle it.

The changes to bWAR, which are explained in greater detail at the Sports-Reference blog by Alex Bonilla, stem from the influx of new data in five separate areas, some of which had already been incorporated into the site. Reordered for their chronological effect, they are:

  • New Retrosheet Game Logs (1904-07)
  • Caught Stealing Totals from Game Logs (1926-40)
  • Baserunning and Double Plays from play-by-play data (1931-47)
  • Defensive Runs Saved changes (2013-19)
  • Park factor changes (2018)

For history buffs, this is a lot of fun. Dating back to a change that was announced about four weeks ago, the site now has box scores going back to 1904, instead of ’08, so we now have the full game logs and home/road splits for the careers of Hall of Famers Ty Cobb and Walter Johnson. If you want to peruse Cobb’s day-by-day performances during his tumultuous-but-impressive age-19 season (1906) as you tuck into Charles Leehrsen’s A Terrible Beauty, now you can — as I wished I could when I read that book four years ago. Likewise, the Play Index’s window of coverage has been extended back to 1904, so we now know that Hall of Famer Nap Lajoie tied with the long-lost Homer Smoot with six four-hit games in ’04 (I warn you that this may not be the most effective conversation-starter in these social-distancing times). The earliest season with partial play-by-play data has dialed back from 1925 to ’18, aiding the calculation of league-wide splits and event-finding.

From a Hall of Famer standpoint, one upshot is better estimates for the quality of opponent each pitcher faced in the newly-covered seasons. The example Bonilla mentioned is that of Christy Mathewson, whose 1907 WAR increased by 0.9 because we now know that a greater proportion of his work was done against the NL’s better offensive teams. Mathewson’s career pitching WAR received a 2.2-win bump, the largest of any pitcher (I’m saving my look at the changes’ impact on pitching for a separate column).

Prior to this wave of updates, B-Ref previously estimated individual caught stealing totals “based on the league’s stolen base success rate and the ways the player reached base during the season.” Those weren’t displayed directly, but they went into estimates of each player’s baserunning runs, which have been additionally enhanced by the play-by-play data that reveals how often players took (or didn’t take) the extra base — first-to-third or second-to-home on a single, first-to-home on a double, advancing on outs. Those areas particularly affect our estimates of Lombardi’s value.

If you’re unfamiliar with Lombardi, the native of Oakland, California, who was listed at 6-foot-3 and 230 pounds, was one of the heaviest players of the day, and perhaps the slowest; most glaciers could outrun him, as I joked in The Cooperstown Casebook. He’s gotten something of a raw deal, historically; not only was he saddled with nicknames like “Schnozz” (for his prominent nose) and “Lumbago,” but he’s remembered for his “Big Snooze,” in which he was momentarily knocked out at home plate via a collision with the Yankees’ Charlie Keller on what proved to be the decisive play in Game 4 of the 1939 World Series, and for a suicide attempt in 1953.

But man, he could rake. Ted Williams considered Lombardi the best hitter he ever saw, according to a 1968 Veterans Committee statistical packet that I discovered while researching my book. Williams’ high regard for Lombardi’s prowess developed from the Red Sox and Reds sparring as they traveled north from spring training, and it culminated in Lombardi’s election to the Hall in 1986, the Splendid Splinter’s first year on the Veterans Committee.

During his 17 years with the Dodgers (1931), Reds (’32-41), Braves (’42), and Giants (’43-47), in what was generally a very high offense era, Lombardi hit .306/.358/.460 for a 126 OPS+, sixth among catchers with at least 6,000 PA. Seven times he placed among the league’s top 10 in batting average, and eight times he did so in slugging percentage. His numbers would be even better had he not lost a ton of hits because of his speed. “The shortstop would play him back on the outfield grass, because he hit the ball so hard so often and he was too big and bulky to run out infield hits,” recalled Stan Musial. Lombardi’s .297 BABIP is in a virtual tie with Johnny Mize for the fourth-lowest mark from among players with at least a .300 career batting average (6,000 PA minimum). He’ll move up a notch once Albert Pujols — who has the lowest BABIP from that group (.287) and is right at .300 overall — inevitably slips below the .300 threshold given that he’s hit in the .240s four times in the past five years. That will leave only Hank Aaron (.291) and Mel Ott (.294) ahead of Lombardi and Mize, and it’s worth noting that Willie Mays (.299) is just behind Lombardi. There’s plenty of good company on that list.

Lombardi somehow went 8-for-12 in stolen bases in his career, and his baserunning was previously valued at five runs above average; with the update, he’s now at -11 runs for a net of -16 runs. Yet despite grounding into 261 career double plays (30th all-time) and leading the NL in that category four times, he had never been debited any runs via that component of WAR. The bill has come due; he’s now 46 runs below average for his career, surpassing Jim Rice (-42) for the lowest mark on record. His combined total of baserunning and double play runs, which B-Ref groups together in a category denoted as “runs_little,” is the fifth-lowest, though Yadier Molina, who’s within half a run, will presumably overtake him; Paul Konerko, who went one-and-done on this year’s BBWAA ballot, has the lowest mark at -77 runs.

Lombardi’s defensive value (-12 runs) was unchanged with the update, but he also lost seven runs relative to the league from the batting runs component of WAR, that due to the addition of intentional bases on balls totals from the 1940s, which are valued differently than unintentional walks as they’re less likely to move a baserunner. The combined loss of 69 runs lowered his career WAR from 46.8 to 39.5 and took an inevitable bite out of his best seasons; his MVP-winning 1938 campaign, during which he won his first batting title while hitting .342/.391/.524, dropped from 6.0 WAR (fourth in the league) to 5.2 (sixth), and his seven-year peak total dropped from 28.8 WAR to 25.0, and his JAWS ranking among catchers from 17th (37.8, 6.9 points below the standard) to 28th (32.2, 12 points below the standard). With that, he slipped behind two Hall of Fame catchers with relatively short careers, Roger Bresnahan and Roy Campanella, in the rankings. With Ferrell, the lowest-ranked Hall of Fame catcher, also losing ground, the JAWS standard for the position dropped by 0.5 points. Notable but not earth-shaking.

As for Vaughan, he gained considerable ground in both baserunning and double play avoidance. If you’re unfamiliar with him, he’s something of a forgotten elite player because of a relatively short career with the Pirates (1932-41) and Dodgers (’42-43, ’46-47), a tragic death in a fishing accident at age 40, and a belated election to the Hall (1985, via the VC), but even before this update, he ranked sixth in JAWS among shortstops. A nine-time All-Star, he was not only above-average in the field, he was also one of the NL’s elite hitters in that high-scoring time. He won the slash-stat Triple Crown in 1935 (.385/.491/.607), led the NL in on-base percentage in the years on either side of that one, and had a total of 19 top-10 finishes in a slash stat and seven in OPS+. With his baserunning runs jumping from -7 to 12, and his double play runs from zero to 34, he not only gained the aforementioned 5.1 WAR, but he went from leading the NL once (1935) to three times (additionally ’36 and ’38), though he dropped from 11 top-10 finishes in the category to 10 (annually from 1933-4, save for ’42).

His career/peak/JAWS climbed from 72.9/50.6/61.8 to 78.0/53.5/65.8; he leapfrogged George Davis and Robin Yount in the shortstop rankings and is now fourth, trailing only Honus Wagner, Alex Rodriguez, and Cal Ripken. The JAWS standard at shortstop moved from 55.0 to 55.3; in the vicinity of those figures, it appears that Joe Cronin slipped from 55.2 to 53.8, while Pee Wee Reese climbed from 53.6 to 55.0.

I’ll publish the full positional standards table in my next post; I discovered a glitch related to former stolen base king Slidin’ Billy Hamilton that B-Ref’s Sean Forman is ironing out; Hamilton’s career, which ran from 1888-1901, should not have been affected by the above changes, yet the first release of the spreadsheet showed him dropping 3.6 WAR (I’ve eliminated him from the above table).

Lombardi and Vaughan represent two extreme examples of how newly-mined historical data can affect WAR and JAWS. Should it alter our perceptions of those players? Eh, maybe a little. But from a qualitative standpoint, Lombardi remains memorable because he was an outstanding hitter for a catcher, if a bit short in other areas of his game, and Vaughan an exceptionally talented all-around shortstop who ranks among the game’s best even if relatively few people remember him. Nobody’s dragging their bronze plaques to the Hall’s basement, and the standards we use as a yardstick to measure contemporary candidates have barely budged, similar to the effect of when a new player is elected. As we look forward to the day that the grand old museum in Cooperstown can reopen its doors, the good news is that the virtual Hall that so many of us flock to in our mind’s eye, whenever we take stock of excellence or steep ourselves in history, remains open around the clock.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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So I understand not wanting to change up JAWS to use fWAR because that would … change everything. But if bWAR is changing, maybe this is a good opportunity to explore exactly that?