Sunday, June 15, 2014

Williams vs. DiMaggio

Williams and DiMaggio were teammates in nine All-Star games (SI)
Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio dominated the headlines during the 1940s. Their incredible talents, personal and team rivalries, and newsworthy exploits off the field and on made them America's most famous athletes immediately before and after the Second World War. Legend has it that they were nearly traded for each other straight up, before Tom Yawkey demanded the Yankees throw in a young catcher by the name of Yogi Berra, which turned out to be the dealbreaker.

The debates over which baseball giant was better raged on for more than a decade, from the dawn of Williams career (by which point DiMaggio was already an established star) to the end of DiMaggio's. Williams was viewed as the better hitter, DiMaggio as a superior leader and all-around player. Williams had the gaudier statistics, but DiMaggio played the more demanding position and played it flawlessly. Joltin' Joe's Yankee squads claimed ten pennants and nine championships in his 13-year career, while Williams' Red Sox teams (which featured Joe's little brother Dom DiMaggio, also a center fielder) went title-less and became known for their near-misses more than the one pennant they actually won during his 19 seasons with Boston.*

*By the way, the championship disparity can be summarized by two words: pitching and management. New York always seemed to have more arms and smarter skippers.Joe Cronin was incompetent, and Joe McCarthy badly overmanaged the pennant-deciding games of 1948 and '49.

Each player has his strong suits, but who was better? As a Red Sox fan I'm obligated to choose Teddy Ballgame, but the numbers back me up. As an appetizer, here's a sampling of their stats from 1939, Williams' rookie season, through 1951, DiMaggio's final season

DiMaggio 4,964 AB 254 HR 1,105 RBI .322/.404/.567 .971 OPS 159 OPS+ 60 bWAR
Williams 5,086 AB 323 HR 1,261 RBI .347/.484/.633 1.117 OPS 190 OPS+ 83.7 bWAR

With nearly 24 more bWAR and an OPS almost 150 points higher, Thumper clearly wins, doing more than enough with the bat to compensate for DiMaggio's superior fielding and baserunning skills. DiMaggio won more hardware though, winning three MVP awards to William's three and six World Series title to Williams' none.

Quick tangent: I've always found DiMaggio to be a bit overrated. I can see why: he hit for high batting averages and drove in tons of runs and almost never struck out. Above all, he won the World Series almost every damn year. But for all his RBI, he only led the league twice. For all his high averages, he only led the league twice. He never led in OBP (more important than average) and OPS, and only once led in adjusted OPS. And he was horrible in the postseason.

He was solid on the bases and a great center fielder, but DiMaggio's defense appears to have been wildly overrated, as both B-R and FanGraphs agree that his glovework, while good, was only worth 3.2 wins over the course of his career, or saved fewer than three runs per season. According to bWAR he was never the American League's most valuable player, and was the league's second most valuable player only once (in 1939).

So I don't think I'm out of line when I say that his hold on the whole Greatest Living Ballplayer title was completely undeserved. Williams and Stan Musial were superior among his peers, and he was quickly surpassed by Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Mickey Mantle, and others as all-around players soon after his retirement. At no point was DiMaggio ever the greatest living ballplayer, and that he insisted on being referred to as such until his last breath was utterly ridiculous.

Anyways, I digress. Here's the year-by-year breakdown of the ten seasons in which their careers overlapped, excluding the war years of 1943-1945, when both were in the service:

1939 DiMaggio
The Kid was great from the start, batting .327/.436/.609 with the most RBI (145) and extra base hits (86) in baseball. But as great as the 20 year-old rookie (6.7 bWAR) was, DiMaggio was even better. His .381 average led both leagues and hasn't been equaled by a righthanded hitter in the 75 years since. His 8.1 bWAR were also tops among position players, and he ranked second in slugging, OPS, and OPS+ only to Williams' teammate Jimmie Foxx. DiMaggio was rightfully named league MVP at season's end, the first of three times he'd win the award. Williams settled for fourth behind Joltin' Joe, Double X, and Blazin' Bob Feller.

1940 DiMaggio
Both players fell off a bit in 1940, but not by much. Williams saw his power numbers sink to 23 home runs and 113 RBI even though Fenway Park's rightfield fence had been moved closer during the previous offseason to accommodate the newly constructed bullpens (so dubbed Williamsburg), making his season a mild disappointment even though he paced the Show in runs, OBP, and times on base. DiMaggio lost almost 30 points off his batting average but still won the crown at .352, barely eclipsing Luke Appling's .348 and Teddy Ballgame's .344. He also outhomered Williams 31 to 23, knocked in 20 more runs, and posted the American League's best OPS+ at 173. With 7.1 bWAR, the Yankee Clipper was worth nearly a full win more than Williams (6.3).

1941 Williams
1941 was a banner year for both players. DiMaggio had his 56 game hitting streak and the most RBI, extra base hits and total bases in the majors, but Williams had everything else, most notably his .406 average and .553 OBP, a record that stood for more than 60 years before Barry Bonds shattered it. He won the sabermetric Triple Crown and just missed the conventional Triple Crown by a handful of RBI (five, to be exact). He also led the major leagues in walks, runs, runs created (31 more than DiMaggio), times on base, adjusted OPS and AB/HR. In all, Williams was worth 10.6 bWAR, head and shoulders above everyone else, including DiMaggio (second at 9.1).

1942 Williams
Williams won the traditional Triple Crown, sabermetric Triple Crown, led the majors in just about every batting statistic imaginable, and was worth 10.6 bWAR, same as the year before. Incredibly, the writers found someone else to give the MVP award to; Yankees second baseman Joe Gordon. DiMaggio's performance dropped off considerably from the year before. He lost more than 50 points off his average, 64 off his OBP and almost 150 off his slugging percentage as his batting line dipped to .305/.376/.498--the worst average and SLG of his career up to that point. Ditto his 21 homers and 114 RBI, nine and eleven fewer than his 1941 totals, respectively, even though he played 15 additional games. Despite the steep drop off, his numbers were still great (6.1 bWAR), just not in the same neighborhood's as Williams's otherworldly figures.

1946 Williams
DiMaggio struggled in his first season back from war, batting below .300 and failing to reach 100 RBI for the first time. Williams, however, picked up right where he left off, batting .342/.497/.667 with 38 home runs (then a career-high) and 123 RBI. With Boston winning its first pennant since the sale of Babe Ruth, Williams (with 10.9 bWAR) finally earned his first MVP. DiMaggio (5.1 bWAR) finished a distant 19th in the voting, the worst finish of his career until his final season when he received no votes at all.

1947 Williams
DiMaggio had a better showing than in 1946, but it was still a down season by his lofty standards. His 20 home runs were the fewest of any season in his career up to that point, and he fell short of 100 RBI again. His 4.8 bWAR was his lowest total since his rookie season. Williams wasn't quite as good as the year before, but still good enough to win his second Triple Crown, third sabermetric Triple Crown and compile 9.9 bWAR--most in baseball. That DiMaggio won the MVP remains one of the award's most egregious travesties.

1948 Williams
Both were great in '48, and I very nearly called this one a tie. In the end I decided that Williams was better, but not by much. DiMaggio's 39 dingers, 355 total bases, and 15.2 AB/HR ratio led the American League, and his 155 ribbies led all of baseball. Williams was even more dominant, pacing the league in doubles, walks, all three triple slash stats, OPS+, runs created, times on base, and Win Probability Added. They ranked 2-3 in bWAR behind league MVP Lou Boudreau, with Williams worth 8.5 and DiMaggio 7.1. That, combined with Williams' overall dominance, tipped the scales in his favor.

1949 Williams
If 1948 was a tough call, there was no doubt about who had the better year in 1949. Williams was the league MVP and narrowly missed winning his third Triple Crown. DiMaggio missed more than half the season. Though DiMaggio was terrific when he did suit up, managing 4.4 bWAR and batting .346/.459/.596 in 76 games, Williams hit an even better .343/.490/.650 and played every game, a performance worth 9.1 bWAR.

1950 DiMaggio
Because of an elbow injury suffered while running into a wall during the All-Star Game, Williams played only 89 games, his fewest total in a non-war interrupted season. DiMaggio enjoyed his last good year at 35, launching 32 home runs, driving in 122, and leading the league in extras base hits with 75 and slugging percentage at .585. Though Williams' OPS was more than 100 points higher and he wasn't far behind in home runs (28), he played 40 fewer games than DiMag and was worth roughly four wins to DiMaggio's five.

1951 Williams
DiMaggio's final season was also his worst, for he set career lows in many categories and was only worth around three wins above replacement. Williams, on the other hand, was worth more than seven. In addition to outhitting DiMaggio by nearly 60 points, clubbing 18 more homers and driving in 55 more runs, the Kid had the most walks and highest OBP in the majors. He also paced the circuit in bWAR, slugging, total bases, OPS, OPS+, runs created, times on base, and Win Probability Added. Additionally, he placed second in home runs, RBI, extra base hits, and AB/HR ratio. And to think this constituted a down year by Williams' lofty standards!

Williams wins 7-3. That settles that.

1 comment:

  1. For a different perspective, see my article on Williams vs DiMaggio if this trade would have happened. Click link: