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Friday, June 19, 2015

Joe DiMaggio 1935: was the best player in the minors?

In July 2010 my friend Eric suggested that Joe DiMaggio might have been the best player in 1935 even though he played in the Pacific Coast League.  Whether or not that was true, it got me thinking about why Joe played the 1935 season in the minors and not with the New York Yankees.

1. Was Joe DiMaggio the best player in 1935?

Negro league star Josh Gibson at the of age 23 in 1935 hit .355 with 16 homers leading the league. That’s not nearly enough to eclipse Joe DiMaggio’s accomplishments.

Japanese baseball was not on high enough level to seriously consider those players.

Joe DiMaggio will be compared to AL and NL players.

Joe's 1935 stats with the 1935 San Francisco Seals:

Joe played the most games on his team: 172.  Marv Gudat appears to have lead the PCL with 176.

In the outfield Joe had 32 assists, 21 errors, fielding percentage .957, range factor per game 2.69.

Pacific Coast League batting leaders:

BA: Ox Eckhardt .399; Joe DiMaggio .398 ... Gene Lillard seventh at .361

Slugging Average: Gene Lillard .684; .Joe DiMaggio 672

Hits: Ox Eckhardt 283; Joe DiMaggio 270

2B: Moose Clabaugh 56, Jim Oglesby 56, Art Garibaldi 53, Joe DiMaggio 48

3B: Joe DiMaggio 18

HR: Gene Lillard 56; Joe DiMaggio 34

Total Bases: Joe DiMaggio 456; Gene Lillard 439

These stats were not kept: Runs, RBI, On Base Percentage, BB, SO, SB.

Like his MLB record DiMaggio had less black ink (lead league) than might be expected.

Gene Lillard may have been the best player in the PCL in 1935.  He had his career year.  Lillard played 44 MLB games as a Pitcher, Shortstop and Third Baseman.

1935 American League Batting Leaders:

Let’s see how Joe DiMaggio would fit in with the AL leaders in the categories that were kept in the PCL.  Remember, Joe played 172 games.  1935 AL teams had a 154 game schedule.  Hal Trosky was the only player with 154 games played.  Oddly, Lou Gehrig played in all his team’s games but there were only 149 (89-60).

BA: Joe DiMaggio .398; Buddy Myer .349 ... Hank Greenberg seventh .328

Slugging Average: Joe DiMaggio 672; Jimmy Foxx .636; Hank Greenberg .628

Hits: Joe DiMaggio 270; Joe Vosmik 216

2B: Joe DiMaggio 48; Joe Vosmik 47

3B: Joe Vosmik 20; Joe DiMaggio 18

HR: Hank Greenberg and Jimmy Foxx 36; Joe DiMaggio 34

Total Bases: Joe DiMaggio 456; Hank Greenberg 389

Hank Greenberg was voted MVP: .328/.411/.628, leading the AL in HR (36), RBI (170), TB (389).  At least ten AL players had On Base Percentage at least .400.  Gehrig led with .466; Greenberg sixth .411.

In more modern numbers:

Wins Above Replacement: Gehrig 9.2; Ferrell 9.1, Gehringer 8.4; Greenberg 8.3; Foxx 8.0.

Adjusted OPS+: Foxx 182; Gehrig 176; Greenberg 169.

Runs Created: Greenberg 159; Foxx 156; Gehrig 143.

So DiMaggio would appear to be battling against Greenberg, Gehrig and Foxx.  Was Joe better than all three?  No.  Even if we try to adjust Joe’s actual rookie numbers in 1936 (only 138 games) he comes up short; Joe finished eighth in 1936 MVP voting.

Who was the best player in 1935?  Not Joe DiMaggio.  And we didn’t even look at Arky Vaughan in the NL where he dominated with WAR 9.1; OPS+ 190; RC 147.

2. Would the Yankees have won the 1935 AL pennant with Joe DiMaggio?

In 1935 the Yankees finished second, three games behind Detroit (two in losses).  The natural inclination is to assume that DiMaggio could help the Yanks win at least three more games.  But let’s not assume.

In Joe’s actual rookie season of 1936 his Wins Above Replacement  (WAR) = 4.8 in 138 games.  Let’s extrapolate that to 149 games since he actually played 172 games in the PCL in 1935.  The Yanks played only 149 games in 1935.

4.8 / 668 = 0.07186 wins above a replacement per PA

0.07186 * 691 = 4.965269461 wins above a replacement player for 1935

That’s 5 wins that DiMaggio would contribute in 149 games above a replacement.  Now let’s penalize him ten percent, figuring that he improved by playing in 1935 and that improvement contributed to his 1936 performance.

5 - .5 = 4.5

We’ll assume that Joe would have added about 4.5 wins above a replacement to the 1935 Yankees.

Next we need to subtract the WAR of the player or players Joe actually replaced.  The 1935 Yankee starting outfielders were Ben Chapman (R), George Selkirk (L) and Jesse Hill (R).  They played 140, 128 and 107 games respectively.  The next OF was Hall of Famer Earle Combs (L) who played 89 games in what was his final season.  Other outfielders: Myril Hoag (R) played 48 games and Dixie Walker 8 (only 13 PA).  Obviously there’s some overlap so we’ll look at Plate Appearances (PA) to weight their playing time.

Here are their Wins Above Replacement  (WAR):

Chapman 3.6 (629 PA) WAR/PA=.005723
Selkirk 3.9 (541 PA) WAR/PA=.007209
Hill 1.8 (444 PA) WAR/PA=.004054
Combs .8 (335 PA) WAR/PA=.002388
Hoag -.2 (yes, he was worse than a replacement player) (124 PA) WAR/PA=-.00161

Including Walker’s 13 that’s a total of 2,086 PA for Yankee OF in 1935; 691 for each of the three outfielders.  The 1935 Yankee OF WAR was 9.9.  Remember, Gehrig’s WAR was 9.2.

It seems safe to assume that DiMaggio would have taken playing time away from the weakest of those outfielders: Hill, Combs and Hoag.  In fact DiMaggio would probably have replaced Hoag on the roster.  Combs and Hoag combined for 459 PA.  Let’s just eliminate them.  That leaves 232 PA to subtract from Hill, reducing him to 212, a little less than half his PA.

With DiMaggio playing all 149 games in our scenario, we’ll give him the full 691 PA for one full time OF.

Hill’s contribution would drop from 1.8 wins above a replacement  to .859 (212*.004054) .

Chapman 3.6
Selkirk 3.9
Hill .859
DiMaggio 4.5

The 1935 Yankees outfield WAR would have been 12.86 instead of 9.2.

The difference with DiMaggio on the 1935 Yankees: 12.86 - 9.2 = 3.7 additional wins above a replacement.  With DiMaggio the 1935 Yankees might well have tied or beaten Detroit.

3. Did the Yankees make a mistake not having DiMaggio on the 1935 team?

In 1933 in his first full season DiMaggio played 187 games in the PCL and  had a 66 game hitting streak, eight years before his MLB record of hitting in 56 consecutive games.  In 1934 DiMaggio played 101 games batting .341.   However, DiMaggio was injured off the field, tearing the ligaments in his left knee, ending his season.  DiMaggio's value dropped from possibly $100,000.  The Yankees acquired the rights to DiMaggio despite his injury, supposedly for $25,000.  Here is how the transaction is described in baseball-reference.com:

November 21, 1934: Traded by San Francisco (PCL) to the New York Yankees for players to be named later and cash. Doc Farrell refused to report to his new team on 1935. The New York Yankees sent Doc Farrell (December 19, 1934), Floyd Newkirk (December 19, 1934), Jim Densmore (minors) (December 19, 1934), Ted Norbert (minors) (December 19, 1934) and $5,000 (1935) to San Francisco (PCL) to complete the trade.

It’s not clear if the extra $5,000 for the player who refused to report to SF is included in the $25,000 or whether the Yanks paid SF $30,000.  The four players are of little note.  However, SF extracted the concession that DiMaggio would play one more season in SF.


Joe DiMaggio and Charlie Hyman in Bushwicks uniform 1936 by via Wikimedia Commons
Eric Weiss found a 1935 article that indicates that the Yankees had the option to acquire DiMaggio at any time during the 1935 season but that they waited to see how DiMaggio’s knee would hold up.  Also, that DiMaggio supposedly batted only about .300 in the first half of the season.  If this is true then DiMaggio must have batted almost .500 in the second half.

Why didn’t the Yankees use DiMaggio for at least the second half  for the 1935 season?  After DiMaggio had played some games in 1935 for SF the Yanks would have had some assurance that he had fully recovered from his injury.  Even for part of the season DiMaggio could have helped the Yankees better challenge Detroit for the 1935 pennant, which the Tigers won.  Detroit finished with only two fewer losses than the second place Yankees.  Detroit played three fewer games than scheduled and the Yankees FIVE fewer.  Since playing those games could have changed the pennant winner, why weren’t they played?

By finishing second instead of first how much money did the Yankees fail to make?  More than $25,000, which the Yankees paid anyway?  The Yanks had dropped Babe Ruth’s $80,000 salary for 1935.  It looks like the Yankees made a bad decision in not getting DiMaggio for the 1935 season.

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