Who Needs High Batting Averages?
Confession time: Tony Gwynn is my favorite player of all time. With that said, a roster full of guys with lifetime averages nearly 90 points below Gwynn's gaudy .338 career total could be a serious contender.
Yep, a bunch of .250 (or less) hitters would match up nicely against pennant winners of the past. For those who think of .250 as the bland essence of ho-hum mediocrity, just remember that offense is more than a batting average.
It's no secret that power and on-base percentage (OBP) are important components in scoring runs. A hitter who goes 4-for-12 (.333) with all singles and no walks is less valuable than the 3-for-12 (.250) guy who has a couple of walks and a double or home run among his hits.
Being able to get on base and drive the ball aren't the only skills needed to be a high-value player. Defense is an often underappreciated part of baseball, and the ability to steal runs from the opposition should never be ignored.
So who are the best of baseball's 1-for-4 types? I'll gladly take this 14-man roster of .247 to .252 career hitters. The players chosen are at positions where they have seen a fair amount of action. We're not taking left fielders and turning them into second basemen just to get more offense into the lineup.
Infielders: Because of his glove, Graig Nettles (.248, 390 career home runs) gets the nod at third base over Darrell Evans (.248, .361 OBP, 415 HR). Since Evans also played extensively (856 games) at first base, he becomes the starter over there. Purists who want someone who played exclusively at first could do worse than Don Mincher (.249, 200 HR and 606 walks in 4026 at-bats).
With these two left-handed hitters on the team, a solid righty swinger would be ideal as a backup at the corners. Five-time Gold Glover Doug Rader gets the nod. The Red Rooster's .251 lifetime average and 155 career homers may not look impressive, but keep in mind that Rader spent most of his career in the spacious Astrodome.
In addition to his defense, Rader had seasons of 21, 22 and 25 HR plus four seasons with 83 to 90 RBI during a pitcher's era in an extremely poor hitter's park. Rader and Nettles should also keep everybody loose with their not very sophisticated senses of humor.
Rico Petrocelli (.251) is a capable hitter and reliable shortstop. While his power numbers were boosted by Fenway Park, Petrocelli is well above average in run production at his position. A sprinkling of top 10 finishes in various offensive stats (including three seasons among the walk leaders) means Rico will fit nicely into this team.
Denis Menke (.250, mostly in the low-offense 1960s) will also see a fair amount of action. Since he had extended time at all four infield positions, Menke is an ideal utility player. A right-handed hitter, Menke put up one of the more unusual seasons in baseball history with the Reds in 1973. Going 46-for-241 led to a dreadful .191 BA, but a very impressive 69 walks pushed his OBP to .368.
Underappreciated Dick McAuliffe (.247, 197 career HR) is our second baseman. A lefty swinger, McAuliffe's unusual stance didn't prevent him from seasons of 22, 24 and 25 homers (a big deal in the '60s, especially for a middle infielder). He also had a knack for smacking triples. A selective hitter, McAuliffe's stat line includes a pair of 100-walk seasons (105 in 1967 and 101 in 1970). Hitting around .250 in the modern deadball era combined with power, walks and competent defense makes McAuliffe an easy choice.
De-emphasizing offense for the versatility of a Swiss army knife, Denny Hocking (.251) is the final infielder. The former Twins utilityman played every position but catcher and pitcher in his career. A switch-hitter, the sure-handed Hocking made just three errors in 375 total chances (.992 fielding percentage) while playing seven positions in 136 games both as a starter and defensive replacement in 1999. On this team, Hocking spells McAuliffe, sees a little action at short and provides depth and some late-inning relief in the outfield.
Behind the plate: The ideal pair of catchers is solid defensively, with one right-handed hitter and a lefty. Jim Sundberg (.248) and Darrell Porter (.247, .354 OBP, 188 HR) are a fine duo.
A six-time Gold Glover, Sundberg will bat eighth when he starts, but it would be hard to find a better receiver. Porter provides decent power, walks, and baseball smarts. John Roseboro (.249) is another lefty-hitting catcher who would be welcomed on this team. I wouldn't cry if I had to take the two-time Gold Glover who caught Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale instead of Porter. Ernie Whitt (.249) is a suitable option for Blue Jays fans.
Outfield: Jimmy Wynn (.250, .366 OBP, 291 HRs) is a no-brainer pick. Wynn piled up those numbers in a poor hitter's era while playing nine seasons in the Astrodome. Besides home runs and tons of walks, Wynn was no slouch in centerfield, and he could steal a base. On this team, the Toy Cannon often bats leadoff, and he wouldn't be out of place hitting third, fourth or fifth.
Mike Cameron (.252) is the only active player on the roster. Although his strikeout totals are high, Cameron brings a lot of positives to the team. One of the best defensive outfielders in the game, Cameron's power and speed (254 SB and 69 caught stealing, .786 success ratio) are too enticing to overlook. He plays in right field or center on this team.
While below-average defensively as an infielder, Howard Johnson (.249) can hold down left field on the .250 All-Stars. The switch-hitter's power, run production, patience (four NL top 10 seasons in walks) and base-stealing skills (231 for 308 lifetime, or an even .750) means HoJo could bat leadoff or second as well as farther down in the order.
A capable fourth outfielder can be a valuable asset when injuries and slumps come along. We're keeping up with the Joneses - Mack (.252) or Ruppert (.250) - to fill this slot. Both are left-handed hitters. Mack had more power and walks than Ruppert, who was speedier and played all three outfield positions. It's a toss-up, but I'll take Mack. No offense to Ruppert, who would also be a good fit on this team.
Our fifth outfielder is one of the best in baseball history at chasing down flyballs. Eight-time Gold Glover Paul Blair (.250) is a late-inning defensive specialist for this team, and we'll try to get him some at-bats as an occasional starter.
Manager: At 5'6" and 140 pounds, shortstop Donie Bush (.250, .356 OBP) was definitely a slap hitter during his dead ball era career (1908-23). With just 186 doubles, 74 triples and nine home runs in 7210 at-bats for a measly .300 slugging percentage, Bush's stats look anemic at first glance, but he excelled in making it to first base.
Bush was skilled at getting on ahead of Ty Cobb. He led the American League in walks from 1909 to 1912 and again in 1914. Bush finished second in that department in 1915 and 1918, and he was in the AL's top 10 for 12 consecutive seasons (1909-1920). That run of patient hitting included three seasons with more than 110 BBs (1912, 1914 and 1915). He was among the top 10 in runs scored in 10 different seasons, leading the circuit with 112 in 1917.
A skilled gloveman, Bush wasn't nearly as successful as a manager (497-539, .480) as he was as a player. It's doubtful that anyone could have done much with the lackluster 1930 and 1931 White Sox, who finished in seventh and eighth (last) place under Bush. However, he fared well with Pittsburgh (246-178, .580), winning the NL pennant in 1927.
Announcer: Canadian-born Jack Graney (.250, .354 OBP) was an outfielder for the Indians from 1908 to 1922. A selective hitter, Graney batted leadoff during most of his career. He led the AL in walks in 1917 and 1919 and finished second in that category in 1916.
Even with his lengthy major league career, Graney's main claim to fame was becoming the first ex-player to go behind the microphone as a baseball broadcaster. Graney spent more than 20 years as the radio voice of the Indians. Maybe we'll get Graney on the field for a few games in September.
In addition to a high overall OBP and slugging ability, this is an incredibly versatile lineup. Right-handed hitters and lefty swingers can easily be alternated, and players can be moved up and down the batting order depending on who is pitching.
Team speed is more than adequate, and our 1-for-4 All-Stars have a combined 24 Gold Gloves - 26 if Roseboro replaces Porter. Two-time AL winner Nettles would have a few more in his trophy case if it wasn't for Brooks Robinson. These guys can get on base, smack the ball a long way and flash the leather.
Does anyone do computer simulations of games between teams from different eras? If so, I would welcome hearing from you. To round out the roster, I could put together a pitching staff with a .500 or so cumulative winning percentage to go with the .250 All-Stars and then perhaps you could report your findings back to us.