The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Ty Cobb

In my last post in this series, I wrote about Pete Rose.

Rose has often been compared to Ty Cobb, both for his intense personality as well as for his take-no-prisoners style of play.  He’s also been compared to Cobb for the obvious reason that he broke what was once considered Cobb’s unbreakable career hits record of 4,189 (according to Baseball-Reference.com.)  Rose, of course, broke Cobb’s record, and finished his career with 4,256 hits.

But Rose topped a .500 slugging percentage in just one season, and finished in the top ten in his league in slugging percentage just twice (1968-69.)  His career slugging percentage of  just .409 is the same as Rafael Furcal.

In other words, Rose, like Ty Cobb, was a consummate contact hitter who sacrificed power in favor of batting average.

But is that who Ty Cobb really was, or has this become an easy, though ultimately false, comparison?

Ty Cobb holds the Major League Baseball record...

Ty Cobb holds the Major League Baseball record for highest career batting average, at .366. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So the question of the day is, “Did Ty Cobb ever lead his league in slugging percentage?

Now, I was already aware from prior research that Cobb won 11 batting titles, drove in over a hundred runs in a season several times, topped 200 hits in a season 9 or 10 times, and stole nearly 900 bases.

But I never paid much attention to his slugging percentages because, well, I don’t think most of us associate Ty Cobb with having been a “slugger.”

So what I discovered truly surprised me.

Ty Cobb led his league in slugging eight times in an eleven year span.  In other words, from 1907 to 1917, Cobb was not merely the greatest hitter for average in his league, he was also the greatest slugger in his league.

How does Cobb’s eight slugging titles compare with other great players in history?  Here’s a list of several players (not meant to be comprehensive) and the number of times they led their league in slugging percentage:

Babe Ruth:  13

Rogers Hornsby:  9

Ted Williams:  9

Ty Cobb:  8

Barry Bonds:  7

Stan Musial:  6

Honus Wagner:  6

Jimmie Foxx:  5

Willie Mays:  5

Hank Aaron:  4

Mickey Mantle:  4

Mark McGwire:  4

Alex Rodriguez:  4

Albert Pujols:  3

Joe DiMaggio:  2

Lou Gehrig:  2

Ken Griffey, Jr.:  1

Frank Thomas:  1

I don’t know about you, but if I was asked to rate these players beforehand from top to bottom regarding career slugging titles, I’m pretty sure this would not have been the order in which I would have listed them.  Nor would I have come close to the number of slugging titles each of these players won.

Gehrig, of course, had Ruth as a teammate, thus his low total.  DiMaggio played his home games in a park that absolutely killed right-handed power hitters.

English: Ty Cobb batting in 1908 at Chicago.

English: Ty Cobb batting in 1908 at Chicago. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Still, based on this list, it is beyond dispute that Ty Cobb was not merely one of the very best hitters for average in baseball history, he belongs on the short list of greatest sluggers in the history of the game, despite his modest total of 117 career home runs.

Different parks and different eras both serve to either inflate or suppress a players apparent power. Because Cobb played in what’s commonly referred to as the Deadball Era, his reputation as a hitter has been unfairly limited to one aspect of the game, batting average.

But there can be little doubt that if Cobb had played in favorable hitter’s decades like the 1920’s and ’30’s, he would be remembered today in much the same way that Rogers Hornsby or Ted Williams are recalled.

All of which also points to the conclusion that any comparisons between Cobb and Rose as actual hitters needs to be reconsidered by most of us lest we make easy, though demonstrably inaccurate,  comparisons.

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6 thoughts on “Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Ty Cobb

  1. There are some guys–most guys, actually–from Cobb’s era whose stats and overall effectiveness would have a whole lot of air let out of them if you moved them into today’s game. Cobb, I’m not so sure. First of all, he was a big guy–I think he’s generally listed at 6’2″ and 190. Unlike Rose, Cobb could REALLY run. I think if you could clone Cobb and bring him back, he’d be an upper-case Carlos Beltran.

    • You raise some excellent points. First off, lots of guys who played 80-100 years ago were much smaller on average than modern players. Also, they faced much more limited competition (no blacks, for example), and no night games until the ’30’s. Also, no late-inning relief specialists. But I happen to agree with you regarding Cobb, and I think Beltran (who I consider extremely underrated) is a nice comp. Solid power, excellent base-runner. Rose had his strengths, but he wasn’t the natural athlete that I think Cobb probably was.
      Thanks for stopping by,
      Bill

  2. Mike Cornelius on said:

    Bill,

    An excellent, informative, and of course surprising post. This whole series has really been very, very well done.

    Mike

  3. A couple of things here 1. I’m surprised at Hornsby over Musial. I would have thought he other way. 2. We (and I include me in that) tend to forget that doubles and triples add to slugging percentage also and Cobb had a ton of both.
    Nice job.
    v

    • Yeah, lots of surprises on that list. Rose had a ton of doubles, too, but not nearly as many triples as Cobb, and Rose had nearly 3,000 more at bats. Cobb’s triples (twice as many as Rose) in fewer at bats, made a big difference in their respective slugging percentages.
      Thanks for the read,
      Bill

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