We know Ernie Lombardi was legendarily slow. That lack of foot speed, and its correspondingly negative effect on Lom’s base running have kinda fascinated me personally. From the perspective of sifting through candidates for the Hall of Miller and Eric, it has become a key factor against Lombardi’s election.
We declined Lombardi well before Retrosheet and BBREF released a slew of prewar play-by-play information. This data doesn’t appear to be complete enough for BBREF to yet overhaul its base running estimate (rbaser) for 1930s players, but we do have a boatload more info on how well those guys, including Schnozz, himself, ran the bases. So, taking a quick break from our pioneers/executives researches, I ran up some figures to see whether this new data confirmed or disconfirmed anything about the man Bill James considers the slowest player in the game’s history.
Because the BBREF update doesn’t include new rbaser estimates, we have to go by raw totals and some rate stats we can create from them. We generally have a pretty good idea of what basic baseball card stats related to speed, or its opposite: stolen bases, triples, and GIDP. We don’t yet have caught stealing information for the prewar era, so we can’t determine things like stolen base percentage, which would be very helpful. But we can determine a few other things:
Stolen base rate
SB / ( TOB – HR )
3B / ( AB – HR – K )
GIDP / PA
For that last one, GIDP rate, we’d prefer to use GIDPs per DP opportunity, but that information isn’t complete in the 1930s. So instead, we just rely on PAs. In addition, we don’t have GIDPs prior to around 1933, so for the oldsters, we only use PAs from those seasons in which we have GIDP information for them.
Here’s two more helpful rate stats that BBREF gives us:
Run scoring percentage
( R – HR ) / ( TOB – HR )
Extra bases taken percentage
The number of times a runner already on base advances more than one base on a single or two bases on a double. This is where the recent PBP data comes in handy.
BBREF’s new information gives us some other very helpful details:
- Bases taken: Advances on fly balls, passed balls, wild pitches, balks, and defensive indifference
- Outs on base: Outs made when trying to advance on a fly ball, wild pitch, or passed ball; when thrown out trying for extra bases; being doubled off on a line drive
We can turn these easily into rate stats:
Bases taken percentage
BT / ( TOB – HR )
Outs on base percentage
OOB / ( TOB – HR )
None of these carry the precision we’d like, but without caught stealing, complete GIDP, and complete GIDP opportunity info we’ve got to make lemonade. Additionally, it’s probable that BBREF is still missing some key base running info as well (BT, OOB, etc.). So we do our best and simply live with the lack of hard-and-fast numbers.
The Speed of Lom
So let’s now turn our toolkit onto Lombardi. There’s a couple ways to look at him. First in the context of his own times. Was he unusually slow? Did it translate into bad base running? Then, we can look historically awful base runners for whom we have all the data and compare them using our less precise tools.
Lombardi debuted in 1931 and he only played in the NL. So I found every hitter whose first MLB game occurred from 1926 to 1936 and who accumulated at least 3000 PA in the big leagues and who played all or damn-near all their games in the NL. I also reeled in a couple extra catchers who piled up 2500 or more PA. Then I figured out the base running figures for all 57 of them.
First, let’s compare Ernie to the entire group.
NAME 3B% GIDP% SB% XBT% RS% BT% OOB% =================================================== LOMBARDI 0.5% 4.6% 0.4% 31% 20% 2.0% 1.5% EVERYONE 1.3% 2.1% 2.8% 49% 33% 2.1% 2.0%
Lombardi is obviously, painfully slow. His rate of triples, GIDPs, steals, extra bases taken, and runs scored are far worse than the group average. Interestingly, however, his rate of bases taken is right on the average, and his outs on base are better than average. It’s possible that Lombardi knew his limitations and ran the bases smartly if very, very slowly.
Among the players in the comparison group, Lombardi turns out to be the lamest base runner with a career of more than 5,000 PAs. There are, however, two other catchers with shorter careers who might have made Lombardi look swift. Bold denotes the guy who is the worst among our 57 in that category.
NAME 3B% GIDP% SB% XBT% RS% BT% OOB% ==================================================== LOMBARDI 0.5% 4.6% 0.4% 31% 20% 2.0% 1.5% Sp DAVIS 0.6% 3.3% 0.4% 31% 19% 0.7% 1.8% Sh HOGAN 0.4% 3.5% 0.5% 24% 20% 1.1% 1.5% EVERYONE 1.3% 2.1% 2.8% 49% 33% 2.1% 2.0%
That’s fellow catchers Spud Davis and Shanty Hogan for those scoring at home (or not scoring in this case). These three speed machines dominate the lower reaches of the leader board. They are slow, slow, slow, slow, slow. Which has cascading negative effects on their ability to do what good base runners do.
By the way, here’s the best of lot.
NAME 3B% GIDP% SB% XBT% RS% BT% OOB% ==================================================== P MARTIN 2.1% 1.2% 9.5% 64% 44% 2.5% 2.9% COMOROSKY 2.0% 3.0% 5.9% 60% 37% 3.7% 1.8% GOODMAN 2.5% 1.5% 3.5% 58% 36% 3.2% 3.0% EVERYONE 1.3% 2.1% 2.8% 49% 33% 2.1% 2.0%
Pepper Martin scored a stunning percentage of his times on base and took an extra base an even more amazing amount of the time. Just stunning. In fact, I looked at the eleven best base runners since the war, all guys famous for burning up the base paths, and not a one took an extra base even 60% of the time, and only two scored 40% of the time they were on base (Willie Wilson and Lou Brock in case you wondered). This is why they called Martin the Wild Horse of the Osage, I suppose. Of course, Martin swam in the midst of a very high tide for run scoring, but so did most of the guys in our pool. Once BBREF has complete enough information to accurately estimate his base running value, it will soar from +5 to somewhere closer to ten times that.
Comorosky is a little-known outfielder who had a few good seasons with the Pirates, and Goodman looks, from these numbers, to have been a very daring base runner indeed. He stretched out a lot of triples, he took the third highest rate of extra bases in our group, and he got nabbed more than anyone else.
So Lombardi was clearly molasses on the bases with a well-deserved reputation for oozing along. But was he historically bad? I took every player since the war with -25 or worse rbaser on BBREF and applied the same stats to all 26 of them. Here’s how Lombardi compares to the three with the worst base running rates and to this latter-day group’s average. Remember that stolen base rates are up and triples rates way down compared to the 1930s. Again, bold is bad.
NAME 3B% GIDP% SB% XBT% RS% BT% OOB% ==================================================== LOMBARDI 0.5% 4.6% 0.4% 31% 20% 2.0% 1.5% B MOLINA 0.1% 3.4% 0.2% 16% 22% 5.4% 2.7% Y MOLINA 0.1% 3.4% 2.4% 26% 22% 5.8% 3.8% HERNANDEZ 0.2% 2.6% 0.5% 29% 24% 5.1% 3.8% EVERYONE 0.3% 2.5% 1.2% 29% 26% 6.2% 2.8%
I frankly don’t know whether or not runners today are more or less cautious, especially since I don’t know exactly how much data BBREF is giving us for the 1930s. But I do know that Bengie Molina’s XBT% is astoundingly low. It’s lower than Shanty Hogan’s low, low total above, and it’s 4 points worse than the next lowest in the modern era (Brian McCann and Billy Butler share this distinction at 20%). But more generally, Lombardi’s rates are consistent with very bad base runners. Very bad, indeed.
In case you wanted to know, the third Catching Molina Brother, Jose, had only -4 rbaser. Clearly, he won all the family 100 yard dashes.
The worst three runners by total rbaser since the war have -39 runs (David Ortiz through 9/19/16), -37 runs (Prince Fielder), and -36 runs (Paul Konerko). Fielder is actually an interesting comp for Lombardi because the rest of these guys have significantly more playing time than both of them. Fielder, however, retired this year with 6853 PAs, pretty close to Lombardi’s 6352. Here’s how they compare.
NAME 3B% GIDP% SB% XBT% RS% BT% OOB% ==================================================== LOMBARDI 0.5% 4.6% 0.4% 31% 20% 2.0% 1.5% FIELDER 0.2% 2.3% 0.8% 22% 24% 7.0% 2.3%
There are significant counterbalancing differences in the GIDp and XBT% columns, and there’s the differences in the BT and OOB columns that we may be able to chalk up to data incompleteness. We can explain away much of the difference between them in GIDPs by the simple fact that Fielder is a lefty hitter, and they ground into many fewer double plays. (Need more assurance of this? Look at the lifetime “leaders” in GIDP: Among the top 20, only three are lefties and just two others are switch hitters).
Fielder’s a pretty good comp for the modern-day Lombardi, and I wouldn’t be shocked at all if when the paint is dry, old Ernie ends up with -35 or more base running runs. Funny, but drying paint might be a good speedometer for these fellows.
So was Bill James right? Was Lombardi the slowest in history? Not quite. But barring an exhaustive search, he’s probably the slowest guy with a career of more than 5,000 PAs. That’s “good” enough to keep us from casting an online bronze for him.