Numbers show Jimmy Piersall was great defensive center fielder

Tributes to the late Jimmy Piersall have noted his 1952 nervous breakdown and, after that, the unique things he did to have fun and reduce stress.

In the first White Sox game I attended — on Boy Scout Day in 1962 — the organist struck up ‘‘The Twist,’’ and Piersall gave it his best Chubby Checker in center field for the Senators.

Also mentioned was his reputation as an outstanding defensive center fielder. How good was he by the numbers? Let’s take a look.

Defense was Piersall’s biggest asset in a 17-year major-league career that began with the Red Sox in 1950. It ended with the Angels in 1967 before he was adopted by Chicagoans as a White Sox broadcaster and Cubs outfield coach.

Piersall played 1,211 of his 1,614 career games in center. There are several ways to look at defense from his era.

The simplest is fielding percentage, where Piersall’s .9903 ranks 31st among those with at least 500 games in center. Far more important is range. You can’t catch a ball unless you can reach it, and the most valuable fielders are those who turn the most balls in play into outs. There, we can look at range factor, with putouts and assists per nine innings.

Piersall’s RF/9 in center field was 2.86. The league average during his time was 2.69. That means Piersall made 0.17 more plays per nine innings than average, earning his team roughly one extra out per six games.

Compare that to Willie Mays, whose RF/9 in center was 2.67 against a league average of 2.55. Mays made 0.12 more plays per nine innings, roughly one extra out per eight games.

Baseball-Reference.com takes Sean Smith’s Total Zone Runs to calculate defensive wins above replacement for players from 2002 and earlier. From 2003 on, dWAR is based on runs saved.

Total Zone Runs uses available data to approximate the detailed tracking that goes into runs saved. One method is to use hitter tendencies to estimate how many balls were hit into a fielder’s zone. If a hitter put 10 percent of his balls in play toward center field and put 100 balls in play against a given center fielder, then it’s estimated 10 balls were hit into that fielder’s zone. It’s a painstaking calculation that has been possible only in the computer age.

By defensive WAR, Piersall ranks as the No. 5 all-time center fielder. His 15.2 dWAR trails Andruw Jones (24.2), Paul Blair (18.5), Mays (17.9) and Devon White (16.1). Pro-rated for innings played, Piersall outranks all but Jones.

Piersall was limited by his bat and had only seven seasons of 500 or more plate appearances. His overall bWAR of 28.6 ranks him with good players such as Don Baylor (28.3) and Coco Crisp (29.1), not with greats such as Mays (156.2) or even Jones (62.8).

But in the field, the stats back up those who maintain he was one of the best.

Follow me on Twitter @GrochowskiJ.

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