What Was Stan Musial?

by Daniel Foster

A couple of readers have rightly pointed out that my case for Stan Musial as the number-three number three of all time (behind Gehrig and Fox — remember Pujols didn’t count because he is still active) was based on a bit of faulty logic. I argued that while Musial didn’t play a majority of his innings at first, he played more innings there than at any one outfield position. But there is spotty defensive data for the first several years of Musial’s career — during which time he was playing in center almost exclusively — so though we don’t know for sure, my claim is almost certainly false.

But the debate in the comments section illustrates the phenomenon that actually moved me to write the original post. Namely, certain great ballplayers who spent time at a lot of different positions over the course of their careers sometimes fall through the cracks when we’re talking about the “best ever” at position x or y. It’s not universally true: Pete Rose was the original super-utility guy who played at so many spots on the diamond we tend to just throw our hands up and talk about his hits record. But Musial in particular has always struck me as a guy who doesn’t get the credit he deserves for probably being one of the ten or so best players of the modern era, and I think that has to do with him moving around the outfield and eventually to first base.

Which goes to show you that the whole “best ever at position x” model is going to be problematic. As reader Don Lehmann pointed out in an e-mail, if Stan Musial counts as a first baseman then so does Frank Thomas — and Thomas was better:

[Musial] played 672 games at first base and batted .319 in those games. However, Frank Thomas played 969 games at first and batted .337 in those games.  Thomas also was used as a DH and batted just .275 in that role.  His DH stats are usually lumped in with his marvelous first base numbers, and he is judged unfairly as a result.  The disparity between the two sets of numbers surfaced early in Frank’s career and remains one of those baseball mysteries. 

There is a good case for putting Thomas in this conversation. As for some of the other recurring suggestions in the comments thread, some quick thoughts:

  • Willie McCovey was an excellent ballpayer — a guy who hit 521 home runs when hitting 521 home runs was hard. But at the end of the day I think the case for him as up there with Gehrig and Foxx is based more on reputation than data. Obviously, I didn’t see McCovey play, but we’re talking about a .270 power hitter with basically one dimension to his game. His career OPS of .889 is almost a hundred points below Musial’s .976 mark.
  • There is an entire cottage industry among baseball dorks dedicated to trying to settle once and for all whether Jeff Bagwell is great or merely very good. Bagwell did a lot of different things well and had a tremendous peak — including one of the best seasons ever in strike-shortened 1994. But I’m more in the “merely very good” camp considering his era and the fact that Houston was a very hitter-friendly ballpark in the latter half of his career. More on “bagging Bagwell” here.
  • Speaking of peaks, if Mattingly could have stayed healthy and stretched his 1984-1987 peak out a few more years, his combination of offense and defense would have put him in this conversation.

Right Field

Brief chronicles of our sporting times.