The Heavyweight Champ of Baseball (part 6)

April 19, 2020

Before we get up to Mantle’s favorite summer of 1956,  I want to quibble with my choice of OPS+ as the stat of choice. Being a rate stat, it doesn’t account for hitters who accrued a huge OPS+ figure in a less-than-huge number of opportunities.  I used a general standard of qualifying for the batting title, which proved unfair  to players who just missed qualifying, but a better way to do this would have been to multiply the OPS+ number by the number of plate appearances, so that—well, here’s a hypothetical:

 

 

OPS+

PA

New mega-stat

Player 1

200

500

100,000

Player 2

180

700

126,000

 

Player 1 has a significant advantage over Player 2 in OPS+ but he had 200 fewer chances to strut his stuff. Multiplying the OPS+ figure by the PAs would reflect the added value of the second player’s ability to stay in the lineup all season long. I considered using a counting number—I was thinking that Total Bases would do nicely as a multiplier, but it added back the biases that OPS+ eliminated, mainly those of home field advantage and era-variance. But Plate Appearances wouldn’t add to that bias, at least not in an appreciable way. (I’m sure that someone batting in a ballpark where the typical score is 5-3 gets up to bat slightly more than he would if his ballpark yielded a 4-2 result. Then again, doing well in OPS+ over a larger number of PAs is arguably virtuous.)  For convenience’s sake, I would probably use PA as a fraction (.700 rather than 700) to yield a friendlier result.

 

The case against incorporating PAs into OPS+ is purely practical:  BBREF computes OPS+ for me, and lists the top ten contenders every season, saving me the complicated steps of figuring out the annual rankings for batters’ "OPS+ x PA" –honestly, that would add about two hours to my calculations for every year I calculate, and no doubt introduce a lot of new errors into this study.

 

So I’m going to continue using my less accurate system based on OPS+ alone, with cutoffs for batters who don’t qualify for BBREF’s OPS+ rankings. But "OPS+ x PA" would be an improvement.

 

On to 1956:

 

1956

 

OPS+

1.

Mickey Mantle

210

2.

Ted Williams

172

3.

Bob Nieman

155

4.

Duke Snider

155

5.

Joe Adcock

152

6.

Hank Aaron

151

7.

Minnie Minoso

149

8.

Charlie Maxwell

148

9.

Willie Mays

146

10.

Eddie Mathews

143

 

A few surprises here: the huge gap between Mantle and Mays (Mantle and everyone, really, but Mantle and Mays is a big one) and the appearance of a name I’m completely unfamiliar with in the #3 hole.

 

Bob Nieman? Who?

 

Technically, I’d seen Nieman’s name before, strictly as a ninth outfielder (seriously—look it up) on the 1962 San Francisco Giants, whom I’d played repeatedly in baseball board games, mostly against the 1962 Los Angeles Dodgers. That was Nieman’s final tour of duty in MLB, but reviewing his career he wasn’t a bad player at all—mostly a slow corner OFer, with a 12-year career and a lifetime 132 OPS+. His comparables include Mike Easler and Leon Durham. Still: what the heck is he doing sandwiched in between Ted Williams and Duke Snider?

 

His appearance here teaches me something. It is difficult, far more difficult than I ever supposed, to sustain excellence on the major league level. Think about this: we’ve identified a stat, OPS+, that for all its limitations and flaws, does measure all-around batting excellence in the major leagues over a period of time that we all consider significant, one major league season, and we’ve found one player, Nieman, who appears prominently on a list of OPS+ leaders for a season, 1956, and who has an excellent 12-year record of OPS+, 132, but whom none of us would have guessed had performed so well, even if we were given a thousand guesses. (Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe someone here is President of the Bob Nieman Appreciation Society.) What I’m saying is that the guys I’ve been discussing here, sometimes slightingly or jocularly, throughout this project are the best of the best of the best of the best of the best batters in the history of baseball. Including Bob Nieman.

 

With that noted, please note how the Three-M boys, Mays and Mathews and Musial, have all fallen quickly from the top of the rankings, which usually denotes at least that it will be difficult for them to climb back near the top for a year or two, and how Mantle’s place, far in the lead for 1956, his favorite summer, will keep him in the running for the championship crown for some time to come. The three-year rankings for 1954-56 are:

 

1954-56

 

OPS+

1.

Mantle

1148

2.

Snider

  974

3.

Mays

  961

4.

Mathews

  941

5.

Musial

  910

 

"Willie, Mickey and the Duke" (not in that order), the three NYC centerfielders of song, top the rankings. Ted Williams’ absence is notable for the reasons explained in the intro to this article: he missed the 1955 season, or rather he got to the plate only 416 times (with a 209 OPS+), so doesn’t qualify for the three-year period. Probably, using a system that’s more fair to high three-season OPS+ batters like Williams who miss qualifying by 50-odd plate appearances in one season of the three, Williams would appear on these rankings, and even at the top of them, far more often than he does.

 

Mantle’s OPS+ lead in 1956 is enormous. We haven’t seen a lead that large since the end of the war. Unlike some of the cheese champions we’ve seen, in transitional years, he’s claimed his throne so convincingly it will take tremendous strength to dislodge him.

 

I tried searching for the term "cheese champions" to make sure I was using it correctly (to mean a false or fake or weak champion) and discovered that there actually is a championship of cheese awarded annually, this year to Michael Spycher of Switzerland (seriously: https://www.nbc15.com/content/news/Three-Wi​sconsin-cheesemakers-vying-for-World-Champion-Cheese-568527231.html ). The first reference I could find searching for "cheese champions baseball" was a 1954 reference to the AL champion Cleveland Indians, who despite winning 111 games, lost the World Series in four straight games, so I deduce it means what? Champions made out of cheese, as opposed to champs made of sterner stuff?  I think I first came across the term in reference to what someone felt Ted Williams would have been if in 1941 he’d opted to protect his .3996 batting average and to go into the books as a rounded-off .400 hitter.  Williams, coincidentally, heads the 1957 list of OPS+ champions with a VERY un-cheesy figure of 233, higher than any OPS+ we’ve encountered since his own 235 OPS+ in 1941:

 

 

 

 

1957

 

OPS+

1.

Ted Williams

233

2.

Mickey Mantle

221

3.

Willie Mays

173

4.

Stan Musial

172

5.

Hank Aaron

166

6.

Roy Sievers

164

7.

Eddie Mathews

154

8.

Gene Woodling

153

9.

Ernie Banks

149

10.

Duke Snider

143

 ​;

OK, this cinches it: this three-year OPS+ stuff is unfair to Ted Williams. Between the seasons he missed by serving in the military (1943, 1944, 1945, 1952, 1953) and the years he missed qualifying because he had only 390-416 PA with a very high OPS+ (1950, 1955, 1960), all eight seasons spaced wide enough apart to limit his putting together three consecutive qualifying years, a fine case can be made for Williams simply being the dominating hitter of the 1940s and 1950s in their entirety.

 

Williams’ non-qualifying 1955 costs him one year of the six we count, which keeps Mantle at the top of the 1955-57 rankings:

 

 

1955-57

 

OPS+

1.

Mantle

1263

2.

Williams

1043

3.

Mays

  985

4.

Musial

  959

5.

Aaron

  941

6.

Mathews

  918

 

Williams is still in second place for 1955-57 WITHOUT counting his 416-PA 1955, though Mantle’s championship would still hold up even if we had counted it. The three-year figure for the Mick is the highest since this project began, topping Ruth’s figure of 1250 in 1932.

 

I am now going to take a short break from this project, prompted not by running short of interest or material, but by a book on a different subject entirely (the 1981 Los Angeles Dodgers) that is coming out in paperback this week, and which I’d like to call to your attention by reviewing. This project will resume shortly afterwards. Thanks, again, for reading.

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COMMENTS (3 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
That's a trade-off, bearbyz, of doing some of these pieces article-by-article as opposed to all at once and publishing only when the series is complete. I risk making an idiot (or MORE of an idiot) out of myself by goofing in an early installment, but it's also fun to walk the high wire without a net sometimes. This is a learning experience for me as well, I hope, for you. Thanks for your attention.​
3:58 PM Apr 19th
 
bearbyz
I like your new formula a lot. Isn't that the case you do all this work, get a good ways into it and bang a better way hits your brain. See what you learned. I done it myself.
2:27 PM Apr 19th
 
jfenimore
Thank you. Fascinating. Williams should definitely be included, imho.
10:02 AM Apr 19th
 
 
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