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Negro Leagues

Evaluating More Negro Leagues Left Fielders, Part 3

[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]

Here’s our last go-round on left fielders. If you’ve been following along, you’ve seen that the Negro Leagues didn’t exactly churn out amazing left fielders. We’ll see in a few weeks that they did rather better with right fielders, and centerfield is one of the leagues’ core positions (shortstop and pitcher being the others). Indeed, left field is the only position on the diamond where the Negro Leagues failed to generate even one strong candidate for the Hall of Miller and Eric (let alone any other Halls). Then again, a player’s position is sometimes a matter of opinion, so your mileage may vary. For example, Minnie Minoso played third base in the Negro Leagues and transitioned to left field in organized baseball because he was blocked by Ken Keltner and Al Rosen. Monte Irvin is often thought of as a left fielder due to playing several years there in the NL, but he began as a shortstop and centerfielder in the Negro Leagues, and given his fielding stats in the NL would almost certainly have been a fine centerfielder in the majors.

A question to ponder is why the Negro Leagues’ cup didn’t runneth over in the portside pasture. The answer, as I have come to puzzle it out, is the opposite of the answer to why the leagues developed so many good shortstops and centerfielders. We’ve noted in prior articles in this series that among position players, star power in the Negro Leagues truly clustered around the most athletic positions. This is what happens when there’s a high degree of variance among the abilities of players. Think back to our little league years. Our coaches’ Sorting Hats, if you will, probably had a decision tree that goes something like this:

1) Is this kid a righty or a lefty? 

A righty can play any position on the diamond, but lefties only play the outfield, first base, and pitcher.

2) Do any of the lefties have a real good arm?

Those that do can play right field, centerfield, and pitcher. Those that don’t can play first or left field. Or left bench.

3) Do any of the lefties with the good arms know where the ball is going?

Them’s pitchers.

4) Are any of the lefties with the good arms who aren’t pitchers excellent athletes?

Welcome to centerfield. The less athletic kids with arms will play right field. Of course the lefty pitchers-to-be can also play the outfield. This is little league, after all.

5) Now back to the righties. Do any of them have good arms?

Right field, centerfield, shortstop, third base, catcher, pitcher. The weaker arms will play first, second, or left.

6) Do any of the righties with good arms know where the ball is going?

Them’s also pitchers.

7) Among the ones left, are any good athletes?

Shortstop and centerfield for you!

8) Or bad athletes?

We’ll make a catcher or first baseman of you yet!

9) Average athletes?

If you have reflexes, you’ll be at third, otherwise right field.

10) Any good athletes among the iffy arms?

Second base. Remand the remainder to first base and left field…or catcher if desperate for a backstop.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the Negro Leagues were like little league, this is just a thought experiment. But the point is that Blackball didn’t have a very efficient player-development model. It didn’t have farm clubs (though it did have leagues that weren’t major in quality, they weren’t farm clubs, nor many if any dedicated scouts. So combined with the wide variation in talent, managers on the top teamswould have likely resorted to similar logic. Thus, many of the best players in Negro Leagues’ history tend to be shortstops, centerfielders, and pitchers. And some who could all three.

But, as a general rule, they were not left fielders.

As we look at the little thought experiment above, it becomes clear why players with more limited skills would fall into the lap of left field. No arm, no speed or athleticism, iffy baseball brain (the play is always in front of you, so you don’t have to anticipate as much) leads to left. Obviously, every Negro Leagues left fielder wasn’t a lame-o ballplayer. To start on a top-level team, you have to be a good ballplayer. But you don’t have to be a very complete player.

There’s also an additional wrinkle, however. When you read about the Negro Leagues, one of the things you see quickly is that their observers put much more stock in defensive ability at first base than folks did in watching MLB. This is particularly true after the introduction of the live ball. Basically, no one talks about the amazing defensive wizardry of Gehrig, Foxx, and Greenberg. We laugh that High Pockets’ Kelly’s defense was listed by supporters on the VC as a defining trait. First base pushed further away off the end of the defensive spectrum from left field after the home run came along. The long, slow elimination of knee-jerk sacrifice bunting began, which meant that every first baseman needn’t summon the courage of Keith Hernandez on every play. Simultaneously, second basemen’s ability on the pivot became much more important as the number of bunts decreased. What had been a hitter’s position (second base) began to become a fielder’s. Third base and second base basically flip-flopped on the defensive spectrum, but when you think about it, MLB didn’t suddenly replace the offense of a Hornsby or Collins with that of Joe Dugan. Some of the offensive switch probably got taken up by first basemen too. And why not? They now had less onerous defensive responsibilities, so anyone could play there. Guys like Jimmie Foxx might have been second basemen a generation or two prior. If Laughing Larry Doyle could make a career at second base…. But now guys like Foxx played about 60 feet to the glove side of second.

But the funny thing is that the Negro Leagues continued to revere first-base defense. The first thing Jim Riley says about Buck O’Neil in the Biographical Encyclopedia of the Negro Leagues is “A smooth fielding first baseman…”. Dave “Showboat” Thomas gets a similar treatment from Riley. But in 1945 nationally known African American sports writer and announcer Joe Bostic brought two players to the Dodger’s spring training camp and demanded they be worked out. One was thirty-something pitcher Terris McDuffie and the other was Thomas. In “Baseball’s Great Experiment,” Bostic recalls why he chose Thomas:

“You’d be surprised at the number of players who were actually afraid to buck the establishment…. I had settled on Thomas because Thomas was the best fielding first baseman I knew in America at that time, bar none. Thomas, I knew, would dazzle them, and he had a good bat.”

Who in their right mind, in 1945, would bring a player to a big league camp because he was the best fielding first baseman around? Thomas was not a good hitter, he couldn’t run much, and he was thirty-nine years old. Thirty-nine! The only person who would think this a good plan was someone who came from a baseball culture that placed a premium on defensive prowess at first base. In that case, it made great sense to Bostic and little sense to white baseball. All of which is a long way of saying that, in my opinion, the Negro Leagues might have had a slightly divergent defensive spectrum in the 1930s. [Though the emergence of George Crowe and Luke Easter suggest that this view was either not hegemonic or had begun to fall out of favor by the mid-1940s.]

So why was left field a cold spring of Negro League talent? Because when you’re driving around the country on a thirteen-person bus, playing every day and often twice, someone’s got to be the left fielder. And if you want to win those games, the best players have to play the most demanding positions. That’s why today, we’ll look at two final players you probably don’t know much about as well as a lightning round with lots of guys in the slightly-better-than-average category.

If you enjoy seeing sausage made, follow the link (get it!) and grind (!!!) through our Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues batters. It’s the wurst. [I’m killin’ me here.]

Art Pennington

I have zero idea where to put Pennington on the diamond. I’m just guessing at left field, and he could be reasonably pinned to any number of positions. I’m pretty sure he’s an outfielder, though. But even then, hard to say which outfield slot because the data is either mixed or undifferentiated (aka: he’s listed merely as OF). What can I tell you about the player known as “Superman”? For one he was an above average and sometimes good hitter. About an average runner. I can’t tell you anything about his fielding abilities because we have so little data on him.

Generally, though, the transition to organized baseball looks better on paper than in context. He struggled in the PCL in 1949 and never saw the high minors again. Thereafter he played primarily in B and C level leagues. He posted some outstanding minor league numbers in the 1950s those leagues. For example .339/.443/.492 in 1958 in the Florida State League as a 35-year-old. But that translates to roughly average hitting at the big league level because the FSL was a D league.

That said, we have some gaps in his minor league record. For example, he had a good partial season in the Western International League in 1949, and what appear to be three fine years in the 3-I league from 1952 to 1954. However, only the 1954 season has complete league and player totals to work with. The others lack at least one major category of stats (usually walks) and lack league wide numbers. So the back half of Pennington’s career feels a little patchy. On the other hand, I can’t imagine he’s too too much better or worse than where we’ve pegged him.

Art Pennington
Negro Leagues Stats | Minor Leagues | Bio
Career: 1944–1959
Destination: NL 1941–1959
Missing data: 1949–1951, 1955–1957

Year Age Lg Pos  PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA  WAA Rrep RAR  WAR
=============================================================================
1944  21  NL LF   400    7    0     0     0    -4     4   0.4   12   16   1.8
1945  22  NL LF   600   12    0     0     0    -6     6   0.6   19   25   2.6
1946  23  NL LF   570   20    0     0     0    -6    15   1.7   18   33   3.8
1947  24  NL LF   640   17    0     0     0    -6    11   1.1   20   31   3.2
1948  25  NL LF   640   25    0     1     0    -6    19   2.0   20   39   4.2
1949  26  NL LF   570   10    0     1     0    -6     5   0.5   18   23   2.4
1950  27  NL LF   600    7    0     1     0    -6     2   0.3   19   21   2.2
1951  28  NL LF   590    6    0     1     0    -6     1   0.1   18   20   2.1
1952  29  NL LF   610    7    0     1     0    -6     2   0.2   19   21   2.3
1953  30  NL LF   580    8    0     1     0    -6     3   0.3   18   21   2.1
1954  31  NL LF   590   13    0     1     0    -6     8   0.8   18   27   2.8
1955  32  NL LF   580    8    0     1     0    -6     3   0.3   18   21   2.2
1956  33  NL LF   580    6    0     1     0    -6     1   0.1   18   19   2.1
1957  34  NL LF   590    4    0     1     0    -6    -1  -0.1   18   18   1.9
1958  35  NL LF   450    0    0     1     0    -5    -4  -0.5   14   10   1.0
1959  36  NL LF   190  - 2    0     0     0    -2    -4  -0.4    6    2   0.3
-----------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 8780  148    2     7     0   -86    72   7.6  274  346  36.8

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 55th
Rbat: 178th
WAA: t-310th
WAR: 167th

I wouldn’t call this MLE complete. It’s pretty provisional. We may never get much better info for Pennington, which could keep it provisional forever, and sometimes we can do only what’s possible. More so, however, I’m not sure whether he’d hang around for 8,600 plate appearances. That’s a lot for a left fielder with a decent but not amazing bat.

Rogelio Valdéz

Valdéz emerged during Cuban baseball’s desegregation and starred for more than a decade. It might be hard to tell that he could hit, but, in fact, he was an above average hitter. That’s despite a .219/.319/.282 slash line. His .601 OPS results in a 111 OPS+. Talk about a deadball league. You’d have to be more scientific in your approach than a room full of physics Ph.D.s to score in that environment.

From the distance of a century and little international memory, we don’t have a good way to understand just how tough these early Cuban leaguers had it as hitters. But this guy does have the reputation of a defensive wizard, and DRA concurs. Add a touch of speed, and he’s an interesting player.

On the other hand, he had a little of trouble staying on the field, which gives his MLE the look of a supersub or highly active fifth infielder or fourth outfielder.

Rogelio Valdéz
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1902–1915
Destination: NL 1902–1915
Missing data: 1912, 1914
Honors: Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame
Year Age Lg Pos  PA  Rbat Rbaser Rfield Rpos RAA   WAA Rrep  RAR  WAR
===========================================================================
1902  20 NL  SS    60  - 1     0       1     1     1   0.1    2    3   0.3
1903  21 NL  SS   320    2     0       5     4    12   1.2   10   22   2.2
1904  22 NL  SS   390   18     0       6     6    30   3.4   12   42   4.8
1905  23 NL  SS   400    5     0       6     6    17   1.9   12   30   3.3
1906  24 NL  LF   440    9     0       8    -5    12   1.5   14   26   3.2
1907  25 NL  LF   460   10     0       8    -5    13   1.7   14   27   3.5
1908  26 NL  LF   330   13     0       6    -4    15   2.0   10   25   3.3
1909  27 NL  LF   440  - 3     0       7    -5     0   0.0   14   14   1.7
1910  28 NL  LF   450  - 7     0       7    -5   - 4  -0.5   14   10   1.1
1911  29 NL  LF   470  - 5     0       8    -5   - 2  -0.2   15   12   1.3
1912  30 NL  LF   440    3     0       7    -5     6   0.6   14   20   2.0
1913  31 NL  LF   380    8     0       6    -4    11   1.2   12   23   2.5
1914  32 NL  LF   430  - 1     0       7    -5     2   0.2   13   15   1.8
1915  33 NL  LF   240  -11     0       4    -3   -10  -1.2    7  - 2  -0.3
--------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 5250   42     5      87   -30   104  11.9  164  268  31.0

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 361st  
Rbat: 445th
WAA: t-216th 
WAR: t-227th

You can see the weirdness about his position. For whatever reason, despite being an excellent fielding shortstop, he was put out to pasture at age 24, where he shone as well. Meanwhile, at age 27, his bat went limp. I’d reckon there’s a lot of questions about him that we’ll probably never answer. It probably doesn’t matter, however, because even if they were all answered in his favor, he’d have a hard time amassing enough career value to be a strong contender for the Hall of Miller and Eric.

Lightning Round!

Valentín Dreke
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1919–1927
Destination: NL 1919–1927
Missing Data: 1926
Honors: Cuban Baseball Hall of Fame
      Lg Pos  PA  Rbat  Rbaser  Rfield  Rpos  RAA   WAA  Rrep  RAR   WAR 
========================================================================= 
TOTAL NL LF  4370   75    -1       13    -43   44   4.3   136  180  18.2

Marcelino Guerra 
Negro Leagues Stats
Career: 1909–1924 
Destination: NL 1909–1924
Missing Data: 1911, 1919 
      Lg  Pos     PA  Rbat  Rbaser  Rfield  Rpos  RAA  WAA  Rrep  RAR   WAR 
============================================================================ 
TOTAL NL   LF    7470  -23     8      35     -71  -51  -5.4  233  181  21.0

George Shively 
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1911–1924 
Destination: NL 1911–1924 
      Lg  Pos   PA  Rbat  Rbaser  Rfield  Rpos  RAA   WAA  Rrep  RAR  WAR 
========================================================================== 
TOTAL NL   LF  5680  81     20       5     -61   45   5.6   177  222  25.8

* * *

Next week, it’s more pitchers, including one you might have heard of who is an important candidate. We’ll be looking at Eustaquio Pedroso, Wee Willie Powell, Cannonball Dick Redding, and Carlos Royer.

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Discussion

3 thoughts on “Evaluating More Negro Leagues Left Fielders, Part 3

  1. When I was a kid we had this little mantra:
    The smartest kid was the catcher, the one with the most control pitched, the guy who could catch the best played first, the best pivot was at second, the most athletic at short. The guy with the rifle arm played third, the howitzer was in right, the fastest guy was in center, and the other guy played left. All of us knew it. No idea where it came from.
    v

    Posted by verdun2 | June 12, 2018, 7:59 am
  2. You really are doing amazing work. Any plans to look at Coimbre and Tetelo Vargas. Not sure which outfield spot they fall into..

    Posted by David Brooks | June 19, 2018, 2:25 pm
    • Thanks, David! Vargas and Coimbre are tough ones because we probably have only a third to a half of either of their careers. I’ve run up numbers for the seasons I have (IIRC), and Coimbre will be part of our RF coverage. Same I think for Tetelo in CF. Not sure if they will get the full treatment of the lightning round.

      Posted by eric | June 19, 2018, 4:00 pm

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