This actually grew out of my “Top 40” (or however many I settle on) research. I was perusing through Win Shares, because it’s the best way I’ve found to compare hitters across time. Anyway, there’s something very odd in Wally Berger’s record there. Win Shares, by season, 1930-36:

26 31 26 36 33 21 23

The lowest number is for the 1935 season. There are two things to remember about that season:

1. The Braves went 38-115.
2. Berger hit .295/.355/.548 while leading the league in homers and RBI.

Berger’s season is, I’m pretty sure, the best anyone ever had on a team with a winning percentage that low. Of course, there aren’t many teams like that.

The 1935 Braves are probably the strangest of the teams on the “worst ever” list, because they had no business being that bad. After all, this is a team that had gone 78-73, finishing fourth, the previous season… and added Babe Ruth. Okay, he was old and fat, but the Babe hit .288/.448/.537 (with 22 homers) in 1934 – fifth in the league in OPS and eighth in homers in only 471 PA. Somehow, not only did his age catch up with him, he managed to convey it to everyone on the team… except Berger. Even weirder, the 1936 Braves went 71-83.

So, back to Berger… We have a 12 Win Share drop from 1934 to 1935. The thing is, his numbers in those two years were virtually identical:

28 150 615 92 183 35 8 34 121 49 65 2 0 .298 .546 .352 .899 14
29 150 589 91 174 39 4 34 130 50 80 3 0 .295 .548 .355 .903 14

I don’t know if anyone’s ever posted two such similar seasons of such high quality back-to-back. I doubt it. The run context didn’t change much, either, the park-adjusted league average going from .278/.333/.395 in 1934 to .275/.330/.393 in 1935. Braves Field was an extreme pitcher’s park; Berger wasn’t getting many cheap hits. He created 117 runs in 1934, 113 in 1935, which is pretty normal variance. He had 22 fewer plate appearances.

First question: Why did anyone pitch to him? Second question: How did his WS drop by a third if his overall numbers were steady and the context didn’t change? Defense? I can’t judge the team context, but Berger’s range factor increased in 1935 and I doubt he suddenly became unable to field. And then the next year remembered how; his WS went up in 1936 to 23 even though he missed twelve games and didn’t play as well. And Bill McKechnie never would have played someone that bad in centerfield no matter how bad his team was.

I am fairly certain that this is a glitch in the Win Shares system, which doesn’t deal with extreme cases that well. After all, there aren’t many Shares to distribute on a 38-win team, and you have to give the other guys something for their “efforts”. Pinky Whitney hit .273/.312/.367 and got nine Win Shares. Fred Frankhouse had a 4.76 ERA (in a 3.78 average ERA context) and gets seven. You go through the list, and they aren’t much individually, but they pile up. Berger, having a genuinely outstanding season, gets left out.

After Berger, I’m guessing that the best players on an historically bad team are Ralph Kiner on the 1952 Pirates and Richie Ashburn and the Other Frank Thomas on the 1962 Mets. Kiner hit .244/.384/.500 — not a great season, by his standard. He rates at 19 Win Shares for that season. He was traded to the Cubs 41 games into the next season, distorting his offensive context (Wrigley was a much better place to hit than Forbes Field). Though his BA rose a lot, his OBP and SLG rose only a little, and less than his park effect would explain, so he was actually a worse hitter — but his total Win Shares rose to 23. Ashburn only had 473 PA, but he played his usual good outfield and would have led the league in OBP if he’d qualified. Thomas played in 156 games and hit .266/.329/.496 — not great, in that context, but pretty good. They each get twelve Win Shares, which seems low, though I haven’t checked similar seasons in detail.

So like I said, it’s a glitch in the system: it doesn’t deal well with the best players on historically bad teams. (Or, I’m an idiot, which is possible, and have missed something obvious.) James devotes an essay in the book (168-173) to comparing similar players on good and bad teams to show his system isn’t biased, but deals with “ordinary bad” teams, not the ones with 110 more losses, the historically bad ones. Since Berger is the only outstanding player on an historically bad team, he’s affected the most.

In the Historical Abstract, Berger’s ranked right behind Murphy, thirteenth among centerfielders. Give him ten more Win Shares, he’d have to rank ahead of Murph and maybe one or two others, and jumps out as a legitimate Hall of Fame candidate. I’m not advocating this position, mind you: I think Murphy is the better candidate. But it’s noteworthy.

Berger and Murphy actually have a lot in common. Both centerfielders who played with the Braves most of their careers, mostly on bad teams (Berger’s teams were far worse, and never finished higher than fourth, even though he had a Hall of Fame manager in McKechnie) both had their careers cut short by injury. Berger might have been a better hitter in his time, but I make a pretty strong time line adjustment for pre-integration players.

I can’t imagine I’m the first to notice the seeming glitch, though a cursory web search doesn’t show anyone talking about it. Anyone seen anything?

Wally Berger Statistics –
1935 Boston Braves Statistics –