A funny thing happened on the way to an article about standard deviation in the Negro Leagues. I wanted to show you how STDEV affects our perceptions of Negro Leagues stars, but as I tried to demonstrate that effect, I kept finding that even a skimpy, low-wattage way to look at the question required other adjustments. Things like park and league quality also have a big enough effect that they can obscure what’s going on with STDEV.
So I started down those rabbit holes, and by the time I got back out of them, I realized that I’m very close to having an actual translation protocol for offensive output. But then comes the age-old question of, well, age.
For many reasons, the Negro Leagues had a much less efficient talent-procurement and development system than the majors of the same period. In some ways more like the majors of the 1880s. This resulted in a set of players less homogenous in terms of true talent than in the majors. Which, in combination with far shorter schedules, lead to higher standard deviations than the majors. As a knock-on effect of that less efficient talent-development system, very old and very young hitters picked up full-time roles—and in some cases playing very, very well as teenagers or middle-agers.
Josh Gibson, for example played a nearly full league-schedule as an 18 year old and popped out a 198 OPS+. At 19 and 20, he followed on with a 154 and a 138 OPS+ before the first of his many OPS+es higher than 200 at age 21. From ages 18–20 in top-shelf games, Oscar Charleston notched marks of 116, 126, and 148 in essentially full-time play before similarly launching into OPS+ orbit at age 21. It’s not just the super-duper stars either. Dicky Lundy, a good candidate for any Negro League hall of fame though not near an elite hitter like Charleston and Gibson, had a cuppa coffee at 17 then started playing nearly full time at 18, when he notched a 139 OPS+, then followed with 161 and 191 at 19 and 20. A lot of lesser hitters got an early start too. Ray Dandridge was a regular at 19 and 20, glove man Pee Wee Butts played full seasons at 19 and 20.
This isn’t to say that every player or every notable player got an early start. Many got later starts due to the inefficiencies we’ve mentioned. But the ones that jump off the screen are the real young’uns. To me this is anyone under twenty-one years old, an age that precludes recent college grads, or, in terms of white baseball, when a kid would have three to five years of minor league seasoning.
So what does this mean to how we understand the Negro Leagues’ younger players? It means we need to look at MLB data to understand how different the leagues were.
Little Big Leaguers
So I did what I always do: I turned to BBREF’s Play Index (subscribe today, you won’t be sorry!!!). I queried for every 16, 17, 18, 19, and 20 year-old debutant from 1893 to 1965. I excluded 1944 and 1945ers (due to premature promotion due to wartime player shortages) as well as any non-pitchers whose career trajectories were hampered by military service. This query returned 565 players in total, or about 8 per the 73 seasons in question. These included:
- 2 16-year-olds—0.3% of the group, and 0.03 per year
- 24 17 year-olds—4.2% of the group, and 0.3 per year
- 78 18-year-olds—13.8% of the group, and 1.1 per year
- 152 19-year olds—26.9% of the group, and 2.1 per year
- 309 20-year-olds—54.7% of the group, and 4.2 per year
En toto, about 7.7 players per year fit this description. But we want to know about the good players, not about Teddy Kearns, Ty Pickup, Allie Watt, and Vern Fuller. No offense to them or their loved ones. After all, the Hall of Miller and Eric has a mission, and if we pursue the question of Negro Leaguers, we won’t be zeroing in on the lesser lights.
I cut down the list to all batters with 10 or more career WAR. Ten’s not a ton of value, but it knocked the group down to 148. They included a whole lot of names we all know and love. Among them, I recorded a few pieces of key information:
- year of MLB debut
- age of MLB debut
- position with most games played during career
- career MLB PAs
- career MLB rBat
- MLB PAs and rBat at each age from 16–25.
The group included:
- 0 16-year-olds
- 7 17-year-olds
- 16 18-year-olds
- 51 19-year-olds
- 74 20-year-olds.
It further included:
- 22 catchers
- 23 first basemen
- 14 second basemen
- 14 third basemen
- 20 shortstops
- 12 left fielders
- 23 centerfielders
- 20 right fielders.
Here are some general characteristics of these players.
- dPA = PA in debut season
- drBAT = batting runs above average in debut season
- +ROY = exceeded current MLB rookie definition (1 PA/scheduled game)
- qual = qualified for batting title (3.1 PA per scheduled game)
Median | average | +ROY dPA drBAT | dPA drBAT | elig qual =============|===========|============ 17s 23 0.0 | 23 -0.1 | 0 0 18s 20 -0.5 | 34 -1.2 | 1 0 19s 40 -1.0 | 83 -1.5 | 7 1 20s 29 0.0 | 124 1.0 | 16 8
We can see that the typical early debut player isn’t exactly settin’ the woods on fire. A mere 16% exceed what we now define as their rookie of the year eligibility in year one, and even fewer qualified for a batting title. In fact, no player in this group reached 400 PAs before age 19. The highest was Phil Cavarretta with 363 as a 18-year-old second-year player in 1935. Only two other players in this sample even reached 100 in one season by age 18. Only four players got to 500 PAs in one season by age 19: Rusty Staub, Al Kaline, Mel Ott, and Buddy Lewis. And remember, this is a group of players who went on to do very good things.
Let’s look at it by age group. This time, however, we will pull the catchers out since they skew things.
FIRST QUALIFICATION | FIRST ABOVE-AVERAGE 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 OTH | 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 OTH ==================================|================================ 17s 0 0 2 0 2 0 0 0 0 1 | 0 0 1 2 0 1 0 1 0 0 18s X 0 2 5 3 0 1 1 0 0 | X 0 2 5 1 1 3 0 0 0 19s X X 1 9 11 8 7 5 0 0 | X X 3 7 9 7 8 4 2 1 20s X X X 8 18 20 6 7 5 4 | X X X 10 14 17 11 5 3 8
A good couple of rules of thumb for this bunch of players:
- Usually, a player takes about two to four year to first qualify for a batting title
- Usually, a player first reaches above-average offensive performance sometime in his first four years in the league.
What about elite hitters? Do they need as much ramp-up, even if they start at a young age? From my sample, I culled anyone with 200 or more career rBAT, plus Roger Bresnahan and Ross Youngs who raked in more than 150 but in fewer than 6,000 PAs.
First of all, the most general numbers:
- 2 17s: Foxx and Ott
- 5 18s: Bresnahan, Cobb, Kaline, Killebrew, Sheckard
- 14 19s: E. Collins, Crawford, Cronin, Greenberg, Heilmann, Hornsby, Magee, Mantle, Morgan, Powell, Ruth, Speaker, Staub, Torre
- 19 20s: Aaron, Cepeda, Clemente, Doyle, Gehrig, Goslin, J. Jackson E. Mathews, Medwick, Musial, F. Robinson, Roush, Santo, Snider, Trosky, Vaughan, D. Walker, T. Williams, Youngs
Now, here are those same tables as above, this time only featuring our Top-40 format:
Median | average | +ROY dPA drBAT | dPA drBAT | elig qual ==============|===========|============ 17s 35 1.5 | 35 1.5 | 0 0 18s 55 0.0 | 281 0.2 | 1 0 19s 45 -1.5 | 140 -0.9 | 4 1 20s 99 3.0 | 253 6.6 | 8 6
They may not look like much, but they have it all over the larger group of good players. But it’s this next table that really tells the story:
FIRST QUALIFICATION | FIRST ABOVE-AVERAGE 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 OTH| 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 OTH =================================|================================ 17s 0 0 1 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 | 0 0 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 18s X 0 1 2 0 0 1 1 0 0 | X 0 2 1 0 0 2 0 0 0 19s X X 1 3 4 5 0 1 0 0 | X X 2 1 7 3 1 0 0 0 20s X X X 7 5 5 1 0 0 1 | X X X 7 7 4 1 0 0 0
These fellows do, indeed, require less runway to take off. Just one of the 40 didn’t have at least one batting-title qualified season under their belt by 25, and the guy that didn’t (Dixie Walker) had a very unusual career trajectory by anyone’s standards. Only five total players hadn’t qualified for a batting title by age 23, or 12.5%, where as in the larger pool of good players, that number is 36%. Similarly, only five players had their first above-average batting performance after age 22, versus 43% of the larger good group. Elites are elite for a reason, and this shouldn’t surprise anyone at all. This bodes well for many of Negro Leaguers one would consider for a hall of fame.
What about catchers?
The Negro Leagues had a catcher factory going. Josh Gibson and Biz Mackey being only the most well known Blackball catchers. What does the MLB data about early-debut catchers tell us?
First off, in our larger sample of good players (10+ WAR) there were 22 early-ascending catchers, more than all positions except first base and centerfield, both of which have handedness reasons for ranking highly (catchers must be righty throwers, lefties flock to first and center since those spots have no handedness requirements and represent the extreme ends of athleticism on the diamond for southpaws). Second of all, those 22 catchers tended to debut just a little earlier than most other positions, though the sample is small enough to ignore. But more significantly, only 10 of the 22 qualified for a batting title by age 25. This isn’t unusual for the times. Catchers rarely accumulated 500 PAs in a season.
Backstops also reached their first batting-title qualified seasons much later than their counterparts at other positions. Ninety-three of the 148 players in this group qualified for their first title by age 21, just one of them was a catcher. Catchers similarly skew older in terms of their first above-average offensive season. Fifty-six players had their first such season by twenty-one years of age, merely two catchers did so. Ten players had that first season at age twenty-five, half were backstops.
Finally, you may have noticed that none of our elite group of hitters was a pure catcher. Roger Bresnahan spent very big chunks of time at other positions, sometimes for full seasons. Joe Torre is barely a catcher. Jimmie Foxx arrived to the majors as a catcher and quickly moved to a place where he could find more time in the lineup. It’s really hard to get 500 PAs a year as a catcher now, imagine how much worse it was back then. We should keep this firmly in mind as we think about the careers of Negro Leagues catchers. Which is fine in so far as someone like Mackey, Qunicy Trouppe, or Louis Santop is concerned. None of them is widely considered the greatest hitter in Negro Leagues history. When we look at Gibson, however, we may well need to color outside the lines a little bit to consider whether we need to presume different playing-time levels or whether Gibson would more likely have followed the Jimmie Foxx model of switching to another position before catching could destroy him.
The young and the rest of us
All of which leads back to the question of how we should consider the very young seasons of Negro Leaguers. Much depends upon the player’s actual performance. Assuming we have at our disposal a rigorous translation protocol, if the player translates into an average or better MLB performer, there’s little reason to believe he wouldn’t appear in the majors. If he translates as an excellent performer, well, now that’s another matter. Are we looking at a Mel Ott? We might be if we are looking at Josh Gibson or Oscar Charleston.
Either way, what about playing time? The cop out here is that every player is unique and should have a customized playing-time estimation. That’s absolutely true. And another cop out is that the better the player, the more MLB PAs he should get early on. There’s no news in that! But other considerations exist. For example, was the player a defensive standout? If so, he might merit more playing time even if his bat took a couple years to catch up to his glove. Especially for catchers, shortstops, and centerfielders, aka: the skill positions.
Now here’s where things get hairy. To estimate playing time, a protocol needs some kind of baseline to work from. If a guy’s Negro Leagues team played only 25 scheduled games, we still have 125 more to account for in an MLB schedule for that era. Do we simply prorate based on how many of his team’s total games he played that season? Do we use a moving, weighted average of that season and a couple surrounding ones? Or do we use the player’s career percentage of team games played to generate a playing-time estimate? Each of these has its own issues. Maybe a combination is best? Or how about comping against similar major leaguers? There are many possibilities, none of which will pass everyone’s smell test. This becomes a big issue if your PA proration technique spits back 532 PAs for an 18-year-old player.
So as with everything Negro Leagues, the answer is complicated. But understanding the limitations expressed in the statistical record can help us build expectations for what would at least have been likely.
And, yes, someday we’ll look at older players too. We might even get back to the Standard Deviation topic. For now, though, one rabbit hole at a time.