Any player/Any era: Willie Mays

What he did: After last week’s column where I took a non-Hall of Famer, Jack Clark and saw how he would compare to Joe DiMaggio by playing his career, I went another direction. Willie Mays is one of the greatest players ever, possibly the greatest– I rate him second to Babe Ruth. What may not be appreciated about Mays is he played much of his career in an era ruled by pitchers. A .302 hitter lifetime, Mays might have batted .330 in Ruth’s time. And if Mays were matched season-for-season with Barry Bonds, baseball might have a different home run king.

Era he might have thrived in: We’ll plug Mays into every season of Bonds’ career from 1986 through 2007, since their career spans line up almost perfectly, and we’ll give Mays credit for the time he lost 1952-53 for Korean War service. By doing this, Mays easily overtakes Ruth in home runs, and depending how one looks at it, might have enough to beat out Hank Aaron’s 755 home runs or Bonds’ 762.

Why: There are two big reasons Mays sees a boost. First, he gains two solid seasons of production for the time he missed with Korea. Second, his career peak occurs 1996 through 2000, one of the greatest offensive periods in baseball history, instead of 1961 through 1965, one of the bleakest. He also plays his entire career with 162-game seasons, instead of just from 1961 on. Bottom line, in a better time for hitters, Mays might have arguably the best offensive numbers in baseball history. I also have greater appreciation now for Mays’ real numbers, which were hard-won.

There are a few ways to forecast Mays’ numbers here. Lately, I have been using the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com which can adjust numbers between different eras. Using this tool, I went year by year for Mays, converting the 1951 New York Giants to the 1986 Pittsburgh Pirates, the 1952 Giants to the 1987 Pirates, and so on.

Here’s how it comes out for Mays:

Year G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB BA
86 PIT (51) 126 477 58 127 22 5 20 66 7 57 .266
87 PIT (52) 147 544 116 170 27 7 34 101 17 76 .313
88 PIT (53) 147 526 92 152 25 6 31 84 15 69 .291
89 PIT (54) 159 570 103 181 31 12 38 95 7 61 .318
90 PIT (55) 160 598 114 182 18 13 50 118 24 77 .304
91 PIT (56) 159 595 99 170 27 8 36 83 40 68 .286
92 PIT (57) 159 591 103 183 25 19 33 89 36 71 .310
93 SF (58) 160 636 128 224 32 12 32 102 34 84 .352
94 SF (59) 111 426 93 135 32 3 26 78 20 49 .317
95 SF (60) 142 561 109 185 28 12 28 106 24 60 .330
96 SF (61) 161 598 137 184 33 3 42 131 19 85 .308
97 SF (62) 162 622 132 190 36 5 50 143 18 79 .305
98 SF (63) 157 612 133 203 35 8 42 119 9 71 .332
99 SF (64) 157 595 140 188 23 10 52 129 21 90 .316
00 SF (65) 155 566 130 187 22 3 55 123 9 81 .330
01 SF (66) 152 554 101 161 30 4 38 105 5 71 .291
02 SF (67) 141 494 91 136 23 2 23 77 7 54 .275
03 SF (68) 147 522 111 170 23 6 27 103 14 79 .326
04 SF (69) 117 417 74 128 19 3 15 68 6 55 .307
05 SF (70) 139 484 94 145 15 2 29 83 5 82 .300
06 SF (71) 136 446 102 142 30 6 22 76 29 141 .318
07 SF (72) 92 267 45 76 14 1 10 28 5 75 .285
TOTAL 3186 11701 2305 3619 574 150 733 2107 371 1635 .309
REAL 2992 10881 2062 3283 523 140 660 1903 338 1464 .302


(On a side note, I arrived at Mays’ 1952 and 1953 totals by taking his 162-game averages if he’d played every year of his career on the 1987 and 1988 Pirates, respectively. I then converted to 147-game seasons, the average number of contests Mays gets in here. It’s a conservative estimate if Mays keeps healthy, which he mostly did in early seasons. On another side note, Mays strikes out 1,612 times in this version of his career.)

The 2,305 runs would be most all-time, the 733 home runs third, and the 2,107 RBI also third, impressive totals all. I had some questions if the stats were dependent on Bonds being in the lineup with Mays. While there are some interesting writing possibilities on them as teammates, that isn’t what this column is about, and I wanted a way to swap out Bonds for Mays. I didn’t want Mays’ numbers simply to seem like a byproduct of playing besides Bonds. Thus, I emailed Cyril Morong, a stats whiz and an occasional commenter here and the kind of person who might know this.

Cyril wasn’t sure, though he offered something when I asked if Mays could out-homer Bonds. Cyril wrote:

I think he has a good chance. In his career, his HR% was 6.07. The league average during his time was 2.42. So that is a ratio of 2.51. During Bonds’ time, the NL HR% was 2.8%. That times 2.51 is 7.02. If he had that % during his career of 10881 ABs, he gets 763

I clarified that in this arrangement, Mays has 11,701 at bats, and Cyril ran new calculations and found Mays finishing with 822 home runs. Assuming Mays would have done this free of steroids (which I’m saying he would), maybe there’s hope another hitter like him sets a real record in the right era.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Albert PujolsBarry Bonds, Bob CaruthersDom DiMaggioFritz MaiselGeorge CaseHarmon KillebrewHome Run Baker, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny FrederickJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Nate ColbertPete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy KoufaxShoeless Joe JacksonThe Meusel BrothersTy Cobb

7 thoughts on “Any player/Any era: Willie Mays

  1. What would be even more interesting is if you could play a season with an outfield of Bonds, Mays and McCovey with Cepeda at first base, or Bonds, Bonds, Mays in the outfield and McCovey at first. Recently I read a story where Frank Howard was playing winter ball and was asked to pitch. He threw so hard and was so wild that Cepeda and Clemente were scared to get into the batters box.

  2. One thing to also consider, although the variables are endless, is that Mays faced 4 man rotations and for the most part, fewer specialty relievers. For this reason, while this is fun and interesting, it’s easiest and best to compare players within a specific era. The Hall of Fame should be voting accordingly, and I think I just read that’s the exact direction they are going in 2011.

  3. When I was a little kid in the late ’50s and early ’60s, the two stars mentioned most often were Mantle and Mays. When I visited family in Boston, they added Ted Williams, at the end of his career, who was already a legend. From what I’ve read, no one had the instincts in the outfield or on the bases like Mays. “Best of the best” fits.

  4. One other very important impediment Mays had where he lost too many home runs was in having to play in Candlestick Park where the prevailing winds blowing in from left, killed right-handed power hitters and favored lefties. In 1965 alone, when Mays hit 52 homers, an well-known sportswriter, can’t recall who, estimated that Mays had hit about 18 balls to left that would have been out anywhere else. I’d say if thay were true and looking at some of the others homer years he had in SF, like 1962 when he hit 49 and 64 when he hit 47, Mays might have come close of passed 60 homers more than once. If you factor that into your transition in time periods, Mays could have passed 800.

  5. I would have made a bigger thing of the Candlestick factor, but in this projection, Mays has some pretty awesome years from 1996 through 1999, all years before the Giants moved to AT&T.

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