What he did: I read a book last year where Ted Williams ranked the 20 greatest hitters all-time. When I saw Williams included Mike Schmidt, it seemed misguided given Schmidt’s .267 career batting average and 1,883 strikeouts, seventh-highest in baseball history. In addition, Schmidt’s OPS of .9076 is 56th all-time and his OPS+ of 147 is tied for 39th. Schmidt might be the greatest third baseman ever given that his OPS+ and his WAR, 108.3 are tops at the position and he ranks among the best defenders there too, but calling him one of the 20 greatest hitters seems a stretch.
This being said, Schmidt’s OPS+ totals hint he may have been another Hall of Famer who played in the wrong era. The .267 batting clip, while unsightly, can be partly explained by Schmidt playing from 1972 to 1989 where pitchers had a slight edge. Even his 548 home runs are less than what he might have had at a different time. Transported to a point in baseball history where hitters had a clear advantage, Schmidt might have a .300 lifetime batting average and 600 home runs.
Era he might have thrived in: There may be some old school fans who still consider Pie Traynor the best third baseman of all-time, since he hit .320, was one of the first players at his position inducted into the Hall of Fame, and had a distinctive name. (“My great hero in sports, when I was a kid, was Pie Traynor,” sportswriter Jimmy Cannon said in No Cheering in the Press Box. “He played a wonderful third base for the Pittsburgh Pirates and was particularly good against the Giants. I think the name fascinated me. I never heard of a guy called Pie before, except there was a homely girl in our neighborhood who we called Pieface.”)
Traynor’s OPS+ of 107 and WAR of 37.1 rank him far down the list of third basemen, though, and if we substitute Schmidt for Traynor on Pittsburgh from 1920 through 1937, even old-timers couldn’t deny Schmidt as an all-time great bat.
Why: Schmidt would go from a so-so time for hitters to one of the greatest and get to play on an offensive juggernaut to boot, the ’20s and ’30s Pirates who went to the World Series twice and boasted future Hall of Famers in their batting order like the Waner brothers, Max Carey, and Kiki Cuyler. Schmidt could be the lineup’s centerpiece. I ran his numbers through the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com, and playing for Pittsburgh from 1920 through 1937, he comes out with 603 career homes and a .292 lifetime batting average.
While I set out merely to sub Schmidt for Traynor, giving him credit for the 1936 season Traynor sat out, there’s an odd synchronicity. Schmidt’s actual best seasons coincide in this exercise with peak offensive years in baseball history. Consider Schmidt’s best effort, his strike-shortened 1981 MVP season where he posted career highs in OPS (1.080) and OPS+ (199) to go with 31 home runs and 91 RBI. That season gets used here for 1929, and Schmidt comes out with an almost Ruthian .366 batting average, 56 home runs, 178 RBI, and a 1.236 OPS. The converter shows Schmidt having seven other 40-homer seasons, whereas he had three in real life.
I emailed one of the regulars here yesterday, and he replied, “Might want to rethink the Schmidt hrs. He had surprising speed. In Forbes [Field, where Pittsburgh played], it would have translated into more singles, doubles and triples.” There may be something to my reader’s point, and for what it’s worth, the converter has Schmidt with 2,445 hits, 444 doubles, 60 triples, and 200 steals lifetime. Regardless, it seems to me if we use .267 and 548 home runs as a baseline, Schmidt would only improve in Traynor’s 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, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, George Case, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jackie Robinson, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Frederick, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr., Lefty O’Doul, Michael Jordan, Nate Colbert, Paul Derringer, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Stan Musial, The Meusel Brothers, Ty Cobb, Willie Mays