With Stan Musial passing away over the weekend, Jesse did a nice workup of his career numbers, noting that Musial stands as one of the best hitters to ever play Major League Baseball. But, the more I looked at his player page, the harder I found it to wrap my head around his combination of power and contact rates.
Musial struck out 696 times in his entire career, spanning nearly 11,000 plate appearances, and his strikeout rate was nearly half of his career average (5.5%) during his peak years. In 1943, Musial struck out 18 times in 701 trips to the plate, a strikeout rate of just 2.6%, the third lowest mark of the year. In that same season, Musial racked up 81 extra base hits, and he posted a .206 ISO, good for fifth best in baseball. We just don’t see guys who are elite power hitters and elite contact hitters much anymore.
Of course, the game has changed a lot over the last 70 years, with a drastic increase in strikeouts being one of the most prominent changes. A 5% strikeout rate today is more impressive than that would have been during Musial’s day, but while we have things like wRC+ that adjust for historical offensive levels, I didn’t have a great feel for what context adjusted metrics for the individual strikeout and power numbers would be. So, in order to get a better sense of what Musial’s numbers would look like if we brought them into the modern game, I decided to scale his numbers to the norms of 2012.
The first step in any kind of historical adjustment is to adjust the marks relative to the league averages of the time and create an index, just like stats like wRC+ or ERA-. Since I’m mostly fascinated by Musial’s K and ISO numbers, we’ll simply create K%- (because lower is better) and ISO+, which scale each mark to league average just like wRC+ does for total offensive performance. Using an average weighted by plate appearances to account for the changing baselines throughout his career, Musial’s K%- is 51, and his ISO+ is 192. In other words, he struck out 49% less often than a league average hitter during his career, and he posted an ISO that was almost twice as high as the league average hitter during that era.
Now, if we simply multiply those index numbers by the league norms of 2012, we get the equivalent of Musial’s career K% and ISO numbers. Since the league average strikeout rate last year was 19.8% and the average ISO was .151, that would give Musial a modern K% of 10.1% and a modern ISO of .290.
You will not be surprised to learn that no hitter in baseball last year posted an ISO of .290 and a K% of 10%. In fact, no one even came remotely close.
The only two hitters to come to the plate at least 500 times while posting a .290 ISO last were Giancarlo Stanton (.318) and Josh Hamilton (.293); Stanton struck out in 28.5% of his plate appearances, while Hamilton struck out in 25.5% of his. Edwin Encarnacion and Miguel Cabrera both posted a .277 ISO and while posting nearly equivalent strikeout rates — 14.6% for Encarnacion, 14.1% for Cabrera — so they had the year’s best combination of great power with strikeout avoidance, but their K%- grades out as a 71, well above the ridiculous 51 that Musial put up throughout his career.
If we switch over to guys who did make as much contact relative to league average as Musial, we find 12 hitters who posted a K%- of 51, but it’s mostly a collection of slap hitters. The best K%- of 2012 goes to Marco Scutaro (36), but as you might expect from the game’s best contact hitter, he posted an ISO of .098, as he simply traded whatever power he could muster for the ability to hardly ever swing and miss. The highest ISO posted by a hitter with a K%- as good as Musial’s was Yadier Molina‘s .186, which was good for a 123 ISO+, still nowhere near what Musial put up.
This probably seems like an obvious conclusion – there were no hitters in baseball last year who could match one of the best power/contact hitters in baseball history. This unique set of skills is what made Musial great in the first place, and you didn’t need two context adjusted index stats to tell you that Musial was a special player in that regard.
Still, it’s hard to imagine what a Musial-like player would even look like in today’s day and age. Just using his career K% and ISO numbers, you’d essentially be looking at a hybrid of Darwin Barney‘s contact skills and Josh Hamilton’s power.
No wonder they just called him “The Man”.