Matt Williams decided to call it a career today just a few weeks after being released by the Diamondbacks. My first reaction to this was to find his place in history. It's the bookkeeper in me, just like the main character's inclination for rearranging his record collection by chronological, alphabetical, or autobiographical order in High Fidelity, I must characterize and then file away a retired ballplayer.
My view of Williams is that he was a good ballplayer overall and a great one at time, but not great enough all-around to become a Hall-of-Famer. But what if my assessment was too rash?
Let's peruse his stats and see. Williams did record 378 home runs and 1218 RBI. He was an All-Star five times and won four Gorld Gloves at third. His career OPS is .807, 13% better than the adjusted league average. He earned 238 Win Shares through 2002 (tied for 359th all-time).
That's all pretty good, but is it Hall of Fame material. Well, he falls a bit short in the Bill James Hall standards (from Baseball-Reference.com):
That's not too encouraging, but how does he compare to other third basemen who are not yet in the Hall of Fame? Is he the best available?
Wade Boggs has an OPS that is 30% better than average, he was a 12-time All-Star, and led his league in average 5 times, on-base 6 times, OPS twice, etc. Boggs is clearly a better candidate than Williams, but he's not yet eligible. What about those eligible?
Graig Nettles was 10% better than the league average in OPS and had more home runs. Ron Santo was 25% better, was a 9-time All-Star, and 5-time Gold Glover. Darrell Evans had an OPS 19% better than league average, and had nearly 4- more career home runs. Paul Molitor, who was more a third baseman defensively than anything else, had an OPS 22% better than the league average and a 7-time All-Star. Old-time Cubbie third sacker Stan Hack was 19% better than the league average OPS. Ken Boyer's OPS was 16% better than league average, he was a league MVP, a 7-time All-Star, and a 5-time Gold Glove winner. Sal Bando was 18% better than the league average OPS.
All of those players are listed in the top thirteen third baseman in Bill James listing of the best ever in his revised Historical Baseball Abstract. Matt Williams comes in 23rd.
But a player that good has to at least be the best of his era, right? Well, switching to Win Shares, we find that Williams' 238 total is behind contemporaries part-time third baseman Edgar Martinez (277), Bobby Bonilla (267), Robin Ventura (256), Tim Wallach (248), and Ken Caminiti (242).
Williams does not have any batters similar who are enshrined in Cooperstown. One other thing that jumps out at you when you read his stats, through age 28 his most similar batter was the greatest third baseman of all, Michael Jack Schmidt.
So why didn't Williams become Mike Schmidt?
Here are both players number through age 28, the year in which Schmidt was most similar to Williams.
Now here they are over the rest of their careers:
After looking at him that way, I am prepared to say that Williams is no John F., er, Mike Schmidt. Not now and not when he was 28. He had a lot of similar stats at age 28: games, at-bats, home runs, RBI, batting average, and maybe even slugging. But where they are different, they are markedly different: stolen bases, runs, walks, on-base, and OPS. Schmidt was a much more diversified player. Williams at 28 closely mirrored the slugger in Schmidt, but couldn't come close to Schmidt as an on-base and baserunning machine.
At the age of 29, Williams loses potentially his best season to injury (1.046 OPS through 76 games). His post-30 career is still a slight improvement. His OBP, batting average, runs, and RBI rise and his strikeouts fall.
But compared to Schmidt, he's not even in the same ballpark. Schmidt's OPS is nearly 100 points higher than Williams and he doubles a number of Williams' stats.
So what is the legacy of Matt Williams? He was a very good ballplayer, just like ex-teammate Will Clark. They will both probably be passed over when the dangling chads of the Hall of Fame votes are added up.