Friday, February 12, 2016

Best players of the last 30 years, #29: Wade Boggs

Wade Boggs led MLB with a .357 batting average in 1986, the year I fell in love with the game. He won the AL batting crown for each of the first three seasons of my fandom, and because batting average was king back then, I figured Boggs must be the best hitter in the game. If you led the league in something, the number would be italicized on the back of your trading card, and the far right side of Boggs' card, where batting average was found, always seemed to be filled with that wavy print. It wasn't until almost a decade later that I began to consider the value of walks, and to recognize that on-base percentage was a much better statistic than batting average. Did this new knowledge lead me to realize I'd been wrong about Boggs being the best? Nope. It turns out that in addition to lining singles and doubles all over the American League, Boggs walked his ass off too, and nobody was better at the plate in my nascent years as a fan.

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This countdown is a way for me to look back at the three decades I've spent as a baseball fan. My introduction to the project, with an explanation of sorts, and links to every entry can be found here.

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Most great hitters have a balance of batting-average/on-base skills and power. Few hitters since the Dead Ball Era (generally said to have ended in 1918, the year before Babe Ruth set a new record with 29 home runs in a single season) have accomplished as much at the plate as Boggs did while providing such modest power. In that first year of my baseball fandom, Boggs hit .357 and led the league with 105 walks, which helped him to an OPS+** of 157. That figure was second-best in all of baseball for 1986. Boggs hit only 8 home runs. Prior to Boggs, the last player to post an OPS+ of 157 or better while hitting fewer than ten home runs was Mickey Vernon in 1946.

**OPS+ takes a player's offense and adjusts it for era and stadium, so that the performance of a player in a hitters' park during a high-offense era can be more reasonably compared to the performance of a player in a pitchers' park during a low-offense era, etc. On this scale, 100 represents league, each point below 100 represents 1% below league-average, and each point above 100 represents 1% above league-average, so Boggs' 1986 OPS+ figure of 157 translates to him having been 57% better than average. That's good.

Two years later, Boggs one-upped himself by putting up an even better OPS+ of 168, while hitting just 5 home runs. The last player to match that combination was Ty Cobb in 1922. This may explain why C. Montgomery Burns was content to let Boggs play third base for the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant's softball team when original choice Pie Traynor turned out to be dead. (But Wade, Pitt the Elder as the great British Prime Minister?! ...Yeah, big points for overseeing the taxes that led the colonies to revolt and kick your empire on its ass.)

In between those two incredible low-power seasons was 1987, which baseball fans my age or older remember as the year offense was bonkers, with 645 more home runs than any other season in MLB history to that point being hit, and a league-wide slugging percentage of .415 (a new record), twenty points higher than the season before. The most likely explanation for this is the "rabbit ball," a baseball intentionally (on the secret orders of MLB officials) wound tighter so that it would fly farther. (The same thing was done in Japan in 2013.)

While I'd become a baseball fan by then, I didn't have any way of following things very closely (though I was at Wrigley with my dad when Andre Dawson hit his 39th and 40th home runs of the season, on his way to 49 of them and eventually the NL MVP award), so it wasn't until 1988 baseball cards came out that I began to see the kind of numbers that had been put up in 1987, but I fondly recall being wowed by what I saw. Eric Davis' 37 home runs and 50 stolen bases that me he should have won the MVP. And you know what, sitting here 29 years later, I still think I was right.

Boggs took advantage of the rabbit ball by hitting a career-high 24 home runs, with a slugging percentage of .588, nearly one hundred points better than his second-best season of .490. In the last fifty years, only two players have finished their career having once hit 24+ home runs without ever having hit even half that many in another season. Boggs is one, and the other is Rick Ankiel, whose strange career included only three seasons with 250+ plate appearances, compared to 18 such seasons for Wade.  

Boggs was one of the most superstitious players of his (or any) era. He also always left home for the ballpark, took batting practice, and ran sprints at the same times before each day. The Fenway Park public address announcer once forgot to include Boggs' jersey number when introducing him, and Boggs went on to break out of a big slump that night, so he asked the PA man to never mention his jersey number again. Most famously ate chicken before every game, and his appetites extended beyond poultry. Legend has it he once drank 64 (or was it even more?) Miller Lites on a single flight. That sounds... unpleasant.

Boggs finished his career with 3,010 hits, including 578 doubles, and with a .328 batting average, bested by only Ted Williams and Tony Gwynn since World War II, and a .415 on-base percentage, which also rates among the very best. When I think of Boggs, my mind drifts back to the start of my baseball fandom, when I followed the game by box score and baseball card backs. I picture him holding a bat, waiting, or his the follow through of his swing, frozen on film, having probably just smacked another double off the Green Monster. And I see that far right column, with all those italicized numbers. 

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