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The 50 most overrated batters in baseball history

Posted by Andy
(This is a re-imagining of Raphy's excellent concept of using Baseball-Reference.com's EloRater as a fairly objective measure of which players are overrated and underrated. He deserves much of the credit for this post, plus Sky Kalkman gets a nod for helpful suggestions.)

Joe DiMaggio giving his Hall of Fame induction speech in 1955, while
Marilyn Monroe looks on from a window above / Icon SMI
Having just completed two series of posts on under-appreciated players, it's become clear to me that it's very tough to define "overrated" and "underrated" not only because each individual has a unique perspective, but also because we can't really know what everyone else thinks.

How can we judge a player's perceived value in comparison to his real value? It's not easy, but this study attempts to find a way of doing that.

I'm not going to bore you with a long explanation of the methods used. You can read that here if you wish. The basic idea is this:
  • Start with a player's actual career WAR, taken from Baseball-Reference.com (so we call it bWAR).
  • Look up the player's rank on B-R's EloRater, which uses a pretty neat algorithm for allowing thousands of site users to rank players.
  • Calculate an expected career WAR (or eWAR) based on that player's EloRater ranking (which, in brief, is done by averaging the career WARs of the players surrounding that guy on the EloRater.)
  • Find players for whom the difference, bWAR - eWAR, is the largest. A big positive value means the player is underrated while a big negative means the player is overrated.
Now, before we move onto the actual list, let's talk for a moment about what it means to be overrated in this study. It does not mean that the player was not very good. The vast majority of the players on the overrated list were really good. It simply means that there is a discrepancy between their EloRater ranking and bWAR. As near as I can tell, there are numerous reasons why this happens:
  • The player is given "extra credit" in the EloRater rankings due to missed time. Example: Ted Williams missing time for war service
  • The player is given "extra credit" in the EloRater rankings for post-season performance, which of course is not factored into bWAR. Example: Joe Carter in the 1993 World Series
  • The player is not appropriately judged for negative defensive contributions that hurt his bWAR. Example: Jermaine Dye
  • The player is a fan favorite who is given more credit than he deserves in the EloRater rankings. Example: Don Mattingly
  • The player is given "extra credit" for efforts as a manager or other non-playing role. Example: Lou Piniella
  • The player is given extra credit to make up for unfair blame he received for something else. Example: Bill Buckner
  • The player has gotten a higher EloRater ranking on the strength of 1 or 2 really strong seasons that are not representative of his career. Example: George Bell
  • The player played in a particularly favorable home ballpark: Example: Vinny Castilla
So as you read the list below, keep in mind that it's generated from these two data sets--the EloRater and bWAR--and that as with any stats, they have their limitations.

Also, another way to think about this is a player's popularity and reputation vs. his actual performance. Many of the guys are on the overrated list because they are beloved, even more than their stats suggest they should be.
Without further delay, here are the 50 most overrated players in the history of MLB:

Rank  Player               Elo Rank  bWAR  eWAR  Difference
1     Shoeless Joe Jackson 26        62.9 105.8  -42.9
2     Ted Williams          2       125.3 163.4  -38.1
3     Roy Campanella       78        36.2  65.8  -29.6
4     Bill Buckner         266       12.1  38.1  -26.0
5     Joe Carter           279       16.5  41.8  -25.3
6     Pie Traynor          168       37.1  62.2  -25.1
7     Joe DiMaggio         15        83.6 108.3  -24.7
8     Ernie Banks          33        64.4  87.8  -23.4
9     Lou Gehrig           6        118.4 141.0  -22.6
10    Don Mattingly        95        39.8  62.2  -22.4
11    Charlie Gehringer    28        80.9 102.8  -21.9
12    Ken Griffey Jr.      19        78.5  99.8  -21.3
13    Dante Bichette       644        2.0  23.0  -21.0  
14    Jimmie Foxx          12        94.1 114.5  -20.4
15    George Brett         22        85.0 104.3  -19.3
16    George Sisler        59        50.4  69.6  -19.2
17    Lloyd Waner          285       24.3  42.2  -17.9
18    Lou Brock            120       39.1  55.6  -16.5
19    Ted Kluszewski       203       30.8  47.3  -16.5
20    Kid Gleason          514        8.4  24.8  -16.4
21    George Bell          447       18.2  34.2  -16.0
22    Alfredo Griffin      1253      -2.4  12.6  -15.0
23    Vinny Castilla       463       16.4  31.2  -14.8
24    Eric Karros          629        9.0  23.8  -14.8
25    Cookie Rojas         903        4.0  18.5  -14.5
26    Chuck Klein          136       39.2  53.2  -14.0
27    Willie Montanez      965        0.0  13.9  -13.9
28    Moises Alou          161       38.2  52.0  -13.8   
29    Jermaine Dye         418       17.6  31.2  -13.6
30    Bob Meusel           310       23.9  37.4  -13.5
31    Hal McRae            287       26.2  39.7  -13.5
32    Ruben Sierra         476       13.6  26.9  -13.3
33    Doc Cramer           764        5.4  18.7  -13.3
34    Mike Piazza          42        59.1  72.2  -13.1
35    Andres Galarraga     242       26.7  39.8  -13.1
36    Kirby Puckett        97        44.8  57.9  -13.1
37    Hack Wilson          143       39.1  52.0  -12.9  
38    Frank Thomas (1)     455       16.7  29.5  -12.8
39    Jim Bottomley        196       32.4  45.1  -12.7
40    Mike Greenwell       433       23.5  36.2  -12.7
41    Sean Casey           555       15.8  28.4  -12.6
42    Carl Yastrzemski     24        88.7 101.3  -12.6
43    Lou Piniella         606       11.4  23.9  -12.5
44    Jose Guillen         980        3.6  16.1  -12.5
45    Tommy Davis          402       18.3  30.8  -12.5
46    Mickey Vernon        203       33.2  45.4  -12.2
47    Bill Mazeroski       335       26.9  39.0  -12.1  
48    Dale Murphy          116       44.2  56.3  -12.1
49    Bill Dickey          88        54.4  66.2  -11.8
50    Dave Parker          141       37.8  49.4  -11.6

OK, deep breath, everything.

I know that's a lot to take in.

The top 3 players (Jackson, Williams, and Campanella) all qualify as great players who got extra credit in the EloRater rankings for having shortened careers, although interestingly all 3 were for different reasons. A lot of people think Shoeless Joe was the best hitter ever to play, but just didn't a chance to prove it because of his banishment. The bottom line is simply that he's ranked higher than his bWAR suggests. Same goes for Ted Williams. Most feel (and I tend to agree) that if he had not missed several years for military service, he'd be regarded as the second-best player of all time. He is ranked #2 in the EloRater even though his career bWAR is "only" 11th.

Other thoughts about the list:
  • Some of the greatest Hall of Famers make this list. At a glance this include Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio, and Lou Gehrig. I believe players like these rarely lose EloRater matchups since they are so highly-regarded. That causes them to be slightly over-ranked, but because they are up at the top end of the WAR spectrum, being just a bit overrated causes their bWAR-eWAR to be quite large. A think Carl Yastrzemski, George Brett, and other suffer from a similar problem--nobody really dislikes these guys so they probably win more than their fair share of EloRater matchups.
  • Poor Alfredo Griffin. He's already ranked in the 1200's on the EloRater, which is way, way down there, and yet he's the 22nd most overrated player, needing 15 WAR more than he has to qualify for even that low spot.
  • A couple of guys frequently called out as poor Hall of Fame choices make the list: Brock and Mazeroski.
  • Many of the rest of the Hall of Famers had somewhat short careers for one reason or another. In addition to those mentioned before, others falling into this category include Puckett and Wilson.
  • Three guys stuck out to me right away as often being called out as overrated in other forums: Carter, Bichette, and Cramer.
  • I'm guessing that guys like Eric Karros and Sean Casey are so high on the EloRater because they're nice guys with a continued public persona as TV analysts.
  • Jose Guillen's appearance is interesting. He's got a bad dWAR (-5.8) but even his oWAR of 9.5 is low for his EloRater position. I've heard a few times recently from people who were surprised how low his bWAR is, and that's proven out here.
  • 20% of the list (10 out of 50) are players who spent the majority of their careers with the Red Sox or the Yankees. I think this is a popularity issue, meaning that players from these teams tend to get a little bump in their EloRater ranking, which causes them to be overrated.
Check back in the next few days for posts on the most underrated batters, as well as corresponding lists for pitchers.

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