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Negro Leagues

Evaluating Negro Leagues Shortstops Part 1

[Note: These MLEs were updated 12/7/17 to correct formula for Rrep, which was over crediting players by one to two runs per season.]

The Negro Leagues developed more excellent shortstops and centerfielders than any other positions. The best athletes gravitated toward those positions, especially with the smaller rosters and wide ranging quality of blackball teams. Generally, the best right-handed throwing athletes found their way to shortstop, and the lefties to centerfield. The Halls of Fame and Merit have honored six shortstops, and today we’ll look at John Beckwith, Grant “Home Run” Johnson, and John Henry “Pop” Lloyd. We refer you to our Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues batters for all the gory details on how we arrive at our numbers.

John Beckwith

Discussions of John Beckwith seem to revolved around his personality problems. He had them, for sure. But let’s first look at his plusses on the field because that’s our primary interest here at the Hall of Miller and Eric.

Beckwith could really swing the bat; that’s why they called him “Boom Boom.” Our MLE shows the big righty as a world-class hitter with more than 400 batting runs in a relatively short career. He hulked over the men of his time at 6’3″ and 220 pounds. That bulk may have cost him some athleticism. He bounced between third and short and first for much of his career without much acumen for any of them. His best position was hitter. He doesn’t appear to have run well on the bases either. But man, could he hit, to the tune of a .344 average, a .580 slugging percentage, and a 166 OPS+ that ranks 11th all-time among players with at least 500 Negro Leagues plate appearances. He was one heck of a player even with his flaws.

Now for the personality. Like Jud Wilson, Beckwith was one of the the Negro Leagues’ four Bad Men. There’s an interesting comparison to be drawn between the folk music of white folks and that of African Americans. In songs like “Jesse James” and “Pretty Boy Floyd” white songsters celebrated these bad men as Robin Hood like figures. They tended to romanticize these criminals into heroes. African American folk songs such as “Stagger Lee” (also known as “Stagolee,” “Stackolee,” and many variants thereof) don’t do so. Its famous chorus tells it like it is, “He’s a bad man, O, Stagolee.” These songs demonstrate respect (if not admiration) for forceful men not by varnishing their stories but by just telling them.

This is how I see a certain strain of Negro Leagues lore, the part that retells the worst of what some men did in the pursuit of the game, a living, and a place in the history of their community. This isn’t to say that Beckwith or Wilson stampeding an umpire or beating an opposing player senseless makes them great ballplayers or anything less than appalling in their behavior. No, indeed. Instead, it may well describe their drive, what made them stand out from the crowd. It explained, in part, why they bucked the odds and competed at the highest levels.

Beckwith’s career is peppered with incidents that would make Milton Bradley blush. He was suspected of killing a man in Chicago, which forced him to switch teams in 1924. He hooked on in the east, beat up an umpire and had to jump town again. He went to Harrisburg, made some scenes, bounced around some more. Once when a teammate made a public demonstration of his frustration with a Beckwith fielding error, the burly brawler knocked him cold. Negro Leagues researcher James Riley goes to great pains to describe Beckwith’s issues, in fact,

The numbers he accumulated during his career are impressive but, unfortunately, his contributions to a team with his natural ability were offset by negative intangibles. Beckwith was moody, brooding, hot-tempered, and quick to fight. Combined with a severe drinking problem, and an often lazy, unconcerned attitude about playing, his character deficiencies often negated his performance value.

There’s a certain danger in talking about someone’s character, especially someone you’ve never met, and there’s more danger in taking third-party descriptions like this at face value. I don’t doubt that Beckwith wasn’t a great guy, and that he had some bad people problems. Was he a Milton Bradley? Was he a Mitch Melusky? Was he a Gary Sheffield? A Kevin Mitchell? I would bet no one really knows, especially given how different the baseball culture of today is compared to the baseball culture of the Negro Leagues. But the interesting line here is that these “character deficiencies often negated his performance value.” Hmmm. Rube Foster tried to sign this guy a bunch of times. Beckwith never lacked for work while his skills stayed sharp. Was he really a “lazy” player? He wasn’t much in the field, but was that because he was dogging it or because he wasn’t a good fielder?

John Beckwith
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1919–1937
Destination: NL 1920–1934
Missing data: 1927, 1929
Honors: Hall of Merit

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1920  20 NL SS    530   18    0    0    -2     7   24   2.7   17   40   4.6
1921  21 NL SS    530   28    0    0    -2     7   33   3.3   17   50   5.0
1922  22 NL SS    560   37   -1    0    -2     8   42   3.9   17   59   5.6
1923  23 NL SS    570   24   -1    0    -2     8   29   2.8   18   47   4.6
1924  24 NL SS    520   38   -1    0    -2     7   42   4.2   16   58   5.9
1925  25 NL SS    510   25   -1    0    -2     7   29   2.7   16   45   4.2
1926  26 NL 3B    540   29   -1    0    -5     4   27   2.7   17   44   4.5
1927  27 NL 3B    510   22   -1    0    -4     3   19   2.0   16   35   3.6
1928  28 NL 3B    540   10   -1    0    -5     3    7   0.7   17   24   2.4
1929  29 NL 3B    520   30   -1    0    -4     3   28   2.5   16   44   4.0
1930  30 NL 1B    460   53   -1    0    -7    -4   40   3.4   14   54   4.7
1931  31 NL 1B    510   44   -2    0    -8    -5   29   2.9   16   45   4.6
1932  32 NL 1B    510   37   -2    0    -8    -5   22   2.2   16   38   3.8
1933  33 NL 1B    520   11   -3    0    -8    -5   -5  -0.6   16   11   1.3
1934  34 NL 1B    200  - 1   -1    0    -3    -2   -7  -0.7    6    0   0.0
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 7530  403  -17    0   -64    36  358  34.6  235  593  58.8

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 113th
Rbat: 28nd
WAA: 43rd
WAR: 49th

Some notes, especially on fielding. With this post, I’m running a new version of fielding value for each player. I had been making educated guesses previous, but now I’m basing fielding on an objective system. You can read about that in the MLE methodology post cited in the intro to this post. I’m going to go back and change the fielding results for those players this will affect. It won’t affect most who had a significant MLB career because we’ve used their MLB rates wherever appropriate.

Clearly, Beckwith was challenged defensively. Specifically regarding  defense at first base, Boom Boom snapped an ankle in 1930, limiting his mobility severely, and his baserunning shows a marked decrease after that season. I haven’t made any specific changes to his defensive rating at this time, though one could argue for that. Also, I considered capping Beckwith’s defense at -50 runs. Before PBP, virtually no throwing infielders drop below that mark. On the other hand, once PBP comes around, some players do drop below that threshold. At this point, we’ll have to consider that as an open question for his candidacy.

I mentioned a couple guys above that I think have a certain aptness to them as latter-day versions of Beckwith: Gary Sheffield and Kevin Mitchell. Both came up as shortstop/third-base types, struggled defensively no matter where they played, were righty hitters who smoked the ball, and had really questionable attitudes. Body-type wise, and career-length wise Mitchell might well fit the bill better than Sheff, but the latter’s controversial ping-ponging from team to team fits well in its way.

Grant Johnson

[Updated 4/3/18 for minor park-factor correction.]

Johnson got his nickname, “Home Run,” reportedly by hitting 60 homers for a semipro team in 1894. Later, in the second act of his career in the Negro Leagues, he’d go by “Dad.” The Hall of Fame overlooked him, much to their detriment. The smart middle infielder kept himself in good shape and played a long time at a high level at the top levels. He went on into his fifties among the lower-tier leagues and teams. His play among the top teams and in winter ball featured high averages, decent line-drive power for the deadball era, and a discerning batting eye. While not a top run producer, he hit more than enough to be an asset in a championship lineup. While not a prolific base stealer (we’re showing as an average baserunner), he nonetheless had enough speed and quickness to make an outstanding fielder on either side of second base. He shifted to second while teamed with the younger John Henry Lloyd, making them probably the best keystone combo in Negro League’s history or very high on the list. Sadly, however, Johnson appears to have received scant attention from the Hall voters, and his absence is glaring. He played a very long time ago, and the lore from his days didn’t travel nearly as well as that from those still alive to tell the tales.

Grant "Home Run" Johnson
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1895–1914
Destination: NL 1995–1914
Missing data: 1895, 1896, 1898
Honors: Hall of Merit

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1895  22 NL SS    480    9    0    0     3     6   18   1.4   15   33   2.6
1896  23 NL SS    480    7    0    0     3     7   17   1.4   15   32   2.7
1897  24 NL SS    480    1    0    0     3     7   10   0.8   15   25   2.2
1898  25 NL SS    540   10    0    0     3     8   21   2.0   17   38   3.7
1899  26 NL SS    540   17    0    0     3     8   28   2.5   17   45   4.2
1900  27 NL SS    500    9    0    0     3     7   18   1.7   16   35   3.2
1901  28 NL SS    500    8    0    0     3     7   17   1.8   16   34   3.4
1902  29 NL SS    500  - 1    0    0     3     7    9   1.0   16   25   2.8
1903  30 NL SS    500    8    0    0     3     7   18   1.7   16   34   3.4
1904  31 NL SS    520   13    0    0     3     8   24   2.7   17   40   4.6
1905  32 NL SS    530   14    0    0     3     8   25   2.7   17   42   4.7
1906  33 NL SS    480   16    0    0     3     7   26   3.1   15   41   5.0
1907  34 NL SS    540   14    0    0     4     8   25   3.1   17   42   5.4
1908  35 NL SS    550    8    0    0     4     8   20   2.5   18   37   4.8
1909  36 NL SS    500  - 7    0    0     3     7    3   0.3   16   19   2.3
1910  37 NL 2B    480    2    0    0     6     7    8   0.9   15   23   2.7
1911  38 NL 2B    360    7    0    0     4     0   12   1.2   12   23   2.5
1912  39 NL 2B    250    6    0    0     3     0    9   0.9    8   17   1.7
1913  40 NL 2B    200   10    0    0     2     0   12   1.3    6   19   2.1
1914  41 NL 2B    150    7    0    0     2     0    9   1.0    5   13   1.6
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 9080  156  - 5    0    66   108  326  34.3  291  617  65.6

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 49th
Rbat: t-162nd
Rfield: 29th (shortstops only)
WAA: 44th
WAR: 36th

Johnson’s fielding numbers are good. We’re seeing him as an average baserunner, and the kind of player whose ability to stay at a key position throughout a long career makes him a star. Alan Trammell with a better glove and less value on the bases isn’t a bad comparison. Since we easily elected Tram, Johnson’s got a great shot with us.

John Henry Lloyd

They called him “The Black Wagner.” Honus was still in fine form when Lloyd made the scene, and the comparison made great sense. Like Wagner, Lloyd hit a lot more than most shortstops and stood out defensively. Like Wagner, Lloyd was 5’11”, though the former had about 20 pounds on the latter. Both came across to observers as rangy, and contemporaries told the same story about Lloyd in the field that they did about Wagner: often when he threw the ball to first, it came with lots of dust because he shoveled balls out of the dirt with his big hands.

Perhaps most importantly, the name suggested that Lloyd stood atop the black baseball pyramid, the number one player in the Negro Leagues. Indeed, we can defensibly include only four men in the GOAT discussion for the Negro Leagues. With apologies to Martin Dihigo, Bullet Rogan, Smokey Joe Williams, and Turkey Stearns, the big four are: Oscar Charleston, Josh Gibson, Satchel Paige, and John Henry Lloyd. At risk of spoiling our centerfield MLEs for you, here’s how we see these players. All batters figures are in 162-game notation.

The Best of the Best
                 WINS ABOVE AVERAGE | WINS ABOVE REPLACEMENT
NAME               CAREER   BEST7   |   CAREER   BEST7 
============================================================
Oscar Charleston      66      47    |    103      61
Josh Gibson           63      37    |     92      52
John Henry Lloyd      71      39    |    110      58
Satchel Paige         69      32    |    118      50

I don’t claim to have an answer for you. This list boils down to the questions of peak versus career, pitchers versus hitters, and one’s interpretation of the defensive spectrum. Still, no matter how you slice it Lloyd belongs in this argument and has some bona fides for winning it. Really, what more do we need to know about him?

John Henry Lloyd
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1906–1932
Destination: NL 1907–1925
Missing data: 1927, 1929
Honors: Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1907  23 NL SS    550    8    3    0     2     8   22   2.8   17   39   5.0
1908  24 NL SS    530   19    3    0     2     8   32   4.1   17   49   6.3
1909  25 NL SS    580   47    3    0     2     8   61   7.1   18   79   9.3
1910  26 NL SS    590   34    3    0     2     8   48   5.2   18   66   7.4
1911  27 NL SS    600   40    3    0     2     8   54   5.5   19   73   7.5
1912  28 NL SS    610   31    4    0     2     9   46   4.5   19   65   6.5
1913  29 NL SS    580   32    3    0     2     8   46   4.9   18   64   7.0
1914  30 NL SS    590   19    3    0     2     9   33   3.8   18   52   6.0
1915  31 NL SS    570   26    3    0     2     8   40   4.7   19   58   6.9
1916  32 NL SS    600   29    3    0     2     9   43   5.3   19   62   7.7
1917  33 NL SS    590   18    3    0     2     9   32   3.9   18   51   6.2
1918  34 NL SS    470   17    3    0     2     7   28   3.3   15   43   5.2
1919  35 NL SS    530   20    2    0     2     8   32   3.8   17   49   5.8
1920  36 NL SS    600   23    1    0     2     8   34   3.8   19   53   6.0
1921  37 NL SS    500   18    0    0     2     7   27   2.8   16   43   4.4
1922  38 NL 1B    450   13    0    0     2    -4   11   1.1   14   25   2.5
1923  39 NL 1B    300    7   -1    0     1    -3    4   0.4    9   14   1.4
1924  40 NL 1B    200    9   -1    0     1    -2    6   0.7    6   13   1.3
1925  41 NL 1B     50    1   -1    0     0     0    0   0.0    2    2   0.1
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 9490  410   40    0    39   112  601  67.7  296  897 102.5

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 35th
Rbat: 26th
Rfield: 46th (shortstop only)
WAA: 12th
WAR: 12th

Lloyd did everything well. He hit very well, he ran the bases very well, his fielding numbers are nicely above average at shortstop and at first. An often overlooked attribute that separates GOAT players in any baseball setting from the second-tier candidates is durability and its cousin longevity. Lloyd has them in spades and kept his game at a high level deep into his career. Our MLE gently decrements him into retirement, but his actual numbers remained playable into his forties.

Let’s talk about 1906 for a brief moment. In that, Lloyd’s real rookie year, he would project as a slightly below average hitter, and in 1907, as we see above, he projects as an above average batter. He truly hits his stride in 1909 at age 25. We could have also projected 1906, and probably tagged on an extra one to three WAR with below average hitting and above average running and fielding. This is just what we did this time around, and we could easily see it either way. Heckuva’ player.

* * *

Next time we continue with part two of our short stop at shortstop with Dick Lundy, Dobie more, and Willie Wells.

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Discussion

2 thoughts on “Evaluating Negro Leagues Shortstops Part 1

  1. What do you do about the fact that Johnson had much less playing time in his 20s than his 30s? Are you following the exact process as in the Charleston example, where you’re just weighting each season with the surrounding seasons, even if the sample sizes are very small? Or are you regressing to Johnson’s career averages at some point?

    Actually, this won’t matter much for a guy like Johnson, because he actually hit better after 30 than before 30. But for guys like Bill Monroe or Clarence Williams, the career averages can be quite deceptive:

    Johnson 22-29 94 PA .306/.359/.447 138 OPS+
    Johnson 30-35 685 PA .315/.403/.430 175 OPS+
    Johnson 36-41 1002 PA .306/.395/.372 148 OPS+

    Monroe 1899-1911 785 PA .295/.363/.390 140 OPS+
    Monroe 1912-1914 494 PA .253/.304/.273 66 OPS+

    Williams 21-28 131 PA .333/.411/.518 157 OPS+
    Williams 31-35 75 PA .382/.432/.574 166 OPS+
    Williams 37-47 470 PA .216/.327/.236 56 OPS+

    Posted by Alex K | December 3, 2017, 12:28 am
    • Alex, thanks for the comment. In some cases, I’ve simply chucked the really small-sample seasons and subbed in the career average. In other places, I hope that the combined weight of the five season-sample I use is enough. It won’t be perfect.

      Posted by eric | December 4, 2017, 7:12 pm

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