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Thread: 19th Century Defense: Objectively Possible?

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    19th Century Defense: Objectively Possible?

    Outside of eyewitnesses and anecdotal accounts, how are 19th century players evaluated defensively? Though fielding percentage may be more indicative (errors without gloves are more blatant), is it reliable because of the lack of umpiring/scorekeeping? Can we trust TZR and dWAR, already controversial in modern times, to tell us? Do we go by RF to see how many outs a player contributed? Do putouts, assists, errors tell how who was good at making plays?

    1800s guys don't get a lot of attention around here. Is it possible to objectively assess a player's defense with reasonable accuracy?
    "Allen Sutton Sothoron pitched his initials off today."--1920s article

  2. #2
    Doubtful. E.g., some of the stats we have show that center fielders often played some 30-40 feet behind second base due to the ball of that era. The catchers equipment was woeful compared to even the 1950's, much less to today, and they were subject to the most heinous abuses (enough to make Cobb look like a priest.) Gloves were little more than mittens.

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    Guess that pretty much covers it. I didn't know if anyone knew anything out there
    "Allen Sutton Sothoron pitched his initials off today."--1920s article

  4. #4
    Quote Originally Posted by Tyrus4189Cobb View Post
    Guess that pretty much covers it. I didn't know if anyone knew anything out there
    Understandable how Speaker, Cobb and other players of long ago were charged with some errors. Look at the fielding percentages by decades, better and better as better mitts came along.
    I can tell you one more thing, over the years official scorers have been very generous to the hitters. I can't believe how in the last 20 years, some plays go for a base hits, balls that should have been caught, not that way in the 1950s-60s-70s.
    On the bottom, Babe Ruth mitt, 1925.
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  5. #5
    Bill Doak enters the picture.
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    I've even seen mitts where there is no webbing. Instead a string connects the thumb and forefinger.
    "Allen Sutton Sothoron pitched his initials off today."--1920s article

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    --For players from so long ago I consider reputation at least as imporant as defensive stats. Defensive stats are less than conclusive even for current players and I think applying them to guys who were playing a much different game with much less data has to be more than a little unreliable.

  8. #8
    Some very early mitts, if you can call some of them mitts.
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    Quote Originally Posted by SHOELESSJOE3 View Post
    Some very early mitts, if you can call some of them mitts.
    Nice photos! The 1886 Spaulding Guide has catchers gloves resembling the padded tip illustrations above. Some shortstops made over 100 errors in a season and who knows if they were good fielders or not.

    One example of a player with great range was Frank Grant. While playing shortstop, he made an incredible catch of a foul ball down the left field line in a game. In another game he was playing second base and caught a foul ball down the right field line. Reporter after reporter commented on Grant's great fielding plays yet he also had dozens of games where he made three or more errors.

    So we have just one example of a middle infielder making plays in the 1880s and 1890s that would be on Plays of the Week today.

    I think you can get a sense of the better defensive players position by position by comparing fielding stats, and reading contemporary accounts about who were the best fielders.
    "He's tougher than a railroad sandwich."
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  10. #10
    Tyrus:

    I believe it would be possible to construct a defense metric going back to the beginnings of "MLB;" but the results would look nasty. For 100+ years we have become accustomed to a passing parade of glove design improvements that have conditioned us to relatively error free ball, so that we can focus on range and web gems.

    Not only that, but there have also been changes in ball design and construction, preservation of fresh balls in play, bats, and even the quality of lawn and od technology [to say nothing of hybrid surfaces] ... all make it a different game altogether.

    Sometimes, maybe, it's best to let sleeping dogs lie.

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    Quote Originally Posted by leewileyfan View Post
    Tyrus:

    I believe it would be possible to construct a defense metric going back to the beginnings of "MLB;" but the results would look nasty. For 100+ years we have become accustomed to a passing parade of glove design improvements that have conditioned us to relatively error free ball, so that we can focus on range and web gems.

    Not only that, but there have also been changes in ball design and construction, preservation of fresh balls in play, bats, and even the quality of lawn and od technology [to say nothing of hybrid surfaces] ... all make it a different game altogether.

    Sometimes, maybe, it's best to let sleeping dogs lie.
    You're probably right, Lee. When it comes to 19th century guys, I'm going to stick with fielding percentage and historical accounts. Creating a metric would be daunting and inaccurate.

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