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Shoeless Joe Jackson, What If?

Joe Jackson, 1916A few weeks ago I looked at what might have happened had Roberto Clemente not died on New Year’s Eve, 1972. Today, I want to image what could have happened to the career of Shoeless Joe Jackson had the Black Sox scandal of 1919 never happened. In his final campaign of 1920, Jackson led the AL in triples, posted a 1.033 OPS, a 172 OPS+, and totaled 7.6 WAR, tied for the third highest total of his career. Clearly the guy was not done.

The Methodology

As with Clemente, the methodology I’m using today started with players with a similar PA and OPS+ profile to Jackson through their age-32 seasons. After that, I added players with a similar OPS+ and WAR profile to Jackson. I wanted a variety of players, and I wanted to get up to 20 comparable guys. Of course, all of this is made possible by the genius of the BBREF Play Index. Then I looked at what those players did from their age-33 seasons through the end of their careers. Next, I looked at the average of those comparable players. And finally, I added those numbers to Jackson’s career totals to try to determine where he might have finished up had he retired when he chose.

The Comps

Again, I wanted a deeper list of comps for Jackson than I had for Clemente. In the PA/OPS+ group, I had to open up to 1100 plate appearances and 15 OPS+ points. In the OPS+/WAR group of comps, it was 22 OPS+ points and 13 WAR. Yeah, there weren’t many players that comparable to Shoeless Joe through age 32.

Here’s the list:

Dick Allen       Sam Crawford        Reggie Jackson     Manny Ramirez
Jeff Bagwell     Joe DiMaggio        Ralph Kiner        Mike Schmidt
Dan Brouthers    Hank Greenberg      Nap Lajoie         Frank Thomas
Pete Browning    Vladimir Guerrero   Willie McCovey     Jim Thome
Roger Connor     Harry Heilmann      Mike Piazza        Honus Wagner

The Averages

Some of the Shoeless comps were greats with a ton of time left like Wagner, Reggie, and Thome. Others were done or close like Kiner, Browning, and Allen. On average, we’re looking at 2803 more trips to the plate, 377 runs, 695 hits, 430 batted in, a 125 OPS+, and 17.8 WAR.

Shoeless Joe

           R     H     RBI   OPS+   WAR
Actual     873  1772   792   170   62.3 
What If   1250  2467  1222   155   80.1

On lots of levels, this chart is less exciting than the Clemente work of earlier this month. That’s okay. Jackson would move from a tie for 479th to 150th in runs. He’d move from 406th to a tie for 108th in hits. His RBI placing would move from a tie for 492nd as I type this to 144th. His OPS+ would drop from 9th to a tie for 24th. But the company would still be excellent – Hank Aaron, Miguel Cabrera, Joe DiMaggio, and Mel Ott. And the WAR among position players would climb from 108th to 38th.

The Real Comps

If we just look at guys from around Jackson’s era, sort of – Brouthers, Browning, Connor, Crawford, Heilmann, Lajoie, and Wagner – we get some better results. And that’s even still including Browning, he of only ten remaining plate appearances.

           R     H     RBI   OPS+   WAR
Actual     873  1772   792   170   62.3 
What If   1291  2604  1229   157   88.3

The career run total would be up to a tie for 131st. The hit total would move up to 81st. The RBI total would move just to 143rd. The OPS+ career mark would be tied for 18th with Tris Speaker. And the career WAR mark among position players would be up to 32nd, just a shade behind George Brett.

Clearly Joe Jackson is an all-time great. And clearly he’d be in the Hall of Fame were it not for his lifetime ban. We certainly can’t know how great he would have been had he not been banned, but maybe today’s little exercise gives us an idea.




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