Berger and Murphy

This actually grew out of my “Top 40” (or however many I settle on) research. I was perusing through Win Shares, because it’s the best way I’ve found to compare hitters across time. Anyway, there’s something very odd in Wally Berger’s record there. Win Shares, by season, 1930-36:

26 31 26 36 33 21 23

The lowest number is for the 1935 season. There are two things to remember about that season:

1. The Braves went 38-115.
2. Berger hit .295/.355/.548 while leading the league in homers and RBI.

Berger’s season is, I’m pretty sure, the best anyone ever had on a team with a winning percentage that low. Of course, there aren’t many teams like that.

The 1935 Braves are probably the strangest of the teams on the “worst ever” list, because they had no business being that bad. After all, this is a team that had gone 78-73, finishing fourth, the previous season… and added Babe Ruth. Okay, he was old and fat, but the Babe hit .288/.448/.537 (with 22 homers) in 1934 – fifth in the league in OPS and eighth in homers in only 471 PA. Somehow, not only did his age catch up with him, he managed to convey it to everyone on the team… except Berger. Even weirder, the 1936 Braves went 71-83.

So, back to Berger… We have a 12 Win Share drop from 1934 to 1935. The thing is, his numbers in those two years were virtually identical:

28 150 615 92 183 35 8 34 121 49 65 2 0 .298 .546 .352 .899 14
29 150 589 91 174 39 4 34 130 50 80 3 0 .295 .548 .355 .903 14

I don’t know if anyone’s ever posted two such similar seasons of such high quality back-to-back. I doubt it. The run context didn’t change much, either, the park-adjusted league average going from .278/.333/.395 in 1934 to .275/.330/.393 in 1935. Braves Field was an extreme pitcher’s park; Berger wasn’t getting many cheap hits. He created 117 runs in 1934, 113 in 1935, which is pretty normal variance. He had 22 fewer plate appearances.

First question: Why did anyone pitch to him? Second question: How did his WS drop by a third if his overall numbers were steady and the context didn’t change? Defense? I can’t judge the team context, but Berger’s range factor increased in 1935 and I doubt he suddenly became unable to field. And then the next year remembered how; his WS went up in 1936 to 23 even though he missed twelve games and didn’t play as well. And Bill McKechnie never would have played someone that bad in centerfield no matter how bad his team was.

I am fairly certain that this is a glitch in the Win Shares system, which doesn’t deal with extreme cases that well. After all, there aren’t many Shares to distribute on a 38-win team, and you have to give the other guys something for their “efforts”. Pinky Whitney hit .273/.312/.367 and got nine Win Shares. Fred Frankhouse had a 4.76 ERA (in a 3.78 average ERA context) and gets seven. You go through the list, and they aren’t much individually, but they pile up. Berger, having a genuinely outstanding season, gets left out.

After Berger, I’m guessing that the best players on an historically bad team are Ralph Kiner on the 1952 Pirates and Richie Ashburn and the Other Frank Thomas on the 1962 Mets. Kiner hit .244/.384/.500 — not a great season, by his standard. He rates at 19 Win Shares for that season. He was traded to the Cubs 41 games into the next season, distorting his offensive context (Wrigley was a much better place to hit than Forbes Field). Though his BA rose a lot, his OBP and SLG rose only a little, and less than his park effect would explain, so he was actually a worse hitter — but his total Win Shares rose to 23. Ashburn only had 473 PA, but he played his usual good outfield and would have led the league in OBP if he’d qualified. Thomas played in 156 games and hit .266/.329/.496 — not great, in that context, but pretty good. They each get twelve Win Shares, which seems low, though I haven’t checked similar seasons in detail.

So like I said, it’s a glitch in the system: it doesn’t deal well with the best players on historically bad teams. (Or, I’m an idiot, which is possible, and have missed something obvious.) James devotes an essay in the book (168-173) to comparing similar players on good and bad teams to show his system isn’t biased, but deals with “ordinary bad” teams, not the ones with 110 more losses, the historically bad ones. Since Berger is the only outstanding player on an historically bad team, he’s affected the most.

In the Historical Abstract, Berger’s ranked right behind Murphy, thirteenth among centerfielders. Give him ten more Win Shares, he’d have to rank ahead of Murph and maybe one or two others, and jumps out as a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. I’m not advocating this position, mind you: I think Murphy is the better candidate. But it’s noteworthy.

Berger and Murphy actually have a lot in common. Both centerfielders who played with the Braves most of their careers, mostly on bad teams (Berger’s teams were far worse, and never finished higher than fourth, even though he had a Hall of Fame manager in McKechnie) both had their careers cut short by injury. Berger might have been a better hitter in his time, but I make a pretty strong time line adjustment for pre-integration players.

I can’t imagine I’m the first to notice the seeming glitch, though a cursory web search doesn’t show anyone talking about it. Anyone seen anything?

Wally Berger Statistics –
1935 Boston Braves Statistics –

16 thoughts on “Berger and Murphy”

  1. You’ll have to pardon my age, but who is Wally Berger, anyway?
    He’s so far before my time I really know nothing about him. Can you give a little more context–what was he in the league in the era, how was he regarded at the time, that sort of thing?

  2. Mac,

    I completely agree – the 35 win season meant that there were far fewer win shares to go round than the previous season. I am sure if you calculate Berger’s win shares as a percentage of the Braves cummulative win shares it would probably not change that much (hypothesis). Do you have the data for that?

  3. 3 WS per win means Berger in 1934 got 14.1 percent of available Brave WS.

    In 1935 he got 18.4 percent.

  4. Berger still holds the NL record for rookie HRs — he hit 38 in 1930. He played in the first four All-Star games (1933-36), and if there had been an All-Star game during his first three seasons he probably would have made it in each. He was a star

    His numbers would be even more impressive had he played in a different park, as Mac said. However, the early ’30s featured a high run environment overall, so his stats probably translate fairly well to the present day. Maybe add 3 HRs per season.

    The Braves cashed him in in 1937, trading him to the Giants for $35,000 and a Frank Gabler, who looked promising at the time. I believe Berger was injured at the time of the trade, as it happened on June 15, and he only played 30 games for the Braves that season. He hit well after the trade, but looks like he got hurt again each of the next two seasons, then played sparingly in 1940, his final major league season at age 34. Maybe he went to war.

    Interesting thing about that trade — it appears to have cleared the way for a young hitter of some promise, which might have been the point of the trade to begin with. After all, his man’s brother had broken in the previous season to some fanfare.

  5. Don’t know anything about win shares but Steve Carlton’s 1972 season when he won 27 games for a horrid last place Phillies team is the best I ever saw.

  6. Sorry – should have done the math myself. Not much difference between the percentages in 34 & 35.

    Bottom line is that the Braves sucked in 35!

  7. Some comments about why Berger’s raw stat line seems inconsistent with his Win Shares. First, the ’35 team woefully underperformed its pythagorean expectation. They “should” have won 50 but actually won 38. (Using baseball-reference’s pythagorean expectation; James’ is slightly different, but no more than a win in either direction.) That is a shortfall of 36 Win Shares that needs to be accounted for amongst all the players.

    Then that is compared to the ’34 team. The year prior to this horrendeous effort actually overperformed projections, winning 6 more (78 vs. 72) than expected. That is 18 extra WS to be distributed among the players.

    From ’34 to ’35, there is a change in WS that can be attributed to timely use of runs scored and allowed (or pure luck) as opposed to measurable performance of 54 WS. As Berger had the lion’s share of WS, I suspect that this change in pythag can account for a swing of as many as 5+ of the difference between his two seasons.

    Another factor, I believe, is that the team scored fewer runs than projected. I don’t have the situational hitting information contained in the new technical formula of RC that James uses in WS, but using the basic formula, the ’35 team “should” have scored 593 and actually scored 575. This means every 100 runs “created” by the team actually had 97 runs of value. Berger’s RC then needs to be adjusted downwards by 3%.

  8. No situational stats for 1935, so that’s not it… I don’t particularly disagree with the rating, but when I checked I did find a couple of people holding Berger’s low WS total against him (even that he was “washed up” in 1935!) which is hardly fair. WS is supposed to be fair to players on good teams and on bad teams.

  9. This was payment for how they treated the Babe. If you really think about it, wouldn’t it be more logical for the Babe to put a curse on the Braves and not the Sox?

  10. No situational stats for 1935, so that’s not it…

    If I recall, the only situational stats used in the WS version of RC is ratio of homers with men on versus with no one on. That information is available. David Vincent, the homer guru of SABR keeps all kinds of data on homer performance. That MAY explain part of the rating, but without knowing the details, its just a guess.

    Mac, I LOVE these historical pieces you are doing.

  11. I don’t suppose yall would have a good book to recommend for those of who are ignorant of the Braves’ early history (or even their pre-Dale Murphy history)? I mean, I know next-to-nothing about Wally Berger, Kid Nichols, how we treated the Babe, etc. This is a shortcoming that needs to be rectified. Suggestions would be welcome.

  12. … how we treated the Babe …

    Short version – he thought that the team was bringing him on to be the manager. Many superstars of that era (Speaker, Cobb, Mathewson …) managed at the end or after their playing career. But shortly after coming over from the Yanks, he was informed that he was to be a circus side-show (come one, come all and see Babe’s last homer!) and was not being considered for management. He retired bitterly.

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