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Negro Leagues

Evaluating More Negro Leagues First Basemen, 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]

We’re back this week with a few more Negro Leagues first basemen. This time, we’ll be looking at three fellows that very few people have heard of but who could all hit pretty darned well. We refer you to our Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues batters for all the gory details.

Bill Pettus

Perhaps because he died of tuberculosis just after his fortieth birthday, Bill Pettus hasn’t received much attention over the years. He was a heady ballplayer who picked up Spanish while managing a team of Mexican players in New Mexico. But at the plate, it was the brawn, not the brains. From 1900 (ten years prior to his career) to 1921 (his last year), his 145 OPS+ ranked 15th among all Negro Leaguers with at least 500 PA. He ranked ninth in doubles, thirteenth in triples, and fourth in homers over this span. His .479 slugging percentage ranked sixth. Pettus didn’t draw too many walks, though, so his OBP was only 19th in this epoch.

Pettus hopscotched teams in 1916 to 1918, playing with 12 different summer-season teams because…reasons!

He started out as a catcher and later became a first baseman, and our MLE has him as a first baseman only, where his 276 known games easily outpace his 76 known catching games. He appears to also have missed very few games.

Bill Pettus
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1909–1921
Destination: NL 1909–1921

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1909  24 NL 1B    560    7    0    0     6   - 4    9   1.1   17   26   3.2
1910  25 NL 1B    580   11    0    0     6   - 4   13   1.5   18   31   3.6
1911  26 NL 1B    600    5    0    0     6   - 4    8   0.8   19   26   2.8
1912  27 NL 1B    600    1    0    0     6   - 4    3   0.3   19   22   2.3
1913  28 NL 1B    590   24    0    0     6   - 4   26   2.8   18   44   4.9
1914  29 NL 1B    580   38    0    0     6   - 4   40   4.6   18   58   6.8
1915  30 NL 1B    590   18    0    0     6   - 4   21   2.5   18   39   4.8
1916  31 NL 1B    590   24    0    0     6   - 4   27   3.3   18   45   5.7
1917  32 NL 1B    510   17    0    0     5   - 4   18   2.3   16   34   4.3
1918  33 NL 1B    430   21    0    0     4   - 3   23   2.7   13   36   4.4
1919  34 NL 1B    460   13    0    0     5   - 4   15   1.8   14   29   3.5
1920  35 NL 1B    380   16    0    0     4   - 3   17   2.0   12   29   3.3
1921  36 NL 1B    270    3    0    0     3   - 2    4   0.4    8   12   1.3
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 6740  199    5    0    70   -51  224  26.1  210  434  54.5

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 172nd
Rbat: 124th
WAA: t-74th
WAR: 57th

So the thing about this guy is that he probably would have had a couple seasons in the majors prior to age 24. He played in the Southwest and on the West Coast, in areas where the top teams didn’t really travel much. Whole other country that side of the Rockies. Anyway, the more historically knowledgeable than I might therefore disagree. He might also have played in 1922 and 1923, but he doesn’t appear in the Negro Leagues Database for those years.

The fielding thing is no joke. Pettus has 30.4 DRA in 279 league games, which comes out to about 17 per 154. When we run that through our fielding-translation routine, it’s 6.6 runs per 154. That’s about three-quarters as good as Keith Hernandez. In fact, Keith Hernandez-lite isn’t a bad way to look at Pettus. He’s about 90% the hitter Hernandez was, about 75% the fielder, played about 83% as much. The only place he exceeded Hernandez appears to be base running. Call it 85% of Keith Hernandez if you will. That’s a dang good player, and probably someone just below the in/out line.

Bill Pierce

Like Pettus above, Bill Pierce played a lot of catcher. Unlike Pettus, however, Pierce played enough that we needed to take the idea seriously that he merited catcher credit. So we’ve made him a 60/40 first-base/catcher hybrid all the way along his career. This tallies with the 154 known games he played at first base and 100 he played behind the plate.

Since writing the struck-out lines above, we reconsidered. Research we’ve conducted for Josh Gibson’s MLE suggests that most catchers who will move out from behind the plate do so by age 24. Therefore, we’ve take that approach here and made Pierce a first baseman only beginning at age 24.

Pierce and Pettus were near contemporaries with the latter just a few years older. Pierce didn’t quite have the complete package of skills that Pettus did, particularly lacking Pettus’ footspeed. If Pettus was 85% of Keith Hernandez, Pierce was, in turn, about three-quarters of Pettus. Which, by the transitive property makes him about two-thirds of Hernandez. There will be a quiz later.

Bill Pierce
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1910–1924
Destination: NL 1910–1924

Year Age Lg  Pos   PA  Rbat Rbaser Rfield  Rpos  RAA  WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
==========================================================================
1910  20 NL  1B/C  140  - 2    0       0     1  - 1  -0.4    4    3   0.4
1911  21 NL  1B/C  250  -11    0       2     1  - 8  -0.8    8    0   0.0
1912  22 NL  1B/C  400  - 2   -1       2     1    0   0.0   12   12   1.3
1913  23 NL  1B/C  420    1   -1       2     0    3   0.3   13   16   1.7
1914  24 NL  1B    480    7   -1       3   - 3    6   0.7   15   21   2.5
1915  25 NL  1B    500    7   -1       3   - 4    6   0.7   16   21   2.6
1916  26 NL  1B    490   10   -1       3   - 4    9   1.1   15   24   3.0
1917  27 NL  1B    470  - 1   -1       3   - 4  - 2  -0.2   15   13   1.6
1918  28 NL  1B    400    7   -1       3   - 3    6   0.8   12   19   2.3
1919  29 NL  1B    370    9    0       3   - 3    8   0.9   12   19   2.4
1920  30 NL  1B    530   24   -1       4   - 4   22   2.5   17   38   4.4
1921  31 NL  1B    500   28   -1       3   - 5   26   2.6   16   41   4.2
1922  32 NL  1B    480   31   -1       3   - 4   29   2.7   15   44   4.2
1923  33 NL  1B    520   14   -1       3   - 5   12   1.2   16   28   2.8
1924  34 NL  1B    450   23   -1       3   - 4   21   2.1   14   35   3.6
--------------------------------------------------------------------------
                  6400  155  - 9      41   -41  136  14.4  199  336  37.1

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 207th   
Rbat: 181st
WAA: 179th  
WAR: t-162nd

A good player overall as you can see. I’m not quite sure what to make of the sudden, late-career surge in offense. Of course, the leagues themselves surged just like MLB did, but that doesn’t explain his transformation into a middle-of-the-order hitter. I also suspect that his 1924 playing time is inflated, and that he was extremely unlikely to have had one of his better years as he stepped away from professional baseball. But we have to start by going where the numbers take us before we can make further adjustments or assumptions. So take this as it’s intended: a starting point.

Edgar Wesley

There’s precious little biographical material out there on Edgar Wesley. None of it appears to directly account for his very late entry into top-level play. Wesley was 26 years old when he finally appeared with the Texas All-Stars. He was from Waco, and it seems likely that he simply didn’t attract notice outside his home area until that time, much like Pettus in the Southwest and California.

Once he made the big time, the big lefty hit well, forming a great one-two punch with Turkey Stearnes. His 153 OPS+ is pretty shiny.

But the mysteries don’t stop with the front end of his career. We only currently have stats for him through the 1925 season, but James Riley and others show him playing through to 1927. Then there’s a four-year gap before Wesley reappears briefly in 1931 before fading away entirely. For now, our MLE only runs through 1927, age 36. As more data becomes available, we may be able to have more certainty about his career path and also his productivity. Sometimes you go to press with the MLEs you have….

Edgar Wesley
Negro Leagues Stats 
Career: 1917–1931
Destination: NL 1917–1927
Missing: 1926, 1927, 1928–1930?, 1931

Year Age Lg Pos   PA Rbat Rbaser Rfield  Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
========================================================================
1917  26 NL  1B  540   31    0       2   - 4   28   3.4   17   45   5.5
1918  27 NL  1B  440   18    0       2   - 3   16   1.9   14   29   3.6
1919  28 NL  1B  520   19    0       2   - 4   17   2.0   16   33   4.0
1920  29 NL  1B  600   22    0       2   - 5   19   2.2   19   38   4.3
1921  30 NL  1B  510   20    0       2   - 5   17   1.7   16   33   3.3
1922  31 NL  1B  610   29    0       2   - 5   25   2.4   19   44   4.2
1923  32 NL  1B  560    9    0       2   - 5    6   0.6   17   23   2.3
1924  33 NL  1B  530   13    0       2   - 5    9   0.9   17   26   2.7
1925  34 NL  1B  480   22    0       2   - 5   19   1.8   15   34   3.3
1926  35 NL  1B  430   16    0       2   - 4   13   1.3   13   26   2.7
1927  36 NL  1B  380   14    0       1   - 4   12   1.2   12   24   2.4
------------------------------------------------------------------------
                5600  213   -4      22   -50  180  19.2  175  354  38.4

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 297th 
Rbat: 109th 
WAA: t-131st  
WAR: 158th

Riley’s discussion of Wesley as a good first baseman are corroborated by DRA, but his assertion that Wesley was a decent baserunner, well, not so much. Overall, the makings of an Eddie Murray path to the HoME are here. The long, steady march at an All-Star or near-All-Star level for a very long time with a graceful decline. But without his early twenties or his late thirties in play…well, I the words of Hobie Doyle, “would that it were so.”

* * *

Next time out we’ll visit the mound again. This time we’ll look in on Carl Glass, Lewis Hampton Rats Henderson, Bill Holland, Connie Johnson, and Toothpick Sam Jones.

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