Of all the names we’ve listed so far in this parade of over-rated, this is the one that will get the most argument, so it also requires the most detailed case. This is also the point where I have to warn you that since I am an engineer by education, there’s some heavy number-crunching and (gasp) mathematics coming. All you liberal arts majors out there are warned now to either read further at your own risk or call one of your nerdy and/or Asian friends.
What it all boils down to is that we here at Dubsism have constructed a case stating that one of the most beloved and iconic figures may be more myth than fact. What it all boils down to is without a doubt, Cal Ripken, Jr. is the most over-rated player in the history of baseball.
Its amazing what you can learn from the casual sports fan. For some reason, they have conflated “The Streak” into Ripken being a baseball icon of excessively prolonged overall-slightly-above-average-ism.
See, the last time I said something bad about Cal Ripken, I got an inbox full of stuff…the most typical of which is quoted below.
The truth is indeed painful for those who don’t recognize or should I say won’t recognize his (Ripken’s) greatness. To those people who can’t comprehend how the “Ripper” has been a role model and a wonderful ambassador of MLB (Major League Baseball), I say “Bite me!” Like it or not, if MLB had more like Cal Ripken, Jr. maybe the ballparks would be fuller. A great ball player. A legend. A Hall-of-Famer. (sic)
Stylistic atrocity aside, let’s break down this 73 words of misguided vitriol. Initially, I would like to draw your attention to the last three attempts at sentences in the aforementioned twaddle.
A great ball player.
As with all subjective statements, they are open to debate. However, this is a case where the objective can be used with devastating effect to depict my point. From Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary:
great (adj.) – much higher in quality or degree, much above the ordinary or average.
Well, to apply this particular adjective to the “Ripper” would be erroneous unless you used it in reference to two seasons out of his god-awfully long career; those being 1983 and 1991. For purposes of this demonstration. I have selected five important statistical categories that can be best used to describe a player’s offensive prowess and compiled information as such. Since defensive skills are also important, I have selected the Sabremetrics statistic, Fielding Runs (noted as FR in the tables) as a measure of defensive ability.
In short, Fielding Runs is a measure of how many runs during the course of a season that a player saved his team by with his plays in the field (see Appendix A for complete description and the formula for calculation.)
Now, for the case against Ripken.
For starters, with the exception of two seasons, Ripken is statistcally mediocre.
- Rest of career numbers are from 1981-1996, excluding the two years selected as best
- League Avg. numbers are for the American League for all years 1981-1996 inclusive
By looking at Table 1, we can see that Ripken has been by definition great offensively in two particular seasons. Even his FR numbers are astonishingly high in those two years, especially when you consider that he never really had range or a great arm playing at a position (shortstop) which requires at least one of those characteristics.
But when we get to Ripken’s averages for the rest of his career, an interesting phenomenon occurs. In four of the six categories studied, the “Ripper’s” numbers fall below the league average. It is therefore very easy, statistically speaking, to see that without the two peaks in 1983 and 1991, Ripken is certainly not “great.”
To even further dramatize the “Ripper’s” being average, compare his numbers with an extremely similar type of player. The perfect comparison comes in the form of Vern Stephens.
- Rest of career numbers are from 1941-1955, excluding the two years selected as best.
- League average numbers are for the American League for all years 1941-1955 inclusive.
Stephens was a slugging shortstop who fumbled grounders in the dirt in the American League from 1941 until 1955 for the Red Sox, White Sox and Browns (who took Stephens along with them to Baltimore when they became the Orioles). He, much like Ripken, was a far better offensive player than a defensive one. Stephens was also slow-footed and without a strong arm, much like Ripken.
Given the fact that they are similar types of players, one can see by simply inspecting numbers for both of them; figures compiled in exactly the same manner, that Ripken is the inferior of the two.
The most sensational illustration of how inferior Ripken is to Stephens is to look at the Rest of Career average numbers. This is the best way to see a players’ level of ability, inasmuch as you can easily see if he was as good, better or worse than the players during his career. To see the advantage that Stephens has in terms of percentage points over the league average in five out of six categories leaves nearly no room for argument (see Table 4).
This is an important distinction for two reasons. The first would be that Stephens has been painted by history in the color of the average; whereas Ripken has been elevated to those anointed to Cooperstown. As I have said before, this is not about “The Streak.” What this is about is attempt to shed light on this Ripken phenomenon. You see, people think that Ripken is the same kind of great player as the man whose record he broke.
Hence our second reason for this distinction. If one can demonstrate that Ripken isn’t even as good as Vern Stephens, there is no way you can compare him to Lou Gehrig (see Tables 3 and 4). In short, it is one thing to play 2,130 consecutive games as one of the league dominant offensive players; it is entirely another to do it while running somewhere in the pack.
- Rest of career numbers are from 1923-1939, excluding the two years selected as best.
- League average numbers are for the American League for all years 1923-1939 inclusive
Table 4: Percentage Points Over League Average for Careers
Where the Ripken phenomenon is the most dramatically illustrated is in the Fielding Runs category. To go from a shockingly high number like 39 in 1983, or a pretty-damn-good number like 18 in 1991 to a career average of -3 can only mean one thing. Those two huge numbers are hiding a lot of numbers throughout his career that are frightening, such as a -29 rating in 1990, -7 in 1982 or -13 in both 1992 and 1994. These numbers represent the fact that over the majority of his career, Ripken was been a liability at shortstop, a position that requires solid defensive play.
By comparison, journeyman shortstop/utility player Alvaro Espinoza led the American League in 1991 posting a total of 21 while handling the shortstop duties for the Yankees.
Another comparison can be seen by stacking the FR numbers of a few shortstops in the major leagues during Ripken’s career against his in a year-by-year performance analysis (see Table 5).
Table 5: Year-of-Career Fielding Runs Analysis
Note that we did not include the final years of Ripken’s career when he primarily played 3rd base. By analyzing these numbers, one can easily see that as a shortstop, a key defensive position, Ripken is at best inconsistent. No one of his era has as consistently the wild swings in numbers. As shortstop is a difficult position, oscillation in the figures is to be expected. Ozzie Smith, arguably one of the greatest defensive shortstops in the history of the game also has this pattern, though not nearly as often as Ripken; nor do his statistical ripples have the amplitude of Ripken’s (e.g., from -29, up to 18 and then back -13 in three consecutive seasons).
Even a statistically average player, such as Garry Templeton rates higher than Ripken. Templeton grades out to exactly zero, the given statistical average for calculating the data in this category; Ripken is rated at -3. Also, Templeton does not have the inconsistency problem. When his numbers were good, they tended to stay that way and vice versa. The “Ripper’s” figures flip-flop around the zero mark 8 times.
By definition, one cannot be considered a great ball player if is he below the averages set by his contemporaries.
Legends are born of factual misrepresentations passed from one mouths to the next, sprouting new distortions as they travel. As I stated earlier, the process leads to these misrepresentations becoming myths. They mature into legends as soon as people start to forget the truths at the root of the story.
Is Cal Ripken, Jr, a legend? He certainly is because most people have forgotten that he was not a great ball player.
For the third time now, this is not about “The Streak.” Unfortunately, you can’t mention the “Ripper” without the word “streak” filtering out on the same exhalation. It is even more difficult in this case to separate the two as the “streak” is the major reason Ripken will be considered for the hall of fame.
As a matter of fact, there is nothing special about a guy who shows up for a 5-hour workday for 162 days per year and gets a 4 or 5 month paid vacation at the end of it. Yet, people will fawn over this accomplishment despite the fact that he didn’t do anything special during that time. We’ve already stacked his numbers against that of Lou Gehrig and seen that they are hardly worth comparing.
This is worth noting because Gehrig’s greatness is completely at the heart of why anybody cares about the streak. Since Gehrig was a great player, it is assumed by many that it would take a great player to break his consecutive-games-played record. In short, it is because of Gehrig that anybody cares about “The Streak.” If the record had been held by Doc Cramer, would the casual baseball fan have cared about it? No, because none of them ever heard of him. Hence, one could say that Gehrig’s career was so great that he put two players in Cooperstown; himself and the “Ripper.”
The thing is Ripken didn’t need this sort of coattail on which to ride…he’s one of eight players with 400 home runs and 3,000 hits. I’m certainly not saying Ripken doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, but his career batting average (.276), and his seasonal averages of 23 home runs and 93 RBI are not as good as those of Ron Santo, who has yet to make Cooperstown. (For those of you that believe Santo should be in the hall-of-fame, remember that unlike Ripken, Santo could field.)
A better way to weigh hall-of-fame credentials is to compare a player with a player like him who is in the hall of fame. Here, we can stack Ripken against Ernie Banks (another power-hitting shortstop.)
Table 6: Ripken vs. Banks through the same number of seasons in their careers (16)
This is one case where the number don’t truly bear the whole story. Ernie Banks played the majority of his career in an era where batting titles were being won with .301 averages and pitchers were posting ERA’s under 2.00. Therefore, it is necessary to compare their performances against the league average during their careers (see Table 7).
Even without that comparison, it is easy to see that Ripken comes out far below Banks in both home runs and fielding runs. Yet, when viewed in terms of percentage points over league average (PPOLA), the difference becomes even more dramatic.
Table 7: Banks vs. Ripken in Percentage Points over League Average
Banks played in an era with far superior pitching than did Ripken, yet Banks numbers in PPOLA are with the exception of RBI’s are far superior than Ripken’s. Particularly impressive are the strikeout numbers. In an era of weaker pitching, Ripken whiffs 10.8% more often than the league’s average hitter, whereas Banks chalks up the K nearly half of the statisitcal mean.
In this examination, it has been demonstrated statistically that Ripken was not a “great” ball player. It also has been shown that Ripken, despite being an above average run producer, proved to be far more of a liability with his glove. That fact, given that he was a shortstop the majority of his career, sharply overrides any great offensive production as shortstop is primarily a defensive position. In short, Ripken’s bad glove cost more games for his team than his bat won.
In and of itself, that fact alone excludes Ripken from the “Hall of Great.”
Appendix A: Explanation of Fielding Runs
In 1954, Branch Rickey and Allan Roth devised a system for determining “effieciency” for run prevention. Given a statistical average of zero, this is a computation of innings played at each position, plate appearances for all players on the opposing teams, then rating a player based on his total chances per inning. The formula for calculating fielding runs is as follows:
- FR= .20 (PO + 2A -E + DP) league average at position
- PO league total – K league total
- Where PO = put outs, A = assists, E = errors, DP = double plays, and K = strikeouts