Our next honoree will come as something of a shock to a few people who have speculated in our comments sections about the name of our sixth Negro Leagues inductee. Actually, I suspect it will come as two shocks: Whom we didn’t choose and whom we did. Let’s start by celebrating our newest member of the Hall of Merit, Willie Wells.
If you’re stumped by this one, we admit that we found this one a little surprising too. The obvious reaction we’d expect would go something like, But Pop Lloyd is the consensus choice as the greatest shortstop in Negro Leagues history! We don’t care to dispute this, however, our own methods got us to the place where couldn’t actually tease out the overall difference between them. So we felt we must place them both in the elite group behind Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, our first two inductions.
Let’s break this down a little. Opinion on Wells generally suggests he’s the second or at worst third best shortstop in Negro Leagues history. The book on him goes like this: A good hitter with some power, a strong baserunner with speed, a slick fielder with an iffy arm, and a durable player with longevity. All of these apply to Lloyd as well with the likely exception of the questions about his throwing arm. But what does the actual record, as it currently stands, tell us? The slash lines:
Wells: .303/.375/.470/125 OPS+
Lloyd: .338/.389/.446/140 OPS+
Notice that the gap in their OPS+ is driven primarily by Lloyd’s 35-point advantage in batting average. Wells’s OBP-AVG is .072 and Lloyd’s is .051, so in terms of underlying skill at controlling the strike zone, Wells appears to have an advantage. The same is true with isolated power. Wells’ ISO is .167 while Lloyd shows up at .108. The advantage in underlying skill appears to belong again to Wells. At least on the surface. Of course, context is everything, and in the wide-open offenses of Wells’ age, higher walk rates and ISOs would be the expectation. But think for a moment about the difference in underlying skills between a .338 average from 1906–1932 and a .303 average from 1924–1948. There’s two kinds of hits, right? Extra-base hits and singles. The latter requires power. The former requires getting the ball past the infielders, which means the infield itself, the grass and the dirt, are key to hitting .300.
For long stretches of Wells’ career, he played on well-groomed diamonds because many latter-day Negro Leagues teams leased their home fields from big-league or high-minors teams. In 1936, for example, Wells’ age-30 season, three of the teams in Wells’ Negro National League played all or part of their home games at major-league or top-level league parks. When Lloyd was 30, in 1914, one team played in a former big-league park, the Chicago American Giants at Schorling Park. The upshot for Wells was that well-groomed fields give truer bounces to the fielders, which makes infield hits harder to come by. Similarly, poorly kempt fields will likely have higher grass, the easier to bury a bunt or beat out a slow roller. Many times, Negro Leagues teams, especially in earlier days, played anywhere they could, including dirt infields. Dirt infields provide contact hitters with an advantage because the ball skips faster through the infield. Lloyd as a lefty hitter could especially take advantage of each of these little opportunities. Wells as a righty on truer surfaces couldn’t. Maybe that’s not a huge advantage for Lloyd, but anything that chips away at his batting average, relative to Wells’, draws them closer together.
We noted previously when talking about Lloyd that a majority of his documented plate appearances come from age 36 onward. For Wells, the picture is more balanced. 61 percent of his PAs in the Negro Leagues Database come before his age-31 season, but the NLDB doesn’t include his four season in the Mexican League, which throws the majority back to his 30s. Moreover, unlike Lloyd, Wells’ prime is not well documents. We don’t have any league-game information for ages 20, 21, 23, 24, and 25, so there’s room for growth in his MLEs (and downside risk as well, of course).
But generally, I’d give Lloyd the advantage despite the skills advantage I suspect Wells actually has. It’s elsewhere that Wells really narrows the gap. It starts on the bases. Lloyd, despite his reputation, stole relatively little. He hit in the middle of the order, explaining some of it, but basically our estimates indicate Wells has something like a ten-run advantage here. Not much, but narrowing the gap still a little more.
It’s in the field, surprisingly, where Wells really steps forward. In 295 games in the Negro Leagues Database, Wells picked up an estimate 36 runs, a rate of almost 6 per 154 games. Lloyd, by contrast, adds 34 runs in 618 games, a rate less than half that of Wells. Our estimates of the two players widen that gap a bit as well. We show Lloyd with a very fine +41 fielding runs. Wells’ total dwarfs Lloyd’s at 113. That’s about seven wins’ worth of fielding. Now maybe the same argument about well-groomed fields works in reverse to Lloyd’s disadvantage, but if that were so, his contemporary Dick Wallace wouldn’t show up as a +85 player in a career of about 2,000 fewer plate appearances than Pop.
Anyway, when you add all this up, our estimates for Lloyd and Wells come out startlingly close, in fact, within fractions of wins of one another. As more data arrives, we will update our estimates, and perhaps that will open a wedge between them, but right this second, we can’t really draw too much of a distinction between them.
Now for the fellow many of our commenters may be shocked to find missing. That’s Bullet Rogan. This one feels a little more simple to explain. Dihigo and Rogan are kind of the same guy in that they are the great two-way players of the Negro Leagues. Dihigo could play anywhere, and Rogan was restricted to the outfield and only fielded well in right field. Dihigo was a better all-around hitter/runner than Rogan, though the latter was the better pitcher. So here’s the trouble for Rogan in a nutshell: We can’t justify ranking him above Dihigo, and we can’t justify ranking him, on his pitching alone, with Satchel or with the fellow we’ll talk about next week. So he gets squeezed out of this little clump of players.
As for next week’s honoree, well, I’ve just about given away the shop on that one, but you’ll just have to wait for seven more days for our election post on Johnny Wright.