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Negro Leagues

Evaluating Negro Leagues Centerfielders, Part 2

[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]

Back in Part 1, we introduced you to four outstanding Negro Leagues centerfielders. Now let’s finish off the bunch with four more: Pete Hill, Alejandro Oms, Turkey Stearnes, and Cristobal Torriente.

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.

Pete Hill

A lefty swinging deadball center fielding superstar, Pete Hill was the best outfielder in blackball prior to the emergence of Oscar Charleston in the late 1910s. Hill played a good long time, and the Negro Leagues Database has 4,065 of his plate appearances accounted for. He blasted out a 169 OPS+. Given his profile in the Negro Leagues and the general contemporaneousness of Cobb and Speaker to him, they would be natural analogs in the same vein as Honus Wagner for John Henry Lloyd. Hill could really play, but on offense, he didn’t have Cobb’s astounding bat and baserunning, nor Speaker’s incredible glove (nor his bat, really). The data don’t suggest he shone as brightly as either of those legends. Instead, think of him as what Fred Clarke would have been like if he could have played a credible centerfield. That’s one heck of a player.

Hill might be among the least known Negro League greats having been looooong dead by the time of his 2006 Hall of Fame induction. That he remains mostly unknown can partly be blamed on time. Some, however, can be blamed on the Hall. For that induction year, they made the dubious decision to enshrine seventeen Negro Leagues greats at once. This, of course, meant that not a one of them stood out from the others, despite the presence of truly outstanding ballplayers including Hill (and Cristobal Torriente whom we’ll check in with in just a moment).

I get the Hall’s logic. Look, they said, all these guys died a long time ago, some probably don’t even have family left to represent them. This is long overdue, and we should give them their plaques all at once and not drag things out. Additionally, they had announced and bankrolled a big Negro Leagues study, so they needed plaques on the stage. And, yes, it would have been grossly unfair to roll out the announcements of these players’ elections one by one over the course of seventeen years. Now, I don’t have all the information they did about living relatives and whatnot, but I’d have taken a middle path. My plan would have been to announce the election and present the plaques to the families just so in 2006. Then every year for the next seventeen years, I would have given these ballplayers their due by including them in the induction ceremony. What would it hurt to give these guys some shine time? To, at the lamest, have an historian recount the story of an honoree’s career and life from the podium? Boring? Maybe, but would five to ten minutes really kill us?

Despite giving them a lot flack just a moment ago, let’s also give the Hall credit. It rewrote and recast his plaque when they received information from researchers and distant family members indicating corrections to his name, birthplace, and birthdate. And let’s give credit to our favorite Negro Leagues researcher Gary Ashwill for recognizing the error, contacting the family, and getting the process moving.

Pete Hill
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1904–1925
Destination: NL 1904–1923
Missing data: 1922
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit

Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA  Rrep RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1904  21 NL CF   450   18    0    0     2    -3   17   2.0   14   31   3.6
1905  22 NL CF   580   49    0    0     2    -3   48   5.2   18   66   7.2
1906  23 NL CF   560   35    0    0     2    -3   34   4.1   17   51   6.3
1907  24 NL CF   570   32    0    0     2    -3   31   3.9   18   49   6.2
1908  25 NL CF   560   25    0    0     2    -3   25   3.1   17   42   5.4
1909  26 NL CF   580   25    0    0     2    -3   24   2.8   18   42   5.1
1910  27 NL CF   590   47    0    0     2    -3   47   5.1   18   65   7.2
1911  28 NL CF   590   19    0    0     2    -3   19   1.9   18   37   3.9
1912  29 NL CF   580   19    0    0     2    -3   18   1.9   18   36   3.7
1913  30 NL CF   570    9    0    0     2    -3    8   0.9   18   26   2.8
1914  31 NL CF   570   12    0    0     2    -3   11   1.3   18   29   3.4
1915  32 NL CF   570   16    0    0     2    -3   15   1.8   18   33   4.0
1916  33 NL CF   570   17    0    0     2    -3   17   2.1   18   34   4.3
1917  34 NL CF   600   11    0    0     2    -3   10   1.2   19   28   3.6
1918  35 NL CF   470   12    0    0     2    -3   12   1.4   15   26   3.2
1919  36 NL RF   420   29    0    0    -1    -5   24   2.8   13   37   4.4
1920  37 NL RF   430   20    0    0    -1    -5   15   1.6   13   28   3.2
1921  38 NL RF   370   15    0    0    -1    -4   11   1.1   12   22   2.3
1922  39 NL RF   440    5    0    0    -1    -4    0   0.0   14   14   1.4
1923  40 NL RF   380    1    0    0    -1    -4  - 3  -0.3   12    9   0.9
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
               10450  415    8    0    27   -69  381  43.9  326  707  82.2

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 15th
Rbat: 27th
WAA: 23rd
WAR: 16th

As we said above, a whale of a player. And while he lost quite a bit in his thirties, he retained enough talent to be an above-average player for quite some time.

Alejandro Oms

As obscure as Pete Hill is to most of the US baseball fanbase, Alejandro Oms is orders of magnitude more obscure. He died at age 50, leaving virtually no lasting footprints on US baseball soil. In his native Cuba, however, he is a well known, legendary player.

Here’s how to be a great player and have no one know who you are.

  1. Be in the Negro Leagues.
  2. Play mostly prior to the 1930s and 1940s so that the youngest surviving Negro Leaguers don’t remember you.
  3. Die pretty young, and before Jackie.
  4. Be really good but not GOAT good.
  5. Have a quiet personality so that there aren’t lots of yarns about you (Oms was called el Caballero, the Gentleman).
  6. Don’t speak English as your first language (though Oms actually could understand and speak English)
  7. Hail from Cuba, and when you play in the Negro Leagues, only play for the touring Cuban summer teams that had no permanent US home field.

This isn’t the old chestnut of a discussion about Tony Gwynn I used to have with my pal Brett. Every few weeks we’d remind ourselves that Gwynn was so underrated that he became overrated because everyone talked about how underrated he was. Uh uh. Oms is in the category of so underrated you might as well be dead. Which Oms has been for 70 years.

So about him. James Riley writes that Oms’ style reminded many observers of Paul Waner: Lefty line-drive power with good pitch recognition and an ability to use the whole field. He played his way up from industrial leagues on the island and eventually onto the touring Cuban teams. He debuted in 1917 at age 21 then disappears from the ledger until 1921. He was still playing professionally in the sugar-mill league on Cuba. Perhaps the money wasn’t good enough, perhaps he was a homebody. Whatever the case may be, in the US, that would not have happened, so our MLE has him debuting at age 22 in 1918. In the field he wasn’t anything special. More like good enough to hold down centerfield without embarrassing himself. He appears to have had just average speed and baserunning value. He probably would have transitioned to left field somewhere during mid-career in MLB. We followed his actual career arc, showing him as a centerfielder until his final season, where he mostly played right field.

Alejandro Oms
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1917–1935
Destination: NL 1918–1935
Missing data: 1918-1920, 1927 summer, 1929, 1934
Honors: Hall of Merit, Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame
Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA  Rrep RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1917  21 NL  CF  480    2    0    0    -1    -3  - 2  -0.2   16   15   1.9
1918  22 NL  CF  460   15    0    0    -1    -3   11   1.3   16   27   3.3
1919  23 NL  CF  510   23    0    0    -1    -3   19   2.3   17   37   4.4
1920  24 NL  CF  580   38    0    0    -1    -3   34   3.7   20   53   6.0
1921  25 NL  CF  580   78    0    0    -1    -3   74   7.2   20   94   9.3
1922  26 NL  CF  600   61    0    0    -1    -3   56   5.3   21   77   7.3
1923  27 NL  CF  570   38    0    0    -1    -3   34   3.3   19   53   5.2
1924  28 NL  CF  540   29    0    0    -1    -3   25   2.5   18   43   4.4
1925  29 NL  CF  610   11    0    0    -1    -3    6   0.6   21   27   2.6
1926  30 NL  CF  590   10    0    0    -1    -3    6   0.6   20   26   2.7
1927  31 NL  CF  550   13    0    0    -1    -3    9   0.9   19   28   2.9
1928  32 NL  CF  610   11    0    0    -1    -3    7   0.7   21   28   2.9
1929  33 NL  CF  600   17    0    0    -1    -2   14   1.2   21   34   3.1
1930  34 NL  CF  600    7    0    0    -1    -2    4   0.3   21   24   2.1
1931  34 NL  CF  590    2    0    0    -1    -2  - 1  -0.1   20   20   2.1
1932  36 NL  CF  490   17    0    0    -1    -2   14   1.4   17   31   3.2
1933  37 NL  CF  470   14    0    0    -1    -1   11   1.3   16   27   3.1
1934  38 NL  CF  390   15    0    0     0    -1   13   1.3   13   27   2.7
1935  39 NL  RF  200   10    0    0     1    -2    9   0.9    7   16   1.6
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
               10020  410   -4    0   -12   -49  344  34.7  342  687  70.9

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 22nd   
Rbat: 27th
WAA: 44th  
WAR: t-26th

Oms’ stats at the Negro Leagues Database show a very early peak with a long, slow deceleration burn. From 1921 to 1925, ages 25 to 29, his OPS+es for the summer and winter seasons read 244 (summer 1921), 166 (summer 1922), 212 (winter 1922-1923), 184 (summer 1923), 153 (summer 1923-1924), 174 (summer 1924), and 142 (summer 1925). Thereafter, he was still effective, but nothing like the monster years he threw down in the early 1920s. Of course, getting our hands on the summer data for 1927 and the 1929 data could change that picture or any additional Cuban winter data.

Turkey Stearnes

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

To get a sense of what Turkey Stearnes was like, it might be helpful to triangulate some comparisons to his performance. Stearnes combined a very high batting average (lifetime .352 in the Negro Leagues Database) with heavy-duty power (.624 SLG). He walked enough (.415 OBP) that in combination with his power, he had a 178 OPS+. The Negro Leagues Database doesn’t currently include park factors, and my own estimates suggest his parks increased by 5%, so call it 169. He probably had roughly average speed, but he played a good centerfield.

As I looked around the majors from about the turn of the century to the late 1940s, I couldn’t find one guy who stood out as a comp. But I found a few guys who together could give an impression of Stearnes’ game. Mentally adjust his slash line of 352/415/624 downward, and you find yourself in the realm of Al Simmons. Bucketfoot Al hit 334/380/535, good for a 133 OPS+. Stearnes appears to have walked more than Simmons, but the lines echo each other nicely. Thing is, though, that Simmons began to lose his game pretty badly after age 32, causing him to peter out at 392 career batting runs.  Existing data suggests that Stearnes probably kept his performance level high through at least age 34.

That’s where Harry Heilmann comes in. He hit 342/410/520, banging out a 148 career OPS+ and 570 batting runs. Again, that slash line looks pretty similar to Stearnes’ career triple slash mark, likely trading some power for batting average. Heilmann hit like the dickens through age 35, got hurt, made a comeback, couldn’t hack it, and retired. But Heilmann was known as “Slug,” and history suggests that a lot of his 542 doubles might have turned into triples in the legs of a faster man.

So enter Sam Crawford. Now, his batting line of 309/362/452 might not look like much, but it’s good for a 144 OPS+. Playing throughout the throes of the deadball era, Wahoo Sam defined power in his time. Triples in those days meant power hitting. Outfielders could play more shallow back then since the ball was very difficult to hit for distance. Thus the dead part of deadball. So launching it out over the outfielders heads showed  some serious muscle and typically led to triples. Crawford slammed more triples than any man in big league history, and his 309 three-baggers will almost certainly never be equalled. Crawford played well deep into his thirties and demonstrated remarkable durability, much like Stearnes appears to have done. And while Crawford was no speed demon, he was no slug, stealing 367 bases.

Take Simmons, Heilmann, and Crawford together, add a couple productive years to them, and you have some idea of our MLE for Turkey Stearnes. Actually, we’re projecting him as better than any of them but combining many attributes of each. The guess here is that he had more power than any of that threesome and probably more athleticism. None of those guys lasted long in centerfield (if they played it at all), and Stearnes played there for a very long  time. We’re projecting that because of a noticeable downturn in his speed in 1936, he probably would have shifted to left field the next season and finished out his career there.

Turkey Stearnes
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1923–1940
Destination: NL 1923–1940
Missing data: 1926, 1927, 1929, 1931, 1932, 1938
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Baseball Hall of Merit 

Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rfield  Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
========================================================================
1923  22 NL  CF  610   38    0       2   - 3   38   3.6   19   57   5.5
1924  23 NL  CF  600   41    0       2   - 3   40   4.1   19   59   6.1
1925  24 NL  CF  630   36    0       3   - 3   35   3.3   20   55   5.2
1926  25 NL  CF  570   31    0       2   - 3   30   3.0   18   48   4.9
1927  26 NL  CF  580   31    0       2   - 3   31   3.1   18   49   5.0
1928  27 NL  CF  630   38    0       3   - 3   38   3.8   20   58   5.8
1929  28 NL  CF  590   38    0       2   - 2   38   3.4   18   57   5.2
1930  29 NL  CF  480   47    0       2   - 2   47   4.0   15   62   5.4
1931  30 NL  CF  570   36    0       2   - 2   36   3.7   18   54   5.6
1932  31 NL  CF  580   32    0       2   - 2   32   3.2   18   50   5.1
1933  32 NL  CF  580   29    0       2   - 2   29   3.3   18   47   5.4
1934  33 NL  CF  600   32    0       2   - 2   33   3.3   19   52   5.2
1935  34 NL  CF  600   43    0       2   - 2   44   4.3   19   62   6.2
1936  35 NL  CF  500   17    0       2   - 1   17   1.7   16   33   3.3
1937  36 NL  LF  460   15    0       0   - 4   10   1.1   14   25   2.6
1938  37 NL  LF  440    5    0       0   - 4    0   0.0   14   14   1.5
1939  38 NL  LF  370    9    0       0   - 4    5   0.5   12   17   1.8
1940  39 NL  LF  300    7    0       0   - 3    4   0.5    9   14   1.5
------------------------------------------------------------------------
                9690  524    1      33   -49  509  50.0  302  811  81.1

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 29th 
Rbat: 19th 
WAA: 18th  
WAR: 16th

With so much missing data from Stearnes’ resume, and much of it falling in his prime years, we could be underselling him here. For now, we’ll just assume that his career average performance gets us far enough along that we can make a well reasoned decision on his candidacy. And what’s not to love. He’s an offensive force who is better than passable in center. He’s an all-around star, simple as that.

 

Cristobal Torriente

Hows’ a 175 OPS+ sound? Four seasons above a .390 average? A career slash line of 344/430/514, mostly in the deadball era? Pretty good, huh? Now add in good speed, and an average centerfield glove, and you’re really cookin’. That’s Cristobal Torriente. He’s much like Alejandro Oms in that he’s virtually unknown to most fans, he was a lefty swinging centerfielder from Cuba, and he died young (44, a drunken pauper with a nasty case of TB). But there’s one caveat: He was even better than Oms.

Torriente launched a torrent of hits in his stops in the Negro Leagues and in winter play in his home country of Cuba. His name is way up the top of the leaderboards in most of the important offensive categories.

  • Games: Third with 1,040
  • Plate Appearances: Third with 4,322
  • Runs: Third with 766
  • Hits: Third with 1,267
  • Doubles: Third with 207
  • Triples: Second with 103
  • Homers: 9th with 70
  • Walks: Second with 523
  • Steals: Second with 224
  • Batting average (minimum 500 PA for all rate stats): Tenth with .344
  • On-base percentage: Fifth at .430
  • Slugging percentage: Nineteenth at .514 despite playing half his career in the deadball era
  • OPS: Tenth at .944
  • OPS+: Eighth at 175

This is a pretty serious offensive force here. Was Oscar Charleston better? Yes, and that’s like asking if Babe Ruth was better than Jimmie Foxx. The Beast provides an interesting point of comparison. Like Double-X, Torriente developed a taste for alcohol, faded early, was essentially done as a top level player at age 34. Foxx made one last wartime appearance, while Torriente played out the string with several teams of lesser quality during the early 1930s. But the man could hit, and what a player he was.

Cristobal Torriente
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1912–1928
Destination: NL 1912–1928
Missing data: 1926, 1927
Honors: Baseball Hall of Fame, Hall of Merit, Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame

Year Age Lg Pos  PA Rbat Rbaser Rfield Rpos RAA  WAA  Rrep RAR  WAR
=========================================================================
1912  18 NL  CF  140    3    0       0   - 1     2   0.2    4    7   0.7
1913  19 NL  CF  300   15    0       0   - 2    14   1.5    9   23   2.6
1914  20 NL  CF  400   32    0       0   - 2    30   3.4   12   42   4.9
1915  21 NL  CF  470   32    0       0   - 3    30   3.5   15   44   5.3
1916  22 NL  CF  580   35    1       0   - 3    32   3.9   18   50   6.3
1917  23 NL  CF  570   17    1       0   - 3    14   1.7   18   32   4.0
1918  24 NL  CF  480   35    0       0   - 3    33   3.9   15   48   5.7
1919  25 NL  CF  530   28    1       0   - 3    25   3.0   17   42   5.0
1920  26 NL  CF  610   44    1       0   - 3    42   4.6   19   61   6.8
1921  27 NL  CF  620   43    1       0   - 3    41   4.1   19   60   6.1
1922  28 NL  CF  570   37    1       0   - 3    34   3.2   18   52   5.0
1923  29 NL  CF  520   32    1       0   - 3    29   2.8   16   45   4.4
1924  30 NL  CF  610   39    1     - 4   - 6    30   3.0   19   49   5.0
1925  31 NL  CF  640   20    1     - 5   - 6    10   1.0   20   30   2.9
1926  32 NL  CF  580   30    1     - 4   - 6    20   2.1   18   39   4.0
1927  33 NL  CF  590   29    0     - 4   - 6    20   2.0   18   38   3.9
1928  34 NL  CF  450   19    0     - 3   - 4    11   1.1   14   25   2.6
-------------------------------------------------------------------------
                8660  491    9     -21   -61   418  45.0  270  688  75.1

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 61st 
Rbat: 24th 
WAA: 22nd  
WAR: 21st

If you were starting a team from scratch in the early 1910s, you coulda done a lot worse than building around Cristobal Torriente. He played an up the middle position and hit like crazy. That combination has resulted in a lot of winning clubs in baseball’s history. Despite the two missing years, we have a very good idea of what Torriente was like as a player. It’s possible that when the 1926 and 1927 stats come online, we’ll have to revise our estimates downward for his early thirties. We are using his career averages as the basis for building the annual estimate of that year, though we do include some weighted values for surrounding seasons as well. Still, his 1928 season comes across as having positive hitting value as does his 1925 campaign, so there’s no reason to expect him to collapse in the intervening years. But you never know.

If you want to think about Torriente in terms of players you know about, look at the combination of WAR and PAs. Here’s every player before expansion within 1,000 PA of our MLE and also within 10 WAR of our estimate as well:

  • Roger Connor: 8,847 PA and 84 WAR
  • Dan Brouthers: 7,691 PA and 79 WAR
  • Joe DiMaggio: 7,672 PA and 78 WAR
  • Arky Vaughan: 7,722 PA and 73 WAR
  • Harry Heilmann: 8,964 PA and 72 WAR
  • Johnny Mize: 7,370 PA and 71 WAR
  • Ed Delahanty: 8,400 PA and 70 WAR
  • Joe Cronin: 8,840 PA and 66 WAR

Good list. There’s nobody here you wouldn’t want on your favorite team’s roster. Torriente fits right in with this group with the 8,380 PA and 76 WAR we’re estimating. It took them too long, the but the Hall of Fame got him right.

* * *

This wraps up our look at those Negro Leaguers who have been inducted into the Hall of Fame or Hall of Merit. Next time out, we’ll end this leg of our tour of the Negro Leagues with a wrap-up post where we put all these fellows onto one page so you can compare them side by side for yourself.

After that, we’ll resume our look around the Negro Leagues with MLEs of the best of the rest at each position. We’ll see whether or not we can find any diamonds of the diamond in the rough of blackball history. SPOILER ALERT! We’ll show you some very compelling candidates. There’s one wrinkle to all this. Namely that there’s so many interesting pitchers to look into that instead of going position by position as we have been, we’ll flip back and forth each week between a hitting position and pitchers. It might seem a little choppier that way, but after five in a row posts about pitchers, we’re worried your eyes will glaze over even more than they probably are now. We expect this process will last us deep into the summer. We know that folks at the Hall of Merit have electoral interest in some of these MLEs, so we’ll do our best to wrap up well before the 2019 HOM election so you have time to digest guys like Dick Redding, Bus Clarkson, Carlos Moran, Marv Williams, and Don Newcombe.

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Discussion

4 thoughts on “Evaluating Negro Leagues Centerfielders, Part 2

  1. Not sure which people you are going to be looking at in the remainder of this project but I’m curious if you’re going to take a look at 2 of my favorites: Jesse Barber and Dick Lundy? I presume so on Lundy but wondered more about Barber.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | January 3, 2018, 11:05 am
  2. Great stuff Eric, awesome to see Pete Hill shine so bright, only baseball site I can vouch as mandatory reading.

    Posted by Ryan | January 3, 2018, 2:32 pm

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