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:
|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|
(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 Pujols, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Dom DiMaggio, Fritz Maisel, George Case, Harmon Killebrew, Home Run Baker, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Nate Colbert, Pete Rose, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb