An incomplete look at “complete” hitting

2019-02-26 TonyGwynnWadeBoggs

Were Mr. Padre and the Chicken Man really complete hitters?

I fell upon an essay at FiveThirtyEight last week arguing the rise in foul balls contributes more than people think to actual or alleged “pace of game” problems. It provoked some equally interesting replies and arguments around cyberspace, never mind my own take being that, if you’re going to complain about lack of action, you can’t complain about hitters being adept at fouling pitches and draining pitchers.

But one argument invites my almost-undivided attention, from a fan in a forum who argued that if hitters would just think about “complete” hitting again, the game would move right along.

You might assume he means high-average hitters obsessed less with their launch angles than with just plain putting the ball in play, especially when he mentioned two Hall of Famers by name (albeit parenthetically) who had gaudy batting averages in their careers: Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs. And if the only thing you see is their batting averages (Gwynn hit .338 lifetime; Boggs, .328.), you’d think they sure did look like “complete” hitters.

Both men passed 3,000 lifetime hits (Gwynn: 3,141; Boggs, in two fewer seasons: 3,010) and have several 200+ hit seasons between them. (Boggs has seven; Gwynn has five.) Gwynn won eight batting titles and Boggs, five, though Boggs won those in his first six full seasons while Gwynn spread his a bit more before winning four straight in his ages 34-37 seasons. Boggs won those batting titles with averages of .357 or better; only Gwynn in the integration era hit .350+ more. (Six times.)

Boggs was better at reaching base than Gwynn, though. His on-base percentage (OBP) is 27 points better, and Boggs in two fewer seasons reached base 450 times more. Even cutting Gwynn a little slack for late career injuries plus aging, he’d have pulled up a little short of Boggs. Boggs led his league in times on base eight times (and all consecutively, for that matter, from 1983-1990) but Gwynn only did it once, in 1987. Boggs is just inside the top 25 and Gwynn is exactly 50th, at this writing.

As all-around players, Boggs leaves Gwynn far enough behind: he not only played a tougher field position but as of this writing Boggs shakes out as the third best all-around third baseman ever to play the game. (He’s behind Mike Schmidt and Eddie Mathews; George Brett would be number two if he hadn’t missed an estimated 251 total days on the disabled list over his career or been moved to first base and designated hitting for his final seven seasons.) That includes his having saved 95 runs lifetime at his position. Gwynn shook out as the fourteenth-best right fielder of all time, and a lot of that has to do with a staggering drop in his defensive effectiveness after 1992.

But back on the track. And, to the question of how we should really define a complete hitter. The longtime answer seems to have been that the complete hitter was the guy who hit for high enough average and for power. If that’s still any kind of true, where does it leave the Chicken Man and Mr. Padre, the hitting machines?

Allowing that scoring and driving in runs depend on the team around you, Boggs produced 167 runs per 162 games lifetime and Gwynn, 166. I was surprised at how close that is, too, considering Boggs was a leadoff hitter with better lineups behind him while Gwynn was a number three hitter who didn’t always have solid lineups around him. It’s to wonder how Gwynn would have done if he’d had, consistently enough, someone like Boggs on base ahead of him.

Gwynn averaged 36 doubles and six triples per 162 games; Boggs averaged 38 and four per 162, respectively. Before adding their handful of home runs, that means 20 percent of Gwynn’s hits went for extra bases to 21 percent for Boggs. Gwynn hit 543 doubles and 85 triples lifetime; Boggs, 578 doubles and 61 triples.

Now let’s throw in their home runs, acknowledging that this pair wasn’t exactly Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Mike Schmidt, or Ken Griffey, Jr. Gwynn averaged nine homers per 162 games and hit 135 lifetime; Boggs, 8 per 162 and 118 lifetime. (That would make them feared sluggers . . . in the dead ball era.) Calculate the doubles, triples, and home runs, and you’ll discover that a full quarter of Boggs’s lifetime hits went for extra bases and practically a quarter of Gwynn’s did.

I have a hard time seeing two players who hit for extra bases only a quarter of the time as “complete” hitters. Consistency is one thing but completion something else. During the 1986 postseason, when Boggs’s Red Sox shoved their way past the Angels to win the pennant but lost that World Series to the Mets, the single most frequent description of Boggs during game broadcasts was “the major leagues’ leading hitter.” And he did lead the Show with his .357 average. But his 207 hits that season were fourth behind Don Mattingly, Kirby Puckett, and Tony Fernandez and ahead of his teammate Jim Rice plus Joe Carter (who tied with 200 hits each), and 27 percent of those 207 went for extra bases. The others? In descending percentage order:

Joe Carter—37 percent.
Don Mattingly—36 percent.
Kirby Puckett—33 percent.
Jim Rice—31 percent.
Tony Fernandez—24 percent.

Wade Boggs in 1986 had a lower percentage of extra-base hits than four out of the five top average hitters in the American League. If Vin Scully had known that or thought about that, and there wasn’t a broadcaster alive who thought more acutely or deeply about the whole game than he did, I don’t think he would have called Boggs “the major leagues’ leading hitter” quite as frequently as he did that postseason.

While I was at it, I took a look at Tony Gwynn’s 1986. He finished third in the batting average race (.329) behind leader Tim Raines (.334) and Steve Sax (.332); behind him were Kevin Bass (.311), Keith Hernandez (.310), and Von Hayes (.305). Gwynn led the league with his 211 hits, too, but 25 percent of them went for extra bases, right at his career average. In descending order, here are the other five:

Von Hayes—36 percent.
Kevin Bass—32 percent.
Keith Hernandez—28 percent.
Tim Raines—27 percent.
Steve Sax—25 percent.

Tony Gwynn finished third in the batting championship race, but one guy ahead of him and three guys behind him had higher percentages of extra-base hits, and one guy behind him had the highest extra-base hit percentage of the sextet.

(I bet you didn’t think it was Von Hayes, either. Fair play: It wasn’t Hayes’s fault the Phillies were foolish enough to trade five players to the Indians to get him, or that the Indians thought he was worth five players—including Julio Franco. That hung unrealistic expectations upon Hayes, which is always dangerous in Philadelphia. But he did have a have a respectable if not spectacular major league career—until a Tom Browning fastball broke his arm and reduced him to replacement level his final couple of years—and he also led the National League in doubles in 1986. In case you were curious, Hayes’s 1986 extra base hit percentage was four points above his career average. There was plenty wrong with the 1980s Phillies after they acquired him, but he wasn’t it.)

And that’s without pondering the leagues’ bombardiers who had considerably higher percentages of extra-base hits than those men did. For just one example, 42 percent of Hall of Famer Mike Schmidt’s 1986 hits (it was his next-to-last great season at the plate) went for extra bases, in the year he nailed his eighth and final league home run championship.

Just that isolated season and those results offer up a look at the big problem with batting average as the number one indicator of a hitter’s value. As Keith Law noted in Smart Baseball, batting average’s major flaw is treating all hits equally and telling you how often he gets a hit “ignoring times he draws a walk, gets hit by a pitch, hits a sacrifice fly, makes a successful sacrifice bunt, or reaches via catcher’s interference.” Or, reached when a catcher mishandles a third strike and the hitter beats the throw to first that would have finished that strikeout.

For me, I want to know more than just the frequency a hitter hits them. I want to know more than just the number of hits he got, more than just how often he hit safely. When Pete Rose busts the career hits record but only 24 percent of his hits go for extra bases, I’m not inclined to call him the Hit King no matter how many hits he totaled, no matter how many winning games he played in. (Rose loves boasting he played in more winning games than any. player. ever. And it tells you . . . almost nothing, or at least not much.) I want to know what they were really worth for helping his teams win. I want to know whether his or anybody’s hits put runs on the board or made it that much easier for his mates to put them there.

Forget the 1986 season; you can find a passel of lifetime .300+ hitters who don’t have batting averages as gaudy looking as Gwynn’s and Boggs but who had higher percentages of extra base hits. Exactly 40 percent of Hank Aaron’s (.305) and Willie Mays’s (.302) hits went for extra bases. George Brett shares Aaron’s lifetime batting average and 35 percent of his hits went for extra bases. Frank Thomas snuck into the .300 club (.301), but 42 percent of his hits went for extra bases; 39 percent of Chipper Jones’s (.303) hits went for extra bases (and he was a switch hitter in the bargain); and, 37 percent of Edgar Martinez’s (.312) and Mike Piazza’s (.308) went for extra bases.

Kirby Puckett, a direct contemporary of Gwynn and Boggs until glaucoma ended his career in 1995, sported a .318 lifetime batting average but with 29 percent of his hits for extra bases. Joe Mauer, who did a lot to heal Twins fans in the aftermath of sordid revelations about Puckett, following the latter’s untimely death, and who retired last November after an injury-compromised career, has a lifetime .306 batting average, and he had 28 percent of his hits go for extra bases. That puts them closer to Gwynn and Boggs and toward a possible definition of somewhat incomplete hitters.

You probably didn’t need me to tell you that incomplete hitters are just as capable of run creation as complete hitters. Run creation, as opposed to run production, measures everything you yourself brought to the table at the plate and on the bases: your hits, your walks including your intentional walks, the times you got hit by a pitch, your sacrifices, the extra bases you took on followup hits. Batting averages factor only your “official” at-bats, not your total plate appearances.

How did those players do when it came to creating runs? Here they are, in ascending order of runs created per 27 outs. (If you want a simpler way to see RC/27, think of it as how their teams would score in a typical game if they had nine of these guys in their batting orders.)

Pete Rose—5.8.
Kirby Puckett—6.1.
Joe Mauer—6.3.
George Brett—6.6.
Tony Gwynn—6.6.
Wade Boggs—7.1.
Mike Piazza—7.3.
Hank Aaron—7.5.
Chipper Jones—7.9.
Willie Mays—7.9.
Edgar Martinez—8.3.
Frank Thomas—8.8.

Now, look at those players per 162 games, and the outs they used up to create runs. The numbers are runs created first, then the outs they used to create each run. I’ll list them in ascending order according to the parenthetical list of outs per run created:

Edgar Martinez—129; 416. (3.2)
Chipper Jones—127; 432. (3.4)
Willie Mays—128; 436. (3.4)
Frank Thomas—140; 426. (3.4)
Mike Piazza—117; 430. (3.7)
Hank Aaron—123; 449. (3.7)
Wade Boggs—116; 436. (3.8)
George Brett—112; 459. (4.1)
Tony Gwynn—109; 442. (4.1)
Joe Mauer—105; 445. (4.2)
Kirby Puckett—109; 480. (4.4)
Pete Rose—101; 470. (4.7)

You are now free to move the Hit King designation away from Rose if you so desire. Sure he got more hits than anybody else who ever played the game. But he didn’t create as many runs as Gwynn and Boggs, whose careers began when Rose was at the end of the line; or, as many runs as Brett, whose career began while Rose was in the thick of his Big Red Machine seasons. He wasn’t worth as many runs as Aaron, Jones, Mays, Martinez, Mauer, Puckett, and Thomas, and he used up almost five outs per run created.

But do you notice that between Gwynn and Boggs, the so-called “complete” hitters, only Boggs between them used less than four outs per run to create runs? (And did you think or remember that Edgar Martinez was that good at using few outs a run to create runs?)It makes you wonder if Gwynn would have been more run creative if he had someone like Boggs setting the table for him. I bet you didn’t think Jones, Martinez and Thomas were that run creative, never mind that Jones would slot in right between Aaron and Mays, even if you had a pretty good idea without looking how run creative Aaron and Mays were.

You can also figure out how well these guys did when it came to taking extra bases on followup hits. You just have to know where to look. Baseball Reference has it for you, the percentage of extra bases these guys took at the next cracks of the bat after they reached base in the first place, listed here in ascending order:

Mike Piazza—27%
Frank Thomas—30%
Edgar Martinez—33%
Wade Boggs—37%
Joe Mauer—42%
Tony Gwynn—45%
Chipper Jones—45%
Pete Rose—49%
Hank Aaron—51%
Kirby Puckett—51%
George Brett—54%
Willie Mays—63%

You sort of understand why Piazza’s extra base percentage is so low: he played one of the three most physically demanding positions on the field and maybe the position that takes the most toll on a player’s legs. But Mauer was a catcher, too, until the injuries prompted the Twins to move him to first base, and his 42 percent lifetime matches his percentage when he was strictly a full-time catcher. In fairness, Mauer did have a few better lineups around him than Piazza often did, but Piazza wasn’t anywhere near as swift on the bases as Mauer was.

And it’s also fair to say Brett, Boggs, Jones, Mays, and Puckett each played a field position almost as physically demanding. Gwynn and Aaron were corner outfielders, their positions less physically demanding than center field, but Gwynn wasn’t as swift on the bases as Aaron was. Rose wasn’t even close to being that fast but he still got to within two percentage points of Aaron for extra base advancement. Brett and Puckett (who looked like ten pounds of hamburger in a seven pound bag his entire career) were faster on the bases than you probably remember.

But who knew Willie Mays was that good at taking the extra base(s) on the followup knock(s)? You knew he was swift; you know he’s behind only Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson as a power/speed combination, but did you really think he’d taken extra bases on followup knocks 63 percent of the time he was on base as well as hitting for extra bases 40 percent of the time while playing a field position at least as physically demanding as third base?

And I haven’t even thought about the 8,000-pound elephant in the room yet. This isn’t the place to examine or discuss actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances, what they really did or didn’t do for those who used them (as opposed to what people only think they did or didn’t do) other than increased muscle here, increased recovery time there. I’ll split the difference and talk about the elephant’s career only through the end of the season before he’s suspected to have begun indulging the actual or alleged performance-enhancing substances.

Here he is:

Barry Bonds, unsuspected/untainted:
42 % extra base hits.
133 runs created per 162 games.
8.8 runs created per 27 outs.
407 outs per 162 games.
3.1 outs per run created.

His batting average for the pre-suspicion seasons was .267; he’d hit 445 home runs to that point. He probably would have had better batting stats before 1990, but the Pirates made a drastic mistake: they looked at his power/speed combination, married it to his parentage (his father was a swift, power-hitting leadoff man; Bobby Bonds still has the number five power/speed number in baseball history) and his ability to take walks, and assumed he, too, was a leadoff man, slotting him into a lineup spot where he was clearly enough not quite himself.

In 1990 the Pirates wised up, listened to the man himself, and made him a number three hitter—and Bonds became Bonds. He even won his first National League MVP; with a league-leading 9.7 wins above a replacement-level player, slugging percentage, OPS, and a justly-deserved Gold Glove in left field. Here’s his 1990 season according to extra base hit percentage, runs created per 162 games, runs created per 27 outs, how many outs he used per 162 games, and how many outs he used per run created (* indicates leading the league):

44% extra base hits.
128 runs created per 162 games.*
8.8 runs created per 27 outs.
390 outs per 162 games.
3.0 outs per run created.

That put him at or around his untainted/unsuspected career level. Starting in 1990, too, Bonds never again struck out more often than he walked. He’d lead the league in walks five times between 1990 and 1999; he’d lead in OBP four, slugging three, OPS five, and intentional walks seven times. And he hit .301 from 1990-1999 while he was at it. He was a bona-fide Hall of Famer before the taint is said to have begun.

I’ve gone around several blocks, of course. And even looking deeper I’m not entirely convinced that there’s a single, no-questions-asked way to measure “complete” hitting. Even OPS doesn’t seem to satisfy me, though it’s worth a look at those players and their OPS, because I know you can put up a gaudy-looking OPS even if you’re not really that much of a slugger. Well, here they are, in ascending order, with their extra-base hit percentages in parentheses:

Pete Rose—.784. (24)
Joe Mauer—.827. (28)
Kirby Puckett—.837. (29)
Tony Gwynn—.847. (25)
George Brett—.857. (35)
Wade Boggs—.858. (25)
Mike Piazza—.922. (37)
Hank Aaron—.928. (40)
Chipper Jones—.930. (39)
Edgar Martinez—.933. (37)
Willie Mays—.941. (40)
Barry Bonds (pre-suspicion/pre-taint)—.965. (44)
Frank Thomas—.974. (42)

The players with 900+ OPSs generally hit for extra bases 35 percent of the time or better; George Brett is kind of an outlier in that regard.

Let me show you a few hitters—eight Hall of Famers, one who should be—who didn’t quite make it to a .300 lifetime batting average but did make it to .900+ OPS. Hitters whom the batting averages uber alles types would consider “incomplete” because they didn’t make the Magic .300. I put their batting averages in parentheses right after their names (notice how close to .300 five of these men got), and their extra-base hit percentage in parentheses after their OPSs:

Mike Schmidt (.267)—.906. (45)
Ken Griffey, Jr. (.284)—.907 (43)
Dick Allen (.292)—.912. (41)
Duke Snider (.295)—.919. (40)
Frank Robinson (.294)—.926. (40)
Ralph Kiner (.279)—.946. (43)
Jeff Bagwell (.297)—.948 (42)
Jim Thome (.276)—.956 (47)
Mickey Mantle (.298)—.977. (39)

I still don’t really know just how conclusive all the foregoing is. But I do think it’s reasonable to suggest that Tony Gwynn and Wade Boggs a) were no-questions-asked great players; b) no-questions-asked Hall of Famers; but, c) need better evidence than the foregoing to present them as “complete” hitters.

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