Baseball's All-Time Best Hitters

Baseball's All-Time Best Hitters: How Statistics Can Level the Playing Field

MICHAEL J. SCHELL
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 320
https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0ssk
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  • Book Info
    Baseball's All-Time Best Hitters
    Book Description:

    Tony Gwynn is the greatest hitter in the history of baseball. That's the conclusion of this engaging and provocative analysis of baseball's all-time best hitters. Michael Schell challenges the traditional list of all-time hitters, which places Ty Cobb first, Gwynn 16th, and includes just 8 players whose prime came after 1960. Schell argues that the raw batting averages used as the list's basis should be adjusted to take into account that hitters played in different eras, with different rules, and in different ballparks. He makes those adjustments and produces a new list of the best 100 hitters that will spark debate among baseball fans and statisticians everywhere.

    Schell combines the two qualifications essential for a book like this. He is a professional statistician--applying his skills to cancer research--and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of baseball. He has wondered how to rank hitters since he was a boy growing up as a passionate Cincinnati Reds fan. Over the years, he has analyzed the most important factors, including the relative difficulty of hitting in different ballparks, the length of hitters' careers, the talent pool that players are drawn from, and changes in the game that raised or lowered major-league batting averages (the introduction of the designated hitter and changes in the height and location of the pitcher's mound, for example). Schell's study finally levels the playing field, giving new credit to hitters who played in adverse conditions and downgrading others who faced fewer obstacles. His final ranking of players differs dramatically from the traditional list. Gwynn, for example, bumps Cobb to 2nd place, Rod Carew rises from 28th to 3rd, Babe Ruth drops from 9th to 16th, and Willie Mays comes from off the list to rank 13th. Schell's list also gives relatively more credit to modern players, containing 39 whose best days were after 1960.

    Using a fun, conversational style, the book presents a feast of stories and statistics about players, ballparks, and teams--all arranged so that calculations can be skipped by general readers but consulted by statisticians eager to follow Schell's methods or introduce their students to such basic concepts as mean, histogram, standard deviation, p-value, and regression.Baseball's All-Time Best Hitterswill shake up how baseball fans view the greatest heroes of America's national pastime.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-5063-1
    Subjects: Statistics

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. LIST OF FIGURES
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. LIST OF TABLES
    (pp. xi-xvi)
  5. TECHNICAL NOTES
    (pp. xvii-xviii)
  6. PREFACE
    (pp. xix-2)
  7. Introduction: In the Dugout
    (pp. 3-12)

    Never did I expect that writing this book would lead me into the San Diego Padres dugout. On July 28, 1997, however, two hours before that evening’s game against the Philadelphia Phillies, there I was! Tony Gwynn had just returned his Louisville Slugger to the bat rack after batting practice.

    “Tony!—I’m Michael Schell,” I called out. Tony Gwynn, the 7-time batting champion from the San Diego Padres, turned toward me and replied, “Soooo-you’re the guy!”

    A month earlier I had sent a press release to the media relations people at the Padres saying that Gwynn was on the verge...

  8. PART I The Method
    • 1 On Deck with the Qualifying Players
      (pp. 15-28)

      We’re in the on deck circle, getting ready to bat. Before we undertake the four adjustments needed to identify the top 100 hitters in baseball history, we need to warm up a little. We’ll do this by looking at the players from which the top 100 hitters will emerge. In the introduction, we identified these players. They are called thequalifying players—836 players who, through the 1997 season, have had at least 4000 at bats and have retired from baseball or who have had at least 8000 at bats, regardless of their retirement status.

      Who are these players? We...

    • 2 First Base—Adjusting for Late Career Declines
      (pp. 29-44)

      Avid baseball fans know that players with long careers perform below their peak ability during their last several seasons. Indeed, many fans hope that their favorite players retire before their skills wane so that they will only be able to remember the peak performance or so that their averages don’t drop. Let’s look at two players—Hank Aaron and George Van Haltren.

      Hank Aaron, a Hall of Famer who played for the Milwaukee Braves, Atlanta Braves, and Milwaukee Brewers from 1954–76, is baseball’s all-time home run hitter with 755 home runs. Aaron also won two batting titles, in 1956...

    • 3 Second Base—Adjusting for Hitting Feasts and Famines
      (pp. 45-66)

      Suppose that an archaeological dig tomorrow reveals that caveman Rocky batted .452 over 5000 at bats in some Stone Age baseball game. Would you immediately believe that he was the greatest hitter of all time? No—you’d ask all kinds of questions. What kind of bat and ball was used? How did the pitchers throw the ball? How good were the fielders? Were there nine of them? What did the ballfields look like? Just because “major league baseball” officially started in 1876, should you ask any fewer questions?

      In 1876, pitchers pitched underhanded from a distance of 45 feet away....

    • 4 Third Base—Adjusting for League Batting Talent
      (pp. 67-102)

      It is fun to look at the performance of batting champions. After all, they are the premier hitters of their championship years. When we look at them over time, we see something surprising—the best years ever achieved occurred early in baseball history. Remember caveman Rocky?

      Ross Barnes, a second baseman, played in the National Association in 1871–75, batting a mean-adjusted .361 with 1425 at bats during those years. Not bad! However, the baseball powers decided that the averages from 1871–75 don’t count. Too bad, Ross. But there’s good news too. Batting averagesdocount, starting in 1876....

    • 5 Home—Adjusting for Ballpark
      (pp. 103-132)

      Coors Field. These two words conjure up images of home runs, high scoring games, frazzled pitchers, and hits, hits, hits. Coors Field—home of the expansion Colorado Rockies team. Home and road batting statistics of Rockies players remind us of the fictional extremes of Superman and Clark Kent, of Mr. Hyde and Dr. Jekyll. Unlike these fictional characters, however, the batting numbers they produce are duly tabulated on official scoring sheets and are being placed in books alongside hitters scratching out a meager existence in San Francisco. What’s going on here?

      In 1997, the Rockies and their NL opponents hit...

  9. PART II The Findings
    • 6 The Adjusted Top 100 Hitters
      (pp. 135-156)

      Well … we’re finally home! The four bases have been tagged, and we’re back where we started—home plate. Things aren’t the same though. We’vescoredand we have therightlist of top 100 hitters from 1876 to 1997 (Table 6.1).

      Well … perhaps, not exactlyright.

      Statistical findings are almost never obtained with certainty and the situation here is not one of thoserareexceptions. Many modeling assumptions—like the 8000 at bat cutoff and the 200 at bat minimum for including a player in the yearly standard deviation—calculation have been made in this book. Statisticians generally...

    • 7 Top Hitters by Position
      (pp. 157-172)

      In the last chapter we looked at the top 100 hitters overall. Now we will look at them in more detail, position by position. Not surprisingly, the top hitter list is stacked full of outfielders and first basemen because the fielding demands on those positions are much less than for the remaining positions. The top 10 hitters for each position will be shown, even if they were not in the top 100 overall. Thus, 29 additional players, all those with averages below .293 except for Mike Greenwell and Hugh Duffy, are in the lists that follow.

      A new player performance...

    • 8 Best Single-Season Batting Averages
      (pp. 173-184)

      Now that we have adjusted batting averages for era of play and the ballpark effect, the list of top single-season averages is completely different. This is true for both individual player and team averages. We will look at both in this chapter.

      The standard against which all modern batting averages have been compared is Ted Williams’s unadjusted .406 average in 1941. Going into the final day, Williams’s average stood at .3996, which rounds to .400. Rather than sit out the final day and assure himself of becoming the first player in a decade to hit at least .400, Williams played...

    • 9 The Ballparks
      (pp. 185-212)

      Have you ever wondered why the best pitchers of the last quarter of a century seem to play for the Baltimore Orioles, Houston Astros, Los Angeles Dodgers, New York Mets, or Oakland A’s? (The recent Atlanta Braves are an exception.) Or why the best hitters come from the Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Colorado Rockies, Minnesota Twins, Pittsburgh Pirates, or St. Louis Cardinals? (Tony Gwynn is an exception.) The answer is—ballpark effects.

      The Boston Red Sox are known for their great hitters—Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, and Wade Boggs among them. Well … Fenway Park has both...

    • 10 On Base Percentage
      (pp. 213-226)

      After buying his first-inning hot dog, John sat in his box seat, rejoining his friend Steve. Smith, the leadoff hitter was on first base.

      “How’d he get on?” John asked.

      “Does it matter?” Steve shot back.

      So … does it matter?

      There are quite a number of ways to get on first, such as getting hit by a pitch, beating out a dropped third strike catcher’s interference, or pinch running for someone who is on first already. The four most common ways are getting on via a hit, a walk, an error, or a fielder’s choice. The two that depend...

    • 11 The Hall of Fame
      (pp. 227-240)

      A favorite pastime of avid baseball fans is to suggest who should be enshrined in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, New York. A player whose cause is being championed is naturally compared to those already in the Hall, especially to players at the same position. However, some Hall of Fame selections seem to have been misguided. Bill James forcefully argues his opinions on many of these questionable choices in his bookWhatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? (previously published asThe Politics of Glory).

      Bill James, Pete Palmer, John Thorn, and other recent baseball number crunchers have...

    • 12 Where Would the Current Stars Rank?
      (pp. 241-248)

      The list of adjusted top 100 hitters given as Table 6.1 goes through the 1997 season. Recall that players ultimately qualify for the list by having one of the 100 best adjusted batting averages with at least 4000 career at bats. Due to the longevity adjustment, at bats beyond the 8000th are not considered in the average, for the relatively few players that attain that many. Thus, the only active players presented in Table 6.1 are those who have already had 8000 at bats. Consequently, five active players are listed there: Tony Gwynn (1), Wade Boggs (9), Paul Molitor (29),...

  10. AFTERWORD: Post-Game Wrap-Up
    (pp. 249-252)

    In this book I have tried to identify the best 100 hitters in the history of major league baseball. The book is split into two major parts—the method and the findings—so the wrap-up will be as well.

    The method presented in this book to compare hitters across baseball history and identify the top 100 hitters involves four adjustments:

    1. Late-career declines (longevity adjustment)

    2. Hitting feasts and famines (mean adjustment)

    3. The talent pool (standard deviation adjustment)

    4. Ballpark differences (“full” adjustment).

    The list of top 100 hitters is surely not perfectly ordered. However, I believe that the adjustments proposed greatly help...

  11. APPENDIX I Abbreviations and Glossary
    (pp. 253-256)
  12. APPENDIX II Right- vs. Left-Handed Hitting
    (pp. 257-258)
  13. APPENDIX III League Batting Averages
    (pp. 259-268)
  14. APPENDIX IV Ballpark Effect Batting Averages
    (pp. 269-274)
  15. APPENDIX V League Base on Balls Averages
    (pp. 275-282)
  16. REFERENCES
    (pp. 283-284)
  17. INDEX
    (pp. 285-295)
  18. Back Matter
    (pp. 296-297)