Sunday, June 29, 2014

M&M Boys: Mantle and Mathews

Mathews, Mantle and Aaron pose for a picture in spring training
Throughout the 1950s and into the 60s, Eddie Mathews was essentially a poor man's Mickey Mantle. By this I mean no disrespect to Mathews, easily one of the five greatest third baseman of all-time and a most-deserving Hall of Famer. If you're going to be a poor man's version of somebody, after all, you couldn't do much better than The Mick.

It's fascinating how much their personal lives and baseball careers overlapped. They were born one week apart in October, 1931 in the rural Midwest, with Mathews hailing from Texas and Mantle a progeny of Oklahoma. Both signed as amateur free agents in 1949 and played their first full season in 1952 with similar results; Mantle had 23 home runs in 142 games, Mathews slugged 25 in 145, and both drew MVP votes despite leading their respective leagues in strikeouts.

Thus marked the beginning of two outstanding careers that lasted until 1968, when both posted the worst batting averages of their careers and promptly retired, clearly done. But not before they hit milestone homers in that Year of the Pitcher, with Mantle taking Denny McLain deep to pass Jimmie Foxx and Mathews, by then a teammate of McLain's eclipsing Mel Ott with the last home run he'd ever it.

In between they didn't see a whole lot of each other, as they played in different leagues during a time when AL and NL players met twice a year; in the Midsummer Classic and the Fall Classic. They were All-Stars in the same year nine times and crossed paths in two World Series--in 1957 and again the following year. Milwaukee won their first meeting but New York took the rematch, with both series going the full seven. Mathews played better in the first one, Mantle fared better in the second.

In the end, Mantle was clearly the better player and enjoyed the superior career, but some of their numbers look remarkably similar:

Mantle: 2,401 G 2,415 H 344 2B 72 3B 536 HR 1,509 RBI 4,511 TB 109.7 bWAR
Mathews: 2,391 G 2,315 H 354 2B 72 3B 512 HR 1,453 RBI 4,349 TB 96.4 bWAR

They were both patient power hitters who drew their fare share of walks and weren't afraid to strike out. They both established themselves as great young players and peaked early on, but by the same token crashed and burned rather prematurely in their mid-thirties. They ended up as one of the five best to play their respective positions, even if their walk-drawing and run-scoring skills wouldn't get the credit they deserved for many years. Mantle wasn't fully appreciated until Roger Maris arrived midway through his career and took most of the heat off him, and Mathews remains criminally underrated to this day.

Off the field, they both led difficult lives and drank too much, which may have led to their somewhat early demise as players and as men (neither one played past 36 or lived to 70).They were ultimately tragic figures then, exceptional players but flawed human beings with a whiff of unfulfilled potential. The Commerce Comet was frequently criticized for not living up to his great Yankee predecessors of Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, and Joe DiMaggio, while it was Mathews' fate to be overshadowed by teammate Henry Aaron.

Not surprisingly, Mathews is rated as Mantle's closest comp on Baseball-Reference. Mantle is the fourth-best match for Mathews, following Mike Schmidt, Ernie Banks, and Willie McCovey. Pretty good company.

With so many similarities, it's easy to see why:
  • Both had four seasons with at least 40 home runs (Mantle topped 50 twice) and 14 with at least 20. Mathews had 10 seasons with more than 30 bombs, one more than Mantle's nine. 
  • Because they walked so much, neither one knocked in as many runs as one would expect given their huge power totals. Mantle exceeded 100 RBI four times, while Mathews did so five times. Each managed five additional seasons in which they plated more than 90 (but less than 100). Additionally, Mathews' career high of 135 barely exceed's Mantle's personal best of 130.
  • Because they walked so much, both scored tons of runs. Mantle had 11 straight seasons with at least 90 runs, including nine with over 100. Mathews had 10 consecutive seasons with 90 or more runs, including eight with at least 100. 
  • Both struck out a lot. Mantle led the league in the dubious K statistic five times, something Mathews did in 1952, when both led their respective leagues, with Mathews' 115 edging Mantle's 111 for the ML-lead. 
  • Both finished their careers with near 1:1 strikeout to walk ratios. Mantle walked 23 more times than he whiffed for a 1.01 BB/K ratio, while Mathews fanned 43 more times than he walked and thus had a 0.97 BB/K ratio.
  • Neither one hit a lot of doubles. Each had only one season with more than 30.
  • Mantle was caught stealing 38 times, one fewer than Mathews.
  • Mathews bounced into 123 doubles plays, Mantle 113. Both had more than 10 in a season only three times, and never bounced into more than 11.
  • Mathews had six seasons with at least 300 total bases, one more than Mantle's five.
  • Mantle was intentionally walked 126 times, but Mathews wasn't far behind at 107. Both were clearly feared by opposing pitchers and managers.
  • They were both All-Stars in 1953, then every year from 1955 through 1962


  1. Besides Mike Schmidt and Alex Rodriguez, what other third basemen do you think might have been better than Eddie Mathews?

  2. Not saying they're better but one could make a good case for Chipper Jones (probably the best offensive third baseman of all-time, and a switch-hitter to boot), George Brett, and Wade Boggs. It's really tough to rank those four they all come out pretty even in terms of WAR and OPS but had very different playing styles. I'll definitely have to do a post on that at some point. Also a lot of people would probably say Brooks Robinson, but not me because his bat wasn't much better than average.

    1. This brings up an interesting question: Let's say A-Rod is really a shortstop, and you want to pick two third basemen for your team from among Schmidt, Mathews, Chipper, Brett, Boggs, and Brooks. Would you take what you think are the two best all-around ones, say Schmidt and Mathews, or whatever you like, or would you take Chipper and Brooks, definitely the best fielding third baseman ever, with the thought of using him only for defense in late innings when you have a lead?

    2. Taking Brooks as a late game replacement definitely makes sense, but I'd probably take the best two all-around in case I needed a pinch-hitter or if the first guy had to leave the game early. My first pick would be Schmidt, obviously, and the second is a really close call between Chipper, Brett and Mathews but I think I'd go Chipper. I tend to favor the modern player, and the 40 year difference between Mathews and Jones is too big to ignore. Jones was also a better hitter than Brett IMO--more power, better on-base ability and could switch-hit.

  3. I think I'd call George Brett the best hitting third baseman of all-time. Oh, sure, Schmidt and Mathews collected way more homers than Brett, but George is the only human who has collected 3,000 hits, 300 homers, 1,500 RBIs, 600 two-baggers, 200 steals and 100 triples; not to mention three batting crowns and a Gold Glove(pretty good considering his career ran at the same time as Brooks Robinson's) And don't forget his 1980 .390 performance.

    1. To your first point, Brett's counting numbers are exceptional because he was a) a great hitter who b) compiled over 10,000 at-bats--2,000 more than Schmidt, 1,800 more than Mathews, 1,400 more than Jones, and 1,200 more than Boggs. All those guys walked a lot more, which is also reflected in their superior OBPs. Brett's power was very good but not quite great, as he slugged .487 for his career while Mathews, Jones, and Schmidt all cleared .500 easily. Thus I don't think you can call Brett the best-hitting third baseman, but obviously he ranks pretty high up there.

      And Brett's career did not run at the same time as Robinson, who played his last full season in 1975 and retired after 1977. Brett debuted in 1973 and played his first full year in 1974, so they only had two true years of overlap (five in all). Brett played until 1993, meaning he had almost his whole career without Robinson to win Gold Gloves. But since he was nothing special defensively, he didn't. My point is that don't blame Brett's lack of Gold Gloves on Robinson, because Brooks simply wasn't a factor.

  4. The best fielding 3B I ever saw day in and day out was Graig Nettles...

  5. He's up there too. Think Nettles should be in the Hall of Fame? I originally thought no but after looking at his neutralized numbers I'm almost tempted to say yes

  6. The best fielding 3B I ever saw day in and day out was Buddy Bell..........