“One time, twenty years ago, I did a data base search to see if there was any player in baseball history who:
“1. Played in 1,200 or more games,
“2. Played a key defensive position, and
“3. Was above average in every basic offensive category. . . .
” . . . I discovered that there were two such players — Willie Mays and George Grantham. I just love this kind of crap, so I mentioned that several times in books over the years.”
Bill James, The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, page 522.
If you’ve read your James (and you should, dammit) the above study is probably familiar to you. After all, he really did mention it a slew of times. He determined “above average” is exceeding the overall normal score for all up-the-middle players with at least 1,200 games.
James had 11 different basic offensive category: doubles, triples, home runs, runs, RBIs, steals, walks, strikeouts—all eight of which were determined on a per-at-bat basis—as well as batting average, slugging average, and on-base percentage.
This certainly was a fun study. If nothing else it gives one clear appreciation for George Grantham. Recently, I blundered into a method that allows you to examine single seasons along these lines.
The George Grantham Database
About a month ago, I went to Baseball-Reference’s wondrous Play Index, searched for every single season since 1876 in which a hitter had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. That’s 15,511 times, if you’re curious.
I didn’t create this database with the Great Grantham Study of Yore in mind. I just wanted to find out things like which manager had the most 200-hit seasons (Bucky Harris), who had the fewest 100 RBI campaigns and similar issues. After assembling this behemoth of an excel spreadsheet, I realized it could be used for other matters.
Specifically, I noticed you could use this to determine for single seasons what James noted for careers — who exceeded the league average rate in all categories, and when they did it. All I had to do was add in league-wide statistics for each year to the file (which isn’t as hard as it sounds) using league offensive stats info at Baseball-Reference.com.
Once you have league stats for each year lined up with player stats for all 15,511 seasons, you can find out who exceeded the league rate in everything. Since George Grantham was the shock in James’ original study, we’ll call this the Grantham Database and the search will be for seasons that did Grantham proud.
I made a few changes from James’ study. He looked at things at a per-at -bat rate. I’m using plate appearances. (B-ref’s league stats don’t actually list league plate appearances, but AB+W+HBP+SH+SF makes effective shorthand.)
More importantly, I changed some of the stats. The specific place I got league stats didn’t include RBIs. I’m sure if I had better computer skills, I could easily dump them into excel, but I don’t have better computer skills. RBIs are out.
However, this Grantham Database includes stats James didn’t include in his original study: grounding into double plays, sacrifice hits and hit by pitch. If I’m looking at 15,000 seasons, may as well include as many as I can. After all, you find some really extra-special seasons.
Finally, I should note I can’t use all 15,511 seasons; 184 contain athletes who played in multiple leagues in a season. They can have no league rate against which to compare. With the remaining seasons, many are missing one or more of the stats being run through the database. Stolen bases and sacrifice hits aren’t known for part of the 19th century. MLB stopped calculating offensive strikeouts for a bit after 1900. Most importantly, GIDP info only goes back to the 1930s.
Still that leaves 8,567 seasons, all of which can be checked to see if the player had a superior rate in all of the following stats: AVG, SLG, OBP, doubles per PA, triples per PA, home runs per PA, runs per PA, stolen bases per, HBP per PA, sacrifice hits per PA, walks per PA, strikeouts per PA, and GIDP per PA. With the latter two, a hitter wants a lower rate than league average, but aims for the higher mark with the only 11.
Results: Grantham Seasons
Before I give the results, let me ask you a question: out of 8,567 seasons, how many do you think were above average at all 13 stats? Stop and think and take your best guess before finding the answer in the next paragraph.
There were four. That’s it. I should note sacrifice hits really trip people up. Fifty-one are above average at the other 12 but below with sac hits. A dang good argument can be made that shouldn’t belong or that I should include it because you’re better off not sacrificing. I’m including it because there is a certain skill involved in proper bunting, and we’re looking for the most well-rounded players.
If you’re wondering, on that list of 51, one man appears three times: Barry Lamar Bonds, in 1987, 1991 and 1992. There is a reason he won three MVPs in four years, folks. Appearing twice are Stan Musial (1942 and 1944), Robin Yount (1983 and 1989), and Larry Walker (1993, 2001). Wait—Larry Walker? Yeah, him, and only the latter came in Coors.
The rest of the 51 contain an assortment of Hall of Famers (Paul Molitor‘s 1991, Jackie Robinson‘s 1941, Frank Robinson‘s 1958), with some under consideration for immortality (Rickey Henderson‘s 1985 and Tim Raines‘s 1987), and contemporaries (Derek Jeter‘s 1999, Craig Biggio’s 1993). This year Nate McLouth, Lance Berkman, Chase Utley, and Hanley Ramirez all did the trick as well.
While one can argue they were more valuable because they gave themselves up more often, they weren’t as well rounded. Let’s look at the big four themselves:
As it happens, all four men played up-the-middle defensive positions, exactly what James wanted to look at once upon a time. Let’s look at them one by one.
Lonny Frey: 1939
The first person to do it was easily the most obscure – Lonny Frey in the 1939 NL. He played second base for Bill McKechnie, who emphasized defense more than any other prominent skipper in baseball history. So he may very well have had the most well rounded season of all time. Here are his numbers:
G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI 125 585 484 95 141 27 9 11 55 BB SO HBP SH GDP SB AVG OBP SLG 72 46 4 25 6 5 0.291 0.388 0.452
It’s probably a good thing for him that RBIs aren’t included. Still, that is a very impressive line. He clears the league average in almost every counted category by a good margin. He hit 19 points over league average, with an OBP more than 50 points higher than the league rate and a slugging percentage 66 points superior to a normal hitter. His line reveals how few steals and HBP were in the game at the time.
He was 28 years old, and it was clearly the best season he ever had.
Arky Vaughan: 1941
In the 1941 NL, Vaughan became the second member of this club. Like Frey, Vaughan benefits from RBIs not being counted, as the chart below makes clear:
G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI 106 437 374 69 118 20 7 6 38 BB SO HBP SH GDP SB AVG OBP SLG 50 13 2 11 3 8 0.316 0.399 0.455
Wait—how did this guy qualify for the batting average title? He had nowhere near 3.1 plate appearances per game. Well, after consulting with my THT brethren, the rule apparently changed over the years. On the one hand, it makes his entry a bit bogus to me, but it was an impressive season.
However, what’s really amazing is how the Vaughn’s numbers that season look completely in line with the rest of his career. While Frey was a good hitter having a great year, Vaughan was a legitimately great hitter.
He began playing shortstop for the Pirates right after the team got rid of second baseman George Grantham, or they would’ve had an awesomely well-rounded offense from those glove-orientated positions.
Alan Trammell: 1987
It’s one of the most famous examples of a deserving player getting jobbed out of an MVP in the 1987 AL, as George Bell and his 47 home runs took the hardware home. Here is what Trammell did that year:
G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI 151 668 597 109 205 34 3 28 105 BB SO HBP SH GDP SB AVG OBP SLG 60 47 3 2 11 21 0.343 0.402 0.551
Bell had a very good year, but Trammell had a season for the ages. He did this all while providing quality defense and at important position on the diamond for a team that narrowly won their division.
Brady Anderson: 1996
The only outfielder in the bunch, here is how Baltimore’s center fielder stacked up in his big year in the 1996 AL.
G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI 149 687 579 117 172 37 5 50 110 BB SO HBP SH GDP SB AVG OBP SLG 76 106 22 6 11 21 0.297 0.396 0.637
People remember this for the gaudy home run totals. While that was certainly a fluke in context of his career, that wasn’t the only thing he did right that season. If he had two to three more strikeouts, he wouldn’t have qualified. Fortunately for Anderson, his weak point matched the period he played in very nicely, just as Lonny Frey’s lack of steals could be excused in 1939.
If I included RBIs in the study, he would still make the cut. As a result, this is arguably the most well-rounded season of all time. I never would’ve guessed I would say that about a 50-homer season, but there you go.
But what about GIDP?
One last little thing I want to look at. As noted already, you lose almost half the seasons because various stats are missing back in the day. The big killer is GIDP, which lops off approximately 3,000 seasons, one-fifth the entire database. What happens if you add it back in?
Well, turns out that 14 more incidents arise in which the hitter was above average with the dozen remaining stats. That’s rather amazing, given that there were only four with the previous 8,000+ seasons.
Eleven different players account for those 14 seasons. Nine did it once, including Hall of Famers Joe Kelley (1895), Eddie Collins (1913), Edd Roush (1919), Goose Goslin (1928), and Kiki Cuyler (1931). Joining them with one appearance are Ed Konetchy (1911), Cozy Dolan (1915), Bobby Veach (1917), and Jimmy Dykes (1929).
Phillies slugger Sherry Magee did it twice, in 1910 and 1912. He had the misfortune to be a great slugger when power was at its least important. Hence his career home run totals look paltry to modern eyes. While he was good at the rest of the game, as his pair of seasons here attests, he wasn’t spectacular enough at any to really garner much attention. He’s one of history’s great forgotten players.
But even Magee can’t compete with one man. While his pair of season is impressive, one player from way back when tops him. At the pinnacle rests a man with not one, not two, but three separate seasons in which he bested the league rates in batting average, slugging percentage, on base percentage, doubles, triples, home runs, runs, stolen bases, hit by pitches, sacrifice hits, walks, and strikeouts. This one stands alone as the most impressively well-rounded offensive force of them all. Who is it, you ask?
Yes, really. He did it in 1925, 1927, and 1928. He’s the Leonardo Da Vinci of baseball, if Da Vinci was an adequate painter, decent tinkerer, darn tootin’ sculpter, and rather snappy philosopher. Grantham wasn’t great at any single part of the game, but great googly-moogly was he good at delivering across the board quality. There is no out-Granthaming Grantham.
He truly is the most well rounded player of all time.
References & Resources
Please note: Alan Trammell’s 1986 season should be included, not his 1987 season. This will be corrected in my next article.
Quote comes from the Bill James New Historical Abstract by Bill James. It’s in the George Grantham section, naturally.
I apparently know far less about the history of qualifying for the batting title than I thought. Post #8 in this baseball-fever thread gives so info, though I can’t speak for its veracity.
Finally, this study would be impossible without the Play Index at b-ref.