Kaline vs. Yaz

Editor’s note: “Does he belong in the Hall of Fame?” will run on Friday this week. For now, please enjoy the latest from Alex Putterman.

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Statistical comparison between baseball players decades removed from each other is undeniably dangerous – conditions and circumstances change wildly from generation to generation, making such analysis exceedingly difficult. For example, hitting 15 home runs in 1910 is much different than hitting 15 home runs in 2011, and winning 20 games in 1910 is much different than winning 20 games in 2011. But, like many dangerous things, these cross-era comparisons are often too tempting to resist. We love to argue over whether Barry Bonds was a better hitter than Babe Ruth and whether Pedro Martinez’s 2000 season was better than Walter Johnson’s 1913 or Bob Gibson’s 1968.

This enjoyment of comparison was the impetus for a blog post published here a few weeks ago, for this post, and for others I plan to write in the coming months. Today, I’ll break down the statistics of two all-time great Hall of Fame outfielders and attempt to conclude whose career was more productive. There’s of course no right answer, and if the players I’ve selected are as comparable as they seem to me, this should spark some debate and maybe even objection. What I present is only one opinion, achieved through totally objective, un-biased analysis of statistics.

Despite that preface and disclaimer about comparing players from different eras, the two players I’ll examine here actually overlapped by 14 seasons. Each reached the 3,000 hit plateau while playing for one team throughout his entire career. Each combined hitting prowess with excellent defense at a corner outfield position. And each was easily elected to Cooperstown in his year of eligibility.

Here are blind resumes of the two greats in question:

Player A: 399 home runs, 137 stolen bases, 134 OPS+, 91.0 WAR, 15-time all-star, 10-time gold glover, four top-5 MVP finishes

Player B: 452 home runs, 168 stolen bases, 129 OPS+, 88.7 WAR, 18-time all-star, seven-time gold glover, one MVP, two top-5 MVP finishes

Choosing between the two based on those numbers alone is very difficult, although player A probably gets the slight nod, having apparently been a more efficient hitter and better fielder than player B. As it turns out, player A is Al Kaline, the legendary Detroit Tigers rightfielder, and player B is Carl Yastrzemski, the similarly hallowed Boston Red Sox leftfielder.

And as close as those statistics appear, the deeper you delve into the careers of Kaline and Yastrzemski, the more and more difficult it become to discern who was better.

During Yaz’s absolute prime, the eight years from 1963 to 1970, the leftfielder posted an OPS+ of 152 and a WAR of 54.1. That stretch is far more impressive than any consecutive eight year period Kaline can boast of (Kaline’s best consecutive eight year run was probably 1955-1962, a time during which his OPS+ was 137 and his WAR 46.7). In what we’re calling his prime, Yaz led the league in batting average thrice and OPS+ four times. In Kaline’s entire career, by contrast, “Mr. Tiger” only once led the league in either category, winning a batting title in ’55. Yastrzemski’s triple crown 1967 season was by far the best single season ever by either player, and his ’68 and ’70 seasons were arguably better than Kaline’s best season (probably ’55) as well. For those who value peak performance over longevity, the argument stops right here. Yaz’s best was better than Kaline’s best, and, to some, that means the Red Sox star was a better player than his Tiger counterpart.

But the wider the window through which we compare the two, the more the stats favor Kaline. If we extend the aforementioned eight-year stretches into 10-year stretches, Yaz’s WAR edge dwindles, and when we tack on three more years and examine the players’ best consecutive 13-year intervals, thereby taking into account Kaline’s excellent 1967 season, the Tiger grabs a slight lead in WAR. The bottom line is that while Yaz had by far the best single season, easily the best two-year period, and even the best eight-year stretch, Kaline, due to superior consistency and extended excellence, had, I believe, the better career.

Since Kaline’s advantage in OPS+ is essentially negated by Yaz’s extra 2,500 career plate appearances, we can conclude the two were roughly equal as hitters. Both those who watch baseball and those who design algorithms agree Kaline and Yastrzemski to have been terrific defensive players; Yaz is 7th all-time in dWAR according to baseballreference.com, while Kaline is tied for 14th, but Kaline was, if gold glove totals are to be accepted as evidence, considered by his contemporaries as slightly superior with a glove, and right field in Tiger Stadium was certainly larger and therefore more difficult to cover than left field at Fenway Park.

The difference between the two players might be base-running. Although Yaz has a few more career stolen bases than Kaline, Kaline swiped his bags at a much better rate (68% to 59%). According to baseballreference, Kaline was, over the course of his career, worth 41 runs above replacement on the bases, while Yastrzemski was actually two runs below replacement. Speed wasn’t the defining aspect of either player’s game, but Kaline appears to have employed his better than did Yaz.

Yaz won the MVP trophy Kaline could never get his hands on, but Kaline’s wealth of high finishes shows that while he may never have been the single best player in the American League, he was consistently among the elite. Yastrzemski’s inability to match Kaline’s tendency to year after year finish among the top vote-getters for the MVP award supports what we concluded earlier: Yastrzemski had a terrific peak but didn’t remain MVP-caliber as long as Kaline did.

And so this discussion comes down to the unavoidable debate of peak vs. longevity. I don’t mind considering prime performance as a tie-breaker, but while this match-up is very nearly a tie, I think Al Kaline was, ever so slightly, a better player than Carl Yastrzemski. When gauging the productivity of the two players’ entire careers, Kaline seems to come out ahead. If you prefer Yaz on the strength of his dominance in ’67 and ’68 or, more broadly, from 1963-1970, that’s fine too. You take the better eight years; I’d rather the better 22.

0 thoughts on “Kaline vs. Yaz”

  1. I saw all of Yaz’s career and most of Kaline’s. I’d take Kaline– better arm for sure. Kaline could have played left in Fenway or anywhere else; Yaz would have struggled as a right fielder I do believe. Tiger Stadiun was a good park to hit in as was Fenway. I suspect Kaline’s numbers would have been better had he played for the Red Sox. I’m not sure how much Yaz’s numbers would have inproved if he played in Tiger Stadium. Yaz took advantage of the Monster on both offense and defense. Two splendid players. Without looking at the numbers, I suspect Kaline was better on the road at Fenway than Yaz was on the road at Tiger Stadium. Then again, I think the Tigers for the most part had better pitching than the Red Sox during that era.

  2. Stan:
    This it does not necessarily address your point about Kaline’s productivity at Fenway and Yastrzemski’s in Detroit, but for their careers Kaline had the better road OPS (.827 to .779), while Yaz was better at home (.904 to .884). The road numbers might be the closest thing we have to an unbiased comparison, and for this and other reasons (defense as you mention, and base running as Alex points out) I would give Kaline the slight edge. But as Alex makes clear, any advantage that we can perceive for one or the other of these superstars is going to be by a narrow margin.

  3. As a Tigers fan that lived in Detroit for 10 years up until late 1957 and then moved to Boston, I got to see Mr. Tiger from the beginning. I think a large reaason why Kaline has really never got his due from the “national” baseball audience is that his counting numbers while there with certain magic numbers, are slightly short. The reason for this was that Kaline from early on in his career was the leader in games lost due to many different injuries that took him out of action for stretches in nearly every season for 15/20 games to 60 games. Kaline injured his knee late 1955/57 making running or sliding catches into a very narrow stretch of RF foul line (barely 3/4 feet) at Briggs Stadium which led to the Tigers removing several rows of seats. 1959 Kaline was hit on the face from a wild throw to first by billy gardner and had a fractured cheekbone missing a month, in fact 1961 was the last year Kaline played over a 150 games. 1962 making a game ending catching, Kaline landed on his right shoulder and broke his collarbone missing 60 games. At that point of the season, may 26, he was leading the AL in the Triple Crown and still finished with 29 Homeruns and 94 rbi in exactly 100 games. 1963 more knee and leg injuries took a toll and he couldn’t finish the last 2/3 weeks of the season. Up to this time of his career, Kaline had played with a childhood bone disease like Mantle had, osteomylitis (sp), and around 1966 finally had foot surgery to correct the deformity in his foot. Up to then Kaline had to run kind of on the side of his foot. 1967 during Yaz’s great year, Kaline had struck out against sam mcdowell, went back to the dugout and slammed the bat into the bat rack and broke a bone in his finger/hand and another 5/6 weeks out of action. Even in the Tigers 1968 season Kaline was intentionally drilled by a lew krausse fastball which broke his arm and he missed more time. These injuries continued for a few more years. Kaline’s perserverance and dedication to the Tigers and baseball kept him going.
    In fact he missed nearly 600 games of which 3/4 or 450 were from these nagging and debillitating injuries. It is the reason he wasn’t closer to 3500 hits and over 1800 in runs and rbi and of course around 475 homeruns, but more important in personal stats why he never had several 30 plus homerun seasons or more 100 runs and rbi seasons, all this of course during the second pitchers era.
    Still at his retirement, Kaline was Top 5/10/15/20 in many all-time offensive rankings; Games, at bats, runs, hits, doubles, homeruns, total bases, times on base, and putouts by an Outfielder.
    Kaline not only had a strong arm that rivaled Clemente’s or insert other RF/CF, he had the most accurate throwing arm of all outfielders I have seen. The league basically stopped running on him by 1957/58. Kaline also had the speed and natural ability to play Center for a couple of years when the Tigers had Harvey Kuenn in right, and then Colavito in right, Kaline never one to complain played center well enough to win Gold Gloves (when they meant something) at that position too.
    Kaline was also not a personal stats and numbers guy like other players looking at personal achievements, he was the ultimate team player and took his at bats with the in game situation which meant runners on first/second hit to right to advance the runners, runner on third less than 2 out get a sac fly.
    Pro rating or extrapolating Kaline’s numbers, I would think he would have better final numbers than Yaz in everything other than doubles or walks. Kaline leads in career BA, OBP, Slugging, and OPS.
    Yaz was a very good/excellent player with two outstanding seasons, six .300 seasons, some mediocre seasons as well as good consistent years.
    One thing Yaz had on Kaline was staying relatively injury free. He was on the DL once in 23 years. Kaline’s only weakness as a player was his inabilty to stay healthy.
    2012 will be Kaline’s 60th year with the Tigers as a player, coach, TV/Radio and Executive to Mr. Ilitch (Tigers owner) and President and GM Dave Dombrowski.
    Yaz was a great player, but Kaline was better.
    Who other than the great Mickey Mantle said back in the mid 1980’s, “Kaline was the best all-around player in the league when I played”.

  4. There’s no discussion of the TEAM performances by the Tigers and Sox during their careers. I dont know about the Tigers, but the Sox were HORRIBLE when Yaz joined them. And playing as the heir apparent to Ted Williams was a difficult role for Yaz to fill….especially as a 23 yr old rookie ! And playing the Green Monster, while not as large as Tiger Stadium’s right field, is certainly no picnic with all the dead spots and crazy caroms by balls coming off the wall. Just ask anyone from visiting teams who played there. Yaz mastered that wall. Later as Captain, Yaz lead the Sox all those years up to and including the Impossible Dream season in ’67. Those are some intangibles to factor in, I believe…

  5. I saw both men play as a kid in Detroit. I was fortunate, I got to see the likes of Harmon Killebrew, Denny McClain, Reggie Jackson(when he played for the A’s), Kaline, Freehan and Horton, as well as many other great al players who are in the hall, or left significant footprints in the history of AL baseball. also, I watched the Seattle Pilots play as well as the old Washington Senators, managed by the “great one”, Ted Williams.

    Kaline was unquestionably more consistent overall, despite the fact his career was hampered by nagging injuries that shortened a number of seasons. kaline has a better slugging %, this is key to determining the overall strength and worth of each slugger. He had a higher lifetime batting average, and won the world series with the tigers in 68. Kaline was arguably the greatest defensive player to ever prowl the outfield, i said OUTFIELD, not just right field, this includes Mays in center, of which Kaline also played as well as right field, not nearly as long though. Kaline won 10 straight gold gloves, and would have won more, except when he broke into the game, the Gold Glove award, had not been awarded yet. Yaz won the triple crown, and was the last player to win this spectacular award, but if you remove his two best years, unquestionably Kaline was the better offensive player and was undoubtedly the superior defensive player as well, despite the fact that Yaz was also an excellent defensive outfielder in his own right, playing left field at Fenway was easier and more forgiving than playing the cavernous outfield of Tiger stadium. When all is said and done, and the smoke clears, Mr. Tiger-Al Kaline was the better player, not by a whole lot, but yeas, he was the better overall player, both are great though and are enshrined in Cooperstown, nuff said…

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