Ted Williams – The Greatest Baseball Hitter Ever?

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 (HR), batting average (BA), runs batted in (RBI), on base percentage (OBP), and slugging average (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 and after 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

Source: http://www.baseball-almanac.com/players/player.php?p=willite01

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. 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 2. – American League Homers in Different 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 672 home runs and ranked 4th.

Table 3. – Home Runs

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

Source: Clem’s Baseball Blog

Batting Average

Data on batting averages are presented in Table 5. Williams’ actual average of .344 tied for 7th. My projection suggests he would have tied for 5th had he played in his service years. Table 5 indicated that the 6 players with higher averages played during a high-average era.

Table 5. – Batting Averages

Runs Batted In

Like home runs, RBIs are cumulative, so my projections for Williams will be much higher than his actuals. Table 6 provides data on RBIs. Williams ranked 13th but I project he would have been 1st had he not gone to war.

Table 6. – Runs Batted In

On Base Percentage

OBP is increasing accepted as the best single statistic on batters. Getting on base half the time you come to the plate is amazing. At .485 (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 7. – On Base Percentage

Slugging Percentage

Slugging percentage 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 8. – Slugging Percentage

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 9, I project Pujols ahead for 7 years using annual career averages for the projection. The winner in each category is in bold.

Table 9. – Ruth, Williams, and Pujols Comparisons

Reflections

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.

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, fifty percent or more of the fans 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. But I never saw Ruth play….

[1] All data appearing in this article come from the Baseball Almanac.

[2] You can catch a glimmer of the beauty of his swing at – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lRie0HNJmZY and http://www.youtube.com/watch_popup?v=lRie0HNJmZY&vq=small#t=42.

The content above was saved on the old Morss Global Finance website, just in case anyone was looking for it (with the help of archive.org):
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