The On Deck Circle

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Baseball’s Surprising Stats: Ted Williams

Ted Williams is commonly considered the greatest hitter in baseball history.

He was the last batter to hit over .400 (.406 in 1941, at age 22), and he won the Triple Crown twice in his career.  No modern player has won the Triple Crown even once since Carl Yastrzemski did it in 1967.

English: An image of Major League Baseball hal...

English: An image of Major League Baseball hall of famer Ted Williams. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Williams was an uncommonly patient hitter who hit a lot of home runs and drew a lot of bases on balls.  Unlike the mythical portrayal of “Casey at the Bat,” a superlative slugger who wasn’t afraid to strike out, Williams actually didn’t strike out very often.  In other words, he did not sacrifice batting average for power.

If you peruse Williams’ career numbers over at Baseball-Reference.com (as indispensable a baseball reference tool as exists anywhere), you’ll find lots of “black ink” on his resume, indicating that he led his league in multiple offensive categories several times throughout his fabled career.

There are batting crowns, home run titles, and, for the modern sabermetrics-inclined baseball fan, OPS+ and WAR victories as well.

But did Ted Williams, the greatest hitter of all-time, ever lead his league in hits?  

To clarify, I’ve already pointed out that Williams won several batting titles.  But was there a single season during which he actually accumulated the most safe hits in his league?

Among players who have won batting titles, several of them have also led their league in hits.  Tony Gwynn, for example, won eight batting crowns and also led his league in base hits seven times.

Ty Cobb won an amazing 11 batting titles and led the league in base hits eight times.  Rogers Hornsby won seven hitting crowns and led the league in hits four times.

Generally speaking, then, players who win multiple batting crowns also tend to  lead their league in actual hits at least some of the time.

It may surprise you to learn, then, that Ted Williams never once led his league in hits.

Ted Williams’ career high for hits in a season was 194 in 1949, when he was 30-years old.  Interestingly, despite winning six batting titles in his career, Williams did not lead the league in hitting in the season in which he accumulated a career high in base hits.

Ted Williams in the Marines

Ted Williams in the Marines (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The secret to all those batting titles for Ted Williams, was, of course, his fantastic batting eye.  He might not have accumulated a staggering number of hits, but, perhaps more importantly, he generated very few outs per plate appearance, relative to virtually every other hitter who ever played the game.

Ted Williams simply would not swing at a bad pitch.  When he was in the batter’s box, it was the pitcher who was immediately at a disadvantage, despite the fact that the pitcher could throw any pitch he wanted, at any speed he wanted, anywhere he preferred.

What then to make of baseball’s continuing fetish for high hit totals, especially 200-hit seasons?

Just a decade and a half after Williams retired, Dodgers first baseman Steve Garvey, a ten time All-Star and the N.L. MVP award winner in 1974 was widely regarded as one of the best players in the game.  Garvey made a science of accumulating 200 hits in a season, apparently reasoning that it was an obvious mark of excellence.  He reached the 200 hit mark six times in seven years from 1974-80.

Yet Garvey, who never walked more than 50 times in a season, also never won a batting title.  I recall as a boy growing up at the time that a base on balls was considered a wasted plate appearance.  Apparently, there were many players at the professional level who believed the same thing (and some who still do.)  As Juaqin Phoenix’s character, Merrell Hess says in the movie, Signs, “It just felt wrong not to swing.”

There have been many baseball pundits, philosophers, managers, coaches, players and mere fans who have reasoned over the past several decades that to hit for power, you have to sacrifice some batting average.

Sluggers are supposed to drive in runs by driving home runs out of the park.  Meanwhile, the rest of the players — especially at the top of the lineup — like Pete Rose, Lou Brock and Ichiro (none of whom drew very many walks overall)  are supposed to swing away, lashing singles and doubles around the park.

Yet Ted Williams proved long ago that a slugger does not have to sacrifice batting average for power, and that the number of base hits a player accumulates is not really all that important a statistic.

It appears, though, that Ted Williams was just way ahead of his time, and it has taken so-called baseball experts a while to catch up.

But the great ones are always ahead of their time and, as far as hitting is concerned, Ted Williams was the greatest of them all.

New Negro League Data-Base on Baseball-Reference.com

I was pleased to read today on the homepage of the National Baseball Hall of Fame that Baseball-Reference.com now features a new database of Negro League statistics.  They do not claim that these statistics are anything but incomplete, but, at last, a serious attempt is being made by a highly credible baseball website to document the long-neglected accomplishments of Negro League players.

Just thought you’d like to know.

Below is the official press release of the National Baseball Hall of Fame on this topic:

March 22, 2012
Statistics for Negro Leagues players, like Hall of Famer Buck Leonard (shown crossing home plate), are now online at baseball-reference.com. (NBHOF Library)Statistics for Negro Leagues players, like Hall of Famer Buck Leonard (shown crossing home plate), are now online at baseball-reference.com. (NBHOF Library)

COOPERSTOWN, NY – For more than a century, African-Americans made history on the baseball diamond prior to Jackie Robinson’s breaking of the color barrier in the major leagues.

Beginning today, that history – in the most complete form ever assembled – is available to a world-wide audience through one of the game’s premier statistical websites.

Statistics on Negro Leagues players are now available through the Hall of Fame’s website partner, www.baseball-reference.com. The website, which has become the go-to resource for baseball statistics throughout the industry, will publish biographical and statistical information on all Negro Leagues players who were identified in a groundbreaking study commissioned by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum a decade ago.

“The data that forms the basis of these statistics is the result of years of tireless research by a dedicated team of historians,” said Jeff Idelson, President of the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. “We are so proud to have been able to facilitate this research, and equally pleased that our partner, baseball-reference.com, is able to make this information available to the public. This history that once was lost is now alive to help tell the story of the great African-American baseball heroes of the early 20th Century.”

The Negro Leagues statistical database is the most comprehensive study on African-American Baseball ever produced, a team effort of “The Negro Leagues Researchers/Authors Group” deputized by the Hall of Fame Board of Directors in 2001 and led by Dr. Larry Hogan, Dick Clark, and Larry Lester. Major League Baseball provided the Baseball Hall of Fame with a $250,000 grant in July 2000 in order to initiate a comprehensive study on the history of African-Americans in Baseball, from 1860-1960.

The research resulted in a raw narrative and bibliography of nearly 800 pages and a statistical database, which includes 3,000 day-by-day records, league leaders and all-time leaders. The research was culled from box scores from 345 newspapers of sanctioned league games played from 1920-48.

“There have been a number of books capturing oral histories, biographies written about players, and team histories, but few mediums tackle the statistical challenge of compiling data from the Negro Leagues,” said Larry Lester. “The Negro Leagues Researchers/Authors Group was tasked with this challenge in 2001, and a decade later we present, via www.baseball-reference.com, a sampling of our findings. More data will be released, once a complete audit has been done, that will demonstrate the talent of men who played before Jackie Robinson entered the Major Leagues.”

The study includes sanctioned league game box scores from almost 100 percent of games played in the 1920s, in excess of 90 percent of the box scores from games played in the 1930s and box scores from 50-70 percent of games played in the 1940s and 50s, during which time the various leagues began to disband and newspapers ceased to report game information. The end result is the most comprehensive compilation of statistics on the Negro Leagues that has ever been accumulated.

The compiled statistics will be accessible at baseball-reference.com like the data from the 17,000-plus men who have played Major League Baseball. There were no formal or official statistics from the various Negro Leagues, but the numbers in the database represent league-sanctioned games from 1920-54 for which there is a viable box score. Exhibition games and other related events are not included.

“This treasure trove of information on the Negro Leagues fills in a major gap of the historical record of the game of baseball,” said Sean Forman, the founder of baseball-reference.com. “The research provided from the study, along with the technology that allows it to be published and accessed, will result in a greater understanding of the Negro Leagues, and ultimately more research on the subject.”

For more information, please visit www.baseballhall.org.

Baseball’s Doppelgangers

Ralph Kiner

Image via Wikipedia

One of my favorite features of Baseball-Reference.com can be found near the bottom of every player’s  profile.  It appears in a red box and is called “Similarity Scores.”  Directly below that heading, you will find the sub-heading, “Similar Batters” or “Similar Pitchers,” depending on the given player’s specific occupation.  Also listed are the players who are most similar by age to the player you are researching.

It is a fantastic tool, and often provides an excellent perspective to a particular player’s career.

How great, for example, was Kenny Lofton?  According to his Similarity Scores, three of the ten players he was most similar to are in the Hall of Fame:  Harry Hooper, Max Carey, and Fred Clarke.  A fourth player on this list, Tim Raines, should also probably be in The Hall.

Without this useful context, it is a bit more difficult to begin to construct the foundation of an argument that Kenny Lofton just possibly deserves to be in The Hall.

Just for fun, I constructed a list of dozens of currently active Major League ball players, and I researched each of their respective baseball doppelgangers, the players most similar to each of them.  I found the results to be interesting and useful, and I decided to share some of them with you.

I decided not, however, to research players who have been active fewer than five years in the Major Leagues because their career profiles are likely to change significantly as they accumulate more playing time.

In each pair of ball players listed below, the first player is still currently active, and the second name in the pair is his retired doppelganger.

A)  Paul Konerko:

365 HR, 1156 RBI, .280 BA, .854 OPS, 119 OPS+, 22.1 WAR

B)  Joe Adcock:

336 HR, 1122 RBI, .277 BA, .822 OPS, 123 OPS+, 34.2 WAR

A)  Adam Dunn:

354 HR, 880 RBI, .250 BA, .902 OPS, 133 OPS+. 27.1 WAR

B)  Ralph Kiner:

369 HR, 1015 RBI, .279 BA, .946 OPS, 149 OPS+, 45.9 WAR

Kiner is in the Hall of Fame.  He played ten seasons.  He hit 40+ homers in five consecutive seasons, followed by a 37 home run season.  He retired at age 32.

Dunn has played ten seasons.  He hit 40+ home runs in five consecutive seasons, followed by two 38 home run seasons.  He is 31 years old.

A)  Magglio Ordonez:

289 HR, 1204 RBI, .312 BA, .883 OPS, 128 OPS+, 36.9 WAR

B)  Chuck Klein:

300 HR, 1201 RBI, .320 BA, .922 OPS, 137 OPS+, 39.2 WAR

Hall of Famer Klein played 17 years and retired at age 39.  If Ordonez plays three more seasons, he will have played 17 years and will have retired at age 39.  They each won a batting title.  They each topped 20 stolen bases one time.  And they each hit at least 25 home runs in a season six times.

A)  Tim Hudson:

165 wins – 87 losses, 3.42 ERA, 1541 S.O., 1.247 WHIP, 128 ERA+, 46.3 WAR

B)  Jimmy Key:

186 wins – 117 losses, .3.51 ERA, 1538 S.O., 1.229 WHIP, 122 ERA+, 45.7 WAR

A)  Jorge Posada:

261 HR, 1021 RBI, .275 BA, .856 OPS, 123 OPS+, 46 WAR

B)  Gabby Hartnett:

236 HR, 1179 RBI, .297 BA, .858 OPS, 126 OPS+, 50.3 WAR

Hartnett retired at age 40.  Posada, nearing the end of the line, is 39 years old.  Hartnett played in six All-Star Games; Posada has played in five.  It required several years on the ballot before Hartnett was eventually elected to the Hall of Fame.  One can foresee a similar fate awaiting Posada.

A)  Mark Teixeira:

275 HR, 906 RBI, .286 BA, .913 OPS, 134 OPS+, 36.7 WAR

b)  Hal Trosky:

228 HR, 1012 RBI, .302 BA, .892 OPS, 130 OPS+, 26.2 WAR

Migraine headaches forced Trosky into retirement at age 28.  Twice he came out of retirement, but he was just a shadow of the player he had been over the first several years of his career.

A)  Roy Oswalt:

150 wins – 83 losses, 3.18 ERA, 1666 S.O., 1.184 WHIP, 135 ERA+, 44.6 WAR

b)  Dizzy Dean:

150 wins – 83 losses, 3.02 ERA, 1163 S.O., 1.206 WHIP, 131 ERA+, 39.6 WAR

At first, when I noticed that their career win-loss records were identical, I thought I must have made a mistake.  But those are the correct numbers, folks.  Now that’s what I call a baseball doppelganger.

Dean’s career lasted about a decade.  Oswalt has ten complete seasons under his belt.  Dean is in the Hall of Fame.  Can you tell me why Oswalt, then, shouldn’t be once he retires?

There are many more pairs I found interesting:  Mark Buehrle / Johnny Podres, Carlos Lee / Del Ennis, and Matt Holliday / Chick Hafey are but a few examples of these doppelganger pairs.

In general, it was more difficult to find reasonably similar pitchers across time than it was to find pairs of hitters who matched up well with one another.

Take from this research what you will.  As for me, I have come to recognize that there are several more players than I realized who have built strong Hall of Fame cases for themselves over the past decade.  Once they retire, these kinds of comparisons will go a long way to buttressing arguments regarding their respective Hall of Fame worthiness.

Friendly Reminder: I invite you to check back in to this blog on Friday of this week for the third of twelve planned installments of the series, “Baseball’s Best of the Worst,” that Graham Womack of Baseball Past and Present and I are collaborating on.

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