On Centuries and Chickens

May 26, 2016
Hello again! Before we get into the subject at hand, I just wanted to explain my recent absence from the site: I dropped off the grid for a bit, to take advantage of a positive turn regarding some non-baseball-related work. While news on that is still up in the air, I wanted to let the long-time readers of the BJOL know that I’m back now, and I should be posting at a regular clip for a while.
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What’s the most underrated ‘peak’ in baseball history?
There are a dozen good answers for this question. And it’s a question that demands other questions. How are we defining ‘peak’? How long is it? Is a peak three seasons? Five seasons? Ten? What metric are we using? Do we want to use WAR or Win Shares, or do we prefer MVP votes, or Black Ink? And what do we mean by underrated, anyway? Are we looking for a pretty good player who nobody really noticed (Gene Tenace, for instance), or do we want someone who was legitimately great (someone like Arky Vaughan)?  
It’s a question with a lot of variables, but for my money, it’s an easy one to answer: the most underrated peak in baseball belonged to Wade Boggs.
You can start with a decade. A decade is a pretty long duration of time. Wade Boggs, for the first decade of his major league career, posted a .345 batting average. His on-base percentage was .425.
I think of Boggs, in those peak years, as a ‘century’ player….he did things by centuries. A typical Wade Boggs season would have these markers:
-          200 hits (1983-1989, seven years in a row.)
-          100 runs scored (1983-1989, ditto)
-          100 walks (1986-1989)
-          .300 average (1983-1991…every year)
-          .400 on-base percentage (1983-1989, 1991)
-          50 extra-base hits (1983, 1985-1991)
That’s looking over just the first ten years of Boggs' career. If we prefer our peaks in shorter formats, let me humbly introduce Wade Boggs’ average stat line for the five-year run from 1985 to 1989, when he was almost certainly the best player in baseball:
113 Runs, 213 Hits, 45 2B, 5 3B, 10 HR, 108 Walks, .357 BA .454 OBP, .496 SLG
Boggs won four batting titles over those five seasons. He led the American League in on-base percentage every single season. Actually, he led both leagues in on-base percentage, every single year.
Maybe you prefer advanced metrics. Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR says that seasons over 8.0 are ‘MVP-level’ performances. This seems accurate: the four players who posted a WAR above 8.0 in 2016 (Harper, Trout, Goldy, and Donaldson) finished 1-2 in the AL and NL MVP votes. Correlation established.
Here are Boggs’ WAR over that half-decade:

He was playing at an MVP-level every year. That’s not to say that he deserved the MVP every year: every year there was someone like Brett or Clemens or Mattingly or Rickey having great seasons ….but Boggs was one of the absolute best players in the game.
That’s rare, to be so reliably great. Mike Schmidt never had five straight 8+ WAR seasons. Neither did Eddie Mathews. Or George Brett. Or Chipper Jones. Actually, Chipper Jones never had one eight-win season by Baseball-Reference’s WAR. Boggs had five in a row. 
And he wasn’t just doing it with the bat: Boggs was an underrated defensive player, a competent and intelligent third-baseman who is rated by Total Zone runs as being the 3rd-best defensive player in the AL. He led the league’s 3B’s in putouts three times, double plays four times, and assists once, notching a couple late-career Gold Gloves when he was with the Yankees.
Boggs was a great player, playing on a good team in a big media market. He led the league in one category that newspapers of the 1980’s tended to track in their daily sports pages (batting average), and he did pretty well in a few categories they counted up on Sunday (hits, runs, doubles, walks).
Despite this, his peak was never truly appreciated, not in his prime and not since. Boggs never won an MVP Award, and he never came close to winning an MVP. Care to guess how many times he got a first-place vote for the AL MVP?
Never. Not once. No writer with a vote ever picked Wade Boggs as the best player in the American League. He didn’t get a first-place vote in 1988, when he led the league in runs, doubles, walks, batting average, and on-base percentage. He didn’t get one when he hit .368 and collected 240 hits in 1985. He didn’t get a vote when he decided to hit for power, and added 24 homers to a .363 batting average in 1987.
This is startling, because Wade Boggs’s excellence as a player was a peak kind of excellence. He wasn’t a steady compiler of numbers, like Eddie Murray or Rafael Palmiero. He was a player who racked up a ton of black ink in his big years, leading his league in stats that show up in the newspaper.
So what happened? How come Boggs was so forgotten?
Let’s back track a little bit. No one ever believed that Wade Boggs would be a good major league player. The Red Sox sure as hell didn’t. Let me recount Wade Boggs’ minor-league track record for you:
1976 – As an eighteen-year old drafted out of high school, Boggs posted a .263 batting average for Elmira, the Red Sox A- team.
1977 – Boggs hits .332 for Single-A Winston-Salem. In 499 plate appearances, he strikes out just 22 times. His on-base percentage was .423.
1978 – A 20-year old Boggs hits Double-A, and scuffles. By ‘scuffles’ I mean he hits .311 with a .400 on-base percentage over 109 games.
1979 – The Red Sox want to make sure that Boggs can really hit that Double-A pitching. He bats .325 with a .420 on-base percentage.
1980 – The Sox move Boggs up to Triple-A Pawtucket. He does exactly what he’s always done: posts a .306 average with a .396 on-base percentage.
1981 – Like they did in Double-A, Boston wants to really make sure Boggs can really hack the Triple-A pitchers, so he gets another full year in Triple-A. He hits .335, with an on-base percentage of .437. He is twenty-three years old.
1982 – The Red Sox call Boggs up to the majors, only to leave him on the bench for April and May, only giving him a full-time job mid-way thru June, where he spells Dave Stapleton and Carney Lansford at first and third. He does exactly what he did in the minors: he bats .349 and posts an on-base percentage of .406. This later number is particularly telling, as his teammate Dwight Evans leads the AL in that category, with a .402 mark. As a rookie spelling time at first and third, Wade Boggs was better than the best on-base guy in the league.
This history gets to the general perception of Wade Boggs, which is that he was a one-dimensional player. He was a one-dimensional player: as a not-so-gifted defender in those early years, Boggs’ only real skill was his ability to post staggeringly high batting averages, and elite on-base percentages. He didn’t make outs. That’s all he did. That’s all he was.
Unfortunately, he came into baseball during an era of an almost ridiculous diversity of skills. You had slick-fielding shortstops and burning-fast base-stealers. You had sluggardly sluggers and batters who flirted with .400. Almost all of the stars of the era – Brett and Schmidt and Rickey and Murphy and Dawson – had multiple dimensions of skills. They could hit for power and average. They slugged and played great defense. They stole bases and hit homers. They won Gold Gloves and batting crowns.
In this realm, Boggs’ almost maniacal obsession with getting on base seemed like too narrow an obsession. Even his National League rival, the equally obsessive Tony Gwynn, was a Gold Glove outfielder who was fast enough to steal 56 bases in a single year. Not Boggs: all he cared about was reaching first.
I came of age as a baseball fan in Boggs’ prime, and I remember reading a lot of articles in the Boston Globe that were critical of Boggs’ approach as a player. He was ‘just’ a single’s hitter (a criticism that casually ignored that he was the most prolific doubles-hitters of his generation). He took walks when the Sox needed hits. He cared only about his stats. He was too precious about his batting average, too fixated on the batting title.  
That last criticism reflects the eternal paradox of baseball: it is a team game, yet the central combat is an individual act. A batter stands alone in the box: his teammates cannot help him.
Boggs won those battles. For that first, late-starting decade of his career, Boggs was better than everyone else in baseball at beating the pitcher. For his obsession with that, he endured a steady stream of criticism for all that he wasn’t: he wasn’t a power hitter, or a fast runner, or a flashy and brilliant defensive player. He wasn’t a good quote, and he wasn’t particularly likeable. Growing up around Boston, I don’t remember anyone ever saying that their favorite player was Wade Boggs.
I’ve sometimes wondered if that’s a matter of timing. Would Wade Boggs have been a brighter star in the eras that followed? Would his discipline and high batting averages have allowed him to stand out more in the beefed up steroid era? Would we love him now, in our current epoch of high strikeouts and holy worship to the shrine of getting on base?
I don’t know that he would be. Wade Boggs was an obsessive, in the mold of Ted Williams or Rogers Hornsby. Obsessives are hard to love: they tend to be inward, isolated by their fixations. Wade Boggs was famous for eating chicken before every meal, a detail that was treated as a quirky dimension of his personality. That’s a generous read, but I don’t know that it’s accurate: if I had to guess I’d say that Boggs’ demand for chicken was one of the ways he managed his obsession: eating chicken ensured that that was one less thing he had to worry about every day. He wasn’t obsessed with chicken…I’d bet a silver dollar that Wade Boggs didn’t give a damn about chicken…he just didn’t want to have to think about what to eat every day before the game. He wanted that decision made, so that he could focus on the important work.
I do this; I’m like this. In my own life, I’m constantly trying to free myself from secondary distractions, so that I can better focus on my primary goals. I’m not nearly as disciplined as Boggs was: I’m a marginal obsessive, capable of maintaining single efforts for brief stretches. But I recognize the personality, and its costs. I have a few friends who have been similarly myopic at moments in their lives, friends who are (or were) monastically focused on specific pursuits. Boggs was like that, I think. 
It’s not sustainable, of course. Obsession is a way to order a chaotic and random world, and eventually chaos cracks through the order. What is most astonishing about Wade Boggs is that he was able to maintain his specific order for so long, before the cracks started to show. He reached a kind of genius as a hitter, and he maintained it for the better part of a decade, ignoring the steady stream of demands that he do something different, something else. He spent too long in the minor leagues, honing his singular talent and waiting for the Red Sox to finally notice it, and give him a chance. He kept at it, when someone else might’ve tried something different. He never veered. He didn’t quit.  
This dedication never received the attention it deserved in its time, and it’s unlikely that we will come back to it in retrospect. The great joy of sports is that they occur in present time, unscripted plays staged with successive casts that change every time the clock resets, every time the first pitch is thrown. We won’t come back to Boggs’ singular genius, any more than we’ll come back to a full appreciation of Arky Vaughan’s career.
What I’ll remember most is a single image of Boggs, from his 1989 Score baseball card. The picture shows him the plate, bat lowered hand, his body crouched in his familiar stance. The photograph is shot from third-base, and it’s one of the rare action shots where the baseball is in picture, held aloft on invisible strings. The catcher’s glove is shown, the baseball is a moment away from it. Boggs isn’t in mid-swing, about to slice a late double towards left. The pitch is already past him: it has already happened, and Boggs is simply following its flight to the catcher’s mitt. His eyes are focused on it: the moment holds a sense that he is still trying to glean from the rotation of the laces or the last break of the pitch some iota of information, some elemental detail that he can store with all the other information he’s accumulated in the duty shelves of the mind. He is trying to see everything in that moment, everything past and everything that will come.   
Dave Fleming is a writer living in Wellington, New Zealand. He welcomes comments, questions, and suggestions here and at dfleming1986@yahoo.com. 

COMMENTS (30 Comments, most recent shown first)

Dave, I like Boggs, too. But his stats are skewed because of Fenway Park. For his career at Fenway (including as an away player), he hit .369/.464/.527 with a .991 OPS. Everywhere else (25 other parks), he hit .306/.391/.398 with an OPS of .789.

Here's his away OPS during his peak:

Year OPS
1985 0.799
1986 0.929
1987 0.956
1988 0.872
1989 0.744

Not very impressive, I'm afraid.

5:19 PM Sep 2nd
What a great article, Dave, and welcome back. I bet you were in Australia, and that's why you didn't tell us where you were. :)

I loved Boggs, who I saw in person a few times and who I watched on tv many times, but oh my, he was slow. If I had to guess, I'd guess that was a big part of why he didn't get the respect you (and I) think he deserves. Although he hit 61 triples in 10,740 plate appearances, his stolen-base percentage was dreadful: 24 stolen bases in 59 attempts (just under 41%). His percentage was 50% or less in 12 of his 18 seasons. Even David Ortiz, who has hit 19 triples in his 9,658 plate appearances, is 16 for 25 (64%) in stolen base attempts.
9:15 PM May 30th
It's rare, but not THAT rare, for a high average player to lead the league in intentional walks. Rod Carew led in the catagory three or four times, for the reasons shinsplint suggets (runners in scoring position, prefer a walk to a hit).

In the NL, you occasionally get #8 hitters leading in intentional walks...someone like Garry Templeton or Dale Berra will get Black Ink one year, in between the more obvious McCoveys and Schmidts and Benchs.

Part of it, for Boggs, was that a) he was a slow runner, and b) he usually had slow runners batting behind him (Barrett, Rice, later Greenwell), so there was a good chance to turn a double play on the next guy.
6:59 PM May 29th
I always thought IBB should be a % of free passes after the previous batter hit a double aspect to it. I bet that situation accounts for 80% of IBB.
2:15 PM May 29th
An interesting thing to me is that Boggs led the league in intentional walks 6 years in a row. Usually non-sluggers don't lead in that category. Part of it is that he gets to ball 3 a lot obviously, and pitchers may have just decided to throw him ball 4 intentionally just to avoid a prolonged at-bat, as Boggs could foul off the ball all day long. It's also interesting that these high IBB seasons didn't come up until his career was well underway. It's as if teams suddenly decided, despite the evidence being out there for several years, that maybe we ought to just give this guy a walk to save ourselves some trouble. Maybe part of it is that he started hitting in the 3 spot and had more guys on base with first base open? Not sure.
10:20 AM May 29th
The film is called 'What We Do In the Shadows.' It's directed by Taika Waititi, who is (deservedly) beloved down here. It's a damned funny film, mostly shot around Wellington and well worth seeing.

That said, his film 'Boy' is the real masterpiece: it's probably the most beloved NZ film among Kiwi's, a film that is funny and humane without ever sounding a false note, or striving for cheap emotion. Like a lot of directors, Waititi is a 'descendent' of Spielberg, but unlike a lot of the American directors who followed him, Waititi is particularly echoing of Spielberg's particular sensitivities to the ways children build and sense their worlds. He's a wonderful director, and I encourage you to check out 'Boy' if you enjoyed Shadows.

He has a new one out - The Hunt for the Wilderpeople - which I haven't seen yet, but intend to.
8:43 PM May 28th
For what it's worth, Wade won the MVP award three times (1985,87,91) in my Pursue the Pennant season replays. So he has that going for him. Also, did you see see the documentary about New Zealand vampyres and werewolves "What we do in the Dark" and if you did, how accurate was it?
11:08 AM May 28th
I used to have those arguments re : Boggs vs. Mattingly
11:28 PM May 27th
Wade Boggs was my favorite player at that time (I was in my 20's). Of course, Rod Carew was my first favorite player a decade before that, so maybe I'm just a sucker for the high-average "singles" hitters. I used to have arguments with friends about how good Boggs was and how nobody appreciated him. This is a great article. Now I'm going to forward it to those same friends of mine.
1:47 PM May 27th
His greatest feat was eating chicken before every meal

1:06 PM May 27th
Boggs feat was surpassed by Australian cricketer David Boone. 52 beers from Sydney to London in 1989 or 1993 before the biennial Ashes Series. Not sure the date, 1 of those 2 years but a Boone was legendary.​
12:12 PM May 27th
On Boggs, here is a quote from a long interview he gave the Globe in mid-1981, when he was trying to figure out why he wasn't in Boston: "I’ve never read or heard once that I’m a prospect. I was one of two players in the league to hit .300 last year, and not only was I not brought up in September, just to sit there and taste what it’s like, but I wasn’t protected and no other club wanted me."
11:08 AM May 27th
Of course Ross Barnes was playing in the modern equivalent of a mid-level independent league, and getting a large percentage of his hits via the fair-foul bunt which would be eliminated by rule in 1877.​
10:58 AM May 27th

Now that you've escaped our clutches, I guess I need to mention that from 1871-6, Ross Barnes averaged over 10.0 WAR per 162.

10:28 AM May 27th
I don't think Boggs appeared on Seinfeld, but we shouldn't forget his most recent and most memorable cameo on "It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia". The gang attempts to break Boggs "record" of drinking 50 light beers on a cross country flight and then going 3 for 5 against the Mariners.

Also, Pitt the Elder was vastly overrated, come on Boggs.
8:32 AM May 27th
Steven Goldleaf
Wade Boggs on Seinfeld? Drawing a blank here. Was it during the Danny Tartabull/Buck Showalter episode? Did Boggs get any lines?
4:36 AM May 27th
Chuck Waseleski passed away this April: his contributions to the Globe were little gems to those of us who didn't have anyone passing along Bill's abstracts, and I was sad to hear of his passing.

Thanks for the note, Contrarian. And who the hell is this Babe Ruth fellow?
2:59 AM May 27th
Within his greatness was such consistency. If he had made a run at .400, even falling short at .380, I think he'd be remembered differently.
12:24 AM May 27th
You would argue Ruth's 1919-27 seasons for what, exactly?

This column is about the "most underrated peak" of all time. Not the greatest peak, the most underrated.

Since Ruth is pretty universally regarded as the greatest player in history, and since 1919-27 was obviously his peak as a hitter, it's difficult to argue that his peak is somehow underrated.

Dave Fleming and I must be about the same age...I also grew up in Boston in that era. When Peter Gammons's Sunday baseball notes column was, in those pre-internet times, a treasure trove of information you couldn't get anywhere else. And he would often have some unique way of looking at Boggs's ability, usually from data collected by "The Maniacal One" Chuck Waseleski. I remember in mid-86 it was a big deal when someone, possibly Gammons, made it known that Boggs had hit over .400 across a 162-game stretch from 1985-86. And there was another season in there when he never, not once, hit an infield pop up.

Wade was a delight to watch in his prime, and I agree his peak of performance was underrated at the time and remains so today.
12:10 AM May 27th
A couple of similar peaks:

Jackie Robinson:
1949 - 9.6
1950 - 7.5
1951 - 9.7
1952 - 8.5
1953 - 7.0

Total 42.3

Ron Santo:
1963 - 6.7
1964 - 8.9
1965 - 7.7
1966 - 8.9
1967 - 9.8

Total 42.0

12:09 AM May 27th
Dave, how many hits, how many walks, how many wins did the Sox leave in the minors by not bringing him up sooner? Let's say he came up and played a bit at age 20 (1978).
First, maybe there's no Bucky Dent game. The Sox had Butch Hobson at 3rd, sporting a .317 OBP, in that excellent hitters' park.

Then for the '81 season they trade Hobson and Burleson for Lansford and pitching.
Bizarre, as Lansford's lines look good- leading the AL in average, but like a poor man's Wade Boggs, and they already HAD a Wade Boggs, ready to go. Lansford was good that year, but Boston came up short of Milwaukee in the 2nd half standings. Maybe Boggs gets them into the playoffs that year.

How many hits do you spose Boggs winds up with, if he comes up at age 20? I'm thinking around 3,700 hits, perhaps finishing in the top 3 to 5 in career doubles with 700+, top 10 in walks, and maybe closer to a .340 lifetime average.
12:09 AM May 27th
I would argue for Babe Ruth's 1919-1927 seasons. Relative to the major-league averages for each season, during that span Ruth had 7 of the top-9 single-season slugging averages: 1 (1920), 2 (1921), 3 (1927), 5 (1923), 7 (1926), 8 (1919), and 9 (1924). Also, Ruth had 7 of the top-12 single-season OPS: 1 (1920), 3 (1921), 4 (1923), 6 (1926), 7 (1927), and 10 (1924), and 12 (1919). (In both cases, my rankings omit Barry Bonds's performances during 2001-2004.)
11:35 PM May 26th
Best. Comment. Ever.

10:40 PM May 26th
Top Ten Places Dave Fleming could have been for the past few months:

10. Writing the Great American Novel, but not while actually in America.
9. Dunkin' Donuts - no, not the one in Natick by the mall, the one in Framingham by the Stop n' Shop.
8. Stumping for Bernie Sanders.
7. Presenting Gene Tenace's case for the Hall of Fame to each member of the Veterans Committee.
6. It's really hard to come up with more than two or three of these things.
5. Wellington, New Zealand....no wait, that couldn't be it.
4. Held hostage by 19th century baseball historians - released only when he agreed to include some 19th century players in his next column.
3. Trying to convince Billy Hamilton and the Reds that Billy really really is not a switch hitter.
2. Waffle House.
10:23 PM May 26th
A good example of what you're talking about in the perceptions of Boggs:

Back in about 1986 I remember a Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue talking about all the problems the Red Sox had, and as part of the list it mentioned that sure, Wade Boggs hit .357 (or whatever) last year, BUT HE STOLE ONLY TWO BASES. Made you wonder why they wasted a lineup spot on him.

7:49 PM May 26th
Boggs had cameos on Cheers, the Simpsons, and Seinfeld. Classic episodes, all.

7:22 PM May 26th
Hi Dave,

Glad you made bail. Sorry we sold your stuff.

I literally was on the first sentence here when Wade Boggs came on TV being interviewed for having his number retired by the Sox.

So.....this is just a sidebar, but I hate it when an interview with a retired player goes like this:

"Wade, thanks for making a moment to speak with us. So, you are remembered for offense, but you had a good glove, too."

"Yes. My two Gold Gloves are as cherished to me as my five batting championships, and having my number retired here is as cherished as being a first ballot Hall of Famer."

But....ahh, well, I probably won't have to face that challenge to my modesty....

My favorite Wade Boggs story is when the guys from Olde Towne Tavern sent him over to Cheers to sign baseballs, and the Cheers guys thought they were being pranked and they pantsed him.
6:46 PM May 26th
Welcome back, indeed. I enjoy your writing as well.

It seems to me that Boggs would be most appreciated today, compared to other eras. On-base percentage is so visible and so valued now, I can't imagine that he wouldn't be fast-tracked through any organization today, and be a MLB starter by 21-22. But then I may be ignoring the issue of where he would play. Teams usually don't make 22 year-olds their DH, do they?

Pre-1920, Boggs just seems like a player who may have flourished as a minor league star for many years.
6:23 PM May 26th
Nice article, thanks.

Another thing that made Boggs underrated, I suggest, is that he came towards the end of Mike Schmidt and George Brett's peak years - established slightly better third-basemen - even though they were among the best of all-time. (Only through modern anaylsis we can see that take away Brett's under 25 seasons, he was probably not as great as Boggs taking away his under 25 seasons - before he was given a full shot.)
5:59 PM May 26th
Welcome back, Dave. I appreciate good writing, and am glad to hear that you expect to be contributing more articles.

I would think that Boggs would have been much more appreciated pre-1920. Mind boggling to me is that I wonder if he'd even get a chance to play if he came up today. Great, great player.
5:04 PM May 26th
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