As most of you know, Roberto Clemente died in a plane crash on October 3, 1972 at the age of 38 when the aircraft he was on taking supplies to Nicaraguan earthquake victims crashed. Clemente was a great baseball player, no doubt, and he was a greater person. So please excuse my insensitivity when I make this post only about baseball – only about what might have been in Clemente’s career if that tragic plane crash never happened.
The methodology I’m using today to figure this out is similar to what Eric and I did at the start of the process to try to evaluate the quality of coaches. First I looked at players with a similar PA and OPS profile to Clemente through their age-37 seasons. Then I looked at what those players – and there weren’t too many – did from their age-38 seasons through the end of their careers. Next, I looked at the average of those comparable players. And finally, I added those numbers to Clemente’s career totals to try to determine where he might have finished up had he retired when he chose.
When you’re an all-time great like Clemente, there aren’t too many comparable players. I’d have preferred those within 500 plate appearances and 5 OPS+ points. Instead, I opened it up to 600 PAs and seven OPS points. Yes, I could have opened it up more to increase the list of comparables, but doing to was offering comps at a lower rate than I thought the widening of standards justified.
So, the list of comparables is Rod Carew, Andre Dawson, Dwight Evans, Al Kaline, Paul Molitor, Joe Morgan, Rusty Staub, and Billy Williams.
Overall, some comps were just about done. For example, Billy Williams played just 120 more games with 36 runs, 11 homers, 41 batted in, and a .211/.320/.339 line the rest of the way. On the other hand, Paul Molitor scored 300, homered 38 times, drove in 331, and finished with a .302/.359/.430 line in his age-38 season until retirement.
On average, it was 123 runs, 22 homers, 133 batted in, and a .262/.344/.387 line.
R H HR RBI BA OBP SLG WAR ==================================================== Actual 1416 3000 240 1305 .317 .359 .475 94.5 What If 1539 3260 262 1438 .311 .357 .470 96.8
As we can see from the above chart, Clemente would move up some career lists. The one I care most about is my MAPES list. Right now, I rank Clemente #24 overall among position players and #5 overall among right fielders. Unfortunately for Clemente, the two guys in front of him on my all-time list are both right fielders, Frank Robinson and Mel Ott. And while he closes the gap on both, he can’t quite catch either.
On the all-time WAR list among position players, he goes from #26 to #22. In hits, he moves from #30 to #13. In runs, he goes from #90 to #60. And he moves from #121 in doubles to #75.
Roberto Clemente is an all-time great, one of baseball’s best defenders ever. And he really only lost a couple of years to his career through his charity and warmth of heart. Because Clemente the person was who he was, I don’t suppose we’d think of Clemente the player any differently with a couple of additional WAR, but this little experiment suggests that he would move up the charts some, especially in career hits. Thank you, Roberto.