The Heavyweight Champ of Baseball (part 8)

May 1, 2020

 

Now we’re entering the period where I (and many of you) have actually started following MLB, and which prompted this whole tedious/fun project to begin with, where we will learn who, by this cockamamie system, is the Best Hitter in Baseball throughout the 1960s.

 

Before we start, though, I should say something about the Best Position Player in Baseball title, which is one notch up on a hierarchy of praise than just "Best Hitter": so far, we haven’t really come across a serious conflict between "Best Position Player" and "Best Hitter."  Offense is roughly three-quarters, four-fifths, something like that, of a position player’s value, so by my lights for someone to claim to be the best overall position player over another player who has nailed down the "Best Hitter" title, he’d need to show a huge edge in fielding prowess.

 

I mean, a HUUUUGE edge.  If Babe Ruth in 1932, when he posted a 1230 OPS+ for the preceding three seasons, had been followed up by slick-fielding shortstop with a 1225 OPS+, then, ok, we’d have a conflict there, and would have to cede the overall Best Player title to the slick shortstop. The closest we’ve come, I think, to that conflict is either 1940 or 1941, when the Best Hitter title went to Mize and Williams, respectively, with DiMaggio finishing second. Otherwise, we’ve had all contests where the best two hitters were both first basemen or corner outfielders, with no pre-Gold Glovers in the discussion—in other words, defense didn’t enter into the discussion in a difference-making sort of way.

 

In 1939-41, Williams held a 105 OPS+ advantage over DiMaggio. That is, he was roughly 18% better offensively in each of the six seasons being scrutinized here than DiMaggio was, which seems like too much ground for DiMag to make up in order to claim the Best Overall Player title. I’d say that, at best, that would be a push: it puts DiMag approximately equal to Williams, and a push isn’t a victory.

 

1938-40 is a little different: Mize’s OPS+ over DiMag is only 37 OPS+ points over the six seasons, or roughly 6% better offense per season, which is in the range that superior defense might cover.  (To review, for steve161’s benefit here, because steve poopooed the significance of a relatively small numerical edge in OPS+, the 37 point edge that Mize had over Joe D. was 1063/1026, or roughly 177 OPS+ for Mize per season and 171 OPS+ per season for Joe D. , meaning that Mize was 77% better than your average MLB hitter each year, while DiMag was "only" 71% better.) You might well judge that Joe, being an ungodly skilled centerfielder, more than compensated for his poor hitting by fielding rings around Mize, an average first baseman. (Maybe a little better than average: WIN SHARES grades him as a "B" first base man.)

 

And you might be right. But 1940 is the only year so far in which defense has presented an actual practical conflict in using the "Best Hitter" issue to settle the "Best Position Player" issue. Other than 1940, the number 1 offensive player by this system and his number 2 (or even his number 3) have either been far apart in OPS+, or comparable defensive players, or both.

 

But​ in the 1960s, I think, we’re going to see a few years where the number 2 guy IS a phenomenally gifted fielder (I’m still thinking Mays) and the number 1 guy is some species of ox. Aaron, too, is a real good fielder, as are Clemente and Kaline, who might lack the requisite power numbers to appear high up on the OPS+ charts. But we shall see. It’s fun to speculate, but, as the great poet William Camembert once wrote, ripeness is all.

 

Before we get into the numbers, I’d like to pass along another failed tracer about one of the great defensive players who never finished close enough to the OPS+ leader to make a serious challenge for the title, Jackie Robinson.  His best finish was in 1950-52, a mere 136 OPS+ points behind the leader, and a fourth-place finish. I’ll reproduce the 1950-52 chart (in a different color so people don’t get confused):

 

 

1950-52

 

OPS+

1.

Musial

1031

2.

Doby

  965

3.

Kiner

  949

4.

Robinson

  895

5.

Rosen

  868

 

There's not enough defense on the planet to account for 136 OPS+ points, and Musial (and Doby) weren’t exactly oxen anyway, but I happened to be leafing through Roger Kahn’s BOYS OF SUMMER last night and came across a passage I thought might make an interesting tracer. It turned out to be perfectly (and I mean perfectly) accurate, so no need to reproduce its language here, but in summary, it said that in a tied game between the Dodgers and the Braves (September 3, 1952 if you want to look it up) Robinson was on third base with less than two out, and Duke Snider bunted the ball to Eddie Mathews. Robinson followed Mathews down the line, keeping a foot or so out of Mathews’ reach. Essentially, the choice Robinson gave Mathews was either to chase him back to third base (and allow Snider to reach first base) or to throw to first base and nab Snider but allow Robinson to score. Mathews opted for choice #2, and that was the margin of victory for the Dodgers.

 

I don’t know if I’ve ever seen that play exactly in that form. In that situation, the third baseman routinely LOOKS the runner back to 3B and nabs the batter/bunter/runner at 1B, right?  Robinson’s athleticism, his supreme confidence that he could evade any tag that Mathews tried to put on him, allowed him to venture far off the bag and not get deked out by a mere look from Mathews. And if the Braves’ shortstop were to have covered the 3B bag, I think a throw to 3B by Mathews would have resulted in Robinson bolting for home and (almost) certainly making it home safely. You just don’t see that play made that way anymore, I don’t think. At least, I can’t remember ever seeing it played the way Robinson did it.

 

It just happened that I saw a similar play, Jackie Robinson stealing home in the World Series off of Yogi Berra, the famous play that I wrote in to "HEY BILL" about (mainly because I’d run across a version of the play with stop-action to show Yogi stepping across the plate to catch the ball, about which I asked Bill if that was legal) and I noticed what enabled Robinson to steal home: he was taking a TREMENDOUS lead off third, a much larger lead than runners ordinarily dare to take.

 

Thinking it over, I realized what enabled him to take that lead—again, it was athleticism. The Yankee third baseman was unable to hold him anywhere close to the bag, unless he was willing to position himself more or less ON the bag. If he had, then Robinson would have probably considered that to have been a big achievement, to move the Yankee 3bman ten or fifteen steps out of what was his proper position. And absent that mispositioning, Robinson was free to venture WAY off the 3B bag.

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He kept taunting the Yankee pitcher to throw the ball to 3B, starting to sprint for the plate and suddenly retreating, and the Yankee pitcher must have been tempted to throw over.  (I enjoyed the taunting, all by itself.) If he had thrown to the (running) Yankee 3b man, I have no doubt that Robinson would have run for home rather than for third, and I have very little doubt he would have made it safely home. On some of his fake runs to home, he might have been as far as 15 or even 20 feet off 3B: a throw behind him to 3B and Robinson would have been most of the way before the Yankee 3b man caught the ball.  So Robinson basically had to sprint less than 70 feet by the time the pitcher released his pitch, and with a righty batter at the plate, Yogi had no way to know if this was a real attempted steal or just another fake: I’m sure the crowd noise was a constant roar.

 <​/span>

The whole thing, Robinson’s whole career, was the result of his confidence in evading the tag. He was daring the Yankees to take a huge risk in trying to pick him off base, and saying in effect "If you try to tag me, I’ll take that as my opportunity to advance a base." And of course, throwing over to third is exponentially more dangerous than your normal pickoff attempt at first base anyway, right? If the Yankees mess up a normal pickoff at first base, what’s the downside? The runner advances to second. But with a runner on third, and especially Robinson, the downside is that a run scores. So anyone would be cautious in that spot, and that caution is what enabled Robinson to increase the size of his lead dramatically.

 

I think this is what made Robinson a force in MLB beyond his ability with the bat and glove. He challenged his opponents to turn plays that demanded a high level of skill, saying (with his body) "I can do this MUCH better than you" and then doing it.

 

Two plays over the course of a career are meaningless, but in both of these, that I just happened to come across in the short space of a few days, made me realize that Robinson probably scored runs regularly that very few other players would even attempt to score, and that keen sense of exactly where he was (to paraphrase John McPhee) at all times, that confidence in his athletic abilities, accounts for that je ne sais quoi that Bill tried to describe in Robinson’s unusually high range factors at every position he ever played.

&nbs​p;

It’s enough to move him up a notch in my mind but, unfortunately, not enough to push his overall abilities above those of Stan Musial or Ted Williams. Or Mickey Mantle, if he’d stayed at his offensive peak long into Mantle’s career. By 1962, Jackie Robinson was already in the Hall of Fame, and Mantle was still in his prime:

 

1962

 

OPS+

1.

Mickey Mantle

195

2.

Frank Robinson

172

3.

Hank Aaron

170

4.

Willie Mays

165

5.

Tommy Davis

148

6.

Frank Howard

146

7.

Norm Siebern

140

8.

Bob Skinner

139

9.

Harmon Killebrew

138

10.

George Altman

137

 

No real point in computing who the best hitter was for 1960-62. Mantle just cemented his title with another overpowering season, so let us move on to 1963.

1963

 

OPS+

1.

Hank Aaron

179

2.

Willie Mays

175

3.

Orlando Cepeda

165

4.

Willie McCovey

161

5.

Bob Allison

151

6.

Carl Yastrzemski

148

7.

Harmon Killebrew

147

8.

Eddie Mathews

146

9.

Al Kaline

144

10.

Tommy Davis

142

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 ​

 

 

 


 

Because Mantle was injured in 1963, he could not defend his title, and it’s obvious who won it: Hank Aaron has outpointed Willie Mays by a small margin in OPS+ for each of the three seasons from 1961-3 (3, 5, and 4 OPS+ points) and no one else is consistently among the top five performers, so Aaron has again taken the title from Mantle.


So this is where we are in 1963:

 

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)

Wi​lliams 1947-49 (3 years)

Musial 1950-4 (5 years)

Mathews 1955 (1 year)

Mantle 1956-59 (4 years)

Aaron 1960 (1 year)

Mantle 1961-62 (2 years)

Aaron 1963 (1 year)

 

So we’re in a stage where the champ (again think: "Ali") keeps winning and losing and winning back his crown as the Greatest Boxer in the world. Credit Aaron for being there every time Mantle has an off-year, or an injured year,  but basically the late fifties and early sixties are Mantle’s time, as the forties were Williams’ time, despite frequent periods when each of them lost the title to an inferior challenger. Mantle, I think, at age 33 in 1964 will never again reclaim his crown, so we shall see who takes it in our next installment.

 

 

 


 
 

COMMENTS (11 Comments, most recent shown first)

villageelliott
Thank you.for your series of articles This is a fun, informative worthwhile project. I've enjoyed reading it.

Re: Jackie Robinson: I am just a few years too young to have seen him play. The Dodgers had moved to LA by the time I started retaining baseball memory. I certainly knew who he was.

I did see two others I consider of similar ntensity.

I saw half of Willie's Mays career My father made sure we caught a game whenever the Giants played in St. Louis. I often saw him drive opponents crazy the way you described Jackie did. One time stands out. Willie reached on a single and immediately started dancing off first. On the third pick-off throw, willie was trapped of first. But after the most amazing game of pickle, when the dust cleared, Willie was laughing as he stood at third.

The third player of similar transcendence is Rickey Henderson. I was fortunate enough to move to the Bay Area when he was a rookie. From the very first at bat I saw, when he was less than a half step from running out a routine 6-3, it was obvious he generated the same sense of excitement as Jackie and Willie as he drove opponents to distraction

I have no doubt these three , along with the Babe, Diz and Ted are some of the very few Legends of the Game about whom "everything you heard was true." : Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan are cut front the same cloth.

One of their most endearing traits of their game, which their fans enjoyed and infuriating their opponents is their taunting trash talk. iI was an integral part of game. Like Diz said, "it ain't bragging if you can do it.

I reckon you understand, considering you stated, you " enjoyed the taunting, all by itself. " I know what you mean.

Keep up the good work. I look forward to more articles.
9:15 PM May 3rd
 
Steven Goldleaf
Only 100 games though.
12:56 PM May 3rd
 
jfenimore
Kaline had an OPS+ of 152 in 1962.
8:51 AM May 3rd
 
Steven Goldleaf
Thanks, all, for the appreciation and encouragement. For a few rounds, I didn't know if anyone was reading these.

Maris, I'll give you one (that I'm surprised you didn't catch): 1964 is Mantle's age 32 season, not age 33. (His birthday comes right after the World Series, so the season is over by the time he gets another whole year older. Same day as Keith Hernandez, btw.) Mea culpa--shouldn't do subtraction in my head like that.
7:01 AM May 3rd
 
MarisFan61
(Please FORGET the supposed correction I gave below.
You have it right!)
12:02 AM May 3rd
 
MarisFan61
Love the Jackie Robinson material.

BTW, technical detail, just in case you'll be putting this all together into some other thing:
In the text below the 1950-1952 chart, you mean 166 points, not 136, unless you're talking about something other than the obvious.
12:00 AM May 3rd
 
SwampDog
Steven. I am among those who have really enjoyed this series. It's been fun and informative, and I very much appreciate your efforts and the time you have taken to do this. Thanks.
8:00 AM May 2nd
 
Steven Goldleaf
And that's exactly right, it was a sort of safety squeeze. Robinson's addition to it was edging within inches (as Kahn tells it) of Mathews' glove, which is "safe" only if you know you can evade the glove all day long. Also, of course, the things we're leisurely describing almost 70 years later all took place inside of a second. I'm thinking of the look on Mathews' face as he figures out he'll never tag Jackie and decides to throw to first and allow Jackie to score. If he hesitates more than a half-second, he needn't bother with the throw to first anyway.
12:39 PM May 1st
 
Steven Goldleaf
Top of the 8th, one out, score tied 5-5, Spahn pitching. Here's the boxscore: https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/BSN/BSN195209030.shtml


10:33 AM May 1st
 
steve161
Just out of curiosity, what inning was it in that 1952 game? In a late inning, I can see having a slugger like Snider squeeze (because what is described is essentially a slightly more daring version of a safety squeeze). In an early inning, I can't imagine playing for a single run against a .418 club like the 1952 Braves.

Robinson retired when I was still a boy--just on the verge of my teens--so my memory of him is foggy and mostly a product of the odd Game of the Week plus postseason. But his athletic abilities were striking, even to me, even then. And then along came Mays, who seemed to be able to do everything Robinson could and more. Today, there are quite a few comparable athletes in baseball, but then, in the 1950s, they towered over their peers.
7:57 AM May 1st
 
archieleach
Loved the comments on Robinson! Special note is that Duke Snider bunted. When was the last time a "Duke Snider" quality hitter bunted??
7:26 AM May 1st
 
 
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