MVP Connections, Baseball Edition; or, the lonesome tale of Jake Daubert

Longtime readers of the Edible Ox will probably have seen one of my posts about networks of NBA MVPs. I recently decided to see what would happen if I extended the same idea to baseball, and the answer is that you get a completely insane version of the graph. Here’s the main image (click on it for a much larger version, which will open in a new tab):

2018_MLB_MVP

As always, the principles are simple: Every dot is a player who won an MVP award; they’re connected by a line if they played on the same team in the same year (even if neither of them was an MVP at the time); the colors more or less reflect the players’ main teams; the size of the dots reflects betweenness centrality (basically, how well each guy connects other clusters to each other).

I should note that I was less careful about this one than the NBA one. I know more about basketball, and the network involved much less data, so I tried to make sure players actually played together; I even found a case where Moses Malone played 6 minutes on a no-longer-extant team with Bob McAdoo in 1977. That was just too much to ask here; instead, I just consider guys linked if they played on the same team in the same year—which leaves open the possibility that someone was injured, or even that they were traded for each other. If anyone notices any situations like that (or any mistakes—again, not the sport I follow most closely), I’d definitely be interested to hear about them.

That aside, my favorite thing about the graph is how closely it tells the story of baseball history. The players from roughly a century ago—your Ty Cobbs and Tris Speakers—are way over on the left; you’ve got a few decades of dominant Yankees, from Ruth and Gehrig to Mantle and Maris, nearby; in the middle you’ve got the boys-of-summer Dodgers and the classic Pirates and Giants squads; after a tour through the Big Red Machine and 70’s A’s (not to be confused with the 30’s Philadelphia A’s on the other side of the graph), you’ve got the great 90’s players on the Braves, Astros, and Mariners, and finally a sprawling network of today’s stars. It’s not entirely chronological (Mantle and Mays are far apart), but it does a nice job of creating the kinds of discrete clusters you might see on any given night’s Ken Burns or 30-for-30 episode.

That’s only possible because this graph is way more interconnected than the basketball graph. Here’s that one, for comparison:

2018_NBA_MVP

Here you see 33 players, of whom 6 never played with another MVP. You’ve also got two large clusters of connected players, plus one small one. In baseball, meanwhile, you’ve only got 4 players who are off by themselves, even though there are 153 people represented on the graph. And the 149 other players are all in one cluster. In other words, a baseball MVP is substantially more likely to play on the same team as another MVP at some point in his career, and you can draw a through-line from nearly any guy to any other guy (e.g., Ty Cobb to Mike Trout goes Cobb -> Jimmie Foxx -> Phil Cavarretta -> Nellie Fox -> Joe Morgan -> Rickey Henderson -> Miguel Tejada -> Iván Rodríguez -> Josh Hamilton -> Trout).

There are a few clear reasons for this heightened connectivity. First, and most important, there are twice as many MVPs in baseball every year, since they award both an NL and an AL MVP. Second, there are more players in professional baseball, which leads to more opportunities to play together. Third, baseball players have longer careers. The average career of an MLB MVP is 16.3 years—or 17.1 if you only count retired players (otherwise Mookie Betts is dragging down the average). For basketball players, those numbers are 14.6 and 15.4, respectively. It’s just a season or two difference, but that’s still about a 10% increase in chances to join a new team for baseball players—plus, this may disproportionately affect those weird late-career years when players in both sports start roaming around.

Finally, baseball is just older in general. They’ve had more chances to acquire the kinds of super-long, very connective careers that, say, the WNBA just hasn’t had time to collect yet. Eddie Collins and Rickey Henderson each played for 25 years, Hank Aaron played 23, and none of their careers overlapped. That’s 73 years of totally distinct careers that don’t even capture several important decades; meanwhile the NBA is 72 years old.

Still, I’ll admit that I was surprised at just how completely connected everyone is. When I first made the graph, a few months ago, there were five players who had no connections. Since then, Betts won and connected to Dustin Pedroia, and Andrew McCutchen played not only with Buster Posey but also, after a mid-season trade, with Giancarlo Stanton, who used to play with the other new MVP,  Christian Yelich. Of the remaining loners, three are pretty close to their prime; Kris Bryant got his MVP in 2016, and Bryce Harper and Josh Donaldson got theirs in 2015. It’s entirely possible—based on this network, I’d say it’s probably likely—that they’ll wind up with MVP teammates at some point. And I wouldn’t be surprised if the Betts/Pedroia pair connects to the overall cluster at some point.

And then there’s Jake Daubert. Back in 1911, Hugh Chalmers, some guy who ran a company called Chalmers Automobile, announced that he’d give a free car to the best player in each baseball league. Chalmers died in 1932, the company disappeared in the 1920’s, and the award was discontinued after 1914. But that’s what baseball considers the first MVP award, and Jake Daubert got one in 1913, as the star first baseman of the Brooklyn Superbas (formerly, and later, the Dodgers). I’ll just note that this team also featured a pitcher named Mysterious Walker, whose five year career sent him to five different teams, including the Cleveland Naps and the Brooklyn Tip-Tops of the failed Federal League. You can click on almost any roster in Baseball Reference before 1930 and find a half dozen examples of this kind of nonsense. One more example: Teammates of Daubert in his last season include Bubbles Hargrave, Ivey Wingo, Boob Fowler, Chick Shorten, Greasy Neale, Eppa Rixey, and two different men named Rube. Incredible stuff; our national heritage.

Anyway, the league didn’t start issuing MVP awards again until 1922, so Daubert didn’t have as many opportunities as he might have to collect MVP teammates. And not for lack of trying: He got sick at the end of his 1924 season, and today still holds the unfortunate distinction of being the oldest player to die while still in the majors. This chart gives him another, less gruesome record. Harper, Bryant and Donaldson still have a shot at playing with another recognized great; more than a century after his career ended, Daubert definitely doesn’t. He’s the only MVP in baseball history to have gone it alone.

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The MVP of Meeting MVPs, Part III

With the NBA season officially underway, it’s time for the third update to the network of MVPs. Here’s the image for this year:

2018_NBA_MVP

Here’s how it works (maybe skip this paragraph if you’ve read the posts in previous years). As always, the dots are players who won NBA MVP awards. They’re connected if they ever played on the same team, regardless of their MVP status at the time—so Harden and Durant are connected because they were on the Oklahoma City Thunder together, even though neither had been an MVP yet at that time. This time, the dots are colored roughly based on the players’ main team. The lines connecting them are automatically colored based on the dots they connect, and they’re sized based on betweenness centrality, which is a network statistic that basically shows how well a guy connects other clusters of guys—as my original post pointed out, Bob McAdoo is the king of this stat, having bounced around a lot in his weird career.

When I started making these, there were two major clusters, and 9 of the 31 MVPs were isolated, apparently doomed to enter history as MVP solo artists. Since then, Curry and Durant played some games together, Derrick Rose joined and left LeBron, and the MVP was awarded exclusively to former Durant teammates. To the horror of Thunder fans everywhere (presumably a very circumscribed version of “everywhere”), there’s a new cluster forming, and we’re down to 6/33 MVP isolates.

Back in 2016 I noted that our only real hope for further connections to the large cluster at the bottom of the network is Kawhi Leonard, and he’s really taken us on a roller coaster since then. First he came in third in one of the best MVP races in NBA history; he was good enough that he could very plausibly have won. Then he sat out for an entire season, seemed on the verge of forming a super-team in LA with LeBron, and wound up in Toronto. So who knows what’s up with that guy; there’s a possible world where he returns at full capacity and easily wins the MVP as the Raptors rule the East, then immediately leaves, joins LeBron, and fulfills his destiny as the Uniter of the Clusters. And there are many possible worlds where none of that happens.

In the meantime, there’s still plenty of hope for connecting the new cluster to the top. One interesting character here could be Karl Anthony-Towns, who has already played with both Garnett and Rose. And there are always the super-team-in-LA possibilities; both Westbrook and Durant have been at the center of Lakers rumors in the past, and it seems like LeBron intends to stay there awhile.

One cool thing about Harden winning: Last time I mentioned that 2010 holds the record for the season with the most past and future MVPs in the league. Several seasons have had 11 MVPs out there somewhere; in 2010 there were 12. But 2010 was also Harden’s rookie season, so now that number is up to 13. Somehow it remains true that every MVP-winner of this century was in the league that year.

Finally, each year I like to add something to these posts, and this year I thought I’d show the WNBA version:

2018_WNBA.png

All the same rules apply for reading the image. The obvious thing is that there are fewer nodes to work with here. Ordinarily in a network that makes it much more difficult to get the kind of dense interconnections you see in the Bob McAdoo and Dr. J area of the NBA chart. That’s just because there are fewer opportunities for things to connect. In this case, the issue is that the WNBA is a young league: It’s only been around since 1997. As a comparison, Dirk Nowitzki started playing in the NBA in 1999, and he’s still going. In the WNBA, there haven’t been as many chances for that kind of insanely long career.

As a result, there’s only one cluster with more than three players, and that’s only because Sheryl Swoopes and Yolanda Griffith joined the Seattle Storm for one season near the ends of their careers, just before Griffith hopped over to Indiana for three games the next season. Everyone in that cluster has retired, so it probably won’t ever grow, but the others are definitely live. In the rest of the graph, only Leslie is retired; only Fowles (note: this is the most confusing name I’ve ever heard in a basketball broadcast), Parker and Taurasi are over 30; and most of the players are in their primes. This year’s winner, Breanna Stewart, is only 24, so she might even keep getting better for another half decade. Almost the whole graph is like the Curry/Thunder cluster in the NBA graph—peak players who might easily wind up playing with the 2028 MVP winner on some future super-team in LA.

The MVP of Meeting MVPs, Part II

With the NBA season officially underway, it’s time to revisit last year’s post about the connections between MVPs. To get right to it, here is the updated version of the image at the center of everything:

Screen Shot 2017-10-17 at 2.16.21 AM

We see here every player who has won the NBA MVP award. They’re connected if they ever played on the same team, even if they were together before one or both of them had won—so Westbrook and Durant are connected, even though when they were both on the Thunder Westbrook hadn’t won yet. The thickness of the edges—the lines connecting the players—reflects how many years they played together; the color is more or less based on the team they shared.

Two major things have happened since last year’s post. First, Westbrook won the MVP. This means we’re developing a new little cluster over there on the left. The crazy thing is that this would still have been true if the voters had (correctly) given the trophy to the other major contender, James Harden (I’m from Houston), since he was also on the Thunder. He has a reasonable shot at winning it sometime in the next few years, so that little cluster might still grow.

The second major event is that Derrick Rose joined the Cavs, connecting him to LeBron James. I’m proud to report that, unlike virtually everything else I have predicted on this blog, I pretty much correctly called this one: Last year, talking about how the graph might grow more interconnected with time, I said:

Derrick Rose could be a key player here; often these guys start moving around when they’re a little worse, either because of age or, as with Rose, injury.

It was an obvious thing to guess, but so were a lot of things that didn’t pan out. Anyway, with these two events, our overall interconnectedness has grown quite a bit. Last year 22.5% of MVPs were solo artists; this year, we’re down to 18.8%.

What’s next? I still have hope that we can connect the two major clusters. Step one is for Kawhi Leonard to win the MVP; I don’t really want that, since I dislike the Spurs, but he is the favorite in Vegas at the moment. Step two is for someone from the other cluster to switch teams; again, Rose might play a big role here, a Bob McAdoo for our troubled times. And, down the road, who knows what will happen with Westbrook—it’s hard to imagine that guy ever taking fewer than 20 shots a game for an NBA season. Someday he might have to travel to make that work.

Bonus content: Now that I have a big list of the entire careers of MVPs, I can ask hard-hitting questions like, when did the NBA have the most (past or future) MVPs playing at the same time?

Of course, you could also ask when the NBA had the fewest MVPs, but the answer there is dumb: From 1951-1954, Bob Cousy was the only guy in the NBA who would ever win an MVP, in part because the award had not yet been invented. In the modern era—say, 1980, when they introduced threes— there are two answers, both kind of weird. In 1981, there were six (Kareem, McAdoo, Dr. J, Bird, Magic, and Moses), but only because Bill Walton was in the middle of an injury that lasted two entire years. And then in 1994, you also had six (Ancient Moses, Barkley, Karl Malone, Robinson, Olajuwon, and Baby Shaq), but only because Jordan was on his mysterious baseball walkabout.

Anyway, the answer for most at once is 2010, when there were 12 active MVPs. That year LeBron won it for the second time. Back then, every winner of the 00’s was still around, in various states of collapse (Shaq, Iverson, Duncan, Garnett, Nash, Nowitzki, Kobe). And every winner of the 10’s (so far) had just joined the league (Rose, Durant, Curry, Westbrook). LeBron was the pivot.

We’ve had 11 concurrent MVPs a bunch of times: Once in the 80’s, twice in the 90’s, and four times since then. But today, we’re sitting at just 9, with Nowitzki almost certain to retire before we can boost the numbers much. Still, everyone else is either young enough to play another 5-6 years or is LeBron James, so we’ve got a shot to get back up there—and who knows, maybe Rose will join them all.

The MVP of Meeting MVPs

My last post, on the employment connections between Presidents, put me in mind of some network diagrams I once put together on the other major topic in American history: the NBA. Specifically, I was interested in MVPs who have played together on the same team in the same season. I didn’t care what stage of the career either guy was in; as long as both of them were ever on a team together and won the MVP sometime—even far in the past or future from the season they shared—they were still connected. Here’s the result:

NBA_MVP.png

The colors of the edges are based on the shared team (I approximated team colors, which I guess I’ll list in the footnote to this sentence), and their weight (line thickness) is based on how many years the two connected guys played together.1  The nodes are sized based on betweenness centrality. As you can see, by this one metric no one in NBA history has ever been as important as Bob McAdoo. A little more on him in a second.

The headline, I suppose, is that MVPs are fairly highly interconnected, even by this narrow criterion. In the NBA, if you get past first-order connections, you pretty quickly get to a six-degrees-of-Kevin-Bacon situation, as you can see for yourself using this tool from Slate.  For instance, you can get from Kyrie Irving to George Mikan in six teammates—impressive when you consider that Mikan’s career predates the NBA.2  But direct connections like you see here are much tougher; Kyrie will never play with most of the people in the league today, much less retirees. MVPs tend to have long careers—they’re generally highly employable—so that ups their odds of playing together, but they also often stick with a team (the Lakers weren’t about to trade Kobe Bryant), and their contracts are usually expensive, so I was a bit surprised to see how many had played together at least once. All told, of the 31 guys who have been MVP, only 9 never shared a roster with someone.

That said, some of these connections are ridiculous. Here are a few of the more absurd ones, in order of ascending tenuousness:

  • Steve Nash is only connected to Kobe because of the time he and Dwight Howard tried to form a super-team in LA. Nash was already 38 and in his 17th season, and he spent the most of the time injured. Dwight left the next year. The team was not super.3 
  • Karl Malone is only connected to anyone because of the time he and Gary Payton tried to form a super-team in LA. He was 40, and in his 19th season, and missed half the games because of injuries. And then the Pistons won the Finals anyway.
  •  Shaquille O’Neal concluded his career—largely spent on a super-team in LA—by roaming from team to team like a gigantic, increasingly ineffective samurai. He joined Steve Nash on the Phoenix Suns, where, according to distraught Wikipedia phrasing, he “all but ended their fast-paced offense which had brought them on the cusp of a Finals appearance”. Then he moved on to LeBron James’s Cavs, and helped them get slightly less far in the playoffs than they had the year before. Finally, he journeyed to the Celtics, where Kevin Garnett’s recently-built super-team was coming off a Finals appearance; they have not been back since.
  • Moses Malone similarly refused to retire. His connection to David Robinson stems from his 21st season, when he was 39. This was 1995, and he was the last active player from the ABA, which folded in 1976. He managed to play just 17 games, averaging about 9 minutes a game. But in his last game he hit an 80-foot buzzer-beating three, so it was probably worth it for everyone involved.
  • Bob Cousy did retire, but then he unretired, which was probably worth it for no one. In 1970 he was coach of the Cincinnati Royals, and decided to play himself to boost ticket sales. This happened even though: A) He had last played a game in 1963—long enough ago that his absence effectively coincides with the entire existence of the Beatles; B) He was 41, C) He was a point guard, and this team featured Oscar Robertson. In the 7 games he played, Cousy amassed 34 minutes and 5 points—not on average, but in total. And yet, this is still a more meaningful connection than:
  • That between Moses and Bob McAdoo on the 1977 Buffalo Braves. They were together for two games, during which Moses played 6 total minutes. His stat line: 0/1/0/0/0 with 1 foul. But there’s one thing you can’t deny: They were technically on the same team in the same season.

That’s the perfect transition back to McAdoo. What’s his deal? If you’re like me you know him mainly as a trivia answer, a guy who led the league in scoring and won an MVP in the mid-70’s for… some team (turns out it was the Braves). He was a great player, but I get the sense that he’s generally considered one of the weaker MVPs. In any case, he definitely moved around a lot after that successful early period in Buffalo. From there he went to New York for a while, then stopped by Boston for 20 games in 1979, just long enough to get a connection with Dave Cowens. After stints in Detroit and New Jersey, he actually stuck around with the Lakers for four years, so his connections to Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar are pretty substantial. And then he retired like he worked: By first playing 29 games in Philadelphia with Charles Barkley and Dr. J. The network above doesn’t quite show it, but Moses was there too—coming full circle after their 6-minute connection on the Braves. Those two were real journeymen, but the crazy thing with McAdoo is that he was only 34 when he retired; he played just 14 seasons, but still got to 7 different teams.

One of the initial motivations behind this project was to show that the situation we’ve got on the Warriors next year—Kevin Durant and Steph Curry, two very recent MVPs, still in their prime—isn’t that unusual. But in spite of its fairly high connectivity, I think you really see just the opposite here. Only a few of these guys played together at our near their peak: Definitely Kareem/Magic and Shaq/Kobe, probably Cousy/Russell, and it’s reasonably close for Oscar/Kareem, Dr. J/Moses, and Duncan/Robinson. Everyone else is off somehow; in some cases both parties are past their prime. So that line between Durant and Curry should be pretty unique.

Still, I like all these tenuous connections. It’s the reason the two clusters are so connective, the top one connecting the 2000’s from Karl Malone to LeBron, and the bottom one stretching (thanks to Cousy’s marketing tactics and McAdoos’ travels) all the way from the 1950’s to Tim Duncan, hitting every major period in between.

Now that Duncan has retired, though, that cluster may be done. The last hope is probably Kawhi Leonard, who stands a decent chance of winning MVP sometime in the next few years. But then he or someone else will also need to migrate. Derrick Rose could be a key player here; often these guys start moving around when they’re a little worse, either because of age or, as with Rose, injury. Bill Walton is the best analogy there—a dominant force in 1977, he could’t stay healthy enough to keep going, missing multiple entire seasons. That’s probably the only reason he wound up on the Celtics, where, unlike the examples above, he was a major contributor to a title team while creating his connection to another MVP in Larry Bird. And finally, these connections often back-form; look at Moses and Robinson, or Cousy and Oscar. There’s still time for LeBron to have a late-career Shaqesque spirit journey.

One last thought: These sorts of networks get more connected very quickly if you add either a few extra nodes (more players = better odds that any one player has a teammate out there somewhere) or another principle of connection. I thought about using family members. Dell Curry, for instance, played with both Karl Malone (Jazz, ’86) and Hakeem Olajuwon (Raptors, ’02), connecting the two big clusters, and he’s the father of Steph Curry, connecting everyone to him and Durant. And the Warriors have also forged a connection to the most important man in the MVP network: In July, they re-signed back-up forward James Michael McAdoo, second cousin to Bob.

 


Notes

1. Celtic green = Celtics; Dark green = Bucks; Yellow = Lakers; Dark blue = 76ers; Red = Rockets; Gray = Spurs; Light blue = Mavericks; Pinkish purple = Suns. A few are easier to describe based on the connection: Cousy<->Robertson = Cincinnati Royals; Shaq<->James = Cavaliers; Moses<->McAdoo = Buffalo Braves. 

2. Kyrie played with Anthony Parker, who played with Rick Mahorn, who played with Wes Unseld, who played with Bob Ferry, who played with Slater Martin, who played with George Mikan. One cool thing about the Slate tool is that it incorporates other sports at the same time; for instance, LeBron James is evidently 4 degrees of separation from Mike Trout (via Damon Jones, Mark Hendrickson (who played in the NBA and MLB), and Scott Kazmir). One caveat, though, is that their data only goes to 2013.

3. This experiment and Shaq’s late-career wandering (see below) are the only reasons Dirk Nowitzki is connected to a larger network, instead of just to Nash. There’s a certain dignity to isolation in this network, I guess.