Great First Basemen from Dick Allen to Eddie Murray

December 28, 2017
 2017-70

44.  First Base, and the MVP Award

              From 1947 to 1966 not a single first baseman won the MVP Award.  It’s a pretty good-sized anomaly.   Throughout most of its history, first basemen have done extremely well in MVP voting; I would guess that more first basemen have probably won the MVP Award than players at any other position, although I don’t know that for certain.   In the 1920s, when the leagues gave official awards, several went to first basemen—George Burns in 1926, Lou Gehrig in 1927, Jim Bottomley in 1928.  In 1930 the BBWAA voted unofficially, although the votes have somehow been left out of all of the reference sources; they voted their award to Bill Terry.  First basemen won four more MVPs awards in the 1930s (three by Jimmie Foxx) and three more between 1940 and 1946.

              From 1947 to 1966 there was not a single first baseman/MVP, and then the numbers went back to normal—two MVP/first basemen in the late 1960s, and five or six in the 1970s, depending on how you count the 1979 National League vote.   Historically about 20% of MVPs have been first basemen, I think just over 20%, except that there are none at all from 1947 to 1966. 

              Also, from 1920 to 1957 there at least one first baseman who drove in 100 runs every season, then in 1958 and 1960 there were none.   From 1920 to 1947 there were 115 first basemen who drove in 100 runs, or more than four per season.   From 1948 to 1966 there were 50, or 2.50 per season; from 1967 to 2000 there were 168, or almost five per season, more than five per season if you leave out the strike-shortened 1981 season. 

              Five (5) first baseman rank at 30.00, a superstar level, during the 1920s; actually Lou Gehrig four times and Jimmie Foxx once.   21 rank at 30.00 in the 1930s, 5 in the 1940s, 6 in the 1960s, 7 in the 1970s, 7 in the 1980s, 17 in the 1990s, 13 in the first decade of this century, and 6 since 2010.   But only one first baseman ranked at 30.00 or higher in the 1950s—Stan Musial in 1950.  

 

45.  The Panamanian

              Let me try to explain Rod Carew to those of you who are too young to remember him.   There have just been four or five great hitters in my lifetime who made a living not by hitting the ball hard, but by guiding the ball around the field.   Tony Gwynn did that, and Ichiro, and Jeter in a slightly different way.   There are other people who are sort of in the same discussion—Juan Pierre, Ozzie Smith, Pete Rose, Wade Boggs—but not really; really just those three or four guys, and each of them was a little bit different than the others.

              The one word description for Carew would be "gentle".   He was/is a very gentle man, but of more concern, he was a gentle hitter.  He wasn’t trying to force anything.  He was a small man with strong hands, using a long bat with a thin handle and a heavy barrel, but not to generate bat speed; he was using it as a wand.   His stock in trade was to wait for a pitch low and outside and just gently lay the fat part of the bat right on the ball, guiding it over the shortstop’s head into shallow left field.   Of his 3,053 career hits, probably 1500 went to shallow left field. 

              About most of these guys—about Ichiro and Boggs and Pete Rose—people who knew them would say sagely "You know he’s really very strong".   They would say that about Carew, too, but not as much.   Of course he was stronger than a non-athlete, stronger in the forearms and shoulders than most pitchers, very strong hands and wrists   He could occasionally turn on a pitch and drive it, but that was not his game.

              I know that some of you are going to say "isn’t that exactly what Jeter did, only from the other side of the plate", but no, it isn’t.  Jeter swung late, let the pitch get deep and then slapped at it too late to pull it, but Jeter did that a lot with inside pitches; Jeter not only hit more inside pitches to the opposite field for hits than anyone else I ever saw, he may have done that more than everyone else I ever saw.   A Jeter hit to right field typically headed toward the second baseman, sailed over his head and then spun toward the right field line. . . I think a golfer would say that he sliced it.  Carew didn’t do that; Carew hit little pop ups that just didn’t hang in the air long enough for anyone to catch them.  Bloops.  They had the trajectory of a free throw, really as if the batter had stood at home plate and simply thrown the ball over the shortstop’s head.  Jeter’s hits, you couldn’t throw the ball that way if you tried, with that spin.  

              Carew was a truly a great bunter, ranking with Vizquel and Kenny Lofton as the best I have seen.  He would drop down bunts, forcing the third baseman to stay shortened up, making it easier to flip the ball over his head.  If the ball was near the line it would roll into the left field corner for a double.  He liked to do that so much that the dominant pitching pattern was to crowd him inside, which enabled him to sit on an inside pitch and line it down the right field line.

              This is far from the traditional image of a first baseman.  Most of the top rated first basemen through baseball history are either players who failed at another position and were moved to first, or aging sluggers who were moved to first to keep their bats in the lineup.   Carew was like that, but then he wasn’t. 

              Carew came up as a second baseman.  He wasn’t a terrible second baseman, but he wasn’t really good, either.  His arm was just fair, he was prone to nagging injuries at second, and he was really not quick on the double play.   Gene Mauch took over the Twins in 1975, and decided to shift Carew to first base. 

              In terms of images, it doesn’t work—but Carew created runs.   He didn’t create runs the way that Willie Stargell created runs or the way that Dick Allen or Steve Garvey created runs, but he created just as many.    He won an MVP Award as a first baseman, hitting .388 and driving in 100 runs in 1977.   No first baseman of his type had ranked #1 at the position since George Sisler or Stuffy McInnis more than a half-century earlier.   But Carew was a good defensive player at that position, and a major contributor to the success of the offense.  

 

First

Last

YEAR

Rank

HR

RBI

Avg

OPS

Value

Rod

Carew

1976

1

9

90

.331

.858

31.56

Bob

Watson

1976

2

16

102

.313

.835

26.63

Gene

Tenace

1976

3

22

66

.249

.831

26.08

Steve

Garvey

1976

4

13

80

.317

.813

25.06

Chris

Chambliss

1976

5

17

96

.293

.765

21.23

Willie

Stargell

1976

6

20

65

.257

.797

20.93

George

Scott

1976

7

18

77

.274

.748

20.84

Carl

Yastrzemski

1976

8

21

102

.267

.790

20.60

 

     

 

   

 

 

Rod

Carew

1977

1

14

100

.388

1.019

32.25

Bob

Watson

1977

2

22

110

.289

.858

23.65

Steve

Garvey

1977

3

33

115

.297

.834

22.93

Keith

Hernandez

1977

4

15

91

.291

.837

21.00

Chris

Chambliss

1977

5

17

90

.287

.781

20.87

Mike

Hargrove

1977

6

18

69

.305

.897

20.56

Andre

Thornton

1977

7

28

70

.263

.904

20.53

Cecil

Cooper

1977

8

20

78

.300

.789

20.43

 

     

 

   

 

 

Rod

Carew

1978

1

5

70

.333

.853

25.39

Eddie

Murray

1978

2

27

95

.285

.836

25.06

Gene

Tenace

1978

3

16

61

.224

.801

23.78

Steve

Garvey

1978

4

21

113

.316

.852

23.66

Keith

Hernandez

1978

5

11

64

.255

.741

22.08

Andre

Thornton

1978

6

33

105

.262

.893

22.04

Jason

Thompson

1978

7

26

96

.287

.836

21.58

Cecil

Cooper

1978

8

13

54

.312

.833

21.48

 

46.  Leadership and Defense

              In 1979 the National League the National League’s Most Valuable Player Award was shared by two first basemen who tied in the vote, the only time that has happened.  Willie Stargell’s share of the award has always been a little bit problematic.   He was given the award essentially because of leadership and clutch performance, and the "clutch performance" element of that is not well documented.   It appears that what happened was that a few big hits were written about by significant writers, and the idea that Stargell had carried the team with big hits took over the discussion.  You can think whatever you want about the leadership element as a part of the MVP vote, and also I suppose we could use better research into the clutch performance angle with regard to Pops-1979. 

              The 32 homers that Stargell hit in 1979 was the most he had hit in six years.  His multi-year batting performance was solid but not truly impressive, and Stargell does not make our list of the 10 best first baseman post-1979. 

              Probably the Most Valuable Player in the NL in 1979 was either Mike Schmidt or Dave Winfield, but Hernandez’ half of the vote is easier to trace to tangible performance.  I pointed out that in Norm Cash’s very different 1961 and 1962 seasons, his three true outcomes are almost identical, and the difference is in the outcomes of his balls in play.  The same is true of Keith Hernandez in 1978 and 1979.  In 1978 Hernandez hit just .255 with a .741 OPS, a very disappointing season for the 24-year-old first baseman who had played well in 1977.   In 1979 he hit .344 with 48 doubles and 105 RBI, and won half of an MVP award.   However, his three true outcomes data is actually a little BETTER in his bad season in 1978 than in his MVP season in 1979.   The "improvement" in his performance came entirely from the element of performance which is most susceptible to random variation, which is the outcomes of balls in play.   Hernandez in 1978 hit just .257 on balls in play, whereas in 1979 he hit a remarkable .382 on balls in play.   While we should not dismiss this improvement as pure luck, we would note that if it were a consequence of pure skill, Hernandez might have been able to sustain similar performance in future years. 

First

Last

YEAR

Rank

HR

RBI

Avg

OPS

Value

Keith

Hernandez

1979

1

11

105

.344

.930

26.54

Eddie

Murray

1979

2

25

99

.295

.844

25.63

Pete

Rose

1979

3

4

59

.331

.848

24.52

Cecil

Cooper

1979

4

24

106

.308

.872

24.39

Steve

Garvey

1979

5

28

110

.315

.848

21.95

Rod

Carew

1979

6

3

44

.318

.810

21.91

Lee

Mazzilli

1979

7

15

79

.303

.844

21.36

Andre

Thornton

1979

8

26

93

.233

.796

20.56

 

             

 

Keith

Hernandez

1980

1

16

99

.321

.902

26.77

Eddie

Murray

1980

2

32

116

.300

.873

26.62

Cecil

Cooper

1980

3

25

122

.352

.926

26.60

Steve

Garvey

1980

4

26

106

.304

.808

20.70

Jason

Thompson

1980

5

21

90

.288

.873

20.53

Bill

Buckner

1980

6

10

68

.324

.810

20.15

Rod

Carew

1980

7

3

59

.331

.833

20.12

Pete

Rose

1980

8

1

64

.282

.706

20.09

 

 

47.  The Greatest First Basemen Through 1980

              I began the discussion of first basemen by pointing this out, and here we are again:  the issue of the greatest first basemen is enormously complicated by the issue of who we should consider to be a first baseman.   The easy way to do it would be by career games played, but this creates the Ernie Banks problem.    Ernie Banks in his career:

              a)  Played more games at first base than at shortstop,

              b)  Earned 64 YOPDI points in his career, but

              c)  Earned no YOPDI points AT ALL as a first baseman. 

              All of his points are as a shortstop, so it seems obviously silly to list him as a first baseman.  

              OK then, so we will list each player at the position at which he earns the most YOPDI points.  But this causes problems, too. . .specifically:

              1)  Stan Musial,

              2)  Dick Allen, and

              3)  George Grantham. 

              And others.   Almost all first basemen who have long careers spend part of that career at some other position. .  .Willie McCovey did, and Killebrew, Cepeda, Jimmie Foxx.   Hank Greenberg won an MVP Award playing left field.   It’s just the nature of the position.  

              I think of Stan Musial as a left fielder.   I remember him; he was 40 years old when I remember him, playing left field at age 40.   I think of him as an outfielder.   He did, however, play more games at first base than in left field, more games at first base than at any other position unless you consider "outfield" to be one position rather than three.  

              Musial also earned more YOPDI points as a first baseman than at any other position—70 as a first baseman, 50 as a right fielder, 24 as a left fielder, and 10 as a center fielder; one year he started 98 games in center field, and thus ranks as the best center fielder in baseball.   I don’t seem to have any choice other than to list him as a first baseman, and he thus ranks as the #1 first baseman of all time in terms of position dominance, although not all of his position dominance is at that position.

              Dick Allen is a similar problem at a lower level; Dick Allen played more games in his career at first base (807) than at third base (652), although I think of him mostly as a third baseman.   Allen earned 43 YOPDI points at first base, 40 at third base, and 4 in left field, so I guess he’s a first baseman.

              Doing the earlier roundup of first basemen, through 1940, I missed George Grantham, because I had him marked as a career second baseman.   Grantham, a native Kansan and thus a player of some interest to me, came to the majors as a second baseman and played more games at second base (827) than at first (502).   Grantham, however, was not a good defensive second baseman; in fact, he was pretty terrible.   He was known as "Boots" Grantham because he booted the ball so often, and although he was an outstanding left-handed line drive hitter, he had trouble staying in the lineup because he really could not play second base. 

              There are three of these guys, actually—Grantham, Riggs Stephenson and Lew Fonseca; they are all kind of the same story, which is more complicated than just the three players.   In the Dead Ball Era (we could date the Dead Ball era as 1903 to 1919) second base was more of a hitter’s position than third base was.   In the Dead Ball Era the idea was to get a runner on first base, then he would steal second or you would bunt him to second; you would move runners with steals, bunts, and the hit and run.   When the lively ball era arrived and players began hitting 30, 40, 50 home runs, the idea of an offense shifted to get a runner on base, get two runners on base, and let the big guys drive them around the bases.   Stolen base totals and sac bunt totals plummeted. 

              A change which was incidental to that change in offensive philosophy was that there were many more double play opportunities, since there were more runners on first base just waiting for something to happen.   That made the double play much more important than it had been.   From 1911 to 1919 the most double plays turned by any second baseman in a season was 82, by Del Pratt in 1915 and again in 1918.   In the 1920s that total would not have ranked in top 50.   Double plays did not increase in the 1920s as much as home runs did, but similar; there was a huge increase in the number of double plays.   By the late 1920s the top second basemen were turning 120 double plays. 

              That made the double play much more important, which made second base defense much more important.   The defensive spectrum shifted, really for the only time since 1890; defense at second became more important than defense at third.  George Grantham, Riggs Stephenson and Lew Fonseca were guys who got caught on the wrong side of that.   They were really good hitters who came up as second basemen, but who could not meet the defensive expectations of a second baseman once those expectations increased suddenly.   They were pushed out of the position by weaker hitters who were better fielders, and this damaged their careers.  

              So anyway, I had Grantham listed as a second baseman, but he actually earned more YOPDI points as a first baseman than he did as a second baseman, so he’s going to make the list below.   I think anyone would agree that he was, in fact, more valuable as a first baseman.  These are the best first basemen of 1900 to 1980 in terms of position dominance, acknowledging again that this includes a considerable amount of position dominance at positions other than first base.   Asterisks indicate players in mid-career in 1980; blue highlighting indicates a Hall of Famer:

 

Rank

First

Last

From

To

1

2

3

4

5

YOPDI Pts

1

Stan

Musial

1941

1963

15

0

1

0

0

154

2

Lou

Gehrig

1923

1939

11

1

0

0

0

117

3

Jimmie

Foxx

1925

1945

2

9

1

1

1

90

4

Dick

Allen

1963

1977

5

2

3

1

0

87

5

Johnny

Mize

1936

1953

5

3

3

0

0

83

6

Gil

Hodges

1943

1963

4

3

1

2

0

69

7

George

Sisler

1915

1930

6

1

0

0

0

67

8

Willie

McCovey

1959

1980

4

2

0

1

2

66

9

Harmon

Killebrew

1954

1975

3

2

3

0

2

65

10

Orlando

Cepeda

1958

1974

3

3

2

0

0

63

11

Frank

Chance

1898

1914

6

0

0

1

0

62

12

Tony

Perez*

1964

1986

2

2

2

0

1

52

13

Norm

Cash

1958

1974

1

2

3

2

0

50

13

Harry

Davis

1895

1917

0

7

0

0

1

50

15

Hal

Chase

1905

1919

3

1

2

0

3

48

16

Jack

Fournier

1912

1927

3

2

0

0

1

45

17

Hank

Greenberg

1930

1947

0

3

5

0

0

41

18

Steve

Garvey*

1969

1987

0

1

3

3

1

38

19

Bob

Watson*

1966

1984

0

3

2

2

0

36

20

Jim

Bottomley

1922

1937

0

4

1

0

2

34

21

Ted

Kluszewski

1947

1961

1

2

2

0

0

32

22

Ed

Konetchy

1907

1921

1

2

1

1

1

31

22

Boog

Powell

1961

1977

0

1

2

2

1

31

24

Mickey

Vernon

1939

1960

1

1

1

3

3

30

25

Keith

Hernandez*

1974

1990

2

0

0

1

1

29

26

Bill

Terry

1923

1936

0

0

6

2

0

28

27

Eddie

Murray*

1977

1997

0

3

1

0

0

27

27

Wally

Pipp

1913

1928

0

1

4

2

0

27

29

Dolph

Camilli

1933

1945

0

3

0

2

1

26

29

Roy

Sievers

1949

1965

0

2

2

1

1

26

31

Pete

Runnels

1951

1964

1

2

0

0

0

24

32

Rudy

York

1934

1948

0

2

2

0

1

23

33

George

Kelly

1915

1932

0

2

1

2

0

22

33

George

Grantham

1922

1934

0

0

4

2

2

22

35

John

Mayberry

1968

1982

1

1

0

0

0

21

36

Phil

Cavarretta

1934

1955

1

1

0

1

0

19

36

Joe

Judge

1915

1934

0

2

0

1

3

19

36

Fred

Merkle

1907

1926

1

0

0

4

1

19

39

Cecil

Cooper*

1971

1987

0

1

1

1

0

18

39

Stuffy

McInnis

1909

1927

1

1

0

0

1

18

39

Bill

White

1956

1969

0

1

1

0

2

18

 

              As there is at catcher (and other positions) there is a strong general agreement between the Position Dominance Index (YOPDI) and Hall of Fame selection.   But whereas the Hall of Fame standard for a catcher is something like 80 YOPDI points—eight years of dominating the position or comparable—at first base it is more like 50 points.   This is another manifestation of a problem that we have dealt with many times.   First basemen have a lot bigger hitting numbers than catchers do, or, stated another way, there are many more first basemen with big hitting numbers than there are catchers, and big hitting numbers are what get you into the Hall of Fame.   It’s not that the standards don’t adjust; the standards do adjust.   Johnny Bench would not be in the Hall of Fame, with the hitting numbers he has, if he were an outfielder.   But the adjustments are not quite as big as the differences in performance.   One could say that the adjustments made for catchers are not as big as they "ought" to be, but that’s a judgment; I’m not trying to make judgments, I’m trying to state facts.  The fact is that there are many more first basemen with big hitting numbers than catchers with big hitting numbers; consequently, the Hall of Fame requires less dominance of the position at first base than at catcher. 

              And these are the greatest first basemen of 1900 to 1980 in terms of peak value:

Rank

First

Last

YEAR

HR

RBI

Avg

OPS

Value

1

Stan

Musial

1946

16

103

.365

1.021

39.69

2

Lou

Gehrig

1928

27

142

.374

1.115

39.38

3

Jimmie

Foxx

1933

48

163

.356

1.153

37.62

4

Willie

McCovey

1969

45

126

.320

1.108

36.06

5

Dick

Allen

1972

37

113

.308

1.023

34.33

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

6

Norm

Cash

1961

41

132

.361

1.148

33.79

7

Frank

Chance

1906

3

71

.319

.849

32.69

8

Harmon

Killebrew

1967

44

113

.269

.965

32.63

9

Rod

Carew

1977

14

100

.388

1.019

32.25

10

Johnny

Mize

1939

28

108

.349

1.070

32.12

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

11

Hank

Greenberg

1938

58

146

.315

1.122

30.86

12

George

Sisler

1920

19

122

.407

1.082

30.34

13

Tony

Perez

1970

40

129

.317

.990

30.17

14

Bill

Terry

1932

28

117

.350

.962

29.95

15

Jack

Fournier

1924

27

116

.334

.965

29.44

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

16

Ted

Kluszewski

1954

49

141

.326

1.049

28.86

17

Harry

Davis

1906

12

96

.292

.815

28.79

18

Orlando

Cepeda

1961

46

142

.311

.970

28.32

19

Phil

Cavarretta

1945

6

97

.355

.949

27.79

20

Boog

Powell

1970

35

114

.297

.962

27.74

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

21

Dolph

Camilli

1941

34

120

.285

.962

27.66

22

John

Mayberry

1973

26

100

.278

.895

27.37

23

Roy

Sievers

1957

42

114

.301

.967

26.91

24

Jim

Gentile

1961

46

141

.302

1.069

26.90

25

Keith

Hernandez

1980

16

99

.321

.902

26.77

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

26

Bob

Watson

1976

16

102

.313

.835

26.63

27

Eddie

Murray

1980

32

116

.300

.873

26.62

28

Cecil

Cooper

1980

25

122

.352

.926

26.60

29

Jim

Bottomley

1928

31

136

.325

1.030

26.36

30

Earl

Torgeson

1950

23

87

.290

.885

26.29

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

31

Gil

Hodges

1954

42

130

.304

.952

26.25

32

Hal

Chase

1915

17

89

.291

.787

25.72

33

Ed

Konetchy

1910

3

78

.302

.822

25.64

34

Mickey

Vernon

1953

15

115

.337

.921

25.33

35

Bill

White

1964

21

102

.303

.829

25.30

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

36

Hal

Trosky

1939

25

104

.335

.994

25.27

37

Ripper

Collins

1934

35

128

.333

1.008

25.25

38

Lee

May

1971

39

98

.278

.864

25.08

39

Steve

Garvey

1976

13

80

.317

.813

25.06

40

Fred

Merkle

1912

11

84

.309

.823

25.04

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

41

Jim

Delahanty

1911

3

94

.339

.874

24.92

42

George

Grantham

1928

10

85

.323

.894

24.74

43

Stuffy

McInnis

1912

3

101

.327

.817

24.67

44

Rudy

York

1938

33

127

.298

.995

24.37

45

Zeke

Bonura

1936

12

138

.330

.908

24.31

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

46

Norm

Siebern

1962

25

117

.308

.907

24.18

47

Nate

Colbert

1972

38

111

.250

.841

24.11

48

George

Scott

1973

24

107

.306

.858

24.02

49

Frank

McCormick

1940

19

127

.309

.850

24.01

50

Charlie

Hickman

1903

12

97

.295

.790

23.97

 

              1)  Dick Allen actually had several seasons in the 1960s in which his established value was higher than what is listed here as his peak value, but he was playing other positions then; this is his peak value as a first baseman. 

              2)  I know people will be surprised at Musial ranking ahead of Gehrig in peak value, because Gehrig’s numbers are so big, but remember, Musial won the National League MVP Award in 1943, 1946 and 1948 and didn’t play in 1945, so he was in the middle of a run of seasons in which he won the MVP Award three times in five years.   The hitting numbers in the National League at that time were low.  The National League ERA in 1946 was 3.41, whereas the American League ERA in Gehrig’s peak seasons was over 4.00, sometimes well over 4.00.  Thus, one run generated by Musial has more win-impact than one run generated by Gehrig.

              Also, I would point out to you that the Cardinals in the first ten years of Musial’s career were exactly as successful as the Yankees of the Gehrig-Ruth era.   The Yankees in the ten years that they had Gehrig and Ruth both in the lineup won 4 pennants, 3 World Series, and 931 regular-season games.    The Cardinals in the first ten years that Musial was in the lineup for them won 4 pennants, 3 World Series, and 931 regular-season games. 

              3)  In terms of peak value, the Hall of Fame standard at first base is higher than it is at catcher.   At catcher, it’s about 27; at first base, about 30. 

              4)  Two Hall of Fame first baseman, Jake Beckley and George Kelly, do not make the top 50 first basemen of 1900 to 1980 in terms of peak value. 

 

48.  Bob Watson

              Could Bob Watson be described as an overlooked great?

              "Great" is too strong a word, and I am not arguing that Bob Watson ought to be a Hall of Famer, but in doing the analysis above I was very surprised to see that Watson ranks higher on the Position Dominance Index than four Hall of Fame first basemen (Bottomley, Jake Beckley, Bill Terry and George Kelly), and that he ranks ahead of other more-memorable first basemen such as Ted Kluszewski, Boog Powell, Mickey Vernon, Hal Trosky and Bill White, and also ranks ahead of most of the same players in Peak Value.  He was never the #1 player in baseball at his position, but he was second three times and third or fourth four other years. 

              The only time I have used Bob Watson’s name in a Hall of Fame discussion was as a comp for George Kelly.   The most similar hitter ever to George Kelly, in terms of raw numbers, is Bob Watson.   Kelly had a career batting average of .297, Watson .295.   Kelly had 148 career homers, Watson 184.  Kelly had just over 1,000 career RBI (1020), Watson just under 1,000 (989).   Watson had a career OPS just over .800 (.811), Kelly just under (.794).  Watson had 1,826 career hits, Kelly 1,778.   About the same numbers, Watson’s are a tiny bit better.

              The difference, of course, is that Kelly compiled these numbers in the 1920s, when the league batting averages were in the .280s and .290s and the league ERAs were over 4.00, whereas Watson put up the same numbers in the 1970s, when the National League batting averages were in the .250s and the ERAs were in the mid-threes.  

              I have used this comparison many times to explain why George Kelly is not a legitimate Hall of Famer, because. . .well, people who remember Bob Watson know that he was a good but not great player, and if you explain that George Kelly has the same numbers but in a much different context, they get it.  I actually once used this explanation in the presence of Bob Watson; I was uncomfortable doing it, but he didn’t seem to take offense.  I was doing a radio interview with Larry Dierker, down in Houston, and Dierker asked me who was in the Hall of Fame who shouldn’t be there, so I mentioned Kelly because he’s near the top of the list.   Dierker asked why, and my usual explanation for that is. . . about this time, Bob Watson happened to walk into the room.   It came out right; it came out sounding like I was saying "Bob Watson is about the same as a Hall of Famer". 

              Anyway, perhaps there are two edges to this sword:  that it illustrates not merely that Kelly doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame, but also that Bob Watson has been historically overlooked.   He was a regular .300 hitter with 16 to 22 homers a year. . .not Hall of Fame numbers, I grant you, but the thing is that Watson was doing this:

              a) In a pitcher’s era, relatively speaking, and

              b)  In the toughest park in baseball for a hitter. 

              In his career, Watson hit .288 at home, .302 on the road.   He hit 67 homers at home, 117 on the road, so his parks cost him about 50 home runs and a career .300 average.   He drove in 440 runs at home, 549 on the road.   I would suspect that it is one of the worst home/road splits of all time. 

              Well. . .not trying to make Bob Watson into Jimmie Foxx.  He is not the usual underrated player, the Bobby Grich model hidden star who plays great defense and has a secondary average of .370; he’s not that kind of guy.   This is my final word on him:  Bob Watson has been so much underrated that he even gets overlooked when people are talking about players who are underrated. 

 

 

49. The Murray-Cooper Era

              OK, it’s the Eddie Murray era, but Cecil Cooper deserves a little love, too:

First

Last

YEAR

Rank

HR

RBI

Avg

OPS

Value

Eddie

Murray

1981

1

22

78

.294

.895

27.66

Keith

Hernandez

1981

2

8

48

.306

.864

25.77

Cecil

Cooper

1981

3

12

60

.320

.858

24.65

Bill

Buckner

1981

4

10

75

.311

.829

20.39

Pete

Rose

1981

5

0

33

.325

.781

18.80

Jason

Thompson

1981

6

15

42

.242

.899

18.49

Willie

Aikens

1981

7

17

53

.266

.836

18.10

Steve

Garvey

1981

8

10

64

.283

.732

17.52

 

             

 

Eddie

Murray

1982

1

32

110

.316

.940

29.77

Cecil

Cooper

1982

2

32

121

.313

.870

25.75

Keith

Hernandez

1982

3

7

94

.299

.810

25.37

Jason

Thompson

1982

4

31

101

.284

.902

22.01

Andre

Thornton

1982

5

32

116

.273

.870

21.55

Bill

Buckner

1982

6

15

105

.306

.783

21.24

Al

Oliver

1982

7

22

109

.331

.906

20.96

Wade

Boggs

1982

8

5

44

.349

.847

18.92

 

             

 

Eddie

Murray

1983

1

33

111

.306

.930

30.96

Keith

Hernandez

1983

2

12

63

.297

.829

26.00

Cecil

Cooper

1983

3

30

126

.307

.849

24.45

Darrell

Evans

1983

4

30

82

.277

.894

23.97

Willie

Upshaw

1983

5

27

104

.306

.887

22.23

George

Hendrick

1983

6

18

97

.318

.866

21.03

Andre

Thornton

1983

7

17

77

.281

.822

20.64

Kent

Hrbek

1983

8

16

84

.297

.855

20.08

 

             

 

Eddie

Murray

1984

1

29

110

.306

.918

30.90

Keith

Hernandez

1984

2

15

94

.311

.859

30.00

Don

Mattingly

1984

3

23

110

.343

.918

26.51

Kent

Hrbek

1984

4

27

107

.311

.906

22.22

Alvin

Davis

1984

5

27

116

.284

.888

21.93

Leon

Durham

1984

6

23

96

.279

.874

21.82

Willie

Upshaw

1984

7

19

84

.278

.809

21.35

Andre

Thornton

1984

8

33

99

.271

.850

20.75

 

 
 

COMMENTS (35 Comments, most recent shown first)

jwilt
The first major league game I ever saw was an Orioles-Red Sox game in September of 1979, when I was eight. Bob Watson hit for the cycle in that game, becoming the first MLB player to do that in each league. Which I didn't realize until baseball-reference and retrosheet came along and let me look it up years later.
6:34 AM Jan 19th
 
brewer09
Bob Watson was also in The Bad News Bears in Breaking Training.

Let them play.
12:53 AM Dec 30th
 
MarisFan61
Smbakeresq: I do think of Scott as kind of roundish, but I think of Watson as leaner than that -- not lean lean, but not roundish.

So, I figured I'd go look at the "data," and what I see is that Watson's listed vital statistics (on baseball-reference.com) are rounder than Scott's.

Watson: 6'0, 201
Scott: 6'2, 200

But then again, Terry Forster, a/k/a "tub of goo," is listed as 6'3, 200.
Mickey Lolich, 6'1, 170 (which may have been the origin of the meaning of the first 3 letters of his last name)
Smoky Burgess, 5'8, 185 (which indeed is kind of round but too elliptical for the reality, at least by the time most of us were old enough to be watching)
10:17 PM Dec 29th
 
JohnPontoon
To my recollection, Ozzie Guillen was not a very good bunter. Could somebody help me remember other things about players, perhaps via research?
6:04 PM Dec 29th
 
smbakeresq
When I was a kid I met Bob Watson at a promotional event for Coca-Cola. Couldn't have been a nicer guy to all the people, especially the kids like me.

I don't know if he is like that for everyone, but if he is it should be noted in his profile but not in his statistical analysis.

For some reason as a kid I thought Bob Watson and George Scott where similar players in that they were large, roundish people who could play. I was a large roundish kid so that's probably why.
12:19 PM Dec 29th
 
chuck
brewer09, in 1977 Rawlings took over manufacture of the ball, and it was recognized at the time that the new ball was considerably livelier. 1976 was a very deadball year, even comparing to previous years, so I’ll compare 1977 with the 4-year period: 1973-76.

Shown are batting average on balls in play (BIP), doubles+triples per batted ball (23/btb), and home runs per batted ball (hr/btb).

Year . BIP . 23/btb . hr/btb
1973 .281 . 5.3% ... 2.7%
1974 .282 . 5.3% ... 2.3%
1975 .282 . 5.6% ... 2.4%
1976 .281 . 5.4% ... 2.0%
1977 .287 . 6.2% ... 3.0%

AL expansion wasn’t what drove those 1977 numbers. Here is just the NL:

Year . BIP . 23/btb . hr/btb
1973 .280 . 4.6% ... 2.8%
1974 .282 . 4.7% ... 2.3%
1975 .284 . 4.9% ... 2.2%
1976 .281 . 4.7% ... 2.0%
1977 .287 . 5.3% ... 2.9%

Comparing 1977 to the 1973-76 period as a whole, MLB doubles+triples per batted ball went up 14% and homers per batted ball shot up 25%. For the NL alone, it was virtually the same: 14% for doubles and triples, and an even higher 26% for home runs.

Carew’s 1977 numbers reflect this explosion in power numbers. He may have been a slap hitter much of the time, but here are his rates for those same categories.

BIP . 23/btb . hr/btb . period
.369 . 6.8% ... 1.5% . 1973-76
.408 . 9.5% ... 2.5% . 1977

Carew had 566 batted balls in 1977. If one takes his 1973-76 numbers and applies them per 566 batted balls, this would be the comparison with his 1977 numbers,

1b ... 2b .. 3b .. HR .. period
166 . 29 .. 08 .. 08 ... 1973-76
171 . 38 .. 16 .. 14 ... 1977
showing that his 1977 was driven mostly by his increase in power numbers.
9:58 AM Dec 29th
 
StatsGuru
I believe Bob Watson is credited with scoring the 1,000,000th run in MLB history. He also won the MVP in my 1979 SOM league despite the rest of the managers believing I should have played Jim Spencer against RHP.

From what I was told, Carew also studied pitchers extensively. Peter Gammons told me a story about Carew facing Catfish Hunter with Thurman Munson catching. Carew would call out each pitch from Hunter with a predicted result. Got all of them right, including a double down the line. If the story is true, it had to be in the first inning of this game.

https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/NYA/NYA197604180.shtml
8:09 AM Dec 29th
 
steve161
Bob, thank you, that is exactly what I meant: articles, not years.

That said, I hope Bill achieves the Mosaic 120 years and that I, who am older, am around to wish him a happy birthday.
7:48 AM Dec 29th
 
brewer09
chuck, I have never heard 1977 mentioned as a lively ball year. That, by itself, is not evidence that it wasn't. But I don't think that's the reason Carew -- a slap hitter -- hit .388.

But I don't think Carew, Rice and Foster (52 home runs) having career years makes it a lively ball year. Other than Foster, only one player hit 40 home runs. Other than Carew, no player hit better than .338.​
5:07 AM Dec 29th
 
JimPertierra
Did I miss number 43 in the narrative?
We jumped from 42. Dick Allen was great, and in other years, somebody has to rank first to 44. First Base, and the MVP Award.
Fascinating stuff and one wonders if there is a Bill James Encyclopedia update in the offing.
Best/Jim
12:30 AM Dec 29th
 
MarisFan61
P.S. I see that at least 1 member did comment on him -- BobGill wondered similarly about Frank Chance in the discussion of the first article on first basemen.
10:52 PM Dec 28th
 
MarisFan61
I haven't noticed any comment on how Frank Chance shows here. Surprising, because from anything I've been able to tell, this is the first time he shows as anything better than a marginal Hall of Famer on any major metric kind of thing.

Traditionally, meaning half a century ago or longer, I think he was seen as a fully legit Hall of Famer and the one guy from Tinker-Evers-Chance who was. Since metrics came along, my impression has been that it was basically the opposite -- that he's maybe the least impressive of them as a player and really marginal at best as a HOF'er. I do think I've sometimes seen stuff in the last few years suggesting that maybe he was a little better than that, but I don't recall any sophisticated analysis or thought which said that he was well-in-the-mix among the Hall of Famer first basemen.
BTW, Bill put him #25 among 1B's in the New Historical Abstract (i.e. as of 2000).
Baseball-reference.com, using "JAWS," has him at #35. (On their 'peak'-type rankings, "WAR7," he's #32.)

What I conclude from the numbers here: He's at least very arguably a real Hall of Famer, and that he probably is.
And, yet another reminder (of which I realize I see more of than many others) :-) that whatever certain metrics might say about a player, it very well might not be a good answer, because for one reason or another they might not be successfully addressing what the guy provided -- and maybe even before long, somebody will come up with a method that shows it.
10:37 PM Dec 28th
 
W.T.Mons10
So after all that, Carew is listed as a second baseman in the career rankings?
8:43 PM Dec 28th
 
ajmilner
Slightly O/T: Bill writes, "Probably the Most Valuable Player in the NL in 1979 was either Mike Schmidt or Dave Winfield"

Had the season ended on July 31st, the MVP might well have gone to Schmidt. He had set an NL record for homers through the end of July with 36 and his line was .279/.406/.642 -- but the Phillies, with a pitching staff decimated by injuries, promptly faded from the race in August and Schmidt stopped hitting. In 1980, Schmidt was able to sustain his April-July '79 level for an entire season, and he was a unanimous MVP.
8:10 PM Dec 28th
 
Davidg32
I always thought that Stargell got a few "lifetime achievement" votes in the MVP race in 1979. He had a great year in 1971, but lost the MVP to Torre's big year. And he had another monster season in 1973, but lost out to Rose. Stargell was always real popular. And as pointed out, Willie had a pretty good year and was a good leader in the clubhouse.
6:03 PM Dec 28th
 
BryanBM
Dave Parker: 10184 PA, 26 Black Ink, 145 Gray Ink, 1 MVP, 3.19 MVP Award Shares, 2 Rings, 290/339/471, 339 HR, 1493 RBI

Johnny Bench: 8674 PA, 20 Black Ink, 93 Gray Ink, 2 MVPs, 2.77 MVP Award Shares, 2 Rings, 267/342/476, 389 HR, 1376 RBI

Jim Rice: 9058 PA, 33 Black Ink, 176 Gray Ink, 1 MVP, 3.15 MVP Award Shares, 1 WS loss, 298/352/502, 382 HR, 1451 RBI

Born 1940-1959 Bench and Gary Carter 9019 PA have the fewest among position players in the Hall of Fame and the bottom of the list mostly struggled to get inducted: Willie Stargell 9027, Rice, Ryne Sandberg 9282, Alan Trammell 9376 and Ron Santo 9397.

Parker starts out 17.5%, 24.5% on the HoF ballot and stalls out. Jim Rice doesn't start much higher 29.8%, 35.3% and other than a dip for the Ryan/Brett/Yount election seems pretty clearly headed to election even if not by BBWAA main vote. I'm pretty sure Bench starts around the same and has a narrative a lot more in common with Rice than Parker.
4:56 PM Dec 28th
 
MarisFan61
Tigerlily: You're right about that count.
I wrongly counted some other players besides Musial as LF's in their MVP years.
First base wins. :-)
2:41 PM Dec 28th
 
Gfletch
Beyond the content of this article, I couldn’t help but think about the writing skill of the author. In the wide world of sabermetric research and writing, I see endless articles that make my eyes glaze over. But Bill seems to be able to keep me reading, to keep doing things to grab my interest, to keep me from skipping to the end.

I think there are little things that Bill does (and did consciously when he started out) which are now as natural as breathing to him. The occasional and obviously surprising comments, the loading up of serious sentences that lead the reader to a laugh out loud punchline, but also an even more common but subtle thing: little turns of phrase that grab your interest because they aren’t quite what you expect to see.

Another thing that is a Bill trademark, I think, is the willingness to abandon the main theme of an article and indulge in a revelatory segue. When that happens you get an exciting sensation of discovery, as if you yourself had done the research and had suddenly gained the surprising insight.

Bill, a friend of mine asked me recently, “So, Gary, how does it feel to be addressed in the third person?” Amused, I answered, “Real Good.” I took it as a gesture of respect, which is a good way, if nothing else. This entire comment is meant as a gesture of respect for you; thanks for yet another good read.

1:57 PM Dec 28th
 
tigerlily
You're right about first basemen winning the most MVP's. Below are summaries by position of the BBWAA MVP winner for each league;


AL

C - 8
1B - 14
2B - 5
3B - 9
SS - 8
LF - 9
CF - 11
RF - 11
SP - 9
RP - 3
DH - 0

NL

C - 8
1B - 14
2B - 6
3B - 10
SS - 7
LF - 16
CF - 6
RF - 10
SP - 9
RP - 1

1:25 PM Dec 28th
 
77royals
I always thought Stargell got his votes in '79 due to hitting 32 home runs and the entire 'We Are Family' thing, and the stars he gave out.


12:49 PM Dec 28th
 
BobGill
This series has been quite enjoyable so far -- especially this article, which I didn't expect to be so substantial given the title, which sounds something like "Dictionary of '60s music, from the Beach Boys to the Beatles."

12:31 PM Dec 28th
 
bearbyz
Thank you for the write up on Rod Carew. I watch a lot of Twins games on TV those years. and Carew bunted for a lot of base hits. He had the team bunt a lot, not just for sacrifices but for base hits. Carew of course bunted for a lot of base hits. Something missing a lot these days, using the bunt as a weapon.
12:14 PM Dec 28th
 
MarisFan61
Bob: Thank God it's that! :-)

BTW, do some people really remember as far back as January....​
11:13 AM Dec 28th
 
BobGill
Maris: I think the comment about not making it to 100 was a reference to Bill's stated goal (from back in January) to post 100 articles this year -- which seems impossible, unless he posts 10 a day from now till Sunday. Not a reference to age.
11:00 AM Dec 28th
 
MarisFan61
Two unrelated things:

What's this about not making it to 100? :-)
I see no reason whatsoever to rule it out. If anything I'm expecting it, as I'd like to do for everybody.

About Keith Hernandez and his divergent BABIP's in those years, and about the very high BABIP seemingly not being "skill" because if it were, he presumably would have been able to keep doing it: We've come across this many times and I'm sure we will again.

I think the lack of keeping on doing it is only a mild indicator against it being skill, although actually I think "skill" is an unfortunate word for it, and I think it biases the rest of how one sees it. How about rather than calling it skill, we call it "Something systematic going on that isn't just luck."

I look at this kind of thing first by looking at the player's pattern during that year. What we see is that after a poor-to-mediocre first few weeks, he then hit like .350 or .360 every week for the rest of the season, week after week after week. (A little exaggeration of the consistency there, but really not much.) I have a lot of trouble seeing that as other than "something systematic going on," and that the 'something' involved likelihood of his batted balls falling in. Maybe he was making better contact; maybe he found a way to do some Carew-or-Ichiro kind of thing for a while, and it worked until they figured out how to keep him from keeping on doing it, which wasn't till after that year. I consider the pattern of the performance during the year a strong indicator (suggestor?) about whether something wasn't mostly chance, especially when what it shows is something like this.
10:44 AM Dec 28th
 
MarisFan61
P.S. CORRECTING MY COMMENT BELOW:
First base does win.
Probably by a couple over LF.

As I was doing the tallying, I was considering Musial a left fielder all the time. When I realized the boo-boo, I went and saw that actually none of his MVP's were in years where he was mainly a LF.
(twice RF, once 1B)
10:07 AM Dec 28th
 
MarisFan61
About whether more first baseman have won MVP's than any other position:
It's very very close between first base and left field. Looks to me like LF wins by 1 or 2; might be a tie.
(Why I'm not sure: The site I used doesn't show which OF position each guy mainly played that year.)

Next, interestingly, is pitcher (if we don't separate starters and relievers).

Then, maybe even more interestingly, seems to be third base, which I think most of us still feel is underrepresented in the Hall of Fame.
The reason for this sort-of disparity is easy to see: Third basemen, for whatever reason, don't have as many great players having long careers with a lot of great years. On an overall basis they probably have more longevity than catchers, maybe even more than second basemen (per the aging info in Bill's "Rookies" article in the 1987 Abstract), but not as many great players having long careers with a lot of great years.
Why?? Maybe we'll have some ideas when we get to the third basemen. (I do have a couple of ideas.)
10:02 AM Dec 28th
 
joedimino
Regarding Musial, what we did at the Hall of Merit when we ranked th elects by position was to consider OF and 1B as separate positions. So if the player had more value (not games, like you with Banks) in the OF, we then ranked him at the OF position where he had the most value. I think that makes the most sense, and Musial definitely seems more like an OF than anything else. So once you throw him in the OF, LF makes sense.
9:57 AM Dec 28th
 
chuck
KaiserD2, I'd argue that Carew's 1977 average had more in common with Gwynn's .370 in 1987 and .394 in 1994: that a livelier baseball helped drive up his ball-in-play average.
9:47 AM Dec 28th
 
KaiserD2
Just a few comments.

I don't think Stan Musial's slight statistical edge over Lou Gehrig represents genuine superiority. The reason is that two of Musial's most dominant seasons--1943-4--took place during the war. As it happens, my own methods also give Musial an edge, with 13 sesons of 4 or more WAA comopared to 12 for Gehrig, and Musial's best (11 WAA in 1943) is better than Gehrig's best (9 in 1927). But I'm sure that Gehrig, in his prime, could have done at least as well as that in 1943.

There are two people whom my methods show to be much better than what is shown here. One is Johnny Mize, who had 8 seasons of 4 WAA or more. The other is Keith Hernandez, who had 7 such seasons, which ties him with Eddie Murray. DER shows Hernandez with tremendous defensive value, which is why his overall value is so high. I think he definitely belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Lastly, while it's possible that moving to first base helped Rod Carew achieve his peak hitting performance in 1977, I have no doubt that the main reason that he hit .388 that year was the same reason that Jim Rice had his best seasons in 1977-8 and that Norm Cash and Roger Maris had such remarkable seasons in 1961: the the expansion of the American League.

David K
9:38 AM Dec 28th
 
chuck
From that Stargell thread, this is a bit of a summary:

It’s not apparent that Pittsburgh especially struggled without Stargell. They went 24-10 without him, a higher winning pct than with him.
But he did have a flair for hitting home runs late, for excellent pinch hitting, and for the timing of his hits, often tying the game or putting the Pirates into the lead, and many times in the late innings.
From his split data:
8th inning: .304/.418/.630, a 1.049 OPS, and .326 isolated power.
9th inning: .318/.348/.682, a 1.030 OPS, and .312 isolated power.

He often would not do much in his early appearances. Here are his splits against starters:
1st time up: .281/.345/.448
2nd time up: .322/.396/.644
3rd time up: .333/.429/.819
He was deadly by the 2nd time he saw a pitcher and by the 3rd time downright murderous.
9:13 AM Dec 28th
 
chuck
Bill, I posted a thread some time ago on the subject of Willie Stargell's 1979 season, and included a game-by-game log looking at his contributions, whether the team won or lost. Here's the link:
boards.billjamesonline.com/showthread.php?4208-Willie-Stargell-1979&highlight=Stargell
9:06 AM Dec 28th
 
steve161
Bill, you're not going to make it to 100, but never mind: you still offer more insights per paragraph than any other sabermetrician out there. Quality over quantity--works for most of your subscribers, I venture.

The most striking insight in this article is the Gehrig-Musial comparison, especially the ten-year team results. I yield to no one in my admiration of Musial, but this is a new perspective. And remembering his near-omission from the century team, he really does seem to be the underappreciated superstar. Perhaps playing multiple positions is at least a partial explanation.​
8:51 AM Dec 28th
 
jaybracken
I'm with you, SteveN, Brett Butler and Kenny Lofton are the two guys I think of as great bunters. However, I'll add that I didn't really see much of Rod Carew's career, whereas Butler was hitting his stride when I was diving into my baseball fandom, so that might be a large factor.
8:21 AM Dec 28th
 
SteveN
When I think of great bunters I think of Brett Butler. Am I remembering incorrectly? Richie Ashburn claimed to have been a great bunter, but, I don't know how to compare him. He played before I had such a critical eye.

I am appalled by the lack of Phillies in most of these lists.
6:46 AM Dec 28th
 
 
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