Strings of excellence
Introducing the Five-Year Test, measuring the greatest stars of each half-decade
Let me tell you about a pitcher. He’s a young guy — just 25 years old — who possesses a supersonic fastball and a curve that drops off the table. An amazing prospect, though he has a serious problem. His control is erratic on his best days, nonexistent on his worst. He has been knocking around the majors for six years, and his stats are decidedly unimpressive: 36 wins against 40 losses with an ERA of 4.10.
What are his odds of making the Hall of Fame? Zero, wouldn’t you say?
You might think again if I told you that Sandy Koufax was the pitcher in question.
Koufax followed that mediocre 1955-1960 period with one of the most astonishing six-year streaks in big-league history. He went 129-47 with a 2.19 ERA — yes, 2.19!— in 211 starts between 1961 and 1966, winning a Most Valuable Player Award and three Cy Young Awards. And those were the days when the pitchers in both leagues competed for a single Cy.
An arthritic elbow forced Koufax to retire prior to his 31st birthday, but nobody doubted that he was destined for Cooperstown. Nobody but the man himself. “I’m a little surprised I got so many votes,” he said upon his first-ballot election in 1972. “I didn’t have as many good years as many people who are in the Hall of Fame. My career lasted 12 years, but only six were good ones.”
Those six seasons weren’t just good, of course. They were exceptional. And they demonstrated the way that a multiyear run of excellence can establish the greatness of any pitcher or hitter — thereby elevating his chances of one day making it to Cooperstown.
That’s the thinking behind what I call the Five-Year Test, my system for determining the best players in the American or National League during a specific half-decade.
My first step was to divide the Modern Era into five-year increments, starting with 1961-1965 and concluding with 2016-2020. Then I generated separate standings for batters and pitchers in each league.
My plan for the rest of this summer is to unroll the hitting portion of my rankings, devoting each Friday to a rundown of the leaders in both leagues in an identical five-year period, starting with 1961-1965 at the end of this week.
And what about the pitchers? We’ll probably get to them in the offseason, when there’s plenty of free time to talk about the great players of the past. (The pitching standings, I should add, are a bit more complicated, since they include separate breakdowns for starters and relievers.)
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How the Five-Year Test works
I began my work on this project by establishing eligibility thresholds: two plate appearances per game for hitters, one start every 10.8 games for starting pitchers, and one appearance every 5.4 games for relievers. Those rates translate to the following five-season standards under the current 162-game slate: 1,620 trips to the plate, 75 starts, or 150 relief appearances, each of which could be met by even a part-time player.
The resulting groups of eligible batters ranged from as many as 102 in the American League’s 1976-1980 cohort to as few as 60 for the National League from 1961 to 1965. Pitchers reached a maximum of 142 for the National League’s 2006-2010 group and a minimum of 55 in the American League (1961-1965).
I generated six sets of statistics for each batting and pitching group and converted them to rates, allowing for easy and fair comparisons of the eligible players. These are the five-year components for batters:
Bases per out
Runs scored per 500 plate appearances
Runs batted in per 500 plate appearances
Wins above replacement (WAR) per 500 plate appearances
And these are the statistics that I used to determine the five-year rankings for pitchers:
Wins plus saves per 30 games
Earned run average
Walks and hits per inning pitched
Strikeouts per nine innings
Strikeouts per walk
Wins above replacement (WAR) per 100 innings
Only a couple of these stats seem to require any explanation.
Bases per out (BPO), which I often cite in this newsletter, is a ratio of the bases that a batter reaches (through hits, walks, hit batsmen, stolen bases, and sacrifices) to the outs he makes.
And the other unfamiliar stat? Pitchers’ totals of wins and saves are added at a two-to-one ratio, then converted to a rate per 30 games. Jim Palmer, for example, notched 93 wins and two saves while pitching 176 games in the American League between 1971 and 1975. He received 188 points (186 for the wins, two for the saves), which worked out to 32.05 points per 30 games.
You’ll also notice that I make use of the game’s all-inclusive statistic, WAR, in both the batters’ and pitchers’ rankings. My thanks to Baseball Reference for those numbers.
There’s no reason to go into great detail about how I ranked the players in each group. Suffice it to say that I used standard deviations and z-scores. What’s important is that I wound up with top-to-bottom lists for each league in every five-year period, and I’ll begin sharing the results on Friday.
The Five-Year Test is an ideal indicator of midrange excellence, as demonstrated by its ability to capture Sandy Koufax’s sudden emergence as the preeminent pitcher of his time. Koufax skyrocketed from 30th place in the National League’s 1956-1960 rankings (which aren’t part of the series I’ll be releasing in this newsletter) to first place in 1961-1965.
We’ll get a closer look at Koufax’s brilliance in a few months, when it finally comes time to examine the five-year results for pitchers. But my schedule gives first shot to the batters — so we’ll focus on the hitting stars of 1961-1965 on Friday.