by Harold Friend
When comparing similar players whose careers spanned the same era, many variables exist that cannot be controlled. The result is that it is impossible to definitively determine the better player, or who had the better career. The situation is worse when evaluating players from different eras because the number of uncontrolled variables increases. The best one can do is identify each player's strengths, weaknesses, and achievements.
It doesn't matter who was the better player, or who had the better career, because when everything is distilled, a strong case can be made for either player being better than the other. Statisticians cast aspersions on those who claim that players can be evaluated only by seeing them play everyday. Those who do not rely on their eyes, experiences, and "gut instincts" denigrate statistical analysis.
Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle Were Rookies in 1951
Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle were rookies in 1951. Willie helped to defend freedom instead of helping New York try to win pennants in 1952 and 1953, while Mickey's physical problems prevented him from being part of America's fighting forces. From 1954 until Mickey retired following the 1968 season, both were active players.
Were Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle Similar?
Were Willie and Mickey similar players? Both batted from the right side of the plate, but Mickey also batted left handed. Both had great speed, but while Mickey was clearly faster, Willie stole more bases because the fear of injury to his bad legs prevented Mickey from attempting to steal very often.
Mickey had more power, but Willie hit more home runs because he played longer and took fewer pitches. Mickey struck out much more, but he also walked much more. Mickey was one of the best bunters in the game. Willie was not.
Willie was a fantastic fielder with unsurpassed instincts and a great arm. Mickey developed into a solid fielder with a great arm until Red Schoendienst fell on his right shoulder in the 1957 World Series, but Mickey lacked the natural instincts of a great defensive player. His great speed helped him compensate, but he couldn't match Willie when it came to getting the jump on the ball.
Until 1958, Willie played in a ballpark where the distance to the center field fence was about 480 feet from home plate. The power alleys in left and right were close to 450 feet from home. Walter O'Malley then was instrumental in moving Horace Stoneham's team to Candlestick Park, where the distances were shorter but a wind blowing in from left field hindered many fly balls from becoming home runs.
Mickey played in Yankee Stadium, where the distance to the center field fence was 461 feet, and the distance in the power alleys was 457 in left field and 407 feet in right. But right field was only 344 with a four foot fence. It was only 296 feet down the right field foul line and 301 feet down the left field line.
Stronger National League
The National League was generally the stronger league from 1951-1968. The American League won eight World Series, the National League won nine, but the Nationals dominated the all-star game. The National League had many more black players, many of whom were stars. Henry Aaron (who might have been better than either Mickey or Willie if he played in New York), Ernie Banks, Jackie Robinson, Don Newcombe, Roy Campanella, Monte Irvin, Jim Gilliam, Frank Robinson, Vada Pinson, Maury Wills, and Bob Gibson were just some outstanding players.
Both leagues had great pitchers, but it is impossible to project how effective a pitcher will be against a particular batter. Mickey faced Lemon, Wynn, Garcia, Feller, Lary, Bunning, Mossi, Chance, Pierce, Ramos, Pascual,Tiant, (Jim) Perry, Roberts, McDowell, etc. while Willie faced Roberts, Spahn, Maglie, Newcombe, Koufax, Marichal, Gibson, Jenkins, Seaver, Bunning, etc. Even if a statistician compares how Mickey and Willie fared against pitchers they both faced, the ballparks and conditions when they faced them were different.
During most of his career, at least until 1965, Mickey batted in a strong lineup. He was preceded in the batting order by Yogi Berra, Hank Bauer, Gene Woodling, Bill Skowron, and Roger Maris. Willie had Hank Sauer, Willie Kirkland, Willie McCovey, Orlando Cepeda, Felipe Alou, and Jim Ray Hart. Pitchers were more willing to walk Mickey than Willie. Did Mickey really have a better knowledge of the strike zone than Willie or did he merely see more bad pitches?
All statistical adjustments contain potential pitfalls that statisticians acknowledge. Statistics can determine the likelihood of how well Willie or Mickey would have done if they had played in Ebbets Field or Fenway Park, but it is only an estimate. It is those who interpret those estimates and treat them as if there were no limits to their validity who are making the errors.
Baseball "Experts'" Problems
Baseball writers are not objective. They are humans who may be biased. One of the most tenuous methods of discovering the truth is to ask eyewitnesses what they saw. It is those who eschew statistics and rely only on what the read and hear who are making the errors.