A Lifetime on the Road
One of the great insights of the sabermetric revolution is the recognition that when evaluating a player, context counts. Ballparks, scoring environments, teammates, leagues and a host of other factors often give the illusion of success (or failure) to a ballplayer’s career. In this article, I take a look at some players through the prism of their road statistics to try to tease out differences in performance and ability that may cause you to think differently about certain stars of the last 50 years.
Intuitively, we recognize that hitters who play in great environments like Coors are benefitted and that players in cavernous stadiums are generally hurt. I am not sure, however, that we ever truly appreciate that some players, as a result of hitting style, luck or other reasons, are inordinately benefitted or hindered by their home ballpark.
By looking at just a player’s career road statistics, I try to separate out the effect of a player’s home ballpark and come to some interesting observations when certain hitters are compared “all else being equal.” The theory is simple, by examining a player’s away statistics, we get to view a player’s production playing at what is close to a league-average neutral park because all the park’s except the player’s home stadium are counted. The methodology is also equally simple, for purposes of this article, I will lay out a player’s slash statistics (avg./obp./slg.) and double his home runs, hits, RBIs and runs accumulated on the road so that the totals replicate traditional career numbers. Obviously, players play very similar amounts of games on the road and at home, so doubling does not reflect differences in opportunity and, by focusing on career statistics, sample size problems are easily avoided. Also, the players I compare here (usually with a player A and player B format) were contemporaries, so they may be playing in the same ballparks at the same time (although league differences may skew the results a bit). Nevertheless, the “road career” I have created here often differs markedly from the numbers we associate with a lot of the great players discussed.
From looking at a lot of home and road splits, I made a number of observations I will pass on. For a host of reasons, some of which we can guess about, over the course of their career, players generally perform better at home than on the road. Additionally, players probably deserve some credit for learning to take advantage of their home ballparks (or were recognized by talent evaluators for having skills that would translate well to a particular ballpark), so taking away their home stats probably over-penalizes a player a bit. Finally, it is clear that two venerable ballparks, Fenway and Wrigley, result in giant advantages for certain hitters. So I suspect that a number of Red Sox and Cubs fans will have particular views about this article. All the players discussed below had complete careers after the retro sheet era, so there are not gaps in their numbers. Without further ado, here are some comparisons for discussion:
Example 1 – The Hall Of Very Good
For my first example, I am comparing two players whose careers largely overlapped in the National League. Both were multiple gold glove fielders playing the same position in the middle of the defensive spectrum. Both played in lower run scoring environments than today. Both are in the Hall of Merit, but only one is a cause celebre as an unjust Hall of Fame snub.
Player A won 5 gold gloves, was an eleven time all star and won one MVP. He performed better at home and his slash line away is .277/.340/.443. If he spent his career on the road, he would have accumulated 2066 hits, 268 homers, 996 RBIs and 1056 runs.
Player B also won 5 gold gloves (starting right after the run of Player A) and was a nine time all star. His highest MVP performance was fourth. He too performed better at home, and his slash line away is .257/.342./406. His “career on the road” yields 2092 hits, 256 homers, 1176 RBIs and 958 runs.
Both players are pretty even, but seeing the above, I would take Player A. If you haven’t guessed, Player A is Ken Boyer, Player B is Ron Santo. Santo mashed at Wrigley over his career (.296/.383/.522), but was just ordinary on the road. Take away the Wrigley advantage, and these guys were about as even as they come in playing ability. (The comparison above is not entirely fair, because, even though their careers overlapped, Santo peaked in the ultra-low scoring environment of the late 60’s, by which team Boyer’s career was basically over.) Nevertheless, the numbers cause me to question whether Santo really is as deserving for the Hall of Fame as many now believe (and frankly, I did before looking at his splits).
Example 2: The Best Right Handed Hitter of the Steroids Era?
The next four players were all born within a few months of each other in 1968 (two share a birthday, which already will alert some trivia buffs). These right handed sluggers debuted between 1988 and 1992. Who was the best?
Player A has a .297/.414/.511 slash line on the road. His career on the road yields 2444 hits, 418 dingers, 1630 RBIs and 1368 runs. He is a 5 time all star and two time MVP. With the glove, he is best remembered as a hitter.
Player B has a .288/.384./.501 slash line on the road, and would have had 2704 hits, 1594 runs, 494 homers, and 1670 RBIs had his entire career been played on the road. He was a nine time all star and his best showing for MVP was second. Although not a good fielder, he was versatile, having played all over the diamond during his career. He is also generally regarded as one of the surlier stars of the past twenty years.
Player C has a .291/.398/.521 away slash line, with 2306 hits, 1422 runs, 430 home runs, and an even 1500 RBIs. He was a four time all star, one time MVP and garnered one gold glove (and was generally regarded as a good fielder).
Player D has a .320/.388/.572 slash line. This road warrior’s away career would have garnered 2328 hits, 1094 runs, 464 homers and 1414 RBIs. He was a twelve time all star and his best showing for MVP was a couple of second places. Oh, did I mention he was a catcher?
If you haven’t guessed, the above are, in order, Frank Thomas, Gary Sheffield, Jeff Bagwell and Mike Piazza. Piazza’s power and overall hitting on the road is astounding, as he gets an additional 20 to 30 points in average over the other greats here and sports a slugging percentage fully 50, 60 and 70 points better than Bagwell, Thomas and Sheffield, respectively. Piazza had the unlucky circumstance of having played most of his career in Chavez Ravine and Shea, two parks that are tough on right handed power hitters. Even his short stopovers in Oakland, San Diego, and a week of games for the Marlins were all played in pitchers’ parks. He is one of the small percentage of players whose road numbers are better than his home numbers (.294/.364/.515). He averaged 38 homers per 162 games on the road. A good argument can be made that Piazza was the best right-handed hitter of this bunch. I don’t know that many would have argued that before seeing the numbers. Rather, I imagine most people would think Frank Thomas was the best hitter of this group. Thomas, for his part, had 100 more home runs at home than on the road, showing he may have benefitted inordinately from favorable home parks well suited for his hitting. His career home numbers, primarily at Comiskey, are a phenomenal .305/.424/.599.
As a side note, Manny Ramirez, who is four years younger than this group, has even more impressive away numbers (as well as a much closer association with the “steroids era” than Thomas, Bagwell and Piazza). At the time of this writing, his road slash numbers are .313/.408/.582, even better than Piazza’s, and he has produced comparable line, .313/.414/.596, at home.
Example 3: a Trio of 3000-Hit Slap Hitters
When I think of great career hitters for average, three names that jump to mind are Tony Gwynn, Wade Boggs and Rod Carew. Among the three, they all finished with between 3010 and 3143 hits, all hit between .328 and .338, with on base percentages between .388 and .415 while slugging between .429 and .459. Below are three slash lines, and the number of hits they would have if they played all their games on the road.
Player A: 3088 hits, .323/.385/.425
Player B: 3172 hits, .334/.384/.451
Player C: 2774 hits, .302/.387/.395
In order, that is Carew, Gwynn, and Boggs. Carew and Gwynn, on the road, hit like Rod Carew and Tony Gwynn. Wade Boggs hits like Al Oliver (career 2743 hits, .303/.344/.451).
Boggs is not the only 3000 hit-club member who received a big boost from Fenway. One of the most notable “road careers” is that of Carl Yastrzemski, who put up a career .264/.357/.422 on the road, with what would have been 3194 hits, 430 homers, 1644 runs and 1562 RBIs. Not a lot of .264 hitters get to 3000 hits, so it is hard to believe that Yaz could have gotten there without the benefit of a home park that suited him well and helped keep him in the lineup for 23 years. His career line at home is an impressive .306/.402/.503.
Example 4: Let Wrigley Double Your Pleasure
Now let’s take a look at three Cub icons, Ryne Sandberg, Billy Williams and Mr. Cub himself, Ernie Banks. I have compared the first two to long-time Tigers Lou Whitaker and Al Kaline (the number one and three most comparable players to each, respectively, according to Baseball Reference) and Banks to his top comparable, Eddie Mathews. Only one of the long-time Cubs’ road numbers hold up, can you guess who?
So here are the second sackers:
Player A: With a .269/.326/.412 line, this second baseman’s road career yields 2256 hits, 1184 runs, 908 RBI and 236 homers.
Player B: With a .274/.357/.406 line, this second baseman would have tallied 2394 hits, 1310 runs, 1070 RBIs and 196 homers with a career entirely on the road.
And the outfielders:
Player A: With a .278/.349/.459 line, this outfielder’s life on the road would garner 362 homers, 2596 hits, 1363 RBIs and 1298 runs.
Player B: With a .292/.369/.458 line, this outfielder would clout 346 homers, with 1510 RBIs, 1568 runs, and 2998 hits if his career took place solely on the road. I am pretty sure he would not have found a way to get a couple more hits.
And the slugging infielders:
Player A: His .259/.311/.462 on the road would result in 444 homers, 2424 hits, 1454 RBIs, 1168 runs and an inordinate number of outs.
Player B: His .277/.382/.529 line would result in 548 homers, 2468 hits, 1574 RBIs, 1624 runs and likely consideration as a member of the inner circle of Hall of Famers.
In all the examples above, the Cub is always Player A. Take Ryne Sandberg out of Wrigley, and he doesn’t look like a Hall of Famer, even for a second baseman. Of course, his .300/.361/.491 career line at Wrigley counts toward his bottom line, so he skated in to Cooperstown. In this exercise, however, Whitaker’s career looks more impressive than Sandberg’s when you factor in the longer effectiveness as well as the additional 30 points in on base percentage. That Whitaker couldn’t even manage to stay on the Hall of Fame ballot is a travesty.
Williams holds up remarkably well (and better than I would have thought), considering he wasn’t quite the hitter Kaline was when factoring in home numbers. Williams’ home slash stats of .302/.374/.525 are still much better than his road numbers, however.
The Mathews/Banks comparison is especially revealing, as Banks and Mathews played in the same league at the same time. Mathews simply laps Banks. Mathews was better on the road than at home (.264/370/.488) over the course of his career. Hank Aaron, Mathews’ right-handed power-hitting teammate, produced virtually identical numbers home and away, so it is not self-evident that the Braves’ ballparks were a burden on right-handed power hitters. (Willie Mays, like Aaron, also produced virtually identical numbers at home and on the road, refuting the oft-repeated, and oft-debunked, myth that his power numbers were sapped by unfortunate home venues.) Banks was a different, and better, hitter at home, where he had a career line of .290/.348/.537, a more than .110 point difference in OPS. Considering he played fewer than half his games at shortstop, had Banks spent his “career on the road,” so to speak, it is not clear he would have been a Hall of Famer, and certainly would not have been thought of as an elite member of the Hall, as he generally is now.
I suspect a lot of people will argue that this methodology is unnecessary because OPS plus factors in home ball parks or that a player should receive full credit for taking advantage of his environment. I think, however, that looking at only road statistics serves as a great equalizer in assessing such questions as, “who was better?” When we ask that question, we generally don’t mean to look merely at accumulated statistics without context, but to examine the question in light of a platonic ideal of a great hitter. A great hitter is a great hitter at home, on the road or in the middle of a cornfield. Hits, and especially home runs, are often the result of hitting a ball well in a stadium that rewards it, and not all players end up in parks that reward their skills. Simply, ballparks do not behave equally or match a hitter’s strengths equally. By looking at the amalgamated statistics of a player on the road, I believe we gain better insight into a player’s performance by eliminating the home field advantages or disadvantages that a player faces in half his at bats.
Finally, for some parting thoughts, here are some other observations I made. For example, I always considered Kirby Puckett and Don Mattingly interesting comparables in terms of Hall of Fame debates. Puckett hit just .291/.330/.431 on the road compared to .302/.353/.450 for Mattingly. In my mind, neither cuts it as a Hall of Famer based on their short careers. If I ever thought there was an offensive difference between Dave Winfield (.289/.356/.485) and Eddie Murray (.286/.356/.482) I certainly can’t believe there is one now. I find it hard to make a strong case for Jim Rice as a Hall of Famer based on his weak road stats (.277/.330/.459), especially when Edgar Martinez (.312/.412/.514) is such a long shot. I have a heightened appreciation of Jeff Kent (.290/.353/.504) who toiled for several teams, mostly in pitchers’ parks. The magnitude of difference between Larry Walker on the road (.278/.370/.495) and at home (.348/.431/.637), while predictable, is nevertheless astounding.
Often, a review of splits confirms our perception of a player, but in some cases, it challenges it. While not the ending point of all debates, looking at road statistics provides new and often unexpected insights.
Doug Baumstein is an attorney in New York and Mets fan.