Posted tagged ‘Willie Mays’

The Drop Off to Second Best


This morning Buster Olney of ESPN tweeted, “Because of the difference between Rivera and others at his position, for me, he should be part of NYY’ Rushmore, with Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio.” I find this an interesting claim in a lot of ways. First note the 4 players: Ruth, Gehrig, DiMaggio, Rivera. I would without a second thought shove Mantle ahead of both DiMaggio and Rivera. Second, I take his claim to be that the dropoff from Rivera to others refers to all other relievers, not just all other Yankee relievers. That follows an earlier tweet which said, “The difference between Rivera and any other player at his position in history is the greatest of any position.” That is a more interesting question. To get a quick and dirty look at the drop from the best to the second-best at various positions, I’m going to do a bit of fiddling with WAR, as measured on Baseball Reference. I will also summarily exclude 19th-Century Players. (This means I excluded both Cy Young and George Davis.) The method is simple: Take the WAR of player 2, divide it by player 1, and multiply by 100. This gives the second player’s production as a percentage of the first player. So, is the dropoff from Rivera the biggest? Let’s turn to the stats.


Player 1 WAR 1 Player 2 WAR 2 Percentage Total Drop
Gehrig 118.4 Foxx 95.2 80.41 23.2
Hornsby 127.8 Collins 126.7 99.14 1.1
Wagner 134.5 Ripken 89.9 66.84 44.6
Schmidt 108.3 Rodriguez 105 96.95 3.3
Ruth 190 Aaron 141.6 74.53 48.4
Cobb 159.5 Mays 154.7 96.99 4.8
Bonds 171.8 Musial 127.8 74.39 44
Bench 71.3 Fisk 67.3 94.39 4
W. Johnson 139.8 Clemens 128.8 92.13 11
Rivera 55.8 Gossage 39.5 70.79 16.3
Eckersley 58.3 Rivera 55.8 95.71 2.5
Rivera 55.8 Hoffman 30.4 54.48 25.4

First, these are full career WAR stats, so Ruth has a serious bump from being a pitcher, and Walter Johnson gets a nice little bump from his hitting. Second, I calculated relievers three different ways. First, I ran Rivera against Gossage, the two highest pitchers who accumulated almost all their WAR in relief. Next I did Rivera against Eckersley, because Eck had the highest WAR of any pitcher who is in the Hall of Fame as a reliever. Nonetheless, his WAR is so high because he gets a giant boost from all of his years as a starter. Finally I compared Rivera to the next highest modern closer, that is the highest WAR from a reliever since the advent of the modern closer circa 1980. That would be Trevor Hoffman. So where does this get us?

First, the drop at shortstop is gigantic. Even adding George Davis back in doesn’t help much. That is the lowest percentage drop among position players. Next, the drop from Ruth to Aaron is impressive. It is the largest raw WAR drop, and the third lowest percentage. Quite a drop considering this is Hank Aaron we are talking about. Finally, relievers are tricky. First, if Eckersley is included, Rivera isn’t the best ever. Next, if you include higher inning relievers from the 1970’s, the percentage is not the lowest, but it is second. Finally, if you limit Rivera to his most comparable group, other closers, you see Buster Olney’s point in big numbers. Rivera is nearly twice the pitcher of any other closer, when measured by WAR. I find that fact astonishing.


The Events You Missed


Yesterday, Dallas Braden threw the 19th perfect game in major league history, and I did nothing more than follow the 9th inning online.  That is one of the consequences of a great pitching performance on Mother’s Day:  Almost no one will be able to watch.  This does not make Braden stand out in my life as a baseball fan, though.  In all my years of baseball viewing, I have never seen a perfect game.  I watched one no hitter live, and given that it was thrown by the immortal Bud Smith it helped to de-mystify that particular genre. Nonetheless, I have missed every perfect game in my lifetime, and there have now been a number. This leads to my question for today: What baseball event that you did not see do you most wish that you had seen?

Baseball is full of great moments, but most of those are single instants. I did not see Willie Mays’ catch live, but I can easily pull it up on You Tube anytime I want. The same is true for Bobby Thompson’s home run. As a Twins fan, I recognize that the most significant events in baseball history were Kirby Puckett’s home run to end Game 6 of the 1991 World Series and Gene Larkin’s single to win Game 7. Those two I saw live, so they can’t be the answer. Given how easy it is to find highlights for single events that have happened in the last 60 years, I will by default exclude them, even if I did not see them live.

For me, then, that leaves four events that for whatever stick out to me. I will count them down in reverse order.

#4: Addie Joss’ perfect game.

Three things stick out for this game. First, and most obviously, Addie Joss threw a perfect game. This has only happened 18 other times in baseball history. Second, Joss only threw 74 pitches. You simply cannot be more efficient. The next closest is the 88 pitches thrown by David Cone in his perfect game. Third, you can make the case that Joss was outpitched. In defeat, Ed Walsh struck out 15, and he gave up only a single unearned run. He allowed 5 total baserunners. To me, this is the pitcher’s duel of all pitcher’s duels, slightly ahead of Sandy Koufax’s perfect game, when the loser only gave up a single hit.

#3: The Speech

This is the classiest moment in baseball history. Even knowing that Gary Cooper probably did it better in the movie, I get chills even thinking about this moment. If you have a spare moment and some tissues handy, click on the link and listen to Lou Gehrig. That is how it is done.

#2: Jackie Robinson’s debut.

This moment changed baseball. When Robinson stepped out onto Ebbets Field for the first time, he changed the game forever. In terms of significance, this one tops the list. The only reason I put it #2 for me is that as a game it is nothing special. The Dodgers lost to the Braves 5-3, and Robinson went 0-3. For history alone, it makes it to #2.

What does your list look like? What is the best baseball moment you ever saw live and the one you wished you had seen?

#1: Don Larsen.

Done only once. Never been seriously approached on another occasion. Done against a lineup with 4 future Hall of Famers and other excellent players like Gil Hodges, Jim Gilliam, and Carl Furillo. (Sandy Amoros couldn’t hit, so he doesn’t count.) Series was tied 2-2 at the time, just to add to the pressure. The game was even well-celebrated. Imagine your reward for pitching the only perfect game in World Series history: You have to carry Yogi Berra off the field. If I could have seen any baseball moment live, this one would be at the top of my list.

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.

Putting Together a Perfect Team


This will be the last post that draws explicitly on Bill Simmons’ The Book of Basketball. In the book’s last chapter, Simmons constructs what he calls his “wine cellar” team. The team consists of individual seasons by players put together to make the perfect basketball team. This idea, though interesting, is not novel. Simmons, however, does put a particularly unique spin on this. He does not just collect the 12 best seasons ever, or even the 12 best seasons portioned out by position and with a caveat that no player can make the team twice. He puts a focus on how this team would really work. In basketball, team success depends on having players that are good at all of the necessary skills of the game: shooting, rebounding, passing, and defense. For this reason, Simmons includes Bill Walton’s 1977, Scottie Pippen’s 1992, and Ray Allen’s 2001. They fill important niches on a basketball team. How, I wonder, would this concept translate to baseball?

The most important consequence, I think, of this sort of team is to preclude the inclusion of Ty Cobb. The virulent and violent racism of Cobb could not be combined with a team that included Hank Aaron or Willie Mays. I find this particularly problematic, given that I am in the camp that thinks Cobb was the single greatest center fielder ever to play the game. However, a lily-white 25-man roster is even more problematic, so Cobb would have to go.

Second, you emphasize great peak players. Imagine which Warren Spahn year you pick: the year he won 20 games, lost 10, and stuck up an ERA in the upper 2s, or one of the other 15 years he did the exact same thing. In contrast, Ron Guidry‘s 1978 has to get serious consideration, even though Guidry never really came close to Hall of Fame induction.

Finally, you have to emphasize balance. You can’t pick a collection of pure power hitters, just in case you are stuck playing in Dodger Stadium in the 1960’s. You can’t pick a Whitey-ball Cardinals team from the 1980’s if you have to play in Coors Field in 1996. To be a truly perfect team, you need to be able to win under all conditions. To give an example, consider Jim Rice’s 1978. In 1978, Rice hit .361/.416/.690 at home, but he hit only .269/.325/.512 on the road. Rice’s road numbers are certainly respectable, but on an all-time team his road numbers are enough to exclude him.

This post just works out parameters about how you would put together such a team. I would encourage everyone to give it a try for real. What else do you need to consider? Who would make it? Stick up a post on your blog or in the comments. I’ll try and put together my own team in the next few days.

What to Make of Mark McGwire?


Today, Mark McGwire admitted to using steroids. According to him, he used them in the offseason between the 1989 and 1990 seasons, and again from the conclusion of the 1993 season sporadically until the end of his career. What do we make of this?

First let us get the history of steroids straight. Steroids were banned in the United States in 1990 as part of the Anabolic Steroid Control Act of 1990. MLB banned steroids in 1991, though they were not subject to testing until 2002. Given this, I think that McGwire’s early steroids use should be forgotten. It was neither illegal in the United States or against the rules of major league baseball. I see zero reason why I or anyone else should care. The later usage, though, is more problematic.

When McGwire used steroids from 1993 on, he violated both US law and MLB policy even though he retired before baseball cared enough to test for steroids. Steroids are different than other things against MLB policy in that outside law also regulates their usage. When Gaylord Perry doctored baseballs, he violated the rules of the major leagues but not the laws of the United States. So how do we judge Mark McGwire?

The BBWAA, as in Hall of Fame voters, have little logical ground to be concerned about Mark McGwire. They have already elected players who corked their bats, illegally cut baseballs, and doctored them with foreign substances. They have also elected players that violated US drug law. They have even elected players known to have taken illegal drugs that were intended to help their performance on the baseball field. I am incapable of distinguishing McGwire from the legacies of Babe Ruth, Gaylord Perry, Whitey Ford, Paul Molitor, and Willie Mays.

It cannot be argued that McGwire’s usage further tarnished baseball’s beloved statistics either. Did Ruth used a corked bat to hit some of his 714 home runs? Almost certainly. Did he use it to hit 60 in a season? No one knows. Did Perry cheat in order to win more than 300 games? Yes. Did Mays use amphetamines to hit 660 home runs? Almost certainly. Did Molitor use cocaine on the way to 3,000 hits? Yes. All of baseball’s great numbers have some degree of tarnish on their pristine beauty. As a devoted lover of statistics and of baseball, I find that sad. But I cannot be a true devotee of the game and ignore its many flaws.

Mark McGwire, sadly, fits into baseball’s long and distinguished history of players that broke the rules of baseball in order to receive a competitive advantage. He is certainly no saint, but I find it hard to call him the worst of villains. McGwire, as far as anyone knows, cheated in order to win baseball games. Baseball has true villains, and it is they alone that deserve the heaviest of baseball’s scorn.

These Men Changed Baseball: Monte Irvin


Moving to the co-integrator of the New York Giants, we move to a different sort of ballplayer than all who have gone before. Irvin fits into the mold of players like Satchel Paige, that is, players who reached the major leagues at such an advanced age that they have unnaturally short careers. Nevertheless, Irvin went on to the Hall of Fame for some combination of his Negro League and major league play. So who was he?

Irvin was born in 1919 in Alabama, one month after Jackie Robinson. He moved to New Jersey while young, and he came up with the Newark Eagles in 1938, at age 19. He played 5 seasons for Newark, then he served 3 years in the military. In 1946 he returned to the Eagles, playing there through 1948. He was approached by Branch Rickey in 1945 as a possible first black major leaguer, but the position went to Robinson. The two years Irvin lost mattered, as he came up at age 30 instead of 28. He played his first game on July 8, 1949, pinch-hitting against Don Newcombe and the Dodgers in a 4-3 loss.

Irvin only played 36 games his rookie season, hitting a mere .224. After lighting up the minors in early 1950, he was called up for good. (Check his 1950 minor league numbers. He hit .510 with a 1.216 slugging percentage in 51 at-bats!) Irvin then became one of the best players in baseball for the next 5 years, his age 31-35 seasons. He stuck up OPS+ of 131, 147, 120, 141, and 108 from 1950 to 1954. He finished 3rd in the MVP voting in 1951, trailing Roy Campanella and Stan Musial. He followed up the regular season by hitting .458 in the World Series in a loss to the Yankees. While doing that, he, Hank Thompson, and Willie Mays formed the first all-black outfield in MLB history. He missed most of the 1952 season due to injuries. By the end of 1954, age caught up to Irvin.

In 1955, he shuffled between the majors and minors, playing in only 51 big league games while hitting .253. In the offseason, he was picked up by the Cubs and spent his last season in Chicago, at age 37. For his career, Irvin played 8 seasons hitting .293 with 99 home runs and 443 RBI’s. He led the league in RBI’s in 1951, was twice in the top 5 in OBP, twice in the top 10 in batting average, and once in the top 10 in home runs. Irvin did all of this despite not debuting before his 30th birthday. He was a 5-time Negro League All Star and made the MLB All Star game once.

Irvin is a great might-have-been. Irvin was a fantastic player, no matter where he had to play. He could have been a great MLB player if he had the chance. Debuting at 19 is not unheard of in the major leagues, so it is likely that Irvin lost 8 full seasons to segregation, excluding his military service but including most of his prime. Regardless, Mays considered Irvin an essential mentor, and in 1951 he was the best player on a Giants team that went to the World Series. Unfortunately Irvin is largely forgotten. He did not last as long as Robinson or Larry Doby, he did not break barriers in the same way as Robinson, and he did not dominate his league like Mays or Ernie Banks. We should not forget Monte Irvin, though. He was crucial in paving the way for the younger players, like Mays, Banks, and Aaron, who would move on to superstardom. Happily, he was honored with the Hall of Fame in 1973, yet his number has not been retired by the Giants. For that there is no excuse.