Monday, September 8, 2008

Beating A Dead Horse (Again)

I thinks it's been more than two weeks since I beat the dead horse that is my disdain for the conventional wisdom regarding Fred Dunlap. I'd give you links to all the other posts where I methodically destroy the idea that Dunlap was not a great player but who has time for that? If you're interested in my obsessive rantings on the subject, check the tag over there in the sidebar.

Over at Walk Like A Sabermetrician, Brandon has finished his excellent series on the 1876-1881 National League. It's fantastic stuff (I'm pretty sure I've mentioned it before) and you should definitely head over there and check it out. Even better, he's promised to continue the series and include data for the American Association which I'm sure will provide me with all kinds of posting fodder.

Anyway, since Dunlap was a rookie with Cleveland in 1880, Brandon has data for his first two seasons in the major leagues and, surprise, has concluded that Dunlap was one of the best players in the NL. In 1880, he had +4.2 WAR (wins above replacement for those of you who are metrically challenged) good for fourth best in the league. Brandon has Dunlap as the best second baseman in the league in 1880 as well as the best rookie hitter.

In 1881, Dunlap was even better. He was second in Runs Created, WAR, WAA, and ARG (how's that for sabermetricly geeking out). Again, Brandon rates him as the best second baseman in the league and it's pretty clear that Dunlap was the second best player in baseball behind Cap Anson.

While he hasn't posted his work on 1882 and 1883 yet, I can tell you that Brandon's work rates Dunlap as the best second baseman in the NL for both seasons. He also said that he has Dunlap as the MVP in 1883.

So, metrically, Dunlap was the best second baseman in the National League from 1880 through 1883, from his rookie year until he bolted to the Maroons. We all know what he did with the Maroons in 1884. And this is one of the things that kills me about the CW surrounding Dunlap. One of the arguments in downgrading Dunlap's achievements is that his 1884 season should be dismissed because of the league quality issues surrounding the Union Association. If someone like Dunlap, the argument goes, can dominate the league, how good could it have been? But the metrics now show that Dunlap was one of the very best players in baseball between 1880 and 1883 and there's an argument to be made that he was the very best player in the game at the time. This was a great player in his prime putting up one of the best seasons baseball has ever seen. Since adjustments can be made for league quality, there is no reason to dismiss Dunlap's 1884 season. It's part of the record and must be accounted for.

I'm interested in seeing how Brandon interprets Dunlap's numbers for 1885 and 1886 and I suspect that Dunlap will still rate as a top player during those seasons. From 1887 until his retirement, Dunlap was no longer the same player due to a series of leg injuries. However, when all is said and done, I think Dunlap's numbers will show him to have been one of the best players in the game from 1880 to 1886, a nice run of seven seasons as the best second baseman in the game.

Previously, I've stated that I wasn't pushing for Dunlap's inclusion in the Hall of Fame or saying that he needed to be recognized as the best player in the game or anything like that. I was simply trying to counter the CW. But we can throw all of that out the window now. Dunlap was arguably the best player in the game from 1880 to 1886 and should be recognize as such. The Jamesian argument that Dunlap was "never a legitimate star in a legitimate league" holds no water whatsoever. Both the metrics and the historical evidence is now on the side of proclaiming Dunlap the best second baseman of the 1880's.

The proper way to recognize these facts would be to put Fred Dunlap in the Hall of Fame.


p said...

Jeff, I just saw this post and I have some preliminary post-1883 figures. It will be some time before I post it because for me the hard part is writing, not crunching numbers. Anyway, Dunlap is the #1 NL 2B for 1885 and 86, although in 1885 Hardy Richardson is within .2 WAR which is well within any margin of error. In '85 Dunlap ranks 9th among NL position players; in '86 I have him 10th (Richardson, primarily a LF, is 3rd). In '87 Dunlap ranks as perfectly average for a 2B, and in '88 he is second among a weak group at that position. So while he certainly was not the same player as you mentioned, he at least was helping his teams out.

For your readers who may not have seen my posts, the WAR figures do not include fielding value, other than making a rough estimate at the inherent value of playing each position. But I see no reason to think that Dunlap would be diminished if fielding was considered. Probably the opposite.

Jeff Kittel said...

Thanks for stopping by and sharing the information. Good stuff as always.

The Dunlap/Richardson stuff is interesting because those two are linked in my own mind because of the 1886 trade that sent Dunlap to Detroit. Richardson had been playing 2nd before the trade and moved to left afterwards. My argument has been that Detroit upgraded the position by getting Dunlap while others believe that Detroit's goal was actually to plug a hole in the outfield. Richardson's versitility allowed them to make a trade for a 2nd baseman and move him to left, plugging the hole.

Certainly, Dunlap was seen by his contemporaries as an outstanding defensive 2nd baseman. I'm not certain if this has ever been quantified but there is nothing but praise for his defense in the historical record.