SSTN Interviews Dr. David J. Gordon
SSTN: Today we are here with author David J. Gordon whose great work Baseball Generations was just published. This book looks at “Career Value Index” and rates the greatest players of all time. A cardiovascular epidemiologist, Dr. Gordon worked for the National Institutes of Health (NI H) for more than forty years before retiring in 2016. Dr. Gordon, who grew up in Chicago, is also a huge baseball fan who has been published multiple times by SABR.
Thanks for coming to Start Spreading the News. It is great to have this discussion with you.
You are welcome, Paul. It is an honor and a pleasure to be invited.
To begin, please tell us how you became a baseball fan.
My father took my brother and myself to our first game when I was seven. I don’t remember much about the game itself except that the White Sox beat the Indians, but I do remember the obstructed view of the greenest field I had ever seen through the ugly metal girders of old Comiskey Park. We soon began watching Sox and Cubs games on WGN and collecting baseball cards. I preferred the Cubs and my brother preferred the Sox. We also bought a low-tech game called All-Star Baseball, played with cardboard disks and a spinner, and spent untold hours playing simulation games with a mixture of current and old-time players ranging from Walt Dropo to Babe Ruth.
I am going to jump right into the big topic of our discussion today. In simple terms, please explain Career Value Index for us.
Career Value Index (CVI) is a statistical construct based on the Baseball-Reference version of WAR, which adds extra value for seasons with WAR above a threshold corresponding roughly to All-Star caliber. The default threshold is 5.0 for mid-20th century baseball, but may be as high as 11.0 for 1880s pitchers (who typically pitched 600 innings or more per season) or as low as 2.0 for the pandemic-shortened 2020 season. The advantage of CVI is that it prioritizes peak value over career duration and that peak value is placed in context of the era in which a player performed. CVI also has numerous bells and whistles, including tweaks for undervalued positions like C and RP, a PED offset, etc., but these are secondary.
Your book, Baseball Generations, takes a very detailed and close look at who the greatest players of all-time are. When I see a new statistic, I always try to judge that stat against my own understanding of baseball and when I look at your rankings, I see that the names I’d expect to be rated the highest (Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, Hank Aron, Barry Bonds, Ty Cobb, etc..). This, to me, adds legitimacy to the formula. What makes your system different from the other ranking systems?
Because CVI is based on WAR, it focuses on non-situational stats that contribute directly to scoring and preventing runs. This is in contrast to situational stats like wins, saves, RBI, and runs scored which are influenced by the quality of a player’s teammates. Also, like WAR, it compensates for differences in run-scoring environments on both the macro (deadball versus steroid era) and micro (Coors Field versus the Polo Grounds) level. But unlike WAR, CVI elevates stars like Sandy Koufax (48.9 WAR, 70.2 CVI), who were among the best of their time for a short (but significant) period, over compilers like Don Sutton (66.7 WAR, 58.7 CVI) who was merely pretty good for a very long time. CVI also compensates for opportunity differences (19th versus 21st century pitchers, for example) by tailoring the All-Star threshold to the era. So Tim Keefe’s 19.9 WAR season in 1883 does not receive an insanely high CVI score. Jay Jaffe’s JAWS metric has a similar intent, but is less effective in elevating stars over compilers – it still ranks Sutton over Koufax, for example – and is not adjusted for opportunity differences.
Baseball Generations breaks down the history of baseball into different periods that seem, to the eye, to be different from how others create the various eras. Your book breaks down baseball into the following time periods (among others): 1901-1919, 1920-1945, 1946-1972, and 1973-1993. Please explain how you came up with these eras.
The eras you mentioned correspond to the deadball era, the classical pre-integration era (which actually includes 1946), the post-integration era before free agency and the DH, and the era of labor strife. The 1871-1900 era is lumped together for convenience, although it is quite heterogeneous. I designated 1994-2012 as the Steroid Era, although you could argue that this era began as early as 1988 and ended as late as 2013. To some extent, the exact years of demarcation are arbitrary since the eras really overlap.
There is a player you rank as a “Near-Great” and as the 149th best player in baseball history. You rank this player on your list of players who should be “elevated” to the Hall-of-Fame. He also ranks as the 14th greatest third baseman of all-time. What can you tell us about Graig Nettles? Why does he belong in the Hall-of-Fame? Do you believe Nettles will get this honor? (If you can’t tell, Graig Nettles is my favorite player of all-time.)
I think Nettles belongs in the Hall of Fame, but he is being – and may continue to be — held back by the fact that his batting average is below .250 and because defense at 3B is undervalued by HOF electors. Nettles ranks fifth among all 3B in dWAR (behind only Brooks Robinson, Adrian Beltre, Buddy Bell, and Clete Boyer). While Brooks Robinson was in a class by himself at 3B, Nettles actually had a higher OPS+ (110) than Robinson (105), Bell (109), or Boyer (86), despite his sub-.250 AVG. Nettles’ 67.0 CVI ranks 14th among all 3B, above Hall of Famers like Deacon White, Jimmy Collins, Pie Traynor, George Kell, and Freddie Lindstrom. The only eligible 3B with CVI > 70.4 who are not in the HOF are Scott Rolen and Ken Boyer.
Which player’s ranking (either positively or negatively) surprised you the most?
Some players who ranked higher in CVI than I expected are Kevin Appier, Sal Bando, Gary Carter, Booby Grich, John Hiller, Rick Reuschel, and Wilbur Wood, Some players who ranked lower in CVI than I expected are Mordecai Brown, Mickey Cochrane, Whitey Ford, Eddie Murray, Pie Traynor, and Dave Winfield
Let me throw a few other names out there for you to let us know if you believe they should be in the Hall-of-Fame.
Willie Randolph – Borderline (57.4 CVI)
Thurman Munson – Yes (60.6 CVI)
Don Mattingly – No (42.6 CVI)
Ron Guidry – No (47.3 CVI)
Charlie Keller – No (52.04 CVI – after adjusting for military service in 1943-45)
Tommy Henrich – No (43.96 CVI – after adjusting for military service in 1943-45)
Roger Maris – No (37.6 CVI)
Tommy John – Probably not (53.8 CVI)
The knock against all of these players except for Randolph and John, is lack of longevity. Mattingly, for example, was a top player for four years (25.0 WAR in 1984-87) but faded quickly due to back problems. Guidry had a spectacular season in 1978 (9.6 WAR) but had only two other seasons with WAR > 5. I favor Munson for the HOF because he was the equal of Carlton Fisk while they were active. Although it would be too much to assume that he could have kept up with Fisk (who was exceptionally productive into his 40s), he had a lot left at the time he fatally crashed his plane.
Let me dig a little deeper on the misunderstood and underappreciated Roger Maris, who had the bittersweet legacy of breaking break Babe Ruth’s iconic home run record in 1961. While this feat brought him fame, it also doomed him to be forever measured against Ruth and Mantle and always found wanting. Even today, 36 years after his death, we are still at it, putting him on the ballot for selection to the HOF, for which he is clearly not qualified. Maris was no one-year wonder, winning the MVP in 1960 as well as 1961. But for most of his career, Maris was actually a solid blue-collar ballplayer, who provided reliable OF defense, timely hitting, and above average power, and never short-changed his fans. We shouldn’t have to keep reiterating that he was no Babe Ruth. Who he actually was should be good enough. By the way, Maris did not particularly benefit from playing his home games in Yankee Stadium; he hit 31 of his 61 HR in 1961 on the road.
As for Randolph and John, I believe both are a little light on HOF credentials but neither would be an outrageous choice. Randolph was a top-notch defensive 2B and a quiet leader of the Bronx Zoo edition of the Yankees, who is better than eight 2B who are currently in the HOF (Herman, Doerr, Fox, McPhee, Lazzeri, Evers, Schoendienst, and Mazeroski). John was a very good pitcher and classical compiler whose historical claim to fame was undergoing the first successful UCL replacement surgery (now named after him). Perhaps, the surgeon, Dr. Frank Jobe, is more deserving of recognition, but it was John who put his career on the line and went through the grueling rehab.
Absent of the PED players, what player not in the Hall-of-Fame most deserves to be there?
Putting aside Schilling, Joe Jackson, and Pete Rose, as well as the PED guys, I would place Ken Boyer, Grich, Lofton, Rolen, Tiant, and Whitaker at the top of my list of eligible players who belong in the HOF. I could list about 15 others, but I’ll stop at six.
Why, do you believe, are people so drawn to baseball and its stories, legends, and people?
I will answer this for myself, but I don’t think I am alone. I think the special appeal of baseball is due to several factors:
When you watch a baseball game, the spotlight only shines on one player at a time. So, it is easy even for a casual fan to figure out who hits the ball hard, which pitchers are hard to hit, and who makes a spectacular play in the field. When you watch a football game, you need an expert analyst and repeated replays to make sense of the action.
Because so much of the action in baseball is serial rather than concurrent, it is especially amenable to statistical analysis. Baseball provides a scaffolding of statistics on which to hang our stories and legends.
Unlike football and basketball, you don’t have to be an unusual physical specimen to excel in baseball. Baseball players are easy for fans to identify with.
The history of baseball is closely intertwined with the major themes of American history since the Civil War — race relations, the rights of workers, urbanization, westward expansion, globalization, etc. It is amazing to think that when MLB began in 1871, Grant was president, there were only 37 states, 74% of Americans lived in rural areas, and Custer’s last stand was still five years off.
Because baseball does not require great sophistication to watch and because it is easy for a child to envision himself as a baseball player, the love of baseball is easily passed from parent to child. Hence the title Baseball Generations.
There’s a lot of talk about baseball needing to be “fixed.” Is baseball broken? If you were the Commissioner of Baseball what change(s) if any would you make to the current game?
Setting aside the quaint anachronistic notion that the MLB commissioner has the power to enact change by fiat, I would prioritize swinging the pendulum back to more contact and baserunners and less “three true outcomes.” I believe that MLB’s current trajectory in which the number of SO has exceeded the number of hits since 2018 is unsustainable and is strangling fan interest. No pitcher before Sandy Koufax ever had more SO than hits allowed; today the average MLB pitcher does this.
I would propose to begin to address this problem by limiting mid-inning pitching changes to perhaps three per nine-inning game and impeding the free flow of pitchers between AAA and the major league rosters. I would accomplish the former by instituting a penalty for exceeding the limit for pitching changes in which the first batter faced by the incoming pitcher would be awarded 2B and all baserunners would advance two bases (like a ground rule double). I would make exceptions for injury but would discourage attempts to game the system by requiring the “injured” pitcher to be placed on the 60-day IL. I would also limit traffic between AAA and the major league roster by not allowing a team to use more than 15 different pitchers in any 7-day period and by not allowing any single pitcher to be optioned out more than twice in a season without burning his option for that year and thereby accelerating his path to free agency. The net impact would be to force pitchers to pace themselves to remain in games longer, and this would foster more contact. A secondary benefit would be to shorten games by lessening the number of delays to change pitchers. Another more radical option (which worked in 1893) would be to move the pitching rubber back by 2-3 feet, but I would give the other change a try first.
In looking at the history of the Yankees, or baseball in general, what person or event would you like to see a book written about?
I would like to see detailed biographies of the great Negro League stars, which fill in some of the gaps in their statistical records. I have been working on extending CVI to the analysis of Negro League players, but have found that trying to reconstruct careers from fragmentary data is more like archeology than history. For example, the Seamheads website, which has the most complete Negro League records, shows no data at all for Satchel Paige in 1938-40 (ages 31-33). What was he doing during those years? After all, he pitched in the Negro Leagues in 1941-47 and in the major leagues after that. Even if the statistical records are lost to history, I would at least like to know where he played and whom he played against.
In the book and the movie The Natural, the main character wants nothing more than to walk down the street and have people say, “There goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was.” Who was the best baseball player you ever saw?
Probably Willie Mays. The 2001-04 version of Barry Bonds was probably even better, but like Ray Hobbs, that player is fictional.
Our final question is really just a collection of short answers…
What was your favorite baseball team growing up? Although I started out rooting for the Yankees of Mantle, Berra, Ford, et al, the Cubs overtook the Yankees in my affections in the 1960s. Actually, there was no conflict of interest because the Cubs (bottom of the NL) and Yankees (top of the AL) never played each other in those days, not even in spring training.
Who was your favorite player? Mickey Mantle and Ernie Banks
What is your most prized collectible? Complete set of 1956 Topps baseball cards.
Who is your favorite musical group or artist? I am a big fan of folk music and rock from the British invasion. Some of my favorites are Bob Dylan, the Beatles, the Byrds, Peter, Paul and Mary, Judy Collins, Sam Cooke, Leonard Cohen, Patsy Cline, Simon and Garfunkel, Bruce Springsteen, the Seekers, and Ian and Sylvia in no particular order.
What is your favorite food (if it is pizza, what is your favorite pizza restaurant)?
Again, it is hard to pick just one favorite. I love steamed Maryland crabs and a variety of ethnic foods – Mexican, Indian, Vietnamese, in particular. But if I were ordering my last meal, I would probably choose barbecued chicken (on a charcoal grill), corn on the cob, and watermelon for dessert.
Please share anything else you’d like with our audience –
I have also written a book called The American Cardiovascular Pandemic: A 100-Year History, describing the rise heart attacks as the leading cause of death in the US and the subsequent 80% decline in heart attack mortality since 1968. Like Baseball Generations, it is a mixture of history and statistics. It is written for those of a scientific bent, but you don’t have to be a cardiologist or scientist to read most of it.