Since we've reached the point in our coverage of the 1887 world series where Detroit has clinched the World's Championship, I'm going to take a short break and talk about something that's been on my mind for a few days. I'll get back to the last few games of the 1887 series and try to wrap that up as quickly as possible but at the moment I want to talk about Curt Welch and Arlie Latham.
In game ten of the 1887 series, both Welch and Latham homered and I went to Baseball Reference to see how many home runs each had hit during the 1887 season. While looking at their career numbers, it occurred to me that Latham may have been a better player than Welch. This came as a surprise because I had always considered Welch the superior player. But is that actually true?
Who was the better player, Curt Welch or Arlie Latham?
It's a rather difficult question to answer and I think the final answer depends on what weight you give to the different kinds of evidence that one brings to the argument. There are a lot of ways to slice this pie and how you slice it or what piece you look at will influence how you answer the question.
I believe that, generally speaking, their contemporaries believed that Welch was the better ballplayer. He was regarded as an outstanding outfielder and many believed that he was the best defensive outfielder in the game. He was also considered to be a smart player, a great athlete and a good base runner. While not a heavy hitter, Welch was considered to be steady at the bat and a consistent offensive contributor.
As far as Latham is concerned, the contemporary record usually focused on his personality and his on-field antics rather than on his contributions as a player. His defensive reputation was mixed. Some considered him to be an outstanding fielder with a strong arm but others noted that he was often lackadaisical at third and that his arm never recovered from a throwing contest with Doc Bushong in 1885. Everyone agreed that he was very fast and an outstanding baserunner. Offensively, he was noted for having a "scientific approach" to hitting but also for being inconsistent.
Latham was probably the better teammate. His coaching and banter was an important part of the make-up of the Browns' championship club and he was probably one of the leaders in the clubhouse. However, he had serious personal problems that leaked into the press, was accused of throwing games in 1889 and had an up and down relationship with Chris Von der Ahe. Welch, on the other hand, was a drunk who wore out his welcome in St. Louis very quickly and drank himself out of the game. It's entirely possible that Charlie Comiskey ordered Tip O'Neill to "accidentally" hit Welch with a bat in 1887. Latham could be self-centered and childish but Comiskey never ordered O'Neill to assault him.
So looking at just the contemporary evidence, I think it's a fair conclusion to say that Welch was viewed as the better player. Looking at just their on-field abilities, it was believed that Welch was the more talented baseball player.
However, things aren't that simple. Welch was a center fielder while Latham was a third baseman. I think it's safe to say that in the 1880s, a third baseman was more valuable than a center fielder. So while Welch was a better player, would you trade Latham for Welch? I'm not sure that the Browns would have done that. Latham was perfect for the kind of game that Comiskey wanted to play and he was probably more valuable to the Browns than he would have been for anybody else. As a third baseman, a lead-off man and a rabbit on the bases, Latham was probable more valuable to the Browns than Welch. That has to count for something.
But what really got me thinking about this question was their statistics and how that data is interpreted by modern baseball metrics. And the modern metrics show Latham to be a much better player than Welch.
However, before I present that data, we need to get into the caveats. While there are a lot of very smart people working on this, 19th century statistical data is full of holes. We're lacking important pieces of information such as the caught-stealing and grounding into double play numbers. The defensive data, specifically, is terribly problematic and it's difficult to evaluate a player's defense when there are questions about the number of balls in play, how many left-handed batters are in the league and how errors are assigned. There are people doing great work with the 19th century data but I'd think that even they would say that the accuracy of their analysis is not the same as the analysis we now have in modern baseball.
Also, I want to add that I'm not a sabrmetrician. I'm a historian. So I'm a bit out of my comfort zone when attempting to explain the modern metrics. However, there's nothing wrong with that and I freely admit that I have nothing more than a layman's understanding of WAR, UZR and the like. I love that stuff and think that it's added to our understand of the game. I also love the fact that there are people who are applying it to 19th century baseball. But I'm not an expert and I'd love to hear from anyone who has a better understanding of all of this.
So having said that...
Just looking at the WAR numbers at Baseball Projections, Latham had 35.1 WAR in 7495 plate appearances while Welch had 21.0 in 4939. Fangraphs has slightly different numbers but not enough to comment on. Regardless, Latham appears to have been better than Welch over their careers.
Of course, Latham had a significantly longer career and that accounts for some of the differences in their WAR. If one looks at the numbers on a season by season basis, however, Latham still looks like the better player. His five best seasons, measured in WAR, are 5.7, 5.3, 4.7, 4.7, and 3.8. Welch's five best seasons are 4.4, 3.8, 3.6, 2.7, and 2.7. Welch does not have one season that was as good as Latham's top four seasons. Measured in WAR, Latham was the vastly superior player, not only over the course of his career, but also at his peak.
Breaking the numbers down, Welch was the vastly superior offensive player and it wasn't even close, although other metrics have Latham as a better offensive player than Batting Runs does. But the argument for Latham being better than Welch never rested on his being a great offensive player. Welch was just a better hitter. He had more power, got on base more and was more consistent season to season.
As base runners, Latham was clearly better but Welch was also a very good base runner. Base running runs, again, just tell us what we already know. Welch had 453 stolen bases for his career with 215 doubles and 66 triples. Latham had 742 stolen bases, 245 doubles and 85 triples. I don't think that there's any doubt that Latham was faster than Welch and more valuable on the bases.
Where it gets interesting is in the defensive numbers. Total Zone, measuring defensive range, has them both as superior defensive players but has Latham as a historically great defensive third baseman in 1883 and 1884. I think that the modern metrics have Latham as the best defensive third baseman of the 19th century while Welch is merely one of the best defensive outfielders of the era.
This obviously goes against the accounts of contemporary observers. Is there something in the data that could skew things in this direction? I'm not sure but it's possible that 19th century ground ball tendencies and an overwhelming number of right handed batters could make Latham's defensive numbers look better than they are. Also, we don't have any data on Welch's outfield arm which would probably have a positive impact on his numbers. But the fact is that modern metrics rate Latham as a better defender than Welch and as a historically great defensive third baseman.
What puts Latham ahead of Welch as far as the modern metrics is concerned, though, is the positional adjustments that are made when calculating WAR. For some reason that I can't explain and have not been able to find an explanation for, Welch has a positional adjustment of negative fifty-three runs. Basically, they're treating him like a modern corner outfielder and that makes no sense. On the other hand, Latham, as expected, receives a positional adjustment of fifty-two runs. Also, there's a relative positional adjustment based on a league average player at that position and a replacement player. Latham cleans up on this in the 1890s when, I guess, nobody could find a decent third baseman.
While I don't claim to really understand any of that, I think (and please, dear Lord, feel free to correct me) that the bottom line is that a third baseman, according to modern metrics, was substantially more valuable than a center fielder in the 19th century. And, therefore, a great defensive third baseman like Latham, who could run and occasionally hit, was much more valuable than a good defensive third baseman like Welch who could run and hit. I think that's likely true but I'm not sure I'd put as much weight on it as we do while calculating WAR.
So, bottom line: Who was better?
The honest answer is that I have no idea. Most of their contemporaries would say that Welch was, at his best, better than Latham. But, in the end, I think you have to come to the conclusion that Latham was the more valuable player for his era. If I was ranking the greatest St. Louis baseball players of the 19th century, I'd have to rank Latham higher than Welch. His skill set was more valuable and difficult to find in the 19th century than Welch's. Latham was irreplaceable and Welch wasn't.