No. 98: Ron Santo

Bill James wrote something once about why we should be patient when rating baseball players because we are often blind to factors that will someday be obvious. A plain example of this would be Cap Anson. When Anson played baseball — his career spanned from 1871 to 1897 — the Civil War was not a distant memory but a focus of American life. Reconstruction … the end of Reconstruction … the Fifteenth Amendment … the rise of the Ku Klux Klan … Plessy vs. Ferguson … this was the daily news.

Against this background, Cap Anson deeply believed that baseball would be a better game without black players. He was not shy about this opinion nor did he carry it lightly. Nor was this opinion unpopular. Of course we now know this as virulent racism, but at the time he and millions of others saw it as the right stance — morally right, ethically right, financially right. Baseball was struggling to take hold in America, and Anson was perhaps the game’s leading promoter and advocate. He did not think there should blacks and whites playing together, and there’s every indication that most people in America agreed with him.

So could people have seen him clearly then? I have no doubt that it would have seemed utterly outrageous to anyone in, say, 1903, that in 100 years Anson would be known almost ENTIRELY for his racism and his role in segregating the game. Attitudes change, new directions form, new information and, of often, deeper understanding is gained. Cap Anson was of his time. We all are. If he had been born in 1952 instead of 1852, you can be sure he would have led a much different baseball life.

On a much lighter note, Ron Santo drew walks. He drew lots and lots of walkers. It was a skill he developed in the big leagues — Santo signed with the Cubs as a 19-year old in 1959, and he was in Majors the very next year. In 1963, as a 23-year, he made his first All-Star team. But he walked just 42 times in 687 plate appearances — he was actually one of the toughest players in the league talk walk that season.

That was a terrible off-season for Santo and the rest of the Cubs. In February, second baseman Ken Hubbs — Santo’s roommate — flew a friend to Utah to surprise their family. Hobbs had only recently gotten his pilot’s license. On the return flight, Hubbs and his friend got caught in a storm and crashed. Santo would talk pretty often about how that changed his life.

Santo would say the changes came on the field as well. He did not really go into great detail on that, but it’s true that he did become a different hitter in 1964. His walks more than doubled and he led the National League. He led the NL four times in five years and walked at least 85 times seven years in a row.

Nobody cared much for those walks while he was playing. Don’t get me wrong, Santo was not unappreciated, far from it. He won five Gold Gloves, he made nine All-Star teams, and he finished Top 5 in the MVP voting a couple of times. But that was because he did more conventional things. He was good for 30-plus homers most years, he drove in 100 RBIs four times, he was a good fielder who kept winning Gold Gloves.

But nobody really cared much for those walks. On-base percentage was not a thing in the 1960s and 1970s. If anything, there was pressure on sluggers to swing away. Walks were often viewed as signs of weakness. There was more than the occasional story or crack about how Santo needed to be more aggressive as a hitter. He stayed with his approach through t all.

And now, we look back on his career with a much clearer knowledge of how teams score runs, and it turns out that Santo’s ability to walk and get on base is what separates him from many of the other first-rate players. When choosing this spot, I was very torn between Santo and Adrian Beltre. There’s a powerful connection between them — at least for moment.

Beltre has 9,387 plate appearances.
Santo had 9,397 plate appearances.

Beltre is hitting .282.
Santo hit .277.

Beltre has 376 homers and 1,307 RBIs
Santo had 342 homers and 1,331 RBIs.

Beltre has won four Gold Gloves.
Santo won five Gold Gloves.

Obviously there are adjustments you should make for time and ballpark and so on, but these basic numbers are so similar that it’s almost eerie. So what does it come down to? Well, I believe Beltre is the clearly superior defender. Santo was a good defender, but Beltre is otherworldly or has been for most of his career. And so for a while i was leaning his way.

But then — there are ALL THOSE WALKS. Santo walked 1,108 times in his career. Beltre, who is always a candidate to be on the cover of Hackers Monthly, has walked 500 fewer times. That’s a big difference. Because of those walks, Santo’s on-base percentage is about 30 points higher than Beltre and his OPS+ is 18 points higher. I think that makes up the defensive gap, at least for now (one more really good season from Beltre, and I think he moves on the Top 100 list).

II suspect it would have sounded crazy in1972 to say that what takes Santo to the next level as a player is all those walks.

A couple of other Santo thoughts: If today’s Hall of Fame rules had been in place in 1980, I don’t think Santo would be in the Hall of Fame now. That year, Santo got just 3.9% of the vote, which by modern rules would lead to him being dropped off the ballot. But in 1985, he was put back on the ballot and he stayed there for 14 more years. He never topped 43.1%, but he became very much a cause, and I feel sure that and his death in 2010 were big reasons why the Veteran’s Committee put him in the Hall. I’ll add that it was overdue. For 10 years, 1963-72 — perhaps the most difficult hitting 10 years since Deadball — Santo hit .288/.377/.490, he probably should have won the 1967 MVP Award (and he had a legit case in 1964 and 67) and he was a strong defensive third baseman. This is a pretty rare combination.

You probably know that Santo played his entire career with type 1 diabetes. He kept that as a personal struggle for most of his career, but in 1971 he realized that he could help other diabetics by taking his story public. It was a courageous thing to do and through the years Santo inspired countless people with his story.

18 thoughts on “No. 98: Ron Santo

  1. Rick Collarini

    A gut I thought was even more overlooked than Santo was Norm Cash. His career overlapped with Santo almost perfectly (57-74), and he walked even more per PA than Santo (13% of at bats compared to slightly less than 12% for Santo). His splits are almost identical, and his OPS+ is higher. Like Santo, he did a lot of things that weren’t appreciated in that era. His problem was and is that everything he did is evaluated in light of his ridiculous 1961 season. His only sin is that he had one season that he could never live up to.

    Reply
    1. bellweather22

      I looked at Cash on BBR. Remembering that Cash is a first baseman, not a third baseman like Santo…. And the two positions are judged quite differently given the difficulty of third base….. his numbers have Hall of Very Good written all over them. He had that one amazing season, but never again had 100 RBIs, 40 HRs or 120 walks. In fact, all including walks steeply declined after 1962, after he turned 28.

      So, go ahead and make your case for Cash, but I don’t see it.

      Reply
      1. Richard Aronson

        You cannot reasonably make that comparison. Santo had 10 more points of OWAR over his career than Cash. Santo also was a strongly positive defender at third base, and Cash was a strongly negative fielder at a less important position. Santo had more than two full seasons of extra plate appearances even though he retired much younger; he stayed healthy. The only season Cash led the league in anything of value (aside from once in HBP) was 1961, whereas Santo is dotted with leading the league in walks, OBP, games, even triples one season, as well as GG and much higher MVP votes. I’ll give you Cash was a better hitter, but his defense was so bad that even a 112 OPS+ was not enough to get him to come back. Santo came up much much younger, which is another common indicator of HOF skill. Today, of course, Cash would be a DH and might have lasted longer, but then today when people appreciate leading the league in OBP Santo would have an MVP award or two.

        Reply
        1. Rick

          I misspoke, obviously – I don’t consider Norm Cash a Hall of Fame candidate by any means. It’s just, to me, he has always been the poster boy for doing things well that were not valued during the time he played.

          Reply
  2. Andrew

    Joe, just wanted to say how amazed and appreciative I am that you write such thought provoking and interesting pieces, and do it all as free content. I’m very excited at the thought that over the next month or so, I’ll get to read 100 of these vignettes on great baseball players.

    Reply
  3. Wilbur

    Santo was not especially well-liked by many of his contemporaries. He played hardball and was openly emotional. This, I believe, and the fact that he played on crummy or seemingly underachieving teams, played a role in his failure to be voted in earlier.

    In the early 90′s I called Mike Shannon (Santo contemporary and long-time Cardinal broadcaster) on a radio show and said “Bill James has listed Ron Santo and Ken Boyer as the two best players not in the Hall of Fame – do you think they should be in the Hall of Fame?” Shannon’s response indicated he had never heard of Bill James, and he brusquely dismissed the notion of either of them as Hall of Famers. This is not a knock at Shannon; I was just curious as to what he would say. I wonder how he would respond to the question now.

    Interestingly, The Baseball Encyclopedia printed in 2004 (edited by Pete Palmer and Gary Gillette) uses a “Batter-Fielder Wins” to rate and compare players. It lists Santo as the best player in MLB in 1964 and it’s not even close, as just behind Willie Mays in 1965, as the best player in MLB in 1966 (including AL Triple Crown winner Frank Robinson) and it’s not close, and as the best player in MLB in 1967 (including AL Triple Crown winner Yaz) and it’s not even close. Obviously, no one at the time viewed Santo in that light, even his wife.

    Reply
    1. Clayton

      Alomar is too low on your list. But I’m curious to read your top 100. Do you have your Top 100 posted/blogged somewhere???

      Reply
  4. Herb Smith

    From 1964 through 1970, Santo was the very best player in all of baseball. That’s a period of 7 years, usually what we’d call a player’s peak. As per FanGraphs WAR leaderboard, Santo was #1, followed by Yaz, Aaron, Mays, Clemente, and Baltimore’s two Robinsons.

    Uh, yeah. The BEST. Go look it up.

    Reply
  5. Kris

    Norm Cash once went to bat in a game, with the unscrewed leg of a table and was promptly ejected – i say he gets 10 extra HOF votes for that.

    Reply
  6. Herb Smith

    By the way, since people have always thought of things in groups of ten (decades, top ten lists, etc.), let’s look at the Fangraphs list of the best players (highest WAR) for the Ten years from 1964 to 1973.

    Ron Santo is the second best player in all of MLB. Yes, he’s SECOND ! This is over a freaking decade. (Henry Aaron, who had an incredible Bonds-like late-career surge was first).

    The HOF voters must have truly detested the guy. He had a freaking mammoth prime, and it lasted a damn long time.

    Reply
    1. Ghost of Sid Hartman

      Without checking, I suspect that Aaron’s Bonds-like late career surge was largely and illusion created by the Braves moving to Atlanta and the Launching Pad (Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium). Not that there’s anything wrong with that…consider it payback for the years he was robbed by his home park in Milwaukee.

      Reply
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