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Gray ink

Posted by Doug on February 14, 2007

For the purpose of assessing baseball players' Hall of Fame chances, Bill James devised something he called the "Black Ink Test." It essentially counts how many times a player led the league in any important stat, with extra credit given for the most important stats, e.g. home runs. The name derives from the fact that league leading stats are printed in bold type in most baseball encyclopedias. James also developed the "Gray Ink Test," which is similar, but counts top ten performances instead of only league leading ones.

These tests are a bit simplistic and fail to adjust for certain things. Leading an 8-team league (in 1952) counts the same as leading a 16-team league (in 2006), to name just one. But it wasn't intended to be anything more than what it is: a quick way to summarize some important information in a single number.

Despite not generally being a fan of Hall of Fame-type debates, I've gotten sucked into a few of them recently. And it certainly would be handy to have a quick way to summarize the number and quality of a given player's outstanding seasons more easily than saying, "he never led the league in receiving yards, but he finished in the top five three times and in the top 10 seven times." And then how do you compare that to the guy who led the league twice, but only had two other top ten finishes?

So I decided to develop a quick gray ink test for football players. Here's how it goes. (Fantasy football players will recognize it as being very similar to VBD.)

Step 1: pick a stat and pick a baseline. I'll use receiving yards as the stat and #10 as the baseline throughout this post, but you could do the same thing with 5 or 12 or 20 and with whatever stat you like.

Step 2: for each season of the player's career, compare his stat to the baseline stat. If it's above the baseline, he gets credit for the difference, normalized so that all years' baseline stats are treated the same. Specifically, the player gets credit for

1000 * (PlayerYards - BaselineYards) / BaselineYards

points worth of gray ink. The 1000 there is arbitrary, but is intended to be a typical number for the 10th-ranked receiver (if we were doing TDs instead of yards, I'd choose something more like 10 instead of 1000). Essentially, what this calculation does is attempt to ensure that players from offense-happy eras are not not unduly rewarded by inflation of the raw numbers. My assumption is that a player who had 1200 yards when the baseline was 800 has accomplished as much as a player who had 1500 yards when the baseline was 1000. The above calculation gives both players the same number of points: 500.

Step 3: add up the gray ink points for each season of each player's career.

Again, this is by no means intended to be The One Stat Which Ends All Discussions. It's just a quick way of capturing the number and quality of a player's outstanding seasons. One thing I like about it is that it distinguishes between different levels of leading the league. Brett Favre led the league in passing TDs in 1995 and Dan Marino led the league in 1984, but Favre had only 16 more TD passes than the #10 guy, while Marino had 16 more TD tosses than the #2 guy and 29 more than the #10 guy. If you count them as being the same thing, you're losing information. Likewise, Terrell Davis finished 2nd in rushing yards in 1996, but only 15 yards behind the leader. Had he gotten another 16 yards during the season, it really would not have changed anything about how impressive or how valuable his performance was, but in many debates during the coming decades, it would have changed that performance from a "top five performance" to a "league leading performance."

Here are some wide receiver lists. They include all receivers who debuted in 1970 or later (I'm still not sure how to properly account for the much smaller leagues that were the norm before the merger).

Receiving yards, baseline #10, typical baseline receiver = 1000 yards

Jerry Rice 3501
Michael Irvin 1679
Marvin Harrison 1402
Cliff Branch 1301
James Lofton 1285
Sterling Sharpe 1237
Torry Holt 1223
Steve Largent 1204
Wes Chandler 1178
Harold Carmichael 1148
Randy Moss 975
Henry Ellard 965
Drew Pearson 945
Gary Clark 807
Jimmy Smith 780
Tim Brown 735
Andre Rison 731
Isaac Bruce 713
Dwight Clark 685
Chad Johnson 677
John Jefferson 671
Ken Burrough 656
Isaac Curtis 594
Herman Moore 579
Mike Quick 563
Wesley Walker 554
Roy Green 537
Mel Gray 491
Stanley Morgan 476
Drew Hill 472
Anquan Boldin 466
Cris Collinsworth 456
John Stallworth 446
Carlos Carson 444
Anthony Miller 439
Art Monk 436
Rod Smith 430

Receiving yards, baseline #5, typical baseline receiver = 1200 yards

Jerry Rice 2283
Michael Irvin 1013
Cliff Branch 897
Marvin Harrison 851
Harold Carmichael 701
Steve Largent 650
Drew Pearson 645
Henry Ellard 633
Wes Chandler 625
Sterling Sharpe 615
Torry Holt 601
Randy Moss 517
John Jefferson 454
Ken Burrough 435
Gary Clark 425
Dwight Clark 387
Wesley Walker 358
Isaac Bruce 346
James Lofton 335
Stanley Morgan 321
Jimmy Smith 276
Roger Carr 272
Mike Quick 260
Antonio Freeman 245
Rob Moore 244
Isaac Curtis 226
Andre Rison 214
David Boston 206
Herman Moore 201
Carlos Carson 190
Eric Moulds 188
Rod Smith 178
Roy Green 173
Mel Gray 166
JT Smith 155
Chad Johnson 142
John Stallworth 141

Receptions, baseline #10, typical baseline receiver = 70 receptions

Jerry Rice 197
Marvin Harrison 108
Steve Largent 100
Dwight Clark 99
Cris Carter 99
Sterling Sharpe 98
Art Monk 85
Harold Carmichael 84
JT Smith 78
Ahmad Rashad 75
Herman Moore 68
Al Toon 65
Drew Pearson 59
Michael Irvin 58
Andre Rison 58
Torry Holt 58
Haywood Jeffires 57
Bob Chandler 55
Jimmy Smith 47
Tim Brown 46
Wes Chandler 43
Cliff Branch 39
Andre Reed 38
Randy Moss 36
Reggie Rucker 35
John Jefferson 35
John Stallworth 35
Anquan Boldin 32
Gary Clark 32
Rod Smith 30
Cris Collinsworth 30
Lynn Swann 29
Pat Tilley 28
Hines Ward 28
Chad Johnson 26
Muhsin Muhammad 26

Receptions, baseline #5, typical baseline receiver = 80 receptions

Jerry Rice 103
Dwight Clark 75
Marvin Harrison 69
Sterling Sharpe 60
Art Monk 58
JT Smith 52
Harold Carmichael 42
Cris Carter 40
Steve Largent 36
Herman Moore 35
Al Toon 35
Ahmad Rashad 34
Bob Chandler 32
Jimmy Smith 31
Haywood Jeffires 26
Reggie Rucker 24
Torry Holt 24
Drew Pearson 21
Wes Chandler 20
Cris Collinsworth 20
Andre Rison 19
Terance Mathis 18
Randy Moss 18
Tim Brown 16
John Jefferson 15
Rod Smith 14
Michael Irvin 13
John Stallworth 13
Stanley Morgan 10
Rob Moore 10
Wally Francis 9
Hines Ward 9
Andre Johnson 9
Muhsin Muhammad 9
Anquan Boldin 9

Receiving TDs, baseline #10, typical baseline receiver = 8 TDs

Jerry Rice 67
Marvin Harrison 29
Terrell Owens 28
Randy Moss 27
Sterling Sharpe 26
Mark Clayton 26
Cris Carter 24
Cliff Branch 23
Andre Rison 20
Steve Largent 19
Mike Quick 17
John Jefferson 13
Roy Green 13
Harold Carmichael 13
John Stallworth 12
Carl Pickens 12
Sammy White 12
Wes Chandler 12
Isaac Curtis 10
Nat Moore 10
Antonio Freeman 9
Charlie Brown 9
Wesley Walker 9
Lynn Swann 8
Bob Chandler 8
Mark Duper 8
Rich Caster 8
Daryl Turner 8
Herman Moore 7
Isaac Bruce 7

Receiving TDs, baseline #5, typical baseline receiver = 10 TDs

Jerry Rice 47
Terrell Owens 22
Marvin Harrison 20
Randy Moss 19
Mark Clayton 15
Cliff Branch 14
Sterling Sharpe 13
Mike Quick 11
Andre Rison 10
Steve Largent 10
John Jefferson 10
Roy Green 9
Nat Moore 8
Wes Chandler 8
Cris Carter 6
Charlie Brown 6
Lynn Swann 5
Sammy White 5
John Stallworth 5
Alfred Jenkins 4
Steve Watson 4
Hines Ward 4
Isaac Curtis 4
Rich Caster 4
Carl Pickens 4
Michael Jackson 4
Tony Martin 4
Wesley Walker 4