David Ortiz of the Boston Red Sox greets Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky before the game against the New York Yankees during Opening Night at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
In the wake of Red Sox legend Johnny Pesky's passing, it's worth remembering that he was, many decades ago, an outstanding player.
As Jay Jaffe points out over at SI.com, there was a lot more to Johnny Pesky than the Pesky Pole and his many decades as a beloved member of the Red Sox organization. Pesky, for a few years anyway, was a great player.
In Pesky's first three seasons, he led the American League in hits in each season. Without checking, I am fairly sure that no other player has ever done that.*
* You might have guessed, as I did, that Ichiro Suzuki matched Pesky's feat. But he didn't. After leading the A.L. in hits as a rookie, Ichiro finished second in his second and third seasons.
But as Jaffe also points out, Pesky didn't finish his career with Hall of Fame statistics, in part because between his rookie and sophomore seasons with the Red Sox, he spent three years in the U.S. Navy.
Jay's got his own system for evaluating a Hall of Fame candidate's worthiness, and Jay ... well, I'll summarize this way: According to Jay's system, Pesky's raw statistics, just those things that he actually did, make him a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, better than a few shortstops already enshrined. And if you give Pesky credit for those three seasons he lost to the war, he's right there with Hall of Famers Lou Boudreau (who played during the war) and Pee Wee Reese (who also missed three seasons), and well ahead of Phil Rizzuto.
Because I don't really understand Jaffe's method, I did my only little study.
For the sake of argument and simplicity, we'll consider Pesky as a shortstop, even though he played fewer than 50 percent of his career games as a shortstop. For the sake of idiotic complexity, I took all the greatest shortstops and averaged their Wins Above Replacement, according to Baseball-Reference.com (rWar) and FanGraphs (fWar). Which gives me WAR(rf).*
* and heavens to betsy I hope I immediately forget that I created this particular Frankenstein monster.
If you rank the shortstops by Wins Above Replacement (as I did), you'll notice that if you reach 55 WAR(rf), you're basically in the Hall of Fame. Of the 18 Hall of Fame-eligible players who spent at least 40 percent of their careers at shortstop, only two have not been elected: Alan Trammell, and 19th-century defensive wizard Jack Glasscock.
So there's your baseline: 55 WAR.
Johnny Pesky finished with 30 rWar and 37 bWAR. But filling in those missed seasons gets him to 45 and 58, which averages to 52, giving him full credit for those three seasons he missed.
Here's the next tier of shortstop, more than 45 but fewer than 50, with Hall of Famers bolded:
Phil Rizzuto (54 WARrf)
Joe Sewell (52)
Johnny Pesky (52)
Bert Campaneris (51)
Dave Bancroft (50)
Jim Fregosi (50)
Toby Harrah (49)
Vern Stephens (48)
Art Fletcher (47)
Travis Jackson (46)
Rabbit Maranville (45)
Roger Peckinpaugh (45)
Sewell, Bancroft, Jackson and Maranville were all elected by the much-maligned Veterans Committee, which (generally speaking) was stocked with those candidates' old teammates and friends. Jackson, in particular, was a really questionable choice.
Oh, and Rizzuto? According to Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, Rizzuto -- who also missed three seasons -- was just as good as Pesky, maybe a touch better. Of course, the tricky thing about Rizzuto is that a great deal of his value derived from his fielding, and Hall of Fame voters typically haven't paid a great deal of attention to fielding ... except maybe for shortstops, as Rizzuto and Bancroft and Maranville were all best-known for their defensive contributions.
I think you can make a pretty good case for Pesky without dragging down Rizzuto. Absent World War II, Pesky would likely have become a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, and a bunch of borderline Hall of Fame candidates have actually been elected to the Hall of Fame, one way or another.
What really killed Pesky's candidacy, though, was that his career was essentially over at 32. After a solid 1951, his manager (Lou Boudreau, coincidentally) didn't really want to play any of the veterans in '52 and Pesky tore a hamstring, so the Red Sox traded him to the Tigers. And that was basically it.
Fortunately, Johnny Pesky would enjoy another half-century in the game. One way or another.