Posted by Neil Paine on March 10, 2010
In some sad news, former Dodger CF Willie Davis has passed away at the age of 69. Davis was an extremely underrated player throughout his career, because at the time people looked at his career .279 BA and thought the former highly-touted prospect (he had a career .349 BA in the minors and was an MLB regular by age 21) was a major disappointment. But this was before most people understood park effects in anything but an abstract sense, and Dodger Stadium during the 1960s -- one of the NL's most offense-starved eras -- was beyond brutal to play in as a hitter. We have a metric called "AIR" that measures the offensive context in which a player played; 100 is average, numbers above 100 mean he played in a situation that boosted offense relative to all-time standards, and vice-versa for numbers below 100... Davis' career AIR is 91, and during his 20s it ranged from 89 at its highest to a staggering 75 in 1968, the nadir of the post-deadball era for hitters. So yes, Davis hit .279 in his career... but in a situation where the league-average hitter would have only hit .256. Likewise, he was an above-average hitter 10 times by OPS+, maxing out at 134 in a 1969 season that was muted to just .311/.356/.456 because of park effects.
And then there's Davis' defense. He was more appreciated in this area, winning 3 NL Gold Gloves for his work in the outfield for Los Angeles, but that probably understates his career defensive impact -- I mean, look at his TotalZone ratings, especially in 1964, when he was 29 runs better than average in CF for L.A. His defense was a big reason why the Dodgers represented the NL in the World Series in 1963, '65, and probably '66 as well (although, admittedly, his TZ wasn't quite as good that season). Anyway, add it all up, and take a look at his career Wins Above Replacement stats (courtesy of Sean Smith):
Career-wise, Davis ranks 124th all-time among position players in WAR; that's 0.1 less than Hall of Fame Cubs OF Billy Williams, except Davis did it in about 700 fewer plate appearances. Yet Davis will never, ever make it into Cooperstown, largely because of a fundamental misunderstanding of park effects.
Then again, Davis is probably already in the Baseball-Reference Hall of Fame, for something he didn't even have a thing to do with. In his New Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James wrote a similar lamentation of Davis being undervalued, and he outlined a framework for translating Davis' performance from Dodger Stadium circa 1965 to a more offense-friendly park/league. That process became known as the "Willie Davis Method" among baseball-stat ubergeeks, and eventually we here at B-R adapted the method to include pitchers and introduced what we call "Neutralized and Converted Stats", produced indirectly because Willie Davis was underrated. So in honor of Davis' memory this morning, take a look at Davis' career batting line, translated to a neutral park in the 2009 National League:
Johnny Roseboro once said Davis "should have hit .330 at least once in his career, but didn't" as a condemnation of the perceived gulf between Davis' ability and on-field results. Well, now that we've transported Davis into modern conditions, you can't say that anymore. Rest in peace, Mr. Davis.