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Donnie Baseball: Inside the Numbers

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Yesterday, brilliant reader david_d asked who was better than Don Mattingly from '84-'88?

One anwser comes from a Bill James stat called Win Shares, which is "a very complicated statistic that takes all the contributions a player makes toward his team’s wins and distills them into a single number that represents the number of wins contributed to the team, times three."

If you want the in-depth of the calculation, go here.  But since WS are not freely available on the Internet, I'm going to make my case using other stats.

According to Joe Poz, the players who topped Mattingly in the span from '84-'88 were Wade Boggs and Tim Raines, with Mattingly on a level with Rickey Henderson and Tony Gwynn.

The Hitman had some laudable strengths.  He hit for a high average, .332 over these years- better than Raines (.315) or Henderson (.293) but less than Boggs (.355) and Gwynn (.336).  Mattingly knocked out an average of 206 hits a season with 73 extra-base hits. His 27 homers easily lead these All-Stars, and that got him a lot of extra attention.  His 44 doubles are even more impressive when you consider that Mattingly didn't bring speed to the table.  He was 5 for 12 in SB attempts over this span, only Wade Boggs (8 for 21) was worse.  And the guys he's up against, were the best baserunners in baseball: Raines went an incredible 298 for 338 (88%), and Henderson was a tick less effective at 367 for 434 (85%).

That lack of speed factors in to his defensive position.  In the depths of the '80s, it wouldn't have mattered to the Yankees if Mattingly was a mediocre 2B or 3B or RF instead of a 1B.  But it matters when we evaluate Mattingly, because we understand the value of the various defensive positions.  A guy who can play 1B is easier to find that a 3B, who in turn is easier to find that a CF.  Unfortunately for Mattingly, he's looking up at Boggs and Raines.  '84 was Raines last full season in center, after that he played left, which should bring him closer to Mattingly.  But Boggs played a solid 3B the whole time.  Mattingly may have been the best defensive 1B in the league, but the best 1B is still only a 1B.

The area Mattingly falls behind is in OBP.  It gets to the heart of what may be fair or unfair about comparing eras- we look back with modern eyes.  At the time, no one faulted Mattingly for only walking 48 times a season at his peak because he only struck out 35 times a year, and he could rake.  If you want to give Mattingly the title of Most Appreciated Player of his era, you'll get no argument from me.  I think the Hall of Fame voters should find a way to recognize players who excelled at what was important for the era.

But Mattingly's OBP is 20 points behind Gwynn, Henderson and Raines, and he's 75 points behind Wade Boggs.  That's like replacing the bat of Bengie Molina with Shane Victorino.  Simply put, Mattingly made more outs, and at a higher rate, than Boggs did.  When you make three outs the inning is over, 27 and the game is over.  Boggs and Mattingly were comparable hitters and fielders, but when it comes down to the most important thing, Mattingly was never the best player in baseball.