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Negro Leagues

Evaluating More Negro Leagues Centerfielders, Part II

This week we get into some centerfield names you might recognize. Or at least two. You probably don’t know much about centerfielder Charles Earle, but you’ve probably heard the name Bobby/Roberto Estalella. His grandson caught in the majors about twenty years ago, and his story was chronicled by Bill James in the New Historical Baseball Abstract. And you’ve no doubt heard about Sam “Jet” Jethroe who won Rookie of the Year honors in 1950. Speaking of honors, you’ll probably deserve a frickin’ medal, or at least a merit badge, if you make it through our Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) for Negro Leagues batters, wherein you’ll learn the many secrets of this alchemy.

Charles Earle

Sometimes known as Frank as well, Earle was a smallish outfielder who captained the Brooklyn Royal Giants throughout the 1910s. His lifetime slash line of .295/.375/.390 is right out of deadball-outfielder central casting and looks like a pretty typical seasonal line for Tommy Leach or George J. Burns.

Earl must’ve been a tough cookie. He survived a case of typhoid fever, which severely emaciates the body, in the early 1900s and nonetheless made his way to the black majors just a few years later.

Charles Earle
Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1906–1919
Destination: NL 1907–1919

Year Age Lg Pos  PA Rbat Rbaser Rfield Rpos   RAA  WAA Rrep RAR   WAR
==========================================================================
1907  23  NL RF   510  - 6    1      4     - 6   - 7  -0.9   16    9   1.2
1908  24  NL CF   560   12    1      0     - 3     9   1.1   17   26   3.4
1909  25  NL LF   590   23    1      2     - 7    19   2.2   18   37   4.5
1910  26  NL LF   600   19    1      2     - 7    15   1.6   19   33   3.8
1911  27  NL LF   610  - 3    1      2     - 7   - 7  -0.8   19   12   1.2
1912  28  NL LB   600  - 8    1      2     - 7   -12  -1.2   19    7   0.7
1913  29  NL LB   600    4    1      2     - 7     0   0.0   19   18   2.1
1914  30  NL RF   590   10    1      5     - 7     8   0.9   18   26   3.1
1915  31  NL RF   590   20    1      5     - 7    18   2.2   18   37   4.5
1916  32  NL CF   580   24    1      0     - 3    21   2.6   18   39   4.9
1917  33  NL CF   590    9    1      0     - 3     5   0.7   18   24   3.0
1918  34  NL CF   430    8    0      0     - 2     6   0.7   13   19   2.4
1919  35  NL CF   100    2    0      0     - 1     1   0.1    3    4   0.5
--------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 6950  113    7     22     -67    75   9.3  217  292  35.2

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 157th 
Rbat: t-224th
WAA: t-278th
WAR: 182nd

So now you probably wonder, why am I sticking this guy in centerfield? Well, primarily because he has 62 known games in center versus 60 in left and 59 in right. Turns out, however, that when you then create seasonal playing time adjustments, he becomes a left fielder. The playing time allotment here reflects that of a left fielder, therefore, instead of centerfielder. In MLB, a player of his type might well, however, be a centerfielder. Earle had some speed, and, because he pitched a good deal in the Negro Leagues, he probably had a good enough arm to play center. That’s not a question for us to answer, so we just do our best with what we gots.

Bobby Estalella

Here’s a strange case. Estalella, grandfather of the big league catcher of the same name, played in the majors in the mid-1930s and the 1940s. He also played in the high minors, in the Mexican League, and in his native Cuba. He hit wherever he played and clearly had enough talent to stay in the majors. But he never stuck until the war and then was gone after it.

On pages 195 and 196 of his New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James makes the assertion that Estalella’s skin tone probably had a lot to do with it. It’s not easy to say without seeing color photos from the time, but James suggests that the centerfielder straddled the line of acceptability. His many ups and downs certainly align with that idea.

As a player, Estalella hit well. He made constant contact, drew a good number of walks, hit for above-average power (hit hit 30+ homers thrice in the minors), and kept his average in the .280 to .300 range. He struggled to find a position, however. His 5’8″, 180 pound frame probably belief his athleticism. He started out as a third baseman and played all three outfield spots (more centerfield in the majors than anything else). He had about average speed, but his outfielding seems unremarkable at best.

Perhaps Estalella had a few things going against him:

  • His skin color
  • His lack of an obvious defensive position
  • A bat (decent power, lots of walks) that wasn’t appreciated at the time and that was smothered by Griffith Stadium in his early MLB seasons.

Whatever the case may be, this obvious MLB talent didn’t get his shot at MLB and played alongside Negro Leaguers in Mexico and Cuba, so we decided to run his numbers.

Bobby Estalella
Major League Stats | Minor League Stats | Bio
Career: 1934–1951
Destination: NL 1935–1949
Missing data: Minor League data from 1934–1938, 1940, 1948, 1950, 1951
Year Age Lg Pos  PA  Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA  WAA  Rrep RAR  WAR
================================================================================
1935  24 AL  3B   630   19     0     0     0      3    21   2.0   20   41   3.9
1936  25 AL  3B   540   15     0     0     0      2    17   1.5   17   34   3.0
1937  26 AL  LF   610   17     0     0   - 2     -6     9   0.8   19   28   2.6
1938  27 AL  LF   590   17     0     0   - 2     -6     9   0.8   18   27   2.5
1939  28 AL  LF   324    8    -1     0   - 1     -3     3   0.3   10   13   1.2
1940  29 AL  LF   630   16     0     0   - 2     -6     7   0.7   20   27   2.6
1941  30 AL  LF   340    5     0     0   - 1     -3     0   0.0   11   11   1.1
1942  31 AL  3B   517   18     1     0   - 6      0    13   1.4   16   30   3.2
1943  32 AL  LF   424    9    -1     0   - 2     -4     2   0.3   13   15   1.8
1944  33 AL  CF   574   16     0     0   - 1     -1    14   1.5   18   32   3.6
1945  34 AL  CF   527   25    -1     0     0     -1    23   2.6   16   39   4.5
1946  35 AL  LF   610   22     0     0   - 2     -6    13   1.4   19   32   3.6
1947  36 AL  LF   550    6     0     0   - 2     -5   - 2  -0.2   17   15   1.7
1948  37 AL  LF   350    3     0     0   - 1     -3   - 3  -0.3   11    8   0.8
1949  38 AL  RF    21  - 1     0    -1     0      0   - 2  -0.3    1  - 2  -0.2 
--------------------------------------------------------------------------------
                 7237  195    -6    -1   -23    -39   125  12.6  226  351  36.0

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 132nd  
Rbat: 127th
WAA: 206th 
WAR: 173rd

Go take a look at Estalella’s record, first the majors then the minors. You can see from looking at his numbers how chopped up his career actually was. Seems very unlikely to me that a white kid with the same abilities waits until he’s 24 to make the big leagues and has as many partial seasons as “Tarzan.” Also, I suspect that a white guy with the same abilities would find a defensive position more quickly because he’d have signed with a team (major or minor) earlier in his life and would have gotten more defensive instruction.

Would a normal career path have made him a Hall-level player? I’m not so sure, but it can’t be dismissed out of hand. Estalella knew no English when he arrived in America so coaching was difficult. If he’d worked out the fielding kinks sooner, maybe he earns back a bunch of those negative defensive runs. Maybe his offense isn’t constantly adjusting to new pitchers. There’s lots of what-ifs here, so we can’t rule out a player of Hall-level ability. But what we know so far looks like a Hall of the Very Good player to me.

Sam Jethroe

The Jet earned his nickname. Dude could fly. In his brief MLB career, he stole 98 bases in three years. Twice he led the NL (35 each time). He finished second the third year. His known SB% of  82% would look great in any era, and in his own time, rates were ten or fifteen points lower than in our time. He stole 21 more bases than the second-best thief, Pee Wee Reese. He racked up 15 runs on the bases in his brief MLB career. Only Reese had more running value from 1950 to 1952 than Jethroe, and only by a sliver of a run.

Jethroe slowed down in 1952 after his heroics won him the Rookie of the Year in 1950 and he followed with an even better 1951 campaign. His bat cratered in 1952, however. Well, it’s hard to blame the guy because he was thirty-five years old. Sam Jethroe didn’t get his shot at the big time until age 33. But we have a lot of data showing that he was a guy you wanted on your team. He had enough power to keep pitchers honest, he legged out plenty of extra base hits, and he drew his share of walks. His glove may be a matter of conjecture. In the majors, it was below average for a centerfielder. In the Negro Leagues, the little we know suggests he was pretty good. It wouldn’t be zany to think that data on him in the Negro Leagues (from early in his career) would look better than the MLB data from late in his career. We’ve given him half-credit for his earlier defense since it’s based on a very small sample, and kept his defense at the levels he showed in MLB for the back end of his career.

Sam Jethroe
Major League Stats | Minor League Stats | Negro Leagues Stats | Bio
Career: 1942–1958
Destination: NL 1942–1958
Missing data: 1948 (Negro Leagues)
Year Age Lg  Pos  PA Rbat Rbaser Rdp Rfield Rpos  RAA   WAA  Rrep RAR   WAR
===========================================================================
1942  25 NL  CF  580    8    4    0     2   - 1    14   1.6   18   32   3.7
1943  26 NL  CF  590   11    4    0     2   - 1    17   1.9   18   35   4.1
1944  27 NL  CF  580   20    4    0     2   - 1    25   2.7   18   43   4.7
1945  28 NL  CF  590   18    4    0     2   - 1    23   2.4   18   42   4.4
1946  29 NL  CF  580    7    4    0     2   - 1    12   1.4   18   31   3.5
1947  30 NL  CF  590   18    4    0     2   - 1    23   2.4   18   42   4.3
1948  31 NL  CF  600   15    4    1     3   - 1    22   2.3   19   41   4.3
1949  32 NL  CF  660   15    4    1     3   - 1    22   2.3   21   43   4.5
1950  33 NL  CF  641    6    5    1    -2   - 1     9   0.7   23   32   3.1
1951  34 NL  CF  645   19    8    2    -4   - 1    22   2.2   24   46   4.7
1952  35 NL  CF  687  - 9    2   -1    -5   - 1   -13  -1.5   24   11   1.0
1953  36 NL  CF  480   16    3    1    -3   - 1    17   1.7   15   32   3.2
1954  37 NL  CF  450    5    3    1    -2   - 1     6   0.6   14   20   2.1
1955  38 NL  CF  357    6    2    1    -2   - 1     7   0.7   12   18   1.9
1956  39 NL  CF  460    9    3    1    -3   - 1    10   1.0   14   24   2.6
1957  40 NL  CF  390    3    3    1    -2   - 1     3   0.3   12   15   1.6
1958  41 NL  CF  290  - 5    2    1    -2     0   - 4  -0.4    9    5   0.5
---------------------------------------------------------------------------
                9183  163   62    9    -5   -13   216  22.2  296  511  54.0

Hypothetical MLB Career Rankings (1871–1960)
PA: 40th   
Rbat: 153rd
WAA: 100th  
WAR: t-59th

Sam Jethroe was unusually durable as well as unusually fast, and our MLE picks up that fact. It’s what explains the very wide gap between his WAA and WAR. Two major league players whose careers his might resemble are Johnny Damon (with more batting value) and Vada Pinson (with more running value). They each had a broad base of skills, did a good job staying in the lineup, could really run, and played forever.

* * *

When next we meet our centerfielders, we’ll encounter Henry Kimbro, Jimmy Lyons, and Spotswood Poles, three pretty slick guys.

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