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A Leach that Doesn’t Suck: Getting to Know Wee Tommy

[Tommy Leach, Chicago NL (baseball)]  (LOC)

[Tommy Leach, Chicago NL (baseball)] (LOC) (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Ever heard of Tommy Leach? Sounds like a 70s punk rocker, the kind who would front a band called something like The American Lesion. In reality, he’s one of the most fascinating and puzzling players to assess in baseball history, and unless you’re a deadball-era junkie or a super hardcore Pirates fan “Wee Tommy” won’t mean anything to you.

And why should it? Tommy Leach played 100 years ago in one of baseball’s smaller markets. He was a smallish guy, thus the nickname. He’s not in the Hall of Fame, and his case doesn’t come up with the Veterans Committee, ever. As we’ve looked deeper at his career for the HoME, the contexts that cause people to ignore him become obvious, as do the strengths of his case. All of which also brings up the stuff that makes him vexing. We’re grappling with him, so we thought we’d share a little about him with you.

Like many less-heralded players, Leach did a lot of things well, but he didn’t do the sexy things that make ballplayers famous.

  • He hit .269 (in a .266 context) while Keeler, Wagner, and Cobb’s exploits made headlines.
  • Thanks to a decent eye his on-base percentage was nine points above the league.
  • Like everyone else in the deadball era, he didn’t hit many homers (63, 49 inside-the-parkers), though they were the 13th most of any player during his career. He did hit a lot of triples, a deadball indicator of power (172, twenty-third all-time, fourteenth when he retired), so his slugging percentage was twenty points higher than the league.
  • On the basepaths he stole 361 times a good total but not noteworthy in a stealtastic era.

So we have an offensive player who is pretty good at a bunch of things, but whose best skill (hitting triples) soon went out of vogue when Babe Ruth started swinging for the fences. Besides this offensive profile, memories of Leach are blurred or faded for three other reasons.

1.)   Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke. Leach had great taste in teammates, even if they overshadowed him. Wagner was only the greatest position player in NL history before Stan Musial. Perhaps even after Musial. Clarke was the Pirates’ on-field leader, famed as the team’s longtime player-manager who led them to multiple World Series appearances. Not to mention that he was a perennial All-Star-type player.

2.)   Position. Right, smack-dab in the middle of his career, after two broken ribs inhibited his throwing motion, Leach switched from third base to centerfield. Inconceivable today in an era when third basemen hit for power and are expected to have quick feet but not foot speed. The closest modern parallel is Robin Yount moving from short to centerfield, but at least in that case shortstops are supposed to have speed. Then you have the fact that moving in mid-career made it more difficult for people to remember Leach as either.

3.)   His defensive performance. Defensive stand-outs do get recognized by the Hall and other institutions. But there is divided opinion on Leach’s defense: it may have been merely very good or historic. On the side of historic, DRA sees him as a top-ten third baseman and an outstanding centerfielder while Bill James’ Win Shares shows him as the sixth and seventh most effective gloves on a per 1000 innings basis at center and third respectively. On the merely very good side, BB-REF’s rfield would place his career defensive value between 25 and 30 at either position.

For our purposes here at the HoME, we don’t care much about points one and two. We can leave the Hall in Cooperstown to deal with its own blind spots. But our individual interpretations of Leach’s defense will determine whether Leach is in or out of our Hall. The difference between DRA and bb-ref’s fielding stats is a swing of 100 to 200 runs, depending on how much you stock you put in each. A win is worth 10 runs, and 10 Wins takes him from also ran to borderline candidate. Twenty pushes him up to even with Jimmy Collins and a strong candidate to get a vote soon.

And we’re still puzzling. Defensive measurements simply aren’t as closely agreed upon as offensive ones. For today, however, we’ve at least done our part to hoist Tommy Leach a little further out of undeserved obscurity by introducing him to you.

—Eric

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  1. Pingback: Why We Elected Tommy Leach | the Hall of Miller and Eric - December 27, 2013

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