The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History
by Jayson Stark
C. 2007, Triumph Books, Chicago, IL
206 p., $24.50 US/$32.50 Canadian
Jayson Stark has won me over.
Not that he's necessarily convinced me that he's right about some of the things he thinks, and not that I automatically believe that anything he says is gospel. But I've decided that I like him, faults and all, if only for the simple fact that he's willing to discuss and defend his position, even with the likes of, well, me. It's that trait that separates Stark from the myriad of journalists who pontificate from their positions of power, safely protected by their editors, publishers, and the fact that they don't have a publicly known email address, spewing whatever they like without thought of reaction, retribution or repurcussions. Stark's very willingness to discuss his views, to debate and disagree without taking (or giving) any of it personally, makes him a fun guy to read and respond to, whether you think he's full of crap or not.
It is in this spirit, the spirit of debate and discussion, that Jayson Stark has written his first book, The Stark Truth: The Most Overrated and Underrated Players in Baseball History. It's a fun little book, easily read in a few sittings over the course of a week or two, if you want, and provides an excellent source for stirring up (what else?) debate. It's not likely to become a classic, like Boys of Summer or Ball Four, but it is a landmark book in that nobody's really ever written something quite like it before. (Christopher "Mad Dog" Russo, of WFAN in NY, wrote a book entitled "The Mad Dog 100: The Hundred Greatest Sports Arguments of All-Time" a few years ago, which was similarly designed to spur debate, but it of course focused on all kinds of arguments in various sports.) Stark's work, focusing on overratedness and underratedness in baseball, makes it unique.
I do wish that he had chosen a title for the book that didn't have his own name in it. It comes off a little presumptuous, but it also starts a dangerous precedent. I mean, how many book titles can you come up with that have "Stark" in the title? Stark Raving Mad, Stark Contrasts, Battle Stark Gallactica...the list soon gets pretty thin. Still, it's tough to come up with something pithy and clever when the subject of the book does not lend itself to being explained in any sort of clever or pithy fashion.
The book seeks to explore and describe, position by position, the most overrated and underrated players of all time. He looks at right- and left-handed starting pitchers, relief pitchers (without regard to handedness), designated hitters, and then each position around the field. Each position is examined first for overratedness, then underratedness, with the #1 player of each type at each position getting three or four pages of type, whereas the #2 through #5 playersgetting only a half page to full page synopsis. The players' key stats are listed for reference, and much of Jayson's writing goes into some of the more in-depth analytical tools, like RSAA, WARP, offensive winning percentage, etc. to help make his points that the players in question are really more or less valuable than general public perception would suggest.
This is where Jayson does very well. He uses these stats, and even introduces of them to the unitiated, to show that he grasps the fact that the traditional stats, like batting average, RBIs, and stolen bases, don't always show a clear picture of a player's value and skill. He makes use of the new-fangled stats to support his points, but for seam-heads and sabermetrics buffs, well, you're going to be disappointed. He doesn't have the room (or at least doesn't take the time) to go into the kind of depth you'd probably like to have to describe, for example, why Babe Ruth was a better pitcher than you probably know, or how it is that Steve Garvey was not nearly as good a firstbaseman as you may have heard. Just a taste of the more sophisticated metrics is all you get, and then it's on to the next player on the list. For most readers, though, that's enough, so you won't really find it a problem. Any more than a sampling of those kinds of numbers can get tedious, especially when you're talking about a book of a few hundred pages rather than a blog post or a 2,000-word column on ESPN.com, so Jayson does well to limit that sort of thing.
In the same vein, one of my issues with his book is that he writes it more or less exactly the way he writes his columns. He uses a lot of truncated, terse sentences, with irreverent little comments and such thrown in liberally. That's just his style. Whatever. But after several dozen pages of that, it get's a little old. In a column or especially a blog post, that kind of stream-of-consciousness writing seems fitting, but in a book, I personally expect a bit more eloquence. Another writing strategy you see a little too much is the use of parenthetical comments (something a good writer should not have to do) and while an occasional set of parentheses can be helpful (for colorvor clarification) having six or seven of them in a paragraph can get a bit annoying (as you can imagine) or at least choppy. Jayson is a good enough writer to compose a tome without such faults, and I hope that his next work will use them more sparingly.
Another aspect of the book that seems somewhat excessive is his feeling that, with every new chapter on the most overrated such-and-such, he needs to reiterate that just because he thinks a player is overrated does not mean that he thinks he sucks, just that he thinks that people may think a little more of him than he deserves. This is a helpful and important distinction to make, but I'm not sure he needed to make it a dozen times or more. I guess he's just a little overly sensitive because of all the belligerent e-mail he gets from easily-offended people who feel the need to CAPITALIZE EVERYTHING and can't spell
porperly properly. Hard to blame him.
With that said, I am going to argue a little bit about some of his choices, or at least about some of his arguments on their behalf.
In naming Edgar Martinez the most underrated Designated hitter of all time, Stark has this to say:
"...if Edgar Martinez wasn't the greatest hitter alive during those 13 seasons [1991 to 2003], he was certainly the most dependable great hitter alive."
Well, that isn't remotely true. Barry Bonds racked up almost twice as many homers (575 to 284) and 211 more Win Shares than Edgar in those 13 years. Edgar finished a distant 4th in Win Shares, with 364, well behind Bonds, Jeff Bagwell (415), and Frank Thomas (414), and not much better than Rafael Palmiero (361) and Gary Sheffield (344). While Jayson does acknowledge the fact that certain players did have a few more doubles or a slightly higher OBP than Edgar, he entirely omits the fact that Martinez averaged fewer than 22 homers a year in that span, or that his total of 284 was exactly as many as Robin Ventura, good for only 25th place on that list. Edgar had a lot of hits, and a lot of doubles, but at a time when records for homers were being set everywhere you looked, Martinez somehow misplaced his invitation to that party. In addition, Frank Thomas gets nary a mention in the chapter on the DH, even though he's likely to own many of the career records as a DH by the time he retires. And as far as dependability is concerned, well, Edgar missed an average of almost 28 games per year in that span. Even accounting for the 70+ games lost to the strike of 1994-95, that's still about 360 games not played by "...the most dependable great hitter alive".
Anyway, enough on Edgar. Back to Jayson's book.
If you're a Yankee fan, you may not be pleased with many of Stark's choices, even though he goes out of his way (again, on several occasions) to make it clear that he has nothing against the Yankees in particular. His #1 overrated DH, secondbaseman, shortstop, thirdbaseman and right fielder are all players who played some significant portion of their careers in Yankee pinstripes, and many of those are most likey thought of as overrated because they were Yankees. Even so, you could do a lot worse than to start a team with Steve Sax, Phil Rizutto, Graig Nettles, and Dave Winfield, though I can definitely see his point on Ron Blomberg. In addition, among the #2 through #5 most overrated players in their respective roles we also see David Wells, Tommy John, Dave Righetti, Reggie Jackson, Steve Balboni, Cecil Fielder, Bobby Richardson, Bucky Dent, Mickey Rivers, Darryl Strawberry and Bobby Abreu, Yankees all, at least for a while. However, in fairness to Stark, he also calls several Yankees underrated, including the #1 catcher (Yogi Berra) and #1 reliever (Goose Gossage), and gives a little love to the likes of Chili Davis, Oscar Gamble, Joe Gordon, Tim Raines, Bobby Bonds, and even goes so far as to call Derek Jeter the second most underrated shortstop in history!
Personally, I'm a huge Yankee fan, and I almost crapped my pants when I read that! Derek Jeter? Underrated? Saying that people don't realize how good Jeter really is like saying that most people don't realize how crazy Tom Cruise is, or how hot Jessica Simpson looks coming out of a nightclub. Is it even possible for us to hear any more than we already do about Derek Jeter? I can't imagine how. Maybe if they started getting him to sell watches and perfume and peanut butter and giving him a chance to host SNL once in a while...wait a minuite, too late. OK, so what if he practically had his own personal announcer during Yankee broadcasts on national TV, who would, no matter what he does in the field, fawn over his every move? Oh, wait, Tim McCarver. Never mind.
Well, in spite of my vehement disagreement about this particular issue, I can see Jayson's points for most of the other players he names, and won't quibble with them beyond what I've already said. Stark knows his baseball history, and many of his Lamentations of Underratedness stem from the fact that the general populace has largely forgottten most of the men who played before 1990. Guys like Stan Musial, Yogi Berra and Warren Spahn were extremely well regarded in their day, but because they played so long ago, when thigs like the All-Century Team or the DHL Home-Town Heroes voting come around, they're not given the acclaim they deserve, and Jayson is right to point that out. Granted, the fact that the voting for those things is done mostly, if not entirely, on the InterWebs means that the average age of the voters is about 14, so it's hard to take those kinds of votes too seriously. Nevertheless, the results of those votes are very public events, held during the All-Star Game or the World Series, so maybe it's MLB that needs to re-evaluate how they do these promotions, not so much the average baseball fan who needs to reevaluate his opinions on the great players of the 1950's and 1960's.
Regardless of that, Jayson's book is a worthwhile read. It's just barely over 200 pages, and broken down into lots of easily managed chapters and sub-chapters, so you can find your place without much trouble again if you have to put it down for something. Like to have a fistfight with the guy who's trying to tell you that Nolan Ryan was the Greatest Pitcher Ever when in reality you know, like Jayson, how overrated he was. If you can, just enjoy the book, and the conversations it will generate, and try not to get beat up.