peak and career value

I think it was Bill James who introduced into sabermetrics the distinction between peak and career value in baseball players. The distinction can be approached by comparing, say, Pete Reiser, who was truly great but (thanks to injury) for only a brief time, with Billy Williams, who was never more than very good but was very good for a long time.

Ever since James made me aware of this distinction, decades ago now, I have found it extremely useful not just for thinking about baseball players but for thinking about many other kinds of achievement as well. For instance, I tend to think of Johann Sebastian Bach as the Hank Aaron of composers: truly great and freakishly consistent for a very long time. Whereas Keats might be the Herb Score of poets, Rimbaud the Mark Fidrych; and, at the other end, Czeslaw Milosz is Walter Johnson: dominant for an exceptionally long period. You get the idea.

But I think the peak/career distinction is exceptionally helpful in the notoriously fraught task of evaluating rock-and-roll bands. To wit:

  • The Clash is the Pete Reiser of bands: meteoric, brilliant, brief. Peak value off the charts; career value much less.

  • The Beatles: Sandy Koufax. Transcendently great over a significant but too-short period of time.

  • Nickelback: Juan Pierre. Ineffectual but strangely long-lived.

  • The Who: Dwight Gooden. Truly great for a short period, then hung on for a surprisingly long (but not especially effective) afterlife.

  • U2: Greg Maddux. Highly professional, amazingly consistent, remarkably long-lived, but always thought of (perhaps wrongly) as just below the very highest level of brilliance.

  • Nirvana: Smoky Joe Wood. Totally dominant early on, then limited and eventually broken by bad health.

  • The Rolling Stones: Fernando Valenzuela. A relatively brief period of true greatness followed by an remarkably long period of being unproductive but still active. A lot like The Who, except great for slightly longer and professionally functional for much longer. (This one is the least-good fit: it would be perfect if Fernando had pitched for 25 years at below replacement level.)

Please feel free to pick up where I’ve left off.