Joe DiMaggio played the game at least at a couple of levels higher than the rest of baseball. A lot of guys, all you had to see to know they were great was a stat sheet. DiMaggio, you had to see. It wasn’t only numbers on a page—although they were there too—it was a question of command, style, grace.” – Jim Murray, Los Angeles Times, March 9, 1999
The New York Daily News is celebrating Joe DiMaggio’s 100th birthday by setting the record straight. After decades of unbridled adulation for the Hall of Fame centerfielder, it turns out the Yankee Clipper’s greatness was not only built on legend, but also myth.
The newspaper’s clarification of DiMaggio’s legacy is based on the testimony of baseball historian John Thorn, who “chips away” at the myth with two claims. The first is an assessment of how well the centerfielder’s swing would hold up in the modern game. According to Thorn, DiMaggio fails the “teleportation” test because the “wide arc” of his swing would have left him exposed to the modern fire baller. Maybe so, but it’s always possible that DiMaggio would have adjusted to a different era. Unfortunately, no allowance is made for that possibility, and it’s just as well. It’s hard enough to make comparisons between different eras based on relative performance, much less subjective opinions of how players would perform if capable of time travel.
Thorn’s second attempt to knock DiMaggio down a peg is more defensive, literally. Every baseball fan has heard stories about DiMaggio’s gracefulness in the vast Yankee Stadium centerfield, but despite the countless recitations by teammates, opponents and members of the media who saw him play, Thorn suggests this praise is more exaggeration. As proof of his claim, the historian states that DiMaggio’s “contemporaries recorded more putouts”. Ironically, this statement is offered in support of the notion that modern sabermetrics are what’s eroding DiMaggio’s legend, while ignoring that modern defensive metrics rely heavily on context, namely the number of opportunities and the difficulty of each chance.
So, here’s some context to consider. From 1936 to 1951, excluding the war years DiMaggio missed, Yankee pitchers struck out about 0.5 more batters per nine innings than the AL average. That’s approximately 75 fewer putouts available for Yankee fielders to make. If the Yankees’ staff was more prone to groundballs, that would also lessen DiMaggio’s putout opportunities. Similarly, having to defend a much larger centerfielder than most might also mitigate his total. What’s more, DiMaggio was injury prone, and rarely played a full season, further limiting his opportunity to record putouts. Without the advanced data we enjoy today (and even with this data, defensive metrics can be sketchy), it’s impossible to sift through these variables and arrive at a truly meaningful comparison. That’s why arguments like “DiMaggio only led the league in putouts one time” ring hollow, which, incidentally, also applies to Willie Mays.
Top 20 Outfielders by TotalZone Per Game: 1936-1942
Note: Minimum 300 outfield games. See here for explanation of totalzone.
Source: fangraphs.com and baseball-reference.com
Is Joe DiMaggio overrated? If that simply means not as good as rival Ted Williams and fellow centerfielder Mays, the answer is probably yes. Although a case could be made for DiMaggio being the equal to Mays and Williams at his peak (i.e., better defender than Williams and better hitter than Mays), the fact remains that both players had longer and more productive careers than the Yankee Clipper. However, that doesn’t tarnish DiMaggio’s accomplishments. After all, building up Williams and Mays doesn’t tear DiMaggio down. Arcing swings and putouts aside, DiMaggio is one of the true legends of the game with a career worth celebrating every day, not just on the anniversary of his birth.