Ty Cobb facing Sandy Koufax. Babe Ruth standing in against Bob Gibson. These great matchups have come to life with the All-Time Greats version of Strat-O-Matic. Now Strat-O-Matic has taken it to the next level, adding over 100 Negro Leaguers to create a deeper player pool and allowing us to truly get a glimpse of what the best players across the history of the game can do.
For those who don’t know what I’m talking about, Strat-O-Matic is a dice game that simulates baseball right down to every at-bat. Players are all represented by cards with their outcomes weighted based on their actual abilities. The result is one of the most accurate baseball simulations around. (For more on Strat-O-Matic, check out this piece.)
With the addition of the Negro League card set to the Strat-O-Matic All-Time Greats card set, we get to dream a little broader. Josh Gibson will face Walter Johnson, Babe Ruth will go up against Satchel Paige. But while it’s fun to talk about, the true joy is actually seeing things in action. You have the cards, and you have their backgrounds. With what you know so far, who would you take, given the opportunity?
We’ve got three matchups here to whet your appetite. You’re on the clock Mr. General Manager. Who is your selection?
Josh Gibson vs. Babe Ruth
Here we have the matchup that is already hotly debated, even though the two wouldn’t have actually played much in the same era. The most feared home run hitter of all-time in the Major Leagues or the most feared home run hitter of all-time in the Negro Leagues. So, if you’re starting your team tomorrow, who do you pick?
Whether Gibson’s power was equal to Ruth’s, the fact remains he was close. Against lefties, Gibson had no equal. Strat-O-Matic creator Hal Richman said he would never have a lefty pitcher face Gibson, not even if his name were Lefty Grove.
And Gibson is a catcher; that can’t be understated. As good as Ruth was as a hitter, baseball history is filled with amazing outfielders. The difference between Ruth and the next best left fielder is great, but not as great as Gibson and the next catchers. Would you rather have Josh Gibson and Ted Williams or Babe Ruth and Mike Piazza? There are other players eligible to play catcher, like Lou Boudreau, but those guys aren’t good catchers.
There are good hitters who can play catcher. Piazza is a great hitter who is a poor defensive backstop. Gibson isn’t Johnny Bench defensively, but he’s perfectly acceptable given his incredible bat and above-average arm.
Ruth’s competition in left field is not the Babe for sure. But they are players you wouldn’t have any problems building a squad around. You may not get Ruth, but does Ted Williams float your boat? How about Barry Bonds? You could play Stan Musial there if you chose. Ralph Kiner’s pop, anyone? The point is Ruth has players who can approach him in left field. Gibson, not so much. The drop-off is so great, how do you pass that up?
If you could play anyone anywhere on the baseball field, Ruth would be your choice. But in a game where you need a catcher, Gibson is the choice.
Oscar Charleston vs. Mickey Mantle
Charleston is compared to Ty Cobb by Richman, but that comparison isn’t fair to Cobb. Charleston is comparable in average, equal in OBP but blows him away with power. Cobb stole more bases, but Charleston’s no slouch with 50. So instead, let’s have Charleston face off against Mickey Mantle. Here you have two center fielders with who can field, hit for average, and hit for power. Mantle’s top card split is .353/.464/.705. Compare that to Charleston’s .391/.474/.694 and you see just how even their lines end up being.
In Charleston you get the better defender, if only slightly. Mantle has a better arm, but Charleston has the better range. Charleston hits for a higher average, but their OBPs are equal. Mantle has more power and Charleston is more of a threat to steal, though the difference between their power is less than the gap between their stealing capabilities.
Overall, Mantle is probably your best option. It isn’t by much, but the extra pop he’ll provide should be more help than the steals Charleston will give you. But it’s close; if you’re a manager who likes a player who is a threat to turn a single into a double every time he goes out there but will still crush the ball, Charleston is your guy.
Satchel Paige vs. Walter Johnson
The Major Leagues did get to face Satchel Paige in meaningful games; just when he was well past his athletic prime. What a prime it must have been when Paige could get hitters out in his forties. In his twenties, he must have been a nightmare to face.
Walter Johnson leaves no doubt; he was a nightmare as his 417 career wins can attest to. He won two MVPs, certainly no small feat for a pitcher. For those who may question his numbers because of the era, his top four single-season adjusted ERAs are in the top 25 all-time. That’s a feat approached by only the likes of Pedro Martinez and Greg Maddux. Johnson is one of the greatest pitchers of all-time.
But is he greater than Paige? Who is the choice for your Strat-O-Matic team?
Paige’s stat line in the game features a 7.5 strikeout-per-nine and 4.89 strikeout-to-walk ratio. No wonder he had a WHIP of .99. Meanwhile, Johnson’s top year came to 7.61 strikeout-per-nine and 4.90 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Yeah, they are practically identical. Johnson’s WHIP is better at .91 and his ERA ends up coming out nearly a run better at 1.36 to 2.23. He has the huge innings pitched advantage over Paige, 370 to 275, but in Strat-O-Matic, that’s somewhat negated as there is no penalty for ending up above the starter’s actual innings for a season.
Johnson’s edge is in the fact that his stamina is for a nine-inning guy. Paige’s is somewhat less; he typically will go eight innings. However, Paige is more flexible. He’s capable of pitching out of the bullpen. That means if you need him in a big spot and he’s rested, you can throw him.
Overall, the duo is pretty even. Johnson gets a slight edge because of the better ERA and slightly better stamina, but it’s not by much. As Hal Richman said of the duo, "They’re on the same level."
The truth is, the vast majority of these matchups will be close because these players were all legends nearly without peer. Often times it will come down to the style of player you prefer, rather than just the stats. Also remember, the matchups listed here are not the only ones to consider. They were chosen because they are prominent in people’s minds when they compare the two leagues.
What do you think? Who would be your selection? Play the game to find out!