When I say “Roberto Clemente” one of the first things you’re likely to think of is his renowned throwing arm. Always cited as the best ever. Clemente’s arm, according to BBREF’s figuring, was worth 83 more runs than an average outfielder’s. He accumulated eight wins of value during his career by gunning down foolhardy base runners and keeping others from advancing out of fear. Eight wins is an MVP season’s worth of value, and it came from just that one skill. How amazing is his arm? He’s the only outfielder among the top 50 in career assists who began playing after World War II. He’s 1.5 wins ahead of the next best arm (Jesse Barfield, +62) and 25–30 runs ahead of every other great arm.
So this got me to wondering. What other players had a signature skill, like Clemente’s throwing, that was such an outlier and that added up to a lot of real wins for their teams? And away I went on another journey through BBREF!
[A quick note: I’m keeping this in the post-War era because we have comprehensive play-by-play data that lets us see some really interesting stuff.]
Crazy like a Fox
Nellie Fox struck out once every 42.74 at-bats. About every week and a half. Among long-career players after World War II, he’s the king of the not-K. Fox batted more than 10,000 times, during his career, but struck out 1038 fewer times than the average player in his league. Obviously when Fox didn’t strike out, he put the ball in play—and not every ball in play would become an out!
Fox’s average on balls in play was .291, which implies 302 hits on 1038 balls in play. Some of those hits would go for extra bases and sometimes Fox would reach on an error even when he didn’t get a hit. And sometimes he’d also ground into a twin killing. (He homered so infrequently that I’m going to ignore the possibility.) Based on his career rates, we can estimate what he gained by avoiding the strikeout and put a run value on them using extrapolated runs:
RUN EVENT NO. VALUE RUNS ------------------------------------- Credits Singles 248 0.50 124 Doubles 41 0.72 30 Triples 13 1.04 14 Reached on Error 17 0.50 9 (using value for singles) Debits Outs 719 -0.09 -63 Grounded into DP 20 -0.37 - 7 ====================================== TOTAL: +107
Meantime, the average player in his time by striking out those extra 1038 times racked up -102 runs. That’s a difference of 209 runs. Fox had no power, his game was all glove and contact hitting. To be a viable big leaguer, he had to claw back those 209 runs from somewhere because it wasn’t going to be the long ball. Twenty-one wins of value all by being able to put bat on ball.
Willie Wilson Running Wild
Speed kills. Look over the list of the most valuable base runners, and it’s nothing but gazelles. At a career level, Rickey Henderson is number one by about 25 runs over his nearest competitor. Second, surprisingly, is Willie Wilson. Or not surprisingly, because he was incredibly fast and stole a lot of bases. But what may be surprising is how much more effective he was than anyone else every time he got on base. Wilson reached base 2,760 times (net of homers), a little more than half as often as Rickey. But his production on the bases was 57 percent better than The Man of Steal. In fact, Wilson crushes everyone:
NAME RUNS TOB* RATE -------------------------------- WILLIE WILSON 120 2760 .044 VINCE COLEMAN 75 1960 .038 DAVEY LOPES 83 2471 .034 TONY WOMACK 52 1721 .030 RON LEFLORE 52 1693 .030 GARY REDUS 39 1332 .030 TIM RAINES 115 3906 .029 JULIO CRUZ 42 1448 .029 RICKEY HENDERSON 145 5206 .028 LUIS APARICIO 92 3552 .026 OTIX NIXON 54 2067 .026 *(H+BB+HPB+ROE)-HR
On a rate basis, Wilson is 16 percent better than the second-best base runner but in 800 more opportunities. To give a sense of context, sixteen percent is the difference between 500 homers and 578.
How did Wilson do it? For starters, he ran up an 83 percent success rate in stolen-bases, which currently ranks 17th all time. Eight of the players ahead of him are still active. Only one, Tim Raines, attempted more steals. And only one other, Eric Davis, attempted even half the number of steals Wilson did. When he wasn’t stealing, Wilson took the extra base 58 percent of the time, a very high rate, especially for a long-career player. (It’s a bit unfair to compare to Bengie Molina’s 16 percent rate of taking extra bases since he’s a catcher, so David Ortiz’s 27 percent rate provides some sense of the breadth of outcomes. Willie Mays clocks in at 63 percent.) The other thing that Wilson did was maintain his speed skills deep into his career. His only season with negative base running was his last, 1994, in which he appeared in just 17 games.
Overall, Wilson was worth 178 runs above average. The speed alone contributed not only to 120 runs of base running but also 108 runs worth of fielding and even 25 runs of double play avoidance. Unfortunately the rest of his game was about 75 runs to the negative. The guy was blindingly fast, and he built a solid career around that speed by maximizing his application of it.
Probably no one in the post-War era derived more value from an unwillingness to swing the bat than Eddie Yost, “The Walking Man.” Yost was an almost unidimensional. He was a poor-fielding third baseman, an average base runner, and hit for below-average power even accounting for the spacious—make that cavernous—confines of Griffith Stadium. In his favor were decent durability and an eagle eye. He led the AL in walks six times, finished second twice and third once. From 1949–1960, he was never outside the AL’s top ten. He’s 11th all-time in walks, and 8th among post-War players. You’ve probably heard of the guys ahead of him: Bonds, Henderson, Morgan, Yaz, Thome, Mantle, and Thomas. And then there’s Eddie Yost.
For his career, Yost was 184 runs above average as a batter. A walk is worth roughly a third of a run, and his 1614 walks net out to about 530 runs. The average batter in Yost’s time walked about 44 percent less often than The Walking Man and netted about 300 runs from walks alone. Yost’s bases on balls were worth about 230 more runs than average. Otherwise, the rest of his batting performance was about 50 runs below average.
Since the War, there are only two other players as walkeriffic as Yost on a per-PA basis. Yost walked every 5.74 PAs (net of intentional walks, which were only counted for about half of Yost’s career). Gene Tenace walked once every 5.97 PAs, and Ferris Fain walked once every 5.44 PAs. Intentionals were only counted in Fain’s final seasons, so his real walk rate is probably closer to Yost’s. However, neither Fain nor Tenace managed more than 5,600 PAs. Yost walked his way to 9,175 of them. He did it as well or better than anyone and for much longer. And it’s a good thing, because it was about the only thing he did well.
Finally, we turn to the mound. There’s nothing kills a rally quite like a tailor-made ground-ball double play. On offense, Ichiro and Johnny Damon have managed to generate about 50 runs apiece simply by avoiding getting doubled up, leading all comers by about 15 runs. That’s pretty good! But it’s nothing compared to what Tommy John did with double plays on the other side of the ball.
Other than the surgery for which he is named (What? It’s named for him?) the one thing you probably remember him for is making three errors on this play*. Then after that you probably remember him as the Guru of Groundballs, the Sultan of the Sinker, and, as it turns out, the Don of the Deuce.
*For those wondering, it’s one error for the initial bobble that allowed the batter to reach first, a second for the throw that allowed the batter to take second, and the third for the throw that allowed the runner to score. All in twenty-six seconds!
Tommy John induced 605 ground ball double plays in his long career. Jim Kaat is second with 462. You read that right, John’s sinker led to 143 more GIDPs than his nearest competitor, 31 percent more. You really got to hunt to find any post-War leaderboard where there’s a wider disparity between #1 and #2. On the offense side, Barry Bonds leads Hank Aaron by 134 percent in intentional walks, but those have only been tabulated since 1955. Among pitchers, Nolan Ryan leads Steve Carlton in walks by 52 percent. So, in this way, John is in the freakish company of Barry Bonds and Nolan Ryan.
Tommy John got a GIDP in 11 percent of all the instances where he had a man on first. Among the top twenty in career GIDPs, he’s one of four over ten percent, and the only one higher than 10.3 percent. Every 9th time he put a guy on, he erased them on a double play. In his 700 starts, he induced 592 twin killings.
The average pitcher in his leagues would have gotten 408 double plays. John bettered that by nearly 50 percent. Double plays cost an offense about .37 runs a pop. So TJ’s 197 extra double plays brought him about 73 runs more than the average pitcher. Those 73 runs are about 40 percent of his 188 overall runs saved above average. Considering that his strikeout rate was twenty percent below the league average, he sorely needed those double-play runs. Indeed, his related ability to keep the ball out of the bleachers went a long way as well. Combining the sinker with good command also helped him generate a near-Hall career and become a shining beacon of hope for all soft-tossing lefties.
Roberto Clemente was an amazing multidimensional player whose arm was one of many skills that made him a transcendent talent. For Nellie Fox, Willie Wilson, Eddie Yost, and Tommy John, however, that one amazing skill was a huge part of what punched their ticket to a long career. Not the only thing, of course, but the skill that put an indelible stamp on their careers.