Two-Sport Athletes: A Sabermetric Review

KANSAS CITY, MO - JULY 08: Bo Jackson, Chrissy Theigen, and teammates congratulate Bill Self after Self hit a home run during the Taco Bell All-Star Legends & Celebrity Softball Game at Kauffman Stadium on July 8, 2012 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

I became fascinated with Shaquille Green-Thompson, after reading this BP post by Ben Lindbergh, a couple weeks ago. Green-Thompson was the top safety recruit (football) in the country, who just happened to "dabble" in baseball. The Red Sox drafted him, basically on pure athleticism, in the eighteenth round of this years draft. At the time of that article Shaq had gone up to bat 19 times, walking three times and striking out every other time. Lindbergh admitted it was a small sample size, but it was still interesting that the outfielder hadn't put the ball in play. Lindbergh then went on to make this statement; which became the idea behind this post:

So the takeaway here isn’t what the streak says about this particular player’s potential. The takeaway here is that baseball is hard. It’s a game that can make even freakish athletes look foolish. It’s a game that can humble people who can do things with their bodies that most of us don’t dream of. It’s a game in which one of the most physically talented 18-year-olds in the country can go up against his peers at the lowest rung of the professional ladder and fail to make contact in his first five games, mostly because he hasn’t played much baseball before. And that’s why we should appreciate—really, truly appreciate—how rare and improbable and wonderful it is when it all works out.

Baseball is an extremely hard sport, even for the most spectacular athletes on the planet. Bo Jackson was a player who made the game look easy, clips of his All-Star game heroics were on television a lot this month, as the All-Star game took place in Kansas City, the team that Jackson represented, in 1989. Jackson is one of those players who was good enough at baseball to make it all work out, but he, of course, was not the only athlete to be talented enough to play in the MLB, as well as, another professional sport.

Along with Jackson, Deion Sanders, Danny Ainge, Brian Jordan, Dave DeBusschere, and more come to mind as guys who were able to reach the unfathomable height of professional sports, twice.

Eight athletes, who played in the MLB , are in the NFL's HoF, and there are two athletes who played in the MLB that are in basketball's HoF. Yet, for some reason there are no athletes in baseball’s HOF, that played other sports professionally. Thus, I beg to question whether baseball is too difficult of a sport for an athlete to put up a Hall-of-Fame numbers, while participating in another sport, or if the athletes, who played baseball and another pro sport, were just not worthy of entering Cooperstown, even if they had focused their intentions entirely on baseball.

To execute this analysis, I looked at the top-10 players in career WAR (Baseball-Reference) who played multiple MLB seasons, as well as multiple professional seasons in other sports (interestingly enough, only 14 players who fit this criteria finished their careers with a positive WAR). I attempted to project if the two-sport athletes careers would have been Hall-worthy, by looking at the careers of players who I found to be comparable for each guy on the list, based on players with similar numbers in their best seasons.

10. Mark Hendrickson: Spent four seasons in the NBA Years. Accumulated 2.5 WAR from 2002-11:

Hendrickson did not begin his MLB career until age-28, because he did not his begin minor league career til age-24 (1998), when he was still playing in the NBA. His NBA career stretched from 1996-2000, and for those who care he averaged about three points and rebounds per game. Hendrickson's best season came in 2006, when he posted an ERA+ of 108 in 31 games (25 starts), with the Los Angeles Dodgers and Tampa Devil Rays. His baseball career totaled 1169 IP, 89 ERA+, 102 FIP- and 1.93 K/BB.

Comparable: Jarrod Washburn: Career statistics: 4.10 ERA (108 ERA+), 4.60 FIP (105 FIP-), 1.94 K/BB, and 25.2 WAR, in 12 seasons.

Washburn's career ERA numbers are better than Hendrickson's, but Jarrod had the opportunity to debut in the majors at an age, in which Hendrickson was not even in the minors. Washburn was a good pitcher, but not Hall-worthy, though only rating as a 7 on the Bill James' HoF standards (50 is the standard).

9. Charlie Berry: Spent two seasons in the NFL accumulated 4.5 WAR from 1928-36*:

*Berry had 14 at-bats in 1925 and two PAs in '38.

The catcher did not have a long major league career (only a little over 2,000 PAs), but he put up some decent numbers. Berry's best season came in 1932, with the White Sox and Red Sox (1.6 WAR and 113 OPS+). His career slash was .267/.322/.374, good for an OPS+ of 84.

Berry was also an All-Pro left end (essentially wide receiver) for the Pottsville Maroons in 1925 and '26. The Maroons are a famous team, who shocked the nation by winning the 1925 NFL championship, only to have the title stripped away over a ludicrous territory rule that would make the Giants/A's--San Jose fiasco look like WWII.

Interestingly enough, Berry wasn't the only major leaguer who played for that team. Walter French, who just missed this list playing six MLB seasons, also played for the '25 Maroons.

Comparable: Muddy Ruel: Career Statistics: .275/.365/.332 83 OPS+, 15.8 WAR, in 19 seasons. Berry had more power than Ruel, but their adjusted numbers are very similar for catchers of their time. Ruel had above-average, but not HoF-level talent; 28 on HoF standards.

8. Deion Sanders: Played 14 seasons in the NFL. Accumulated 4.9 WAR from 1989-2001:

Everyone has heard of "Neon" Deion Sanders, who is now a member of the Pro Football Hall of the Fame. Sanders is the only player to play in the World Series and Super Bowl. Deion had the skill-set to light-up a baseball diamond, stealing 56 bases one season, and at age-24 he put up a 130 OPS+ and 3.1 WAR.

2001 was the only season that Prime Time just played professional baseball, and he was awful (.173/.235/.240). That lousy campaign was probably due to the fact that he had only appeared 200 games, in the five seasons prior.

Finding a comparable for Deion's "potential baseball-only" career is a tough task because he never had a full season, in which he focused primarily on baseball. Even his best seasons are probably lower than his potential, because football kept Sanders from ever playing more than 115 games, in a season.

Comparable: Derek Bell: Career Statistics: .276/.336/.421 99 OPS+ 135 HRs 170 SBs 11.3 WAR, in 10 seasons.

Bell put up a similar slash and speed numbers to Sanders', during his age-24 to 27 seasons, but did it over full-seasons; which I think Sanders would have been able to do, had he given himself the opportunity. Bell's career fell apart after he signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates before the 2001 season; thus, his HoF numbers fall way short (15 of HoF standards). There's a chance that Sanders could have put up Bell-esque numbers further into a decline, because extenuating circumstances caused Bell to exit the league, but that's really difficult to say.

7. Evar Swanson: Played four seasons in the NFL. Accumulated 5.4 WAR from 1929-34:

Swanson did not debut until age-26, after spending five seasons in the minors. While he was in the minors, he was busy playing four seasons in the NFL, as mainly a receiver. Swanson's career was short like Berry's (just over 2,000 career PAs), but he could really hit, retiring with a career .303 batting average. The outfielder hit for an OPS+ of 117, good for a WAR of 3.4 as a 31 year-old, in 1933 at age-31.

Comparable: Ira Flagstead: Career Statistics: .290/.370/.407 103 OPS+ 15.7 WAR, in 13 seasons. Flagstead's career numbers are a pretty good projection of what Swanson could have done, given a full MLB career. His numbers were above-average, but fall short of Cooperstown, only 19 on the HoF standards measure.

6. Bo Jackson: Spent four seasons in the NFL. Accumulated 7.2 WAR from 1986-94:

Jackson, a part of the inspiration for this piece had the sixth-highest career WAR on this list, despite being widely considered the best two-sport athlete of all-time. 1989 is the baseball season that Bo is known for, because All-Star game performances, top-10 MVP finishes, and 30+ home run/100+ RBI seasons are feats that people remember. However, they probably don't recall that Bo led the Majors in strikeouts that season (172), and was actually better in the next season. In 1990, at his "prime" age of 27, Bo posted an OPS+ of 142 and a WAR of 3.3. Bo finished his career .250/.309/.474 with a 112 OPS+, 141 HRs and 82 SBs.

Jackson, a Heisman Trophy winner, played in the NFL from 1987-90 and was electrifying with game-changing long touchdown runs. His time in both leagues was brief because of hip-replacement surgery that was necessary after a football injury. Had Bo not played football could he have been one of baseball's greatest ever? It's tough to say, because like Sanders, Bo never really had a full baseball season, in which he was both healthy and not playing football. Also, Bo spent his time at Auburn tearing up football and baseball fields, when many Hall-of-Famers were tearing up the minors or even the majors.

Comparable: Reggie Sanders: Career Statistics: .267/.343/.487 115 OPS+ 305 HRs 304 SBs 36.7 WAR, in 17 seasons. Sanders was only an All-Star once; thus, many readers may be bothered with him as the comp for a player with near infinite talent, like Jackson. But the problem is we were never able to see what Jackson could do as only a baseball player. Jackson's career slash is similar (and worse) than Sanders', with a career OPS+ that is also lower than Reggie's. Jackson had more raw power than Sanders, as Jackson homered about once every 18 PAs, while Sanders homered every 23. but that's about the only way he was better, Sanders' career numbers are great, but again not Hall-worthy, falling short with a 27 on HoF standards.

5. Chuck Dressen: Played three seasons in the NFL. Accumulated 7.9 WAR from 1925-33:

Dressen is more known for his time as a manager than as a player, but he had a fairly serviceable major league career. The little third baseman spent almost his entire career with the Cincinnati Reds, posting a career slash of .272/.343/.369 with an 88 OPS+. Dressen did not debut until age-30, playing in the minors from age-24 to 29, partly because he was a running back in the NFL, from 1920-23 (ages 22-25).

Comparable: Heinie Groh: Career Statistics: .292/.373/.384 118 OPS+ 46.3 WAR, in 16 seasons. Groh was able to have a much longer career than Dressen, but the two players put up very similar post-prime (age-30+) numbers. Dressen's career slash is much worse than Groh's but that had to do with Dressen's decline that began at age-34, and his lack of prime seasons, in the bigs. Groh was a very good player, but his career was not worthy of Cooperstown, HoF standards have him at 24.

4. Steve Hamilton: Spent two seasons in the NBA. Accumulated 10.5 WAR from 1961-72:

Hamilton debuted at age-25, but pitched his first full season at age 26, in 1962. Hamilton was an above-average reliever posting a career 3.05 ERA (115 ERA+) in 663 career IP.

Before he ever pitched in the majors, Hamilton was a forward/center for the Minneapolis Lakers, averaging over 4 points and about three rebounds for his career.

Comparable: Stu Miller: Career Statistics: 3.24 (115 ERA+), 1.94 K/BB, and 25.5 WAR, in 16 seasons. Miller and Hamilton are almost the exact same pitcher, but Miller was in the league longer. Hamilton's MLB career probably would have started earlier had he not played basketball, and was a good serviceable reliever. It's interesting that he also had the talent (and height) to play in the NBA, but I don't think he was ever going to be a special ballplayer; Miller's HoF standards (11), help back that point.

3. Gene Conley: Played six NBA seasons. Accumulated 13.9 WAR from 1952-63:

Conley was a three-time All-Star starting pitcher. He was also a member of three Boston Celtics NBA championship teams, including the 58-59 team that beat Hamilton's Lakers. Amazingly that same year, Conley pitched for the Philadelphia Phillies and led all NL starters in ERA+ (136).

Comparable: Joe Nuxhall: Career Statistics: 3.90 (102 ERA+), 1.77 K/BB, and 24 WAR, in 16 seasons. Nuxhall and Conley have very similar adjusted ERA's and K/BB's, but Nuxhall was able to pitch in 800 more innings, due to his sole focus on baseball. Both pitchers were All-Stars, but Nuxhall's career numbers (13 HoF standards) show that Conley probably did not have HoF talent.

2. Ron Reed: Spent two seasons in the NBA. Accumulated 22.4 WAR from 1966-84:

Reed was an All-Star in his first full season, 1968, at age-25. I hate pitching wins, but for those who still care, Reed won 146 games in his career, and ranks 191st all-time in career strikeouts. Reed was a slightly above-average starter for the Braves, before becoming a good reliever for the Phillies, in his thirties.

Reed hardly pitched for the Braves in 1966 and '67, because he was busy averaging eight points and six boards for the Detroit Pistons. He finished his career with 1588.2 IP a 101 ERA+ and 1.74 K/BB.

Comparable: Rick Reuschel: Career Statistics: 3.37 ERA (114 ERA+), 2.16 K/BB, 64.6 WAR, in 19 seasons. Reuschel was a phenomenal pitcher for a long time; finishing in the top-3 of Cy Young voting in two different decades. While there is some debate out there on whether or not Reuschel, with his incredibly high career WAR (he's in the Hall of wWAR), should be in the hall; but his numbers have him falling just short of Cooperstown with a 31 on HoF standards.

Reed pitched in the same amount of seasons as Reuschel, but was converted to a reliever, and played basketball; which led to him throwing over 1000 less IP than Reuschel. Reed's career numbers would be much closer to Reuschel's had he not been converted to a reliever; however, that move probably had nothing to do with his time in pro basketball a decade earlier.

1. Brian Jordan: Played three NFL seasons. Accumulated 30.8 WAR from 1992-2006:

Jordan clearly had the best baseball career of anyone to play another pro sport; that is not to say that he was the best baseball player of the bunch, he just put up the best career numbers. Jordan was an All-Star in '99 and finished in the top-20 in the MVP voting, three times. His best season came in '98 when he was 31, with the Cardinals; he posted an OPS+ of 134, while stealing 17 bases and playing great defense (TZR of 25).

Jordan did not debut until age-25 and did not play a full season until age-28 (past his prime), because he was playing defensive back for the Atlanta Falcons from ages 22 to 24. Despite his late start, Jordan's career numbers are very solid; .282/.333/.333/.455 with an OPS+ of 105 and 184 home runs.

Comparable: George Bell: Career Statistics: .278/.316/.469 113 OPS+ 17 WAR, in 12 seasons.

Bell won an MVP trophy and put up some stellar (All-Star) seasons, but a knee injury caused a poor 1993 campaign, which lead to an early retirement at age-33, for the outfielder. Up until that point, his career most resembled that of Hall-of-Famer, Tony Perez, but it would be all for not.

Jordan had a longer career than Bell, despite playing his first full season four years after Bell's. The real question about Jordan is if he had never played football but instead played like Bell from age 23 through 27, would Jordan be considered a Hall-of-Famer?

Over those five seasons, Bell hit at a slash of .294/.337/.525 with 134 home runs and an OPS+ of 127. During those seasons, in much less playing time, Jordan posted a slash of .261/.309/.448 with 20 home runs and an OPS+ of 104. While Bell's numbers are significantly better they would not give Jordan's career numbers enough of a boost to make him worthy of Cooperstown.

Other Interesting Notes:

  • Larry Doby, a member of baseball's HoF, was the first African-American to play in the American League. He also happened to be the first African-American to play in the American Basketball League; which is an outstanding achievement.
  • Bill Sharman, a member of basketball's HoF, is the only player in MLB history to be ejected from a game, but never have appeared in one as a player. The entire Brooklyn Dodgers' bench was ejected, in a September game in 1951.
  • Greasy Neale was a Reds’ outfielder from 1916-24, and also is a Hall-of-Fame head coach, winning two NFL championships at the helm of the Philadelphia Eagles
  • Jim Thorpe, one of the greatest athletes ever, played six MLB seasons, but the outfielder was the definition of a replacement-level, posting an OPS+ of 99 and WAR of -0.4 for his career.

Conclusion:

Did Bo Jackson have the talent level to be a HoFer? Honestly, it's possible. But from looking at this list, it's tough to say any of them would have made it to Cooperstown, if they had not played another sport. It's an incredible athletic accomplishment to be able to play two professional sports; and it's even more incredible to be successful in each sport, like these athletes were. While that accomplishment is great, I don't think it is enough to say they would have been legends had they limited themselves to just baseball.

This post would not have been possible without Baseball-Reference's Bullpen and Player pages

You can follow Glenn on twitter @Baseballs_Econ.

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