I was watching the Hall of Fame announcement show on the MLB Network on Monday--congratulations to a very deserving Barry Larkin--and something Peter Gammons said as an aside in a discussion of Bernie Williams' suitability for the Hall of Fame stuck with me: "He wasn't as good as Kirby Puckett," the Great Gammo almost muttered, as they cut to a commercial break.
I haven't been able to put that comment out of my mind, because I'm not certain why Gammons is so sure. Both were excellent hitters with very different skills who nonetheless arrived at similar results. Puckett was short and stout, Williams long and lithe. Puckett reaped a huge benefit from his Metrodome home park, hitting .344/.388/.521 at home, .291/.331/.430 on the road. Williams was about the same hitter everywhere. Both were Gold Glove center fielders who won several of the defensive awards with their bats. Both won a single batting title. Puckett led the AL in hits four times; Williams walked too much to compete in that department.
Career-wise, Williams looks a little worse overall, but that's because his peak isn't quite so high and his career is a little longer. Due to glaucoma, Puckett's career came to an abrupt end, depriving him of a decline phase, whereas Williams got to play until he was no longer useful. If you consider both through their age-35 seasons, it's a virtual tie: Williams had hit .301/.388/.488 in 1804 games, while Puckett hit .318/.360/.477 in 1783 games. When you adjust for time and place, there isn't a lot of difference--at which point, I would argue, you have to look at Puckett's home-road splits.
Normally, I don't think it's fair to hold an extreme home field platoon split against a player. Not every hitter who played at the Polo Grounds became like Mel Ott. Fenway Park doesn't turn just anyone into Jim Rice. Being able to take advantage of your home park is, I think, a skill. However, if you're comparing two players of roughly equal ability, and one hit everywhere and the other was no fun on the road, it seems fair game to point that out.
Then there is the postseason. Puckett played in two postseasons, won two World Series, and was excellent throughout, hitting .309/.361/.536 in 24 games. Williams played in 25 postseason series and hit .275/.371/.480 in 121 games. He did not hit well in five of his six World Series, but did hit 22 home runs in postseason play. Puckett was clearly better, but Williams played the equivalent of a full season in October, Puckett the equivalent of one month. It's impossible to say what he would have done given the same amount of playing time.
This may not mean anything, but in looking for a novel way to compare the two players in terms of peak value, I took the top 200 seasons by center fielders as rated by wins above replacement (WARP) since 1950 and sorted them into individual piles for each player. I wanted to know which center fielders had claimed the highest percentage of the seasons on the list. In the end, about half of them were supplied by just 17 players:
|Player||Seasons Top 200|
|Ken Griffey Jr||7|
I don't know if that says that Williams was better than Puckett, but it's just another point that suggests that Gammons was too quick to dismiss ol' #51.