What he did: I mentioned DiMaggio in a post here Tuesday on why Cecil Travis belongs in the Hall of Fame. Were it up to me, I’d enshrine them both. Each man might already have a plaque in Cooperstown were it not for World War II service taking three full, prime seasons out of the middle of their careers. I believe that’s something baseball should celebrate rather than penalize.
As it stands, DiMaggio made seven All Star teams, was counted as one of the best defensive outfielders in his era, and finished with a .298 lifetime batting average. For years, his Boston Red Sox teammate Ted Williams had a pamphlet in his museum listing the reasons DiMaggio belonged in Cooperstown. He had some traction with the Baseball Writers Association of America, appearing on their Hall of Fame ballot nine times and peaking with 11.3 percent of the vote in 1973. Still, the Veterans Committee failed to enshrine DiMaggio, Travis too, within their lifetimes even as each man lived into his nineties and died within the last five years.
To a certain extent, DiMaggio seems like a poor man’s version of Ichiro Suzuki, with his fine defense, solid hitting, and similarly shortened career. What if DiMaggio, like Suzuki, played for the Seattle Mariners today?
Era he might have thrived in: Current
Why: To ensure his place in Cooperstown, DiMaggio would need a full career and a home team known for great defense. The Mariners might be that team.
As Sports Illustrated noted earlier this year, Seattle has begun to preach defense and a fielding metric known as Ultimate Zone Rating. Their cavernous ballpark, Safeco Field has caused them to emphasize pitching and promote players like Franklin Gutierrez, known as much for preventing extra base hits in center field than smacking them himself. I wonder if fellow center fielder DiMaggio would do even better. DiMaggio has a lower career fielding percentage than Gutierrez, .978 to .989, but twice had more assists in a season than Gutierrez has had his entire career. I also think having Suzuki in right field could boost DiMaggio’s numbers.
The flip side, of course, is that DiMaggio’s career batting average would almost certainly dip. The stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com says his lifetime clip would be .283 if he played his entire career on a team like the 2001 Mariners, .275 if he played for the current, lackluster squad. Beyond this, playing today, DiMaggio wouldn’t have the man who taught him to hit while he was with the San Francisco Seals in the Pacific Coast League, Lefty O’Doul. He also wouldn’t be in the same lineup as Ted Williams. Suzuki is hitting .331 lifetime. I doubt DiMaggio would come anywhere close to that in the modern era.
Defense, admittedly, is rarely a man’s ticket to Cooperstown, so DiMaggio might actually have less of a chance playing now were his batting average to drop significantly. Still, when given an opportunity, DiMaggio’s greatness shown. In 2004, I had a chance to interview him. DiMaggio seemed like as good a man off the field as on.
Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature here that looks at how a ballplayer might have fared in a different era besides his own.