Wednesday, July 26, 2017

Debunking Some Ted Williams Myths

The Boston press attacked Williams with invented weaknesses (SI.com)
Last week I got around to reading Impossible Dreams, an excellent anthology of Red Sox writing compiled by Glenn Stout that's well worth a look for all Sox fans. One of the sections centers on Ted Williams, of course, given that he inspired more copy than any athlete in Boston sports history--most of it overwhelmingly negative. 

The Boston press, which featured nine newspapers at the time, was hostile to him for most of his career. One such instance came at the beginning of the 1954 season when Williams, 35 and just back from Korea, was contemplating retirement. Although he had returned from the war zone with a bang the previous summer, batting .407/.509/.901 with 13 homers and 34 RBIs in 37 games, the writers were hardly begging him to stay. Instead, they dared him to quit, imploring him to hang up his spikes immediately rather than wait until season's end. Thankfully, Williams played out the season and several more, sticking around until 1960. 

Anyways, the 1954 piece I'm referring to (which was penned by either Dave Egan or Harold Kaese -- his two most vicious attackers) levelled several common criticisms of the day against Williams, namely that he struggled against the Yankees, tanked in the clutch, and was more concerned with his own statistics than helping the Red Sox win.

Writers rarely supported their arguments with statistics back then, but if they had they would have had no ground to stand on. Williams batted .345/.495/.608 against New York in his career, nearly identical to his overall .344/.482/.634 slash line. So how did writers get the notion that he wilted against the Yankees? Likely after the final days of the 1949 season, when Boston dropped its final two games at Yankee Stadium to blow the pennant while Williams went 1-for-5, losing the batting title to George Kell in the process. Williams did not choke, however, reaching base in four of his eight trips to the plate and scoring two of Boston's seven runs. The press, which had a long memory with Williams when it came to his failings but borderline amnesia regarding his successes, also apparently forgot that just one week before, Williams had led the Sox to a two-game sweep of the Yanks at Fenway Park by homering in each game. 

The last two games of '49 were lumped in with the 1948 pennant tiebreaker game against Cleveland (in which he went 1-for-4) and his poor World Series performance in 1946 as evidence that Williams couldn't perform when it counted most. In the 10 biggest games of his life, writers often reminded their readers, he was 7-for-34 (.206) with no extra-base hits and just one RBI. However, 10 games is much too small of a sample size to draw any meaningful conclusions from, especially since Williams was hurt during the Fall Classic and the other three contests came at the end of long, grueling pennant races. It was seldom mentioned that Boston wouldn't have gotten that far in the first place without Williams, who earned MVP honors in 1946 and '49 while finishing third in '48. But since the Red Sox always fell short in the end, their failures magnified those of Williams when people went searching for explanations.

Looking at Williams' overall body of work (and not cherry-picking 10 games from a career of 2,292), however, there's ample evidence that suggests he was actually pretty good in the clutch. In high leverage situations, for instance, he batted .329/.467/.607 -- not far off his career marks. When games were late and close, he performed at a .312/.449/.613 clip -- not quite his career levels, but still outstanding. And when there were two outs and runners in scoring position, he batted .315/.524/.647. 

That last stat line (note the on-base percentage) drew the ire of sportswriters who blasted Williams for refused to expand his strike zone with men on base. He was selfish, they said, because he would rather take a walk than help the team by driving in a run (which is often said about Joey Votto today). It's been proven, however, that the occasional RBI gained by swinging at balls is not worth the trade-off of making more outs. Besides, Williams drove in plenty of runs despite often being pitched around in such situations, leading the league four times and racking up 1,839 in all (130 per 162 games). He was hardly the only Boston batter capable of driving in runs, either, as he often had great RBI men behind him such as Jimmie Foxx, Bobby Doerr, Vern Stephens, and Jackie Jensen. The best thing a hitter can do to help his team is avoid making outs by getting on base, and no one in baseball history was better at that than Williams, whose .482 career OBP is still the highest of all time.

As a hitter, Williams was pretty much flawless. The press made up weaknesses so they'd have something to write about, and they got away with it because great sites like Baseball-Reference didn't exist yet. But now that they do, we can see how the Knights of the Keyboard exaggerated the few (but memorable) failures in Williams career to create these illusive shortcomings. 

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