Sunday, March 13, 2011

Best Outfields Ever

I've been thinking a lot lately about the great Tigers outfielders of the early 20th Century.  Between 1903-1929, Tigers fans watched Hall of Famers Ty Cobb, Sam Crawford and Harry Heilmann and underrated Bobby Veach line balls all over the home fields of Bennett Park and Navin Field.  In many of those years, they had three or even four of these stars on the team at the same time, which led me to wonder how they ranked among the best outfields in the history of the game.

Bill James looked at this question several years ago in writing the New Bill James Historical Abstract.  Using his Win Shares system, he determined that the Tigers did indeed have some of the finest outfield trios ever.  In fact, he ranked their 1915 outfield of Cobb, Crawford and Veach as the best of all time.  We now have access to various Wins Above Replacement (WAR) systems, so I wanted to answer the same question from that perspective. 

First, remember that WAR is an estimate of the number of wins a player contributed to his team's win total above what you would expect from a replacement level player - a player who could be acquired for league minimum salary.  An example of a replacement player would be a player in Triple-A, who is good enouigh to get some time in the majors, but is not regarded as a top prospect.  WAR takes into consideration everything a player does on the field, including hitting, fielding and base running.

I'll be using the WAR system developed by Sean Smith, now a statistician for a major league team.  For most of my analysuis, I used a database I purchased from Sean a couple of years ago.  The data are now housed at Baseball-Reference.  There may be a few small discrepancies between the old database numbers I'm using and Baseball-Reference due to recent upgrades of the sytstem, but nothing that should significantly change the conclusions.  A very accessible explanation of the system can be found at Beyond The Boxscore

Basically, what I did was sum the WARs for the three top outfielders on each team each year.  However, I only wanted to include outfielders who were regulars.  I didn't want to include outfields who had two stars and a group of marginal players sharing the third spot.  So, I required that each outfielder have 400 or more plate appearances and played at least half of his games in the outfield.

The 15 top single season WAR totals in the history of the game are shown in Table 1 below.  The 1927 Yankees outfield of Babe Ruth, Earl Combs and Bob Meusel (23.5 total WAR) is the best of all-time according to this statistic.  That means that, theoretically, these outfielders added 23-24 wins to their team above what you'd expect from three replacement level players.  Ruth, Combs and Ben Chapman finished second with 22.4 WAR in 1927. 

The Tigers do not do quite as well here as they did in Bill James's study but they are still well represented with three of the top 15 outfields.  Cobb, Veach and Hielmann combined for 20.7 WAR in 1917 making them the sixth best outfield ever.  The 1907 trio of Cobb, Crawford and Davy Jones is ninth (20.5).  In 1915, Cobb, Crawford and Veach had 20.2 WAR which ranks them at number 13.

 Table 1: Best Single Season Outfields Accord to Baseball-Reference WAR 

Year
Team
Player 1
WAR
Player 2
WAR
Player 3
WAR
Total WAR
1927
NYA
Babe Ruth
12.8
Earle Combs
7.0
Bob Meusel
3.7
23.5
1931
NYA
Babe Ruth
11.4
Ben Chapman
6.3
Earle Combs
4.7
22.4
1953
BRO
Duke Snider
9.5
Jackie Robinson
7.3
Carl Furillo
4.7
21.5
1961
NYA
Mickey Mantle
11.9
Roger Maris
7.2
Yogi Berra
2.4
21.5
1963
SFN
Willie Mays
10.2
Willie McCovey
6.5
Felipe Alou
4.6
21.3
1917
DET
Ty Cobb
11.9
Bobby Veach
6.5
Harry Heilmann
2.3
20.7
1895
PHI
Ed Delahanty
7.5
Billy Hamilton
6.6
Sam Thompson
6.5
20.6
1894
PHI
Billy Hamilton
8.7
Ed Delahanty
6.7
Sam Thompson
5.1
20.5
1907
DET
Ty Cobb
8.4
Sam Crawford
7.5
Davy Jones
4.6
20.5
1941
NYA
Joe DiMaggio
9.4
Charlie Keller
6.6
Tommy Henrich
4.4
20.4
1899
PHI
Ed Delahanty
9.3
Roy Thomas
6.0
Elmer Flick
5.0
20.3
1990
OAK
Rickey Henderson
10.0
Jose Canseco
5.5
Dave Henderson
4.8
20.3
1915
DET
Ty Cobb
11.1
Bobby Veach
4.8
Sam Crawford
4.3
20.2
1980
OAK
Rickey Henderson
8.6
Dwayne Murphy
6.3
Tony Armas
5.3
20.2
1939
NYA
Joe DiMaggio
8.9
George Selkirk
5.9
Charlie Keller
5.1
19.9

One criticism of WAR is that the fielding portion of the system is not that reliable if we are only looking at one year of data.  It is even more shaky in very early years where less detailed data are available.  Thus, I also wanted to look at this with fielding excluded.  The Offensive WAR (oWAR) results are shown in Table 2.

In this case, the the 1927 and 1931 Yankees outfields flip flop so that 1931 is now number one (21.8 oWAR) and 1927 is number two (21.4).  The 1961 Yankees outfield of Mickey Mantle, Roger Maris and Yogi Berra was third at 20.9.

The Tigers do better on this list than they do on the first one that includes fielding.  In this case, they have five of the 15 best outfields ever.  The 1915 group moves into fourth with 20.7 oWAR, while the 1917 trio finishes seventh at 19.8 and the 1907 threesome is eleventh (19.2)  Two additional Tiger outfields are presented in this table.  The 1908 outfield of Cobb, Crawford and Matty McIntyre is ninth (19.5)and the 1925 crew of Cobb, Heilmann and Al Wingo is 15th ( 18.4).


Table 2: Best Single Season Outfields Accord to Baseball-Reference oWAR


Year
Team
Player 1
oWAR
Player 2
oWAR
Player 3
oWAR
Total oWAR
1931
NYA
Babe Ruth
11.6
Ben Chapman
5.3
Earle Combs
4.9
21.8
1927
NYA
Babe Ruth
11.6
Earle Combs
6.2
Bob Meusel
3.6
21.4
1961
NYA
Mickey Mantle
11.8
Roger Maris
7.1
Yogi Berra
2.0
20.9
1915
DET
Ty Cobb
11.4
Bobby Veach
4.5
Sam Crawford
4.7
20.7
1895
PHI
Ed Delahanty
7.5
Billy Hamilton
6.8
Sam Thompson
6.3
20.5
1972
HOU
Cesar Cedeno
8.0
Jimmy Wynn
6.8
Bob Watson
5.4
20.1
1917
DET
Ty Cobb
11.2
Bobby Veach
6.0
Harry Heilmann
2.5
19.8
1894
PHI
Billy Hamilton
8.2
Ed Delahanty
6.1
Sam Thompson
5.4
19.7
1908
DET
Matty McIntyre
5.9
Ty Cobb
7.1
Sam Crawford
6.6
19.5
1953
BRO
Duke Snider
8.7
Jackie Robinson
6.1
Carl Furillo
4.5
19.3
1907
DET
Ty Cobb
8.2
Sam Crawford
7.5
Davy Jones
3.5
19.2
1963
SFN
Willie Mays
8.9
Willie McCovey
6.4
Felipe Alou
3.8
19.1
1899
PHI
Ed Delahanty
8.9
Roy Thomas
5.7
Elmer Flick
4.2
18.9
1941
NYA
Joe DiMaggio
8.6
Charlie Keller
5.8
Tommy Henrich
4.1
18.5
1925
DET
Harry Heilmann
6.9
Ty Cobb
6.4
Al Wingo
5.1
18.4


So, just as one might expect, the Tigers early outfields were some of the most  dominant in the history of the game.  Later, I'll explore some more recent Tigers outfields to see where they rank.

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