Thursday, March 8, 2012
Semifinals: Ruth/Mantle, Musial/Williams
By David Schoenfield
The voters have spoken: They like outfielders who put up monster numbers in the pre-expansion era.
It's not too surprising, of course, that Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Ted Williams and Stan Musial are our semifinalists in the Greatest Season Ever bracket. Ruth, Williams and Mantle were three of the top four seeds. But as I wrote Wednesday, it was arguably easier to put up big numbers in the old days.
Let's take a closer look at the two semifinal matchups (vote here!).
Babe Ruth 1921 versus Mickey Mantle 1956
Stan Musial 1948 versus Ted Williams 1941
- Ruth came over to the Yankees in 1920 and exploded with 54 home runs, a mind-numbing total at the time that shattered his record of 29 set the previous season. As often noted, Ruth hit more home runs in 1920 than every American League team. In 1921, he upped his mark to 59, still better than five AL teams.
- Ruth set the all-time record with 119 extra-base hits, added 44 doubles and 16 triples. Remember, this wasn't the fat, big-bellied Ruth we remember. In 1921, he was still a slim, powerful athlete, as opposed to just a powerful slugger. It should be noted, however, that hitting 16 triples wasn't a rare feat back then: Ruth ranked fourth in the AL that year. Outfielders played much more shallow so it was easier to leg out three-baggers.
- Ruth scored 177 runs, tied for second all-time (Billy Hamilton scored 198 in 1894, a crazy ridiculous season that would require a post of its own). The Yankees did score a lot of runs that year -- 948 -- but Bob Meusel was the only other hitter in the lineup in the top 10 in the AL in OPS.
- Ruth did tower over the rest of the league -- the No. 2 AL guy in OPS was Harry Heilmann at 1.051, well behind Ruth's 1.359. The No. 2 guys in WAR were Tris Speaker and Ty Cobb at 6.6, well behind Ruth's 14.0. To some extent, Ruth's dominance has perhaps been exaggerated a bit. Yes, he was the first guy to put up these kinds of numbers. But in 1922, Rogers Hornsby hit .401 with 42 home runs. The same year Ken Williams of the St. Louis Browns hit 39 home runs and drove in 155 runs. In 1923, Cy Williams tied Ruth for the major league lead with 41 home runs. Soon thereafter, sluggers like Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx were putting up comparable numbers.
- Ruth played mostly left field in 1921, and Baseball-Reference.com estimates his defense as about average. (For his career, they do rate him a little above average overall.)
- Ruth led the Yankees to their first pennant, but it ended in a disappointing World Series loss to the Giants in eight games (it was a best-of-nine that year). Ruth .313/.476/.500 with one home run and four RBIs, but was limited to six games as he battled an infected arm and a knee injury suffered in Game 5. He didn't play in Game 6 or 7 (both Yankees losses) and pinch-hit in the ninth inning of Game 8 with the Yankees down 1-0, but grounded out.
- Mickey Mantle was 24 years in 1956, already a four-time All-Star and the reigning AL home run champion. But he took his game to a new level in 1956, hitting .353/.464/.705 with 52 home runs and 130 RBIs to win the Triple Crown. He led the AL with 132 runs and 376 total bases and was the unanimous MVP as the Yankees won the pennant by nine games.
- Like Ruth, Mantle dominated his contemporaries. His 52 home runs were 20 more than Vic Wertz, the No. 2 guy, and Yogi Berra was the only other American Leaguer to reach 30. His 132 runs were 23 more than any other player and he was one of only two players (Al Kaline was the other) with 300 total bases.
- Unlike with Ruth, we know Mantle's splits, and he was incredible with runners on base, hitting .444 with runners in scoring position and .392 with men on base. In so-called "late and close" situations he hit .373/.481/.791, with eight home runs in 67 at-bats.
- He hit .325 with 10 home runs against second-place Cleveland.
- Mantle was never in the class of Willie Mays on defense, but in 1956 he was still young and fast, his knees not yet completely ravaged. He rates as a slightly above-average center fielder and an excellent baserunner.
- He capped the season with a World Series victory, hitting three home runs, including one in Don Larsen's 2-0 perfect game victory in Game 5.
- Stan the Man did everything in 1948, leading the National League in average, OBP, slugging, runs, hits, RBIs, doubles, triples and total bases. He just missed the Triple Crown, hitting 39 home runs, one behind Ralph Kiner and Johnny Mize. His 1.159 OPS was nearly 200 points better than Mize's .959.
- His 11.5 WAR was well ahead of Mize, the No. 2 guy at 6.9.
- Musial scored 135 runs and drove in 131 despite having little help in the St. Louis lineup outside of Enos Slaughter -- the Cardinals scored 742 runs. Backup Ron Northey was second on the team with 13 home runs.
- Musial hit .415 on the road with 23 of his 39 home runs.
- He also stepped up against the Cardinals' main rivals. The Cardinals finished in second place behind Boston, but Musial hit .443 against the Braves and .391 with eight home runs against third-place Brooklyn.
- Musial split his time among all three outfield positions, starting 61 games in center, 51 in right and 41 in left. He rates as a slightly above-average defender. Somehow, he wasn't the unanimous MVP, collecting 18 of 24 first-place votes.
- Ted Williams was just 22 years old and in his third season in 1941. He'd hit .327 as a rookie and .344 in 1940. Nobody expected this kind of season, especially after he broke a bone in his right ankle in spring training, which limited him to pinch-hitting the first two weeks of the season.
- Once he got going, Williams hit .436 in May, .372 in June, .429 in July, .402 in August and .397 in September.
- Despite leading the AL in average, OBP, slugging and home runs and runs scored, Williams lost the MVP vote to Joe DiMaggio of the pennant-winning Yankees, 291 points to 254 points.
- During DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak, he hit .408/.463/.717 with 15 home runs and 55 RBIs. Over the same calendar stretch, Williams hit .412/.540/.684 with 50 RBIs.
- Against the Yankees, Williams hit .471 although with just two home runs.
- Williams slugged .735, a figure no AL hitter has matched since.
- His 1.288 OPS is a figure topped only by Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds.
- Hit .553 OBP is third-highest in MLB history, behind two Bonds seasons.