TBT Baseball: What If- Mickey Mantle Edition

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    Updated: June 12, 2014
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    Baseball is full of what ifs. What if the sport had always been integrated? What if the Red Sox had kept Babe Ruth? What if they’d actually swapped Ted Williams for Joe DiMaggio? What if baseball’s drug policy started with cracking down on greenies in the ‘60s? What if Flood v. Kuhn hadn’t opened the doors for free agency?

    All of these questions lead to fantastic debate, but they’re a bit macro for the purposes of this column – especially since measuring them goes beyond simple projection and speculation. Fortunately, that’s exactly how you address what ifs about specific players.

    There are many we could dive into, but my favorite what if in baseball history (which undoubtedly has to do with my Yankee homerism) is: What if Mickey Mantle had never suffered his devastating knee injury in 1951?

    Mantle was a legend before he even played a big-league game, thanks mostly to his stunning spring training showcases. In 1950 Mantle was clocked going from home to first out of the left-handed batter’s box at 3.1 seconds, a record that still stands (for comparison, Ichiro’s best time from home to first was 3.7 seconds), and in 1951 – at just 19 years old – Mick launched a couple famous home runs (one from each side of the plate) that had not just his teammates, but much of baseball taking notice. Unfortunately, 1951 would be his lone pain-free season.

    How the injury occurred doesn’t need to be recounted, but it’s now widely believed among sports medicine specialists that Mantle didn’t just tear the cartilage in his knee, he likely tore his ACL. As any snake-bitten sports fan knows, an ACL injury generally means a full year of recovery (unless you play in the NFL where “miraculous” recoveries happen with no questions asked), but Mickey was back on the field in ’52, hitting .311 with 23 HRs and 87 RBI. He also had a monster World Series, batting .345 with a 1.061 OPS in a full seven game contest the Yankees won against the Brooklyn Dodgers.

    And that was a recovery year. He continued to rack up impressive seasons (by our standards – the media at the time seemed to think he was underperforming), but it wasn’t until his sixth year at age 24 that he finally lived up to the hype, winning the triple crown with a .353 average, 52 HRs, and 130 RBI (not to mention a gaudy 1.169 OPS). He continued racking up fantastic stats and world championship seasons, but by age 33 the wheels had completely come off.

    He was still managing over 18 HRs a season, but that was largely it. His average plummeted over those years, much to his dismay (his take, as told in The Mick: “To think you’re a .300 hitter and end up at .237 in your last season, then find yourself looking at a lifetime .298 average - it made me want to cry.”), and by most firsthand accounts he could barely make it around the bases. It was a long way for one of baseball’s giants to fall.

    Which begs the question: why is this one so important, especially when compared to Ted Williams or Sandy Koufax who also represent great what ifs? Because we’ll never even know if Mantle was playing to the best of his ability.

    Williams (whom we covered here) lost five prime years to the war effort, but he was already playing at a healthy and fully developed level. It’s possible that he could have had even more productive seasons, but his abilities had been mostly realized. The same argument goes for Koufax, who had to retire because of injury at age 30 after four of the best consecutive – or even individual – years any pitcher has ever seen. Koufax struggled early in his career before finally getting his mechanics together and turning into the Left Arm of God (still the greatest nickname ever given). It’s possible he would have gotten better, but it’s just as likely he’d reached his pinnacle, which is where Mantle differs.

    He never ran nearly as well after the injury, and by all accounts it had an impact on his hitting, too (Jane Leavy takes an excellent look at the science of Mantle’s swing in her book The Last Boy: Mickey Mantle and the End of America’s Childhood). Additionally, Mantle suffered a shoulder injury in the 1957 World Series, which led to increased difficulty hitting from the left side (which was always favorable for power in Yankee Stadium). Despite this, he still managed to hit 536 HRs over his career, even though his body started to betray him before his first full season.

    I look at those numbers and the circumstances and I can’t help but think he got robbed – but by how much? For what may be an unfair comparison (and an even more unfair answer to the question), let’s look at Willie Mays.

    Mays was cut from the same cloth – speed, power, average – and his best seasons tend to be fairly comparable to Mantle’s. However, his lifetime numbers are so much better because he was able to play effectively, and consistently, through age 40. He never faced the same injuries and as a result got to extend his career.

    Looking at Mays from age 33 to 36 (the period of Mantle’s decline and eventual retirement), he managed to slug 158 HRs. If Mantle had played without injury and was capable of matching that feat over those years, he’d be at 612 career HRs. Additionally, if he was capable of playing another four years beyond that, as Mays did, and was able to squeak out 15 HRs a year, good enough for second on the all-time list at that point.

    Of course, this all leads to a slippery slope. Mays himself lost two years to military service. Would Mays have performed as well later in his career if he’d had extra wear and tear on his body? And what would Mays’ stats have looked like with a couple of those prime years back? Would we have been saved the embarrassing Mets years and maybe only remember him for the amazing things he did with the Giants?

    It’s impossible to know, same as with Mick. But that’s why we analyze, project, and speculate: to try and figure it out. We crunch the numbers, we debate, we argue, and we still don’t know any more than we did at the start – except that it’s all a heck of a lot of fun.

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    One Comment

    1. Mikey Kahl

      June 15, 2014 at 10:40 PM

      Always appreciate a good article on Mantle. It is fun to speculate on how me might have performed had he never been injured. But in part, the reason for the cult of his fans is that he played so well DESPITE all of those injuries, and that he played when he was hurt. There were no “wrist injuries” or “pulled ribcage muscles”. The guy just went out and did his job, better than most, injured or healthy, drunk or sober. Nicely done Jade.

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