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Monday, August 18, 2008

The Closed Eye: Kurt Streeter On Maury Wills

The misty past calls us, sometimes collect. The legitimate press is never more at odds with its alleged role in a civilized and free society as when it functions as the propaganda arm of some large powerful entity or other, promoting spun stories as absurd on their face as any Lewis Carroll fantasy (and oftentimes more so). The latest example today comes from Kurt Streeter's Times column, which contains this graf regarding the former Dodgers great Maury Wills (hyperlinking mine and thanks much to Baseball-Reference's player linking tool):
Wills stacks up well against many infielders already perched in Cooperstown. Ernie Banks and Rod Carew never made it to the World Series. Pee Wee Reese and Luis Aparicio never won an MVP. Ozzie Smith not only had a lesser batting average and fewer stolen bases than Wills, he went without an MVP award and won just a single World Series title.
Banks is a member of the 500 home run club and scored over 200 more runs than Wills, albeit he spent the latter half of his career at first base which diminished his accomplishments somewhat. Carew came close to hitting .400 in 1977, and though he had 200+ fewer career stolen bases, he did so in an era after catchers re-learned the art of throwing out baserunners. According to Bill James, "The stolen base had become so uncommon, in the years 1920-1955, that teams had relaxed their standards about catchers throwing arms. If they liked a prospect as a catcher and he didn't throw well, they'd say he threw well enough."

There are similar arguments to be made for the others. But reading James' Historical Baseball Abstract — which ranked him 19th overall among MLB shortstops — it becomes harder to justify his exclusion based exclusively on his playing career. The real problem with Wills, as James points out, is his tenure as a manager in Seattle, and his deplorable personal life, with Streeter only taking on the latter aspect of the man. Wills was caught and suspended for altering the size of the batter's box, part and parcel of his less-than-admirable character. It's half-stories like this one that make you wonder what else they're not telling you; imagine a discussion of Pete Rose without a mention of his gambling as a manager.

Update: Via SOSG, Ken Tremendous at Fire Joe Morgan does another rip job on Streeter's piece. Forgetting his postseason value, Wills did provide a goodly amount of value during his career, about a third of that due to his fielding (according to the historical win shares data I have from Sean Lahman). The trouble is, if you want to compare him to the likes of Ernie Banks, you still end up with Banks lapping him by quite a bit (265 batting win shares by Banks versus 155.7 for Wills, and both fairly close defensively at 67 for Banks and 76.5 for Wills). I'll take a look at this in more detail later tonight.

Update 2: Thanks to Kevin Roderick at LA Observed for the link.


In assessing Wills' status, it is helpful to look at his contribution to the Dodgers of the time. At the time he played for the Dodgers, the game and the Dodgers in particular were low-scoring with few home runs.

Wills' contribution as someone who could get on base and then move around the bases on his own - by stealing and aggressive base running - was crucial in helping the Dodgers get runs in that low scoring era.

The game and the Dodgers had a lot more 1, 2, and 3 run games than now. Wills' skills at shortstop were further complementary in keeping opponents' scores low. He was also a critical leader at a critical position.

His ability to add runs to an otherwise anemic hitting lineup, and to help keep opponents' scores down were thus of paramount importance in helping the Dodgers be a winning team, in an era when they won several pennants and two World Series. (Check Wikipedia's account of the Dodgers' 1960s record. Wills is singled out as being the most important contributor to the offense.)

Other shortstops such as Banks and Aparicio hit for more power and more RBIs than Wills, but in Wills' heyday his contribution to his team's standing - more pennants and World Series - was more significant than the heavier hitters, and in a team sport like baseball this is probably the most significant result.

Personally I think it's unfair to all these great players to compare them on such few criteria. All had some significant personal stats, but they were different players with different strengths; and especially comparing personal stats to the exclusion of team contribution is a bit irrelevant.

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