Tagged: Hall of Fame

The return: 1941 debate, part II

I know, I have sloughed off on my baseball responsibilities. I have a lot to catch up on, and I will attempt to do so in the next few days prior to opening day. I promise.

But first, time to continue the debate!

Coral’s first exposition
My first exposition
Coral’s first rebuttal/second exposition


It cannot be refuted that indeed Williams’ relationship with the fans and the Boston press was frosty, at best. However, it should also be noted that in 1941, Williams was working on his third season in the majors, while DiMaggio was working on his sixth season in the "big show". At this point, Williams’ had not quite established his reputation as the "high and mighty Ted Williams". While he was certainly an effective hitter, it was the 1941 season that thrust him into the spotlight. DiMaggio, by contrast, had already established himself as the Yankee Clipper, and had the advantage of more time in the spotlight in an already media-heavy town.

Coral made mention of the fact that with 100 fewer at-bats, it certainly would be much easier for Williams to reach .400. In terms of actual plate appearances, DiMaggio had 621 PA and Williams had 606. The disparity in walks explains very readily why Williams only had 456 official at-bats in the 1941 season. His record .553 OBP (as compared to DiMaggio’s .440 mark) stood until 2002, when Barry Bonds raised the mark to .582.

It also bears mentioning that while DiMaggio did garner more total bases (348-335), Williams had a far higher slugging percentage (.735-.643), which puts the total bases statistic in far greater perspective for the season.

What does all of this mean? Essentially, Williams performance provided far more consistency over the course of an entire season than DiMaggio. A 56-game hitting streak (and a 72-in-73 game hitting performance) is certainly impressive. In no way am I discounting that. However, Williams’ ability to hit .400+ in an era where pitchers were gaining more strength every year seems to me far more impressive. An added fact which gives a little bit of luster to the mark was that Williams could have locked up the mark by simply not playing in the final two games (a doubleheader at Philadelphia against the A’s). However, he elected to play and ended up getting six hits in his eight at-bats over the course of the day, cementing the mark at .406. Had he gone 0-for-8 in the doubleheader, he would have finished with a mark of .388, effectively negating this debate.

Perhaps the media image that DiMaggio had cultivated did assist him in winning the AL MVP. But the numbers would seem to indicate that Williams had a far greater impact on the 1941 season than the voters ever gave him credit for.

The great 1941 debate

Coral’s first exposition can be found here. This is my opening volley.

Anybody who knows me personally knows that I live and die by statistics. Especially in baseball, they tell the story of what happened on the field more than anything else. So let’s examine the numbers of the two players in question.

Joe DiMaggio
139 G, 541 AB, 193 H (43 2B, 11 3B, 30 HR), 122 R, 125 RBI, 76 BB, 13 K, .357 AVG, .440 OBP, .643 SLG, 1.083 OPS

Ted Williams
143 G, 456 AB, 185 H (33 2B, 3 3B, 37 HR), 135 R, 120 RBI, 147 BB, 27 K, .406 AVG, .553 OBP, .735 SLG, 1.288 OPS

Remember also that 1941 is the year DiMaggio had his 56-game hitting streak.

Why should Williams have been the MVP? There is no simple answer for this. DiMaggio was the BBWAA and Sporting News AL MVP, but Williams was the Sporting News MLB Player of the Year, so obviously there was some debate even back then over who was more valuable to the team.

Item A: Note the walk totals for each player. DiMaggio had eight more hits than Williams, but Williams walked almost twice as much as DiMaggio! This led to an on-base percentage for Williams that was over 100 points higher than DiMaggio’s. An OBP of .553 is essentially saying that when Williams was up to bat, it was better than even money that he would get on base. To compare, the 2006 American League OBP leader was Manny Ramirez, with an OBP of .439.

Item B: One must consider the amount of talent surrounding each player. In the case of DiMaggio, he had three other 20-HR hitters in the everyday starting lineup, Charlie Keller in left field (who had a breakout season (.298-33-122)), 5 players who scored 100 runs or more, and a pitching staff with a 3.53 ERA and 4 10+ game winners.

Williams, on the other hand, was the only player on his team with 20+ HR’s (Jimmie Foxx had 19, yes, but he also struck out over 100 times). Only two other starting players (Foxx and Jimmy Cronin) even cracked the .300 line, and those same two players were the only ones with OBP’s as high as Williams’ average! The biggest problem with the 1941 Red Sox, though, was the pitching staff. The collective staff had an ERA of 4.19, giving up almost 100 more runs than the Yankee pitching staff. The Red Sox pitching staff also gave up 150 more hits than the Yankee staff.

Why is this important? Williams had to do much more work to keep the Red Sox within arm’s reach of the Yankees. The fact that the Red Sox were only 5 games back at the end of June is a minor miracle, considering the pitching staff of Boston was one of the weakest it would have during Williams’ tenure with the team. A three-week swoon by the Red Sox in early July would eventually spell the end of the team’s contention for the ’41 World Series, but without Williams’ bat, they would have been out of it from the word go. Without DiMaggio? The Yankees might have simply had a closer race from Boston, the White Sox, or the Indians, all of whom contended for the AL crown at some point during that season.

The problem with the way the Red Sox were built in 1941 (much like the problem the 2006 White Sox encountered) is that you cannot specifically build a team to hit, ignore pitching, and expect to win games at a sustained, extended stretch. Williams did all he could to hold a team together that really, for all intents and purposes, had no dominant pitching throughout the course of the season. He continued to hit, and hit, and hit, and while DiMaggio’s sustained hitting streak is no doubt impressive, Williams’ performance meant more to his team than DiMaggio’s performance did to his.

EDIT: Fixed a grammatical error and a statistical typo.