By the Numbers: New math shines light on Killebrew’s greatness

Greg Jayne: By the Numbers

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

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He couldn’t run, he wasn’t much of a fielder, and he never hit for a high average.

Even his nickname was a bit of a misnomer.

Sure, Harmon Killebrew was “Killer” with a bat in his hands, but off the field, every story indicates he was a gentle, humble man. (Side story: In 1986, for no particular reason, David Letterman had “Harmon Killebrew Night” on his show. The highlight was Charley Pride singing Killebrew’s favorite song — “Mountain of Love” — over the telephone.)

So with Killebrew’s death this week at the age of 74, it brought to mind this fact: Baseball’s new math was invented for players such as Harmon Killebrew. Baseball’s new math was designed to illuminate the iceberg guys: 90 percent of their value lies beneath the surface.

Killebrew was one of the great sluggers of his time. Heck, he was one of the great sluggers of any time, finishing with 573 home runs. That ranked fifth on the all-time list when he retired in 1975, and it ranks 11th today.

And Killebrew was, indeed, regarded as a great player during his career, winning an MVP award in 1969 and finishing in the top five in the voting on six occasions. But he also was a player who had glaring shortcomings that could cast a shadow over his brilliance.

The first was his batting average. Killebrew batted .256 for his career, with a high of .288. The second was the strikeouts. At one point he held the single-season record for whiffs.

Because of those weaknesses, and the misperceptions that go with them, Killebrew had to wait until his fourth try before being elected to the Hall of Fame.

Think about it — somebody who hit 573 home runs long before anybody in baseball had heard of steroids had to wait four years to get into the Hall of Fame. And it’s not as though his 1,584 RBI were too shabby, either.

In the Paleolithic Age of baseball statistics, when batting average was considered important, Killebrew was viewed as a dinosaur.

That’s where the new math comes in. Over the past 30 years, led by statisticians such as Bill James, baseball numbers have undergone a transformation. We now understand that Killebrew’s batting average isn’t as important as his on-base percentage, and that he played during the worst possible era for a hitter.

While Killebrew batted .256, he also led the league in walks four times. He led the league in on-base percentage once, and finished in the top five 10 times. His .376 OBP is higher than Ichiro Suzuki’s, even though his batting average is 74 points lower and Ichiro plays in a more hitter-friendly era.

Add in Killebrew’s power, and he was putting a lot of runs on the board. For his career, the Runs Created formula tells us that a lineup of nine Harmons would have averaged 6.8 runs per game — and that’s when 6.8 runs per game meant something.

Killebrew played in the most offense-impaired period since the Deadball Era. In 1967, when he was hitting 44 homers with 105 runs, 113 RBI and 131 walks, the American League ERA was 3.23.

In 1995, when Frank Thomas was hitting 40 homers with 102 runs, 111 RBI and 136 walks, the AL ERA was 4.71.

Which of those years is more valuable? Look at it this way: If you have $1 in your pocket, is that dollar more valuable when gas is $3.23 a gallon, or when it’s $4.71? Runs were more valuable when Killebrew played.

That’s not to say that Killebrew was as good a hitter as Frank Thomas. Overall, year after year, he wasn’t.

But he was a great player whose greatness is obscured somewhat by the era in which he played. Because of that, he ranks 12th on my list of the greatest first basemen: 1, Lou Gehrig; 2, Jimmie Foxx; 3, Jeff Bagwell; 4, Johnny Mize; 5, Frank Thomas; 6, Eddie Murray; 7, Albert Pujols; 8, Hank Greenberg; 9, Willie McCovey; 10, Mark McGwire; 11, Dan Brouthers; 12, Harmon Killebrew.

Not bad for a country boy from Payette, Idaho.

Questions or comments for By the Numbers? You can reach Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-735-4531, or by email atgreg.jayne@columbian.com. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne