We made an adjustment for players who played most of their careers in the late 19th Century and early part of the 20th Century, when the level of competition was lower and rules were changing frequently. This impacted quite a few starting pitchers, the guys who started 55-60 games per season back in the Victorian Era.
We simply don’t think it makes sense to have 10-15 pitchers who toiled during that era rank in the Top 100. Those pitchers were able to start many games a year in leagues where the competition was not well balanced, which increased their impact on the field. The game in the 19th century was much, much different than it is today.
Our Timeline Adjustment is based on a study by Bill James, noted baseball statistician and historian. James devised a system he called QUOC (Quality Of Competition). I won’t go into his entire study here, but the gist is this: James assigned a QUOC score to every season in baseball history. He based it on the quality of the players in the league. In seasons when the quality of players was low, the QUOC lowered or stayed flat, like during World War II. It rose steadily after integration, stagnated when MLB expanded, and so on.
The overall quality of baseball has improved decade-after-decade throughout history. Baseball in 1975 was better than it was in 1955. And it was better in 1998 than it was in 1978, and it’s much better in 2021 than it was in 1961, and so on.
Clearly, professional baseball today is far superior to what they were playing in the Major Leagues in 1919, for example. In 1919, there were no black players, few Latin players at all, and many good baseball players were unheard of because they remained hidden in leagues around the country. Also, the quality of the athletes has vastly improved. If we had a time machine and we could send Brett Gardner back to 1927, I have no doubt he would out-homer Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig. He would be a freak compared to most players who earned a living playing baseball even 60 years ago. Things get better with time, that’s the way the human body works.
Here’s how we made our Timeline Adjustment: we averaged the QUOC score for every player’s career. For example, for Babe Ruth it’s 562. What the number represents doesn’t matter, it only matters how it relates to other eras. Miguel Cabrera’s average QUOC for his career (through 2020) is 659. That means that Major League Baseball during Cabrera’s career has been roughly 15 percent better than when the Babe played.
To make our Timeline Adjustment, we subtract the percentage of difference of a player’s average QUOC score from his Career Wins Above Replacement. For Ruth, he loses 28.3 points on his Career WAR. That still leaves him way ahead of Cabrera and practically everyone in history, but it serves as an equalizer across eras.
Every player gets a Timeline Adjustment, but recent players will lose less off their WAR total, and as we move into the future, that number will increase as baseball gets better.
A single Timeline Adjustment was not enough. We also made an adjustment for players who started their careers prior to integration. The adjustment was significant, because we believe that prior to the 1950s, Major League Baseball was not nearly as competitive as it would become when black and Latino players were welcomed to the game. It was easier for Walter Johnson and Babe Ruth to dominate their eras when they never had to face black players in the majors.
The Color Line Adjustment works this way: we subtracted the year the player debuted from 1951 and multiplied that number by .005 (one-half of one percent). So, for a player who debuted in 1931 (20 years before 1951) their multiplier would be .10 (20 x. 005), which we subtracted from their career WAR). Thus, a player in the white major leagues lost 0.5% of their career value for every year they debuted before 1951.
This adjustment proved critical for players who debuted early in the 20th century. But we strongly believe the game has evolved and gotten much better since integration. This adjustment helped remove a bias toward “old time” players, which is one of our peeves with other “all-time baseball rankings” lists.
Without the Timeline and Color Line Adjustments, our lists would have had many more players who played from 1895 to 1925 in top positions. With athletes improving over time, that doesn’t make sense to us.