The other day was the fiftieth anniversary of Ted Williams goodbye dinger and a handful of people marked the occasion by noting that it was hit in front of just 11K fans. As if that fifty year-old piece of stale bread is supposed to excuse the Tampa fan base for not showing up to see their team clinch just its second playoff berth. I digress. Back to Williams.
In light of the anniversary, I pulled up Williams numbers, as I have done many times in the past, and one set of figures jumped out at me ….. .316/.451/.645. This is what Williams slashed when he was FORTY-ONE fucking years old! Yeah, he did this massive damage over JUST 390 plate appearances so he didn’t qualify for his eleventh OPS title, but 390 is hardly some immaterial sample.
To put Ballgame’s OPS number in perspective, the league leader that season was Mickey Mantle and his OPS was .957. So Williams was 139 points north of The Mick! At the age of FORTY-ONE! For more perspective, do you know what 139 points buys you nowadays? Well, in the AL, it is basically the difference between Josh Hamilton’s monster season down in Dallas and Luke Scott’s Camden-aided gem in Baltimore. I doubt many people know who Luke Scott is and that is partially because 139 OPS points is the difference between being in the discussion and being ignored.
Anyway, the reason I highlight this is to illustrate something that I have been giving a lot of thought to recently. And that is why we haven’t made better use of modern-day statistical tools to revisit and better interpret history.
Listen, it’s widely accepted that Williams was one of the best offensive players in history. So calling attention to his numbers in 1960 isn’t going to move his historical needle ….. much. I mean if The Splendid Splinter isn’t considered the best offensive player since the war it’s only because that honor now belongs to Barry Lamar Bonds who simply annihilated baseball for four years.
That being said, I think there is a belief that Williams career ended rather humbly. With just 29 bombs and seventy-five RBI in 1960, the Mike Francesca’s of the world think Williams limped across the line. Well, the fact that he put up those numbers in just 390 plate appearances is pretty exculpatory. But when you apply today’s “rate” metrics to Williams’ 1960 season, one can’t help but be floored. Again, he was the best offensive player in the AL in 1960 … at the age of 41. Do you think Josh Hamiliton, twelve years from now, will be able to make the same claim? Forget twelve, how about six?
The beauty of having all these new axioms and statistical tools at our disposal is that we can better analyze the current game AND the history of the game. It’s great that we are now getting the present game analyzed properly, but for a game like baseball, where history is so important, it would be nice if past analyses were cleaned up so it reflected current norms.