Filling the Mickey Vernon Gaps:  Volume I

Mickey Vernon was an excellent player in a very long major league career, a Keith Hernandez or Mark Grace sort of talent: a slick-fielding, line-drive-hitting first baseman with limited home run power. But that’s not really what’s most interesting about Mickey Vernon.

In his original Historical Baseball Abstract of 1985, Bill James made the following comment:

Mickey Vernon had one of the most inconsistent careers of any player who ever played the game. After having a monster year in 1946, hitting .353 with 51 doubles, he dropped off to .265 (in 600 at bats) in 1947, and then for good measure, lost another 23 points in 1948, dropping all the way down to .242 with 3 homers and 48 RBI in 558 at bats. Then, in 1949, he jumped back up to .291 with 18 homers (twice as many as he had hit in any of his six previous seasons as a regular) and 83 RBI …

Vernon is one of those players, like Rico Carty or Frank Howard, who would be in the Hall of Fame if he had just put in an ordinary progression between his high spots.

I read that 20 years ago, and said to myself, “Self! That’s so true! What would Vernon’s or Carty’s or Howard’s career have looked like if it hadn’t been so weird? I’m gonna sit down and figure that out.”

Well, 20 years might be a long time, but never let it be said that I don’t follow through on my pledges to myself. Here, at last, let’s figure this out.

Mickey V.

How about, to start with, we review the actual stats of Mickey Vernon:

 Year  Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
 1939   21   76  276   23   71   15    4    1   30   24   28 .257 .317 .351 .762   76
 1940   22    5   19    0    3    0    0    0    0    0    3 .158 .158 .158 .756  -16
 1941   23  138  531   73  159   27   11    9   93   43   51 .299 .352 .443 .742  113
 1942   24  151  621   76  168   34    6    9   86   59   63 .271 .337 .388 .709  104
 1943   25  145  553   89  148   29    8    7   70   67   55 .268 .357 .387 .672  121
 1944   26     (In Military Service)
 1945   27     (In Military Service)
 1946   28  148  587   88  207   51    8    8   85   49   64 .353 .403 .508 .699  160
 1947   29  154  600   77  159   29   12    7   85   49   42 .265 .320 .388 .711   99
 1948   30  150  558   78  135   27    7    3   48   54   43 .242 .310 .332 .743   73
 1949   31  153  584   72  170   27    4   18   83   58   51 .291 .357 .443 .750  113
 1950   32  118  417   55  117   17    3    9   75   62   39 .281 .379 .400 .768  104
 1951   33  141  546   69  160   30    7    9   87   53   45 .293 .358 .423 .735  112
 1952   34  154  569   71  143   33    9   10   80   89   66 .251 .353 .394 .710  110
 1953   35  152  608  101  205   43   11   15  115   63   57 .337 .403 .518 .736  149
 1954   36  151  597   90  173   33   14   20   97   61   61 .290 .357 .492 .713  137
 1955   37  150  538   74  162   23    8   14   85   74   50 .301 .384 .452 .727  130
 1956   38  119  403   67  125   28    4   15   84   57   40 .310 .403 .511 .794  130
 1957   39  102  270   36   65   18    1    7   38   41   35 .241 .350 .393 .750   98
 1958   40  119  355   49  104   22    3    8   55   44   56 .293 .372 .439 .722  125
 1959   41   74   91    8   20    4    0    3   14    7   20 .220 .283 .363 .728   77
 1960   42    9    8    0    1    0    0    0    1    1    0 .125 .222 .125 .736   -2
Total      2409 8731 1196 2495  490  120  172 1311  955  869 .286 .359 .428 .728  116

And here’s what James had to say about Vernon in his next edition of the Historical Abstract, in 2001:

Mickey Vernon had a long career punctuated by several brilliant seasons … he played for years with back trouble, which finally disappeared after he was operated on for appendicitis. The years in which he had back trouble are obvious in his batting stats.

They sure are, aren’t they?

So what do we suppose Vernon’s career might have looked like if he’d had that appendectomy many years earlier? And while we’re at it, why don’t we imagine that Vernon’s draft board had classified him as 4-F? In other words, how about if we envision “an ordinary progression between his high spots”?

My best guess is that he’d have put together a record looking something like what follows. Seasons we’ve left alone are displayed in black, and seasons we’ve adjusted are displayed in blue (the methodology employed to derive it is explained in the References and Resources section below):

Year  Age    G    AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
1939   21   76   276   23   71   15    4    1   30   24   28 .257 .317 .351 .668   76
1940   22    5    19    0    3    0    0    0    0    0    3 .158 .158 .158 .316  -16
1941   23  138   531   73  159   27   11    9   93   43   51 .299 .352 .443 .795  114
1942   24  151   621   76  168   34    6    9   86   59   63 .271 .337 .388 .725  104
1943   25  145   553   89  148   29    8    7   70   67   55 .268 .357 .387 .744  121
1944   26  146   573   82  171   35    8    8   84   55   58 .298 .359 .431 .790  129
1945   27  147   570   89  178   40    8    8   78   58   60 .311 .375 .449 .824  147
1946   28  148   587   88  207   51    8    8   85   49   64 .353 .403 .508 .911  160
1947   29  152   595   85  185   38    9   12   92   55   54 .311 .370 .464 .834  134
1948   30  151   584   85  179   37    8   11   83   56   54 .307 .367 .452 .820  120
1949   31  153   584   72  170   27    4   18   83   58   51 .291 .357 .443 .800  113
1950   32  139   534   78  166   34    8   12   86   57   55 .310 .377 .474 .851  121
1951   33  141   546   69  160   30    7    9   87   53   45 .293 .358 .423 .781  112
1952   34  152   564   72  158   28    7   14   83   74   56 .281 .364 .429 .793  123
1953   35  152   608  101  205   43   11   15  115   63   57 .337 .403 .518 .921  149
1954   36  151   597   90  173   33   14   20   97   61   61 .290 .357 .492 .849  137
1955   37  150   538   74  162   23    8   14   85   74   50 .301 .384 .452 .836  130
1956   38  119   403   67  125   28    4   15   84   57   40 .310 .403 .511 .914  130
1957   39  102   270   36   65   18    1    7   38   41   35 .241 .350 .393 .743   99
1958   40  119   355   49  104   22    3    8   55   44   56 .293 .372 .439 .811  125
1959   41   74    91    8   20    4    0    3   14    7   20 .220 .283 .363 .646   77
1960   42    9     8    0    1    0    0    0    1    1    0 .125 .222 .125 .347   -2
Total     2719 10006 1404 2978  595  137  208 1527 1055 1014 .298 .365 .447 .811  124

So, let’s see … very nearly 3,000 hits and 600 doubles, with three batting titles. We might well be reading Mickey Vernon’s name on a plaque in Cooperstown.

We understand that this is the idealized Vernon, of course, the best possible version of Mickey Vernon, if you will. Things might just as plausibly have gone all wrong for him, and his career might easily have been half as long as half as good. But in acknowledging that, we must also acknowledge that the pretty much all of the greatest careers are something very close to the best possible versions of those players. That’s a credit to those players, for sure, but it also calls for a tip of the cap to the good fortune of those players. Things in history didn’t have to go just the way they did.

The actual Mickey Vernon was a player with the capability of producing a terrific season, but for one reason or another he was unable to achieve that standard very consistently. However, given what we know about Vernon, we can construct a plausible version of his career in which he did achieve a rather high degree of consistency, and doing so provides an interesting and fun glimpse at the best-case scenario for his career.

Let’s see … who were those other guys that James mentioned as having careers of Vernon-like inconsistency …

Look Up “Pure Hitter” in the Dictionary, and You’ll See This Guy’s Picture

Rico Carty

Devoid of defensive skill and dreadfully slow, Carty could do just one thing to help his team win. Fortunately, he did that one thing amazingly well.

Carty’s career was a mess: rather than a graceful arc, a plague of health calamities instead created a jagged skyline. After a spectacular rookie year in 1964, Carty missed nearly half of the 1965 season due to a leg injury. He came back with a terrific ’66, but then was bothered by a chronic chest cough in 1967, a condition that progressed to a full-blown tuberculosis, sidelining Carty for all of 1968 and placing his career (if not his life) in doubt.

But Carty made it back, hitting .342 in 1969 despite repeatedly dislocating his shoulder. In 1970 his robust hitting through the season’s early months (he was at .401 as late as June 17th) captured the nation’s fancy, and he was voted by fans as a write-in starter in the All-Star Game.

But then Carty shattered a knee in winter ball, a devastating injury which kept him out for all of 1971 and severely impaired him throughout 1972-73. His major league career appeared all but done, yet in 1974 the 34-year-old unsinkable Carty regained enough function in the knee to hit with something approaching his old authority—and that was a most commanding authority indeed. The Designated Hitter Rule, if it wasn’t written specifically for the benefit of Rico Carty, might well have been.

Our version of Carty remains rather fragile, but we’ve eliminated the yawning gaps and chasms. Could he hit, or what?

Carty in the batter’s box was a most singular presence. Imposingly tall, broad-shouldered and long-legged (think of a right-handed version of Fred McGriff), “Beeg Mon” would simply walk to the plate and take his stance, ready to go, right now. No fiddling about whatsoever, no tapping the bat on home plate, often not even taking so much as a practice swing (something I’ve never seen in any other batter, anytime, anywhere). Carty’s very stillness shot a chill up the spine. The huge angry dog to be truly feared is the one who neither barks nor growls: that beast has no intention of warning you off, but is instead going directly for the kill.

 Year  Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS OPS+
 1963   23    2    2    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    2 .000 .000 .000  .000 -100
 1964   24  133  455   72  150   28    4   22   88   43   78 .330 .388 .554  .942  161
 1965   25   83  271   37   84   18    1   10   35   17   44 .310 .355 .494  .849  136
 1966   26  151  521   73  170   25    2   15   76   60   74 .326 .391 .468  .859  136
 1967   27  143  483   57  142   21    2   15   70   55   72 .293 .365 .437  .802  130
 1968   28  109  358   39   99   17    2   13   50   33   57 .276 .337 .436  .773  132
 1969   29  104  304   47  104   15    0   16   58   32   28 .342 .401 .549  .950  165
 1970   30  136  478   84  175   23    3   25  101   77   46 .366 .454 .584 1.038  170
 1971   31  109  351   54  118   17    2   16   63   51   36 .336 .420 .527  .947  161
 1972   32  128  420   61  142   20    3   16   73   63   44 .337 .423 .511  .934  156
 1973   33  134  471   60  145   23    1   14   75   63   47 .307 .388 .452  .840  138
 1974   34   99  334   44  100   15    1   17   60   36   32 .299 .367 .498  .865  149
 1975   35  118  383   57  118   19    1   18   64   45   31 .308 .378 .504  .882  148
 1976   36  152  552   67  171   34    0   13   83   67   45 .310 .379 .442  .821  142
 1977   37  127  461   50  129   23    1   15   80   56   51 .280 .355 .432  .787  117
 1978   38  145  528   70  149   21    1   31   99   57   57 .282 .348 .502  .850  137
 1979   39  132  461   48  118   26    0   12   55   46   45 .256 .322 .390  .712   91
Total      2003 6832  920 2112  345   22  267 1129  800  789 .309 .382 .483  .865  142

How About Hondo?

Frank Howard

The biggest baseball player of his era—6-foot-7 and somewhere around 260 very solid pounds—Howard made an early splash, being named the National League Rookie of the Year in 1960. At the end of that decade, he was among the game’s elite stars, blasting the most home runs of any slugger from 1968 through 1970. Ordinarily, when a guy is Rookie of the Year and then still a huge star ten years later, we’re probably in Hall of Fame territory. But Howard isn’t a serious HOF candidate, because in between his great start and magnificent peak, he sort of got lost.

The first problem wasn’t his fault: in a remarkably crowded Dodger outfield in 1961, Howard was reduced to a platoon player. He then enjoyed what looked to be a breakout season in ’62, but in subsequent years the major stardom that appeared to be within his grasp slipped away: in 1963 Howard was again frequently benched against right-handers, and in ’64 his batting average spiraled into the .220s.

The Dodgers lost patience, and traded the big fellow to Washington. With the Senators in 1965 and 1966, Howard appears to have concentrated on avoiding strikeouts, which kept his batting average healthy but meaningfully reduced his power output—not a satisfactory outcome, as a player of Howard’s incredible strength and strictly limited defensive and baserunning capacity really needs to hit for power to be a significant asset.

In ’67 he went back to whaling at the ball, and finally in 1968, at the age of 31, he broke through as a dominating slugger. In the two seasons following that, under the tutelage of manager Ted Williams, Howard added excellent strike zone discipline to his repertoire, and remained a terrific offensive force. But by then he was well into his thirties, and soon Howard declined.

Our version of Hondo significantly fills in the mid-60s trough, and presents a plausible scenario of a consistently productive power guy through the decade. This probably still doesn’t get him to Cooperstown, but his case would have to be taken seriously.

 Year  Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
 1958   21    8   29    3    7    1    0    1    2    1   11 .241 .267 .379 .646   67
 1959   22    9   21    2    3    0    1    1    6    2    9 .143 .217 .381 .598   51
 1960   23  117  448   54  120   15    2   23   77   32  108 .268 .320 .464 .784  107
 1961   24   92  267   36   79   10    2   15   45   21   50 .296 .347 .517 .864  118
 1962   25  141  493   80  146   25    6   31  119   39  108 .296 .346 .560 .906  145
 1963   26  132  455   69  130   21    4   30   92   36  112 .286 .338 .541 .879  157
 1964   27  144  508   73  136   22    4   33   98   48  121 .268 .331 .520 .851  143
 1965   28  149  536   71  153   25    5   32  103   49  120 .286 .346 .530 .876  147
 1966   29  148  528   70  149   24    4   31   99   49  118 .282 .343 .520 .863  146
 1967   30  154  559   75  149   24    3   40   98   57  148 .266 .334 .533 .867  158
 1968   31  158  598   79  164   28    3   44  106   54  141 .274 .338 .552 .890  171
 1969   32  161  592  111  175   17    2   48  111  102   96 .296 .402 .574 .976  177
 1970   33  161  566   90  160   15    1   44  126  132  125 .283 .416 .546 .962  170
 1971   34  153  549   60  153   25    2   26   83   77  121 .279 .367 .474 .841  144
 1972   35  109  320   29   78   10    0   10   38   46   63 .244 .340 .369 .709  114
 1973   36   85  227   26   58    9    1   12   29   24   28 .256 .327 .463 .790  115
Total      1922 6695  928 1860  271   39  421 1231  769 1479 .278 .352 .518 .870  147

Slipping a Mickey to Boog

We can perform this exercise for more careers than just those mentioned by James off the top of his head. Once one thinks about it, there is many a guy who might look quite a bit different with just “an ordinary progression between his high spots” …

Boog Powell

The good-natured, ever-popular Powell was a first-rate slugger—some of the time, anyway. It wasn’t until his ninth full season in the majors that the Boogster put fully “on” years back-to-back, an occurrence so startling to sportswriters that they voted Powell as the 1970 American League MVP, a selection that can certainly be questioned.

Our smoothed-out Powell’s career likely doesn’t merit Hall of Fame selection either, but with 397 homers in a low-scoring era he’d have merited reasonable consideration; a 145 OPS+ in 2000 games is pretty special. Take a look at that triples column, though: there’s slow, there’s slower, and then there’s Boog Speed.

 Year  Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS OPS+
 1961   19    4   13    0    1    0    0    0    1    0    2 .077 .077 .077  .154  -58
 1962   20  124  400   44   97   13    2   15   53   38   79 .243 .311 .398  .709   94
 1963   21  140  491   67  130   22    2   25   82   49   87 .265 .328 .470  .798  123
 1964   22  134  424   74  123   17    0   39   99   76   91 .290 .399 .606 1.005  176
 1965   23  139  448   64  120   19    1   28   86   74   92 .268 .371 .501  .872  144
 1966   24  140  491   78  141   18    0   34  109   67  125 .287 .372 .532  .904  159
 1967   25  133  453   66  119   16    1   24   82   61  110 .263 .350 .456  .806  138
 1968   26  153  542   72  150   23    1   30  103   73   87 .276 .362 .484  .845  155
 1969   27  152  533   83  162   25    0   37  121   72   76 .304 .383 .559  .942  161
 1970   28  154  526   82  156   28    0   35  114  104   80 .297 .412 .549  .961  163
 1971   29  141  472   71  132   24    0   29  103   93   72 .279 .397 .510  .907  157
 1972   30  142  478   67  136   21    0   28   96   65   80 .285 .371 .508  .879  157
 1973   31  121  396   54  106   17    0   18   67   77   62 .267 .385 .449  .835  136
 1974   32  122  390   51  110   16    1   20   66   56   65 .282 .372 .475  .847  146
 1975   33  134  435   64  129   18    0   27   86   59   72 .297 .377 .524  .901  153
 1976   34   95  293   29   63    9    0    9   33   41   43 .215 .305 .338  .643   90
 1977   35   50   41    0   10    0    0    0    5   12    9 .244 .415 .244  .659   83
Total      2078 6825  964 1884  284    7  397 1305 1016 1231 .276 .370 .494  .864  145
All Right Then, How About This Interesting Guy

Jeff Heath

When he was good, he was very, very good, but this big, strong Canadian (who was apparently a bit temperamental) had an extraordinarily difficult time staying good. Our version allows him to remain fairly healthy and consistent, and the results are rather terrific. When his career was ended by a broken ankle at the age of 34, Heath really hadn’t lost any of his hitting ability.

There were significantly more triples hit in the 1930s and 1940s than today, but even adjusting for that, Heath was a tremendous triples hitter. A big guy who hits a lot of triples is, as Napoleon Dynamite might put it, pretty much my favorite player … it’s like a slugger and a speedster mixed. Bred for its skills in magic.

 Year  Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS OPS+
 1936   21   12   41    6   14    3    3    1    8    3    4 .341 .386 .634 1.020  147
 1937   22   20   61    8   14    1    4    0    8    0    9 .230 .230 .377  .607   50
 1938   23  126  502  104  172   31   18   21  112   33   55 .343 .383 .602  .985  145
 1939   24  133  506   86  166   31   15   20  101   41   63 .327 .378 .565  .943  141
 1940   25  124  457   69  134   26   10   17   81   44   65 .294 .355 .509  .864  124
 1941   26  151  585   89  199   32   20   24  123   50   69 .340 .396 .586  .982  162
 1942   27  148  571   83  166   36   14   13   85   60   67 .291 .358 .471  .829  138
 1943   28  133  483   67  136   25    8   20   91   68   65 .282 .370 .494  .864  159
 1944   29  109  376   57  112   17    6   15   67   55   42 .298 .388 .497  .885  156
 1945   30  125  442   68  145   21   12   18   87   50   48 .327 .395 .547  .942  177
 1946   31  143  511   79  160   32   11   21  101   62   67 .314 .388 .547  .935  158
 1947   32  146  489   83  137   26    7   27   92   79   76 .280 .380 .526  .907  148
 1948   33  115  364   64  116   26    5   20   76   51   46 .319 .404 .582  .986  166
 1949   34   36  111   17   34    7    0    9   23   15   26 .306 .389 .613 1.002  170
Total      1521 5499  880 1705  315  134  226 1055  611  702 .310 .379 .539  .918  150

Then How About Three More Big Guys Who Hit a Lot of Triples

Ruben Sierra

As stark as Sierra’s “lost decade” between the ages of 25 and 35 looks when viewing his raw stats, the reality is even more severe than appears at first glance, given that his outstanding early seasons took place in a relatively low-scoring period, and his extreme drop-off phase beginning in 1993 coincided exactly with the great modern offensive boom. An examination of the OPS+ column is necessary to make it plain just how badly Sierra faded.

Our version pretty much ameliorates that. This Sierra, consistently productive through the 1990s, would have surpassed 450 homers and approached 3,000 hits, and would certainly have a contingent of send-him-to-Cooperstown advocates.

 Year  Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
 1986   20  113  382   50  101   13   10   16   55   22   65 .264 .302 .476 .778  107
 1987   21  158  643   97  169   35    4   30  109   39  114 .263 .302 .470 .772  101
 1988   22  156  615   77  156   32    2   23   91   44   91 .254 .301 .424 .725  100
 1989   23  162  634  101  194   35   14   29  119   43   82 .306 .347 .543 .890  146
 1990   24  161  625   91  186   36   10   25  111   45   83 .298 .345 .505 .850  136
 1991   25  161  661  110  203   44    5   25  116   56   91 .307 .357 .502 .859  138
 1992   26  158  641  101  191   41    6   22  106   52   83 .298 .351 .484 .835  137
 1993   27  161  644  100  188   36    9   26  114   50   89 .292 .343 .496 .840  128
 1994   28  108  431   70  131   26    6   19   80   32   58 .303 .351 .518 .869  129
 1995   29  135  518   83  156   30    9   27   98   33   70 .302 .344 .547 .892  134
 1996   30  153  591   96  176   39    3   31  110   41   86 .298 .344 .533 .877  117
 1997   31  153  595  107  193   42    4   28  122   56   96 .324 .382 .547 .929  139
 1998   32  154  587  101  176   34    2   39  121   70  117 .301 .375 .565 .940  143
 1999   33  121  471   77  141   31    3   24   87   34   68 .300 .347 .528 .875  122
 2000   34  133  459   76  122   23    2   30   95   39   95 .266 .323 .521 .845  106
 2001   35   94  344   55  100   22    1   23   67   19   52 .291 .322 .561 .883  127
 2002   36  122  419   47  113   23    0   13   60   31   66 .270 .319 .418 .737  101
 2003   37  106  307   33   83   17    1    9   43   27   47 .270 .327 .420 .747   94
 2004   38  107  307   40   75   12    1   17   65   25   55 .244 .296 .456 .752   96
 2005   39   61  170   14   39   12    0    4   29    9   41 .229 .265 .371 .636   65
Total      267510044 1527 2894  581   90  459 1798  767 1548 .288 .339 .501 .840  125

Dave Parker

While a Hall of Fame plaque will almost certainly never hang in Parker’s honor, such a monument might very well be the centerpiece of a Hall of Object Lessons. No matter what one’s gifts of size, strength, and talent, an athlete—even in a sport as non-aerobic as baseball—simply cannot perform at anything approaching his best if he attends to no semblance of conditioning or focus.

That said, it must always also be acknowledged that Parker did, finally, come to terms with reality, grow up, and do the hard work necessary to get back into shape, and stay in shape. Small comfort though it may be to Pirates’ fans, Parker deserves real credit for that equally relevant part of his story.

 Year  Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS OPS+
 1973   22   54  139   17   40    9    1    4   14    2   27 .288 .308 .453 .761  112
 1974   23   73  220   27   62   10    3    4   29   10   53 .282 .322 .409 .731  108
 1975   24  148  558   75  172   35   10   25  101   38   89 .308 .357 .541 .898  148
 1976   25  138  537   82  168   28   10   13   90   30   80 .313 .349 .475 .824  132
 1977   26  159  637  107  215   44    8   21   88   58  107 .338 .397 .531 .928  144
 1978   27  148  581  102  194   32   12   30  117   57   92 .334 .394 .585 .979  166
 1979   28  158  622  109  193   45    7   25   94   67  101 .310 .380 .526 .906  140
 1980   29  155  612  107  196   41    9   26  100   63   99 .321 .384 .543 .927  154
 1981   30  106  424   65  138   29    4   18   71   37   62 .325 .378 .541 .919  156
 1982   31  159  629   99  196   44    6   30  110   60   91 .311 .371 .539 .909  149
 1983   32  156  606   93  171   37    4   26   96   56  103 .282 .343 .481 .823  124
 1984   33  160  629   87  184   37    3   32  118   52   97 .293 .347 .514 .861  135
 1985   34  160  635   88  198   42    4   34  125   52   80 .312 .365 .551 .916  148
 1986   35  162  637   89  174   31    3   31  116   56  126 .273 .330 .477 .807  117
 1987   36  153  589   77  149   28    0   26   97   44  104 .253 .311 .433 .744   92
 1988   37  101  377   43   97   18    1   12   55   32   70 .257 .314 .406 .720  104
 1989   38  144  553   56  146   27    0   22   97   38   91 .264 .308 .432 .740  111
 1990   39  157  610   71  176   30    3   21   92   41  102 .289 .330 .451 .781  118
 1991   40  132  502   47  120   26    2   11   59   33   98 .239 .288 .365 .653   80
Total      262310096 1440 2989  592   89  410 1668  825 1671 .296 .349 .494 .843  130

Chuck Klein

I’m not certain if Klein deserves his Hall of Fame slot or not; I go back and forth on this one all the time.

But I am certain of this: he presents about as perplexing a career as can be imagined for analysts to attempt to judge. Not only do Klein’s peak years coincide with an extreme hitters’ park in an extreme hitters’ era, but his decline coincides with a dramatic reduction in league-wide offense, and then a trade away from the great hitters’ park as well. On top of all that, Klein suffered an unusually severe and sudden physical decline: major leg problems hit him in 1934, and never let up, and later got worse. Thus the tasks of isolating just how good Klein “really” was when at his best, and of weighing the relative worthiness of his full warts-and-all career, defy easy resolution.

In this modern age we have marvelous, sophisticated park- and league-context tools at our disposal. These are indispensable tools for such a challenge, but they aren’t perfect, and their limits are strained by such an extreme, weird case as Klein’s. So, alas, I just don’t know. I suspect most everyone can agree upon this much: if Klein’s career wasn’t of Hall of Fame quality, it was pretty close. And regardless of where one comes down on that question, this career is a fascinating one to consider just in its variety of “what might have been” dimensions.

The version of Klein we’ve conjured here does run into nagging injury issues beginning at age 29, but is able to remain a slightly diminished star for a couple of years, and a highly productive regular for a few more, and then a useful role player for several years after that. We bring the Klein airship in on a smooth glide path to a nice, soft landing, instead of the actual grisly crash-and-burn.

 Year  Age    G   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG   OPS OPS+
 1928   23   64  253   41   91   14    4   11   34   14   22 .360 .396 .577  .973  148
 1929   24  149  616  126  219   45    6   43  145   54   61 .356 .407 .657 1.064  152
 1930   25  156  648  158  250   59    8   40  170   54   50 .386 .436 .687 1.123  159
 1931   26  148  594  121  200   34   10   31  121   59   49 .337 .398 .584  .982  153
 1932   27  154  650  152  226   50   15   38  137   60   49 .348 .404 .646 1.050  164
 1933   28  152  606  101  223   44    7   28  120   56   36 .368 .422 .602 1.024  175
 1934   29  132  526  102  175   36    4   32  113   51   50 .333 .391 .597  .988  162
 1935   30  138  541  115  189   37    6   31  122   48   46 .348 .401 .607 1.008  166
 1936   31  147  598  112  192   35    9   28  113   54   54 .321 .358 .548  .906  133
 1937   32  135  528  113  179   35    9   27   97   50   35 .339 .386 .588  .974  153
 1938   33  141  532   77  168   33    5   18   91   47   33 .316 .371 .496  .868  140
 1939   34  113  376   62  111   23    4   16   68   42   30 .294 .357 .500  .857  130
 1940   35  118  394   55  102   15    3   14   55   43   36 .259 .331 .419  .750  109
 1941   36   98  337   54   97   18    4   13   54   30   33 .286 .344 .475  .819  133
 1942   37   65  210   37   67   10    1    8   29   20   12 .317 .375 .481  .856  155
 1943   38   71  239   27   58   11    1    4   32   19   17 .241 .297 .345  .642   88
 1944   39   60  181   20   39    8    1    4   19   22   16 .216 .301 .330  .631   80
Total      2038 7828 1471 2584  505   95  384 1517  720  627 .330 .386 .566  .952  145

Still to Come

We can perform this fun little exercise on a whole long list of careers; I’ve already got several in mind. But that’s why we’re calling this “Volume I” today. We’ll open up further volumes in due course.

However, in the immediate future, we can do the same thing with the careers of quite a few pitchers. Therefore, next time’s topic will be “Filling the Saberhagen Gaps: Volume I”.

References & Resources
The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, by Bill James (New York: Villard Books, 1986), page 509.

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, by Bill James (New York: The Free Press, 2001), page 210.

Methodology

On my first pass at this, I employed a rather strict, formal structure for adjusting these players’ stats, very similar to the one I developed here to fill in the missing seasons for players who served in the military during World War II. While I found that this methodology produced very satisfactory total results, the specific year-by-year stat lines it yielded were too perfect for this exercise: too smooth, too predictable. We went from a frustratingly inconsistent actual career to an implausibly consistent virtual career.

Everyone’s actual career includes a certain degree of year-to-year variation, and I wanted even these smoothed-out versions to reflect some of that. So instead of the strict formality, I allowed myself to be a little looser, and apply a bit of artistic license. However, I did require myself to stick to some basic rules:

- I couldn’t just make stuff up; all adjusted stats had to start with the particular player’s actual stat lines.
- In most cases, the stats from the season being adjusted were included (even if in a minor weighting) in the adjusted line, to give the adjusted line some of the flavor of that actual season’s performance.
- No player’s career could start earlier than it did, or end later than it did.
- No adjusted season could surpass the player’s actual peak season(s); the adjusted seasons act as a bridge to and from peaks, not a new peak.

I’ve endeavored to create a new version of each player’s career that is idealized, but in a plausible manner. The intended effect is to enhance the actual career while not overwhelming it, to create an easily recognizable version of the actual career that is, to a reasonable degree, the best it might have been.

Feel free to email me with any questions about the precise formulae used for any particular player.

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