I was talking about the HoME with my friend and loyal reader, Geoff, recently. He asked about specific things I’ve learned throughout the process. And the thing that struck me first was how I underrated or overrated so many more players than I would have thought. For example, if you’d have told me that over a year into this process Whitey Ford wouldn’t be in the HoME but Tommy Leach and Bobby Veach would, I’d have told you you’re nuttier than someone who praises Fernando Rodney for his sense of timing. But they’re in. And they deserve it, even if they’re
remembered forgotten as less great than they were.
I grew up a Red Sox fan, so I grew up watching an aging Carl Yastrzemski, a guy about whom it was said after he hit the ball, he’d run until he was tagged out. He wasn’t great any longer. He appeared to critics to be, dare I say, a compiler. Today I know differently. And today I’m going to explain why Yaz is so underrated, or at least underappreciated as a superstar.
But first, let me explain how he’s properly rated. Among left fielders in baseball history, he’s behind Barry Bonds, Ted Williams, and Rickey Henderson. That’s it. And to be honest, Yaz isn’t all that close to #5, be it Ed Delahanty or Fred Clarke. Let that sink in for a moment. Fourth best. Ever. Guys who rank #4 at other positions include Mickey Mantle, Joe Morgan, Roger Connor/Jimmie Foxx, Frank Robinson/Roberto Clemente. It is fair to mention Yaz in the same breath as those guys.
Bad Teams = Little Recognition
Yaz played for some terrible teams. Just look at how the Sox finished during his career.
1960 7 1961 6 1962 8 1963 7 1964 8 1965 9 1966 9 1967 1 1968 4 1969 3 1970 3 1971 3 1972 2 1973 2 1974 3 1975 1 1976 3 1977 2 1978 2 1979 3 1980 5 1981 5 1982 3 1983 6
There was the Impossible Dream in 1967, the Gold Dust Twins – Jim Rice and Fred Lynn – in 1975, and a bunch of teams that either stunk or just couldn’t do it. While Yaz was the signature player in ‘67, along with Jim Lonborg, I suppose, the Red Sox lost that World Series. And when the Red Sox lost again in ‘75, it was Carlton Fisk and Luis Tiant who took the spotlight, and Fred Lynn and Jim Rice who got them there.
In the days before every game was on television and Sports Center and MLB Network played highlights of all of the monster home runs and great catches, time on television in October really helped to make superstars. Reggie Jackson became Mr. October when the lights shined brightest in, well, October. Pete Rose cemented his reputation for hustle both against the Red Sox (right) and the Royals. And the We Are Family Pirates aren’t much without Willie Stargell in the seventh game. Yes, all of these players were stars without October, but they had iconic World Series moments that make us think they were even greater than they were.
Make no mistake, Yaz was great in October. In the playoffs he hit .369/.447/.600. He homered three times and hit .400 against the Cardinals in ’67. He drove in the run that beat the Reds in the first game in ’75, and he drove in the final run in the Sox 5-4 win in the fourth game too. But his home runs and key hits weren’t enough. The Sox lost in spite of Carl Yastrzemski being great, not because he was less than a superstar. And in 1978, as the Red Sox collapsed and the Yankees won the AL East, we remember that Captain Carl popped out to end it, but we sometimes forget that he opened the scoring in the second with a home run against the nearly unhittable Ron Guidry, a guy who had given up homers to only nine other hitters all year.
There have probably been a few thousand people who have played left field in a Major League game since its inception. Exactly three of them have been better players than Yaz over the course of their careers. What that means is that the chance that the player in his position on his team right before him would have had a better career than he did was less than 0.1%. That’s less than 1/1000. But Yaz did indeed have to follow Ted Williams. Joe Pepitone couldn’t replace Mickey Mantle. Doug DeCinces couldn’t replace Rrooks Robinson. And as great as Yaz was, he couldn’t replace Ted Williams. When comparisons are made and a particular player loses out, it’s hard to be thought of as other than less than.
Yaz also had plenty of timing problems having nothing to do with the Splendid Splinter.
When Miguel Cabrera won the triple crown in 2012, it had been 45 years since the last one. When Carl Yastrzemski won his in 1967, is was done just one year before. Perhaps as a result, Yaz’s triple crown was underappreciated historically. Sure, it was a triple crown, and it was celebrated again in 2012. But it wasn’t properly appreciated. If we can remember way back to 2012, there was quite an MVP debate between Cabrera and Mike Trout. Those supporting Cabrera looked to the triple crown, while those supporting Trout looked to WAR. Cabrera supporters wouldn’t bring up WAR, which made Yaz look great. And Trout supporters wouldn’t bring up the triple crown, which again made Yaz look great. Because of the Miggy/Trout controversy, Yaz was again overlooked.
But he shouldn’t have been.
Take a look at the WAR for each triple crown since 1893, according to Baseball Reference:
Carl Yastrzemski, 1967 12.4 Mickey Mantle, 1956 11.2 Ted Williams, 1942 10.6 Lou Gehrig, 1934 10.4 Rogers Hornsby, 1925 10.2 Rogers Hornsby, 1922 10.0 Ted Williams, 1947 9.9 Ty Cobb, 1909 9.8 Jimmie Foxx 1933 9.2 Joe Medwick, 1937 8.5 Nap Lajoie, 1901 8.4 Frank Robinson, 1966 7.7 Chuck Klein, 1933 7.5 Miguel Cabrera, 2012 7.2
As you can see, not every triple crown is created equal. Miguel Cabrera and Frank Robinson, those whose crowns bookended Yaz’s had merely very good seasons. Williams and Mantle were pretty amazing, and Yaz was even better. So his timing may not have been great, but his season certainly was.
Another case of poor timing came the next year, 1968, when Yastrzemski won his third and final batting title, but he did so with a pretty pedestrian .301 average. Sure, the batting average was ordinary, but the season was extraordinary. As you may recall, 1968 was the infamous Year of the Pitcher. Denny McLain won 31 games, Bob Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA, and the AL as a whole hit just .230 with a .297 OBP. Yaz hit “only” .301, but he did so while leading the AL in walks, so his .301 BA turned into a big league best .426 OBP. This “cheap” batting title wasn’t cheap at all. It came in another terrific season, one where he posted 10.5 WAR, better than all but three triple crown seasons ever. But it’s incorrectly remembered as the weakest batting title ever. Bad timing.
Carl Yastrzemski’s well-roundedness as a player, rather than as a player with one signature skill, has helped him to fly under the radar as an all-time great. Yaz was a great hitter both for power (top-10 SLG six times) and for average (top-10 nine times). He was also a wonderful defender who had great plate discipline and was a fine baserunner at his best.
How good a defender was he? Well. If we look at all players in our data set who were above average offensively, as measured by OPS+, there are only 25 who have a fielding number from Baseball Reference and from Michael Humphreys’ DRA (adjusted as Humphreys recommends for Fenway Park) of over 100. It’s a veritable who’s who of the greatest defenders in history who could also hit the ball. Chronologically:
That’s kind of a long list though. If we look at the list of retired players who top Yaz by all three measures, here’s the list.
Like defense, drawing walks still isn’t appreciated properly. And Yaz drew a ton of walks. He led the league in base on balls twice, was in the top-5 nine times, and was in the top-10 on a dozen occasions. As far as OBP, he led the AL five times and finished in the top-10 five more. Even in the post-Moneyball era, some poo poo the walk. And those who don’t can still forget the skill’s importance.
Just how great was Yaz?
Let’s start with his peak.
In all of history, there have been only six other guys with consecutive seasons of 10.4 WAR or more. You might have heard of most of the others – Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Barry Bonds.
There have been eight other hitters in the game’s history with three seasons of 9.5 or more WAR. Ty Cobb, Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Rogers Hornsby, Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Barry Bonds.
And when we look how he fares among hitters in the game’s history while accounting for all of the adjustments this writer makes, here are his rankings.
Top-3 seasons 12 Top-5 seasons 21 Top-7 seasons 27 Top-10 seasons 32 Top-12 seasons 32 Top-15 seasons 28 Career total 25 Guys behind him in terms of that career measure include the likes of Joe DiMaggio, Al Kaline, Cal Ripken, Jackie Robinson, and Yogi Berra.
No matter how you slice it, peak, prime, or career, Carl Yastrzemski is an all-time great.