Faber System, Which Favors Fielding, Regards Lajoie as Best Ever

By Kenneth Broder
Los Angeles Herald Examiner
June 19, 1988

In 1948, Charles Faber gained access to the central library in New York City and it changed his life.

Though he had a day job, two daughters and a "long-suffering" wife, for the next 35 years he spent much of his spare time pouring over baseball data in search of a system that would allow him the answer that most fundamental of baseball questions: Who was the greatest ballplayer of all-time? In 1985, he proudly published the results of his Faber System ("the first method of rating baseball players yet devised that permits valid comparisons of the abilities of players across the decades") in a book called "Baseball Ratings" -- one year after Pete Palmer and John Thorn published their vastly more complex, computerized ratings in "The Hidden Game of Baseball."

I can sympathize with Mr. Faber. Four years ago, I was near the end of a similar, though far briefer, 12-month number-crunching analysis of hitting through the ages when I saw a favorable reference by Baseball stat guru Bill James to the impending Palmer-Thorn effort. I knew that I was doomed.

My system had been fairly simple and in its fundamental structure resembled Palmer-Thorn's. First, I calculated a single number to represent the offense of a player. (I used James' Runs Created formula.) Then I normalized the number (i.e. figured how much better or worse the player was than the average hitter that year).

It took me a year to "prove" that Babe Ruth was the greatest batter of all-time.

Palmer, the statistician half of Palmer-Thorn, and Faber did the same thing using their own rating systems, and then took it one step further. They figured out ratings systems for fielding and base running and calculated the greatest non-pitchers of all-time.

James took a more subjective approach in his "Historical Baseball Abstract." Armed with data compiled by stat freaks like Palmer and himself, he dug into Maury Allen's fanciful "Baseball's 100" and a few other half-researched, highly-opinionated tomes on the subject. Then he checked out what contemporaries of old-timers thought of their heroes and pasted together his list -- with Babe Ruth at the top.

If selection of the Babe seems a foregone conclusion, consider that it was not one reached by Faber.

He likes Nap Lajoie.

This was not a tough choice for Faber. Little Napoleon dominates the American League list, finishing 11 percent ahead of the Babe, who was in a virtual tie with Honus Wagner and Ty Cobb. And for those of you who are tired of hearing me harp on the frivolousness of RBIs and runs scored while glorifying the base on balls, the Faber System is for you.

Faber gives no credit for a walk, stolen base, a double or a triple. He doesn't care how many outs a hitter makes in the pursuit of glory. Unlike Palmer and his Linear Weights method or James and Runs Created, (Hits + Walks - CS) x (Total Bases + .55 x SB) / (AtBats + Walks), all he cares about on offense is batting average, home runs, RBIs and runs scored. But what really sets Faber apart from the others is his emphasis on fielding.

Lajoie, by Faber's reckoning, is by far the greatest fielder of all time. Forty-seven percent of his value as a ballplayer comes from his defense. Only 18 percent of the Babe's Faber points were attained with his glove. A similar Faber fielding boost is responsible for Bobby Doerr ending up as the 20th greatest non-pitcher of all-time and other oddities.

But consider what Palmer and Thorn have to say about fielding. They believe that half of baseball is offense (scoring runs) and half is defense (preventing runs). The 50 percent that is defense is divided between pitching and fielding. They figure that earned runes belong to the pitcher and unearned runs belong to the fielders. Thus, in the early 1900s (the Nap Lajoie era) fielding accounted for 15 percent of the game (30 percent of 50 percent). Nowadays, by their calculations, fielding is about 6 percent of the game.

I'd feel a lot more comfortable about their theory if they took into account a fielder's range factor, but they do make a strong argument that fielding probably accounts for less than 25 percent of the average hitter's game. How then does it account for 47 percent of the career of a great hitter like Nap Lajoie, who had a .339 lifetime batting average with a slugging percentage of .466?

Despite the differences in methodology, Faber, James and Palmer agree on a surprisingly high number of selections. Six players (Ruth, Wagner, Cobb, Mays, Williams and Aaron) appear on all three Top Ten lists and the same 13 players make all three Top Twenty lists. But while Luke Appling is 20th in James' book, he doesn't make Faber's Top 100. And Faber's No. 1, Lajoie, ranks 26th on the James scale.

Greatest Non-Pitchers of All-Time

JamesPalmerFaber

1. Babe RuthBabe RuthNap Lajoie

2. Honus WagnerTed WilliamsBabe Ruth
3. Stan MusialHank AaronHonus Wagner
4. Hank AaronTy CobbTy Cobb
5. Ty CobbWillie MaysTris Speaker

6. Lou GehrigNap LajoieEddie Collins
7. Willie MaysRogers HornsbyWillie Mays
8. Ted WilliamsTris SpeakerLou Gehrig
9. Joe DiMaggioEddie CollinsTed Williams
10. Mike SchmidtHonus WagnerMusial & Aaron

11. Eddie CollinsStan Musial--------
12. Yogi BerraMickey MantleAl Simmons
13. Pete RoseFrank RobinsonJimmie Foxx
14. Tris SpeakerJoe MorganMickey Mantle
15. Mickey MantleMike SchmidtRogers Hornsby

16. Jimmie FoxxLou GehrigJoe DiMaggio
17. Joe MorganMel OttFrank Robinson
18. Frank RobinsonJimmie FoxxPete Rose
19. Eddie MathewsEddie MathewsErnie Banks
20. Luke ApplingCarl YastrzemskiBobby Doerr

*Faber doesn't rate pitchers and Palmer doesn't rate them with hitters. When James includes pitchers in his ratings they are: Lefty Grove (3), Warren Spahn (10), Walter Johnson (12), Cy Young (14) and Christy Mathewson (17).
*Palmer and Faber rankings were published in 1984 and '85, respectively, and James in '88.

RANDOM NOTES: Arguably, the five best-pitched games this year by Angel pitchers have come in June: a shutout by Chuck Finley on the 7th, Mike Witt's shutout on Tuesday, and two by Dan Petry (though one of those was in a losing effort against Milwaukee on the 4th). Using the Game Performance scale of 1-100, McCaskill's 3-hit shutout Thursday rated an 81, best this year. (100 points is a perfect game with 20 strikeouts) . . . DAN PLESAC of the Milwaukee Brewers is quietly fashioning one of the greatest years ever by a reliever. Projected over an entire season he would have 38 saves in 68 games with an ERA of 1.33. His record would be 3-0 with 91 strikeouts and just 12 walks in 80 innings. Not since, well, Tom Henke last year, has a reliever been so dominating.