10 March 2007

1871 National Association

We will begin our historical look with the first organized professional league. For those of you who have not studied 19th century baseball, conditions were rather different at the time. This was sort of primeval baseball, with a lot of rule differences. There had been a number of clubs playing, especially since the end of the Civil War, and the practice developed of paying the best players to help your club win. This was not usually admitted publicly, in the same way that Olympic athletes were considered "amateurs" until a few years ago. The 1869 Cincinnati Red Stockings were the first team to admit to paying their players, and they went 69-0-1 before being beaten. So, just a couple of years later, a league was organized.

Now, this was not a league the way we think of it today. It was more like a contemporary semipro league, where teams would drop out or join the league at various times, depending on finances, and not all teams played the same number of league games. Teams in the 1871 NA played from 19 (Fort Wayne) to 33 (New York) league games, and the Philadelphia team won the league with a record of 21-7.

At this time, pitchers were typically the most valuable men on a team, as they usually pitched every game, and were often as good at hitting as anyone else. Since there are no Win Shares available, we will go straight to WARP3, or normalized Wins Against Replacement Player, calculated by Clay Davenport and available at baseballprospectus.com. These stats are somewhat unreliable for such primitive conditions, but we will do our best. We can also look at WAR, or Wins Above Replacement, from the invaluable website at Baseball-Reference.

WARP3 leaders, pitchers: Rynie Wolters (New York) 7.6, George Zettlein (Chicago) 4.6, Albert Spalding (Boston) 4.5, Dick McBride (Philadelphia) 2.4, Cherokee Fisher (Rockford) 1.1.

WARP3 leaders, position players: Ross Barnes (Boston) 4.3, Fergy Malone (Philadelphia) 4.1, Ed Pinkham (Chicago) 3.9, Jimmy Wood (Chicago) and Davy Force (Washington) 3.5, Fred Treacy (Chicago) and George Hall (Washington) 3.4, Dave Eggler (New York) 3.0, Ezra Sutton (Cleveland) 2.7, George Wright (Boston) 2.4, Deacon White (Cleveland) 1.7.

WAR, players: Ross Barnes 2.9, Jimmy Wood 2.2, Davy Force and Cal McVey 2.0, Levi Meyerle 1.7. WAR for pitchers is not available.

Al Spalding led the loop with 19 wins, George Zettlein and Dick McBride 18 each, Rynie Wolters 16. Zettlein had a 2.73 ERA, Spalding 3.36, Wolters 3.43, Al Pratt 3.77. Meyerle batted .492, McVey .431, Barnes .401.

Best player: Levi Meyerle, the slugger of the 1871 National Association. Meyerle was a big guy for the time, at 6'1" and 177 reported pounds, and led the league in batting average, on-base, slugging, OPS, total bases, and Runs Created. He didn't play a very good third base, which is why he had a 0.9 WARP3 and didn't make the leaderboard, but I am unsure of the validity of the WARP numbers at this distance and want to pick the best guy on the best team. That looks like Meyerle.

#1 Levi Meyerle, #2 Ross Barnes, #3 Fergy Malone, #4 Jimmy Wood, #5 Lip Pike.

Best pitcher: George Zettlein, Chicago White Stockings ace. Pitchers were just supposed to start the action in this prehistoric version of baseball, but Zettlein did it better than anyone at the time, with the lowest ERA in the league.

Best all-around: Rynie Wolters wins this "Heisman trophy"-like award, since many pitchers were two-way players in this day and age. Wolters was both one of the top pitchers and among the top hitters in the league, finishing 3rd in ERA and 5th in OPS+.

Best rookie: Well, technically, all of them were rookies, so I'll wait on this. Cap Anson, playing well at age 19, could be a choice.

Best manager: Dick McBride, I suppose, captain and pitcher for the pennant-winning Athletics of Philadelphia.

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