The Heavyweight Champ of Baseball (part 5)

April 17, 2020

We’re entering the period I’m most interested in here, being the period I was starting to draw breath in and, a few years afterwards, starting to follow baseball in. Before we get there, though, let’s review the holders of the heavyweight title from 1929 through 1951:

 

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)

Cavarretta 1946 (1 year)

Williams 1947-49 (3 years)

Musial 1950-1 (2 years)

 

Williams and Musial have now taken their lost crowns back, and clearly dominate the 1940s and the 1950s so far.      

1952

 

OPS+

1.

Stan Musial

167

2.

Larry Doby

163

3.

Mickey Mantle

162

4.

Al Rosen

159

5.

Jackie Robinson

149

6.

Ted Kluszewski

146

7.

Vic Wertz

145

8.

Hank Sauer

143

9.

Sid Gordon

142

10.

Gil Hodges

   142

 

 

 

Some new names on the list, though the leader for 1950-52 will remain the same.  "I’m still Stanley…" The most exciting new name is that of Mickey Mantle, who I now realize will come to dominate these rankings, once he gets some time under his belt. Mays, whom I mistakenly thought at first would dominate these lists by the early ‘60s, lacks Mantle’s OBP talents, though for now they both lack the playing time necessary to appear in the three-year rankings. From this perspective, it now seems that the relationship between Williams and DiMaggio will replicate itself with Mantle and Mays—the first of the two will dominate the OPS+ rankings for a decade or more, and the case for the better player overall will rest on the fielding advantage of the second of the two. Mantle actually has a stronger fielding record than Williams, so I doubt at this point that Mays will be able to make much of a dent. But we shall see.

 

1950-52

 

OPS+

1.

Musial

1031

2.

Doby

  965

3.

Kiner

  949

4.

Robinson

  895

5.

Rosen

  868

 

Some minor changes from the 1949-51 rankings, but no changes at the top, which is all we’re looking for here.  1952 is the last time Musial will lead the major leagues in OPS+, but over the next five years (spoiler ahead!) he will have a 161 OPS+, so he should be hard to dislodge from the top spot, especially since Williams, by our lights, will be disqualified from having his Korean War seasons counted for the next few years. It’s really a question, I think, of how soon Mays and Mantle will chip away at Musial’s top-of-the-pile ranking.  Mays won’t have a three-year record of performance until 1956, which of course is Mantle’s greatest year (though by OPS+ standards, his 1957 is a tad better). But first let’s see who the champ is while Williams is flying the scenic route over Korea:

 

 

1953

 

OPS+

1.

Al Rosen

180

2.

Eddie Mathews

171

3.

Stan Musial

169

4.

Duke Snider

165

5.

Roy Campanella

154

6.

Mickey Vernon

150

7.

Carl Furillo

146

8.

Gene Woodling

146

9.

Ray Boone

146

10.

Mickey Mantle

144

 

 ​;

The 1953 rankings feature a bunch of newbies, but the guy in the #3 slot leads the 1951-53 group, as expected. This is Al Rosen’s career year, and Eddie Mathews’ career high in HR and MVP-shares—unfortunately for Mathews, this is only his second qualifying year in MLB so he won’t appear on the 1951-53 chart below. If 3B was gradually becoming a lower-hitter’s position, 1953 cinched it. Both leagues were led in OPS+ by a third-baseman, I would guess for the first time ever. One statistical coincidence is the tie between Kiner and Robinson for fifth place—I don’t want to repeat my Addie Joss rant about the utter stupidity of the HoF’s rule that players must have ten years in MLB to qualify for the Hall, but if these two giant no-brainer HoFers barely qualify, then the ten-year rule is a disaster waiting to happen.

 

 

1951-53

 

OPS+

1.

Musial

1024

2.

Rosen

  981

3.

Doby

  897

4.

Snider

  883

5.

Kiner

  863

5.

Robinson

  863

 

 

In 1954, Williams qualifies for the first time in a while, and tops the rankings:

 

 

1954

 

OPS+

1.

Ted Williams

201

2.

Willie Mays

175

3.

Eddie Mathews

172

4.

Duke Snider

171

5.

Stan Musial

167

6.

Ted Kluszewski

167

7.

Mickey Mantle

158

8.

Minnie Minoso

154

9.

Al Rosen

147

10.

Gil Hodges

140

 

 

I suppose the best way to think of Williams’ dominance in OPS+ throughout his long career (he has one more monster year coming down the road, in 1957, the year he batted .388) is to think of the heavyweight champ retiring, turning the top contender for his crown into the champ (in this analogy that would be Musial), then coming out of retirement on two separate occasions, and asserting his championship each time. It makes for a mess in deciding who was actually the greatest boxer in the world throughout the period—you have one technical answer, whoever the governing bodies say it is, and one generally accepted answer, which would be "Williams."

 

But as long as we’re going with the strict three-year measures, that will eliminate Williams from the running and keep Musial in the lead. It also eliminates 1954’s number two guy, Willie Mays, from consideration:

 

1952-54

 

OPS+

1.

Musial

1006

2.

Snider

  978

3.

Mathews

  971

4.

Rosen

  960

5.

Klu

  933

6.

Mantle

  924

 

 

Partly due to the anomaly of the #1 and #2 guys on the 1954 rankings being ineligible for the crown, both due to military service, and the fading of some OPS+ superstars (Kiner, Doby, Robinson) into mere 120-130 OPS+ range just-plain stars (a 130 OPS+ signifies a 30% better production rate than the average MLB hitter) the peak figure for the 1952-54 crown barely cracks the 1000 barrier. Musial’s 1006 for the period is amazingly consistent: 167, 169, 167, although his 1952 OPS+ of 167 led all of MLB (the raw figure was .970) while his 167 of 1954 was only good enough for 4th place in the NL (while rising to 1.036 for the raw figure.)  As you can see from the OPS+es of the Kiner/Doby/Robinson group, it is very daunting for any player, even a great one who puts up great numbers, to challenge for the crown. This is a very high standard, demanding world-class excellence for at least three years in a row, that even the greatest of the greats find challenging and often defeating.

 

Another thing I’m learning here, with DiMaggio/Williams and with Mays/Mantle, is an important distinction. The Heavyweight Champion of MLB (offensively) may well not be the Greatest Hitter in Baseball during his career. I don’t think that defense alone explains why Joe Posnanski, for example, rated Willie Mays his #1 player this week and rated Mickey Mantle at # 11, or why most other analysts rate Mays above Mantle. (Including Bill, whose Historical Abstract rates Mays well above Mantle in career value.) At their peaks, looking ahead a few years here, Mantle has an OPS+ that is significantly better than Mays’ and I don’t think that’s a statistical fluke—Mantle was clearly more productive as an offensive force than Mays. The early 1950s were for both of them "too early to tell" by the three-year standards I’m using and also in the thinking of the time—to declare either man already a great player before the mid-1950s is simply to apply an unwarranted retrospective vision to their first few years. The mid-fifties through the mid-sixties, their peak years, belong to Mantle, and Mays pulls ahead only when both players are beginning to fade in the late sixties, when Mantle retired and Mays continued adding to his career numbers for another five years. So Mays and DiMaggio might exemplify the oddity here, that the best hitter in the game over the course of a career might not crash the tight inner circle of those I’m deeming worthy of the "Best Hitter in the Game at any Point in Time" title.

 

 

Mantle and Mays do show up at the top of the 1955 rankings, in just that order:

 

1955

 

OPS+

1.

Mickey Mantle

180

2.

Willie Mays

174

3.

Eddie Mathews

170

4.

Duke Snider

169

5.

Al Kaline

162

6.

Stan Musial

157

7.

Roy Campanella

152

8.

Ted Kluszewski

147

9.

Ernie Banks

144

10.

Wally Post

142

 

And although Mays’ years in the service still count heavily against his three-year record, Mantle shoots over (or rather, precisely at) the 1000 OPS+ mark for the first time, while Musial’s worst OPS+ in a decade brings him below 1000 for the first time in a while, and down to fourth among the 1953-55 group:

 

 

1953-55

 

OPS+

1.

Mathews

1025

2.

Snider

1014

3

Mantle

1000

4.

Musial

  974

5.

Don’t have a Klu

  918

 

 

1955 is a sort of changing-of-the-guard type year: we can see where certain emerging players (Mantle, Mays, Kaline, Banks) are about to challenge for the crown, they’re not quite ready yet to assume the, um, mantle, while older stars like the 34-year-old Stan Musial are fading for the first time. Snider and Mathews battle for the title, and Mathews emerges from the battle, victorious.

 

The new champ, Eddie Mathews, has just put together three consecutive years that rival Musial’s consistency and tops his raw OPS+ numbers slightly: 171, 172, 170. Not to give away too much too soon, but those are the first three times he will ever reach the 170+ mark, and the last three times as well. I’d say he’s pretty well fated to take a back seat to Mantle from this point on.

 

Before we push on, however, I will insert a quick word (in a day or two) about my evolving methods here, and some insights I've gained along the way about the best metrics of offensive abilities. There's something a little bit off about using OPS+ alone (although I will continue to use it, if only to keep the numbers consistent throughout this whole preliminary project.) 


 
 

COMMENTS (2 Comments, most recent shown first)

formersd
Rosen and soon Mantle are the first non lf/rf/1b to be the Heavyweight champs. I suspect it will be a rare thing.
12:24 AM Apr 20th
 
davidt50
I like this series
12:17 AM Apr 18th
 
 
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