Monday, March 19, 2012

Best Offensive Baseball Season of the 1940s

I guess a case could be made for Stan Musial's 1948, but this one wasn't much of a contest.

1941 Ted Williams (11.3 bWAR)

Teddy Ballgame's 1941 is arguably the greatest season by a hitter in the long and storied history of America's national pastime.  "The greatest hitter who ever lived" was at his absolute zenith in his third big league season and was just 22 years old, the age of a typical college graduate.  He had already established himself as a top hitter by then, but his 1940 had been viewed as a disappointment because his home run total dropped more than 25 percent even though the Sox had constructed a new bullpen--dubbed "Williamsburg"--in right field to bring the fences in by 20 feet.  The Fenway Faithful began booing the young Williams, who responded by lashing out at the fans/media and demanding a trade.  It was just his nature; he was cocky, brash, and full of energy, eager to prove that he could walk the walk after talking the talk.

Williams is greeted by DiMaggio at home plate
after winning the All-Star game with a timely
home run
As always, his bat talked louder than his words.  Although a broken bone in his right ankle suffered during spring training limited him to pinch-hitting duty for much of April, the injury did little to inhibit his swing.  He reeled off a 23 game hit streak from May 15th (the same day Joe DiMaggio went one-for-four to kickstart his record-setting hit streak) through June 7th, during which his batting average swelled from .339 to .431.  A month later during the Midsummer Classic in DetroiT. Williams (hitting .405 at the time) batted cleanup behind the Yankee Clipper, who by that point had already notched a hit in 48 straight games.  Boston's slugger stepped up in the bottom of the ninth with runners on the corners, swung with his eyes closed and crushed a walk-off three-run homer to give the American League a 7-5 victory (back when the game was one of the marquee sporting events). He always maintained that it was the most thrilling hit of his life. 

Unfortunately, his quest to bat .400 was overshadowed for most of the summer by Joe DiMaggio's unprecedented 56 game hitting streak that had the entire nation diligently checking box scores in the morning papers.  In addition, the sport was just coming off a decade of inflated statistics, and it had only been eleven years since Bill Terry batted .401 for the New York Giants (becoming the last National Leaguer to eclipse .400 in the process).  High batting averages were commonplace, and the novelty of hitting .400 had worn off a bit.  It would be like if Albert Pujols hit 70 home runs this year.  Still a remarkable achievement, but one that's been "cheapened" by Bonds, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.

By late July DiMaggio's streak had been committed to memory, and Williams pulled his average up over .400 after spending a couple weeks in the .390s.  He entered September batting .407, and halfway through the month his average stood at .411.  Then, mere inches from the finish line, he slumped.  He batted just .265 over the next two weeks, setting the stage for a dramatic finish. 

Every baseball fan worth his salt knows how he famously collected six hits in eight at-bats during a doubleheader against Connie Mack's Philadelphia A's on the final day of the season.  With his batting average sitting at .39955, Williams was told by player/manager Joe Cronin that he could sit out the twin bill and his average would be rounded up to .400.  The Kid flat-out refused and boosted his average to .406 with his big day, which included a double and a home run.

But Williams did so much more than win his first batting championship by hitting .406. He also led the major leagues with 135 runs, 37 dingers, 147 walks, .553 OBP, .735 SLG., 1,287 OPS, and a 234 OPS+.  He came within five RBI of winning his first batting Triple Crown, and won the first of five "sabermetric Triple Crowns" (leading the league in the three triple slash stats).  Unfortunately for him, his Red Sox finished a distant second to the Yanks, 17 games off the pace, and the MVP voting reflected this.  Joltin' Joe outpolled Williams, even though Williams clearly had the superior season across the board.  The most glaring difference was OPS, in which Williams held a 204 point advantage! It was just the first of many snubs for Teddy Ballgame, who would get jobbed the following year when the writers gave it to Joe Gordon, who probably wasn't even the most valuable player on his own team.

Some more eye-popping stats from his monster year:

-His .406 average is the highest since 1924, when Rogers Hornsby set the modern record by batting .424
-Struck out only 27 times
-Played in only three night games that year
-His .553 OBP stood as a major league record for more than six decades, until Barry Bonds surpassed him in 2002 with a .582 mark
-His 1.287 OPS was the highest figure posted between 1923 (Ruth) and 2001 (Bonds)
-His lowest monthly batting average was .372 in June; he batted over .400 in May, July, and August
-Recorded four more walks than games played, and walked more than five times for every whiff
-As the season wore on, Williams only got better; his second half OPS was 169 points higher than his first half OPS
-At the time, batting averages were penalized for sacrifice flies, which counted as official at-bats instead of just plate appearances, as they are now.  Under current rules, Williams would have batted .416
-His batting average was below .400 after just 30 of his 143 games that year

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