It would be easy to think of any position as more or less homogenous when considering just the BBWAA voting, but we have seen that hasn’t been the case up until this point. In point of fact, we can divide each position into three separate groups. I did this in the book version of the index with some success. We can start with the legends and then move on the solid Hall of Famers and then the borderline candidates.
Left field has twelve players from the BBWAA list, so it divides up well into groups of four. That rarely ever happens. We have to look at how the data divides them and not at how we want to arbitrarily divide them. Our fortunes have favored us although we had to take some liberties with positional assignments. Let’s dispense with the pleasantries and dive right into the numbers.
The elephant in the room has to be addressed. Wasn’t Musial primarily a first baseman? Well, he did play in more games as a first baseman than as a left fielder (1016 vs. 929), but he played in 1890 games in the outfield. Most of those came in left field. So, if we consider him an outfielder we have to take the position where he played the most games. After settling that dilemma, we likely are all surprised by the results. This is the reason why the index has a career and peak value element.
No one would be crazy enough to claim that Musial was a superior player to Williams, but there is some defense for that. That will come up when we look at the offensive and defensive numbers. If we ignore the index and simply look at the counting statistics we can see why Musial comes out ahead in this category.
These numbers are also deceiving. Williams missed three seasons serving his country in World War II and much of two additional seasons serving in Korea. Musial missed one season in comparison. This isn’t to demean Musial. Anyone that serves their country for any length of time should be honored, but Williams is in a special category here. Yet, even when we consider those seasons we still find that Musial was more durable.
Henderson and Yastrezemski will eventually be four and five when and if Barry Bonds ever gets into the Hall of Fame. Neither hold a candle to these two legends, but they deserve to be mentioned in the same general grouping. Henderson is regarded by many as the greatest leadoff hitter in the game’s history and Yastrzemski might be the best overall fielder at the position. At least he is the best of those in the Hall of Fame.
Boston fans enjoyed a Hall of Fame quality left fielder from 1939 all the way through 1990. Mike Greenwell was no slouch in his prime either (however short it was). It was Yaz’s misfortune to follow the greatest pure hitter in the history of the sport. Some will tab Babe Ruth as the best player of all-time. Others will tab Willie Mays. Still others will tab Ty Cobb. All are very worthy picks for the best player in the history of the game. When looking for the title of best overall hitter the list is very short. Of course, that is ultimately a debate we will have to table.
All Yaz did was win a triple crown and combine very good offense and very good defense to come up with solid value numbers. Musial’s resume is well established. He did not have the pure power of Williams, but he hit a ridiculous 725 doubles in his career and won seven batting titles. That totals put him third all-time in doubles behind Pete Rose and Tris Speaker. He is third in extra base hits behind Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds. So, he was definitely no slouch in the power department.
So, this leaves Henderson. If you focus on the steals you are missing the mark. It was certainly his fortune to come up in a time when teams were obsessed with having speed threats at the top of the order. People will remember Vince Coleman, Otis Nixon, and Omar Moreno. Henderson was great because he stole first base and did it repeatedly. He also brought surprising power to the leadoff spot. That is something none of those guys did. Sure, 80 steals are great, but if they are accompanied by zero power and a .300 OBP it’s not worth a whole heck of a lot.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with Henderson or Yaz’s numbers. A team of nine Yaz’s would win 110 games with average pitching. A team of nine Henderson’s would win 107 games and set an all-time record in stolen bases that would never be broken. Taken in that context, the numbers Willams and Musial put up are just stupid. A team of Ted Willaims would win 139 games in a 162 game schedule. That’s just staggering.
The fact that Musial’s OPS+ and wRC+ are that high and still not in the ballpark is equally staggering. Seeing any hitter near .500 in wOBA is absolutely ridiculous. It doesn’t matter what era you are talking about. He will ultimately be compared to Barry Bonds and those comparisons are unavoidable. He did it without chemical enhancement and while missing nearly five seasons serving his country. Put those years back into play and he would have obliterated nearly every record except career home runs. He might not have eclipsed 755, but 700 would have been a cinch.
Of course, all hitting numbers have to be taken in concert with fielding numbers. Before we look at those we should remember that left field runs neck and neck with first base as the least valuable position on the diamond defensively. This isn’t to demean left fielders, but they just make fewer plays and fewer high leveraged plays than players at other positions. So, the following numbers have to be taken in that context.
This is usually where Williams gets dismissed from any serious GOAT talk. However, we should keep things in proper perspective. In terms of defensive WAR, all of these players are being compared to all defenders at all positions. Of course, they are going to come up short. The fact that Yaz finished above zero is remarkable. We should note that for the entire length of their careers, outfielders were directly compared to each other. So, we wouldn’t expect left fielders to beat out center fielders and right fielders in the win share Gold Gloves (or real ones). Musial won a couple at first base.
At most other positions, defense is a huge consideration. It just isn’t in left field. Williams often lamented after his playing days were over that he didn’t focus enough on defense, but his lead in offensive production is so massive that it really doesn’t matter. Still, we can’t see the whole picture of a player unless we look at both facets of the game.