Ted Williams vs. The Machine

I don’t know if I’ve mentioned it here before, but I’m a big fan of “The Office” on NBC. I’ve seen every show, own four seasons on DVD, and am to the point I’ve watched most of my favorite episodes two and three times, minimum. In a classic episode, the fictional paper merchant depicted, Dunder-Mifflin, launches a Web site and projects that by the end of the day, it will be the company’s new top salesman. This rankles neurotic, star salesman Dwight Schrute, who scoffs he can beat a computer. Working aggressively, he proceeds to do just that.

In a similar spirit, I am about three-quarters of the way through a 1995 book, Ted Williams’ Hit List, that the Red Sox immortal co-authored with Jim Prime ranking the 20 greatest hitters of all-time. Williams compiled his book in an age before high-speed Internet and statistical repositories on the Web made such comparisons instantaneous. For being only 15 years old, the book seems from an entirely different era, when subjective analysis by writers or a legend like Williams was the best baseball fans could get. Now, anyone with a computer can be an expert.

Before I go any further, I should offer Williams’ Top 20. It is:

  1. Babe Ruth
  2. Lou Gehrig
  3. Jimmie Foxx
  4. Rogers Hornsby
  5. Joe DiMaggio
  6. Ty Cobb
  7. Stan Musial
  8. Joe Jackson
  9. Hank Aaron
  10. Willie Mays
  11. Hank Greenberg
  12. Mickey Mantle
  13. Tris Speaker
  14. Al Simmons
  15. Johnny Mize
  16. Mel Ott
  17. Harry Heilmann
  18. Frank Robinson
  19. Mike Schmidt
  20. Ralph Kiner

(Note how Williams doesn’t include himself; in the book, he puts himself at the bottom of this list with a slash mark in place of a numerical ranking.)

Before getting into the rankings, which span most of the last half of the book, Williams offers his methodology: OPS, a combination of slugging and on-base percentage. The statistic favors players who hit for a combination of average and power, and since it’s percentage-based, it pushes up hitters like DiMaggio, Foxx and Greenberg who had shorter careers. Williams refers to the stat as PRO in the book, saying he got it from John Thorn and Pete Palmer and that he relied heavily on their work, Total Baseball to determine his rankings.

If there was anyone qualified to offer judgment on hitting, it might have been Williams, who made it his mission in life to learn everything he could about batting, conferring with greats like Cobb and Hornsby, retiring with a .344 lifetime clip, and going on to write multiple revered books on the subject. But I only wonder what heights Williams’ analysis could have soared to if he’d had access to a goldmine like Baseball-Reference, which offers similarity scores between different batters and a list of the leaders for just about every recognized stat, including OPS.

Poking around the site, I saw that Williams didn’t stick hard and fast to OPS in his determinations. Otherwise, he’d have included players like Dan Brouthers, Lefty O’Doul and Hack Wilson, who were among the top-20 lifetime for OPS for inactive players in 1995 (interestingly, of those men, only Wilson is in the Hall of Fame, though that’s a post for another time.) Williams notes on page 89:

I didn’t want Ted Williams’ Hit List to be a dry statistical analysis of what I think is the most exciting and uniquely human facet of baseball, but I did want to be able to back up my insights with some hard and fast truths.

What we’re left with is a book that’s equal parts stats and Williams’ expertise and first-hand accounts of the various players. It’s not a bad compromise, and it might actually be superior to anything a computer can spit out, but a part of me wishes Williams were still around to write a new updated edition. Actually, that’s an understatement, and it says nothing of how interested I’d be to hear Williams’ views on the fact that most of the recent players who merit consideration for this list have been linked to steroids. But that’s a post for another time.

I occasionally review books for this site. A compilation of reviews can be found here.

5 Replies to “Ted Williams vs. The Machine”

  1. A good companion read is Williams’ “The Science of Hitting”. In it, Williams names the five toughest pitchers he ever faced: Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Bobby Shantz, Eddie Lopat and Hoyt Wilhelm. Notice that three are off-speed pitchers: Shantz, Lopat and Wilhelm. What Williams said what all five have in common is that they are “smart” And about Feller, Williams wrote that he had more “stuff” than anyone but even when he grew older and lost his overpowering fastball and killer curve, he could beat you because he would outsmart you.

    1. I’m starting to amass a list of essential baseball books I need to read:
      The Science of Hitting
      Whatever happened to the Hall of Fame?

      Not to mention the baseball abstracts that Bill James has written….

  2. Whatever happened to the Hall of Fame? is excellent. Although it was published in 1995, all of James’ arguments and statistical breakdown are still valid.

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