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Wizardry: Baseball's All-Time Greatest Fielders Revealed

Michael A. Humphreys
Oxford University Press
Publication Date: 
Number of Pages: 
[Reviewed by
Charles Ashbacher
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This book is not for the casual baseball fan or user of statistics. Humphreys uses some extremely complex statistical processing of data about the performance in the field of major league players sorted by position. The data includes all of the common numbers such as putouts, assists and errors but goes much deeper than that. To the extent possible it includes where balls were hit in the field of play, so that range and ability to handle difficult chances are included. In earlier days there was a vast difference in the dimensions and structure of the baseball stadiums and that is also factored in. In the modern world, this almost exclusively means the “Green Monster” in left field of Fenway Park.

This in-depth analysis is then used to generate the final statistic used in the ranking, the number of runs saved if the value is positive and runs given up if negative. While most of the rankings are consistent with the anecdotal evidence regarding the fielding skill of the player, there are some distinct anomalies. Some Gold Glove winners at their position did not deserve the award. The data analysis also conclusively proves what insiders have known all along: Fielding percentage is generally not an accurate indicator of fielding prowess.

 The reason why this is not for the casual baseball fan is that there is an enormous amount of correction done for contextual effects. For example, Steve Garvey had an unreliable throwing arm at first and he avoided throwing whenever possible, so the data on his fielding is skewed by that. The fielders are first ranked according to their era, where all ranges are of course approximate due to overlap. They are contemporary (1990–present), modern (1970–1980s), transitional (1950–1960s), live ball era (1920–1940s) and dead ball era (1800s–1920). After this ranking there is another of the all-time best. Humphreys does an excellent job in explaining the differences in how baseball was played in these eras and how that altered the relative difficulties of playing the positions. It will be difficult for the casual fan to understand all of this historical background.

The author would not be a true fan if he did not interject an occasional opinion about how over or underrated a player was or is. Fans of the Chicago Cubs in particular will appreciate his lobbying for the inclusion of Ron Santo in the Hall of Fame. This is an excellent book, although a great deal of mental processing is needed in order to understand how the rankings were obtained.

Charles Ashbacher splits his time between consulting with industry in projects involving math and computers, teaching college classes and co-editing The Journal of Recreational Mathematics. In his spare time, he reads about these things and helps his daughter in her lawn care business.

Part One: Motivations and Methods
1. The Big Picture
2. One Way to Measure Fielding
3. Measuring the Many Measures of Fielding
4. Summing Up Fielding Careers in One Number . . . and Attaching Asterisks Thereto
5. Putting Top Players from Different Eras on 'Equal' Footing
Part Two: The Greatest Fielders of All-Time
6. Shortstop
7. Second Base
8. Center Field
9. Third Base
10. Right Field
11. Left Field
12. First Base
13. Catcher
Part Three: Fielding in the Context of Pitching, Hitting and Base Running
14. (A Select Few of) Baseball's All-Time Greatest Pitchers
15. Incorporating Fielding Ratings into Overall Player Ratings
16. Conclusion
A. Defensive Regression Analysis ("DRA")
B. Notes on the history of fielding analysis
C. Chart of alternative fielding systems
D. Career DRA ratings for all fielders with 3,000 innings or estimated innings at one position
E. Single-season DRA ratings for all fielders since 1893 (Available book's website)
F. Certain data used to develop DRA (Available book's website)