As much as many fans like to debate “new school versus old school” stats, quite often they are in lockstep. More often than not, batters that drive in 100 runs, or hit 30 plus homers, or who hit .300 are also deemed valuable by more complex and comprehensive measurements – but not always. With that in mind, let’s take a closer look at three individual seasons from three Yankees players who had productive years by traditional benchmarks, but didn’t really help their teams too much.
Joe Pepitone, 1964: 100 RBI, -0.7 bWAR
In 1964, Yankees first baseman Joe Pepitone drove in 100 runs and produced -0.7 bWAR. This is the only instance in Yankees’ history in which a batter drove in 100 or more runs and whose presence on the field may have actually hurt his team more than helped it. (Paul O’Neill’s 2000 season in which he drove in 100 runs but only produced 1.3 bWAR is the next lowest bWAR total among Yankees “run producers” in team history.)
If we take a closer look at how such a contradictory set of numbers can occur, there aren’t too many surprises. “Joe Pep” wasn’t a patient hitter, drawing only 24 walks in 647 PA on the season, so he wasn’t very good at getting on base. On the occasions he did reach base safely, saying he wasn’t a particularly good baserunner would be understating it, as his -3.1 baserunning runs were dead last in the AL in 1964 by a pretty wide margin. Also unsurprisingly, he was one of only 9 AL players to post a defensive WAR worse than negative one. Although we likely agree that defensive grades in 1964 are far from perfect, I think we can also agree that his glove wasn’t benefitting the team, to put it mildly.
Additionally, his 28 home runs on the season may be misleading as he wasn’t exactly a power hitter either. In 647 PA he managed only 12 doubles, and his .418 SLG was in the bottom half of AL batters who qualified for the batting title. So how did he manage to reach the popular benchmark of 100 “ribbies?”
Although he clearly wasn’t lining doubles and triples into the expansive grass of left and center fields in Yankee Stadium, he did hit 28 home runs so there is 28 RBI right there. (Hitting the ball in the air to right field in Yankee Stadium does have an upside.) Obviously, randomness is a huge factor in RBI totals as “coming through” has a level of luck and sample size issues involved that even the staunchest supporters of clutch would attest to.
Then there’s the number of opportunities, and as you would imagine, Joe got plenty of them. Batting predominantly either sixth or seventh in the lineup on the 1964 Yankees meant almost all of your at-bats came immediately after Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and Tom Tresh hit, and another good chunk came after Elston Howard batted. Those four batters — even when home runs are subtracted to eliminate base clearing events — reached base a combined 815 times in 1964, with all four of them finishing in the top 25 in the league in that category. To paraphrase my Little League coach, Joe saw plenty of ducks on the pond when he went to the plate. Given all of the above, it certainly seems the gods of baseball randomness were on Joe’s side in 1964.
Myril Hoag, 1937: .301 batting average, 0.2 bWAR.
I’m sure you’re familiar with the baseball adage, “if you fail seven out of ten times, you’re going to the Hall of Fame.” A .300 batting average for a long time was (and still is by many) considered a benchmark of a good hitter. If you weren’t aware, I’m here to tell you that Myril Hoag is not a Hall of Famer nor was he a particularly good hitter — yet he hit .301 in 1937, and managed to produce only 0.2 WAR.
Only two players in the American League with as many PA as Hoag in 1937 put up fewer WAR. Unsurprisingly, he didn’t hit with much power as his three home runs in 404 PA would attest to and he didn’t reach base too often as his 33 walks were the eighth lowest in the AL among batters who qualified for the batting title. (That placed him below league average in OBP despite the .301 batting average.) Again, we don’t need to discuss defensive metrics from 1937, but given that Hoag shuttled back and forth between the corner outfield spots and pinch-hitting I think we can assume Joe McCarthy viewed Hoag as detrimental to the team when he was on the field holding a glove.
Yet even by 1937 standards .301 was better than league average, so how did Hoag manage that? As we mentioned above, good fortune is always a factor – “ground balls with eyes” and “dying quails” have been padding averages for centuries. Also as mentioned in Pepitone’s case, the lineup around Hoag certainly helped. I don’t want to appear arrogant and speak for AL pitchers in 1937 but I’d bet a large sum of money that with Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, and Bill Dickey in the lineup, old Myril saw a whole lot of center-cut fastballs.
Mike Pagliarulo, 1987: 32 HR, 1.6 bWAR.
The Yankees have had 100 instances in their history in which a player has hit 30 or more home runs, and in every one of those instances, the player produced more than 1.6 WAR on the season – except for Mike Pagliarulo in 1987.
Pagliarulo’s 32 long balls led the Yankees in 1987, but his inability to contribute in any other area of baseball made him a below-average player despite the homers. “Pags” always had good hands around the hot corner but not much range and his baserunning was substandard according to both Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs. Even with the number of souvenirs he produced, he was barely above league average with the bat, posting a 105 OPS+, largely due to a well below league average OBP of .305.
Going yard is the best result a batter can have when he steps in the box, but if you’re a modern fan who thinks players need to do more than just swing for the fences, Mike Pagliarulo in 1987 is Exhibit A in your argument.
To be clear, this isn’t an attack on “old school” stats. (In full disclosure, I find the “new school versus old school” debates tiresome.) Although when evaluating players I lean heavily toward having more information and therefore the more comprehensive numbers, I don’t disregard traditional ones. Trivia, nostalgia, and fun discussions are a huge part of baseball — especially when there is none — and the numbers we discussed today are a big part of that.