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.

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15 Comments on “The Mickey Mantle Rule”

  1. verdun2 Says:

    Not a big fan of the WAR stat. Any stat that ultimately concludes Bret Saberhagen was a greater pitcher than Sandy Koufax has a screw loose somewhere. As I understand the chart you reference on the WAR site, the years in question for Ruth are 1920 and 1921. If that’s right, then in one way Mantle surpasses him. In 1920, Cleveland wins the World Series. In 1921 the Yankees lose. With Mantle in 56 and 57 they get to the Series both years, winning in 56. So at least Mantle can claim his team won when he was at his peak. Of course having Berra, Bauer, and Ford around can do that for you.
    and thanks for the shout out via a link.

    • sportsphd Says:

      No problem. I’m always glad to link to good work, and your site has a lot of it. Mantle does have the added team success bonus, it’s true.

    • bob Says:

      the stat does not say that Saberhagen was better but WAR is accumalative and Saberhagen tossed 17 seasons to bring his WAR up. Koufax only pitched 11 seasons and therefore could not accumulate a high WAR.

      • verdun2 Says:

        So if the stat doesn’t indicate which is superior why compile it?
        Let me ask a simple question. You gotta win a game and you got Koufax and Saberhagen standing there. Which you gonna take?

      • Robert Says:

        It depends on which Koufax is pitching…Brooklyn or L.A.

  2. Outstanding argument. Ironically, one of my next posts was going to be about Mantle because I constantly hear people say how great “he could have been,” rather than how great he really was. If I do decide to go through with a blog-post on this subject, I’ll refer people to your great assessment in my intro. As usual, well done. Bill

    • sportsphd Says:

      I agree completely that Mantle actual career deserves plenty of accolades all on its own. I neglected to mention in the post why his peak ends in 1957. In the 1957 World Series, he is thrown out stealing second, and Braves second baseman Red Schoendienst falls on him, injuring his shoulder. From that point on, he becomes weaker as a left-handed hitter. Still great, obviously, but no longer the second best player ever. To illustrate, check out his 1958 splits versus his 1956 splits.

  3. Millsy Says:

    Just out of curiosity, but is there a particular position player projection that sparked the hitting version of this rule? Wieters last year perhaps?

    I wish my Nationals supporting friends would understand the Seaver rule a bit better. Perhaps when they draft Bryce Harper I’ll link them here as well.

    • sportsphd Says:

      Wieters is exactly who I had in mind. The Jason Heyward hype has been heavy this year, but the projections I’ve seen have not been outlandish, unlike with Wieters last season.

  4. I agree…Mantle in his prime was greater than any player in history other than Babe Rruth!…but not even Ruth had Mantle’s combination of power and speed!

  5. The greatest player ever other than Ruth in his prime!

  6. I don’t even know how I stopped up right here, but I assumed this post was great. I do not recognize who you’re however
    definitely you’re going to a well-known blogger if you aren’t already.


  7. commenter567 Says:

    Not to nitpick but there was an update to calculating WAR recently. Mantle’s 1956 and 1957 years both clocked in at 11.3 WAR via baseball reference as of March 2013.

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