Sunday, February 07, 2010

Coming to Terms With Greatness

The following is one of the most obvious statements in history. Wait for it... Here it comes... Hank Aaron was a great baseball player. But while that statement is obvious to anyone who knows baseball at least a little bit, the belief held here is that very few have a good idea of how good he was. To put it in an even more obvious statement and this STILL an understatement: Henry Aaron was an incredible player.

Hank Aaron wasn't flashy. He wasn't the "Say Hey Kid." He wasn't white and beloved like Mickey Mantle. He wasn't nasty or arrogant like Barry Bonds. He wasn't a big kid like Babe Ruth. But despite all of those things, Aaron might be the best all around player that ever lived. It's impossible to compare eras of course and such a statement is impossible to prove. But the point is that Aaron's greatness is understated by those who have loved the game for a long time.

Part of Aaron's problem was that he played originally in Milwaukee when the Braves played there. He didn't play on a lot of nationally televised games except for the All Star Game every year. He played in two World Series and one NLCS (late in his career). The Braves won only one championship during the Aaron years. And even his chase of Babe Ruth late in his career was not the overwhelming story you would have thought it should have been. Commissioner, Bowie Kuhn, didn't even bother attending the games.

But Aaron was remarkable and he was remarkable for a long, long time. He batted over .300 fourteen times in his career. He drove in over 100 runs thirteen times. And it wasn't just homers that tell the story of Aaron. He also hit over 600 doubles and 98 triples in his career. He is the all time leader in total bases thanks to his 1477 career extra base hits. Let that number sink in for a second. 1477 career extra base hits. 39% of his 3771 career hits went for at least a double or more.

And if his career 155 OPS+ and 2297 RBIs (the all time record) don't grab you, he had less career strikeouts than he did walks. He also stole 240 bases at a 77% success rate. Too bad he didn't have three more RBI because then he would have had 2300 in 23 seasons or 100 for every season he played.

And it wasn't just the homers, the extra base hits, the RBIs, the stolen bases, the OPS+. He was also an excellent fielder. His career runs above replacement player in the outfield add up to 104.1. His career range factor was above league average. His career fielding percentage was above league average. He also threw out 201 runners in his career.

The Fan never really thought much about Hank Aaron. He played in the National League and thus was not often on this Fan's radar screen. It was a surprise when he was going for Babe Ruth's homer record. It was a surprise at the time that he had more than Willie Mays.

In fact, it's a fun exercise to compare Aaron with Mays in every category. Mays had 93 more stolen bases with the same success rate. Their career OPS+ is a wash (155 for Aaron, 156 for Mays). Their career batting averages were nearly the same. Mays had a higher OBP for his career, Aaron a higher Slugging Percentage. Mays struck out more, but not by much. If you restore the year and three quarters that Mays lost to the military, his homer and extra base total may have been near Aaron's. The one big difference is that Mays was a better fielder (as good as Aaron was).

But again, the bottom line is that Mays is given credit for being one of the best all around players (you've heard the term, "Five Tool") of all time. But Aaron is right there too. Can you only imagine how much money those two would have made in today's market? But not only are these two of the best players of all time, but they entered baseball soon after Jackie Robinson and while Robinson was a very good player, Aaron and Mays were much, much better and as the elite players of their era, had to endure harsh bigotry.

Yeah, it's easy to overlook Hank Aaron. And unfortunately, Willie Mays left his last years with the Mets in a lot of people's minds. But man, they were brilliant for a long, long time.

1 comment:

Josh Borenstein said...

Nice post. It's crazy, but I think a lot of people overlook what Aaron accomplished.