First off, we warned you a while ago that this might be coming.
Expanding the list we gave previously about why Leach has been so easy to overlook…:
- Overshadowed by teammates Honus Wagner and Fred Clarke
- .269 career batting average, only 63 career homers
- Only 46.8 career WAR, most folks look for 60 or more
- Well rounded player who rarely led league but was pretty good at everything
- He didn’t have a monster peak but was more consistent
- Defensive whiz instead of offensive star
- Played half his career at third base, a terribly overlooked Hall of Fame position
- Played half his career in centerfield as Cobb, Speaker, and Carey were emerging
- Deadball hitters are more difficult to get our heads around coming off the sillyball era
- Ditto deadball fielders
- Made his bones with a small market team
- Long dead, so no advocacy group
Some of these are easy to even off. Adjust his career WAR up about seven percent to put him into a 162-game context, and he’s up to 50.0. Now 50.0 WAR ain’t gettin’ no one elected by itself. Especially not some long-forgotten second-tier star. But as Miller and I talked through Leach, over many elections, we came to see three things areas where Leach had hidden value or changed how we looked at him.
HOW MANY KARATS IS THAT GOLD GLOVE?
This is the biggie for Wee Tommy.
Every defensive system says the same thing: that Tommy Leach was a great defender. It’s a matter of how great.
At one end, we have Michael Humphreys’ DRA. It’s the most commonsense, the most publicly tested, and the most open-source. DRA places Leach’s career defensive value at +251 runs. He ranks among the top 15 or so fielders ever in this system.
BBREF’s rfield, based on Sean Smith’s Total Zone, credits Leach with +66 fielding runs. That would place him 26th all time at third base or 29th in centerfield.
The spread is 185 runs, or about 18.5 Wins. That’s a big difference! It was time to seek independent third-party confirmation.
So, Win Shares. Or at least as interpreted by the Baseball Gauge on Seamheads.com. It shows Leach with 96 Fielding Win Shares (FWS). This is the 56th highest total of all time. At third base he would rank third all time, trailing only Lave Cross and Brooks Robinson. In centerfield, Leach also ranks third, just behind Speaker and Mays. Not bad.
In Win Shares, James rates Leach as an A+ fielder at both third base and centerfield. At third, Leach earned the sixth highest FWS/1000-innings rate of anyone above 3000 innings in the field. In centerfield, he has the eighth best rate of FWS/1000 among outfielders with 6700 or more innings.
Win Shares is not easily convertible to runs above average, or else I’d tell you what it sees in those units. Suffice it to say, it digs Tommy Leach almost as much as DRA. Heck, just for fun I even looked him up in the old Total Baseball Fielding Runs: +108 with the glove.
Leach’s glove is confirmed as outstanding and possibly historic.
Me? I take a 2/3 to 1/3 approach with DRA and rfield, which reduces DRA’s rational exuberance. That means that I see him as having as much as 190 runs of value, or about 12 more Wins of value than BBREF’s WAR suggests. Your mileage may vary, but even if you just split the difference, there’s still as much as nine more Wins of value out there for Leach.
NO BASES FOR COMPARISON?
BBREF has Leach at -4 runs of base-running value. I’m thinking that’s a little low.
The gang at the world’s great website uses a combination of team and individual stolen-base attempt information to estimate that value. In reality, we know almost nothing about the value in his legs because we have little caught-stealing and no base-advancement data for Leach’s era.
So what can we know? We can’t know exact numbers, but we can assess whether the BBREF estimate makes sense or not. For Leach it may not.
Let’s start dissecting Leach’s base running with his fielding record.
Leach spent half his career as an outstanding third baseman where he needed:
- agility on bunt attempts
- quick reactions to spear hard-hit balls while guarding against the bunt
- nerve to play in on righties and take the abuse base runners dished out.
Injury forced Leach to centerfield where he relied on an expanded set of abilities:
- quick reaction times
- ability to read drives and assess their playability
- flat-out, point-to-point acceleration.
Agility, quick reactions, daring, sprinting ability, and split-second decision making are also the hallmarks of excellent baserunners.
Leach’s offensive record is weird. He’s 23rd all-time with 172 triples, and his 49 inside-the-park home runs are both a National League record and an MLB record for right-handed hitters. Triples often denoted deadball slugging, but Leach was hardly known as a power hitter in the sense we understand it today. He explained his extra-base hitting this way:
“Sometimes they played me right in back of the infield. Every so often, I’d manage to drive a ball between the outfielders and it would roll to the fence. I was pretty fast, and by the time they ran the ball down and got it back to the infield, I’d be home.
Turns, out that Leach’s home field, helped a lot. Here are Exposition Park’s dimensions (hat tip: Green Cathedrals):
- Left Field: 400 feet
- Left Center: 461 feet
- Center Field: 515 feet
- Right Center: 439
- Right Field: 380
More like a national park than a national league park.
You’ll notice in the inside-the-park link above that four 1900s Pirates made that inside-the-park homers list—the ballpark had a huge influence. But. Leach was a righty swinger, and he topped left-handed teammate Clarke (who, in fairness, was a few years older), by twenty inside-the-parkers. The closest Pirate to Leach, and just two behind, was Wagner whom BBREF rates as a +33 runner. Wagner stole twice as often as Leach, yet Leach hit as many inside-the-parkers. Could be a lineup effect, of course, and we don’t have that information yet. However, Wagner also led the NL in doubles seven times, while Leach never got close. Why?
Look back at his quote above. The lack of doubles and preponderance of triples and ITP homers suggests that Leach’s self-description is accurate. Why would opponents play Leach close to the infield? Because a) they didn’t think he could hit it very far like Wagner could. And because he was fast enough and daring enough to turn singles into hustle doubles if they played him back. That’s why the gaps were opened to him.
The park actually leads us to another link in this daisy-chain of evidence. Fred Clarke player-managed Leach for parts of fifteen seasons with the Louisville Colonels (1898–1899) then the Pirates (1900 through half of 1912). Here are how his Pirates teams ranked in the NL during Leach’s years and the one-year park factors for The Expo:
R/G 2B 3B HR SB K BB SH AVG SLG PF1 ========================================================== 1900 4 4 1 6 8 5 8 3 6 5 103 1901 2 4 3 7 7 7 2 4 2 3 101 1902 1 1 1 2 2 7 2 4 1 1 106 1903 1 2 1 1 4 8 6 5 2 1 105 1904 3 5 1 8 6 5 4 7 2 3 99 1905 4 2 2 4 3 5 6 4 3 3 104 1906 3 3 5 6 6 8 4 2 2 2 104 1907 1 6 2 3 1 7 2 4 1 1 105 1908 3 4 1 2 4 7 2 6 3 3 95 1909 1 1 1 2 4 6 3 2 1 1 105 1910 3 3 3 2 8 5 6 3 3 3 112 1911 3 5 1 3 7 6 6 2 3 3 102 1912 3 5 1 4 5 6 8 2 2 1 99 ---------------------------------------------------------- AVG 2.5 3.5 1.8 3.8 5.0 6.3 4.5 3.7 2.4 2.3 103.1
Clarke seems to have built his offenses around his ballpark. He looked for players whose skills matched it: contact-hitters with line drive bats. He was meh on one-run strategies, and when you look at how frequently his stars bunted, the basic strategy was “Not with Wagner.” The same was inversely true with the other one-run tactic, stolen bases. Clarke let Wagner and later Max Carey run wild. Between them, they led the league in thefts seven times during Clarke’s managing career. But unlike contemporaries John McGraw or Hughie Jennings, Clarke didn’t set his whole team loose. Wagner and Carey often led the team by ten or twenty bags. Clarke’s teams usually featured two or three other players with 20+ steals, but only once (1907) did more than one player steal 30 times successfully in a season. During his Pirates tenure, Leach, one of the few Clarke ran regularly with, stole in eleven percent more of his estimated times on first base (H – 2B – 3B – HR + BB + HPB) than his leagues, but a whopping thirty-six percent more often than his Pirates teammates.
I think Clarke was, in a broad sense, something like Earl Weaver as a manager. He tended to put players into situations that best fit their skills, waited for the three-run triple, and put a premium on strong defenders. What we don’t know is what kind of percentage stealers his teams were and how aggressive they were station-to-station.
So let’s wander back to Tommy Leach’s base running.
- Narrative and statistical evidence suggest Leach could run very fast
- His fielding record also contributes to that idea and adds to it some likelihood that he possessed a strong ability to read plays as they developed
- Leach’s park may have reduced his stolen base attempts because he ended up on third (or home) on balls in play more frequently than he would have in other parks
- Fred Clarke didn’t run very frequently but did bunt a bit, reducing Leach’s opportunities
If all or the bulk of this evidence is accurate, then BBREF’s estimate of Leach’s base-running value is likely too low, and possibly very low. Once play-by-play and split data become available we will confirm this evidence and be able to put a number to it. For now, I, at least, see evidence of hidden value in Leach’s legs.
POSITIONED FOR OBSCURITY
Among some or all of a schedule adjustment, additional fielding value, and the possibility of additional base-running value, our assessment of Leach could jump from deadball dead end to compelling candidate.
But Leach had one final issue to overcome. Perception, or our ability to even grasp what he was about. Leach played about 1000 games at both third and center. A PI search on BBREF for all players with more than 500 career games who played >40% of the time at both 3B and CF returns one name: Tommy Leach. I had to reduce the threshold to 26% to get another name on the list, and that guy played nearly 1000 fewer games.
When something is as weird as this, it’s easier to just hand wave it away. A fluke. An aberration. Third basemen that shift to first? Makes sense. Centerfielders that go to a corner or to first? OK, sure. But this? This is weird.
As a third basemen, Tommy Leach would be pretty close to Jimmy Collins. As a centerfielder, he would be pretty close to Max Carey. Collins and Carey, while similarly valuable are such different player-types that it’s hard to get your footing. Then you start talking about the guys just below, Sal Bando or Bernie Williams, or even guys at other positions, and…. You get the picture.
Ultimately, we felt that Leach’s defense was the tipping point. Looking deeply into his base running and a close look at how position was influencing our thinking were the last dominos.
Welcome to our HoME, Tommy Leach. At least in one place you aren’t just Wee Tommy anymore.