The question “who is the greatest hitter” is likely to garner many different answers depending on how the statement is qualified. If asked about the greatest current hitter, respondents are likely to name Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, or Miguel Cabrera, depending on their recency bias and statistical slant. If asked about the greatest hitter of all-time, many fan will apply their own qualification to the question.  The common answers are Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, or Hank Aaron.  If you are a look-the-other-way sort of fan, Barry Bonds may enter your mind.  If you are a huge fan of old school players, perhaps Ty Cobb is the greatest hitter of all-time.

Today, we will attempt to qualify our statement as such: Who is the greatest Reds hitter of all-time?  We will endeavor to answer this question in a few different ways and see where it gets us. Sometimes, I have an idea of what the results will show before I do the math.  For this article, I had no idea.

Before we begin, I need to make an important distinction.  This analysis will mainly consider only the years each player wore a Cincinnati uniform.  If we opened the filters to any player who put on a uniform for the Reds, the answer to the titular question would be “Frank Robinson” and this column would be at an end.  However, since Robinson spent only 10 of his 21 seasons in Cincinnati, and since the RLN faithful need something to read on their Friday lunch break, we can now continue with the column!

Because some of the methods I employ are of a time-consuming nature, I did not look at every Reds player. I also did not include players from before the modern era, apologies to Edd Roush and Cy Seymour.  I did, however, select a sampling of the greatest Reds hitters. Perhaps you disagree with this sampling, but at some point over the years it is likely that someone may have described each of these guys as being “one of the best.”  A few of these players are included for other reasons; such as Adam Dunn, who represents the best Reds hitter of the forgettable late-Larkin, pre-Votto era; Eric Davis, who represents the ubiquitous “high ceiling” player who was derailed by his health; and Ken Griffey Jr, who at one point projected to be the greatest hitter of all-time before he came to Cincinnati.  Luckily, mathematics lets us put everyone on equal footing.

Without additional delay, here are the players we will examine:

Ted Kluszewski
Frank Robinson
Joe Morgan
Pete Rose
Tony Perez
Johnny Bench
George Foster
Eric Davis
Barry Larkin
Ken Griffey Jr
Adam Dunn
Joey Votto

In order to get the obligatory counting stats and basic rate stats out of the way, here is an all-time Reds leaders chart to sate your desire for such things:

chart1

As most of us probably already knew, Pete Rose accumulated a lot of hits; most of them with the Cincinnati Reds; Johnny Bench was a fantastic power hitter who had other fantastic players playing around him; and Joey Votto knows how to get on base.  Trying to determine the greatest Reds hitter of all-time from data like this is a fool’s errand.  For one thing, each of these players played in different eras.  Frank Robinson slugging .554 as a Red is significantly more impressive, for example, than Jim Thome slugging .554 for his career during the height of the steroids era. A few popular offensive stats are already adjusted for playing era, like wRC+ and OPS+, however simply listing those doesn’t take into account playing time, and we want to take playing time into account, at least initially, to determine the greatest Reds hitter of all-time.

Those of you who read my first article with Redleg Nation titled Joey Votto, Deviant will likely see similarities in the following approach.  In that article, I introduced the idea of using standard deviations above average (SDAA) as a proxy for how “dominant” a player is at a particular offensive baseball skill.  Instead of examining career totals and comparing those totals to some arbitrary average, however, for this exercise I want to use a slightly different method.  We will focus on OBP and SLG, exclusively.  Why?  Well, these two stats correlate most closely with overall offensive value and team runs per game, with SLG being slightly more important than OBP in the modern era.  I’ll save the gory math for a future post.

Step one should be to characterize the era in which each player on our list played.  Endeavoring to do just that, I calculated the league average OBP and league average SLG for each player based on the years he was active in major league baseball.  Results can be seen in the following chart:

chart2

As you might expect, the eras populated by Larkin, Griffey, and Dunn have much higher league average SLG figures than all other eras thanks to gentlemen like Barry Bonds and Mark McGwire.  Notice also that the members of the Big Red Machine played in an era of relatively suppressed offense, making their contributions all the more impressive.

Now, building on the idea of using SDAA as a measure for player performance, I will suggest now that we do something most mathematicians would cringe at; let’s find how many SDAA each player accumulated in the OBP and SLG statistics for each year they played for the Reds and simply add them up.  Adding together the numerical representations of standard deviations from different samples isn’t the most rigorous use of mathematics, but we’re going to do it anyways because it tells a very interesting story.

Here’s an example of one on my player cards describing what I discussed above:

chart3

This shows each of the 16 seasons Perez played for the Reds, broken down by OBP and SLG, along with his era-adjusted LgAv OBP and LgAv SLG figures, as well as his “standard deviations above average” figures for each season.  Once we calculate all that, we simply sum them up! You’ll see for his career, Perez accumulated 11.565 OBP SDAA and 27.369 SDAA.   A league average offensive player would have exactly 0 in both of these categories.  So, the sum of all these seasons can be viewed as both a good measure of longevity and/or peak dominance.

Now is probably an important time to discuss why some of the above cells are blank.  I decided to only count seasons for the additive SDAA totals that eclipsed the arbitrary 250 plate appearance threshold.  For Perez, you see that each of his last 3 seasons during his Cincinnati reunion are below that threshold, and as such, his totals reflect only his time as a member of the Big Red Machine and earlier.

So, now that we have the method defined, let’s look at our entire list of players along with their OBP SDAAs:

chart4

This list shouldn’t come as much of a surprise.  Pete Rose has the highest additive OBP SDAA of any Reds player for 2 reasons.  First, he played a lot of games for the Reds, and second, he was quite good at getting on base.  Another way to look at this could be something like “Pete Rose provided more overall value to the Cincinnati Reds franchise via getting on base than any other player in history.”

Interesting to note on this chart is how much higher the oft-maligned Adam Dunn is compared to some of the Reds greats.  Getting on base is certainly a skill, and Dunn certainly possessed that skill.

Now, let’s look at our other statistic; slugging percentage, in terms of SDAA:

chart5

The names on this list should also not come as much of a surprise.  Frank Robinson was an absolute beast in a Reds uniform, as was the Reds all-time leader in HR and RBI, Johnny Bench.  As with the comparison of OBP and Pete Rose above, we can interpret this chart as something like “Frank Robinson provided more overall value to the Cincinnati Reds franchise via accumulating total bases than any other player in history.”

As expected, let’s combine the previous two charts and do some addition:

chart6

Combining our two measures, we see that none other than Mr. Frank Robinson has accumulated the most SDAA while wearing a Reds uniform, that is, he has produced more value for the Cincinnati Reds with his on-base and slugging skills than any other Red.  He is your undisputed “greatest hitter in Reds history.” For a guy who is one of the greatest hitters in MLB history this may, again, not have been much of a surprise. Regardless, now we have an additional way to justify Robinson’s place in our mental pantheon.

Your tricky author slid a new column into the above chart, however… pesky Column G. Qualifying Seasons.

As mentioned earlier, each player’s seasonal SDAA was only counted towards their total SDAA if that season was marked by the player accumulating a minimum of 250 PA. Also, since we’re only talking about seasons while wearing a Reds uniform, let’s convert to a per-season basis and see if we can find anything worth talking about…

chart7

Welp. He’s done it again.  Votto has broken my spreadsheet.  Why does he keep doing that! If I’m being honest, it’s fairly inconsiderate of him.  Always getting in the way of popular narratives and commonly held “truths.”

SLG and OBP are the two most important base stats when trying to describe offensive output.  Over the years the Reds have had many, many players who are great at doing these things.  Turns out no one has done it to the magnitude of Frank Robinson, and no one has done it as efficiently as Joey Votto.

A final, parting graph. Below is each player’s total SDAA per season as a Red, compared to their total SDAA per season over their entire career, inclusive of the Reds years. Some bars have the same height, meaning each of that player’s qualifying seasons came as a Red.

graph8

After our parting graph; a few parting thoughts:

Adam Dunn was a much, much better hitter than people realize. Of course, his deficiencies in other places can’t be ignored, but he could certainly produce at the plate.

Eric Davis and George Foster, on a per-season basis, were better Reds hitters than Reds inner-circle greats like Perez, Bench, and Rose.

Since this is a hitting article, no mention has been made, until now, of defense and base running.  In terms of overall value (WAR), however, Frank Robinson and Joe Morgan had, by leaps and bounds, the best overall careers of any Reds players.

I highlighted Ken Griffey Jr’s first line in Mariner green for one reason.  Among all these great players, he’s the only player examined that actually did worse with the Reds than with all his other teams.  Robinson was better as a Red than an Oriole, Morgan was better as a Red than an Astro, and so on and so forth.  This is likely why Reds fans may argue about the greatest Reds hitter.  We’ve had so many great hitters who hit even better when putting on the wishbone C.

[Author’s note: The idea for the additive method of the “SDAA” figure came from an article I read at FanGraphs by Tony Blengino in November 2015 entitled Mike Trout, Four Years In. Go give that a read.  It’s quite interesting.]

[Math note: The standard deviation of OBP and SLG used to derive SDAA was calculated from the sample of all player seasons between 1947 and 2015.]

Join the conversation! 61 Comments

  1. Love the analysis. I would have thought Vada Pinson would be considered though.

  2. Patrick, these are fun things to argue about but this is the point where you frankly hit a wall with stats to prove a case one way or the other. One unspoken variable in your equation is the quality of pitching each batter faced. Ernie Lombardi played in an NL with eight teams. Thus the pitching that modern era hitters face is far more diluted by necessity due to expansion. And while of course today’s pitchers are likely far better on average than pitchers of eighty years ago, in an eight team NL most of them would be in the minors. Or in the factories or mines.
    Then of course there is whole issue of how to use today’s sabremetrics to measure deadball era hitters. That is likely why Edd Roush is not on your list. Using today’s measures he doesn’t make the list nor should he. But was he one of the greatest Reds hitters and players of all time, absolutely! Not saying you are wrong but just highlighting the shortcoming of using today’s measures against that era’s greats.
    Still, that’s the point isn’t it? Fun to argue about it on a old, gray, day.
    Nice article.

    • Yes there were less teams back in his peak years during the war. Having said that there were roughly 200 million less americans, the color barrier was not broken until 1946 and very few if any latin american players made it to mlb.

    • Agreed, they all faced different quality of players. That is where the era-adjusted averages for SLG and OBP come in. They don’t do an entirely sufficient job, but the analysis was meant to take that factor into account.

  3. Part of the allure of baseball is these opportunities for comparison across eras, with data and heroics both to support a favored and fabled star. Was Ruth a better hitter than Williams? Maybe. And I have my own favorites and my own arguments for many of these Reds stars. But rather than try to convince anyone in favor of any specific name on this list I’ll make two observations. First, Votto is the only active player on the list so I’ll be rooting hard for him to add to his totals, maintain his rates and eclipse them all. And second, how cool is it that my favorite franchise even has a list like this? Who is the 13th best hitter in Braves history, Mets history, Orioles history, Angels history? I don’t know but I’ll bet he’s no Barry Larkin or Ken Griffey, Jr. great stuff here. Now about those additive standard deviations…

    • I remember reading a theory–probably in Sports Illustrated–years ago that the only way to compare players of different eras is by the degree to which they excelled their contemporaries. My recollection is that Ruth looked pretty good. The obvious problem is the basis of the comparison–traditional stats or new stats?

      • Exactly, Green! Comparing to their contemporaries is what I was attempt to do by using the league averages for only the years they played in.

  4. his is interesting, great analysis. When looking at the SDAA per season, can’t something be argued for the natural dip in player performance as they age. So a more telling comparison perhaps would be SDAA per season of the first X (maybe 7 since all your sample fit in this) seasons. For instance, as Votto naturally regresses with age, his SDAA per season will most likely drop below Frank. And perhaps the SDAA per season of the others for their first (young, non-regressed) 7 or 8 years is better than Vottos before their own regression occurred. It would only really matter with regards to Frank and perhaps some of the players that lasted very long like Pete.

    • Good ideas, Brugg. Perhaps providing a type of line-graph to show each player’s moving average as they age would have been neat. I’ll keep it in mind if I do something like this in the future.

      Also, you are 100% correct about the Votto/Robinson relationship. He’s almost guaranteed to drop below Robinson since he hasn’t had his decline phase yet. I actually meant to mention this, but did not. Good catch. 🙂

    • Need to remember also. Robinson didn’t have any decline years as a Red. His decline years were as an O.

      • Excellent point, Frogger.

        • Not much of a decline at all with the O’s, but dropped off some with Dodgers and then Angels. Cleveland doesn’t count much.

          In my opinion, Robinson was the best of them all. Good fielder (won a gold glove) and terrific baserunner too. Saw all of them play except for Big Klu at the end of his career with the White Sox and I was so young that I wouldn’t have known a thing about him unless my Dad had told me what a great player he was with the Reds in his prime

  5. Before I read your article I had Robinson, Votto and Rose as the top three. The disagreements can start there.

  6. Surprised to see that Edd Roush isn’t included among the candidates. He hit .331 over 12 years with the team. Maybe because he had little to no power, even during the live-ball era of the 1920’s? Still, a .331 BA for his Reds career is pretty impressive.

  7. Great analysis. That had to be alot of work. Ah, for the love of the game, AND the Reds. Going in to the article, I thought FrankRob would be in the top 4 but not at the top. Very interesting information.
    How are baby, momma, and daddy doing? Well I hope.

    • Everyone is doing quite well, thanks for asking, WV!

      I’ve gotten plenty of sleep because my wife is a saint and is letting me basically sleep through the night. I don’t have the required…parts… to help out. 😉

  8. Great analysis. All I have to say is that Eric Davis was awesome.

    In addition, this gives me a better perspective on how great Johnny Bench was. The hitting #’s presented on top of his defense, amazing.

  9. I read through this quickly, and have an ignorant/selfish question. Who’s the best if you take away the OBP?

    And who do you think hit the ball the hardest?

    Numbers don’t lie, and we should use numbers. But there’s a certain romance behind the idea of “big hits,” “clutch,” and Long Home Runs….

    Who would you say fans THINK was the best hitter?

    And, 1987 Eric Davis was pretty awesome.

    • Taking away OBP makes Frank Robinson the best by a large margin. Votto, Klu, and Foster are about the same-ish after that.

  10. Fun article! I appreciate some out-of-box thinking applied to stats. My desire for such things was certainly sated by this sneaky author. 😉

  11. I just wanted to let you know this analysis was thoroughly enjoyed. The only flaw I see is that the method doesn’t account for aging curves, so full careers of players are going to seem lower than someone like Votto who hasn’t hit his curve yet. Would be an interesting experiment to weight each years contribution to the tSDAA by some sort of “averaged aging curve” or by “OBP season/OBP average for career” to sort of control a bit for aging curves.

    • One way this is handled is to bracket some number of the the best years in a career, say the ten best years. Votto has played 8 full seasons (minus injuries), so that could be a starting point.

      One interesting thing to do would be to take the best stretch of ten years for each of the players then figure out what Votto would need in the next two years to end up the best.

      • That’s also true, but it in some ways “punishes” being excellent for more than the sample size instead of rewarding it. I think finding a way to weight the contribution by expected contribution based on “point in career” would give a more accurate breakdown. That’s all academic and not really worth arguing, just pointing out why I went with the weighted-aging curve instead of what you suggested.

      • I like this idea, as well.

        Best Peak of any Red, or something to that effect.

    • Interesting thought, Zag.

      The first way to do this that pops out at me is to do a simple linear weight based on the average aging curve. For example, age 26 is about 11% better than baseline. So for each player’s age 26 season I could multiply their combined SDAA by 0.89. For age 36, we’re down to about 82% of baseline, so we could multiply their totals from that age by 1.22 to get it back to to a 1.00 baseline.

      This is a good idea for a follow-up bonus article. Thanks for sharing.

      • Yeah, that’s pretty much exactly what I was thinking. There would be a decent margin of error on the aging curves, but nothing extravagant considering how well the vast majority of major leaguers (both HoF and not) seem to follow it (h/t to Mr. Mancuso’s articles on aging curves).

  12. Here – I’ll take a lot of hate for this – but the guy who I remember being just a terrific/dangerous hitter really didn’t make that big an impact because he was hurt all the time and only played 2 seasons for the Reds in his prime – but that’s Kevin Mitchell.

    He could hit the ball hard.

    • he was really good.

    • Kevin Mitchell wasn’t much on the defensive side of the ball, but as a free-swinger he hit some long shots at Riverfront.

    • You’ll get no hate from me. Dave Parker, whose best years probably were in Pittsburgh, could smack it, too.

    • Holy cow… Mitchell’s 1994… .326/.429/.681. WOW. I had no idea Mitchell ever had that kind of season. I guess being 10 years old and the strike year makes you forget stuff.

      Even during that era, a wRC+ of 175 is almost as good as Votto’s insane, injury-shortened 2012.

      Wow. Maybe there’s an idea for a new article. Best 2 year peak for the Reds. Mitchell may have it.

      • I’d think that Foster might challenge him. Maybe Klu, as well?

        • Upon further review (15 second glance), looks like Mitchell’s best two seasons in terms of rate-stats were 93 and 94… 93 was shortened by injury, I think, and 94 was the strike, of course. Only played 93 and 95 games.

          Klu and Foster both had back-to-back seasons to rival Mitchell, but in more games, so they’d likely take the cake. (At least among those 3)

        • Thanks, Patrick.

  13. Great read. I would love to see national media begin to use this sort of analysis when debating historical standing of players, instead of just HR, RBI, Avg. One aspect that might take this further would be to compare at a position level. Votto vs. league averages of only first basemen, Morgan vs. league averages of only second basemen, etc. I would think Larkin and Morgan would be at the top when compared with other middle infielders and Bench would tower over other catchers.

    Your contributions to this blog thus far have been very enjoyable.

  14. Wow Patrick! I’m a bit stunned by the amount of work you have put into your first two articles. It’s good stuff.

    • I’m actually hoping to crank things up in the future. Just getting my feet wet!

      Also, without real baseball going on, some of the “Votto is awesome” type articles are low-hanging fruit for this time of year.

  15. Maybe you should have applied for that analytics job I applied for?

    • From the evidence here, the Reds couldn’t have gone wrong with either one of you.

    • My wife was born and raised here in Colorado Springs, and I actually asked if she’d like moving to Cincinnati if I ever got a job for the Reds. She said “as long as you make more money than you do now!”

  16. Patrick, I’ve really enjoyed your early posts. Thanks for the contributions.

    I’ve always considered Robinson, Morgan and Votto as the three best Reds hitters during my lifetime as a Reds fan, without anyone else being a close fourth. That was based on nothing more than the recollection stored in the Old Cossack’s knobby noggin from watching and listening to the games over that past six decades but I never attempted to quantify that impression or assign any particular order among those three Reds greats. It’s nice to know that I haven’t completely lost my facilities, although Mrs. Cossack would certainly dispute that issue.

    I do recall that I felt physically and emotionally sick when the Reds unloaded Robinson as washed up. Robinson was one of those once-a-generation talents that should have played his entire career wearing the wishbone C. I have often wondered how Robinson’s presence at the end of his career would have melded with the start of the BRM. I would certainly have enjoyed witnessing that transition.

    I do believe Votto represents an unusual case with his intellectual appoach to hitting combined with his superior hand-eye coordination and quickness through the hitting zone. He does not get the credit due for his brute strength due to his intellectual plate approach. I really do not believe we have seen the start of his regression yet and may not see it for another three years. Even then his intellectual skills will allow him to make baseball adjustments unfathomable by other superior hitters as his physical strength and capability begins to erode, making his regression much slower. Injuries are always the unknown and unforetold wild card, but Votto has proven to be extremely durable, with one catastrophic exception (but what a doosy of an exception). I can see Votto putting up an 8+ WAR season for the next three seasons before even beginning a regression as his strength ebbs.

    • There is always a part of your posts that make me laugh, Cossack. Much appreciated.

      I agree on your assessment of Votto. Slower age-related regression will make him a great value for the next few years.

  17. Joe Morgan was the best player to put on a Red uniform followed by Frank Robinson, Pete Rose, Joey Votto and Ernie Lombardi. Lombardi made unbelievable contact, averaging 12 SOs a season. The shortstop and third baseman played him in short left field because of his below average speed. His doubles average of 22 was half of what it should have been because he hit many singles off the outfield fence,

    • Great article.

      Obviously, all of the players listed were tremendous. What’s difficult to quantify is the affect other great hitters in the line up had on their numbers….or more recently with Votto, the lack of quality that surrounds him.

      Rose was a great player, but did he disproportionally benefit from being perhaps the least dangerous hitter in the top half of the line up? Throw him a fastball and your worst case is a double…..throw Joe Morgan a fastball and it’s a home run.

      When you divide base runners by plate appearances in 1975, Bench and Perez both had .85 base runners per plate appearance which is a staggering sum…..last year Votto had around .60. Tired pitchers with runners on base often make bad decisions.

    • No Johhny Bench? I also think that there is an important distinction between best hitter and best player.

      • No doubt. A discussion about the best player brings an entirely different set of criteria into play and Bench becomes much more significant in that conversation.

        • Bingo! That’s why I’ll likely leave that question for an entirely different article.

  18. Another great article, Patrick. It’s obvious you enjoy statistics with the amount of effort put into producing the charts. Reducing the figures to SDAA really provides for solid comparison. Look forward to more from you.

  19. I would put big Klu’s 1949-1956 stats up against anybody who ever played for The Red’s. When you are hitting 40-47-49 Hr’s and striking out fewer times than the Hr’s with avg’s well above 300, that is nothing short of remarkable. Well , there is the old guys take. It is a fun exercise.Thanks Patrick.

    • You’re right about Klu. Reds have had alot of great players down through the years, haven’t they?

      • Given they’ve existed for 147 years, the Reds should have had a number of good players.

  20. Since news are scarce and we have to praise Votto yet again, some things to discuss. Have a nice Sunday 🙂

    http://www.providencejournal.com/sports/20160224/john-henry-red-sox-have-overly-relied-on-numbers

    • Yet again! Gosh! Why can’t these writers find anything else to write about!

      • Gosh! beats me. But John Henry certainly gave us pretty good material, didn´t he?

  21. The only thing more entertaining than this article is you having a conversation with Marty B explaining it to him. Now that would be priceless. I wonder if MARTYmetrics would come to the same conclusion.

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