Mantle a flop? Wes Chamberlain, future star?


Editor's note: Steve Schulman is a guest columnist who is filling in for Rob Neyer, who is on vacation.

A few months ago on ESPN.com, the folks from Baseball Prospectus analyzed whether Andruw Jones had failed to live up to expectations. The conclusion, as I recall, was that Jones had built himself a solid major-league career, and while he isn't yet on the path to the Hall of Fame, at the tender age of 25 he still has a lot of baseball ahead of him.

That article reminded me of an essay I had read in Baseball Stars of 1955, one of the early editions of an annual publication that carried into my baseball-reading youth in the mid-1970s. That 1955 edition -- collecting these old paperbacks has been a hobby of mine for the past decade -- includes a chapter titled "Mickey Mantle: The Question Mark Kid." As the title suggests, through 1954 the 23 year-old Mantle was seen as having failed to live up to expectations, much as Jones is viewed today. The article is even more pointed than the title, concluding, "To date, Mantle's performance has served to point up how sorely Joe [DiMaggio] is missed. Exactly why Mantle hasn't blossomed into the spectacular star they thought he would be by now is something none of his fans can answer."

Of course, Mantle immediately replaced that question mark with an exclamation point, leading the league in home runs the next two years and winning the Triple Crown in 1956. (It's fair to ask why there was ever a question at all. Mantle led the league in runs scored in 1954, and in 1953 he'd scored 105 runs in only 127 games. In any event, Baseball Stars finally got it right, featuring Mickey on the cover of its 1957 edition.)

Of course, it's pretty easy to take potshots at prognostications of player performance ... but, golly, it's so much fun, so let's take a look at a few other bloopers I found on a stroll through my baseball library:

  • While Baseball Stars didn't give the 24 year-old Mantle a break, nine years later the 1964 edition featured a glowing article on Pete Ward, a 24-year-old third baseman for the White Sox. In this case, Baseball Stars picked the wrong Pete; inexplicably absent from this edition is 22-year-old Pete Rose, who had just won the National League's Rookie of the Year Award. While Ward did belt 23 homers in 1964, he would never hit more than 18 in a season again, and he finished his career 3,480 hits behind Charlie Hustle.

  • Baseball Stars of 1975 on Jeff Burroughs: "At age 24, he's a good bet to crash statistical and financial heights previously unconquered in the 75 years of baseball's modern era." Burroughs became a fine player, but he totaled only 179 home runs over the next 11 years. Perhaps the father's over-hype is being visited on the son?

  • Of course, Baseball Stars isn't the only publication to oversell a young player. The Pocket Book of Baseball 1981 contains a feature titled "Rick Cerone: The Dynasty Goes On." The article raves about Yankee catcher Cerone, concluding, "The Dickey-Berra-Howard-Munson-Cerone dynasty rolls on in Yankee Stadium." Elsewhere, the Pocket Book predicts that Cerone "should be the regular backstop for years" in New York. Cerone did enjoy a 15-year career, but as a backup catcher who caught more than 100 games only twice after 1980. And that dynasty? No more real than Ruth-Gehrig-DiMaggio-Mantle ... Costanza.

    Even the more "enlightened" baseball sources aren't immune from irrational exuberance. In 1992, the STATS Scouting Report book told us that Phillies outfielder Wes Chamberlain was "one of the proudest acquisitions of the Lee Thomas era ... and should occupy the third to fifth spot in the batting order for many years." I suppose that depends on how you define "many." By 1995, Chamberlain was finishing his career as a pinch-hitter for the Red Sox.

  • In 1998, STATS' Scouting Notebook said this about Sammy Sosa: "Holes remain in his swing, both up and in, and down and away. Now 29, this may be as good as he gets." You know the rest of the story: over the next four seasons, Sosa hit 243 home runs. (Full disclosure: I traded Sammy from my Rotisserie team in May 1998, showing that I'm certainly no smarter.)

    The point isn't so much that these prognosticators were wrong -- being way off base is a well-recognized occupational hazard -- but that when it comes to predicting the performance of individual players (and young players in particular) there's really no telling what can happen. As Rob might put it, there is simply too much statistical variability with such a small sample size. I, however, prefer the immortal words of former Cardinals right-hander Joaquin Andujar: "There is one word in America that says it all, and that one word is, 'Youneverknow.'"

    Steven Schulman is the creator of Runs Prevented, a statistic that measures the effectiveness of relief pitchers using run expectation. Runs Prevented, which was featured in the "STATS Baseball Scoreboard" from 1997 through 2001, has been improved and renamed "Adjusted Runs Prevented" by Michael Wolverton at www.baseballprospectus.com, where it is updated daily. When not thinking about baseball, Steven practices law in Washington, D.C.