Dick Allen passed away yesterday. In what’s been a very long year for all of us in many regards, the baseball world seems to have just be piling on since April.
We’ve lost some of the best ever in 2020. Kaline, Seaver, Gibson, Brock, Ford, Morgan – hell, I’m forgetting someone – all left their marks as among the best to ever take the field and all left us in 2020.
When I tell you Dick Allen was among them, I mean not only in his passing, but in the respect that he was one the best ever. And although I experienced pangs for one sentimental reason or another at the passing of the greats mentioned above, Dick Allen’s passing brings feelings of frustration out for me.
Why? He played just before my time, so I don’t remember watching him. He didn’t play for my favorite team. So why the frustration?
Because Dick Allen is exhibit A in the case against traditional statistics. If you need an example of why traditional statistics, in this case the triple-crown stats, range from misguided to flat out useless, look no further than Dick Allen.
Dick Allen was the second best right handed hitter in MLB history. The fact that he’s not recognized as such is a little unfortunate, but the fact he isn’t even in the Hall of Fame is criminal.
No batter’s historical legacy suffers more from playing in the wrong era than Allen’s. Simply put, the mid-60s to mid-70s was the most difficult time in the history of MLB to produce offense, and that coincided perfectly with Allen’s prime. He started after the early 60s offensive boom that expansion provided, and retired before multiple factors began to increase offense league wide in the late 70s.
If you wanted to create the perfect storm to limit the Triple Crown stats, putting a player in the mid-60s to mid-70s would be the best way to do it. 15” mounds until ’69, parks that were enormous, difficult to see in and all but one was outdoors (there were fewer teams in warm weather climates, so weather reduced offense) an emphasis on defense first “up the middle” positions, a non-lively ball, and more Hall of Fame starting pitchers than any other stretch in history, were just a few of the factors that made it hard on hitters. Good luck padding those BA and HR total and getting RBI opportunities back then.
So let’s forget stats that tell us what happened as a result of multiple factors, many of which had nothing to do with the player. Instead, let’s use stats that tell us what the player did, like OBP and SLG, and make adjustments based on era and park factors. There are several statistics that do this, but for today we’ll stick with adjusted OPS, or “OPS+”. Consider…
From 1964 to 1974, Allen posted an OPS+ of 165. For some modern perspective, over 2019-20, Mike Trout is the only player (righty, lefty, or switch hitter) with a better OPS+. Allen was better over the course of a decade than Freeman, Betts, Soto, Bellinger and Yelich have been for the past season and a half. And if you want to stick with the ’64 to ‘74 era, Allen’s OPS+ was the best in baseball – better than McCovey, Aaron, Robinson, Stargell, Clemente, Killebrew and Mays.
Since integration, here are the right handed batters with better career OPS+ than Allen: Trout, Mark McGwire, Frank Thomas. Yes – that’s it. You: “Wait – better than (pick one or more: Mays, Aaron, Robinson, Manny, Kiner, Carbrera, Edgar, Pujols, Schmidt)?!?” Yes. And furthermore, Ted Williams, Barry Bonds and Mickey Mantle are the only non-righties who were better.
“OK, so he was better than I thought. But the second best right handed batter in MLB history?”
Yes. There is Mike Trout, then Dick Allen. If you’re thinking Rogers Hornsby I’m going to remind you about level of competition. If Dick Allen were dropped into a 1917 game between the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves, the infielders would’ve worn catcher’s equipment for safety purposes.
“But you mentioned Frank Thomas and Mark McGwire had better OPS+…” Yes. And Frank Thomas played over 1,300 games as a DH. Allen played in three as a DH, and more than half of his games at 3B and LF. And I don’t say this as a judgment against McGwire or a disparagement of his performance, but if Dick Allen had access to…well, never mind.
Sure you can turn my logic around and point out that Mays, Aaron and Robinson played the outfield for two decades, and that would certainly be fair. But they are regarded as all-time greats and in the discussion for best right handed batter ever. Again, not only is Allen not considered one of the best ever, he’s not even in the Hall of Fame.
To his credit, Allen seemed less bitter about this than I am. Every recent interview that I saw him in, he was always smiling, and he was a fun follow on social media – always complimenting his contemporaries and current players as well. So in honor of the man, I’ll put away my frustration and instead, ask you dear reader for a favor:
Next season, when the announcers of the game you’re watching are discussing players’ batting averages, home runs, and RBI totals, remember Dick Allen. If you want to be fair, sometimes you need to do a little more than just count numbers. If you want to be fair, you need to avoid reductionist thinking and be aware that more than a little context is usually necessary. Otherwise you’re doing a disservice to some players that don’t deserve the disservice.
RIP, Dick Allen.
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