Wins Above Replacement (WAR) Confuses Mantle vs. Mays Debate

Why Does Mays Enjoy Such a Healthy Lead in Wins Above Replacement Over Mantle When Individual Statistics Clearly Illustrate Mantle Was the Superior Player?

 Without question, Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays are not only two of the greatest center fielders of all time, but also two of the very best players to ever take the field.  While I consider Mays to be the subject of considerable “hero-worship” among former players, broadcasters (i.e., Joe Morgan), and even former commissioner Bud Selig, this phenomenon does nothing to diminish just how extraordinarily valuable Mays was, particularly between 1957-59 and 1962-65.  In terms of career value, there is no doubt Mays bests Mantle–and, arguably, any other center fielder ever. mays

In terms of peak value, however, I have long argued that Mickey Mantle was the game’s greatest center fielder. I wrote the following in my Free Sports Fans blog in 2009:

The race for the distinction of being the greatest center fielder of all time, in terms of peak value, comes down to Mantle and Cobb. As noted, Mantle must be considered, at worst, Cobb’s equal on the base paths and in the field, meaning the decision comes down to offensive prowess. At his best, Mantle’s offensive winning percentages–.879 in 1956 and .909 in 1957–were essentially equal to Cobb’s (.895 in 1912 and .887 in 1913). Mantle, however, possesses an enormous advantage in terms of adjusted batter runs, posting seasons of 61, 87, and 93; Cobb’s three best consecutive seasons produced adjusted batter runs of 66, 76, and 69. Mantle also has an advantage in OPS+, with a three-year stretch of 180, 210, and 223 compared with Cobb’s 206, 196, and 200. Ultimately, it’s a photo finish, but in my book, Mantle emerges half a length ahead.

My endorsement of Mantle as the game’s greatest center fielder in terms of peak value was based on his extraordinary 1955-57 seasons, a stretch of three campaigns that, in my opinion, rate among the 10 best three-season stretches in National Pastime history:

 YEAR  AVG OBP  SLG   OPS+  OWP RC WPA  REW  WAR
 1955  .306 .431 .611   180  .826 148 6.3 6.5 9.5
 1956  .353 .464 .705 210  .878 188 8.4 9.4 11.2
 1957 .365 .512 .665 221  .909 178 9.3 9.2 11.3

Metrics in bolded green denote league-best totals.  Mantle, in fact, led the American League in WAR from 1955-59, then again in 1961.  The Mickey Mantle of the mid-’50s was every bit as valuable as Honus Wagner in 1908, Babe Ruth in 1921, Ted Williams in 1940, and Barry Bonds in 2002.  (For those of you wondering, 1957 was the season a 37-year-old Ted Williams batted .388 and led the league in average, on-base percentage, and OPS+.)

The Wins Above Replacement metric, however, supports the notion that Mays’ peak between 1963-65 was superior to Mantle’s incredible mid-’50s performance.  Below is a statistical recap of those three seasons in San Francisco:

 YEAR  AVG OBP  SLG   OPS+  OWP RC WPA  REW  WAR
 1963  .314 .380 .582
175  .792 131 6.5 6.1 10.6
 1964 .296 .383 .607 172  .794 136 6.2 6.9 11.1
 1965 .317 .398 .645 185 .825 143 6.5 6.3 11.2

Again, bolded-green metrics represent league-best totals.

More Evidence in Favor of Mantle

During each player’s respective best three-season peak, Mantle:

  • Played in Yankee Stadium, which had a park factor approximately 10% less favorable to hitters than Candlestick Park;
  • Consumed nearly 18% fewer outs than Mays (1,036 for Mantle to 1,261 for Mays);
  • Stole nearly as many bases (36) as Mays (39) with a far superior success rate (83.7%) than Mays (76.4%); and,
  • Drew far more walks (371) than Mays (224)

So why, then, does Mays enjoy such a comfortable lead in terms of Wins Above Replacement?

Fielding Contributions

Willie Mays, of course, is known as being one of the greatest defensive outfielders in major league history.  That said, Mantle was no slouch with the glove, either.  It is really possible that Mays’ contributions with the glove make up for Mantle’s profound advantage at the plate?

In his 1963-65 seasons, Mays is credited with saving 44 runs above what a replacement player would have saved.  During Mantle’s 1955-57 seasons, the Yankee center fielder is credited with saving 16 runs beyond what a replacement player would have saved.  Mantle’s knee injuries made him a defensive liability during the final years of his career, while Mays remained a stellar defensive player until he retired.  Accordingly, Mays holds a massive advantage in runs saved above average (185) over Mantle (-44) over the course of their respective careers.

Conclusions

The thing is, the focus of our evaluation is each respective player’s best three-year peak.  Regardless of whatever career advantage Mays has over Mantle in the fielding department, the three years in question for Mantle (1955-57) demonstrate that he was an above-average fielder–not at Mays’ level, to be sure, but talented enough to save an average of 4 runs a year in center field over what an average replacement player would save.

And then there’s the offensive side of things.  Simply put, Mantle–at his peak–was a far, far greater player with a bat in his hands than Mays.  Hell, Mantle was even a better base runner, too.  Why Mays’ Wins Above Replacement totals are so much greater than Mantle’s is something I ultimately cannot explain.  Perhaps it has something to do with the dearth of competent center fielders during May’s prime in the early ’60s, or Mantle’s stiff competition in the outfield during the first full post-war decade.

Regardless, the numbers illustrate that, at their peaks, Mantle was a vastly superior player than Mays.  That’s all there is to it.

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