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Friday, May 06, 2011

ESPN: Schoenfield: Ten reasons Willie Mays is greatest ever

Shouldn’t it be Eighty reasons today?

3. Because he won two MVP Awards ... but should have won eight.

 

  * 1955: Led NL in home runs, slugging and OPS while finishing second in batting average, runs and RBIs. Finished fourth in the voting behind Roy Campanella, whose Dodgers won the pennant.

  * 1958: Led NL in OPS, runs and stolen bases while ranking second in batting average and slugging. Finished second to Ernie Banks, primarily due to Banks’ 129 to 96 edge in RBIs. Was Mays not clutch that year? Hardly. He hit .325 with runners in scoring position, .371 with men on base and .408 in “late and close” situations. The problem was the Giants didn’t have many men on base in front of him: their leadoff and No. 2 hitters both had a .315 OBP.

  * 1960: Finished third behind Dick Groat and Don Hoak of the first-place Pirates. They were close to Mays in value. I mean, when added together.

  * 1962: Maury Wills edged Mays in the voting, a stunning result in retrospect. Wills scored 130 runs (the same as Mays) ... but drove in 93 fewer. Mays’ Giants even won the tiebreaker over Wills’ Dodgers, but Wills swiped the headlines by breaking Ty Cobb’s single-season stolen base record.

  * 1963: Finished fifth as Sandy Koufax went 25-5 to win. Dick Groat finished second in the vote with six home runs. Man, did the writers love Dick Groat or what? Koufax and Aaron had good cases, but I’d have given the nod to Mays.

  * 1964: Finished sixth in the voting even though Dick Allen was the player within two wins of him in overall value. Led NL in home runs, OPS and scored 121 runs (second) and didn’t receive one first-place vote.

 
So that’s eight. You could also make strong cases for him in 1957, 1961 and 1966. So he could have won 11. But that would have been quite boring.

Repoz Posted: May 06, 2011 at 01:25 PM | 374 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
  Tags: giants, hall of fame, history, sabermetrics

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   101. cercopithecus aethiops Posted: May 06, 2011 at 11:21 PM (#3820250)
Yeah, that's where I was going. The first is a displacement question, but the second is a volume question. At least that's my story and I'm sticking to it.
   102. PreservedFish Posted: May 06, 2011 at 11:24 PM (#3820257)
Here's a more interesting question, at least for me: Did Archimedes ever use an ice cube?
   103. OCF Posted: May 06, 2011 at 11:33 PM (#3820271)
#99, #100 and #101 are not completely correct.

I have no idea about Archimedes and ice. He lived in Sicily. I would assume it snows on the upper elevations of Mt. Etna, but I don't think there are glaciers up there. Before there was mechanical refrigeration, the primary source of ice was cutting it from the surface of frozen-over lakes and ponds, and I don't see too many of those at higher elevations on Sicily. I didn't say that these were his own problems - just that they can be understood using a principle that Archimedes enunciated.
   104. cercopithecus aethiops Posted: May 06, 2011 at 11:45 PM (#3820292)
#100 and #101 are not completely correct.

OK, so what about 99?

I suppose if you were going to make me actually think about this, it might occur to me that the second involves both a volume change and a displacement change. The ice cube does occupy a smaller volume than the water it will melt into, but it is also floating partly above the surface, and therefore not displacing its full volume of liquid. But both of those considerations point toward spillage.
   105. Steve Treder Posted: May 07, 2011 at 12:13 AM (#3820329)
Here's a more interesting question, at least for me: Did Archimedes ever use an ice cube?

No, he preferred his Ouzo straight up.
   106. Morty Causa Posted: May 07, 2011 at 12:34 AM (#3820356)
Did Archimedes ever use an ice cube?


I know this. It's on the tip on my tongue. Let's see, "Immanuel Kant was a real pissant..." No, lost it, thought I had it there for minute.
   107. Ron J Posted: May 07, 2011 at 12:45 AM (#3820375)
Or is the level of play better because the population pool is larger?


That's part of it. There's also the issue that the major leagues were doing a better job of getting the best talent under control.

Even into the 1930s the PCL retained some level of freedom and then as the minors were finally essentially wrapped up there was a huge influx of talent brought in by the breaking of the color barrier.

EDIT: A good way to look at this is that the only reason Babe Ruth reached the majors as young as he did was that the emergence of the Federal League put Jack Dunn in a squeeze that he resolved by selling Ruth. If Ruth had been born two years later it's quite likely he wouldn't have reached the majors until Lefty Grove did -- and for the same reason. (The IL changed their rules and players became available for a draft by major league teams. Forced Dunn to sell them before they could simply be drafted)
   108. Steve Treder Posted: May 07, 2011 at 12:50 AM (#3820380)
Even into the 1930s the PCL retained some level of freedom

The PCL retained some level of freedom later than that, though it was lesser across the '40s than it had been in the '30s. The power of the independent minors wasn't really crushed until the early 1950s with the advent of televised major league baseball.
   109. neilsen Posted: May 07, 2011 at 01:12 AM (#3820403)
Happy Birthday Willie. Currently reading Hano's short bio of Mays and its a good read. Especially some of the baserunning bits
   110. Steve Treder Posted: May 07, 2011 at 01:14 AM (#3820409)
A good way to look at this is that the only reason Babe Ruth reached the majors as young as he did was that the emergence of the Federal League put Jack Dunn in a squeeze that he resolved by selling Ruth. If Ruth had been born two years later it's quite likely he wouldn't have reached the majors until Lefty Grove did -- and for the same reason. (The IL changed their rules and players became available for a draft by major league teams. Forced Dunn to sell them before they could simply be drafted)

Yes, but it wasn't the IL who changed "their" rules. The IL was part of the National Association, part of "organized baseball," and all the draft rules were set by the NA and applied to all member leagues. One of the interesting things about the history of the NA is the degree to which the true power within it went from being mostly the NL/AL, but balanced against the minor leagues (especially the big, powerful minor leagues such as the PCL, the IL, and the AA), to more and more just a rubber-stamp for the NL/AL by the 1950s/60s.
   111. Steve Treder Posted: May 07, 2011 at 01:19 AM (#3820417)
Currently reading Hano's short bio of Mays and its a good read. Especially some of the baserunning bits

Is that the one from 1966, "Willie Mays"?

If so, I read that book over and over until, literally, the front and back covers fell off. I had the great privilege of meeting and kind of hanging out with Arnold Hano two years ago (he was a fabulously great guy), and had him autograph my tattered relic.
   112. phatj Posted: May 07, 2011 at 01:24 AM (#3820424)
#101, displacement *is* volume. The amount of water displaced by an ice cube is a function of its mass, just as is the amount of water displaced by the boulder, whether in or out of the boat. So, since the mass of the ice cube doesn't change when it melts, no water will spill.
   113. OCF Posted: May 07, 2011 at 01:24 AM (#3820425)
By the way, the Archimedes answers are:

1. (Rowboat is swimming pool): The water level goes down. In the boat, the boulder displaces a volume of water equivalent to its mass; at the bottom of the pool, it displaces only its volume. Since the boulder is heavier than water, its volume is less than a volume equivalent to its mass.

2. (Ice cube in glass): The water level stays the same, with no spillage (as long as the temperature of the water and glass remains 0 degrees C). The floating ice cube displaces a volume of water equivalent to its mass. Upon melting, it becomes a volume of water equivalent to its mass. That's the same thing.
   114. phatj Posted: May 07, 2011 at 01:30 AM (#3820429)
Oh, crap, of course.
   115. neilsen Posted: May 07, 2011 at 02:14 AM (#3820454)
Is that the one from 1966, "Willie Mays"?

If so, I read that book over and over until, literally, the front and back covers fell off. I had the great privilege of meeting and kind of hanging out with Arnold Hano two years ago (he was a fabulously great guy), and had him autograph my tattered relic.

Indeed. Its the updated version Hano wrote in 1970. I saw Mays in the mid-60's when they would come to play the Dodgers. I quite agree with you and Hano - he was fantastic to watch. Just watching him warm up made you tingle. He would throw in this funny sidearm/underarm way I havent seen since. Watching him run the bases - quick !
   116. Jolly Old St. Nick Still Gags in October Posted: May 07, 2011 at 02:27 AM (#3820462)
I had the great privilege of meeting and kind of hanging out with Arnold Hano two years ago (he was a fabulously great guy), and had him autograph my tattered relic.

I've never read his Mays book, but his first book, A Day in the Bleachers, is a serious contender for a list of Top 10 All-Time baseball books. Check out both the editorial reviews and the customer reviews in t he Amazon link.
   117. mathesond Posted: May 07, 2011 at 02:28 AM (#3820463)
Regarding the ice cube question, if the water and glass were at 0 Celsius, then the cube wouldn't melt, correct? Wouldn't a temperature above freezing be necessary for the ice cube to melt? Also, if the cube does melt, then wouldn't it expand due to warming up? Disclosure - my last science class was in Grade 10, in 1985.
   118. Steve Treder Posted: May 07, 2011 at 02:41 AM (#3820474)
his first book, A Day in the Bleachers, is a serious contender for a list of Top 10 All-Time baseball books.

Contender? I don't think so. It's one one of the very few very greatest baseball books ever written.
   119. Steve Treder Posted: May 07, 2011 at 02:51 AM (#3820476)
He would throw in this funny sidearm/underarm way I havent seen since.

You bet. Mays's way of throwing was among the many, many ways he was singular: he could throw overhand, and did when the play required it, and his straight-overhand heaves were things of breathaking strength. But he didn't always. He threw three-quarter or even sidearm much of the time; it seemed that he threw to the lowest angle as the throw's velocity required.

He was such a special player.
   120. Mefisto Posted: May 07, 2011 at 03:08 AM (#3820483)
Basket catch, sidearm throws. Yeah. And he could just explode on the basepaths. You'd think he was running fast, and then he had an extra gear. He also hit catchers like a linebacker. I was at this game and I've never seen a catcher hit as hard as Mays hit Roseboro that night. Really, it was incredible that Roseboro could move afterwards; that they charged him with an error is utterly absurd.

Interesting note: Retrosheet says Johnson singled to right, but I have a clear memory that the single was to left. I guess nobody's likely to take my word for it in this case.
   121. Misirlou is on hiding to nowhere Posted: May 07, 2011 at 03:29 AM (#3820494)
2. A glass of water with an ice cube in it is sitting on a counter. The water is exactly at the rim of the glass; if you look from the side, you see that the ice cube sticks up higher than the rim of the glass. Let the glass sit there untouched while the ice melts. Does the water spill? Or retreat to a level below the rim? Or stay exactly at the rim?


This was precisely my daughter's 2nd grade science fair experiment last year. It's perfect for that age, as it lends itself to a simple scientific method of hypothesize, and verify. It also lent itself to a sidebar about why the outside of the glass had moisture on it, but it did not come from spillage.

Also, if the cube does melt, then wouldn't it expand due to warming up? Disclosure - my last science class was in Grade 10, in 1985.


No. Not until the water reached 4 C. The temp V density curve for water goes down as temp goes down until 4C, then it goes up. 1C water is less dense than 4C water. But I think OCF's point was, as long as the one ignores the effect of the water warming, the volume of water in the glass with the melting ice won't change.
   122. Ave, Xerac, morituri te salutant Posted: May 07, 2011 at 04:31 AM (#3820530)
Players today have the advantages of being able to dedicate their time to working out and doing it better. Training and nutrition have advanced greatly since Mays' time, let alone Wagner's. To say neither would benefit if they came up today is absurd.

As for Einstein, once he figured how to use a computer and a calculator instead of a slide rule he would catch up easily.

Of course, the above is IMHJO.
   123. neilsen Posted: May 07, 2011 at 02:23 PM (#3820614)
Basket catch, sidearm throws. Yeah. And he could just explode on the basepaths. You'd think he was running fast, and then he had an extra gear. He also hit catchers like a linebacker. I was at this game and I've never seen a catcher hit as hard as Mays hit Roseboro that night. Really, it was incredible that Roseboro could move afterwards; that they charged him with an error is utterly absurd.

Interesting note: Retrosheet
I have a friend who saw the same game. He claims the hit was a bloop to right, but that Mays was playing left field during part of the game.He also saw Mays score from first on singles to left twice-once in 1961 and once in 1968 at Candlestick. Yeow.
   124. Mefisto Posted: May 07, 2011 at 02:54 PM (#3820626)
Well, your friend's memory is clearly better than mine, at least as far as Retrosheet is concerned. According to Retrosheet, Mays did play left that game, and also right. I don't remember that, though you'd think I would.
   125. GuyM Posted: May 07, 2011 at 04:45 PM (#3820663)
Wagner was a 150 OPS guy for his career.... The methods used to timeline players are, as mentioned, extremely sensitive to assumptions. We'll never get anywhere close to calling this a science. Could he have been a 130 OPS guy for his career? Maybe not likely, but I think it's wrong to say it's impossible.

There is one fairly constant factor in baseball, which I think provides the best benchmark for trying to assess changes in talent. That is pitcher hitting. Pitchers have never been picked for their ability to hit -- they are basically good athletes who have been hitting since they were kids, but they aren't in MLB because of their hitting. There is little reason to think pitchers' hitting ability has changed much over the last 100 years.* So let's see what they can tell us about Wagner. (Dan Fox wrote a brilliant piece about this issue for BPro years ago, in which he proposed using pitchers' hitting as a benchmark. Highly recommended: http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=13734.

Wagner was .391/.467 OBP/SLG for his career. Pitchers of his era were about .214/.205 (I calculated the average for 1906-1907). So Wagner had an OBP that was 1.82 * PitchOBP, and his SLG was 2.27 * PitcherSLG. Today, NL pitchers are about .175/.174 hitters as a group. So assuming Wagner performed as well relative to pitchers as he did in his own time, that would put him at .319 OBP and .395 SLG today. That's an OPS+ of 93.

Of course, that's using Wagner's career numbers. This would still be consistent with his being an above-average player in his peak seasons. But all in all, this is a good indication that Gassko's timeline -- which suggested Wagner would be about a 105 OPS+ player -- is if anything too generous to old-time players.

* Yes, pitchers do DH in the minors and college, but they hit up through HS ball -- many were the best hitters on their HS teams. They are also much bigger/stronger men than the pitchers of 1905. And in any case, most of the increase in position players' hitting compared to pitchers took place before 1973, so the DH can't possibly explain why today's hitters are so much better (relative to pitchers) than were players of earlier eras.
   126. GuyM Posted: May 07, 2011 at 04:47 PM (#3820664)
Link to Dan Fox's piece.
   127. GuyM Posted: May 07, 2011 at 05:11 PM (#3820678)
I should add: the 93 OPS+ estimate is what I think you'd get by teleporting the actual Honus Wagner to today's game. To the extent you think that modern coaching, conditioning, exercise equipment, etc. would improve his performance, you have to bump up the estimate.
   128. BDC Posted: May 07, 2011 at 06:21 PM (#3820734)
Interesting, Guy. Would the converse be true? If we took a good-glove, long-career, 93 OPS+ shortstop from the present (Edgar Renteria is almost exactly that) and teleported him to 1911, would he be as great as Honus Wagner?

It's an interesting proposition. Edgar Renteria has not had a dazzling career (aside from his penchant for World-Series-winning hits), but he's certainly among the top 20 or 25 shortstops of the past 50 years, and we used to have those not-completely-delusional Renteria HOF discussions based on his ever-waning chances of getting 3,000 hits. In other words, a 93 OPS+ shortstop who's durable and wins some Gold Gloves in his prime is a pretty fine ballplayer. That's actually a more intriguing comparison than the extreme timeline assertions one sometimes hears (e.g. how Wagner would find himself on the bench or in AAA today, because we've come so far).
   129. Cyril Morong Posted: May 07, 2011 at 07:02 PM (#3820763)
Guy

Interesting. If I calculate Wagner's OPS+ without the park adjustment, I get about 146. If I then raise both OBP and SLG by 2%, it would become about 150. That would leave him with a .399 OBP and a .476 SLG. That means both his OBP and SLG would fall by about 80 points using your method. Maybe that is what it would be, but that is alot. Perhaps in baseball having to face pitchers who throw just a few miles per hour faster would have that affect.

Do we have any studies on how much opponents hitting stats fall for every extra MPH? What exactly would make Wagner's performance go down so much in addition to seeing a higher average speed fastball? Are the pitcher's curve balls curving more? Do they have better control? Do they have more pitches? (slider?) Maybe Wanger beats out fewer infield singles because the fielders are better. Does he lose hits because faster fielders catch more balls before they can fall for hits?

Cy
   130. Cyril Morong Posted: May 07, 2011 at 07:29 PM (#3820785)
The average winning time in the Olympic 100 meters running event from 1900-1920 was 10.833 (I skipped 1906 which was somehow not a regular Olympics-I don't really understand it). The last 6 have an average of 9.855.

Maybe someone on this list can tell me where a runner would rank today if he could only run 100 meters in 10.833 seconds? I have no idea. It might not even be good enough to win some state championships for all I know.

Is this improvement due to better training, working out with weights, nutrition, better in vitro care, better medicine, etc? What about equipment? If we transported the 1924 Harold Abrahams to today, would he run faster just because he had better shoes or the surface might be better?
   131. GuyM Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:02 PM (#3820808)
Cy: I think you need to think about this in a broader way. It's not just a question of how much better are the opposing pitchers (though they are certainly bigger and harder throwing, throw pitches Wagner didn't see, etc.). The quality of fielding is also better, especially speed in the OF. And the hitters are of course better too. OPS+ (or any other hitting stat) is a relative measure -- it compares a hitter to the rest of the league. Wagner would look worse in part because we'd be comparing him to much better hitters. It really is like taking a player from A ball to the majors in one step, and seeing what immediately happens to his OPS+.

I would agree that these results are a bit shocking, if it weren't for ESPN Classic. If you watch players from the 70s and 80s, and see how much smaller they are than today's players, then it's not hard to imagine a far more dramatic change from 1900 to 1980.
   132. AROM Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:18 PM (#3820824)
Looking at pitcher hitting would also tell us that AAA pitchers are tougher to face than major league pitchers. Seems to me that use of a DH has serious effects on pitchers developing that part of the game. At the upper two levels of the minors pitchers only hit when both teams are NL affiliates.
   133. Cyril Morong Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:19 PM (#3820825)
How much has size changed? Are there some timeline charts that show how height and weight have changed?
   134. Cyril Morong Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:26 PM (#3820831)
Using the Lee Sinins database, I found 93 players in 1910 with at least 1 PA who were taller than 72 inches. So less than 6 per team. In 2009, there were 619 or over 20 per team. That gives me some idea
   135. Mike Emeigh Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:29 PM (#3820836)
There is little reason to think pitchers' hitting ability has changed much over the last 100 years.


I don't agree. Specialization and separation of pitching from hitting has become prevalent among the travel ball teams where most of the elite youngsters play, and once a kid moves up into travel ball, the pitchers just don't practice hitting nearly as much. The coaches want them focused on their pitching.

-- MWE
   136. Mefisto Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:31 PM (#3820838)
Cyril, see .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
   137. Cyril Morong Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:31 PM (#3820839)
I looked at the top 50 in offensive winning percentage from 1910 and 2009. In 1910, I saw two guys at 200+ pounds. In 2009, it looks like 30
   138. Cyril Morong Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:31 PM (#3820840)
Mefisto

Thanks.

Cy
   139. Mefisto Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:35 PM (#3820842)
You can also follow up .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).
   140. Cyril Morong Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:40 PM (#3820845)
Thanks
   141. Steve Treder Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:48 PM (#3820850)
There is little reason to think pitchers' hitting ability has changed much over the last 100 years.


I don't agree. Specialization and separation of pitching from hitting has become prevalent among the travel ball teams where most of the elite youngsters play, and once a kid moves up into travel ball, the pitchers just don't practice hitting nearly as much. The coaches want them focused on their pitching.

Absolutely right. There is lot of reason to think pitchers' hitting ability has changed much over the last 100 years. The athletes in the sport are far more specialized now than a century ago, and groomed to focus on their specialties far more intensively.
   142. GuyM Posted: May 07, 2011 at 08:58 PM (#3820856)
Steve/MWE: sorry, but those factors are irrelevant. Almost all of the change took place by the 1960s. Read the Fox piece and look at his chart. The secular decline of pitcher hitting is clear and undeniable. And the idea that 1905 pitchers were much better hitters than the pitchers of the 1960s is just totally implausible. It would be much easier to make the reverse case.
   143. Foghorn Leghorn Posted: May 07, 2011 at 09:12 PM (#3820871)
Cy,
I did a few pieces here on it
Talking about how Pedro Martinez isn't very big

Looking at Stephen Jay Gould's talent level

And then about how adding in other populations actuially makes MLB smaller, not larger

One problem I have with much of these assertions is the success of players from the DR. The health and economic status in that country is nothing like it is in the US. I tried to find some actuarial data for those other countries, but with no luck.
   144. BDC Posted: May 07, 2011 at 09:16 PM (#3820875)
If we transported the 1924 Harold Abrahams to today, would he run faster just because he had better shoes or the surface might be better?

Absolutely. In 1924 you're talking cinder tracks and shoes you wouldn't wear to garden in today.

10.83 is a good time for a high school boy nowadays. It will win you a nice trophy in many meets. But the top US high-school boys' 100M time this season is 10.28.

Personally, I find it hard to believe that elite human athletes have changed much, even phenotypically, since 1911 or 1924 or whenever. I am not talking the mass of humanity, which has certainly changed on aggregate; I am talking the outliers, the men and women who get tabbed for the Olympics or for pro sports. I have coffee every other day with someone who was born in 1920. We are not a new species since then.

While athletic records do tend to fall continually, many are held for years and years: the mile record is currently 12 years old, the 400M HH is 19, the long jump is nearly 20. If the pace of athletic progress was really as intense as sometimes claimed, these records would be broken more incrementally and more regularly. Though even in sports where records are broken incrementally and regularly (swimming is the archetype), technology and training have a lot to do with it.

A lot of the reason that Honus Wagner wouldn't hit .350 today, as many have noted above, is that he'd be playing in a much tougher league. That's mostly a social construct. It's hard to tease out the social context from the biological.
   145. Mefisto Posted: May 07, 2011 at 09:28 PM (#3820885)
I've been letting Guy bear the weight of the argument here, but I agree with him and wanted to add a couple of points. First, with respect to the specific case of Wagner (and elaborating on Bob's point), I think people are forgetting just how weak the NL was from 1901-10. The second best position player in the league at that time was probably Sherry Magee. Now, Magee was a good player, but this isn't Henry Aaron competing with Willie Mays. Wagner was mostly alone as a great hitter, meaning OPS+ (which is relative) overstates his value.

OPS+ is also an inappropriate measure for a more fundamental reason. It is made up of 2 averages which are calculated solely on the basis of offensive performance. The problem is defense -- in Wagner's era roughly 30% of the runs scored were unearned, meaning they scored because of errors. Today the figure is 7-8%; in Mays' era it was roughly 12%. That means OPS+ overestimates the runs Wagner produced by about 22% relative to today and by about 18% relative to Willie/Mickey/Henry.
   146. Cyril Morong Posted: May 07, 2011 at 09:46 PM (#3820896)
Foghorn

Thanks

Cy
   147. Steve Treder Posted: May 07, 2011 at 09:53 PM (#3820899)
Steve/MWE: sorry, but those factors are irrelevant. Almost all of the change took place by the 1960s. Read the Fox piece and look at his chart.

I'm sorry, and this could just be my impenetrable density at work, but I'm not seeing what you're seeing. I'm familiar with Dan's piece, and I just went back and re-looked at it, and what I see is a trendline of pitcher's hitting being steadily worse in comparison with that of position players, starting in 1871 and continuing to this day. The slope has been slightly less steep since the 1940s, but only slightly less, and the trend continues ever-downward.

I don't understand how one can look at this data and conclude that "there is little reason to think pitchers' hitting ability has changed much over the last 100 years," unless what you're talking about is something different from what I'm talking about, which is pitchers' hitting ability in relation to position players' hitting ability.
   148. GuyM Posted: May 08, 2011 at 11:58 AM (#3821152)
"I don't understand how one can look at this data and conclude that "there is little reason to think pitchers' hitting ability has changed much over the last 100 years," unless what you're talking about is something different from what I'm talking about, which is pitchers' hitting ability in relation to position players' hitting ability."

Steve, we are indeed talking about completely different things. Yes, of course pitchers' hitting ability relative to position players' has declined continuously -- but less dramatically in recent times. The idea is that pitchers' absolute hitting ability has remained roughly the same over time, since their hitting ability is irrelevant to their selection as an MLB player (and always has been). So it's not that pitchers have become worse hitters -- there is no reason to think that's true, plenty of reasons they may have improved a bit -- but that everyone else has gotten steadily better.

We have 3 independent methods that all show the same basic pattern: position players improved steadily and significantly up through the 1960s or so, and improved at a more modest rate since then: 1) comparing players to pitcher hitting, 2) declining variance in performance (Gould), and 3) comparing players' own performance vs. their league over time (Gassko). I don't see how there can be serious doubt about this.
   149. jack the seal clubber (on the sidelines of life) Posted: May 08, 2011 at 12:50 PM (#3821166)
The whole "who's the best ever" argument is one that is most cases can't be conclusively settled because there are just too many variables involved..time, place, evolution of various skills,etc. I can conclusively say "Willie Mays was better than Jim Bottomley" but I can't conclusively say "Willie Mays was without a doubt the best ever".

This reminds me of our bad talk radio guys here in Va/DC, Chad Dukes and Lavar Arrington. They have to fill air time every day and have nothing to talk about except how bad the Redskins are, since Lavar doesn't know or care anything about baseball there is no Nationals or Orioles discussions. So their shows wind up being debates between them and the callers as to whether or not Joe Montana was the best qb ever, etc. with no real purpose or conclusion evident. Arrington's terrible on the air, by the way, singing (badly) and interrupting guests serially.
   150. Misirlou is on hiding to nowhere Posted: May 08, 2011 at 01:56 PM (#3821190)
So it's not that pitchers have become worse hitters -- there is no reason to think that's true, plenty of reasons they may have improved a bit -- but that everyone else has gotten steadily better.


I don't understand. Are you saying that Walter Johnson would be the same hitter today that he was in 1910, but Honus Wagner would be worse?

Also, I disagree with your premise that pitchers always were selected for their pitching only. Or at least that while it may be true, it doesn't have as great a bearing on the pitcher's hitting ability as you propose.

There were plenty of players back then who started out as pitchers and later became good or great full time hitters. Ruth being the obvious one, but also Smokey Joe Wood, George Sisler, Lefty O'Doul, Sam Rice. Those are the only ones I come up with OTTOMH. There are more I'm sure. If so many pitchers transitioned to position players and had huge success, it stands to reason that there were plenty of others who were a little less skilled at hitting and thus more valuable as pitchers. Whereas today, those selections are made in HS or even earlier, back then they were frequently being made at the major league level, and thus the absolute hitting ability of the pitching population as a whole was much higher than in today's MLB.
   151. Steve Treder Posted: May 08, 2011 at 02:28 PM (#3821205)
Ruth being the obvious one, but also Smokey Joe Wood, George Sisler, Lefty O'Doul, Sam Rice. Those are the only ones I come up with OTTOMH. There are more I'm sure.

Stan Musial.
   152. Jolly Old St. Nick Still Gags in October Posted: May 08, 2011 at 02:55 PM (#3821217)
This reminds me of our bad talk radio guys here in Va/DC, Chad Dukes and Lavar Arrington. They have to fill air time every day and have nothing to talk about except how bad the Redskins are,

You've just provided a perfect two sentence summary of the entire Washington sports scene for the past 19 years, which has consisted of little but Redskins fans on a stadium sized psychiatrist's couch.
   153. GuyM Posted: May 08, 2011 at 04:04 PM (#3821258)
150: I'm saying the pitchers of today and pitchers of 1905 are equal hitters. Put them in today's game and they would hit .175/.175. Its a very generous assumption for Wagner.

I looked only at pitchers who played only pitcher. Ruth and Sisler do distort the numbers (see Fox's graph) later. But those players don't impact this estimate.

The fact that even the best hitting pitchers can no longer transition to other positions confirms my argument rather than being a rebuttal. Position players are so much better (pitchers too), it has become much more rare for one person to have both skills at MLB level. (All hail Ankiel).
   154. Foghorn Leghorn Posted: May 08, 2011 at 05:45 PM (#3821302)
The fact that even the best hitting pitchers can no longer transition to other positions confirms my argument rather than being a rebuttal. Position players are so much better (pitchers too), it has become much more rare for one person to have both skills at MLB level. (All hail Ankiel).
I don't think it is "much more rare". It's probably about the same over the last 60 years.

And Ankiel went elsewhere and practiced and practiced. Tim Hudson could likely do that. There are others - it's more a function of value to their teams (as the teams see it).

Out of curiosity, where would this evaluation rate Babe Ruth? OPS+ of 125?
   155. AROM Posted: May 08, 2011 at 08:47 PM (#3821457)
Micah Owings should definitely try 1b or OF. I'd like to try Dan Haren as a hitter, and DH for Jeff Mathis, but the rules say you can only DH for a pitcher.

Carlos Zambrano has a good enough bat to hit at several positions, but not good enough to be a 1b. And with his body type, that's the only place he could play besides pitcher.
   156. stratosaur Posted: May 08, 2011 at 08:54 PM (#3821463)
Regarding the apparent lack of MVP respect, the problem with Willie Mays was that he was Willie Mays. 40 HR, 100 runs, 100 RBI, .300, great glove became rote. That's what people expected from Willie Freakin' Mays. He never hit .400 or 62 HR or drove in 175. He was just too damn consistent, to the point where he was taken for granted. Dick Groat? Maury Wills? Give me a break.
   157. GuyM Posted: May 08, 2011 at 10:23 PM (#3821512)
I don't think it is "much more rare". It's probably about the same over the last 60 years. And Ankiel went elsewhere and practiced and practiced. Tim Hudson could likely do that.

I meant that it is much more rare today than in the time of Ruth and Sisler. I can't imagine you disagree with that. The idea that Ankiel became a passable hitter because he "practiced and practiced" reveals a failure of appreciation of how much players either do or don't have this skill. By the age of 16 or 17, I'd say 99% of all players who have the ability to hit at the major league level will have demonstrated that talent. In two seasons in the minors, when he was a pitcher, Ankiel put up OPSs of .817 and 1.003. I'm going to go out on a limb and speculate that's pretty darn unusual today. The fact is that Ankiel demonstrated long ago he that potential, while few if any other contemporary pitchers have. Hudson has a .400 OPS, so I really don't expect a late-career move to the OF.

Out of curiosity, where would this evaluation rate Babe Ruth? OPS+ of 125?

Excellent guess. Pitchers in 1925-1928 were .236/.252. I excluded any pitcher who played even one inning at another position. Ruth for his career was 0.474/0.690, so Ruth was 2.0 * PitchOBP and 2.7 * PitchSLG. So assuming Ruth is just as much better as today's pitchers (.175/.174), then Ruth today would be .351/.476, or 123 OPS+. That makes him a peer of J.D. Drew, Scott Rolen, Derek Lee, and Posada as a hitter. Seems totally plausible to me. Plus give Ruth any improvement you want to assume based on modern training, coaching, etc.
   158. Foghorn Leghorn Posted: May 09, 2011 at 01:11 AM (#3821578)
Excellent guess. Pitchers in 1925-1928 were .236/.252. I excluded any pitcher who played even one inning at another position. Ruth for his career was 0.474/0.690, so Ruth was 2.0 * PitchOBP and 2.7 * PitchSLG. So assuming Ruth is just as much better as today's pitchers (.175/.174), then Ruth today would be .351/.476, or 123 OPS+
Have you seen studies on the distances on Ruth's home runs? He carried a much larger bat.

Ruth would be a 125 hitter today? I think this system breaks down at the top end (due to the asymptotic nature of what is possible).
   159. Foghorn Leghorn Posted: May 09, 2011 at 01:17 AM (#3821584)
Also, when Ankiel was a pitcher he only hit .214/.267/.321/.588

But as a position player it is much much higher. Why? Because he practiced and practiced. Yes, not every pitcher can do that, but lots more than you feel is the case. For instance, Todd Helton was a LHP in college. If he pitched in the pros his numbers would be like Hudson's. But they aren't as a position player? Why? Because of what one practices.

I would argue MOST pitchers that played other positions in college (like Hudson or Helton or Olerud) would hit FAR worse as pitchers than they would as a position player. I don't believe the analysis is as robust, and certainly not to where Babe Ruth would be JD Drew and not even Albert Pujols.
   160. GuyM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 01:11 PM (#3821794)
Chris: I don't understand your argument. Let's say some fraction of pitchers are capable of improving their hitting if they made it a fulltime pursuit. So what? Why is that any more true now, or in 1960, than in 1907?
All I see here is that you don't want to believe Ruth was. Scott Rolen. But that's not evidence. And frankly it's inconceivable that Ruth was Pujols equal. After 80 years, the top talent level is unchanged?

I'm old enough to have grown up reading 'debates' about whether Ruth was really the equal of Wagner, and everyone 'knew' that Walter Johnson was the greatest pitcher of all time. Hopefully we will at least get to the point where Mays displaces Ruth.
   161. Foghorn Leghorn Posted: May 09, 2011 at 01:50 PM (#3821814)
Chris: I don't understand your argument. Let's say some fraction of pitchers are capable of improving their hitting if they made it a fulltime pursuit. So what? Why is that any more true now, or in 1960, than in 1907?
Well, you are the one that said it wasn't true. That was just a rebuttal to your assertion in #157.
All I see here is that you don't want to believe Ruth was. Scott Rolen. But that's not evidence.
That seems like a fair critique.
And frankly it's inconceivable that Ruth was Pujols equal.
I don't think that word means what you think it means. And All I see here is that you don't want to believe Ruth was (equivalent to) Albert Pujols.
After 80 years, the top talent level is unchanged?
Approximately. More that there may be more players of Ruthian capability, but Ruth's ability was as high as anyone ever.

I'm old enough to have grown up reading 'debates' about whether Ruth was really the equal of Wagner, and everyone 'knew' that Walter Johnson was the greatest pitcher of all time. Hopefully we will at least get to the point where Mays displaces Ruth.
Mays? There is no way Mays approaches today's players with the changes in talent. I mean you say 80 years is out of the question, but 60 years, well, that is spot on?
   162. AROM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 01:52 PM (#3821816)
But as a position player it is much much higher. Why? Because he practiced and practiced. Yes, not every pitcher can do that, but lots more than you feel is the case. For instance, Todd Helton was a LHP in college. If he pitched in the pros his numbers would be like Hudson's. But they aren't as a position player? Why? Because of what one practices.


I hear you Chris. One thing I mentioned earlier is that modern pitchers in AA and AAA actually hit worse than pitchers in MLB. This does not make sense when you consider that they are certainly facing worse pitching in the minor leagues.

Pitchers in the minors only bat in 1/4 of the games - when both affiliates are NL teams. Below AA, they don't bat at all. Pitchers did get worse at hitting before the DH as well, but I can't attribute 100% of that to hitters getting better while pitchers stay the same. Sure, it makes for easy math in calculating a timeline adjustment, but I think the real reasons are more complex - multiple factors are involved and isolating one is a fool's errand.

When pitchers pitched every 3rd or 4th day, and were expected to complete most of the games they pitched, I suspect more focus was given to pitchers contributing with the bat. It would be interesting if someone could find an account of how much batting practice pitchers took way back when compared to modern times.
   163. snapper (history's 42nd greatest monster) Posted: May 09, 2011 at 02:26 PM (#3821844)
Have you seen studies on the distances on Ruth's home runs? He carried a much larger bat.

Yes. Longest avg. HR distance in history. By a lot.
   164. Mefisto Posted: May 09, 2011 at 02:36 PM (#3821850)
Mays? There is no way Mays approaches today's players with the changes in talent. I mean you say 80 years is out of the question, but 60 years, well, that is spot on?


The argument between Mays and Ruth is simplified by the fact that the number of teams remained unchanged [Edit for clarity: from Ruth's day] for the first half of Mays' career and substantially unchanged for the second half.

Comparing Mays to players today does require adjustments for expansion, which complicates the issue some. My view is that today's players are better than those of the NL in, say, 1961, but the improvement probably hasn't been nearly as dramatic as it was from 1900 (Wagner) or 1920 (Ruth) to 1961.
   165. Ron J Posted: May 09, 2011 at 02:36 PM (#3821851)
#162 One possibility for a sanity check on the pitchers as hitters approach is to see how it matches up with other timelining approaches through 1972.
   166. GuyM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 03:19 PM (#3821887)
#162 One possibility for a sanity check on the pitchers as hitters approach is to see how it matches up with other timelining approaches through 1972.

All three independent methods of calculating timelines match up quite well, IMO. They all tell the same basic story: rapid improvement in league quality 1900 thru the 1930s, slower improvement since then.

Pitchers did get worse at hitting before the DH as well, but I can't attribute 100% of that to hitters getting better while pitchers stay the same. Sure, it makes for easy math in calculating a timeline adjustment, but I think the real reasons are more complex - multiple factors are involved and isolating one is a fool's errand.

"Complex" always sounds better, of course. But if pitchers' hitting hasn't changed at all -- which seems very likely to be true -- how many explanatory factors do we really need to explain "nothing changed?" Imagine this discussion had nothing to do with how great Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner, etc. were, and someone had just raised the question: did the ability of pitchers-as-hitters change significantly between 1900 and 1970? I don't think anyone can honestly say their first answer would have have been "oh, guys like Gibson and Drysdale can't hit like those great-hitting pitchers of the 1910s and 1920s. Those guys were real mashers." We wouldn't be having an argument about this if not for the uncomfortable conclusions about old-time greats that necessarily follow.

The data on pitchers is perfectly consistent with what we'd see if major league players (both pitchers and position players) were getting steadily better, as we also see in every other sport. And as is almost mathematically certain to happen as the population pool increases in both size and quality. Does anyone think it's a coincidence that the USA and China win more Gold medals than Latvia? Increase the pool, and the +6 SD athletes will be much better. And it's not just the mean performance that rises: the very, very best athletes in a large pool are significantly better than the best athletes from a small pool (within the narrow range of elite athletic performance, of course)

I don't think that word means what you think it means. And All I see here is that you don't want to believe Ruth was (equivalent to) Albert Pujols.

The difference between my remark and yours is that my statement had nothing to do with Pujols per se -- I'm simply saying there is no conceivable way that the best baseball player of the 1920s could be as good as the best player of the 2000s. Yes, there are outliers who set new standards, and it may take 10 or even 20 years for athletes to match that super-performer. But after 80 years, no one has been better? Baseball fans have been doing this for 100 years. For decades old-timers argued Ruth really wasn't the equal of Cobb, Speaker, or Wagner. Finally Ruth's superiority was accepted, but Mantle, Mays and Aaron couldn't match him. Ironically, now we're stuck with the same sentimentality toward Ruth that once prevented Ruth himself from being fully appreciated. And unlike earlier generations, we don't even have the excuse of not having any statistical evidence that can settle the issue. This romanticizing of earlier eras is one baseball tradition we would do better without.
   167. You Know Nothing JT Snow (YR) Posted: May 09, 2011 at 03:43 PM (#3821908)
Does anyone think it's a coincidence that the USA and China win more Gold medals than Latvia? Increase the pool, and the +6 SD athletes will be much better.


It is a coincidence that Kenyans win so many marathons with a population of 40 million? If you merely increase the pool but decrease the general enthusiasm for the event, have you really accomplished anything?
   168. AROM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 03:45 PM (#3821909)
Instead of using the standard OPS formula to compare pitcher hitting, it might make more sense to just use the OBP portion twice. I think the slugging percentage part will vastly overstate the change when you compare 1910 to 2010 for example. Pitchers aren't going to hit for power regardless, but in 1910, nobody hits for power because of the condition of the baseball.

Just a thought, haven't studied this in detail.
   169. The District Attorney Posted: May 09, 2011 at 04:21 PM (#3821942)
When pitchers pitched every 3rd or 4th day, and were expected to complete most of the games they pitched, I suspect more focus was given to pitchers contributing with the bat. It would be interesting if someone could find an account of how much batting practice pitchers took way back when compared to modern times.
It would also be interesting, and IMHO far more relevant, to find an account of a pitcher who lost his pitching job because he couldn't hit. If hitting was regarded as a major part of a pitcher's responsibilities, then presumably that would have happened on a pretty regular basis, no?

I suspect that Guy is right about the rate at which the level of competition has improved... I just don't think the entire issue has any relevance to Honus Wagner's value as a baseball player ;)
   170. Ave, Xerac, morituri te salutant Posted: May 09, 2011 at 04:35 PM (#3821958)
Connie Mack wanted to have the Designated Pinch Hitter in 1906 because he got tired of seeing his pitchers fail at the plate. The idea was quickly shotdown. In 1928, it was introduced again but had more backing. The NL wanted to adopt it to add more offense but the AL shot it down since they already had more than enough offense.

I decided to do a decisively unscientific study of pitcher hitting and as far as I can ascertain, in 1920 MLB pitchers had a BA of .182 while in 2010 NL pitchers had a BA of .143. I decided to use only NL pitchers of 2010 since they are the only ones that get to bat "regularly". I haven't checked any other seasons.
   171. BDC Posted: May 09, 2011 at 04:54 PM (#3821992)
coincidence that the USA and China win more Gold medals than Latvia?

It is a coincidence that Kenyans win so many marathons with a population of 40 million?


It's interesting that Latvia is mentioned, because the Baltic States are the "Kenya" of throwing events. Two of the current top 12 javelin throwers in the world are Latvian. Two of the top six in discus are Estonian; another is Lithuanian. A Latvian named Maris Utans is seventh in the world in the shot put. Latvians won silver in the '04 and '08 men's javelin; Lithuanians and Estonians won four of the six men's discus medals in '04 and '08. These three nations combined have roughly the population of New Jersey.

Talent pools are largely social constructs. The talent pool in American pro baseball has undoubtedly grown a lot since Honus Wagner's day; the main factors are probably integration, overseas scouting, and a phenomenal growth in bonuses and salaries that draws young talent to the game in a highly efficient fashion. (Against that you do have to set the appeal of other sports, of course.) But on the whole, if you get people crazy about a sport, you will get people who can play it at a world-class level even with a tiny population. Otherwise there would not be a lot of Dominican major-league All-Stars.
   172. flournoy Posted: May 09, 2011 at 05:00 PM (#3822000)
It's interesting that Latvia is mentioned, because the Baltic States are the "Kenya" of throwing events.


Accept a minor nitpick from a javelin coach - the real "Kenya" of the javelin, such that there is one, is Finland. Latvia does very well, though, as do all eastern European nations.
   173. GuyM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 05:06 PM (#3822008)
169/170: This is the critical point IMO: pitchers have never been selected based on their ability to hit. It's simply irrelevant. That's why pitchers provide a relatively constant benchmark: their performance basically tells you how well a good athlete who played a lot of baseball in their youth -- but whose job in MLB has nothing whatsoever to do with their ability to hit a baseball -- will hit in MLB. Now clearly there is some correlation in the male population between the two skills -- as we can see in the little league and HS hitting performances of future MLB pitchers, or the existence of players like Helton, Nathan, Ankiel. But elite-level skill in both jobs is rare, and becoming more rare over time.

It is a coincidence that Kenyans win so many marathons with a population of 40 million? If you merely increase the pool but decrease the general enthusiasm for the event, have you really accomplished anything?

Leaving aside the questionable idea that what separates Kenyan runners is merely their "enthusiasm," where is the evidence that fewer males age 10-18 on planet earth are exposed to baseball to a sufficient level that they (and their parents and coaches) could detect professional-level talent? That's the population we care about. I'd guess it is at least 3x as big today as in Wagner's time, and the boys/men in it are bigger and stronger on average. We tend to romanticize the past, imagining that every boy played baseball all day. But a lot of boys in Wagner's day (and later) worked full-time. Even if they were talented athletes, there was a good chance they never got to learn from a good coach, and a good chance no professional team would ever discover them. A baseball career was not exactly the dream most immigrant parents had for their kids in 1900. Not to mention the greater chance of disease or workplace injury. Even ignoring the global reach of baseball, I'll bet that the probability that an American boy with the genetic potential to play major league baseball receives an opportunity to fully develop that potential is higher today than it was in 1900, or in 1930.
   174. BDC Posted: May 09, 2011 at 05:09 PM (#3822011)
don't think the entire issue has any relevance to Honus Wagner's value

I was thinking about this, and I guess it's a matter of "ballparking" that value. Would Honus Wagner teleported to 1990-2010 be the rough equivalent of:

1) Superman

2) AROD

3) Miguel Tejada

4) Edgar Renteria (see upthread)

5) Cristian Guzman

6) Ronny Cedeno

7) Some AAA journeyman only a fanatical roto player has ever heard of

I've heard each of these seven propositions, or their equivalent, sometime or another. My educated guess would be somewhere between (4) and (3), closer to (3) perhaps. Note the implication: if you took Miguel Tejada (forget about his B-12 for the moment, just take him at face value), if you took Tejada and teleported him to 1911, people would go "look at that incomparable career." Tejada has been a big star in 1990-2010, an MVP, made bazillions of dollars, but he is not one of the real greats at the moment. IOW I think that Wagner was an outlier in his time, and would be a very fine baseball player in any time; he'd just accumulate more and more strong competition around him as the decades wore on.

For that matter, I would think that Mays would be comparable to Griffey Jr., only more durable, particularly in keeping his speed longer. A more-durable Griffey Jr. is still an inner-circle HOFer, but would be vying with Bonds, Pujols, and AROD for the absolute peak of his era: but he might not stand out the way Mays did in the 1950s. (Though even then, there was Mickey Mantle; Mays is not clearly the best peak player of the 1950s by any means.)

I just am not convinced that human nature changes very quickly, or that great athletes of one era are dwarfed in the next. I do certainly accept that their context changes around them and gets stronger and stronger.
   175. BDC Posted: May 09, 2011 at 05:20 PM (#3822028)
Javelin nitpick accepted, flournoy. I should probably have said that the eastern Baltic is to throwers as the Caribbean is to infielders :)
   176. AROM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 05:24 PM (#3822035)
For that matter, I would think that Mays would be comparable to Griffey Jr., only more durable, particularly in keeping his speed longer.


You don't have to do much timelining at all to come up with that. A more durable Griffey easily passes Mays in career homers, even as is he's only 1 spot behind Willie. Through age 29 Griffey has a 149 OPS+, Mays 158.

Mays was a little better hitter at his peak, but the main difference is he kept his peak ability to his late 30's instead of massive injury related dropoff. And of course, he was far better on defense.

Mays was pretty much Griffey's offense + durability + Devon White's glove + 10%. Timelining probably takes away that 10%.
   177. The District Attorney Posted: May 09, 2011 at 05:31 PM (#3822044)
I should clarify that it is relevant to Honus Wagner's value that it was much easier to be a large number of standard deviations above average in the 1908 NL than it is in the 2011 NL.

What to me clearly isn't relevant to Honus Wagner's value is how he would do if you threw him in a time-traveling Model T and suited him up for the 2011 Pirates.
   178. GuyM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 05:40 PM (#3822055)
he might not stand out the way Mays did in the 1950s. (Though even then, there was Mickey Mantle; Mays is not clearly the best peak player of the 1950s by any means.)

I've never studied this carefully (maybe AROM or someone else here has), but my sense is that the difference in league quality in the 1950s and 1960s was so great that you have to conclude Mays was a clearly superior player. Due to drastically different levels of integration, the NL was just a much better league -- Mantle was playing against AAA players in comparison (OK, not that big a gap, but a significant one). The AL's concentration of talent in NY obscured the difference.

I just am not convinced that human nature changes very quickly, or that great athletes of one era are dwarfed in the next. I do certainly accept that their context changes around them and gets stronger and stronger.

I agree they are not "dwarfed" within a few years. But I do think you are underestimating the impact of the very population factor you cite in 171. When the talent pool increases, you don't just raise the floor and move it closer to the already-established peak level. The peak level rises too. How does the very best sprinter those three Baltic countries compare to the best U.S. sprinters? Or their very best swimmer? It's not close.

Mays the equal of Bonds/Pujols? I guess it's not impossible, but it's highly improbable. Mays is listed at 5-10 170 lbs at B-Ref. That seems about right, but if those who saw him a lot think he was bigger I'll defer. And his career OPS+ was 155. So how many players under 6 feet, and 180 lbs or less, have put up a 155 season in the last 20 years? One -- Ray Lankford (159). The best modern players of that size are Ricky (127 OPS+), Puckett (124), Raines (124), and Ichiro (117). Great players. But no one of Mays' size has put up hitting stats remotely comparable to his in the past 20 years. I have a hard time believing that he could.
   179. AROM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 05:41 PM (#3822056)
In 1871 the primary pitcher pitched most of his team's games. He was as much of a constant in the lineup as any other position.

The worst hitting regular pitcher (100+ PA) was probably George Zettlein, with an OPS+ of 51. A few others were in the 50's. Four position players with 100+ PA had worse OPS+ than this, a 2B, a SS, and two outfielders.

Pitchers as a group hit 261/290/341 in a 287/312/384 league. It appears to be a defense-first position, but no more so than catcher or shortstop today. From looking at this season it looks like hitting ability was a consideration for the pitcher position.

Today it is not, but I think this is something that gradually lost it's importance, and I'm not comfortable starting with an assumption that pitcher hitting in 1890, or 1910, or 1925 is a reliable constant to compare with 1970, 1990, or 2010.
   180. AROM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 05:50 PM (#3822065)
I've never studied this carefully (maybe AROM or someone else here has), but my sense is that the difference in league quality in the 1950s and 1960s was so great that you have to conclude Mays was a clearly superior player. Due to drastically different levels of integration, the NL was just a much better league -- Mantle was playing against AAA players in comparison (OK, not that big a gap, but a significant one). The AL's concentration of talent in NY obscured the difference.


That's overstating it. The difference was maybe a bit more than the AL dominance of the NL in recent years, but not much more. I get this from looking at pitchers and hitters who switched leagues. My take is that Mantle was still the better hitter, but Mays' defensive value puts them pretty close in peak value. I don't think there's much point in trying to draw the line between them. The verdict will change if you slightly adjust your assumptions, and also depends on what criteria you set to define peak. Mays had more career value, on that point I don't think anyone would argue otherwise.
   181. GuyM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 06:01 PM (#3822085)
AROM.179: Come on, no one has talked about 1871 here. Pitchers were indeed much better hitters (relatively) in the 1870s and 1880s. But by the 1890s, pitchers had clearly become a specialized position and their offense was distinctly inferior. If Connie Mack was proposing the DH in 1906, I think that tells you what you need to know.

The difference was maybe a bit more than the AL dominance of the NL in recent years, but not much more. I get this from looking at pitchers and hitters who switched leagues.

Very interesting. Did you ever write this up anywhere?
   182. AROM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 06:04 PM (#3822090)
From 1951-1969, I looked at all the players who hit 40 or more homers in a season. Mays was the lightest at 170. Aaron, Banks, and Snider were 180, Yaz at 175. The list also includes behemoths like Frank Howard and Ted Kluszewski.

Did the same search for 1991-2010, but the results are just comedy. Sammy Sosa sure wasn't 165 pounds when he hit all his homers. The lightest believable weight for a 40+ homer season was probably Soriano or Jose Bautista (195). Most of the listed weights are too low, but Soriano doesn't really look 195.
   183. AROM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 06:08 PM (#3822093)
This is the critical point IMO: pitchers have never been selected based on their ability to hit.


If you say never, then don't tell me 1871 is not relevant. Pitcher hitting was important then. It is not now. I'm arguing for a gradual decline of importance. You seem to be suggesting more of an on/off switch. If so, what year did it stop having any importance?
   184. Steve Treder Posted: May 09, 2011 at 06:15 PM (#3822100)
the difference in league quality in the 1950s and 1960s was so great that you have to conclude Mays was a clearly superior player. Due to drastically different levels of integration, the NL was just a much better league

Yes. I don't think you have to conclude that Mays was a superior player, but to fail to consider league strength in a comparison between Mays and Mantle is to ignore something very significant.
   185. OCF Posted: May 09, 2011 at 06:16 PM (#3822103)
It appears to be a defense-first position, but no more so than catcher or shortstop today.

One impression I get: in MLB, in the early days, switching between pitching and another position happened fairly frequently. Sometimes is was an offense-first position (Bob Caruthers) and sometimes it was a defense-first position (Monte Ward). And before 1893, these guys were fundamentally the same as hitters whichever position they played. After 1893 (and the 60'6" rubber), such shifts still happened, but the guys who switched were better hitters when they weren't pitching and worse hitters when they were pitching. That even applies to Ruth - his hitting didn't really take off until his pitching usage declined. That suggests to me that the effort of pitching took a toll.

There was a clump of P/PH types in the 1930's - Wes Ferrell, Red Ruffing, Red Lucas, et al. That mostly hasn't happened since. If you take Ferrell's hitting statistics at face value, it looks like he would have been below average for a starting corner outfielder but better than most 4th OF/PH. But by the observation about the drag of the effort of pitching, it seems likely to me that as a full-time corner OF, he would have been better than average player (but not a superstar).

The Negro Leagues had greater position flexibility than MLB. Part of that was due to smaller rosters. There are guys like Martin Dihigo where their claim to greatness involves both pitching and position play. It could be that the question of how pitchers hit is another item in the quest to evaluate those leagues.
   186. Steve Treder Posted: May 09, 2011 at 06:18 PM (#3822107)
Mays was the lightest at 170.

Mays was 170 pounds when he arrived in the majors at just-turned-20 in 1951. But he gained 15-20 pounds (all of it muscle) in his service in the Army, and never played at less than 185 pounds from 1954 onward.

If you've never seen a picture of Mays with his shirt off, I strongly urge finding one. He was positively ripped.
   187. Mefisto Posted: May 09, 2011 at 06:18 PM (#3822108)
A couple of notes. The listed weight for Mays must be his rookie number. He was probably 180 for most of his career. And I've previously seen him listed as 5'11". Neither change makes a big difference, but he was not Jimmy Wynn either. In addition, as anyone who has seen his photos can attest, Mays was very muscular and in extraordinary physical condition.

Apropos the comparison to Griffey (a pretty good one, with the important allowances noted, plus more allowance for superior baserunning), Griffey is listed at 195, but was never noted for his conditioning. It's not much of a stretch IMO to see Mays as able to duplicate that level of play if he were around today.

As for peak value, I have to think that Mantle's 56 and 57 seasons were better than anything Mays ever did, even accounting for league quality. However, Mays dominates Mantle after that, though Mantle's 61 season fits in well with Mays' peak seasons.

Edit: Coke to Steve.
   188. The District Attorney Posted: May 09, 2011 at 06:27 PM (#3822122)
Pitcher hitting was important then. It is not now.
And your evidence for this statement is that pitchers hit better relative to the league then?

Do you see the problem there?

It appears to be a defense-first position, but no more so than catcher or shortstop today.
Catchers and shortstops lose their jobs if they don't hit enough. Has this ever happened to a pitcher?
   189. BDC Posted: May 09, 2011 at 06:44 PM (#3822142)
I was hoping someone would page Steve Treder on the subject of Mays :) I only saw Mays play late in his career, but he was not a small guy then. From the cheap seats in the early 70s, Mays always looked like he had a very powerful upper body: not dumpy-heavy like some sluggers, but very strong.

In any case, arguments from the size of a particular player don't seem to me conclusive at all. Joe Morgan shouldn't have been able to play in the majors. Ivan Rodriguez comes up to my shoulder (for scale, I met Cal Ripken recently and had to stare straight up the whole time I was talking with him). Rafael Palmeiro, even with lots of B-12, had an upper body like, well, me. One might as well say that Mel Ott couldn't possibly have hit a lot of home runs, because look at the size of Hank Greenberg and Lou Gehrig.

It is quite relevant to say that any taxi-squad pro linebacker today could knock Bronko Nagurski on his ass, but baseball has always been scaled to the individual hitter's strike zone, and values bat speed and timing every bit as much as pure strength. And to go back to Honus Wagner for a moment, the pictures I've seen of him suggest that he'd be a pretty scary customer in terms of pure strength, even by 2011 standards.

Pitchers have indeed gotten uniformly bigger, but still, the best one of the last 20 years was Pedro Martinez. How could he have done what he did?
   190. Russlan is fond of Dillon Gee Posted: May 09, 2011 at 06:48 PM (#3822150)
   191. Tom Nawrocki Posted: May 09, 2011 at 06:58 PM (#3822172)
Joe Morgan shouldn't have been able to play in the majors. Ivan Rodriguez comes up to my shoulder (for scale, I met Cal Ripken recently and had to stare straight up the whole time I was talking with him).


Todd Helton is listed at 6'2, but I don't think he's any more than six feet even. I'll say this about him: When I took my boys to get some portraits taken, the photographer had some shots of Helton and his family on the walls, and his wife is taller than Todd.
   192. AROM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 07:03 PM (#3822183)
#190, I'm most impressed by Willie's wrists and hands. A huge key to greatness in hitting.
   193. Foghorn Leghorn Posted: May 09, 2011 at 07:20 PM (#3822202)
But after 80 years, no one has been better?
I don't really have an issue thinking that Ruth could be. Not all the top tier players, but that one guy. I think Secretariat is an example of why an athlete from long ago can still be the best (there's enough horse generations in there).

And I think Bonds is better.
   194. GuyM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 07:28 PM (#3822213)
Pitchers have indeed gotten uniformly bigger, but still, the best one of the last 20 years was Pedro Martinez. How could he have done what he did?

"Pitchers keep getting taller and bigger. But hey, Pedro and Oswalt and Billy Wagner are great pitchers, so clearly height doesn't matter." Can't you see the logical fallacy here? Clearly, pitchers in general are being selected for size, which tells us that size is -- other things equal -- an enormous advantage. Of course everything isn't equal, and men of average size can sometimes still be great pitchers if they have extraordinary skills. But that isn't evidence of any kind against the obvious facts in front of our face: 1) bigger pitchers tend to be better, 2) today's pitchers are bigger, and thus 3) today's pitchers are better.

Let's say Mays played at 180-185. If I expand my search for guys at 185 or less, under 6 feet, I only add two seasons at 155 OPS+ or better -- both by Tony Gwynn (who almost certainly weighed more than 185, but let's ignore that). The conclusion stands: no one of May's stature produces at close to his level of power in today's game. The fact that players of his size used to hit 40 HRs, as AROM notes, is just further evidence of the rise in talent in today's game. And of course, if Mays' weight is understated so too is the weight of many recent hitters, and so the size gap remains. (I can't imagine Puckett was 178 late in his career).

If height/weight weren't important for hitters (and statistically, we know this is false), why isn't there a single player of Mays' size who is among the best hitters in baseball? There are vastly more males in the population who are the size of Mays than are the size of Pujols or Votto. Why don't we see a bunch of them among the league leaders?
   195. Mefisto Posted: May 09, 2011 at 07:29 PM (#3822215)
Secretariat is a bad example. The inbreeding among thoroughbreds has long been recognized as a major factor in the lack of improvement in racing times.

For comparison, the US population in 1890 (just before Ruth was born) was 63 million, from which you'd need to subtract Blacks, Indians and Hispanics. By 1930 (just before Mays was born) was 122 million. IOW, it doubled. And no inbreeding outside Appalachia. :)
   196. GuyM Posted: May 09, 2011 at 07:36 PM (#3822230)
Pitcher hitting was important then. It is not now. I'm arguing for a gradual decline of importance. You seem to be suggesting more of an on/off switch. If so, what year did it stop having any importance?

Somewhere between 1893 and 1900. With the 60-6 distance established, the 70-start pitcher disappears. Pitchers are clearly being selected based on their pitching ability. At least that's my impression, but I'm no baseball historian. District Attorney asks the right question: did any pitcher after 1900 ever lose his job because he hit too poorly? Were there any great pitching prospects who failed to make the majors and of whom it was said "He had great stuff on the mound. Really too bad he couldn't hit." Find me a few examples of this and I'll reconsider my opinion.
   197. Cyril Morong Posted: May 09, 2011 at 07:38 PM (#3822232)
Suppose pitchers are 2 inches taller than they were 100 years ago. Does this mean they are releasing the ball closer to home plate? How much closeer and how much does that hurt the batters?

Have any studies been done on the correlation between performance and size? It would be interesting to see this done for 2010 and 1910 or any pairs of years. If we find a positive and significant correlation in each case, does that tell us anything?
   198. Randy Jones Posted: May 09, 2011 at 07:43 PM (#3822238)
Suppose pitchers are 2 inches taller than they were 100 years ago. Does this mean they are releasing the ball closer to home plate? How much closeer and how much does that hurt the batters?

Have any studies been done on the correlation between performance and size? It would be interesting to see this done for 2010 and 1910 or any pairs of years. If we find a positive and significant correlation in each case, does that tell us anything?


There was a recent article that suggested that "effective speed" of a pitch was very reliant on the release point of a pitcher and how close that was to the plate. The idea being that a batter can't really see and judge a pitch until it is released. The pitcher that took advantage of this the most? 5'11" David Robertson...pitcher's height is like the "good face".
   199. BDC Posted: May 09, 2011 at 07:43 PM (#3822239)
Guy, sure, players are getting bigger. What I was trying to say (perhaps not very lucidly) is that the size of any individual player is not an argument against how that player might stack up historically. You can look at a prospect nowadays, see 5'10" 180, and be statistically confident in saying he's no future HR champ. But that confidence is not greatly relevant to Willie Mays. The fact that smaller players still succeed is not an argument that bigger players aren't better. It's just an argument that certain small players have succeeded, often magnificently.
   200. Ron J Posted: May 09, 2011 at 07:48 PM (#3822248)
#193 I've said it before, the absolute worst I can see for Ruth is Harmon Killebrew. Good strike zone judgment and good bat speed translate to any era.

But with better overall health, better speed when young and a better batting average.

Killebrew was a pretty fine player. Throw in the better health, etc.
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