The Boston Red Sox have two sluggers on a pace to match Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz, but they have a long way to go to match Vern Stephens and Ted Williams.
The Boston Red Sox tandem of Mookie Betts and J.D. Martinez are on a tour de force against pitchers. Pitcher abuse? Seems they nightly choose inventive ways of torturing hurlers with an assortment of hard-hit balls. Looking at the latest Statcast barrels listing the two are right up top. To simply the situation both (insert surprise) hit the ball hard.
The comparison to recent history is obvious with the slugging of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz. Both did it for several years and in some seasons it was an incredible display, but there is another era in Red Sox history that may be difficult to match and that was 1949. Vern Stephens and Ted Williams.
Let’s go traditional. Stephens was a shortstop and a right-hand hitter with a nice pull stroke. Acquired via trade from the St. Louis Browns in 1947, Stephens put together a great introductory 1948 season for the Red Sox hitting 29 home runs and posting 137 RBI. The following season was something special.
Stephens hit .290 but tied for the American League lead in RBI with 159. Stephens also scored 113 runs, hit 39 home runs, had 31 doubles, and for metrics fans finished with a 7.5 fWAR. Stephens also walked 101 times (14.2 BB%) and struck out 73 times (10.3 K%). He ended 1949 with a wRC+ of 134 and a .930 OPS. But all that was simply a yawn compared to Williams.
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Start with an MVP Award – 43 home runs, 159 RBI, and .343 average and barely missing a Triple Crown. Teddy Ballgame had a 9.9 fWAR and a 186 wRC+. And that wRC+ was actually below his career average of 188. Williams’ 22.2 BB% and 6.6 K% give you an insight into his ball and strike recognition.
The game today is different than 1949. Just the pitching alone has top to bottom depth, especially with bullpen usage. Players are physically more developed and the coaching far more sophisticated. And baseball today has a greater diversity that was almost entirely absent in ‘49. That said, a player like Williams would adapt to any era.
But how will the current two matchup when the season is complete? My prediction is neither Betts or JDM will match or come close to 159 RBI. And the walk and K percentages? Nope. But Betts will finish with a higher average than Williams’s .343. Martinez will have more home runs. Betts will fall short of Williams’s 150 runs and blow away Ted’s league-leading 43 doubles.
Martinez will hit well over .300, but not in the range of Williams. And with speed? Stephens and Williams had three steals combined in 1949. Betts accomplished that in one game. Where the Williams – Stephens duo will win is the fWAR race. Mookie posted an 8.3 fWAR in 2016 and will exceed that this season – statistics willing. Martinez will also exceed his career high 5.2 fWAR but may fall short of Stephens. I expect Betts to finally get an MVP. Martinez may also be in the top four. Want a trio? Bobby Doerr finished with a 5.8 fWAR
The last and most important measure is team success. The 1949 Red Sox fell short of the American League Championship on the last weekend of the season. This Red Sox team may not win the division, but expanded playoffs give them that opportunity.