Monday, December 31, 2018

Top Ten Tigers Left Fielders

Left fielder Bobby Veach with Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford made up one of best outfields ever.
(Photo credit: Detroit Public Library Digital Collections)

Today, I am presenting the list of top ten left fielders in Tigers history.  Other installments in this series can be found at the following links.

Catchers
first basemen
Second Basemen
Shortstops
Third Basemen

In the previous articles, I discussed the criteria for my rankings in detail.  Let's review the ground rules here:
  • A player must have played at least half their games with the Tigers as a left fielder or played left field more than any other position.
  • A player must have played at least two full seasons as a left fielder with the Tigers.
  • Only games played with the Tigers are considered. 
  • If a player played other positions with the Tigers besides left field, his hitting performance in those games does count.  
I will start by looking at the Baseball-Reference.com Wins Above Replacement (WAR) leader board for Tigers left fielders:

Bobby Veach 46
Willie Horton 26
Bobby Higginson 23
Charlie Maxwell 19
Rocky Colavito 17
Matty McIntyre 17
Steve Kemp 16
Dick Wakefield 13
Fats Fothergill 13
Gee Walker 12

Based on this list, Bobby Veach seems to be the clear #1 left fielder in Tigers history.   Second place Willie Horton has a narrow lead over the rest of the pack, but WAR penalizes him for his time spent at designated hitter and we will see shortly, that the gap between Willie and the pack is actually bigger.  The rest of the list is more tenuous with a number of shorter career players and stars like Goose Goslin and Rocky Colavito who played most of their careers outside of Detroit.   

Left field is an offense oriented position, so I am going to look at Adjusted Batting Runs (ABR), which  just looks at a player's offensive contribution.  Batting Runs were first introduced in the Hidden Game of Baseball by John Thorn and Pete Palmer in 1984.  It is an estimate of the number of runs contributed by a player compared to an average hitter over the course of his career.    This statistic is explained in more deal in the post about first basemen linked above.  The ABR statistics is calculated from Baseball-Reference.com as rbat (the batting part) + rbaser (the base running part).  The ABR leaders are listed below.

Bobby Veach 230
Willie Horton 167
Steve Kemp 92
Bobby Higginson 91
Rocky Colavito 91
Dick Wakefield  88
Charlie Maxwell 81
Fats Fothergill 67
Matty McIntyre 40
Goose Goslin 39

Over here, Horton cements his claim as the #2 left fielder.  After that, it becomes very close with six players between 67 and 92 ABR.  

In order to compare the batting excellence of players with different career lengths, we can use OPS+:

Dick Wakefield 131
Rocky Colavito 130
Bobby Veach 130
Willie Horton 127
Steve Kemp 125
Fats Fothergill 122
Charlie Maxwell 120
Al Wingo 114
Bobby Higginson 113
Ben Oglivie 113

According to this measure, Dick Wakefield and Rocky Colavito move to the top of the list, while Bobby Higginson falls down several notches.

The final top ten is shown below.

1. Bobby Veach  (1912-1923  46 WAR  230 ABR  130 OPS+)
According to Fred Lieb in The Detroit Tigers, Bobby Veach "was a happy-go-lucky guy, not too brilliant above the ears...He was as friendly as a Newfoundland pup with opponents as well as teammates."  He was also the best left fielder in Tigers history amassing 4 WAR or higher 7 times and finishing in the top ten in OPS and slugging five times. His best season was 1919 when he had 6.7 WAR and a 158 OPS+.  In the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James rated the 1915 trio of Veach, Ty Cobb and Sam Crawford as the best single-season outfield in baseball history     

2. Willie Horton (1963-1977  26 WAR  167 ABR  127 OPS+)
Born and raised in Detroit, Willie Horton was a home town favorite for his performance both on and off the field.  He helped to restore order during the 1967 riots by climbing onto a truck and pleading with fellow African Americans to stop looting and committing violence.  On the field, he was a top slugger for many years finishing in the top ten in home runs five times and slugging four times.  He was at his finest during the 1968 championship season hitting 36 home runs and posting a 165 OPS+.
  
3. Rocky Colavito (1960-1963  17 WAR  91 ABR  130 OPS+)
Rocky Colavito came from the Indians in 1959 in a famous of swap of the batting leader (Harvey Kuenn) and home run leader (Colavito).  Colavito played four year with the Tigers including a fantastic 1961 season with 45 homers and a 157 OPS+.  He finished in the top five in WAR in both 1961 and 1962.  He also had perhaps the best outfield arm in the majors during his prime.  

4. Bobby Higginson (1995-2005  23 WAR  91 ABR  113 OPS+)  
Some will be surprsied at Bobby Higginson's fairly high WAR total and his high ranking on this list.  Because he never played for a winning team and faded badly late in his career many fans do not remember Higginson fondly.  However, he had a very solid career reaching 3+ WAR four times and 2+ WAR six times in all.  His best season was 2000 with he hit .300/.377/.538 with 5.3 WAR.

5. Charlie Maxwell (1955-1962  19 WAR  81 ABR  120 OPS+) 
According to Baseball: A Doubleheader Collection of Facts, Feats & Firsts published by The Sporting News, Maxwell hit 40 of his 148 career home runs on Sundays, but he hit well on other days too.  Maxwell's best year was 1956 when he posted a 148 OPS+ and 3.9 WAR.  He also reached 5 WAR in 1957.  

6. Steve Kemp (1977-1981  16 WAR  92 ABR  125 OPS+) 
Steve Kemp is more famous for whom he was traded (center fielder Chet Lemon in 1981) than his performance, but he was a productive hitter for the Tigers.  He averaged a 132 OPS+ and 3.7 WAR between 1978-1981.

7. Dick Wakefield (1941-1949  13 WAR  88 ABR  131 OPS+)  
According to Donald Honig in Between the Lines, outfielder Dick Wakefield was one of baseball's first bonus babies when he signed with the Tigers for $52,000 out of the University of Michigan in 1941.  The 6'4", 210-pound outfielder quickly lived up to his promise with 3.4 WAR and a league leading 200 hits.  He was off to an excellent start the next season, batting a gaudy .355 with a 190 OPS+ before being drafted into the military.  He returned to the majors in 1946, but never again reached the same lofty level.  In all, he had four years of 2+ WAR. 
    
8. Matty McIntyre (1904-1910  17 WAR  40 ABR  112 OPS+)
Matty McIntyre is best remembered as being being part of the clique that tormented Ty Cobb during his early years with the Tigers, but he also performed well on the field reaching 2+ WAR four times.  His best season 2008 when he had 6 WAR and led the league with 258 times on base.   

9. Fats Fothergill (1922-1930  13 WAR  67 ABR  122 OPS+)
5'-10", 230-pound Bob Fothergill was give the unflattering nickname "fats" or "fatty" early in his career, but his popularity with fans also earned him the name "People's Choice".  Fothergill averaged 135 OPS+ and 2.9 WAR from 1926-1929.  

10. Goose Goslin (1934-1937  9 WAR  39 ABR  111 OPS+)
According to Baseball: The Biographical Encyclopedia by David Pietrusza, et al, Leon Goslin acquired the nickname "Goose" because he flapped his arms while running after fly balls, but it could just as easily have been a play on his last name.  If Goose had played his entire career with the Tigers, he would be #1 on this list, but he played only four twilight years in Detroit.  His best year with the Tigers was 1936 when he was 3.7 WAR, but his best moment came in 1935.  That year, Goslin singled in the bottom of the ninth of game six of the World Series to give the Tigers their first world championship.  

Note: Most of the data for this post were abstracted from Baseball-Reference.com

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