Sunday, September 13, 2009

Why Did Al Simmons Decline So Much In The Second Half Of His Career?

This is a follow up to my last post on "how good was he?" which you can read below. He batted .363 from ages 22-29 but only .309 from ages 30-37. That is a very big dropoff. I wonder if he had nagging injuries that eventually caught up to him (he missed about 140 games from ages 25-29). There are a couple of reasons mentioned below from his SABR bio.

To see how his declined compared to others, I found every player who had 4000+ PAs from ages 22-29 (390 players) using the Lee Sinins Complete Baseball Encyclopedia and every who had at least 3230 PAs from ages 30-37 (also 390 players). Then I found all the players who were in both groups (143) and the difference between their "young" average and their "old" average and ranked them from highest to lowest. The top and bottom tens are in the table below.

As you can see, Simmons is very near the bottom. He did not have the biggest decline, but it was still very big. As for Keeler and Davis, those two guys both had their careers cover both a high average period and a low average period. When Davis was 22-29, the NL league average was .287 (Keeler's ages 22-29 are almost identical to these years). Then from 1902-08, when Davis was 31-37, the AL league average was .250 (Davis switched leagues). Keeler spent most of his 30s in the AL, too. From 1903-09, when he was 31-37, the AL league average was .246. But the AL league average when Simmons was "young" was .293 and when he was "old" it only fell to .288. So his dropoff is more surprising. I also calculated the average park factor for the parks he played in when he was "old" and it came out to about 101, meaning average. There might be some lefty/righty issues in those parks, though, that I don't know about it. But it looks like his decline cannot be explained by a changing league average or tougher parks. The A's park had a park factor just under 104 when Simmons was aged 22-29.

The simple average of the change in average from "young" to "old" was about .007 (if I only used "old" guys who had 4000+ PAs,it was .006). So if Simmons could have had an average drop off, it would mean that he would have hit aroung .356 in the second half of his career. That would put his career average close to .360, still second to Cobb (I have not quite split his career evenly in two, so I could have overestimated this by a couple of points). Anyway, Rogers Hornsby is 2nd with a .358 average. Simmons is currently 21st all-time in average for players with 5000+ PAs.

I wonder if he had made it to 3000 hits if he would be better known today (he would have made it with the higher projected average). Also, he batted .390 or better twice. He was at .401 on July 17, 1927. He played only 5 more games in July and then did not play again until Sept. 6. Maybe some injury cost him .400. In 1931, when he batted .390, he only played 27 games in the final two months of the season. Yet he batted .465 & .426, in those two months, respectively. His combined average then was .442. Another 100 or so ABs at that rate would have gotten him to .400. A .400 season might have made him more famous. Maybe playing for the Yankees would have helped (although being a right handed batter would have hurt). Data in this paragraph came from Retrosheet.

His bio by Fred Stein at the SABR Baseball Biography Project suggests a couple of reasons for his decline, but I don't think it explains enough.

The bios says "In 1926 Simmons “slipped” to .341 and 199 hits. He was hampered by injuries the following two seasons although he hit for high averages." In 1930, at one point, he had a "swelling knee." He missed 16 games that year. Also, "Years later, Simmons admitted to a writer that he had accepted the White Sox’ second-division attitude and had slacked off in his customary strenuous practice habits." (but he actually did better in OWP, discussed below, in his first two years with the White Sox, .617 & .675, than in his last year with the A's, .590).

One curious thing it reports is that Simmons said "I’ve studied movies of myself batting." I wonder how many players did that back then?

The table below shows how Simmons declined in offensive winning percentage (OWP) when he got "old." OWP is the Bill James stat that says what your team's winning percentage would be with 9 identical hitters when you give up an average number of runs. In this case, it is park adjusted. As you can see, his dropoff was great. I think Sisler had some kind of eye problem and even missed a whole season. I don't know anything about Bottomley. Maybe sports medicine was not very good back then.

Simmons finished with a career OWP of .644, which is now ranked 117th among players with 5000+ PAs. The typical dropoff when getting "old" was about .024. If Simmons had a .698 OWP when he was "old" that would give him a career OWP of about .710. That would currently rank 35th, a big improvement over 117.


Mike376 said...

The two main factors are: (1) injuries (he was out a lot of games); and (2) lesser motivation. What else can it be? The differences in league average and park effects are not that great. Simmons himself indicated that hitting took a lot of energy (possibly due in part to his batting stance), as compared to the seemingly effortless style of Ted Williams. This could be a third factor, or a subfactor that contributed to injuries or made the impact of injuries worse.

Mike376 said...

Simmons was an all time great. Two factors pull down his rating: (1) he didn't walk very much; and (2) major decline ion second half of career. However, for peak performance (and he had a long peak of 8-9 years), if we set aside walks, he was an all time great. His BA through 8 and 9 years was .363 and .360 respectively, second only to Cobb lifetime and ahead of Hornsby. And it was a BA filled with extra base hits, tremendous run production, and great clutch performances. The other three superstars on the A's (Grove, Foxx and Cochrane)are uniformly considered to be all time greats, but are ranked ahead of Simmons. Yet, Connie Mack considered Simmons his favorite (and I believe) most valuable player. He had the highest salary of the four superstars. He was an oustanding left fielder. Not having seen him play or lived during that era, I can rely only on stats, views of contemporaries presented in written materials, and comments of older relatives who saw Simmons play. He was my father's favorite player. My father said that he hung around too long, but during his peak it seemed that he would get a hit about every time up. Some of the written materials have indicated that around 1930-31, he was occasionally considered to be the best all around player in baseball. Of right handed hitters, he is comparable (in his 8-9 year peak) to all time greats of that era like Hornsby, Foxx, DiMaggio- not as good because of the lack of walks and larger career decline, but still an all time great. I think a case can be made for Simmons as the 5th or 6th best left fielder behind Williams, Musial, Bonds, R. Henderson and possibly Manny Ramirez and Yaz.

Cyril Morong said...

Great points. Thanks for dropping by. Yes, at his peak, Simmons was an all-time great. It is too bad he is not better known. There is a good book called

Bucketfoot Al: The Baseball Life of Al Simmons by
Clifton Blue Parker

Mike376 said...

Thanks, Cyril. Yes, I have read that book about Simmons. That's where I found out about your blog. I enjoyed the book and especially learning more about Simmons' perssonal characteristics.

Cyril Morong said...

You're welcome. Glad you liked the book.

Mike376 said...

I agree with your view that Simmons would be better known today if he had reached 3,000 hits. In fact, I think he would have made the HOF on the first or second try, instead of the 10th try, if he had gotten to 3,000. I agree also that he would be remembered more if he had hit .400 once, although I feel the 3,000 milestone would be more significant. Bill Terry, the last .400 hitter in the NL is not especially known today; he had a much shorter career and hit with less power than Simmons though.