Three things define the career of Yankee legend Joe DiMaggio: the 56-game hitting streak, nine World Series rings, and three years of service in World War II. Despite being one of the greatest players of all time, his career has been and will always remain incomplete, spending his prime with the US Army Air Force, working as an instructor and playing for the armed forces’ baseball squads. The experience cut a gaping hole into the middle of his career, one that would never be filled.
And so naturally, as part of “What if” week at SB Nation, let’s try to approximate how that gap may have been filled.
To begin, I graphed DiMaggio’s OPS+, bWAR, and fWAR by his age, to give us a baseline for what his “expected” career arc may be.
According to these graphs, DiMaggio should have posted OPS+ values of 169, 168, and 167, bWAR values of 7.3, 7.1, and 6.8, and fWAR values of 7.5, 7.2, and 7.0. Perhaps these are slightly lower than what would have actually happened had he not gone overseas — the transition back into civilian life, even from a military career as relatively cushy as DiMaggio’s, could have easily had an impact on his performance, as well as the stomach ulcer that led to his discharge. Nonetheless, this serves as a pretty good baseline, and one that matches up favorably well with the prime of Hank Aaron and Aaron Pujols, two players that baseball-reference uses as comparisons for his pre-military career.
So where would this put DiMaggio on the all-time lists? Currently, on Baseball-Reference’s leaderboard, he places 41st all-time with 79.1 bWAR; adding 21.2 brings him up to 100.3, raising him to 20th all-time, between Mike Schmidt and Pujols. On FanGraphs, his 83.1 places him 34th, and the additional 21.7 fWAR would bring him up to 18th, between Rickey Henderson and Frank Robinson.
Of course, much talk about the DiMaggio’s career often discuss his home run record. When he retired, DiMaggio ranked fifth in baseball history with 361 home runs (he now ranks 84th). How many would he have hit in those three years? That’s a bit more difficult of a projection.
If we were to use his 162-game average, he would add another 102, leading to a career total of 463 (37th all-time). But in the years before and after military service, he posted only 21 and 25 homers, respectively, and only hit more than 32 home runs twice. Although these lower values are the result of a low number of games played (he averaged only 133 games per season throughout his career), that is something we must account for when projecting his missed seasons. A more conservative estimate would be about 27 homers per season, tying him for 42nd with Dave Kingman with 442 home runs.
We can make a similar estimate on his total hits. His career 2214 hits currently rank him 183rd on the all-time leaderboard. Using his 162-game average, he would rise to 50th, between Miguel Cabrera and Charlie Gehringer, while using his season average would tie him with Roberto Alomar at 63 with 2724, between Carlos Beltran and Lou Gehrig. While neither estimate brings him up to the elusive 3000-hit milestone, it would have brought him a lot closer — close enough that he might have decided to play one or two more season to try and reach it.
Unfortunately, barring the existence of parallel universes in which World War II never occurred, all of this remains in the realm of the hypothetical. Fortunately for DiMaggio and for all of us, he did not particularly miss these years, as he was still able to establish himself as one of the greatest players of all time.
Even so, he will always rank among the list of all-time greats marked by a simple question.