The Boudreau Shift

On July 14, 1946, Ted Williams seemed utterly invincible. He WAS in many ways invincible as as hitter, but in the middle of that 1946 season there was still reason to believe that he was so good he might actually break baseball. Remember that in 1941, he had become the first American League hitter since the twenties to hit .400. In 1942, even while distracted by his draft status (and the relentless criticism that crashed down on him when he applied for a deferment), he won the Triple Crown. And then he went to war.

When he came back in ’46, he was better than ever. He homered his first day back and was hitting .427 in early May. At that moment, there seemed no limit to his talent. Could he hit .500? Maybe. Could he drive in 200 RBIs? Perhaps. Could he break Babe Ruth’s home run record? It was possible. Anything was possible with Williams. Paul Richards, the Tigers catcher and future White Sox and Orioles manager, was in favor of walking Ted Williams every single time he came to the plate; interestingly he was not in favor of INTENTIONALLY walking Williams but instead in favor of never throwing him a strike. He might get himself out swinging at bad pitches.

Most managers agreed that there wasn’t much percentage in throwing Ted Williams strikes. He walked 156 times in ;’46, 162 times the next year and again in 1949. Only Babe Ruth in 1923 had been walked so often.

In 1946, Williams couldn’t hit the Yankees (a temporary phase; he hit .345 and slugged .600 against the Bombers in his career), but he bashed the Indians, Tigers, Senators … and what he did against St. Louis was something a level above bashing; he would end up hitting .472/.624/.847 against the Browns in 100 plate appearances that year. If not for the Yankees, many writers guessed, Teddy Ballgame would be chasing .400 again.

The point is that The Kid was still NEW then. This was before his first (and only) World Series, before his 1947 Triple Crown, before he went to war again, before his war with the Boston media and fans really ignited, before his unfathomable 1957 season when he could barely walk and almost hit .400 anyway, before John Updike watched him hit a home run in his last time up and then disappear into the dugout without a wave. This was before he became Ted Williams, legend … at this point he could have become: “Ted Williams, destroyer of baseball as we know it.”

On July 14, the Red Sox played a doubleheader against Cleveland and promptly fell behind 5-0. Scores meant little that year to Boston — the Red Sox scored almost 100 more runs than any other team in the league.They were running away with the American League pennant, they had come in on a five-game winning streak, it was their season, and Williams made it clear that it was going to stay that way: He hit a grand slam in the third to tie the game. Then he homered again. Then he homered again. By the end of the that first game, he had four hits, scored four runs, drove in eight RBIs, and the Red Sox won the game 11-10. Then, first time up in the second game, Williams doubled and scored, the Red Sox took a 3-0 lead. Something desperate had to be done.

That’s when Lou Boudreau, in the spur of the moment, invented the shift. Well, he probably did not INVENT it; it was more like he revived it from the distant past. In a fun column in the Oakland newspaper, a writer quoted a conversation of some old-time baseball guys, a group that that included then Oakland Oaks manager Casey Stengel. One of the old-timers was Giants scout Hank DeBerry, and he said the shift had been used against the slugger Cy Williams. It was especially useful in the hitters paradise Baker Bowl, where Cy Williams routinely hit 60 or 70 points higher than anywhere else. “We used that same defense against Cy 25 years ago,” DeBerry said. “And it didn’t work any better than it does today against Ted Williams.”

That was a funny thing for DeBerry to say because, in that moment, he did not know how well the shift would work against Williams. Boudreau had only unveiled it a couple of days before. Second at bat of the second game, Boudreau put six guys on the right side of the field. He did not even play a shortstop — the only man on the left side of the field was Cleveland’s left fielder George Case, who stood about 20 feet behind where the shortstop would normally stand. Here’s how the Boudreau shift looked according to the Fleer Baseball Card company in 1959.

migrated

First time he saw the Boudreau shift, Ted Williams literally began to laugh. He promptly hit right into the teeth of it, as if playing along, and he was thrown out by Boudreau himself, who as shortstop was standing between the first and second baseman. The whole thing seemed a joke. “If teams start doing that against me, I’ll start hitting right-handed,” Williams said after the game. Well, everyone laughed. I’ve spent the last day or two reading sportswriters initial reactions to the shift; nobody seemed to take it seriously at all. Nobody seemed to buy it as a viable defense against a hitter as great as Williams. One of my favorite oolumns was Whitney Martin’s “Down the Sports Trail.” His conceit was that he wanted to come up with a nickname for the shift (“T-Formation” — T for Ted — and the “Boston I” were two of the more fun suggestions). The best part of the column, though, is the paragraph spent talking about what a field day a great hitter like Paul Waner (“who could drop a ball in a hat”) would have had with that shift. As it turns out, Waner would probably be more instrumental in helping Williams deal with the shift than anyone else.

Nobody could see it then. Heck, I don’t even think Boudreau himself saw it; I think he came up with the shift out of frustration and desperation. He did not know what else to do. But in the end, I think, the shift touched on three themes that sort of cut to the heart not only of baseball hitting but of sports and, not to get too deep, life.

These are:

Theme 1: Hitters find it very hard to change their core character.
Theme 2: Fans will react negatively when hitters can’t do something that looks easy.
Theme 3: Pride will cause a hitter to do self-destructive things.

You can probably replace “hitter” with just about anyone.

Theme 1 is the most basic part of the shift’s power. Ted Williams was a pull hitter. Period. Perhaps somewhere early in his development, Williams made a conscious effort to become a pull hitter … but I doubt it. He was a pull hitter. Well, he wanted to be a power hitter and in baseball — particularly in those days — power hitters pull the ball. This is still largely true but with the improvement in bats, the recent emphasis on working out, players do develop opposite field power. Players do crush long home runs the other way with some regularity. This was basically unheard of in Williams time.*

*Heck, I can remember in the 1980s — 40 years later — when Dale Murphy’s opposite field power was viewed as some sort of miracle.

Williams pulled the ball from childhood; I would contend that hitting style was embedded in him the way sense of humor is part of someone. If someone isn’t funny, someone isn’t funny. If someone’s a pull-hitter, someone’s a pull hitter. There might be a few adjustments that can be made, but character doesn’t fundamentally change. I think Boudreau just wanted to shake up Williams, give him a different look, maybe get him to change his approach. What Boudreau probably didn’t believe was this: To a large extent, Ted Williams could not change. His batting style, like his finger prints, were his own.

Theme 2 is a fascinating one for me … how does outside pressure affect what’s happening in the arena? People in sports say all the time that they are unaffected by fan pressure or media pressure or any other outside influences. People in sports say that … but I think they’re either kidding themselves or lying out loud. Outside pressure is so much more complicated than what people write on the Internet or say to talk radio hosts.

Outside pressure rains down in countless ways — it comes as criticism, as praise, as clues, as polite suggestion, as impolite suggestion, as confidently expressed nonsense, as bad ideas cloaked in the clothing of reasonableness. Outside pressure is everywhere and trying to shut it out still counts as being affected by it. People in sports often make counter-intuitive decisions to prove they are NOT succumbing to the pressure.

Nothing sparks more pressure in sports, I think, than a player or coach messing up something that LOOKS simple. When a player doesn’t step out of bounds to stop the clock … when a player on the winning team commits a foul in the final seconds when the clock should be running out … when a fielder sails a throw over the cutoff man in an obviously pointless attempt to score a runner who was going to score anyway … these things drive fans and columnists and talking heads daffy. There is this inner sense we have, I think, that while we may lack the athletic prowess or athleticism to do what these athletes do, we KNOW what to do. And seeing athletes make those mental mistakes sets us off like nothing else.

The genius of the Boudreau Shift is that it LOOKS easy to beat. The fielders are ALL OVER THERE. All you have to do is hit the ball OVER THERE INSTEAD. I mean seriously, this is TED BLEEPIN’ WILLIAMS we are talking about here. You telling me he can’t just hit the ball to the left side anytime he wants?

Only, he could not — not with regularity, not with force, not with that beautiful swing he had honed since childhood. He crowded the plate, and he challenged pitchers, and he pulled mistakes with ferocity. This was how he hit. The fans fury poured down on him every time he beat a futile ground ball to the loaded right side, something he did with regularity. Here is Baseball Reference’s list of ground ball outs hit by Williams in the 1950s — the data is incomplete, but it’s still illustrative:

First base: 478
Second base: 522
Shortstop: 199
Third base: 53

There’s no guessing how many of those ground balls to short were caught on the right side of the diamond … point is every single time he hit futilely into the teeth of the shift, there was a reaction in the crowd. WHY DOESN’T HE JUST HIT THE BALL OVER THERE INSTEAD?

And this takes us to the Theme 3 — pride. Williams was hurt for the 1946 World Series — something he would never use an excuse — but he also flailed helplessly again a variation of the Boudreau Shift when they played the Cardinals. People called the St. Louis’ shift a “Dyer-gram” after Cardinals manager Eddie Dyer. The shift was not as extreme as Boudreau’s; it put a shortstop AND a left fielder on the left side of the diamond. In this way, it is similar to many of the shifts today.

But it still loaded Williams favored right side with fielders. And, without the strength to hit over the shift, Williams hit right into it. He grounded out to second and popped out to first in Game 1. Game 2 was worse. Williams went 0-4, grounding out to the right side, lining out to the right side, popping out to the right side. The Red Sox were shut out.

The third game was when everyone knew the shift was inside Ted Williams head. He was intentionally walked in the first inning (a good thing for the Red Sox because Rudy York followed with a home run). In the third, Williams came up with nobody on and two outs. He proceeded to bunt the ball toward third for a single. It was a smart baseball move. It was also, in the eyes of the writers and many fans, an admission of defeat. “WILLIAMS BUNTS” the papers screamed, as if that was the only story. Williams also struck out and lined to right after that, and everybody knew: He was entirely spooked by the shift.

He would be spooked for the rest of the series. He managed one single to right in the fourth game, one single to right in the fifth game, one single to center in Game 6. The rest were strikeouts and foul popouts and fruitless shots into the shift. A hitter needs balance. Williams had lost his. He was obviously some combination of stymied and embarrassed and angry. In Game 7, Williams hit four harmless fly balls of various lengths as he tried to maneuver the ball to open spaces. The Cardinals won the series but, more, had beaten Ted Williams in the most public way imaginable. That was Williams’ only World Series and it would be used by his critics for the rest of his career. Also, the shift would become Ted Williams’ constant companion.

John Updike estimated that the shift cost Williams, “perhaps 15 points of lifetime average.” Updike, like many, saw it as a choice Williams made: “Like Ruth before him, he bought the occasional home run at the cost of many directed singles — a calculated sacrifice certainly not, in the case of a hitter as average-minded as Williams, entirely selfish.”

I’m not sure it was a choice, though. Williams did try to adjust somewhat with the help of Waner. He backed off the plate some, and he did hit a few more balls the other way. But not many. He could not stop being Ted Williams. If he needed a reason to pound balls the other way, he had one long before Boudreau shifted. After all, in left field at Fenway Park stands the greatest incentive for lefty opposite field hitting there is: The Green Monster. The wall made Wade Boggs a star and made Bill Mueller a batting champ. Williams, though, didn’t take much advantage of the Green Monster. He hit like he hit.

Beyond that, I doubt the shift took away 15 points of batting average from him or anything like it. It probably didn’t take away any points in the long run. From 1939-1946, Williams was a .353 hitter. From 1947 to 1957 — even with his career again interrupted by war and with his body aging — he was a .348 hitter. The shift maybe have had its subtle effects on his hitting. I suspect it had a much larger effect on his psyche and on the story people told about him.

These days, every team is shifting, but it’s much more scientific than Boudreau’s flooding of the diamond’s right side. The more data teams can digest, the more they will know about where a hitter is likely to hit the ball. I expect defensive alignments to become much more complicated over time. The shifts are impacting the game. With batters striking out more than ever and with pitchers throwing harder than ever and with fielders set up in hitters favorite places, it’s a rough time for offense in baseball. And it likely will be until hitters make their own adjustments. But, hey, you know, in time hitters will adjust. It’s baseball. Things will shift.

42 thoughts on “The Boudreau Shift

  1. Mike Heithaus

    Matt Adams on the Cardinals is a great case study in the shift this year. He was hitting well above .300 before he went on the DL, but his slugging was way down (only 1 or 2 homeruns) because he was so intent on beating the shift and poking the ball the other way, which he was doing exceedingly well. He made it very clear to local sports columnists when he returned from the DL that he wasn’t going to worry about the shift anymore and hit like his old “Big City” self. And that is exactly what he has done, hitting a homer about every 13 ABs, even though his average has dropped a bit as a result. For a Cardinals team in desperate need of some power hitting, his drop in average for the increased power is well appreciated.

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    1. MCD

      With his performance the last few days, Adams’ batting average is actually higher since returning from the DL, and presumably ceasing to attempt to exploit the shift. After last night’s 3-5, he stands at .336 for the year. He was at .325 on May 29 when he went on the DL.

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  2. Carl

    The Red Sox finished second in 1941, 17 games behind the Yankees. Here’s a fun trivia question and hopefully a good future article for Joe: Who was the last .400 hitter on a first place team?

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  3. MCD

    Boudreau later admitted that, in his mind, the shift was more of a psychological ploy than a tactical one. In retrospect, it was probably actually affective on both fronts.

    Lou Bouudreau was one of the best baseball minds to play the game. While there have been other player-managers since Boudreau, he actually spent a *majority* of his playing career as a player-manager. He is not only the last player to make that claim, he might be the only one in the modern (post 1900) era. He played from 1938-1952, and was a player-manager for the Indians from 1942-1950 and for the Red Sox in 1952.

    Who, as a kid, remembers his ongoing “tips for budding ball players” column in Baseball Digest?.

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  4. bellweather22

    Brian McCann was facing a situation like this with the Braves, I haven’t followed him with the Yankees, but I’m guessing it is the same. Coming up, McCann hit the ball the other way. But as time went by, he started to become a dead pull hitter. So, the shifts started to pop up, and since he was a slow runner, the second baseman could camp out 50 ft behind the infield dirt & still throw him out on a ground ball. Eventually the shift was packed like the one described for Williams, with every infielder on the right side of the infield. So, with the left side of the infield completely vacated, why not bunt? The funny thing is that McCann tried it a couple of times, got them down & had easy singles. To me, just keep doing it until the other team adjusts. Take the easy single. Make them modify the shift and move someone back to thirdbase. But, he wouldn’t do it. If you’re going to “adjust” to the shift, the bunt has to be part of it. No need to change the swing. Just make them move & respect that if they don’t, you’re going to be on first base. It won’t take that long. I think this is where pride gets in the way. As much as I dislike Pete Rose, he was smart enough to take what was given him. If you gave him the bunt, he’d take it. And these are pros. Granted, sluggers probably haven’t bunted that much, but how long does it take to learn? Especially since the bunt just needs to be hard and directed to the left side? I taught 10 year olds how to bunt over the course of two practices. It’s not hard.

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    1. Xao

      Ben Lindbergh over at Grantland took a look at McCann’s batted ball tendencies. Using Retrosheet’s data, McCann has the second lowest pull percentage of his major league career this year. On a year to year basis, his pull percentage fluctuates, but there is no major upward trend. Further more, his True Average appears to have little correlation to his pull percentage.

      It’s an interesting piece that goes a long way towards refuting Pendleton’s comments.

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      1. bellweather22

        There’s a good article in the AJC about this today. Bottom line, McCann has been banged up and declining the last three years. He has some power and ability, but he’s never going to be the hitter he was in his early 20s. He’s a 30 year old catcher. A five year deal like he got at age 30 with an easy to see decline already in full swing, was foolish. I’m not sure what the Yankees thought they were getting. He’ll hit 20 HRs, and maybe get his average up to .260. And that’s what he is, at best, at this point of his career.

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        1. Xao

          I dunno about that. Last year he actually had one of the best wRC+ numbers (122) of his career, albeit in only 102 games. It’s worth noting that his BABIP is way down, but his line drive percentage is as high as it’s ever been. It’s possible that he’s lost a third of his value with the bat in an offseason, but it seems somewhat unlikely. He’s still a great defensive catcher who also appears to be one of the best pitch framers in the business. Even with his offensive woes this year, He may not wind up being all that the Yankees had dreamed of, but he’s still a useful player, who’s already put up 1 fWAR this season.

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  5. thoughtsandsox

    I always thought that guys who constantly battle the shift like Ortiz should just start bunting to third until people quit shifting against them.

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  6. Josh P

    confession: i hate the shift almost as much as joe hates the intentional walk. does anyone else feel similarly?

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    1. Karyn

      Not sure why. It seems like not shifting would be like packing eight men in the box when Peyton Manning is on the other side of the line of scrimmage. You know he’s going to throw, at least sometimes, so why wouldn’t you defend against it?

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      1. Tom Rigid

        Remember the Michael Mann movie, HEAT? Says McAuley to Hanna:

        “I do what I do best, I take scores. You do what you do best, try to stop guys like me.”

        That’s all it is. Hitters hit, fielders field, scores are made and prevented. How it’s done is almost as important as why it’s done, which is to say not at all. Only the result matters.

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      1. Herb Smith

        I meant that I second Josh P’s hatred of the shift. Why? Because, in fact, it’s actually very SIMILAR to the intentional walk, in that he main result is this: a great hitter is robbed of a chance to hit.

        Think of the players who’ve been most effected by intentional walks, 80% intentional walks (like Paul Richards described in Joe’s article), and shifts: Babe Ruth, Ted Williams, Big Papi, Barry Bonds.

        Yeah, who wants to see THOSE guys swing a bat? Much more entertaining to obliterate the joy of watching them hit.

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        1. Cuban X Senators

          “Great hitter robbed of a chance to hit.”

          Football defense must drive you nuts for depriving running backs of a chance to run.

          The shift provides a hitter with a chance to adjust, (which is very different than an IBB). And baseball is a game of adjustment.

          If you’d like to see great hitters hit unimpeded, we could go back to hitters calling their pitches. But you can see this already – it’s called batting practice.

          Enjoy the Home Run Derby.

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          1. Herb Smith

            But it’s a constant back and forth with the rules, correct? In the NFL, not long ago, it was perfectly legal for defensive backs to assault receivers, and for pass-rushers to try to maim quarterbacks. It was enjoyable in it’s own way, sure. (I’m sure that you were in your glory).

            But after watching the passing game greatly curtailed, and watching lots of 6-3 or 10-7 contests, they…hey wait..yeah. They CHANGED THE ASININE RULES.

            Smart of the NFL, eh? Nowadays there’s lots more offense, fantastic LONG passes (including the reintroduction of the bomb, only the most exciting play in sports), and we get to see great passers ACTUALLY DO WHAT THEY’RE GOOD AT (and what fans most like to see). Also, those passers are actually on the field, instead of nursing bad injuries that were constant with the old rules.

            Sport rules are like a pendulum; they swing back and forth, trying to find a good middle ground. It is my opinion that the absolute best thing in baseball is watching a slugger pull a home run. It’s cool that you consider it far better to watch that same slugger ground out, but please realize that people are allowed to think differently.

        2. Craig From Az

          I have nothing against the shift. It accentuates the skill of guys who hit all over the park. I am lucky enough to get to watch Paul Goldschmidt nearly every day, and while most of his HRs are pulled, a good percentage go to center and some to right. And his doubles are all over the park. Nobody puts on a shift against Goldie because he would kill it.

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  7. Michibob

    I’m not a shift fan, but I can’t say I hate it. If it’s in a manager’s arsenal to use it then it’s part of the game. It’s like hating a double team against LeBron. It’s not as much fun as 1 on 1 defense, but it does give him other ways to beat you. Like bunting to 3rd against the shift…..

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  8. wordyduke

    This will be very useful for a research project I’m working on. (Paragraph 18: “in an obviously pointless attempt . . .to throw out . . . a runner who was going to score anyway.”)

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  9. Michael Green

    Trivia buffs, what is Hank DeBerry’s most famous moment in baseball? Answer below.

    Babe Ruth was the “victim” of a similar shift and was asked why he didn’t hit singles to left. He replied that that wasn’t what fans paid to see. That brings to mind the story of when someone told Jimmie Foxx he couldn’t hit behind a runner. Foxx said he could and would. Next time he was up with a runner at first, he hit behind the runner … a line drive into the stands down the right field line.

    Hank DeBerry was a catcher for the Brooklyn Dodgers. One day in 1926, he was at 3B, with Dazzy Vance at 2B, Chick Fewster at 1B, and Babe Herman at the plate. DeBerry scored. If you look at the box score on Retrosheet, it says there’s no play-by-play (http://www.retrosheet.org/boxesetc/1926/B08151BRO1926.htm). That’s ok. Nobody could have explained it. That’s the day the Dodgers wound up with three men on third base.

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  10. Rick Rodstrom

    Ted Williams was a stubborn cuss who believed there was only one way to hit—his way—which he described in scientific detail. Get a fastball on the inner half of the plate, turn on it, and pull it in the air. There was no deviation from the plan. Tie game in the ninth inning, two outs, man on third, a single to left wins it? Doesn’t matter. You look for a pitch on the inner half to drive, even if you know they’re going to pitch you away and don’t mind if you walk.

    Which leads to the other half of Ted Williams stubbornness. He walked a ton. Now maybe all those walks were Barry Bonds walks, where the pitcher had no intention of coming near the strike zone, in which case there was nothing he could do. But baseball was different then. Pitchers were more apt to challenge even the best hitters. In 1948, when Stan Musial hit .376, he walked 76 times. In 1939, when Joe DiMaggio hit .381, he walked 52 times. Teddy Ballgame averaged 143 walks a year.

    Being a dead pull hitter meant giving up on the outside corner, whereas Stan Musial, who hit the ball from line to line, would drive an outside pitch the other way. So Ted laid off a lot more pitches than Stan. He not only laid off a lot more balls, he laid off a lot more strikes.

    Like Wade Boggs, Ted Williams never swung at the first pitch. He wanted to evaluate what the pitcher was throwing, and he wasn’t afraid of hitting behind in the count. It certainly worked for him, but it also meant he took a lot of fastballs for strikes. So in essence, to get Ted Williams to swing, a pitcher not only had to throw one fastball in his hot zone, he had to throw two. Most pitchers weren’t that brave,

    So Ted only swung at pitches in his hot zone, and did very well by doing so, preferring to take a walk rather than change his approach and go the other way if the pitcher didn’t give him something he could pull. You could point to the fact that all those walks helped to give him the highest career OBP of all time. Or you could say that all those walks were wasted opportunities for Ted Williams to hit. Taking Ted Williams out of the batters box and putting him at first base so the schmoe behind him could whiff or hit into a double play was an appealing option for many pitchers. So you nibbled on the outside corner and if you walked him you walked him. It’s not like he would steal a base or anything.

    There are many ways to judge a player, and in many of them, Ted Williams ranks very near the top. That was Ted’s goal—”there goes the greatest hitter who ever lived.” Not the guy with the most championships, but the guy who put up the best numbers. The guy who had hitting down to a science. The guy who never won a damned thing.

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    1. Sean Tuxill (@thebostinian)

      Alright, I’ll bite on the trolling. It wasn’t like he was striking out by refusing to go after pitches on the outer third – he struck out over 50 times only three times in his career (and those three times were all in his first four seasons). And if you want to call Williams a selfish hitter, then go right ahead. Wasn’t his fault we couldn’t get it done during his career. All you can do in baseball is produce runs to the best of your abilities and hope the other eight guys in the lineup are able to do the same. Ted Williams did that better than anyone other than Ruth.

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    2. DM

      Hi Rick,

      Well, here we go again, your favorite subject, the supposedly “selfish” Ted Williams. I know it fits your narrative to characterize his career this way since there’s something about him that sticks in your craw, especially with all those damned walks, but the notion that Ted Williams’ selectivity, approach to hitting, and plate discipline resulted in “wasted opportunities” is absurd.

      What represents opportunities as a hitter? Plate appearances. Each plate appearance is an opportunity to do something. Get a hit. Make an out. Hit a HR. Draw a walk. All kinds of potential outcomes.

      What did Williams do with those opportunities? For starters, he didn’t make outs. He he made outs only 52% of the time (obviously, this is the complement to OBP, as he got on base 48% of the time), which is the best ever.

      Now, believe me, I know that’s not enough for a lot of people, because avoiding outs, as valuable as that may be, doesn’t satisfy everyone, and I know for sure it doesn’t satisfy you. They see that as just passing the buck, not making something happen yourself.

      OK. That’s certainly a fair point to throw out there. But let’s try something. Since these are “rate” metrics, let’s consider everyone with 7,000 plate appearances or more. In other words, let’s include people with significant career lengths, roughly equating to more than 10 full years of plate appearances, and eliminate those with lesser careers. This cutoff leaves us with over 400 players.

      How does Williams do in home runs per plate appearance? Not “per AB”, which would be more favorable to Williams (he’s top 10 by that metric), but per PLATE APPEARANCE, which captures all the times he walked. How often did Williams go up the plate and have it end up with a HR?

      The answer is 5.3% of the time, 22nd all time. Who are his “neighbors” on the list?
      Mike Schmidt – 5.4%
      Hank Aaron – 5.4%
      Mickey Mantle – 5.4%
      Willie McCovey – 5.4%
      Ted Williams – 5.3%
      Willie Mays – 5.3%
      Willie Stargell – 5.3%

      Pretty good company. So, even with all the walks, Williams was still cashing in his “opportunities” at the same rate of some of the elite power hitters of all time. In fact, if not for his time spent in the service, he almost certainly would have been 2nd all time to Babe Ruth in career HR’s at the time of his retirement (as it was, he was 3rd behind just Ruth and Foxx when he retired). Sounds like he did a fair amount of damage with his “opportunities”.

      How about something more general? How about Extra Base Hits per Plate Appearance? That’s certainly making something happen too, rather than “wasting opportunites”, right? Ted was 10th all time by that measure. So, again, that seems to me to be pretty productive use of his opportunites, that 11% of the time he came to the plate, he generated an extra base hit.

      Name – XBH%
      Babe Ruth – 12.8%
      Lou Gehrig – 12.3%
      Albert Pujols – 12.0%
      Juan Gonzalez – 11.8%
      David Ortiz – 11.6%
      Jimmie Foxx – 11.6%
      Joe DiMaggio – 11.5%
      Manny Ramirez – 11.5%
      Barry Bonds – 11.4%
      Ted Williams – 11.4%

      Finally, comparing him to 2 of the the other players you prefer, here’s a breakdown of Williams, DiMaggio, and Musial per plate appearance/opportunity.

      Name – HR % – 3B % – 2B % – 1B % – BB % – Out % – Misc % – Total
      Joe DiMaggio – 4.7% – 1.7% – 5.1% – 17.4% – 10.3% – 60.2% – 0.6% – 100.0%
      Ted Williams – 5.3% – 0.7% – 5.4% – 15.7% – 20.6% – 51.8% – 0.5% – 100.0%
      Stan Musial – 3.7% – 1.4% – 5.7% – 17.7% – 12.6% – 58.3% – 0.6% – 100.0%

      Take a look at that distribution. Per opportunity, Williams was more likely to turn an appearance into a HR. DiMaggio and Williams were basically neck and neck in terms of turning an appearance into an extra base hit.

      I’ll concede one thing. DiMaggio and Musial were both more likely to turn an appearance into a hit, mostly because they were more likely to hit a single than Williams was. DiMaggio’s “Hit/PA %” was 28.9%, Musial 28.6%, and Williams “only” 27.1%. So, if that’s your criteria, so be it. However, the real difference among these 3 hitters was that, because of Williams’ plate discipline, 8% more of DiMaggio’s plate appearances (and about 6% more of Musial’s) resulted in an out. Don’t know about you, but I think it’s more “selfish” to actually turn an opportunity into an out and move one step closer to ending an inning than it is to take a walk, keep an inning going, and give your teammates a baserunner to knock in.

      Williams was also top 10 in both runs scored per plate appearance and RBI per plate appearance. So, again, he must have been doing something right. He turned his opportunities into runs. What more can you ask of a hitter?

      Regarding the lack of success of Williams’ teams…..rather than pin it on him, look at the pitching results. The typical Red Sox team during Williams’ career finished 5th in runs allowed per game, never ranked higher than 3rd. During Williams’ career, the Yankees finished 1st or 2nd 17 times. The Yankees had much better pitching than the Red Sox. That had nothing to do with Williams, unless you feel that his mediocre defense was the main reason. The Yankees were a better, much more complete TEAM. No more complicated than that.

      Reply
      1. Tom Rigid

        I would print this out on a tiny card which I would then laminate and keep in my wallet just in case I ever overheard someone say “Ted Williams was a selfish hitter.” Thanks.

        Reply
  11. Michael Grimaldi

    When you were in KC, Joe, and I was a volunteer for the RBI youth ball program in KC, I gave them a slogan: RBI: It’s more than baseball. It’s life. Thanks for yet another great example of that universal truth.

    Reply
  12. Herb Smith

    DM, that was really a well-written, well-articulated rebuttal. I thought that Rick’s post, while a bit heavy-handed, made some sense. However, yours made more.

    I will say this: people seem to have forgotten how belligerent and unpopular the Splinter was during his career. As Bill James often says, time has smoothed over the sharp edges of Williams’s personality and reputation, leaving only those titanic offensive numbers to remember him by.

    Who are the players considered to be the most disliked, selfish, loathsome star players ever? I’m pretty sure that if you were polling fans from their eras, the answer would be Barry Bonds, Ted, and Ty Cobb. And what do these 3 have in common?

    Reply
    1. murr2825

      My understanding is that Williams was well-liked by not only his teammates but opposing players. It was the press that he had a contentious relationship with. Am I wrong?

      Reply
    2. Steve

      That’s not a trio that belongs together. Williams was sort of ornery and moody. Cobb at his worst was an out-and-out psychopath. (And at his best he was a professional and a good teammate. People are complicated.) Everybody has their own opinion of Bonds. All made it to the World Series at least once but didn’t win. I don’t think their personality was why. Five SF relievers didn’t give up six runs in the last two innings of Game 6 because they hated Barry Bonds.

      Reggie Jackson was pretty unpopular with fans, viewed as very selfish. But he won five titles. I don’t think your narrative holds up.

      Reply
      1. Steve

        And continuing the theme, an unexhaustive list of some players who had at least something of a negative personality reputation (either while playing or after) but who won a WS:

        Grover Cleveland Alexander
        Jimmie Foxx
        Rogers Hornsby
        Many of the 1919 White Sox (won in 1917)
        Joe DiMaggio
        Mickey Mantle
        Reggie Jackson
        Pete Rose
        Lenny Dykstra
        Kevin Mitchell
        Darryl Strawberry
        Jose Canseco
        Steve Carlton
        Kirby Puckett
        Alex Rodriguez
        Manny Ramirez

        Reply
  13. Herb Smith

    The answer is: zero World Series championships. None. Outside of Ernie Banks (who was placed in a David Carr-like situation) I can’t think of a single truly great baseball player who never won a single ring.

    That’s 65 seasons of magnificent ball-playing by this trio (Cobb played 24, Lamar 22, Ted, 19). And those are 65 separate, different seasons, because none of their careers overlapped.

    I’m certainly a sabremetric enthusiast, but perhaps a star’s personality does count for something?

    Reply
    1. Xao

      I guess that depends on your definition of ‘truly great’. A few players who have never won a World Series:

      Ty Cobb
      Barry Bonds
      Phil Niekro
      Ken Griffey Jr
      Ernie Banks
      Jeff Bagwell
      Craig Biggio
      Harmon Killebrew
      Tony Gwynn
      Nap LaJoie
      Carl Yastrzemski
      Rod Carew

      Reply
      1. DM

        Well, Xao covered most of bigger names, most of who are on Joe’s top 100 list, but just to add on…..

        Robin Roberts
        Willie McCovey
        Ryne Sandberg
        George Sisler
        Gaylord Perry
        Juan Marichal
        Ron Santo
        Fergie Jenkins
        Carlton Fisk
        Sam Crawford
        Billy Williams
        Mike Piazza

        Particularly on Xao’s list, there are quite a few “good guys” who had great character who never one one. You can be a great player and still not be a champion. Baseball is a team game.

        Reply
        1. Herb Smith

          Fair enough. However, I guess I should have said I meant Pantheon guys. I’m guessing most fans would rank Ted, Barry and Cobb in the Top 10 of all-time (maybe Top 5). Is Biggio or Sisler at that level?

          Reply
          1. DM

            Hi Herb,

            OK…that’s fair too, if that’s what you meant. I agree, Biggio and Sisler are not at that level.

            But, if we use Joe’s top 100 as a guide, we are talking about the top one-half of one percent of everyone that has played major league baseball (100 out of about 18,000). That’s still a pretty high standard of greatness.

            So….recapping using the players in Joe’s top 100 list (assuming we’re correct on who’s remaining):

            Out of the 100, 10 had no real opportunity to appear in a World Series due to:

            Segregation (7):
            Cool Papa Bell
            Bullet Rogan
            Smokey Joe Williams
            Buck Leonard
            Turkey Stearnes
            Oscar Charleston
            Josh Gibson
            (note: Satchel Paige did manage to be on a World Series champion, as did Monte Irvin)

            Bulk of career pre-World Series (2):
            Kid Nichols
            Old Hoss Radbourn

            Foreign League(1):
            Sadaharu Oh

            That leaves 90 on Joe’s list. Combining names with Xao’s list (and 5 more that I noticed), it looks like 22 players of those 90 never played on a Word Series Champion. In the order that they are ranked from the beginning of the list down to the “higher” ranks (using the “wisdom of crowds on names not listed yet), you would get the following:

            Ron Santo
            Ichiro Suzuki
            Paul Waner
            Craig Biggio
            Robin Roberts
            Gaylord Perry
            Ryne Sandberg
            Tony Gwynn
            Arky Vaughan
            Willie McCovey
            Harmon Killebrew
            Robin Yount
            Frank Thomas
            Jeff Bagwell
            Ernie Banks
            Rod Carew
            Ken Griffey Jr.
            Nap Lajoie
            Carl Yastrzemski
            Ted Williams
            Ty Cobb
            Barry Bonds

            So, I agree with you that the 3 that will be ranked the highest (Bonds, Cobb, and Williams) can safely be called the “least admirable” in terms of personality or character or whatever we want to call it. That’s certainly an interesting observation.

            But, I think I would stop well short of concluding that there’s a connection between lack of championships and lack of admirability (if that’s a word). I would say that the overwhelming majority of players on this list are quite admirable and respected, and would likely be considered the leader (or one of the top leaders) of their respective teams. Everyone on there is either in the Hall of Fame already or is a very strong candidate. Just as was the case with Bonds, Williams, and Cobb, these players didn’t lead their teams to a championship either. Why do you rarely hear that held against them? Was it because they tended to be relatively pleasant personalities? Were they lacking something too, or were they just aced out by better teams?

            I mean, look at Bonds in 2002. He had a great series (4 HR, 8-17, 13 walks, 8 runs, 6 RBI), but the Giants’ pitching staff couldn’t hold a 5-0 lead in the 7th in game 6. Did Bonds do something wrong there? If the Giants’ staff (particularly Worrell) is able to that 5 run lead, we’re probably not even having this conversation. Bonds being a jerk has nothing to do with his lack of championships.

            Or, take Cobb. He comes up as a teenager, and beginning with age 20, leads the Tigers (along with Sam Crawford) to 3 straight World Series in ’07-’09. A hell of an accomplishment. Unfortunately, they met much better teams in the Tinker/Evers/Chance/Three Finger Brown Cubs in ’07 and ’08, and the Pirates in ’09 with Wagner, Clarke, and an amazingly strong and deep staff (Camnitz, Leifield, Willis, Adams, Leever, Phillippe). The NL teams were much better squads each year than what the Tigers could present. The Cubs won 107 and 99 games, and the Pirates won 110.

            After that? Cobb’s Tigers basically had the same issue as Williams’ Red Sox….the hitting was good, but the pitching consistently let them down. The Tigers were generally among the poorer pitching staffs during Cobb’s career. The teams that dominated over the next several years were the great A’s teams (Collins, Baker, Plank, Bender, etc.) and the great Red Sox teams (featuring guys like Speaker, Hooper, Lewis, Smokey Joe Wood, Carl Mays, and some pitcher named Ruth), not to mention the great White Sox/Black Sox team that emerged late in the decade.

            The point of all this is that baseball is structured in such a way that a single superstar, no matter how good he may be, no matter what his personality is, no matter his leadership skills or even his playing skills, is anywhere near sufficient to carry a team to a championship. Championships are won by great teams with great players, with the emphasis on the plural. It’s natural to hold the most visible superstar accountable if a team doesn’t win it all. However, that doesn’t mean it’s reasonable for us to do so. Williams, Cobb, and Bonds could have been the salt of the earth, and it most likely wouldn’t have made a difference in the number of championships they won. I think it’s misguided to attribute that lack of championships to the type of people they were.

  14. KB

    I have no understanding of why certain people say they “hate” the baseball shifts. Do you hate the nickel defense in pro football as well? Perhaps you find quarterbacks taking the snap away from the center loathsome. It’s just a formation. Optimizing your formation speaks to how well you utilize your talent.

    Reply
  15. Wilbur

    Re: Rick Rodstrom’s post above, where he states ” But baseball was different then. Pitchers were more apt to challenge even the best hitters. “, I believe the post-war period (1946-1950)had more walks issued than any other period in baseball history.

    If I may offer an anecdotal observation: In the mid-late 70′s Rick Monday played for the Cubs. I had the chance to watch nearly every Cub game during that period on the television machine, and noticed that when Monday hit the ball on the ground, it was nearly always to the right side. When he hit the ball in the air, especially with authority, it was almost always to left center. I wondered why other teams did not not notice this and adjust their defensive alignments accordingly.

    Reply

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