Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
April 8, 2001
BASEBALL: Clemente and Musial
Originally posted on the Boston Sports Guy website.
Before the regular season really hits its stride, let's take one more trip in the way-back machine. Now, the All-Century Team, while an interesting debate at the time, was something I had not planned on going back to except as one illustration of how the all-time greats are viewed by the fans. But last week, Jon Saraceno of USA Today decided used the Opening Day festivities in Puerto Rico as an excuse to resuscitate an obnoxious and unnecessary charge against the selection of that team: that it was some sort of injustice, or worse yet prejudice, that resulted in Roberto Clemente being left off the team.
Saraceno doesn’t just argue that Clemente should have been given a special place on the team as a symbol of his pioneer/icon status, which is a defensible point depending on what you think the purpose of the team was. Certainly he is justly revered by a whole generation of Latin American ballplayers. No, Saraceno wants to show that Clemente was robbed: “Clemente belonged on that team. On merit.”
This argument is made (by noted baseball historians such as Spike Lee and impartial figures such as Roberto Clemente Jr.) to advance a larger point – whether you agree with it or not – that baseball has not given fair treatment to its Latin American stars and fans (Luis Clemente has a specific list of demands in mind when he touts this claim). So it’s worth examining the facts rather than taking them for granted, and the facts show that Clemente, great as he was, was absolutely not slighted by finishing tenth in the All-Century outfield balloting and being left off the team in favor of Stan Musial.
ITEM: CLEMENTE vs. PETE ROSE
And then you get to defense. Rose was a pretty good outfielder and won two Gold Gloves on the basis of his legendary hustle, but nearly everyone who ever saw Clemente thought he was the best defensive outfielder they had ever seen. Rose lasted longer, and after 1967 Clemente missed a lot of time, but over their productive years (particularly just the outfield years) Clemente was almost certainly the better all-around player.
ITEM: CLEMENTE vs. MUSIAL
It doesn’t matter how you measure it, either... but we'll break it down:
--1. Musial was by far a better hitter. His best seasons were much better than Clemente’s (and he had many more of them). He was a better baserunner. His teams won more championships, three World Championships and a pennant to Clemente’s two World Championships and a division title (in fairness to Clemente, the Cards had a cakewalk to the 1943 pennant and 1944 World Series because so few of their players got drafted, but then unlike Clemente, Musial won in his prime when he was the focal point of the team). Musial was clearly more highly regarded when he was playing. Clemente’s cannon throwing arm gives him the defensive advantage, but Musial was hardly a bad fielder.
--2. Here are their lifetime stats, per 162 games; Musial (18.7 seasons) followed by Clemente (15.0 seasons):
There’s a big difference there; besides the 14-point spread in batting average, Musial hit an extra 10 doubles and 9 homers a year and drew twice as many walks while striking out half as much. And that doesn't mention double plays; Clemente hit into 32 more double plays in about 2500 fewer career plate appearances and despite generally batting with fewer men on base. The STATS Inc. "Runs created" formula values Musial at nearly twice the league average hitter over his career (before park effects) compared to about 40% better for Clemente. The Baseball Prospectus "EqA" formula, which does take account of ballparks, similarly rates Musial about 10% better on average and more than twice as far, cumulatively, above the average or replacement level player over his career: check the player cards for Musial and Clemente.
You might wonder what Clemente would have done if he hadn’t died tragically after batting .312 at age 37. Well, Musial hit .337 at age 37, and his lifetime batting average then stood at .340. He batted .283 over the last 5 seasons of his career (the comparison would look even more lopsided if you take out that coda). And yes, Musial had two seasons (1943 to 1944) to beat up on war-depleted pitching and win an MVP award, but he also missed a full season of his prime (1945, in between .347 and .365 seasons) to the war, which more than makes up for two years of hitting soggy gray wartime baseballs.
(Granted, Clemente played his prime years in a low-scoring era, while Musial did not. According to STATS, Inc., the league scoring average was 4.12 runs a game over the course of Clemente's career compared to 4.35 in Musial's, and Musial played in a decent hitters' park (an outstanding one in his last five seasons) while Clemente played in a mild pitchers' park.)
--3. The league leaderboards confirm that Musial’s numbers truly reflect his dominance. Musial finished in the top 5 in the league in batting average 17 times. Repeat that to yourself a few times (Clemente did it 10 times, still an impressive figure). There were seven batting titles in there, to Clemente’s four. And hitting for average was Clemente’s strong suit. Musial was Top 5 in slugging 14 times to twice for Clemente, top 5 in on base percentage 15 times (Clemente did it twice, although he was sixth three times), first or second in the league in on base plus slugging (OPS) ten times to Clemente’s one. First or second in runs scored nine times (Clemente was in the top 10 three times, finishing as high as fourth); top 10 in RBI 15 times to Clemente’s three. Fifteen times.
In 1948, Musial led the NL in batting, slugging, on base, runs, RBI, doubles, triples, hits, and total bases. He was second in at bats, third in homers, seventh in walks. He led the league in more offensive categories in one season than Clemente did in his entire career. He was one of only two NL players to have 400 total bases in a season between World War II and the opening of Coors Field.
--4. Baseball-reference.com lists the career leaders in “black ink” (league leads, with special weight given to the most important categories) and “grey ink” (finishing among the league leaders); Musial trails only Ruth, Cobb, Hornsby and Williams on the black ink list (Clemente is 80th) and only Cobb and Aaron in grey ink (Clemente is 74th). Talk about not even being in the same class.
--5. OK, the stats aren’t everything. What about the respect of the people who saw them play? Musial’s nickname wasn’t just a catchy rhyme; from 1943 to at least 1954, Stan Musial really was “the Man” in the National League – the one guy nobody wanted to face. He won three MVP awards and drew more votes for the MVP, over the course of his career, than anyone else. Ever. More than Mays or Aaron, more than Mickey or Yogi or Joe D., more than Williams or Barry Bonds or any other legend you can think of (the modern MVP started in 1931). He terrorized the Dodgers, the Cards’ chief rivals in the NL in those days; it was the Brooklyn fans who gave him his nickname.
Clemente was selected to the All-Star Team in 12 different seasons? Try 20 for Stan the Man. Now, Clemente was very well respected. In 1966, Sandy Koufax went 27-9 and had a league-leading 1.73 ERA in 323 innings for a team that won the pennant with a below-average offense. The writers gave Clemente the MVP even though he failed to finish in the top 5 in the league in slugging or on base percentage. That says a lot. On the other hand, Clemente clearly outhit Orlando Cepeda the following year, and Cepeda (playing first base by this point) won the award unanimously. But you could win 7 MVP awards and get fewer votes than Musial did over the years. That is respect.
ITEM: CLEMENTE vs. THE FIELD
Let’s try Clemente against the field – here are his lifetime numbers again compared, in order, to two contemporaries (Frank Robinson and Al Kaline), one dead-ball era star (Tris Speaker), and two from higher-scoring eras (Mel Ott and Barry Bonds). Note again that Clemente played fewer games (about two full seasons’s worth) than any of these guys but Bonds and, unlike all except Bonds, he had no declining years:
(I left out Bonds’ 2000, since that was after the team was selected and the century ended)
On the raw numbers, everyone but Kaline outclasses Clemente by a wide margin, and Kaline also comes out ahead. There has to be a pretty hefty adjustment for the times they played in to make up for that, but the first three of these guys played mainly in the same years as Clemente or under even worse conditions, and the other two are just miles ahead of Clemente. Three (Speaker, Kaline and Bonds) were tremendous fielders in their own right, and Ott was also known to have a great arm.
Let’s look at the two most obvious cases:
* Frank Robinson’s career ran nearly parallel to Roberto Clemente’s. At what point in their careers would anyone in their right minds have traded Robinson for Clemente? In 1966, when Clemente won the MVP award, Robinson won the Triple Crown, hit 49 homers, led his team to a World Championship and was World Series MVP. In the early sixties, when Clemente was just another outfielder, Robinson was the 1961 NL MVP and slugged .604 over a four-year span. Clemente hit 240 homers; Robinson hit 586. Though a year younger than Clemente, Robinson drove in or scored 100 runs in a season three times before Clemente even reached 70. And Robinson’s fiery personality and gung-ho style of play left a stamp on both the Reds and Orioles that persisted years after his departure.
* Then there’s Tris Speaker. Maybe Clemente was really the second-best outfielder ever, but Speaker was the best, a revolutionary centerfielder who played close behind second base and could go back to get nearly anything. That 76-point advantage in on base percentage is huge. In 1912, Smokey Joe Wood went 34-5 with a 1.91 ERA; they gave the MVP award to Speaker, who batted .383, had 75 extra base hits, and scored 136 runs. In 1916, he hit .386, cracked 41 doubles and drew 82 walks in a league where the average team scored 3.68 runs a game. When the lively ball arrived, Speaker was 32; he batted over .375 four more times, with line-drive power and walks. He played for three World Champions – two for the Red Sox and one for the Indians – the third as player-manager.
I’m willing to grant that Clemente belongs ahead of Kaline, despite the disparity in the numbers. First, while Kaline was a truly outstanding outfielder, Clemente was better. Second, Clemente was better at his best – unlike Kaline, he had his best years at the pit of the sixties rather than in the higher-scoring 1955-62 period. But the comparison is a very close one, and nobody would take seriously the idea of Kaline as having been insulted at being left out of the top 9 outfielders of the century. And I’m not going to run the whole analysis on Ott and Bonds here. But you can’t just dismiss them out of hand, the way Clemente’s boosters do.
ITEM: WAS THE BALLOT UNFAIR?
Now, I’m not going to defend the fan balloting, which made some really egregious errors (Honus Wagner finishing third among the shortstops was the worst, and if anyone has a beef it’s Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson), but Saraceno misses a few details. First, most of the people who actually saw Clemente play are here in the US, and it should mean something if those people voted for somebody else. Second, Luis Aparicio (who had no business getting anyone’s vote as one of the two best shortstops ever) did unexpectedly well due to an online campaign on his behalf in Venezuela. Third, the Pittsburgh Pirates, Clemente’s old employers, staged a push to get Clemente (and Wagner) elected. Now, maybe it says something about the Pirates that they couldn’t even get Wagner – the greatest player in National League history and by far the greatest of all shortstops – elected to the team. But Clemente didn’t lack for his boosters.