The Heavyweight Champ of Baseball (part 4)

April 15, 2020

Where we are when the war ends:


Ruth 1929-1932 (4 years)

Foxx 1933-1935 (3 years)

Gehrig 1936-7 (2 years)

Mize 1938-1940 (4 years)

Williams 1941-1942 (2 years)

Keller 1943 (1 year)

Musial 1944 (1 year) 

Ott  1945 (1 year)

 

 

 

Eight champions so far in 17 seasons, a little over two-year-long titleholders on average.  During the same period, there were seven heavyweight boxing champions: Tunney held the title  during Ruth’s championship, retired in 1928, then Max Schmeling wore the crown in 1930 and 1931, Jack Sharkey beat Schmeling in 1932, lost it to Primo Carnera in 1933, then in 1934 Max Baer won it and lost it  two years later to James J. Braddock, and finally Joe Louis owned the heavyweight crown starting in 1937.  So we’re tracking the turnover in boxing pretty well so far.

 

 

In 1946, we get a bunch of superstars back. I’ve listed a top fifteen this time, because that’s how low I had to scrape the bottom of the barrel to find qualified hitters who played in 1944 and 1945. Most of the top of the OPS+ list for 1946 consists of players without a record for 1944 and 1945, making 1946 a tough year to judge by three-year standards.

 

1946

 

OPS+

1.

Ted Williams

215

2.

Stan Musial

183

3.

Hank Greenberg

162

4.

Mickey Vernon

160

5.

Charlie Keller

159

6.

Hank Edwards

149

7.

Stan Spence

145

8.

Del Ennis

144

9.

Joe DiMaggio

142

10.

Phil Cavarretta

139

11.

Whitey Kurowski

137

12.

Dixie Walker

137

13.

Jeff Heath

134

14.

Johnny Hopp

133

15.

Enos Slaughter

133

 

 ​;

 

 

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Most of these batters have been in the service for both 1944 and 1945, with Del Ennis being a 21-year rookie in 1946. Jeff Heath, who had OPS+es of 158, 168, and 134 from 1944 to 1946 would be our new champion except for missing most of 1944 for some reason. (He wasn’t in the service, and his SABR-bio doesn’t mention an injury, but he played only 60 games in 1944, his 158 OPS+ season.)  So by our three-year standard, Phil Cavarretta in tenth place is the only top-ten contender to have a full three-year track record, which makes him the title-holder, with a sub-900 OPS+.

 

 

 

1944-46

 

OPS+

1.

Phil Cavarretta

886

2.

Tommy Holmes

856

3.

Dixie Walker

839

4.

Whitey Kurowski

817

 

 

You will be forgiven if you disagree with this judgment (as I do personally) and declare Williams with his 215 OPS+ in 1946 to have re-asserted his right to the title, or even if you do (as I don’t particularly) think the title goes to Musial, who missed 1945  but whose 1943, 1944 and 1946 would land him on top here. By 1947, we should be almost beyond the deleterious effects of WWII.

 

 

 

 

1947

 

OPS+

1.

Ted Williams

205

2.

Ralph Kiner

173

3.

Johnny Mize

160

4.

Joe DiMaggio

154

5.

Whitey Kurowski

150

6.

Harry Walker

150

7.

Bob Elliott

147

8.

Walker Cooper

140

9.

Tommy Henrich

138

10.

Joe Gordon

135

 

 

First note here is that Phil Cavarretta is nowhere to be found on the 1947 list, and neither is Stan Musial.

Phil is down in 34th place on the OPS+ chart, which pretty kills his chances of maintaining his heavyweight title, and Musial is just off the top ten, landing in 13th place. I’ll run their numbers just to see how they did, but I expect—oh, the hell with what I expect. Let’s just run the numbers for 1945-47:

 

1945-47

 

OPS+

1.

Williams

1045

2.

Kurowski

  878

3.

Mize

  852

4.

Cavarretta

  783

5.

Musial

  768

6.

D. Walker

  765

7.

Kiner

  751

8.

Holmes

  748

9.

DiMaggio

  746

 

 

Again, just wow. I won’t quote the eloquent Sergeant Donowitz again, but Williams has accomplished the unbelievable feat of A) clearing the 1000 OPS+ mark with only 5 of the 6 years being counted, and B) leading everyone else in MLB by a huge margin,  anyway, and C) including those who do have six years of career-highs in OPS+ being counted (Kurowski, Cavarretta, Holmes).

 

Some coincidental pairings here: Musial and Dixie Walker in the mid-760s and DiMaggio and Tommy Holmes in the mid-740s put up the same OPS+ figures with the first (superstar) doing it in 1946 and 1947 while the second (star) did it using all three seasons. Ralph Kiner finished in between the two pairs, also accomplishing it using only the last two seasons.

 

I included Johnny Mize on the 1945-47 list, though by my standards he doesn’t really qualify: he had only 444 Plate Appearances in 1946 but I wanted to show what a fine batter he was anyway. In those 444 Plate Appearances in 1946 he had a 186 OPS+, which would have placed him right behind Ted Williams and ahead of Stan Musial. And if we allow him to qualify for 1946, then he would achieve the 852 OPS+ mark above for 1945-7, like Ted Williams, without having played in 1945. That is some hitting.

 

I come away from this study with a profound respect for Johnny Mize, and an even more profound respect for Ted Williams.  I had heard a lot about these guys being close to Ruth in batting abilities, but this project really impressed the profundity on me.

 

In a sense, the sense that I’m not using here, Williams is the world’s greatest batter throughout the 1940s—I could be persuaded, given this evidence, simply to declare the title vacant while he was off flying planes in Florida (he never actually made it into the war, never faced enemy action until Korea) and simplify this whole WWII quandary very easily. I can think of the last few years of the war as supplying us with candidates to hold the title in his absence but really Williams might have been the no-brainer choice all along.

 

He continues his dominance in 1948, despite being nosed out by Stan Musial for the #1 spot that season.

 

 

 

1948

 

OPS+

1.

Stan Musial

200

2.

Ted Williams

189

3.

Lou Boudreau

165

4.

Joe DiMaggio

163

5.

Johnny Mize

156

6.

Tommy Henrich

151

7.

Sid Gordon

147

8.

Ralph Kiner

146

9.

Ken Keltner

146

10.

Andy Pafko

144

 

 

Williams leads the 1946-48 rankings by a wide margin:

 

 

1946-48

 

OPS+

1.

Williams

1192

2.

Musial

1051

3.

Mize

  974

4.

DiMaggio

  939

5.

Kiner

  900

6.

Boudreau

  868

7.

Henrich

  842

 

Two quick notes: 1) Mize’s place here is again questionable, relying as it does on a non-qualifying number of Plate Appearances in 1946. But I included it because it’s still impressive. And 2) since that puts DiMaggio in third place, perhaps that raises the issue of defense again, at least regarding the best overall position player, and not just best hitter. And again, I’ll note that what we’re measuring here is just who ranks #1, so I think it’s safe to say that Joe D.’s defensive contributions can’t come close to equaling the 250 OPS+-advantage Williams holds over him.

 

In 1949, Williams is #1 again:

 

 

 

1949

 

OPS+

1.

Ted Williams

191

2.

Ralph Kiner

186

3.

Stan Musial

177

4.

Jackie Robinson

152

5.

Tommy Henrich

148

6.

Enos Slaughter

144

7.

Sid Gordon

142

8.

Del Ennis

140

9.

Vern Stephens

137

10.

Eddie Joost

137

 

[GPSJ1] The 1949 contenders list, apart from the three 1000+ OPS+ sluggers, consists of newbies and batters too inconsistent to get very far up the rankings. Four members of the Yankees who have appeared towards the tops of the rankings to date—DiMaggio, Keller, Henrich, and new Yankee Johnny Mize—either have too few plate appearances to qualify, have lost some skills,  or, in Henrich’s case, are almost done and will never again be able to post a dominating OPS+. The top three, however, are all at the top of their games, and the rankings remain more or less the same:

 

 

1947-49

 

OPS+

1.

Williams

1156

2.

Musial

1065

3.

Kiner

1023

4.

Henrich

  844

 

In 1950, Williams broke his elbow in the All-Star game, and missed most of the second half of the season, so he does not qualify by any stretch for the OPS+ title that season. He was having an historic year: according to BBREF’s system of prorating his pre-All-Star game stats, he was on pace to hit 58 HRs, drive in 193 runs, score 174 runs, and (for the only time in his long career) collect 200 hits, which he never did because he walked so much (169 times, according to this projection). Of course, the projection itself is exaggerated, because 1) it’s on a 162-game basis, and in 1950 they played only 154, 2) Williams didn’t play every day— up to the All-Star break in  1950, he had already missed seven of the 77 games, and 3) they’re –duh!—unrealistic numbers. But he was unquestionably having a great year, and we’d have to credit him with holding the title that he brought into the year up until the All-Star elbow break.

 

His OPS up to that point was 1.157. Stan Musial ended up leading MLB in 1950 with a 1.034 OPS, which translated into a 164 OPS+:

 

1950

 

OPS+

1.

Stan Musial                   

164

2.

Andy Pafko

157

3.

Sid Gordon

156

4.

Ralph Kiner

156

5.

Larry Doby

156

6.

Joe DiMaggio

151

7.

Al Rosen

145

8.

Del Ennis

141

9.

Hoot Evers

141

10.

Bob Elliott

140

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clearly with Williams out of consideration, we don’t need to run the whole chart for 1948-50. Musial’s three-year score is 1046, putting him well ahead of anyone else on the 1950 rankings above. Second place goes to Ralph Kiner, with 986. The surprising thing, perhaps just to me, is that by 1950, we can see that DiMaggio never held the title, not even once, and usually was well out of contention. Like I said, maybe that’s just me, but (as I displayed in Part 1 of this project) I assumed that DiMaggio would be dominant at least for short bursts, throughout his whole career. Maybe that’s a result of having grown up in New York City, surrounded by Yankee fans, and also as a result of knowing he got off to a fast start with a fabulous rookie year in 1936 and just got better and better until he retired young, some said prematurely, refusing to perform when he could no longer play at this best. To me, that added up to "Of course, he must have led the world in OPS+ at some point, probably several points."  That’s my biggest surprise up to this point, that and the dominance of another 1936 rookie, Johnny Mize, who continued playing for the Yankees after DiMaggio retired in 1951.

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As long as I’m castigating myself, though, I should also note that I had also assumed that Jackie Robinson would appear higher and for longer in these rankings than he actually did. The OPS+es of 154 above and of 152 in 1949 are his only appearances on any of these charts, and he never threatened to take the lead. Like DiMaggio, his fielding skills formed a large part of his reputation so we’ll see how he does with future metrics taking defense into account—my own feeling is that there is not enough defensive credit for DIMaggio or Robinson to hold the title of "Greatest Position Player in MLB" considering their distance from the top of these rankings based purely on offense.

 

Kiner narrowly edges Musial in 1951’s OPS+. African-Americans take up half of the top-ten slots, and (probably) will continue to appear in profusion from here on in.

 

 

1951

 

OPS+

1.

Ralph Kiner

185

2.

Stan Musial

183

3.

Ted Williams

164

4.

Larry Doby

160

5.

Roy Campanella

159

6.

Jackie Robinson

154

7.

Minnie Minoso

151

8.

Bobby Thomson

150

9.

Ferris Fain

148

10.

Monte Irvin

147

 

 

 

In the synoptic 1949-51 rankings, we have the closest finish yet, and nearly the closest possible finish:

 

 

1949-51

 

OPS+

1.

Musial

1054

2.

Kiner

1053

3.

Doby

  920

4.

Robinson

  894

5.

Campanella

  876

 

Williams

  683

 

I would call this a draw, and as such, following previous practice, this means that Musial retains his title, narrowly. I list Williams in an unnumbered spot (there are several batters between his 683, I’m sure, and Campy’s 876) to show how again how well he does despite getting zero credit for his 416 Plate Appearances in 1950. If he’d gotten full credit for them, he’d rank third here, with 1019.

 

I’m not quite sure what I’d do if we were counting Williams’ 1950. He would still be the title-holder going into 1951, and I’d have to say that 1019 doesn’t really count as a draw with Musial’s 1054, so I’d have to give the crown to Musial in that case, but fortunately I’m spared that difficult decision. Still I will have to opine here that Williams has a case to make for being the heavyweight title holder for the entire period of 1941 through 1950, which my three-year requirement with no allowances for missing time for war time service denies him.

 
 

COMMENTS (4 Comments, most recent shown first)

DrewEck
I’ve read all 4-1/2 of them and look forward to the rest.
It’s a great read!
9:51 AM Apr 16th
 
steve161
To continue with the boxing analogy, Ted Williams should hold the lineal title as best hitter in baseball through most of his career.

I'm not surprised that Williams and Musial are one and two when they have a chance to compete. It's an open question whether the rest of Musial's game displaces Williams as best overall. I'm not a bit surprised that DiMaggio isn't in the running.

I am however greatly surprised at how well Ralph Kiner shows. I've always thought of him as a pure slugger, but clearly there was more to him than that.
9:11 AM Apr 16th
 
Steven Goldleaf
So YOU're the one who's been reading these! Thanks for your attention. I've been revising and re-conceptualizing as I go along. Sometimes I think these things through and then publish them in stages but for this one I kept tinkering with the ideal method (while I kept to the same practices, just to make every part consistent).
8:03 PM Apr 15th
 
bearbyz
I enjoy reading this, thank you. I would be one who would vote for a WWII exception and for 1946 count the last three years each player played. Harder for you though. However, you know who would win 1946 already.
2:36 PM Apr 15th
 
 
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