Baseball Crank
Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
March 2, 2001
BASEBALL: REMEMBERING EDDIE MATHEWS

Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.

Eddie Mathews died last week. Although it wasn't quite ignored by the media, Mathews' passing was given only a cursory writeup in many corners and widely overshadowed by the spectacular death of Dale Earnhardt. Sports Illustrated ran only a brief note on how Mathews was the magazine's first-ever cover picture, in 1954. The New York Times buried a small obituary for Mathews under a much longer one for "sex expert" William Masters. ESPN.com couldn't even find space on its baseball page for a decent tribute, leaving it to the indecipherable Ralph Wiley to give him a decent sendoff. CBS Sportsline did a better job with this "Behind the Numbers" profile and career retrospective.

But Mathews deserved better. In 130 years of organized major league baseball, thousands of men have played Mathews' position, and only one - Mike Schmidt - played it better. That's more than you could say about Joe DiMaggio, or Roberto Clemente, or Sandy Koufax, or Whitey Ford. Mathews was one of baseball's giants, only the second third baseman (after Frank "Home Run" Baker) who could have been considered one of the game's superstars. It still astonishes me that it took Mathews five tries to get elected to the Hall of Fame.

I've been busy this week, so I don't have the time here either to do Mathews justice. But it's fitting to compare him to some of the other, more prominent contenders for the title of "second greatest third baseman of all time." (Schmidt is regarded now, by acclamation, as the best at the position, and since I have no quarrel with that assessment I'll leave him out of the discussion). I?ll stick to the most famous ones, although I feel comfortable as well that Mathews was a greater player than Baker, Jimmy Collins, or John McGraw.

PART ONE: THE ALL-TIME GREATS

Here are the contenders: I'll run links for each player to the baseball-reference.com profile and the Baseball Prospectus profile (which includes BP evaluative stats like "EqA" that are explained on the BP website).

1. Eddie Mathews
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus

I don't have a definitive list, but I believe that when Mathews retired in 1968, he had hit more home runs than any other two third basemen combined; the only other players I could find with 200 homers to that point who had played most of their careers at third were Ron Santo (282) and Ken Boyer (224).

One thing that sticks out is Mathews' influence on the Braves organization. After the great teams of the 1890's left town, the Braves spent half a century in Boston as a team without an identity, playing mediocre baseball before miniscule crowds in a stadium with the most distant fences in the history of modern baseball. The 1914 miracle was just that - the major players came and went within a few years. When the team headed to Milwaukee in 1953, the 1948 pennant winners looked to go the same way. But with his blockbuster arrival as a slugger from 1953 to 1955, Mathews joined Warren Spahn to give the Braves an identity that they have basically kept to this day, as a team built around home run power and a combination of young hitters with what have usually been veteran pitching staffs.

Although they don't have the cache of Yankee centerfielders or Red Sox leftfielders, Mathews was the second in an almost unbroken line of hard hitting third basemen, from Bob Elliott (the first third baseman to win an MVP award) to Mathews to Darrell Evans to Bob Horner to (briefly) Terry Pendleton to Chipper Jones.

2. Pie Traynor
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus

Beginning around the time Mathews came up and until Schmidt and Brett were in their primes, Traynor was regarded as the greatest third baseman of all time, primarily due to his lifetime .320 batting average and seven 100-RBI seasons. (Bill James, in the Historical Baseball Abstract, traces the timeline of the rise of Traynor's reputation). Third basemen in Traynor's day were expected to be glove men first and hitters second, in part because until the home run became an accepted weapon, teams bunted incessantly and used other strategies (runners trying to take extra bases, hit-and-run, squeezes, steals and double steals) that involved the third baseman in a lot more fielding plays than is true today. You can see the game changing through the average third baseman's range factor Although Traynor played after the "lively ball" era began when Ruth hit 54 homers in 1920, it took several years for managers raised in the old way to adjust; most teams generally only had 1 or 2 power hitters until the 1930s, and the bunt was still a popular weapon. Anyway, Traynor was known as a gifted fielder as much as he was known for his hitting.

Much like Mathews, Traynor also became the prototype Pittsburgh Pirate. Within a few years of his arrival, they had a whole team of guys just like him, high-average hitters with doubles-and-triples power, good gloves and usually not a lot of patience at the plate (the 1925 World Champs were one of the great teams as far as hitting singles, doubles and triples); subsequent Pirate teams have usually built around this model, from Kiki Cuyler to the Waner brothers to Dick Groat to Roberto Clemente to Al Oliver, Bill Madlock and the young Dave Parker to Tony Pena to Johnny Ray to Andy Van Slyke to Jason Kendall. There have been exceptions, of course, but Traynor serves as the dominant model.

3. Brooks Robinson
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus

Robinson handily defeated Mathews for the second slot on the All-Century team (Brett was third); Robinson was named on 56.3% of all ballots (bearing in mind that everyone was permitted to choose two 3B and Schmidt was named on 63.3% of ballots), while Mathews was named on only 12.9%. He was another guy whose reputation really took off after he dominated the 1970 World Series with his glove, although he also captured the AL MVP in 1964. Like Mathews and Traynor, Robinson has really been the guy the Orioles have sought to replicate in their organization, most prominently with Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray: guys who are fundamentally sound, good defensive players, not that fast afoot and who never, ever take a day off.

4. George Brett
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus

I actually voted for Schmidt and Brett for the All-Century Team, although when I thought it over afterwards I was ashamed of myself for overlooking Mathews. For me and almost anyone who ever saw him, Brett was the ultimate clutch hitter. I have read many, many studies on the non-existence of clutch hitting as a distinct skill, and as a rational person I accept them... but if my life literally depended on one hitter driving in a run in a big situation, I'd be lying if I said I'd take anyone I've ever seen other than George Brett.

There's another theme here: George Brett wasn't just the Royals' best player but the guy they've modeled the franchise after. Ballparks have something to do with this process, of course - there's a reason the Red Sox have traditionally favored big sluggers while the Mets have favored power pitchers - but a dominant player can put a deep stamp on the way an organization thinks about the elements of success. The Royals remain to this day a team that is best served by hustling, aggressive hitters with line-drive power.

5. Wade Boggs
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus

Boggs is overlooked in discussions of great third basemen, mainly because (1) he was still playing until recently and (2) he's hard to compare to other players. Like Robinson, he stuck around a few years as a so-so player, which really needs to be ignored in evaluating how good he was in his prime.

6. Chipper Jones
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus

Just for comparison's sake, we should include the man who holds Mathews' old job and doubles as the best in the business at the position today. Jones hasn't been around long enough for a fair comparison to the rest of these guys, but he does give us a framework to appreciate Mathews and the others through the light of today's game.

PART TWO: THE OFFENSIVE NUMBERS

As I've done for earlier columns, I'm looking just at these guys in their prime years:

Mathews, that's 11 seasons, 1953-63, age 21-31.
Traynor, 10 seasons, 1923-32, age 23-32.
Robinson, 10 seasons, 1962-71, age 25-34
Brett, 11.67 seasons (1981 was 2/3rd of a season due to the strike), 1975-86 (Brett moved to first after 1986), age 22-33
Boggs, 9 seasons, 1983-91, age 25-33
Jones, 5 seasons, 1996-2000, age 24-28

A. Raw Stats

PlayerGPAHRRRBIBBSBXOAvgOPS
Mathews15065336104101100511.283.936
Traynor1446035911013813NA.329.828
Robinson15866420788751217.274.766
Brett137594188886581115.317.900
Boggs15370381066699219.345.909
Jones15769333114110961821.309.953

(XO= Extra outs, caught stealing + GIDP)

On raw numbers alone, only Chipper surpasses Mathews in this group -- in just half as many seasons -- although you could argue that Boggs was equally valuable because of his extraordinarily high on base percentage. But what about the context? Pie Traynor and Chipper Jones both benefitted from high-scoring eras, and of course Boggs had Fenway. By contrast, Brooks Robinson played in what was practically another dead-ball era, while Mathews played in Milwaukee County Stadium in the fifties, when it was (along with Yankee Stadium) the toughest pitcher's park in the game.

How tough was it? In 1958, the Braves and their opponents scored 31% more runs in Braves road games than home games. In 1954, there were 173 homers (24 of them by Eddie Mathews) hit in Braves road games but only 73 (16 by Mathews) at County Stadium! More runs were scored in the Braves road than home games every year from 1953 to 1962, and the difference was greater than 10% in 8 of those 10 years. It was a tough, tough place to hit.

Adjusting the league runs/game by 1/2 of this "park factor," we can come to a proper sense of the offensive context each man batted in:

Mathews: 4.04 runs/game
Traynor: 4.91 runs/game
Robinson: 3.88 runs/game
Brett: 4.42 runs/game
Boggs: 4.68 runs/game
Jones: 4.70 runs/game

When you put it that way . . . it's pretty obvious that Mathews was the best hitter of the bunch, by a substantial margin, and that's comparing his best 11 years to Chipper's 5. Traynor is just as clearly the worst. I don't mean to knock Traynor; a guy who bats .329 and drives in 100 runs every year while playing great defense is valuable in any era... just not in the class of this company. And Brooks Robinson wasn't not so far behind Boggs, Brett, or Jones in his own low-scoring context; Boggs and Jones both played in a time and place where you needed 20% more runs to win.

One hidden advantage Mathews possessed was his ability to avoid the double play; I'm guessing here but that was probably due in part to hitting the ball in the air a lot. Each of the others on this list made between 4 and 10 extra outs every year, mostly through GIDP but in Brett's case through caught stealings (Boggs was the worst offender, hitting into 16 twin killings a year as a leadoff man and getting caught more than half the time he tried to steal).

More technical measures of offensive production agree with the common sense conclusion. The STATS ?Runs Created/27 Outs? leaderboard, through 1997, listed Mathews as the #3 hitter at the position (relative to the league but unadjusted for park effects) behind McGraw and Schmidt; Boggs ranked sixth, Brett 11th, Traynor 43d, and Robinson was not on the list. The Baseball Prospectus ?EqA?, which takes account of league and park influences, places Mathews above Jones (even in mid-career), followed by Boggs, Brett, Traynor and Robinson (Robinson?s career percentages are dragged down by many years at the beginning and end of his 23-year career when he was a no-hit glove man).

B. Leaderboards

Mathews? formula for success was simple: he finished in the league?s top 5 in homers nine years in a row, and the top 4 in walks twelve years in a row. How does he stack up on that count?

League lead-Top 5-Top10 in average, slugging, on base percentage, OPS, hits, homers, total bases, runs, RBI, walks, or steals (for their careers as a whole):

Mathews: 7---48---83
Traynor: 0---10---36
Robinson: 1---13---36
Brett: 14---39---63
Boggs: 18---48---59
Jones: 0-----8---11

Mathews wasn't a regular as batting champ like Brett and Boggs, but over a range of key offensive categories he was up there in the league leaders more than any of these guys.

C. In the Field

Brooks Robinson was the best at his position in the modern age, quite possibly ever. You can?t argue with 16 Gold Gloves, which his defensive stats back those up. Neyer and the Baseball Prospectus folks have been debating lately about the studies of Voros McCracken, a dedicated analyst who has offered a fascinating, if hard to digest, mathematical analysis of why the rate at which balls in play become hits is determined almost entirely by the hitter and defense and not by the pitcher. It?s a controversial theory, but among recent pitchers with long careers one guy sticks out as having an
unusually low number of hits among balls in play: Jim Palmer. Guess why?

Traynor was also a sensational fielder, and along with Ossie Bleuge he defined defense at the position in his day. Brett and Boggs were up-and-down fielders, though each eventually won Gold Gloves, and Chipper was so dreadful last year that the Braves spent the off-season debating moving him to the outfield.

In this class, Mathews has to fall in the top half, behind Robinson and Traynor. He had a great arm and was regarded as a fine fielder; his defensive stats are very good. He led the league in range factor twice, assists three times, and had well above average range factors and slightly above average fielding percentages for the balance of his career. He never won a Gold Glove; the awards only started in 1957, and Ken Boyer owned it for the latter half of Mathews? career. Billy Cox would probably have won it in Mathews first few years, though it?s not clear whether Mathews might have won it in 1955 or 1956.

D. In the clutch

No doubt about it, George Brett is the class of the field on this count; Brett batted .339/.627/.399 in 43 postseason games, and .373/.529/.439 in two World Series. Brett's clutch hitting stemmed in part from his health; while his regular season stats were merely mortal due to constant injuries, he was mostly healthy in October (a prominent exception being his famous battle with hemorrhoids in the 1980 World Series), and raised his level of performance accordingly. As with Mickey Mantle, that's the story of Brett's career; on the whole he can't match up to a guy like Mathews who brought his "A" game to the park 150 times a year for a decade.

Robinson was also a terror in the postseason, with bat and glove. Each of the others, frankly, underachieved in the postseason, although some had their moments, then and in big regular season games: Chipper's September 1999 demolition of the Mets, Mathews' 10th inning homer off Bob Grim in Game 4 to even the 1957 World Series. That homer was a key turning point: remember, the Yankees had won 15 of 17 World Series between 1927 and 1956. Mathews helped break the spell, if only for one October.

E. Personality

Mathews was remembered by everyone who knew him as a fiery emotional leader, like Brett but perhaps not as impulsive. He was not a particularly successful manager, though some of his players thrived under him as never before or after. On the other hand, unlike Traynor, none of the teams he managed choked spectacularly down the stretch (See: pennant race, 1938). In many of his prime years, Mathews was the biggest star on a team with Warren Spahn and Hank Aaron, which says something. Then again, the Braves probably should have won more in those years; they blew close pennant races to a geriatric Dodger squad in 1956, a rebuilding Dodger team in 1959, and upstart Pirates and Reds teams in 1960 and 1961.

Final analysis

Eddie Mathews was a better third baseman -- both in his prime and over the course of his career -- than the legendary Pie Traynor (who lacked Mathews' power and patience). He was better than Brooks Robinson; maybe they weren't in the same league defensively, but Matthews had a fine glove and he was a far better hitter than Robinson. Matthews was better than George Brett: far more durable, more patient, a better fielder, and he didn't spend years as a first baseman and DH. He was better than Boggs, with far more power and much greater range afield. And he was better than the best in the business today, Chipper Jones.

Let the record show that Eddie Mathews was baseball's number-two man at the hot corner, trailing only Mike Schmidt. Don't forget this.

Posted by Baseball Crank at 11:06 AM | Baseball Columns | Comments (8) | TrackBack (0)
Comments

Do you think great players like Eddie Matthews could play in today's game. I have a debate with friends, whom say generally the players today are too athletic etc and the past players like Whitey Ford or Hornsby etc could not do as well today..and the pitchers like Ford could not compete. What do you think..and why. Thank you. Great site.

Posted by: scott at June 4, 2003 8:32 AM

I would like to think that Eddie Mathews could compete with ease. This despite the fact that pitchers today have some new arrows in their quiver, e.g. the cuuter pitch the split-fingered fast ball and other doozies to baffle the hitter. Mathews would probably adjust though and hit a lot of hrs.

Posted by: brian michener at August 1, 2003 11:53 AM

When you retire, that is how you should be remembered. The best third baseman when he retired. The best today. Due to illness, he missed the last game played at Milwaukee County Stadium. He sure hit a lot of homers out of that pitchers park. They should have retired his number a long time ago.

Posted by: Steve Blumberg at October 24, 2003 1:13 PM

I saw Mathews play several times in person during the 1950s at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and later in the early 1960s at Shea Stadium. I think he was great. I too could not believe Mathews was made to wait so long for Hall of Fame recognition. One factor could have been his spiky relationship with the press during his early years in Milwaukee. Had he not developed a bad back in his early 30s, I believe that he would have finished with 600 Hrs. A great story about Mathews that I remember concerns his fielding. He was not a good third baseman in 1952 when he first came up. But back then, a player was either a complete player or he rode the pines waiting to pinch hit. There was no DH to fall back on. Mathews took 200 ground balls a day, sometimes AFTER the game in order to be a good fielder. It paid off. I vividly remember his 1957 fielding gems against the Yankees epecially his sensational game ending grab of a scorching liner off the bat of Moose Skowron in game 7. I believe he is given short shrift today by many witers and followers of the game who seem to think that antthing that happened before 1970 does not count.

Posted by: Curt Auerbach at March 16, 2004 11:41 PM

I saw Mathews play several times in person during the 1950s at Ebbets Field in Brooklyn and later in the early 1960s at Shea Stadium. I think he was great. I too could not believe Mathews was made to wait so long for Hall of Fame recognition. One factor could have been his spiky relationship with the press during his early years in Milwaukee. Had he not developed a bad back in his early 30s, I believe that he would have finished with 600 Hrs. A great story about Mathews that I remember concerns his fielding. He was not a good third baseman in 1952 when he first came up. But back then, a player was either a complete player or he rode the pines waiting to pinch hit. There was no DH to fall back on. Mathews took 200 ground balls a day, sometimes AFTER the game in order to be a good fielder. It paid off. I vividly remember his 1957 fielding gems against the Yankees epecially his sensational game ending grab of a scorching liner off the bat of Moose Skowron in game 7. I believe he is given short shrift today by many witers and followers of the game who seem to think that antthing that happened before 1970 does not count.

Posted by: Curt Auerbach at March 16, 2004 11:41 PM

I was a kid in the early '50s when my dad took me to my first game at Milwaukee County Stadium. We sat in the left-field bleachers, and I can still remember the tremendous "moon shot" that Eddie Mathews hit into the right-field stands that day. From that day until his death in 2001, he was my favorite player.
How clearly I remember the '57 Series. We lived south of Milwaukee, and even at 9 years old I knew what it was to hate the Yankees after Casey Stengel called Sturtevant, a small town outside my hometown, "Bushville" when the team train stopped there.
My grandpa was a Cubs fan. I was watching Game 4 of the Series at grandpa's house. The Yanks tied it on a homer off Spahnnie in the top of the ninth, then took the lead in the top of the 10th. We just couldn't go down 3-1, could we?
Bottom of the 10th for the Braves, Nippy Jones, hit by pitch by the "shoeshine" ball. Fleix Mantilla, running for Jones, scores to tie it on Johnny Logan's double. Eddie comes to the plate.
I don't think my grandpa really "hated" Mathews, but he always rode him, if just to get a rise out of me. He called Mathews "Swish." When Eddie came to the plate in the bottom of the 10th, score tied, I heard gramps mutter, just loud enough for me to hear, "If you hit one out here, Mathews, I take back everything I said about you."
Please Eddie, please. Hit one out. C'mon Eddie.
When he did, I'm not ashamed to say I cried with joy. I was 9, after all. But I still can't think about Eddie on that day, and my grandpa, without feeling a little lump start in my throat.
We all got older. I realized Eddie didn't walk on water. He drank too much. He might have been a bum, but he was my bum. I was sad to see him go.

Posted by: ken at March 30, 2005 12:37 AM

Eddie mathews is my greta uncle and eventhough i dont remember alot about him he is family. Im 13 years old and i remember the day y uncle cma ehome with a signed ball by eddie and said this is ur greta uncle and he was in the hall of fame and was on the very first sports illustrated. im so glad ot hear that some of u considered him ur favorite player. hes mine too with one of his jerseys #41 my cousinand my brother alwasy have that number just so everyone remembers him, i always bring it up that im related to him because im proun to be his greta niece, and i never heard of him drinking too much and i dont knwo where u heard that and i wouldnt call h im a bum either but he worked hard and i just wnated everyone to know he is my relative and im very proud of that, if u dont believe me u can email me if u want.

Posted by: Jordan mathews at May 21, 2005 9:45 PM

I remember the tail end of Matthews career and one thing I remember was his desire to win and desire to perform and work ethic. I think he is overlooked in many areas. Another player who would have put up numbers like Matthews and Mike Schmidt had he played long enough and not been injured as much as he was is MATT WILLIAMS of the Diamondbacks/Giants

Posted by: Kevin C at February 22, 2006 10:54 AM
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