July 30, 2007 2 Comments
In 1990, the Cleveland Indians signed former MVP (in 1979) Keith Hernandez, then 36 years old, to play first base. The year before, Hernandez had put up a nifty line of .233/.324/.326 in 1989 with the Mets while playing in 75 games and losing his starting spot at first base to Dave Magadan(!) Hernandez, looking for work, must have done what the rest of us would do in that situation, he put together a resume, no doubt pointing out that he had been a member of the 1986 World Champion New York Mets. The Indians, in signing him, proclaimed that they wanted Hernandez because he knew “how to win.” (Does anyone not know that?) Hernandez lasted 43 games with the Indians and put up a lovely batting line of .200/.283/.238, and was promptly amputated from baseball.
Do GM’s really look at whether a player is a “winner” when choosing whether to sign him? Does wearing a World Series ring give a player a little more leverage in securing a contract, especially if he’s an established veteran? The answer might surprise you. But let’s define some terms first.
I took the Lahman database and coded all hitters from 1960-2005 as having either played on a World Series team or not. In order to qualify, they had to have logged 100 AB in the season in which their team won the World Series. This did two things: It got rid of all the pitchers batting and got rid of the cup-of-coffee call-up guys that didn’t really do much for the team on their run to glory. If they met these criteria, they were forever labeled as “ring wearers.”
Now, how to tell whether a player gets a little boost from wearing that ring? The best way is to look at the margins of when a player ceases being useful, or when no one else will sign him to a contract. So, we could look to see whether former champions are allowed to fall further than non-champions by looking at how they performed in their last season. That gives us an idea of when he is no longer wanted in the game of baseball. If guys who have rings are allowed to continue playing, despite hitting at a much lower level than those who don’t have rings, then we have evidence that GM’s might be keeping them around for their knowledge of “how to win.”
But there are other problems here, namely a sampling issue. A player’s last year could happen for a couple of reasons. He might decide to retire on his own terms or he might simply find that no one wants him any more. Which players tend to retire on their own terms, still able to hold down a regular job? The ones who were pretty good to begin with. Who are the ones to retire because no one wants them? The guys who spent the year mostly on the bench, whether they have a ring or not. The other problem with my sample is that it includes, both the free agency period and the reserve clause era. So, I restricted the sample just to those who retired after the onset of free agency, to where they might have actually caught on with another team, if they had wanted to.
We need to compare apples to apples, or at least get as close as we can in making the samples equal. In this case, I’m only interested in those who retired because of their (lack of) ability. So, I want to focus on guys who were mostly sitting on the bench during their last year, so as not to introduce the bias of those who retired still as productive members of a starting lineup, and who could, in theory have continued on as bench players had they so chosen (cough*Julio Franco*cough). So, I isolated gentlemen who were not in the top nine in their team’s AB rankings in their final year of play. I realize that none of this is exact for bench player vs. starter, but it’s close enough. So, do bench players with a ring perform any worse or better than their counterparts without a ring in their last year before they are kindly asked not to return?
The answer turns out to be a little surprising. There is a difference between those with a World Series ring and those without, but not in the direction you might expect.
Bench players without a ring hit an average of .228/.295/.327
Bench players with a ring hit an average of .235/.310/.342
(In case anyone was wondering, the differences on OBP and SLG are significantly different, AVG just misses)
It looks like players without a ring can actually get away with a worse performance than those with a ring before they leave the game. There are two possible explanations. One is that the players with rings are better players overall, and maintained their level long enough to hang around long enough as a bench player, but then decided to retire on their own terms. The other is that teams see the ring and expect that a player will put up a certain level of performance, more so than they would expect out of a guy without a ring. When he doesn’t, they sour on him more quickly.
So, do GM’s really look for “guys who know how to win?” Maybe, but it seems that they’re actually looking more for guys who put up decent numbers. As they should. Having won a World Series is nice, but like everything else in life, the question is what have you done for me lately?