The Mickey Mantle Rule
Consider this a follow-up to my previous post on prospects. In that post I mention the Tom Seaver Rule, a rule based on the premise that any projection of a pitcher to be better than Tom Seaver is flawed. Let me add a version for position players: Any projection of a player to top Mickey Mantle at his peak is necessarily flawed. Now in reality, this post is an excuse to delve into the greatness of Mantle in his absolute prime, but the point still holds. In the era of modern baseball, which I am dating from integration in 1947 to the present day, no position player had a two season stretch as good as Mickey Mantle in 1956-57. (If you want to talk about baseball before 1947, then the exception to the Mantle Rule is Babe Ruth. That’s it.)
For starters, let me narrowly focus on stats that prove my case. If you are looking for a comprehensive stat that takes account of everything a player does, you will be hard-pressed to find one better than Wins Above Replacement. WAR has the advantage of accounting for both hitting and fielding, a point that helps players like Ozzie Smith who derived much of their value from their defense and hurts players like Ted Williams whose skill with the glove remains infamous. Now let’s look at every year by every position player not named Babe Ruth. Which seasons are the best? In 1956, Mantle stuck up 12.9 WAR, and he followed it up with a more pedestrian 12.5 in 1957. Who are his rivals? Barry Bonds‘ three best seasons are worth 12.5, 12.4, and 12.2 WAR. Lou Gehrig‘s best season was worth 12.0 WAR. Willie Mays‘ best comes in at 11.0. Ted Williams never tops 11.8. All of those numbers are outstanding, but none match up to Mantle at the height of his powers.
What pushes Mantle past all of the other comparable players for those two years? Why is that only Barry Bonds on enough steroids to swell the size of his head to a small blimp could match the weaker of the two seasons? Here, we need to break down Mantle’s greatness. For starters, remember that Mantle was a center fielder. Center fielders are harder to find than left fielders, giving him an automatic advantage over players like Williams and Bonds. The position has more defensive value than first basemen as well, pushing him ahead of Gehrig, Albert Pujols, and others. Second, Mantle ranks as an excellent baserunner both seasons. For 1956, he is credited with 5 base running runs, and he gets 7 in 1957. Compare this to Bonds’ 0 and 1 in 2001 and 2002. For his entire career, Mays only surpasses those numbers once. Mantle’s knees still allowed him the speed to be a dangerous weapon on the basepaths, both in stealing bases (10 and 16, when the league leader had 21 and 28) and in taking extra bases. He was also thrown out only 4 times, giving him an 87.5% success rate. Those same two years, Mays led the majors in steal but was thrown out more than 20% of the time each season.
This is Mickey Mantle we are talking about, so it is time to move past things like fielding and base running and focus on his primarily claim to greatness, his hitting. In 1956, Mantle won the triple crown, and he won it so convincingly he led the entire majors in each category, a feat only accomplished 5 times in the 20th and 21st Centuries. He played 294 of a possible 308 games, and he also played 13 games in the World Series. Staying on the field led to ridiculous numbers. With a league batting average of .260, Mantle hit .353 in 1956. In 1957 when the league dipped to .257, Mantle rose to .365. Batting average understates his dominance. In 1956, league OPS was at .735 and it dipped to .708 the next season. Mantle stuck up OPS of 1.169 and 1.177 in contrast. Those numbers produce OPS+ of 210 and 222. He did all of this at ages 24 and 25. That fact is the basis of considering Mantle baseball’s greatest might-have-been.
For two years, nobody not named Ruth was better. Unlike Ruth, Mantle played in a down era for hitting against integrated competition on an integrated team. While I can’t bring myself to make the claim that Mantle was better, I can easily claim he was better than anyone else who ever stepped on the field for that two-year prime. In judging other players, Ruth exists in a separate stratosphere, much like Hoss Radbourne does when considering single pitching seasons. Mantle, though, sits just beyond the realm of the possible, in a place many have approached but none have achieved.