What he did: There’s a Mickey Mantle stat I’m drawn to, and it’s not something that jumps out like the 536 lifetime home runs or 565-foot bomb he hit at Griffith Stadium in 1953. Early in his Hall of Fame career, Mantle was known for his speed, with him being one of the fastest players in his time, perhaps in baseball history. A blown knee in the 1951 World Series and a host of other physical problems that followed eventually made this a distant memory, though certain numbers from his first few seasons hint at what might have been. For me, one Mantle number that sticks out is his .366 lifetime batting average at Sportsman Park in St. Louis.
Mantle only got 119 plate appearances at the ballpark over his first three years in the majors before the Browns moved to Baltimore and became the Orioles, though it’s no surprise to me that Mantle made the most of these PAs. With a famously hard playing surface, Sportsman Park ranks as one of the better hitters’ parks in baseball history, not as notorious as the Baker Bowl in Philadelphia or Coors Field in Denver but similarly able to distort numbers. And it was perfect for a young player with blazing speed. It makes me wonder what Mantle might have done with more time in St. Louis.
Era he might have thrived in: To be clear, I believe Mickey Mantle is one of a select number of players in baseball history who would’ve thrived in any time. It’s a hunch, but I assume all-time greats like Mantle or Willie Mays or Babe Ruth could transcend whatever circumstances they were placed in and dazzle. For Mantle, transcendence was playing home games in a pitcher’s park, in a pitcher’s era and still managing feats of legend with his bat. This being said, Mantle may have put up some obscene numbers playing for the St. Louis Cardinals or even the Browns in the 1930s.
Why: Where to begin? I’ll start with strikeouts, which Mantle was famous for. In later life, the Commerce Comet liked to joke that between striking out and walking roughly 1,700 times apiece, he went seven full seasons without touching the ball. Some of this was the result, though, of his era.
Mantle struck out 17.3 percent of his plate appearances while the American League had a 13.4 percent strikeout rate overall during his career. Looked at another way, Mantle struck out about 30 percent more than league average. I generally believe players could maintain their relative superiority or inferiority to other players in different eras, with some exceptions (Gavvy Cravath wouldn’t out-homer entire teams today, nor would Babe Ruth.) This tells me that playing in the 2013 majors, where the strikeout rate has hovered around 20 percent, Mantle might K 200 times. But it also makes me wonder what he’d be capable of in an era where strikeouts were far less common. Enter the 1930s, where the strikeout rate was under 10 percent for much of the decade.
What would Mantle do with more at-bats where he made contact? His career BABIP, short for Batting Average on Balls in Play, gives a hint. Mantle famously batted just below .300 for his career, .298. However, unlike his contemporary Willie Mays, Mantle’s BABIP was a tick higher than his batting line, .318. There’s a misnomer that BABIP is a luck stat for hitters, perhaps because it’s one for pitchers; research in the past decade or so has found that the BABIP a pitcher allows can vary greatly from year-to-year, in that pitchers have limited influence in what they allow beyond strikeouts, walks and home runs. That said, a hitter’s BABIP is more dependent on skill. It’s a reflection of being able to place balls and leg out hits. On the latter count particularly, it’s a great stat for a speedy young Mickey Mantle– or in today’s majors, the closest player to Mantle, Mike Trout who unsurprisingly has a lifetime BABIP of .361.
Left unsaid here thus far– but said in more previous columns on this site than I can count– is what a hitter’s era might enable for someone like Mantle. It’s a toss-up if the 1930s or 1990s rank as the greatest offensive era in baseball history. While I’ll sidestep that question today, the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com has some ludicrous numbers for Mantle in the era of Lefty Grove, Bob Feller, Carl Hubbell and 200 other pitchers whose names are little remembered by modern fans. On the 1930 Cardinals, Mantle’s 1957 season is good for a slash line of .422/.572/.770 with 43 home runs and 133 RBI. On the 1936 Browns, who shared Sportsman Park with the Cardinals for many years, Mantle’s ’57 season converts to .418/.568/.760.
I’ll admit I like Mantle on the Gashouse Gang Cardinals more than the Brownies. Baseball history’s most famous drinker would’ve fit right in on the first team, just another young, free-spirited country boy. Pepper Martin and Dizzy Dean would’ve been Mantle’s Billy Martin and Whitey Ford. And it goes without saying that the Cardinals president in those years, Branch Rickey, loved Mantle as a player, saying “He’s the best prospect I’ve ever seen,” and, “Fill in any figure you want for that boy. Whatever the figure, it’s a deal.” Rickey’s tendency was to sell players off just as they began to decline, so Mantle’s peak with the Gashouse Gang Cardinals would probably have been brief. But while it lasted, it would’ve been something to behold.
Any player/Any era is a feature that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.
Others in this series: Al Kaline, Al Rosen, Al Simmons, Albert Pujols, Artie Wilson, Babe Ruth, Bad News Rockies, Barry Bonds, Billy Beane, Billy Martin, Bob Caruthers, Bob Feller, Bob Watson, Bobby Veach, Carl Mays, Cesar Cedeno, Charles Victory Faust, Chris von der Ahe, Davey Lopes, Denny McLain, Dom DiMaggio, Don Drysdale, Doug Glanville,Ed Walsh, Eddie Lopat, Elmer Flick, Eric Davis, Frank Howard, Fritz Maisel, Gary Carter, Gavvy Cravath, Gene Tenace, George W. Bush (as commissioner), George Case, George Weiss, Harmon Killebrew, Harry Walker, Home Run Baker, Honus Wagner, Hugh Casey, Ichiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack Morris, Jackie Robinson, Jim Abbott, Jimmy Wynn, Joe DiMaggio, Joe Posnanski, Johnny Antonelli, Johnny Frederick, Josh Gibson, Josh Hamilton, Ken Griffey Jr.,Kenny Lofton, Larry Walker, Lefty Grove, Lefty O’Doul, Major League (1989 film),Mark Fidrych, Matt Cain, Matt Nokes, Matty Alou, Michael Jordan, Monte Irvin, Nate Colbert, Nolan Ryan, Ollie Carnegie, Paul Derringer, Pedro Guerrero, Pedro Martinez, Pee Wee Reese, Pete Rose, Prince Fielder, Ralph Kiner, Rick Ankiel, Rickey Henderson, Roberto Clemente, Rogers Hornsby, Sam Crawford, Sam Thompson, Sandy Koufax, Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Spud Chandler, Stan Musial, Ted Williams, The Meusel Brothers, Tony Phillips, Ty Cobb, Vada Pinson, Wally Bunker, Wes Ferrell, Will Clark, Willie Mays