Second base has morphed as a position over the years. Before fields were well manicured and bunting for a hit was still a big part of the game, great defense belonged at third more than at second. As the double play became more important, a second sacker adept at making the pivot grew in value. And while sacrifice bunts were still in vogue, it seemed every team need to filed a scrappy second baseman who hit second and was willing to lay one down.
Today you’ll see the first of two weeks of rankings at second. Just as at first, our lists are pretty similar. One of the biggest differences is Eric’s inclusion of Rod Carew at the position at which he was best, while I included him at the position he played most.
If you haven’t yet, please take a look at the first two posts in this series.
One of the real underappreciated superstars of our time, Cano isn’t the player he once was, yet he continues to provide good value to a Mariner team most thought ridiculously overpaid when they gave him ten years and $240 million prior to the 2014 season. With more than 20 WAR over four seasons, Seattle has done quite well thus far. But Cano is 35 this year and still has six years left. This isn’t going to end well. It never was.
There are only 41 majority 2B in history with 1000+ trips to the plate from age-35 on. Hall of Famers Red Schoendienst and Nellie Fox are on that list. They had 2.3 and 2.0 respectively. Ryne Sandberg, Frankie Frisch, Bobby Grich, Craig Biggio, and Willie Randolph were all below 9 WAR total. In fact, only ten 2B ever totaled 10+ WAR from age-35 until the end.
There’s hope though. The best four on the list are Collins, Lajoie, Morgan, and Gehringer, my 2-5 all time. And the profile of those guys suggests Cano could follow a similar path – they all did it mainly with the bat, which is really all Cano has left. Well, kind of. Last year was Cano’s worst at the dish since his rookie offering of 2005. I worry for the M’s that Cano’s decline might be steep and might have started last season. If the bet is on whether or not he passes Bobby Grich for eighth on my list, I’m actually going to take the under. Sorry, Robby. —Miller
Cano is staying right where he is in my view. If I include Jackie Robinson’s MLE value, Cano can’t catch him. If I don’t include MLE figures, Cano will pass Jackie by this or next year and won’t catch Rodney Cline Carew. Well, life isn’t a hotel, so you don’t get everything you want. Cano will have to make do with being the best second baseman to hang it up in the last 35 to 40 years.—Eric
The only pace he’s likely to go is downward on my list. He’d still get my vote because it’s unlikely he can do enough damage to his case, especially on a team that’s too smart to let him suck up playing time if he can’t play anymore.—Eric
Utley is 15th all-time on the list I discussed above in the Cano comment. And he’s done it differently than those guys. Since turning 35, he’s had positive value in the field, on the bases, and avoiding double plays. What he can’t do is hit. The Dodgers signed him for two more years this off-season, which seems insane until you realize it’s for only $2 million total. Just 0.8 WAR over those two seasons will put Utley ahead of Fred Dunlap. I don’t think he can do it. —Miller
If conventional wisdom is equivalent to Hall of Fame support, the answer has to be Bobby Grich. In his one time on the BBWAA ballot, he received exactly 1/10th the support of Maury Wills. Rusty Staub, George Foster, and Vida Blue all more than doubled Grich. Tip of the cap to Willie Randolph in this category too. Even though he’s in both the Hall of Merit and Hall of Stats, there’s not a lot of clamoring for his Cooperstown induction. —Miller
I’m sure I’ve written elsewhere that Chase Utley is the Bobby Grich Lite of the contemporary game. He trades some of Grich’s defense and power for some baserunning, batting average, and DP avoidance. He also got a later start than Grich, so more of his career takes place outside his prime athletic years. But like Grich he does the invisible and less-visible stuff super well, and the glory stuff merely well. And that’s how we have a Hall-level player who will be a Hall afterthought.
Also, let’s give Cupid Childs his due. No one outside the Hall of Merit voters and nerds like us or Adam Darowski ever talks about this guy. No one ever remembered him before the baseball encyclopedias started pubbing. He played when everyone could hit, then he didn’t make it into the time when a lack of hitting ability was glorified as The Deadball Era, and which got a lot of attention from the early Hall voters because they remembered actually watching those guys.—Eric
On one hand, I want to say that it’s on Fred Dunlap. On the other, though I rank him 17th and Eric won’t introduce him in even the first few spots next week, it’s not like either one of us is pushing for his inclusion into the HoME. And we agree that he’s the third or fourth best in his era at his position. So while there’s a difference in our rankings, it’s not like I think Eric’s off in a meaningful way. In fact, I prefer his ranking to mine.—Miller
Let us posit for a moment that a major author’s most popular work is his own but also could highly influence public opinion. In the case of Dick Allen, Bill James’ deeply critical portrait may have done more to influence the public perception of Allen than anything the player had done in decades. At a much simpler and less emotionally charged level, we wonder if he’s done something similar for Ross Barnes.
James argued at length in the New Historical Baseball Abstract that Barnes deserved no place among the game’s 100 best second basemen. His biggest beef was that Barnes was probably the best fair-foul hitter there ever was and dominated the league using the tactic. I’ve played Olde-Tyme baseball, and it truly works. Ross was a righty, and righties stand at the plate with their hands in the vicinity of their right armpit or shoulder. Unless they are Julio Franco or Eric Davis, of course. For the fair-foul hit, as the ball nears the plate, the batter shifts his hands toward the front shoulder then chops downward toward his body, and hard, so that the path of his hands and the bat run just outside his left leg. If done well, the batter is almost catching the ball on its downward descent, and the ball strikes the ground almost at the hitter’s front foot. It smacks the ground in fair territory then bounds along in foul ground, allowing the batter to reach first with relative ease. Obviously this sets up a cat-and-mouse game with the corner infielders, especially the one nearest the batter. That means there’s lots of holes to hit through by swinging away. Since there were few double plays turned before gloves, middle infielders didn’t have to cheat toward the bag. It’s actually a fun way to play the game. Remember to that in Barnes’ time, pitchers threw underhanded and with less speed than they soon would.
Baseball dispatched with the rule in 1877 by declaring that any ball hit fair that went foul before reaching the bag was a foul ball. This kept the flow of the game moving along nicely and made infield play in general more interesting. Bill James contends, “deprived of this [the fair-foul hit], and fighting some injuries, Barnes was out of the league in a few years.” James also relies on the idea that the majors weren’t worthy of the distinction until about 1885. It “seems indefensible to me,” he writes, “to extend the status backward beyond 1876.”
There’s a few places where we disagree with Bill on this.
The major-league distinction: Bill knows more about baseball than Miller and I combined five times over, so maybe we’re barking up the wrong tree. His argument is that any old league prior to the mid-1880s could have been major since it was the Wild West of baseball out there. But after baseball outside of Cincinnati went overtly professional in 1871, leading amateur clubs in the east and west (well, west back then was the Great Lakes, the Jackson-Turner thesis was even dreamt of yet) formed the National Association of Base Ball Clubs. Or the NA as Miller and I usually call it. The collapse of the NA led to William Hulbert founding the NL in 1876. Virtually all the best players of the NA immediately went to the NL. Virtually all those players stayed in the NL or the upstart American Association prior to 1885 despite the existence of other professional leagues. For example, in 1886, Joe Start, among the best players nationwide in the 1860s, a stalwart of the NA and early NL, played his last game. Cal McVey, one of the original Cincinnati Reds moved to the NA and the NL and eventually gave up baseball and moved to the west coast in 1880. Cap Anson, Deacon White, Jim O’Rourke, and Ezra Sutton debuted in the NA, moved into the NL and played until someone tore the uniform off their backs. It seems strange to us to summarily simply slap away evidence of a player’s quality as James does with early professional baseball seasons.
This stance shows up again for James in the shortstops section of the New Historical Abstract. To be more precise, it doesn’t show up. James draws up a list 125 players deep and never includes the name George Wright whose career includes more seasons than Barnes and whose reputation in his times outshines Barnes’. At first base, at least Joe Start gets a nod: #107 there, behind Joe Pepitone, Dick Hoblitzell, and Deron Johnson among those close in rank. None of those guys was ever even discussed among the best in the game. Start was considered one of baseball’s great stars in the 1860s. And how then does one rank Start at 107 and not rank George Wright at all? If baseball wasn’t MLB quality prior to the mid 1880s, how can Anson rank 11th at his position, O’Rourke at 37th at his? But then why would Deacon White rank 76th? So we think the distinction might exist, but that it’s a distinction that makes no difference. That means that, for us, Barnes’ entire career is in play.
The rules: James says that Barnes’ case relies on a tactic that was outlawed because the league thought it was “cheap trickery.” By similar reasoning, we could reduce the rank of any and all spitballers. We might also consider reducing anyone’s ranking who played prior to the adoption of the foul-strike rule in the nascent years of the AL/NL era. After all, a hitter could just flick away pitches without penalty, which is kind of a cheap trick too. The rules is the rules until they isn’t the rules. Players will always find innovative ways to create value. Most fans find it “colorful” when King Kelly yells “Kelly in a third” in the middle of a play to catch a pop fly to the bench that the third baseman couldn’t reach. Now that’s trickery. Some observers, including the baseball commish, say that shifting borders on trickery and hurts the integrity of the game. We can only look at what a fellow did in the context he played in. For us that’s the only fair thing to do, though we understand why Bill might feel differently.
“Some injuries”: As reported in his SABR biography, Barnes suffered some type of chronic, debilitating illness. Researcher Robert H. Schaefer suggested in 1999 that it was the ague. Whatever it was, Barnes never, ever returned to anything near his peak. We find it hard to believe that a player would malinger such that he never played effectively again.
Performance after the fair-foul rule change: Barnes did, indeed, fail to ever play at his accustomed level after the rule change. On the other hand, in his comeback attempts in 1879 and 1881, despite losing 150 points of batting average, he nonetheless managed a 104 OPS+ in 650 PAs. That’s not exactly abject failure. His fielding appears to have gone well downhill, however. Overall, WAR sees him as a slightly above average player in both seasons.
Reliance on the fair-foul hit: Maybe the most compelling reason not to dismiss Ross Barnes is that he did not merely rely on trickery. The guy was a complete player. He led the league in walks twice and finished in the top 10 six times, leading the NL in career walks until 1880, and after he hung it up in 1881, he remained second. Barnes led the league in steals once and finished within the top ten four other times as well. From 1871–1875, his 103 steals led the NA…by 29 swipes!. His known stolen base record yields a 79% success rate. Most of all, Barnes could really pick it. At both second base and shortstop, in the NA, where we have play by play records, he saved a total of 53 runs in 265 games. Given that the league as a whole had a very wide range of fielding ability, but that’s pretty impressive. Those 53 runs were second only to Bob Ferguson, whose nickname “Death to Flying Things” describes his fielding prowess. Barnes trailed by just two runs but exceeded the third-place fielder by 15. At his retirement after 1881, Barnes ranked fourth in fielding runs despite missing two and two-thirds seasons due to his illness. Ross Barnes did everything on a ball field well, except stay healthy. And even that last wasn’t true until it suddenly was.
Which is to say that if Bill James’ arguments against Barnes as worthy of a significant ranking represent an important opinion in the baseball world, we disagree with him strongly. We have more in common with the SABR 19th Century committee who named him its 2013 Overlooked 19th Century Baseball Legend.—Eric
Come back in a week for the next 20 second basemen.
Friend of the HoME verdun2 writes an excellent blog with a recurring post, A Dozen Things You Should Know About, in which he introduces his readers to an interesting player, very often from the 19th century. I enjoy all of those posts. I enjoy those on players I’m unfamiliar with the most. So not long ago when I ran into Fred Carroll while researching Buster Posey, I thought about introducing him to HoME readers.
In tribute to verdun2, check out a baker’s dozen things you might like to know about Fred Carroll.
Thanks for the inspiration, verdun2!
For me anyway, 2004 was a pretty big year. I left my home in New England for what I thought and still think will be forever, taking a tenure-track faculty position. I watched my Red Sox win their first World Series in 86 years. And I learned that Mets fans were friends, not enemies, because we shared a mutual rival. (I also learned that Yankee fans were pretty okay too once the Red Sox also has something to brag about. Alas, that’ll have to be saved for another day). And that was the year I was introduced to one of my favorite players of the last 20 years, David Wright.
I write this now because I fear Wright’s career may be over. What looked like a Hall of Fame career as recently as 2013 seems like it will fall short by enough that there’s not any real debate. In this post, I want to look at certain points in Wright’s career when there may have been debate, and I want to look at other guys who seemed like sure things only to fall short. In his thirteenth and possibly final season, Wright has limped in at -.2 WAR go far. So until Evan Longoria passes him in a season or three, Wright will remain the 25th best third sacker ever by my numbers.
For my study, I’m taking every third baseman I’ve ranked, all players from Mike Schmidt through Pinky Higgins to see where Wright ranked at various points through his career.
Through five seasons, Wright ranked seventh, behind Wade Boggs, Eddie Mathews, Home Run Baker, Mike Schmidt, Longoria, and Ned Williamson. Wright’s next three seasons were fairly pedestrian by HoME standards, so he began to lose ground.
Through six years, he fell to ninth as Ken Boyer and Bill Bradley passed him. Boyer is an all-time great, but Bradley really isn’t.
After seven years, George Brett, Jimmy Collins, and Ron Santo moved past too. Wright stood #12 seven seasons into his career. Since three great players passed him, this isn’t that big of a deal.
After another so-so campaign in year eight, only Deacon White moved past among our 3B. Wright stood #13, behind a bunch of HoMErs and ahead of plenty. A couple of good seasons to follow would right the boat and improve his standing.
At 6.4 WAR, Wright’s ninth season was excellent. Still, Scott Rolen jumped ahead, dropping Wright to #14.
His tenth season was his last good one, putting up about 6 WAR in 2013. If we take just the first decade for all of our third basemen, Wright sits at tenth. He passes White, Rolen, Bradley, and Longoria (who’s in only his ninth season now). As a top-ten guy, we were looking at someone who could have fought for inner circle status. But 2014 was a down campaign. And there was no health in 2015 or 2016.
David Wright will not be a HoMEr.
What I did here is to look at everyone I’ve ranked at every position in their first ten years to see who might fall out of HoME contention after looking so great for a decade.
At catcher, we have Johnny Bench, Mike Piazza, Buck Ewing, Gary Carter, Mickey Cochrane, Thurman Munson, Ivan Rodriguez, Charlie Bennett, Joe Mauer, and Yogi Berra. Of those ten, eight are in, and Pudge and Mauer are going.
Among first basemen, we’re seeing a veritable who’s who at the position. Albert Pujols leads the way, followed by Stan Musial, Roger Connor, Lou Gehrig, Dan Brouthers, Johnny Mize, Jeff Bagwell, George Sisler, Jimmie Foxx, and Ernie Banks. Nine are in, and Albert is going five years after he hangs ‘em up.
Second base brings some players who are more like Wright. The full list contains Rogers Hornsby, Eddie Collins, Jackie Robinson, Joe Gordon, Nap Lajoie, Ross Barnes, Robinson Cano, Frankie Frisch, Cupid Childs, and Fred Dunlap. The first eight are either in or going. Then we have two non-HoMErs. In defense of Cupid Childs, he was very close. Overall, he ranks ahead of HoMErs Billy Herman, Tony Phillips, and Jeff Kent. We decided to elect the other three second basemen based on greater need in their era. As for Dunlap, he was an 1880’s star who did his best work for the St. Louis Maroons of the Union Association in 1884.
At third, it’s Wright and New Williamson in the top-10 and outside the Hall. Williamson is a bit like Childs in that he could be in if we went straight by our rankings, as he’s one slot ahead of HoMEr Sal Bando, at least for me.
All but one of the best nineteen shortstops are either in or going. The best ten include few surprises: Honus Wagner, Arky Vaughan, Alex Rodriguez, Jack Glasscock, Cal Ripken, Hughie Jennings, Barry Larkin, Joe Tinker, Bill Dahlen, and Lou Boudreau. A-Rod is clearly going, and each of the other nine aside from Hughie Jennings is in. Like Childs and Williamson, Jennings leads some HoMErs at his position. Dave Bancroft is a shade behind but had far more depth to his career, and George Wright was pretty clearly the best player in the game in the 1870’s. Unlike Childs and Williamson, Jennings still has an in as a combination candidate if we choose to go that way.
Left field presents us with another Wright-like player. The full list reads Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Carl Yastrzemski, Al Simmons, Joe Jackson, Bobby Veach, Ed Delahanty, Goose Goslin, and Ralph Kiner. Kiner was a seven-time home run champ who could also draw walks. But he did nothing else well, was a miserable fielder, and played in the majors only ten seasons because of a back injury.
Center field can be a young man’s game, so I thought there may be some interlopers. Nope. It’s Willie Mays, Tris Speaker, Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Joe DiMaggio, Ken Griffey, Billy Hamilton, Richie Ashburn, Andruw Jones, and Duke Snider. Andruw Jones is the only one of those players who’s not in. And as a guy who I rank eleventh all-time (his defense was that good) at the position, he’s a sure thing to go for us. The only problem will be when. That depends on the BBWAA getting their act together and electing some of the backlog.
In right field it’s Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Frank Robinson, Elmer Flick, Reggie Jackson, Paul Waner, Ichiro Suzuki, King Kelly, Mel Ott, and Al Kaline. Ichiro is the only one who’s not in. Yes, Ichiro is going, though if he hung out in Japan for one more year before coming to Seattle, he wouldn’t be.
So let’s look at the entire list of top-ten guys at their positions through their first decade in the majors who aren’t either in the HoME or going.
That’s it. Of the 80 guys who ranked in the top-ten at their respective positions through the first ten seasons of their careers, 74 are either in the HoME or going. That’s 92.5%. Only the five above and David Wright are out.
I know top-ten is quite an artificial end point. So let’s extend it to twelve. We add Bill Dickey, Roy Campanella, Dick Allen, Frank Thomas, Bobby Grich, Chase Utley, Deacon White, Buddy Bell, Joe Cronin, Art Fletcher, Fred Clarke, Jimmy Sheckard, George Gore, Kenny Lofton, Bobby Bonds, and Andre Dawson. Of those extra sixteen, fourteen are in. The other two are Chase Utley, a guy with an reasonable case that he’s continuing to build, and George Gore, a guy who tops three HoMErs at his position but comes from and over-represented era.
If we look at the best dozen at each position (and say Utley is going), 92.7% are either in the HoME or going. That number highlights just how surprising Wright’s career turn has been.
Not many things would make me a lot happier than seeing David Wright back on the field adding to his HoME case. And to have a reasonable chance to get in, he’d have to catch Sal Bando among third basemen. Three months ago, I’d have laid odds that would happen. Of course, I’m an unabashed David Wright supporter. As it stands now, he’d need two more seasons of 2.5 and 2.0 WAR to get past Bando. Health willing, David. Health willing.
In my attempt to justify supporting Athletic and Brewer third baseman Sal Bando, I noticed that he totaled more WAR from 1969-1973 than any player in the game. Clearly, Bando isn’t in the Hall of Fame, nor is in the Hall of Miller and Eric. So I got to wondering, how many other players led the game in WAR over five years and aren’t in the Hall or HoME? So that’s what we’re going to look at today. Who was the game’s best non-pitcher by WAR from 1871-1875, from 1872-1876, from 1873-1877… You get the point. Right?
1871-1875, 1872-1876, 1873-1877
Ross Barnes was the dominant player in the earliest days of the majors, leading our troops through the game’s first three five-year runs. While Barnes isn’t in the Hall, he reached the HoME on his sixth ballot in 1926.
Deacon White took over for the next two periods, starting in 1874 and ending in 1879. The star third sacker had to wait until 2013 to make it to the Hall, but he got into the HoME in our very first election in 1901.
1876-1880, 1877-1881, 1878-1882, 1879-1883
The next four periods belonged to Cap Anson. The first player ever with 3000 hits reached the Hall in 1939 and the HoME the first time he was eligible in 1906.
Who’s Fred Dunlap, and what’s he doing on this list? Sure Shop was a second baseman who played for parts of a dozen seasons, though only ten full seasons. He got a ton of his value, as did a lot of players, from the 1884 Union Association, a failed “major” league that only existed in 1884. Twelve teams participated, only eight of which topped 25 games. Dunlap earned a translated 7.4 WAR that season for a St. Louis Maroons team that went 94-19. He won the triple slash triple crown and also led the league in hits, runs, and homers. The 1936 the Veterans Committee supported him with 2.5 votes (don’t ask), while we wrote his obituary after his fifth election in 1921.
1881-1885, 1882-1886, 1883-1887
Dan Brouthers won our next three games. He reached the Hall of Fame in 1945 and the HoME on his first ballot in 1906.
1884-1888, 1885-1889, 1886-1890, 1887-1891, 1888-1892
Roger Connor finished the ABC 1B who dominated the early days of the game with five wins. Like Anson and Brouthers, he reached the Hall in his inaugural 1906 campaign. And he joined his mates in the Hall in 1976.
Not so fast, Dan Brouthers is back for one more run.
Sliding Billy Hamilton with his great speed and strike zone control took our next two periods. The Hall honored him in 1961. The HoME did the same his first time around in 1911.
The next two periods go to Ed Delahanty, who swept away the game before being swept over Niagara Falls to his death in 1903. The Hall elected Big Ed in 1945. We did the same when he was first on our ballot in 1911.
Hughie Jennings becomes the first guy to take the title just once and still make it into the Hall. Ee-Yah got to Cooperstown in 1945. But he never made it to the Hall of Miller and Eric, as we considered his case 35 times before writing his obituary in 1997. The problem for Jennings, we think, is that he had four incredible seasons, one other very strong one, and nothing else. He becomes the second non-HoMEr to dominate his league over a five-year period.
1895-1899, 1896-1900, 1897-1901, 1898-1902
Ed Delahanty returns with four more titles. Jennings interrupted Big Ed’s run with a very short period of greatness.
1899-1903, 1900-1904, 1901-1905, 1902-1906, 1903-1907, 1904-1908, 1905-1909, 1906-1910
Based on this run of eight straight periods, it might seem that Honus Wagner was the game’s greatest player to this point in history. I can buy that. The Flying Dutchman was a member of the Hall’s inaugural 1936 class and made it into the HoME when he hit our ballot in 1926.
1907-1911, 1908-1912, 1909-1913
You might have thought Ty Cobb would have a longer run atop the game than three periods. He got the most votes in the Hall’s first vote in 1936. And that’s the same year he reached the HoME on his first ballot.
Might Eddie Collins and his two titles rank as the game’s most underrated inner circle guy? And is that even a distinction? In 1939 he made it to the Hall. In 1936 he made it to the HoME on his first try.
Tris Speaker took the honors for just one five-year run. But the Grey Eagle made it to Cooperstown in 1937 and the HoME in his first try in 1936.
1913-1917, 1914-1918, 1915-1919
I knew it didn’t make sense that Ty Cobb led for just three periods. Here are three more.
1916-1920, 1917-1921, 1918-1922, 1919-1923, 1920-1924
Lemme tell ya, sports fans, about a guy named Babe Ruth and his five periods atop the list. He was an original Hall member, finishing second to Cobb in 1936. And he became a HoMEr in 1941.
It’s nice that Rogers Hornsby could get his place in the sun. Were it not for this little blip, the 1942 Hall of Famer and first-ballot 1941 HoMEr might be the best player never to take the five-year title.
1922-1926, 1923-1927, 1924-1928, 1925-1929, 1926-1930, 1927-1931, 1928-1932, 1929-1933
Surprising nobody, Babe Ruth is back for eight more. That’s thirteen titles. Our reigning champ.
1930-1934, 1931-1935, 1932-1936, 1933-1937, 1934-1938
I’m a bit surprised that the run at the top, five wins, lasted as long as it did for Lou Gehrig. The Iron Horse reached the Hall after a 1939 special election. His election to the HoME, on his first ballot, in 1946, was equally special.
The baseball player most likely to show up in your crossword puzzle, Mel Ott, is next. The Hall honored him in 1951. We did the same the first time we could in 1956.
Mr. Coffee, Marilyn Monroe, and this! Joe DiMaggio checks in next with his two titles. The Yankee Clipper became a Hall of Famer in 1955. The HoME erected his plaque in 1961, the first time he was eligible.
One and done for Teddy Ballgame? Ted Williams reached active duty status in the navy, missed the 1943 season, and still led over this period. He became a Hall of Famer in 1966 and a HoMEr on his first crack that same year.
Even during WWII, our winner makes sense. Lou Boudreau was the game’s best player for two periods. He reached Cooperstown in 1970. And like so many others on this list, he was a first ballot HoMEr in 1961.
Did you know that Stan Musial led the NL in triples five times? Now he has two more titles. The Hall elected him in 1969. The HoME did so when he first became eligible in 1971.
Old Shufflefoot, Lou Boudreau, is back.
And Ted Williams is back from the war and back on top two more times.
At least until Stan Musial took the title back with two more.
Jackie Robinson took the game by storm and quickly became one of its greats. Cooperstown acknowledged him in 1962. We did the same on his first ballot in 1966.
How great is this? Stan Musial is back for a third pair of titles, making him the only player ever to retake the title two times after losing it.
1952-1956, 1953-1957, 1954-1958, 1955-1959, 1956-1960
I’m a little surprised Mickey Mantle’s run was quite as long as his five periods considering the competition at the time. The Hall welcomed the Commerce Comet in 1974. The HoME did so as soon as we could in 1976.
1957-1961, 1958-1962, 1959-1963, 1960-1964, 1961-1965, 1962-1966, 1963-1967, 1964-1968
Yeah, Hank Aaron is the best player ever to never top this list, I’d say. This run of eight belongs to Willie Mays. The Hall said “Hey” in 1979. And on his first ballot, we did the same thing that same year.
No run for Aaron, but one for Roberto Clemente? Okay. A special election sent Clemente to upstate New York in 1973 just three months after his death took him to upstate heaven. Clemente was a first ballot HoMEr in 1978.
Carl Yastrzemski, buoyed by his triple crown season of 1967, gets two periods on this list. We welcomed him on the first ballot the same year the Hall did, 1989.
Roberto Clemente is back for one more go.
Finally, here’s the reason I’m writing this post. Sal Bando was baseball’s best non-pitcher by WAR for a five-year stretch. He becomes only the third player ever with that distinction who’s not in the HoME. The first two, as you’ll recall, were Fred Dunalp and Hughie Jennings. Both have a fatal flaw. Dunlap has a lot of his value tied up in a dubious 1884 campaign, which is how he got to the five-year top in the first place. And Jennings only has five good years, albeit four great ones, which is how he got on this list. Bando is different. He led the game for five seasons, yet he also posted two All-Star-level seasons and three others of 3+ WAR outside of that stretch. Bando is indeed a strange player by that account. The combination of his uniqueness in this regard, an underpopulated era, and an underpopulated position give me confidence that my continued support of Bando is wise.
1970-1974, 1971-1975, 1972-1976, 1973-1977
Joe Morgan was a little guy who packed a big punch and won four titles. Cooperstown welcomed Little Joe in 1990. We did the same. It was his first ballot.
1974-1978, 1975-1979, 1976-1980, 1977-1981, 1978-1982, 1979-1983, 1980-1984
Eight home run titles and outstanding defense helped to make Mike Schmidt the best in the game seven times. He reached the Hall and the HoME as soon as he could, in 1995.
Rickey Henderson did it with speed, defense, pop, and plate discipline for these two periods and nearly his whole career. Cooperstown elected him in 2009. I would expect the HoME to follow suit that year.
1983-1987, 1984-1988, 1985-1989, 1986-1990
Wade Boggs was an on base machine. With four periods of dominance, getting into the Hall in 2005 was no surprise. A couple of elections from now I fully expect he’ll make it to the HoME.
1987-1991, 1988-1992, 1989-1993, 1990-1994, 1991-1995, 1992-1996, 1993-1997, 1994-1998, 1995-1999
Long list, huh. Nine periods. It’s Barry Bonds. Even if the Hall never welcomes him, the HoME will in 2013.
Another guy who has Hall of fame troubles, Alex Rodriguez, breaks Bonds’ streak. We’ll see in a few weeks if he has anything left.
1997-2001, 1998-2002, 1999-2003, 2000-2004, 2001-2005
It’s Barry Bonds again. These five titles give him a record 14 in all. Yeah, he was this good.
2002-2006, 2003-2007, 2004-2008, 2005-2009, 2006-2010, 2007-2011, 2008-2012
Albert Pujols might not be the beast he once was, but he’s still averaging 3.5 WAR per year on the west coast.
If you’re wondering whether or not Robinson Cano will get into the Hall of Fame, the comparison to the above players would seem to be in order. Every other player with at least two such titles is either in the Hall, going, or named Bonds.
There have been 35 players to lead baseball in non-pitcher WAR in history. Of those, 25 made it into the Hall of Miller and Eric on their first ballot: Deacon White, Cap Anson, Dan Brouthers, Roger Connor, Billy Hamilton, Ed Delahanty, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Eddie Collins, Tris Speaker, Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, Lou Gehrig, Mel Ott, Joe DiMaggio, Ted Williams, Lou Boudreau, Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Carl Yastrzemski, Joe Morgan, Mike Schmidt.
Three others will get there as soon as they’re eligible: Rickey Henderson, Wade Boggs, Barry Bonds.
Three more are still active: Alex Rodriguez, Albert Pujols, Robinson Cano.
One player, Ross Barnes, took six ballots. But to be clear, Barnes should have gotten into the HoME in 1901. Eric voted for him, but I was being very patient and overly cautious.
There are only three players remaining.
In J.D. Salinger’s classic, The Catcher in the Rye, which to my surprise as a youth has nothing to do with baseball, Holden Caulfield once asked and answered, “Who wants flowers when you’re dead? Nobody.” Well, there will be no flowers around here. Just simple obituaries with some baseball cards thrown in for fun. At the HoME, we’re all about electing the right 212 players, and we think Caulfield had it right. No flowers.
Of the 744 players who have been or will be up for consideration, we’ve held 24 votes, elected 120, and put to rest 329 others. We now have 295 players to consider for our 92 remaining spots in the HoME. In other words, we can now elect barely over 31% of our remaining players. Please read more about the dead below and by looking over our RIP category.
And after each election, I’ll offer the following chart to keep you apprised of our progress.
Year Carried New Considered Elected Obituaries Continuing to Over Nominees this Election Next Election 1984 50 5 55 2 6 47 1983 52 8 60 5 5 50 1982 51 8 59 3 4 52 1981 59 8 67 1 15 51 1980 59 8 67 3 5 59 1979 67 6 73 6 8 59 1978 78 6 84 5 12 67 1977 86 6 92 2 11 79 1976 82 26 108 6 16 86 1971 87 21 108 6 20 82 1966 94 26 120 7 26 87 1961 91 24 115 6 15 94 1956 92 32 124 7 26 91 1951 93 27 120 9 19 92 1946 94 26 120 8 19 93 1941 82 29 111 5 12 94 1936 75 29 104 8 14 82 1931 69 17 86 2 9 75 1926 71 25 96 9 18 69 1921 66 27 93 4 18 71 1916 53 31 84 5 13 66 1911 47 20 67 5 9 53 1906 33 28 61 3 11 47 1901 0 54 54 3 18 33
One of the game’s greatest control pitchers, Babe Adams won 194 games for the Pirates early in the 20th century. His pinpoint control helped him lead the NL in WHIP five times. And he set a record in 1914 by pitching an insane 21 innings against the Giants without allowing a walk. Unfortunately for him, he lost the game. In 1909 Adams became the only rookie in history to pitch a shutout in Game 7 of the World Series, at least until John Lackey matched him in 2005. In fact, Babe won each of his three World Series starts in 1909 to propel the Pirates to victory, the only three starts he’d ever make in the Series.
Bob Bailey participated in 17 seasons in the majors for six teams and played every position other than pitcher and catcher. He never led the league in anything meaningful, never made an All-Star team, and never played in the post-season, though he was on the roster of the 1976 champion Reds. He was never a star, but he did post over 1500 hits and nearly 30 WAR. Good for Bob.
Fred Dunlap led the National League in doubles in 1880 for the Cleveland Blues when he smacked 27 two-baggers. He never led the NL in another category in eight more full seasons. To get an idea as to the relative strength of the Union Association in its only year, 1884, we can note that Dunlap led that circuit in runs, hits, homers, BA, OBP, SLG, OPS+, total bases, extra base hits, times on base, HR/AB, assists at 2B, putouts at 2B, double plays at 2B, and WAR. Just one example, I know. Maybe one is enough.
The first Blue Jay ever to play in the All-Star Game, where he struck out against Tom Seaver, Ron Fairly played for six teams over 21 years and totaled over 1900 hits and over 200 home runs. Fairly retired with a trio of World Series rings, only one of which he really contributed to in October. He helped the Dodgers that season with homers in Games 1 and 6, and he hit .379 on the Series. Trivially, Fairly is the only Canadian player who played for both Canadian teams in the All-Star Game.
Always remembered as the guy who the Mets traded Nolan Ryan to get, Jim Fregosi should also be remembered as one heck of a player, though not for the Mets. When Fregosi was sent to NY, he was a six-time All-Star and a guy who averaged over 5 WAR per season for the previous nine years. That includes the year right before he was sent to the Mets, when he was basically valueless after a tumor was found in his foot. The Jim Fregosi who the Mets acquired was a bona fide star. But he wasn’t once he got there. He wasn’t healthy in Queens and was sold to the Rangers after just 526 trips to the plate. Here’s how good Fregosi was – he averaged more WAR per season in California than Ryan did. Pretty impressive.
Davey Johnson is just the type of guy people talk about when they talk about steroids. In 1973 the second baseman hit 43 homers, a record at his position. Over his twelve other seasons, he hit just 93 more. However, I come here not to bury Johnson, but to praise him. He won three Gold Gloves and made four All-Star teams. He crushed the ball at a .333 clip in the 1970 playoffs as his Orioles bested the Reds to give Johnson his second World Series ring. Johnson began his second career as a manager with the Mets in 1984. In his 17 years at the helm, he finished first or second a Weaverian 14 times. In the 13 years he managed from day one, he finished first six times, second seven times, and third once. As one of the early adopters of Earnshaw Cook’s “Percentage Baseball,” at least there’s a place for him in the Sabermetric Hall of Fame.
That’s it for this election. Please visit our Honorees page to see the plaques of those who have made it into the HoME, and check back here after the 1985 election for more obituaries.
There are a bunch of players who we’ve discussed along the way who are neither in the HoME, nor have they received HoME obituaries. What that means is that we’ve discussed them amongst ourselves, but not with you. So that begs the question, if a discussion happens in relation with a blog without being available to those who read the blog, did it ever really happen? Think about that for a moment. Vexing, I know.
Also vexing are the cases of the 21 players you’ll read about below as we continue this election cycle addressing the backlog. Some players below will get into the HoME for sure. Others won’t. On Friday we discussed the backlog on the mound. On Wednesday, it’ll be those clogging up the outfield. Today, it’s infielders. Below you’ll see our infield backlog, along with the years they played and whether or not they’re members of the Hall of Fame, the Hall of Merit, and the Hall of Stats. You’ll also see some pithy commentary as to why they should or shouldn’t be in and then a bit of somewhat deeper analysis. Enjoy!
Why he shouldn’t be in: Basically the equal to Darrell Porter
Other thoughts: As the man who brought shin guards and other protective equipment to the game, Bresnahan has an argument beyond just his play. Of course, that equipment argument isn’t something we credit at the HoME. He has a few seasons at the All-Star level. But so does Del Crandall. He has nine seasons of at least two wins. But that’s fewer than Bob Boone. Bresnahan’s argument is one of era. It was so hard to play the position when he did, so he’s worthy of some extra credit. If he’s not, he’s probably not getting in.
Why he shouldn’t be in: His truncated MLB career just doesn’t contain enough value
Other thoughts: Campy is the Larry Doby of catchers. He’s also heartbreaking. But our rules are our rules. Like Doby, however, should we do a subsequent project to elect Negro Leaguers, it’s strongly likely that Campanella will get a plaque. For now, his case rests on seven seasons of peak value. We’d have to like that peak better than the careers of Wally Schang or Roger Bresnahan or even Ernie Lombardi.
Why he shouldn’t be in: Maybe not in the position’s top-20
Other thoughts: Catcher is a tough position to figure. With improvements to the tools of ignorance, the game has moved from brutal to just really tough. Because catchers as a group play less and produce less than others, we have to adjust the heck out of the position to compare apples to apples. The problem is that catchers play the position for a small percentage of their careers compared to other positions. And that means to get true positional balance, we might need to take something like 30 backstops. We won’t do that, but with Freehan, we have to think about whether he’s closer to #16 or #24.
Why he shouldn’t be in: His legs
Other thoughts: From a WAR perspective, Schnozz Lomardi seems like a third-tier HoMEr. Just enough to squeak in at a weak position where we may not elect a full contingent. There’s a big but. Lombardi is one of if not the slowest player in MLB history. Read Bill James’ long bio-essay on him in the New Historical Baseball Abstract to see what we mean. Yet, BBREF credits him with slightly positive baserunning value. Does not compute. Were there play-by-play data for Lombardi’s era, we’d likely find that he was at least three wins worse than BBREF suggests. Prince Fielder is today’s worst baserunner (surprise!). He has “amassed” -31 runs on the bases in about 150 fewer games than Lombardi. Using Fielder as a baseline, if we simply debit Lombardi three wins, distributed across his seasons in proportion to his playing time, he drops in the rankings beneath Wally Schang and about even with Roger Bresnahan. He might be worse yet than that. A slow-poke catcher with persistent foot injuries who hit into more double plays than seems legal has got to be even slower than the ironically named Fielder. There’s some sort of theoretically possible maximum (or is it minimum?) negative baserunning value. Lombardi is a good candidate to have reached it. Eric suspects the downside for Lombardi could even be -50 runs, or -5 WAR. That might put Schnozz behind Bill Freehan and out of the running. We need to think long and slow about this one.
Why he shouldn’t be in: He was hardly a catcher
Other thoughts: The position McVey played most frequently, by a slim margin, was 1B. But that’ s not all. He only caught 182 games in his career. And in only three of his seasons did he don the tools of ignorance (or whatever pieces of cardboard catchers wore to protect themselves back then) more than he played behind the pitcher. On the other hand, maybe he doesn’t need the catching bump. Other than HoMErs Ross Barnes and George Wright, he was the most valuable non-pitcher in the history of the National Association.
Why he shouldn’t be in: The Jake Beckley of catchers
Other thoughts: Wally Schang is a long-and-low All Star. Catchers by their nature don’t rack up the kind of peak value that other fielders do. But Schang’s peak is lower than, well, everyone’s. It is the lowest among all the major candidates we are still considering, and it is about as good as Darrell Porter’s. On the other hand, his career value is about the same as Ted Simmons’ or Joe Torre’s. Overall Schang ranks around 15th to 19th at catcher. If we don’t take a full complement of catchers, his lack of impact value would be the reason he won’t make it.
Why he shouldn’t be in: All-Star type play only as often as Hal Trosky, Boog Powell, and Cecil Cooper
Other thoughts: Beckley is the ultimate career candidate. And if we considered only career WAR, he’d almost certainly get elected. But we consider peak and prime as well. Beckley never had a six-win season with our adjustments. Andres Galarraga did. So did Stuffy McInnis. Though his 15th best season is topped only by Musial, Connor, Gehrig, Palmeiro, Thome, and Rose, his third best season is lesser than Dolf Camilli, Ed Konetchy, and Pedro Guerrero.
Why he shouldn’t be in: Was neither really great nor really good for really long
Other thoughts: Chance’s potentially precarious position is mitigated mightily by our decision to elect Joe Tinker and kill off Johnny Evers. Thus, he’s no longer tied to those two. Chance’s best five seasons get him very strong consideration. But when we look for a decade at the top, Chance looks more pedestrian, falling behind Gil Hodges, for example. For Chance to get in, we’re going to have to really embrace 4-5 years when he was never truly great, have a ton of depth at 1B, and/or really over-adjust his time as a catcher.
Why he shouldn’t be in: Couldn’t do much at all aside from hit homers; putrid on the bases and in the field
Other thoughts: Killebrew was a great power hitter. Six home run titles are evidence of that. In part because he could draw walks at a nice clip, he was also able to produce at a reasonable level (3 wins) into his mid-30s. If you’re impressed by the raw power and the consistency of putting out seasons of 3+ wins, you like Killer. If you’re bothered by the five-ish wins he loses running the bases and grounding into deuces, you don’t. And if you place value on defensive excellence, you really hate his candidacy. Something else holding him back is a lack of a great peak. His top- three seasons, for example, trail those of Don Mattingly, Gil Hodges, and Carlos Delgado. Oh, but those home runs.
Why he shouldn’t be in: Unlike McVey, he wasn’t an NA star
Other thoughts: Also unlike McVey, he had a long and distinguished career in the National League, playing until he was 43. His NA and NL careers in combination look a lot like Mark Grace. But Start also has some pre-NA value to consider. We must ask, of course, how much of that value should we accept. And we should also ask how many players from that era we want. From the NA days we already have George Wright, Deacon White, and Paul Hines. We’re still considering McVey, Start, Jim O’Rourke, and Pud Galvin. How many is too many?
Why he shouldn’t be in: The American Association
Other thoughts: Stovey’s either an unheralded player from yesteryear or a product of the expansion upon expansion upon expansion of the American Association of the 1880s. Once you have a lens for seeing him in a schedule more like our modern one, he’s an Eddie Murrayesque steady-rolling corner guy. Never flashy, but nearly always an All-Star or close to it. Or Stovey is a guy who took advantage of weak competition to go from a good player to a fellow who led the AA in damn near everything at one time or another. His three pre-AA years in the NL were good. Later, when the AA’s competition level improved around 1886-1889, Stovey remained a strong player. He went to the Players League in 1890 at age 33 and played well in that expansion year, then transitioned to the NL where his star diminished and by 1893 at age 36 and after the league twice contracted (concentrating the talent pool), he was cooked. Miller and Eric present: You make the call!
Why he shouldn’t be in: Yet another 1890s guy
Other thoughts: Big Ed Delahanty, Jesse Burkett, Billy Hamilton, Amos Rusie, and Kid Nichols did the vast majority of their damage in the 1890s. Jimmy Collins, Bid McPhee, George Davis, Bill Dahlen, Willie Keeler, and Cy Young did half theirs in the 1890s. Another dozen or so players played a few seasons, whether playing out the string in the early 1890s or getting underway at the tail end of the decade. A whole lot of HoMErs were active, perhaps too many so that it throws us out of whack. Especially with John McGraw, Joe Kelley, Hughie Jennings, Jake Beckley, Mike Griffin, Clark Griffith, and, of course, Childs still lurking. If it’s too many, who should have to stay in the queue? Check back after the 2014 election.
Why he shouldn’t be in: He battles with three others for the #21 spot, which isn’t
Other thoughts: There are sixteen shortstops with as many 5-win seasons as Doerr. His main competition, Billy Herman, Tony Phillips, and Jeff Kent, are a little behind the Sox second sacker. He also bests his competition if we’re looking at his best ten seasons. Of course, a supporter of any one of these four could find similar justification for elevating their favorite. The thirty year stretch from 1931-1960 shows Doerr as the game’s fifth best at 2B. A problem for him may be that Billy Herman is #4.
Why he shouldn’t be in: If we’re worried about Cupid Childs….
Other thoughts: Dunlap was, in fact, a star of his time though much forgotten today. If he’s remembered, it’s mostly as that guy who creamed the ill-fated Union Association. But injuries chipped away at him. He’s Cupid Childs one decade earlier and with a little less career value, and given how much the game changed, even between Dunlap’s salad years and Childs’, “Sure Shot” probably loses out to later guys with slightly inferior numbers, especially once we take into account the smaller player pool of the 1880s.
Why he shouldn’t be in: There might not be one
Other thoughts: Herman isn’t a sexy candidate. He did many things well but little that drew attention to him. If we’re parsing things a certain way, he could be called somewhere around the 16th or 18th best second baseman in history. His best years are fringe-MVP seasons, and he had a lot of 3 to 4.5 WAR kind of seasons. He lost some tail-end time to the War, reducing his overall career value. The motley crew of Craig Biggio, Fred Dunlap, Bobby Doerr, and Jeff Kent are his immediate competition for the last couple slots at second base, and he’s got fewer flies in his ointment than some of them.
Why he shouldn’t be in: He doesn’t stand out at a position comparatively weaker than others
Other thoughts: Groh has going for him the consistently-very-good argument. But he’s not inside the top 20 at the position in top-5, top-7, top-10, or top-15 seasons. Then again, he’s not outside the top 21 in any of those categories. Over the course of his career, he’s #11 in straight WAR. While that’s not great, all 10 guys in front of him are in. In the first half of the 20th century, he’s #3 among all 3B. That’s very good, but the #2 guy, Stan Hack, is already dead to us. During his five-year peak, he was the game’s fourth best bat. But I’m reaching a lot. Groh will be a tough call.
Why he shouldn’t be in: Really only has eight seasons when he was any good
Other thoughts: As the second winningest manager in history, it’s hard to think of McGraw as a player at times, but what a player he was. In his eight best seasons, he’s #10 among 3B. In his best five, he’s #9. For peak voters, there’s a considerable amount to like in John McGraw. Career voters take pause; he could be as low as #25 to them. It’ll come down to that debate as well as one of era. And it might come down to whether or not he’s better than this next guy.
Why he shouldn’t be in: His era may well be full
Other thoughts: One of the biggest points of debate in this process will be about eras. We’ve agreed that we want balance, but it’s really difficult to agree on what constitutes balance. What’s the unit of measurement – the game, the season, the number of teams, the number of players? It’s hard to know what the right decision is. If we determine there’s room in Williamson’s era, he would seem like a strong selection with a very impressive peak and a strong career. If we determine there’s no space in his era, well, there’s no space.
Why he shouldn’t be in: Can you have too many shortstops?
Other thoughts: As we mention in Sewell’s comment below, these two guys are just variations on the theme of leading 1920s shortstops. Bancroft’s got a little more pep in his peak, while Sewell’s got a little longer productive prime. But really, if we go long at shortstop, there’s little reason to exclude one at the expense of the other. The much harder tangle to undo is how Hughie Jennings fits into all this….
Why he shouldn’t be in: Nine seasons with barely more value than me or you
Other thoughts: Jennings is the ultimate peak candidate, more than Dizzy Dean or Sandy Koufax. He has five great seasons, a couple where he’s fine, and then nuthin’. There’s only so much room in the HoME. Sewell and Bancroft appear to be better candidates, so can we really take 22 SS? On the other hand, it’s just about impossible to ignore that peak. We’re looking at one of the 30 best 5-year peaks ever.
Why he shouldn’t be in: Short career, rarely great,tall midgets
Other thoughts: Sewell, Hughie Jennings, and Dave Bancroft all sit just to the wrong side of the nominal HoME in/out line. We are converging on 58–63 pitchers by 2014, which would mean about 19 players per fielding position. These three are 20–22 in some order at shortstop. Each has warts. Sewell’s are noted in the pithy comment above. Jennings famously has only five seasons worth a darn…but, oh, what seasons they are! Bancroft is pretty much Sewell with a little more peak. If you have to choose between Bancroft and Sewell, it’s not easy. But maybe we don’t have to choose? We may find we want beer and tacos as the old BP guys used to say. If we prefer Sewell and Bancroft as extra shortstops to, say, Cesar Cedeno and Chet Lemon as centerfielders, there may be good reason to take them both. Just don’t tell Hughie….
That’s it for this edition. Check back on Wednesday for our backlog in the outfield.
Miller and Eric
Can we talk about .400 hitters? They ain’t always what they’re cracked up to be, you know.
As with so many things baseball, they’re often the right guy at the right time, not exactly a product of context, but an exploiter of it. So with Ty Cobb and George Sisler gaining eligibility in this election—owners of five of the twenty-eight .400 seasons in history are on our ballot—let’s take a little look at the contexts faced by .400 hitters.
Stephen Jay Gould famously essayed on this very subject in “Where have all the .400 hitters gone?” Since then, many smarter minds than ours have taken up the question as well (a nice summary here). Two of the biggest reasons for our lack of .400 hitters appear to be
These two points account for other sub-arguments such as the style of play (place hitting versus power hitting) and the emergence of relief pitching (today’s players don’t face tiring starters for a fourth time during a game). But they don’t tell the whole sordid story.
See, when we look at these seasons closely, a pattern emerges.
1876 NL .265
Ross Barnes .476
The first season of the National League.
1884 UA .245
Fred Dunlap .412
The first and only season of the third-rate Union Association that was major in ambition only. It had one dominant team, you guessed it, Dunlap’s.
1887 AA .273
Tip O’Neill .435
Pete Browning .402
For 1887, MLB decreed that four called strikes were an out. It reverted to three for 1888. The AA’s batting averages from 1886 to 1888 tell the story: .243, .273, .238.
1894 NL .309
Hugh Duffy .440
Tuck Turner .418
Sam Thompson .415
Ed Delahanty .404
Billy Hamilton .403
The pitcher’s mound moved backward ten feet in 1893, and offense shot up from 5.1 runs per game in 1892 to 6.6 runs per game in 1893. In 1894, it zoomed northward again to 7.4 runs per game. The entire league’s batting average rose from .245 in 1892 to .280 in 1893 and then to .309(!) in 1894. To put this in perspective, Duffy’s record setting .440 average was 42 percent higher than the average batter. When George Brett hit .390 in 1980, his average was 47% higher than the league’s .269 average. And Duffy’s league let pitchers bat, Brett’s didn’t. Things settled a bit as the decade ground on, but it was still a pinball offense until the league contracted to eight teams following the 1899 season. Oh, and the foul-strike rule didn’t exist until the 1900s.
1895 NL .296
Jesse Burkett .405
Ed Delahanty .404
1896 NL .290
Jesse Burkett .410
Hughie Jennings .401
1897 NL .292
Willie Keeler .424
1899 NL .282
Ed Delahanty .410
1901 AL .277
Nap Lajoie .427
The AL was an expansion league in its first year with less talent concentration than the NL. Lajoie was by far its biggest star.
1911 AL .273
Ty Cobb .420
Joe Jackson .408
For 1911, the AL introduced a new cork-centered baseball. Runs rose from 3.6 to 4.6, and batting averages from .243 to .273, a similar percentage rise to the 1890s.
1912 AL .265
Ty Cobb .409
The new baseball stuck, and for one more year the hitters had their day. Until pitchers caught up by defacing and sliming balls so that they would dip and dive. Batting averages slid downward again until…
1920 AL .283
George Sisler .407
The spitter was outlawed, grubby baseballs were replaced during games, and Babe Ruth revolutionized offense. Offense exploded and the league batting average rose from .268 to .283. The 1920s were the greatest conditions for hitters between the 1890s and the 1990s.
1922 AL .285
George Sisler .420
Ty Cobb .401
1922 NL .292
Rogers Hornsby .401
1923 AL .283
Harry Heilmann .403
1924 NL .283
Rogers Hornsby .424
1925 NL .292
Rogers Hornsby .403
1930 NL .303
Bill Terry .401
1930 was the crowning touch, the capstone on the big 1920s offensive bang. Runs scored slid downward as the depression went on. Batting averages settled around .280 by mid decade then slid to the low .270s as the 1940s approached.
1941 AL .266
Ted Williams .406
By 1941, league averages slide to levels not seen in twenty years. Williams faced the third lowest league batting average among these 28 hitters and the highest quality of play. Given that combination, his .400 season (52 percent higher than his league) is the most impressive in history.
To recap, we have:
So the dirty secret about .400 seasons is this: with one exception, they always occur at times when the pitching-hitting balance or the overall quality of play is thrown all out of whack. Which explains a bit about Tony Gwynn’s .394 average in 1994 (a year after an expansion, during a time of crazy high run scoring), doesn’t it? And which makes the runs at .400 by Brett, Rod Carew (.388 in 1977) and Ted Williams (again! .388 in 1957) all the more impressive.
Will the .400 hitter ever make a return? You know, it’s probably bound to happen by random chance, just like Miguel Cabrera’s triple crown season. But unless we see a rule change that makes the slider illegal or lets batters swing metal bats, I wouldn’t hold my breath.