Monday, January 2, 2012

Willie, Mickey, or the Duke?

During baseball’s golden age of the 1950s, New York City was the sport’s capital.  Three big league teams called “the city that never sleeps” home up until 1958, when the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants kickstarted baseball’s westward expansion by relocating to Los Angeles and San Francisco.  But for the first and only time in baseball history, the three teams enjoyed sustained stretches of excellence at the same time, and the result was that a New York team made the Fall Classic ten straight years from 1949 to 1958, during which there were six “Subway Series” (New York has only seen one since, and the metropolis would have to wait until the new millennium) and an unforgettable three game playoff between the Giants and Dodgers with the ’51 pennant on the line. 

Each squad was built around a Hall of Fame centerfielder in his prime.  The Yanks had Joe DiMaggio’s successor in Mickey Mantle, a shy kid from Oklahoma who could run like a deer and hit the ball a country mile from both sides of the plate. The Giants had Willie Mays, baseball’s most exciting player who could be found playing stickball with the Harlem youth.  And the Dodgers had Edwin “Duke” Snider, a graceful all-around player with streaks of gray in his hair.  These three men were perennial All-Stars and MVP candidates who delivered jaw-dropping performances on baseball’s biggest stage, so comparisons between them were only natural.  The passionate fan bases engaged in verbal combat on street corners, stoops, and bus stations across Manhattan, but all that talking about Willie, Mickey and the Duke did little to resolve the question on everyone’s mind; who was better? 

Using modern statistical analysis from I tried to determine who truly was the best centerfielder in Gotham City during the era, and broke down the numbers season by season.  I have omitted 1952 and 1953 because an army stint limited Mays to just 34 games in 1952 and forced him to miss all of the following season. 

1951 Snider

Mantle .267/.349/.443  116 OPS+ 1.6 bWAR

Mays .274/.356/.472  120 OPS+ 3.5 bWAR

Snider .277/.344/.483  118 OPS+  3.7 bWAR

Mays and Mantle were just 19 year old rookies at the start of the season, and they both endured dreadful, confidence draining slumps to begin their Hall of Fame careers; Mays only managed one hit (a home run off Warren Spahn) through his first 26 at-bats and only pulled himself together after skipper Leo “the Lip” Durocher assured him that he would be his starting centerfielder even if he didn’t get another hit for the rest of the season.  Mantle, who’d been touted during spring training as the next Yankee legend and was appropriately given the number six (Ruth had worn three, Gehrig four and DiMaggio five), crumbled under these lofty expectations and was demoted midseason to Kansas City, where he toiled for over a month and nearly called it quits before his father showed up and delivered an unforgettable tongue lashing.  His OPS jumped over 100 points after he was recalled in late August.  Mays also bounced back nicely to slug 20 homers and take home NL Rookie of the Year honors, but the elder Snider topped them both.  The Duke of Flatbush, still just 24 himself but in his fifth big league season, took plenty of heat for failing to bat his weight in September but played in 150 games and posted the most impressive counting stats.  Mays made it surprisingly close, but I’ll give the edge to Snider.

1954 Mays

Mantle .300/.408/.525  158 OPS+  7.8 bWAR

Mays .345/.411/.667  175 OPS+  10.2 bWAR

Snider .341/.423/.647  171 OPS+  7.7 bWAR

Mays didn’t skip a beat after military service robbed him of nearly two full seasons.  Not only did the first time All-Star lead the Giants to their last World Series victory in New York while producing one of the sport’s iconic moments with “The Catch,” but he also won the MVP, was awarded the Hickok Belt as the top professional athlete of the year and was named ML Major League Player of the Year by The Sporting News. Mantle led the majors in runs with 129 and eclipsed the century mark in RBI for the first time, but Mays and Snider dwarfed his production.  His Yankees missed an opportunity for a sixth consecutive World Series flag despite winning 103 games because the Cleveland Indians accrued 111 victories that year.  Snider, in his hallowed age 27 season, set career highs in the triple slash stats while leading the NL in runs (120), extra base hits (89) and total bases (378), but the numbers prove that the Say Hey Kid was a little better.

1955 Mays

Mantle .306/.431/.611  180 OPS+  9.5 bWAR

Mays .319/.400/.659  174 OPS+  9.3 bWAR

Snider .309/.418/.628  169 OPS+  8.9 bWAR

Mays followed up his breakout year in 1954 by belting 51 four-baggers and compiling 382 total bases, major league leading totals along with his slugging percentage, OPS, and thirteen triples.  Mantle made the leap from a very good player to a great one by leading the Junior Circuit with 37 bombs, eleven triples, and 113 walks in his first MVP-caliber season, but in a less enlightened time teammate Yogi Berra and his 3.8 bWAR were able to walk away with the hardware.  The Silver Fox was named ML Major League Player of the Year by The Sporting News after he scored and drove in more runs than anyone else in baseball, but finished a close second in the NL race when voters deemed backstop Roy Campanella’s season (5.5 bWAR) more valuable to Brooklyn’s success (for a more detailed account of this travesty, go here).  The numbers show that this is definitely the most competitive year, and you can’t go wrong with either one, but I’ll take Mays because he managed those gaudy power numbers while stealing 24 bases (no one would go 50/20 until Alex Rodriguez in 2007) and hitting in a lineup without another regular who slugged over .403.  Mantle and Snider had plenty of help, but Mays was a one man show in Harlem.

1956 Mantle                                                                      

Mantle .353/.464/.705  210 OPS+  12.9 bWAR

Mays .296/.369/.557  146 OPS +  6.8 bWAR

Snider .292/.399/.598  155 OPS+  7.7 bWAR

1956 was the Mick’s banner year—his “favorite summer”—and when one looks at the stats it’s not hard to see why; he won the major league triple crown while also leading both leagues in runs scored (132), slugging percentage, OPS (1.169), total bases (376), extra base hits (79) and AB/HR (10.3).  He continued his heavy hitting in October by socking three homers and leading his Yankees over the Dodgers in Brooklyn’s final World Series appearance. For his efforts he was unanimously selected as the American League MVP, The Sporting News named him the ML Major League Player of the Year and he also won the Hickok Belt. Analyst Elliot Kalb asserted in his book “Who’s Better, Who’s Best in Baseball?” that Mantle’s ’56 season was the best offensive season in the eight decades between Babe Ruth and Barry Bonds.  Mays fell off a bit in the power department but just missed becoming the first ever 40/40 player (he fell four homers short).  Snider also regressed somewhat but still topped the Senior Circuit with 43 big flies, 78 extra base hits, 99 walks (a major league-leading 26 of which were intentional) and a .997 OPS. But neither could hold a candle to Mantle’s historic campaign.

1957 Mantle

Mantle .365/.512/.665  221 OPS+  12.5 bWAR

Mays .333/.407/.626  173 OPS+  8.5 bWAR

Snider .274/.368/.587  143 OPS+  4.7 bWAR

With the nation watching to see what the Commerce Comet could do for an encore, Mantle responded with another dominant season in 1957.  A 38 year-old Ted Williams bested him in the slash stats and nearly batted .400 again, but it was Mantle who took home the MVP award (again) after leading the majors in runs (121), walks (146), and bWAR.  He even hit for the cycle against the White Sox on July 23rd.  Mays led the bigs with 20 triples and 38 stolen bases as he threatened 40/40 again (his numbers look an awful lot like Matt Kemp’s 2011 line) while Snider enjoyed his fifth straight 40 home run campaign, but once again Mantle was clearly superior.  Unfortunately the Giants were sixteen games under .500 and finished last in the league in attendance, and age finally caught up with the third place Dodgers.  New York wouldn’t have a National League team again until expansion gave birth to the woeful Mets in 1962.

Aggregate 1954-1957

Mantle .330/.453/.625  192 OPS+  42.7 bWAR

Mays .323/.397/.627  167 OPS+   34.8 bWAR

Snider .305/.403/.616  160 OPS+   29 bWAR

After a frustrating rookie season, Mantle steadily improved until peaking in 1956 and 1957, when he netted almost as many bWAR as Snider did from ’54-’57.  Snider was the most consistent of the trio, for he finished each season with at least 40 home runs (with a career high of 43) while posting strong run/RBI totals to go along with his excellent rate stats, although all three declined each year.  He suffers for hitting in a loaded lineup that featured Jackie Robinson, Gil Hodges, Pee Wee Reese, Carl Furillo, and Roy Campanella while enjoying the added benefit of playing half his games in Ebbets Field, a southpaw hitter’s dream.  Mantle had to swing for the unreachable fences of “Death Valley” and didn’t have much help besides Berra.  Mays was the only real threat in the Giants lineup, and the Polo Grounds had its own version of “Death Valley.”  The Say Hey Kid was neck and neck with Mantle for the most part, but Mantle gained an advantaged by walking much more (a skill that went largely unappreciated at the time).   Ultimately, Mays would enjoy the more productive career by staying healthy enough to play into his 40s, whereas injuries and alcohol abuse took their toll on Mantle and accelerated his decline.  The Duke was never the same player in his seven seasons after leaving Brooklyn (he only made one more All-Star team).  He made a cameo with the ’63 Mets and, in a twist of irony, finished his career playing with Willie Mays on the 1964 San Francisco Giants.

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