Stan Musial by the numbers
On Saturday, a day when the baseball world was already mourning the loss of Hall of Famer Earl Weaver, an even bigger icon passed away as well: Stan Musial. Elsewhere at SI.com, Cliff Corcoran hit the highlights of Musial’s remarkable career and Ben Reiter examined how Musial was and is a model for athletes everywhere. The Internet is full of obituaries and tributes, particularly at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, which published a 14-page print tribute to the passing of the city’s greatest athletic hero, treatment worthy of heads of state. Numerous accounts paint Musial as a better man than an athlete — “The Man,” in fact.
Without wishing to diminish the importance of that, I think Musial’s numbers often go underappreciated, in part because of their historical distance. After all, he debuted over 71 years ago, in September 1941, and retired over 49 years ago, in September 1963. Given that, I thought it would be worthwhile to take a stroll through the stats, because they’re truly something to savor.
In a 22-year career with 12,717 plate appearances, Musial hit .331/.417/.559. Roughly speaking, that’s about one-and-a-half times the career of Albert Pujols (.325/.414/.608 in 8,103 PA so far) without any dropoff due to aging. Among batters with at least 8,000 PA, Musial’s batting average ranks 18th, his on-base percentage 14th, his slugging percentage 11th; raise the bar to 10,000 PA — a level which only 68 players have reached — and he rises to ninth, seventh and fourth.
If his raw rate stats aren’t enough to grapple with, consider his counting stats. Musial’s 3,630 hits ranked second only to Ty Cobb’s 4,191 (since revised downward to 4,189) when he retired in 1963. Since then, only Hank Aaron (3,771) and Pete Rose (4,256) have surpassed that mark. Serendipitously, in Musial’s last plate appearance, he hit an RBI a single past Rose, then a rookie second baseman for the Reds. Musial’s 6,134 total bases rank second only to Aaron’s 6,856; Willie Mays (6,066) is the only other player with more than 6,000. His 475 homers rank “only” 28th, but when he retired, that total ranked sixth behind Babe Ruth (714), Jimmie Foxx (534), Ted Williams (521), Mel Ott (511) and Lou Gehrig (493). Musial is also in the top 10 in games (3,026, sixth), plate appearances (12,717, eighth), runs (1,949, ninth), RBIs (1,951, sixth), doubles (725, third) and times on base (5,282, sixth).
He was well-decorated. Musial won seven batting titles, tied with Rogers Hornsby and Rod Carew, and trailing only Tony Gwynn (eight), Honus Wagner (eight) and Cobb (12). He led the league in on-base percentage and slugging percentage six times apiece, had 10 separate seasons in which he led the league in at least one of those three slash categories, and two — 1943 (.357/.425/.562) and 1948 (.376/.450/.702) — in which he led in all three. He reached 200 hits six times, and led his league in hits six times. Although he never led his league in homers, he did lead in total bases six times as well. His 429 total bases in 1948 ranks sixth overall, and second in NL history; it still stands as the highest total since Foxx’s 438 in 1932, when offensive levels were higher.
He’s one of 10 players to win at least three MVP awards (1943, 1946 and 1948), and was the runner-up another four times. He played in 24 All-Star Games, behind Aaron (25) and tied for second with Mays. That total is inflated by the twice-annual games from 1959-1963, which boost the numbers of those three players as well as Mickey Mantle, the only other player to appear in at least 20 All-Star Games. Musial rose to the occasion often in the Midsummer Classic; his six All-Star home runs are a record, while his 20 hits and 10 RBIs both rank second.
Musial was part of four pennant winners (1942, 1943, 1944 and 1946), and three World Series champioons (’42, ’44, ’46), though he hit just .256/.347/.395 with one homer in 99 Fall Classic plate appearances overall. Only once did he have a great World Series. In 1944 against the St. Louis Browns, with whom the Cardinals shared a home park, he hit .304/.360/.522 with his lone Series homer.
In considering his numbers, it’s worth remembering that Musial spent his first five seasons playing in an all-white game, and most of his career in an offense-friendly era. Additionally, he was helped by his home parks, hitting .336/.427/.582 at home, compared to .326/.407/.537 on the road. His hits were split evenly between home and away, with 1,815 apiece, while 252 of his 475 homers, 53 percent, came at home.
Baseball-Reference.com has a stat called AIR which indexes the park and league scoring environment of a player’s season or career, with 100 being average. Musial’s 104 career AIR isn’t remarkable relative to a modern-day Rockies player such as Larry Walker (116) or Todd Helton (123, the record), but it’s right around that of Pujols (105, and likely to continue falling in Anaheim; it was 92 last year), and a bit higher than Barry Bonds (102).
All of which is to say that it’s worth looking at the advanced metrics as well. In terms of True Average, which expresses runs created per plate appearance on a batting average scale after adjusting for a player’s park and league scoring environments, his .340 ranks 10th among players with at least 8,000 PA, and fifth among those with 10,000:
In terms of Wins Above Replacement (Baseball-Reference.com version), Musial’s career total of 123.4 ranks ninth among position players:
Musial led NL position players in WAR four times (1943, 1944, 1946 and 1948), ranked second another three times, third twice and in the top a remarkable 15 times. He led in offensive WAR — with no consideration of defense at all — a staggering eight times.
Musial served as a regular for at least one season at four different positions, so figuring out where he fits for the purposes of JAWS is a bit of a challenge. JAWS classifies a player’s primary position by where he accumulated the most value — not the most games — during his career, after a first-cut infield vs. outfield distinction. Even classifying by games is murky; while he played more at first base (1,016) than any other position, he played more in the outfield (1,890) than at first. He played 929 games in leftfield, 785 in rightfield and 331 in centerfield, often moving from one position to the other during games to accommodate substitutions.
It wasn’t as though Musial migrated across the defensive spectrum from the toughest position to the easiest over the course of his career, either. Here’s a look at the Cardinals’ regulars at the four positions during his career (excluding his 12-game 1941 stint, and his 1945 season in the military), as well as his annual Wins Above Replacement totals:
Musial spent seven seasons as the Cardinals’ regular first baseman, mostly late in his career, eight as the team’s regular leftfielder, including his first and last full ones, one as the regular centerfielder and five as the rightfielder, including all three of his MVP seasons. Nine times he wound up playing more at a different position than he had in the previous season. He compiled 44.6 WAR in his seasons where he was mainly a rightfielder, 24.5 when he was mainly a leftfielder and 33.6 when he was mainly a first baseman. That information suggests he should be classified for JAWS purposes as a rightfielder, though until I shifted my system over from Baseball Prospectus’ Wins Above Replacement Player as the underlying value currency, he was classified as a leftfielder.
Because Retrosheet’s play-by-play coverage goes back only to 1954, his actual batting splits at each position are incomplete. Baseball-Reference publishes only those position splits for which it has such play-by-play data, which account for just 67 percent of his total plate appearances. Retrosheet’s splits, which break down by games started at the position where information about mid-game moves between position aren’t available, cover about 97 percent of his career and break down as follows:
Musial’s numbers in rightfield, which make up about 24 percent of the total, are superior to those at the other positions by 20 points in terms of on-base percentage and about 35 points in terms of slugging percentage, which lends additional credence to the decision to classify him in rightfield. Based upon all of that information, he ranks third in career WAR and JAWS among rightfielders, behind only Ruth (who played considerable amount of leftfield as well) and Aaron, and second in peak WAR (62.7) behind only Ruth. He sits eighth in JAWS among all outfielders and first basemen pooled together:
Musial’s career was about more than the numbers. He was an icon, a role model, a hero, “baseball’s perfect warrior,” in the words of commissioner Ford Frick on the day he retired in Sept. 1963. Even so, his numbers add another dimension to his greatness, and reassert his spot in the pantheon among the game’s best.