Roberto Clemente vs. Al Kaline
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.