Honus Wagner and Evolving Definitions

Comparing players across generations is a confoundingly difficult task. Complete games are extremely are in today’s game; few people stole a lot of bases in the 1930s-1950s; home runs were very rare until Babe Ruth went to the Yankees. Therefore we cannot know, or even approximate well, how many bases Dom DiMaggio would have stolen, or how many complete games Randy Johnson would have thrown if they had played in different eras with different expectations and incentives.

Neutralized statistics are good at helping us compare differences across the years, but within the same general framework, but not across eras. They can help tell us how much better Willie McCovey would have been had he played in a less pitcher friendly era and in a better hitter’s ballpark, but neutralized statistics cannot really tell us how many home runs Tris Speaker or Ty Cobb would have hit if they had played in the 1970s. I have been thinking about this because of some of the feedback I received in a recent column where I asserted that Honus Wagner, the greatest shortstop in history, and one of the very best players ever to pick up a bat, was not really a power hitter.

The main argument that Wagner was a power hitter seems to rest on his slugging percentage. Leading the league six times in such an important offensive categoryis an impressive accomplishment, but Wagner’s slugging percentage numbers also raise some question. He is tied with Sid Gordon for 249th in career slugging percentage. Gordon may well have been the second best right handed hitting Jewish power hitter of his era, but he was not a great slugger. Nonetheless, 249th is still good enough to be called a power hitterr. When the statistics are neutralized, Wagner jumps to 201st in the list where his .475 slugging percentage is tied with another longtime Pirate star, Roberto Clemente. Among shortstops, his career slugging percentage is good for 5th place all time, but until the last couple of decades, there were very few players who hit for power and played shortstop with any real consistency.

Wagner’s best single season slugging percentage was .542 in 1908, which was good for 911th highest single season slugging percentage but 29th among shortstops. These numbers are not bad, but further demonstrate that Wagner was a creature of his era, when power was not a major part of the game. Wagner was, of course, a great hitter, so his slugging percentage is buoyed by a batting average of .327 for his career and of .354 in 1908.

Isolated power (ISO) allows us to see disaggregate slugging percentage from batting average. Wagner’s numbers here are considerably less impressive than his slugging numbers. His career .137 ISO is 407th among players with more than 5,000 plate appearances, putting him in a tie with Jim Spencer, Bill Madlock, Riggs Stephenson and Earle Combs, none of whom, except perhaps Spencer, were power hitters in any meaningful sense. Wagner’s best single season ISO was .188 in 1907 good for 99th among shortstops but not among the top 1,600 ISO seasons overall. The ISO data confirm that much of Honus Wagner’s slugging percentage is, in fact, a residue of his high batting average.

Overall the numbers are sufficiently ambiguous that the question of whether or not Honus Wagner was a power hitter is tied to the question of how we define “power hitter.” It also begs the more abstract question of whether there were power hitters when there was very little power in the game. While the answer to this question is probably subjective, it is also apparent that the argument is not really about numbers but about defining terms and balancing change and continuity within the game over the decades.