This past week, baseball immortal statistician Bill James made a rare “blogging” entry on his website where he analyzed the merits of whether to draft either Hall of Famer Orlando Cepeda or former Reds great Vada Pinson for a Ballpark baseball simulation league he plays.

Both entered the league in 1958, Cepeda as a slugging, high average 20-year-old who won the Rookie of the Year Award and finished 9th in the MVP vote. Pinson started slowly as a 19 year old and then finished the season well, then became an all-star as a 20 year old in 1959, finishing 15th in the MVP vote. Both players started exceptionally well, and both were seemingly on their way to Hall of Fame careers. Pinson finished in the top 18 in the MVP votes in five of his first six seasons with the Reds. Cepeda finished in the top twenty MVP balloting in four of his five seasons, before winning the award with the Cardinals in 1967.

So, the Ballpark “manager” has to decide which one to draft. The player won’t play exactly as they had in real life; there would be some variance. Both players played very well in the majors very early in their careers with is a typical harbinger of more special things to come.

It’s a contrast in player skills. The expected “peak” seasons of players (hitters’ peak seasons are usually from ages 26-29) is really a moving target. One other thing to add…while “speed” can’t be taught, it’s also the skill that usually vanishes first. There’s a reason power and walks are often called “old players” skills. Power hitters often peak later than speed players.

I found the contrast interesting. We don’t ordinarily think of Cepeda-Pinson when it comes to comparisons, but it’s a great study in considering the impact of players. I’ve always compared Cepeda, the “Baby Bull,” to Tony Perez (Big Doggie), and Pinson to Steve Finley in their styles of play. Baseball-reference.com lists Cepeda’s most comparable players to be Andres Gallaraga, Jim Rice, and Ellis Burks. Pinson’s most similar players are Finley, Roberto Clemente, and Al Oliver (hey, I guessed right on Finley).

However, guess who’s on Cepeda’s most similar list at age 20? He was most similar to none other than Pinson at that age. In fact, Cepeda’s first three comparables at age 20 were all Reds: Pinson, Frank Robinson, and Dick Hoblitzell. And, the comparison is somewhat reciprocal. Pinson’s most similar player at age 20 was Mickey Mantle, followed by Al Kaline, and then Cepeda. Next is another former Red, Ken Griffey, Jr., and Frank Robinson shows up a little later, too. One odd career similar player shows on both list: Steve Garvey.

Back to the blog…James analyzes them season by season and finds them quite close. James converts their seasons to “winning percentage” (you’ll have to subscribe at James’ website to understand), and finds that through 1965 they were offering pretty much equal value to their respective teams. Cepeda’s career win percentage was .693 to Pinson’s .677. However, Pinson had earned more “win shares” (another James measurement), outscoring Cepeda, 162-153.

I thought about this for a moment…Cepeda was always in the shadow of Willie Mays. Willie McCovey was coming into his own during this time. Their pitching staff was anchored by Hall of Famer Juan Marichal. Cepeda didn’t always get the spotlight. Pinson, meanwhile, was always in the shadow of Frank Robinson. Pete Rose was coming into his own and the Reds had slugger Deron Johnson, and an ace pitching staff led by Jim Maloney. Pinson didn’t always get the spotlight either, but contributed enough to be regularly mentioned on league MVP ballots.

Pinson faded early, having his best seasons before age 27 and with a few more good seasons to boot. Cepeda was productive through age 32 before beginning to fade. Cepeda’s career win percentage is .646, Pinson’s is .575. Cepeda had a longer, more productive career, and ended up in the HOF. Pinson is still on the outside, looking in.

Cepeda found some late career success, even finishing 15th in the MVP balloting as a DH for the 1973 Red Sox. Pinson played through 1975, but only twice in his last seven years did his OPS+ cross 100, or better than average during that time.

Pinson finished his career with 2757 hits, 256 homers, and a .286 batting average. Keep in mind, he played during the baseball’s harshest offensive environment. Even the 1906 Cubs of the dead ball days scored more runs than the baseball teams of the 1960’s. He has the most hits of any player not in the Hall of Fame. At the bottom of the baseball-reference.com, there’s a Hall of Fame statistics section which shows how each player ranks against those enshrined into the Hall of Fame. Pinson doesn’t surpass any of the benchmarks that show the average player, but he’s close. He wouldn’t be the worst player in the HOF.

Cepeda surpasses some of the benchmarks, but not all. More or less, it says that Cepeda often finished in the top ten in league categories, but didn’t finish first very often.

What stands out for me is the need to watch which skills a player has developing and which ones are in decline. In my mind, a great talent scout should be able to detect changes in physical abilities and alert the coaching staff of changes. These changes may not be apparent to someone who sees the player every day; they may be easier to spot by someone who sees the players sporadically and keeps good notes. This is also a spot where statistical analysis comes into play in measuring a player’s statistical history can lead to projections for the players.

As they aged their “similar player” lists by age evolved. Cepeda’s similar players at different ages(chronologically) include Pinson, Robinson, Hank Aaron, Ken Griffey, Jr., Eddie Murray, Rafael Palmeiro, Jim Rice. Pinson’s similar players were Mickey Mantle, Cesar Cedeno, Al Kaline, Roberto Clemente.

Keep this in mind when it comes to whom the Reds should acquire and keep in building their teams….and we haven’t included the salary/profit management side of the story yet.

11 Responses

  1. pinson343

    This is amazing to me because from the ages of 10 thru 15, I had a running argument with a Giants fan about how is better, Pinson or Cepeda. It’s easy to guess which side I was on.

    I can’t offer much beyond the above analysis. In simulated leagues, how much emphasis is placed on speed and defense ? Cepeda could hit for average and power, Pinson was not a power hitter. But Pinson was a very good (arguably great) CFer, and his being a 20/20 HR/SB guy was very unusual at that time. His speed is underrated, in his prime he was clocked from home plate to first base in 3.3 seconds.

    For the 1959 thru 1965 period, I’ll assert that Vada was the superior all-around player. But he did fade after 1965. Not having Frank Robinson hit behind him and be around as his best friend hurt his productivity and attitude. Then he broke his leg with the Cardinals in 1969, and was never the same, though he continued his “good year every other year” pattern in his 30’s in the AL.

    Cepeda, in contrast, had a resurgent year with the WS winning 1967 Cardinals, and became a hero in St. Louis.

    If you mainly go by OPS, Cepeda is the clear choice.
    If you consider everything, well, I’m biased.

  2. pinson343

    PS to above. I read somewhere that only one person in ML history has more career runs, hits, 2Bs, 3Bs, HRs, RBIs, and SBs than VP: Willie Mays.

  3. mike

    pinson343 you’re right. And you don’t even have to go that far. The only player to have more 2B, 3B, HR and SB than Pinson is Mays

    even if I lower the values a bit it’s still hard to find many players with more
    this is a strange list of players, but the only players with…
    SB >= 285, HR >= 235, 2B >= 465 and RBI >= 1150

    Bonds, Mays, Dawson, Biggio and Pinson

    replace RBI with 3B and the only player with more than 285 SB, 105 3B, 465 2B, and 235 HR are Mays and Pinson

    Mays had a lot more HR and a lot more RBI but all the other categories are similar

    Pinson is 5th on the Reds all time double list, 5th on the all-time Reds 3B list and 10th on the all-time Reds HR list.

  4. pinson343

    Thanks, Mike, I didn’t know exactly how much I needed to include for the Mays statement. Interesting stuff.

    One question that comes up is: What matters more, career OPS or career totals ? Durability is of course a big factor in career totals, Vada had that.

  5. Glenn

    I’m suprised to see Hoblitzel mentioned. He was from my hometown of Parkersburg, WV. He can still find his descendants living there.

  6. earl

    Al Oliver is another player whose hitting stats are similar to Pinson that never really gets mentioned much.

  7. Mark in CC

    Suprisingly an argument can be made for Bill Buckner with 2715 hits.

  8. earl

    I always liked Bill Buckner and felt bad that it was him that had to live with that play. Calvin Schiraldi and Bob Stanley blew that game as much as him but people only remember that play.

  9. pinson343

    Buckner gets a bum rap, it always annoys me. The lead had already been blown, by Schiraldi and Stanley.

    Buckner was a very good player, early in his career with the Dodgers, the Reds/Dodgers rivalry was at its height, and he was the Pete Rose of the Dodgers in terms of being a fiery competitor, a tough guy leader.

    With the Red Sox he was an outstanding RBI man, they wouldn’t have been in the 1986 WS without him.

  10. mike

    pinson343 I think you’ve asked the best and most difficult question and part of what Bill James is implying when he talks about different skills fading with age and how a players comps change as they age.

    What matters more career OPS or career totals??
    I’m going to throw a twist into the question as well

    What matters more peak performance or career

    So for example, Pinson had some great seasons early in his career.
    From 1959-1965 his OPS+ was 124 with an average of over 20 SB, 20 HR, 10 3B, 35 2B, and 90 RBI

    That is a solid 7 year peak.
    So when evaluating him how much do we weigh his last 7 seasons where he had a 94 OPS+ averaging 10 HR, 20 2B and his speed had almost vanished?

    honestly when I try and compare players from the past I don’t look at totals stats like 2B, 3B, SB, HR, RBI, none of it. The main totals stat I look at is Runs Created.

    Players with very long careers should for the most part be rewarded not penalized for their longevity. I say this but of course if you’re playing 3 more seasons batting .190 you should retire.

    Pinson is a great example even if his performance level did not drop dramatically.

    Here is your question with numbers (I should point out that I’m not ignoring defense it’s just not easy to find #s and that OPS is a TERRIBLE metric for players like Pinson because it doesn’t include SB but that’s part of what I’m going to show)

    Pinson had a career OPS+ of 110. 257 players in major league history have 110 OPS+ or better with at least 7000 PA. If you look at Pinson that way you think there is no way he should be in the HOF.

    but if we look at one of the best totals stat, Runs Created (a totals stat) we see a different player

    Pinson had a 1393 Runs Created. Only 102 players have more.

    That’s a huge difference. From 257 major league players better to 102.
    Add defense into the mix and Pinson is among the 75 best position players.

    and for fun
    Runs Created by Reds CFers
    RUNS CREATED RC
    1 Vada Pinson 995
    2 Edd Roush 941
    3 Bug Holliday 631
    4 Eric Davis 563
    5 Gus Bell 542
    6 Ken Griffey Jr. 473
    7 Cy Seymour 457
    8 Cesar Geronimo 379
    9 Dummy Hoy 358
    10 Bobby Tolan 327

    Runs Created above positional average
    RCAP RCAP
    1 Edd Roush 222
    2 Eric Davis 157
    3 Ken Griffey Jr. 99
    4 Vada Pinson 96
    5 Cy Seymour 88
    6 Bug Holliday 74
    7 Johnny Bates 53
    8 Charley Jones 31
    9 Chick Hafey 24
    10 Jon Nunnally 22

    and like Steve had done for his article about Reds SS
    from Bill James book and the top 100 Center Fielders of all time.
    the Reds

    #7 Jr
    #15 Ed Roush
    #18 Vida Pinson
    #30 Cy Seymour
    #33 Eric Davis
    #38 Pete Browning
    #58 Gus Bell
    #109 Johnny Bates
    #111 Bug Holiday (I would put him higher)
    #117 Bobby Tolan

  11. pinson343

    Great stuff, Mike, I will save it.