Baseball: Past and Present

1960-69: Mickey Mantle

I’ll go out on the proverbial limb and say Mickey Mantle is the most underrated all-time great in baseball history.

The traditional narrative gives the Commerce Comet credit as an elite player through 1964, denigrating his alcohol and injury-plagued seasons that followed while the Yankees began a historic decline. Thing is, the Yankees’ refusal to feature black players until 1955 had them heading for trouble long before they tumbled to the bottom of the American League; and Mantle remained one of the best hitters in baseball while his team began to lose, offering a 149 OPS+ over 1,928 plate appearances his final four seasons.

Adjusted stats are important for paying Mantle his due. The end of his career coincided with the greatest renaissance for pitchers since the Deadball Era, with teams averaging 3.8 runs a game Mantle’s final four seasons. Mantle also played in Yankee Stadium. As Jane Leavy’s superb Mantle biography pointed out, the most famous switch hitter in baseball history was noticeably better from the right side of the plate. Old Yankee Stadium, prior to its renovations in the 1970s, did right-handed hitters few favors.

Could Mantle have rehabbed injuries better and boozed less? Sure. But in a better ballpark and hitter’s era, his final raw numbers would have impressed more.

Honorable mention: Frank Howard, one of several ’60s hitters who might be in the Hall of Fame had they played in a more favorable era for hitters

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1970-79: Graig Nettles

Nettles lasted four years on the Hall of Fame ballot, peaking at 8.3 percent of the vote in his first year, 1994. Now, he’s staked out a long-term spot in my annual project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame, finishing an average of 37th each year. I doubt Nettles will get in Cooperstown anytime soon, given his 390 lifetime homers, .248 batting average and two Gold Gloves. It’s just not a sexy enough candidacy for the Veterans Committee, which relies on traditional stats over sabermetrics to make its assessment.

If defensive sabermetrics ever become a thing that could push a player into the Hall of Fame, though, Nettles might make a good test case. Nettles saved 158 runs in the ’70s, the fourth-highest total in a decade behind Brooks Robinson in the ’60s, Mark Belanger in the ’70s, and Ozzie Smith in the ’80s. Unlike Belanger and Smith, Nettles didn’t give the runs back on offense either, averaging 25 homers, 83 RBIs and a 114 OPS+, a vital member of the Yankees during their Bronx Zoo glory years.

Honorable mention: Paul Blair, maybe the best defensive outfielder in baseball for the first half of the ’70s. Blair won six consecutive Gold Gloves from 1970 through 1975, saving 97 runs and amassing 10.8 defensive WAR, each best in baseball for outfielders. With Orioles teammates Brooks Robinson, Mark Belanger and Bobby Grich, Blair might have been part of the best defense in baseball history.

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1980-89: Dwight Evans

In February 2012, godfather of baseball stats Bill James wrote an open letter for Grantland arguing Dwight Evans’ case for the Hall of Fame. Calling Evans “one of the most underrated players in baseball history” James wrote:

Dwight Evans is the very unusual player who had all of his best years in his thirties. About 40 percent of baseball players have all of their best years in their twenties; about 55 percent have some of their best years in their twenties and some in their thirties. Less than 5 percent have all of their best years in their thirties. Dwight Evans is that unusual case: someone who had all of his best years in his thirties, after the public image of him as a .270 hitter with 20-homer type power was set in stone.

While James is slightly off, given that Evans racked up a career high 6.7 WAR, led the American League in homers and finished third in MVP voting at age 29 in 1981, he otherwise makes a good point. From 1982 through 1989, Evans offered a .280/.385/.496 slash while turning in just shy of 30 home runs and 100 RBIs per season. Aside from Roger Clemens and Wade Boggs, Evans is the biggest reason the Red Sox averaged 85 wins a season in those years, twice making the playoffs.

Were this better understood or had Evans matched teammate Jim Rice’s production in the 1970s, they might have gone in Cooperstown together. As it stands, I’ve no doubt many in the sabermetric would swap Evans in for Rice if given the chance.

Honorable mention: Darrell, the other Evans who got better with age during the 1980s

Tomorrow: ’90s and first decade of 2000s



11 Comments so far

  1.    Gregg Volz on August 14, 2014 10:53 am      

    As always, you did great work. Solid thinking and control of important stats.

    Mantle defined baseball in the 50′s and most of the 60′s. Mays may be your player of the decade in the 50′s and it is hard to argue with that, just as it is hard to argue that Aaron was not the most consistent superstar in the 60′s. But for kids growing up in that time period and seeing the Yankees on the game of the week each Saturday, Mantle had mythic stature.

    One thing it is hard to argue with–Mantle probably had the tools to be the best baseball player of all time–excluding nobody.

  2.    William Tasker on August 14, 2014 1:31 pm      

    I love these posts, Graham. And I agree with all of them. I loved Nettles and Dwight Evans as ballplayers. Highly underrated and both borderline HOF. Catching up on the rest now. Thanks for some great stuff.

  3.    SocraticGadfly on August 15, 2014 8:50 am      

    I nominate Ozzie Smith as most underrated of the 1980s, because of the crapload of East Coast-based overrating of Jeter the Father, Jeter the Son, Jeter the Holy Ghost today.

  4.    dave ensley on August 15, 2014 8:53 am      

    Most underrated all-time great in baseball history has to be Henry Aaron. The man is in the top 5 of almost every single offensive category (#1 in most) and yet when the discussion turns to greatest player ever all I hear is Willie Mays, Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb no one every mentions Hank. It literally boggles my mind how little respect this man gets.

  5.    Graham Womack on August 15, 2014 9:03 am      

    I’m an Ozzie Smith fan. We went to the same college, albeit years apart, and I got to meet him when he came to give the commencement address one year. Such a nice, genuine man.

    Smith of the ’80s may be underrated. I’m generally of the opinion that he was in the spotlight more or less from the time he went to St. Louis, given that the Cardinals were a playoff team from his first year there on. He was a big part of that, and I think he gets his due. I still see highlights of his home run in the 1985 NLCS (it starts at the 0:49 mark.)

    That said, Smith might be underrated defensively. He’s a shortstop traditional stats like errors and fielding percentage don’t reward. Smith had phenomenal range and probably upped his error totals going for balls he shouldn’t have; without checking, I’d guess Jeter’s limited range has led to fewer errors.

  6.    RickyB on August 15, 2014 9:07 am      

    I grew up idolizing Graig Nettles. I tell people that now and they generally look at me strangely, but he was incredible at the hot corner and provided power at the plate — the two things people want most from a third baseman. He will always be one of my favorite Yankees.

  7.    Mark Armour on August 15, 2014 9:57 am      

    One quibble with this fine series: I do not believe Mantle is underrated. He may be with respect to DiMaggio, but not with respect to his peers. Mantle played in a much inferior league, so all of his league-leading WAR totals, etc., need to be adjusted in my view. Also, while I agree that many people (including Mantle himself) underappreciated his end-of-career statistics, he was just a hitter at that point — not the all-around player he had been.

  8.    Graham Womack on August 15, 2014 10:04 am      

    I agree with you on the latter point, Mark (and thanks for the kind feedback on the series.) Mantle’s WAR for his final seasons is nothing special. He had none of the lightening speed of his 1950s seasons, wasn’t really much of a fielder, and couldn’t stay healthy. He was just a hitter. But still– what a hitter.

    On a side note, here are Mantle’s 1968 numbers if played on the 1999 Colorado Rockies: .322/.489/.541 with 28 homers and 106 RBIs. He also collects 163 walks.

  9.    Dennis Corcoran on August 15, 2014 1:06 pm      

    Graham I just want to comment that there are a number of players in the Hall of Fame because of their defense. Recent Hall of Famers Ozzie Smith and Bill Mazeroski come to mind but some of the others that are included in my book about the history of the indcution ceremony are Bobby Wallace and Rabbit Maranville.

  10.    Graham Womack on August 15, 2014 1:10 pm      

    Certainly, though I’d bet stellar defense gets a player into the Hall of Fame far less often than eye-popping offensive numbers.

  11.    Steve Green on August 27, 2014 12:41 pm      

    Fine writing and reading, as ever, Graham. I’d lost your gracious, original responses through a neighbouring house fire.
    Because of Aaron’s HR chase, a lot of us Mets fans got to see the players and the great Braves uniforms, and those great names …. Rowland Office, Mike Lum, Biff Pocoroba. But a girlfriend said I looked like Marty Perez, though I have no Spanish in my ancestry. And I was more intrigued by this lefty-hitting guy named Darrell Evans, #41, who would either walk every time up or do something no one really noticed.
    So what happens but a few days ago I’m looking up some Darrell Evans stuff and find out that he is of Welsh/Spanish-Mexican heritage! He looks about as ‘Spanish’ as Tino Martinez, who looks like he’d be more suitable for a name like Ralph Smith, lol.

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  • Written by Graham Womack