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by Harold Friend
During most his career, Mickey Mantle was ranked among the top two or three players in the game. From 1956-64, it was either Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, or Henry Aaron, but over the last few decades, evaluating players statistically has resulted in Mickey Mantle becoming better in 2009 than he was when he was an active player. This is NOT an attempt to claim that any one of the three was greater.
On Base Average Was Rarely Mentioned Until the Late 1950s
In the 1950s, the first most important statistic was batting average. The best hitters were considered those who batted at least .300, and anything less than .270 was bad. On base average was rarely mentioned until the late 1950s. Instead, the number of walks a batter accumulated was given, but usually with the disclaimer that a walk was rarely as good as a hit.
Mickey Mantle hit .353 in 1956 and .365 in 1957, but his third best average was .321 in 1962, when he had only 377 at-bats and appeared in only 123 games. Mickey finished with a .298 lifetime average, and has said many times that he regretted he didn't hit .300. Willie Mays batted .302, and Henry Aaron hit .305, but Mickey drew an inordinate number of walks.
Walks Made 1957 a Great Mickey Mantle Season
In 1957, when he was bothered by a terrible case of shin splints, which limited his playing time, Mickey walked 146 times and had a .512 on base average. The emphasis, however, was that Mickey hit only 34 home runs, batted in only 94 runs, and didn't even have 500 at bats. Today, Mickey's 1957 is considered by some as the best of his career - even better than his Triple Crown season of 1956.
On Base Average for Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Henry Aaron
Willie Mays' best on base average was .425 in 1971, when he hit only .271 with 112 walks. Henry Aaron's best was .410, also in 1971, when he hit .327 with 71 walks. Lifetime, Mickey had a .421 on base average, compared to Willie's .384 and Henry's .374. Mickey had Yogi Berra, Bill Skowron, Roger Maris, and Elston Howard in the batting order, while Willie had Don Mueller, Hank Sauer, Orlando Cepeda, and Willie McCovey, and Henry had Eddie Mathews, Joe Adcock, Joe Torre, Felipe Alou, Rico Carty, and Darrell Evans. Mantle was willing to take a walk. Mays and Aaron swung the bat more.
On Base Average Plus Slugging Average
OPS is the sum of a batter's on base average and slugging average. Its emphasis has helped Mickey's ranking tremendously. Mickey Mantle had a .557 slugging average. So did Willie Mays. Henry Aaron slugged .555. It couldn't get much closer, but because of his walks, Mickey's OPS is .978 compared to Willie's .941 and Henry's .929. The league OPS when Mickey played was .715, when Willie played it was .730, and when Henry played, it was .722.
Statistics can be used to support many positions. It is undeniable that Henry Aaron hit 219 more home runs than Mickey Mantle, and that Willie Mays hit 124 more home runs than Mickey Mantle. Modern statistics helps to illuminate some of Mickey Mantle's accomplishments that were not as well appreciated when he played.