So you have a pile of missing value for a bunch of 1930s and 1940s ballplayers. Now what?
Let’s have a look at some key guys from the 1920s, 1930s, and 1940s whose new PBP data gives us a better glimpse at any hidden value they may have accrued. We looked specifically at players who were either:
- already elected to the Hall of Miller and Eric, the Hall of Fame, the Hall of Merit, or the Hall of Stats
- near the in/out line in our own personal position rankings
- still receiving votes for the Hall of Merit
- dudes we liked for whatever reason.
We’ve broken them down by position below.
In general, doing this work suggests that BBREF’s regression scores for baserunning may, if our math is reasonable, suppress a good deal of baserunning value—or stinkiness. It appears that BBREF bases its formula for pre-PBP running on steals, steal attempts, and/or success rates. That’s how Ernie Lombardi, a strong candidate for the slowest man to ever don cleats, is listed with positive running value. The reality, as we’ll soon discover, is likely far worse for Lom. Generally, we found a lot of very positive baserunning value. This may stand to reason since we examined the best of the best from this timespan, and good players are often good athletes. Or we need to review our mathematics…. Oh, and here’s this other item. The thing that drives baserunning value isn’t what you probably think it is. Just ask Joe Sewell.
In the tables below, “NOW” refers to a player’s value as calculated by me with my adjustments but without the “missing” value. Which means that “EST” includes the value we’ve calculated for running, GIDP avoidance, and throwing.
NOW EST NOW EST NOW EST NAME WAR WAR CHEWS CHEWS RANK RANK =============================================== CATCHER Berra 77 77 62 62 7 7 Hartnett 73 69 56 53 8 10 Dickey 71 69 56 54 9 9 Cochrane 65 67 55 56 10 8 Lombardi 59 50 46 40 16 24 Lollar 41 41 35 35 34 34 Cooper 40 38 34 33 37 37 Ferrell 41 40 32 32 39 40
Two of these catchers are polar opposites. At least among backstops. On one hand, Mickey Cochrane appears to have positive baserunning value, unlike pretty much every other catcher here. He’s also got positive rDP value, which even fellow lefty swinger Bill Dickey doesn’t. Black Mike is the only catcher to gain value in this group.
Then there’s Ernie Lombardi. We’ve run through his story before, but believe it or not, I underestimated how bad a baserunner he was. Here’s how the sad story of Schnozz’s plummeting value goes. Lombardi appears to have surprisingly un-bad stolen base value. Something like -1 against the league in his number of steal attempts. He was only picked off four times in his career, while I figure a league average runner to have been picked off 10 times. That makes Lom about +2.5 runs. Lombardi was a very cautious baserunner, which, despite his incredible slowness meant he didn’t get thrown out very often. He was +6 runs against the league on that account. Despite his lack of foot speed, Lombardi did manage to take 44 bases in non-batted ball situations. That accounts for about 8 runs, where the league would have notched 9. So -1 runs here. On the whole, he’s sitting pretty close to level par with the league. That is, until we account for his taking extra bases on batted balls. Lom took the extra base ahead of the batter on singles and doubles about 32% of the time. The league took the extra base 47% of the time. In our figuring, that means that Lombardi’s legs “earned” -31 runs against the league. So on the whole, His Schnozziness nets out at -25 runs against average.
And then come the twinkillings. No one, not even Jim Ed Rice, banged into so many deuces as this guy on a per-plate appearance basis. He was the lifetime leader in the category for at least a couple decades, but the guy who passed him (someone named Aaron) had about twice the plate appearances. Which means that our estimate for Lombardi is a little more than -60 runs. Add it all up and he dumps about 9 wins of value and falls out of the running for the HoME.
NOW EST NOW EST NOW EST NAME WAR WAR CHEWS CHEWS RANK RANK ========================================= FIRST BASE Musial 135 137 98 100 1 1 Gehrig 113 113 88 88 3 3 Foxx 103 101 81 79 4 5 Mize 74 75 61 63 9 9 Greenberg 64 61 57 56 11 12 Terry 62 65 53 56 16 14 Camilli 44 48 43 46 27 25 Hodges 49 49 43 43 28 28 Bottomley 35 34 31 31 51 53
Bill Terry and Dolph Camilli are the stories here. Terry’s surge in value is primarily driven by excellence on the bases. For the seasons we know about, he was picked off only once, made about two-thirds the outs on base that an average player did, had more bases taken than average, and most important, he took the extra base on a hit 56% of the time, versus leagues around 50%.
Camilli, meantime, is an overlooked star. He appears to have been an above average baserunner, not just a meandering slugger, and he was excellent at avoiding the twinkilling (+16 runs career).
NOW EST NOW EST NOW EST NAME WAR WAR CHEWS CHEWS RANK RANK ========================================== SECOND BASE Gehringer 82 86 66 68 5 5 Frisch 83 83 65 64 6 6 J Robinson 65 66 59 60 8 8 Gordon 62 62 55 55 13 13 Herman 60 58 49 48 17 18 Doerr 56 57 47 47 19 19 Lazzeri 50 47 43 40 24 27 Frey 43 48 38 42 27 26 Stanky 40 42 38 39 28 28 Schoendienst 42 44 37 38 30 29 Bishop 42 42 36 37 33 32
There’s a few items of note here. Charlie Gehringer turns out to be an outstanding baserunner, not merely above average, pushing him upward. On the other hand, Tony Lazzeri turns out to be a poor baserunner and below average at DP-avoidance, driving him downward. Billy Herman’s pretty bad on the deuce too. But let’s pause for a moment and look at Lonny Frey.
Has anyone ever said to you, Hey, Lonny Frey was a damn good ballplayer? Well here’s the first time. Frey is little remembered these days, but as a shortstop and second baseman, he combined a fine glove, an above-average bat, strong baserunning skills, and a penchant for avoiding rally-snuffing double plays. Exactly the kind of player who play-by-play data reveals as a source of subtle value. We show him picking up about five WAR, which is 50 runs of value.
NOW EST NOW EST NOW EST NAME WAR WAR CHEWS CHEWS RANK RANK ========================================== THIRD BASE Elliott 52 53 42 43 19 20 Hack 51 56 41 45 23 19 Traynor 47 48 39 39 31 27 Clift 43 46 39 41 30 24 Kell 34 33 30 29 51 51 Lindstrom 27 28 27 27 65 64 Rolfe 25 29 24 28 73 61 P Martin 20 24 19 22 89 79
Because third base is a very clumpy position, small credits and debits can lead to significant movement on the totem pole. Harlond Clift, for example, surges up six slots with only three additional WAR in his pocket. He could run a little and was that rare bird, a righty hitter good at avoiding the double play.
Stan Hack parlayed an even bigger increase into a climb that leaves him this far from the HoME borderline. We reckoned him with 3 rBaser (versus -9 for BBREF) as well as 32 runs for DP avoidance. I suspect, however, that while the former of those could even inch up a little, the latter is not terribly accurate. That’s because Hack was a leadoff man for nearly all his career, and had a minimum of 1350 fewer opportunities than an average hitter would.
But most interesting of all are Red Rolfe and Pepper Martin. These guys were terrors on the bases. Rolfe, who had about half a career, was worth twenty-odd runs on the bases and another passel in DP avoidance. Red was merely above average in stealing, outs on base, and bases taken. But like Bill Terry, he took extra bases like candy: 57% extra-base-taken average versus a 48% league average, worth 15 runs. Then there’s Pepper Martin, who was hung with the famous sobriquet, “The Wild Horse of the Osage.” Like Rolfe, he had about a half a career, and like Rolfe, he ran wild. He was nearly +15 runs stealing bases, +10 on extra bases taken, and another +2.5 on bases taken for good measure. He took the extra base 63% of the time in a league with a 48% extra-base-taken rate.
NOW EST NOW EST NOW EST NAME WAR WAR CHEWS CHEWS RANK RANK ========================================== THIRD BASE Vaughan 80 84 67 71 4 2 Appling 82 87 64 66 7 5 Cronin 73 72 60 59 11 11 Boudreaux 67 68 59 60 12 12 Reese 67 69 53 55 16 16 Sewell 58 62 48 52 21 19 Stephens 49 48 42 42 27 27 Maranville 45 44 40 39 30 33 Bartell 47 47 39 39 31 31 T Jackson 41 44 38 40 37 30 Rizzuto 41 41 37 38 38 37
Arky Vaughan slides into the #2 spot at shortstop. He was in a big bunch with Cal Ripken, well behind Honus Wagner. Vaughan isn’t as bad a baserunner as his poor stolen base rates suggest, nor as bad as his BBREF estimate. As a lefty with at least some speed, he turns out to be very good at avoiding double plays. Meanwhile, Joe Sewell, whom I elected with a lot of trepidation, improves his lot and gives me a little piece of mind. Sewell’s an interesting one. As a lefty he gets some double-play avoidance credit, but it’s really his baserunning that pushes him upward. You might be surprised by that since his SB% career-wise isn’t quite 51%, but the league back then ran at around a 55% clip, so it’s not nearly the eyesore it appears. Even so, it’s everything else he does on the bases that helps him. We have just four of Sewell’s seasons, but they account for more than 2,000 plate appearances, enough of a sample to get a good sense of his exploits. Sewell was never picked off in those four years. He’s a run better than the league in both outs on base and bases taken. Given his below average steals value, he’s just above par with the league before we get to extra bases taken. Joe took the extra base about 60% of the time, while the league managed just 50% of the time, good for about +6 runs. So he ends up with about 8 runs of running value for 1930–1933. BBREF gives him -2 runs. When we use the comps method to retrocast him, we end up with a little more than 30 runs total for his career.
I would sound this cautionary note about Rabbit Maranville. I feel very tentative about him. While we have several years of data on him, they come from his age 38–43 seasons. Rabbit missed one of those seasons entirely due to a broken leg, and came back for just 23 games after it. But a deeper look into his stolen base numbers shows a different story. As a young player, Maranville stole with some frequency, gaining double digits in steals every year through 1924 (except for a year lost to World War I). His success rates during those seasons for which we have his caught-stealing information (61%) are probably a little better than average for the time. Then Rabbit started to get old. He lost some time due to injury and ineffectiveness in the mid-1920s, appearing to lose a step in the process. So it’s difficult to say with certainty that the data we have is strongly representative. But for now, it works.
NOW EST NOW EST NOW EST NAME WAR WAR CHEWS CHEWS RANK RANK ========================================== LEFT FIELD T Williams 129 129 98 98 2 2 Goslin 70 73 57 59 10 9 A Simmons 71 75 57 61 11 8 B Johnson 62 61 50 49 20 20 Medwick 55 52 47 45 23 25 Kiner 49 48 46 45 25 26 Minoso 51 52 46 46 26 23 Keller 47 46 43 44 27 27 Galan 43 47 37 41 40 38 Manush 39 42 34 37 41 41 Hafey 28 32 27 30 57 53
I didn’t know that Al Simmons was an excellent base runner, but that’s what our PBP data suggests. He was good at every facet of running, whether avoiding outs or taking bases.
This exercise appears to have vindicated certain decisions we made late in our electoral process. We knew that Joe Medwick had issues with double plays, and so we placed him behind Jose Cruz and Roy White in our pecking order. We felt unsure about Ralph Kiner as a fairly extreme peak case. Finally, because we’ve elected solely on Major League play, we didn’t extend any special dispensation to Minnie Minoso. Well the jury is in. Medwick’s double-play addiction cost him about 18 runs versus his leagues. Also, his arm appears less effective than DRA suggests. It’s all enough to push his value low enough that he sinks below Joe Kelley and Minnie Minoso in the rankings and essentially out of sight. Minoso only cashes in outfield arm credit here because his career started after the advent of PBP-based rDP and rBaser. He’s not a good thrower, but he picks up a couple-three runs against DRA, which helps. The fact that he didn’t lose value really helps because if we ever choose to pursue the Negro League angle, he’s so close to the finish line now that even just a couple seasons of above-average play could put him over.
NOW EST NOW EST NOW EST NAME WAR WAR CHEWS CHEWS RANK RANK ========================================== CENTER FIELD Mays 162 161 114 113 2 2 J DiMaggio 81 84 66 69 6 5 Ashburn 74 74 60 60 8 8 Snider 59 59 51 51 12 12 Berger 47 49 43 45 26 23 Doby 49 49 43 44 29 26 Averill 45 46 40 41 36 33 Combs 43 47 38 41 41 31 D DiMaggio 40 42 37 38 46 41 B Chapman 40 38 34 32 52 56 H Wilson 35 33 33 32 53 58 L Waner 23 25 22 23 73 73
Tommy McCarthy is the worst player elected to the Hall of Fame. I’m far less sure now about the second worst. Is it Lloyd Waner or Highpockets Kelly? We can’t say yet with as much certainty as we’d like because we don’t have PBP info for enough of Kelly’s career to say. But right now, I’m leaning toward Little Poison. I would be a little skeptical that Combs’ is gaining that much ground. He’s definitely gaining because his baserunning is much better than BBREF estimates it, probably by 20 runs. But like Stan Hack, Combs is a lefty lead-off man, and so his estimated rDP of +13 is probably too high. It’s a shame that Averill didn’t reach the majors until his age-27 season and that Dom DiMaggio had the heart of his carved out by the war. Both are coulda-been HoMErs. Which brings us to Larry Doby. Like Minoso above, Doby has inched just a little closer toward the borderline, and he may have enough in reserve during his Negro League seasons to creep over the line, should we choose to go down that path.
NOW EST NOW EST NOW EST NAME WAR WAR CHEWS CHEWS RANK RANK ========================================== RIGHT FIELD Ruth 181 181 128 128 1 1 Ott 111 117 80 84 3 3 P Waner 80 82 63 64 7 7 Slaughter 60 62 48 50 26 26 Nicholson 49 51 44 46 27 27 Cuyler 50 51 43 44 30 28 Klein 43 45 41 42 35 32 Holmes 42 43 40 41 37 34 D Walker 44 46 37 40 43 37 Furillo 42 42 36 36 49 49
Mel Ott’s a pretty great player. I never really stopped to think about him much. But now I suspect he’s kind of the Frank Robinson of his time. Mantle, Mays, and Aaron dominated the 1950s and 1960s. Robinson was just a notch below. He sometimes outperformed them, but on the whole, the other guys were just better enough that over time a gap in value developed, as well as one of perception. Similarly, Ruth, Gehrig, and Foxx dominated the baseball scene of 1920s and 1930s. Mel Ott, like Robinson would later, did his thing year in and out and wasn’t quite as exciting or sometimes as valuable as his competition. Like Robinson, he also had a diverse set of skills with sneaky speed and great power plus durability and longevity. Certainly Ott was not overlooked, just as Robinson wasn’t, but he never quite equaled those other guys. Through this process, I discovered that Ott was probably a lot better baserunner than you’d think and that his attempts to pull balls down the rightfield line into the Polo Grounds short porch probably kept him out of the double play so much that he excels in that category of our analysis. Meantime, Slaughter is now neck and neck with Vlad Guerrero, and if the actual BBREF data comes through and looks better than these estimates, Country might pass the Impaler. They are both right on the line in right field, and Slaughter’s advantage may be his era. The post-war era is light on honorees. Finally, KiKi Cuyler. After Sam Rice, he’s a big reason why we needed to do this project. We noticed that he was one of his era’s speed merchants, and we knew that he was reputed to have a good arm. All of which turned out to be true, but unless his real numbers are a lot better than what we’ve seen, he’s not going to creep upward.
Overall, the differences we’ve noted are not earth-shattering. Mostly they don’t suggest that we’ve missed players or elected fellows we shouldn’t have. But it does give us a greater sense of the likely value still out there to discover. Of course, once BBREF calculates these figures and creates formal estimates, our numbers will be wiped away—as they should be. Those guys know more than we do, and we trust them. For now we have these estimates to guide further decision making.