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Mickey Mantle’s Pyrrhic career: Winning the battle but losing the WAR

In my quest for the greatest ten season stretch in baseball history, two other New York outfielders proved more worthy.

Baseball Player Mickey Mantle

JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score system), as explained by Baseball Reference, is a career-rating metric derived from, “…their career WAR averaged with their 7-year peak WAR.” This metric is particularly useful for evaluating Hall of Fame candidates from a historical perspective by enabling the game’s brightest stars to rise above the more ubiquitous, steady workmen. While WAR does an excellent job of telling you exactly how valuable a player was over the course of his career, averaging it against his WAR7 weights the number towards his peak performance.

Roger Maris’ Hall of Fame candidacy is a non-conversation from a WAR perspective, but he did post 14.4 WAR over a two-year stretch. While even that, along with his long-held home run record might not be enough to vault him into the hall, it’s a clear demonstration that some players reach a level of greatness that few players, even those enshrined in the Hall, never even sniff. When Maris was in the midst of his peak, posting back-to-back MVPs in 1960 and ’61, his inferred rival and greatest slugging teammate, Mickey Mantle, was putting up arguably even better statistics, and was at the tail end of one of the greatest multi-year offensive tirades of any batter in the history of baseball.

Though he put up an obscene 110.2 career WAR, great enough for 21st all-time, Mickey Mantle’s dominance was particularly pronounced during the ten-year stretch between 1952 and 1961. During those years, he compiled 83.2 WAR, or 75.5% of his total WAR in just 55.5% of his 18-year career. Before his declining defense began to eat up his superior offense, Mickey Mantle amassed a few of the greatest seasons in baseball history, including the 14th, 17th, and 36th all-time greatest seasons by WAR. During the aforementioned decade, he posted a cumulative OPS and OPS+ of 1.017 and 179 while batting over .300, recording over 1600 hits, slugging over 300 homers, and clubbing nearly 1000 RBI.

Surely, a decade like this must be among the greatest in baseball history. However, I wanted to know if it was the very best. Without a WAR10 metric to rely on, I had to start with WAR7 and extrapolate outwards.

Here’s where Mantle’s seven-year stretch ranked on the all-time WAR7 leaderboard:

Babe Ruth 84.8

Rogers Hornsby 73.7

Willie Mays 73.5

Barry Bonds 72.7

Ty Cobb 69.0

Lou Gehrig 68.1

Ted Williams 67.9

Mike Trout (!) 65.6

Honus Wagner 65.3

Mickey Mantle 64.7

Mantle jumps from 21st to tenth when looking at players’ seven best seasons as opposed to their entire career, but could he take another leap into the game’s ultimate tier when considering the game’s greatest ten-season stretches? Though he certainly couldn’t pass the Babe, as his 84.8 WAR in seven years topped even Mantle’s ten-year mark, spots two through nine remained up for grabs.

Theoretically, someone ranked below Mickey Mantle in WAR7 could jump him in WAR10. To pass the Mick in WAR10, that player would have to have accumulated more than the 18.5 WAR Mickey added in his three additional years, a huge obstacle to jump for someone already ranked behind him in WAR7. However unlikely that is, there’s no way for me to definitively prove that didn’t happen without counting out every WAR10 on the nearby WAR7 leaderboards, or developing my own WAR10 database and algorithm, two activities beyond my grasp at this very moment. Moving forwards under the presumption that Mickey’s only contention comes from above, let’s see how many spots he can rise:

(1900-1909) Honus Wagner’s 65.3 WAR7 increases to an 85.8 over ten years, just eclipsing Mickey’s mark of 84.8. However, as a shortstop in the dead-ball era, a sizable portion of Wagner’s value was derived from his defense, whereas Mantle never posted more than 1.1 dWAR, and ended up finishing his career nearly ten wins in the red. With the defensive edge, Wagner maintained his WAR advantage over Mantle despite his slight oWAR deficit.

(2011-2020) Having played just eight years in the bigs in addition to a pre-rookie campaign and a pandemic shortened season, Mike Trout is at an unfair disadvantage, but nonetheless falls about ten wins short of Mantle’s mark (74.6 WAR10). However unfair, Mantle eclipses Trout on this list.

(1939-1951) Ted Williams’ ten best consecutive seasons, even when allowing for the gap between ’42 and ’46 due to WWII, amounts to 82.6 WAR, also shy of Mantle’s total. Williams’ oWAR actually edges Mantle’s, but was even worse on defense, leading to the overall deficit. Mantle leapfrogs Williams, gaining more ground on the WAR10 board.

(1927-1936) Despite his defensive disadvantage, being a first baseman, Gehrig’s gargantuan offensive output carried him to a 90.9 WAR10, holding off Mantle by a full high-level All-Star season’s worth of production.

(1909-1918) Ty Cobb’s ten best consecutive seasons, like Mantle, contained three years of double-digit WAR, leading to a slightly superior mark (87.8 WAR). During those years, he led the American League in batting average in each season except one, when Tris Speaker’s .386 outpaced his own obscene .370 average.

(1995-2004) While he had two distinct peaks, at first in Pittsburgh and then towards the tail-end of his career as a Giant, Barry Bonds’ best consecutive ten years all came in the orange and black, leading to an 88.4 WAR10. Barry holds off Mantle in the ten-year department, but also posted one of the greatest four-year stretches in baseball history between 2001 and 2004, when he accumulated 43.4 WAR, more than all but 38 left fielders in the history of baseball.

(1957-1966) Willie Mays just barely skims past Mickey’s oWAR mark by less than a win, but blows him out of the water on defense, as arguably the greatest defender at the same position in the history of the game. In total, Willie’s 96.9 WAR10 dwarfs any modern player’s best ten seasons on this list.

(1920-1929) Rogers Hornsby’s decade of excellence led to 93.5 WAR, again outpacing Mickey’s mark. During Hornsby’s decade of dominance, he led the National League in OPS in every season minus one.

(1919-1928) The greatest batter of all time, Babe Ruth, posted 103.4 WAR in his best ten seasons. Despite posting just 3.5 WAR during an injury-shortened 1925, Ruth more than made up for it by finishing seven of his ten seasons with greater than ten WAR, including the preposterous 14.1 he posted in 1923. Sorry Mickey, this one was over before it even started.

The final WAR10 leaderboard of selected contenders looks like this:

Babe Ruth 103.4

Willie Mays 96.9

Rogers Hornsby 93.5

Lou Gehrig 90.9

Barry Bonds 88.4

Ty Cobb 87.8

Honus Wagner 85.8

Mickey Mantle 84.8

Ted Williams 82.6

Mike Trout 74.6

Due to defensive deficiencies too great to overcome anyone above him in the prior ranking without wartime service (Williams) or lacking service time (Trout), Mickey Mantle climbed just two spots from tenth to eighth between the WAR7 and WAR 10 leaderboards. Though his hitting actually improved beyond the end of his best decade, his fielding, along with his general health, rapidly declined. With a predilection for copious drinking, it’s anybody’s best guess as to what Mantle could have maintained for even longer had his off-the-field habits not unnaturally shortened his peak.

While I expected a bigger jump from Mantle’s best ten, my biggest takeaway from this list, aside from Babe Ruth’s predictably comic offensive statistics, is Willie Mays’ complete dominance over anyone remotely near his era of play. The only more recent player on the list, Mike Trout, has already fallen short of Mays on either side of the ball, and has already fallen off towards average on defense while Mays was a positive contributor on defense until his age-38 season.

Mays didn’t lead the league in any one category as often as some of his all-time great peers like even Mantle, Williams, Hornsby, or Cobb, but he finished in the top-six of MVP voting in 11 out of his 12 best consecutive seasons, and finished four straight seasons with at least 10.5 WAR. With variance being such an essential piece of the pie that is baseball, true greatness is the ability to outperform any regression with unwavering elite performance, something Mays was able to do better than any of the ten men I examined, including Mantle.