Mike Piazza vs. Josh Gibson

October 13, 2008

Vern: Do you think Mighty Mouse could beat up Superman?

Teddy: What are you, cracked?

Vern: Why not? I saw the other day, he was carrying five elephants in one hand!

Teddy: Boy, you don't know nothing! Mighty Mouse is a cartoon. Superman's a real guy. There's no way a cartoon could beat up a real guy.

Vern: Yeah, maybe you're right. It'd be a good fight, though.

          --scene from “Stand By Me” (1986)

 

Behind The Scenes

Bill James lets his writers submit questions for the “Polls and Arguments” section of this site.  When I first heard that, I jotted down a handful of questions because I wanted to help out, I wanted to pitch in.  It was important to me to try and contribute.  But then, I started thinking about the opportunity at hand, the ability to tap into resources that I did not previously have access to.  I could ask an educated and informed baseball audience to render an opinion.  To make a judgment call.  So I made a request and asked if we could post a specific online poll.  I wanted to ask, “Who was the better offensive catcher, Mike Piazza or Josh Gibson?”  Bill agreed to the request and I got excited.  After a day or two, the poll went up. 

 

Then I sat back, watched, and waited for the results to come in.

 

Voting Progress, Part One

After about forty votes, there was no consensus.  The vote was pretty even, and was tight the entire way through that point.  Twenty votes for Piazza.  Twenty votes for Gibson.  It was early.  I kept watching.

 

The Credentials

Recently retired multi-time all-star Mike Piazza, or Negro League legend Josh Gibson?  The power of statistics, empiricism, and firsthand knowledge, versus the power of conjecture, imagination, and myth making. 

 

Mike Piazza’s career has been documented faithfully.  You can chop and slice his career numbers in various ways.  Most baseball fans remember Piazza.  They watched him play.  They know he was good.  No.  They know he was great.  While he was playing and the moment he stepped away, his name carried a title alongside it.  “Greatest hitting catcher of all-time.”  Folks had no problem saying that.  Piazza had earned it.

 

Josh Gibson comes to us like a ghost wielding a sledgehammer.  He lives on through anecdotes and rumors.  You can’t track down a single concrete statistic for him.  You can’t.  Yet we take it as an article of faith that the man could murder the ball with righteous fury.  Who are you to question that?  Nobody questions that.

 

So there’s the question.  The one I’m curious about.  The one I want answered.  Who was the better offensive catcher?  Which player would be anointed?  Would the readers select the greatness we know firsthand, or the one we build in the corridors of our imagination?  I had no idea.  I was looking forward to finding out.

 

The Process

The first time I met Bill, he asked me whether I had been voting on the online polls.  I told him that I had voted on a couple, but I couldn’t tell which ones were still active, and which questions had been closed out.  He told me that the questions stayed open, and that they would continue to accept new votes.

 

So if I wanted to find out the readers’ preference between Piazza and Gibson, I  could not simply wait for the end of the poll.  Because there was no defined ending.  It was perpetual.  Instead, I needed to take snapshots of the polling numbers at opportune moments, recording those specific moments in time.  And, when I felt that a representative number of votes had been gathered, I could write an essay.  This essay.

 

I decided that a hundred votes seemed like a reasonable number.  It was a nice round figure.  We like our data in groups of one hundred.  Plus, it would make the percentages clean and easy to handle.  Just like that, we had our target number.  One hundred readers, one hundred votes, one hundred separate opinions. 

 

The voting continued.

 

Passages from the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract

A moment to compare and contrast Piazza and Gibson..

 

Mike Piazza finished with 427 career homers.  He hit 396 of those as a catcher, the Major League record.  Josh Gibson has no career home run count.  But on page 180 of the New Historical Baseball Abstract, James says “I believe that he would have hit over 500 home runs had he played in the majors.”  Advantage: Gibson?  By 73 imaginary homers?

 

On page 923 of the New Historical Baseball Abstract, in the section written after the bulk of the book was composed called “Last Minute Notes,” James writes “it has now become apparent that Mike Piazza is the best-hitting catcher in the history of baseball; not maybe, not “so far.”  He simply is…  There is no longer any doubt: even if you adjust for everything, he is the best hitter to play that position.”  Well, that seems pretty definitive.  Advantage: Piazza.

 

But on page 180, James says Gibson was “probably the greatest catcher in baseball history, and probably the greatest right-handed power hitter.”  Piazza was a catcher.  Piazza was a right-handed power hitter.  So that means…  Advantage: Gibson.  Right?

 

I’ll be honest with you.  It doesn’t really matter to me.  Because I’m not actually out to prove Gibson is better than Piazza, or vice versa.  I’m here to see how we make our decisions.  I’m here to see how we decide what we believe in.  So I checked the poll and looked at the numbers.

 

Voting Progress, Part Two

About sixty votes in, I noticed a trend.  Piazza was the frontrunner, Gibson was the sleeper.  Piazza would occasionally hold a lead, and he never fell behind.  Gibson would occasionally fall behind, and never held the lead.  But every time Piazza would inch ahead, it would only be by a few votes.  It was always the slimmest of margins.  One vote, maybe two.  Three votes at the absolute most separating them.  And every time that happened, Gibson would rally back and even the score.  Piazza could not pull away.  Gibson would always find a quick burst of votes and reel him back in.

 

It should be noted: there is no easy way to coordinate this.  Each reader only has one vote, and can’t see the running percentages until after having participated.  Each vote comes in blind.  The readers can’t take the previous votes into account, and they have to make their own determination, independent of the way the poll is shaping up.

 

I was getting the feeling that Piazza was probably going to pull it out.  He was in the lead more often.  He had concrete stats that people could use to justify their vote.  The voters left more comments on his behalf.  And the tone of the responses from people who voted for Piazza were slightly more confident, slightly more certain that those voting for Gibson.  It seemed like momentum was working in favor of Piazza.

 

I started rooting for Gibson.

 

Make a Stand

Back in college, my brother was on the school debate team.  He traveled around the world, competing against teams from international universities.  And the primary structural foundation central to a good debate is that you have to adopt a position, either in favor or opposed to the resolution.  You were not allowed to straddle the fence.  You needed to pick a side, then you were expected to defend your position.

 

In my experience, I’ve found that the Bill James Online readers are opinionated.  About everything, it seems.  But definitely about baseball.  Especially about baseball.  I can see it in the comments to my essays, in the questions asked in the “Hey Bill” section, in the messages in the “Readers Post” area, and in the general interaction present on the site.  And the anonymity granted by the internet only serves to make people more vocal and more opinionated.

 

Well, most of the time.  Except in this case, apparently.  Because the poll asking the readers to choose between Piazza and Gibson seemed to throw them off.  It made them uncertain, unwilling to commit even after they’ve made a selection.  Comments came in, and they showed a lot of reluctance, a lot of respect for both sides of the debate.  Here’s a representative sampling of comments:

 

‘Richie’ voted for Piazza then added:

“Gibson for all I know.”

 

‘sandy32’ voted for Gibson then said:

“I guess he was better, but it's a shame we can't know for certain.”

 

'alljoeteam' voted for Gibson, but added:

“We don't really know but this would be my guess.”

 

'rnotr2' voted for Piazza and wrote:

That is not to say that (Gibson) wasn't the better ballplayer.”

 

‘evanecurb’ asked:

“How in the world are we supposed to know?”

 

‘jk2755’ noted:

“Hard to know how to choose, for all sorts of reasons.”

 

‘mikee’ commented:

“Hasn't a sabermetrician studied this? If so what's the official answer?”

 

‘monahan’ said:

“I don’t think I’m armed with enough data to truly decide... historical racism robbed me of what I need to answer this question.”

 

‘DerekHiemforth’ wrote:

“Really a no-win question”

 

'BigDaddyG' noted:

“This is a very hard question.”

 

'DiamondDog' commented:

“Impossible to say, since most of Gibson's exploits are anecdotal evidence and Piazza's are documented.”

 

And 'brian14leonard' said:

“The unfortunate truth is we don't really know and can only make a semi-educated guess.”

 

You can see the dilemma.  What I began to observe was this: people didn’t want to choose between empiricism and legend.  They didn’t want to decide between statistics and storytelling.  If forced to make a decision, they would do so, but only begrudgingly and without enthusiasm.  Picking a side, choosing a camp, meant eliminating one source of joy from the game.  Fans love their stats.  And fans love their stories.  They didn’t feel comfortable brushing one aside for another.

 

And I suspect this phenomenon may be more true than we realize.  Polls, debates, and arguments like to divide topics up into black-and-white scenarios, dividing opinions across well-delineated barriers.  We want to reach a definitive conclusion.  We want to offer a concrete assertion.  But often, opinions aren’t so clean and precise.  Trying to draw boundaries might be a foolish exercise when our opinions often function like semi-permeable membranes, with thoughts sliding back and forth without a proper resting place.  Are you a Republican or a Democrat?  Well, what if you’re a Republican on foreign policy, but a Democrat on domestic issues?  What if you agree with the Republicans on taxes, but Democrats on education reform?  How do you answer the question then – Republican sometimes on some issues, but Democrat sometimes on others?  Is that an acceptable response?

 

Personally, I feel this type of uncertainty responding to the “Polls and Arguments” section all the time.  All the time.  Months ago, Bill James asked “Which would you rather watch: boxing or beach volleyball?”  Depends.  What time of day is it?  I prefer watching beach volleyball during the day, and boxing at night.  Who’s competing?  I would watch Stoklos/Smith play Whitmarsh/Dodd or Kiraly/Steffes play beach volleyball until the cows came home.  But if Joe Calzaghe is squaring off against Jeff Lacey in the ring, then I’m tuning in to the prizefight.  Am I in a good mood, or a bad one?  What did I watch yesterday, a comedy or an action movie?  These factors influence my decision-making.  We want a simple “Yes or No” response.  But my answer changes, depending on when you ask me the question.

 

One of my favorite quotes of all-time comes from the author of The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald.  He said: "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."  And I think the Bill James Online readers are comfortable with that idea.  In some ways, Mike Piazza is the greatest offensive catcher of all time.  In other ways, Josh Gibson is the correct answer.  There’s only one right answer.  But we feel comfortable acknowledging both possibilities. 

 

No Riots, No Anger

In the end, I was surprised.  I figured there would be crusaders championing their viewpoint.  I mean, it happens in almost every discussion.  “The Yankees are the greatest dynasty of all time” or “Yankees suck.”  “Barry Bonds is the greatest hitter who ever lived” or “Barry Bonds was a cheater and jerk.”  I had an eye out for the extremists.  No matter what issue is on hand, they’re always the ones to be careful of, the ones who skew rational discourse.  Extremism is bad.  It gets in the way.  We get in trouble when we put blind faith into ideological dogmatism.

 

But in this case, people defied my expectations.  They went the opposite route.  They called an audible.  I asked them to make a choice, and consistently they said, “I don’t really know.”  Which might be the best answer in this case.  Maybe the most truthful one.

 

(Author’s note: I want to point out that the ability to say “I don’t know” is a valuable skill to have.  A very useful one.  Yes, it makes debates a little more difficult to contest.  But in the end, it can make your journey through life far less overbearing.)

 

Voting Process, The Result

On Friday, October 10th, during the second game of the 2008 National League Championship Series between the Dodgers and the Phillies, the one hundredth reader cast his vote in the poll. 

 

I hit my target number.  I took a look at the results. 

 

What I saw was this.  Fifty readers had voted for Piazza.  And – of course, almost predictably – fifty readers had voted for Gibson.  After a hundred votes, it was completely even, a dead heat.

 

What more can you say?  Perfect.

 

Just perfect.

 

 

 

 

 

If you have any thoughts you want to share, I would love to hear from you.  I can be contacted at roeltorres@post.harvard.edu.  Thank you.

 

 
 

COMMENTS (21 Comments, most recent shown first)

RoelTorres
Hi Shrewd Honus,

I will say that I have no stake in the quality of "Stand By Me." The quote was selected not to serve as a recommendation of the film, but rather to reflect the content of the essay. Piazza v. Gibson is a discussion of empiricism vs. myth, and I thought the quote captured that in a playful and familiar manner.

Thanks for the kind words.
4:59 PM Nov 6th
 
benhurwitz
This was a very good article, marred only by opening with a quote from the highly overrated movie "Stand by Me". What a heinous dog of a film. To his credit, Josh Gibson would have hated it.
5:46 PM Nov 3rd
 
RoelTorres
Hi Matthew,

It's becoming readily apparent to me that there are all sorts of existing statistics for Josh Gibson. Why I thought that this was so improbable, I don't know. But I think I will need to offer up some sort of a retraction or a follow-up acknowledging that there is a statistical profile for Gibson. I just happened to be blissfully unaware of it. Great. Another opportunity to reveal my ignorance to the general public.

It's funny because I am neither an advocate for Piazza nor Gibson. I am an advocate for both. Which doesn't work, really. But I want to try and make the questions as impossible to resolve and I want to impede a definitive conclusion to the best of my ability. It actually works against my premise to discover that Gibson has stats. Now, people can make rational and balanced conclusions looking over his numbers. It was more fun when it was a battle between two opposing schools of thought -- empirical knowledge versus legendary stories.

Yeah, I think in the end, every conclusion is going to indicate that both guys were comparable offensively. I don't see how we're supposed to separate them, exactly. But my true interest was never in the result. It was in the process. And it happened to work out in ideal fashion when the vote was split down the middle after a hundred readers. I wish everything else in my life worked out so damn neatly.

Thanks for the analysis. The moral of this story is -- get rid of your catching juggernaut after the age of 33. Clearly, Cashman did not heed this lesson before offering Posada his last contract...

12:29 PM Oct 15th
 
bjames


Very interesting discussion of Gibson and Piazza. A bit of analysis…


First of all, Piazza as a point of reference: He was a career .308 hitter with 427 homers in 6911 AB. That’s one homer per 16.2 AB, which ranks him 29th all time, behind Greenberg and McCovey but ahead of Aaron and Mays (and dead-even with Lou Gehrig). So he was a great, great home run hitter. He also hit .318 or better seven times, and hit as high as .362.


Gibson is obviously difficult to gauge with precision. His Wikipedia entry actually has a lot of good information about his statistics, and it’s well-footnoted. He apparently hit 224 homers in 2375 AB against top black teams, plus 2 HR in 56 AB against white major leaguers and 44 HR in 450 AB in the Mexican League. That’s a rate of one homer every 10.7 AB, which would rank him ahead of Ruth and just a hair behind the top MLB guy, McGwire (10.6). Another estimate, looking only official Negro League games puts Gibson’s rate at 15.9; yet another gives him 115 HR in 1855 official AB, for a rate of 16.1 – almost identical to Piazza’s. As for batting average, he reportedly hit around .350-.360 in the Negro Leagues; again, we can’t assume that he would have done the same in the majors, but he was almost certainly a .300 hitter.



So there ARE actual numbers, apparently, and they testify that Gibson was an outstanding hitter. But I don’t think they really suggest that he was that much better than Mike Piazza. Frankly, the evidence seems to suggest that the two players were pretty comparable as hitters, guys who hit well over .300 with homers every 16 at bats or so.



Just looking at his Negro League stats (with an admittedly small sample size), Gibson’s last year as a truly great hitter was 1944, or age 33. Likewise for Piazza; after 33, he began his decline phase.



My point is the same as yours in the article, really – the two players are very close. The hard evidence that does survive suggests that they Gibson was probably a pretty similar hitter to Piazza. He was certainly superior on defense, so I’d rank Gibson ahead as an overall catcher, but on offense, I think they’re even. The notion that Gibson was the equal of Ruth doesn’t really stand up in light of the evidence. I wouldn’t rank Gibson among the top ten players ever, as Bill did, but he’s certainly in the top 25. Was he the greatest overall catcher ever, better than Berra or Bench? It’s becoming more clear to me that he was: if he’s Piazza’s equal as a hitter, and he could play defense, that has to make him the best ever.



Anyway, just some thoughts…



Matthew

11:58 AM Oct 15th
 
RoelTorres
Hi Matthew,

I think almost everyone would prefer empirical evidence to anecdotal. The problem is that we don't have a lot of empirical evidence to work with for Gibson. So we have to resort to other means.

For example, I think Bill James also prefers empirical evidence to anecdotal. But then he went on record as saying Gibson probably would have hit 500 homers in the Majors, and that he was the greatest right-handed power hitter of all time. Bill also named Gibson the 9th greatest player of all time, ahead of Aaron, DiMaggio, and Gehrig.

None of that settles anything, of course. It's just worth taking into account.

You're right, though. Piazza was definitely not a slouch. Hell, no. And it's proven that he was a .330, 40 HR catcher in his prime. We all know that for a fact, and the facts are always going to be on Piazza's side.

But for half the readers who voted, those facts are insufficient to place him above Gibson.
12:32 AM Oct 15th
 
RoelTorres
Hi Richie,

I hear what you're saying, but to be fair, there aren't pages and pages of stories of contemporary writers and opposing players who talk about Dave Kingman being one of the all-time greats.

Still, I see the point you're making -- you can't pass judgment on the basis of visual evidence alone. That makes sense. Unfortunately, in the case of Gibson, we don't have a lot of other widely-available materials to work with.
12:21 AM Oct 15th
 
enamee
I agree with Richie -- I'd almost always prefer empirical evidence to anecdotal. One of the things that bugs me about the anecdotes -- and I realize this is unfair -- is the quality of competition Gibson was facing. I've heard the argument that pre-1947 MLB players should be docked some because they didn't have to face the best black players. But doesn't that cut both ways? Gibson didn't face all the best white pitchers, and while there's nothing fair about that, it's still true. He was compared to Babe Ruth, but the notion that ANYONE is as good as the Babe is a little hard to swallow. I mean, who in history has truly matched Ruth? Williams and Bonds, I guess, but everyone else has to get in line after that.

If Gibson was as great as, say, Jimmie Foxx, then sure, he's the best-hitting catcher ever. But Mike Piazza was no slouch, and we know for a fact that he was a .330, 40-homer guy in his prime. We can't say that about Gibson. We can only guess... Was Cool Papa Bell really so fast that he could flip the light switch and be in bed before it went dark? That's a tall tale, of course; we're not supposed to believe it's really true. The point is that Bell was fast, and the point about Gibson is that he was an incredible hitter. How incredible? We can't know, but we do know that he was usually playing in a segregated league, not facing Lefty Grove or Carl Hubbell. That's a sad fact of history, but it's one of the only certainties in this discussion, and I think it has to be considered.
11:45 PM Oct 14th
 
Richie
If you just went off of what you see, Dave Kingman was one of the all-time greats. There are people who go off pretty much just of what they see. And they'll be putting Jim Rice in the Hall of Fame this year.

Legend just is not that reliable. Not enough to say there's "no doubt" Gibson was just as good as they say he was.
11:44 PM Oct 14th
 
RoelTorres
Hi Tim,

As the stats show, Piazza did not benefit from his home parks. The road numbers you bring up are very impressive. Of course, this does not settle the debate, but merely adds greater complexity to it.

In the essay I wrote, I point out that we have the benefit of Piazza's full statistical profile. We can examine it, and look it over, and see the peaks and valleys. We can make a strong case for him based on poring over his stats, which is something we can't do for Gibson.

(Piazza in Colorado would have been ridiculous. Of course, what kind of a toll would it have taken on him to be behind the plate of all those 11-9 shootouts 81 games a year? No telling, I guess.)

I think we're still on the right track here. Gibson is considered anecdotally superior. And Piazza is considered a statistically safer bet. But when we introduce other dimensions to the conversation -- like, was Piazza underrated because of his home/road splits? -- it can only serve to make the conversation richer and more interesting.
10:55 PM Oct 14th
 
timconnelly
Roel,

I took a look at Piazza's home and away stats and...you were right- he was hindered by his home parks by a significant amount. He has a lifetime .320 batting average with a .572 slugging average on the road to a .294 batting average and a .515 slugging average at home. He hit 80 more doubles and 37 more home runs during away games. Those road stats are not Babe Ruth and Ted Williams but I'd be willing to bet neither Bambino nor Thumper would have numbers that good from behind the plate.

I decided to take a look at Piazza's greatest Dodger seasons and to my surprise, he had 4 consecutive seasons of .350 or better- with peak seasons of .384 and .368 on the road! He also had 2 seasons of above .700 slugging averages on the road with a peak of .734 in 1995. His 2000 season with the Mets is the year where the difference is the most telling: he batted .269 at home and .377 on the road with an on-base average of .459 on the road and only .333 at home. If Piazza had put up numbers at home that were equal to his road stats, I bet he would have been treated with the same awe as Josh Gibson!

Piazza batted .374 at Coors Field with a .695 slugging average. Had he played half of his games there, my answer to your question would have been very different. So, no doubt about it- Piazza was a far greater hitter than I realized and with some better home cooking, he would be seen as one of the greatest hitters ever.

10:43 PM Oct 14th
 
RoelTorres
Hi Tim,

I hear everything you say, and I pretty much agree with all of it. Josh Gibson is legendary and is compared to the absolute best in the game. Piazza is not held in that regard.

Of course, maybe the problem here is that people don't respect Piazza enough? He did play most of his career in pitcher's parks like Dodger Stadium and Shea. And I think that his reputation suffers a knock because people factor his defense into the equation. If he could catch and throw like Bench, people would hold him in a higher regard, and with more awe. Finally, he doesn't have a fistful of championship rings to show off, like Derek Jeter does. I know it shouldn't work this way, but people give you credit as a hitter when you play defense and win championships. (Conversely, people will let you win a Gold Glove if you hit really well. Weird.)

I think that both sides will always be able to make a case for the catcher of their choice. And you've done a great job detailing the strong case supporting Gibson's candidacy. The anecdotes and the peer respect weigh heavily in Gibson's favor. Is that enough? Well, for some people, clearly it is. And for others, they're not quite convinced.

How much weight to people want to give to anecdotal evidence? That was really the question I wanted to frame. In the end, it's a personal choice. And apparently, in this instance, folks seem to have trouble deciding.
4:39 PM Oct 14th
 
timconnelly
There is no doubt at all that Gibson was a far greater hitter than Piazza. That we can't document that by statistics doesn't really matter- there are enough clues on the landscape of history to make this one very easy to resolve. Let's take away all of Piazza's statistics and go with what we have left. We know that he was well respected as a hitter because many articles document that beyond all reasonable doubt. We know that he hit with power because we saw it on many occasions. We know that as good as he was- he didn't awe people the same way that Josh Gibson did.

Gibson was often referred to as the black Babe Ruth. This happened during his own time. He was by consensus the best Negro League player of his era. Who said? The people who watched him play. They felt he was as good as anybody around. And..there's no reason to doubt it.

When the majors finally integrated, it didn't take years for the black players to "catch up" to their white rivals. Jackie won the Rookie of the Year and soon Campanella was a 3-time MVP. Mays quickly became a superstar- there's just no reason not to believe that the best player in the Negro Leagues wouldn't have been just as great in the Majors because as soon as integration occurred- that's what happened.

Piazza was respected in a similar fashion to Al Kaline. He was a multiple time all-star and a first ballot Hall of Famer. But Gibson was held in awe similar to Cobb, Ruth and Gehrig. Piazza may have been seen as the greatest hitting catcher but nobody ever felt he was the greatest hitter, period. Gibson was compared to Foxx, Gehrig and Ruth. It was widely believed during his own era that these all time greats were his peers.

Let me ask you a question: do we need stats to realize Bonds was a great hitter or would watching his power, his batting eye and his swing tell us that he was amazing? Stats tell us a lot but if the Yankees had no stats, they would still know A-Rod's a great hitter and Rivera's a great pitcher. I doubt very seriously that the all-star game would be made up of pretenders if all we had to go by in voting was our observations and the reputations that were earned based on that.

Comparing Gibson to Mantle, Mays, Aaron or Bonds- very hard job. Comparing him to Mike's very easy!
3:07 PM Oct 14th
 
RoelTorres
Hi Chuck,

Good to hear from you. I think that's a pretty balanced way of trying to determine which player you would prefer. It's as good a system as any, for our purposes.

It's interesting that you would bring up the idea of trying to simulate Strat-O-Matic performances for Negro League legends. I think that I actually have a lot to say on that subject in the near future. I won't say too much for now, but I'll keep you posted and hopefully I'll have some interesting insights to offer.


11:25 AM Oct 14th
 
RoelTorres
Hi David,

Thanks for the kind words of support. I appreciate it.

The emotional reaction that you detail concerning players like Cobb, Clemente, and Nolan Ryan was more along the lines of what I was expecting. I thought folks would be more vocal. But they threw a curve and went the more respectful route. Which was actually very cool to see. "I think this catcher may be better, but I don't really know, I might be wrong and it could be the other guy."

Thanks again.
11:10 AM Oct 14th
 
chuck
When I used to play strat-o-matic, I once tried approximating players from the Negro Leagues using players with similar stats to what was available for the Negro League hitters. I remember using Jimmie Foxx for Gibson.
I took a look at the recent 96 Families of Hitters article by Bill and applied Gibson's stats to it, such as they are. I figure the available stats for Gibson should give at least enough info to place him in one of these families. With 157 2b / 53 3b / 173 HR, I'd say that puts him in the 415A family. Other members: Ruth, Mays, Aaron, Barry, F.Robinson, Foxx, Junior, Mantle, ARod, Schmidt.

Bill put Piazza into the 406B family, with Sosa, McCovey, Killebrew, Thome, Ryan Howard. It seems to me that Piazza's numbers are kind of borderline between the 406 family and the 505, and judging from the hitters in 505A (Ted Williams, Sheffield, Bagwell, Thomas, Manny, Chipper, Vlad) I'm more inclined to place him here. He shares the ability to hit for average with all these guys, whereas you don't think batting average with the 406 group.
Piazza played in bad hitters' parks for much of his career. But Gibson played part of his career in Griffith Stadium and was one of the few players who could hit the long ball there.

If you just judge by the families above, who'd you rather have catching for you- the 415 guy or the 406/505 guy? Hardly a Sophie's Choice. If I had to choose, I'll take the 415 guy; plus, I have to think the odds are decent that Gibson was the better defensive catcher.


11:05 AM Oct 14th
 
RoelTorres
Hi Richie,

That's an astute observation on the dating of the article. The site administrator (Pat) has requested advanced dating on all our articles, for various technical reasons. It does look a little weird, but that's how we've been asked to do it. I'm happy to play along.
10:54 AM Oct 14th
 
cunegonde
Roel,

Another fine article.

Emotional buttons are likely to get pushed on this issue for people who have very strong views on the meaning of so-called "Negro League" stats and stories. For some fans they're irrelevant, possibly padded; for others they're only the tip of the iceberg concerning what could have been. In this case, I give the voters on this issue a lot of credit for not going very far in either direction, which I think says a great deal about the sorts of folks who like to read what Bill James and friends have to say about baseball.

Emotional buttons get pushed, often, among baseball fans who "should" know better. There's no analytical reason for most commentators, including very knowledgeable ones, to rate Ty Cobb as low as they do, or Roberto Clemente or Nolan Ryan as high. The proposition that Clemente was a better ballplayer than, say, Frank Robinson, who is rated below Roberto by almost everyone, cannot be logically defended. This sort of thing happens a lot, mostly in less detectable ways. We can be unhappy about that, or we can recognize that a certain irrational passion is part of what makes us diehard fans. In my better moments, I choose the latter explanation.

Keep on writing. You do it well.

David
3:22 AM Oct 14th
 
Richie
No need to thank me twice. Oh, and you goofed up the dating of this article. Or maybe the computer guy posting it did.
12:08 AM Oct 14th
 
RoelTorres
Hi Richie,

To be honest, sometimes I have no idea why emotional buttons get pushed. For example, if you bring up 'scouting vs. stats' to some old-school baseball lifers, they can get very worked up. Scouts and GMs will say nasty things about the book Moneyball for no good reason, like "Billy Beane should never have written that book." It gets confusing out there at times. People get opinionated, and people get forceful when expressing their opinions. It happens. Just not in this case.

(And I do like how you added "Though it still could be Gibson for all I know." That's a good way to sum things up.)

Thanks for your comment. (Or your re-comment, as it were.)
9:02 PM Oct 13th
 
RoelTorres
Hi Richie,

To be honest, sometimes I have no idea why emotional buttons get pushed. For example, if you bring up 'scouting vs. stats' to some old-school baseball lifers, they can get very worked up. Scouts and GMs will say nasty things about the book Moneyball for no good reason, like "Billy Beane should never have written that book." It gets confusing out there at times. People get opinionated, and people get forceful when expressing their opinions. It happens. Just not in this case.

(And I do like how you added "Though it still could be Gibson for all I know." That's a good way to sum things up.)

Thanks for your comment. (Or your re-comment, as it were.)
6:52 PM Oct 13th
 
Richie
I'm revoting. Well, recommenting. When the choice is between anecdotal (Gibson) and documented (Piazza), go documented. Every time. Though it still could be Gibson for all I know.

Hard to see what emotional button this question could possibly push. I'd suggest that, rather than any 'legend vs. data' aspects, more accounts for the tepidity of the commenting.
6:01 PM Oct 13th
 
 
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