As a fan of numbers, I always look for the player who did something better than anyone else. We all know the best power hitters, for instance, but what about something a bit more subjective? When you ask what player had the best eye, you might say Ted Williams‘ OBP of .482 is a pretty good measure and call it a day, but that wouldn’t be much fun, and I also don’t think it’s the right answer anyway.
On-base percentage is a combination of too many things outside just a good eye at the plate. A great hitter like Williams can use power to add some hits that another hitter might not. So perhaps then walk rate might make the best hitter. That leads us to a similar discovery, though, when we look at the top 15 walk rates of all time.
Name BB% Ted Williams 20.6 Barry Bonds 20.3 Max Bishop 20.0 Babe Ruth 19.4 Ferris Fain 18.4 Eddie Stanky 18.3 Roy Cullenbine 17.8 Gene Tenace 17.8 Jack Crooks 17.6 Eddie Yost 17.6 Mickie Mantle 17.5 Bill Salkeld 17.4 Bill Joyce 17.3 Randy Milligan 17.2 Jack Cust 17.2
So Williams, Barry Bonds, Max Bishop and Babe Ruth seem to be the best all time at taking a walk. Few would complain if we said they had the best eyes in all of baseball, but something doesn’t feel right about just using walk rate. When Jack Cust can crack the all-time top 15 in a stat, I have to make sure I’m doing it right.
The next place to look would have to be strikeouts, but K percentage is littered with players at the low end who make good contact and yet can’t walk. I decided the best way to go would be BB/K. This list was something completely different and quite surprising.
Name BB/K Joe Sewell 7.39 Monk Cline 6.33 Johnny Bassle 5.4 Cupid Childs 5.26 Tris Speaker 5.20 Eddie Collins 4.23 John McGraw 4.15 Bill Gleason 4.00 Mickey Cochrane 3.95 Tommy Holmes 3.93 Willie Keeler 3.58 Davy Jones 3.56 Dan Brouthers 3.53 Ferris Fain 3.46 Johnny Evers 3.44
At first, the list looks like a bust as nothing matches with our first list, and perhaps we again are seeing a lot of extremely low strikeout guys with okay walk rates. That’s not what I set out to find when looking for the greatest eye in baseball history. That’s when I noticed one name repeats on both lists. Ferris Fain ranks fifth in baseball history with a walk rate of 18.4 percent, but he also has a walk per strikeout rate of 3.46, making the top 15 on that list. Could Fain be the greatest eye in baseball, or is he just an anomaly that fits the search criteria?
Fain was a first baseman who played only nine seasons, all in the American League, from 1947 to 1955 and had the great nicknames Burrhead and Cocky. He spent time with the Philadelphia Athletics, Chicago White Sox, Detroit Tigers and Cleveland Indians. His debut was delayed due to military service from 1943-1945. His skills were that of the perfect leadoff hitter but odd for a first baseman. In 4,904 plate appearances, Fain carried a line of .290/.424/.396 and led the league in average twice and OBP once. He never struck out more than 7.6 percent in any season and had his best BB/K of 5.12 in 1950.
Fain was a very interesting character and known for a hot temper, which led to several barroom brawls, including a broken hand during a fight after the 1952 season. The temper and the fighting didn’t affect him on the field until 1954, when he suffered a broken leg and played only 65 games with his lowest walk rate at 14.2 percent. This, along with the drinking and fighting, seemed to spell his demise. He was still amazing at the plate in 1955 with 114 games and a walk rate of 26.2 percent, but that would be the last season for Fain and what might have been the greatest eye in baseball. At only 34, it’s a shame he had only nine years in the majors.
His final fWAR of 31.6 was very good for a player of nine seasons, with a wOBA of .390 and wRC+ of 127. He wasn’t a Hall of Fame candidate, but thanks to his amazing eye at the plate, he was an All-Star-level player. Now perhaps we can recognize him as the greatest eye in baseball.
After baseball, things didn’t get better for Fain as he was arrested twice for growing marijuana. The first time, he was placed under house arrest, and the second time he received 18 months in prison. In response to questions about his marijuana production, Fain was quoted saying, ”I knew how to grow the stuff. I was as adept at it as I was in playing baseball.” He died in 2001 at the age of 80, regretting only that his off the field behavior likely kept him from a managerial chance later in life.