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.
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.