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Monday, May 21, 2007

Best Defensive Centerfielder: Richie Ashburn or Willie Mays?

As you know by now, I love centerfield play. So I did a comparison between two great defensive centerfielders.
This is an excerpt from my recent analysis.

Richie Ashburn was passed over for the Hall of Fame until 1995 (mainly due to lack of power statistics), but he defined what a leadoff batter was in the #1 Philly uniform. His tenacious play, reckless abandon and ultimate toughness in a town wanton of that grit, encourage teammates and garnered praise in the midst of less-than-successful seasons that usually beset the Phillies after 1950. A five-time All Star over his career (with Mays, Snider, Bell and Pinson sometimes making it in his stead in the National League), he racked up more seasons with 400 putouts (9) than any other centerfielder in baseball history.

Richie Ashburn’s greatness on defense, lifetime .308 BA and .394 OBP certainly should have been honored sooner by the National Baseball Hall of Fame than 1995. In reflection, this author would rate him the 5th best centerfielder of this group (behind Mays, Mantle, Joe DiMaggio and Duke Snider) if only because his defense was near the top amongst all Centerfielders in MLB History in as much as putouts, assist records and fielding percentage do reflect that. To further this point of view, an analysis of why this holds merit comes from examination against the standard which all Centerfielders in the post racial-integration era are measured:
The fairness of this analysis comes from certain measurements:

  1. Utilizing 1951-1957 Records. Both players were in the same home ballparks each season; were both at the prime or near prime of their defensive abilities; each had roughly the same players flanking them during the time.
  2. Pitching Staffs were very close in ERA (3.71 NY to 3.74 Philly) and gave up close to the same amount of Home Runs (977 NY to 948 Philly.)
  3. Adjustments were made for higher percentage of balls hit to outfield. The Phillies did use the fly ball out more than New York. New York though turned significantly more double plays from both the outfield and infield. Phillies had mediocre corner OF defense (Del Ennis, Johnny Wyrostek, Rip Repulski and Elmer Valo amongst the group) whereas, Monte Irvin, Don Mueller and Bobby Thomson patrolled around Willie Mays. This does help Richie’s totals, but his high Fielding % reflects he made catches consistently even under a likely lack of support from his corners. Even if Mays was much more daring, he didn’t amass the same amount of catches from just poaching his counterparts’ chances.

Philadelphia did have an imbalance of Outfield Putouts made during this span of time. (Table 4.6) The benefit was most egregious in 1951 and 1957. However, the true measure of one players’ contribution to a team’s defense comes from the percentage of outs he is responsible for. And adjustments can be made for obtaining more opportunities than other outfields or centerfielders.Willie Mays lost two prime seasons (1952 & 1953) to serving his country in the Korean conflict. It is not hard to imagine what could have been the final totals of Mays if not for losing this time (over 700 home runs for certain.) But the fairest defensive comparison of these men can be seen from 1954 to 1957 when both played over 150 games and compiled staggering numbers of chances and putouts.

To adjust for Ashburn’s fly ball pitching staff, the additional Total chances were multiplied by his percentage of Total Outfield Chances, halved and then subtracted from his real Total Chances. And Mays received the same benefit but those chances were added to his totals. This adjustment gives both the same number of potential opportunities in the outfield.

Willie Mays and Richie Ashburn differ by a mere twenty balls and (.024 ball/game average) over a 4-year span. Given the statistical closeness, both playing in spacious ballparks (Connie Mack Stadium was in excess of 445 feet to Center and had much greater foul line dimensions than the Polo Grounds) and Richie’s mediocre cohorts (who even with his .985 Fielding % could muster only a .9784 % compared to .9793 % for the Giants with Willie’s .9813% during this span), Ashburn was nearly identical to Mays in terms of defensive talent and numbers, not offensive prowess. As Daryl Sconiers states in an Anaheim Angels web blog, www.Haloblog.com, “Any centerfielder who posted 500+ TC, behind even the weakest pitching staffs and teams, was a great defensive centerfielder, at least that season. And any player who posted 500 or more TC [Total Chances] in a season behind a strong staff is likely one of the, if not the, best of all-time.” Ashburn (5) five times in this time span achieved 500 total chances.
Any defensive centerfielder conversation without Ashburn included in it is ignoring all statistical information and anecdotal evidence to the contrary. Maybe more importantly, the New York media’s concentration on Mays, Mantle, Snider and even Joe DiMaggio, in his last few seasons (1948-1951), was more the reason Ashburn’s skills were diminished in the eyes of baseball experts, then and possibly, now.
This player distortion idea is not new. As Daryl Sconiers suggests, “…the truth is that most opinions about defensive center field are based largely on lore, anecdote and the regional or team biases of those crafting the tales of talent. Too often, any list of great defensive centerfield includes a majority of players whom the modern fan never saw play.”[1] As this fan can attest to, I did not see Richie Ashburn or Willie Mays play, other than highlight reels that played the over-the-shoulder signature grab Willie Mays made of a Vic Wertz bomb in the 1954 World Series, a play that etched Willie Mays in the immortality of baseball.
In 1950, Ashburn made a perfect throw to stop Dodger Cal Abrams from scoring the game winner at the end of the season, thus allowing George Sisler Jr. to hit the home run that put the 1950 Phillies in the World Series. In Mind Game (2005), Ashburn’s 8-year stretch in center field (1951-58) is rated amongst the best ever had by center fielders of any era using WARP 3 (Wins Above Replacement Player) factor. On the list, Willie Mays (1958-1965: 97.2), Mickey Mantle (1954-1961: 94.1), Joe DiMaggio (1937-1947: 85.2), Duke Snider (1949-1956: 74.0) and Ashburn (73.3) reflects the elite level at which these center fielders were playing. Two others of note, Kirby Puckett (70.8) and Ken Griffey Jr. (81.9) are considered the standards of excellence in the last twenty years.[2] This WARP 3 measurement also has CF Bernie Williams (71.7) considered a top 15 MLB player (16.3) from 1995-2002.
[1] Sconiers D. Defensive Centerfield. Unknown: http://www.haloblog.com/oct1504.html; 2004 October 15. 9. Last Accessed: August 2, 2006.
[2] Goldman Steve, editor. Mind Game: How the Boston Red Sox Got Smart, Won a World Series, and Created a New Blueprint for Winning. New York: Workman Publishing; 2005. 56.








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