Thursday, March 24, 2022

Leon "Lee" Riley

In the HBO series Winning Time, the actor playing Pat Riley, the ultra-successful coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, walks around with his dad's fire-damaged bat. The implication is that Pat rescued the bat after his dad had tried to burn it. The dad in question was outfielder Leon (Lee) Riley, whose story was really emblematic of an era in American sports that no longer exists. From the 19th century until about the 1960s, it was possible to be a career minor league ballplayer, thrilling small-town fans with athletic heroics in the summer, while working anonymous, pedestrian jobs in the off-season. Lee Riley was such a man.

His career got off to a promising start at age 20, when he found himself in single-A ball in his first year as a professional, by-passing all the lower levels except for a very brief stint (23 games) in class D. In his first full season in the tough Western League, he tore it up at the plate, batting .370 with a plethora of extra base hits.

He performed so well at such a young age that he attracted the attention of baseball's premiere strategist, Connie Mack, whose Philadelphia A's were just about to overtake Babe Ruth's Yankees as the best team in the American League. Mack purchased the young star's contract (see article to the left) on a conditional basis, but ultimately changed his mind. The A's were already deep in talent, and Riley needed more seasoning. He was a gifted natural hitter, but he had a lot to learn about the game. Moreover, his arm was weak, and his fielding was inept. As one observer put it, "He batted .375 but his fielding average was just about the same. He couldn't field pumpkins if they were tied in a sack." 

Riley understood his limitations, and he was willing to put in the time and effort to overcome them. It took longer than expected, but he worked and worked on his fielding until he earned a well-deserved promotion to the Rochester Red Wings, the top farm club of the St. Louis Cardinals, with his major league dream within his grasp. 

And then he ran smack into the Peter Principle, which suggests that each person rises until he reaches his level of incompetence. For Lee Riley that level was the International League. He batted only .276 with no power at Rochester, in an age when just about every major league outfielder batted .300 or better against actual major league pitching. It was especially difficult to break into the St. Louis Cardinals' line-up. The 1930 St. Louis Cardinals were the highest-scoring NL team of the 20th century. They had 13 players with 100 at bats or more, and twelve of them batted in the .300s.

At that point in his career, Lee had had the bad fortune to get his two potential major league opportunities with the two teams that needed him the least! When Leon Riley went to Rochester, the hard-hitting Cardinals were the defending World Series champions, and it was soon obvious that Lee could not fit into their major league plans. 

How did his performance drop so dramatically from class-A ball to AA? Lee himself said that it was because he couldn't hit lefties at that level. That formed the basis for one of Tommy Lasorda's best anecdotes, as recounted in the L.A. Times, July 13, 1988:

When Tom Lasorda was pitching for Schenectady of the Canadian-American League in 1948, the manager was Lee Riley, father of Laker Coach Pat Riley.

"We were playing Gloversville, and I’ve got ‘em beat, 2-1, and it’s in the top of the ninth inning. As I go out to pitch, Riley, who was coaching third, came to the mound, picked up the ball to hand it to me and he says to me, 'You’re in good shape. You’ve got three left-handed hitters in a row.’ And I was a left-handed pitcher, which meant things should be easy.

First left-hander doubles. Next left-hander triples. Next left-hander doubles. And now they’re winning, 3-2. And he comes to take me out, and as he starts to take the ball from my hand, he looks at me and he says, 'Know why I couldn’t hit in the major leagues?' I thought that was a very unusual question, but I said, 'No, Skip. No, why?' And he said, 'Because I couldn’t hit left-handed pitchers. But if you’d been there, I’d have been a star.'"

But an equally cogent explanation was given by sportswriter Whitney Martin: Lee could not hit the curve at that level

Whatever the explanation for Lee's failure, the fact remained that the Cards had sent him to the Rochester Red Wings with high hopes and much fanfare, but were so disappointed with him that they optioned him out even when it left the Rochester club desperately short of outfielders.

The Cards would soon match their offensive juggernaut with some great pitching in the form of the Dean brothers, so the legendary Gas House Gang was formed, and another championship banner would soon be flying in St. Louis. By then, Lee Riley would be languishing in a C league.

That's how his life went. He'd have a couple of good years, earn another promotion, then find himself back at a lower level than when he started. By the time 1938 rolled around, he was a 31-year-old veteran of 12 minor league seasons, but was in D ball with the 19 year olds, playing full-time while also acting as the team's manager. 

His D-league assignment, with a Dodgers farm club in the Nebraska State League, happened to be very close to his own home town, and it could not have been a more popular homecoming, particularly because he once again absolutely tore it up at that low level, batting .365 and .372 in his two years there.

His hot bat had granted him his fondest wish, yet another promotion to the International League as a player, this time with a Dodgers farm club in Baltimore. Unfortunately, that wish had unintended consequences, like the ones in the classic cautionary tale, "The Monkey's Paw." The fulfillment of that wish came with an ironic and crushing twist. Riley had stalled out his evolving managerial career for a pipe dream - the hope that he could now somehow hit International League pitching, despite the harsh lesson of his prior failure. The result was even more disappointing than his first trip through that league. In 38 games he batted .212 with one homer. 

It was back to square one again.

By then he must have understood that a shot at the majors was only a dream, but baseball was his job and he was no quitter, so he accepted another demotion, and resolved to seek a managerial job in earnest. He soon found himself as a player/manager in a C league, where he had his best season to date, batting .391 with a league-leading 32 homers in the obscure Canadian-American League.

Given his track record, a solid performance at such a low level would not normally have led him back on a path to the majors, especially since his subsequent performance was disappointing, but fate intervened, in the form of Adolph Hitler. America needed able-bodied young men to fight in WW2, including young ballplayers. While many of the best and youngest major leaguers went to bat for Uncle Sam, the desperate major league teams were looking for bodies to fill out their depleted squads. 

By 1944 and 1945, after years of war, roster spots had opened for all sorts of players who would not otherwise have been able to qualify for major league squads. There was a one-armed outfielder (Pete Gray, below center), a 15-year-old pitcher (Joe Nuxhall, below right), and a variety of older players who would otherwise have been retired, like Paul Waner, once a great star with the Pirates, hanging on in wartime as a grizzled Brooklyn Dodger (below left). In those segregated, pre-Robinson years, the Cincinnati Reds even snuck a black pitcher onto their roster, and nobody really paid attention.

During the desperate hunt for major league ballplayers in the late war years, the primary beneficiaries were career minor leaguers desperate for a shot at the big show.

Players like Leon Riley.

There have rarely been less likely major leaguers. In 1942 he had batted .204 in a B league. In 1943 he was working in a defense plant. By 1944 he was 37 years old, had been out of pro baseball entirely in the preceding year, had never succeeded at any level higher than single-A ball, and had not even had a good single-A season in about a decade. 

He had, however, the most important qualification any baseball player could have in 1944: he was available. He could not be drafted because he was too old and had a family to support, so at an age when most major leaguers have retired, he became a rookie on the 1944 Phillies.

The popular film Field of Dreams tells the story of a promising young major leaguer called Archibald "Moonlight" Graham. He was more commonly called "Doc" Graham by his teammates, because he mixed baseball with medical school,and eventually became a successful and much-loved doctor. Archie Graham once got the thrill of standing in the outfield as a New York Giant in a major league game, but always regretted that he never got a chance to show what he could do in the big leagues with a bat in his hand. While Graham had to have been disappointed by his career trajectory in baseball, he was always able to maintain the belief that he could have done the job with the Giants, if given the chance. Leon Riley was not so fortunate. After two decades of trying to get a shot at major league pitchers, he found out once and for all that he really couldn't hit them. Despite the fact that he was facing only the diluted wartime pitching of 1944, he batted an embarrassing .083.

The Phils demoted him to the Utica Blue Sox, roughly the American equivalent of exile to Siberia. 

The next year he found himself back in D ball yet again, playing against kids who could be his children, starting from the lowest player-manager level for the third time in his career, hoping once again to move up the managerial ladder. He was not a man who gave up easily, so he stubbornly lasted five more years in the low minors as a player/manager in the Phillies' farm system. As a player, he would never again reach as high as single-A, the level where he had played in his very first year, nearly a quarter of a century earlier.

When he finally stopped playing, he stayed in the Phillies' organization as a full-time minor league manager, and was awarded some promotions until he was finally back in class A, as manager of the Phillies' Eastern League teams in 1950 and 1951. The Phillies did a bit of manager-swapping in 1952, and Riley found himself managing the Wilmington Blue Rocks, who posed a respectable 72-66 record in the Interstate League. Unfortunately, the economics of baseball were changing. The Wilmington Blue Rocks went belly up, and the entire Interstate League collapsed. Facing a dwindling bottom line, the Phillies announced after the 1952 season that they were trimming their farm system from 12 teams to 9. Along with many others, Leon Riley lost his job that day, his baseball odyssey complete after 11 years as a manager, and a playing career that spanned 22 summers. He had accumulated more than 2,400 hits in pro baseball, including about 900 for extra bases, in the process of compiling a .314 lifetime average. At various times he had led minor leagues in doubles, triples, home runs, walks, RBI and batting average. He had once managed a team to a pennant. He had always done what was asked of him, having played D ball at age 20, then again at age 30, and finally at age 39. Despite his loyalty and hard work, he found himself unemployed at 46, with no non-baseball job skills. Feeling betrayed and abandoned, he went up to his attic and discarded all of his memorabilia dating back to the mid-20s, symbolically casting baseball out of his life, as documented by the eyewitness testimony of his son, the future Lakers coach. 

And that brings us back to the scene described at the beginning of this article. As the story goes, Pat Riley rescued his dad's bat that day, preserved it, and treasured what it meant to his family's history.


Two of Leon Riley's children became professional athletes, albeit neither of them in baseball. 

Pat Riley was a solid back-up player on one of the greatest basketball teams ever assembled, the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers, who finished the regular season 69-13 and breezed through the playoffs to the championship. Using their peak roster, if all players had been in their primes at the time, their starting five might have been the greatest ever assembled: Wilt Chamberlain, Elgin Baylor, Jerry West, Gail Goodrich and Happy Hairston. Pat Riley wasn't about to crack that line-up, but he was a dependable role player who carved out a 10-year career in the NBA

I'm sure that you already know about his coaching career, which is one of the  greatest in history.

Pat's much older brother, Lee Riley, chose football as his primary sport. He was a solid defensive back with a 7-year career in the NFL and AFL, and once led the league in interceptions. He was also used on special teams to return both punts and kickoffs.

After his pro career, he left the sports word and became a corporate vice-president.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Whither the complete game? And why?

There always have been, and there will always be, those who long for the way baseball used to be. In many ways, I’m also a member of the Good Old Days Club. I miss a lot of things about the old days: the quirky and unique stadiums, the colorful personalities, the day games, the varying offensive strategies, and more. But I’m always willing to look at the facts to see if the old days really were better. Most of the time, they were not. The years of segregation kept many of the best players out of the game. The quirky urban ballparks made a lot of players look much better (e.g. Chuck Klein) or worse (e.g. Goose Goslin) than they really were. Contact hitting turned out to be overrated in terms of run production, and the alleged damage done by a batter’s high strikeout rate turned out to be greatly exaggerated. The tried-and-true strategies like sacrifice bunts turned out to be often tried, but rarely true.

And then there was the mystique of the complete game. Since the dawn of professional baseball, each generation of pitchers and fans has lamented the decline of character in the next generation of pitchers.

Today’s old men harken back to the iron arms of their youth in the 1950s and 1960s, when mighty combatants like Warren Spahn and Bob Gibson would finish what they started. Spahnie pitched 382 complete games and led the league nine times, including seven in a row. And none of those seasons were his most impressive, in which he completed 24 games in 32 starts. Gibson once had back-to-back seasons of 28 complete games, and didn’t even lead the league in the earlier of the two, when Juan Marichal completed 30.

But it’s important to realize that the old men sitting in the stands in the 1960s thought the pitchers of that day were soft. They would lament the passing of the true warriors of an earlier time, men who would complete almost all of their starts while also making relief appearances as needed. Happy Jack Chesbro completed 48 games one year, while many others of his time topped the 40 mark, including Cy Young and the aptly monikered Iron Man McGinnity. To hear those old fellas talking in the stands in 1960, why ol’ Walter Johnson would complete 38 games in a season while throwing hundreds of pitches in each contest, all of which surely must have been traveling 110 miles an hour.

And yet when Jack Chesbro was on the mound in 1904, tossing his 48 complete games, there were old men in those stands as well, and they would remind each other of the 1879 season when Will White started 75 games for the Cincinnati Reds and finished every single one of them. Upon hearing that, another of the old-time “cranks” in those wooden stands would argue that White was OK, but Old Hoss Radbourn was a real man. He not only completed all 73 of his starts in 1884, but won 60 of them. Moreover, the Old Hoss was virtually the team’s only pitcher from July 23rd on. He not only completed his regular starts, but also took everybody else's turn in the rotation, and completed those as well. During one stretch between August 9th and September 24th, Rad started 28 of the team’s 29 games, completing every one and winning 24.

None of the all-time records for complete games will ever be challenged. You may discount Will White’s single season high of 75 because he was pitching underhand from 45 feet. You may disallow Old Hoss’s season of 73 complete games because it was still from the old pitching distance. And feel free to be a skeptic and toss out Amos Rusie’s season of 50 complete games, which is the record at the modern pitching distance, because it was in the deadball era. Fine. Now you are still left with the fact that Bob Feller threw 36 complete games in a single modern season. No pitcher will ever approach that again. Max Scherzer led the NL in 2017 with two complete games.

The career record is even more daunting. Cy Young threw 749 complete games in his career. The active career leader, as I write this, is CC Sabathia with 38 complete games in 17 seasons. Young’s total of 749 is the least approachable record in all of baseball. Do you think that’s exaggerating? Consider this: it is very unlikely that any current or future pitcher will reach as many as 75 complete games in a career, so it is literally true that from now on nobody will reach even 10% of Young’s total. I can’t name any other record that far out of reach: not the DiMaggio hit streak, the Ripken playing streak, Cy Young’s 511 wins, nor Nolan Ryan’s 5714 Ks and 2795 BBs. Some of those records are assuredly safe, and the others are unlikely to be broken, but modern players can easily get within 10% of them. But Young’s CG total will probably never be matched or topped again even if baseball's high sheriffs add a decimal point and make it 74.9 complete games!

So is the decline of complete games a bad thing?

Of course not.

If pushing a starter to finish his games was the winning strategy, people would still be doing it.

To illustrate why it is not the optimal strategy, let’s consider one of the iron men of the 1960s, Bob Gibson, who was so intimidating that a manager wouldn’t dare to pull him out of a game if he didn’t want to go. Was that the way to win? No. There are two main reasons:

1. Gibson, as you would expect from a normal human being engaged in heavy exertion, faded considerably in the late innings

In innings 1-6, he had 7.4 Ks per 9 innings, allowing opposing batters to achieve a .613 OPS

In innings 7-9, he had 6.7 Ks per 9 innings, allowing opposing batters to achieve a .642 OPS

In the 9th inning alone, opposing batters raised their OPS to .666, and their K frequency dropped to 6.5 per 9 innings

In extra innings, opposing hitters achieved a .706 OPS, and their K frequency dropped to 6.1 per 9 innings.

The average NL batter during Gibson’s career (1959-1975) had an OPS of .693 against all pitchers so, as the game progressed, Gibson came closer and closer to an average level. Of course it was not feasible to pull Gibson for another rotation starter, so a mathematical average of performance against all pitchers is not indicative of who might have been able to relieve. Relief pitchers were often failed starters in that era, as opposed to relief specialists, so they were slightly less effective than average, allowing batters an OPS of .703 over that same span of years. But note that Bob Gibson's performance in extra innings was even slightly below the level of an average reliever of the era, suggesting it was far below the level of the best relievers. Leaving Gibson in to complete a game in extra innings was rarely preferable to bringing in the best available reliever.

The overall decline of Gibson’s performance over the course of a game is vividly illustrated by the following graph of Gibson’s strikeout-to-walk ratio, inning by inning.

2. Gibson was a great pitcher overall, but his platoon splits were astronomically large.

First let us give him his due, and that due is substantial. In the entire history of major league baseball since the dawn of the lively ball era, among all pitchers who have retired 3000 or more right-handed batters, there has never been any pitcher more effective against right handers than Bob Gibson. Never. Not one. No starter. No reliever. The top 25 are shown below.

Footnote: a great Houston fireballer, J.R. Richard, was slightly more effective than Gibson, but fell below the specified threshold of batters retired. Gibson did beat everyone else who is off the chart, including Mariano Rivera.

The following is a rundown of the batting averages of the greatest right-handed hitters of his era against Gibson.

Hank Aaron
Roberto Clemente
Ernie Banks
Willie Mays
Frank Robinson
Orlando Cepeda
Dick Allen
Tony Perez
Johnny Bench
Mike Schmidt
Tommy Davis

If you are a thoughtful fan and have been following the article closely up to this point, you are probably wondering something like this: "If Gibson was the best pitcher of all time against right-handed batters, and so many batters are right-handed, why is he not considered the greatest pitcher ever to toe the rubber?"

The answer will probably surprise you. Against left-handed batters, Bob Gibson was an average pitcher. Please note how I worded that. I didn't say "he wasn't as strong against lefties" or "he was less successful against lefties than against right-handed hitters." The harsh reality was that he was just an average pitcher against left-handed hitters. Even more important when considering in-game strategies, even an average left-handed pitcher was FAR more effective than the right-handed Gibson against left-handed batters.

average for all pitchers of his era vs RHB
average for all pitchers of his era vs LHB
average for LHP of his era vs LHB

In general, a manager would be far better off by pulling Gibson and bringing in even an average left-handed pitcher to face a left-handed batter. This would obviously not happen in an early inning, since Gibson would still be needed to pitch to all those right-handed batters still to come. But in a late inning, or extra innings, in a clutch situation, Gibson obviously should have been pulled for a lefty reliever against a tough left-handed hitter, for two reasons: (1) he tired significantly as the game progressed; (2) even when not tired, he was less effective against left-handed hitters than the average left-handed pitcher.

As opposed to the right-handed stars detailed above, many left-handed hitters hit Gibson hard. The Willies, Stargell and McCovey, each batted .290 with power. Eddie Mathews batted .326 with power. Richie Hebner batted .387 with an 1.127 OPS. Ralph Garr also batted .387. Al Oliver batted .342. Joe Morgan hit .313 with power. Billy Williams batted only .259, but with ten homers. Unheralded Dave Rader batted .484 against Bob Gibson. Many other lefties and switch hitters topped the .300 mark.

And that, in a nutshell, is why relief specialists exist. Human beings get tired. The platoon differential is very real. Even if complete games posed no risk at all to the pitchers' multi-million-dollar arms, the modern strategy simply works better.

SIDEBAR: Is Gibson an exception to the rule? Are there other pitchers whose performance indicated that they should have stayed in to complete most starts?

Yes, but only one that I know of. Almost all pitchers have fatigue factors and platoon differentials that make it a sound strategy to replace them in certain game situations, but Sandy Koufax did not.

* He had no platoon differential at all. Although left-handed, he held right-handed batters to a .594 OPS, and stymied left-handers equally as well (.598).

* He actually improved late in the game. Batters managed a .598 OPS against him in innings 1-6, but only .588 in innings 7-9. and only .492 in extra innings.

There is simply no good explanation for those two bullet points above. Neither of those facts should be true, but Mr. Koufax
appears to have been some kind of freak of nature. It is entirely possible that he should have pitched fewer innings, but the reasons for that would be based on kinesiology, not performance. Pulling him out of a lot of games might have saved his arm for a few more years. Or not. I don't know. But I do know that there were generally no performance-related reasons to pull him, based on either fatigue or platoon differential. Unless he asked to be taken out for some reason, he was always the guy you wanted on the mound.

Tuesday, February 20, 2018

What if Williams and DiMaggio had traded places?

Since Ted Williams made his debut in 1939, baseball's hot stove has been fired by debates about whether Williams and Joe DiMaggio might have been even greater players if they had traded places, therefore landing each of them in a park better suited to his skills. Since we now have detailed information about how each player performed in each park since the mid-20s, it's easy enough to offer a reasonable guess about how this imaginary swap might have worked out.

But the discussion probably should start by examining whether the question is even worth asking. Let's examine some of the underlying suppositions:

How do lefties perform in Fenway Park?

For various hypothetical reasons, people have long assumed that Fenway Park can be a difficult offensive environment for left-handed hitters like Williams. That assumption is simply not supported by facts. Every great left-handed hitter who has played for the Red Sox in the lively ball era has performed far better in Fenway than out of it.

First, consider the case of two slim, elegant outfielders who played together in the 70s: Fred Lynn and Carl Yastrzemski. Outside of Fenway they were .265 hitters with moderate power (OPS below .800 in both cases), but they terrorized opposing pitchers in Boston, especially Lynn, who hit .347 in Fenway, with an OPS over 1.000.

But the Fenway advantage is not limited to any specific type of lefty. The two big, muscular, lumbering sluggers in the group experienced the same kind of advantage. Mo Vaughn and David Ortiz were more powerful than Lynn and Yaz outside of Fenway, but still form two more examples of the lefty Fenway prototype: a .265-hitting Clark Kent transformed by Fenway into Superman with a .300+ batting average and an OPS right around 1.000.

The final examples add two more types of hitters: Wade Boggs, a skillful line drive hitter who liked to use the opposite field when given the opportunity, and Ted Williams, a powerful hitter who almost never hit to the opposite field. Their stats demonstrate that Fenway enhances the production of any kind of lefty hitter. Both of these hitting machines, although polar opposites in their hitting approaches, were able to produce Fenway batting averages in the .360s.

The composite of these six hitters creates a profile how how much the career of a great left-handed hitter can benefit from playing in Fenway Park.

  • As a group they batted .332 in Fenway, .283 elsewhere. (+49 points)
  • Their on-base percentage was .434 in Fenway, .377 elsewhere. (+57 points)
  • Their slugging average was .565 in Fenway, .473 elsewhere. (+92 points)
Since a major leaguer plays half of his games in his home park, a lefty who plays his career in Fenway (as opposed to a hypothetical neutral park) can expect to add about 25 points to his batting average and nearly 50 points to his slugging average. That is very close to what actually happened to Yastrzemski and Williams, who did play their entire careers in Boston.

How did Williams perform in Yankee Stadium?

A look at Ted's lifetime statistics in Yankee Stadium reveal that he would not have enjoyed as productive a career there as he did in Boston. The simplest way to demonstrate that is by comparing his performances in Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium per 600 plate appearances:

From these batting lines we can reach some fairly accurate conclusions about how a theoretical move from Fenway to Yankee Stadium might have affected Williams's individual stats. For every 600 plate appearances (roughly equivalent to two seasons' worth of home games), we can see that only two counting stats are significantly different: Yankee Stadium would have converted some 25 doubles into walks. His OBP, therefore, would remain about the same in the hypothetical relocation, but his batting and slugging averages would suffer.

I can only guess why Williams took more pitches and hit fewer doubles in Yankee Stadium. 

(1) While both parks had short porches along the right field line and Fenway is deeper near the line, Yankee Stadium was deeper in right center and center. A 400-foot fly ball was always good for extra bases in Fenway, while Yankee Stadium produced many 400-foot outs with DiMaggio patrolling center. The depth of Yankee Stadium was not as traumatic for left-handed sluggers as for righties, but it gave those lefties some fits as well. See the dimensions pictured in the illustration below, which represents both parks as they were configured in Williams' day (click to enlarge).

(2) Managers rarely start a left-handed pitcher in Fenway Park because of the short distances in left field. For example, Casey Stengel would notoriously skip Whitey Ford's turn whenever the Yankees traveled to Boston. From 1950 until 1960, his eleven seasons under the Ol' Perfessor, Ford started only five games in Fenway Park. Stengel knew what he was doing. During the course of his lifetime, Ford had a lower earned run average than Sandy Koufax, but Whitey's lifetime ERA in Fenway was a disastrous 6.16!! 

In contrast, managers loaded up their rotations with lefties to pitch in Yankee Stadium because the distant fences from left center to straightaway center made that area Death Valley for right-handed sluggers. In the 1950s, where we have complete data available (unlike the 1940s), left handers started 29% of all American League games, and 33% of the games at Yankee Stadium, but only 11% of the games at Fenway. By playing half of his games in Fenway Park, Williams faced left-handed starters in only about 20% of his career games, while DiMaggio's Yankees, playing half of their games in the Bronx, faced lefty starters approximately 31% of the time.

Since a left-handed slugger would face far more lefty pitchers in Yankee Stadium than in Fenway Park, his overall performance would decline in the Bronx even if all other factors were constant. Even a great hitter like Williams was not immune to the platoon disadvantage. He batted only .318 throughout his career in games started by left-handed pitchers, versus .351 in his other games.

(3) Williams himself claimed that pitchers would pitch to him in Fenway because they felt protected by the the deep fence in right-center, but would always pitch around him in Yankee Stadium. He knew his game pretty well, and that explanation is consistent with the substantial increase in walks that he experienced in the Bronx.

Wasn't Williams' sub-Splinter performance in Yankee Stadium just a result of having to face the great Yankee pitching staff there?

Short answer: no. Long answer: hell, no.

Williams didn't seem to have any problem hitting against that vaunted staff in Fenway Park.

Although Teddy Ballgame's line against the Yankee pitchers in Yankee Stadium was .309/.484/.543, it was quite a different story in Fenway Park, where his line against the Yankees was off the charts, with a .375 batting average. (.515 OBP/.663 SLG).

The specific differences between the two performances are much the same as Williams's overall splits between Fenway and Yankee Stadium. His home run rate was almost identical in both parks, but per 600 plate appearances, Williams drew 28 more walks at Yankee Stadium while hitting 30 fewer doubles (!!) That's not a misprint. He hit 46 doubles per 600 plate appearances against Yankee pitching at home, but only 16 in the Bronx.

Overall, how would the move have affected Williams?

If you knew everything above, you would never have asked the Williams/DiMaggio question in the first place, because you would realize that Fenway is a hitters' paradise, even for lefties, and you would realize that Williams did not meet our expectation for Splinter-like success at Yankee Stadium. Williams' career totals would have been significantly diminished if he had played in the Bronx. The mental picture we have formed of Ted Williams' hitting abilities is there because of Fenway, not in spite of it.

The hypothetical move is relatively easy to approximate. We will give him the number of plate appearances in Yankee Stadium that he had in Fenway and vice-versa, while keeping his performance per plate appearance constant with what he actually accomplished in those parks. We will leave his performance in all other parks untouched.

The following chart shows the result of that extrapolation:

Actual Career:

Projected career:




Note that this extrapolation assumes that Williams would have the same number of plate appearances in the Bronx as he actually had at Fenway. That would not have happened in reality. He would have had fewer plate appearances if his home games had been in Yankee Stadium because there are fewer hits and runs there than in Fenway, hence fewer total plate appearances for everyone. (In the course of his career, Williams had 712 plate appearances against Yankee pitching at home, but only 639 at Yankee Stadium, but I don't know how much of that is attributable to run scoring and how much was created by management decisions.) If I were to adjust for a presumed decrease in home plate appearances, and a corresponding increase in road appearances at Fenway, all of his lifetime percentage stats would be a little bit higher in the "projected career" shown above because he would spend a greater percentage of his time in more favorable offensive environments. On the other hand, the counting stats would be lower because of the reduced number of opportunities. He might never have hit that 500th homer if he had been a Yankee.

And what about Mr. Coffee?

If you've been paying attention to the above, you undoubtedly realize that any right handed power hitter at Yankee Stadium would have profited from a move to Fenway Park, although the massive difference in the dimension of the parks in left and left center would be mitigated slightly by the steady diet of right-handed pitchers who take the mound at Fenway. Joltin' Joe's line at Yankee Stadium was .315/.391/.547 as compared to .334/.410/.605 at Fenway.

The difference can be summarized by just two transpositions, and they both make perfect sense.

Per 600 plate appearances:
  1. DiMaggio made 10 more outs at Yankee Stadium, and hit 9 fewer homers, so 9 or 10 of his Yankee Stadium fly-outs would have left the park in Fenway, precisely what we would have predicted from looking at the dimensions of the two stadiums.

  2. DiMaggio hit four more doubles at Fenway, but 5 more triples in the Bronx. This again is completely consistent with what we would have expected, since a lot of liners in the gaps would hit the fence in Fenway and bounce back to the fielders, but would just keep rolling in the vast confines of center and left center in Yankee Stadium.
His rates for singles and walks were nearly identical in both parks.

Performing the same extrapolations used for Williams creates the following projections for DiMaggio's hypothetical career with Fenway as his home.

Actual Career:

Projected career
PA 7672 7672
AB 6821 6820
H 2214 2268
2B 389 411
3B 131 105
HR 361 410

BB 790 806

BA .325 .333
OBP ..398 .406
SLG .579 .604
OPS .977 1.010


If Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio had swapped home parks, it would have worked out very well for DiMaggio, but not for Williams. As a result of DiMaggio improving while Williams declined, the theoretical swap would have resulted in DiMaggio finishing with a higher career batting average than Williams (.333 to .322) and a higher slugging average (.604 to .587). DiMaggio would also have picked up some 50 additional home runs. Williams, however, would still have the higher OPS by more than 50 points, thanks to a massive difference in on-base percentage (.476 versus .406 ).

Does that mean that DiMaggio was significantly closer to Ted's level than previously believed? No, not really. Slightly, yes. Significantly, no. This extrapolation does not level the scales. It simply tips the scales from an advantage for Williams to an advantage for DiMaggio. The theoretical careers for the two hitters just seem closer together than their real careers because of the imbalance of plate appearances at Fenway. Drilling down the stats, an observer will note that Williams out-hit Dimaggio in almost every park, so if the players had a perfectly level playing field, with the same number of plate appearances in every park, thereby denying the Fenway advantage to both of them, a straight average of the percentage stats in all the ballparks they both played in would look like this:

Williams: .337/.480/.637         1.117 OPS
DiMaggio: .329/.403/.592         .995 OPS

That would still leave Ted Williams with an hypothetical edge of 122 points in OPS, compared to his actual of 139. That leads us to believe that DiMaggio is slightly closer to Williams than their career OPS numbers would lead one to believe.

But just slightly.