Willie Davis, underrated ballplayer (1940-2010)

This morning, I heard that Dodger great Willie Davis passed away at the age of 69. My thoughts go out to his family, friends, and all of the Dodger fans.

In January, I wrote a post about the best players (by Rally's WAR, of course) to appear once on the Hall of Fame ballot, fail to receive 5% of the vote, then drop off the ballot forever. Not only was Davis part of that discussion, but it turns out he ranks #2 among position players in career WAR (57.1) who never received a single Hall of Fame vote. First is Jimmy Wynn (59.8).

I'm a young-ish guy. I've heard quite a bit about Davis, but never saw him play. I never got the impression from anything that I read that he provided more career value than many players already enshrined in the Hall of Fame. But he did. How did he go so unnoticed?

A couple years ago, I totally would have understood why he didn't receive a single Hall of Fame vote. He hit .279 with a .311 OBP and .412 slugging percentage for an OPS of .723. He was fast, with 398 steals, but I grew up with the Hendersons and Raineses who make that total look low. He hit 182 home runs, which isn't a total that jumps out at voters. He had 2,561 hits. That looks good, but it's not 3,000.

Where did all this value come from?

  • That .723 OPS looks awfully low. But for the era that Davis played (1960–1976, 1979), that was actually above average. His OPS+ is 106.
  • He hit 138 triples. That's a lot of triples (according to Wikipedia, that's the 4th highest total since 1945). 138 triples is the same number of total bases as an additional 103 home runs.
  • Between some nice pop, the triples, and the fact that he didn't strike out much, Davis' batting runs are +64.
  • He stole 398 bases with the beloved 75% success rate. Big difference is not as many people were running back then. Compared to the league average, his baserunning rates at +65.
  • His speed also helped him avoid the double play, which according to Rally puts him at an impressive +41 in that category. In the category that is strangest to me, "reaching on error", he gives some of that back as he comes in at -12 runs.
  • Offensively, that puts him at +158 runs. That's about the same as, say, Ted Simmons (who is +163 when you combine those four categories).
  • Someone might have to explain this to me, but as a center fielder the vast majority of his career, I'm not sure why Davis' positional adjustment has him at -18 runs, but it does.
  • His arm was pretty much average, coming in at +3 runs.
  • His range, however, was his most valuable asset. He covered a lot of ground and posted a Total Zone mark of +103 runs.
  • Defensively, if you factor in all three of those values he comes in at +88 runs.
  • Being +246 runs above average is pretty significant. Going back to Simmons, he comes in at +200 when all categories are totaled.
  • Then there's replacement value. This measures how much better Davis was than, say, a AAA scrub who was freely available. Replacement value over the total of Davis' career was 308 runs (it's generally 20 runs or so per season). That puts Davis at 554 runs above replacement. That's how you get the 57.1 wins above replacement.

Davis ranks 124th all time in WAR, tied with Vladimir Guerrero (who, obviously, is not done yet). While there are many non-Hall of Famers in front of him, the list of Hall of Famers who trail him includes:

  • Hank Greenberg
  • Andre Dawson
  • Lou Boudreau
  • Bill Terry
  • Bill Dickey
  • Enos Slaughter
  • Harry Hooper
  • Mickey Cochrane
  • George Sisler
  • Luis Aparicio
  • Orlando Cepeda
  • and many more.

Should he have gotten more support for the Hall of Fame? Certainly. There are worse players than Willie Davis in the Hall and even worse who hung around on the ballot a few years. But we really can't talk about Davis for the Hall until we get Ron Santo, Bill Dahlen, Bobby Grich, Edgar Martinez, Roberto Alomar and others in there first.

Rest in peace, Mr. Davis. You were a heck of a ballplayer.

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