In memoriam: Roberto Clemente’s underrated on-field legacy

Roberto Clemente’s death was a tragedy that shook the western hemisphere. In the shadow of the man’s sacrifice, his on-field achievements are more remarkable than we might recognize.

In a game driven by numbers and lists and an era of innovation in parsing and developing new ways to appreciate players, on its face, it would seem odd to revere Roberto Clemente as much as Baseball does. Indeed, given my age and relative youth, I wondered if Clemente was more venerated for his nobility and tragic end than his on-field play. The numbers are good: 18 seasons, exactly 3000 hits with a very good slash line: .317/.359/.834. A 15-time All-Star with four batting titles (in a pitcher’s era), an MVP and 12 Gold Gloves, Clemente was integral to two World Series championship teams. (I particularly commend you to his 1971 World Series numbers.)

To be clear, I never set out to take anything away from Clemente. But Vada Pinson‘s numbers were good, so were Zack Wheat‘s and Enos Slaughter‘s, all-time contemporaries according to baseball-reference.com. Slaughter and Wheat are in the Hall of Fame–and Pinson’s argument for Cooperstown is drowned out almost entirely by career overlap with Clemente–but none are necessarily remembered the same way a generation of baseball people and fans remember Roberto Clemente.

For those of us born to later generations and removed from the end of Clemente’s career, those of us living in the sabermetric era where we’ve seen lone voices in the wilderness rescue and champion the causes of guys like Tim Raines and Bert Blyleven from the fringes of baseball memory to enshrinement in the Hall, we may not see Clemente in the same way we see Willie Mays or Hank Aaron or Ted Williams. My goal was never to set out to diminish Clemente’s legacy, but to satisfy my inner curiosity: did we overrate Clemente?

Short answer: no. Long answer: nope, and more to the point, Roberto Clemente might be underrated. 

Forbes Field was a ballpark in the same way the Grand Canyon is a hole in the ground. That is, to call it spacious would be an understatement. So, no, the sexy numbers aren’t there — 240 career home runs, when Clemente spent roughly half his career in a stadium suitable for having its own congressional district. Clemente also spent the majority of his career in the last great pitcher’s era: Bob Gibson wouldn’t force MLB to lower the mound until 1969, most parks in the National League were suited to their hurlers and both the 500 home run club and the 3000 hit club only had 11 members–Clemente, of course, included in the latter–through the end of 1972. With the sea changes in baseball since, we lose sight of how rare it was to have a dominant offensive force in that era.

The home/road splits tell a fuller story: where Clemente hit to put the ball in play at home (BA split .372 to .306), he hit for power on the road (102 HR in Pittsburgh versus 138 elsewhere.) Moreover, the two stadiums where he did the most damage: Wrigley Field (a band box when the wind isn’t blowing in) and Crosley Field (whose 1958 renovation transformed the park from a pitching paradise not entirely dissimilar to Forbes Field into a far more hitter-friendly destination.) In a distant third place is Candlestick Park, where Clemente hit safely 110 times. 18 of those were home runs.

Also warranting mention: in Clemente’s three seasons at the offensively-inclined Three Rivers Stadium, he slashed .334/.389/.516 and roughly 10% of his hits went over the fence.

With no one on, Clemente hit a respectable .308 with an OPS of .806.

With runners in scoring position, he hit .329 with an OPS of .884.

With RISP and first base open: .327, with a positively-Ruthian .504 OBP.

With the bases loaded, he hit .370.

In facing starters over his career, it was not a matter of if he figured them out, but when: first time through the lineup, Clemente *ahem* struggled to a .293 average. Second time through, .303 Third, .329. Fourth, .353.

We’re not looking at a very good player whose career was elevated by his untimely passing: we’re looking at a hitter with an uncanny mind for plate approach who adapted his hitting wherever he was. He hit for average in spacious parks, for power where he could hit over the fence. If it has been said of Ichiro that he could have hit for prolific power but chose not to, Clemente absolutely switched his power for contact seemingly at will: a human cheat code and every statistical indication is that he could have continued to play at a high level. This isn’t a rich man’s Vada Pinson–Clemente was every bit trending toward the upper echelon of all-time hitters: Stan Musial, Ted Williams. Given the opportunity–moreover, had he the benefit of playing full seasons–he could well have been right there with them.

When it comes to Clemente’s defense, the 12 Gold Gloves may not tell the full story–awards can be misleading in a vacuum–but the statheads who built Strat-o-Matic Baseball do. For the uninitiated, a player’s speed is assigned a number that is modified by a dice roll and the value assigned to the fielder to determine the play’s outcome. These values are determined based on meticulous, granular-level research and they’re often ruthlessly objective in their grading. The best rating Strat gives out for outfielders is a -5, and defensive luminaries like Carl Furillo, Ichiro and Jesse Barfield earned that distinction. (In fairness, Richard Hidalgo got it once, too.)

Clemente has a -6.

Anecdotes from teammates and opponents not only readily speak of his speed and instincts in the field, but his ability to troll baserunners with a lazy approach, only to unleash a cruise missile to get the out at the bag. 40 double plays from right field. Six times he led the NL in assists, and still has the most for a right fielder all-time. He was top-five in range factor 15 times in his career, five times leading the league. And yeah, there are the 12 Gold Gloves, tying Clemente with Willie Mays for the most ever awarded to an outfielder.

This wasn’t a very good ballplayer whose tragic demise revised a good career into a great one: Roberto Clemente possessed some of the finest tools–and I might argue the greatest baseball mind–the game has ever seen. On that New Year’s Eve, Baseball didn’t lose a good ballplayer: it lost a demigod, a player whose resume doesn’t tell us that he was every bit as good as the names that immediately come to mind when we discuss baseball greatness. The fact we lost him in an attempt to aid a nation in the wake of devastation underscores the fact that we did not lose merely a great player, but a great man. No one needs me to tell them that.

There were two great reasons to hold that special Hall of Fame election in 1973. While we are right to pay respects to a man whose sense of compassion and humanity ultimately cost him his life, we ought not forget that on that New Year’s Eve, we lost one of the greatest to ever play the game.

Brent Sirvio is a co-founder of Bronx to Bushville.

Advertisements