The Heavyweight Champ of Baseball (part 9)

May 24, 2020
Mantle cops the OPS+ lead (again!) in 1964, but (as you will recall from the end of Part 8) he missed qualifying for the 1963 crown due to injury. (He had an OPS+ of 196 but in only 65 games.) So despite leading all of MLB in 1964, just barely, he relinquishes his crown permanently. The missing 1963 season will count against him here, and in 1965, by which point he will either be injured or diminished in his OPS+.  This is a flaw in my system, no doubt, much like the flaw that ruined a few years in the forties and fifties for Ted Williams, where a non-qualifying year bollixed the chances of MLB’s OPS+ champ. If we were to credit Mantle with an OPS+ for 1963 but reduce it proportionately to reflect his playing only 65 games, he might well hang on to the title for an extra year or even two, but that’s not how this system is set up.

 

In verbal terms, of course, the boxing equivalent would be "The elderly Champ couldn’t come out of his corner, even though he was winning the fight on points, so the younger upstart got the decision, and the crown, even though I personally think the elderly Champ is still the Greatest."  In baseball terms, I think we would have said "Yeah, Mantle’s still great—when he can suit up. But the guy is always hurt."

 

So it’s not completely unfair to declare Hank Aaron or someone else the best hitter in baseball whenever Mantle can’t step up to the plate. In 1964, though, Aaron has his lowest OPS+ in seven years, finishing 10th, and Mays has another fine season, so it looks like Mays is our new champ:  

&nbs​p;

 

1964

 

OPS+

1.

Mickey Mantle

177

2.

Boog Powell

176

3.

Willie Mays

172

4.

Ron Santo

164

5.

Bob Allison

163

6.

Dick Allen

162

7.

Rico Carty

161

8.

Frank Robinson

160

9.

Harmon Killebrew

153

10.

Hank Aaron

153

&nb​sp;

Note the presence of two rookies in the #s 6 and 7 spots.  No African-Americans representing the AL, but when Fireball Wenz wondered a few "Comments" ago when we would see the name of our first AL OPS+ star, the answer was "We have already. Larry Doby." A future A-A AL OPS+ star is still playing for the NL, of course, in the number 8 spot. 

 

I think Mays is the first Gold Glover to take the OPS+ title, and really the first superior fielder. Technically, I think Mantle and Aaron each won a Gold Glove or two, but they were default Gold Gloves, especially for Mantle—let’s say that Mays was the first legitimate, deserving, Gold Glove-type fielder to win the OPS+ crown, which would make him the first indisputable "Best Position Player" to hold the "Best Hitter" crown.

 

Powell, Santo, and of course Allen and Carty haven’t yet qualified by playing long enough, or impressively enough in Santo’s case for the past three years, and Mantle doesn’t qualify, and Mathews is beginning his decline, so Mays takes the title comfortably in 1964. Since he also leads MLB in OPS+ in 1965, he continues to hold the title there, so we will pick this up again in 1966.

 

 

1962-64

 

OPS+

1.

Mays

1031

2.

Aaron

  987

3.

Allison

  922

4.

Robinson

  918

5.

Cepeda

  904

6.

Killebrew

  891

 

 

1966 of course is FRobby’s triple crown year, and Dick Allen’s third full MLB season, while Mays falls to tenth place and Aaron, in an off-year, falls off the chart entirely. (1966 is also my personal touchstone for baseball stats. Since it’s the season of my first Strat-o-Matic set, I had involuntarily memorized the batting averages and ERAs of nearly every player in baseball by the middle of 1967, and still have a frighteningly keen memory for those stats, some 40 years after my last Strat-o-Matic game. I strongly suspect that I can tell you on my deathbed that three of my favorite players ever, Willie Mays, Ron Hunt, and Vada Pinson, all batted .288 in 1966. I also predict that that subject will be the one that I’ll be babbling about, too. I’m surprisingly cool to Hank Aaron as a great player, because my mind has been permanently warped by his lukewarm .279 BA in ’66, another stat I will take with me to the grave.)

 

 

1966

 

OPS+

1.

Frank Robinson

198

2.

Dick Allen

181

3.

Willie Stargell

163

4.

Willie McCovey

163

5.

Ron Santo

161

6.

Al Kaline

161

7.

Boog Powell

158

8.

Harmon Killebrew

157

9.

Joe Torre

156

10.

Willie Mays

149

 

 

The results of the three-year period:

 

 

 

1964-66

 

OPS+

1.

Robinson

1056

2.

Allen

  995

3.

Mays

  990

4.

Santo

  939

5.

Killebrew

  914

6.

Aaron

  901

7.

Stargell

  873

 

 

As 1966 was FRobby’s Triple Crown season, 1967 belonged to Yaz, though narrowly:


 

1967

 

OPS+

1.

Carl Yastrzemski

193

2.

Frank Robinson

187

3.

Al Kaline

176

4.

Dick Allen

174

5.

Harmon Killebrew

173

6.

Roberto Clemente

171

7.

Hank Aaron

168

8.

Orlando Cepeda

164

9.

Willie McCovey

159

10.

Don Mincher

156

 

 

As incomparably great as Yaz’s 1967 was, if we dare compare it to FRobby’s 1966, it comes up short. Why? Well, according to this system, you need to put together three straight strong years, and Yaz suffered a relatively weak season in 1966, merely a  119, while Robinson has put together three straight years with OPS+es of at least 151, with five of the six years counted being around 40 OPS+ points higher than 151. Robinson has actually increased his 1965-67 OPS+ score from the previous year:

 

 

1965-67

 

OPS+

1.

Robinson

1108

2.

Allen

1029

3.

Kaline

  993

4.

Killebrew

  978

5.

Yaz

  973

6.

McCovey

  956

7.

Aaron

  949

8.

Clemente

  941

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In 1967, despite leading the known universe in everything, including rich, chocolatey goodness, Yaz is actually smelling Robinson’s dust over the previous three seasons. In fact, he’s smelling several stars’ dust, including that of the guy who finished second to him in that year’s AL MVP voting, Harmon Killebrew. There is an anecdote, perhaps told by Roger Angell, of a sportswriter screaming at Yaz from the press box late in the 1967 season "Prove you’re the MVP! Prove it to me!" and, as I recall the incident, Yaz did come through with a crucial hit in that crucial spot, but I would apply that sort of logic to the results here: Yaz had yet to prove that he was the greatest hitter in the game, even at the end of his great breakout season. His supremacy was still a not-quite-settled question. Was he the greatest? According to this system Dick Allen had a better case than he, and so did the relatively anonymous Kaline. (You remember Bill’s posting, and our answering for weeks, the issue of "Kaline vs. Yaz" sometime last year.) 

 

Another often-matched pairing is Cepeda vs. McCovey.  McCovey has finally, in his seventh big-league season, put together three straight qualifying years, while Cepeda (like Mantle and Williams) sorta gets screwed by the system, due to missing almost of 1965 to injury, which is what propel McCovey into full-time play. Despite Cha-cha’s great 1967, he is disqualified because he missed 1965, plus his OPS+ of 165 ranks only fourth in the NL and eighth overall in MLB. His erstwhile teammate Mays, meanwhile as well as erstwhile, slips down to a 124 OPS+ in 1967, garnering 0 MVP support for the first time since 1953, and falls off the championship rankings for the remainder of his career.

 

So the age of Mays and Mantle is finally over. Our chart of champions now looks like this:

 

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 1950-4 (5 years)

Mathews 1955 (1 year)

Mantle 1956-59 (4 years)

Aaron 1960 (1 year)

Mantle 1961-62 (2 years)

Aaron 1963 (1 year)

Mays 1964-65 (2 years)

F. Robinson 1966-67 (2 years)

 

I believe Aaron, who really should share the Mantle-Mays era, might still have a kick left in him. Between the three of them, they owned the title for a decade, from 1956 through 1965. And Robinson now has as many years wearing the crown of "Baseball’s Greatest Hitter" as Mays or Aaron have, though he’s often spoken of as being just a tad behind them in dominance. The answer to the question that I began with, that of who was the game’s best hitter in the 1960s, appears to shift: no one holds the title for longer than a year or two throughout the decade, unless something changes in the late 1960s.

 

 

 

 

 
 

COMMENTS (2 Comments, most recent shown first)

Steven Goldleaf
"....so Mays takes the title comfortably in 1964. Since he also leads MLB in OPS+ in 1965, he continues to hold the title there, so we will pick this up again in 1966."

Sorry I didn't make this more prominent, but it's there.
5:57 AM May 28th
 
SwampDog
Did I miss something? I don't see the 1963-1965 standings.

Thanks in advance, Steven.
9:13 AM May 26th
 
 
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