Director’s Cut: ‘Back in Play’ by David Remnick

Whatever Happened to the Spitball?

Focus on Sport/Getty Images Dwight Evans

An Open Letter to the Hall of Fame About Dwight Evans

The godfather of baseball statistics makes his case for why the Red Sox legend belongs in Cooperstown

I hope you understand that I would never sacrifice my reputation by arguing that a player belongs in the Hall of Fame if I did not sincerely believe this to be true. Yes, Dwight Evans works for the Red Sox, and I work for the Red Sox, and I’m not saying this is not relevant to why I am writing, but … I wouldn’t argue that Dwight Evans had a Hall of Fame quality career if the kinds of analysis that I do all the time did not show this to be true. It’s not really that I wouldn’t; I couldn’t. I’ve spent years explaining to the public every step I take in evaluating a player. If I didn’t follow those steps, the people who have read my stuff over the years would know immediately that I wasn’t playing by the rules, and they would tear me a newbie over it right away.

Let us start with the proposition that Dwight Evans is one of the most underrated players in baseball history. There are certain things that make players underrated. The most important of these is that a player who does several things well will always be underrated compared to a specialist, just because of the way the human mind works. We absorb simple concepts more readily than complex ones. If a player hits .325, if he hits 40 homers, if he steals 70 bases, we get that immediately. If a player does many things well but no one thing spectacularly well, he may have equal value but it takes longer for the public to catch on.

Dwight Evans was a player who did many things very well — hitting almost 400 home runs, drawing a lot of walks, winning a long string of Gold Gloves, and even registering pretty decent batting averages, .290 or better five times in eight years. His batting average, however, was not his specialty, particularly early in his career, and given that batting average was at that time regarded as the center of the baseball universe, so to speak, this also caused him to be underrated.

On-base percentage is much more closely tied to scoring runs (and to winning games) than is batting average, and in the 21st century all baseball people know this. But in the 1970s very few people knew it, so Dwight Evans was evaluated by the baseball writers of his time more based on his batting averages, which were OK, than on his on-base percentages, which were outstanding.

Then there is the problem of first impressions, that when the place of a player is settled in the public’s mind, it is difficult for him to change how he is seen. The public image of Dwight Evans — as for every player — was formed by his first few years in the major leagues, and in those years he was not a great player; he was a good player, but not yet a great one. Dwight Evans is the very unusual player who had all of his best years in his thirties. About 40 percent of baseball players have all of their best years in their twenties; about 55 percent have some of their best years in their twenties and some in their thirties. Less than 5 percent have all of their best years in their thirties. Dwight Evans is that unusual case: someone who had all of his best years in his thirties, after the public image of him as a .270 hitter with 20-homer type power was set in stone.

We cannot really say that defense is underrated in evaluating players, but what we can say is that defense is unreliably accounted for in evaluating players, because there is a shortage of hard facts that relate to defense. Defense is very, very difficult to measure in the statistics, and this makes it hard to put it on the scale of things that are weighed and measured in assessing a career. Sometimes this fact, that it is hard to measure defense, causes defense to be heroically overrated and overvalued, and people will argue that some .250-hitting shortstop should be in the Hall of Fame because he was a good fielder. Other times this causes fielding to be entirely overlooked. There’s no easy number to pin it down, like “385 homers” or “255 wins” or “604 stolen bases”; defense tends to be as big as the speaker wants to make it, bigger than it was in some cases, smaller in others. Dwight Evans is luckier than some, in that he does have eight Gold Gloves that he can point to when his defense might otherwise be forgotten — but it’s still a tricky thing to measure.

So when we go down a checklist of the things that make a player underrated in history, we find that Dwight Evans checks every box: a complex mix of skills, a low batting average compared to his overall offensive ability, a significant percentage of his value in the hard-to-account-for category of fielding, and the fact that his reputation was settled in the public’s mind before he really came into his own as a player.

The question, then, is where should he be rated?

The engine that drives statistical analysis of baseball players is wins. What we are really asking, in evaluating any athlete, is, “How many games did he win for his team?” There are very predictable relationships between the things that players do — hitting singles and doubles, drawing walks and striking out, stealing bases and making errors — and the number of games that the team will win. If you know how many hits a team had, what their batting average was, how many homers they had, what the strikeouts and walks of their pitchers were, etc., you can figure out how many games the team would have won.

Everything that a baseball player does on the field, then, can be represented as a small piece of a win or a small piece of a loss. If a player draws a walk, hits a single, steals a base, or makes a play in the field, that’s a piece of a win. If he hits a home run, that’s a much bigger piece of a win. If a player strikes out, if he grounds into a double play, if he makes an error in the field, those are parts of a loss.

I like to summarize all of the little tiny pieces of wins and pieces of losses into “shares” of a win and “shares” of a loss. A share of a win is a third of a win. The easiest way to explain Win Shares and Loss Shares is that they are like the pitcher’s won-lost record, only they apply to every player, not just pitchers. Dwight Evans in 1976, for example, had 16 Win Shares and 14 Loss Shares. That is very much like a pitcher with a won-lost record of 16-14.

Actually, it is not exactly like a pitcher going 16-14; I don’t mean to overstate that. A position player with Win Shares/Loss Shares of 16-14 is more like a pitcher going 14-12 or 14-13, something like that. Twenty Win Shares for a position player is more like 17 or 18 Wins by a pitcher, rather than 20. Still, it is a useful way to interpret the data, and many starting pitchers do in fact have won-lost records that are almost exactly the same as their Win Shares and Loss Shares.

So if a player has 300 Win Shares in his career … well, that’s a Hall of Fame player. Again, not exactly; 300 Win Shares isn’t like a pitcher winning 300 games, it is more like a pitcher winning 260 games. If a player has 300 Win Shares but 270 Loss Shares, that’s not somebody I would be arguing we should be in any hurry to put into Cooperstown. But if a player has 300 Win Shares and a .600 winning percentage, that’s like a pitcher with 260 Wins and a .600 winning percentage, and that would be comparable to Bob Gibson, Bob Feller, Carl Hubbell, and Jim Palmer, pitchers who had around 260 Wins with a .600 or .600+ Winning Percentage.

I’m getting lost in the weeds here, which is one of my great failings as a writer; let’s go back to the thesis. Dwight Evans’ accomplishments, carefully accounted for, are more than sufficient to justify his selection to the Hall of Fame. Here’s how I propose to demonstrate that for you.

By luck, there were a bunch of very good right fielders born in 1951, the same year as Dwight Evans. Dave Winfield was born that year; he’s already in the Hall of Fame, and should be. Dave Parker was born that year; a lot of people think he’s a Hall of Fame candidate. Al Cowens was born that year; he wasn’t a Hall of Fame player, but he was a good player and he was second in the MVP voting in 1977; four MVP voters actually thought Cowens was better than Rod Carew, and Carew hit .388 and had 239 hits. Jeff Burroughs was born that year; he did win an MVP award, although he’s not a Hall of Fame player, either.

It is a very unusual thing to have five right fielders of that quality born in one year. To get another right fielder like that born before 1951 you have to go back to 1946 (Reggie Jackson), and to get another one like that after 1951 you have to go up to 1954 (Andre Dawson). But there are five good right fielders in this class, plus I’m going to include here Cesar Cedeno, who was a center fielder but who was also born in 1951 and who is also regarded as a Hall of Fame candidate, so that will give us six players as a working group to help us pin down Dwight Evans’ proper place in the baseball universe.

The first of these players to reach the majors and establish themselves were Cesar Cedeno and Jeff Burroughs, who came to the majors as teenagers in 1970. I’ve got a lot of charts here, but they’re very simple charts, and you’ll be able to follow along fine if you just read the numbers and keep your silly objections to yourself:

There is no doubt that Cedeno was a great young player in 1972 and 1973, and there would be no doubt that he would be a Hall of Famer if he had continued to play at that level. We credit Cedeno with a 23-7 won-lost record in 1972, about the same in 1973, and that certainly put him on a Hall of Fame glide path.

In 1973 Dave Winfield and Dave Parker got to the major leagues, and Dwight Evans became a regular. Jeff Burroughs emerged as a star by hitting 30 home runs for Texas. In 1974 Al Cowens reached the majors, completing the group, and Jeff Burroughs won the American League MVP award, driving in 118 runs. By 1975 these were still young men — 24 years old — but all of them were established as major league regulars. In 1974 Burroughs and Cedeno were stars, the other guys were not, but in 1975 Dave Parker also stepped forward into the “star” class, and in 1975 he was at the head of the group, hitting .300 for Pittsburgh and driving in 100 runs:

Evans was just a solid player in those days, with won-lost contributions of 9-8, 16-11, and 15-8. This continued to be true for the next three years; Evans was a winning type of player, but he was well down the list from Parker, who won a couple of batting titles and an MVP award; Winfield, who began to emerge as a star; Cedeno, who slipped backward a little but continued to play well; and even Jeff Burroughs, who hit 41 homers for Atlanta in 1977 and hit over .300 in 1978:

Parker, Winfield, Cedeno, Cowens, and Burroughs all had 20-win seasons in those years; Evans did not. Parker, Winfield, Cedeno, and Cowens had 25-win seasons, although Cowens for whatever reason was not able to sustain that level of production. If we compare what the players had done through 1978, we can see that Parker had pulled ahead of Cedeno as the best player in the group at that time, Winfield was coming on strong, and the other players were not at the same level:

Evans was a good player in the 1970s, but he was not yet a great player, which Parker and Winfield certainly were, particularly in 1979. In 1979 Parker and Winfield were two of the best players in baseball. In 1980 no one in the group had a great season, although Cedeno hit .300 with 48 stolen bases and Winfield was a 20-homer, 20-steals man, which meant something in those days, so those two were still very good players:

If you are following these charts carefully enough, you may want to know why Evans ranks a little bit ahead of Parker in 1980, although Parker had more RBIs, a better batting average, and more stolen bases. The answer basically comes down to three words: “walks” and “outs made.” Evans drew 64 walks; Parker drew 25. If you think about it from the pitcher’s standpoint, 39 walks will lose several ballgames for you. That means that, from the batter’s standpoint, 39 walks will win several ballgames for you. That made Evans’ on-base percentage 30 points better than Parker’s, although Parker’s batting average was 30 points higher than Evans’, and on-base percentage is, of course, the more important stat.

Also, Evans made 356 outs in 1980; Parker made 385. If you make more outs, you have to produce more runs. When Parker was hitting .330 with 25 or 30 homers a year, of course you can say, “Who the hell cares what his strikeout-to-walk ratio is?” or “If you hit like that you can make as many outs as you want to,” but when his numbers slipped backward, these little things like walks and outs made became more important.

In 1981 four things happened in this group of players. First, in 1981 they turned 30 years old. Second, there was an ugly work stoppage, or, as I like to call it, a stork woppage, which scarred the season. Third, for whatever reason, Cowens, Burroughs, and Cedeno dropped a gear, and fell permanently behind the other three players (Parker, Evans, and Winfield).

And fourth, working with batting coach Walt Hriniak, Dwight Evans stepped forward to become the best player in the group, and perhaps the best player in the American League.

If you want to know why Parker ranks behind Cowens here, the basic answer is “defense.” Parker, putting on weight, had a horrific defensive season in 1981, with very little range and twice the normal number of errors in the outfield. Cowens hit even less than Parker did, but Cowens was a very good outfielder. Parker, the MVP of the 1979 All-Star game, actually recorded more outfield assists in the 1979 All-Star game (2) than in the 1981 season (1).

Anyway, Dwight Evans was obviously the class of the group in 1981 — and in 1982:

Perhaps I shouldn’t say that Evans was “obviously” the class of the group in 1982; Dave Winfield was pretty good that year, too. But Evans drew 67 more walks than Winfield did (112 to 45), and, because of that, he scored 38 more runs (122 to 84). Those are big, big differences. If you are a pitcher, 67 walks will lose a lot of ballgames for you.

It has now been four years since we have compared the players’ career wins and losses, so let’s update that comparison through 1982:

Winfield — and only Winfield — among these players had had four very good seasons, 1979-1982, and Winfield was challenging for the top spot among them. Cedeno had become a .500 player, Parker was less than a .500 player in ’81 and ’82, Burroughs had slipped to a part-time player, but Evans, with two MVP-candidate seasons, had stepped up to the .600+ class of players:

After 1982 Cowens, Burroughs, and Cedeno were finished as championship-quality players, although Cedeno had a memorable hot streak with St. Louis at the end of 1985. Evans had a relatively poor season in 1983, dealing with some injuries — a poor season for him; he won a Gold Glove, hit 22 homers, and scored 74 runs despite missing more than a month:

Despite a .238 batting average, Evans was still the second-best player in the group in 1983. His best years were still ahead of him. In 1984 Evans hit 32 homers, drove in 100+ runs, and led the American League in on-base percentage (.402) and runs scored (121):

As good as Evans was that year, Dave Winfield was even better, hitting .340. Still, Dwight Evans’ contribution to his team that year was equal to that of a pitcher winning 20 games — as it had been in 1981 and 1982, and as it would be for the rest of the decade.

In 1985 Dave Parker had a big comeback year, leading the National League in RBI:

Jeff Burroughs retired after the 1985 season, while Cowens and Cedeno drove in only six runs each in 1986 and both played their final major league games in early June. Evans, on the other hand, continued on strong:

I wanted to spend a little more time with this season, the 1986 season, because I have Evans rated as the best player in the group although Winfield and Parker had higher batting averages and drove in more runs. Let’s look more carefully at those seasons. Evans and Winfield were almost dead even in doubles, triples, home runs, and batting average: 33-2-26 and .259 for Evans, 31-5-24 and .262 for Winfield. Can’t get much more even than that. Winfield grounded into almost twice as many double plays, 20 to 11. Evans drew 20 more walks and was hit by the pitch four more times, giving him a much higher on-base percentage (.376 to .349). Evans had one more extra base hit than Winfield, although Winfield had 36 more at-bats, giving Evans the higher slugging percentage, .476 to .462. With a higher on-base and higher slugging, obviously Evans had the higher OPS by a 42-point margin, .853 to .811.

Comparing Evans to Parker, Parker does have a big advantage in hits (174 to 137), and Parker did drive in more runs (116 to 97) and even scored more runs (89 to 86).

Parker has an advantage in the “counting stats,” yes, but Parker also made 79 more outs than Evans, 493 to 414. Seventy-nine outs. That’s a bunch. Parker made almost 20 percent more outs than Evans. For them to be even as run contributors, Parker would have to create almost 20 percent more runs. In fact, he created 5 percent fewer runs. Parker had 37 more hits, but Evans drew 41 more walks. Parker grounded into more double plays. Evans was hit by the pitch more often, stole more bases, and was caught stealing less. Those are small advantages for Evans, but there are a lot of them. Parker’s OPS, .807, was four points lower than Winfield’s, and 46 points lower than Evans’.

The biggest difference between Evans and Parker in 1986, though, was in defense. Parker played 117 more innings in the outfield, but made fewer plays than did Evans. Parker fielded .970; Evans fielded .983. Both players had strong arms, and each player threw out ten runners on the bases. Because of the difference between them in range, however, Baseball Reference estimates that Parker in 1986 was 17 runs worse in the outfield than an average right fielder, whereas Evans was eight runs better. That’s 25 runs.

I don’t know how they calculate that, and, because defense is so hard to measure, I prefer to use more conservative measurements. The difference between an average team and a championship team, in a season, is only about 150 runs. Saying that the fielding difference between two right fielders is 25 runs is a little like saying that a 150-pound woman gave birth to a 25-pound baby. Ouch. I’m not saying it’s not possible; it’s just hard to believe. I have Evans as being only about eight runs better than Parker in the field, not because I don’t believe the 25-run difference is possible, but just because I just don’t think that we know for certain how large the difference was. Parker also had been an outstanding defensive outfielder earlier in his career. But I don’t think anyone questions that, by 1986, Dwight Evans was a lot better of an outfielder than was Parker.

That was 1986. In 1987 Dave Parker had almost the same triple crown stats that Dwight Evans had in 1986. In 1986 Evans hit 26 homers, drove in 97 runs, and hit .259. In 1987 Parker hit 26 homers, drove in 97, and hit .253. In 1986 Parker had hit 31 homers, driven in 116 runs, and hit .273. In 1987 Evans’ numbers were like that but better — 34 homers, 123 RBI, a .305 average.

In 1986 Parker had some advantages, but Evans had offsetting advantages in things like walks and defense. In 1987 Evans had the advantages in the “big” stats — homers, RBI, and batting average — plus he had huge advantages in walks and fielding. Evans was obviously the best player in the group in 1987, and was fourth in the MVP voting that season:

In 1988 Winfield was the best of the group, but Evans had another big year, driving in 111 runs:

Winfield missed the 1989 season with a back injury, leaving us only with a comparison between Evans and Parker. Although Parker drove in 97 runs that season, he was nowhere near the all-around player that Evans was:

In 1990 Evans was less than an average player, less than a .500 player, for the first time in his career. These guys were 39 years old by then:

Evans went to Baltimore in 1991, where he posted a stunning .393 on-base percentage in his last major league season:

Parker and Evans retired after that season; Winfield carried on for several more seasons, and actually played extremely well in 1992. But, as we had compared the players through 1982, let us update those comparisons to the ends of their careers, in the order in which they retired. Jeff Burroughs:

Cesar Cedeno:

Al Cowens:

Dave Parker:

Dwight Evans:

And Dave Winfield:

With a career won-lost contribution of 390-215, Dave Winfield is an obvious Hall of Famer, and, of course, he was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year of eligibility.

With career won-lost contributions of 165-133 and 157-155, respectively, Jeff Burroughs and Al Cowens are obviously not Hall of Fame players, although they were good players.

It is the other three players — Evans, Parker, and Cedeno — about whom we may agree to disagree. Look, I have not said that either Parker or Cedeno does not belong in the Hall of Fame. With a career won-lost contribution of 262-153, Cesar Cedeno was, in my view, a better player than many Hall of Fame outfielders, and there is a good case to be made for him as a Hall of Famer. With a career won-lost contribution of 300-201, Dave Parker is right on the boundary of being a completely qualified Hall of Famer in my opinion. He was a great player, and if he’d had one more outstanding season, one more outstanding month, I think there would be no doubt that he belonged in the Hall of Fame. Even without that, I think he was probably a Hall of Fame–caliber star.

But of the three, it is my opinion that the most worthy Hall of Fame candidate was Dwight Evans. With a career won-lost contribution of 323-183, Dwight Evans is comfortably above the Hall of Fame line. He contributed to his team in more ways than either Parker or Cedeno, and he had more good seasons — and fewer bad seasons — than either Parker or Cedeno. Three hundred wins is a Hall of Famer, and I think Dwight Evans is a Hall of Famer.

Filed Under: MLB, Sports