Fivethirtyeight had an interesting article about A-Rod and Willie Mays. As you may have heard, A-Rod hit #660 and #661 quite recently, and there’s a bunch of shit about him not getting paid a bonus for various reasons. What I want to take a moment to talk about is Fivethirtyeight’s central assertion: Willie Mays was much better than Alex Rodriguez. Fivethirtyeight used rWAR (Baseball Reference’s WAR) as a baseline comparison, but you can do the same with fWAR (Fangraphs’ WAR). fWAR actually hurts A-Rod slightly and gives Willie Mays a boost, but the gap between them is largely the same.
I do not disagree that Mays was superior, as an overall baseball player, than A-Rod, based on the statistical record. By rate stats, they’re extremely close: Mays was .302/.384/.557, A-Rod is (as of this post) .299/.384/.558. Mays played a bit less than 500 more games than A-Rod has, which naturally gives him a boost in counting stats. Offensively, A-Rod has a career OPS+ of 143, but Mays trumps him with a 156. Of course, much of this is due to offensive era, but obviously you wouldn’t reject either of them on your team.
The most significant thing I want to address is something that might help close the gap, at least a bit: A-Rod was blocked from being as valuable as he ought to have been because Derek Jeter was, fundamentally, selfish. A-Rod should have been the team’s shortstop, not Jeter. By dWAR, Derek Jeter was a – 9.7; he cost his team almost 10 full wins over the course of his career; of course, his oWAR was nearly 100, but that’s still docking him 10%.
A-Rod added 11 dWAR over the course of his career (and was even better with the bat). This is a no-brainer of a decision — stick Jeter at third, not A-Rod. Maybe when Bernie Williams retires, dump Jeter in CF. Keep him away from shortstop. I think A-Rod’s value might have approached Mays’ if he stayed at SS (the gap is only 7.1 WAR in defense.) It doesn’t help him with Mays’ vastly superior base running, or ability to make contact, or that Mays stood out far more over his peers. But it does give us a fairer appreciation of A-Rod.