Gwynn May Top Cobb As Baseball's All-Time Hitter

July 03, 1997

CHAPEL HILL -- Come late July, outfielder Tony Gwynn of the San Diego Padres could best the late, great Ty Cobb as the top hitter in baseball history.

So says Dr. Michael Schell of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill after investigating a baseball mystery: Why do yesterday's players always look better, statistically, than today's? To Schell, that doesn't make sense.

A biostatistician at the UNC Lineberger Comprehensive Cancer Center, Schell attempted to level the playing field, accounting for differences in baseball during Cobb's 1905-1928 career with the Detroit Tigers and Gwynn's career today.

Officially, baseball still calculates batting averages the same way, by dividing numbers of hits by numbers of at-bats. Schell says that because the game has changed drastically since Cobb's day, averages must be adjusted statistically to compare players' ability fairly.

He modified batting averages with four factors never before combined: the league average, which adjusts for how easy or hard it was to get a hit in a given year; ballpark effects, or how easy or hard it is -- or was -- to get hits in a given stadium; and variability in talent among players of different eras. Finally, he limits comparison to the first 8,000 at-bats to assess hitters only in their prime.

The researcher applied the four adjustments to the game's greatest hitters, including Rod Carew, Joe Jackson, Rogers Hornsby, Honus Wagner, Ted Williams, Stan Musial and Wade Boggs. He found that Cobb and Gwynn came out on top and determined that with his 8,000th at-bat, which probably will come late this month, Gwynn could outrank Cobb as the greatest.

Baseball figures Cobb's batting average at .366, Gwynn's at .339. But with Schell's four adjustments, Cobb's changes to .342, and Gwynn's became .341 at the beginning of the 1997 season, after 7,595 at-bats. So far this year, Gwynn, who will play in the July 8 All-Star Game, is batting .400 -- better than Schell estimates he must to outrank Cobb by his 8,000th at-bat.

"Everyone thinks Cobb is the best ever in baseball, and no player today can touch him," said Schell. "But if Gwynn bats .366 through the end of July, by my estimate he'll be the best."

A lifelong Cincinnati Reds fan raised partly in Ohio, Schell developed the data on his own time while researching "The Top 100 Hitters," a book he has proposed to several publishers. He also intends to publish his findings in a statistics journal.

In his UNC-CH job, Schell uses statistical analysis to determine which cancer treatments work best with the fewest side effects. Baseball has a lot to do with the line of work he chose: "Statisticians are big fans because baseball has the most detailed numbers of any sport."

The first numbers Schell figures into his comparison of Cobb and Gwynn concern league batting averages. Those rise or fall in given years because of such changes as lowering the pitcher's mound or expanding the strike zone. The league average adjustment also accounts for the emergence of night baseball, when hitting is harder, and increased use of relief pitchers, both of which have decreased batting averages.

Ballpark effects comprise the second of Schell's adjustments. He estimates Cobb's average was helped 6.4 points by favorable hitting conditions in Tiger Stadium while Gwynn has been hurt 2.3 points by the disadvantages of Jack Murphy Stadium. Though today Tiger Stadium favors pitchers, in Cobb's day it was a hitter's park.

Thirdly, Schell adjusts batting averages for differences in overall player talent between the two eras. "Cobb played at a time when his competition was not as strong, and therefore he looked relatively better," Schell said. "Emergence of baseball as a solid career and addition of farm teams and spring training all helped make players more consistently better today than in Cobb's day."

This modification is critical, he said. "If one adjusts only for the league batting average and the ballpark effect, the top hitters on average were the early hitters. So were the top double and home run hitters and players leading many other batting and pitching categories. It doesn't make sense that they should be best in all these aspects."

A feature associated with the ballpark effect is the size of foul territory. The bigger the territory, the greater the opportunity to catch a batter out.

In his final exercise to compare averages fairly, Schell cuts off comparison at 8,000 at-bats -- using 4,000 as a minimum to qualify for comparison -- to assess hitters only in their prime. He aims to avoid favoring players who retired early over those who continued playing after age reduced ability.

He maintains that his adjustments are needed to assess true performance: "All those things are going to change how easy or hard it is to get a hit. You have to look at those if you want to compare players of all eras fairly." Schell has seen Gwynn play and soon will again. When the man Schell thinks will be king is scheduled for his 8,000th at-bat, in whatever park, whatever city, "I want to be there."

- 30 -

Note: Schell can be reached at (919) 966-8150 (w) or 967-5175 (h).

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Related Baseball Articles from Brightsurf:

Mortality rates of major league baseball players
Major league baseball (MLB) players had lower death rates overall and from many underlying causes of death compared with men in the general US population, differences that could be associated in part with the physical fitness required for their jobs.

Outcomes of non-operatively treated elbow ulnar in professional baseball players
Professional baseball players with a low-grade elbow injury that occurs on the humeral side of the elbow have a better chance of returning to throw and returning to play, and a lower risk of ulnar collateral ligament surgery than players who suffered more severe injuries on the ulnar side of the elbow.

NJIT mathematical sciences professor releases major league baseball predictions
NJIT Mathematical Sciences Professor and Associate Dean Bruce Bukiet has published his model's projections of how the standings should look at the end of Major League Baseball's regular season in 2019.

The short, tumultuous working life of a major league baseball pitcher
There are pitchers in Major League Baseball (MLB) who have had 30-year careers, but as UC Riverside demographer David Swanson points out, these are extreme outliers and often the stars of the game who receive most of the media's attention.

Why did home runs surge in baseball? Statistics provides twist on hot topic
Around the middle of the 2015 season, something odd started happening in Major League Baseball (MLB): Home runs surged.

For professional baseball players, faster hand-eye coordination linked to batting performance
Professional baseball players who score higher on a test of hand-eye coordination have better batting performance -- particularly in drawing walks and other measures of 'plate discipline,' reports a study in the July issue of Optometry and Vision Science, the official journal of the American Academy of Optometry.

For high school baseball pitchers, extra throws on game day add up but go uncounted
For high school baseball pitchers, limiting throws during a game helps to prevent fatigue and injuries.

Foul ball! Time to abolish rule protecting MLB from liability when fans are injured
In advance of Major League Baseball's opening day on Thursday, new research from Indiana University's Kelley School of Business suggests that the risk of fans being hit by a foul ball or errant bat at games has increased in recent years.

Vision, sensory and motor testing could predict best batters in baseball
Duke Health researchers found players with higher scores on computer-based vision and motor tasks had better on-base percentages, more walks and fewer strikeouts -- collectively referred to as plate discipline -- compared to their peers.

Review finds poor compliance with helmet use in baseball and softball
Despite lower rates of traumatic brain injuries in baseball and softball, there is poor compliance overall with helmet use and return-to-play guidelines following a concussion across all levels of play, according to a new systematic review.

Read More: Baseball News and Baseball Current Events is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to