One of the best players to ever live, Stan Musial, passed away over the weekend. Here's one way to appreciate just how good he was.
Eventually, it won't be like this. Fifty years from now, the online eulogies of today's best and brightest will come with videos and GIFs, or -- if they stick around long enough -- 3D videos and mind GIFs. You'll have videos from the Fox Super Slo-Mo cams to break down their swings and deliveries, and you'll have a way to pull those clips up from your Dick Tracy watch.
It's not like that with the greats from decades ago. When I see Stan Musial's name, my mind doesn't replay an iconic highlight that's burned into my consciousness every October. It doesn't recall the legendary video of him hitting a home run in the all-St. Louis World Series of '44. Those clips aren't stapled to our brains through decades of repetition.
There are a few videos. Here's a neat one:
That's back when All-Star Games meant something, so it's certainly a special highlight. But it's from the '50s, when baseball games were filmed with cameras made of gravel and rope. You can't see the break of the pitch as it comes in, or the extension of Musial's arms as he connects with the pitch. That's not how you get the story of Stan Musial. You'll have to get that story from someone who was there, or from books.
Or you can get a piece -- a small, small piece -- from Musial's page on Baseball Reference. Now, I love the Baseball Reference pages for my favorite players; I enjoy marveling at the 220-inning consistency of Matt Cain in a 175-inning world. But the page isn't as impressive without the personal bits -- the way Cain twitches his right shoulder to loosen it up, or the way he looked when he thanked the fans after his perfect game. Those things will help tell a better story than a simple list of numbers.
But with Musial, the Baseball Reference page is what's available to a baseball fan today. It's also the kind of Baseball Reference page that's easy to stare at for an hour, getting lost in the nooks and crannies of recorded history. Three things that can make your jaw drop from that page:
The WTF factor
When you click on his high school from the main Musial page, you find out that Ken Griffey Sr. also went to Donora High in Donora, Pennsylvania. Say, that's kind of neat. But you also get a glass of distilled "Wait, what?":
If you want more on the pitching, one of them books up there will help you out. But the number that stuns me is the 24 All-Star Games. There's a little asterisk there, as they used to have two All-Star Games every year from '59 through '62, Still, that's an All-Star appearance every season from 22 to 42. Imagine Giancarlo Stanton making the All-Star Game every year until 2032. If you want to know how Musial was regarded in his own time, that'll give you a strong hint.
See ball, hit ball
Musial hit 475 home runs in his career, along with 725 doubles and 177 triples. He wasn't a slap hitter. But when you look at Musial's record, you might not be prepared for this:
That's 17 consecutive years over .300, including 11 full years over .333. I know it's fashionable to ignore or disparage batting average now, but it's impossible not to be impressed with that. You know those stories about how Ichiro could hit for power if that's what he wanted to do? Here's what it would look like. Musial finished with a higher career average than Wade Boggs and Rod Carew, and he annihilated baseballs that went over the fence along the way.
Then and now
This is the one that gets me. The batting averages are impressive, and the All-Star Games are a nice legacy, but exactly how he racked those stats up is the kicker. Let's take his best season as an example. Pick your metric -- OPS, OPS+, MVP voting, average, hits, home runs, RBI, runs scored -- but 1948 is going to be Musial's best season. It's one of the best seasons by anyone ever.
And in that season, Musial struck out 34 times.
I mentioned Giancarlo Stanton up there. Just to put in perspective how the game has changed, note that Stanton struck out 34 times last September.
That isn't to denigrate Stanton's value or awesomeness. It's just to note that it's a different game now. Back then, hitters valued contact, and they could still whomp home runs while doing it. Musial played parts of 22 seasons. Stanton will probably pass him in career strikeouts in 2014, or before he's a free agent.
The gold standard for contact, at least in 2012, was Marco Scutaro, who made contact with a league-leading 89 percent of his swings. Scutaro struck out 49 times in 2012, the lowest total among qualified batters.
Musial's career high in strikeouts was 46. He was 41 years old.
I'll never know what it's like to watch Musial work a 13-pitch at-bat, and I'll never know what it's like to see him drill an opposite-field homer after being knocked down with a brushback pitch. That's a serious, serious baseball regret. But there's some consolation. We have a list of boring numbers. The boring numbers happen to be ridiculously exciting in their own way. Stan Musial was one of the best ballplayers to ever live. I regret that I couldn't watch it happen, but at least we have the statistical record of just how awesome it was.
Rest in peace, Stan the Man.