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# Ted Williams – The Greatest Baseball Hitter Ever?

It is the last vacation week of summer. Time to reflect on baseball.

Introduction

One frequently hears “if Williams did not have to take time off for military duty, he would have been the greatest hitter of all time”.  Here, I address this point by projecting what Williams would have batted if not for the wars. Specifically, I project: home runs (NYSE:HR), batting average (NYSE:BA), runs batted in (RBI), on base percentage (OBP), and slugging average (NYSE:SLG). Williams is also compared to other “best hitter ever” contenders.

Simulating the Lost Years

Ted Williams lost 6 years to military service in the prime of his career. For WWII, 4 years – 1942-1945; for the Korean War, he effectively lost 1952 and 1953. Williams had just hit .406 and .356 in 1941 and 1942, respectively, before his WWII military service. He also hit .388 at age 39 in 1957 after returning from the Korean War. Clearly, his military service took him away in the prime of his baseball career.

To make the projections for the lost years, I took the average of the two years before he went off to war. The results for the statistics are given in the following table. The years used for the projections are underlined with the projections in bold.[1]

Table 1. – Williams Career and Projections
 Year Games HR RBI AVG OBP SLG 1939 149 31 145 0.327 0.436 0.609 1940 144 23 113 0.344 0.442 0.594 1941 143 37 120 0.406 0.553 0.735 1942 150 36 137 0.356 0.499 0.648 1943 36.5 128.5 0.381 0.526 0.692 1944 36.5 128.5 0.381 0.526 0.692 1945 36.5 128.5 0.381 0.526 0.692 1946 36.5 128.5 0.381 0.526 0.692 1946 150 38 123 0.342 0.497 0.667 1947 156 32 114 0.343 0.499 0.634 1948 137 25 127 0.369 0.497 0.615 1949 155 43 159 0.343 0.490 0.650 1950 89 28 97 0.317 0.452 0.647 1951 148 30 126 0.318 0.464 0.556 1952 6 29 111.5 0.318 0.500 0.602 1953 37 29 111.5 0.318 0.509 0.602 1954 117 29 89 0.345 0.513 0.635 1955 98 28 83 0.356 0.496 0.703 1956 136 24 82 0.345 0.479 0.605 1957 132 38 87 0.388 0.526 0.731 1958 129 26 85 0.328 0.458 0.584 1959 103 10 43 0.254 0.372 0.419 1960 113 29 72 0.316 0.451 0.645 Career 2,292 521 1,839 0.344 0.482 0.634 Projection 711 2,539 0.346 0.489 0.637

Home Runs

Before getting to the home runs stats, it is worth noting that the home run numbers changed dramatically by era. This is captured in Table 2 where American League home runs are shown for the “Ruth”, “Williams”, and “Steroid” eras.

Table 2. – American League Homers in Different Eras
 Ruth Williams Steroid Era 1914-1935 1939-1960 1992-2008 Per Year 433 806 2,377 Per Game 0.355 0.655 1.075

Note how dramatically the numbers of home runs hit has increased through the eras.

Home run leaders are presented in Table 3. Williams tied for 19th. My projections suggest that had he played the years spent in military service, he would have hit 711 home runs and ranked 4th.

Table 3. – Home Runs
 Rank Player HR 1 Barry Bonds 762 2 Hank Aaron 755 3 Babe Ruth 714 Ted Williams (proj) 711 4 Willie Mays 660 5 Ken Griffey 630 6 Sammy Sosa 609 7 Alex Rodriguez 604 8 Frank Robinson 586 9 Mark McGwire 583 10 Jim Thome 581 19 (tie) Ted Williams (act.) 521

Keep in mind that Fenway Park is not friendly to left hand hitters. While it is only 302 feet down the right field line, it drops back sharply to 380 feet in right center. Table 4 provides data on more friendly American League parks in use when Williams played.

Table 4. – Park Dimensions
 Park Right Field Line Right Center Fenway 302 380 Briggs Stadium 325 370 Seattle Kingdome 312 340 Yankee Stadium 296 344

Batting Average

Before getting to the stats, it is useful to ask whether different eras were better or worse for batters. Table 5 provides data on average batting averages for the best AL hitter and the average for Major League Baseball. The average for the AL champ was very high for the earliest two periods. The Ruth era had a high overall average, suggesting that Ruth’s averages might have been high because of bad pitching. But the Williams era was not abnormally high or low, suggesting Williams did not get a batting performance break because of when he played.

Table 5. Batting Averages in Different Eras
 Ruth Williams Steroid Era 1914-1935 1939-1960 1992-2008 AL Champ 0.382 0.348 0.351 MLB Team 0.275 0.260 0.266

Data on batting averages are presented in Table 6. Williams’ actual average of .344 tied for 7th. My projection suggests he would have ranked 4th had he played in his service years. Table 4 indicates that the 6 players with higher averages played during a high-average era.

Table 6. – Batting Averages
 Rank Player Years BA 1 Ty Cobb 1905-1928 .366 2 Rogers Hornsby 1915-1937 .358 3 Joe Jackson 1908-1920 .356 Ted Williams (proj) 1939-1960 .346 4 Ed Delahanty 1888-1903 .346 5 Tris Speaker 1907-1928 .345 6 Billy Hamilton 1888-1901 .344 7 Ted Williams (act.) 1939-1960 .344 8 Dan Brouthers 1879-1904 .342 9 Harry Heilmann 1914-1932 .342 10 Babe Ruth 1914-1935 .342

Runs Batted In

Like home runs, RBIs are cumulative, so my projections for Williams will be much higher than his actuals. Table 7 provides data on RBIs. Williams ranked 13th but I project he would have been 1st had he not gone to war.

Table 7. – Runs Batted In
 Rank Player RBI Ted Williams (proj) 2,539 1 Hank Aaron 2,297 2 Babe Ruth 2,213 3 Barry Bonds 1,996 4 Lou Gehrig 1,995 5 Stan Musial 1,951 6 Ty Cobb 1,937 7 Jimmie Foxx 1,922 8 Eddie Murray 1,917 9 Willie Mays 1,903 10 Cap Anson 1,879 13 Ted Williams (act.) 1,839

On Base Percentage

OBP is increasing accepted as the best single statistic on batters. Getting on base half the times you come to the plate is amazing. At .489 (proj.), Williams is pretty close. Like other dangerous hitters, Williams was given many intentional passes. But he was also a very disciplined hitter with a great eye. He prided himself on never swinging at a pitch not in the strike zone. Williams has the highest on base percentage of any hitter, ever.

Table 8. – On Base Percentage
 Rank Name OBP Ted Williams (proj) 0.489 1 Ted Williams (act) 0.482 2 Babe Ruth 0.474 3 John McGraw 0.465 4 Billy Hamilton 0.455 5 Lou Gehrig 0.447 6 Barry Bonds 0.444 7 Rogers Hornsby 0.434 8 Ty Cobb 0.433 9 Jimmie Foxx 0.428 10 Tris Speaker 0.428

Slugging Percentage

Slugging average is a common batting statistic. It is defined as the total number of bases resulting from your hits divided by your at bats. The maximum is 4.000, e.g., if you hit a home run in your only at bat, you will have a 4.000 slugging percentage. Williams’ slugging average was second only to Babe Ruth’s.

Table 9. – Slugging Percentage
 Rank Name SLG 1 Babe Ruth 0.690 Ted Williams (proj) 0.637 2 Ted Williams (act.) 0.634 3 Lou Gehrig 0.632 4 Albert Pujols 0.628 5 Jimmie Foxx 0.609 6 Barry Bonds 0.607 7 Hank Greenberg 0.605 8 Manny Ramirez 0.591 9 Mark McGwire 0.588 10 Joe DiMaggio 0.579

Overall

Who are the contenders for greatest hitter of all time? Among retired players, there are only two worthy of consideration – Ruth and Williams (Aaron’s lifetime batting average was only .305 and Bonds only .298).

How about people still playing? Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez come to mind. Rodriguez is 35, maybe 2 good years left. But his overall batting average is only .303. End of discussion. Pujols is 30, maybe 7 good years left. In Table 10, I project Pujols ahead for 7 years using annual career averages for the projection. The winner in each category is in bold.

Table 10. – Ruth, Williams, and Pujols Comparisons
 Player HR AVE RBI OBP SLG Ruth 714 .342 2,213 .474 .690 Williams (proj) 711 .346 2,539 .489 .637 Pujols (pro) 687 .333 2,055 .427 .628 Williams 521 .344 1,839 .482 .634 Pujols 404 .333 1,209 .427 .628

Williams was the winner in four categories, Ruth in 2. Ruth might have been helped on batting average because of the weak pitching in his era. My sense? Ruth or Williams is the greatest hitter ever.

Reflections

My father took me to Fenway in the late ‘forties/early ‘fifties when Williams was in his prime. He was the most exciting player I ever saw in person. I will always remember the announcement – Now Batting, Number 9, Ted Williams. Whatever the game, a significant number would stand and cheer. Williams would come to the plate, often say something to the ump and catcher, and then the performance would start. Anyone fortunate enough to see him hit a home run or even swing at a pitch never forgot the beauty of the swing[2]. He rarely swung at a bad pitch. Many umps believed if Williams did not swing at the pitch, it was a ball. Just before the pitch came, he would lift up/cock his wrists, and swing at the very last moment.

Williams had excellent eyesight, quick reactions, and very strong wrists. His swing was traditional and classic. He held onto the bat with both hands until the end of the swing. His signature home run was a towering drive into the right field bleachers.

Whomever you think was the greatest hitter, Ruth has to be considered the greatest ball player ever. In Boston, he won 23 and 24 games in 1916 and 1917, respectively, as a pitcher.

[1] All data appearing in this article come from the Baseball Almanac.
[2] You can catch a glimmer of the beauty of his swing in - http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRie0HNJmZY and www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=lRie0HNJmZ....