Re-imagining the Big Zone Sixties, revisited:  part one

Away back in 2004 (it really doesn’t seem that long ago!), in the dim dark early months of THT, we presented a couple of articles that examined the impact that the expanded strike zone of 1963 through 1968 had on our perception of the best batting performances of the era.

Specifically, this was our methodology:

Just how dramatic was the impact of the 1963-68 strike zone? We can create a rough estimate. We take the six seasons surrounding 1963 through 1968—1960 through 1962 and 1969 through 1971—and sum up the combined total major league rates of those years for runs, hits, walks, strikeouts, home runs and so on. Then we compare those averages with those of the six years with the big zone, and interpret what we see as a pretty clear illustration of the big zone’s influence.

Here’s what these calculations reveal: 1963-68 walk rates were lower than the six surrounding years by about 15%, strikeouts were up by about 8%, and base hits were down by about 4% (including doubles by 5%, triples by 2%, and homers by 10%). The effect of all of this was to inhibit scoring overall by about 11%.

Let’s turn this into a thought experiment. Let’s take these overall major league-wide averages and tweak all actual 1963-68 statistics by just those proportions. Every 1963-68 batter, pitcher, and team will be adjusted in equal proportion: walks increased by 15%, strikeouts reduced by 8%, hits increased by 4%, and so on. This results in overall rates for the entire 1963-68 period that are equal to those of the combined 1960-62 and 1969-71 periods, but with player-to-player, team-to-team, and year-to-year proportional fluctuations remaining as they actually occurred.

Such an approach adjusts the stats of the era in a manner illustrated by this graphic:
1960s
This only shows runs (and by extension RBIs), but a similar adjustment was made to each batter’s hits, doubles, home runs, walks and strikeouts.

The articles were a lot of fun to put together, and I received plenty of nice feedback. But in the time since I’ve often thought that I didn’t quite manage to do the topic justice. It would have been better if, along with just presenting adjusted stats leader highlights, I’d presented deeper looks at the careers of the period’s most prominent batting stars, similar to the approach offered in pieces such as these. Such an approach brings the issue to life more dramatically, and allows for a deeper consideration of just how at-the-time perceptions as well as historical perspectives are influenced by players’ raw stats, even if their relative league-normalized performances are completely unchanged.

So, what the heck. It’s a new year, how about fulfilling an overdue resolution, and taking another pass at the batting stats of the mid-1960s. Over the next couple of weeks, we’ll be examining the season-by-season stat lines of all the top hitting stars of that era. However, this week we’ll allow ourselves to focus entirely on some of the period’s lesser, though quite interesting, lights.

As we proceed, remember that all adjusted stat lines are presented in blue font. For our methodology, please see the References and Resources section below.

OBP specialists

With an extra-big strike zone in the mid-1960s, the old-fashioned tactic of working the count and striving to draw walks was clearly threatened. Nevertheless there were a few non-power hitters who worked such a technique in that era.

Dick Howser

He became a famous manager, but I suspect few people remember not only that Howser was a player, but one with an extreme statistical profile. He was just a little guy (5’8″, 155), and played perfectly to the “pesky leadoff hitter” stereotype: no power, great speed, extraordinarily difficult to strike out, slapping foul balls and working walks.

Howser’s problem was that he just couldn’t stay healthy. Following a terrific major league debut (he was a close second in A.L. Rookie of the Year balloting) he was able to put together just one more season as a full-time regular; our stat adjustment here demonstrates that Howser’s 1964 performance almost matched that of 1961. But following that he quickly receded into utility status.

That 1968 stat line is pretty amazing, isn’t it. I bet you remember a few guys of that sort in Little League.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1961   25  611  108  171   29    6    3   45   92   38 .280 .377 .362 .739
 1962   26  286   53   68    8    3    6   34   38    8 .238 .326 .350 .676
 1963   27  205   32   50    5    0    1   12   33   19 .244 .350 .285 .635
 1964   28  643  112  169   24    4    3   58   88   36 .263 .352 .329 .681
 1965   29  310   52   75    8    2    1    7   66   23 .242 .374 .292 .667
 1966   30  141   20   33    9    1    2    4   17   21 .235 .319 .364 .683
 1967   31  151   20   42    6    0    0   11   29   14 .276 .393 .318 .711
 1968   32  151   27   24    2    1    0    3   40   16 .158 .336 .186 .522

Wayne Causey

Stuck in the majors as a Bonus Baby long before he was ready, Causey looked like a bust, only to resurface several years later and prove a very useful player: defensively versatile, and with outstanding on-base ability. But for some reason—I don’t know if it was injury-related or not—he prematurely aged.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1961   24  312   37   86   14    1    8   49   37   28 .276 .348 .404 .752
 1962   25  305   40   77   14    1    4   38   41   30 .252 .340 .344 .684
 1963   26  560   80  161   34    4    9   49   65   50 .288 .361 .409 .771
 1964   27  611   91  177   33    4    9   54  102   60 .289 .391 .399 .790
 1965   28  518   53  139   18    8    3   38   70   44 .269 .356 .354 .710
 1966   29  245   27   60    8    2    0   20   36   18 .246 .342 .297 .638
 1967   30  295   23   69   10    3    1   31   37   32 .233 .318 .300 .619
 1968   31  149   11   23    2    1    1   12   16   11 .154 .237 .204 .440

Albie Pearson

The teeniest player of his era (5’5″, 140), Pearson not only leveraged his small size into lots of walks, but also had surprising pop in his bat. It was a bad back that brought his career to an untimely end.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1960   25   82   17   20    2    0    1    6   17    3 .244 .370 .305 .675
 1961   26  427   92  123   21    3    7   41   96   40 .288 .420 .400 .820
 1962   27  614  115  160   29    6    5   42   95   36 .261 .360 .352 .712
 1963   28  585  102  183   27    5    7   52  106   34 .313 .418 .411 .829
 1964   29  267   38   61    5    1    2   18   40   20 .229 .331 .281 .612
 1965   30  364   45  104   18    2    4   23   59   16 .286 .385 .382 .767
 1966   31    3    0    0    0    0    0    0    0    1 .000 .000 .000 .000

Floyd Robinson

Yet another guy who suddenly fell apart at around the age of 30. I’ve long suspected that Robinson was actually a few years older than advertised, but no SABR biographical research has ever confirmed that suspicion.

In any case, for a few years there this guy was one very tough out.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1960   24   46    7   13    0    0    0    1   11    8 .283 .431 .283 .714
 1961   25  432   69  134   20    7   11   59   52   32 .310 .389 .465 .854
 1962   26  600   89  187   45   10   11  109   72   47 .312 .384 .475 .859
 1963   27  533   79  155   22    6   14   79   72   40 .291 .375 .436 .810
 1964   28  531   92  164   18    3   12   65   81   38 .309 .400 .423 .823
 1965   29  583   77  159   16    6   15   73   88   47 .273 .368 .400 .768
 1966   30  345   49   84   12    2    6   39   51   30 .244 .341 .337 .678
 1967   31  131   21   32    6    2    1   11   16   13 .246 .328 .350 .678
 1968   32  106    7   24    5    0    1   18    8   13 .226 .281 .307 .587

Ron Hunt

He became primarily renowned for his HBP proclivity (he managed to get in the way of 50 pitches in 1971 alone), but Hunt was pretty effective at drawing walks too.

Hunt was quite something to watch. He was pretty big (6’0″, and about 185 pounds), but he had precious little power, nor did he have any speed, and he was entirely ungraceful: a non-major-league-caliber athlete in every regard. But he was just so—there’s no other word for it—scrappy. He displayed all the elegance of a rusty box of nails slid across an oil-stained garage floor. Hunt’s intensity was almost painfully vivid: this was a guy who had clearly spent his life never taking a damn thing for granted. He was a sinus headache for opponents and umpires, and he was also, by every account, a cranky and annoying teammate.

I’m much too young to have ever seen Eddie Stanky play, but everything I’ve read about him suggests that Stanky and Hunt were pretty much the same ballplayer a generation apart.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1963   22  539   71  151   29    4   11   46   46   46 .280 .337 .411 .747
 1964   23  481   65  150   20    6    7   46   33   28 .311 .366 .420 .786
 1965   24  198   23   49   13    1    1   11   16   18 .247 .304 .338 .641
 1966   25  484   70  143   20    2    3   36   47   32 .296 .359 .366 .725
 1967   26  392   49  106   18    3    3   36   45   22 .270 .357 .357 .714
 1968   27  534   87  137   20    0    2   31   90   38 .257 .375 .307 .682
 1969   28  478   72  125   23    3    3   41   51   47 .262 .361 .341 .702
 1970   29  367   70  103   17    1    6   41   44   29 .281 .394 .381 .775
 1971   30  520   89  145   20    3    5   38   58   41 .279 .402 .358 .760
The flopping sixties

Every era has them, of course, but for some reason the 1960s had far more than their share of players whose careers suddenly and unexpectedly flamed out after very promising beginnings.

George Altman

Big George was late to reach the major leagues, but it wasn’t for lack of talent. First he was completing his education at Tennessee State University, then he played for a season with the Kansas City Monarchs. At age 23 the Cubs’ organization signed him, but then his minor league development was interrupted by a hitch in the military.

But he finally got to the big leagues, and in his third season Altman blossomed. Fast as well as powerful, Altman put together back-to-back All-Star years and seemed primed for a good long run.

The Cardinals swung a big trade to acquire him, but in St. Louis Altman’s power output dropped way off. The next season the Mets picked him up, and Altman’s offense fully imploded. In this adjusted view, Altman’s post-1962 decline doesn’t look quite as severe as it did in real time, but it remains a stunner.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1960   27  334   50   89   16    4   13   51   32   67 .266 .330 .455 .785
 1961   28  518   77  157   28   12   27   96   40   92 .303 .353 .560 .913
 1962   29  534   74  170   27    5   22   74   62   89 .318 .393 .511 .904
 1963   30  469   69  132   19    7   10   52   54   86 .281 .356 .416 .772
 1964   31  426   53  101   15    1   10   52   21   65 .237 .272 .346 .618
 1965   32  198   27   48    7    1    4   25   22   33 .242 .317 .356 .673
 1966   33  187   21   43    6    0    6   19   16   34 .228 .290 .351 .641
 1967   34   18    1    2    2    0    0    1    2    7 .111 .200 .222 .422

Willie Kirkland

Kirkland had a tremendous minor league career and looked for all the world like a superstar in the making. He became a good major leaguer, but couldn’t break through as a star, until suddenly at the age of 28 Kirkland utterly and permanently lost the capacity to hit for any kind of average.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1960   26  515   59  130   21   10   21   65   44   86 .252 .315 .454 .769
 1961   27  525   84  136   22    5   27   95   48   77 .259 .318 .474 .792
 1962   28  419   56   84    9    1   21   72   43   62 .200 .272 .377 .649
 1963   29  431   56  102   14    2   17   52   52   92 .236 .319 .393 .711
 1964   30  254   24   54   12    0    9   39   27   52 .213 .287 .362 .650
 1965   31  315   42   75    9    1   15   60   22   60 .238 .287 .421 .709
 1966   32  164   23   32    2    1    7   19   18   46 .196 .278 .342 .620

Fred Whitfield

He was one-dimensional, but the single dimension this free-swinging, slow-footed first baseman offered was hitting the ball real hard. Then regression took hold like a python and just wouldn’t let go until it had squeezed every ounce of life out of Whitfield’s production.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1962   24  158   20   42    7    1    8   34    7   30 .266 .299 .475 .774
 1963   25  349   49   90   18    3   23   60   28   57 .259 .313 .526 .839
 1964   26  296   32   82   14    1   11   32   14   54 .277 .310 .442 .752
 1965   27  473   54  142   24    1   29  100   18   39 .301 .327 .538 .865
 1966   28  507   65  126   16    2   30   86   31   70 .248 .292 .463 .755
 1967   29  259   27   58   10    0   10   34   29   42 .225 .302 .380 .682
 1968   30  173   17   46    8    0    7   35   10   27 .265 .307 .428 .735
 1969   31   74    2   11    0    0    1    8   18   27 .149 .315 .189 .504
 1970   32   15    0    1    0    0    0    0    1    3 .067 .125 .067 .192

Rich Rollins

A college star at Kent State, the redheaded Rollins was an All-Star Game starter as a major league rookie after fewer than 100 games in the minors. He followed that up with a terrific sophomore performance, but that would be the high point. Within a few years Rollins was a garden-variety utility man.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1961   23   17    3    5    1    0    0    3    2    2 .294 .400 .353 .753
 1962   24  624   96  186   23    5   16   96   75   61 .298 .374 .428 .802
 1963   25  537   83  169   24    1   18   67   42   55 .315 .364 .462 .827
 1964   26  602   96  167   26   10   13   75   61   74 .278 .344 .421 .766
 1965   27  474   65  122   23    1    6   35   43   50 .257 .318 .345 .663
 1966   28  272   33   69    7    1   11   44   15   32 .253 .292 .409 .701
 1967   29  342   34   86   12    2    7   43   31   54 .252 .315 .356 .670
 1968   30  205   15   51    5    0    7   33   12   32 .249 .289 .371 .660
 1969   31  187   15   42    7    0    4   21    7   19 .225 .270 .326 .596
 1970   32   68    9   15    1    0    2    9    6    9 .221 .280 .324 .604

Curt Blefary

The poster boy for the Bill James observation that a young player exhibiting “old player skills” often doesn’t have much of a development path ahead.

At the tender age of 21, Blefary was displaying grade-A power as well as exceptional strike zone judgment, but he was slow afoot and his defensive tools earned him the nickname “Clank.” His subsequent unraveling was gradual but inexorable, resembling nothing quite so much as the final stages of the career of a veteran slugger well into his 30s.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1965   21  467   80  125   24    4   24   77  102   68 .267 .398 .492 .891
 1966   22  423   81  111   15    3   25   71   84   52 .263 .385 .492 .877
 1967   23  559   76  139   20    5   24   90   84   87 .249 .347 .433 .780
 1968   24  455   55   94    8    1   17   43   75   61 .206 .318 .338 .656
 1969   25  542   66  137   26    7   12   67   77   79 .253 .347 .393 .740
 1970   26  269   34   57    6    0    9   37   43   37 .212 .324 .335 .659
 1971   27  137   19   29    3    0    6   14   18   20 .212 .308 .365 .673

Pete Ward

We now know that Ward was two years older than he was believed to be at the time, so his collapse doesn’t appear quite as bewildering as it did. But it was still quite a fall: Ward was a top-10 MVP contender in both 1963 and ’64, and deservedly so. But back trouble plagued him from then on.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1962   24   21    1    3    2    0    0    2    4    5 .143 .280 .238 .518
 1963   25  607   88  184   36    6   24   93   60   71 .303 .366 .502 .868
 1964   26  545   67  158   29    3   25  104   65   70 .290 .365 .495 .860
 1965   27  512   69  130   26    3   11   63   65   77 .254 .338 .382 .719
 1966   28  253   24   57    7    1    3   31   28   45 .226 .302 .302 .604
 1967   29  471   54  113   17    2   20   69   70  101 .240 .339 .411 .750
 1968   30  402   48   89   16    0   17   55   88   79 .222 .361 .385 .746
 1969   31  199   22   49    7    0    6   32   33   38 .246 .359 .372 .731
 1970   32   77    5   20    2    2    1   18    9   17 .260 .333 .377 .710

Don Wert

He was never a star, but Wert was the next-best thing: a solid, dependable, remarkably consistent performer with the bat, and a first-rate defensive third baseman. Then out of the blue between 1967 and ’68 Wert totally lost the capacity to hit singles. He retained his grade-B home run power, but the line drives just vanished forever.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1963   24  254   34   68    6    2    8   28   28   47 .266 .339 .399 .737
 1964   25  530   70  140   19    5   10   61   58   69 .265 .337 .376 .712
 1965   26  615   90  165   23    2   13   60   84   66 .269 .357 .377 .734
 1966   27  565   62  156   21    2   12   77   74   64 .276 .360 .385 .745
 1967   28  539   66  142   24    2    7   44   51   55 .264 .327 .353 .680
 1968   29  540   49  111   16    1   13   41   43   73 .206 .264 .312 .576
 1969   30  423   46   95   11    1   14   50   49   60 .225 .303 .355 .658
 1970   31  363   34   79   13    0    6   33   44   56 .218 .307 .303 .610
 1971   32   40    2    2    1    0    0    2    4   10 .050 .156 .075 .231

Adolfo Phillips

Anyone who strikes out as frequently as Phillips is likely to have some difficulty sustaining a good batting average, but beyond that this young player presented the complete package of power, speed and plate discipline. Then it all just melted away.

Over his long managerial career, Leo Durocher’s record of developing young talent was remarkably strong. But this was one instance in which Leo the Lip likely caused more harm than good.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1964   22   13    4    3    0    0    0    0    3    3 .231 .353 .231 .584
 1965   23   88   15   21    4    0    3    6    6   32 .237 .284 .398 .682
 1966   24  423   76  113   30    1   18   40   50  125 .268 .345 .469 .814
 1967   25  453   73  125   21    7   19   77   92   86 .276 .398 .477 .876
 1968   26  443   54  110   21    5   14   36   54   83 .249 .331 .416 .747
 1969   27  248   30   54    7    5    4    8   35   77 .218 .318 .335 .653
 1970   28  214   36   51    6    3    6   21   36   51 .238 .352 .379 .731

Lee Thomas

This solid all-around hitter gave a head-fake with his season-long slump in 1963, then rebounded. But in 1966 he flopped again, and this time he meant it. There was no middle ground in Thomas’s career; either he was quite good or really lousy.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1961   25  452   77  129   11    5   24   70   47   74 .285 .353 .491 .844
 1962   26  583   88  169   21    2   26  104   55   74 .290 .355 .467 .822
 1963   27  533   58  121   13    6   10   61   61   76 .226 .306 .329 .635
 1964   28  579   64  156   28    3   17   73   60   47 .269 .338 .415 .753
 1965   29  527   82  147   28    4   24   83   83   39 .278 .377 .486 .863
 1966   30  277   29   63    5    1    8   27   28   28 .229 .299 .338 .637
 1967   31  193   18   44    4    1    2   25   17   20 .227 .290 .293 .584
 1968   32  203   15   41    4    0    1   12   16   20 .202 .261 .239 .500

Jimmie Hall

Hall’s entirely unusual career arc presented four distinct phases, each of which seemed to have little to do with the others. Instead they appeared as disjointed segments from random pages of Who’s Who in Baseball, crudely scotch-taped together.

Phase I was Hall’s seven-year minor league career, in which he was an infielder as much as an outfielder, rarely hitting well, either for average or power. His ascendance to AAA amounted to 164 games over three seasons, deployed in utility roles while hitting .236 with 13 home runs in 436 at-bats.

In Phase II, 1963-65, Hall suddenly found himself not only in the majors, but performing as a terrific All-Star major league center fielder, delivering excellent power and a strong average as well.

In Phase III, 1966-67, Hall was primarily a corner outfielder, a strict platoon player who almost never batted against left-handed pitching. In this manifestation Hall reliably delivered the long ball, but little else.

Then in Phase IV, 1968-70, Hall was a banjo-hitting backup outfielder, often humbly deployed as a late-inning defensive replacement and not infrequently as a pinch runner, nomadically wandering between five teams in three years.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1963   25  502   97  134   22    5   36   88   73   94 .267 .360 .549 .908
 1964   26  516   67  150   21    3   28   83   51  104 .290 .354 .503 .857
 1965   27  528   90  155   26    4   22   95   59   73 .293 .364 .484 .848
 1966   28  359   58   88    7    4   22   52   38   61 .246 .318 .473 .791
 1967   29  405   60  104    8    3   18   61   48   60 .257 .336 .423 .759
 1968   30  239   21   51    7    0    2   18   30   35 .213 .301 .272 .573
 1969   31  246   23   55    9    5    3   27   22   42 .224 .285 .337 .622
 1970   32   79    9   13    3    0    2    5    6   26 .165 .224 .278 .502

Tom Tresh

Nobody quite confused him with Mickey Mantle, but to a reasonable degree the young Tresh presented the tremendous skill package of his superstar teammate: a switch-hitting shortstop converted to a Gold Glove-winning outfielder, with power, speed and strike zone discipline. Tresh was an exceptional talent.

The wittiest reference to the systematic unwinding of Tresh’s career was something I encountered several years ago, in a thread on BTF. Somehow or other the topic of discussion found its way to the actor Victor Buono, who was nominated for an Oscar in 1962 but five years later was reduced to hamming it up on the ultra-campy Batman TV series. Razor-sharp poster Walt Davis inquired, “What was he, the Tom Tresh of acting?”

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1961   23    8    1    2    0    0    0    0    0    1 .250 .250 .250 .500
 1962   24  622   94  178   26    5   20   93   67   74 .286 .359 .441 .800
 1963   25  526  101  146   29    5   28   79   96   73 .277 .388 .509 .898
 1964   26  538   83  136   26    5   18   81   84  102 .253 .354 .419 .773
 1965   27  609  104  175   30    6   29   82   68   85 .287 .359 .498 .857
 1966   28  542   84  130   13    4   30   75   99   82 .240 .358 .443 .800
 1967   29  452   50  102   24    3   15   59   58   80 .225 .313 .395 .708
 1968   30  511   66  103   19    3   12   58   88   90 .201 .319 .322 .640
 1969   31  474   59  100   18    3   14   46   56   70 .211 .294 .350 .644

Zoilo Versalles

Step aside, little pups. The Big Dog of Flops is here.

Just what kind of a year did Versalles have in his 1965 MVP-winning campaign? Using his adjusted stats:

- Versalles’ 139 runs scored would be the most by anyone in the major leagues between 1949 and 1985
- It would be the highest total of runs scored by a middle infielder between 1936 and 1996
- His 323 total bases would be the most by an American League middle infielder between 1949 and 1982
- His 80 extra-base hits would be the most by an American League middle infielder between 1936 and 1980

All this while winning the Gold Glove and stealing 27 bases in 32 attempts. It was, simply, one of the greatest seasons any shortstop has ever achieved.

But then Zorro didn’t just lose the formula. He wrote it in invisible ink on toilet paper, locked that shred of tissue inside a double-walled tempered steel safe, and dropped the deadweight safe overboard a ship steaming across the Mariana Trench.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1960   20   45    2    6    2    2    0    4    2    5 .133 .170 .267 .437
 1961   21  510   65  143   25    5    7   53   25   61 .280 .314 .390 .704
 1962   22  568   69  137   18    3   17   67   37   71 .241 .287 .373 .660
 1963   23  627   82  168   33   13   11   60   38   61 .268 .310 .415 .725
 1964   24  666  104  178   35   10   22   71   48   82 .267 .317 .449 .766
 1965   25  673  139  189   47   12   21   85   47  113 .281 .328 .481 .809
 1966   26  548   81  140   21    6    8   40   46   79 .256 .314 .359 .672
 1967   27  586   70  121   17    7    7   55   38  105 .206 .254 .293 .547
 1968   28  406   32   82   17    3    2   27   30   78 .202 .257 .275 .532
 1969   29  292   30   69   13    2    1   19   24   60 .236 .299 .305 .604
 1970   30  (In Minor Leagues)
 1971   31  194   21   37   11    0    5   22   11   40 .191 .233 .325 .558
What might have been

Tony Conigliaro

Stories don’t get any sadder than this one, of course. But poignant as Tony C.’s case legitmately is, all too often we see him portrayed as a budding superstar, who but for his terrible beaning had MVP-caliber seasons surely awaiting. Candidly, the evidence just doesn’t support that.

The most remarkable aspect of Conigliaro’s brief career was his terrific performance as a rookie at the fuzzy-cheeked age of 19. It is true that in the very few historical instances in which a player has hit that well at that age, development into greatness has usually followed.

But in the particular case of Conigliaro, what actually followed was lack of development; he didn’t regress but he didn’t progess either. When felled by the fastball in August of 1967, Conigliaro’s performance was essentially identical to what it had been in 1964, ’65, and ’66. While most players quickly develop into substantially better hitters than they were at 19 or 20, not all do; Ed Kranepool, Sibby Sisti, and Butch Wynegar are examples of hitters who never meaningfully improved upon the level of performance they established at such an age. Tony C. gave every indication of being another.

And Tony C.’s level of performance was very good, but not great. Conigliaro was a formidable hitter, but by no means an elite hitter, and his hitting was the only aspect of his game that was notable: he didn’t draw many walks, he was an unremarkable defensive right fielder, and his speed was average at best.

So just what sort of career would Tony C. have likely forged, were it not for that ghastly injury? To answer that it’s helpful to consider a couple of his contemporaries.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1964   19  409   76  122   22    2   26   58   40   72 .298 .361 .556 .917
 1965   20  527   91  146   22    5   35   91   59  108 .276 .349 .539 .888
 1966   21  564   85  154   27    7   31  103   60  104 .273 .343 .511 .854
 1967   22  353   65  104   12    5   22   74   31   54 .295 .352 .543 .895
 1968   23  (On Disabled List)
 1969   24  506   57  129   21    3   20   82   48  111 .255 .321 .427 .748
 1970   25  560   89  149   20    1   36  116   43   93 .266 .324 .498 .822
 1971   26  266   23   59   18    0    4   15   23   52 .222 .285 .335 .620

Jim Ray Hart

This burly young slugger didn’t reach the majors as extremely young as Conigliaro, but Hart was called up by the Giants at the age of 21, in July of 1963. Yet, eerily foreshadowing Conigliaro, Hart’s major league debut season was ruined by not one but two hit-by-pitch injuries, the first which broke his shoulder and the second which fractured his skull.

Hart returned healthy in 1964, and was immediately a star. He proceeded to mount four consecutive highly productive, remarkably consistent seasons. Hart’s raw stats over his age-22 through age-25 seasons aren’t meaningfully different from those Conigliaro presented at ages 19 through 22; factoring in park effects suggests that Hart hit slightly better.

So it’s sensible to estimate that had Conigliaro not been felled by the pitched ball in 1967, his performance in the seasons immediately following would likely have resembled those produced by Hart in 1964-67: excellent, but not superstar-level.

Hart’s career quickly fizzled after that, due to a combination of a chronically sore right shoulder, a thickening belly and a distinct preference for cocktails ahead of conditioning.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1963   21   20    1    4    1    0    0    2    3    6 .200 .304 .250 .554
 1964   22  572   79  168   16    6   34   90   54   87 .294 .355 .522 .877
 1965   23  598  101  184   31    6   25  106   54   70 .308 .365 .508 .873
 1966   24  585   97  172   24    4   36  103   55   70 .293 .355 .535 .890
 1967   25  585  108  174   27    7   32  109   89   93 .297 .390 .532 .922
 1968   26  485   74  129   15    3   25   86   53   69 .266 .338 .466 .804
 1969   27  236   27   60    9    0    3   26   28   49 .254 .343 .331 .674
 1970   28  255   30   72   12    1    8   37   30   29 .282 .360 .431 .791
 1971   29   39    5   10    0    0    2    5    6    8 .256 .356 .410 .766

Willie Horton

An even more similar player to Tony C.; for all practical purposes their skill profiles are indistinguishable. (Horton threw well, and would have been a right fielder if the Tigers didn’t have Al Kaline on the roster.) Like Hart, Horton didn’t become a major league regular until he was 22, but like Hart, the performance he presented from that point forward is uncannily close to what Conigliaro had been achieving.

Horton would enjoy far more career longevity than Hart. Yet as the years went by he would encounter his share of injuries. Horton’s career got a second wind with the introduction of the designated hitter rule in the mid-1970s, a circumstance that Conigliaro very plausibly would have encountered as well.

The ups and downs and general shape of Horton’s career aren’t at all unusual; the player who remains healthy, durable, and consistent for 10 or 15 or more years is definitely the exception, not the norm. Had Conigliaro not suffered that horrific beaning, his career might have hit a different wall, as did Hart’s, or more likely it would have bounced through a typical sequence of highs and lows, as did Horton’s. Tony C. was a very good player, but his injury didn’t rob us of a great career.

 Year  Age   AB    R    H   2B   3B   HR  RBI   BB   SO   BA  OBP  SLG  OPS
 1963   20   44    7   15    2    1    1    4    0    7 .334 .334 .505 .839
 1964   21   81    7   14    1    3    1   11   13   19 .168 .281 .298 .579
 1965   22  518   76  146   21    2   32  115   55   94 .281 .351 .515 .866
 1966   23  531   80  143   23    6   30  111   51   95 .270 .334 .504 .838
 1967   24  405   52  114   21    3   21   74   42   74 .282 .349 .504 .853
 1968   25  518   75  152   21    2   40   94   57  102 .293 .363 .571 .934
 1969   26  508   66  133   17    1   28   91   52   93 .262 .332 .465 .797
 1970   27  371   53  113   18    2   17   69   28   43 .305 .354 .501 .855
 1971   28  450   64  130   25    1   22   72   37   75 .289 .349 .496 .845
Next time

We’ll get into the serious stars of the period.

References & Resources
Some notes on methodology:

The precise percentage differences derived between MLB 1963-68 and 1960-62/69-71 averages:

Runs: 10.5873%
Hits: 3.9586%
Doubles: 4.958%
Triples: 1.726%
Home Runs: 10.2001%
Walks: 15.4743%
Strikeouts: -7.883% (yielding a multiplier of 0.92693)

The % change in triples is too small to show up in any individual player season. I think this makes intuitive sense: in a higher-scoring 1963-68 era, there certainly would have been more opportunities to stretch doubles into triples, but correspondingly, less incentive to take the risk.

An impact of a greater rate of hits is an increase in at-bats. I used a simple method to increase at-bats: every batter’s at-bats are increased by his number of increased hits. Outs are constant, of course, and I assume as well a constant rate of double plays and baserunning outs – probably not exactly proper assumptions, but close enough for our purposes. What the increase in both hits and at-bats for batters yields is generally about an 8-point increase in batting average in the .240-to-.300 range – that is, a .270 hitter usually emerges as a .278 hitter.

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