As Aaron Judge
burns on toward what looks like a new American League record for HRs, the various segments of the "embedded media" are focusing on what a tremendous season the giant Yankee slugger is having. It's a testament to the ongoing problems in the game that folks are assiduously attempting to make Judge's greatest achievement since Ted Williams
...which is not quite true.
The usually reliable (if sometimes breathlessly overblown) Jayson Stark pushed that approach to a premature extreme today when he posted a hypothetical about Judge achieving 400 total bases (he's still 23 shy of that mark, though he certainly has a reasonable shot at making it). It wasn't the part about 400 TB that was problematic; it was the idea that Judge is the most dominant hitter ever because he's so far ahead of everyone else (he leads in TB by over 80).
Now it's definitely a startling number, but what all that's really about is that the AL has lost a significant amount of HR/G punch in 2022 while Judge is having a career year (make that a "career half-year"--we don't want to bury our lede TOO much). This TB dominance thing is clearly a total fluke, due to the fact that the two hitters dimly in the brakelights of Judge's HR pace in the AL, Mike Trout and Yordan Alvarez, both missed significant amounts of playing time this year. Of course you're going to have a big lead in TB when you also have 150-225 more plate appearances than the two men next in line on the HR leaders list!
Where Judge's historic performance really coalesces into all-time greatness is in that statistical sub-category we just mentioned above: the "second half of the season." We're using the still highly reliable adjusted OPS stat (abbreviated OPS+), which has the benefit of ballpark and historical run level adjustment built into it.
What OPS+ tells us is that Judge's second half OPS+ in 2022 is sixth highest in baseball history. It grades out at 274, behind only two Ted Williams
second halves (#1, in 1957: 306, and #3, in 1941: 292), one Babe Ruth
second half (#2, in 1920: 297) and two Barry Bonds
second halves (#4 and #5, 2001 and 2002, both 280). So despite some hyperventilation on the part of Stark and others, Judge is indeed making baseball history in a big, big way (which, considering he's 6'7", 282 lbs, only makes sense).
As we noted a short while ago (in our most recent non-1962 post), baseball, its fans, and its media are still hung up on homers. While they're clearly a big deal, OPS+ is agnostic about HRs to a surprising extent--or at least it could be before they became so insanely dominant.
That's why it's instructive to look at the top 300 second-half performances according to OPS+...so that we can see how many different ways there used to be to climb the mountaintop. The best way to do so is to take everyone back to the dawn of the twentieth century and catalogue the top OPS+ second half performances along with the actual counting stats and regular old rate stats (BA, OBP, SLG) so you can see what old-style greatness looked like. (Chances are you haven't seen it in a long, LONG time.)
A couple of contextual notations before we do that, however. First, the OPS+ value for the 300th top second-half performance is 187, featuring various combinations of counting stats and rate stats for six different players ranging from Willie Mays in 1959 to Derek Lee in 2009. Second, there are 161 second-half hitting performances that grade out at a 200 OPS+ or higher. Third, and finally, we had two terrific second-half hitting performances last year, though it's doubtful that you'll be able to name either. They are Bryce Harper (219 OPS+, 55th all-time) and Juan Soto (216 OPS+, 70th all-time).
OK, let's meet the great second-half hitters in the first decade of the twentieth century (which was also the first decade of the Deadball Era), which explains why the raw OPS values, as opposed to the adjusted OPS+, seem so low to us now.
absolutely monster second half in 1901 (the year he hit .426 overall) certainly seems as rip-roaring as what you might be expecting from sluggers with 25+ homers in the second half. (Lajoie's total of 9 second-half homers is the highest of anyone from 1901-09 who's part of the Top 300. It's good for #23 on the all-time list.
You will naturally know Honus Wagner, who had 82 RBI in his 68 second-half games in 1901, which is the record for the decade despite the fact that his second-half performance only grades out to #261. Fear not, he'll return to these charts, and much closer to the top.
Jimmy Sheckard is a name that some of you may not recall; he was a very solid lefty hitter who was one of the mainstays on that incredibly dominant Cubs teams from 1906-1910. On to 1902-03, which are combined, with players listed in descending order of their OPS+ rank.
As you'll see, Sheckard returns to the list in 1904, this time with a very fine OBP of .470 leading the way. He's only 128th overall, however, eclipsed by the second half turned in by "Turkey" Mike Donlin, who hit .419 in the second half of 1903, with a 227 OPS+, which ranks 34th all time.
We get an all-too-brief look at Ed Delahanty, who'd fall off the list in 1903 when he tragically fell off a bridge; and we meet the mystery man Topsy Hartsel, who just makes our 200 PA eligibility requirement. Hartsel was a solid hitter who generally walked a lot; in this season swatch, however, he hits like crazy as well. We move on to 1904-05:
Here we have two more Wagner second halves, one ranking 98th all time (209 OPS+). Note that in that season, he only drives in 25 runs during this half-slice, as opposed to the 82 he had in 1901.
We also see Lajoie and Donlin again, though in somewhat more subdued terms ("only" a 202 OPS+ for Nap, and 198 for Mike).
The big find in 1904-05 is the second half turned in by Cy Seymour in 1905. We are full-tilt in the deadball era now, and here's Cy hitting .399. His 233 OPS+ places him twenty-second on the all-time list. Think fast, here comes 1906-08:
And here are two monster second halves from Honus Wagner, virtually indistinguishable from one another. While the raw numbers might seem a bit anemic, recall that 1907-08 is one of the extreme troughs for offense in baseball history. The OPS+ values (238 and 234) tell it all, placing Wagner in #19 and #21 place on the list. Now--last but not least...1909:
Here's our first Ty Cobb sighting--and it's a big one. The Georgia Peach hits .419, with 67 RBI in 74 games. His second-half totals in 1909 make Wagner and Eddie Collins' stalwart achievements seem anemic by comparison. His OPS+ for "1909 part deux" is 242.
We'll return after our 1962 coverage concludes with a look at the 1910s (and beyond). You may be surprised to discover that Babe Ruth's second half in 1919 ranks 18th all time (he'd top that, of course, in 1920). But you probably won't be surprised to find out that Ty Cobb has eight second-half performances during 1919-19 that crack the Top 300, including two in the Top 40. There are six half-season performances in the 1910s where the hitter's BA is. 400 plus, achieved by three players--two of whom are Cobb and Joe Jackson. The third? You'll just have to tune in to find out...