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What happened to Mickey Mantle’s doubles?

mantle

Mantle had great wheels plus power to spare!

Does this seem as weird to you as to me? Mickey Mantle is tied for 284th in career doubles with a deadballer, two catchers, and Greg Luzinski who beeped when he walked backwards.

Yes, the same Mickey Mantle who was the Mike Trout of the 1950s. Who is 44th in career total bases and hit 536 homers is tied with those pikers. The writers dubbed him “The Commerce Comet,” for his speed, not his power.

How fast was he? The AL didn’t steal very often in Mantle’s time, so he managed only 153 swipes. However, he finished among the AL’s top ten thieves seven times while hitting in the heart of the order.

Mantle was a smart base runner too. Among the twenty-five men with 500 or more homers, Mantle’s 80% stolen base percentage is second only to Alex Rodriguez. From 1957 through 1960, Mantle finished second, second, first, and third in stolen base percentage, He led all AL players during his career in stolen base percentage and was second in the majors. He ranks 53rd all-time.

It wasn’t just steal situations, though. BBREF credits Mantle with 49 runs worth of base running value—about five wins just from his legs. For a guy who didn’t even crack 200 steals, that’s outstanding. Mantle took the extra base 54% of the time, comparable to Rickey Henderson (55%), Ozzie Smith (53%), Barry Larkin (52%), and Tim Raines (50%). Another heads-up Yankee, Derek Jeter, has only taken an extra base in 45% of his opportunities.

Speed, power, and baseball smarts. Seems like a recipe for lotsa doubles.

So why does Mantle’s doubles total look more like those of the most sluggardly sluggers? Nearly fifty players have hit 400 or more homers in the era for which we have detailed base running information, and they have an aggregate ratio of 0.91 doubles per homer. Only four of those players, however, have a lower ratio of doubles to homers than Mantle’s 0.64. Here’s that “top” ten:

  1. Mark McGwire: 0.43
  2. Harmon Killebrew: 0.51
  3. Dave Kingman: 0.54
  4. Sammy Sosa: 0.62
  5. Mickey Mantle: 0.64
  6. Willie McCovey: 0.68
  7. Eddie Mathews: 0.69
  8. Adam Dunn: 0.72
  9. Jim Thome 0.74
  10. t-Mike Schmidt: 0.74
    t-Jose Canseco: 0.74

Surrounding Mantle are some of the slowest and least conventionally athletic stars of recent times—but also Sosa, Schmidt, and Canseco. Among these eleven guys, only Mantle (44 runs) and Canseco (5 runs) have above average base running value. The non-Mantle guys on the list averaged -9.4 career base running runs.

So what the heck happened?

At first I thought that as a switch hitter, Yankee Stadium’s deep left field fence and short right-field porch must have done a double whammy on Mantle’s doubles:

HOME (3162 batted balls)

2B: 163 (5.2%)
3B: 44 (1.4%)
HR: 266 (8.4%)
XBH: 473 (15%)

AWAY (3220 batted balls)

2B: 181 (5.6%)
3B: 28 (0.9%)
HR: 270 (8.4%)
XBH: 479 (14.9%)

Nope. Although at home, he essentially traded 18 doubles for triples, the weird part is that he didn’t hit doubles at home or on the road!

So it must be his batted ball profile, right? Well, we don’t have a complete profile for him (we don’t know how many line drives he hit or his groundball/flyball ratio), but we do have his ratio of ground outs to air outs (GO/AO). Let’s compare him to a few of the pikers above as well as some faster guys for contrast and even some big names from his own era:


NAME             GO/AO lgGO/AO %+/-  2B/HR
===========================================
MCGWIRE          0.55  1.07    -49%   0.43
SCHMIDT          0.66  1.08    -39%   0.74
BONDS            0.74  1.07    -31%   0.79
MAYS             0.73  1.06    -31%   0.79
MANTLE           0.76  1.04    -27%   0.64
F. ROBINSON      0.82  1.08    -24%   0.90
AARON            0.84  1.07    -21%   0.83
MATHEWS          0.86  1.04    -17%   0.69
MCCOVEY          0.97  1.09    -11%   0.68
KILLEBREW        0.96  1.07    -10%   0.51
B. WILLIMAS      1.03  1.09    - 6%   1.02
RODRIGUEZ        1.06  1.08    - 2%   0.79
T. WILLIAMS      1.00  0.98    + 2%   1.01
THOME            1.15  1.08    + 6%   0.74
SNIDER           1.14  1.01    +13%   0.88

Not much to see here, either. Mantle made more outs in the air than on the ground, and we can tentatively say that he was a flyball hitter (many times players who are below the league average in GO/AO ratio are also below the league average in groundball/flyball ratio but not always—for example, Jim Thome). Even so, McGwire is the only one of the really slow guys who is more flyball-centric than the Mick.

(By the way, look how amazingly similar Bonds and Mays were.)

Another possibly likely explanation: injuries. Mantle’s injuries were well known and legion. He almost had his leg off after a high school football injury. Then there was the drainpipe cover he stepped on in the 1951 World Series. Over the years, he accumulated all kinds of leg problems, causing him to wrap his knees before each game and to have issues even swinging a bat. Is it possible that Mantle favored his legs enough that he avoided making the hard turn at first if it wasn’t a sure thing?

Again the case isn’t clear. On one hand, once on board, he ran the bases aggressively (and smartly). Despite his relatively low steals totals, he was a true threat to go in the station-to-station AL of the 1950s and early 1960s. Yet, he had just one season with more than thirty doubles, 1952, when he finished second in the AL with thirty-seven. He finished in the top ten just once more (seventh in 1957 with twenty-eight). Even in his salad days, he only averaged about twenty-three doubles a year from 1953 through 1959. Afterward he hit more than twenty just once in his remaining nine seasons. So either he always favored his knees, or he didn’t. A Mantle biographer claims that he played most of his career with a torn ACL. Maybe that contributed, but it’s speculation.

Stumped.

Doubles or not, I’m sure the Yankees were happy with what they got from The Commerce Comet. In the end, this is just an historical oddity. It’s not the ballpark. It’s probably not his batting style (though we can’t say for sure). It could or could not be an unwillingness to take a sharp turn at first. I don’t know, but if anyone out there on the nets knows, please tell us in the comments!

—Eric

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