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May 22, 2012

Baseball ProGUESTus

A Salute to Small Sample Size

by Chad Finn

Believe it or not, most of our writers didn't enter the world sporting an @baseballprospectus.com address; with a few exceptions, they started out somewhere else. In an effort to up your reading pleasure while tipping our caps to some of the most illuminating work being done elsewhere on the internet, we'll be yielding the stage once a week to the best and brightest baseball writers, researchers and thinkers from outside of the BP umbrella. If you'd like to nominate a guest contributor (including yourself), please drop us a line.

Chad Finn writes the Touching All The Bases blog for Boston.com and is the sports media columnist for The Boston Globe. He believes that Butch Hobson was actually a fine defensive third baseman, misses watching Pedro Martinez pitch, and would appreciate it if you gave him all of your good book ideas. He lives in Wells, Maine, with his wife, two children, and cat named after Otis Nixon.
 

One need not disregard the surgeon general’s warning and subject himself to an afternoon of carcinogenic Boston sports radio to know that Red Sox fans, recent resurgence ignored, have had an abundance of topics about which to caterwaul since, oh, last September 1. But every now and then, particularly if you are a fan of a certain age, a well-worn retro complaint might find its way in among the tired punch lines about Josh Beckett’s putting game and the foolishness of whether mild-mannered Adrian Gonzalez, he of the 5.6 WARP last year, is cut out to play in Boston.

A trusty old-school go-to gripe of my favorite Red Sox fan—my 72-year-old dad—is this 71-year-old beef: Ted Williams got screwed out of the 1941 American League Most Valuable Player award. It was a rather memorable year for iconic hitting feats by iconic ballplayers. Williams famously hit .406, but a certain graceful center fielder with a big beak and a bigger sense for the moment strung together a 56-game hitting streak for the Yankees.

So Joe DiMaggio won the MVP that year with 291 votes, topping Williams’s 254. This is despite Williams leading the major leagues with 37 homers, a .553 on-base percentage, and a .735 slugging percentage, and damned if I’m not hearing my old man’s voice reciting those stats as I’m pecking them in. Williams also topped the majors in runs (135), walks (147), and whiffed just 27 times—35 fewer than Adam Dunn has this season through Sunday. His adjusted OPS of 234 rates seventh-best all-time, trailing three classic Babe Ruth seasons and three of Barry Bonds’ bloated best.

Considering that it was the greatest season for “the greatest hitter who ever lived”—the quotation marks are out of respect for the Babe—I’m going to nod in agreement both with my dad and the sentiment itself that he did get screwed, though the 17-game gap in the standings between DiMaggio’s pennant-winning Yankees and Williams’ second-place Red Sox might have had something to do with it.

What’s more surprising, especially in regard to fans’ natural willingness to cling to slights both real and imagined regarding a favorite team or player, is that much more isn’t made of Williams’s 1953 season, when he posted the highest batting average of his career and yet finished 26th in the MVP balloting.

Wait … what? That’s got to be a typo somehow. Nope. Just truth. Williams once hit .407. And received a single MVP vote. One. (I don’t know who the voter was, but I’m just going to presume it was a teenaged, grouchy, contrarian Murray Chass.) Go ahead and take that bit of Red Sox history to your favorite sports radio banshee. He’ll thank you with hours of reactionary blather, at least until he is clued in to the whole story.

Yes, there is of course a catch, a goofy little game of semantics being played here, and if you have a decent knowledge of Williams’s history or have read the superb Hitter by Ed Linn or Leigh Montville’s definitive Ted Williams: The Life And Times of An American Hero, you already know what it is.

Williams spent much of 1952 and ’53 serving in the Korean War, where he flew 39 missions, the last half or so as the wingman for John Glenn. Discharged because of an inner ear ailment, he returned stateside in time to throw out the first pitch at the All-Star Game July 14 at Crosley Field in Cincinnati. But Williams, according to Linn’s book, had “not the slightest intention of trying to get in shape for the current season.” He had an appointment or two booked with his fishing rod. Baseball would wait until ’54.

The pleas of Red Sox owner Tom Yawkey, manager Joe Cronin, and Williams’ personal business manager, Fred Corcoran, convinced Williams that it was best if he returned during the season, at the least to work himself into shape for ’54, and so he did. But was he ever rusty—in his first at-bat, on August 6 against St. Louis’s Marlin Stuart, he popped up to first base as a pinch-hitter.

It was not until all of three days later, against the Indians’ Mike Garcia in his second at-bat since returning from the war, that Ted Williams finally homered again. According to Hitter, Joe Cashman of the Boston American described the scene at Fenway as the ultimate hero’s welcome: “We were thrilled at countless mass cheering incidents inspired by the immortal Babe Ruth. We witnessed the dramatic Fenway Park tribute to Joe DiMaggio in the final game of the ’48 regular season. None of them came close to matching the ovation Williams was accorded yesterday.’’

Such an ovation must have carried virtually uninterrupted through the season’s final two months, because while it isn’t the best prolonged stretch of Williams’ career—in ’41, he hit .436 in May, .429 in June, and his worst OPS in a single month that season was April’s 1.088—it’s remarkable to the point that it stands as perhaps the greatest small-sample-size season in baseball history.

In 37 games and 110 plate appearances in ’53, Williams hit 13 home runs. His OPS was 1.410—a monstrous meshing of a .509 on-base percentage and a .901 slugging percentage. And did I mention that .407 batting average? All facetiousness aside, maybe he did deserve more than that single MVP vote. After all, he had three more homers and just 23 fewer RBIs in 346 fewer plate appearances than the Yankees’ Hank Bauer, who was 12th in the balloting.

Though it’s difficult to resist further meandering digression on Teddy Ballgame’s Greatest Hits, I should probably inform you that there is a point to the exercise beyond admiring that phenomenal, brief ’53 season.

It is to admire and salute other phenomenal, brief seasons and stints by other hitters through the years.

I’ve long been fascinated with big offensive production in small sample sizes, something we’ve had in abundance during the first quarter of this season with the hellacious starts by the likes of Josh Hamilton, Matt Kemp, Carlos Beltran, Ryan Braun and—who knew?—Bryan LaHair.

Part of the fascination for me is born from Strat-O-Matic roots. When I was 10, in 1980, my dad introduced me to the wonderful game of dice, six-columned cards, and imagination, and that happened to be the season that the Royals’ George Brett made his famous run at becoming the first hitter since Williams to hit .400. He finished at .390, his chase becoming a national phenomenon. But few, other than Strat players and the stray Padres fan, noticed that an obscure singles-hitting rookie first baseman named Broderick Perkins hit .370. Sure, it was in just 100 at-bats. But he had a Strat card, and that was confirmation enough for me that Broderick Perkins had to be one hell of a hitter.

Turns out he wasn’t— history tells us he was merely a dude with a cool name and a career .665 OPS in seven seasons. But while the faulty promise of great things is the inherent risk in putting significant stock in a miniscule amount of playing time, it’s still fun to imagine those numbers extended over a full season. For every future mediocrity like Perkins, career obscurity like Dan Rohn (.387 in 34 plate appearances for ’83 Cubs), or journeyman-in-waiting like Gary Ward (.463 average in 46 plate appearances for the ’80 Twins), you might just notice a 24-year-old  third baseman hitting .372 in 46 plate appearances for the ’87 Mariners and think, “Maybe this Edgar Martinez can really hit. Hope they give him a real chance.’’

There are rewards to be found in the what-ifs in another sense. I play in a What-If Sports league with other baseball writers from Boston and New York in which you can construct a roster under a certain salary cap from a pool of pretty much every player to put on a big-league uniform save for perhaps Moonlight Graham. I inevitably find myself shunning an obvious star in a quest to find that ultimate platoon of players who put up a huge numbers. And while I’m not going to claim this won’t be topped, let’s just say it was a What-If blast alternating left-handed-hitting Oscar Gamble ’79 (.389, 11 homers, 1.187 OPS in 126 plate appearances with the Yankees after coming over from Texas in an August 1 trade for Mickey Rivers) and right-handed-hitting Glenallen Hill ’00 (.333 with 16 HRs and a 1.112 OPS in 143 plate appearances for the Yankees). Hill’s stretch that season must rate as the second-greatest accomplishment of his career, since making the big leagues despite striking out 211 times one season in Single-A cannot be topped as the first.

It is another Yankee of fairly recent vintage who comes up when the small-sample size criteria are made particularly exclusive. Three players in baseball history have put up a .900 or better slugging percentage in at least 40 plate appearances in a given season.

You know the first: Williams in ’53. J.D. Drew, who burst onto the scene down the stretch in ’98 amid McGwire Mania in St. Louis, is another, having hit .417 with five homers, a .972 slugging percentage, and a 1.436 OPS. Drew was never more fun or animated than during that deceptive summer, when his promise was endless and he was so often the first to greet McGwire at home plate with the signature celebratory fake wallop to the belly.

The third, the Yankee, also accomplished the feat the same year as Drew, and perhaps you remember seeing him on the October 12, 1998 cover of Sports Illustrated, upon which this question was asked: Can Anyone Stop Rookie Sensation Shane Spencer and the Yankees?  The answers, it eventually became clear, were “yes” (in the six seasons to follow, Spencer’s OPS would range from .675 to .789) and “hell, no” (the Yankees would finish the regular season and postseason with 125 wins, 50 losses, and another World Series belt).

Spencer, who belted 10 homers in 73 plate appearances, with a .373 average, .910 slugging percentage, and 1.321 OPS, was already 26 and had nearly 1,000 plate appearances at Triple-A at that point, but his right-handed-hitting Roy Hobbs imitation encouraged SI to write this in  its “wish list” section: [We wish] that the late-season fireworks from phenoms J.D. Drew (Cardinals) and Shane Spencer (Yankees) are a preview of another home run race a few years from now.”

It should be noted that the wish list has long since been discontinued.

This particular article should probably follow suit shortly, but not before appropriate-if-brief homage is paid to a couple more of our favorite small-sample size superstars. A search of baseball-reference.com’s Play Index for players who had an OPS above 1.000 in 40 to 175 plate appearances supplies some wonderful flashbacks.

There’s arguably the greatest stretch-run pickup of all time, Cesar Cedeno of the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals, who hit .434 (1.218 OPS) with six homers in 82 plate appearances after coming over on August 29 from the Reds. And how about  Ellis Burks ’94, who hit 13 homers with a 1.066 OPS in 165 plate appearances for the Rockies, but whose season was derailed by a severely sprained wrist?

And who can forget Phil Plantier ’91, who with his mighty uppercut from a pronounced crouch hit .331 with 11 homers and a 1.034 OPS in 175 PAs for the hopeless, hapless Red Sox, leading the more hyperbolic among us to wonder whether he was the natural slugging successor to Jim Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, and yes, Ted Williams?

I’m not saying this particular small sample size was that misleading, but should you would like one or 50 of Plantier’s rookie cards, let’s just say I could probably supply them at a steep discount over the original sticker price. And if you’re kind, I’ll even throw in a free Broderick Perkins.

9 comments have been left for this article.

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