The Mystery of Jack Smith’s Runs
This article was published in the Fall 2013 Baseball Research Journal.
One would guess that several factors influence a player’s ability to score runs, including speed, his position in the lineup, the batting ability of other players in his lineup, and his own power. Players who combine these factors could be expected to score a high percentage of the times that they reach base. Rare players like Eric Davis, who had extraordinary speed, great power, and hit third in a lineup that produced a decent number of runs would be expected to score a high percent of the times they reached base. For example, in 1987 Davis scored 120 runs on only 139 hits and 84 walks. His 37 home runs gave him some easy runs, his 50 stolen bases (and only six times caught stealing) put him in scoring position often, and his great speed would have allowed him to advance extra bases on hits and reach base when others might ground into double plays.
While there have not been many players in history like Davis, a few come to mind: Mickey Mantle, Barry Bonds, Ken Williams, and Alfonso Soriano. Soriano in particular resembled Davis and had the advantage of batting leadoff on a very powerful team (2002). One might expect all of them to rank high on the list of runs scored per time reaching base in a season; none of them are in the top 50. In fact, the list of players ranking highest in runs scored per time on base is peppered with players one would never expect. It is scattered with fast and slow players, leadoff hitters and middle of the order hitters, 1930s singles hitters and 1930s power hitters, modern players and players from the 1900s, and players one would simply never expect for any reason (Rex Hudler, Jose Valentin, Bob Brower, David Hulse, and Billy Zitzmann).
Table 1 lists the 50 highest percentages of runs scored per time on base (including reaching via an error) since 1900. This list will serve to give some idea of the variety of player types that score frequently in a season.
Table 1: Highest percentage of runs scored per times on base
The interesting thing about this list is that as one attempts to explain a player’s presence on the list, that explanation invariably fails to jibe with other explanations. Jake Wood (14th) was fast, but the 1962 Tigers were not a great hitting team—one might have expected Wood to score more frequently on the 1961 Tigers hitting in front of Norm Cash (.361, 41, 132). Curtis Granderson seems like a logical choice because of his unusual combination of power and speed, but Doc Casey (33rd) played in the deadball era on an average team (the 1901 Tigers) whose best hitter hit .308 with 76 RBI.
More interestingly, Al Simmons appears on the list twice, Joe DiMaggio twice, and no one else appears more than once except Jack Smith, who appears five times. And not just five times—five times in the top 21! Virtually every player on this list is here apparently by chance—how else does one explain Curtis Granderson and Robin Yount once each, the same as Thurman Tucker, Ethan Allen, Otis Clymer, Bob Brower, and Jose Valentin? And yet Jack Smith is here five consecutive seasons.
Explanations are hard to come by. Smith did not hit many home runs—26 in the five seasons in question—so he had to score on the base paths. He averaged only 21 stolen bases and eight caught stealing—hardly numbers that put him in scoring position often. He didn’t even have a lot of doubles, averaging fewer than 20 per season 1921–25. However, he did hit in front of Rogers Hornsby during Hornsby’s amazing five-year stretch in which he hit .402.
It is difficult to fathom that Hornsby could be responsible for placing Smith on this list five consecutive seasons—after all, Earle Combs hit at the top of some of the best hitting teams ever from 1927 until 1932 and he didn’t make the top 50 even once. Even though it’s hard to imagine, we must consider the possibility that Hornsby was responsible. We must also look at the possibility that there was something about the way that the Cardinals played that assisted Smith in scoring, such as an unusual number of sacrifice hits to advance him. If those environmental factors don’t explain Smith’s prowess, we need to look at Smith’s base running to see if there was something unusual about the way that he advanced on hits that could account for his ability to score frequently.
For the seasons in question, we have only limited play-by-play data. In 1921, Retrosheet publishes play-by-play for 47 of Smith’s 116 games; in 1922, we have 74 of 143 games with play-by-play descriptions. We currently have no play-by-play data for 1923–25. These limited accounts (121 of 259 possible games) allow us to see some details that help answer the questions posed in the previous paragraph regarding possible explanations for Smith’s high percent of runs scored per times on base during these seasons.
In 1921–22, Jack Smith scored 203 runs; we have play-by-play accounts of 89 of these runs. He scored eight of these 89 runs by hitting home runs. Of the remaining 81 runs, Rogers Hornsby scored Smith 22 times (27.1%); Jack Fournier drove in Smith 19 times (23.5%). During the 1921 season, Hornsby drove home Smith seven times, Fournier did it 10 times, and Milt Stock drove Smith home 12 times. These data indicate that, while Hornsby drove in Smith more than his teammates did, his RBIs were not unusual since others topped Hornsby in 1921 and Fournier had only three fewer RBI of Smith. We should, therefore, reject the hypothesis that Hornsby’s exceptionally high batting average over the five seasons in question was responsible for Smith’s high run percentage.
Regarding the possibility that St. Louis opted to use the sacrifice bunt to advance Smith frequently, this does not appear to have been a strategy that was deployed unusually frequently. Of the 89 times in question that Smith scored, he was bunted to second on three occasions and to third on three others. In fact, the play-by-play files show that Smith reached base 197 times (not counting home runs) over these two seasons (again, only in the records we have PBP files for) and was advanced via a sacrifice only eight times. Four of these instances occurred within the first six records that we have (April 30–May 27, 1921), suggesting the possibility that manager Branch Rickey began to use the outdated strategy less as he realized how well his team hit.
Since it does not seem from this limited sample that we can attribute Smith’s high scoring rate solely to Hornsby’s batting or to a particular strategy to advance Smith, we must look elsewhere for explanations. The most obvious is his speed. Judging from his base-stealing numbers and his triples totals, one would not guess that Smith was exceptionally fast. However, a careful look at his base running numbers tells a different story.
Because of the PBP files that we have for the 1921–22 seasons, we can look at every opportunity that Smith had to advance extra bases on the base paths. I count “opportunities” as any situation in which Smith was on first or second when a batter singled and a runner in front of him did not stop at the base in front of Smith or when Smith was on first when a batter doubled. We can discount infield singles as opportunities for obvious reasons. I do not count sacrifice flies as opportunities for extra bases; however, being thrown out attempting to advance on a hit counts as a failed attempt, just like stopping at a base without advancing.
In 1921, Smith had 14 opportunities to advance an extra base and did so 12 times, for an 85.7% success rate. This is a rather limited sample, but luckily we have more data from 1922. In 1922, Smith had 29 opportunities to advance an extra base and did so 26 times for an 89.6% success rate. His total for the two seasons was 38 successes out of 43 opportunities for an 88.4% success rate.
These opportunities come over 121 games, which include pinch-hitting and pinch-running duties. Extrapolated to 162 games, Smith would have 51 successes in 58 attempts. Because we are unaccustomed to speaking of base-running statistics, we need some point of comparison to judge whether this is a large number of attempts and whether this is a good success rate.
As a point of comparison, we can look at data that began to be published in 2007 in The Bill James Handbook. The data presented there show opportunities for base-running advances and successes. In 2006, a number of players had more opportunities than Smith:
Table 2: Opportunities for base-running advances, 2006
And there are, of course, many others. This shows that Smith’s projected 58 opportunities is not an unusually high number.
However, the percentage of times that he advanced on hits is very unusual by comparison with modern standards. Using the same data, here are some players who, like Smith, are fast and batted high in the batting order:
Table 3: Percentage of successful base-running advances, 2006
The average among these players, some of whom are exceptionally fast, indicates one of several things: that Jack Smith was extraordinarily fast (unlikely), that he was a very daring base runner (probable), or that it was more common in his era to advance extra bases on hits (possible). To test the last hypothesis, we need to look at data from players with profiles similar to Smith’s.
George Burns, the center fielder for the New York Giants, makes for a good comparison because, like Smith, he batted leadoff for a good hitting team and was fairly fast. We also have a significant percentage of the play-by-play files for Burns for the 1921 season: 133 of the 149 games he played in 1921. This compares nicely with Smith’s 121 games over two seasons.
During those 131 games, Burns had 63 opportunities to advance an extra base on a hit; he took an extra base only 30 times for a 47.6% success rate, about 40 percentage points below Smith’s 1921–22 base advance rate. This indicates that not everyone was advancing at the rate that Smith advanced on hits. However, Burns’s low base advance rate cannot lead us to reject the hypothesis that it was more common in the early 1920s to advance extra bases than it is today. To better test that hypothesis, we need data from more players.
The Giants sent Burns to Cincinnati before the 1922 season and placed Dave Bancroft in the leadoff position. Since we have 135 of Bancroft’s games from 1922 and since Bancroft played in the same park as Burns with essentially the same lineup behind him, Bancroft’s 1922 season makes for another interesting comparison. Bancroft had 61 chances to advance extra bases on hits. He was not, however, much better than Burns at taking the extra base. In his 62 opportunities to take an extra base on a hit, he succeeded only 33 times (53.2%). Interestingly, Bancroft had six chances to score from first base on a double in 1922 and did so only once.
Another interesting player is Max Carey, one of the fastest players of his age. Carey led his league in stolen bases 10 times, and from reading the play-by-play accounts, it is obvious that he was a very aggressive base runner. The sense one gets from these accounts is that Carey constantly sought opportunities to advance bases; we find him advancing from second to third on ground balls to third base, taking second base on throws home and to third, and being picked off too many times—a sign that he was trying to get a good jump on a pitch or batted ball. And yet, despite his speed and daring, he does not approach Jack Smith’s success in advancing extra bases. We have 140 play-by-play accounts for Carey during the 1921 season; he had 53 opportunities to advance an extra base on a hit and he did so 36 times for a success rate of 67.9%. We have 154 play-by-play accounts for Carey’s 1922 season; he had 76 opportunities to advance an extra base on a hit and he did so 51 times for a success rate of 67.1%. These percentages rank favorably with the best modern players, but still remain about 20 percentage points behind Jack Smith.
From this small amount of data, it is not unreasonable to make a few conclusions. First, it does not appear that players in the early 1920s were generally more aggressive on the base paths than are players today; season totals from these few players seem to align with data from contemporary players. Second, Jack Smith seems to have been truly extraordinary in his ability to advance extra bases on hits—we may some day find out that he was the best ever. Third, it is likely that few base runners of this era were more aggressive than Max Carey; he was, after all, renowned for his speed and used it well and often. This being so, it is unlikely that we will turn up many instances from the 1920s that have a chance of reaching Jack Smith’s standard of nearly 90% of base opportunities taken. Finally, these data suggest that Jack Smith’s ability to score runs comes to some degree from his extraordinary ability to take the extra base on hits. Certainly, this ability does not entirely explain his high ratio of runs scored to times on base—every runner needs to be driven in. But it is likely that the unusual coincidence of outstanding batters like Rogers Hornsby and Jim Bottomley (.402 and .350 batting averages 1921–25) hitting behind Smith with his speed and base running skill goes a long way toward explaining how he scored such a high percentage of the times that he reached base. However, even if we attribute a portion of Smith’s “ability” to score runs to hitting in front of Hornsby and Bottomley, we must admit that Smith’s unusual base running ability contributed significantly to his ability to score.
DR. JOHN D. EIGENAUER is Professor of Philosophy at Taft College in California. He is an avid Reds fan, having fallen in love with Pete Rose’s style of play in the late 1960s. He is also a basketball enthusiast and continues to play basketball competitively. He received his Ph.D. from Syracuse University. He and his wife, Ceceilia, live in Bakersfield, California.