(*Certain conditions apply)
Miguel Cabrera, José Altuve, Andrés Galarraga: names that immediately come to mind when we think of the best Venezuelan hitters in the Major Leagues, and with justice, since they all show numbers in their careers that endorse them and usually lead the personal lists of those who discuss the issue.
Now, if we wanted to do a more in-depth analysis of it, how could we decide who, indeed, is the best hitter born in Venezuela?
To start, we have to establish some guidelines that allow us to have clear rules in our search, so I established certain criteria that help us in this regard:
1.- The numbers are just from the Major Leagues. We look for the best hitter at the highest level and although the Venezuelan league has always been very good, we want to measure what has been done in the mecca of baseball.
2.- Must be retired from the majors. A basic rule of thumb of any comparison is that we should compare oranges to oranges in an attempt to keep perspective. It is not fair for those who are still accumulating statistics (nor for those who stopped doing so) to put them on the same scale without knowing for sure what their final numbers will be.
3.- You have to take into account the time in which each person played. We must find a way that a hit by Luis Aparicio has the same incidence as one by Antonio Armas or by Víctor Martínez. Fortunately, as we’ll see later, there are ways to do it.
4.- We will only take into account the offensive aspect. We are in search of the best hitter, not the most complete player, so being a star with the glove does not contribute to it.
These are four simple rules, but they will help us maintain the proper focus. Additionally, I have made a preliminary cut to have a list of initial candidates, it is the following:
The list is ordered from highest to lowest number of hits (H) and is, without a doubt, a list of exceptional athletes.
Like any good list, it has a lot of important information that we are going to try to digest; to help us with this, we can use the following table that shows the ranking in each category in a color code, where green is better and red is worse:
We can clearly see a pattern in a group of players in which Omar Vizquel, Luis Aparicio, Bob Abreu, Andrés Galarraga, David Concepción, Magglio Ordoñez and Victor Martínez stand out, concentrating among them the highest numbers in most categories, except for strikeouts (K) and caught in stealing (CS) where lower numbers are better and give better positioning.
Now, let’s think about something: when we talk about tremendous Venezuelan hitters, do we think of Omar Vizquel over Edgardo Alfonzo or Antonio Armas? What tells us that Vizquel is better positioned than they?
This is the great inconvenience that arises when we use certain traditional statistics when evaluating and comparing the careers of players that were different in their duration and in the times that they played.
For example, when it comes to singles, doubles, triples, home runs, runs scored, RBIs, stolen bases and walks, those are categories that we can call cumulative because they are added year after year; someone with a long career like Vizquel could add more in them, and therefore appear better positioned than Vic Davalillo, for example.
This is not to say that having a long career is not in itself an extraordinary achievement; there are important reasons why the player spends many years playing at that level. However, it is also true that playing for a long time allows us to add numbers, even when our performance is only average: adding little by little for a long time pays a lot.
We must add something else that is extremely important, as I discussed in my previous column: Statistics like Batting Average (AVG), Runs Scored (R), and RBIs all show innate flaws when used to assess true performance of a batter, and if we add to it that the last two are among the statistics that benefit the most from accumulation, then we are faced with a double problem.
So what can we do about it?
Fortunately we have at our disposal a set of categories that, as we also saw before, will clarify the panorama for us. These are: wOBA, wRC and WAR.
Let’s start at the end, WAR, which stands for Wins Above Replacement. The best way I have seen to explain it is this: if the player is injured and replaced by a replacement player who is of average performance, how many wins will his team lose? Or put another way, how many wins does the player add to his team above what would another player of average performance in his place?
Wins above replacement is an attempt to encompass the main characteristics of a player and count his worth, in its formula it includes all the offensive, defensive, baseline aspects, and the adjustments by time, which is an important advantage since it is neutral to the context, the league and the park in which the player plays. This means that you can use it to compare players between eras, leagues and teams.
Let’s see then a table with the advanced statistics and ordered from best to worst WAR:
Bob Abreu leads and is separated from the next on the list, Don Luis Aparicio, the only Venezuelan Hall of Famer, by an extremely notable difference. In fact, no other player gets 10 WAR points from the next on the list the way Abreu does.
So, can we already say that Bob Abreu is the best?
Unfortunately, wins above replacement has two problems for our exercise: on the one hand, ironically it is also a cumulative statistic, it is calculated year by year and is added, and therefore the longer the service time “could” increase it (in quotation marks because a player can have a negative WAR in a season), giving some advantage to the long-lasting players.
The other problem that it presents is that it involves the defensive aspect and, although that by itself is not bad, it breaks the fourth rule that we set to only take into account the offensive elements.
Fortunately, we have a stat that has evolved to try to answer the question we are asking ourselves, this is weighted Runs Created, or wRC.
In the late 1970s, who is considered by many to be the father of sabermetrics, Bill James, created a formula based on the following premise later exposed in his book “The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract”:
“With regard to an offensive player, the first key question is how many runs have resulted from what he has done with the bat and on the basepaths. Willie McCovey hit .270 in his career, with 353 doubles, 46 triples, 521 home runs and 1,345 walks — but his job was not to hit doubles, nor to hit singles, nor to hit triples, nor to draw walks or even hit home runs, but rather to put runs on the scoreboard. How many runs resulted from all of these things? “
He called the formula Runs Created (RC) and takes into account: A) On-base factors, B) Advancement factors and C) Opportunity factors. These three factors include statistics such as hits (discriminating singles, doubles, triples and home runs), walks, caught stealing, hit by a pitch, batting for a double play, total bases, intentional walks, sacrifices, stolen bases, and at-bats. In addition, it has evolved to include situational aspects such as runners on base, in scoring position, etc.
Years later the other great sabermetric influencer, Tom Tango, created wRC or Weighted Runs Created statistic, which takes James’s idea and improves it by basing it on other stats, which deserve their separate article.
From my point of view, Weighted Runs Created is one of the best statistics we have to know the offensive capacity of a player since it evaluates in fair proportion the different aspects at the time of batting and summarizes them in a more than adequate way. In this way, we solve the issue of taking into account only the offensive part and now we will see how we adjust it to compare players from different times and contexts.
Comparing a player’s weighted runs created to the league average, after controlling for the effects of the park where they hit, gives us a better approximation which is represented as wRC+, or weighted runs created +.
The league average, in this statistic, for position players is 100, and every point above 100 is one percentage point above the league average. For example, a wRC+ of 125 means a player created 25 percent more runs than an average league hitter would have in the same number of plate appearances. Similarly, every point under 100 is one percentage point below the league average, so a wRC+ of 80 means a player created 20 percent fewer runs than the league average.
So who, from our candidates, leads the list now? Let’s see:
Abreu once again, and definitely, takes advantage. However, we can see that he wins first place by very little (3 percent difference) against Magglio Ordoñez, who was a great hitter and the numbers support him.
Abreu had the ability to create almost 30 percent more runs than the average player with whom he shared baseball fields during his career; historically he ranks 197th all-time today, millimeter ahead of illustrious hitters such as Hanley Ramírez, Mo Vaughn, Juan “Igor” González and even Carolina’s immortal, Don Roberto Clemente.
The list shows us things that we probably already intuited but could not clearly demonstrate, such as that Richard Hidalgo was a good hitter, that Melvin Mora outperformed most, and that Andrés Galarraga and Victor Martínez were studs.
On the opposite we can see part of the reasons, from the offensive point of view, that voters argue for denying Omar Vizquel entry to the Hall of Fame, indicating that he produced 17 percent fewer runs than the average hitter during his career. However, remember that this is only one aspect of the player and there are multiple additional factors to take into account for these types of decisions.
I then leave for your consideration, the best Venezuelan hitter under our guidelines, Mr. Bob Kelly Abreu.