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
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
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
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
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
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
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
(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).
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 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.
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.
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.