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Color by Numbers: Wabash George Mullin and the Virtue of Being Average

More than any other sport, baseball is firmly rooted in numbers. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact reason why, but for well over a century, fans of the game have obsessed over various statistics and worshipped the records they create. This has led to countless debates about who is best and sometimes even who is worst. Rarely, however, has much attention been paid to the average.

Ironically, sabermetrics has helped to rectify some of this neglect. Because so many new stats rely on a baseline to define relative value, the common player has gained some extra notoriety, at least in conceptual terms. In fact, average has become a benchmark of sorts. Several metrics, such as OPS+ and ERA+ (both of which measure performance relative to an average baseline of 100), not only serve to herald the game’s best players, but also trumpet the mediocre by exulting them over the laggards.

Although it doesn’t take a mathematician to know that Babe Ruth was one of the game’s best hitters, it’s still fun to put a number on his superiority.  For example, Babe Ruth’s OPS+ of 206 tell us that the Sultan of Swat was more than twice as good (106% to be exact) as the typical major leaguer of his day. Meanwhile, his ERA+ of 122 reveals that he was also a well above average pitcher (22% above the mean). If the legends aren’t enough to convince you of Ruth’s epic greatness, there are plenty of stats that can back them up.

Babe Ruth is almost universally regarded as baseball’s greatest performer. Just about every stat developed, both new and old, ranks the Bambino ahead of all others, leaving the remaining 17,543 to find their place in line.  It’s easy to lose track of the thousands of players that pale in the shadow of Ruth’s excellence, but there must be someone who epitomizes the game’s underappreciated mediocrity? Who is the champion of the average?

Currently, there are 42 players with at least 1,500 plate appearances and a career OPS+ of 100. From this group, the most obvious poster boy for the average player seems to be Willie McGee, who regressed all the way to the mean over a career spanning 8,188 times to the plate. McGee’s downtrodden appearance, with hunched shoulders and a bowed head, also seems to be a fitting tribute to the common man, but alas, the speedster could not pitch.

Middle of the Pack: “Top-10” Players with an OPS+ of 100

Player PA OPS+ From To
Willie McGee 8188 100 1982 1999
Curt Flood 6958 100 1956 1971
Garry Maddox 6775 100 1972 1986
Hubie Brooks 6476 100 1980 1994
Cesar Tovar 6177 100 1965 1976
Art Fletcher 6039 100 1909 1922
Carlos Baerga 5895 100 1990 2005
Jimmy Johnston 5628 100 1911 1926
Jack Graney 5576 100 1908 1922
Frankie Hayes 5121 100 1933 1947

Note: List contains the 10 players with the most plate appearance from among a group with an OPS+ of 100.
Source: baseball-reference.com

From among the list of 42 average hitters, only one player also qualified as pitcher: “Wabash” George Mullin. A Toledo boy who literally made a name for himself pitching semi-pro ball in Indiana, Mullin was an eccentric man prone to superstition. However, the one thing he took very seriously was pitching.

After escaping the Western League (quite literally, in fact, as the owner of Mullin’s minor league club actually tried to have him arrested for jumping over to the majors), the strong-armed right hander racked up almost 3,700 innings in 14 seasons, most of which came with the Tigers. Throughout his career, there were many notable achievements, like his Fourth of July no-hitter against the St. Louis Browns in 1912, his league-leading 29 wins and three World Series complete games in 1909, as well as his one-time record of 12 straight consecutive victories. For the most part, however, Mullin was, you guessed it, rather average. When the right hander retired in 1915, his ERA+ of 102 was a testament to his dual mediocrity.

Because he was so common, Mullin turned out to be so unique. Although it’s probably a stretch to call him the poor man’s Babe Ruth, it’s worth noting that he was a precursor to the two-way threat that the Bambino would become. Mullin just did it on a much smaller scale.  Wabash George may not have been one of the greatest to ever play the game, but being the most average doesn’t seem like such a bad consolation.

The Tigers’ George Mullin (left) was a “poor man’s Babe Ruth” in many ways. Like the Babe, Mullin also had a mascot (middle), a young African American boy named “Li'l Rastus”.

Over the past five-plus years, I have been reading and commenting at Bronx Banter on almost a daily basis. In many ways, it has become my internet home. So, needless to say, when Alex Belth invited me to contribute to this forum, I was both humbled and deeply honored. The next step, however, was deciding upon a topic.

Contrary to the prevailing wisdom in some circles, statistics are more than just numbers on a page. They are the lifeblood of baseball’s epic history: both guardians of the past and milestones to the future. Statistics have the ability to not only spotlight greatness and shame futility in the present, but also resurrect long forgotten names from the past. It might seem silly to ascribe to numbers the evocative powers of poetry and prose, but in baseball, statistics provide the color between the lines that make the picture complete.

It’s my hope that “Color by Numbers” will not only inject more statistics into the discourse at the Banter, but also provide some leeway to tell a few stories along the way. I can’t promise to live up to the incredible standards of excellence established by writers like Alex Belth,  Matt Blankman, Cliff Corcoran, Jon DeRosa, Diane Firstman, Bruce Markusen, Emma Span, Hank Waddles and Will Weiss, and certainly won’t even try to reach the level of the late, great Todd Drew, but I know I can at least be average. Just like good old “Wabash” George.

Categories:  1: Featured  Bronx Banter  Yankees

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1 Alex Belth   ~  May 12, 2011 1:09 pm

Yo Bro! Welcome. Great piece.

2 Shaun P.   ~  May 12, 2011 1:40 pm

Brilliant intro, william, and I love the title. There's an awful lot of story to be had from the numbers. Looking forward to you turning us on to the color.

3 rbj   ~  May 12, 2011 2:02 pm

Welcome! Most average, cool topic. Even being an average MLer puts you in elite company.

4 ms october   ~  May 12, 2011 2:13 pm

cool title and post.
i'm also looking forward to more.

[2] so true. that's one of the things that makes baseball so interesting.

5 thelarmis   ~  May 12, 2011 2:46 pm

william!!! this was wonderful!

thanks for bringing him aboard, alex!

looking forward to more "color by numbers" columns, all of which will be well above average and score high on the BFOG+ meter!

oh, and any piece that features Hubie Brooks is good by me! : )

6 Chyll Will   ~  May 12, 2011 3:12 pm

William who? >;)

7 Alex Belth   ~  May 12, 2011 3:18 pm

Man, I loved Hubie.

8 thelarmis   ~  May 12, 2011 3:21 pm

[7] yeah man. Mookie was my all-time favorite. in fact, that was my nickname in little league! : )

hubie was my 2nd fave, after mook. funny how they both ended up north of the border. i was *shocked* to see hubie had an ops+ of 100. figured it'd be well lower!

[6] william J., of course!

9 Sliced Bread   ~  May 12, 2011 4:00 pm

great stuff, William! Thanks for a great read!

10 Jon DeRosa   ~  May 12, 2011 4:47 pm

In his introduction to the first Win Shares book, Bill James explained the tremendous value in being average. And that systems that focus on average as a baseline aren't doing average players justice for all of their contributions. He compared it to an iceberg. If you just look at the above average player as positive, the part that sticks out of the water, you're ignoring the huge mass of the iceberg under the water. So much of that mass is made up by the distance from replacement level to average.

11 William J.   ~  May 12, 2011 8:32 pm

Thanks all...I guess if you are going to be average, it might as well be in a very well paying field.

[10] Replacement level is better for determining value, but it's just a nebulous concept that it really isn't very interesting to talk about.

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"This ain't football. We do this every day."
--Earl Weaver