Recently while reading through the "Hey Bill" mailbox at BillJamesOnline.com, the subject turned to player speed (or lack thereof) and Ernie Lombardi. I am curious as to how slow Ernie Lombardi would register if Dr. Emmet Brown and Marty McFly were able to pack a full Statcast system into their DeLorean and install it in a ballpark in the 1930s. The slowest player currently playing is Albert Pujols, who has been the slowest player for several years now. Albert is objectively slower than at least one Molina brother. Albert's sprint speed, which is measured as feet per second when he gets into top gear, was 22.0 in 2020. The previous two seasons it was 22.5 and 22.2. In the same time frame, Yadier Molina has clocked in at either 22.8 or 22.9. As a frame of reference, the average MLB player today is around 27.0
If we think that the slowest player from the 1930s and 1940s would be as slow as the slowest today, then Lombardi was probably around 22 as well. That might not be a great assumption though, perhaps we have better athletes today and across the spectrum they are faster than the players from 80 years ago. Or maybe not, the impressive speed of athletes like Byron Buxton and Billy Hamilton may not say anything about the speed of a 40-year-old broken down player with a history of plantar fasciitis. One example given on Lombardi's lack of speed was that infielders would play him deep on the outfield grass and still have time to throw him out at first. If this was true, could any player so slow play in the big leagues today?
The answer might look a bit like this:
When it comes to infield defensive positioning, it seems reasonable to think Lombardi was equivalent to Pujols as a runner. This makes his batting feats even more impressive. Lombardi was a career .306 hitter. He had some power, but not great power. He hit 20 homers once, and 19 on two other occasions. In a typical season he hit between 10 and 12. Ernie won two batting titles and even late in his career hit for a high average. He hit .307 in 1945, at age 37 and in his last year as a regular. As a part-timer in 1946 and 1947 he hit .290 and .282. I can't tell what Lombardi's batting average on ground balls was, but for Pujols it was .260 in St. Louis, then .209 his first 5 years with the Angels. His lack of speed reached a ridiculous level in 2017 (year of the play linked above) and from 2017 to 2020 he's hit .188 on ground balls.
When I first ran the WAR numbers (Ernie Lombardi) on this site a decade ago, Retrosheet's play by play data coverage began in the early 1950s. I had no data on Lombardi's baserunning as his career ended in 1947. I had no number for his runs lost by grounding into double plays or from him reaching base on errors. I did have a baserunning rating (-41) for him which was a regression formula derived from his speed scores. It's a guess, not hard data.
Since then Retrosheet has extended their play by play coverage back to the 1920's. We don't have complete data, some games are missing, but we have most of Ernie's career included in that dataset, so at this point we do have some hard data on how his baserunning cost his teams runs. For some of this I used the data already available on baseball-reference, for other parts I went back to the Retrosheet play by plays.
Advancing bases on hits
Baseball-reference shows three categories for this: Going first to third on singles, scoring from second on singles, and scoring from first on doubles. Ernie was below average at all these things. During his career a batter on first would take third on a single 34% of the time. Ernie did it half as often, 17 percent. Going from first to home on a double happened 40 percent of the time for the league, again Ernie did it only half as often, 20 percent. This is not a common occurrence though; Ernie was on first when a double was hit only 58 times in his career. If he were a league average runner, he would have scored 24 times, instead he scored 12 times. This did not mean he cost his team 12 runs however, some of the runners who stop at third will eventually score. It probably cost his team about 4 or 5 runs.
On going from second to home from a single, the league did this about 71 percent of the time, Ernie made it home at a 56 percent rate. I'll save the step by step calculations, looking at this situation by situation, year by year (the league average rates fluctuate a bit but are mostly consistent). To get run average I'm taking the difference in a base-out run expectancy chart. I am sure we can all find such a thing online, but I went old school and used the chart on page 153 of The Hidden Game of Baseball, by Palmer and Thorn. I doubt using a different chart would result in a material change in the run estimation. Ernie's inability to take the extra bases cost his team 94 bases, or 25 runs, over his career.
Ernie hit into a ton of double plays. He might have been the worst ever in terms of runs cost. I did not have a total for Ernie when I ran the numbers 10 years ago, but Baseball-reference has used the same formula I had used and since the play-by-play is available, they show Ernie costing his teams 46 runs over his career. This is the worst of all-time, ahead of Jim Rice and Albert Pujols. Pujols has hit into more double plays, 399 to 261, but has done it while playing over 1000 more games. I got the leaderboard using their subscription service, Stathead, which I highly recommend to all serious sports fans. In addition to being able to do searches like this, it speeds your site visits by giving you ad-free service.
Miscellaneous Bases Taken
Baseball-reference also has a "Bases taken" category, which includes advances on wild pitches, passed balls, defensive indifference, and fly balls. Lombardi had 44 of these. To get a simple denominator for this category I just used total times on base. Compared to the league average, Ernie took about 12 fewer bases than an average runner, which is worth about 3 runs.
While the previous category would presumably include sacrifice flies, I thought it might be worthwhile to break these out of a catch-all base category as they have a greater run significance. Scoring from third (or not scoring) takes on a greater run value the more outs there are in an inning, and if there is a sacrifice fly situation there is always at least one out - the one recorded when the outfielder catches the ball. A runner on third with 2 out has a run scoring expectation of .382 - that is we expect that on average 0.382 runs will score from that point on in an inning, it is not saying that the particular runner on third scores 38 percent of the time. With two out and bases empty the expectation is 0.95, but add one to that for the runner who just trotted home. So scoring on a 2 out sac fly is worth 1.095 - 0.382 or .713 runs. With one out, scoring on a sac fly is worth .352 runs, so on average scoring on a sacrifice is worth a little more than half a run (.533).
In his career, the league average was about 78 percent on a runner scoring on a sacrifice fly opportunity (defined as an out caught by an outfielder, runner on third, and less than two out when the play began). Ernie was on third in this situation 50 times, and he scored 37 times. Twelve times he held at third base, and he was thrown out once. This performance is close enough to league average, Ernie is just one run under the average.
Outs on base
While Ernie didn't take bases very often, he wasn't a dumb runner. He knew what he couldn't do and did not try to make something happen that was impossible. He made 56 outs on base through all avenues, this includes trying to take an extra base on a hit or out, or getting doubled off base. Given his times on base, this is 28 fewer outs than an average runner of his time. By run value, that means Ernie was 16 runs above average by preserving his base and not shortening innings.
This was not something Ernie did often, he stole 8 bases in his career. Official statistics show he was caught 4 times, but that excludes data before 1941. The Retrosheet numbers show 9 times caught. Overall, that probably cost his team 3 runs. Base stealing was not a big part of the game during Ernie's time. Picking one example, the 1938 Reds stole 19 bases all season, the team leader had 4. This was one of Ernie's best years, he won the batting title at .342 and hit 19 homers. Ernie did not attempt a steal that year.
Reaching on errors
Ernie reached base on an error 103 times. You might think his speed would make him less likely to reach on an error. The infielders could play back further, and if they bobbled it had time to look for the ball, compose a letter to the wife and kids about the loneliness of playing on the road, find the ball, take a few steps toward first, call out to a vender to order a hot dog and beer, and then throw Ernie out at first by a step. Ernie however, was slightly above average in reaching on errors, a batter reaching at a league average rate would have had 101 in his plate appearances. This is worth another run for Ernie. The likely explanation is that Ernie hit the ball damn hard. I imagine that if he were playing today, we would say the same things we do about Vladimir Guerrero Jr. - His exit velocity is elite but he hits the ball on the ground too much. I don't have any more than a guess about Ernie's launch angle, but I assume from his high batting averages and middle range homerun totals that he was more of a ground ball and line drive hitter than a fly ball hitter.
The comments from the Bill James mail mentioned that Lombardi was a defensive liability because if any ball got three feet away from him he was too slow to get up and get the ball before the runner took another base. This may be accurate, but if so Ernie must have compensated by rarely letting the ball get three feet away. Comparing his career passed balls and wild pitches to his catching teammates, Ernie did have 45 more passed balls that we would expect his teammates to have allowed, based on pro-rated innings. On wild pitches however, Ernie had 51 fewer than his teammates based on the same method. In addition, Ernie threw out 48 percent of opposing base stealers, a bit better than the league average of 45 percent.
Lack of speed certainly cost Lombardi at the plate. With more speed he could have beaten out infield singles or force the infielders to play at a normal depth and send more hard-hit grounders past them. All of that however is already in the batting statistics. One thing that has been overlooked however is that his hits may have had more advancement potential for the runners ahead of him. We have already seen that on average, a runner scored from first on a double 40 percent of the time. Does that 40 percent apply on a Lombardi double? Perhaps not. It is reasonable to think that if a ball was hit far enough away that even slow Ernie had time to get to second base, an ordinary runner should have plenty of time to make it home. Let's see what the data says:
Runners were slightly more likely to take an extra base when Lombardi singled. They were much more likely to run three bases when Ernie had enough time to take two. Looking at run value, Ernie's singles and doubles were 29 runs more valuable than an average player's hits. Let's be careful before adding something like that to WAR however. Ernie was a middle of the order hitter (He hit fifth most often, a little more than half of his career plate appearances); it's possible that the he had faster than average players on base ahead of him. I suspect that if I were to look at the 1985 Yankees, Don Mattingly would show better than average base advancement on his hits, while Rickey Henderson would show greater than average advancement when he was on base. Separating the credit is going to be a tricky issue. Currently, Baseball-reference WAR (and Baseballprojection WAR) give the credit to the runner, and do not consider the batter.
Lombardi cost his team about 6 wins over his 17 year career with his lack of speed on the bases. While not good, it is not out of line with other catchers. Yadier Molina has now played 17 seasons and between baserunning and double plays is at -59 runs. In 13 seasons his brother Bengie was -50 runs.
About half of that value is regained (maybe) for Ernie by advancing his teammates. A double for Ernie still only puts him on second base, but for the runners on ahead of him that hit has nearly the run advancement value of a triple.
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This page was last modified 10/31/2020