Thursday, July 3, 2008

More on Honus Wagner

In my last post, I rated Honus Wagner as the greatest Pirate in team history, and called him one of the top five ballplayers of all time.

Other than Babe Ruth, I don't know for sure who I would list among the other top ballplayers. Probably Willie Mays, Walter Johnson, and Barry Bonds. Or maybe Roger Clemens instead of Johnson. I don't know. There are dozens of ways to crunch the numbers and each would come up with a different result.

What I want to talk about here is, why Honus Wagner? He played so long ago, when the game was so different, that it seems odd to believe that a bow-legged shortstop from 100 years ago remains one of the greatest players of all time.

The way I look at it is, how much did he help his teams win and how much better was he than his contemporaries? And by that measure, Wagner is near the top of the list.

Let's take Wagner's best year, 1908, as an example. You can check out his stats at, but here are the highlights:

BA: .354 (1st)
OBP: .415 (1st)
SLG: .542 (1st)
OPS: .957 (1st, obviously)
Runs: 100 (2nd)
Hits: 201 (1st)
Total Bases: 308 (1st)
Doubles: 39 (1st)
Triples: 19 (1st)
HR: 10 (2nd)
RBI: 109 (1st)
Runs Created: 126

And so on, and so on.

You can see that, other than batting average and triples, none of the raw totals Wagner produced in 1908 would lead the league in 2008. But let's see what the league as a whole did in 1908:

BA: .239
OBP: .299
SLG: .306
OPS: .605

How much better than those averages was Wagner?

BA: 48% better
OBP: 39% better
SLG: 77% better
OPS: 58% better

Now let's see what a 2008 player would have to hit in order to match what Wagner did in 1908?

BA: To hit 48% better than the league average, a batter would have to hit .381
OBP: .457
SLG: .724
OPS: 1.181

I'm not saying that Wagner would reach those numbers if he were playing today (we can't know). I'm saying that his 1908 season is roughly equivalent to a batter today reaching those numbers. By comparison, those numbers are better than anything Albert Pujols has done, better than Alex Rodriguez, better than David Ortiz.

In fact, only a few players in history have achieved those numbers, people like Ruth, Gehrig, Hornsby, Williams, Mantle, and Bonds.

(And I haven't even factored in Wagner's stolen bases.)

Now, I cherry-picked Wagner's best season for this comparison, but his entire career is filled with seasons almost as good.

But regardless, what we have is one of the greatest offensive performers of all time, playing the best shortstop, on one of the best teams of his era.

It would take a lot of convincing before I would stop revering Honus Wagner.

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