ZiPS Time Warp: Ted Williamson July 30, 2020 at 3:35 pm

ZiPS Time Warp: Ted Williams

Ted Williams isn’t the typical beneficiary of a trip in the ZiPS time machine. After all, anyone who has the slightest interest in baseball — and many who don’t — know his name, even if they aren’t familiar with every last one of his accomplishments. Williams typified the cerebral, scientific hitter in the same way that Babe Ruth created the archetype of the larger-than-life slugger. The mercurial Ruth likely would have had considerably more trouble adapting to today’s game, but I’m of the opinion that the Splendid Splinter would actually thrive in a world where offense is looked at more as science than myth made true. Perhaps the best modern comparison for Williams is Joey Votto if the latter somehow got a hold of a genie’s lamp.

The list of Williams’ accomplishments is far too lengthy to run down in complete fashion, so we’ll settle for a sampling. He’s first all-time in on-base percentage and second in slugging percentage. He’s the most recent player to hit .400, and for the better part of a century was the last player to win a Triple Crown, which he did twice. Ted finished with a .344 batting average, 521 homers, 2,654 hits, and enough black ink in his stats that he could have started his own newspaper.

But Williams’ career was also marked by long absences from the game. He was drafted after Pearl Harbor, initially receiving a deferment because he was his mother’s sole support. He played through the 1942 season, but enlisted in the Navy reserve after its conclusion and served for the next three years.

In terms of baseball, those were prime seasons of his career lost. The 1943-1945 stretch represented his age-24 through age-26 seasons, years when a lot of Hall of Famers turn in some of their most eye-popping campaigns. Taking a look at the list of Hall of Fame hitters through those ages sorted by WAR, there are some truly gigantic numbers involved:

Every hitter in the Hall of Fame who was allowed to play in major league baseball put up something in those seasons. They averaged just under five wins per season, and 123 of the 153 hitters put up at least 10 WAR. (For those who are curious, Sam Rice, an extremely late-bloomer, only collected 1.3 WAR during these ages.)

In 1952, Williams did it all again. Activated for the Korean War, he played in just six games that season, reporting for training in May. That stint in the armed forces was a shorter one and Williams returned for the end of the 1953 season, wreaking a terrible vengeance on pitchers while hitting .407/.509/.901 with 13 homers in 37 games. He was his usual self in 1954, but injuries took a toll. Slowed down by a broken collarbone in the spring, the 35-year-old announced that 1954 would be his final season. The Red Sox offered him the manager job, which he declined.

But his retirement was entwined with a messy divorce and he returned to the Red Sox in May 1955. Almost every player in history would envy his decline phase. From 1955 until his retirement in 1960, Williams hit .336/.470/.623. His final 1.096 OPS suggests he could have stayed around even longer, but he finished his career in style, hitting one last Fenway dinger off Orioles pitcher Jack Fisher.

As baseball fans, we can’t help but wonder what Teddy Ballgame could have done with more ballgames. There are a few ways to look at this, so I’ll start with this easiest.

Here’s how hitters throughout baseball history rank if we take out the stats generated during their ages-24-26 and 33-34 seasons. Suffice it to say, Williams shoots up the charts. Overall, Williams and Stan Musial are the only two players in the top 25 for WAR who went to war, though Joe DiMaggio likely makes the top 25 without World War II:

But that’s not entirely fair to the others, is it? After all, they actually put up those seasons! Plus, I have a projection system, for an occasion just such as this. For this part of the Time Warp, I asked ZiPS to project Williams, with 1942 being the jumping-off point from reality:

ZiPS actually didn’t do too terribly projecting Ted! The computer in 1942 didn’t know just how good he’d still be in 1960; 18 years is a really long time to project a player out. Williams now passes the 3,000-hit mark and adds 50 home runs. The extra playing time is enough to get him to 171.9 wins, pushing him past Ruth at the top of the leaderboard.

And it still rips Williams off a bit. In truth, we’re not looking for a career projection for Ted Williams, just one for 1943-1945 and 1952-1953. We actually know he was awesome in 1960, so why give him ZiPS’ prediction for 1960? Using projections instead of reality gives him a few better performances in the mid-40s, but he loses more from not getting credit for his amazingly gentle decline.

But never fear. One of the projects I had time to work on during our sad baseball interregnum this year was an addition to ZiPS to make it able to do things backwards. So to fill in Ted’s war years, I ask ZiPS to project what performances from 1943 to 1945 are most likely to lead to his actual results from 1946 to 1951. I then repeat the process for 1952 and 1953.

This time, we get Ted an extra 800 or so hits and more than a hundred extra homers. He even gets an additional point of batting average, finishing at .345. First in career WAR, the walk record, and a top 10 ranking for homers and hits feels a bit more representative of the feats of arguably the best pure hitter baseball has ever seen, doesn’t it?

Read More

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *