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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....