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Negro Leagues

Evaluating More Negro Leagues Shortstops, 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]

The Negro Leagues produced a boatload of shortstop talent. An embarrassment of riches, really. We’ve already told you about the six legendary shortstops in the Halls of Fame or Merit. Now for the rest of story, in three acts. Today, Act I, Frankie Austin, Sammy Bankhead, and Pelayo Chacon. Of course, if you’d like to know how we arrive at our MLEs, we recommend you take a sabbatical from your job or marriage and click through the link for Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues batters and spend some quality time with your device of choice.

Frankie Austin

Austin didn’t have much power. He was just 5’7″ and 170 pounds and sometimes went by “Pee Wee.” In regular season Negro Leagues and minor leagues games for which we have solid numbers, he hit 32 homers in 5,810 plate appearances, three or four per 600 PAs. He hit .278 in those games and his OBP was .324. In other words, he wasn’t a great hitter. But he didn’t miss many games, and he probably had a decent glove.

In other words, he looked like a lot of the post-war shortstops populating the big leagues.

Austin was 27 when he made it to the top levels of Blackball. I’m not entirely sure what kept him down prior to that, but by the time Jackie Robinson came along, Austin was already 30. He finally signed a deal with a team in organized baseball in 1949, joining a PCL team and an IL team and struggling to show much at the plate.

It’s possible that brief but unsuccessful stint doomed Austin to a lifetime of AAA play, but fashioning a life in the PCL was a lot better than barnstorming for large parts of the hot summer. Austin racked up more than 1,200 hits in the PCL, playing mostly for Portland.

Frankie Austin
Negro Leagues Stats | Minor Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1944–1956
Destination: NL 1944–1956
Missing data: 1947–1948, 1950

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1944  27 NL SS    710   25    0    0     2    10   37   3.9   22   59   6.4
1945  28 NL SS    630   24    0    0     2     9   34   3.5   20   54   5.6
1946  29 NL SS    630   24    0    0     2     9   35   3.9   20   54   6.2
1947  30 NL SS    630    9    0    0     2     9   20   2.0   20   40   4.1
1948  31 NL SS    620  - 9    0    0     2     9    1   0.1   19   20   2.2
1949  32 NL SS    560  -24    0    0     2     8  -14  -1.5   17    3   0.3
1950  33 NL SS    490  -18    0    0     1     7  -10  -1.0   15    5   0.5
1951  34 NL SS    570  -17    0    0     2     7  - 8  -0.9   18   10   1.0
1952  35 NL SS    560  -12    0    0     2     7  - 3  -0.4   17   14   1.6
1953  36 NL SS    330  - 5    0    0     1     4    1   0.1   10   11   1.1
1954  37 NL SS    290  - 3    0    0     1     4    1   0.1    9   10   1.1 
1955  38 NL SS    280  - 7    0    0     1     4  - 3  -0.3    9    6   0.6
1956  39 NL SS    180  - 3    0    0     1     2    0   0.0    6    6   0.6
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 6480  -17    3   -2    20    88   91   9.7  202  293  31.4

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: t-196th
Rbat: Very low
Rfield (SS only): t-67th
WAA: t-267th 
WAR: 224th

If you’re looking for an MLB comp from the era, Frankie Austin probably would have been something like Billy Jurges. Our MLE puts Austin ahead by about 2.5 WAR and less than half a win’s worth of WAA. Jurges hit .258/.325/.335, which sounds a lot like the kind of line we’d imagine for Austin based on what we know about him. Well, let’s walk that back about half way. Austin appears to have been a pretty good offensive player in the Negro Leagues. We don’t have his 1947 and 1948 numbers yet to know just how quickly he slipped, but by the time he reached AAA, he had sunk well below average at the plate. That said, even if Austin’s numbers post-1946 Negro Leagues figures come in strong, he’s not going to pick up enough value to make him a good candidate for the Hall of Miller and Eric

Sammy Bankhead

The eldest of the five baseball-playing Bankhead brothers, among whom only Dan made the majors, Sam was the best of the bunch by far. Think of them as the Alous of the Negro Leagues. Anyway, while Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard (rightly) got the ink during the Homestead Grays’ run of dominance in the late 1930s and into the 1940s, Sam Bankhead played a hugely important role on the team as well. 

Bankhead appears to have been decent to good at just about everything on the diamond. He was an above-average hitter. He ran the bases well. He played nearly every throwing position thanks to good range, good hands, and a strong arm. He also didn’t miss too many games and lasted a very long time.

As our MLE shows, the combination adds up to a lot of overall value and very little peak value. This is in large part due to how we build our estimate. We use career averages and multiyear averages in several places to smooth out bumps in the data. In Bankhead’s case, we are also missing his first two seasons, most of his 1937 season (spent in Santo Domingo) and his 1947 to 1951 seasons. Without his early and decline-era numbers, perhaps we come in a bit too optimistic?

As happened to most great Negro Leaguers, after a career of sports excellence, thanks to racial conditions in the US, Sam Bankhead disappeared into a life of menial jobs. He worked first for the city of Pittsburgh’s refuse department and then as a porter at a fancy Pittsburgh hotel. He died from a gunshot wound in 1976, the result of an alcohol-fueled fight.

Sam Bankhead
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1931–1951
Destination: NL 1931–1951
Missing data: 1931–1932, 1947–1951

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1931  20 NL SS    130    1    1    0     1     2    4   0.5    4    8   0.9
1932  21 NL SS    600    5    2    0     5     8   20   2.1   19   39   4.0
1933  22 NL SS    600    3    2    0     5     8   18   2.0   19   37   4.2
1934  23 NL SS    610    8    2    0     5     8   24   2.4   19   43   4.3
1935  24 NL SS    610   10    2    0     5     8   26   2.5   19   45   4.5
1936  25 NL SS    630  - 5    2    0     5     9   11   1.1   20   30   3.1
1937  26 NL SS    500  - 8    2    0     4     7    5   0.5   16   20   2.1
1938  27 NL SS    580  - 8    2    0     4     8    6   0.7   18   25   2.6
1939  28 NL SS    610    5    2    0     5     8   21   2.1   19   40   4.2
1940  29 NL SS    610   14    2    0     5     8   29   3.0   19   48   5.1
1941  30 NL SS    650   14    3    0     5     9   31   3.3   20   51   5.6
1942  31 NL SS    560    2    2    0     4     8   17   1.9   17   34   4.0
1943  32 NL SS    620  - 1    2    0     5     9   15   1.7   19   34   4.0
1944  33 NL SS    610    2    2    0     5     8   17   1.9   19   37   4.0
1945  34 NL SS    560    8    2    0     4     8   22   2.3   17   39   4.1
1946  35 NL SS    580    6    2    0     4     8   21   2.4   18   39   4.5
1947  36 NL SS    530  - 2    2    0     4     7   12   1.2   17   28   2.9
1948  37 NL SS    490    3    2   -1     4     7   15   1.6   15   30   3.2
1949  38 NL SS    390    3    2    0     3     5   13   1.3   12   25   2.6
1950  39 NL SS    280    3    1    0     2     4    9   0.9    9   18   1.8
1951  40 NL SS     70    1    0    0     1     1    2   0.2    2    4   0.5
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                10820   64   43   -2    82   150  337  35.6  337  674  72.0

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 9th
Rbat: 352nd
Rfield (SS only): 20th
WAA: 39th
WAR: 26th

We’ve made Bankhead a career-long shortstop despite his playing all over the diamond. In an MLB setting, if he could play at least an average shortstop, he’d have stayed there as long as possible. If you want to instead use his primary position each season his Rpos might be worth half of the 139 runs you see above. In which case, he would lose about 6 WAA and 6 WAR. This returns us to the question of whether a player should be given an MLE with his exact positioning or his most likely MLB positioning. I’ve chosen the latter because I think that realism trumps reality in this game. But everyone can view it their own way, and I don’t believe there is a correct answer. And really, there perhaps needn’t be one. Different approaches for different ends. The right tool for the job. The question is what do we think the job is.

Pelayo Chacón

One of black baseball’s best shortstops in the early 20th Century, and Cuba’s best, Pelayo Chacón appears to have represented a kind of player we know well in the long history of major league baseball. He combined an above average glove, above average speed, and enough hitting ability to stay close enough to average, a good amalgam for a shortstop to rack up value. Think of Tony Fernandez with better baserunning and a longer career, and you’ll have a framework for understanding the idea our MLEs give of Chacón’s game.

Chacón was said to be a superb defensive player, but the Negro Leagues Database doesn’t necessarily agree. Based their estimations of his glove work and a subsequent conversion to Rfield, we’re showing him as good but not superb. Similarly, he was said to be swift on the bases, but his stolen base record doesn’t necessarily match that description. We instead see him as a good baserunner, not a great one. Yet. That’s kind of an important word because a) we’re always trying to improve our MLE protocol and b) whenever more data comes out, we incorporate it into our calculations to build a better-informed estimate.

But just because we aren’t seeing by degree the same things that the oral history tells us doesn’t mean that Chacón wasn’t a very good all-around player. We’re estimating a little more than 20 WAA and 50 WAR. If you told a team that they’d be able to draft a player and keep him his whole career, any GM would sign up for it.

Pelayo Chacón
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1908–1931
Destination: NL 1910–1929
Missing data: 1927–1929
Honors: Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame

Year Age Lg Pos    PA Rbat Baser Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1910  21 NL SS    470  - 7    0      2     7    2   0.2   15   16   1.9
1911  22 NL SS    520  - 5    0      2     7    5   0.5   16   21   2.2
1912  23 NL SS    570  -10    0      2     8    1   0.1   18   18   1.9
1913  24 NL SS    570  - 3    0      2     8    8   0.8   18   25   2.8
1914  25 NL SS    510    0    0      2     7   10   1.2   16   26   3.0
1915  26 NL SS    570    0    0      2     8   11   1.3   18   28   3.5
1916  27 NL SS    530  - 2    0      2     8    9   1.1   17   25   3.2
1917  28 NL SS    540    1    0      2     8   12   1.4   17   28   3.6
1918  29 NL SS    460    3    0      2     7   11   1.4   14   26   3.1
1919  30 NL SS    490    9    0      2     7   18   2.2   15   34   4.1
1920  31 NL SS    550   16    0      2     8   26   2.9   17   43   4.9
1921  32 NL SS    550   28    0      2     8   38   3.8   17   55   5.6
1922  33 NL SS    550    5    0      2     8   15   1.5   17   32   3.1
1923  34 NL SS    300  - 4    0      1     4    1   0.1    9   10   1.0
1924  35 NL SS    520  - 7    0      2     7    3   0.3   16   19   2.0
1925  36 NL SS    430  - 5    0      2     6    3   0.3   13   16   1.6
1926  37 NL SS    400    7    0      2     6   15   1.5   12   27   2.8
1927  38 NL SS    320  - 2    0      1     4    4   0.4   10   14   1.5
1928  39 NL SS    230    0    0      1     3    4   0.4    7   11   1.1
1929  40 NL SS    170  - 1    0      1     2    2   0.2    5    8   0.7
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 9250   24    3     39   131  197  21.5  288  485  53.7

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 40th
Rbat: 539th
Rfield: 46th (shortstop only)
WAA: t-103rd
WAR: t-61st

Pelayo Chacón could have easily started at shortstop for a championship level team. His mix of skills could play on any team that didn’t have Hans Wagner at short. And maybe even for that team given Wagner’s ability to play all over the diamond and hit like the dickens wherever they stuck him. Anyway, this guy appears to be a very valuable player who could help a team in several ways and hurt them in few if any. 

* * *

Next time, Act II, in which we get to know Buster/Bus/Buzz Clarkson, Silvio Garcia, and Bill Riggins. Hall of Merit voters, you’ll want to tune in to see whether Clarkson feels like the real deal to you.

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