Roberto Clemente vs. Al Kaline

Roberto Clemente vs. Al Kaline

 Clemente overrated?

Roberto Clemente has often been listed as one of the greatest baseball players of all time.  He was a great ballplayer but while he’s often been listed in the top 20 of all time, does he really deserve that kind of ranking? Or does he suffer from a halo effect due to his early death on a humanitarian mission?  We can easily compare him to a player who was almost his exact contemporary: Al Kaline.  I would submit that Al Kaline was just as valuable a player, if not more so than Clemente, yet receives only a fraction of the acclaim. 

First a little about each player:

Clemente came into the league in 1955 at 20.  He really wasn’t that good for his first five years, having little power, drawing virtually no walks, and not hitting for a particularly high average.  He was always considered a good fielder though, and this kept him in the league.  In 1960 things started to turn around for Clemente.  The Pirates won the World Series that year in part to Clemente’s improvement.  Clemente hit .314 with a career high 14 home runs.  His bat was no longer a liability. He finished eighth in the MVP voting.  From there he just got better,  hitting over .300 every year until his death except 1968, when he hit .291. He topped .350 three times in an era when batting averages weren’t high. He won four batting titles, peaked with 29 home runs in 1966, when he won the MVP award, and won every single gold glove from 1961 to 1972. His lifetime OPS+ is 130, a solid number. In the 1971 World Series he led the Pirates to another championship hitting .414.

Al Kaline was a wunderkind when he came into the league. A few months younger than Clemente he started even earlier in 1953 at the age of 18. He finished 3rd in the rookie of the year voting in 1954, although he really didn’t have that great of a year.  In 1955 however, Clemente’s rookie year, he had one of the best seasons a 20 year old has ever had in baseball. He led the American league in hits with 200, batting average with .340,  he was second in on base percentage, slugging average, OPS, and runs, he finished fourth in home runs with 27, and fifth in RBIs with 102. He finished a close second in the MVP voting to Yogi Berra, though honestly Mickey Mantle should have won the award. In a sense it was all downhill for Kaline after that, though he continued to be one of the premier players in the American league. He hit over .300 four of the next six years, leading the league in slugging in 1959 and doubles in 1961. After 1961 injuries started to take their toll on Kaline and he never really played a full healthy season again.  He still had bright spots though, In 1962 he hit 29 home runs with 94 home runs in just 100 games played.  He retired after the 1974 season after hitting .262 with 13 home runs in 147 games.  He led Detroit to a World Series win in 1968 where he played well, hitting .379 and like Clemente was a great fielder, winning 10 of the 11 gold gloves from 1957 to 1967. 

So one can see part of the problem already, Clemente started slowly, but then finished strong with big years and gaudy statistics.  Kaline started strong but then more or less slowly slid downhill with very good, but not optically impressive stats years after year.  Let’s look at the raw stats:

Clemente: 2433 games, 1416 runs, 1305 RBIs, .317/.359/.475

Kaline:  2834 games,  1622 runs, 1583 RBIs, .297/.376/.480

Kaline has an edge in runs and RBIs but this pretty much disappears if you take Kaline’s extra games into account.  Clemente hit for a higher average, but Kaline has a higher On Base percentage and slugging average.  This is why Kaline’s OPS is actually 134, while Clemente’s is 130.  Clemente hit a lot more triples than Kaline, but Kaline hit more home runs (He holds the record for most home runs without hitting 30 in a season).  Kaline drew a ton more walks, 656 more. Kaline even stole more bases than Clemente, although neither were known for their baserunning.  The point is that hitting-wise they are pretty much even for all intents and purposes, with perhaps a bit of an edge to Kaline.

But Clemente was one of the greatest fielders of all time people will say,  and that certainly makes him better doesn’t it? 

Well fortunately both were right fielders, so this makes comparing their fielding stats easy.  I was quite surprised at what I found:

Clemente:  2370 games(RF), 4696PO, 266Assists,140 Errors, 42 Double Plays, .973 FA

Kaline:  2488 games(RF), 5035PO, 170 Assists, 73 Errors, 29 Double Plays, .980 FA

The first thing one notices is that Clemente committed almost TWICE the number of errors Kaline did, leading to Kaline’s FA being seven points higher.  Clemente did have 96 more assists and 13 Double plays, but I’m not sure how much that really makes him a better fielder when you consider that’s an extra assist every 24 games or so and an extra double play every 180 games.  At any rate I would guess the slight advantage Clemente has due to that is about the same as Kaline’s slight advantage in hitting. 

The argument I then hear most often is that what doesn’t show up in the statistics is how many baserunners were prevented from advancing from Clemente’s fantastic cannon of an arm, and how many runs were saved due to the fear of being thrown out.  Well you tell me.  That’s the problem: We just don’t know or have any real way to calculate.  Kaline was no slouch himself in the field don’t forget, so was Clemente’s arm so great that it overrides everything else and makes him one of the all time greats while Kaline is relegated to the all time very goods?  I don’t think so, but I suppose in the end it’s a subjective opinion.  A couple other comparisons:

MVP awards:  Clemente 1, Kaline 0

Top ten MVP seasons:  Clemente 8, Kaline 9

All star seasons:  Clemente 12, Kaline 15

Gold Gloves, Clemente 12, Kaline 10

Kaline had more all stars and one more MVP type season, Clemente had the MVP and a couple more gold gloves.  Kaline however easily could have won the MVP in 1955, and probably would have in 1962 had he played a full season.  He also finished 2nd in 1963 and wouldn’t have been a bad selection over Elston Howard that year.  As for gold gloves Kaline played right field less and less due to injury after 1967 so didn’t really qualify in many years for the gold glove, though he could have perhaps won one in 1971 had the voters been so inclined.

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9 Responses

  1. Well well my friend, I guess Rate it All wasn’t sufficient propaganda against baseball’s most watchable ballplayer. A brain and a pen indeed. Hitler had more than that I suspect! I can’t help but like Kaline..how could anyone have a problem with that ballplayer? In politics, in order to mitigate your opponent you simply pick someone who is not necessarily bad , but certainly well below their status and claim BOTH are essentially equal. Kaline/Clemente fits that mold. To put this in perspective, a tee-shirt with the front reads: 3 greatest to play at Yankee stadium…Ruth,Gehrig and Mantle.The tee shirts back reads:The 3 best to play there…Mays, Aaron and Clemente. As a white anglo saxon protestant I’ve got eyes to go along with the brain and pen.

  2. Wow!, what an incredibly biased blog, lol!

    First of all. Both men were great athletes. Your even trying to compare Clemente and Kaline as a way of stating that Clemente was overrated is a fool’s parade. The fact is that they were both great. They both played in smaller market towns and both were often overlooked for much of their careers.

    But lets look at a few of your extremely misleading and often false quotes here anyway as you seem so intent on running someone down you probably never saw play.

    “He really wasn’t that good for his first five years, having little power, drawing virtually no walks, and not hitting for a particularly high average.”
    These were his batting averages in his first five years:
    1955 – .255
    1956 – .311 – 3rd in the league
    1957 – .253
    1958 – .289
    1959 – .296
    Those are quite good numbers for any young player, with a five year average that would hardly have had him demoted from any team in baseball.

    “…Kaline’s slight advantage in hitting.”

    That is such a massive misnomer and here is why.

    The fact that Clemente did not have power numbers at the level of Kaline has all to do with the huge difference in their home ballparks. Forbes Field was an airport and the largest park of its time, even a bit more spacious than Yankee Stadium. Note the fact that the great homerun hitter and ex-Tiger Hank Greenberg had the second lowest homerun totals, 25, of any full season he had played in his entire career when he played at Forbes Field. The year before he hit 44! His RBI’s went down as well by almost half. And that was when they brought in the left field wall 30ft. to make it easier for Greenberg to hit them out. Ralph Kiner greatly benefited from the more cozy left field line as well and had some great years their. To show what a homerun dirth Forbes Field was, Kiner was the only Pittsburgh Pirate to hit over 40 homeruns in the long history of Forbes Field.The year after Kiner left the Pirates and the year before Clemente played the team got rid of what was now Kiner;s Corner and brought leftfield back to it’s old dimensions.

    Clemente was coached to not go for power numbers but to develop himself as a hitter for average in order to help the team. But the truth is that when he was asked by Manager Harry Walker to go for power he tripled his homerun total and that was still in the canyon known as Forbes Field.

    Even the great Stargell’s season best at Forbes was only 33. and as a lefty he greatly benefited from a short rightfield porch of 300ft. Clemente’s best while playing at Forbes was 29. In fact in the same span of time that both Stargell and Clemente played at Forbes, Stargell with a short porch advantage and being paid to hit homers had 180 to righthanded batting Clemente at 146.

    Kaline played in one of the great homerun parks in baseball history. There is no doubt that were the players switched their power totals would be drastically different as well. Clemente himself hit a monster shot in the 1971 All-Star game in what possibly might have been his only game at Tiger Stadium. So your comment about Kaline having better power is erroneous. You could only compare them if they played in the same kind of park.

    Another massive mistatement of yours:
    “He (Clemente) was always considered a good fielder though, and this kept him in the league. ”

    Clemente was considered a great fielder with a cannon for an arm before he even joined the majors. The fact was that Clemente was considered one of the brightest prospects to come along in baseball at that time.

    So, between Clemente’s hitting -( he was among the leagues and teams leading hitters in three of those five first years), speed and tremendous fielding, there was no way they were sending him down. I think 99% of the pro’s at that time would have loved to have had those first 5 seasons

    “Kaline even stole more bases than Clemente, although neither were known for their baserunning.”

    Wrong again. First of all speed and baserunning skills are more than stolen bases. Clemente was among the fastest men in the game who in high school ran track and did the high jump( a record in his country and near the U.S. record) and could have gone on to the Olympics had he not favored baseball. At his rookie try-out, Al Campanis stated:
    “Then we had the timed races – 60 yards. Everybody’s running about 7.2, 7.3, which is average major league time. Then Clemente came and ran a 6.4-plus. That’s a track man’s time! And in a baseball uniform! I asked him to run again, and he was even a little faster. He could fly!” [1] “Hell, the world’s record then was only 6.1. I couldn’t believe it.”

    . He was far faster than Al Kaline ever was all through both their careers. Although Clemente was a bit over-zealous in his early years he eventually became known as one of the fastest and smartest base-runners of his time.
    “”People didn’t realize how fast he was. He only stole bases if it meant something… He could fly. When he hit a ground ball to the infield, he was flying to first. That fielder better not be napping.”
    -Sparky Anderson

    Al Kaline had an awesome start to his career, no doubt, but the trajectory of his career went the opposite of Clemente’s who got better and better as he got older. time.
    You go out of your way to make excuses for Kaline:
    “After 1961 injuries started to take their toll on Kaline and he never really played a full healthy season again.”
    Clemente had major injuries throughout his whole career from broken ribs to malaria. In fact the worst injury he ever suffered was severe spinal damage the winter before his rookie season when he was hit by a drunk driver while rushing to see his dying brother. That injury alone also served to diminish his power numbers and also gave him his trademark neck twisting when coming to bat. At that time only Mickey Mantle suffered more injuries than Roberto. Interesting how you make excuses for Kaline but not for Clemente. Despite his injuries and constant pain, Clemente got better and better. Kaline went from great to good over the years.

    Clemente had the highest batting average in the decade of the 60’s at .332. What was Kaline’s?

    Lifetime, Clemente hit 20 points higher than Kaline, which for a lifetime batting average is a very big difference. Clemente won 4 batting titles in a single decade in a far more competitive league. The National League filled with most of the great black and latin stars was far more dominant the American League as proven by their amazing string of wins in the all-star game.

    If Clemente had played in the American League with his stats he’d have won 3 more batting titles, which doesn’t count 1970 when he hit .352 but was just short of the required plate appearances. No doubt that Clemente would have hit for an even higher average in the A.L. as the talent pool was lower.

    As for fielding, it is close they were both fantastic. But if you speak to the pro’s who saw them, Clemente not only gets the edge over Kaline and Maris but even Mays, especially in the arm department. As far as errors, alot of times errors are misleading as Clemente with his speed could get to balls that alot of players could not get to.

    “The argument I then hear most often is that what doesn’t show up in the statistics is how many baserunners were prevented from advancing from Clemente’s fantastic cannon of an arm, and how many runs were saved due to the fear of being thrown out.”

    Absolutely correct. Clemente still led the league a record five times in assists and that is with his having an amazing rep so that players were wary of running on him. He saved runs through his arm and glove and saved many more from his rep. Even the great Mays was afraid to run on Clemente. Google a quote by Gaylord Perry.

    “We just don’t know or have any real way to calculate.”

    If you do what most stat hounds do today, you lose the truth of a players value and meaning to the team. The bottom line is that if you want to find out how great a player someone was, you have to have seen them alot and you also have to have asked or read what their peers say. And truth is that Clemente has the edge amongst his peers over Kaline. But this gets to the main problem of your blog. Trying to build one great star up by running down another. I only added my comments in to show how one-sided your pov is and that you did not share all the facts. The bottom line is they were both great. I saw them both and Mays and Aaron and Mantle. All great, great stars. That should be enough,

    What amazes me is that after being dead all these years, Clemente is still getting a bad rap from people. I don’t see any anti-Al Kaline blogs or Mays, Mantle etc. Maybe Clemente was just to damn honest and up front for people. Which ultimately is another problem where comparisons fail. Clemente not only had to contend with lifelong prejudice for being black but also for being latin. He was alone those early years and treated horribly. The psychological abuses he suffered were enormous. And he went a long way to paving the way for the latin black stars of today. Clemente, Minoso, Vic Power were the first, like Jackie was. Add that to your comparisons. Could Kaline have contended with Jim Crow, threats on his life right up until his last game, etc as Clemente did? He may have. But were Clemente playing in a more tolerant time, he may have done even better.

    • Well, where to begin? First, my point is not so much to say Clemente was overrated.. though that may be true, but to say Al Kaline is underrated.

      You claim that Clemente had quite good numbers for a young player his first five years – in fact his batting average over that period was about 20 points higher than the league average. Unfortunately he hit few doubles, very few home runs, and drew about 20 walks a year. That is simply below par no matter how you slice it. Only in 1956, when he hit .311 was he more productive than an average hitter, and then only slightly.

      Your second point is that Clemente was hurt by Forbes field.. I don’t know anything about Forbes field, or what it was like to play there.. so let’s see if the numbers bear this out..- Over the course of his career Clemente hit .327 with 102 home runs at home.. away from Forbes Field he hit .306 with 138 home runs. Yes I realize he didn’t play at Forbes field his whole career.. but it’s clear that even away from his home park he was never a great power hitter, though he did fairly well, and in return he lost a lost of average production, such that his total value.. measured by OPS is clearly better when he was at home. So how did he compare to his teammates in those five years? In 1955 he was 4th on the team in home runs – and 9th in OPS+. In 1956 (his best year in the 50’s) he was 5th in HR, 5th in OPS. in ’57 – 8th and 10th. in ’58 – 7th and 6th. in 1959 he was 10th in home runs, and 6th in OPS.. all these on his own team, with other players who had presumably the same park limitations. Keep in mind none of these guys were good hitters either. In summary. I stand by my argument that Clemente in the 1950’s was just good enough as a hitter to allow his fielding to keep him in the league.. and no better. Btw yes Kaline was helped by his home park.. away from home Kaline had a .827 OPS, While Clemente away from Forbes field had .810 – still a slight advantage to Kaline.

      You then talk about his fielding being fantastic.. but that’s not really in debate – everyone, me included, agrees Clemente was a fantastic fielder – end of story.

      You then talk about Clemente’s speed. Now I never said Kaline was Faster than Clemente.. I simply said Kaline stole more bases – a lot more. Clemente could have been way faster – but this didn’t really translate into better performance. Clemente did hit a lot more triples – prehaps his speed is why, though Forbes field may have contributed to that as well. but if Clemente had blazing speed would he not have had a better success rate of stolen bases when he did choose to run? Clemente stole 83 bases and was caught 46 times – a 64 percent success rate. Kaline stole 137 in 202 attempts – 68 percent. It’s not clear that Clemente’s extra speed, however much that was, did a whole lot for him.

      You compare their injury history, and fair enough point out that I didn’t mention Clemente’s.. I will say that Kaline’s injuries caused him to miss huge chunks of seasons, while Clemente, injured or not, usually played a full slate. My only point in mentioning Kaline’s injuries was to postulate why he had a late career slide campared to Clemente who averaged around 20-30 games more per season in the 60’s than Kaline.

      You then compare their performances in the 60’s – but only mention batting average as a comparison. batting average is one of the most misleading statistics in baseball. Yes Clemente was a much better contact hitter than Kaline – or pretty much anyone else in the 60s.. but there’s more to the story.. also you’re comparing Clemente’s best years in the 60’s with Kaline’s worst. One of the points I made was that Kaline was better in the 50’s, Clemente in the 60’s.

      I’m not sure what to make of your all star argument.. Yes the NL won 12 of 13 all star games which is remarkable.. but only held a 6-4 advantage in world series victories.. furthermore if you take the 60 individual world series games in the 60’s the NL won 31.. a .516 winning percentage.. hardly complete dominance.

      You then reiterate my point that much of Clemente’s value as a fielder is with those who saw him play and were impressed by his ability. Again – not arguing that. And yes I know Clemente dealt with racial issues that Kaline didn’t have to. Maybe he would have done better – maybe he would have done worse in a more tolerant society because he wouldn’t have had to push himself so hard. I don’t know. And while there may not be many anti- Al Kaline blogs keep in mind there isn’t anyone who thinks Al Kaline is remotely close to the greatest of all time either, when he is a player who – at worst- is only slightly worse than Clemente was.

  3. Nice piece Al. If anyone(including Sabr shills) is REALLY interested then go to the Baseball Think Factory and search: 2041262. This should put this issue to bed; a fine example of why Kaline off the diamond is every bit as ‘super’ as Roberto.

  4. I think they should be compared by someone who has played against both Kaline and Clemente…. Ask Frank Robinson!

  5. To the original blogger. You just don’t get it or won’t admit what you were doing in your blog. I merely clarified your exaggerations which were all predisposed to laying playing one great player against another to make one look “overrated”. Stating that Kaline is as good as Clemente does not diminish Clemente. But ignoring Clemente’s added impact on the game as not only the great all-round player that he was but also the impact he had on the game which helped pave the way for the tremendous influx of latin players in the past 30 years is also to overlook his greatness that went far beyond the stats. What Clemente accomplished not only through his playing, but also his being one of the lone outspoken voices against the racial and cultural prejudice against blacks and latins in the heated and racially prejudiced times of the 50’s and 60’s which cost him dearly among sports writers, and many ion the white baseball community. Added to that the constantt abuse and badgering he took from the writers about his ideas , the common stupidity of the writers to ignore what he said and merely make fun of how he spoke english as a childish effort to ridicule him, his constant efforts to support and encourage the latino players of his generation in all kinds of ways, his intense efforts to establish his sports city that helped to shape the lives of countless generations of young latinos who made the pros and others who through it found productive paths in life, his intense efforts to support and edify the lives of not only his fellow latino players and fellow Puerto Ricans but all those in the latin countries and his ultimate sacrifice in giving his life to save others– all these put him very close to being on par with Jackie Robinson, who also despite flaws in his so-called “stats” also had a profound impact on the game and stands above it larger than life. There is no doubt that Robinson’s lone effort for the first three years were the hardest any man suffered that ever played and it ultimately killed him. But Clemente too put himself on the firing line all alone and made it easier for generations of blacks and latinos to enter the pro’s and be treated as equals.

    It would have been a far more righteous article if instead of questioning whether or not Clemente was overrated, that you used a more fair comparison of their respective careers to show that Kaline was equivalent to Clemente and that he may be like Frank Robinson for example one of the overlooked superstars. This is a similar situation to the way that Stan Musial was overlooked in comparison with his other great contemporary Ted Williams. Williams was like Clemente in that both men were outspoken and both gained fame for what they did outside the game. While both Kaline and Musial were terrific players who went about their careers more quietly and yet are both equally deserving of praise.

    I’d hate to think that your real intent was only to run down Clemente, which is how your blog has come off. A more positive take on all of this would have made all the difference.

    • I perhaps used a poor choice of words in saying “overrated”.. I DO think that people tend to overstate Clemente’s statistics ON the field due to what he did OFF the field, but I should have argued those points specifically rather than just compare him specifically to Kaline. Regardless.. I’m not Latin.. I don’t really care about race at all.. I can’t relate to what Clemente did or did not do to open doors. I didn’t even see him play.. all I have are statistics, photos, maybe a few grainy clips.. and that’s all I have to judge Clemente or any of those players on.

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