Putting Together a Reality Team
Fantasy baseball has been a popular pastime for 30 years. Unfortunately, there tends to be too much "fantasy" and not enough dealing with the nitty-gritty reality of what it takes to fill a well-rounded roster at the major league level. Depending on how drafts are arranged (such as just 12 or 14 owners picking from both leagues), the fantasy baseball process can lend itself to assembling a collection of higher-level players rather than a 25-man roster of diverse talents and skill levels, and defense is seldom (if ever) factored into the equation.
Baseball addicts have it much easier between seasons in the 21st century than what our fathers and grandfathers endured. ESPN, MLB.com, MILB.com, SI.com and team web sites provide almost limitless information as compared to the agate type in the transactions section of the daily newspaper and the weekly hot stove league fix from The Sporting News that provided meager winter rations of baseball information for nearly a century.
Need something to do besides staring at a computer screen until spring training begins? Here's a way to recognize your favorite players of all time and put together a roster that is much closer to the big league norm than a typical fantasy league squad.
The rules are simple. One Hall of Famer (already inducted or a future sure thing such as Greg Maddux) is allowed per team. You can't have five aces in the starting rotation, an outfield of Willie Mays, Babe Ruth and Ted Williams or perennial All-Stars at every infield position. Back of the rotation starters, middle relievers, utility players and extra outfielders in real life will assume those roles on every team. You may choose anyone who appeared in a major league game from the 1800s to the present. A few extra reserves can be added to the list as a AAA roster of sorts, but going beyond 25 players isn't required.
It's going to be natural to try and put together the best possible team, but that isn't the main point of the reality baseball game. This is a pleasant mental exercise and a way to remember favorite players - especially those who aren't big names.
The pitching staff is by far the most flexible part of the process. Go with as few as nine arms if you like complete games and dead-ball era workhorses, or do your best Tony LaRussa impersonation and have a 13-man staff complete with two LOOGYs. Since I'm in favor of complete games and four-man rotations, my ace is one of the most durable starters of the live ball era.
Mickey Lolich may have looked out of shape and often joked about his hefty build, but few pitchers exhibited the endurance the Tigers left-hander displayed. Number 29 had four consecutive seasons with at least 308 innings pitched from 1971 to 1974 along with 96 complete games in that span. Lolich's 376 IP in 1971 is the highest total in the majors since 1917 by a conventional (knuckleballer Wilbur Wood soft-tossed 376.2 innings in 1972) pitcher.
Cut 376 innings in half (188), and you have a typical season for many 21st century starters. Lolich's other 1971 numbers - 45 starts, 29 complete games, 8.36 innings per start and a 25-14 record - look downright freakish by current standards. Best known for his three complete game victories against the Cardinals in the 1968 World Series, the self-described "fat man's hero" also performed well in his only other postseason experience.
Lolich started a pair of games in the 1972 American League Championship Series against the A's. Despite giving up just three earned runs in 19 IP (1.42 ERA), his record was 0-1. Lolich finished with a 217-191 career record and 3.44 ERA. His 2679 strikeouts in the American League are the most by an AL lefty.
Brief stints with the Mets and Padres bumped the career strikeouts to 2832, a number that was in the all-time top 10 when Lolich retired in 1978. Combine the Ks with just 2.7 walks per 9 innings, exceptional stamina and an impressive track record in the clutch, and I'm more than happy to pick Lolich as my workhorse and ace.
Rick Reuschel is another innings eater with a large frame, but don't let his physique fool you. "Big Daddy" was an agile, sure-handed fielder who won Gold Gloves in 1985 and 1987, and the sinkerball had enough foot speed and baserunning instincts to have been used as a pinch-runner on several occasions.
Like Mariano Rivera, Reuschel was the rare hurler who could successfully throw one pitch in many different ways. When his sinker was on, the infielders had plenty of action gobbling up grounders. A quiet man not given to lengthy interviews, Reuschel described his idea of a perfect game as "27 pitches, 27 grounders."
Career totals of 214-191 and a 3.37 ERA are virtually identical to Lolich, but Reuschel's ERA+ of 114 tops Lolich's 104. A stingy 935 walks in 3548.1 IP works out to less than 2.4 per 9 innings. The right-hander is remembered for his 17-8. 2.94 ERA performance at age 40 for the pennant-winning 1989 Giants, but he had two other seasons that were even better.
A 20-10, 2.79 ERA (158 + ERA) effort with the Cubs in 1977 along with a 14-8 2.27 (4th in the NL) in 1985 with the Pirates are the high points on Reuschel's resume. The 1985 campaign was especially noteworthy, as Reuschel was coming back from arm injuries at age 36, and he did an exceptional job for a wretched (57-104) Pittsburgh squad. Even with those numbers, the sinker specialist didn't receive so much as a third-place vote in that year's Cy Young Award balloting.
My list of favorites always includes Scott McGregor, and he's a solid choice as a third starter. The Orioles lefty finished with a career record of 138-108 (.561). Seasons of 20-8 in 1980 and 18-7 in 1983 were made possible by one of the game's most deceptive change-ups. George Brett's high school teammate combined an 85 MPH fastball with a low 70s change thrown from an across the body motion and pinpoint control (just 518 walks in 2140.1 IP) to become a popular player in Baltimore.
Although he is never mentioned among the better postseason pitchers, McGregor deserves to be on that list. Ignore the 3-3 record and focus on the 1.63 ERA in 49.2 IP with just eight walks during the 1979 and 1983 ALCS and World Series to get an idea how tough McGregor could be in the clutch. He averaged 8.28 innings per postseason start. After losing 2-1 in Game 1 of the 1983 World Series, McGregor came back with a 5-0 complete game shutout to clinch a world championship for the Orioles.
Fourth starters aren't going to be big names by definition, but reliability is a must. Conrado "Connie" Marrero was a competent performer, and his biography is one of the more unusual stories in baseball history.
Like many Cubans, Marrero played for the Washington Senators. Listed at 5'5" to 5'7" by various sources, the righty made his big league debut at age 38 in 1950 and stuck with the Nats until turning 43 in 1954. During that time, Marrero completed 51 of 94 starts and went 39-40 with a 3.67 ERA (108+ ERA) for a team that was buried in the second division.
An All-Star in 1951, Marrero's best season came in 1952 when he went 11-8 with a 2.88 ERA (ninth in the AL) in 184.1 innings pitched. His 124 ERA+ was good for eighth in the league. Marrero pitched in AAA with the Havana Sugar Kings until shortly after his 46th birthday in 1957. Not only did Marrero defy the odds against longevity as a pitcher, but he is doing the same in daily life. The oldest surviving major leaguer will turn 101 on April 25. What kind of career numbers could Marrero have posted if he had gotten the call to the majors before reaching middle age?
If trade rumors are floating around the clubhouse, don't be surprised if Mike Morgan begins packing his bags. That's because the right-hander played for a dozen teams in a career than spanned from 1977 to 2002, and he fills the old-school role of spot starting, long relief and taking an extended stretch in the rotation when injuries occur.
"Mo Man" began his big league career right out of high school in 1977. Bringing the 18-year old straight to the Oakland A's was Charlie Finley's idea, and it's obvious that Morgan would have been better off developing in the minors. A big league mark of 9-27 from 1977 to 1983 is a significant factor in Morgan's 141-186 (.431) lifetime record.
Those who insist that won-loss records are a poor indicator of a pitcher's performance can point to Morgan as Exhibit A. He went 8-11 with a 2.53 ERA (136 ERA+) for the Dodgers in 1989. Add 9.2 innings to his 152.1 IP, and Morgan would have the fourth lowest ERA in the National League. The breaks evened out in 1999 when Morgan went 13-10 with a bloated 6.24 ERA (82 ERA+) for the Rangers.
Baseball biases will show themselves when a person fills out a 25-man roster, and one of my eccentricities is obvious in the bullpen. Submariner and control artist Dan Quisenberry is the closer, and "Quiz" will be expected to go more than an inning per appearance when needed. Fellow underhanders Chad Bradford and Steve Reed fill set-up roles.
Few pitchers have been more miserly with walks than Quisenberrry, who could go a month between free passes. He gave up just 12 walks in 136.2 innings pitched 1982 and followed that with 11 bases on balls in 139 IP in 1983. Still locked into the strike zone, "Quiz" surrendered just 12 walks in 129 IP in 1984 to complete a three-year run of giving up well under a walk per nine innings. To be precise, his BB/9 IP in those years was a mind-boggling 0.79, 0.71 and 0.84. Opposing hitters had no choice but to come up swinging.
As a perennial fan of the underdog, I have to pick 5'6" Danny Ray Herrera as one of my lefty relievers. The other spot goes to Joe Ostrowski, who had the good fortune to be traded from the lowly St. Louis Browns to the Yankees on June 15, 1950. He can do everything from face a lone lefty hitter to tossing six or more innings when needed. Ostrowski was known for control, as he gave up just 98 walks in 455.2 career innings pitched.
Just how different were the economics of baseball in the 1950s as compared to today? Not counting World Series shares, Ostrowski never earned more than $8500 a season, which meant he taught high school when he returned home to rural Pennsylvania after the season. Thanks to baseball artist and historian Ronnie Joyner for educating me about Ostrowski.
My Hall of Famer - Tony Gwynn - starts in right field. He may not have been a slugger, but who's complaining about having a lifetime .338 hitter, eight-time batting champion, five-time Gold Glover and one of baseball's most likable guys on the team? How much do I want Gwynn on the roster? He beat out Stan Musial, Ozzie Smith, Maddux and Honus Wagner as my Cooperstown representative.
Ever see a raw rookie for the first time and say "That guy is a special player"? Ellis Burks instantly impressed me as a young Red Sox centerfielder, and he had a long and successful career despite multiple knee injuries.
Career totals of 2107 hits, 402 doubles, 352 HR, 1206 RBI and a .291 average aren't shabby, but it's easy to imagine Burks boosting those numbers without the nagging physical problems he endured. Burks had eight seasons with 20 or more HR and six seasons with 80 or more RBI. The thin, high altitude air of Colorado undoubtedly helped during a career year of 40 HR, 128 RBI, 211 hits and 45 doubles with the Rockies in 1996. There's another statistic from 1996 that showed what Burks could do when healthy, as he swiped a career-high 32 bases in 38 attempts (.842).
This lineup needs an imposing presence, and Frank Howard surely meets that requirement. The 6'7" "Capital Punisher" had an incredible four-year power surge for the Washington Senators during a pitching-dominated era.
Big Frank smacked 172 HR with 432 RBI (average seasons of 43 HR and 108 RBI) from 1967 to 1970. He led the American League with 44 bombs in 1968 and 1970. Howard's career best of 48 HR in 1969 fell one short of Harmon Killebrew's league-leading total. The right-handed slugger thrived under Ted Williams and became a much more patient hitter when #9 managed the Senators. Howard walked 60 and 54 times in 1967 and 1968 before doubling his bases on balls to 102 and a league-leading 132 in 1969 and 1970.
Career totals of 382 homers, 1774 hits and a .273 average accumulated mostly in poor hitter's parks qualifies Howard for the cleanup spot in the lineup. Mainly a left fielder, "Hondo" also appeared in 334 games at first base.
The fourth and fifth outfielders are a balanced pair, as Jim Dwyer hits from the left side, while Walt "No Neck" Williams is a right-handed swinger. A major leaguer from 1973 to 1990, Dwyer was a valuable role player for the Orioles from 1981 to 1988, and he homered against the Phillies in the 1983 World Series. Dwyer can play all three outfield positions as well as first base, has decent power and draws walks.
Many of us who saw the stocky (5'6", 190 pounds) Williams with the White Sox from 1967 to 1972 liked him instantly, as the energetic fireplug played with exuberance and honest hustle. Williams was no slouch at the plate, as his .270 career average was high for the era. A career best .304 in 1969 was good for sixth place in the American League. Dependable line-drive machine Manny Mota (.305 lifetime, 150 pinch hits, 1149 for 3779 career) is my pinch-hitter, and he'll get an occasional start in the outfield.
Since first basemen tend to be sluggers, it would be easy to put a power bat in this slot, but honesty compels me to go with a slap-hitting personal favorite. Mike Squires slammed just six career home runs in 1580 at-bats with the White Sox from 1975 to 1985, a most unusual record for a place in the lineup where the long ball is all but mandatory.
At 5'11", "Spanky" was also small for a first baseman, but he ranks among the finest fielders at the position. The .260 career hitter won the AL Gold Glove in 1981, and he often was used as a late-inning defensive replacement.
How good was Squires on defense? He flawlessly handled a dozen chances in 14 appearances and 38 innings at third base and had a pair of one-inning stints behind the plate.
You say it's no big deal for a player to move around the diamond? Squires was a left-handed thrower, so it speaks volumes about his skill with the glove when Tony LaRussa decided to use the Michigan native as an occasional defensive replacement at 3B in 1983 and 1984. Since there are three other position players on the roster who have extensive experience at first base, it's likely that Squires would have a platoon role if this team were a reality - and I'll take him even with the lack of home run power.
He never made an All-Star roster, but Marty Barrett is more than adequate at second base. As one the toughest strikeouts in the majors during his career, Barrett often batted second behind Wade Boggs for the Red Sox during his years (1982 to 1990) in Boston. Barrett's exceptional performance in the 1986 World Series against the Mets was all but wasted due to the lack of run production behind him. Imagine hitting 13 for 30 with five walks (.433 BA, .514 OBP) and scoring once in seven games.
There's always room for a superutility player on my roster, and Mark Loretta is one of the best of this valuable and versatile breed. The sure-handed infielder could start at short or second and do a fine job at either position, but he also saw a fair amount of action at the corners.
Loretta played 829 games at 2B, 405 games at SS, made 234 appearances at 3B and played 214 games at 1B. The right-handed swinger slashed line drives to the tune of 1713 career hits and a .295 lifetime average. Loretta followed up a .314 (ninth in the NL) season for the Padres in 2003 with a career year in 2004.
In addition to a .335 average (third best in the NL), Loretta posted additional career highs in hits (208, second best in the league), HR (16) and RBI (76). Calling Loretta a super sub understates his value. He's good for 400 to 500 at-bats - maybe more - over the course of a season on this team.
It was always a pleasure to watch Don Kessinger play shortstop for the Cubs during my grade school and teenage years. The six-time All-Star earned a pair of Gold Gloves with his hands, range and arm as he regularly stole hits from opposing batters. Kessinger usually led off for the Cubs. With just 14 HR in 7651 career at-bats (1931 hits, .252) and a .312 slugging percentage, the switch-hitter was the epitome of an old-school middle infielder.
Jeff Cirillo could never be accused of being a slacker. The formers Brewers, Rockies and Mariners third baseman played with intensity despite being stuck on losing teams throughout his lengthy (1994-2007) big league career.
At his best, Cirillo was a high-average doubles hitting machine with better than normal defensive skills. He came through with 46 two-baggers (good for fifth and second place in the American League) in 1996 and 1997 for Milwaukee, and Cirillo's 53 doubles for Colorado in 2000 was second best in the National League.
Seasons of 194, 198 and 195 hits from 1998 to 2000 along with batting averages of .325 in 1996 and .321, .326 and .326 from 1998 to 2000 showed how Cirillo could perform consistently at a high level. What could derail such a successful career?
A toe tap that Cirillo inadvertently picked up while in his stance threw the delicate balance of his swing off, and his numbers plummeted. The right-handed swinger crashed to .249 with just 6 HR and 54 RBI for the Mariners in 2002. Efforts to ditch the toe tap proved unsuccessful, and Cirillo struggled to stay in baseball. A revamped swing allowed Cirillo to make a comeback as a platoon player for the Brewers, Twins and Diamondbacks. He finished with 1598 career hits and a .296 average.
The team's defensive replacement negates Loretta's skill with the stick. Ray Oyler has the worst batting average (.175, 221 for 1266) of any player with a minimum of 1000 ABs in the live ball era. The former Tigers and Seattle Pilots shortstop drew praise for his dependable glovework, but seasons such as a miserable .135 (29 for 215) for the world champion 1968 Tigers doomed Oyler to second-string status.
As a former catcher, I appreciate solid defense and pitch-calling skills behind the plate. Jim Hegan never finished above .249 in a full season, but the lifetime .228 hitter was one of the key players on the Indians pennant winners of 1948 and 1954. When great defensive catchers are mentioned, Hegan's name is always part of the conversation.
It would make sense to pick a lefty-hitting catcher to back up the right-handed swinging Hegan, but I'm partial to a modern-day defensive whiz who bats from the right side. If Henry Blanco is good enough to be chosen by Maddux as his personal catcher despite being an inconsistent hitter, he can play for my team when Hegan needs a day off. The Venezuelan-born Blanco can be Marrero's receiver, as they'll welcome the opportunity to communicate in Spanish.
That's 24 players, so who gets the final spot on the roster? All of the following journeymen are likely get some time in the majors over the course of a season as players move up and down from AAA.
Can a second-stringer increase attendance? One-armed Pete Gray appeared in 77 games for the St. Louis Browns in 1945 and hit .218 with just 11 strikeouts in 234 ABs, and fans eagerly bought tickets for the opportunity to see this unique athlete. If nothing else, Gray can be on the active roster in September as well as a midseason call-up when needed.
Reserves who can competently play all three outfield positions give a manager some flexibility, and Tito Landrum fills that role. Landrum played for the Cardinals, Orioles and Dodgers from 1980 to 1988, and the right-handed swinger did a fair amount of damage against lefty pitchers. Few journeymen who never wore Yankee pinstripes can say they played for three pennant winners, but Landrum can make that claim.
Kevin Hickey went from playing slow-pitch 16-inch softball on the south side of Chicago to the White Sox clubhouse at old Comiskey Park. It was Hickey's arm that propelled him from tavern league softball to the majors. I'm sure my reality-based team could use another lefty reliever as pitchers go down over the course of 162 games.
Steve Fireovid spent more than a decade in AAA, but the right-hander's major league career was limited to 71.2 IP over six brief call-ups with the Padres, Phillies, White Sox, Mariners and Rangers from 1981 to 1992. A control pitcher, Fireovid is also the author of The 26th Man, a compelling account of life as a AAA lifer.
There are better places for a young player to develop than snowy Wisconsin, and Vinny Rottino overcame that obstacle to make it to the majors. Signed as an undrafted free agent out of Division III Wisconsin-LaCrosse by the Brewers in 2003, Rottino has accumulated 36 at-bats in four sips of big league coffee with Milwaukee and the former Florida Marlins.
Rottino catches and plays first and third base along with the corner outfield positions. It would seem that some team could use such a versatile guy off the bench, but Rottino has nothing more to show than brief September call-ups for his efforts.
The right-handed hitter is a study in perseverance, as Rottino went back down to AA at ages 29 and 30 to stay in baseball. That determination was rewarded with a late season call-up by the Marlins in 2011. Vinny has a non-roster shot with the Mets this season, and it would be great to see him have to pay the inflated price of a New York apartment for at least a few months this year.
Tommy Watkins spent a decade as an infielder in the Twins minor league system before getting his first and only opportunity in the Show. A 38th round pick in 1998, the 5'7" Watkins didn't make it to AAA until mid-2006. The call-up to Minnesota in August 2007 was a great human interest story, as Watkins was the classic organization man and loyal minor league solider.
The rookie didn't embarrass himself, as Watkins hit .357 (10 for 28, all singles) before going down with an injury after nine games. That marked the end of the Cinderella story, as Watkins spent two more seasons at Rochester before becoming a coach in the Twins minor league system. Currently assigned to the Beloit Snappers of the Midwest League (Class A), the well-liked Watkins should have a long career in the game at some level.
How about an up and coming young player who could fit nicely on the roster? Diamondbacks right-hander Josh Collmenter relies on control (just 28 walks in 154.1 IP during his 2011 rookie season) and deception rather than heat to get batters out, and he'll enjoy picking the brains of Reuschel, McGregor and Quiz.
Who gets to run the team? As a stickler for fundamentally sound baseball, I want someone who insists on playing smart and has a track record for squeezing the most out of the talent at hand. Looks like a job for Tom Kelly or Joe Maddon. Either manager would be an excellent option.
There is only one choice for my team's announcer, as I'll gladly pay Vin Scully whatever he wants to be on the air. Living in the Midwest means I don't hear Scully nearly as much as I'd like, but no one has ever made baseball sound so sweet as the voice of the Dodgers.
Control pitchers and line-drive hitters dominate this roster. Take away Howard and Burks, and the leading power hitter couldn't be counted on for more than 15 homers. That's no surprise, as I've always leaned towards grinders and smart contact hitters. There are also a lot of genuinely nice guys (Howard, McGregor, Bradford, Gwynn, Squires, Williams, Barrett, Mota, Watkins and others), low-maintenance solid citizens (Reuschel, Hegan, Cirillo, Loretta, Fireovid, etc.) and people with a sense of humor (Lolich, Quisenberry, Reed) here to maintain harmony in the clubhouse.
So who are some of the players on your reality roster? They can come from a single team or cover the major league spectrum. Go ahead and make your list.
An All-Christmas Team
Anyone who was born on or within a few days of Christmas has sad tales to share of feeling cheated by "one gift for two days" childhood presents. What kind of treats have been given to fans on December 25? This roster of Christmas babies includes three Hall of Famers along with a smattering of All-Stars and everyday players.
No need to save the best for last, as the All-Christmas team appropriately leads off with Rickey Henderson (born 1958) in left field. His career numbers - 1410 stolen bases (a whopping 472 ahead of second-place Lou Brock's 938 SB), an all-time best 2295 runs scored, 2190 walks (second only to Barry Bonds) and 3055 hits - are jaw droppers.
What else did Rickey do? How about three years of 100 or more steals (including a record 130 in 1982)? A dozen seasons as the league's leading basestealer includes topping the American League with 66 swipes in 1998 at age 39. Then there's 13 seasons with 100 or more runs scored, seven seasons with more than 100 walks (along with leading the AL four times) plus a quartet of 95 to 99 bases on balls and four 20-plus home run seasons. The Hall of Fame had to do some serious editing when they created Henderson's bronze plaque.
Rickey played in the majors until just three months before his 45th birthday, and he closed with a 3 for 3 mark in stolen bases during a late season stint with the Dodgers in 2003. He was also one of the handful of position players who batted right-handed and threw from the left side.
How about a textbook old-school number two hitter following the best leadoff man in history?
A basestealer couldn't ask for a better partner than Nellie Fox (1925). Taking a pitch to let Henderson steal a base wouldn't have been a problem for the White Sox star, as he has been baseball's toughest strikeout in the past 75 years. It was a thankless job that Fox excelled at when he batted behind the speedy Luis Aparicio.
The left-handed hitting Fox never struck out more than 18 times in a season, and he had 10 years averaging less than a K every 50 plate appearances. With 2663 career hits, a .288 lifetime average and six seasons of .300 or better and a four-time American League season hit leader, Fox would be well equipped to get on base for the heart of the order when Henderson didn't.
Although he wasn't known for drawing walks, "Little Nell" had a knack for getting to first base. He led in American League in singles eight times (1952 and 1954 to 1960) while making the AL's top 10 list in batting average in eight seasons. Fox's 2161 singles puts him at 27th place in baseball history.
The 1959 American League Most Valuable led the White Sox to the franchise's first pennant since the 1919 Black Sox scandal. Fox earned MVP honors with what was a fairly typical season by his standards - a .306 average along with just 2 HR and a career-high 70 RBI. One of Nellie's most impressive feats took place in 1959, as he avoided striking out in 98 consecutive games. The fateful whiff came on a called third strike tossed by Whitey Ford. Close Fox friend and long-time roommate Billy Pierce says the pitch was well off the plate and that the umpire's call even surprised Ford.
A three-time Gold Glover (1957, 1959 and 1960), Fox was known for his sure hands, quick release and skill in turning the double play. With a streak of 798 consecutive games at second base (most ever for that position), Fox's durability and toughness made him hugely popular on Chicago's blue-collar south side where the vast majority of White Sox fans reside.
Known for his bottle bat, small stature and ever-present wad of chewing tobacco, the last characteristic of Fox's image played a role in his death from cancer at age 47 in 1975. After just missing with 74.7 percent of the vote in his final year of Hall of Fame eligibility in 1985, Fox was admitted to Cooperstown by the Veterans Committee in 1997.
Unfortunately, there are no suitable candidates for a starting shortstop on the All-Christmas team, but three-time Gold Glove second baseman Manny Trillo (1950) could do an adequate job on the left side of the infield. That's because Trillo had one of the strongest arms ever displayed at second. With a .263 lifetime average and 1562 career hits, the four-time All-Star provides some production at the bottom of the order.
Switch-hitting Walter Holke (1892) gets the first base job largely by default. That's because Holke's career OBP of 89 for four National League teams is well below average, especially at a position usually reserved for big hitters. To his credit, Holke had 1278 career hits and a .287 average to offset his lack of power, run production and patience at the plate (just 191 walks in 4456 ABs).
1923 appears to be Holke's banner season at first glance, at he hit .311 with 7 HR, 70 RBI and 31 doubles for the Phillies. Those numbers were boosted by playing half his games in the tiny Baker Bowl with a live ball. In reality, Holke did a better job with the New York Giants and Boston Braves in the dead ball seasons of 1917 and 1919.
Third base has a pair of lefty hitters for the Christmas babies roster. Tom O'Malley (1960) spent most of his career shuttling between AAA and the majors from 1982 to 1990. He finished with a .256 career average, 13 HR and 131 RBI in 1213 ABs (466 games) for six different teams.
O'Malley's career took off when he went to Japan in 1991. As a valued member of the Yakult Swallows and Hanshin Tigers, O'Malley hit .300 or better with power (20 or more HR) for six consecutive seasons. Note to clubhouse man: Make sure O'Malley gets pregame meals of sushi and udon for peak performance.
Like O'Malley, Gene Robertson (1897) has a middle of the pack major league resume. The 5'7" St. Louis native played on and off for the hometown Browns from 1919 to 1926 before being traded to the Yankees. Robertson spent 1927 with St. Paul fo the American Association before joining the Yankees for 251 at-bats (just six strikeouts) and nine more plate appearances in the 1928 World Series.
A .280 lifetime average (615 for 2200) with gap power gives Robertson an edge over O'Malley. Frank Ellerbe (1895) played 3B for three American League teams from 1919 to 1924, but the righty swinger's lack of patience at the plate (.268 BA, .306 OBP) and below average power makes him better suited for spot duty.
Ben Chapman and Jo-Jo Moore (both born in 1908) round out a solid starting outfield. Chapman led the American League in stolen bases four times (1931-33 and 1937). The right-handed swinger had a.302 career average with 1958 hits. Even though he wasn't a slugger (90 career HRs), Chapman came through with seasons of 122 and 107 RBI for the Yankees in 1931 and 1932. The three-time All-Star also had six other campaigns of 80 to 98 RBI.
The World War II talent shortage allowed Chapman to extend his big league career, but as pitcher. He went 8-6 with a 4.39 ERA (84 ERA+) for the Dodgers and Phillies in 1994, 1945 and for a single appearance in 1946.
Moore made the National League All-Star roster five times and spent his entire career (1930-41) with the New York Giants. A left-handed hitter, Moore had 200-hit seasons in 1935 (201) and a career-best 205 hits in 1936. With just 247 strikeouts and 348 walks in 5427 career at-bats (1615 hits, .298 lifetime), Moore was one of many old-time players who seldom struck out while not working the count for walks.
"The Gause Ghost" got his nickname from his hometown of Gause, Texas. Moore died at age 92 on April 1, 2001.
Our Christmas catcher had just 10 major league at-bats, but that cup of coffee wasn't due to any lack of ability on his part. Quincy Trouppe (1912) was one of the better Negro League receivers. Like other players who were stymied by the color barrier, Trouppe spent much of his career in Latin America in addition to bouncing around from team to team in the U.S. Negro circuit.
At age 39, Trouppe backed up Jim Hegan for a few weeks with the Indians in 1952. He appeared in six games at had a single and a walk in 10 at-bats before being sent to Ottawa of the International League. He wasn't in the same class as Josh Gibson, but Trouppe had the ability to be a starting major league catcher if he had been given the opportunity at a younger age. Trouppe easily stands out from the glut of weak-hitting backup catchers (Chris Krug, Greek George, Marty Pevey, Frank Baldwin) who share a December 25 birthday.
Hall of Fame pitcher James "Pud" Galvin made numerous adjustments during a big league career that spanned from 1875 to 1892. He pitched underhand and overhand just 50 feet from the plate.
The 5'8" "Little Steam Engine" was an iron man even by 19th century standards. Galvin went 37-27 in 66 starts for Buffalo Bisons in 1879, as he appeared in all but 12 of the team's games. He pitched "only" 458.2, 474 and 445.1 inning in the next three seasons before tossing a record 656.1 innings (76 games, 46-29, 2.72, 117 ERA+) in 1883 and followed that up by going a career-best 46-22 with a 1.99 ERA (158 ERA+) in 636.1 IP in 1884.
Seasons of 20-35 in 1880 and 16-26 in 1885 reduced Galvin's career record to 365-310 for a .540 winning percentage. This is a guy Bert Blyleven ("My goal was to be the workhorse of the staff") could appreciate. You're our number one starter, Pud, but you'll have to adapt to being 60 feet 6 inches from the plate with a mound (wasn't used until the 1890s). How will the workaholic Galvin adjust to having four days off between starts? He has been a Hall of Famer since 1965.
Ned Garver (1925) fills the 2 slot nicely. The 86-year old pulled off one of the most impressive pitching accomplishments in history when he went 20-12 with the last-place 1951 St. Louis Browns. Since the perennially inept Browns were 52-102, Garver was responsible for 38.5 percent of the team's victories. The Brownies went just 32-92 (.258) when Garver didn't receive a decision.
Did Garver get the Cy Young Award? That honor didn't exist until 1956, so Garver had to settle for a second-place finish behind Yogi Berra in the MVP voting. A career record of 129-157 with mostly losing teams is a poor way to judge Garver's skill. His career ERA of 3.73 and 112 ERA+ is a more accurate indicator. Garver swung the bat well enough to see occasional duty as a pinch-hitter. His career stats include seven home runs, 180 hits and a .218 average.
This rotation screams for a lefty, and Lloyd Brown (1904) is it. The Beeville, Texas native went 91-105 with a 4.20 ERA (105 ERA+) in a big league career than lasted from 1925 to 1940. 1930 to 1932 was the peak of the southpaw's career, as Brown went 16-12, 15-14 and 15-12 with the Senators. A career-best 3.20 ERA was good for fourth place in the AL in 1931. The 5'9" Brown was tagged with the nickname "Gimpy" in what was obviously a much less politically correct and sensitive era.
Welsh-born Ted Lewis (1872) pitched in the majors from 1896 to 1901. He went 21-12 with a 3.85 ERA (116 ERA+) for the 93-39 (.705 winning percentage) 1897 Boston Beaneaters. Lewis followed that up with a career-best 26-8, 2.90 (127 ERA+) in 1898 for Boston. Lewis spent his entire big league career in the city. His final season came during the American League's debut in 1901. The 5'10" righty went 16-17 with a 3.53 for the Boston Americans, later known as the Red Sox. A 94-64 career record with a 3.53 ERA (113 ERA+) is definitely better than average for a number 4 starter.
Charlie Lea (1956, recently died on November 11) should be dependable at the back of the rotation. The right-hander went 62-48 with a 3.54 ERA for an injury-shortened career with the Expos and Twins. A 15-10, 2.89 ERA (seventh in the NL) performance with Montreal in 1984 was good enough to provide Lea with his only All-Star appearance.
Hideki Okajima (1975) is the closest thing to a potential closer on the All-Christmas team. The Japanese-born Red Sox lefty reliever has a U.S. career record of 17-8 with a 3.11 ERA and six saves in 261 games and 246.1 IP. Journeymen such as 19th century hurler George Haddock (born in 1866 and 95-87, 4.07 from 1888 to 1894), Eric Hiljus (1972, 8-3 and a 4.79 ERA in parts of four seasons with the Tigers and A's) are in the mix for long and middle relief.
So is Jack Hamilton (1938), who is notorious for beaning Tony Conigliaro. The wild righty had a 32-40 career mark, and his 4.53 ERA is quite high for the offensively eager 1960s. Mike Blyzka's major league record (3-11, 5.58) is unimpressive, but his two seasons included playing for the final St. Louis Browns squad in 1953 and the first-year 1954 Baltimore Orioles.
Team depth is pretty ordinary. Wallace Johnson (1956) gives the Christmas squad a capable pinch-hitter who also displayed enough speed (19 SB) to pinch-run when needed. As a switch-hitter, a manage could insert Johnson into any situation. Nearly 60 percent of Johnson's career knocks (86 of 145) came off the bench.
Bill Akers (1904) played around the infield for the Tigers and Braves from 1929 to 1932, and he's a utility infielder with more pop in his bat (11 HR, 69 RBI, .261, .349 OBP) than average. Ruben Gotay (1982) and Rich Renteria (1961) provide competition for Akers.
Speedy Willy Taveras (1981) is a 1970s-style Astroturf chopper/slasher who seems out of place in the 21st century. Scott Bullett (1968) is another possibility for a backup job in the outfield.
Since America is in a significant recession, costs need to be managed. That's why former White Sox and Pirates manager Gene Lamont (1946) gets to back up Trouppe behind the plate in addition to running the squad. Lamont may not see much playing time, as the one indispensable member of the roster is also a backup catcher - and he was born on December 9. How could this happen?
What would the all-Christmas team be without Steve Christmas? The lefty-hitting catcher played 24 games with 37 ABs (.162, 1 HR, 7 RBI) in three small cups of coffee with the Reds, White Sox and Cubs from 1983 to 1986. With that name, it doesn't take a December 25 birthday to earn a roster spot on the all-Christmas team.
What Would It Take to Hit .400 in the 21st Century?
Ted Williams hit .406 in 1941, making him the last player to reach or exceed the .400 level over a full season. Hall of Famers Rod Carew (.388 in 1977), George Brett (.390 in 1980) and Tony Gwynn (.394 during the strike-shortened 1994 season) were the only serious contenders since then, which raises a logical question: Has hitting .400 become baseball's impossible dream?
Obviously, a player would need to catch every possible break to reach this ultimate achievement today. Four factors have turned a once rare feat into something that may be unattainable. First, let's blame diligent and hard-working groundskeepers.
When was the last time you saw a bad-hop hit at the major league level? What was once a periodic part of the action is virtually extinct. The modern field of dreams is much more than sod from a local farm that gets cut and watered as needed. Baseball groundskeeping has become a science of its own, with sophisticated drainage and heating systems employed to keep customized turf in prime condition. The lack of a fluke hop or two can turn a historic .400 campaign into a near miss .390-something season.
Scouting is also light years beyond what could have been imagined in the past. Spray charts display every ball hit by batters, and advance scouts pick up helpful information before each series. Using Gwynn as an example, what if the master of hitting to all fields was known to pull the ball against a certain pitcher? That tidbit wouldn't sneak by a sharp-eyed scout, and it would be known to the opposition.
Gloves that were once compact enough to be stuffed into back pockets have grown to the point where making one-handed catches of small dogs wouldn't be a problem. The modern hand basket takes away numerous hits each season, and that won't change in the future.
There are no late-inning breathers for 21st century hitters, and it goes beyond flame-throwing closers. Left-handed hitters can count on seeing lots of brief appearances from LOOGYs over the course of a season, and righty swingers get to deal with some nasty middle relievers who can make life tough.
If it was very difficult to reach the .400 mark prior to 1941, what are the chances of achieving such a feat now? Microscopic might be overstating the odds, but here is what it would take to get the job done in the post-steroids era.
Left-handed hitters only need apply to be the next Mr. .400. We're talking about a feat that has almost zero margin for error, and lefties are going to get a few extra hits by being closer to first base, not to mention the advantage of seeing fewer curves and breaking balls than righty swingers.
It won't take Michael Bourn's wheels to be a .400 hitter, but any serious candidate needs to have better-than-average speed to beat out a few infield hits or bunts over the course of the season. Carew, Brett and Gwynn were fast enough to pass this test.
Speaking of speed, the slashing Astroturf choppers of the 1970s and 1980s would have been lousy candidates for the .400 club. The most important ability needed to reach that lofty level is to consistently hit the ball hard - and I'm not talking about home runs.
Anyone who aspires to hit .400 needs gap power or better. That keeps the outfielders deep enough to allow for some bloop singles and humpback liners to plop for hits. If the outfielders cheat in to cut off singles, they're going to get burned with plenty of doubles and a few triples.
While they were both known as line drive maestros, Carew and Gwynn posted better than normal power numbers in their signature seasons. Carew had career highs in hits (239), HRs (14), RBI (100), doubles (38) and triples (14) in 1977. Gwynn came through with 12 homers, 64 RBI and 35 doubles in 419 at-bats. With 165 hits in just 110 games, Gwynn was on an incredible 243-hit pace over 162 games in 1994.
Brett absolutely smoked the ball in 1980, as he had 66 extra base hits (33 doubles, 9 triples and 24 home runs) in just 449 at-bats - or one per 6.8 ABs - while playing half his games at spacious Kauffman Stadium. His 118 RBI were a career high in just 117 games played, and Brett's 175 hits nearly duplicated Gwynn's pace.
Doubles are going to be a significant factor for the potential .400 hitter. The ultimate mark in batting average can be reached with 12 to 20 homers, but piling up doubles is a very reliable indicator of hitting at a consistently high level. That applies to contact hitters and big boppers alike. If you need more evidence, compare just about any Hall of Fame slugger's doubles column to seasons by Dave Kingman and other one-dimensional swing-from-the-heels types who hit .230 or less or Wade Boggs and Pete Rose to other hitters with similar home run totals.
Since hitting .400 is going to come down to catching enough breaks to turn a mind-blowing .380 to .390 season into a historic event, a lot of subtle factors, flukes and incremental improvements will come into play.
The serious .400 prospect will need to bump up his walk total from previous seasons - at least enough to lay off some bad pitches that would normally become outs. He doesn't have to become the next Eddie "The Walking Man" Yost, but pitchers are going to be inclined to nibble and work off the corners when dealing with a red-hot hitter. Better to take a walk or wait for a fat pitch than to chase marginal stuff.
A modest or better reduction in strikeouts is absolutely essential. An out may be an out in many situations, but putting the ball in play more often means greater opportunities for hits, and every swing counts in the chase for .400.
Brett featured a very rare combination of power and contact hitting in 1980, hitting 24 bombs with just 22 strikeouts. Gwynn fanned just 19 times in 419 ABs (a typical number for him) when he hit .394 in 1994, while Carew's 1977 totals (55 Ks in 616 ABs) were better than his career average.
What would keep a superior hitter from reaching .400? Despite Carew's 155 games played and 694 plate appearances in 1977, having the durability of Cal Ripken would be a detriment. The length of the season guarantees some slumps and tough stretches over 162 games, so here's how such a highly unlikely feat could happen.
Anyone with over 550 plate appearances won't hit .400, and you can carve that in stone. Playing even 140 games out of 162 is extremely wearying (plus the pesky odds against hitters really win out in the long run), so this honor won't go to a baseball ironman.
Since it takes 502 plate appearances to qualify for a batting title, a position player would need to start 115 or more games to be eligible. That probably wouldn't be enough to lead the league in any other offensive category except on-base percentage, but an abbreviated schedule works to the advantage of the serious .400 candidate.
Nudging over 502 plate appearances with a maximum of 550 means 115 to 128 starts depending on where the next .400 swinger hits in the order. Our potential Mr. X (short for exceptional) will almost certainly bat third, although leadoff is also a possibility. Missing at least 35 games means a stretch or two on the disabled list - and that can be a big boost in the run to .400.
Let's give Mr. X a minor injury just before the end of spring training and 15 days on the DL. Looks like he'll miss his team's opening road trip through the blustery northeast, where cold weather reduces batting averages. If X is in the National League this season, it also means he doesn't have to face the Phillies' formidable rotation. Bummer! (sarcasm off). Instead, X gets some rehab at-bats in the balmy Florida State League to regain his timing.
How is the interleague schedule this year? Does the National League candidate face the rag-tag Royals staff, or does he battle it out against the Rays rotation? Does the American Leaguer feast on the Pirates, or does he struggle against Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain and the rest of the Giants staff at pitcher-friendly AT&T Park? Such incidents and flukes will make much of the difference in reaching .400, and they will be noticed only in hindsight.
The hit machine goes down shortly before the All-Star break for 20-plus days on the DL. That means he won't be hounded by hordes of reporters who would have ignored most of the other All-Stars to ask about his .396 average. Mr. X.'s absence and injury bug cuts the hype considerably, and any mentions of a .400 season downplays the possibility of it taking place. The lack of constant media exposure for now is one less hassle for Mr. X. Poor numbers (2 for 11) in his three-game minor league rehab stint also adds to the skepticism.
Like many players, our guy is a hot-weather hitter, and he'll be well rested for late July and August games in humid places such as St. Louis, Cincinnati, Texas (Dallas) and Kansas City. During his second stretch on the DL, the .400 candidate missed games started by two pitchers whom he struggled against at a 2 for 17 (.118) and 5 for 26 (.192) clip.
Mr. X goes 2 for 4 in his return to the lineup - but it would have been 1 for 4 if the opposing team's Gold Glove second baseman had been in the lineup instead of on the DL to make a nifty grab on the hard grounder X slashed in the hole for a single. The Gold Glover's replacement is sure-handed, but lacks the world-class range of the everyday player. These are the kind of under-the-radar positive factors that are needed in the race for .400.
Although the national media will camp at Mr. X's door eventually, playing in a smaller or more distant market will reduce the pressure for awhile. The trio of Carew, Brett and Gwynn made their quests for .400 in Minneapolis, Kansas City and San Diego, all far removed from the New York media machine. The team's media relations director senses the possibility of history in the making, and he proactively makes plans to limit X's access for interviews and other distractions.
His good fortune puts Mr. X in a reflective mood. The breaks in his favor have far outweighed the frozen ropes that became outs so far this year. There was the wind-blown fly ball that landed in the second row of the bleachers in early May, the pair of popups that fell between the infielders and outfielders in June, more seeing eye grounders that trickled past infielders than normal. Can he continue to defy the baseball odds for the rest of the season, or will the pattern even out? If everything doesn't turn out exactly right until the final at-bat, Ted Williams will remain secure as the last player to hit .400.
Midseason Numbers Crunching
Those who prefer baseball without steroids and bloated phony physiques might say the current situation means the game is back to normal, but 2011 is shaping up as a season where pitchers often have the upper hand. This midseason (July 12) look at team statistics shows how much the former Home Run Derby approach has changed in the past few years.
Starting with the long ball, 37 players are currently at a 25 HR or higher pace as compared to 53 who reached the quarter century mark in 2009. That's a 30.2 percent decline in a year and a half, and five teams are stumbling along ar a sub-100 HR pace. The offensive slide becomes even more apparent when other stats are examined.
Just one team hit under .250 in 2009, but 10 teams are currently below that level, with the Mariners at a .224 clip that would look right at home in 1911 rather than 2011. That doesn't include the best in the majors (57-34, .626) Phillies, who are listed at .250 which is actually rounded up from .24983 (776 for 3106).
Midseason taildraggers in the batting average numbers features a number of division leaders and contenders for the postseason. The list includes the Pirates (.247), Rays (.245), Giants (.243) and Braves (.237, or 26th out of 30 teams). The Nationals are at .500 (46-46) despite a .235 team average. Currently in last place in the NL West, the 40-52 Padres' .231 total can be partly attributed to Petco Park.
On-base percentages also require some mental adjustments from the recent past. Seven teams are under .310, and that list includes Billy Beane's formerly OBP-conscious A's at .299. Oakland has one of the better pitching staffs in baseball, but a weak-hitting lineup has dragged the franchise down to a 39-53 record and last place in the AL West. The Mariners bring up the rear with a putrid .290 OBP.
The value of OBP, drawing walks and extending at-bats in an era of pitch counts comes shining through when batting averages are on a downward trend. The Yankees are 11th in the majors with a .258 team average, but 343 walks in 88 games (almost 3.9 bases on balls per game) has led to a combined OBP of .340, which ties the Cardinals for second best in the majors.
Despite a 37-55 record, the Cubs are sixth in the majors with a .263 team average, but just 223 walks in 92 games (2.43 per game, or a projected 394 over a full season) has led to an 18th-ranked team OBP of .317. The main offenders in impatience are all hitting over .300. The young double play combo of second baseman Darwin Barney (.306, but just 10 walks in 294 ABs) and shortstop Starlin Castro (.307 with 117 hits and just 16 walks in 381 ABs) are hacking away, as is utilityman Jeff Baker (.306 and four walks in 134 ABs).
The dreadful (30-62 for a major league worst .326 winning percentage) Astros are hitting a respectable .260 (9th in the big leagues), but Houston's meager total of 225 walks drags the OBP down to .312, which is 23rd overall. Third baseman Chris Johnson is the main culprit, with just eight unintentional walks, a pair of intentional passes and 74 strikeouts in 292 ABs. That lack of selectiveness might be forgiven if Johnson was hitting .308 with power as he did in 2010, but a .243, 6 HR, 34 RBI stat line is far from last season's production.
With the exception of Chone Figgins (262 ABs, .183, 1 HR, 14 RBI and a freakishly low .231 OBP), it has been the all or nothing, high strikeout hitters who have suffered the most in the offensive decline of 2011. Adam Dunn (.160 with 117 Ks in 269 ABs for the White Sox) is enduring a historically nightmarish year, but Dan Uggla (340 ABs, .185, 15 HR, 34 RBI), Jack Cust (3 HR, 23 RBI, .211 with 76 Ks and 44 BB in 204 ABs) and Russell Branyan (2 HR, 6 RBI, .196 and 35 Ks in 107 ABs) are also finding the going much rougher this season.
Pitching statistics reflect a return to more balance between offense and run prevention. Compare the 18 starting pitchers with sub-3.00 ERAs to the 11 who ended 2009 at that impressive level. Another 10 starters currently have ERAs from 3.01 to 3.10. Nine staffs entered the All-Star break with sub-3.50 ERA, and the Nationals just missed the cut at 3.53. Just one team - the Dodgers - came through with a staff ERA below 3.50 (3.41) in 2009.
Moundsmen are also more inclined to challenge hitters with a greater variety of deliveries or are adopting a pitch to contact mentality. Nine staffs currently boast a walk ratio below 3.00 per nine innings pitched. Only the Twins and the Cardinals did the same in 2009.
Some would say that prime hitting season is coming up with the high temperatures of July and August, which would mean the first half's numbers are subject to being more favorable to hitters by the end of the season. While that is certainly a logical thought, baseball in 2011 has changed considerably from the slow pitch softball mentality of the earlier part of the 21st century.
The 1959 White Sox Set a Record - in 2008
How can any team - even a pennant winner like the 1959 Chicago White Sox - set a very impressive record nearly a half century after going to the World Series? Is there a statistic that hasn't been calculated in this numbers-obsessed era? Although the "Go-Go Sox" were known for solid pitching, airtight defense and team speed, this record was set by manager Al Lopez and his coaching staff.
Lopez (born August 20, 1908) owned the record for most career games by a catcher (1918) until Carlton Fisk surpassed that mark in 1987. Known for his defensive skills, Lopez played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, Boston Braves/Bees, Pirates and Indians. He was an National League All-Star in 1934 and 1941.
Lopez was also the only manager to beat out the Yankees for the American League pennant from 1949 to 1964, achieving that feat with the 1954 Cleveland Indians as well as the '59 White Sox. By living until October 20, 2005 - or 97 years and 71 days - the Hall of Famer set the example for his four-man coaching staff.
Pitching coach Ray Berres (born August 31, 1907) actually beat Lopez in longevity. The Wisconsin native passed away on February 1, 2007 at the age of 99 years and 154 days. Although he is forgotten today, Berres - a weak-hitting backup catcher from 1934 to 1945 - is one of the premier pitching coaches in baseball history. He spent 18 seasons with the White Sox, and Berres survived six managerial changes during that time because of his skill in working with the staff.
Don Gutteridge (born June 19, 1912) began his major league career with the Cardinals in 1936. He played third and second base for the Redbirds until going to the St. Louis Browns in 1943. As the team's second baseman and leadoff hitter, Gutteridge was a part of the 1944 Browns, the only pennant winner in the franchise's nearly unbroken 52-year run of futility.
Gutteridge was the first base coach and worked with the infielders for the south siders as the team won its first pennant in 40 years. He also served as the White Sox manager in 1969 and 1970 after Lopez retired, and Gutteridge spent more than a decade scouting for the Dodgers after his career in uniform ended. The Pittsburg, Kansas native died in his home town.on September 7, 2008 at the age of 96 years and 80 days.
Third base coach Tony Cuccinello (born November 8, 1907) displayed better than average power and run production for a 5'7" infielder during his big league career.
After making his big league debut as a third baseman with the Reds in 1930, Cuccinello came through with a career high 14 HR and 94 RBI for the Dodgers in 1934. Being moved to second base in 1931 wasn't a problem, as Cuccinello racked up 93 RBI with just two home runs. Career highs in doubles (39) and batting average (.315) undoubtedly helped in the run production department.
An N.L. All-Star in 1933 and 1938, Cuccinello was one of many players who extended their careers because of the World War II talent shortage. As a sore-legged 37-year old, he closed out his big league career in 1945 by hitting .308 in 402 ABs for the White Sox. Yankees second baseman Snuffy Stirnweiss edged out Cuccinello for the batting title by hitting .309 thanks to an error call that was changed to a hit during the last game of the season.
As a noted sign stealer who was at the center of a 1967 controversy over that age-old tactic, Cuccinello sometimes stood out from his low-key peers. After scouting for the Yankees well into his 70s, Cuccinello retired in Tampa and lived just down the street from his close friend Lopez. The long-time coach died at 87 years and 317 days on September 21, 1995.
Bench coach Johnny Cooney (born March 18, 1901) died young - at 85 years and 112 days on July 8, 1986 - when compared to the other members of the Sox brain trust. If you want a weird baseball career path and biography, Cooney's story would be all but impossible to duplicate.
One of the few big leaguers from Rhode Island, Cooney was signed as a left-handed pitcher by the Boston Braves. His best season came in 1925, when he went 14-14 for the 70-83 Braves. Cooney was eighth in the National League with a 3.48 ERA, and his ERA+ was 115. The southpaw gave up just 50 walks in 245.2 innings pitched for just 1.83 BB per nine innings pitched. That was fourth best in the NL.
Numerous bone chips and fragments - more than a dozen were removed, and the surgery permanently shortened Cooney's left arm - all but ended his mound career by 1930. What could a hurler with a bum wing do to make a living in the early days of the Great Depression?
A talented slap hitter - he hit .379 (25 for 66) with a lone double in 1923 and .320 (33 for 103) in 1925 - Cooney kept his baseball career alive by moving to the outfield. He turned out to be a skilled defender in center field and played in the American Association from 1930 to 1935. Casey Stengel became well acquianted with Cooney's skills while managing in Toledo. When the Old Perfesser was named manager of the Brooklyn Dodgers, Cooney returned to the majors at age 34 in 1935.
What made Cooney's transition from the mound to the outfield noteworthy is his rare combination of batting right-handed and throwing from the left side. Although Cooney could poke and slice singles like a dead ball era maestro, his power was nonexistent.
Cooney never took a home run trot in 1376 at-bats with the Dodgers and Boston Bees/Braves from 1936 to 1938 while hitting .282, .293 and .271. He struck out just 39 times during those three seasons, or once every 35.3 ABs, but a combined 68 walks in that span didn't help his on-base percentage..
When the former pitcher finally went yard, he didn't mess around. At age 38, Cooney hit the only home runs in his 3372 career big league ABs in consecutive games against the New York Giants at the Polo Grounds on September 24 and 25, 1939. Both bombs came in the third inning with a runner on base. It would be interesting to know if either or both of Cooney's homers barely cleared the 279-foot left field fence at the Polo Grounds.
Even with the end of the power drought, the best was yet to come for Cooney. His .318 average for the Bees in 1940 was third in the National League. After being the toughest strikeout in the league with just eight Ks in 368 ABs in 1939, Cooney nearly duplicated that feat by whiffing just nine times in 365 ABs in 1940. No other player has come remotely close to making his first appearance among either league's top 10 hitters at such an advanced age, and certainly not in the top three.
Turning 40 didn't slow the former pitcher at all in 1941. Cooney's .319 performance in 441 ABs was second to Pete Reiser. In an era where batting average was revered, it came as no surprise that Cooney won the Veteran Player of the Year award from The Sporting News.
The wheels fell off in 1942, as Cooney hit just .207 with seven RBI in 198 ABs. He hung on until 1944 as a wartime pinch-hitter with the Dodgers and Yankees. Cooney finished his long career with a 34-44 record and 3.72 ERA as a pitcher and a .286 (965 for 3372) average as an outfielder and occasional first baseman.
Are there any common denominators among the long-lived members of the 1959 White Sox coaching staff? Although Cuccinello could get animated at times, this was a group of men who were known for their calm personalities and lack of temper tantrums. No Billy Martins, Earl Weavers or high-maintenance divas in this bunch.
It's purely coincidential, but Lopez, Berres, Cooney and Gutteridge each had one child - all sons. Cuccinello's three children were the exception to the general trend. Both Berres and Cooney turned down managing opportunities because they didn't want the constant stress that came with the job.
Lopez, Berres, Gutteridge, Cuccinello and Cooney lived a total of 464 years and four days, which works out to just over 92.8 years per person. While the White Sox teams they ran were notorious for a lack of power and slugging, no one can top this five-man group in average lifespan and sheer longevity.
A Future Hall of Fame Candidate
Aside from not gambling on baseball, about the only hard and fast rule for Hall of Fame eligibility is for a player to have racked up a minimum of 10 full or partial seasons in the majors.
More than anything, the 10-year mandate reduces clutter and names on the ballot, as it generally takes a lengthy career to become even a marginal candidate for enshrinement at Cooperstown. Only one HOFer - Dizzy Dean - barely squeaked by on the "partial year" technicality.
Dean had three "seasons" (1930, 1941 and 1947) where he pitched a single big league game. The 1947 appearance was a publicity stunt for the woeful St. Louis Browns. As an announcer for the team, Ol' Diz loudly declared to radio listeners that he could pitch better than most of the rag arms on the staff.
That led to a four-inning shutout stint against the White Sox during last game of the season (September 28). The starting appearance may have earned the 37-year old Dean a nice chunk of cash, as he supposedly received a percentage of the gate. Nearly 16,000 paid to see Dean's junkball display in a game that would have normally drawn 3000 to 4000 diehards. Despite Dean's gutsy effort, the Browns lost 5-2 to finish the season in last place with a 55-99 (.357) record.
With injury-shortened seasons of 10, 13 and 19 games, Dean's career boils down to six full seasons and 45 additional appearances. A 30-7 effort with the Cardinals in 1934 plus a 1952 movie (The Dizzy Dean Story) on his life combined with Dizzy's colorful personality and popularity as a pioneering TV baseball announcer provided enough momentum for Cooperstown enshrinement in 1953.
Raul Chavez will never be ranked among baseball's greats, but he has qualified for an appearance on a future Hall of Fame ballot. The Blue Jays backup catcher is now in his 11th big league campaign. As of June 22, Chavez has played just 230 games in the Show.
The Venezuelan-born Chavez is now in his 19th professional season, and the bulk of his 1383 minor league games have come at the AAA level. Chavez saw his first AAA action with Tuscon of the Pacific Coast League in 1995, and he has played 915 games with eight AAA teams in 12 seasons (1995-2003, 2005, 2007-09).
It was on to Ottawa of the International League in 1996, and Chavez made his major league debut with the Expos as a late season call-up. That four-game cup of coffee led to 13 more appearances with Montreal in 1997.
1998 was split between Ottawa, Tacoma and a single game with the Mariners. Chavez spent all of 1999 in Tacoma before signing with the Astros in the offseason. 2000 was the first of Chavez's four consecutive seasons with the New Orleans Zephyrs. He played 14 games with Houston in 2000 and made a pair of big league appearances in 2002 before playing 19 games with the Astros in 2003.
2004 was the high point of the stocky catcher's career. Chavez spent the entire year in Houston - his only full major league season. A .210 average (34 for 162) with 0 HR and 23 RBI in 64 games was the stat line.
It was back to AAA in 2005, as Chavez split the season between Round Rock and the Astros. A sub-Mendoza Line batting average (.172, 17 for 99) combined with Chavez's trademark lack of plate discipline (just four walks) led to a horrendous .210 OBP.
Even AAA would have looked good to Chavez in 2006, as he spent most of the year riding buses with Bowie of the Class AA Eastern League. That's quite a show of perseverance for a 33-year old player, and it was rewarded with a promotion to the Orioles.
The Yankees noticed Chavez and signed him to a AAA contract for 2007. A .221 average at Scranton was one reason why he never appeared in pinstripes that season. Chavez began 2008 at Indianapolis, but he spent most of the year with the Pirates. A .259 (30 for 116) performance in 42 games provided a nice boost to his career batting average.
A pair of games in Las Vegas kicked off 2009, and it marked Chavez's 18th year of minor league service. He was promoted to Toronto on April 18 and has done well in a reserve role. As of June 22, Chavez was hitting .263 (15 for 57) with 2 HR and 6 RBI. With just four strikeouts, making contact hasn't been a problem, but the free swinger is still looking for his first walk of the season.
A .227 lifetime average and .261 OBP means Chavez won't have to book a trip to Cooperstown in the future, but he will be able to ask his grandchildren "Do you know what Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Mike Piazza, Pudge Rodriguez and I have in common? We were all on the Hall of Fame ballot!"
So what does Raul Chavez's many trips between AAA and the majors mean? It's a testimony to the determination of a 36-year old journeyman player.
1968: Reviving the Dead Ball Era
1968 is known as "the year of the pitcher" for good reason. The American League hit a combined .230 with a .297 on-base percentage, and even the world champion Tigers finished with a .235 team batting average.
Denny McLain's 31-6 record is still remembered 40 years later, but the right-hander's 1.96 ERA was only good for fourth place in the AL behind Luis Tiant (1.60), Sam McDowell (1.81) and Dave McNally (1.95). Add in Tommy John's 1.98 ERA, and there were five starters with sub-2.00 seasons.
This was the season when Carl Yastrzemski's .301 average was good enough to lead the American League. Besides being the only AL regular to finish above .300, the season was a dominating offensive performance by Yaz. His 119 walks put the Hall of Famer well above the rest of the pack. Toss out Mickey Mantle's 106 BB as he was pitched around because of little protection from a weak Yankees lineup, and no one else in the AL walked more than 84 times. Red Sox third baseman Joe Foy took the bronze medal for bases on balls in '68.
Yaz's .426 on-base percentage was 36 points higher than runner-up Frank Robinson (.390). Combine Yastrzemski's OBP, league-leading .922 OPS, 32 doubles and 23 home runs (impressive numbers in 1968), and what might appear to be merely decent offense by current standards is an exceptional effort. The Boston left fielder's 283 times on base put him miles ahead of second-place Bert Campaneris (231).
League-leading offensive stats in various categories look like something from 1907. Tigers second baseman Dick McAuliffe's 95 runs scored topped the AL. Hawk Harrelson (109) and Frank Howard (106) were the only players to pass the century mark in RBI.
Campaneris led the league with 177 hits, and it took him 707 plate appearances to get there. Cesar Tovar came in second with 167 knocks. Reggie Smith's 37 doubles wouldn't even be noticed in the 21st century, but it was enough to top the American League in '68.
A's first baseman Danny Cater came in second with a .290 average, while Tony Oliva took third with a (by his standards) subpar .289 season. The top 10 was rounded out by Vic Davalillo (.277), Campaneris (.276), Harrelson (.275) and Howard (.274).
Howard's major-league best 44 home runs in Washington's RFK Stadium during this offensively meager season is a slugging feat that has never gotten the recognition it deserves. Tigers left fielder Willie Horton was a distant second with 36.
When it comes to studying 1968, it's the lowlights and bottom of the barrel that makes the season fascinating. The White Sox were in the 1967 pennant race until the last weekend of the season despite a .225 team batting average. Even though the team average rose to .228 in 1968, the rest of the offensive stats were dreadful.
Just 397 walks led to an AL-low .286 OBP. The south siders also brought up the rear in homers (71) and runs scored (just 463, or 2.86 per game). Pete Ward and Tommy Davis tied for the team lead in RBI with 50, and Davis had just 16 extra base hits (5 doubles, 3 triples, 8 HR) in 456 middle of the order ABs.
Combine that with a slight dropoff among the team's capable pitching staff, and it's no surprise that the White Sox finished in an eighth-place tie with the Angels during the last season of a 10-team league. The Yankees set a live ball era record low with a .214 team average, but middle of the pack power and OBP combined with decent pitching was enough for an 83-79 record. That was a nice rebound after a three-season tumble that included ninth and tenth (last) place finishes.
In the "How low can you go?" department, 20 AL position players with at least 150 ABs finished 1968 with sub-.200 averages. George Scott was the biggest decliner by far. The Red Sox first baseman regressed from a 19 HR, 82 RBI season with a career-best .303 average in 1967 to just 3 HR, 25 RBI, and a .171 campaign in '68.
The 132-point plunge in batting average is an all-time record. Those kind of numbers would be unacceptable for a middle infielder, let alone someone playing at a position reserved for sluggers. Scott's performance easily ranks among the worst offensive efforts by a first baseman, but he earned a Gold Glove for his skill around the bag.
Tigers shortstop Ray Oyler is often described as the worst hitter of the live ball era. A .175 career average (221 for 1166) includes a .135 (29 for 215, 59 Ks) campaign in '68. An even 20 walks gave Oyler a .213 OBP, which was 27 points above his .186 slugging percentage. Given that he appeared in 111 games during the season, it's obvious that Detroit manager Mayo Smith valued Oyler's ability with the glove. Johnny Sain served as the team's pitching coach in 1968, and he described Oyler as one of the best defensive players he had ever seen in his long baseball career.
Smith's other options at short were Dick Tracewski (.156, 4 HR, 15 RBI in 213 AB) or Tom Matchick (.203, 3 HR, 14 RBI and just 10 BB in 227 AB). This trio of hitless wonders combined for a .165 batting average.
The rest of the roster was sensational by '60s standards. With 185 home runs, the Tigers led the majors by a huge margin, as the Orioles were next best with 133 bombs. Horton's 36 HRs were a career best. Add in Bill Freehan (25), Norm Cash (25) and Jim Northrup (21), and Detroit could and did go deep when a big hit was needed.
Al Kaline (10 HR, 53 RBI, .287) missed 60 games with a broken hand from a hit by pitch, but the Tigers didn't skip a beat. Gold Glove centerfielder Mickey Stanley put up decent numbers (11 HR, 60 RBI, .248) by 1968 standards. When Kaline returned to the lineup in the second half of the season, Smith had the pleasant problem of choosing between four talented outfielders.
The surplus became a real dilemma when making a World Series lineup. Even though Kaline had the least ABs among the starting outfielders during the season, Smith didn't want to bench "Mr. Tiger" during the team's first postseason appearance since 1945. Then there was the complete lack of offense at short. . .
Normally a traditional baseball man, Smith turned riverboat gambler when he put Stanley - who had almost no major league experience as an infielder - at SS when the Tigers faced the Cardinals in the Series.
Even though '68 Tigers alumni have declared their confidence in Stanley and his ability to play any position in interviews over the years, it was still a gutsy, high-stakes move. The novice was tested immediately when speedy Lou Brock led off for the Cardinals with a grounder to short in Game 1.
Stanley handled the chance cleanly and ended up making two inconsequential errors in the seven-game Series while Oyler saw action in four games as a late-inning defensive replacement. Down 3 to 1 against St. Louis, Detroit came back to become world champions thanks to Mickey Lolich's three complete-game victories.
One other stat was also low in addition to the runs scored and offensive numbers. Fans were less than thrilled with the glut of 2-1 games, as five of the 10 AL teams failed to draw 1 million paying customers. Even the second-place Orioles (943,977) and third-place Indians (857,996) generated little enthusiasm, while the A's had a season attendance of just 837,466 during their first year in Oakland.
The scarcity of runs was cured not just by lowering the mound from 15 to 10 inches in 1969. Adding four new expansion teams (Seattle, Kansas City, San Diego and Montreal) in both leagues created jobs for dozens of second-rate hurlers and fading veterans, and the pitching-dominated era of the '60s came to an end.
Yokohama or Omaha in 2009?
It's that time of year - and I'm not referring to the race for the postseason.
Conventional baseball wisdom says players on losing teams, journeymen on every roster and AAA call-ups hustle and play hard in September in order to secure next year's contract. Although that line of reasoning makes sense, some players may be hoping for an entirely different kind of deal.
Japan's Central and Pacific League franchises are allowed to carry four gaijin, or foreign players on their active rosters. Korean and Taiwanese players sometimes get a shot at Japanese baseball, but North Americans and Latin American players with a minimum of some AAA experience (major league credentials are preferred) are the first choice.
So why would an American or Hispanic player subject himself to one of the world's biggest culture and language barriers instead of staying closer to home? For the AAA veteran or AAAA lifer who lives for brief big league call-ups, it could be their only shot at a big payday.
A typical first-year Japanese baseball wage of $350,000 to $700,000 plus a free apartment and interpreter may sound like petty cash by current major league standards, but it's a gold mine compared to earning $40,000 to $75,000 in Pawtucket or Memphis. Succeed and stick around a few years, and $2 million to $4 million is definitely within reach.
At one time, Japanese teams tossed suitcases full of yen at over the hill major eaguers only to see them flop miserably. In many cases, obscure AAA veterans and marginal big leaguers performed much better for lower wages. How did that happen?
While Japanese players are treated well by normal standards, the constant pampering and luxury found in the Show isn't the norm with the Nippon Ham Fighters or Yakult Swallows. High-maintenance big leaguers may grumble at treatment that a AAA escapee would relish.
American stars in Japan include a long list of major league benchwarmers, role players and September call-up types. Joe Stanka, Dave Roberts, John Sipin, Charlie Manuel, Randy Bass, Bobby Rose, Boomer Wells, Luis Lopez, Tuffy Rhodes, Alex Cabrera, Alex Ramirez and Greg LaRocca may be all but unknown in the U.S., but they became big names in Japan.
Which players are high on the list of prospects for a year or two in Nippon? Think in terms of guys who have a ton a AAA experience and limited major league numbers, three-year types who are arbitration eligible for the first time but don't have the stats to warrant a big raise or older big league free agents who may not draw more than an non-guaranteed contract offer on this side of the ocean.
Most of the demand is for first basemen, third basemen and outfielders with some pop in their bats. Gap power in the U.S. can translate to home runs in Japan, where the fences tend to be shorter. The language barrier closes the door to catchers, and middle infielders are signed when teams believe they can be an important part of the offense. Even though Japanese players are bigger and stronger than they were a generation ago, gaijin are still viewed as a vital source of run production.
The "grip it and rip it" mentality of American baseball is far different than the one run at a time school of play that is often found in Japan. In some cases, heart of the order hitters are told to lay down sacrifice bunts. Curves and other breaking pitches are a frequent sight, as are submarine-style hurlers.
As one former American export said, "They play baseball in Japan, but it's a completely different game." Foreign players need to adapt and keep their opinions to themselves, as Japan is a society where conformity and group harmony rules.
American pitchers are sometimes signed for duty in Japan, but the perpetual shortage of arms in the U.S. means even marginal hurlers can be the undeserving objects of several contract offers that provide a shot at the majors. This report will focus on position players who might appeal to Japan's 12 major league teams.
So Taguchi is an obvious candidate for Japanese baseball next season. Hitting just .198 (17 for 86) as a backup outfielder for the Phillies, Taguchi left his native land and began his major league career with the Cardinals in 2001.
A fourth outfielder with the Redbirds, Taguchi was a capable role player in St. Louis. He turns 40 before the start of the 2009 season, and it wouldn't be surprising to see Taguchi finish out his long career in Japan.
Sticking with the National League, D-backs first baseman and pinch-hitter Tony Clark might get more than a typical offer from Japan based on his 265 career HRs. At 6'7", the 36-year old Clark could have some trouble with Japanese doorways.
If Greg Norton is ignored by major league organizations, he might be able to prolong his career in Tokyo. The 36-year old journeyman still has some pop in his bat. Cubs 1B/PH Daryle Ward has a decent big league resume, and he is the kind of American player who could put up solid power numbers in Japan.
Kevin Barker and Rob Macowiak of the Louisville Bats (Reds AAA team) would be wise to take the money if a Japanese team offers a guaranteed one-year deal. If speed is preferred over power, Scott Podsednik of the Rockies might need to take language lessons.
The Marlins are loaded with potential Japanese signees. At age 38, Jason Wood has spent 13 seasons in AAA and has exactly 200 major league at-bats. John Gall has had three big league cups of coffee, and he is not a hot young prospect. Third basemen Wes Helms and Dallas McPherson are second-tier possibilities.
Astros utilityman David Newhan has more speed than the average American prospect, and he can play several positions. Dodgers 3B Terry Tiffee tore up the Pacific Coast League with a .378 average in Las Vegas, while OF Jason Repko might find Japan to be his most lucrative option.
Brewers IF/OF Joe Dillon is a versatile sort with a long AAA record and some major league service time. It took eight seasons in the minors before 1B Brad Nelson got a September call-up. With Prince Fielder ahead of him on the depth chart, Japan might not be the worst choice for Nelson. If the postseason market for his services is weak, Mets OF Marlon Anderson could be a Rakuten Golden Eagle or Orix Buffalo in 2009.
He doesn't fit the slugging stereotype for the position, but slick-fielding Pirates 1B Doug Mientkiewicz may get noticed by Japanese scouts. The Giants called up 36-year old 1B Scott McClain in September, and he has performed well. With 19 years of minor league and Japanese experience and just 45 big league ABs (6 hits, .133) prior to September, McClain enters the last game of the season hitting .273 (9 for 33) with a pair of homers.
As a member of the Seibu Lions from 2001 to 2004, McClain was a low-average, all or nothing slugger in the Gorman Thomas mold. Japanese teams are reluctant to give Americans second chances once they have been let go, so that will work against McClain.
Nationals OF Ryan Langerhans and 3B Pete Orr are spare parts on one of baseball's worst teams. That combination of circumstances could mean a lower-tier 2009 contract in Japan.
The Pawtucket Red Sox (International League) have a trio of potential Japanese imports. AAA veteran Joe Thurston hit .316 with 19 stolen bases, and he can play second base or the outfield. 1B Jeff Bailey has been in Pawtucket since 2004 and has two brief stretches in Boston to show for it. The 30-year old may not have another shot to go for a paycheck overflowing with yen. 3B Keith Ginter has seen action with the Astros, Brewers and A's.
The Buffalo Bisons are the top farm club for the Indians, and SS Andy Cannizaro and 2B Tony Graffanino are marginal candidates for Japan. The 36-year old Graffanino bounced back from a serious knee injury to hit .315 in 89 ABs for the Bisons in 2008.
Japanese teams have been burned more than a few times by all or nothing sluggers such as Rob Deer (.151 with the Yomiuri Giants), which reduces Mike Hessman's chances for a contract. The Tigers 1B/3B has 288 career minor league bombs and a .208 (35 for 168) lifetime major league record with 13 HR, 27 RBI and 56 strikeouts.
It tooks Twins DH/1B Randy Ruiz a decade to reach the majors, and he hasn't embarrased himself by hitting .274 (17 for 62). Now that he has some major league experience on his record, Japanese teams might be more interested in the burly right-handed hitter. OF Craig Monroe was released earlier in the season, and a job in Japan could keep his career alive.
After hitting just .159 with the Rangers, OF Ben Broussard found himself with the Scranton Wilkes-Barre Yankees, where he hit .276 with 13 HR and 46 RBI in 239 ABs. 3B Cody Ransom hit 22 HR with 71 RBI in AAA, and he has clubbed 4 HR in just 37 ABs (11 hits, .297) for the Yankees. A mediocre season by Emil Brown means the A's outfielder could have an easier time getting hired in Japan rather than the U.S.
Could Mariners 1B Bryan LaHair get an offer from a Japanese team in need of a lefty swinger? DH Jose Vidro was released in midseason, and Asia might be the place for him to make a comeback.
Even with a heroic homer against the Red Sox, September call-up Dan Johnson is going to have a tough time cracking the talented Rays lineup. The first baseman won't be taking Carlos Pena's job. Declining power numbers for Blue Jays OF Kevin Mench could be turned around with shorter Japanese power alleys. Released OF Shannon Stewart might send his resume to the far east.
With a maximum of 48 available openings (some teams go light on foreigners) and a number of returning players, openings on Japanese rosters are scarce and coveted. For many, it's their first and only opportunity to strike it rich. For others, it's a last chance to stay in baseball while experiencing a unique and fascinating culture.
The Best of the Worst
If there is a mark of shame for a position player, finishing with a sub-.200 career batting average is it.
In almost every case, players in the .199 and under range - even those with strong defensive skills - aren't worth keeping around. Could there be any exceptions to such an obvious rule? Three members of this undistinguished group actually have enough value to earn consideration for a reserve role despite falling under the dreaded Mendoza Line.
Jim French spent his entire big league career (1965-71) with the expansion version of the Washington Senators. As a catcher in a pitching-dominated era, French's .196 career average in 607 career at-bats may not be as terrible as it first appears.
After hitting an impressive .297 (11 for 37) in his 1965 debut, French went 6 for 40 (.150) in two cups of big league coffee in 1966 and 1967. During all three brief trials, the 5'7" lefty swinger was patient at the plate. His nine walks in '65 contributed to a .435 OBP.
French hit .194 in 165 ABs during pitching-dominated 1968. While his batting average stayed in the same range (.184 and .211) the following two seasons, French became even more patient under the influence of Ted Williams, who managed the Senators from 1969 to 1971.
A 29 for 158 season will usually get a player released, but add 38 walks to that total, and French's .348 OBP places him 27 points above the AL average of .321. It was more of the same in 1970, when French's 38 walks outnumbered his 35 hits. Despite little power (3 doubles, 1 triple and a home run), the stumpy catcher was a modest offensive asset, as his .358 OBP was well above the American League average of .322.
French was also valuable behind the plate, as he gunned down 22 of 53 attempted basestealers for a .415 success ratio in 1968. Exactly half (31 of 62) the stolen base attempts on French were foiled in 1969, and 121 career walks exceeds his 119 total hits.
Jack Cust fans will probably take a liking to Frank Fernandez. When it comes to an odd stat line, it's hard to beat this former catcher/outfielder.
The Staten Island native debuted with his hometown Yankees in 1967, and he played 51 games in 1968 when the franchise hit a pathetic .214. That is the worst team average of the live ball era.
Hitting .170 (23 for 135) with 50 strikeouts may scream "Putrid!" at first glance, but the rest of Fernandez's numbers are impressive. Seven home runs and 30 RBI projects to 26 HR and 111 RBI in 500 ABs during the worst offensive season since 1920. Add in 35 walks for a .341 OBP - 44 points above the AL average of .297 - and Fernandez becomes the ultimate Moneyball player of the 1960s. Fourteen of his 23 hits were for extra bases.
The righty slugger had another odd-looking year in 1969. Fernandez hit a career-best .223 with a dozen homers and 29 RBI in 229 ABs. While 68 strikeouts is a high total for a part-timer, Fernandez cut the Ks to one per 3.4 ABs from one per 2.7 ABs in 1968. A whopping 65 walks pushed the OBP to .399, which would have put Fernandez in eighth place in the American League had he qualified.
Traded to the A's after the season, Fernandez hit .214 with 15 HR and 44 RBI in 1970. His walk total fell to 40 in 252 ABs, putting his .327 OBP was just above the AL average of .322.
1971 was a bizarre season. Fernandez was constantly on the move, as he saw action in 39 games with the A's, Senators and Cubs. That may have contributed to a combined .138 (11 for 80) average.
Just 4 for 39 in the AL, Fernandez posted freakish numbers for the Cubs. His 7 for 41 (.171) average included four solo homers, which accounted for all his RBI in Chicago. Fernandez's 17 walks as a Cub outnumbered his 15 Ks and pushed his National League OBP to .414.
An 0 for 3 performance with the Cubs in 1972 closed out Fernandez's big league run and dropped his career average from .2003 to .1994. In 727 official ABs, Fernandez came through with 39 HR and 116 RBI. His walks (164) outnumbered his hits (145). Patience paid off for Fernandez, as his .350 OBP was high for the era.
Kevin Roberson's .197 career average came with frequent long-ball displays. While his 61 for 310 career with the Cubs and Mets from 1993 to 1996 is forgettable, nearly a third of Roberson's hits (20) cleared the fences. Add in 10 doubles and a triple, and more than half the outfielder's hits went for extra bases.
The 6'4" Roberson took an aggressive approach, as shown by his low walk total of 27. Not surprisingly, the switch-hitter was a high strikeout sort, with 93 career Ks.
No manager wants a sub-.200 type cluttering up his roster, but French, Fernandez and Roberson could legitimately point beyond their embarrasing batting averages in making a claim for a spot on the bench. Few others in that situation could do the same.
Now Batting, Number 73. . .
While the big names and hot prospects are subjected to the intense media scrutiny and fan adulation of spring training, dozens of players from former All-Stars to obscure minor league lifers are scratching and clawing for one more shot at the majors or the consolation prize of another year in AAA.
In most cases, these non-roster players are guaranteed nothing but living expenses and a brief opportunity to show their stuff. In many cases, the fate of journeymen are determined before exhibition games begin. They were signed to spend five months in Omaha, Ottawa or Fresno, or as a cheap insurance policy in case a low-cost roster spot needs to be filled.
Their lowly status as the untouchable caste of spring training is reinforced by jerseys numbered anywhere from the low 60s to the upper 80s. Some of us who habitually pull for the underdog are drawn to this side of baseball. In 2007, two AAA graybeards actually made the Opening Day roster and enjoyed their first full seasons in the Show.
Jason Wood spent the season as a pinch-hitter and reserve infielder with the Marlins, while Jamie Burke backed up catcher Kenji Johjima for the Mariners. Wood was 37 when the season ended (he turned 38 in December), and Burke is a fuzzy-cheeked kid of 36.
Wood delivered 26 RBI with just 28 hits (117 ABs, .239), while Burke hit .301 (34 for 113) behind the durable Johjima. Both players are back with the same teams this year, something that doesn't happen much to older baseball vagabonds.
So who are some of this year's non-roster hopefuls? Perhaps a few of these veteran position players will get one more taste of life at the major league level in 2008.
Tim Raines Jr. is in camp with the Diamondbacks. The switch-hitter's strong 2007 performance at Round Rock (.333, 11 HR, 49 RBI in 285 at-bats, 21 for 23 in SB) wasn't rewarded with a call-up to Houston. Raines last appeared in the majors in 2004. He is a .213 hitter (34 for 160 in 75 games) over parts of three seasons with the Orioles.
Javy Lopez is attempting a comeback at age 37 with the Braves. Former hot prospect Joe Borchard is also in camp.
With 1242 career minor league games and 1216 hits (.276), Luis Figueroa has more than a decade of professional experience. His major league time - 18 games and 16 ABs (2 hits, .125) - with the Pirates, Blue Jays and Giants - is minimal. Figueroa would be ecstatic to get the major league minimum from the Cubs.
Journeymen Jolbert Cabrera, Paul Bako and Andy Green could end up in Louisville if they don't make it with the Reds. Slugger Craig Wilson is one home run away from the 100 mark.
Former everyday players Marcus Giles and Scott Podsednik aim to leave camp with the Rockies. Jorge Cantu should have a job with the Marlins, while John Gall and Jorge Piedra compete for a bench spot. Jose Cruz Jr. hopes the Astros become his eighth major league stop, while Lance Niekro and David Newhan are also non-roster invitees.
AAA frequent flyers George Lombard and Danny Ardoin are with the Dodgers, as is former Blue Jay John-Ford Griffin. Former All-Star third baseman Fernando Tatis is attempting a comeback with the Mets, where Raul Casanova is also in camp.
Jorge Velandia raised his lifetime average from .151 to .188 during a September call-up with the Rays. The Pirates also invited 36-year old Jose Macias to compete with Velandia for a job in Pittsburgh or Indianapolis.
Oft-injured Juan Gonzalez hasn't appeared in the majors since a single 2005 at-bat, and the 38-year old former two-time MVP is trying to make it back to the bigs with the Cardinals. D'Angelo Jimenez is another non-roster prospect. The Padres are trying out Jeff Davanon and Jody Gerut as reserve outfielders, while the Nationals hope infielder Antonio Perez will bounce back from a horrendous 2006 season (10 for 98, .102, 44 Ks) with the A's.
Catcher Ben Davis hasn't appeared in the majors since 2004. Former Twins backstop Chris Heintz will compete with Davis for a job with the Orioles. Keith Ginter, Joe Thurston and Bobby Kielty may be ticketed for Rhode Island (Pawtucket), but they are aiming for Fenway Park.
All or nothing slugger Brad Eldred and Jeff Liefer are wearing White Sox pinstripes this spring. After eight minor league seasons, Aaron Herr hopes to make his major league debut with the Indians. Hitting .389 (35 for 90) didn't put Timo Perez on the Tigers 40-man roster. Quebec City native Maxim St. Pierre has toiled behind the plate in the minors since 1997.
Ken Huckaby has spent at least part of every season in AAA since 1995. The 37-year old catcher hopes to make the Royals his sixth major league team. Former Blue Jays infielder Howie Clark has a non-roster invitation with the Twins. Cody Ransom, Jason Lane and Chris Woodward want to become Yankees. Non-roster signee Mike Sweeney appears to have good shot to stick with Oakland as a part-time DH/1B and mentor for younger players.
Veteran Mike Difelice is in camp with the Rays along with .298 lifetime hitter John Rodriguez. Adam Melhuse and Chris Shelton could split time between Oklahoma and the Rangers, while former All-Star Edgardo Alfonzo is attempting a comeback with Texas. Former Cardinals and Indians infielder Hector Luna may get to spend the season in Toronto.
The odds are usually long, but don't say that to the 2008 crop of non-roster hopefuls. A strong showing in March or an injury or two could put one or more of these longshots on a major league roster by Opening Day.
Taking Route 19 to Obscurity
How can a pitcher do an excellent job and avoid being noticed? Just have a 19-win season.
Even in the modern era of five-man rotations that has made 20-game winners an endangered species, racking up 19 Ws does little more than elicit yawns. Would National League Cy Young Award winner Jake Peavy have gotten more publicity and national coverage if he added a win to his superb 19-6, 2.54 ERA 2007 stat line?
In more than a few cases, pitchers who fell one victory short of the magic 20-win mark were superior performers. Take Earl Moore as an example. His 1.77 ERA led the American League in 1903 when the right-hander was going 19-9 for the Indians.
Ed Reulbach's 19-4 record for the 1906 Cubs is exceptional by any standard, let alone for a third starter. Reulbach played a supporting role to Three Finger Brown (26-6, 1.06) and Jack Pfiester (20-8, 1.56) that season, as the Cubs set a record with their 116-36 (.763) record. The Cubs also took the top three spots in the National League's ERA race, and Reulbach picked up the bronze medal behind Brown and Pfiester.
Dutch Leonard's 1.01 ERA with the 1914 Red Sox is the best in baseball history, and that performance was accompanied by a 19-5 record. Hall of Famer Stan Coveleski's 19-14 record for the 1917 Indians isn't an eye grabber, but his 1.81 ERA was third in the AL and a full run below the league standard of 2.82.
When is 19-17 worthy of a large raise? Howard Ehmke eked out that record in 1924 for the seventh place, 67-87 Red Sox. The righty's 3.46 ERA was 0.77 better than the American League average of 4.23.
Picking up 19 victories as a starter is difficult enough, but a pair of tireless relievers reached that mark in 1927 and 1928..
Wilcy Moore went 19-7 for the fabled 1927 Yankees. HIs 50 appearances included a dozen starts, and Moore's 213 innings pitched would be three seasons worth of work for a modern closer. The rookie's 2.28 ERA led the majors.
Fred "Firpo" Marberry is often credited with being the first true late-innings ace. The Washington Senators righty went 19-12 with 11 saves (credited retroactively) in 1928. Marberry's 3.06 ERA in 250.1 IP was good for second place in the AL, and he was fourth in strikeouts (121).
A career-high 26 of Marberry's 49 appearances were as a starter, and he tossed 16 complete games. His career stats include a 148-88 record (.627) and 101 saves.
Over in the National League, Ray Kremer was going 19-8 with an NL-best 2.47 ERA for the pennant-winning 1927 Pirates. Even though he made his big league debut at age 31 in 1924, Kremer won 15 to 20 games every season from 1924 to 1930, with a pair of 20-win campaigns. Kremer's 143-85 career record translates to a .627 winning percentage.
Ask even the most fanatical baseball history buff about the best NL pitchers of 1929, and Red Lucas probably wouldn't make the short list. The Tennessee native had a 19-12 record while completing 28 of 32 starts for the seventh-place Reds (66-88).
Lucas' 3.60 ERA was good for fifth place in the NL and nearly a full run under the league average of 4.57. The right-hander also finished in the five spot in ERA in 1932 and 1936. A lifetime .281 hitter, Lucas is remembered more for his skill with a bat than as a hurler. He went 13 for 42 (.310) as a pinch-hitter in '29 and finished his versatile career with 109 pinch hits.
The Phillies put in a typically inept Depression-era performance in 1934, as they finished in seventh place with a 56-93 record. Curt Davis kept the team out of the cellar with his 19-17 record, which doesn't reflect just how well he pitched.
A 30-year old rookie, Davis led the National League with 51 games pitched (31 starts, 18 CGs). His 2.95 ERA (league average 4.06) was fourth in the NL, but adjust that number for the home field disadvantage of the dinky, decaying Baker Bowl, and Davis looks even better. Subtract his stats, and the Phillies' team ERA jumps from 4.76 to 5.32.
The St. Louis Browns wouldn't have won their only American League pennant in 1944 without Nelson Potter's career year.
Relying on control and a sinker/slider/offspeed repetoire, Potter went 19-7 with a 2.83 ERA for the Brownies. He went 0-1 against the Cardinals in the World Series despite an 0.93 ERA (one run, 9.2 IP) in a pair of appearances.
Steve Gromek's 19-9, 2.55 season for the 1945 Indians nudged the team above the .500 level at 73-72. With nine games lost to rainouts, it's likely that Gromek would have reached the 20-win level if Cleveland had played a full schedule.
Hall of Famer Jim Bunning racked up three consecutive 19-win seasons (19-8, 19-9 and 19-14 respectively) with the Phillies from 1964 to 1966. During that time, Bunning had just one league-leading stat - his 1.46 walks per nine innings pitched in 1964 - and 24 other top 5 finishes in WHIP, ERA, IP, complete games, strikeouts, batters faced and winning percentage.
The hard-throwing future U.S. senator from Kentucky also tossed a Father's Day perfect game against the Mets on June 21, 1964. It was a fitting time to make history, as Bunning and his wife were parents of seven children at the time.
Joel Horlen had his best season in 1967. The White Sox righty went 19-7 with an AL-best 2.06 ERA. More run support would have gotten Horlen to the magic 20-win circle. The Sox hit just .225 as a team, with Ken Berry and Don Buford co-leading the south siders with their anemic .241 averages.
Despite scoring just 531 runs, the White Sox were in the thick of a four-way pennant race until the final weekend of the season. Gary Peters (16-11, 2.28) and Tommy John (10-13, 2.47) finished second and fourth in the ERA race.
Steve Blass was the ace of the 1972 Pirates staff. The right-hander's 19-8 record and 2.49 ERA (sixth in the NL) earned Blass his only All-Star appearance.
With several other solid seasons in his background, it would appear that Blass' future was bright, but a mysterious and complete loss of control led to a nightmarish 1973. Blass went 3-9 with a hideous 9.85 ERA. He gave up 84 walks with just 27 strikeouts in 88.2 IP. Despite trying every mental and physical technique possible and trips to the minors, Blass never regained his form and retired after the 1974 season.
How can a pitcher put up dominant numbers and not even make the All-Star team? It happened to Bert Blyleven several times, but 1984 was the most blatant example of the lack of respect that dogged his career.
Going 19-7 with a 2.87 for the otherwise dreary (75-87, sixth in the AL East) Indians, Blyleven was second the American League in winning percentage (.731), wins, fewest hits per innings (7.49) and WHIP. The curveballer was third in ERA and fourth in strikeouts (170) and complete games (12).
Blyleven lost at least four late-season starts with a broken bone. That surely cost him a 20-win season, but isn't a 19-7 performance for one of the league's worst teams enough to win a Cy Young Award? Relievers Willie Hernandez and Dan Quisenberry finished 1-2 in the balloting. Blyleven picked up four first-place votes and came in third.
It's not easy to pick the peak of Greg Maddux's 347-win career, but 1995 looks like the top performance of the bunch - and it's the best 19-win season of all time.
The 19-2 (.905) record is incredible, but that tells just part of the story of Maddux's dominance. In his third season with the Braves, Maddux posted a puny 1.63 ERA in a hitter's park. That was a whopping 2.64 better than the NL average, as Maddux gave up just 38 percent as many runs as the typical pitcher. In 209.2 IP, Maddux struck out 181 and walked just 23 for a nearly 8 to 1 ratio. He gave up fewer than one walk per nine innings (0.99) and owned most of the statistical categories.
Not suprisingly, Maddux breezed to the third of his four NL Cy Young Awards, and he led the Braves to a world championship. So what kept "Mad Dog" from winning 20? Thanks to the lingering effects of the 1994 players strike, the 1995 season began late and was shortened to 144 games. Give Maddux those missing starts, and 20 would have been a lock.
If a pitcher wins 20, it's a ticket to at least a measure of fame and media hype. Deduct one victory, and that same guy might be forgotten just a few years later.
Why Spend Big Bucks for Mediocrity?
Looking ahead to 2008, the top American League teams - the Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Indians and Yankees - are also the five best squads in the majors. If all goes as is widely expected, one of these teams won't qualify for the postseason despite their elite status.
With the possible exception of the Mariners sneaking into the playoffs if the Angels have an unexpected collapse, it seems that the playoff prospects for the other eight AL teams are somewhere between slim and none - and slim just left town. What's a general manager of a mediocre-to-poor team supposed to do when confronted with this harsh reality?
Barring a baseball miracle such as the A's or Twins pulling off more of their low-budget magic, there are two clear paths that a small-market or losing AL team can take in '08. The best long-term option may seem like waving the white flag, but it makes sense from an economic and future-oriented perspective.
Should a less competitive team go for broke (literally) and spend $90 to $110 million on payroll in a desperate attempt to reach the .500 level? I'd hate to have to build a marketing campaign on "81 wins in 2008 is great!" How many more tickets will the Blue Jays, Orioles, Rays or Rangers sell if they win 78 games instead of 73?
GMs and front offices throughout the league should have made this decision by now. Without a firm and solid plan, just about every team in baseball except for the miserly Marlins has a knack for doing the drunken sailor routine when the mid-level player of the day hits the free agent market.
The Royals are this year's most obvious example of desperation winning out over logic and common sense. A $36 million commitment (three years at $12 million/season) to Jose Guillen is a prime example of what not to do when trying to improve a losing franchise.
While Guillen has some pop in his bat and a strong arm in rightfield, his reputation for being a perpetual pain in the rear is just what a team doesn't want for the long term. It also remains to be seen how Guillen will do without the "performance-enhancing substances" (English translation: steroids) that may cost him a 15-game suspension.
Guillen might be just the right five or six-hole hitter to help a contender in a supporting role. For the losing, cash-strapped Royals, he's a financial vampire draining the team's meager payroll. No one in Kansas City lined up for season tickets or playoff seats when Guillen's signing was announced.
Numerous examples of such short-sighted thinking (remember Franklin Stubbs, Pat Meares, Derek Bell and Adam Eaton, to name just four?) can be found in the free agency era. Earl Weaver and the late 1970s Orioles had perhaps the most intelligent approach to playing the free agent game.
To paraphrase Weaver, "Unless a guy has a strong chance of going into the Hall of Fame, don't get in a bidding war for him." During that time, the Orioles picked up role players and second-tier pitchers at modest prices. Free agency wasn't an expensive roll of the dice, but a way to fill some holes and find a bargain or two.
So how much revenue does a team forfeit by going from mediocre to worse? If attendance drops 100,000 when a team falls from the previous example of 78 to 73 wins, it could mean a decline in gross revenue of $3 million to $3.5 million.
But what if that same team could shave $20 million from the payroll for a slightly worse record? Why pay a journeyman $4 million to $6 million for a 70-RBI season when a cheap $1.5 million platoon might produce 63 RBI? That extra bit of production can be mighty expensive. Seven extra RBI could mean the playoffs for a contender, but that doesn't apply in the nether regions of the standings.
Losers also get higher draft picks and possibly more revenue sharing, so not going all out for a possible shot at .500 has some logic from a financial perspective. This is not to suggest that any team throw games, but a look at the realities of modern baseball economics.
This hypothetical scenario doesn't work if team owners pocket the extra $16.5 million or more that could be gained from taking the frugal road. It makes sense only if the savings are heavily invested in player development and scouting with a goal of future success.
If a franchise chooses this route for a year or two, they also need to take good care of the fans. Offer tons of otherwise unwanted tickets at big discounts - say $5 each - when the Rays and Pirates come to town. It's good PR and customer relations, not to mention a way to get kids and folks with modest incomes into the park.
Think like master promoter Bill Veeck and give away a few free cars or vacations. Have an unannounced gift like a free soda to everyone who comes to a game on a blazing hot day. Pepsi and ice are cheap, and the gesture will be remembered.
Three of the four teams in the 2007 League Championship Series - the Indians, Rockies and Diamondbacks - had some of the lowest payrolls in the majors. They have surged from sub-.500 seasons through developing their own talent at the minor league level.
Ideally, low-budget teams should do everything they can to develop pitchers both for the major league roster and as a valuable trading commodity to fill weak spots. Electric arms will always be in short supply, but any GM with a suplus of young middle relievers (now fetching $4 million to $5 million/year as free agents) and 3, 4 and 5 starters is going to be extremely popular at the winter meetings.
Getting back to the much-maligned Marlins, how many team owners would trade their undistinguished records of the past 15 years for Florida's two world championships since entering the majors in 1993? A pair of great seasons and a bunch of lousy ones may have more appeal than occasional blips above the .500 level and a string of false hopes.
Putting together a team that can take the World Series or compete for a few years is one thing. Keeping that roster together in the long run, paying ever-escalating salaries for essentially the same production and bidding for free agents isn't an option for small-market franchises. In those instances, it could make sense to exchange one step back in 2008 for three steps forward later.
A Tale of Two New York Giants
The New York (baseball) Giants often lagged behind the Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers in attendance when the Big Apple was home to three major league baseball teams. Authors who write about the franchise's history tend to focus on a few areas.
Christy Mathewson and John McGraw have been the subjects of numerous articles and books. Moving to the 1930s, Mel Ott and Bill Terry have gotten a fair amount of attention from baseball historians. The 1951 "Miracle at Coogan's Bluff" home run by Bobby Thompson that put the Giants in the World Series is a perpetual topic for New Yorkers and others. Add in the non-stop coverage of Willie Mays, the books on Leo Durocher plus accounts of journeyman Dusty Rhodes' heroics in the 1954 World Series, and that pretty well sums up what's available on the east coast version of the Giants.
Since 2007 is the 50th anniversary of the team's last game in the Polo Grounds, it's an appropriate time to look at two lesser-known Giants. They were managed by Durocher, and both men were teammates during the Mays era. While these players were starters on the same roster, their approaches to the game couldn't be more different.
Catcher Wes Westrum and outfielder Don Mueller spent much of the 1950s in the shadow of Mays. As everyday players on a team that appeared in two World Series (1951 and 1954), Westrum and Mueller played vital supporting roles in the franchise's last seasons at the Polo Grounds.
As a grade schooler obsessed with all things baseball, I knew Westrum had replaced Casey Stengel when the Old Professor retired from managing the Mets after suffering a broken hip during the 1965 season. Applying the normal standards of the day, I had a typical late 1960s reaction when reviewing Westrum's career numbers.
"What were the Giants thinking? How could they keep such a terrible hitter for so long?", I asked after being exposed to the Minnesota native's .217 lifetime average from 1947 to 1957, all with the New York Giants. How wrong I was.
While Westrum was subpar in one category, he made up for it elsewhere. He finished fourth in the National League with 92 walks in 1950. Combine that with a .236 average to arrive at a .371 OBP plus a career-best 23 home runs and 71 RBI.
Add in durability (140 games as a catcher) and Westrum's pitch calling and defensive skills - just one error for a .999 fielding percentage - and it quickly becomes obvious just how valuable he could be.
Although his average fell to .219 in 1951, Westrum was still an asset to the pennant-winning Giants. A career-high 104 walks (third in the NL) in 361 ABs led to a .400 OBP, which would had been good enough for sixth in the league if Westrum had a few more at-bats to qualify. His 20 HR and 70 RBI were far above normal from a bottom of the order hitter.
To call Westrum's season productive is an understatement, as he had nearly an RBI for each of his 79 hits. His walk total exceeded the hit count by 25, so opposing pitchers had to work hard to put Westrum away. He occasionally batted higher in the lineup. Westrum was in the cleanup slot behind Mays on May 28, 1951. That was the day when the Say Hey Kid smacked the first of his 660 career home runs against Warren Spahn.
The average stayed nearly the same at .220 (71 for 322) in 1952. Westrum's walks (76) exceeded his hits (71) for the second consecutive year, and a .374 OBP would have been eighth in the NL with enough plate appearances.
Westrum's playing time decreased for the next five years - possibly because of the era's focus on batting average. He made numerous appearances as a late-inning defensive replacement during the final three years of his career. In that time (1955-57), the right-handed hitter appeared in exactly 200 box scores, with just 360 ABs.
With nearly as many career walks (489) as hits (503), Westrum's OBP of .356 is above the NL average of .343 during his career. Even with a combined .228 average in 1950 and 1951, Westrum was clearly a solid offensive catcher during those years. He was named to the National League All-Star team in 1952 and 1953.
Unlike Westrum, Mueller was a high-average type. His ability to make contact and slap singles earned the left-handed hitter the nickname "Mandrake the Magician" after the popular comic strip character.
The St. Louis native provided an accurate preview of his career in 1948. In 36 games and 81 rookie ABs, Mueller hit .358 with just three strikeouts and no walks. 1950 was Mueller's first full season with the Giants. He hit .291 (153 for 525) with 7 HR and a career-best 84 RBI. Twenty-six strikeouts combined with 10 walks says it all about Mueller's approach to hitting.
Mueller cut the Ks in half to 13 in 1951, when he went 130 for 469 for a .277 average with 16 HRs (a career high) and 69 RBI. Although he nearly doubled his walk total to 19, Mueller's .307 OBP was 36 points below the NL average of .343.
The Giants rightfielder experienced what had to be one of the most heartbreaking moments in baseball history. Mueller broke his ankle when sliding into third base during the ninth inning of the famed "shot heard round the world" pennant clincher of October 3, 1951. If the injury hadn't occured, Mueller would have had his usual starting role in that year's World Series against the Yankees.
By his impatient standards, Mueller was operating at a Rickey Henderson-like level of taking pitches in 1952. A career-best 34 walks with 24 Ks in 456 ABs (128 hits, .281) led to a 26-point jump in OBP to .333.
Mueller showed why he was tagged with the Mandrake moniker in 1953. He hit .333 (160 for 480), and just 20 of those knocks (12 2B, 2 3B, 6 HR) went for extra bases, which meant Mueller earned a Ph.D in punching singles. The BA was good for fifth in the NL, and the 13 Ks and 19 walks were a rerun of 1951. Even though he often hit third, Muller led the NL in singles in 1954 (165) and 1955 (152) along with a third place finish (140) in 1953.
It was onward and upward in 1954. Mueller came through with career bests in hits (212), batting average (.342), doubles (35) and OBP (.363). Only teammate Mays (.345) surpassed Mueller, who hit an RBI double in his first All-Star appearance.
The year was rounded out with seven singles in 18 World Series ABs (.389) as the underdog Giants swept the Indians in the Fall Classic. With just 17 Ks and 22 walks, opposing fielders had to be alert when Mueller was at the plate. 1954 was the second of four consecutive seasons where Mueller reigned as the league's toughest strikeout.
A .306 (185 for 605) campaign in 1955 was good enough to earn Mueller a second All-Star nomination. Although his doubles plunged from 35 to 21, the RBI count rose from 71 to 83. As always, Mueller was the supreme master of putting the ball in play, with 12 Ks (less than one every 50 ABs) and 19 walks.
Mandrake ran out of tricks in 1956, as his ability to hit for average vanished. After a trio of .300 plus performances, Mueller fell to .269 and .258 in the Giants' final two seasons in upper Manhattan. With his free-swinging approach, that meant OBPs of .290 and .280.
Mueller was still all but impossible to strike out, as he had just seven Ks in 453 ABs in 1956. The contact master closed out his career as a part-timer with the White Sox in 1958 and 1959. Mueller's .296 lifetime average (1292 for 4364) is just 26 lower than his .322 OBP, which is 18 points under the NL average of .340. Many 21st century players have more Ks in one season than Mueller's career total of 146, but his 164 walks would scare off modern numbers crunchers.
Two teammates with radically different hitting styles. How could Westrum and Mueller have anything in common with a bat in their hands? In one respect, these Gotham Giants are two peas in a pod.
Both patient, powerful Westrum and slap at anything Mueller were allergic to doubles. Westrum's best season of 13 came in 1950 when he had a career high 437 at-bats. It was all downhill from there. Westrum smacked a dozen two-baggers in 1951, 11 in 1952 and five in 290 ABs in 1954.
While hitting .187 in 1955, Westrum had just three doubles in 246 ABs. Eight homers and 45 walks meant he wasn't a total offensive zero, but even a gun to his head wouldn't have gotten doubles out of Westrum in 1955 and 1957. In those years, Westrum had a lone double per season in 132 and 91 ABs.
Just 59 doubles in 2322 career ABs is a lowly number, but Westrum's final five campaigns are almost freakish. From 1953 to 1957, the catcher had a mere 15 doubles in 896 ABs. There may be a contributing factor, which will be explored later.
Toss out 1954 when he was eighth in the NL in doubles, and Mueller had just 104 two-base hits in his other 3745 ABs. He had just 10 doubles along with seven triples in 469 ABs in 1951. That total crept up to 14 in 456 ABs the following year. Never known as a consistent longball threat, Mueller actally had more homers (28) than doubles (24) in those two seasons.
A dozen doubles in 453 ABs in 1956 doesn't look good, but it sure beats the seven two-baggers in 450 ABs that Mueller produced in 1957. Add in a triple and six HRs, and it means 102 of that season's 116 hits were singles.
Could there another reason why Westrum and Mueller are deficient in doubles? The odd, bathtub shape of the Polo Grounds meant deep alleys but a narrow outfield. Anything clubbed over an outfielder's head had a chance to go for a triple or even an inside-the-park home run, but there was relatively little space to cover in the gaps.
In the Polo Grounds, line drives and gappers could be cut off easier by outfielders with average to poor speed. That would be especially true if outfielders played deeper than normal. Without having the time to make an exhaustive study, a look at National League doubles leaders provides some insights.
Giants second baseman Larry Doyle (no relation) led the NL with 40 doubles in 1915, a season when he also led the league with a .320 BA. The next Giant to lead the NL in doubles was Alvin Dark (41) in 1951. No other New York or San Francisco Giant has topped National League in doubles since. That's not a great surprise, as the team spent 40 years in wind-whipped, blustery Candlestick Park after leaving New York.
With just one league leader in 88 seasons of the live ball era, it's not a stretch to say the Polo Grounds could have cut into the doubles totals of Giants hitters. If that's not the case, then why would extreme opposites such as Westrum and Mueller have such similar results in that department?
Fun and Unusual Stats from the National League
The National League had its share of offbeat stats in 2007. Here are some of the more interesting ones.
He can pitch a little, too: The Diamondbacks should find a way to get Micah Owings some more time at the plate. A .333 average with 4 HR and 15 RBI in 60 at-bats (20 hits) is a huge eye opener.
Add in seven doubles and a triple, and it means Owings had an impressive .683 slugging percentage - or 65 points above NL leader Prince Fielder (.618). Sixty percent of Owings' hits went for extra bases. On the mound, the rookie righthander was 8-8 with a 4.30 ERA in 152.2 IP.
Slow-footed teams: David Eckstein led the Cardinals with 10 stolen bases, while So Taguchi and Brendan Ryan tied for second with seven swipes. The Astros were topped by 11 SB from Hunter Pence and burly Carlos Lee was the runner-up with 10.
Juanderful: While Dodgers outfielder Juan Pierre isn't a favorite of those who value on-base and slugging percentage, he is among the league leaders in several categories every year.
Pierre has been the toughest strikeout in the league for six of the past seven seasons. He has also led the NL twice and finished second five times in stolen bases over that time. He hasn't missed a game in the past five seasons, and Pierre has finished first or second in singles every year since 2001. As a durable leadoff man, Pierre is always high in plate appearances and outs. He has been in the top three in hits five times, and Pierre has four 200-hit seasons to his credit.
Run production desperately needed: Even with Barry Bonds, the Giants were 15th in the NL and next-to-last in the majors in runs scored (683). It could be a very bleak 2008 in San Francisco.
A very quiet .332: Reds infielder Jeff Keppinger went 80 for 241 with just 12 strikeouts. Displaying gap power, Keppinger smacked 16 doubles, a pair of triples, 5 HR and 32 RBI. Being on a losing, small-market team meant a potential breakout season got little attention.
The trade makes sense: Why did the Braves acquire Mark Teixiera? Scott Thorman finished the season hitting .216 (62 for 287) with 70 strikeouts and just 14 walks for a .258 OBP.
The ultimate in mediocrity: Only two teams - the Diamondbacks and Rockies - reached 90 wins in 2007, and Colorado needed an extra game to do so.
A .556 winning percentage gives the D-Backs (90-72) the dubious honor of having the lowest such statistic for a league leader in victories. The "dominant" team in the NL was also outscored 712-732. Anyone who says the American League isn't stronger than the National is delusional.
Pirates speedsters: Outfielder Nate McLouth went 22 for 23 (.957) in steals in 2007. He is 34 for 36 (.944) on the bases in three seasons in Pittsburgh. Fellow Pirates OF Chris Duffy can also get around the bases, as he is 41 for 48 (.854) lifetime.
Southpaws beware: Rookie of the Year Ryan Braun hit .450 (50 for 111) against left-handed pitchers. Exactly half (25) of those hits went for extra bases (eight doubles, two triples, 15 homers), and Braun had 35 RBI in those at-bats along with an otherworldly .964 slugging percentage.
Hitting .324 with 34 HR and 97 RBI in just 113 games means Braun had one of the best offensive debuts in history, but leather proved to be his kryptonite. The Brewers third baseman made 26 errors and had a below average range factor to go with his dreadful .895 fielding percentage. A move to left field is being considered by Milwaukee.
A lost season: Ryan Langerhans bounced from the Braves to the A's to the Nationals in 2007. He finished with a .170 (35 for 206) average, 6 HR, 23 RBI and 81 strikeouts.
Busting loose: Marlins outfielder Cody Ross came into the year with a .220 (69 for 313) lifetime average. Ross proceeded to hit .335 (58 for 173) with a dozen HRs and 39 RBI. Add in 19 doubles, and it means that more than half of Ross's hits went for extra bases.
That once-anemic career average has soared 41 points to .261. Ross is one of the small number of players in history to bat right-handed and throw from the left side.
The MVP is no slacker: Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins played in all 162 games plus the National League Division Series. He had 716 at-bats (778 plate appearances), 212 hits, 38 doubles, 20 triples, 30 HRs and 94 RBI. Rollins didn't take it easy on the bases, going 41 for 47 in stolen base attempts. If anyone deserves some time off, it's Rollins.
Mr. Consistency: Utilityman Geoff Blum hit .254 in 2006 and .252 with the Padres in 2007, which is right in line with his .251 lifetime mark. Blum recently signed a one-year deal with the Astros.
Consistent no more: After a .257 rookie campaign in 1995, Ray Durham hit between .271 and .299 with double-digit home run and stolen base totals over 11 seasons (1996-2006). That run of predictability ended in 2007, when Durham hit a career-low .218 for the Giants. His 71 RBI in 464 ABs wasn't bad.
Bench stars: Daryle Ward hit .327 (36 for 110) with 13 doubles, 3 HR and 19 RBI for the Cubs. Add in Ward's 22 walks for a stunning .436 OBP.
At age 32, Joe Dillon's major league career consisted of 36 ABs with the Marlins. The Brewers got more than anyone expected out of a AAA lifer, as midseason call-up DIllon hit .342 (26 for 76) with eight doubles and two triples while playing several different positions.
One more season: If Julio Franco can catch on with a team and stay on the roster until at least August 23, that would make him a 50-year old major leaguer. Don't bet against this middle-aged physical marvel.
Odd and Interesting American League Stats of 2007
Never mind the league leaders. For me, the unusual and sometimes freakish statistics are the most interesting part of baseball's numbers game.
Every year has a new crop of goofy and fun stats. Here are some of the best from the 2007 American League season.
Lots of Ks in Tampa Bay: Seven Devil Rays position players finished the season with more than 100 strikeouts, while shortstop Brendan Harris just missed the century mark with 96 whiffs.
B.J. Upton leads the not so magnificent seven with 154 Ks in just 474 at-bats. That pace was exceeded by Jonny Gomes' 126 strikeouts in 348 ABs. We'll gladly take Carlos Pena's 142 Ks in exchange for his team record 46 home runs ,121 RBI, 103 walks and .411 OBP.
Rookie Delmon Young's 127 Ks and 26 walks shows he has some big holes in his game, which he will get to work out in the Metrodome after last week's six-player deal with the Twins. Japanese third baseman Akinori Iwamura had 114 whiffs in his major league debut, while talented Carl Crawford went to strike three 112 times.
Ty Wigginton rounds out the list. He had 73 Ks with the Rays before a traded to the Astros. The infielder's 40 strikeouts in Houston gives him 113 for the season. With 1324 Ks as a team, the Rays led the major by nearly 100 whiffs over the second-place Padres (1229).
.188 sure looks great: Journeyman infielder and AAA veteran Jorge Velandia entered the season with a .151 lifetime average in 150 career games, which gave him the (ahem) honor of having the lowest career mark of anyone who appeared in at least 150 games.
A September call-up with the Rays, Velandia took advantage of his first major league opportunity since 2003. An 8 for 13 start propelled Velandia to a .320 performance (16 for 50) and a 37-point jump in his lifetime average. Newfound power and run production led to Velandia's first two big league homers and 11 RBI. Now that he has blown by Bill Bergen (.170 career) and Ray Oyler (.175), it's .200 or bust for Velandia.
No power? No problem!: With just 123 homers as a team, the Angels were 12th in the league and 28th in the majors. Vladimir Guerrero was the only player to exceed the 20 mark with his 27 bombs. The power shortage didn't prevent the Angels from going 94-68, which ties L.A. with the Yankees for the thrid bestrecord in the majors in 2007.
Still aiming for double digits: Howie Kendrick's nine walks in 267 ABs in 2006 might have been attributed to rookie inexperience, but the Angels second baseman was even less selective in 2007. The highly touted Kendrick's .322 average was no surprise, but just nine more free passes in 338 ABs lowered his OBP to .347.
Teammate Guerrero is often singled out for his lack of patience, but Vlad's 71 walks was the second best season of his career. He had 84 BBs with the Expos in 2002.
Midwestern power outage: Only four Twins players had more than seven home runs in 2007. Justin Morneau led Minnesota with 31 bombs, and Torii Hunter's 28 HRs will be sorely missed. Michael Cuddyer (16) and Jason Kubel (13) also reached double digits, but the rest of the roster combined for just 30 four-baggers.
One Twin exceeded preseason power expectations. Outfielder Jason Tyner has two homers in 3059 minor league at-bats and none in his first 1220 big league ABs, but he connected against Indians pitcher Jake Westbrook on July 28.
Making his hits count: Twins DH/LF Rondell White went just 19 for 109 (.174) with 4 HR and 20 RBI.
Dreadful: Nick Punto put up one of the worst offensive seasons ever by a third baseman. His .210 (99 for 472) average, 1 HR and 25 RBI looks like a 1960s stat line for light-hitting shortstops such as Dal Maxvill or Bobby Wine, but runs were much scarcer then. Punto's .271 slugging percentage and .291 OBP was an obstacle the Twins couldn't overcome.
The ultimate Moneyball/Billy Beane player: Even though he wasn't called up until May 4, A's DH/OF Jack Cust still led the American League in strikeouts (164) and came in second in walks (105). He also came through with 26 HR and 82 RBI in 395 ABs. Add a .256 average to the walks, and Cust ended 2007 with a .408 OBP.
Spreading the power around: A team leader with 25 home runs is below average in this swing for the fences era. Victor Martinez topped the Indians with that modest number in 2007, but the team has sufficient slugging thanks to Travis Hafner and Grady Sizemore (24 each) along with 21 homers apiece from Jhonny Peralta and Ryan Garko.
Based on Hafner's past performance, it wouldn't be unreasonable to expect 35 bombs from Pronk in 2008, so Cleveland should be in good shape offensively.
Where's the run production?: Emil Brown led the Royals with just 62 RBI. Brown needed 366 at-bats to pace Kansas City. Alex Gordon and Mark Teahen tied for second with 60 RBI in 543 and 544 ABs respectively. Those kind of numbers might have sufficed in the slap-hitting war years (1942-45), but definitely not in 2007.
Mr. Consistency (unfortunately): Former Red Sox catcher Kevin Cash has spent parts of five seasons in the majors. His batting averages of .143, .142 (15 for 106), .193, .161 and .111 give Cash a .167 lifetime mark (60 for 359). Add in 111 strikeouts and 20 walks for a .223 OBP.
A big improvement: Corey Patterson has cut his strikeouts from 118 in 451 at-bats in 2005 to 65 in 461 ABs. The speedy Orioles outfielder still chases too many bad pitches, as evidenced by his 21 walks in 2007. On the bright side, Patterson was 37 for 46 (.804) in stolen bases.
See you on the DL: Only one Rangers player - shortstop Michael Young - appeared in more than 130 games in 2007.
How the mighty have fallen: The White Sox have gone from world champions to losers in just two years. While the team's bullpen (except for reliable Bobby Jenks) played a major role in the collapse of 2007, a weak offense also hampered the south siders.
Five players with 20 to 35 homers - way too many of them solo shots - didn't make up for a .246 team average and .318 OBP. Jim Thome led the Sox with his .275 average. The team's 693 runs scored was last in the AL despite 180 bombs, which was good for second place in the league.
He should know better: After 17 seasons in the majors, Ivan Rodriguez should have figured out when to take a pitch or two by now. Instead, the Tigers catcher had just nine walks and a career-high 96 strikeouts in 502 at-bats. Pudge's .281 batting average was just 13 points lower than his .294 OBP.
Not a typical first baseman: Despite his size, Sean Casey's numbers often look more like a middle infielder than a slugger. He hit just 4 HR in 453 ABs with the Tigers in 2007, and Casey's 54 RBI is meager for a slugger's position.
Casey hit .312 but had just 9 HR and 58 RBI in 529 ABs with the Reds in 2005. He split 2006 between the Pirates and Tigers and hit .272 with 8 HR and 59 RBI.
Hacking away: The Mariners walked just 389 times in 2007. The main culprits were shortstop Yuniesky Betancourt (15 BB in 536 AB, .289 BA, .308 OBP) and catcher Kenji Johjima (15 BB in 485 ABs, .287 BA, .322 OBP). Jose Vidro's 63 walks led the team and made him (relatively speaking) Seattle's version of Eddie "The Walking Man" Yost.
NLDS Preview: Colorado Rockies vs. Philadelphia Phillies
I'm Al Doyle, history columnist (Past Times) for Baseball Analysts. I have written approximately 100 player profiles, interviews and features for Baseball Digest. One of my favorite experiences in writing baseball history was interviewing the survivors of the pennant-winning 1944 St. Louis Browns for a 2004 article in St. Louis magazine.
My interest in the Rockies dates back to 1993, as our family moved to Colorado just weeks after the franchise played its first game. I have seen the team set records in surpassing the 4 million mark in attendance, the push to the playoffs in 1995 as well as the creeping fan apathy of recent years.
Now back in the Midwest, I follow the Rockies from afar. Although I don't get to see the team much, Denver remains one of my favorite places in America, and Coors Field is a gem of a ballpark. My analysis of what can be expected from the Rockies in the NLDS follows.
Hi, I'm David Cohen, one of the team of bloggers at The Good Phight. We've covered the Phillies for the past three seasons and would love to claim that we were believers even when they were, altogether now, seven games back with seventeen to go. But, we'd be lying if we said that. We do live and die by the team and are finally feeling rewarded with our first playoff game in 5,094 days. No Joe Carters this time, though, ok?
Yorvit Torrealba (396 AB, .255, 8 HR, 47 RBI, .323 OBP) gives the team some gap power and run production at the bottom of the order. From what I've seen of Torrealba behind the plate, he handles himself well and should have a long career (barring injury) as a platoon or solid backup catcher. Chris Ianetta (.218, 4 HR, 27 RBI, .330 OBP in a disappointing rookie season) may also see some action.
Carlos Ruiz (.259/.340/.396, 6 HR, 54 RBI) was a bit of a disappointment this year, but he did show improved patience at the plate. Regardless, he was better than free agent signing Rod Barajas. Ruiz was hit hard by pitches twice in the final series and is day-to-day for the NLDS.
Al says: Tossup.
David says: very very slight edge Phillies.
Todd Helton (557 AB, 17 HR, 91 RBI, .320, 114 BB, .434 OBP) is no longer the slugger he once was, but his ability to get on base and smack doubles (42) makes him a cleanup-hitting tablesetter of sorts for Garrett Atkins and Brad Hawpe. This will be Helton's first postseason series in an 11-year major league career. The three-time Gold Glover is one reason why the Rockies committed just 68 errors as a team. Helton had just two miscues in 1448 chances this season for a .999 fielding percentage.
Ryan Howard (.268/.392/.584, 47 HR, 136 RBI) didn't duplicate his 2006 MVP line of .313/.425/.659, but who can blame him? He missed 12 games in May due to injury, but still put up monster numbers, including an all-time record 199 strikeouts. With 47 HR and 136 RBI, though, who cares?
Al says: Phillies get the edge here. Howard is an offensive force.
David says: Helton is a great player, but Howard is better.
Kaz Matsui's offensive numbers (.410 AB, 4 HR, 37 RBI, .288, .342 OBP) reflect a 2006 move from Shea Stadium to Coors Field. Matsui smacked .330 in Denver as compared to .249 on the road. Baserunning is Matsui's strong suit, as he was 32 for 36 (.889) in stolen bases this season is and 62 for 71 (.873) as a major leaguer.
Chase Utley (.332/.410/.566, 22 HR, 103 RBI) missed even more time than Howard - a full month spanning July and August. But, he was still the best second baseman in baseball (68.8 VORP to Placido Polanco's 49.0) and should be for another decade or so.
Al says: Advantage Phillies. Utley is one of the best at his position.
David says: No easier comparison than here - Utley by a mile.
Troy Tulowitzki's skill with the glove was no surprise, but his 24 HR and 99 RBI (.291, .359 OBP) were definitely better than expected. The Rookie of the Year and Gold Glove candidate came on strong in the second half, with 15 HR and 60 RBI after the All-Star break. Tulo definitely likes Colorado, as he hit .326, with 15 home runs and 60 RBI in Coors and just .256/9/39 elsewhere.
Jimmy Rollins (.296/.344/.531, 30 HR, 94 RBI) is the Philadelphia fans' MVP choice (I'm not entirely sold). He joined the rare 20 HR, 20 2B, 20 3B, 20 SB club (only three other members) and set the all-time record for at-bats (716) and total plate appearances (778). Rollins started every game, played excellent defense, hit for power, and was a terror on the basepaths. He still could use some patience at the plate, but that's mere quibbling at this point in his career.
Al says: Give this one to the Phillies, as Rollins is among the elite at SS. Tulowitski is no slouch.
David says: Edge to Rollins, but Tulowitzki is no slacker.
Garrett Atkins (.301, 25 HR, 111 RBI, .367 OBP) staggered to a slow start, hitting .223 with 3 HR and 20 RBI in 197 AB during April and May. The right-handed swinger made up for that with a .339/5/29 August before hitting .390 in the final month of the season. Atkins is middle of the pack defensively.
Wegham Nubbselms (.255/.321/.368, 11 HR, 76 RBI) is the combination of Wes Helms, Abraham Nunez, and Greg Dobbs (combination name courtesy of Christina Kahrl), as Charlie Manuel toyed with third base all year, trying to turn water into wine with this crew. Manuel settled on Helms and Dobbs providing the "offense," with Nunez coming in for late inning defense and key starts by groundball pitchers.
Al says: Advantage Rockies
David says: OK, maybe this is easier - huge edge to Atkins (and maybe he'll be a Phillie next year?)
Matt Holliday (.340, 50 2B, 36 HR. 137 RBI, .340, 216 hits, .405 OBP) is usually mentioned with Rollins among the top MVP candidates. As his stats indicate, Holliday hits the ball with authority to all fields, as shown by his 13th inning opposite field triple that nearly cleared the right field fence during Monday's play-in game against the Padres.
Defense? Holliday won't be confused with Curtis Granderson. Despite misjudging Brian Giles' flyball turned game-tying double on Monday, he is adequate in baseball's least demanding position.
Pat Burrell (.256/.400/.502, 30 HR, 97 RBI) was absolutely miserable for the first half of the season, and was almost booed out of town. But then July 1 came and he turned into one of the best hitters in baseball with a .300/.427/.612 line and 22 HR and 65 RBI. Already a patient hitter, he had 114 walks, the most in his career and the third most in MLB (to Bonds and Helton).
Al says: Rockies get the edge for sure, but don't be surprised if Burrell does some damage.
David says: Edge to the Rockies and their MVP candidate.
Speedy slap hitter Willy Taveras (372 AB, .320, 2 HR, 24 RBI, 33 SB but just 21 walks for a .367 OBP) hopes to recover from his nagging leg injury in time for the series. Even if Tavares claims to be 100 percent, productive Ryan Spilborghs (11 HR, 51 RBI, .299 in 264 ABs) may also see some action (ED: Spilborghs will be starting as Tavares has been left off of the NLDS roster. His AVG/OBP/SLG line was .299/.363/.485 this season).
Born a generation too late to become the perfect 1970s Astroturf chopper that he would have been, Willy T. is the king of infield singles. As might be expected, Taveras covers the spacious Colorado outfield with ease.
Aaron Rowand (.309/.374/.515, 27 HR, 89 RBI) - Rowand had a career year, showing power and patience at the plate he had shown glimpses of in 2004 but never before or again . . . until now. One of the key numbers for Rowand was 161 - games played. He was healthy and didn't pull any stupid hustle moves that wind up in a DL stint.
Al says: Advantage Phillies.
David says: Phillies
Brad Hawpe produced 116 RBI batting sixth. Add in a .291 average, 33 doubles, 29 homers and a .387 OBP (81 walks), and Hawpe becomes a genuine threat. He does have one glaring weakness. The lefty swinger hit just .214 against southpaws as compared to .315 against right-handers. It's something that Cole Hamels or crafty Jamie Moyer could exploit.
With no stolen bases in 2007, Hawpe is the extreme opposite of speedy Shane Victorino, his Phillies counterpart.
Shane Victorino (.281/.347/.423, 12 HR, 46 RBI) had an almost identical year to last year, proving to be a very good guy to have on the bases in front of the big boppers. The one major difference this year was that Victorino learned how to steal a base - 37 with only 4 caught stealings. He was a large part of the reason why the Phillies set the all-time record for team stolen base percentage. He missed much of August and September with a leg injury, but appears healthy now.
Al says: Advantage Rox.
David says: Rockies
If Spilborghs doesn't start, a thin Colorado bench becomes much better. Utility infielder Jamey Carroll (.225, 2, 22) hit the game-winning sacrifice fly on Monday, but his average dove 75 points from last season's .300 performance as a regular player. Former everyday shortstop Clint Barmes (.216 in 37 ABs) is eligible for the postseason roster.
Cory Sullivan (.286, 2 HR, 14 RBI in 140 ABs) has a little more pop and less speed than Tavares. Jeff Baker (.222, 4, 14) is a journeyman who can play the outfield and first base. With or without Spilborghs, this is a situation that screams for an experienced lefty pinch-hitter and a multitalented super sub.
Jayson Werth (.298/.404/.459, 8 HR, 49 RBI) was mostly a bench player until Victorino got hurt. He filled in more than admirably, posting a 1.109 OPS in August. He cooled off in September, but he is a potent and patient bat off the bench. Plus, he can steal a base or two when needed, as the Mets learned the hard way when he stole two in the ninth on August 30 to fuel a comeback win and a key four-game sweep.
Greg Dobbs (.272/.330/.451, 10 HR, 55 RBI) is worthless against lefthanded pitching (.481 OPS) and is not much of a fielder at third base, but he has power and patience against righties (.808 OPS, 10 HR, 27 BB). He also provided clutch at-bats down the stretch when needed, including a pinch hit grand slam against the Mets on September 16 that powered the Phillies to their second sweep of the Mets in less than three weeks.
Chris Coste (.279/.311/.419, 5 HR, 22 RBI) didn't make the big league roster out of spring training despite impressing in 2006. He eventually was called up for good in June to pinch hit and occasionally fill in at catcher. He has limited patience and power but is better than the Barajas alternative.
Wes Helms (.246/.297/.368, 5 HR, 39 RBI) never lived up to his promise from 2006 when he hit to the tune of .329/.390/.575 in limited playing time. His power didn't come back and he rarely provided any added value at the plate.
Al says: Advantage Phillies
David says: Phillies - they've upgraded a major weakness from years' past.
What makes the Rockies' run to the postseason especially amazing is how it happened with a rotation that had more patches than an old pair of overalls. Even perennial retreads such as Elmer Dessens (four starts) and Mark Redman (three starts) saw late season action.
Three April starters - innings-eating sinkerballer Aaron Cook, Rodrigo Lopez and Jason Hirsh - are out with injuries. Cook spoke about coming back during the playoffs after a two-month layoff, but that sounds like a stretch even for the courageous righty who previously bounced back from life-threatening blood clots.
Left-hander Jeff Francis (17-8, 4.22 in 215.1 IP) is the real deal. The Canadian-born Francis gives the Rockies a top of the rotation starter that has been a rae commodity in the franchise's 15-year history. Normally a 4 or 5 starter, Josh Fogg's status has grown through attrition. He enters the NLDS with a 10-9 record and 4.94 ERA.
The hopes of Rockies fans are riding on a pair of young and very inexperienced arms. Ubaldo Jimenez (4-4, 4.28, 15 starts, 82 IP) and Franklin Morales (3-2, 3.43, 8 starts, 39.1 IP) have shown incredible poise for 23 and 21-year old rookies. It was Jimenez who put the Rox into the tiebreaker with his 10-strikeout performance against the Diamondbacks on Sept. 30.
Cole Hamels (15-5, 3.39) lived up to his billing in his sophomore season as he emerged as a true ace. He averaged just under a strikeout an inning, and drastically improved his K/BB rate from 3.02 to 4.12. He missed a month but still compiled 177 strikeouts, good for a seventh-place tie in the NL. He was shaky in his first two starts after returning from injury, but looked excellent in a key 8 inning shutout performance last Friday. He'll start game one for the Phillies.
Jamie Moyer (14-12, 5.01) had a sensation April (2.65 ERA in 5 starts), making critics doubt that he was over the hill at 44. He was pretty horrible after that, though, with a 5.68 ERA and over 1.5 baserunners per inning. That is, until the last day of the season when he pitched like a master (0 ER, 5.33 IP, 6 K) to get the Phillies the NL East title. He'll start game 3.
Kyle Kendrick (10-4, 3.87) was a AA call-up in June. The Phils hoped to get an innings-eater, but got much more, as he was the team's most reliable starter (given Hamels' injury) for the rest of the season. He has a weak spot against lefties (.922 OPS), but has been able to shut righties down (.628 OPS) to keep his ERA under 4. With the Phillies' offense, that's enough to get 10 wins and a game 2 playoff start.
Kyle Lohse (3-0, 4.72) was acquired at the trade deadline and helped provide innings when the Phillies desperately needed it. He's a quintessential fourth or fifth starter who will probably be used out of the bullpen in the playoffs.
Al says: Edge to the Phillies, but their rotation is hittable.
David says: Without Adam Eaton and with a healthy Hamels, Phillies.
As in 1995, it was the relievers who played a significant role in putting the Rockies into the postseason. Then-manager Don Baylor squeezed every drop out of an overworked bullpen that was asked to put in three to five innings almost every game.
Starting with the middlemen, Taylor Buchholz (6-5, 4.23 in 93.2 IP) also started eight games, and he could go several innings if needed. Veteran LaTroy Hawkins (62 G, 55.1 IP, 2-5, 3.42) bounced back nicely after a rough start. Lefty Jeremy Affeldt (75 G, 59 IP, 4-3, 3.51) was better than expected, and Matt Herges changed speeds well enough to finish 5-1 with a 2.96 ERA in 48.2 IP. At age 37, Herges is by far the oldest member of the Rockies.
Former closer and two-time All-Star Brian Fuentes was demoted after blowing four straight saves earlier in the season. A strong finish (1.19 ERA from August to the end of the season) dropped his ERA from 3.98 to 3.08. The left-hander finished with a 3-5 record and 20 saves.
Current closer Manny Corpas is another promising young arm. The 24-year old righty had a 4-2 record, 2.08 ERA and 19 saves. The Phillies better come up swinging against Corpas, who gave up just 20 walks in 78 IP. While it wouldn't surprise me to see manager Clint Hurdle go with Fuentes in the ninth if left-handed hitters Utley and Howard were due up, Rox leads are in capable hands with Corpas.
Bret Myers (5-7, 4.33, 21 SV) was controversially moved to the bullpen in April after three horrendous starts. As a reliever, he had a 2.87 ERA, a 3.6 K/BB ratio, and let up only 4 HR in 53.3 IP. Because the rest of his options are not good, Manuel will use Myers to close out almost any lead, and Myers will usually do so effectively.
Tom Gordon (3-2, 4.73, 14 HLD) missed two and a half months with a shoulder injury. Manuel uses Gordon to setup Myers, which he did terribly from August 2 to September 5 (9.69 ERA). But he remembered how to pitch after that, throwing 13.67 innings with a 1.32 ERA from September 8 to the end of the season.
J.C. Romero (1-2, 1.24, 22 HLD) was a waiver wire pickup in June who paid huge dividends. In September, he was the closest thing to a guarantee to ever come out of the Phillies bullpen, as he pitched 15.67 innings and gave up no runs. He'll start the reliever train of Romero, Gordon, and Myers that Manuel will use over and over and over again. If any other reliever appears in a game, the Phillies are in trouble.
Al says: Advantage Rockies.
David says: Rockies, because of their depth and Fuentes being hot and a lefty.
Al's Series Prediction
It's easy to point to the relative rawness of Tulowitski, Jimenez, Morales and Corpas, but just about the entire roster is getting their first taste of the postseason. Amazingly, Hawkins is the only Colorado player with an October resume, as he appeared in the ALDS and ALCS with the Twins in 2002 and 2003.
Starters on both teams are going to get hit hard. If it comes down to the bullpens, the underdog Rockies have the upper hand, but my gut instincts tell me the Phillies win the series in five games.
David's Series Prediction
The two teams are very similar - offensive powerhouses in hitters parks with bad pitching. The difference here is going to be Cole Hamels. The Rockies have a very good pitcher in Jeff Francis, but they don't have a dominant frontline ace like Hamels. Hamels will make two starts (if necessary) and win both (again, if necessary). The Phillies' offense will power the team to at least one win from the other starters. That's three, and that's all that's needed in a five game series. I say Phils in 4 and Hamels is saved for the NLCS, but 5 isn't out of the question either.
Wrong Way Players, Part 2 - 1951 to 2007
One of the better-known members of the bats right-handed, throws left-handed club made his major league debut in 1951. We'll have to trust the Baseball Encylopedia when it comes to this player's throwing arm, as he never tossed a baseball at the professional level.
Midget Eddie Gaedel made history when he pinch-hit for St. Louis Browns outfielder Frank Saucier in the first inning of the second game of an August 19 doubleheader against the Tigers. Maverick Browns owner Bill Veeck promised the team's ad sponsors a big surprise and plenty of publicity, and the master promoter delivered beyond expectations.
The 3'7", 65-pound Gaedel wore the fractional number 1/8 on the back of his Browns home jersey. Baseball's shortest player went into a crouch at the plate. Tigers pitcher Bob Cain laughed all the way through the four-pitch walk. Veeck sent Gaedel's contract to the American League office in New York the previous Friday, knowing that it wouldn't be examined until the Monday after his appearance.
Gaedel ran to first base as the crowd laughed and applauded. The little man stepped on the bag and slapped pinch-runner Jim Delsing on the back before exiting the game. Veeck hoped that Gaedel's walk would be the margin of victory in a one-run game, but the perpetually inept Browns lost 6-2 to the Tigers.
Even though he had just two at-bats in a big league cup of coffee (seven games) with the Reds in 1956, Bobby Balcena is a historic player. The 5'7" outfielder was first major leaguer of Filipino ancestry. Like many west coast natives, Balcena spent much of his career in the Pacific Coast League, where he played for the Seattle Rainiers.
His righty/lefty split wasn't the only obstacle Zeke Bella faced, as he had plenty of competition in the supremely talent-rich Yankees farm system.
A five-game stint (1 for 10, .100) in 1957 was the extent of Bella's time with the Yankees. He hit .207 (17 for 82) as a backup outfielder with the A's in 1959 to finish with a .196 career big league average.
At 6'5", R.C. Stevens was a big target at first base. He was also sure-handed, with just two errors in 426 chances for a .995 fielding percentage.
In spot duty with the Pirates and Senators from 1958 to 1961, Stevens hit .210 with eight homers and 21 RBI in 162 at-bats spread over 104 games. The Georgia native began his big league career in a memorable way.
Stevens went 2 for 2 and drove in the winning run in his major league debut. That took place in the 14th inning of an opening day road game against the Milwaukee Braves on April 15, 1958.
The righty swinger hit his first major league home run, a pinch-hit job with a runner on base off Harvey Haddix in his next appearance against the Reds on April 19. Stevens delivered a walkoff bomb the following day in Cincinnati. In his first three big league games - all late-inning appearances - the raw rookie went 4 for 4 with two homers, four RBI and a pair of game-winning hits.
Sadly, Stevens hits just .190 for the rest of his career, bottoming out with a punchless .129 (8 for 62, 0 HR, 2 RBI) stint with the expansion Senators.
As a centerfielder at Texas Christian University, Carl Warwick was impressive enough to receive a $35,000 bonus package from the Dodgers. After just 19 games and 11 at-bats in L.A. in 1961, the righty-hitting, lefty-throwing outfielder was swapped to the Cardinals. Warwick was traded to the expansion Houston Colt .45s in May 1962. With his first chance to play regularly, Warwick posted career highs in home runs (17) and RBI (64) that season.
It was back to the St. Louis after the 1963 season. Warwick hit .259 as a role player and pinch-hitter for the pennant-winning 1964 Cardinals, and he played a key role in the team's World Series triumph over the Yankees.
Warwick had three pinch hits in the seven-game series, going 3 for 4 (.750) with a walk and an RBI. He recalled that high point of his career.
"Any player will tell you that to play in a World Series is a childhood dream, and I'm no exception," Warwick said during a July 19 interview. "Hitting in that first World Series game and driving in the go-ahead run was my biggest thrill in baseball."
It was on to Yankee Stadium for Games 3, 4 and 5 of the Series. Warwick helped set the stage for the big moment in Game 4, which the Cardinals won 4-3.
"I pinch hit for Roger Craig to lead off the sixth inning," he recalls. "I got my third hit of the Series. The first base umpire came up and asked me to look at the scoreboard, where the message said 'Carl Warwick's three pinch-hits tie a World Series record.' We loaded the bases. Ken Boyer hit a grand slam, and we won the game 4-3."
Warwick's rare hitting and throwing combination generated some attention.
"There weren't too many comments in the minors, but I had a lot of comments about my right and left situation when I reached the majors," he said. "I was always asked in other towns about how this came about, and I always said I had been doing this since I was able to throw or swing a bat. My dad never tried to change me. He never asked me to switch hit, which probably would have been a real advantage."
Mets outfielder Cleon Jones enjoyed a lengthy (1963, 1965-76) and productive career, finishing with a .281 average and 1196 career hits.
As one of the main contributors for the 1969 Miracle Mets, Jones whacked a career-high .340 with 12 HR, 75 RBI and 16 stolen bases. He also went 2 for 4 in his only All-Star appearance that year. Although he was just 3 for 19 (.158) in the World Series against the Orioles, Jones caught a fly ball for the final out of the Mets' incredible season. The left fielder went 8 for 28 (.286) in the 1973 World Series against the A's.
A native of Mobile, Alabama, Jones would have to serve as the fourth outfielder on the city's all-time team, but there's no shame in backing up a trio of Hank Aaron, Billy Williams and Amos Otis.
First baseman Doug Ault's promising start with the Blue Jays was the highlight of a 256-game big league career.
The brand-new expansion team played its first game on April 7, 1977 at Exhibition Stadium in Toronto. Despite the 35-degree temperature, snowflakes and wind gusts blowing off nearby Lake Ontario, Ault hit a pair of home runs and a single with four RBI to lead the Jays to a 9-5 win over the White Sox.
That blazing start faded into a mediocre season for Ault, who hit .245 with 11 HR and a team-leading 64 RBI. After hitting a combined .214 in 248 ABs in 1978 and 1979, Ault became a Jays minor league manager until he commited suicide in 2004.
Rickey Henderson is far more than the most famous member of the bats righty/throws lefty fraternity. As Bill James declared, divide Henderson's career stats in two, and you've got a pair of Hall of Famers.
Take Rickey's 1405 career stolen bases and compare it to second-place Lou Brock's 930 steals. It would be like someone topping Hank Aaron by slugging 1140 home runs. Henderson led the American League in steals from 1980 to 1986 and from 1998 to 1991. Those 11 titles include seasons of 100 thefts in 1980, the all-time record of 130 in 1982 and 108 steals in 1983. Henderson lead the league at age 21, and he did it again in 1998 with 66 stolen bases at age 39 to make it an even dozen seasons as the AL's top thief.
Few others milked the count and worked pitchers better. Hitting out of a pronounced crouch, the 5'10" Henderson had seven 100-walk seasons and five more years with 95 to 99 bases on balls. Add in seven years as a .300 hitter, and the .401 career on-base percentage is no surprise.
The OBP totals include 13 seasons at .400 or better, eight top three finishes in that category and an AL-best .439 in 1990. Power? Yearly totals of 21, 24, 28 and 28 homers plus nine more campaigns in double digits led to 297career long balls.
What makes the career OBP amazing is how Henderson's longevity - he played in the majors until just a few months shy of his 45th birthday - reduced that statistic. On the other hand, playing into his mid-40s allowed Rickey to reach the 3000-hit level, as he finished with 3055 base knocks. Even a mediocre (by his standards) performance by Henderson would be the envy of other leadoff men.
In 1997, the 38-year old hit just .248 with 8 HR, 34 RBI and 14 doubles in 120 games and 403 ABs with the Padres and Angels. Add in his 97 walks for a .400 OBP and 45 steals in 53 attempts (.849), and that's a combination any general manager would take in a heartbeat. Calling Henderson the best leadoff man in baseball history is almost understating the truth.
Playing portions of three seasons (1981-83) with the A's makes first baseman Kelvin Moore part of a historic duo. The much more famous Rickey Henderson and Moore are the only teammates who were righty/lefty position players. With 77 strikeouts in just 238 career ABs and a .223 lifetime average, Moore is unknown by all but the most fanatical A's fan or baseball trivia addict.
Luis Medina could drive a baseball deep into the bleachers, but making contact was a major problem.
The Indians first baseman launched six long balls in just 51 at-bats as a September call-up in 1988. Averages of .205 in 1989 and .063 (1 for 16) in 1991 put Medina on the path to Japan, where he played for the Hiroshima Carp. The righty-swinging slugger blasted 10 HR in 150 ABs. The negatives include a .207 average, .261 OBP, 60 strikeouts, a lone double and just 16 RBI, the lowest number for anyone with double-digit home runs.
Some righty/lefty players might have had parents who didn't know any better, but Mark Carreon can't use that excuse. His father Cam was a catcher with the White Sox, Indians and Orioles from 1959 to 1966.
As a first baseman and outfielder with four teams from 1987 to 1996, Carreon was a role player who hit .327 with 33 RBI in just 150 ABs in 1993 for the Giants. Carreon hit .301 with 17 HR and 65 RBI in 396 ABs in 1996. He smacked 34 doubles in 434 ABs while splitting the 1996 season between the Giants and Indians. That was the end of Carreon's major league career, as he signed a contract to play in Japan for the Chiba Lotte Marines.
Run production kept Brian R. Hunter (not to be confused with slender speedster Brian L. Hunter) in the majors for a decade.
Primarily a first baseman, Hunter debuted with the Braves in 1991. He came through with 26 HR and 91 RBI in 509 ABs in 1991 and 1992. After a horrendous 1993 (11 for 80, .138, 0 HR), Hunter was swapped to the Pirates.
While a .234 average (60 for 256) that matched his lifetime mark is unimpressive, Hunter had 15 HR and 57 RBI for the Pirates and Reds in 1994. He also played for the Mariners, Cardinals and Phillies. Hunter's 259-RBI total means he drove in a run per every one of his six 1555 career at-bats.
David McCarty was the third pick in the nation by the Twins in the 1991 amateur draft. The Stanford alum had one of the worst offensive seasons by a first baseman in 1993 when he hit just .214 (75 for 350) with two homers and 19 RBI.
After bouncing to the Giants and Mariners, McCarty enjoyed what turned out to be his career year with the Royals in 2000, when he hit a dozen homers with 53 RBI in 270 ABs. After hitting a pathetic .136 (9 for 66) with the Royals and Devil Rays in 2002, McCarty rebounded to hit .340 (18 for 53) in brief trials with A's and Red Sox in 2003. He closed out his career as a Red Sox reserve in 2005.
McCarty relieved in three games in 2004, and the results were impressive. The lefty gave up one earned run in 3.2 innings pitched, striking out four and issuing a single walk. For some reason, the Red Sox didn't put McCarty (.242 lifetime in 1493 ABs) back on the mound in 2005.
Being born in Belgium is odd enough for a major leaguer, but Brian Lesher also batted righty and threw left-handed. The 6'5" slugger spent parts of five seasons (1996-98, 2000, 2002) with the A's, Mariners and Blue Jays.
His five at-bats for Seattle in 2002 were especially impressive. Lesher came through with four hits including a double and a triple for an .800 average. He also had three RBI and a walk. Lesher's 38 ABs with the Blue Jays in 2002 ended his time in the majors, as he hit just .132 (5 for 38) with 15 strikeouts. In 108 games, Lesher hit .224 (59 for 263) with nine HR and 38 RBI.
A fourth-round pick by the White Sox in 1994, Jeff Abbott debuted on the south side in 1997. He played all three outfield positions for the Sox from 1997 to 2000 before closing out his big league career with the Marlins (42 AB, .262) in 2001. Abbott played 233 games with 596 ABs, 18 HR and 83 RBI and 157 hits for a .263 career average.
Left-handed pitcher or righty-swinging power hitter? Jason Lane filled both roles for USC when he pitched 2.2 innings and served as DH during the 1998 NCAA national championship against Arizona State. Lane's ninth-inning grand slam put the crowning touch on a 21-14 slugfest won by USC.
The Astros decided to keep Lane in the outfield after he was chosen in the sixth round of the 1999 draft. The results have definitely been mixed. After what appeared to be a breakout season in 2005 (.267, 26 HR and 78 RBI in 517 at-bats), Lane has regressed significantly.
His 15 HR, 45 RBI and 49 walks in 288 ABs in 2006 don't look too shabby, but the 75 strikeouts and .201 average were big negatives. Lane began this season by going 13 for 81 (.160) before being demoted to Round Rock of the Pacific Coast League. He was recalled on July 23 when Hunter Pence was disabled with a fractured wrist. Unlike his selective approach at the plate in 2006, Lane has just four walks in 84 ABs as this is written.
A fraction of one percent of all major league position players have batted exclusively from the right side while throwing left-handed, and it's safe to say that trend won't be changing in the future.
Wrong Way Players, Part 1 - 1883 to 1950
What is the worst thing a young non-pitcher can do? The answer is obvious: Bat right-handed and throw left-handed. Although that backwards combination is often the kiss of death for a budding baseball career, a small number of players have made it to the major league level despite that handicap.
For someone of average ability - anybody from a bench guy to a regular who isn't one of the team's big stars - one trait is prized at the college level and above. The ability to swing from the left side is a sure way to extend a career at every step from North Podunk Junior College to the majors. Catchers, second basemen and third basemen who hit left-handed are especially sought after by coaches and managers.
The former high school star who is just another body at a higher level can keep his baseball hopes alive as a role player by producing some runs from the left side. If being a fourth outfielder, backup infielder or pinch-hitter sounds less than appealing, it sure beats being the right-handed hitter who was cut in favor of the lefty swinger of equal or even slightly lesser ability.
Righty hitters who throw lefty and don't pitch are baseball's equivalent of the untouchable caste. It's no secret that this combination is to be avoided, so few youngsters are allowed to take the wrong route. Despite long odds, a few odd cases have persevered and spent time in the majors.
Some baseball historians say (with good reason) that 19th century outfielder Jimmy Ryan belongs in the Hall of Fame. Ryan's 2502 career hits and .306 lifetime average in a career than lasted from 1885 to 1903 with the Chicago White Stockings, Colts and Orphans (think Cubs), a one-year stint with the Chicago Pirates of the Players League (1890) and the Washington Senators.
Bill James ranks Ryan as the best player of 1888. He led the National League in home runs (16), hits (182), doubles (33), total bases (283) and slugging percentage (.515). The 5'9" Ryan was second in the NL in batting average (.332), runs (115) and extra base hits (59). Those numbers were racked up in a 135-game schedule. Extrapolate that to 162 games, and Ryan would be pushing 220 hits.
1894 was another big year, as Ryan hit a career-best .361 with 132 runs scored, 37 doubles and 171 hits in just 108 games. He remained productive until age 39, hitting .320 in 484 at-bats for the Senators in 1902.
Ryan went 6-1 with a 3.62 ERA in 24 appearances and 117 innings as a pitcher, but the truly odd items in his career stats are the 58 games played at shortstop along with eight appearances at third base and six games at second. While rosters were much smaller in the 19th century, it's hard to imagine a lefty thrower getting that much time in the infield and never spending an inning at first base. Ryan played semi-pro ball into his 50s.
The saga of habitually corrupt Hal Chase has been covered in countless articles, and the first baseman has been the main subject of a few books. While everyone acknowledges that Chase was a crooked as a Chicago alderman, there is disagreement over just how good a player he was.
Often described as the fanciest-fielding first sacker of the dead ball era, Chase's career average of .291 is 28 points above the league mark of .263 during his 15-year stint in the majors (1905-19). The ironically nicknamed "Prince Hal" led the National League in average (.339) and hits (184) in 1916. The balance of his stat sheet is liberally sprinkled with top five finishes in numerous other offensive categories, and Chase racked up 2158 career hits.
By old-time standards, Chase was a solidly above-average hitter when his penchant for throwing games is ignored. Modern statistical analysis has severely damaged that line of reasoning.
If a pitch was anywhere between his nose and his toes, Chase would take a hack at it. His career high of 29 walks came in 1914, and Chase had fewer than 20 bases on balls in nine different seasons as an everyday player. A .319 career on-base percentage is just 28 points above Chase's lifetime average, and that OBP is slightly below the league total of .325.
It would be easy to assume that another player was just overly aggressive if they had the same undisciplined approach at the plate. With Chase, the obvious question becomes: Was he throwing games by swinging at pitches out of the strike zone and turning them into outs?
Speaking of throwing games, it was a habit that Chase acquired quickly and practiced with little discretion. Several factors allowed him to continue in this sleazy path for years.
While Chase was the most flagrant practitioner of rigging the results, he certainly wasn't alone in the pre-Judge Landis era. Even when caught in the act, Chase had a rare ability to convincingly bluff and pass his bribery off as gifts and financial pats on the back to allegedly deserving teammates and opponents.
Decades before TV was even invented, team owners and league presidents of the early 1900s had an uncanny ability to perfectly imitate Sgt. Schultz ("I know NOTHING, I hear NOTHING, I see NOTHING!") of Hogan's Heroes fame when it came to gamblers and players conspiring to throw games. Such passivity allowed Chase to boldly and crookedly enlarge his income.
The party ended when the exceptionally corrupt Chase was managed by the unfailingly honest and upright Christy Mathewson in Cincinnati in 1918. Chase bribed Reds pitcher Jimmy Ring $50 to throw a game against the Giants, and the fixer was suspended by Mathewson.
Chase moved on to the Giants in 1919 (ironically, Mathewson was the team's assistant manager under John McGraw that year). The stench and mounting evidence of Chase's crookedness was too great to suppress, and he was finally banned from organized baseball. Depending on the source, Chase was anything from a go-between for gamblers and the Black Sox in fixing the 1919 World Series to a not-so-innocent bystander who profited from inside information of the scheme.
There was plenty of baseball action outside of the majors and minors in the 1920s, and Chase made a living in semi-pro and outlaw leagues in Arizona mining towns. Old habits die hard, and Chase was often under suspicion when the score didn't turn out as expected.
What about Chase's glovework? Was he truly a defensive whiz as claimed by sportswriter Fred Lieb and others?
Chase led American League first basemen in errors during his first seven seasons in the majors (1905-11). Teammates claimed that Chase was slick enough to make a good throw look errant when the fix was in, which deflected blame from the guilty onto the innocent. His .980 career fielding percentage was under the .984 average for that time, but how many of those errors were paid for by gamblers? As with all things related to Chase, the facts are murky. He also made occasional appearances at the other infield positions, a rarity for a lefty.
Rube Bressler's rookie season with the pennant-winning 1914 Philadelphia A's was impressive. The southpaw went 10-4 with a sparkling 1.77 ERA. Visions of future stardom vanished in 1915, when Bressler went 4-17 with a then-astronomical 5.20 ERA. A .179 batting average (19 for 106) in those seasons offered no hint of what was to come.
Aside from an 8-5, 2.46 season with the Reds in 1918, Bressler's days on the mound were all but over. The right-handed hitter turned himself into a solid position player and offensive threat. Bressler finished with a .301 lifetime average as an outfielder and first baseman in a big league career that lasted until 1932.
He hit .347, .348 and .357 for the Reds from 1924 to 1926. Traded to Brooklyn after the 1927 season, Bressler hit .318 in 1929. Despite a late start, he had 1170 career hits.
Johnny Cooney was another pitcher turned outfielder. The lefty injured his arm after a 14-14, 3.48 season with the Boston Braves in 1925. Surgery made Cooney's pitching arm noticeably shorter than his right arm, and he made sporadic mound appearances until 1930.
Cooney demostrated his skill at the plate before the injury, hitting .379 with just two strikeouts in 66 at-bats in 1923 and .320 (33 for 103) in 1925. The Rhode Island native actually saw more action as a first baseman (31 games) than on the mound (19 games) while hitting .302 in 1926.
After drifting back to the minors for much of the 1930s, Cooney became an everyday player for the Casey Stengel-managed Dodgers at age 35 in 1936. While he could hit for average and go two weeks between strikeouts, Cooney's total lack of power made him a one-man revival of the dead ball era.
Stengel's enthusiasm for the former pitcher remained after the Old Professor moved on to the Boston Bees (the short-lived name of the Braves from 1936 to 1941). Cooney played in Beantown from 1938 to 1942, hitting .318 with just nine strikeouts in 365 ABs and .319 in 442 ABs at age 40 in 1941. World War II allowed Cooney to hang on as a pinch-hitter until 1944.
The right-handed hitting Cooney smacked just two home runs in 3372 career at-bats. Those rare bombs came in a totally out of character power display on back-to-back days (September 24 and 25, 1939) against the New York Giants. No accounts of where Cooney's homers landed is available, but the short (279 feet with an overhang) left field line at the Polo Grounds certainly didn't hurt.
Reds outfielder Chucho Ramos became the first Venezuelan-born position player in the majors when he debuted with a 3 for 4 performance against the Cardinals on May 7, 1944. Ramos played just three more games before injuries ended his major league career with a .500 (5 for 10) average.
First baseman Dick Adams played in the minors from 1939 to 1941 prior to four years of military service. After returning to the minors in 1946, the Philadelphia A's took a chance on the righty-hitting, lefty-throwing Adams in 1947. His only major league season was a disappointment, as Adams hit .202 (18 for 89) with a pair of homers and 11 RBI. He also has two doubles and three triples, but just two walks.
While Dick's nephew Mike had a similar career average (.195) as a utility player in the 1970s, the younger Adams was the extreme opposite of his impatient uncle. Even with just 23 hits in 118 ABs, Mike Adams had a fine .375 career OBP thanks to 32 walks. If only Billy Beane was around then.
Rodney Dangerfield's All-Stars
Since more than a few journeymen and subpar players have managed to parlay a good half season or being the least awful member of a terrible team into a spot on the All-Star roster (even the 1962 Mets and 2003 Tigers were represented), it can be hard to believe that some of baseball's better and more consistent performers never enjoyed that recognition.
There are a number of reasons why an above-average player might not be picked. Those who are stuck on losing or small-market teams may get overlooked, while some deserving candidates might get left out because of the need to choose at least one representative per team. In some cases, a glut of talent at certain positions means normally deserving players end up being neglected. Anyone who tends to start slowly and finish with a strong second half will do poorly in All-Star balloting.
Give me this roster of All-Star rejects, and I would be quite happy to have any or all of them on my team. Everyone listed has had at least five chances to make an All-Star roster.
Catcher: The nature of the position means a fair number of receivers make the cut with fewer games played and modest offensive numbers as compared to other All-Stars. Hank Foiles (1957), Don Leppert (1962), Jerry Moses (1970), Steve Swisher (1976) and Dave Engle (1984) are among the more forgettable All-Star picks.
When his defense, intensity and long record as a winner is considered, why wasn't Rick Dempsey ever chosen? A .233 lifetime average doesn't reveal Dempsey's full value to the Orioles in the 1970s and 1980s.
First base: With five seasons of 31 to 34 home runs combined with 104 to 112 RBI, how did Eric Karros completely avoid the All-Star roster? Playing a position that is normally loaded with talent is one reason, but Karros put up his numbers in Dodger Stadium, where pitchers tend to have the advantage.
Indians star Hal Trosky was even more deserving than Karros, but he was in the same league with Lou Gehrig, Jimmie Foxx and Hank Greenberg. Monster seasons in 1934 (206 hits, 45 2B, 9 3B, 35 HR, 142 RBI, .330) and 1936 (216 hits, 45 2B and 9 3B again, 42 HR and a major league-best 162 RBI plus a .343 average) along with highly productive campaigns from 1937 to 1939 somehow weren't enough for Trosky to crack the All-Star roster.
Second base: Jim Gantner had to compete with Willie Randolph, Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich during his career. The Wisconsin native's long career (1976-91) with the small-market Brewers also meant Gantner was little noticed outside of Milwaukee.
"Gumby" was a true blue-collar player - solid defensively at second and third, a tough strikeout who had 1696 career hits (.274 lifetime) and reasonably quick on the bases. His fellow Cheeseheads (a popular nickname for Wisconsin natives) still revere the left-handed hitting Gantner.
Honorable mention: Rennie Stennett hit .336 in 1977 and had All-Star caliber numbers in 1974 and 1975.
Shortstop: Like catchers, weak hitters sometimes sneak onto the All-Star roster. While he's no A-Rod, Greg Gagne was solid defensively and had enough gap power to hit a fair number of doubles and reach double digits in home runs.
Third base: Clete Boyer's .242 lifetime average may look mediocre today, but right-handed hitters are at a disadvantage in Yankee Stadium. Boyer also played in the pitching-dominated 1960s, and his superb defense was overshadowed by Brooks Robinson.
Doug Rader was also snubbed despite his five Gold Gloves and run production in the offensive death trap known as the Astrodome. Any team looking for a dependable third baseman could do far worse than either Boyer or Rader. Honorable mention: Three-time National League stolen base leader (1934, 1935, 1937) Billy Werber, still alive at age 99 and Joe Randa.
Outfield: Some fans complain that sluggers get more publicity and All-Star consideration than players with less power but better all-around skills. Tell that to Tim Salmon. The Angels right fielder had the whole package as a hitter. Any of these five seasons were surely All-Star caliber performances, but Salmon never got the call.
AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO AVG OBP SLG OPS
1993 515 93 146 35 1 31 95 82 135 .283 .387 .536 .923
1995 537 111 177 34 3 34 105 91 111 .330 .432 .594 1.026
1996 581 90 166 27 4 30 98 93 125 .286 .388 .501 .889
1997 582 95 172 28 1 33 129 95 142 .296 .401 .517 .918
2000 568 108 165 36 2 34 97 104 139 .290 .406 .540 .946
There is always plenty of competition for the corner outfield slots, but how Salmon's all-around skills and stats were repeatedly ignored is a mystery. Conspiracy theories, anyone?
Even baseball addicts often assume that Kirk Gibson
was an All-Star, but it never happened.
While the run production in his 1988 MVP season with Dodgers (25 HR, 76 RBI, .293) may have been mediocre by All-Star standards, Gibson's 31 steals in 35 attempts (.886) and a .381 on-base percentage were solid. There were two other seasons where Gibson merited serious consideration.
The Detroit-area native hit .282 with 27 HR, 91 RBI and 29 steals for his hometown Tigers in 1984 and followed that up with a 29/97/.287 campaign in 1985 which included 30 steals in 34 attempts (.882).
On a team that automatically sent Pete Rose
, Johnny Bench
, Tony Perez
and (beginning in 1972) Joe Morgan
to the All-Star Game, it's easy to see why Bobby Tolan
In 1969, Tolan came through 194 hits, 104 runs scored, a .305 average, 21 homers, 93 RBI and 26 steals in his first season in Cincinnati. He followed that up by hitting a career-best .316 with 34 doubles, 16 HR, 80 RBI and a league-leading 57 SB. After missing all of 1971 with an injury, Tolan came through with 82 RBI and 42 steals in 1972.
: With seasons of 20-11, 16-6 and 19-13, what does a guy have to do to get some respect? Paul Splittorff
might be asking that question, as those performances never got the Royals lefty (1970-84) an All-Star invitation. The control specialist finished with a 166-143 career record.
Left-handed, good control, not many strikeouts, small market - it sounds like Splittorff, but that description also applies to Mike Caldwell
. Seasons of 14-5 (1974), 22-9 (1978), 16-6 (1979) and 17-13 (1982) didn't cost Caldwell any time off during the All-Star break.
didn't blow hitters away, but the Cardinals righty was snubbed in 1975 (15-10, 2.86), 1977 (20-7) and 1982 (15-9). The former minor league third baseman hit .213 lifetime. With more than a third of his 190 career hits going for extra bases (45 doubles, eight triples, 12 home runs), Forsch didn't try to slap singles.
Seasons of 16, 17 and 18 wins from 1993 to 1997 weren't enough to push Alex Fernandez
onto an All-Star roster. Honorable mention: John Denny
, Storm Davis
Deserved another chance
: Tigers outfielder Gee Walker
hit .335 with career-best 213 hits and 113 RBI in 1937, but he missed his only All-Star opportunity due to an injury. Walker's numbers in 1936 and from 1938 to 1940 were worthy of All-Star consideration, but he wasn't chosen.
While the annual All-Star Game is often described as a contest between baseball's best players, there are exceptions to that statement. Would you rather have former All-Stars Max West
, Frank Zak
or Mike Hegan
on your team instead of Salmon, Gibson or Trosky?
Weird Stats of 2007
Unusual baseball stats are one of my addictions. Mention Enzo Hernandez's 12 RBI in 549 at-bats in 1971, and I'm all ears. There's always Alfredo Griffin's four walks in 419 AB (.241 BA, .250 OBP) in 1984 when a quick fix is needed.
So what are some of baseball's oddest numbers as the season approaches the halfway point? Here are my picks.
No leader: After the first 55 games of the season, seven Cardinals each had two stolen bases. No one had more, and no one had a lone steal. At this plodding pace, the Redbirds would have had a seven-way tie at the end of the season, with the "leaders" swiping a measly six bags apiece.
Since then, the race has narrowed to a three-way tie between So Taguchi, Adam Kennedy and Scott Rolen. With four steals apiece, none of the trio is on a double-digit pace. Whatever happened to Whitey Herzog's running Redbirds?
A pair of 20s?: Sticking with the Cardinals, starting Kip Wells (3-11, 6.45) and Anthony Reyes (0-10, 6.40) are both on pace for a 20-loss season.
From wild hacker to Mr. Picky: Brewers outfielder Kevin Mench had no unintentional walks and a single intentional free pass as of June 28. The Delaware native had a .273 batting average to go with his nearly identical .274 OBP.
It looks like Mench is now auditioning for Billy Beane, as he picked up three walks - including two in consecutive plate appearances - against the Cubs on June 29 and 30.
No doubles? No problem!: Lance Berkman led the National League with 55 two-baggers in 2001. It's been a completely different story for Fat Elvis this year.
Berkman had a lone double in his first 187 ABs. A recent surge (relatively speaking) has pushed that total up to six as of June 30.
Earn your way on: Opposing hitters better come up swinging against Paul Byrd, as the Indians right-hander has given up just five walks in 86.2 IP. On the negative side, the soft-tossing Byrd has surrendered 120 hits. He is 7-3 with a 4.67 ERA.
Dominating in any language: Dodgers closer Takashi Saito is 1-0 with a 1.38 ERA and 22 saves in 23 opportunities. He has 42 strikeouts and just three walks in 32.2 IP. The middle-aged (37) veteran of Japanese baseball arrived in the U.S. with little fanfare last year. In a season and a half, the righty has gone 7-2 with a 1.86 ERA, 46 saves and 149 strikeouts in just 111 IP.
Making every hit count: Red Sox shortstop Julio Lugo has 34 RBI and is 20 for 20 in stolen bases. Those are pretty good numbers for a .190 (53 for 279) hitter.
Ignore that last number: Indians closer Joe Borowski is 22 for 24 in save opportunities this season, and just about every team would take that ratio. A couple of wretched outings account for Borowski's 5.70 ERA.
A pair of anti-Rickeys: Part-time leadoff men Ivan Rodriguez and Scott Hatteberg do little to inspire memories of Rickey Henderson.
With just four walks in 268 ABs this season, Pudge's .293 OBP is just a shade higher than his .280 batting average. Hatteberg is the rare first baseman who sometimes bats leadoff. The Moneyball poster boy has the patience (.296 BA/.385 OBP) to get on base, but three steals in 10 attempts over 4016 career at-bats means catchers don't need to worry about Hatteberg after a single or a walk.
No Home Run Derby in San Diego: Jake Peavy (9-2, 2.14) has coughed up a single gopher ball in his first 105 innings. Teammate Chris Young has also been exceptionally stingy, as he has allowed just three homers in 96.2 IP.
The entire Padres staff has been pretty allergic to the long ball, with just 40 allowed in the team's first 78 games. Spacious Petco Park definitely helps keep that number down, but the Padres have an incredibly deep bunch of pitchers.
Book a Flight to Motown
The words "Detroit" and "vacation" may seem oxymoronic in the same sentence, but baseball fans could do worse than visiting Michigan's largest city.
While gritty Motown has fallen on hard times for the past 40 years, there is one very bright spot here. Although Comerica Park isn't a clone of beloved old Tiger Stadium, the current home of the Tigers is a great place to catch a game or three.
I made my first visit to the downtown Detroit ball yard on May 25 when the American League Central Division-leading Indians were in town. There has always been a rivalry of sorts between these blue-collar cities, and a fair number of Cleveland fans drove up from northern Ohio for the game.
Two of baseball's better teams, an underdog pennant winner in 2006 and the start of the Memorial Day weekend meant this one was going to be a sellout. Since I needed a single ticket, I bypassed the scalpers and asked the woman at the ticket window for "just one seat, not too expensive if possible." Us lowly freelancers have budgets that are far closer to Ralph Kramden than Ralph Lauren, so box seats are out.
Displaying the niceness that is common in the Midwest, she smiled and came up with a $15 upper mezzanine ticket. Since I had some time before the game started, I took a quick tour of Comerica. Snarling concrete tigers are everywhere on the stadium walls, and the art is well executed. The team's time line is chronicled by decade-length displays inside the park, and (unlike some other franchises) the Tigers clearly have some interest in preserving their history.
I didn't expect much from my right field seat - located in the next to last row of Comerica - but the view was superb and completely unobstructed. You don't need piles of cash to see the game clearly in Detroit these days, and a crowd of 40,074 was glued to the action.
This would have been a perfect game for a baseball newbie, as a little bit of everything took place. Grady Sizemore led off with a hard grounder in the hole between first and second. Placido Polanco ranged into the outfield to snag it and throw out the speedy Sizemore by less than a step.
That wasn't the only attention-getting play. Indians left fielder Jason Michaels robbed Craig Monroe of a home run when he did a fine Torii Hunter impersonation and went over the wall. That got Paul Byrd off the hook in the second inning and allowed him to go 6.1 innings for his fifth victory of the season.
Lefty Nate Robertson started for the Tigers. While he was around the plate, Robertson's pitches had little variety, as he was almost always between 82 and 88 MPH. Indians right fielder Casey Blake and first baseman Victor Martinez hit first-inning solo homers. Martinez's bomb was an opposite field fly ball that barely landed fair just two rows into the bleachers. Robertson gave up five earned runs and 10 hits in 5.2 IP. The loss dropped his record to 4-4.
There were a pair of triples, something that rarely happens in a game. Carlos Guillen's three-bagger was good for an RBI, while Travis Hafner's blast to the left-centerfield wall resulted in an unexpected triple for him. The flag pole is no longer in play, and the distance from home plate to the centerfield fence has been shortened from the original 440 feet to a still-distant 420.
Detroit may not be a touristy place, but baseball fans have an excellent reason to take a trip to this border (Windsor, Ontario is just across the river) town. While I still have many stadiums left to visit, it would be hard to imagine a better example of the recent "modern retro" school of baseball architecture than Comerica Park.
One other tip: Eat your hot dogs before or after the game. American Coney Island and Lafayette Coney Island are neighbors on Lafayette Street, several blocks from the stadium in Detroit's Greektown neighborhood. Put $2.35 on the counter and get a Detroit-style all-beef "Coney Island" frank loaded with meaty chili and topped with mustard and onions. Tube steaks don't get much better than what this pair of venerable lunch counters has dished up since the early 1900s.
What Good is an 83-MPH Fastball?
The middle-aged man stated the obvious.
"An 83 MPH fastball won't even get you a Division I college scholarship today," he declared.
That remark was made on the nationally syndicated Sports Spectrum radio program May 5. The source of the quote knows a thing or two about junkballing. Despite a heater on the lowest depths of the scale, 36-year old Indians starter Paul Byrd is now in his 13th major league season and has an 88-75 career record to go with his 83 MPH (sort of) hard stuff.
Byrd also admitted to another alleged shortcoming when he mentioned being 5'11" instead of the 6'1" height that is usually listed on his stat line. With the obsessive quest for big, hard-throwing young pitchers, right-handers who fail to hit the 6'0" mark seldom get a professional contract out of high school or college. That's why "official" heights are often stretched a bit for short hurlers and position players alike when prospects are signed.
The few soft-tossing righties with average-sized bodies who manage to get a shot in the minors often have no margin for error. A poor appearance or two frequently leads to getting released, which makes the cliche of "don't sign short right-handed pitchers" something of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
So how do Byrd and his fellow finesse types survive in a time when radar guns and numbers like 98 have a slavish, cult-like following? The desperate need for even semi-competent pitching and depth in the rotation means teams have to tame their one-track quest for power arms and settle for other options.
With change-ups and breaking stuff that sometimes drops as low as 68 MPH, how does Byrd survive as the number 4 starter for one of the best teams in the majors? If you can't blow it by 'em, then fool the opposition.
Byrd recently changed to a more elaborate 1950s-style windup in an effort to hide the ball longer. His ability to seamlessly change speeds and hit just about any part of the strike zone from different arm angles gives big league hitters something they seldom see.
The maestro of slow was on the mound during the May 25 Indians-Tigers game at Comerica Park in Detroit. With the exception of patient Gary Sheffield, the Tigers are a free-swinging bunch. Byrd's ability to throw strikes meant the Tigers took even fewer pitches than normal.
Since it was a sellout, I had to settle for a seat high in the right field mezzanine section. That didn't give me the best view of Byrd's work, but I still saw a clinic on smart pitching.
It was much more than moving the ball inside and outside. Byrd also went up and down in the strike zone with ease, and 30 of his first 35 pitches were strikes. Contact hitter supreme Placido Polanco and Sheffield struck out swinging in the first inning, with Sheffield whiffing on an 83 MPH "heater" that was up and in. Considering Sheffield's tremendous bat speed, it shows how Byrd can play with the minds of hitters when he is on top of his game.
The Tigers were fooled by numerous sub-80 MPH strikes that drifted and darted across the plate. The slop and breaking stuff made Byrd's 82 to 86 MPH fastballs look pretty quick by comparison. On the negative side, control types like Byrd work with a thin margin for error, and pitches that catch too much of the plate or lack movement often go for hits.
A second inning leadoff double by Magglio Ordonez followed by a Carlos Guillen triple led to a Tigers run, but Byrd settled down and (with help from a leaping catch at the fence by Jason Michaels) held Detroit scoreless until a two-run sixth. After surrendering a solo homer to Craig Monroe in the seventh, Byrd gave way to the bullpen. Rafael Betancourt and closer Joe Borowski held the lead for a 7-4 Indians victory.
Byrd threw 73 pitches - 60 strikes and just 13 balls - in 6.1 innings. His nine hits were high, but he struck out four without a walk. Byrd's pounding the strike zone may have set the pace for Betancourt, who threw just one ball in 16 pitches. Borowski efficiently took care of the Tigers in the ninth for his 15th save.
If control pitchers get little respect and fewer opportunities than they deserve, what about hard throwers who can barely hit the broad side of a barn? In many cases, lightning-armed types are pampered and given endless second chances despite a complete lack of results. The story of Jason Neighborgall is a prime example.
Scouts drooled over Neighborgall's blazing fastball, sharp-breaking curve and 6'5" frame when he was in high school. The right-hander chose to attend Georgia Tech, where his total lack of control relegated him to mop-up duty.
Neighborgall appeared in nine games for the Yellow Jackets in 2004. While 11 strikeouts in just 6.2 IP looks quite impressive, it doesn't come close to making up for 24 walks, 13 wild pitches and a 27.00 ERA.
Things improved in 2005, but the stat line was still scary. A 5-3 record isn't bad, but the 7.13 ERA is a big blemish. The radar gun geeks were ecstatic with Neighborgall's 72 Ks in 53 IP, but 53 walks and 16 wild pitches were huge negatives. Now draft eligible, even Neighborgall's strong suit - velocity - looked like it couldn't make up for his off the charts wildness.
Perhaps a team would take a flyer on this exceptionally raw talent later in the draft, and who could blame them for doing so? It would be a gamble, but a lower-round pick and a modest bonus was a worthwhile risk. Take some quality minor league coaching combined with a late-blooming hurler, and Neighborgall could turn out to be a steal at the proper price. Such common sense and calculated risk is unacceptable in the modern cult of the radar gun.
The Diamondbacks raved about Neighborgall's ability to bring heat. Control and poise? Why pay attention to that? As Alfred E. Neumann might say "What, me worry?".
"Look at that arm! He can throw 99, 100!", D-backs scouts babbled as the sacred digits from the electronic god flashed their hypnotic message. The decisionmakers were swooning in Phoenix as they invested the first pick in the third round of the 2005 draft and a $500,000 bonus on Neighborgall.
Admittedly, Neighborgall has incredible heat, but pitching is much more than a Jugs reading. In 15 games (seven starts) and just 22.2 IP at Missoula of the Pioneer League, 45 walks and 23 wild pitches far outweighed the 29 Ks of hitters who were obviously uneasy about digging in. Neighborgall finished with a 1-2 record and an 11.12 ERA.
It was back to Montana in 2006, and the results were even more dreadful. Neighborgall got through just 13 IP in 20 games, finishing 0-2 with a 20.77 ERA. It's hard to imagine how someone can give up 46 walks and 22 wild pitches in a handful of innings. This is Steve Blass disease times 50.
Still raving about his heat, the D-Backs promoted (!) Neighborgall to South Bend of the Midwest League this year. The stat line looks like a hallucination. In five games and one inning, Neighborgall gave up a dozen walks and tossed nine wild pitches for a dozen earned runs and a 108.00 ERA. Even playing a simple game of catch required more control that Neighborgall could muster before he was dispatched to extended spring training.
Be entranced by radar guns all you want, but 103 walks, 54 wild pitches and a 17.18 ERA in 36.2 low minor league innings renders the word "potential" meaningless. Maybe it's time for pitching-poor teams to give the Paul Byrds of baseball a chance to prove themselves and not be totally enthralled with MPH readings alone.
Rocketing Back to the Past
Curmudgeons might point to Roger Clemens' recently inked contract with the Yankees and his sweetheart "stay at home except for game days" deal with the Astros in 2006 as the ultimate proof of what's wrong with baseball in the 21st century.
How can a player begin his season when he wants, avoid road trips and make a king's ransom to boot? Not counting the Rocket's very lucrative salary and flexible schedule, there actually is a precedent of sorts in the distant past.
Not every team in the 1930s and 1940s adhered to a strict four-man rotation. Traditional Sunday doubleheaders followed by Mondays off allowed for an occasional exception to the rule.
In a few cases, former staff aces or workhorses who weren't up to the rigors of going every fourth day became "Sunday pitchers" who would take the mound once a week during the doubleheader. The rest of the rotation saw action every fourth game, and often having Mondays off meant that Depression-era hurlers sometimes worked every fifth day.
While the term Sunday pitcher is usually accurate, it can also be expanded a bit to include middle-aged spot starters who sometimes pitched on weekdays. The old warhorses who held this role were not relievers who made an occasional emergency start. According to the mentality of the time, the bullpen was for second-rate performers. Pride and the pitching philosophy of the era wouldn't allow graying starters to be used just in late-inning roles.
Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey closed out his career at age 42 in 1933. Pitching for the last-place Reds, the left-hander went 6-4 in 16 games (12 starts, five complete games). Rixey's 3.15 ERA in 94.1 innings pitched matched his career total and was slightly below the NL average of 3.34. With just 10 strikeouts (or 0.95 per nine innings pitched) and 12 walks, Reds' fielders were on their toes when Rixey was on the mound.
Red Lucas filled a pair of supporting roles during his last three major league campaigns. He posted a career-best 15-4 record with a 3.18 ERA for the Pirates in 1936. The right-hander pitched 175.2 innings in 27 games (22 starts, 12 complete games), with 53 whiffs and just 26 walks.
At age 35, Lucas nosedived to an 8-10 mark and a 4.27 ERA in 1937. In 20 games (all starts, nine complete games) and 126.1 innings pitched, Lucas' strikeout-to-walk ratio was an unimpressive 20-to-23. Lucas finished with a 6-3, 3.52 record in 1938, completing four of his 13 starts.
It was his bat that made Lucas a more valuable commodity than other pitchers. He was 114-for-437 (.261) as a pinch-hitter, going 9-for-40 (.225) as a lefty pinch-hitter in 1936 and 9-for-37 (.243) in that role in 1937. Lucas' .281 lifetime average includes six seasons above .300.
Two Hall of Famers thrived when they got what amounted to a weekly start. At age 38, Lefty Grove went 14-4 (.778) with an American League leading 3.08 ERA for the Red Sox in 1938. Grove appeared in 24 games (21 starts, 12 complete games) and tossed 163.1 innings.
He followed that up with 15-4 record (.789, second best in the majors) and his ninth and final AL ERA championship (2.54) in 1939. In 23 games - all starts - Grove went the distance 17 times. He closed out a superb career with 7-6 and 7-7 records, which gave Grove exactly 300 wins.
Ted Lyons (260-230 lifetime) is underrated because of his long tenure with the perennial second-division White Sox. The right-hander made 132 starts with no relief appearances from 1937 to 1942 for an average of 22 games (exactly one in seven with a 154-game schedule) over a six-year period. The results were impressive.
A 12-7 record with a 4.15 ERA (AL average 4.62) in 1937 was followed by a 9-11 record in 1938. Lyons deserved better, as his 3.70 was 1.19 below the league total of 4.89 and eighth best in the league. He completed 17 of 23 starts. Lyons' 2.4 walks per nine innings was third best in the American League.
The fourth-place White Sox went 85-69 in 1939. That was a rarity for Lyons, who seldom played on winning or first-division squads. He was a major contributor to the team's success, with a 14-6 record in 21 starts (16 complete games). A 2.76 ERA was a whopping 1.95 better than the AL average and second only to Lefty Grove. A miserly 26 walks in 172.1 innings pitched was best in the league (1.36 per nine innings pitched) as was a WHIP of 1.089. Lyons was no slouch at the plate, hitting .295 while going 18-for-61.
Once-a-week success continued in 1940, when Lyons was 12-8 with a 3.24 ERA, which was more than a run better than the AL total of 4.42. Never a strikeout artist, Lyons surrendered just 37 walks in 186.1 innings pitched to reign again as the league's control master while completing 17 of 22 starts with four shutouts. A WHIP of 1.208 was third best in the AL.
The old righty didn't become fragile at age 40. Lyons completed 19 of 22 Sunday starts and finished 1941 with a 12-10 record and 3.70 ERA. Opposing hitters had to come up swinging, as Lyons gave up just 37 walks in 187.1 innings pitched (1.78 per nine innings pitched) to lead the American League for the third consecutive year.
Not many pitchers have one of their best seasons at age 41, but that's what Lyons did in 1942. His 14-6 record and league-leading 2.10 ERA were one of the few bright spots for the sixth-place White Sox (66-82). Lyons completed all 20 of his starts, averaging just over nine innings a game with 180.1 innings pitched. His 1.07 WHIP and just 26 walks (1.3 per nine innings pitched) were second in the AL, and Lyons hit .270 with just six strikeouts in 74 at-bats. In six seasons as a Sunday pitcher, Lyons went 73-48 (.603) while consistently being among the league leaders in various categories.
A bachelor, Lyons volunteered for duty in the Marine Corps following the season. He returned in 1946 and performed well in five Sunday starts with little run support. His 1-4 record was accompanied by a 2.32 ERA in 42.2 inning pitched. Lyons retired as a player to manage the White Sox after Jimmie Dykes was fired.
Fat Freddie Fitzsimmons was an innings-eater for the New York Giants before thriving with a reduced load for the Brooklyn Dodgers. The 38-year-old knuckleballer went 16-2 for a major league best .889 winning percentage in 1939. Fitzsimmons completed 11 of 18 starts and relieved twice in a 134.1 inning season. After going 6-1, 2.07 in 1940, Fitzsimmons was all but finished, pitching just 10 games in 1941 and 1942.
A Sunday pitcher helped the St. Louis Browns win their only pennant in 1944. Denny Galehouse couldn't quit his war-related factory job in Akron, Ohio, since leaving would expose him to the military draft. Desperate for scarce talent, the Browns decided to let Galehouse catch a train on Saturday to wherever the team was playing the next day. The right-hander would appear in the first game of the Sunday doubleheader and immediately return home.
Then a most unusual thing happened: the Browns were leading the league and in the thick of a pennant race. Galehouse weighed the odds of being drafted (he was married with children and over 30, which reduced the chances of a letter from Uncle Sam) and decided to join the team full time.
That gamble paid off as the scrappy, low-budget Browns won the American League championship on the final day of the season. Galehouse (9-10, 3.12 ERA) started Game 1 against the heavily-favored Cardinals. With Mort Cooper (22-7, 2.46) on the mound, the Redbirds looked like a sure thing, but Galehouse went the distance in a 2-1 Browns' victory. Galehouse did almost as well in Game 5, but lost a 2-0 rematch to Cooper.
Veteran pitchers with plenty of mileage on their arms have always been sought as spot starters, long relievers and mentors to younger hurlers, but Sunday starters were confined to a time when doubleheaders were the rule. As a power pitcher who is expected to be a high-profile impact player and not just a member of the supporting cast, Roger Clemens is a unique case in baseball history.
While he won't be starting once every weekend, Clemens' total workload (barring injury) for the season projects to something similar to what Grove and Lyons did in the last years of their careers. The money? No comparison there.
The Old-Fashioned Way to Develop Durable Pitchers
It's the constant puzzle of the 21st century.
If there is one question that is repeatedly asked by major league organizations, minor league development directors and baseball diehards, it would be "Why are pitchers so fragile these days?" The usual followup is "What can we do to prevent injuries?"
From a theoretical standpoint, this should be the era of rock-solid durability. There is an embarrassment of riches available to pitchers including personal trainers, nutritional supplements by the truckload, coaches armed with the latest in technology, obsessive statistical data, hyper-specialized medical care and (for the better prospects) a nanny-like level of protectiveness that includes strict pitch counts. So why are hurlers dropping like Al Capone's rivals during Prohibition?
Notice the word "theoretical" in the previous paragraph. In most instances in life, theory and reality are two entirely opposite concepts. Pitching gurus declare that their coddling and sophisticated systems are the right way to do things, but the facts don't support those claims.
Is there a better way to develop durable pitchers who can perform regularly without calling it quits after every tweak and twinge? In this case, it pays to look to the past - say 1930 to 1970 - when starters took the mound every fourth day instead of the current five-day schedule. Relievers routinely went several innings, and they often pitched as long as today's five and six-inning starters.
So what was the secret to regularly tossing 250 to 300 innings as a starter and 100 or more innings from the bullpen with some spot starts mixed in for variety? Perhaps the key to building sturdy pitchers has nothing to do with baseball or decrees from the experts and gurus. The answer could be much more mundane and humble than high-tech wizardry and micromanagement of hurlers. How humble? Think manure.
In many cases, old-time major league pitchers shoveled countless tons of manure before they debuted in the Show. They also tossed many thousands of hay bales, milked cows by hand seven days a week, spent lots of time on the business end of a spade, hand-dug bushels of potatoes, drove tractors without power steering, strung barbed wire fences and repeatedly picked rocks out of the lower 40.
Small farms were a way of life for a significant percentage of Americans until the 1960s. There has always been a steady migration from rural areas to large cities, since slapping fenders on Chevys or working construction was a breeze (and paid better) compared to life on the farm. That trend slowed as farms consolidated and grew larger, but even those who ventured to the economically greener pastures of urban life brought something valuable with them from agriculture.
Of all the four-letter words in the language, there is one - lazy - that was and remains the ultimate obscenity on the farm. Young and old worked from dawn to dusk. Rural slackers could always move to the city for one of those cushy 50-hour a week part-time jobs. That kind of life and work ethic builds a mental and physical toughness that can't be duplicated in an era of American Idol and iPods.
Today's pitchers look stronger than the old-timers, but looks can be deceiving. Pumping iron may lead to a sculpted, buff body, but I'll trade six-pack abs any time for the kind of strength and endurance I've seen from many farmers I have known in 12 years of living in Wisconsin.
Whether it's a stumpy 5'5" type, a 6'4" stringbean who resembles Kent Tekulve or anything in between, farmers and men who grew up on farms are (pound for pound) the strongest bunch I've ever encountered. There's no preening or flexing their "guns" for the camera. These guys are too busy with chores to strut their usually ordinary-looking physiques. Strength is displayed when needed, as in climbing ladders with bundles of shingles for the new barn roof.
My experience with farmers goes back to when I was growing up in Chicago and suburbs. Andy Toschak - a close friend of my late father - is one of those unforgettable characters that remains in the mind for decades.
When I first met Andy, he was in his early 40s. He stood 5'8" and tipped the scales at 240 without a soft gut or beer belly. A 19-inch neck made it hard for Andy to buy shirts. Growing up poor on a farm in southern Illinois coal country during the Depression had formed Andy into an eminently practical man.
After serving as a Navy Seabee in World War II, Andy moved to Chicago to work in the building trades. A booming postwar economy provided decent wages and plenty of overtime, and Andy never shied away from work. He attended a Cubs tryout camp just for the experience.
Andy smacked the ball with authority and handled himself well enough at third base to be offered a Class D contract. "Sign here, son. You'll get $75 a month," the scout told him. After scuffling through the Depression, Andy wasn't going to take a big step backwards financially. He turned down the offer and spent the rest of his life working in the trades, raising six children and occasionally outrunning skinny young punks who challenged the stocky old man to 50-yard dashes.
So how did a guy with the build of a nose tackle run so fast? Farm life helped put some speed in Andy's feet.
"During the Depression, we usually didn't have money to buy .22s for rabbit hunting," Andy recalled. "We had to chase them down to get meat for supper."
What made this tale especially outrageous was Andy's perpetual honesty and sincerity. This was no spinner of tall tales, so how could he run down rabbits instead of hunting them like a normal person?
I loudly expressed my disbelief. Andy smiled and said "Let me explain how we did it. We'd spot a rabbit in the field. Me or my brother George or cousin Gooch would start chasing it. We'd chase him down into the culvert. The rabbit would run into the culvert, and one of us would be waiting on the other end with a milk pail. The rabbit would run into the milk pail. We'd take him out and wring his neck. That's how we hunted rabbits."
This was done for "fun" after completing a long list of chores and any odd jobs that could be scrounged up. Take Andy's story, multiply it across America, and is it any surprise that pitchers of the past could go nine innings without complaint? After all, they wouldn't have to do it again for another three days, plus they were getting the outrageous sums of $8000 or even (gasp!) $10,000 a season for such pleasant labor. It sure beat working the cotton fields during a Mississippi summer or dealing with dozens of smelly pigs.
Modern workout and exercise programs are certainly beneficial for pitchers, and they sometimes produce bodies that merit a photo spread in Muscle & Fitness magazine. However, when it comes to developing real strength and toughness, the answer might be down on the farm.
[Additional reader comments and retorts at Baseball Think Factory.]
Snakebit Pitchers of the Deadball Era
It's all too easy for the casual fan to dismiss a pitcher with a losing record as a second-rate performer, but even a quick glance below the surface reveals that many hurlers have performed well with little run support.
Put a solid or better-than-average pitcher on a team with poor defense, shoddy fundamentals, a weak-hitting lineup or all of the above and bad things often happen in the win column. Who can rightfully blame the guy on the mound if he is victimized by inept fielding and a lack of offense?
The only fair measurement is to compare pitchers against their peers in earned run average, baserunners allowed and other statistics that rely less on the quality (or lack of same) of the position players in the lineup. So who are some of the least fortunate hurlers in major league history? A long list of guys spent one or more seasons cursing their sad fates, pulling their hair out or quietly suffering an undeserved blemish on their records.
Few remember the original Milwaukee Brewers, a team that finished last in the American League's inaugural season (1901). It was an omen of things to come, as the team became the perenially hapless St. Louis Browns the following year.
Ned Garvin's 3.46 ERA was 20 points better than the league average of 3.66, but that didn't prevent him from going 7-20. Things got even worse in 1904, when Garvin's 1.68 ERA was good for second place in the National League.
The right-hander went 5-15 for a weak-hitting Brooklyn Superbas squad that had three regulars with sub-.200 batting averages. A 12-inning, 0-1 stint with the New York Highlanders (2.25 ERA, three earned runs) after being picked up on waivers in September gave the hard-luck hurler an overall record of 5-16 despite his stingy 1.72 ERA. Garvin's ERA was more than a run below the NL's 2.73 average. Noodles Hahn of the Reds (16-18, 2.06 in 1904) almost looks like a magnet for good fortune when compared to the jinxed Garvin.
Could Cy Young have ended up with even more victories than his unbreakable record of 511 wins? His 1.82 ERA (third in the AL in 1905) was accompanied by an 18-19 record. Young was 0.83 run better than the league's 2.65 total, and a few more hits at key moments would have surely resulted in some extra wins.
Harry Howell of the last-place Browns didn't deserve to go 15-22, as his fine 1.98 ERA was sixth in the league.
Bob Ewing's 17-19 record with the sixth-place Reds in 1907 looks out of place next to a 1.73 ERA that was sixth best in the league. In the AL, George Winter's 12-15, 1.99 season with the seventh-place Red Sox and Cy Falkenberg's 6-17, 2.35 performance for the last-place Senators point to poor support.
Lew Richie's 7-10 record belies his 1.83 ERA (sixth in the NL) for the Phillies in 1908. Right behind Richie among the ERA leaders were Andy Coakley (8-18, 1.86) of the Reds and Kaiser Wilhelm (16-22, 1.87 ERA) of the Dodgers. Those pitchers should have filed a class-action lawsuit for nonsupport.
Nap Rucker didn't deserve a 13-19 record to go with his 2.24 ERA for the Dodgers in 1909. Catcher Bill Bergen's .139 average and three extra-base hits in 346 at-bats killed the team's run production. Walter Johnson got the worst breaks among major league pitchers that year, as he was 13-25 with a 2.21 ERA for the last-place Senators. George Mullin's virtually identical 2.22 ERA for the pennant-winning Tigers led to 29-8 record. Replace some of the Big Train's time in Washington with stints on winning teams, and he surely could have been a 450-game winner.
Ed Walsh put together one of the finest seasons of all time with his 1.27 ERA (or half the AL average of 2.53) in 369.2 innings pitched for the White Sox in 1910. So how did the Hall of Famer end up with an 18-20 record? The team's seven home runs, .211 batting average and .261 slugging percentage were dreadful even by the standards of the deadball era. Smoky Joe Wood's 1.68 ERA for the Red Sox was a more accurate indicator of his performance than a 12-13 record.
ERAs rose significantly in both league in 1911, and Phillies' starter Earl Moore (15-19) caught few breaks. He led the National League in losses despite a 2.63 ERA that was 0.76 below the league average of 3.39.
Red Sox lefty Ray Collins pitched far better than his 11-12 record might suggest. His 2.39 ERA was nearly a run better than the AL average of 3.34. It wasn't the first time Collins received less offensive support than he deserved, as he led the league with a 1.62 ERA in 1910 and had a 13-11 record to show for it.
Collins made hitters earn their way on base. He finished second through seventh in least walks per nine innings allowed among American League hurlers in five consecutive seasons (1910-14). In 1,336 career innings, the Vermont native gave up just 269 free passes, or 1.81 per nine innings.
Rucker was cursed again in 1912. Being third in the National League with a 2.21 ERA (NL average 3.40) should have led to a better result than 18-21. Brookyn finished the season in seventh place with a 58-95 record, well under its Pythagorean estimate of 66-87. Jack Warhop's 2.86 ERA was nearly half a run better than the AL standard of 3.34, but he went 10-19 for the last-place Yankees.
Another Brooklyn moundsman - lefty Frank Allen - was the Rodney Dangerfield of 1913. His 2.83 ERA (league average 3.20) looks like a typographical error next to a 4-18 record. The American League ERA of 2.93 was 0.27 lower than the competition. Red Sox rookie Dutch Leonard didn't deserve a losing record (14-16) to go with his 2.39 ERA. That performance was just a small taste of things to come, as Leonard's 19-5 season in 1914 was accompanied by an all-time best 0.96 ERA.
The Federal League debuted in 1914. Nick Cullop (14-17) of the Kansas City Packers may have regretted jumping to the new circuit, since his 2.34 ERA was 0.86 better than the 3.20 average for the Feds. Joe Benz of the White Sox (14-19, 2.26) didn't deserve to lead the AL in defeats, while Warhop (8-15, 2.37) endured another season of meager support.
Cubs' righty Bert Humphries went 8-13 with a 2.31 ERA (2.75 NL average) in 1915. He gave up just 23 walks in 171.2 inning pitched. Erv Kantlehner of the Pirates (5-12, 2.26) was one of the team's better hitters with a .288 average.
Jesse Barnes of the Boston Braves took it on the chin in 1916, as he went 6-14, 2.37. Pirates' righty Frank Miller was under .500 (7-10) even with a career-best 2.29 ERA. George Mogridge went 6-12, 2.31 for the fourth-place Yankees, and his ERA was exactly half a run better than the American League average. Joe Bush was the undeserving major league leader in losses (15-24, 2.57) for the pathetic 36-117 Philadelphia A's.
Hall of Famer Eppa Rixey endured one of his nine losing seasons in 1917 when he went 16-21 with a fine 2.27 ERA for the second-place Phillies. An ERA that was 0.43 under the NL average was quite a feat in the tiny, hitter-friendly Baker Bowl, but the left-hander still led the league in losses. Rixey's .515 career inning percentage (266-251) is the worst of any starting pitcher in Cooperstown. Jeff Pfeffer's 2.23 ERA was better than his 11-15 campaign for the seventh-place Dodgers. George Dumont's 2.55 ERA went with a 5-14 record for the Senators.
No team played more than 129 games in 1918, as the season was shortened because of the First World War. Brooklyn's Rube Marquard (9-18, 2.64) and White Sox knuckleballer Eddie Cicotte (12-19, 2.64) led their respective leagues in defeats despite having identical ERAs that were slightly better than league standards.
Bill Doak (9-15, 2.43) and Red Ames (9-14, 2.31) of the last-place Cardinals deserved a better fate. It's hard to believe today, but this was the era when the St. Louis Browns were the city's favorite club. Things didn't change for the Cardinals until they won the first 20th century pennant by a St. Louis team in 1926.
As for Ames, it wasn't the first time he got a raw deal. In 1914, the righty led the majors - Federal League included - in losses when he went 15-23 for the last-place Reds. Ames' 2.64 ERA was slightly better than the 2.78 National League total for the year.
Dick Rudolph didn't have many fond memories of 1919. His 2.17 ERA was an impressive 0.74 below the National League's cumulative 2.91, but the Braves ace finished at 13-18. Veteran Claude Hendrix of the Cubs went 10-14 with a 2.62 ERA. Ironically, Hendrix led the NL with a .731 winning percentage (19-7) in 1918 when his 2.78 ERA was just above the league's 2.76 total. In his case, the scales of baseball justice balanced quickly.
Why did a large number of pitchers end up with often terrible won-loss totals while performing well in the early 1900s? There were no early picks in annual drafts for losing teams, no revenue sharing, no building through the farm system. Scouting young talent was in its infancy, and the process was about as primitive as the Ford Model Ts that were a symbol of the era.
In such an environment, the difference between first place and the cellar was often light years apart. Even today's last-place squads almost always win 35 to 43 percent of the games played. Losers such as the 1904 Senators (38-113, .252), 1905 Superbas/Dodgers (48-104, .316), 1909 Braves (45-108, .294) and Senators (42-110, .276), 1911 Braves (44-107, .291) and Browns (45-107, .296) and the 1915 and 1916 A's (43-109, .283 and 36-117, .235) were utterly putrid.
With no free agency, top of the rotation starters for the worst teams were often stuck in hopeless situations for the bulk of their careers. In such circumstances, winning 20 games was a fantasy. Avoiding a 20-loss season became a modest goal.
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.
Santo Swindled Again
In what can only be described as a rerun of gross injustice, Ron Santo was again denied his rightful place in the Baseball Hall of Fame by the Veterans Committee.
The great Cubs third baseman - one of the best at his position in the game's history - came five votes short of the required 75 percent for induction. Some might say that Santo failed to meet the traditional Cooperstown standard, but a deeper look at the facts shows that the fault doesn't lie with No. 10.
Overhauled after Bill Mazeroski was elected in 2000, the Veterans Committee has failed to elect anyone - players, executives, managers or umpires - in three ballots since then. Does it mean everyone who was involved with baseball before 1990 is unworthy of Cooperstown? No one would dare make such a preposterous statement.
With 27 ex-players and 15 others on the ballot - many of them good enough to attract a fair number of votes, but not quite Cooperstown worthy - it's no surprise that even a highly-qualified candidate such as Santo is going to find diluted support for enshrinement. Despite the long odds and large size of this year's roster of candidates, Santo's career numbers scream for induction.
In the pitching-dominated 1960s, a 30 home run season meant you were "The Man," a serious power threat for sure. Santo clubbed 30 to 33 long balls every season from 1964 to 1967 and had four other seasons with 25 to 29 homers.
From his first full year in the majors in 1961 through 1971, Santo never had fewer than 83 RBI in a season. That was a huge feat by the standards of the weak-hitting '60s. The 11-year streak includes four 100 RBI campaigns, with a career-high 123 RBI in 1969, the year the Mets overcame a big deficit and passed the Cubs on their way to winning the World Series. The right-handed hitter just missed the century mark three times with 99 RBI in 1963 as well as 98 RBI in 1967 and 1968.
Santo was anything but an undisciplined hacker, as proven by seven consecutive seasons with 86 to 96 walks. In one of the great feats of baseball consistency, Santo's total of 95 walks in 1966 was followed by three seasons with 96 bases on balls from 1967 to 1969.
Batting average? Four seasons at .300 or better and a .277 lifetime mark are well above the standard of the '60s and early '70s. Combine that with his patience at the plate and Santo's career .362 on-base percentage was far superior than average.
So why is Santo continually denied his rightful plaque in Cooperstown? Was it his glove? Once again, No. 10 is anything but ordinary. Five Gold Gloves attest to his skill at third base. While growing up in Chicago, I saw Santo fearlessly snag screaming line drives and one-hoppers on countless occasions. His powerful, accurate arm turned numerous infield hits into outs.
He may have been a notch below Brooks Robinson, but Santo was among the top defensive third basemen of all time. Anyone who values skilled glove work would be very pleased to have Ron Santo at the hot corner. Combine his all-around skills and it's no surprise that Santo was a nine-time All-Star.
Since he played for the usually hapless Cubs, Santo never appeared in the post season. Some speculate that this one blemish in an otherwise sterling career is what has kept Santo out of the Hall, but teammates Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Fergie Jenkins are in Cooperstown.
Few players were as durable as Santo. Despite playing nothing but day games in Chicago's humid, energy-sapping summers, he appeared in 160 or more games in seven seasons, including every year from 1962 to 1965. Santo played in all 154 games scheduled in 1961 (the last 154-game season) and had other years of 154, 154 and 155 games. In Santo's case, this was truly a spectacular feat.
That's because Santo was a diabetic since his teens. He didn't go public with this serious condition until 1971, playing almost every game without complaint. In recent years, diabetes has cost Santo both of his legs through surgical amputation.
Perhaps Santo is suffering from Blyleven's Disease. The symptoms include being consistently near the top of numerous statistical categories with few No. 1 finishes. Santo led the National League in walks four times (1964, 1966-68) and had three other top five finishes. He topped the National League in OBP in 1964 and 1966 and came in the top 10 five more times.
No one cared or knew about Santo's reign as the leader in walks or OBP in the '60s. This was 20 years before the findings of Bill James gained a wide following. An expert in conjugating medieval Lithuanian verbs would have gotten more acclaim than Santo did for being a selective, high-average hitter.
Santo had three second-place finishes in RBI, plus five more seasons in the top 10. He never led the NL in home runs but had seven seasons in the top 10. It's the second verse, same as the first for the rest of his offensive numbers.
On-base percentage plus slugging (OPS): Second place in 1964 and four more top 10 seasons. Three top 10 years in batting average, five top 10s in slugging percentage, total bases and extra base hits, four top 10s in doubles, and three top 10 finishes in runs scored. If Santo was an Olympian, he would get a hernia from wearing the many silver and bronze medals (plus a few gold ones).
Serious fans appreciate the fact that being elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame is somewhat more difficult that achieving a similar honor in the other major sports. Many HOF voters and baseball die-hards declare than only the very best deserve this ultimate acclaim. They're absolutely right - and that's why Ron Santo belongs in Cooperstown.
At age 68, with his medical history, no one knows how much longer Santo will live or be able to lead a normal life, which includes annual trips to the Hall of Fame inductions. There is something hollow about awarding honors posthumously. Let this great third baseman enjoy the reward he richly deserves while he is still among the living.
The Real Home Run Champion of 1967
Statistical analysis has done much to correct misguided perceptions and accurately adjust the performance of players in heavily favorable or unfavorable conditions. Even with continual advances in the field, one slugger has never received full credit for an impressive season in hostile territory.
Jimmy Wynn's career-high 37 home runs in 1967 may not seem like a big deal 40 years later, but the 5'9", 160-pound "Toy Cannon" put on one of the great power shows of the decade. That's because Wynn played half of his games in the Astrodome, which featured an unappealing (to sluggers) combination of spacious dimensions with the heavy, humid atmosphere of Houston.
It was more than the Dome that held Wynn's power numbers down. Pitching dominated the game in 1967, and road trips often provided Wynn with little relief from warning track fly outs. Shea Stadium, Forbes Field, Busch Stadium, Dodger Stadium and Candlestick Park were unfriendly to power hitters, and Wrigley Field could be a challenge when the wind was blowing in from nearby Lake Michigan.
Wynn finished a close second to Hank Aaron, who passed the Cannon late in the season and finished with 39 home runs. Not to take anything away from one of baseball's all-time greats, but Aaron was operating at a big advantage to his rival that season.
"The Hammer" was in his second season at Atlanta Stadium, later renamed Fulton County Stadium. Known as "The Launching Pad," the southern park was the Coors Field of its time, as flyballs cleared the fences with relative ease. While Atlanta's altitude of 1057 feet is hardly thin air territory, it was the highest park of its time and far above Houston's barely sea level terrain.
Home and road statistics prove that Wynn was operating at a distinct disadvantage. By slugging 22 homers on the road versus 15 at home, the congenial centerfielder isn't boasting when he says, "I could have hit 44 or 45 that year if I wasn't playing in the Dome." Meanwhile, Aaron came through with 23 dingers in Atlanta and added another 16 on the road.
Atlanta may have helped Aaron's batting average more than his home run total, as he hit a sizzling .350 at home versus but .268 elsewhere. Wynn actually had a higher average at the Astrodome, hitting .261 indoors versus .237 on the road for a .249 season. He had 53 RBI at home and 54 RBI outdoors.
"Judge [Roy] Hofheinz built the Dome because people wouldn't come to support the Astros if they had to be outside. It's too hot in Houston," Wynn said during a February 22 phone interview. "They should have made it smaller. The Dome was a real pitcher's park." Despite the disadvantages of playing in "The Eighth Wonder of the World," Wynn didn't change his swing-from-the-heels approach at home.
"I kept my original swing and mindset in the Dome," he insists. "The only thing I might do differently was to try and get the ball up in the air a little more on the road. Guys like Willie Mays and Willie McCovey would say they couldn't hit it over the fence in the Dome even during batting practice. A lot of the balls I hit really well were caught on the warning track there."
No stadium could have contained the bomb Wynn smacked on June 10, 1967. Playing in his hometown of Cincinnati, Wynn crushed a pitch from Mel Queen. It sailed over Crosley Field's 58-foot high scoreboard in left-centerfield and landed on adjoining Interstate 75.
"I usually didn't play that well in Cincinnati, since I was trying too hard to impress my family and friends," Wynn said, "but that one was one of the greatest home runs of all time." He followed that up with a three-homer performance in the Dome on June 15.
How did the compact Wynn hit with such power? The right-handed hitter was one of the first players to work with weights despite 1960s stereotypes that claimed such exercise was detrimental to baseball players.
"It wasn't heavy lifting," he said. "I did some curls with my hands, arms and wrists. Most players didn't do weights then. My father taught me how to hit and use my legs."
Both Wynn and Aaron lost their power stroke at the end of the season, which may have lessened the drama of the National League home run race. Wynn's last homer came in Game 146 off Bill Hands of the Cubs on September 11. Aaron hit his 38th bomb in Game 152 at home against the Reds on September 20. His 39th home run came in Game 157 on September 26 in Cincinnati. Milt Pappas served up the long balls that gave Aaron the margin of victory over Wynn.
"Hank said, 'Jimmy Wynn should be the home run champion because he had to play in the Astrodome,'" Wynn remarked. "The title never crossed my mind until after the season when people started saying, 'Jimmy, you could have led the league.' I got some publicity that year, but Houston wasn't a media capitol. Being number two to Hank Aaron - the greatest home run hitter of all time - is truly an honor."
Wynn is a player who looks far better to the serious baseball devotee than the casual fan. A .250 lifetime average may not be an eye grabber, but Wynn's 1224 career walks combined with 1665 hits gives him a career .366 on-base percentage, which is well above the combined league .323 OBP during his time in the majors.
Add 293 career home runs, dependable defense in centerfield and nine seasons played at the death to hitters Astrodome, and Wynn's value as a player quickly becomes apparent. His stat line includes six seasons with 100 or more walks topped by a National League record-tying 148 walks in 1969. The Toy Cannon had three seasons with more walks than hits.
Hitting 37 homers in the worst power stadium in the majors during a pitching-dominated era raises an obvious question: What could a young Jimmy Wynn do at Minute Maid Park in the 21st century?
"I look at Minute Maid and just visualize myself tearing those walls down," Wynn said with a smile. "The fans want home runs, and that's what they're getting with the new stadiums."
A Credit to Cooperstown
Tony Gwynn's 97.6 percent of this year's Hall of Fame vote and first-year induction in Cooperstown is well deserved. In the postwar era, only Ted Williams has surpassed Gwynn's .338 career average.
What made Gwynn stand out in the 1990s was his willingness and insistence on stroking line drives rather than swinging for the fences. "I'm comfortable with my style," he said on numerous occasions, and the results proved that statement to be true.
While many of his 3141 hits came on opposite field ropes and grounders in the "5.5" hole between short and third, Gwynn could also pull an inside pitch for extra bases and hit the occasional home run. The other numbers - eight National League batting titles, including a career-best .394 in 1994, six other times above .350, five 200-hit seasons and seven years as the NL leader in hits - are truly impressive.
All this was done with a 32 1/2 or 33-inch bat that weighed a mere 30 or 30 1/2 ounces. Gwynn's self-described "peashooter" was a deadly weapon in his skilled hands. While most players use a 34 or 35-inch piece of lumber, Gwynn's choice shows a willingness to think for himself and go against conventional wisdom.
The batting titles and piles of hits didn't come easily. Gwynn worked tirelessly on his swing and defense (going from a mediocre outfielder to a five-time Gold Glover) in addition to being a pioneer in the use of video to find flaws in his swing and check out opposing pitchers.
In describing his approach to baseball, one word - "grinder" or "grinding" - is often used by Gwynn. That term comes from a work ethic passed from his parents, who held jobs at a warehouse and in the postal system to pay the bills and provide baseball equipment for their sons. Younger brother Chris hit .261 as a backup outfielder and pinch-hitter with three teams from 1987 to 1996.
Even though Gwynn has been retired since 2001, the family legacy lives on in the majors. Son Tony Jr. - a speedy centerfielder - made his big league debut (.260 in 77 ABs) with the Brewers in 2006.
The grinder mentality was especially evident in 1996. Playing on a partially torn right achilles tendon, Gwynn hit .353 to win his seventh NL batting title. The injury kept Gwynn from using his legs and driving the ball as much as normal, and opposing teams knew it.
"It was my toughest batting championship," Gwynn told me in a 1997 Baseball Digest interview. "I couldn't pull the ball much, so I hit a lot of dying quails to left and grounders up the middle. I felt like I was cheating. I was lucky to win the title."
Those quotes were pure Gwynn, a person who has always been quick to credit others and crack self-deprecating jokes. Asked about his play in right field, the sure-handed Gwynn replied, "I don't have the greatest arm, but it's pretty accurate. On defense, I just try to put myself where the ball is going to be hit. Just being smart and trying to anticipate what will happen counts for a lot in this game."
Need more stats and accomplishments? From 1991 to 1996, Gwynn struck out just 105 times in 2944 at-bats, never exceeding 19 whiffs in any season during that stretch. Many current players would gladly take Gwynn's six-year K total in a single campaign.
From 1993 to 1997, Gwynn had five consecutive seasons above .350. He happily credits Ted Williams for his advice to pull inside pitches when the opportunity presented itself. Tony still had plenty of opposite field knocks and hits up the middle, but his newfound willingness to pull the ball made him all the more dangerous and productive.
Even though the Padres went 1-8 in their only World Series appearances in 1984 and 1998, Gwynn didn't let the team down, as he hit .371 (13 for 35) over those nine games. The most memorable of those hits was a long home run at Yankee Stadium off David Wells in Game 1 of the '98 Fall Classic.
Professionalism and class? The final game of Gwynn's career took place against the Rockies at Qualcomm Stadium on October 7, 2001. A knee injury limited Gwynn to pinch hitting, and the stands were packed with fans eager to see one last at-bat from the line drive machine.
Teammate Rickey Henderson recognized the importance of the day and asked out of the lineup to keep the spotlight on Gwynn, who insisted that Henderson start in his usual leadoff role. That's because Rickey was parked at 2999 hits. Gwynn knew the 42-year-old Henderson couldn't be certain of another chance to reach the 3000-hit level, so he wanted a fellow future Hall of Famer to have the opportunity to nail it down.
Henderson blooped an opposite field double on the first pitch he saw to reach 3000, and he left the game at the end of the inning. Gwynn grounded out as a pinch hitter in a 14-5 loss. The player who turned down free agent opportunities to leave San Diego is still part of the community, as Gwynn has been the head coach at San Diego State (his alma mater) since 2003.
Congratulations, Tony. You deserve to be a first-ballot Hall of Famer. Thanks for playing the game with total dedication and being an inspiration to those of us who seldom cleared the fences.
The longevity of baseball records such as Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hitting streak or Ted Williams' .406 season (both in 1941) are cited as evidence of the impressiveness of such feats.
Another record that is a reliable indicator of a hitter's effectiveness has gone virtually unchallenged since it was set in 1931, and a milestone that has stood for 75 seasons is completely overlooked. Journeyman Earl Webb hit .333 (seventh in the American League) for the Red Sox in that Great Depression year, but that wasn't his top statistic.
The left-handed hitting outfielder smacked 67 doubles in 589 at-bats during the best season of his career. Not only has Webb's record stood for three quarters of a century, but it has never been seriously challenged since 1936, when Joe Medwick hit 64 two-baggers for the Cardinals. Hank Greenberg also came close with 63 doubles in 1934. Prior to Webb, the league recordholders were George Burns (Indians) with 64 in 1926 and Paul Waner's (Pirates) 62 doubles in 1932.
Since most of the yearly and career doubles leaders are among the top players of all time or at least All-Star caliber performers, Webb's long-running reign is something of an anomaly. While he did hit .306 lifetime with five teams from 1925 to 1933, Webb recorded just 2161 big league ABs and 661 hits in that span.
Like many players of the era, Webb's career didn't progress in a normal, orderly 21st century pattern. Aside from a four-game cup of coffee with the Giants, Webb didn't see significant time in the majors until he was 29 years old. Some SABR members have speculated that Webb might have stopped at second base on potential triples to pad his doubles record, but that seems unlikely.
Statistics and records attracted far less publicity 75 years ago than they do today. ESPN, MLB.com, Bill James and his disciples plus the hordes of TV cameras that are a part of the scene today didn't exist. Even Ty Cobb's 4000th hit in 1927 received scant attention and generated little newspaper copy, so a fringe record like doubles was sure to be ignored.
Although it's easy to assume that Webb flicked piles of opposite-field doubles off the Green Monster in '31, that hypothesis doesn't stand up, as Fenway Park's famed left field fence didn't reach its current height until 1934. Webb may have picked up a few two-baggers to left, but most of his home field doubles landed in Fenway's spacious power alleys.
How about hitting 60 doubles, which is still well short of breaking Webb's record? Charlie Gehringer is the only player besides Medwick to reach that mark in the past 70 years, as he smacked 60 two-baggers in 1936. When going through the list of the top doubles hitters, one thing becomes obvious. Whether they are sluggers (Stan Musial, Carl Yastrzemski, Don Mattingly), line-drive types (Pete Rose, Wade Boggs, Joe Sewell) or from the dead ball era (Nap Lajoie, Honus Wagner, Ty Cobb, Tris Speaker), players who produce 35 or more doubles a season with regularity are consistently among the best hitters in the game.
While there are occasional jourmeymen exceptions among the league leaders such as Billy Gardner (36 doubles for the Orioles in 1957) and Lee Maye (44 with the Milwaukee Braves in 1964), the parallel between doubles and overall hitting ability is obvious. The stats for "swing from the heels, high strikeout" types support this argument.
Take two of Dave Kingman's typical seasons as an example. In 1976, "Kong" slugged 37 home runs with 86 RBI for the Mets. His other stats include a .238 batting average (113 for 474), 135 strikeouts, 14 doubles and just 28 walks for a meager on-base percentage of .286.
Kingman's second tour of duty with the Mets in 1982 was an even more extreme exercise in one-dimensional offense. His .204 average (109 for 535) stands out despite 37 HR and 99 RBI. Just nine doubles and 156 Ks made Kingman the ultimate all-or-nothing hacker. His 59 walks were an improvement over 1976 and bumped his OBP to .285.
Rob Deer was a more selective version of Kingman, and he cloned Kingman's 1976 (113 for 474/.238) performance with the Brewers in 1987. Deer's 28 HR and 80 RBI came with an American League record 186 whiffs and just 15 doubles. On the plus side, Deer drew 86 walks for a decent .360 OBP.
Deer compiled some of the most unusual stats in history with the Tigers in 1991. He hit just .179 (80 for 448) with 25 HR and 64 RBI. There were no quick ABs for Deer that season, as he had 175 strikeouts and 89 walks. Deer had just 14 doubles while putting up this freak show of a performance.
Not many players can add 68 points to their batting average and still come in under .250, but that's what Deer did in 1992 when he hit .247 in 393 ABs. The stat line includes 32 HR, 64 RBI and 20 doubles, or six more than the previous season in 55 fewer ABs. Deer's strikeouts and walks declined to 131 and 51, respectively.
When it comes to all-or-nothing sluggers (with the emphasis on nothing), Dave Nicholson stands out from the pack. Touted as the great hope for the power-starved White Sox in 1963, Nicholson came through with 22 HR and 70 RBI. That was the good news.
The rest of the stats includes a .229 average, 175 strikeouts and just 11 doubles in 449 ABs. Nicholson's lack of ability to make contact reached surreal proportions in 1964, when he whiffed 126 times in just 294 at-bats. Thirteen homers and 39 RBIs were accompanied by just six doubles and a .204 average. Nicholson did draw some free passes, as he piled up 102 walks over those two seasons.
For his career, Nicholson hit just .212 with a staggering 573 Ks in 1419 ABs. His 61 homers nearly doubled his puny total of 32 doubles. Mark McGwire's final year in 2001 is something like Nicholson or Deer. Big Mac's 29 homers in just 299 at-bats looks good, but he hit a meager .187 with just four doubles and 118 strikeouts.
On the other end of the power spectrum, defensive whiz Rafael Belliard is an ultimate example of the sure-handed middle infielder with "automatic out" written on him. In a long career (1982-98), Belliard had just 55 doubles in 2301 ABs. A .221 average, .270 OBP, two home runs and 142 RBI round out the stats.
Although he had four triples in 286 at-bats with the Pirates in 1988, Belliard managed to avoid hitting a double all season. A .213 average and 11 RBI doesn't look out of place in his year-by-year numbers.
A steep falloff in doubles can be a sign of aging and declining offensive production.
Musial - a doubles machine and an eight-time National League leader in that category - hit just 10 two-baggers in 337 ABs with a .255 average in his final season in 1963. The decline in his usually high number of doubles had begun four seasons earlier. Likewise, Rose had just 14 doubles and 0 HRs while hitting .245 in 493 ABs at age 42 in 1983.
Gil Hodges was a clutch-hitting slugger and Gold Glover at first base, but the ravages of age also caught up with him. Playing on bad knees in 1961 and 1962, the New York fan favorite hit just five doubles in 342 at-bats with the Dodgers and first-year Mets. Solid-hitting, four-time Gold Glove shortstop Alan Trammell had just a pair of doubles over 193 ABs during his final season with the Tigers in 1996.
The trend can also apply to role players. Eddie Robinson slammed 16 homers in just 173 ABs with the Yankees in 1955 (Yankee Stadium's short rightfield fence didn't hurt the lefty swinger). There was a lone double among his 36 hits. Robinson's .208 BA wasn't as bad as it looked, as 36 walks led to a .358 OBP.
That the was the last hurrah for a three-time member of the 100-RBI club. Robinson bounced among five American League teams in 1956 and 1957, hitting just .196 (52 for 265) with seven doubles, eight dingers and 26 RBI.
Take a look at historically weak-hitting teams, and you'll find they almost always bring up the rear in the doubles department.
The punchless 1942 Phillies (42-109) scored just 396 runs. While they edged out the New York Giants by a 168-162 margin in doubles to avoid last place in that category, the Giants outhomered the Phils by a 109-44 margin. In addition, the Polo Grounds seems to be a unfriendly environment for doubles.
With a .231 team average and a roster of inexperienced pitchers and position players, it's no surprise that the 1952 Pirates finished at 42-112. The team hit 181 doubles (last in the majors) in spacious, extra base-friendly Forbes Field while scoring 515 runs.
As second-year expansion teams, the Mets and Houston Colt .45s spent 1963 scoring as few runs as possible.
The Colts his .220 with 464 runs scored, while Casey Stengel's collection of castoffs hit .219 and produced 501 runs. The 170 doubles by the Colts and 156 two-baggers from the Mets were the lowest in the majors.
Opposing pitchers welcomed the San Diego Padres when they debuted in 1969, as the team hit just .225 (.281 OBP) with 464 runs scored even though they faced expansion-diluted pitching. Not surprisingly, the Padres were last in the NL with 180 doubles.
The 1972 Texas Rangers proved to be even more inept than they were as the Washington Senators the year before. Rangers pitchers could have won a lawsuit for nonsupport, as the offensive numbers included a .217 team average, 461 runs scored in 154 games and an American League-low 166 doubles.
Texas hitters (for lack of a better word) proved their versatility by also finishing last in home runs (56), triples (17), OBP (.288) and slugging percentage (.290). On the bright side, the 54-100 team's 926 strikeouts were good for 10th in a 12-team league. Six Rangers with 125 or more plate appearances hit under .200.
Doubles reached a low ebb in the American League from 1967 to 1974, a time when home runs and batting averages were also down. No one reached the 40 mark in those eight years, and the league leaders include Tony Oliva (34 in 1967), Reggie Smith (33 in 1971) and Lou Piniella (33 in 1972).
Pedro Garcia became perhaps the worst player to ever lead the league in an offensive category when he tied with Sal Bando by swatting 32 doubles in 1973. The Brewers second baseman had a solid (for the era) rookie season, hitting .245 with 15 HR and 54 RBI. It was straight downhill from there, as Garcia hit .199 in 452 ABs in 1974. Toss out his rookie stats, and the balance of Garcia's career shows a .208 average (253 for 1217) and just 62 walks.
With the inflated offensive numbers of the steroid era, the 201 doubles by the 2003 Tigers (43-119) are as dismal or worse than some of the weak-hitting teams of previous decades. That's because the next lowest total in the AL was the 274 two-baggers by the Rangers.
Who knows how many routine fly outs from 1980 are now doubles? Fifteen of the 36 seasons of 50 or more doubles in the National League have taken place since 1995, and 14 American Leaguers have done the same. That's nearly a third of the 44 seasons of 50 or more doubles in AL history.
A number of current and recent players have a knack for ending up at second base with one swing. The list includes Todd Helton, Luis Gonzalez, Miguel Cabrera, Garret Anderson, Carlos Delgado, Edgar Martinez, Mark Grace and Jeff Cirillo. Albert Pujols whacks plenty of doubles as well, as he racked up 51 each in 2003 and 2004 along with 47 in 2001. Pujols' gaudy numbers in doubles and homers are comparable to Lou Gehrig. Keep an eye on Freddy Sanchez, as the 2006 NL batting champion (.344, 200 hits) also topped the league with 53 doubles.
Craig Biggio leads active players with 637 doubles, good for ninth all-time. Biggio needs 70 hits in 2007 to reach the 3000 level, and he could end up as high as fifth in doubles (passing Brett's 665, with Wagner, Yaz and Lajoie in between) depending on how he performs. The Astros star has had seven seasons with 40 or more doubles. Biggio topped the majors with 44 two-baggers in strike-shortened 1994. He also led both leagues with 51 doubles in 1998 and 56 in 1999.
Using a sharp fall in doubles as a warning indicator, Frank Thomas is the player to watch in 2007. The Big Hurt has seven seasons of 35 or more doubles on his resume, including an American League-best 46 in 1992. The Big Hurt had just 11 doubles in 466 ABs with the A's to go with his 39 HR and 114 RBI. Will Thomas continue his impressive run production with the Blue Jays, or will he decline rapidly as he approaches age 39?
So who is the king of doubles? Who would you want at the plate with runners on first and second down a run or two in the ninth inning when a long gapper or rope down the line will tie or win the game?
Speaker and Musial are the obvious choices, but I wouldn't cry if Cobb, Brett or Boggs were hitting for my team. From the right side, Biggio or Edgar Martinez are the modern picks, with Lajoie as another excellent choice.
While teams with fewer hits will naturally score lower in the doubles category, the difference goes beyond comparing batting averages. Good all-around hitters consistently smack the ball hard, which naturally leads to high doubles totals. In more than a few cases, young players with gap power (think Brett and Musial) develop into sluggers, while those who hit humpbacked singles and routine fly outs have to find new careers.
Never Give Up (Part Two)
The 18-year playing career of Pete Rose Jr. has been the extreme opposite of his famous father. The younger Rose has played for 23 different affiliated, independent and Mexican League teams in that time. His only reprieve from the minors was a September cup of coffee with the Reds in 1997.
Despite the repeated setbacks, Rose continues to persevere. The lefty-swinging first baseman hit .299 with 7 HR and 33 RBI in 194 ABs for Bridgeport in 2006. At age 36, Rose owns a .262 career minor league average with 6455 ABs, 1688 hits and 130 homers.
Hometown guy Angel Echevarria also saw action for the Bluefish in 2006, hitting .275 in 171 ABs. The 35-year old Echevarria had a decent career (328 G, 543 ABs, 21 HR, 90 RBI, .280) as a pinch-hitter and reserve with the Rockies, Brewers and Cubs. He also played two seasons for the Nippon Ham Fighters in Japan's Pacific League.
Former major league reliever T.J. Mathews put up a 12-7 record and 3.79 ERA with Bridgeport in 2006. The 35-year old righty went 32-26 with a 3.82 ERA in 362 games for the Cardinals, A's and Astros.
Pat Ahearne had a brief big league stint, going 0-2 with an 11.70 ERA in 10 IP for the Tigers in 1995. The slender right-hander has bounced around AA, AAA and indy ball since then.
Ahearne came through for the Long Island Ducks in 2006, going 12-4 with a 3.47 ERA. The 36-year old gave up just 28 walks in 155.1 IP, but 175 hits allowed means that Ahearne probably get won't beyond the Atlantic League next season. He owns a 114-107 career record in the minors.
Another Atlantic League hurler and former Tiger - 37-year old Denny Harriger - was one of the most successful minor league starters in 2006.
Harriger went 17-4 with a 2.63 ERA for the Lancaster Barnstormers. He led the league in wins and winning percentage (.810) while finishing second in ERA. Pitching in his home state clearly agreed with Harriger, as he surrendered just 29 walks in 181.1 IP. The 5'11" righty went 0-3 with a 6.75 ERA for Detroit in 1998, and he has a 163-119 lifetime record in the minors.
Powerful Ozzie Timmons had 20 HR and 60 RBI in 405 big league at-bats. The 35-year old hit .269 with 29 doubles, 19 HR and 63 RBI for the Atlantic City Surf.
The American Association had few older players in its inaugural season, but one veteran stood out.
Bubba Smith was productive as usual. In his 108 at-bats with the Sioux Falls Canaries, the big slugger had with 8 HR, 22 RBI and a .306 average.
His time in South Dakota made it 17 pro teams for the 36-year old Smith, who was drafted by the Mariners in 1991. The first baseman has 374 HR, 1242 RBI and 1673 hits in 5997 ABs for a career .279 average. In addition to a 27 HR/94 RBI effort for Oklahoma City in 1997, Smith has six seasons in the Mexican League and a year in Korea.
Greg Bicknell has been pitching in independent leagues since 1995. The 37-year lefty went 7-13 with a 4.10 ERA for the Kansas City (Kansas) T-Bones of the Northern League.
That was quite a comedown from 2005, when Bicknell went 16-5 and 2.96 for the T-Bones. He also serves as the team's pitching coach. Bicknell pitched in the Blue Jays, Mariners, Indians and Brewers organizations before beginning his long career with indy teams.
Jose Canseco's much-hyped comeback with the Long Beach Armada of the Golden Baseball League was a flop (4 HR, 9 RBI, .176), but another ex-big leaguer put up solid numbers in the California-based independent circuit.
Desi Wilson's .333 average in 333 ABs was third in the GBL. His 27 doubles led the league, and Wilson had 58 RBI while playing all 80 games.
Why has the 37-year old spent all but 41 games of his lengthy career in the minors and Japan? The 6'7", 230-pounder had never smacked more than seven home runs in a season, which is hardly what teams look for from such super-sized first baseman.
Wilson's .411 average for Surprise in 2005 led the GBL, and his 1875 lifetime hits outside the majors (.311 lifetime) places Wilson within striking distance of the 2000-hit mark. This baseball lifer hit .271 with 2 HR and 12 RBI for the Giants in 1996.
U.S.-born players in the Mexican League deal with language barriers, culture shock, unpredictable living conditions and very long odds in trying to rise to the majors. The "long odds" part changes to "all but zero" once a player hits 35, but that hasn't deterred several veterans.
What does a guy have to do to earn a brief shot in the majors? Darryl Brinkley deserves an answer.
The 37-year old outfielder hit .355 with 35 doubles, 6 HR, 60 RBI and 24 steals for the San Luis Potosi Tuneros (Tuna Pickers, with "tuna" being the Mexcian word for the large, edible leaves of the nopal cactus), and that performance wasn't especially unusual by his standards, as Brinkley was a .376 hitter for San Luis in 2005.
Brinkley hit .355 for Nashville in 1998 and followed that with a .323 season in the Music City in 1999. A combined .345 for Nashville and Rochester in 2000 still wasn't enough for Brinkley to get a chance at the Show. It couldn't have been the impressive talent on the Pirates and Orioles rosters that kept him in AAA.
Righty-swinging, 5'11" outfielders with gap power may not be a hot commodity, but it seems that some team (especially a losing one) would have given Brinkley a shot as a role player or reserve. No one can question his determination, as Brinkley has gone around the globe to play since 1991.
Undrafted out of college, Brinkley began his career in Holland and Italy before moving on to Canada (Winnipeg and Saskatoon). Since he has also played in Korea and for four teams in the Mexican League, Brinkley is a leading candidate for the Hall of Baseball Vagabonds. A career .330 average (1719 hits in 5210 ABs) with 322 doubles,133 HRs and 280 SBs is quite a stat line, but it hasn't earned Rodney Dangerfield Brinkley a chance at the big leagues.
Slap-hitting Darrell Sherman came up to the Padres in 1993. Since Tony Gwynn had already filled the team's quota of lefty-swinging, low-power outfielders, Sherman's time in San Diego ended after he hit .222 in 63 ABs (37 games).
The speedy Sherman didn't give up on baseball, and he has spent more than a decade in the Mexican League. His .349 batting average and .447 OBP for Vaqueros Laguna (the Union Laguna Cowboys) this season at age 38 is right in line with last year's .337/.457 performance for Puebla.
Former major leaguer Scott Bullett isn't ready to retire yet, as he hit .333 with 19 HR and 78 RBI for Yucatan and Tabasco.
It has been a decade since his last big league appearance with the Cubs in 1996, so it can't be optimism about a return to the majors that keeps Bullett in the game. Since that time, the 37-year old outfielder has played in AAA, the independent Northeast League, Taiwan, Japan and for five Mexican League teams.
A .407 hitter with power? That's what Derrick White did in 2006, as the Potros (Colts) de Tijuana outfielder led the Mexican League in batting average. White smashed 31 doubles, 19 HRs and 73 RBI in just 285 ABs at age 36.
Signed by the Expos out of the University of Oklahoma in 1992, White was in Montreal for a 17-game trial just a year later. That fast rise didn't turn out to be sign of things to come, as White struggled in cups of coffee with the Tigers, Cubs and Rockies. His major league totals include a .181 average with 3 HR, 8 RBI and just a pair of walks in 116 ABs.
The St. Paul Saints of the American Association picked up White for this year's playoffs, and he came through with a .364 average (12-for-33), four doubles, 3 HR and 9 RBI.
Even former All-Stars with successful major league careers sometimes can't resist the siren song of one more comeback. Kevin Appier has battled arm problems in recent years, but that didn't prevent the 38-year old from giving it a shot with the Tacoma Rainiers.
The right-hander went 1-2 with a 4.54 ERA in 35.2 innings pitched. Assuming he won't be back in 2007, Appier closed his big league career with a 169-137 record and 3.74 ERA. Appier led the American League with a 2.56 ERA in 1993 for the Royals, and he was among the A.L.'s top 10 in ERA in four other seasons.
Often-injured Juan Gonzalez saw action with independent Long Island in 2006. "Igor" hit .323 with 6 HR and 23 RBI in 130 ABs. A look at his stats, run production and regular trips to the disabled list makes "What if?" a popular question when it comes to Gonzalez's career.
With 434 career homers (that includes five 40-HR seasons), 1404 RBI and a .295 lifetime average, it's his lengthy medical history that keeps a team from taking a chance on the 36-year old slugger. It can be hard for a two-time MVP (1996 and 1998) to hang 'em up, but Gonzalez may be facing that fate.
It's easy to forget that life in the minors is usually a low-paying grind, but that doesn't prevent a number of older players from hanging on for one more chance. After all, a person can always punch a time clock later in life, but how many 50-year olds are driving in the winning run?
Never Give Up
Some old baseball players don't know when to quit. And who can blame them?
It's easy to understand why some graying veterans hang on for one more year, as playing the world's finest sport for a living sure beats the 9-to-5 world. However, this isn't a profile of Greg Maddux, Luis Gonzalez or other famous names who are well compensated for their services.
In more than a few cases, players in the 35-and-over age group aren't cashing major league paychecks. Aging minor leaguers usually have no chance at all of getting even a cup of coffee in the Show, but they still persevere. Along with the personal satisfaction of being in baseball, they can count on obscurity and (outside of AAA) meager wages as a reward.
Former big league pitcher Angel Moreno may have finally reached the end of the line, as he went 0-2 with a 10.50 ERA during brief stints with Veracruz and the Angeopolis Tigres (Tigers) of the Mexican League.
Moreno has a legitimate excuse for his subpar performance, as he turned 51 during the season. The Mexican-born lefty pitched for the Angels in 1981 and 1982 before returning to a nearly quarter century run in his native country. Moreno wasn't kept on the Veracruz Aguilas (Eagles) roster out of pity, as he went 8-4 with a 2.27 ERA as a 48-year old in 2003. He followed that performance with winning records in 2004 and 2005.
Another Mexican-born player with big league experience is riding buses south of the border. Outfielder Matias Carrillo appeared in 107 games with the Brewers and Marlins from 1991 to 1994, and he's still a productive bat at age 43.
The left-handed hitting outfielder came through with 7 HR and 48 RBI in 290 at-bats for the Tigres. Carrillo isn't being blown away by power pitchers half his age, as he struck out just 27 times.
No one can accuse Pat Borders of being a quitter. The long-time major league catcher and clutch performer for the Blue Jays during the 1992 World Series began his professional career as a third baseman with Medicine Hat of the Pioneer League in 1982. Sadly, the 2006 season - his 25th as a pro - looks like the end of Borders' playing career.
After hitting just .181 at Vero Beach of the Florida State League (playing Class A ball at age 43!), Borders went 1-for-19 (.053) at AAA Las Vegas before being released by the Dodgers organization.
A look at his career shows a man who will do whatever it takes to stay in baseball. Borders has spent at least part of each season in the minors since 1999 (usually in the Mariners system), hoping for a promotion as a backup catcher or September call-up.
Ernie Young has earned a Ph.D in AAA baseball, as he has played for nine teams at that level since 1994. The 37-year old outfielder also has 796 major league at-bats (.225, 27 HR, 96 RBI), so he has something to show for his perseverance.
Young didn't embarrass himself in 2006, as he hit an even .300 with 26 doubles, 13 homers and 68 RBI in 350 at-bats for the Charlotte Knights of the International League. Even though Young earned a September pat on the back, the White Sox didn't recall him. Young's last trip to the Show was a 2-for-4 September stint with the Indians in 2004. He has 1594 career minor league hits along with 314 HR and 1110 RBI.
Curtis Pride is another outfielder who is intimately familiar with the cities of the International and Pacific Coast leagues.
The lefty hitter performed well enough at Salt Lake City - hitting .311 with 8 HR, 44 RBI, 54 walks, a .424 on-base percentage and 21 stolen bases in 273 ABs - to earn a call-up to the Los Angeles Angels. Pride hit .222 in 27 at-bats, which dropped his big league career average a point to an even .250.
Despite his deafness (he's an excellent lip reader), Pride has played professionally since being drafted by the Mets in 1986. The 37-year old has seen major league action in parts of 11 seasons, but Pride has never spent a full year in the Show. He's been in and out of AAA since 1993, and Pride's baseball road show includes stints on independent teams. This is one journeyman with an inspiring story and life.
If they gave a Mr. AAA Baseball award, Alan Zinter would be a leading candidate.
The left-handed hitting first baseman came through with 12 HR and 44 RBI in just 212 ABs for the Round Rock Express in 2006. His other numbers - 63 strikeouts, 35 walks and a .259 average (low for the PCL) - are typical of Zinter's career.
He's the Rob Deer of AAA. At 38, Zinter can still smack the ball a long way when he makes contact, and he'll take a walk. After being signed by the Mets in 1989, Zinter finally worked his way to AAA with Toledo in 1994, and he found a home at this level.
Zinter came up with the Astros as a 34-year old rookie pinch-hitter in 2002, and he spent some time with the Diamondbacks in 2004. Other than 78 big league ABs (3 HR, 9 RBI, .167) and parts of two seasons with the Seibu Lions in Japan, the past 13 seasons have been AAA time for Zinter. Outside of his brief big league career, Zinter has played 2193 games with 7063 ABs, 1785 hits, a .253 average, 312 HR and 1161 RBI. He also has 1938 strikeouts and 1038 walks.
In contrast to Zinter, Jose Offerman spent 15 seasons racking up 1551 hits and a .273 average with eight major league teams. So what's a two-time All-Star doing in AAA at age 37?
Offerman played first base for the Tidewater Tides in 2006. The switch-hitter's .238 average in 344 at-bats wasn't the kind of performance that would lead to a spot on the Mets roster.
As a key cog (7-2 with a 2.45 ERA in 78 innings) in the bullpen of the 2002 world champion Angels, Ben Weber has been on top of the baseball world. Who can blame a 36-year old with recurring arm injuries for trying to recapture the magic?
The righty spent 2006 as a long reliever with AAA Syracuse (1-1, 4.33 ERA in 28 games) and the Somerset Patriots of the Atlantic League (0-1, 8.53 in 12.2 IP). Weber spent 1997 and 1998 pitching in Taiwan, so he's no stranger to doing whatever it takes to stay in the game.
Pedro Swann played for three teams in 2006. The veteran outfielder saw action with Tabasco of the Mexican League (.296 in 54 ABs) and Reading of the Class AA Eastern League (a .365 average with 4 HR and 25 RBI in 96 ABs) before returning to the familiar confines of the International League, where he hit .282 in 117 at-bats for the Scranton-Wilkes Barre Red Barons.
The 35-year old Delaware native has spent at least part of every season but one since 1995 in the IL. Swann has 28 big league ABs and four hits (.143, one HR) to show for his 25 games played with the Braves, Blue Jays and Orioles. His minor league resume includes 1748 hits in 6059 ABs for a .288 lifetime average.
Catchers - even weak-hitting ones - are always in demand, and a trio of well-traveled backstops kept their playing careers alive in AAA during 2006.
Ken Huckaby parlayed a .219 batting average at Pawtucket into some time on the Red Sox roster. Used mostly as a defensive replacement, the 35-year old appeared in eight games for the Bosox. It took the former Dodger farmhand a decade to reach the majors, as he debuted with the Diamondbacks in 2001. Huckaby will enter 2007 with a .222 career average in 428 big league ABs.
Veteran backup catcher Tim Laker hit just .207 with no home runs in 188 ABs for Buffalo, but he still had the opportunity to play four games with the Indians. Laker came through with a .308 (4-for-13) performance for Cleveland.
The 36-year old Laker is an expert when it comes to packing his bags. He has appeared in the majors over parts of 12 seasons since 1992, usually as a mid-season recall. During that time, he spent just two full years (1995 and 2003) as a big leaguer. Laker has appeared in 281 major league box scores during the past 15 seasons, with career totals of 11 HR, 79 RBI and a .226 average.
Alberto Castillo did something unusual during his 20th year in professional baseball. He spent the entire season with one team.
The 36-year old Dominican caught 88 games for the New Orleans Zephyrs, hitting .268 with 0 HR and 30 RBI. Castillo has a decent major league resume, as he has appeared with seven teams over 11 different seasons. The light hitter (.222 lifetime in 995 ABs) spent most of the year in AAA during eight of his big league campaigns.
Left-handed pitchers are the kings of second chances, and a trio of mid-30s journeymen saw action in AAA during the 2006 campaign.
After posting an 0-6 record with a hellish 6.66 ERA at Omaha, 35-year old Donovan Osborne bounced back with a 2-1 record and 2.64 ERA in 47.2 innings pitched for the Bridgeport Bluefish of the independent Atlantic League.
The former Cardinals starter (49-46 lifetime in the majors) should get a chance to continue his career in 2007, as southpaws with at least a pulse are always in demand.
Chris Michalak was 9-5 with a 2.99 ERA and just 28 walks in 132.1 IP for the Louisville Bats. That was good enough to earn him a late season promotion to the Reds. In his first big league action since 2002, the 35-year old Notre Dame alumnus went 2-4 with a 4.89 ERA for Cincinnati.
Vic Darensbourg appeared to turn his mediocre career around in 2005. The 5'8" reliever gave up a single earned run in 30.1 IP (0.29 ERA) at Toledo. That earned him a promotion to the Tigers, where Darensbourg went 1-1 with a fine 2.82 ERA in 22.1 innings.
2006 wasn't as successful for the 35-year old, as Darensbourg was 1-5 with a 3.92 ERA in 41.1 IP for Buffalo. The former Marlins hurler has appeared in 309 big league games with an 8-17 career record and 4.96 ERA.
Playing in AAA and being a phone call away from potential glory and major league wages is one thing, but what about older players in independent minor leagues? Aside from a love of poverty and/or masochism, what drives them to keep going? Baseball Analysts will take a look at the graybeards of the bus leagues in our next segment.
The "Fat Man's Hero" and the 1968 World Series
"I guess you could say I'm the redemption of the fat man. A guy will be watching me on TV and see that I don't look in any better shape than he is. 'Hey, Maude,' he'll holler. 'Get a load of this guy. And he's a 20-game winner.'" - Mickey Lolich
In addition to Denny McLain's 31-6, 1.96 ERA season, the pennant-winning 1968 Tigers smashed 185 home runs - by far the best in the majors - during a year when pitching completely ruled baseball.
Detroit's .235 team batting average may look feeble by current standards, but the Tigers were above the American League total of .230. 1968 was so weighted towards pitching that the Yankees finished in fifth place with an 83-79 record despite a record-low .214 team BA.
While his 22-9 record may not reflect it, Bob Gibson's 1968 performance was more dominant than McLain's. That's because the Cardinals ace set a record with his 1.12 ERA that was even lower than the best of the dead ball era. A few more runs at the right moments, and Gibson could have easily finished with 26 or 27 wins.
With such superior staff aces, it's not surprising that the Tigers and Cardinals faced off in the World Series. The Series opened in St. Louis with Gibson and McLain on the mound. The Cardinals scored three runs in the fourth inning, and that was more than Gibson needed.
The intense right-hander racked up a record 17 strikeouts for a 4-0 shutout. Detroit's three errors almost equaled their five hits in the team's first World Series appearance since 1945.
With the publicity-loving McLain grabbing the national spotlight for his 31-win season, the rest of the Tigers staff was unknown outside of Michigan. Number 2 starter Mickey Lolich was no slouch, as he went 17-9 with a 3.19 ERA in 220 innings pitched. A 197 to 65 (better than 3 to 1) strikeout to walk ratio provided one indicator of his skill.
Nelson Briles (19-11) started for the Cardinals against Lolich. In addition to holding St. Louis to six hits in an 8-1 complete game victory, Lolich (a .110 career hitter) slugged the only home run of his career.
"It was a high pitch on a 3-2 count, up by the bill of my cap," Lolich said in a 1988 interview. "I tomahawked it trying not to strike out, and it went over the fence." Known for his sense of humor and willingness to serve as the "fat man's hero," Lolich explained why he never slammed another bomb.
"It's too far to run," he said.
Home field advantage didn't help the Tigers in Games 3 and 4, and the Cardinals took easy 8-3 and 10-1 decisions. Four errors helped sabotage McLain as he lost his second duel against Gibson. Down 3 games to 1, the Tigers turned to Lolich to keep their slim hopes alive.
The lefty got off to a rocky start, giving up three first-inning runs, including a two-run HR by Orlando Cepeda. It proved to be the only poor inning Lolich had during the World Series, as he shut down the Cardinals the rest of the way. The Tigers came back with a three-run seventh inning to win 5-3. Left fielder Willie Horton was the hero for Detroit, as his perfect throw to catcher Bill Freehan cut down speedster Lou Brock trying to score from second base on a single in the fifth inning.
It was back to St. Louis for Game 6. A 10-run third inning allowed McLain to cruise to a 13-1 complete game victory. Who was going to pitch the deciding game for the Tigers? Game 3 starter Earl Wilson (13-12, 2.85 ERA) could go on four days rest, and his seven HRs in just 88 ABs even provided another longball threat in the lineup.
Manager Mayo Smith had already made a daring move during the Series when he replaced weak-hitting (just .135 in 215 ABs) defensive specialist Ray Oyler at shortstop by moving centerfielder Mickey Stanley to the infield. That made room in the lineup for Al Kaline, who missed much of the season with a broken wrist.
Like a riverboat gambler on a roll, Smith passed on the safe choice of Wilson and asked Lolich to go on two days rest.
"Mayo asked me if I could pitch five innings," Lolich recalIs. "I gave him one of those cliched answers like 'I've got all winter to rest.'"
Lolich didn't put in five innings against the Cardinals. He rang up a third straight complete game. Gibson and Lolich matched zeroes for six innings before first baseman Norm Cash and Horton singled in the Tiger seventh.
Left-handed hitting Jim Northrup came to the plate and hit a line drive to centerfielder Curt Flood. Normally one of the best defensive players in the game, Flood misjudged Northrup's smash, which went for a two-run triple.
The Tigers added another pair of runs before Lolich gave up a harmless ninth-inning solo homer to Mike Shannon and won the deciding game 4-1. In 27 innings, Lolich gave up just five runs for a 1.67 ERA, striking out 21 with six walks. Detroit was the fourth team in World Series history to come back from a 3-1 deficit. The home team finished with a 2-5 record in the '68 Series.
Lolich turned out to be far more than a one-time wonder. Frequent negative remarks about his pot belly and Lolich's ability to laugh at himself ("Some people have great bodies and a bad arm. I've a got a bad body and a good arm" and "All the fat guys watch me and say to their wives 'See, there's a fat guy doing O.K. Bring me another beer.'") made it easy to ignore his durability.
The big lefty followed up his Series MVP performance with a 19-11 record in 280.2 IP in 1969. After going 14-19 in 1970, Lolich put together a pair of seasons that destroyed any stereotypes about his physical condition.
During his 25-14, 2.92 performance in 1971, Lolich led the majors in starts (45), innings pitched (376), strikeouts (308) and wins. His 29 complete games led the American League, and no one had tossed more innings since Ed Walsh in 1912.
Sounds like a Cy Young Award performance, doesn't it? Not when 22-year Vida Blue was putting together a 24-8, 1.82 season with the A's, which was enough for him to beat Lolich 98-85 in voting for the honor.
Lolich followed up with 22-14 record and a career-best 2.50 ERA in 1972. He started 41 games and completed 23 in 327.1 IP. Once again among the league leaders in a number of stats, Lolich gave up just three earned runs in 19 IP (1.42) during the American League Championship Series against the A's, but had an 0-1 record in two starts.
The string of 300 IP seasons continued in 1973 and 1974, but the results were a disappointing 16-15 and 16-21 as the Tigers crumbled and fell into the basement. After a 12-18, 3.78 season in 1975, Lolich was traded to the Mets for Rusty Staub.
His 207 wins in Motown make Lolich the second winningest pitcher in Tigers history behind George Mullin (209 Ws). A 217-191 career record doesn't sound like something that an out-of-shape blob could post. Don't let the gut fool you. Mickey Lolich was a strong, durable pitcher who was at his best in the clutch.
A New Home for A-Rod?
It's no secret that Alex Rodriguez may have played his last game for the Yankees. When Joe Torre dropped A-Rod to eighth in the batting order in Game 4 of the American League Division Series against the Tigers, it indicated very uncharacteristic panic on Torre's part or a stunning lack of confidence in A-Rod.
The future Hall of Famer's "poor" year - 35 home runs, 121 RBI, 90 walks and a .290 average - are the kind of stats that most players can only dream about. Recent declarations of A-Rod's future with the Yankees may be sincere, or they could be a tactic designed to fend off lowball bidders.
Perhaps Torre - a manager known for his communication skills - will have a talk with A-Rod and reassure him of his star status. Problem solved, at least until Steinbrenner throws a tantrum or the New York media jumps on A-Rod's next slump.
If the Yankees ultimately decide to dump Rodriguez, one question would dominate the process: What kind of value do they place on A-Rod? Do his playoff struggles make him as devalued as an obscure Third World currency, or would full compensation for a 31-year-old, five-tool player be expected? My guess is that A-Rod won't be given away if a trade takes place, but potential buyers will get a discount on his considerable talent.
There is the matter of a no-trade clause, but that obstacle has already been overcome once before when A-Rod was picked up from the Rangers. Some observers point to his potential pride about leaving New York on unsuccessful terms, but any competent PR specialist can fix that.
"It's painful to leave the Yankees, but the (fill in the team) have made it clear how much they want me here, and I'm thrilled to be a part of this team" or a similarly diplomatic statement from A-Rod will surely be uttered during a post-trade press conference. The chance to escape from the Big Apple pressure cooker may be very appealing, so it's more of an "I'll go to the right place" clause than an ironclad agreement.
So where could A-Rod end up? What would be an ideal situation for a player of his ability?
The Mets and Angels have been mentioned as potential destinations, but there's no way Steinbrenner would give his local rivals a chance to have A-Rod return to his old form with the Mets. That goes triple for the Red Sox. The Angels are a playoff contender without A-Rod, and adding him to the roster might be enough to allow them to beat the Yankees in postseason play.
Any team that acquires A-Rod will be on the hook for four years and $64 million, as the Rangers are paying $10 million a year of his record-setting contract. In today's economic climate, $16 million a season for an elite player in his prime years isn't unbearable.
With control over his destiny, A-Rod would veto any deals to the Devil Rays, Royals, Pirates and other perennial losers. Even if a second-rate team was willing to take on his salary (unlikely), they are too far from contention to expect one player alone to take them to the postseason.
How about a team in a less intense media market that is within striking distance of the playoffs or World Series? Let's start with the National League, since that would be a logical preemptive postseason damage control move for the Yankees.
Keep in mind that A-Rod moved to third base to accommodate Derek Jeter, and he could easily move back to his old position. Since his trade value is uncertain at this time, any speculation as to who would be swapped for him will be minimal for now.
The Astros have dumped piles of salary obligations (Roger Clemens, Jeff Bagwell, Andy Pettitte) since the end of the season. This is a team in desperate need of offense, and Minute Maid Park is an ideal place for A-Rod to put up some big numbers.
While the Astros have had decent attendance, they would benefit at the box office by adding A-Rod, who would pair with Lance Berkman for a deadly 1-2 combo. This move makes a ton of sense if A-Rod is O.K. with Houston, but he may have soured on Texas after three years with the Rangers.
How about a small-market long shot? The Reds made a modest run at the postseason in 2006, and A-Rod would put Cincinnati in position for a serious shot at the NL Central title.
Rodriguez becomes a shortstop again with the Reds, and he could help fill plenty of empty seats that would make a $16 million/year salary bearable. The hitter-friendly Great American Ballpark would provide an ideal stage for A-Rod's slugging skills, and this would provide a revival of interest in a historically strong baseball town.
A look at the Reds roster shows few players who might be of interest to the Yankees since Bronson Arroyo isn't going anywhere, so this is an unlikely move. That's especially true with Ken Griffey Jr. (not a close pal of A-Rod's) around. Even if the former Mariners set their differences aside, it would probably take a three-way trade for the Reds to pull this off.
Two other NL teams would be darkhorses in the chase for A-Rod. With Jimmy Rollins on the roster and a gaping hole at third, the Phillies probably wouldn't be willing to move A-Rod back to his old position. Rodriguez and Ryan Howard back-to-back in the same lineup would give opposing pitchers plenty of nightmares. After three years in New York, A-Rod's skin should be thick enough to deal with the Philadelphia boo-birds.
Combined with Scott Rolen at 3B, David Eckstein moving across the infield to 2B and Albert Pujols at 1B, A-Rod would give the Cardinals one of the best infields in baseball history. There are three obstacles to such a scenario.
Having Rodriguez, Pujols and Rolen in the 3-4-5 slots means no left-handed hitters in those key places in the batting order. Adding A-Rod's salary gives the Cardinals zero revenue gain, since new Busch Stadium sold out before the season this year, and things should be similar in 2007. There are few quality players among the outfielders and pitchers to offer in a deal.
If the Cardinals prefer A-Rod to Rolen, it creates a possible swap. There are far worse options for A-Rod than going from the Bronx Zoo to friendly, baseball-crazy St. Louis.
Turning back to the American League, three teams might help themselves with A-Rod.
Is it time for the conservative Twins to think big? Brad Radke's $9 million salary is gone, as is Shannon Stewart's $6 million contract. Hefty raises for Joe Mauer, Michael Cuddyer and Justin Morneau will gobble up a big chunk of that $15 million, but trading for A-Rod may also solve another looming problem.
Torii Hunter's $12 million option was picked up by the Twins, but the spectacular centerfielder becomes a free agent after next season. If the Twins swap Hunter for A-Rod, it's a $4 million net increase in salary, and the trade should boost ticket sales. After New York, the congenial environment of the Twin Cities might be a welcome change for A-Rod.
That moves Johnny Damon to left or out of New York altogether, but that's not for the Twins to worry about. The White Sox can make a deal work if A-Rod plays short and they can dump a high salary (probably a starting pitcher to make room for Brandon McCarthy in the rotation) on the Yankees. After a disappointing season, the Sox could use a big move to keep the momentum going in their never-ending rivalry with the Cubs.
How about a gutsy Billy Beane/Moneyball deal? Free agent Barry Zito's contract is off the books, and putting Eric Chavez (a lefty swinger who would do well at Yankee Stadium) in an A-Rod trade keeps the salary hit manageable for the A's. Rodriguez could play at either spot on the left side of the infield in Oakland.
My prediction? Torre and Steinbrenner say A-Rod will be a Yankee in 2007, but don't be shocked if a trade takes place.
A Tribute to the Twins
[Editor's note: Al Doyle has agreed to join our staff at Baseball Analysts. Al has been a regular contributor to Baseball Digest since 1986. He has also covered the Mexican League for the Mexico City News. The veteran writer's first appearance on this site was as a guest columnist - Baseball Is More Than Superstars - in June. Please welcome Al aboard.]
Even though the Twins were swept by the A's in the American League Division Series, the organization deserves credit for making a strong comeback from the brink of contraction in 2001.
My fascination with the team goes back to 1999. I was in Minneapolis a number of times that summer, and what better way to spend a few hours than catching a Twins game? Tickets were always available, as the Twins finished the season with a 63-97-1 record.
It would be an understatement to describe the summer of '99 as hard times for the franchise. This was the era when fans could buy a season ticket to the upper deck bleachers for $99 and receive a bat autographed by Kirby Puckett or Tony Oliva. The practical-minded Twins front office figured that hot dog and peanut revenue from fans in the (very) cheap seats was better than nothing. The Metrodome is a loud, vibrant place when it's full, but crowds of 12,000 emphasize why domed stadiums and Astroturf are far inferior to outdoor baseball.
Talent on the roster was as sparse as the attendance. The offense was especially weak, as the starting lineup seemed to be a collection of number 7 and 8 hitters with little thunder in their bats. Ron Coomer's 16 home runs led the "Twinkies," while Marty Cordova's 70 RBI were tops in that category.
The team batting average of .264 was tolerable, but the Twins finished last in the majors in home runs (105) and runs scored (686). That left the pitching staff with little margin for error.
Staff ace Brad Radke deserved better than a 12-14 record, as his 3.75 ERA was fourth best in the American League. Young pitchers Joe Mays (6-11, 4.37 in 171 innings pitched) and Eric Milton (7-11, 4.49, 206.1 IP and a no-hitter) showed promise and provided hope for the future.
The bottom of the rotation was the problem. LaTroy Hawkins' 10-14 record came with a 6.66 ERA, while Mike Lincoln went 3-10 with a 6.84 ERA before he was sent down to Salt Lake City.
Rick Aguilera was superb as the closer (3-1, 6 saves, 1.27 ERA) when his $4.3 million contract was sent to the Cubs in May. Mike Trombley did an adequate job in that role until a late season slump dropped his record to 2-8 with a 4.33 ERA and 24 saves.
Two games from 1999 stand out in my memory. The first was on August 24 against the Red Sox. It was a Tuesday, which is significant.
That was the year of the guaranteed Tuesday win promotion. If the Twins lost on Tuesday, your ticket was good for another game. Pedro Martinez at the peak of his prime (23-4 that season) was on the mound for the Red Sox. If there is a sure thing in life, Pedro facing the light-hitting Twins was it.
Pedro was everything that could be expected and more. His fastball was 95 to 97 MPH with plenty of movement, and his 85 MPH slider consistently painted the black. The Twins were overwhelmed, as Martinez struck out 15 in eight innings, giving up just an unearned run and four hits as the Red Sox won 7-1.
The lone Twins run came when Jacque Jones struck out on one of Pedro's untouchable sliders. The sharp-breaking pitch bounced away from catcher Jason Varitek, who fired the ball down the right field line as he attempted to throw out Jones at first base. Jones ran all the way to third.
Denny Hocking came up and hung tough with Martinez, who threw everything on or an inch off both corners. The Twins utilityman battled masterfully, fouling off pitches and laying off tempting tosses that just missed the strike zone. Pedro finally busted Hocking inside, and the underdog managed to dribble a slow roller down the first base line to score Jones.
That at-bat stuck in my memory, as I knew manager Twins Tom Kelly was a stickler for fundamentally sound baseball, and Hocking demonstrated it. A few months later, I was writing an article about the most versatile players in the majors for Baseball Digest. Since Hocking played every position but pitcher and catcher, I arranged a phone interview with him.
Every interview should go as well as that discussion did. Hocking was friendly, eager to talk about baseball, and he generously shared his knowledge. I was wrapping up my questions when he threw me a bonus.
"Wanna hear about my best at-bat of the season?" Hocking asked.
"I sure do," came the reply.
"It was at the Dome against the Red Sox," Hocking said. "We were facing Pedro. . ."
"I was there!" I screamed. "You really battled him. Tell me about it."
Hocking proceeded to describe the long, nerve-wracking AB and the end result - not much to the undiscerning eye, but a fine piece of hitting against a dominating pitcher.
"It was just a little grounder to first, but that was my best at-bat of the year," Hocking concluded. "It got the run home."
That interview brought back memories of the game. Jones played centerfield (Torii Hunter had the night off) and made a spectacular leaping catch against the wall when the game was out of reach. Despite the circumstances, the Twins hustled, backed up throws and had their heads in the game.
Having grown up watching the Cubs play losing, fundamentally inept baseball and spending most of my adult life in Brewers and Rockies territory, I had seen far more than my share of lethargy and late season defeatism. That definitely wasn't happening with the Twins.
"These guys may not have tons of talent, but they sure give you an honest day's work," was what was going through my mind as I left the Metrodome. Something told me this team had a brighter future. With that free ticket from guaranteed win night, I attended the last home game of the season against the Tigers on September 30.
Despite a three-run pinch hit bomb from Midre Cummings, the Twins lost 6-5. That loss - the sixth in what became an eight-game losing streak - dropped the team's record to 63-95. Never mind a .500 season. It would take a couple of wins just to creep over .400.
It was what is often described as a "meaningless" game between two losing teams. Chad Allen batted fifth for Minnesota, and his stats (10 HR and 46 RBI in 481 ABs) say volumes about the state of the offense. Infielder Brent Gates (3 HR, 38 RBI, .255) started at first base in one of the last appearances of his career, and this was one of the very rare instances where a player in that normally power-packed position batted ninth.
I worked my way down from the cheap seats to a prime spot right behind the Twins dugout. Despite the continual frustration of a losing season, determination was etched on every player's face. They came to win. Don't tell them it was a meaningless game unless you wanted a bloody nose and busted teeth.
The young Twins played hard, running out grounders and being alert and focused on defense against the Tigers. How could you not pull for these guys?
Their salary budget might look like George Steinbrenner's petty cash account, but the Twins organization wasn't going to accept sloppy play. Minnesota native Kelly cultivated and enforced that mentality, and it eventually paid off.
The front office and scouting department found some sleepers and shrewd draft picks, and minor league managers and coaches emphasized fundamentals and smart play. The Twins turned the corner in 2001, leading the American League Central division in the early going before fading to a 85-77 finish. It was the first of what has turned into six consecutive winning seasons.
TK resigned after the season, claiming he wasn't sure if he was willing to put the effort required into managing. That excuse sounded questionable, as it came from someone who gave five quarters worth of toil and preparation for every $1 he earned.
How about a big name to replace Kelly? That's not how the Twins do things, as they wanted a guy who understood the organization's philosophy. Coach and Kelly protege Ron Gardenhire was chosen, and he has led the team to four postseason appearances in his five years as manager.
As usual, the Twins got to the playoffs in their unpretentious, grind it out manner again this year. Utilityman Nick Punto became the starting third baseman in May. Solid defensively, Punto hit a single home run in 459 ABs, which is extremely unusual for a power position.
Radke provided the inspiration and example by continuing to pitch despite a torn labrum. A season-ending injury to lefty sensation Francisco Liriano meant as many as three rookie pitchers were in the starting rotation, but the Twins still won the A.L. Central with a combination of solid relief pitching, a revamped offense, and "Twins baseball," verbal shorthand for intelligent, fundamentally sound play.
Advancing runners, proper positioning on defense and making clutch plays. Pitchers throwing strikes, coaxing groundouts and working at a steady pace. This is "dull" to those whose concept of baseball is limited to the Home Run Derby mentality. When the Twins are playing well, it's baseball choreography of the highest level.
When it doesn't happen - as in all three games of the ALDS, which saw the Twins make a number of uncharacteristic errors, failures to advance runners and lapses of judgment in the field - defeat is usually the result. Even though the team didn't advance in postseason play, the Twins are proof that baseball is more than bidding wars for free agents.
"It's not the size of the dog in the fight, but the size of the fight in the dog" is a saying that applies to the Twins organization. I'll take these scrappy little mutts over the pampered show dogs any day.