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Meet the Oracle of Baseball

Posted by Neil Paine on August 18, 2009

Have you ever played the old "6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon" game? If not, the basic premise is that any actor can be linked through his or her film roles to Kevin Bacon within six steps -- it's sort of an exercise in social network analysis for the acting community, with Bacon at the center. And why Bacon? Well, he's somewhat unique in that he takes on starring roles in some movies and small parts in a variety of other films, giving him many chances to connect with wide range of fellow actors. Hence, he's become the "center of the network", the link that connects every other part in the fewest number of steps.

Why on earth are we discussing this on a baseball blog? Well, here at Baseball-Reference we have a tool called The Oracle of Baseball that can allow you to play the Bacon Game baseball-style, substituting ballplayers for actors and teammates for film colleagues. One thing the Oracle can do is automatically find the shortest chain between any two players in MLB history -- for instance, the shortest chain between Pete Rose and Ty Cobb is four steps. It can also tell you how "connected" a player is -- that is, how many players can connect with him in x number of steps, as well as the average number of steps needed to connect him with every other player in MLB history (as an example, here's Pedro Martinez).

So at this point you're probably wondering, who is baseball's Kevin Bacon? The center of the baseball universe, so to speak? Well, we can answer that as well, thanks to this page listing the most connected players in MLB history. The answer? Warren Spahn! Somehow, "6 Degrees of Warren Spahn" doesn't really have the same ring to it, though. And we can also tell you the least linkable players ever, which is actually kind of sad... Poor Ed Duffy.

Anyway, I hope you learned a lot about this Baseball-Reference feature. It's not really brand-new, but we wanted to make everyone aware of it, because it's pretty cool. And it may help you win big if you ever find yourself playing the "6 Degrees of Warren Spahn" game with your friends.

10 Responses to “Meet the Oracle of Baseball”

  1. mandamin Says:

    Funny, I was sure (from playing around with that for a league on that it would be Brooks Robinson, who came up in just about every search I did. But that's probably because with Brooks and Eddie Murray, you can span 43 seasons in a single step with only the necessary minimum overlap (55-77 and 77-97). Pretty cool.

  2. np Says:

    Yeah, the key is definitely playing a ton of seasons and playing with other guys who were either at the end of a long career when you broke in or just starting one when you were almost retired. I would have also expected guys who played on a lot of teams to fare well, but Spahn played the vast majority of his career with just one franchise.

  3. aawillsher Says:

    Is it possible to determine the most-linkable active player?

  4. JohnnyTwisto Says:

    I have no idea where I saw it, but someone actually went through IMDB and determined who is the true nexus of the film world. Kevin Bacon is actually not that close to the top, though he is pretty well-linked. I don't remember who was the #1 guy. Walter Matthau or something.

  5. DavidRF Says:

    The movie list is here:

    Currently, Dennis Hopper is at the top of the list. The list is changing though, I remember Rod Steiger used to be at the top, but since he passed away he can't keep building connections.

  6. DavidRF Says:

    Re: Spahn

    Though he spent the vast majority of his career with one franchise, the two stints at the end with the Giants and Mets help him out quite a bit. The Mets links him to young players like Tug McGraw and the Giants links him to Mays, McCovey and Gaylord Perry. Also, Spahn's pre-WWII call-up in 1942 is quite helpful as Lombardi and Waner were on that Braves club. Additionally, his generation benefits because as connected they can maintain connectivity to both modern guys and 19th century guys.

    Though you are right, I would have guessed Wynn & Newson would have a big advantage basically being teammates with an entire generation. Plus Minoso had those gimmick appearances in 1976 & 1980.

  7. gerry Says:

    About 15 years ago, we had a discussion on the Usenet newsgroup where we tried spanning the years from 1871 or 1876 to the present, using as few ballplayers as possible. Spahn came up in so many of the best lists that I suggested we rename the effort, Spahning the years....

  8. tomepp Says:

    LOVE that name, Gerry!

  9. DoubleDiamond Says:

    I remember reading a trivia question in a magazine in the early 1990s asking who was a teammate of both Paul Waner and Tug McGraw, with the answer being Warren Spahn.

    Unfortunately, Spahn missed being a Mets teammate of Nolan Ryan by one season. If this had occurred, Ivan Rodriguez would have been connected to Paul Waner with very few steps. Now Rodriguez is a long-tenured veteran who has just come back to the Rangers. Neftali Feliz could have then gone back to Waner in few steps. Oh, well.

  10. Raphy Says:

    Two quick oracle searches for me:

    4 players played with both Bobby and Barry Bonds:
    Ken Oberkfell, Rick Reuschel, Mel Hall and Danny Darwin

    Here's the chain between the only great-grandfather/great-grandson combo in mlb history (according to baseball-almanac):