There's a famous story about Ted Williams that goes something like this. Someone asked TW something, and he said something like "When I walk down the street, I want people to say, 'There goes the greatest hitter who ever lived' ".
Clearly, I remember that story very well. And tell it even better.
In any case. Is Ted Williams wrong? Is he not the best hitter who ever lived?
Who else is seriously in the conversation?
Going by baseball-reference WAR, the top 15 looks like this:
I think the best hitter conversation can easily be confined to these players, and probably fewer. Who else? There's good ol Shoeless Joe, who had his career cut short by bad decision making. There's Albert Pujols, who is not done yet (92.8 WAR in 13 seasons. At age 33; he could get to 110 with another 6 years averaging 3.0 WAR). There's also Joe DiMaggio, who got to 78.2 WAR in 13 seasons. But he was more of a best ballplayer ever candidate than he was a greatest hitter ever candidate, right?
Because as far as I can tell, that story that I re-told so well about Ted Williams tells us at least 2 things about Ted Williams:
1. He didn't care about fielding (other stories would back this up)
2. He considered himself to be a damn good hitter
Now, Ted is #11 on that WAR list, just behind Eddie Collins and just ahead of A-Rod. But for argument's sake, let's agree with Ted. Fielding is stupid. Here is the list of all-time leaders of offensive WAR only:
On this list, TW is up to sixth. Now we are getting somewhere. But still. 126 is a long way behind the gold standard of hitting Babe Ruth, the pyrite standard Barry Bonds, and the other all time greats ahead of him.
Well, let's also look at some of the more "traditional" stats leaderboards. This is a list of the 500 HR club, sorted by batting average:
In terms of overall career leaders, Williams is:
T-7th in batting average
1st in on base percentage
2nd in slugging percentage
2nd in OPS and OPS+
4th in walks
T-18th in HR
14th in RBI
19th in runs scored
21st in TB
Okay, well the rate stats are better than his standings in WAR. But it's not exactly 1st across the board, is it.
Why am I writing this web log post?
It basically has to do with that other kind of war. You know, that kind. And that kind. In addition to being a bad-ass triple-crown-winning major league hitter, Ted Williams also became a bad-ass fighter pilot.
In contrast to those players above him on the list, TW played just 19 seasons. A closer look: he played more than 40 games 17 seasons; more than 100 games 15 seasons. In the two <40 game seasons, he got 2.3 WAR. In the 17 other seasons, he made it to 120.9 WAR. In the list of career leaders, he only really lags behind in the accumulation statistics.
He debuted in 1939 at age 20; he retired after 1960 at age 41. He missed all of 1943, 1944 and 1945 because of the war - his age 24, 25 and 26 seasons. He missed all but 43 games of 1952 and 1953, his age 33 and 34 seasons.
My point is this. More than any other great player (Joe DiMaggio, Hank Greenberg, Johnny Mize and a few others can also certainly complain), war robbed Ted Williams of the prime of an astounding career.
In 1941, TW hit .406/.553/.735 with 37 HR
In 1942, TW hit .356/.499/.648 and won the triple crown
In 1946, TW hit .342/.497/.667 with 38 HR
In 1951, TW hit .318/.464/.556 with 30 HR
In 1954, TW hit .345/.513/.635 with 29 HR in only 117 games
My point is that these were not seasons on the periphery of an otherwise great career. No, these were five seasons of prime that are gone forever. I am always so sad to find missing data points, and these ones hurt.
In 1953, 34 year old TW returned from war on August 6 and hit .407/.509/.901 in 37 games.
To put that in some sort of perspective, in Yasiel Puig's first 27 games this year, at the height of everyone going nuts, he went .443/.473/.745.
So, of course, the exercise is this. Put a reasonable five prime years back into Williams' career, and what do his totals look like?
No doubt there are others on the internet machine who have done this already. I didn't look on purpose, because I want to try it myself. And I don't actually know what I will decide yet about his G.O.A.T candidacy. But basically we are going to compare Williams to Babe Ruth (hitting only!*), remembering that Ruth also "missed" part of his hitting career by being a full time pitcher the first 3-4 seasons of his career (1200 IP).
*Since I am comparing hitting only, we will not include the argument (that will never be beat) that Ruth was a dominant pitcher and a dominant hitter.
I will look at it in three ways:
Low - Ted happened to miss all of his worst seasons, imagine that!
Medium - Those missed years look an awful lot like his other prime years
High - Ted happened to miss all of his best seasons. Dammit!
Here's what I did:
For the years 1943-1945, I took the average of 1941, 1942, 1946 and 1947 for all counting stats. Then I multiplied by a percentage. This has the effect of making his rate statistics the average of those years.
For Williams, it seems to me that, when he is in the lineup, he is Ted Williams. The thing causing him to fluctuate in counting totals is just the number of games he plays and the number of plate appearances he accumulates.
For 1952-1953, the same logic applies. Like I wrote before, when he actually played at the end of 1953 he was a monster, and he hit .388 and homered his age at 38, so I don't think I need to worry too much about the effect of age at 33 and 34. I took his level of on-field performance to be an average of his performance 1950-1955 inclusive. I multiplied this performance by a certain number of plate appearances and added it to his actual totals from 1952-1953, (which were outstanding). The "low" estimate is composed of fewer plate appearances than the "high" totals.
Okay. For 1943-1945, I multiplied by the following percentages to get the following seasons:
Low - 90% of avg totals.
Medium - 98% of avg totals
High - 103% of avg totals.
Note that the three 1943-1945 seasons I've simulated are all identical:
For 1952 & 1953, I added the following number of plate appearances*:
Low - 400 in 1952 (TW actually had 12) / 300 in 1953 (TW actually had 110)
Medium - 450 / 350
High - 500 / 400
*TW's PA totals from 1950-1955 are: 416, 675, 12, 110, 526, 416. A 500 PA season seems fairly optimistic
Here are the 1952 and 1953 seasons I have simulated:
In this case, the seasons are different because he played part of both, which were added to the simulated war time replacement. It's also interesting that my "high" estimate 1953 has worse rate stats than the "low" 1953. This is because in the 37 games Williams played in 1953, his rate stats were off the charts.
Alright. So this brings us to career totals time:
Since I brought it up at the start, I should also do a WAR comparison. I will give Williams 10 WAR/year for 1943-1945 (that's crazy but it's actually legit - he averaged 10.5/year 1941-1947 and 7 WAR/year for 1952-1953, just under his 1951 and 1954 totals.
That adds a total of 41.7 WAR and moves his career WAR from 123.2 to 164.9, good enough for 1st on the career position player WAR leaderboard.
What is my verdict?
I still think it's a good question. It was a good question at the start of this post and it's still a good question after all of this. Williams shortcomings when compared to the other all-time greats have mostly been that he did not play enough to accumulate historically mind-blowing totals. So if he had them, at his career-normal rates, would be be considered the greatest hitter of all time?
First, given the high estimates. Is Williams's high career greater than Ruth's?
I think... no. Sort of. Mostly. Williams becomes the all-time leader in WAR, runs, RBIs and walks. He moves into the top 6 in basically every important offensive category except triples and stolen bases. But he is still second in slugging, second in OPS, second in OPS+. He is first in OBP and walks, by a large margin. It's tough. It's opinion. Finally it is a close call. But to me, the Babe puts it over the top with the ridiculousness of his best seasons. In this case, Williams was better for longer. Ruth had a more spectacular peak.
These two plots show the WAR of Ruth and Williams (with my estimates) over their careers. The first plots in chronological order. The second plots in sequential order with the best seasons first. The difference between them, for me, lies in the peak. Ruth has 6 seasons above Williams's best. And just so we are clear , 10 WAR in a season is historical territory. These are crazy seasons.
The next questions I would ask would be how the medium and low career totals stack up. It's kinda moot for my opinion, but I think it puts Williams firmly in second with an argument available for first, if he is not already there.
Ruth put up a career .690 slugging percentage, which is the single greatest factor for me in this argument*. Their other rate statistics - BA and OBP - are close. But Ruth crushes Williams, and every other ball player ever, at hitting for power. Ruth led the league 13 out of 14 years in both slugging percentage and OPS. It's not surprising that he would become the all time leader.
*There are only 46 seasons in baseball history that top Ruth's .690 career mark - 10 of these belong to Ruth. Two belong to Williams. There are only 36 non-Ruth seasons by 20 different players who have managed to top Ruth's career .690. Wow.
Also, I've written this post about replacing Ted Williams's lost seasons with full ones. The same could be written for Ruth - if the Red Sox hadn't bothered making him a pitcher, I could add 3-4 full time seasons to his career totals. But, these seasons would be his age 20-22 seasons, and in the dead ball era - not exactly prime time for hitting.
At least two more things should also be considered:
1. During WWII, most of the good players went to fight in the war. So there's no way around that. But by some chance if Williams stayed, he would have been playing against inferior competition. His stats would likely have been further inflated and it's not unreasonable to think he would/should have won some more MVP awards and/or triple crowns.
2. At any point during those five seasons, anything could have happened on the ball field or otherwise (although it's hard to argue he would have been in more danger playing baseball) to end his career completely or otherwise ruin it and prevent him from ever becoming a hall of famer, let alone an all time great.