Baseball fans from the “Baby Boomer” generation learned all they knew about statistics from the backs of Topps baseball cards. If someone said “SABR”, it was really the word “saber”, referring to a swashbuckling movie starring Burt Lancaster or Stewart Granger. With the advent of Fantasy Baseball, the Internet and advanced metrics for the sport, everything has changed. The real question is, are you still judging player performance by those same stats that were on the baseball cards?
In 1956, it could be argued that the three best players in baseball played the same position on the field in the same city. CF’s Mickey Mantle of the Yankees, Duke Snider of the Dodgers and Willie Mays of the Giants were the cream of the crop. These three Hall of Famers were in their prime with Mantle at age 24 in a Triple Crown & MVP season, Snider at age 29 leading the NL in HR’s & BB and Mays at age 25 with 36 HR’s and a league leading 40 SB. Looking at the back of their 1957 Topps cards gives us a starting point for this analysis. Obviously, the stats are from the ’56 season and tell you the most basic information. For hitters, you find BA, HR, RBI, Runs, Games Played and a few other categories but not SB. There’s even some fielding information like assists and errors. In order to bring the performance up-to-date, let’s see how the new age categories play out for Willie, Mickey & The Duke as well as the current MLB leaders through late-June. We must acknowledge, however, that today’s hitting environment is much more difficult than it was for the legendary names of the 30’s, 40’s & 50’s. The key difference is relief pitching, where a series of hard-throwers now hold opposing hitters to a batting average of .244. As a recent Sports Illustrated piece points out, during Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak in 1941, he hit .407 against relievers.
> OBP (On-Base %) – David Ortiz leads the majors with .433 and Paul Goldschmidt tops the NL with .431…Mantle had the second best figure in ’56 (behind Ted Williams) with .464, while Snider was at .399 and Mays at .369
> SLG (Slugging %, determined by Total Bases / At Bats) – Ortiz leads this category also with .678 and Matt Carpenter is the NL’s best at .592. Mantle’s figure was the best in the game at .705, while Snider & Mays finished with .598 & .557 respectively. All three were in the top seven for all hitters
> OPS (OBP & SLG)) – Maybe the most telling of the new numbers, as it explains how many bases a hitter has accumulated for his team…Ortiz & Carpenter lead this category also with 1.112 & 1.012. Mantle was #1 again with 1.169 and Snider came in at .997 with Mays at .926…all three inside the top ten.
> OPS+ (Adjusted to the ballpark factors with a mean of 100) – Only five 2016 players are over 160 led again by Ortiz at 188 and Carpenter at 168, joined by Mike Trout at 168, Jose Altuve with 165 & Anthony Rizzo’s 161. Mantle was over-the-top at .210 with Snider at .155 and Mays at .146 – again all in the top ten.
> WAR (Wins Above Replacement) – A single number that estimates the number of Wins a player was worth to his team above the level of a replacement player…Clayton Kershaw is at 4.8 in less than half a season while Mike Trout leads the AL at 4.7. This stat tells the tale about our three CF’s, as they had the three best WAR numbers in baseball…11.2 for Mantle & 7.6 for both Snider and Mays.
> Offense Winning % (The percentage of games a team with nine of this player batting would win. Assumes average pitching & defense) – The current MLB leader is Ortiz at 81.4%. Mantle was again off-the-charts at 87.8% with Snider at 75.6% and Mays at 70.7%…Williams was the only other player above 80% (83.7) in ’56.
Of course, all around ability and a player’s value also includes defense. Another advanced statistic is “Range Factor”, which calculates Putouts & Assists / Innings Played. Currently, the Royals Lorenzo Cain leads the way for CF’s with a number of 2.90. Mays was the best of our three heroes at 2.81, with Mantle at 2.69 and Snider at 2.56. The CF’s with the best range in 1956? Richie Ashburn of the Phillies led the way with 3.37 while Jimmy Piersall led the AL at 3.06.
That’s probably more than enough for your introductory lesson…if you can’t wait for more, try baseball-reference.com