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MLB’s Stars Have Already Lost A Chunk Of Their Careers. The Lockout Could Make It Much Worse.

Major League Baseball and its players association continue to go back and forth in talks over a new collective bargaining agreement, but the lockout — now in its 96th day — doesn’t seem likely to end anytime soon. Because the owners failed to reach a deal with the players last week, commissioner Rob Manfred has already canceled the first two series of the 2022 regular season, and even more games seem destined for the chopping block before all is said and done. The effects could be catastrophic: To borrow Manfred’s own words, the “disastrous outcome” that he has presided over threatens to erase whatever enthusiasm had been building around MLB, a league that has spent the last decade-plus struggling for star power and relevance in comparison with other sports.1

It also threatens to rob even more from the careers of the game’s current generation, most of whom had already seen their 2020 schedule reduced from 162 to 60 games because of the COVID-19 pandemic and are now staring at a second shortened campaign in the span of three seasons. While other modern players also lost time to strikes — to say nothing of historical players who lost large portions of their primes while fighting in wars — this crop of active players is going to end up losing a lot of potential statistical production with so many games wiped off the slate.

We can estimate just how much value has already been lost using wins above replacement.2 For each work stoppage since 1980 — because of labor actions, the pandemic, etc. — I calculated how many games each player was deprived of playing by multiplying the contests wiped from the schedule by the player’s rate of playing in his team’s games in adjacent seasons. Then I multiplied that number of “lost games” by the player’s rate of WAR per game over those same surrounding years, which gives us the theoretical amount of potential value each player missed out on by those games not being available.3

Modern baseball’s biggest work-stoppage losers

Players with the most estimated games and wins above replacement (WAR) lost to canceled games, 1980-2021

Most Games Lost Most WAR Lost
Player Yrs* Gms Player Yrs* Gms war
Eddie Murray 3 111 Jacob deGrom 1 21 4.9
Harold Baines 3 109 Mike Trout 1 86 4.7
Tim Raines 3 109 Greg Maddux 2 14 4.7
Cal Ripken Jr. 3 107 Mookie Betts 1 94 4.7
Paul Molitor 3 105 Alex Bregman 1 91 4.5
Paul Goldschmidt 1 104 Cody Bellinger 1 97 4.4
Whit Merrifield 1 102 Anthony Rendon 1 91 4.3
Rickey Henderson 3 101 Gerrit Cole 1 21 4.2
José Abreu 1 101 Trevor Story 1 94 4.1
César Hernández 1 101 Rickey Henderson 3 101 4.0
Freddie Freeman 1 100 Marcus Semien 1 99 4.0
Pete Alonso 1 100 Shane Bieber 1 21 4.0
Carlos Santana 1 100 Lance Lynn 1 21 4.0
Tim Wallach 3 100 George Springer 1 79 3.9
Manny Machado 1 99 DJ LeMahieu 1 90 3.8

*Years applies to separate seasons affected by missed games, so the 1994 and 1995 strike games would count as two seasons despite being part of the same work stoppage.

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

Sweet-swinging, switch-hitting first baseman Eddie Murray, who lost games in three separate seasons — because of both the 1981 and 1994-95 strikes — was the player whose career was cut down the most, losing an estimated 111 total games played. (Incredibly, the durable Murray was still able to finish sixth on the all-time games-played list despite the missed time, but he would have 3,137 games if not for those strikes.) In total, 14 players saw at least 100 games potentially sliced off their careers since 1980, including seven who played in the abbreviated 2020 campaign.4

Still, other players managed to pack so much value into a typical game that they ended up losing a disproportionate amount of WAR. For instance, Mets ace Jacob deGrom has been so dominant in recent seasons that, despite projecting to miss only 21 games due to work stoppages, he is the leader in lost WAR since 1980 with nearly 5 wins of value erased from his tally. That beat out Mike Trout (a certified WAR legend), Greg Maddux (who was basically the deGrom of the 1990s) and Mookie Betts (the only contemporary position player who has consistently challenged Trout’s value), each of whom lost an estimated 4.7 WAR to strikes and/or a pandemic over their careers.

For active players, those numbers could only be scratching the surface. If MLB misses the first six games of the season — as is the current extent of the damage — deGrom, Trout and Betts would lose somewhere between a quarter and a third of a win from their career WAR tallies.5 But if an entire month is missed, each would lose around 1.2 WAR, a number that would rise as the impasse drags on. Very quickly, we could be talking about an entire season’s worth of lost production — not just in terms of WAR, but also the hits, home runs, innings and strikeouts that go into the calculation — simply missing from the primes of this generation’s careers.

Relatively speaking, modern MLB players have already lost a lot of value relative to their peers in the NBA and NFL. To compare across the sports, I performed the same exercise as above for other leagues, estimating who lost the most potential games and value since 1980 due to strikes, lockouts and the pandemic. For value metrics, I used RAPTOR wins above replacement for the NBA and Approximate Value (AV) for the NFL;6 I then divided each player’s total lost value by the average for a top 10 player in a normal, full-length season to arrive at the equivalent number of “Really Good Seasons” (RGS) a player lost to work stoppages.

The most unlucky NBA and NFL players each lost a little less than half of an RGS. The NBA list features a mix of players who suffered through the 1999 and 2011 lockouts and the COVID-19 pandemic — LeBron James has had three seasons affected by stoppages, costing him 6.0 WAR and 0.44 RGS — and the NFL list is dominated by the best players of the strike-shortened 1982 season (hello, Dan Fouts). But if we convert our lost MLB WAR figures from above into RGS, we see that deGrom, Trout, Maddux and Betts are all closer to losing two-thirds of a Really Good Season than half of one.

MLB players lost more than their NBA/NFL peers

NBA, NFL and MLB players with the most Really Good Seasons (RGS) lost due to work stoppages, 1980-2021

🏀 NBA Players 🏈 NFL Players ⚾️ MLB Players
Player RGS Player RGS Player RGS
J. Kidd 0.45 D. Fouts 0.49 J. deGrom 0.62
L. James 0.44 A. Muñoz 0.47 M. Trout 0.61
G. Payton 0.42 L. Taylor 0.46 G. Maddux 0.60
C. Paul 0.40 M. Allen 0.45 M. Betts 0.60
P. Pierce 0.39 K. Anderson 0.43 A. Bregman 0.57
K. Garnett 0.39 R. Lott 0.41 C. Bellinger 0.56
T. Duncan 0.38 R. White 0.40 A. Rendon 0.55
K. Malone 0.38 M. Gastineau 0.39 G. Cole 0.54
D. Robinson 0.36 Ed T. Jones 0.39 T. Story 0.53
J. Harden 0.35 W. Chandler 0.37 R. Henderson 0.52
T. Hardaway 0.34 D. White 0.37 M. Semien 0.51
G. Hill 0.33 W. Andrews 0.36 S. Bieber 0.51
E. Jones 0.33 B. Sims 0.36 L. Lynn 0.51
M. Blaylock 0.30 D. Wilkerson 0.36 G. Springer 0.50
K. Leonard 0.30 J. Montana 0.36 D. LeMahieu 0.49

RGS is calculated by dividing the player’s lost value (as measured by RAPTOR WAR in the NBA, Approximate Value in the NFL and JEFFBAGWELL WAR in MLB) by the average for the top 10 players in the league during a full-length season.

Sources: Sports-Reference.com, NBA Advanced Stats, Fangraphs

The only major sport that can hold a candle to MLB in terms of costing its stars big statistical accomplishments is the NHL. Consider that, over the years, hockey has seen:

  • The 1994-95 season shortened from 84 to 48 games due to a lockout
  • The 2004-05 season canceled entirely due to a lockout
  • The 2012-13 season shortened from 82 to 48 games due to a lockout
  • The 2019-20 season shortened from 82 to about 70 games per team due to the pandemic
  • The 2020-21 season shortened from 82 to 56 games due to the pandemic

This means the average NHL team played 4.1 fewer games than originally intended per season over a period of 26 seasons — an unmatched record of canceled games and lost performances.

So if we perform the same exercise for NHL players since 1980, using Modified Point Shares7 to compute RGS, we find that NHL leader Alex Ovechkin has lost a staggering 149 games, 22.1 MPS and the equivalent of 1.79 Really Good Seasons to work stoppages over his career, followed by Jaromír Jágr (1.66 RGS) and goalie Roberto Luongo (1.33 RGS) — numbers that vastly outpace the lost seasons of even baseball’s most star-crossed greats.

Hockey’s generation hex

NHL players with the most Really Good Seasons (RGS) lost to work stoppages, 1980-2021

Player Years Lost Games Lost MPS Equivalent RGS
Alex Ovechkin 4 149 22.1 1.79
Jaromír Jágr 3 145 20.5 1.66
Roberto Luongo 2 93 16.4 1.33
Joe Thornton 4 147 16.3 1.32
Ilya Kovalchuk 3 117 15.7 1.27
Marián Hossa 2 112 14.9 1.20
Daniel Alfredsson 2 109 14.7 1.19
Joe Sakic 2 117 14.6 1.18
Patrice Bergeron 4 143 14.4 1.17
Martin St. Louis 2 114 14.0 1.13

RGS is calculated by dividing the player’s lost value (as measured by Modified Point Shares) by the average for the top 10 players in the league during a full-length season.

Years applies to separate seasons affected by missed games, so the 1994 and 1995 strike games would count as two seasons despite being part of the same work stoppage.

Source: Hockey-Reference.com

Like Murray in MLB, it’s extra impressive that Ovechkin has managed to overcome all the missed games to produce a career of such longevity and productivity. We wrote about Ovechkin’s pursuit of Wayne Gretzky’s goal-scoring record back in November, and Ovechkin remains 130 goals behind the Great One even after notching 34 goals this season. But in an alternate universe with another 149 games added onto his career (assuming his career rate of 0.61 goals per game), Ovechkin would be 91 goals closer to the record, sitting at 855 for his career — only 39 goals in back of Gretzky. If Ovechkin doesn’t end up breaking the record one day, a major reason why will be the many abbreviated seasons he experienced.

If MLB’s current crisis ever gets to the point of costing its biggest names the equivalent of 1.2 additional Really Good Seasons, something would have gone horribly wrong. But then again, it already has. (And simply setting the bar for missed time at “better than the NHL” is hardly a worthy goal for baseball’s leaders anyway.) It will be years before we know the full extent of the damage caused by the owners’ lockout, but the current generation of players — and the fans who love to watch them — have missed out on plenty of great performances already. 

Footnotes

  1. According to a 2021 YouGov poll, only two MLB players had more than 50 percent name recognition among adults — one of whom is all but retired and the other of whom might be getting confused for a famous musician of the same name. On the other hand, 15 NFL players and eight NBA players have at least 50 percent name recognition.

  2. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data on GitHub.

  3. My rule for what counted as “surrounding years”: If the work stoppage happened early in a season or before it, I used stats from the previous season plus the current season (once it began) to calculate the base rates. If the stoppage happened late in the season and/or ended it, I used the season up to that point plus the following season.

  4. Of those, Paul Goldschmidt missed an estimated 104 games in a season that was cut down from 162 to 60 games for most teams. How? It’s only possible because the Cardinals had two games against the Detroit Tigers scratched after a COVID-19 crisis struck the team. Detroit and St. Louis were the only teams to play fewer than 60 games that season.

  5. This uses the same base rates of games played and WAR per game as above. For an injured pitcher like deGrom, the extra time off might actually be beneficial, but bear with me here for the sake of the argument.

  6. For those interested in extremely wonky details, I first had to downscale pre-2021 AVs relative to a contemporary 17-game NFL season, since AV comes scaled on the season level (regardless of how long or short that season is).

  7. My spin on Hockey-Reference.com’s Point Shares stat, which better balances value between positions by ensuring that forwards get 60 percent of leaguewide value, defensemen get 30 percent and goalies get 10 percent. (You can find historical MPS data here.)

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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