Ty Cobb doesn’t need much of an introduction, at least in terms of his legend. Sure, most baseball fans know that he was the all-time Hits leader for most of the 20th century, and most have heard the stories (real and mythic) about his temper. Yet it might help refresh interest in Cobb to look at him from the point of view of some of the newer, advanced statistics. Was he really that good? The answer to that is yes, most especially when viewed in relation to his era (which is really the only way we can fairly judge). Check this out:
- Ranks #4 all-time in both fWAR and rWAR
- Ranks #8 all-time in career wRC+
- Had a season wRC+ of over 160 in 16 different seasons, covering an 18 year range (he hit 161 in 1907 and 166 in 1925)
- He lead all of MLB in OPS+ nine times, and lead the AL three other times
Comparing Cobb to later great players is difficult. First, many of the rules have changed, the quality of training has improved in every decade, and the league has progressively grown in size and become more integrated, changing the dynamics of greatness. Second, and perhaps in some ways just as challenging, is that we don’t know almost any details about his base running and fielding. For the bulk of Cobb’s career, we have literally no records of how many times he was caught stealing, let alone how good he was at going from 1st to 3rd or 2nd to Home, etc. Fielding has a similar veil: all we have are Assists, Putouts and Errors. Did he have good Range? Did runners try to advance on his arm more or less often than other centerfielders? We have no idea. Still, there can be no doubt that he was, relative to his own era, one of the greatest hitters ever to play the game.
Cobb’s popularity at the time isn’t as apparent as it would be for players in later generations, either. There were no All-Star Games, Gold Gloves or Rookie of the Year Awards to win. He did win the MVP Award in 1911, but there was an odd rule that disqualified previous winners from winning again. What we do know is that, when the Hall of Fame had its first induction in 1936, Cobb lead all vote getters, beating out Babe Ruth, Honus Wagner and Christy Mathewson. People knew he was great.
In Part II, I will begin to highlight the most interesting parts of the recent biography on Cobb titled Ty Cobb: A Terrible Beauty. In the early chapters of this book, author Charles Leerhsen sheds light on some truly fascinating and surprising facts about Cobb’s youth, intellectual life and progression as a ballplayer.