The Heavyweight Champ of Baseball (part 2)

April 5, 2020

Recapping where this study-in-progress has taken us, so far:

 

1)     While my ultimate goal is to answer a huge question, "Who has held the title of Greatest MLB Player at every point in baseball history?" I’ve begun with a model that (only partially) will answer the question of "Who has held the title of Greatest MLB Hitter starting in 1927?"

2)     My model is that of the Heavyweight Champion of Boxing (or top-ranked golfer, tennis player, etc.), in which the title does not change hands depending on a single fight (golf match, tennis match, etc.) but rather in which contenders for the title establish their credentials to challenge the current champion over a period of years, and must then defeat him decisively in order to claim the title.

3)     There are a number of factors that would constitute achievements qualifying challengers for a title bout (match, etc.) such as Win Shares, WAR, MVP shares, Total Bases, but for now we’re focusing on only one: OPS+. To do a serious study of this question, we would have to account for several different types of achievements that would constitute dispositive evidence for unseating the reigning champion.

4)     And more disparate types of achievements would be needed to broaden the question out to the ultimate goal of naming the greatest player, rather than the greatest hitter, in MLB at a given time.

 

In Part 1, I speculated on who might qualify, and I was pleased to learn that some of my speculations were right (I thought Jimmie Foxx would take the title after Babe Ruth gave it up) and others were wrong (I assumed that Joe DiMaggio would take over the title in the late 1930s, which his OPS+ marks seem incapable of doing.)  So far the title-holders have been Ruth (1929-1932), Foxx (1933-1935) and Lou Gehrig (1936-   ).  In the 1937 season, Joe Medwick led all of MLB in OPS+ but Gehrig still wears the championship belt, which is based on the last three years of OPS+, weighted 3x for the most recent season, 2x for the previous season, and 1x for two seasons ago. The 1937 results are:

 

 

1937

 

 

1.

Joe Medwick

182

2.

Lou Gehrig

176

3.

Johnny Mize

173

4.

Hank Greenberg

172

5.

Dolph Camilli

170

6.

Joe DiMaggio

166

7.

Mel Ott

150

8.

Bob Johnson

147

9.

Zeke Bonura

145

10.

Bill Dickey

144

 

 

Making the top rankings for 1935-1937 look like this:  

 

 

Rank 1935-37

 

OPS+

1.

Gehrig

1084

2.

Medwick

1011

3.

Ott

  961

4.

Vaughan

  887

 

 

The leaders in the 1937 rankings share some similarities: most of them lack that strong three-year record. Ducky-Wucky Medwick’s strong year combines with an excellent 1936 (157) and a very good 1935 (151) but otherwise all the other contenders have at least one flaw in their record.   Mize and DiMaggio didn’t play at all in 1935, Greenberg missed 1936, Arky-Warky Vaughan fell off to "only" 133 in 1937, Dolphy-Wolphy Camilli came in at 99 for 1935, and so on. Camilli’s record, by the way, is weird—from 1935 (even with his sub-average OPS+) through 1942, eight straight seasons, he got some share of the MVP voting, winning it in 1940, every single year EXCEPT 1937, when he got his highest OPS+ ever, the very impressive 170 listed above.

 

That weirdness aside, I expect the other metrics mainly to bolster the OPS+ findings. In other words, I would think that if Ruth is the OPS+ champ in 1927, which he was with a very dominant 225 OPS+ (his OPS+ that year and Lou Gehrig’s 220 are the two highest marks we’ve seen so far),  the other metrics should support that rather than contradicting it.

 

The highest three-year OPS+ total so far, incidentally, is Ruth’s 1250 for 1930-32. That works out to an annual OPS+ for the three seasons of nearly 210, an amazing total, over twice what two average hitters will produce. Most seasons a 200 OPS+ will put a player on top of all of baseball, and the average leading annual figure is right around 200.

 

So with Gehrig holding the title for a second straight year in 1937, we move on to 1938, when Jimmie Foxx and Mel Ott lead the chart, followed closely by Johnny Mize, who qualifies for the title in his third year, and less closely by Hank Greenberg, who still is suffering from his missing 1936 season.

 

1938

 

OPS+

1.

Jimmie Foxx

182

2.

Mel Ott

178

3.

Johnny Mize

176

4.

Hank Greenberg

169

5.

Ernie Lombardi

152

6.

Ival Goodman

147

7.

Jeff Heath

145

8.

Harlond Clift

144

9.

Bill Dickey

143

10.

Earl Averill

142

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Lou Gehrig has dropped off the 1938 OPS+ chart entirely. He still had an excellent season by anybody’s standards but his own—157 games, a .295/29/114 slash year—but those are merely excellent seasons for a human, not Lou Gehrig’s excellence. So who has taken over his title? Has Foxx reclaimed the title? Has Ott finally broken through?

 

Rank 1936-38

 

OPS+

1.

Mize

1036

2.

Ott

1011

3.

Foxx

  955

 

No, of the three monosyllabic greats of the late 1930s, it’s Mize who can claim the championship, in only his first year of eligibility.

 

Or can he claim it? The one flaw in his case is the lack of playing time in 1936—remember, he had a spectacularly good OPS+ in his rookie season but it took him half of his rookie season to displace the Cardinals’ regular first-baseman, so Mize got only 469 Plate Appearances in 1936.

 

1938 is the toughest year so far to find the identity of the world’s number one hitter. Ott after all has been in contention for well over a decade, and Mize is just in his first season of eligibility, but Mize is a full 25 OPS+ points ahead of Ott. That’s a lot. It’s not like the almost-ties we’ve seen before (the Foxx 1119/Gehrig 1117 virtual tie in 1933-35, for example) where a bare lead was insufficient to dislodge a reigning champion. You might argue that Ott has spent 14 seasons establishing a reputation as a very good hitter whereas Mize has shown in his three years that he’s a great hitter. I would award the title to Mize here in a close decision. If Ott were already the title-holder, I might go the other way, but they’re both contenders for the title, and Mize has the better three-year record, which is how I’m figuring.

 

Having earned the title, can Mize keep it?

 

 

1939

 

OPS+

1.

Jimmie Foxx

188

2.

Joe DiMaggio

184

3.

Johnny Mize

178

4.

Ted Williams

160

5.

Hank Greenberg

156

6.

Bob Johnson

156

7.

Hal Trosky

154

8.

George Selkirk

148

9.

Dolph Camilli

144

10.

Ival Goodman

142

 

 

Well, the very next season, 1939, Jimmie Foxx is back in the lead again, with DiMaggio and Mize right behind him. Mel Ott has dropped completely off the top-ten, with his lowest OPS+ (137) since he was 18 years old, so the competition is now between Foxx and Mize. Since Foxx has led all of MLB for the second year running, it might seem that he is now the OPS champion, but no:

 

Rank 1937-39

 

OPS+

1.

Mize

1059

2.

Foxx

1055

3.

DiMaggio

  996

4.

Greenberg

  978

 

 

How did that happen? Foxx leads MLB two straight years that are double- and triple-counted, and he’s not the champ?  This is where the wisdom (?) of deciding the championship based on three seasons, not one or two, comes in: in 1937, Foxx had an off-year (for him), registering only a 127 OPS+. (His lifetime OPS+ was 163.) Mize, meanwhile, has just had three of the most consistently high OPS+es you can imagine: 173, 176, 178. (And in 1940 he will tack a 179 onto those figures.)  So on the basis of Mize holding the championship coming into 1939, and edging Foxx out for the three-year period, he continues holding the title. Naturally, by leading MLB in 1940, he keeps the title for that year as well as this one:

 

In addition to the arbitrariness of lighting upon OPS+ as the be-all and end-all of offensive measures of batting ability, and the arbitrariness of picking a three-year standard, as opposed to a five-year or a two-year standard, any one of which could change the identity of a given year’s champion, I’m also following the standard I set out of the necessity of defeating the champ decisively in order to claim the crown. Which is to say, these titles don’t mean all that much—they just provide us with one lens with which to view greatness. I wouldn’t have said (and didn’t say in part 1) that Johnny Mize was a fabulous hitter on the order of Babe Ruth or Jimmie Foxx, but now I have to scratch my head and reconsider Mize’s standing in my pantheon. The OPS+ titles now look like this:

 

Ruth 1929-1932 (4 years, plus the years before 1929)

Foxx 1933-1935 (3 years)

Gehrig 1936-37 (2 years)

Mize 1938-1940 (3 years)

 

The way these numbers, arranged in just this way, shake out, Mize has a very strong case as the most under-rated hitter of all time—and that is exactly the case that (I just discovered) Joe Posnanski makes for Mize in his pantheon of the 100 Greatest Players Ever (or whatever he called his loopy list): https://theathletic.com/1544651/2020/01/23/the-baseball-100-no-64-johnny-mize/ explains his ranking, and the Hall of Fame’s almost-criminal neglect of Mize’s legacy. I’m sure if I had set different rules for what makes someone the champ, or a different time-frame for this experiment, or a different standard than OPS+, I’d get different results—but Mize would still look pretty good.

 

Briefly, I’ll take a paragraph to over-explain why I chose OPS+: it’s ballpark-neutral, and since we’re comparing year-by-year, there’s no chance of an era bias either. Just-plain OPS takes into account both OBP and SLG, of course, so it favors no particular type of hitter, though OPS is inherently flawed because OBP is somewhat more important than SLG. I suppose ties, or near-ties, could be broken by going with the player whose OBP is better but half the time it would only reinforce the outcome anyway (in the Ruth/Foxx near-tie of 1932, 207 Foxx/201 Ruth,  for example, Foxx had the higher OBP) and rarely would there be so significant an imbalance to break the tie. These guys usually had great OBP and great SLG.

 

1940

 

OPS+

1.

Johnny Mize

177

2.

Joe DiMaggio

173

3.

Hank Greenberg

171

4.

Ted Williams

161

5.

Jimmie Foxx

150

6.

Bill Nicholson

148

7.

Dolph Camilli

146

8.

Rudy York

145

9.

Charlie Keller

141

10.

Jim Gleeson

139

 

 

Mize, DiMaggio, Greenberg, Ted Williams and Foxx all have strong years in 1940, but Mize has the best track record over the past three years, DiMag is still paying the price for a mere 137 OPS+ in 1938, Greenberg’s been just a little behind Mize’s pace in each of the three years counted here, and Williams has got only two years in MLB at this point. Foxx, at age 32, is beginning to wind down his amazing career—he’ll play another five years, all through the war years, but his MVP days are over.

 

Meanwhile, in Ed Morgan’s fabled number-ten position, Jim Gleeson raises the question "Who the hell is he?" Looking over his stats, I’d say he has to be the least significant player ever to show up on a top-ten OPS+ chart, though I’m prepared to be proven wrong. In his five MLB seasons with three teams, he averaged 78 games per season, and 1940 was the only one in which he batted over 400 times. Statistically, it doesn’t even look like that good a season: his slash line is .313/5/61.  This is what known as "sneaking onto a list you really don’t belong on." He makes Ed Morgan look like a superstar.

 

 

 

Rank 1938-40

 

OPS+

1.

Mize

1063

2.

DiMaggio

1026

3.

Foxx

1007

4.

Greenberg

  994

 

 

 

 

OK,  by 1941 the war in Europe is well underway, but we’ve got one full season left in the U.S. before MLB players start taking the next few seasons off to play fun and games over there and in the Pacific. So let’s look at 1941:

 

1941

 

OPS+

1.

Ted Williams

235

2.

Joe DiMaggio

184

3.

Pete Reiser

164

4.

Dolph Camilli

164

5.

Jeff Heath

162

6.

Charlie Keller

162

7.

Johnny Mize

156

8.

Mel Ott

150

9.

Cecil Travis

150

10.

Elbie Fletcher

147

 

 

Wow. Just wow.  "Teddy fuckin' Williams knocks it out of the pahk!," as Sergeant Donowitz quaintly phrased it, "Fenway Pahk on its feet for Teddy fuckin' Ballgame! He went yahd on that one, out to fuckin' Lansdowne Street!",  not only compared to everyone else in 1941, but off the OPS+ records we have seen in this study. Ruth, remember, led with 225 way back in 1927 and Gehrig was close behind him with 220 in that same season, but since then no one has approached those numbers, and recent leaders have struggled to get over 200. Is this one-year burst enough to vault Williams to the top of the OPS+ chart for 1939-1941?

 

Rank 1939-41

 

OPS+

1.

Williams

1187

2.

DiMaggio

1082

3.

Mize

1000

 

Yes, it is, with room to spare. Williams has KOed Mize, and is the new World’s Champ.

 

Greenberg essentially misses all of 1941, drafted into the Army ahead of most other players, which explains his absence from the 1939-41 rankings, but it’s unlikely he or anyone could have stopped Williams’ rise to the top. DiMaggio’s runner-up figure of 1082 would have ranked him #1 in most three-year groupings, but he’s a long way below Williams.

 

Winter is coming, and Pearl Harbor with it, so I’ll try to resolve the issue with all (or most) of the best hitters off to war in Part 3.

 

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (4 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
Annually, the average OPS+ is 100. A 125 OPS+ in a year is 25% better than average. That is a lot. Even divided among six seasons, it's significant.
1:44 PM Apr 7th
 
steve161
25 points out of a thousand are not 25%.
7:23 AM Apr 7th
 
Steven Goldleaf
I don't wish to argue so subjective a point as to what constitutes "a lot," steve161, but "25 points of OPS+" is not 25 points of OPS, which I admit wouldn't be a gross amount. It signifies a 25% better OVERALL offensive performance, which is going to be a HELL of a lot more than just .025 increase in OPS. It is a lot.
8:58 AM Apr 6th
 
steve161
Minor nit: 25 points of OPS+ in six seasons worth of data (3+2+1) is not "a lot". Especially given that OPS double-counts batting average, a few base hits turned to errors (or vice versa) can make that up in a hurry.
5:08 AM Apr 6th
 
 
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