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Negro Leagues

Evaluating Negro Leagues Center Fielders, Part 1

[All MLEs updated 7/4/18 to include (a) new 1938 and 1947 data (b) new baserunning-runs estimates (c) new, more objective playing-time estimates]

No position in the Negro Leagues was a stacked with talent as centerfield. Which, when you think about it makes all kinds of sense. In leagues where the most talented players would later turn into outstanding major leaguers, and everyone else ranked from big-league regular to lower-minor-league fodder, the levels of talent and athleticism will vary considerably more than in the pro game we know today. Your best athletes would play shortstop if they threw with their right hand, centerfield if they threw lefty. Centerfielders such as as Willard Brown and Monte Irvin and threw right handed and still ended up in center after a break-in period at shortstop. And with still more good reason. Negro Leagues teams carried many fewer players than teams in organized baseball. They ran on tight budgets, and hauling, feeding, and hoteling a team of men was expensive. The fewer, therefore, the better. That meant that a lot of pitchers played the outfield on their off days. Especially right field. That means you need a centerfielder with excellent range because, hey, pitchers aren’t selected for their fielding ability. So the middle pasture oozed talent, and as we will see now, and again in a few months when we look at other high-profile centerfield candidates, probably no place else in the Negro Leagues did so much talent gather in one place. We refer you to our Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues batters for all the gory details on how we reframe Negro Leagues performance into an MLB context.

Cool Papa Bell

[Updated 4/3/18 with general improvements.]

If Satchel Paige ranks as the most well known and mythologized Negro Leaguer, then James “Cool Papa” Bell probably places second. Besides a cool and memorable nickname, we’ve discussed elsewhere the many tales of his blazing speed. The numbers may not quite support the lore, and that may well be debatable, but what info we have on Bell tells a story of his overall play that may seem a little backward compared to his legend.

Bell hit for a good average (.319 in the Negro Leagues), with walks (.386 OBP), and just enough power to keep the pitchers honest (.109 ISO). It sums up to a 121 OPS+, not bad for your leadoff man and centerfielder. Bell kept himself in great shape throughout his career, almost never missed a game, played for bloody ever, and maintained a high level of play late into the autumn of his playing days. Back to the base running again. What we do know about him shows that he stole 81% more often than his leagues, adjusted for his team’s tendencies to run. That’s very strong, but it is not near to all-time levels. Despite his stats not living up to the legend in terms of steals, we’ve given him a really good speed profile anyway, but nothing like Rickey, Raines, or Willie Wilson.

In the field, however, the data for Bell is all broken up, and it doesn’t jibe with the speedy reputation. The data we’re missing for him generally comes from the heart of his career, ages 23 and 24 then 26 to 28. He appears for the moment like a plus defender as a young player, but from 29 onward, decidedly below average. Without the several years of missing data, it’s problematic to make too hasty a call on that, but we’ve noted that pivot year in our MLEs and showed him as positive through age 28 and negative thereafter.

James "Cool Papa" Bell
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1922–1946
Destination: NL 1924–1943
Missing data: 1926, 1927, 1929–1931
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit

Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1924  21 NL CF   330    4    1    0    -1   - 2    2   0.2   10   12   1.3
1925  22 NL CF   600   12    1    0    -1   - 3    8   0.8   19   27   2.6
1926  23 NL CF   640   15    1    0    -1   - 4   12   1.2   20   32   3.3
1927  24 NL CF   640   17    1    0    -1   - 3   14   1.4   20   34   3.5
1928  25 NL CF   650   22    1    0    -1   - 3   19   1.9   20   40   4.0
1929  26 NL CF   660   17    1    0    -1   - 3   15   1.3   21   35   3.2
1930  27 NL CF   660   16    1    0    -1   - 3   14   1.2   21   34   3.0
1931  28 NL CF   640   14    1    0    -1   - 2   12   1.3   20   32   3.4
1932  29 NL CF   650   14    1    0    -1   - 2   12   1.2   20   32   3.3
1933  30 NL CF   630    9    1    0    -1   - 2    7   0.8   20   27   3.1
1934  31 NL CF   650   11    1    0    -1   - 2   10   1.0   20   30   3.1
1935  32 NL CF   650   12    1    0    -1   - 2   11   1.1   20   31   3.1
1936  33 NL CF   590    0    1    0    -1   - 2  - 2  -0.2   18   17   1.7
1937  34 NL CF   640   12    1    0    -1   - 2   10   1.0   20   30   3.1
1938  35 NL CF   640   16    1    0    -1   - 1   15   1.6   20   35   3.7
1939  36 NL CF   510   16    1    0    -1   - 1   16   1.6   16   31   3.3
1940  37 NL CF   490   16    1    0    -1   - 1   16   1.6   15   31   3.3
1941  38 NL CF   410    8    1    0    -1   - 1    7   0.8   13   20   2.2
1942  39 NL CF   380    6    1    0    -1   - 1    6   0.7   12   18   2.1
1943  40 NL CF   350    8    1    0    -1     0    7   0.8   11   18   2.1
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
               11410  245   22    0   -17   -39  211  21.4  356  567  58.4

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 8th
Rbat: 87th
WAA: t-104th
WAR: 49th

With the information we have now, Bell looks more like Brett Butler or Johnny Damon than he does like an all-time great. That may change. With five years of data missing, and prime years at that, we could well find ourselves revising this MLE upward in times to come. We currently fill in his batting profile with a career-average performance. If as data rolls in his career average lifts because of strong peak-season batting lines, he could well become a much better candidate. Bell probably also suffers by dint of his player type and his times. What I mean is that double-play avoidance could add a couple wins or more to his ledger, a la Damon or Ichiro. But we don’t have his GIDP data, and we aren’t estimating it at this juncture so that our data looks like what his data would look like on BBREF. At a later time, however, we will revisit it as we work through our less well-known Negro Leagues candidates and start narrowing down the blackball backlog.

Willard Brown

[Note: Updated 1/14/18 to include 1946 data.]

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

I’m not sure this MLE is even worth posting. It’s highly provisional, but I’ll share it so that you can see why I’m a little iffy on it.

Think of Willard Brown as Andre Dawson 1.0. He could hit the long ball. Everywhere he went he led the league in homers and/or set season records for them. His nickname was “Home Run.” If he’d come up in the 1980s or 1990s, they’d have called him “Downtown.” You know, you don’t hear people use that word in a baseball context very often any more. Used to be folks would say, “Brown took Paige downtown on a hanging slider” or something like that. Well, slang always changes. Anyway, he had light tower power. He could also run like the wind, and had a decent to good glove with a strong arm. Like Dawson, he also never saw a pitch he didn’t offer at. Walks weren’t his thing. And like Dawson, he lost his speed in mid-career, reducing him to a lesser, below average, player.

The big issue with MLEs for Brown, however, is that much of his career isn’t fully documented. His peak years with the Monarchs after his time in the service aren’t yet on the Negro Leagues Database. His year in the Canadian Border League (1950) is similarly missing from BBREF. God knows where his info and his league’s info are for his 1952 Dominican Summer League play. Well, that and some of his most dominant performances occurred in the Puerto Rican Winter League. For example, hitting 27 homers in a 60 game season. Those leagues haven’t yet made their way into any systematic database. So until we get more info, Brown’s case is open but doesn’t look very good.

Related to this and to his drop-off in play in his thirties is the offensive environments he played in. Brown played a lot in the minor leagues in the 1950s, mostly in the AA Texas League. From age 38—41 he hit 91 homers in 536 games, about 26 per 154 games. Not bad for an oldster. But when you discount for the quality of play at that level, and you do all the other adjustments necessary, his 351 runs created goes down to 234 in translation, lopping off a good third of his hitting value, and basically translating him to a very slightly below average MLB hitter. Which makes sense when you’re a late-thirties player who’s lost his speed and doesn’t walk. It’s precisely what happened to Andre Dawson. But these seasons are contributing to the known career average we use for missing seasons. So at this point, until we have more on his big years in the 1940s, this MLE looks pretty meh. I strongly suspect it will improve with time.

Willard Brown
Negro Leagues Stats | Minor League Stats | Bio
Career: 1935–1956
Destination: AL 1935–1955
Missing data: 1948-1950, 1952
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit, Caribbean Baseball Hall of Fame
Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA  Rrep RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1935  20 AL  CF  290   14    0    0     2    -1   15   1.4   10   25   2.4
1936  21 AL  CF  430    9    1    0     3    -1   12   1.0   15   26   2.3
1937  22 AL  CF  630   33    1    0     4    -2   37   3.4   22   58   5.4
1938  22 AL  CF  620   29    1    0     4    -1   33   3.0   21   54   4.9
1939  24 AL  CF  600   29    1    0     4    -1   33   3.1   21   54   5.0
1940  25 AL  CF  580   21    1    0     4    -1   25   2.4   20   45   4.4
1941  26 AL  CF  610   18    1    0     3    -1   21   2.1   21   42   4.2
1942  27 AL  CF  610   27    1    0     2    -1   29   3.1   21   50   5.4
1943  28 AL  CF  610   23    1    0     1    -1   25   2.8   21   46   5.3
1944  29 AL  CF      MILITARY SERVICE: WORLD WAR II
1945  30 AL  CF      MILITARY SERVICE: WORLD WAR II
1946  31 AL  CF  590   13    1    0    -2    -1   11   1.2   20   31   3.5
1947  32 AL  CF  550    7    1    0    -3    -1    4   0.5   19   23   2.6
1948  33 AL  CF  600   10    1    0    -4    -1    7   0.7   21   27   2.8
1949  34 AL  RF  600    8    1    0     2    -6    5   0.5   21   25   2.6
1950  35 AL  RF  600   11    1    0     1    -6    7   0.7   21   28   2.7
1951  36 AL  RF  530    9    1    0     0    -5    5   0.5   18   23   2.4
1952  37 AL  RF  480    8    1    0     0    -5    4   0.4   16   20   2.3
1953  38 AL  RF  410    4    1    0    -1    -4    0   0.0   14   14   1.5
1954  39 AL  RF  300    0    0    0    -1    -3  - 3  -0.3   10    7   0.8
1955  40 AL  RF  260  - 2    0    0    -1    -3  - 5  -0.5    9    4   0.4
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                9900  272   16    1    19   -43  265  25.9  338  603  60.9

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 24th   
Rbat: 69th
WAA: 75th  
WAR: 47th

When we compared Brown to his leagues in stolen bases per opportunity, beginning about age 27, he lost his speed. So you can see that we project him as having average base running for several years and declining fielding numbers in center prior to a switch to right field. He played right late in his playing days in the Texas League.

Oscar Charleston

[Updated 4/3/18 with general improvements.]

As we mentioned when we discussed John Henry Lloyd, Oscar Charleston is one of the four players with the best case as the  Greatest Negro Leaguer of All Time. It’s not only that he had a long and very productive career, but as a peak performer, he’s essentially unmatched by any other position player that we’ve looked at so far. Charleston was a lefty thumper who could run, hit, go get the ball, draw walks, throw, and hit the long ball. At the beginning of his career, he played as shallow as anyone dared and stories abound about how he nonetheless caught everything hit behind him. At the plate, the big lefty terrorized the league to the tune of a 179 OPS+. He swiped 313 bags. For good measure he pitched some games too.

Most of all that great work happened by age 32. James Riley noted that Charleston put on weight as his career went along, losing a step or two afield and on the bases. His bat slowed as well. After age 32, he appears to be a shell of the player he was in his twenties, spending more and more time injured or at first base and contributing less and less. In this regard, Junior Griffey is something of a parallel. Griffey’s demise began after age 30, with injury and fitness being issues. He could still hit a little but the legs and glove had become liabilities even when he could take the field.

But Charleston was so good in his twenties and early thirties that we shouldn’t lose that part of the story in the telling. We’re showing 85 translated WAR through age 32. I’m not familiar with any person who scoff at that. Charleston could do it all and did, and the list of players with big-time talent whose bodies give out on them in their thirties is much lengthier than the list of those who don’t.

Oscar Charleston
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1915–1941
Destination: NL 1915–1936
Missing data: 1929
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Baseball Hall of Merit 

Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rfield  Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
========================================================================
1915  18 NL  CF   10    0    0       0     0    0   0.0    0    0   0.1
1916  19 NL  CF  200    6    1     - 1   - 1    5   0.6    6   11   1.4
1917  20 NL  CF  310   12    1     - 1   - 2   10   1.2   10   19   2.4
1918  21 NL  CF  490   40    1     - 2   - 3   37   4.4   15   53   6.3
1919  22 NL  CF  520   38    1     - 2   - 3   35   4.0   16   51   6.1
1920  23 NL  CF  590   50    2     - 2   - 3   46   5.1   18   64   7.2
1921  24 NL  CF  620   65    2     - 2   - 3   62   6.1   19   81   8.1
1922  25 NL  CF  600   75    2     - 2   - 3   71   6.6   19   90   8.4
1923  26 NL  CF  610   56    2     - 2   - 3   53   5.0   19   72   7.0
1924  27 NL  CF  610   84    2     - 2   - 3   80   7.9   19   99   9.9
1925  28 NL  CF  630   44    2     - 2   - 3   40   3.7   20   60   5.7
1926  29 NL  LF  610   39    2       1   - 6   36   3.7   19   55   5.7
1927  30 NL  LF  610   37    2       1   - 6   34   3.5   19   53   5.4
1928  31 NL  LF  630   31    2       1   - 6   28   2.8   20   48   4.8
1929  32 NL  LF  610   30    2       1   - 6   27   2.5   19   46   4.2
1930  33 NL  1B  610  - 1    2       1   - 6  - 4  -0.4   19   15   1.3
1931  34 NL  1B  610   18    2       1   - 6   15   1.5   19   34   3.6
1932  35 NL  1B  600   14    2       1   - 6   11   1.1   19   29   3.0
1933  36 NL  1B  600   23    2       1   - 6   20   2.3   19   39   4.4
1934  37 NL  1B  440   13    1       1   - 4   10   1.1   14   24   2.5
1935  38 NL  1B  420    5    1       1   - 3    3   0.3   13   16   1.6
1936  39 NL  1B  240    4    1       0   - 2    3   0.3    7   10   1.0
------------------------------------------------------------------------
               11170  683   31     - 5   -87  623  63.1  348  971 100.0

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 9th 
Rbat: 11th 
WAA: 12th  
WAR: 12th

Yeah, that’ll play.

Charleston’s data on the Negro Leagues Database does not support a positive fielding rating for his centerfield range. I’ve chosen to use a positive, but not too positive, figure here as a nod to his defensive reputation. Particularly because we are missing numerous seasons of his centerfield play during the stretch where we are placing him there. His left field rating is based on even less data, but it and his right field data are both above average. His first base rating comes from 274 career games from age 33 onward where he was a little above average.

In general, this is the C.V. of a Hall level player, for sure.

Larry Doby

[Updated 4/3/18 with minor park/league corrections.]

Doby came up as a teenager, played a little in 1942. He started in 1943 and was an immediate sensation, then got called up by Uncle Sam after a handful of games in 1944. Back to the states in 1946, he starred for the Newark Eagles, then early in 1947 signed with the Indians. He never played a minor league game, but the Tribe used him only sparingly in ’47 and mostly for pinch running. Then in 1948, it’s off the races, and from opening day of 1948 he’s one of the best centerfielders in baseball for a decade before he collapsed in his early thirties.

As a little aside, Doby, in a sense, inherited Earl Averill’s role as the great, lefty-swinging All-Star centerfielder for the Indians. Doby played top-level ball from age 18 onward and tailed off badly after age 32. Averill got a very late start to his career and didn’t reach the big leagues until age 27 and starred for the Tribe for years, tailing off at age 37. Fairly similar players:

  • Doby: 6299 PA, 253 HR, 871 BB, 47 SB, 136 OPS+, 269 Rbat, 13 Rfield, 30.6 WAA, 49.6 WAR
  • Averill: 7221 PA, 238 HR, 774 BB, 70 SB, 133 OPS+, 318 Rbat, -32 Rfield, 22.8 WAA, 48 WAR

If you took Doby’s career through age 32 (31 wAA, 47 WAR) and added the rest of Averill’s career from 33 onward (8 WAA, 19 WAR), you’d end up with one hell of a ballplayer: 39 WAA and 66 WAR’s worth. His name might be Duke Snider (35 WAA, 67 WAR) or Kenny Lofton (38 WAA, 68 WAR) or Reggie Smith (35 WAA, 65 WAR) or Billy Hamilton (40 WAA, 63 WAR). Based on their MLB stats alone, neither Doby nor Averill quite makes the Hall of Miller and Eric. Together they’d be among the top 15 to 20 centerfielders ever.

The question for Doby is whether additional understanding of his Negro Leagues data helps enough to get him over the line for the Hall of Miller and Eric.

Larry Doby
Negro Leagues Stats | Major League Stats | Bio
Career: 1942–1959
Destination: AL 1942–1959
Missing data: 1947
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit, Hall of Stats

Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA  Rrep RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1942  18 AL  CF   10    0    0    0     0    0     0   0.0    0    1   0.1
1943  19 AL  CF  200    7    0    0     1    0     9   1.0    6   15   1.7
1944  20 AL  CF   20    1    0    0     0    0     1   0.1    1    2   0.2
1945  21 AL  CF           MILITARY SERVICE: WORLD WAR II
1946  22 AL  CF  570   33    1    0     4   -1    37   4.0   18   54   6.1
1947  23 AL  CF  520   35    1    0     3   -1    39   4.2   16   55   6.0
1948  24 AL  CF  499   19    1    3    11   -3    32   3.2   16   47   4.6
1949  25 AL  CF  637   22   -1    2     0   -3    20   2.0   20   39   3.8
1950  26 AL  CF  609   45    2    2     4   -1    52   4.9   19   71   6.7
1951  27 AL  CF  551   40    3    2     4   -1    48   4.8   17   65   6.4
1952  28 AL  CF  611   41    3    1     5   -1    49   5.2   19   68   7.1
1953  29 AL  CF  617   26    1    3   - 6   -1    23   2.3   19   42   4.3
1954  30 AL  CF  630   22    1    2    10   -1    34   3.6   20   54   5.7
1955  31 AL  CF  560   16    1    2     0   -1    18   2.0   17   36   3.7
1956  32 AL  CF  619   22    2    3     5   -1    31   3.1   19   50   4.9
1957  33 AL  CF  477   17    0    1   - 9   -1     7   0.7   15   22   2.2
1958  34 AL  CF  276   10    1    0   - 3   -1     7   0.7    8   15   1.5
1959  35 AL  RF  124  - 5   -1    1   - 7   -2   -13  -1.3    4  - 9  -1.0
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                7530  349   16   22   22   -19   393  40.5  235  626  63.9

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 113th 
Rbat: 42nd 
WAA: 26th  
WAR: 36th

With Doby’s 1946 stats now available on the Negro Leagues Database, we see a nice uptick in our initial estimate for 1946. Doby came back from the war swinging. It helps. A lot.

Because Doby needs the help. Even his Negro Leagues play, he’s fighting to reach the borderline. A telling number is 7,530. That’s a pretty small number of plate appearances for a HoMEr, and it hurts his ability to rack up the kind of overall value that would boost his cause up a little.

* * *

Next time out we’ll look at more centerfielders, this time including Pete Hill, Alejandro Oms, Turkey Stearnes, and Cristobal Torriente.

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Discussion

One thought on “Evaluating Negro Leagues Center Fielders, Part 1

  1. The Brown data will be of particular interest to me, I’ve struggled with him as a in/out all-time line for outfielders.

    I’m excited for the group of 4 next week, thinking they will all fair well : )

    Happy Holidays and best of health and luck to all in 2018!

    Posted by Ryan | December 27, 2017, 8:03 pm

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