Many baseball fans over the years have asked the question, “What kind of numbers would so-and-so have accumulated had he not been in WWII?” I have seen a few of these projections in other places, but I wanted to do a quick-and-dirty version of it here for myself.
I decided to take a look at Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio and Hank Greenberg (surprise, surprise). This is the way I did it: I took their career Home Run:Games Played ratio and multiplied that by the number of games they missed during the war years. To try to be as realistic as possible, I used 140 games as the mark for one full season missed. Sure, they could have played 154 games, or they could have been hurt and played only 100, but I figured – barring major injury – that 140 was a reasonable middle ground.
Another key to this – so that it holds even the smallest drop of a valid “what if” – is that all three players came back from the war(s) to have more top-flight productive seasons. Based on that, we can reasonably project good-to-great performances in the years they lost. (In other words, the seasons they lost weren’t end-of-career, declining seasons). Another argument in favor of the possibility of these numbers is that hitting prowess usually is the least vulnerable part of a player’s game. Speed on the base paths and agility in the field decline more quickly than the swing of the bat, and can often be more affected by injury. Power hitting in particular if often the last skill to disappear, so even if we are looking at their age 30+ seasons, we have little reason to believe that the home runs would have declined. Finally, all three players discussed returned from military duty to have at least one more season of 38 (or more) homers, so we know the power swing had not yet left them.
Hank Greenberg was an insanely great hitter. Easily one of the best ever. His career 154 wRC+ puts him exactly on par with Willie Mays, Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson. He has the 6th highest SLG% of all time. He could hit. Unfortunately for baseball fans, he missed three full seasons, most of a fourth season and half of a fifth because of WWII. That’s a lot of games. Still, he finished his career with 331 homers (which sounded more impressive before the steroid era).
But what if there hadn’t been a war? Or what if he had stayed and played 140 games in each of those 5 seasons? Based on that, he missed 603 games. Since he averaged hitting a homer in nearly 1/4 of his games (.2374462, to be more precise), we would project him to land at 474 career homers. That would have kept him in the Top 20 all-time right up till the mid-1990’s. (As it was, he ranked 51st all-time as of 1995.)
Ted Williams had the most homers of the trio I chose here despite also missing the vast majority of five seasons. Williams got the double-whammy: three seasons lost to WII, all but a handful of games in two other seasons lost to Korea. According to this little game, he lost 657 games. His home run rate was a little lower than Greenberg’s, however, so while he missed more games, he “lost” only six more homers than Greenberg. Still, if you add those lost 149 homers to his actual 521, you get 670 – more than Willie Mays. As of March 2015, that would put him at #4 all-time (in reality he is 18th).
Joe DiMaggio was often touted as Ted Williams’ arch rival. While this is true in terms of their teams and who would win the MVP award in any given year, DiMaggio was never the power hitter that Williams was. Still, he was a significant home run hitter. As it stands, he hit 361 career homers, topping 30 homers in seven different seasons. He missed three full seasons – less than Greenberg and Williams, but still prime years – giving us a “loss” of 420 games. Since his rate was the lowest of the three players here, he gains 87 homers from this projection, placing him at 448 for his career. That would put him somewhere between Paul Konerko and David Ortiz on the modern list, but would have been 21st all-time as of 1995.
“What if?” Totals:
Ted Williams – 670 homers
Hank Greenberg – 474 homers
Joe DiMaggio – 448 homers
Obviously, these numbers are inherently absurd, as we are ignoring all other variables that occur during several years of an athlete’s life. But they do somewhat satisfy that natural curiosity that sports fans always have when favorite athletes don’t get to play out their full potential. Of course, even if these numbers were considered to be extremely accurate, they wouldn’t much change how we look at these three great players. All three are in the Hall of Fame, are incredibly famous (DiMaggio most of all), and are considered by fans to be among the best of all time.