ZiPS Time Warp: Ted Williams

Ted Williams isn’t the typical beneficiary of a trip in the ZiPS time machine. After all, anyone who has the slightest interest in baseball — and many who don’t — know his name, even if they aren’t familiar with every last one of his accomplishments. Williams typified the cerebral, scientific hitter in the same way that Babe Ruth created the archetype of the larger-than-life slugger. The mercurial Ruth likely would have had considerably more trouble adapting to today’s game, but I’m of the opinion that the Splendid Splinter would actually thrive in a world where offense is looked at more as science than myth made true. Perhaps the best modern comparison for Williams is Joey Votto if the latter somehow got a hold of a genie’s lamp.

The list of Williams’ accomplishments is far too lengthy to run down in complete fashion, so we’ll settle for a sampling. He’s first all-time in on-base percentage and second in slugging percentage. He’s the most recent player to hit .400, and a two-time Triple Crown winnner. Ted finished with a .344 batting average, 521 homers, 2,654 hits, and enough black ink in his stats that he could have started his own newspaper.

But Williams’ career was also marked by long absences from the game. He was drafted after Pearl Harbor, initially receiving a deferment because he was his mother’s sole support. He played through the 1942 season, but enlisted in the Navy reserve after its conclusion and served for the next three years.

In terms of baseball, those were prime seasons of his career lost. The 1943-1945 stretch represented his age-24 through age-26 seasons, years when a lot of Hall of Famers turn in some of their most eye-popping campaigns. Taking a look at the list of Hall of Fame hitters through those ages sorted by WAR, there are some truly gigantic numbers involved:

Hall of Fame Hitters by WAR, Ages-24 to 26

Every hitter in the Hall of Fame who was allowed to play in major league baseball put up something in those seasons. They averaged just under five wins per season, and 123 of the 153 hitters put up at least 10 WAR. (For those who are curious, Sam Rice, an extremely late-bloomer, only collected 1.3 WAR during these ages.)

In 1952, Williams did it all again. Activated for the Korean War, he played in just six games that season, reporting for training in May. That stint in the armed forces was a shorter one and Williams returned for the end of the 1953 season, wreaking a terrible vengeance on pitchers while hitting .407/.509/.901 with 13 homers in 37 games. He was his usual self in 1954, but injuries took a toll. Slowed down by a broken collarbone in the spring, the 35-year-old announced that 1954 would be his final season. The Red Sox offered him the manager job, which he declined.

But his retirement was entwined with a messy divorce and he returned to the Red Sox in May 1955. Almost every player in history would envy his decline phase. From 1955 until his retirement in 1960, Williams hit .336/.470/.623. His final 1.096 OPS suggests he could have stayed around even longer, but he finished his career in style, hitting one last Fenway dinger off Orioles pitcher Jack Fisher.

As baseball fans, we can’t help but wonder what Teddy Ballgame could have done with more ballgames. There are a few ways to look at this, so I’ll start with this easiest.

Here’s how hitters throughout baseball history rank if we take out the stats generated during their ages-24-26 and 33-34 seasons. Suffice it to say, Williams shoots up the charts. Overall, Williams and Stan Musial are the only two players in the top 25 for WAR who went to war, though Joe DiMaggio likely makes the top 25 without World War II:

Career WAR, Ages 24-26, 33-34 Removed
Name WAR
Ted Williams 127.8
Barry Bonds 127.7
Babe Ruth 113.6
Ty Cobb 112.2
Willie Mays 104.3
Honus Wagner 100.6
Stan Musial 100.4
Hank Aaron 99.9
Tris Speaker 89.1
Rogers Hornsby 87.4
Joe Morgan 84.3
Eddie Collins 84.1
Mel Ott 80.8
Alex Rodriguez 78.3
Mickey Mantle 74.8
Rickey Henderson 73.7
Cap Anson 72.4
Nap Lajoie 72.2
Carl Yastrzemski 71.5
Frank Robinson 70.5
Eddie Mathews 69.4
Lou Gehrig 68.6
Cal Ripken 68.0
Jimmie Foxx 66.9
Mike Schmidt 66.8

But that’s not entirely fair to the others, is it? After all, they actually put up those seasons! Plus, I have a projection system, for an occasion just such as this. For this part of the Time Warp, I asked ZiPS to project Williams, with 1942 being the jumping-off point from reality:

ZiPS Time Warp: Ted Williams, 1942
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO OPS+ WAR
1943 .347 .492 .580 505 131 175 30 5 26 92 141 47 221 11.3
1944 .360 .495 .596 495 171 178 31 7 24 118 130 45 223 10.6
1945 .349 .498 .577 487 136 170 30 6 23 94 142 45 218 10.3
1946 .354 .510 .681 480 177 170 30 8 37 120 150 54 233 12.5
1947 .350 .518 .675 468 157 164 28 8 36 107 160 47 231 11.5
1948 .346 .525 .643 459 183 159 27 8 31 121 169 42 215 10.8
1949 .343 .530 .668 452 176 155 26 8 35 117 177 40 219 11.1
1950 .353 .529 .735 445 191 157 26 9 42 126 163 40 217 11.2
1951 .345 .507 .673 441 144 152 24 8 35 97 142 39 210 10.0
1952 .321 .474 .601 439 119 141 20 8 29 81 125 41 196 8.6
1953 .326 .465 .612 436 110 142 19 8 30 75 111 38 189 7.3
1954 .320 .458 .578 403 96 129 16 8 24 65 100 33 177 7.5
1955 .308 .440 .509 373 90 115 13 1 20 58 86 31 153 5.1
1956 .308 .433 .506 344 79 106 12 1 18 49 74 27 140 4.3
1957 .290 .394 .438 317 64 92 9 1 12 41 52 24 129 2.2
1958 .285 .375 .423 291 53 83 8 1 10 33 40 21 119 1.3
1959 .277 .365 .386 267 48 74 6 1 7 30 35 18 107 0.3
1960 .271 .350 .367 229 34 62 5 1 5 22 27 15 96 -0.3
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO OPS+ WAR
ZiPS RoC .331 .478 .588 7331 2159 2424 360 97 444 1446 2024 647 194 135.5
Actual .340 .482 .631 5602 1257 1905 371 38 394 1324 1526 513 191 94.0
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO OPS+ WAR
ZiPS Career .336 .479 .600 9435 2700 3173 514 130 571 1961 2519 843 194 171.9
Actual .344 .482 .634 7706 1798 2654 525 71 521 1839 2021 709 188 130.4

ZiPS actually didn’t do too terribly projecting Ted! The computer in 1942 didn’t know just how good he’d still be in 1960; 18 years is a really long time to project a player out. Williams now passes the 3,000-hit mark and adds 50 home runs. The extra playing time is enough to get him to 171.9 wins, pushing him past Ruth at the top of the leaderboard.

And it still rips Williams off a bit. In truth, we’re not looking for a career projection for Ted Williams, just one for 1943-1945 and 1952-1953. We actually know he was awesome in 1960, so why give him ZiPS’ prediction for 1960? Using projections instead of reality gives him a few better performances in the mid-40s, but he loses more from not getting credit for his amazingly gentle decline.

But never fear. One of the projects I had time to work on during our sad baseball interregnum this year was an addition to ZiPS to make it able to do things backwards. So to fill in Ted’s war years, I ask ZiPS to project what performances from 1943 to 1945 are most likely to lead to his actual results from 1946 to 1951. I then repeat the process for 1952 and 1953.

ZiPS Time Warp: Ted Williams, Filled-In Career
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO OPS+ WAR
1939 .327 .436 .609 565 131 185 44 11 31 145 107 64 160 7.1
1940 .344 .442 .594 561 134 193 43 14 23 113 96 54 162 6.7
1941 .406 .553 .735 456 135 185 33 3 37 120 147 27 235 11.0
1942 .356 .499 .648 522 141 186 34 5 36 137 145 51 216 11.6
1943 .353 .495 .565 519 144 183 35 6 21 109 142 42 206 10.2
1944 .349 .494 .581 516 142 180 37 7 23 120 144 40 207 10.5
1945 .341 .489 .604 513 140 175 39 9 26 125 144 40 212 10.8
1946 .342 .497 .667 514 142 176 37 8 38 123 156 44 215 11.8
1947 .343 .499 .634 528 125 181 40 9 32 114 162 47 205 10.5
1948 .369 .497 .615 509 124 188 44 3 25 127 126 41 189 8.5
1949 .343 .490 .650 566 150 194 39 3 43 159 162 48 191 9.9
1950 .317 .452 .647 334 82 106 24 1 28 97 82 21 168 4.3
1951 .318 .464 .556 531 109 169 28 4 30 126 144 45 164 7.1
1952 .351 .495 .661 433 96 152 26 3 34 112 123 33 210 9.4
1953 .364 .506 .723 390 86 142 23 3 37 101 112 30 224 8.8
1954 .345 .513 .635 386 93 133 23 1 29 89 136 32 201 8.4
1955 .356 .496 .703 320 77 114 21 3 28 83 91 24 209 7.1
1956 .345 .479 .605 400 71 138 28 2 24 82 102 39 172 6.3
1957 .388 .526 .731 420 96 163 28 1 38 87 119 43 233 9.4
1958 .328 .458 .584 411 81 135 23 2 26 85 98 49 179 4.5
1959 .254 .372 .419 272 32 69 15 0 10 43 52 27 114 0.0
1960 .316 .451 .645 310 56 98 15 0 29 72 75 41 190 3.4
Year BA OBP SLG AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO OPS+ WAR
Total .345 .485 .628 9976 2387 3445 679 98 648 2369 2665 882 195 177.3

This time, we get Ted an extra 800 or so hits and more than a hundred extra homers. He even gets an additional point of batting average, finishing at .345. First in career WAR, the walk record, and a top 10 ranking for homers and hits feels a bit more representative of the feats of arguably the best pure hitter baseball has ever seen, doesn’t it?

We hoped you liked reading ZiPS Time Warp: Ted Williams by Dan Szymborski!

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Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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intelati
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intelati

>One of the projects I had time to work on during our sad baseball interregnum this year was an addition to ZiPS to make it able to do things backwards.

Well that’s certainly an eye opening thought. That’s really impressive of you.

I enjoy your shakedown tests of ZIPS. And will certainly follow along with this series as long as you’re doing them!

tz
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I’d love to see SPiZ do a backwards projection on Ichiro’s pre-MLB years.

intelati
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intelati

That is a great idea actually. I was thinking something like Rich Hill… A late arrival…

But the textbook example would be Ichiro…

Adam C
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Adam C
Adam C
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Adam C

Mr Szymborksi did a second Ichiro ZiPS in 2011. Ichiro could have challenged Pete Rose’s career hit record had he entered the majors at age 20-21.

https://www.baseballthinkfactory.org/oracle/discussion/zips_record_watch_ichiro_suzuki