Appreciating Norm Cash and The Summer of ’61
My Dad and I have a running joke about the Fox Sports Detroit trivia question that goes something like this: If the question is about the last Tigers player to do (any statistic relating to hitters) in a single season, the answers is always, unquestionably, don’t even bother looking it up…Norm Cash 1961. It’s time to fully appreciate that season.
Cash spent 15 of his 17 MLB season in Detroit and accumulated 54.2 WAR (what’s WAR?) in a Tigers’ uniform and 54.6 WAR overall. He was a very good player in every way. He was a solid defender who hit .271/.374/.488 with a .382 wOBA (what’s wOBA?) and 139 wRC+ (what’s wRC+?) in his career. Overall, that offensive line is nearly 40% better than league average in his era. That’s a great, just missed the Hall of Fame career. In fact, there’s a reasonable case he should be in the Hall based on who is in and the insulting fact that he spent just one season on the ballot. I can accept that he isn’t a Hall of Fame, but he deserved more than 1.6% of the vote in his only year.
But let’s leave that aside. Cash had a very good career and is one of the top 10 Tigers position players of all time. What I’d like to highlight is what Cash did in 1961. Because it was ridiculous. Ridiculous. One more because it was that good, ridiculous.
To start, let’s lay out the particulars. Cash hit .361/.487/.662 with a 41 HR, a .488 wOBA and 193 wRC+ along with solid defense to lead to 10.1 WAR. What’s even more amazing about this is that Cash didn’t win the MVP. He didn’t even finish 2nd. Or 3rd. He finished 4th in the 1961 AL MVP vote despite this amazing season.
Now don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t highway robbery that Cash didn’t win. The problem was who he lost to. Roger Maris happened to hit 61 HR that season, so the voters gave the award to him and his league leading 142 RBI despite a .269/.372/.620 line to go with his .424 wOBA and 163 wRC+. Maris had an excellent season, but the fact that he beat out Cash is silly. Maris also beat out Mickey Mantle’s .317/.448/.687 season (.478 wOBA, 197 wRC+, 10.4 WAR) and Jim Gentile’s .302/.423/.646 campaign and .453 wOBA and 180 wRC+.
Norm Cash and Mickey Mantle were substantially better players than Maris in 1961 but the HR/RBI totals were all the voters chose to care about. You can’t even say it was a carried his team thing because Mantle wore the same uniform and the Tigers also won over 100 games.
But let’s leave that aside and discuss Cash’s season. Take a look at how his numbers compare to MLB league average (for non-pitchers) in 1961:
|Non P League Average||9.40%||12.30%||0.267||0.338||0.415||0.334||99|
Cash walked twice as much as the rest of the league and got on base in about 15% more of his trips to the plate while slugging and impressive 154 points above average. Put together, Cash hit 94% better than league average. 94% better than league average is something that has only happened only about 50 times in since 1901. Ty Cobb is the only other Tiger to ever do it (although there’s a guy in 2013 making a run…).
It was an impressive season compared to most others in MLB history and in Tigers history, but it also stands out above anything else Norm Cash ever did. I gave you his career line earlier, and while it’s great, it’s not anything like this. Take a look at his wOBA, wRC+, and WAR season by season. It’s nuts.
Most of the guys with all time elite seasons like Cash in ’61 usually do it again. By my count, 23 different players have posted a wRC+ of 193 or better in a single season since 1901. Only Norm Cash and Arky Vaughan never posted another season of 168 wRC+ of better. Almost every player who has ever had an offensive season like Cash did in 1961 has done it more than once. Cash had many very good seasons in his career, but 1961 is his unquestioned, absolute peak.
Cash was 26 years old in the summer of 1961 while Roger Maris made a run at Ruth’s HR record and while Mickey Mantle was running through his insane peak. Cash is often overlooked because he was more of a fringe All-Star type player than an MVP candidate most seasons, but his ’61 season is among the very best baseball has to offer.
Among Tigers, few have rivaled it. Five of the top six seasons in Tigers history by WAR belong to Ty Cobb. The other is Cash in ’61. Offensively, Ty Cobb is first and second among Tigers in terms of single seasons. Norm Cash is 4th. The guy in 3rd place hasn’t complete his season yet, so it isn’t in the official record.
Miguel Cabrera is hitting better in 2013 than Norm Cash did in 1961. That’s amazing, and Fox Sports Detroit might have to revamp the trivia questions to say, “other than Miguel Cabrera, who was the last Tiger to….”
The answer is always Norm Cash in 1961.
Doug Fister and Something We’ve Never Seen Before
Doug Fister is doing something kind of amazing so far this season. He’s hitting more batters than he is walking. Through 8 starts and 50 innings, Fister has hit 10 batters and walked 8 for a HBP-BB = 2. This is remarkable just because it’s a crazy thing, but it’s also remarkable because it has never happened before. (Editor’s Note: As of 9/2, Fister has hit 16 and walked 37 in 179.2 IP, he currently ranks 3rd all time and is 5 behind the leader. As of August 7th, this is the BB% to HBP% of every season in MLB history. Fister is in red).
Granted, Fister is only about a quarter of the way through his season and this can’t possibly keep up, but it’s worth noting how crazy this is. Over the course of an entire season, for qualified pitchers, no one has ever hit more batters than they have walked. The MLB record holder is Carlos Silva in 2005 who hit 3 batters and walked 9 in 188.1 innings. That walk rate itself is just fun to look at, but it’s beside the point. No one has ever complete a full season in which they have hit more batters than they have walked and the closest anyone has ever come is a differential of 6.
Now certainly, you will call attention to a small sample size and that over 50 innings pretty much anything can happen. And that’s true, but it doesn’t escape the fact that in 2013, no one else is hitting more batters than they are walking. Not Wainwright, not Colon, not Haren. None of the great control artists of our time are doing this even in the same small sample as Fister. I’m sure there are instances of pitchers doing this over similarly small stretches in history, but they would be very hard to find.
Think of it this way, from 1900-2013, the average pitcher hits 5 batters a season and walks 68. Even in the smallest of samples, it’s pretty extraordinary to find a period in which a pitcher is hitting more than he is walking, and these statistics include eras in which walks were much less common. Even in data that includes the 2013, which will bias the data away from these results, I calculate a chance that a pitcher would finish a season with more HBP than BB between 0.5 and 2 percent if this process played out at random. Here is a graph of HBP-BB with 2013 included, which will include pitchers like Wainwright this year who just haven’t walked many batters because they are good and it’s only been six weeks:
For now, Fister is on pace for a record all his own.