The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Atlanta Braves”

Doubles, More Doubles, and Norm Miller

When I first began collecting baseball cards as a kid back in 1974, it quickly became apparent that the Topps Chewing Gum  Co. had a bit of a problem with quality control.  Not that I understood what that term meant, exactly, but the baseball cards themselves were often off-center, of varying degree of glossiness and / or brightness, and sometimes included print-spots that resembled extra-large zits on player’s faces.

To my young mind, worse than any of the above grievances was the issue of coming across the same faces numerous times, pack after wax pack.  Try as I might to come up with a Johnny Bench or a Reggie Jackson, invariably I would pull a Ray Fosse, a Jack Brohamer, or a Tom House.

Or, most frustratingly, for (literally) my money, a Norm Miller.

Norm Miller Atlanta Braves (Baseball Card) 1974 Topps #439

Norm Miller was a backup outfielder for the Atlanta Braves.  Unbeknownst to me at the time, Miller, age 28, was entering his swan-song season in the Majors.  He broke in with the Astros in 1965 at age 19, but whatever the Astros first saw in this presumably hustling teenager, the bloom had long since faded from this particular flower.

The less sagacious Atlanta Braves, however, appeared to believe that there was still reason enough to carry Miller’s light bat at the end of a thin bench.  From that vantage point, at least Miller got to witness firsthand Henry Aaron’s final assault on Ruth’s home-run record.  There are worse ways to earn a living.

Perhaps subconsciously I was also coming to terms with the realization that, an aspiring outfielder myself, and also part of the vast and influential Clan Miller, I might also never amount to anything more than a backup outfielder with underwhelming statistics.

Miller’s citrus-smile mocked me throughout the last half of the ’74 school year, and the entire baseball season.  He looked like a man who wasn’t exactly a ball-player, but was happy enough to be wearing one of those uniforms, anyway.  His non-threatening, every-man demeanor was as reassuring as it was distressing.  Suppose I should strive and aspire to someday be someone — a man of note — only to be revealed to all the vast public as an impostor?

From mid-March, when I began collecting baseball cards, Norm Miller became the one constant in my life.  He followed me into my sleep, and into my dreams.  I was shagging fly balls in a perfect pasture of an outfield, when a Braves bullpen coach shouted at me to get off the field, grab a broom and start sweeping the dugout.  Ralph Garr mocked me as he sauntered over to the batting cage.  Johnny Oates flicked dirt from his cleats onto my little corner at the end of the bench.

Doubles, we called them.  Whenever you got two or more — it didn’t matter how many — of a certain card, we called them doubles.  I think perhaps some people still do.

In school, Miller became the answer to some of my math problems.  12×12?  No sweat.  That’s the pile of Norm Miller baseball cards on my bedroom floor.  If Norm Miller traveled on a train from Atlanta to Cincinnati at 15 miles per hour, and if Rowland Office was traveling from Atlanta to Chicago at 25 miles per hour, and you knew that Miller was going to go 0-4 with two strikeouts in the second game of a double-header, how many times would you play him for the rest of the year?

For my eleventh birthday in May, a Norm Miller birthday cake, not a Billy Miller birthday cake, should have been set on the table for all the children in my neighborhood to enjoy, each little candle a bat splinter from his Louisville Slugger.

Once, I even got two Norm Millers in one pack.  I’m ashamed to admit I began littering the ground that summer with unwanted Norm Miller cards on my way home from the A&G Market, my local grocery store of choice.  I wanted to ask Ann and Gus why they kept sticking Norm Miller cards in every single pack they sold me, but I was too young and still too intimidated by adults to be so rude.

If you were to dig up any section of asphalt on Bridgeport’s west end, I’m confident that even today, you would turn up a soiled and battered Norm Miller baseball card, his smile forever fixed on whatever it was he was focused on at that particular moment in his life.  Had he just finished a nice pancake breakfast?  Were his eyebrows clipped just the way he liked them?  Was there a cute girl waving at a player behind him, and he mistakenly thought she was a fan of his?

Norman Calvin Miller, I estimate that you owe me at least $12.50 for all the dimes I spent on you back in the summer of ’74, and I won’t even figure in inflation.  When you read this, and I know that you are still keeping tabs on my life, please leave the envelope full of dimes on the top of my bureau at my old address in Bridgeport.  I’m confident that it’ll find me.

In his final career at bat, on September 16, 1974 at Candlestick Park, Norm Miller, pinch-hitting against Giants pitcher Jim Barr, struck out.  I like to think he went down swinging, for all of us.

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: The Final Chapter

The final choice was the hardest.

I’d already established 4/5th’s of my all-time, under-appreciated Hall of Fame rotation, and had just the one slot left.  I considered, and rejected, about half a dozen other pitchers.  The one I chose may not come as a surprise to you, but it was a bit of a surprise to me.

But before we move on, allow me to list the other members of my entire under-appreciated HOF roster.  Each one is highlighted so you can go back and read each of my prior posts in this series.  (Note:  Some of the earlier posts in this series featured two players.)

1B  Roger Connor

2B  Joe Gordon

3B  Eddie Mathews

SS  Arky Vaughan

C  Gary Carter

LF  Jesse Burkett

CF  Richie Ashburn

RF  Harry Heilmann

SP  Kid Nichols

SP  Hal Newhouser

SP  Eddie Plank

SP  Dazzy Vance

Not a  lot of household names, and that was exactly the point of this series.

So, without further digression, let me introduce to you the final member of my team.  You may remember him as Knucksie, usually the best player on lots of bad Braves teams in the 1970’s.

English: Phil Niekro signing an autograph in 1982.

English: Phil Niekro signing an autograph in 1982. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Philip Henry Niekro, of Bridgeport, OH, was better than you might think.

First, let me list the reasons why I wasn’t excited about choosing Niekro in the first place:

1)  He never won a Cy Young award.

2)  I don’t remember him ever being in the conversation regarding the best pitchers of his era while he was active.

3)  He threw a goofy, trick-pitch, the knuckle-ball.  Real men throw fastballs, hard sliders and power curves.  Niekro was more a horticulturist than a warrior.

4)  He led his league in losses four times, losing twenty games in two of those years.  Also, his career winning percentage was a mediocre .537.

5)  He played for the Braves, one of the most boring teams in mid-to-late ’70’s America.

6)  Did I mention he gave up more hits (5,044) than any other pitcher in the 20th century?

So, what’s to like?  Well, upon closer examination, there is the impressive career WAR of 91.7, tenth best all-time among pitchers.

Moreover, Phil Niekro is also fourth all-time in innings pitched (5,404), and eleventh in strikeouts (3,342.)  In addition, Niekro’s 716 career starts ranks 5th in baseball history.

Niekro also won 318 games in his career while pitching for mostly bad or mediocre teams.  He led the N.L. in wins twice, and posted three 20-win seasons and a 19-win campaign as well.  His career win total ranks 16th on the all-time list.

Addressing the issue of his lack of Cy Young awards, Niekro was (using WAR as a measurement) the most valuable pitcher in the N.L. in both 1978-79.  Yet he finished just sixth in Cy Young voting in each of those two seasons.  He did finish as high as second in Cy Young voting in 1969, and he finished 3rd in 1974.

Niekro led his league in ERA once, ERA+ once, strikeouts once, win-loss percentage once, and in complete games, starts, and innings pitched four times each.

Perhaps the best illustration of Niekro’s true value to his team is to compare his own record to the annual  win-loss records of his teams.

In his career, over a period of 20 consecutive seasons (1967-86), Niekro posted a win-loss record of 305-255, fifty games over .500.  That works out to a .544 winning percentage.

Meanwhile, his teams, over that same period, finished with a cumulative record of 1,552-1,636, 84 more losses than wins, which works out to a .487 winning percentage.

Niekro, then, was .057 percent better than the teams for which he pitched, not an insignificant amount.

Here’s another way to look at it.  Let’s break down those 20 seasons by looking at how many times Niekro finished with a record over .500, right at .500, or below .500:

1)  Over .500 – 14 times

2)  Exactly .500 – 2 times

3)  Under .500 – 4 times

Now let’s compare that to what his teams accomplished overall during those same 20 years:

1)  Over .500 – 9 times

2)  Exactly .500 – 1 time

3)  Under .500 – 10 times

So Niekro accumulated five more winning seasons than his teams did, and he posted six fewer seasons with a losing record than did his teams.

Clearly, Niekro’s overall career win-loss mark was hampered to a certain extent by the teams for which he toiled.  If he had been lucky enough to pitch for Don Sutton’s Dodgers during that same period of time, it is highly likely that Niekro’s overall career win-loss percentage would have been higher than the .537 mark he ultimately posted.

In fact, if you were to add just one win per season for those twenty seasons, which seems on the low side of fair, he would have finished his career with 338 wins.  That total would have placed Niekro just outside of the top ten all-time in career victories, just four behind 19th century star Tim Keefe.

Phil Niekro finally called it quits at age 48 in 1987.  A five-time All Star selection, Niekro also won five Gold Gloves in his career.  The BBWAA elected Niekro to the Hall of Fame in his fourth year on the ballot, in 1997.

Obviously, then, Phil Niekro was a warrior after all, albeit a quiet one.

And those are the ones whom we should hold in the highest regard.

Regardless of whether you agree with my choices for my all-time under-appreciated HOF team, I hope you have enjoyed this series.  I have already begun work on my next series, which I will launch next week.

Once again, thank you for reading.

Bill

Harper, Trout, and the Early ’90’s

I read last night that Bryce Harper and Mike Trout were both being called up to their respective Major League franchises for their 2012 debuts.  For Harper, this will be his first cup of coffee in the Majors.  Whether he sticks this year or not remains to be seen.

Mike Trout

Mike Trout (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For Mike Trout, he is returning to the Majors after a brief trial run last season during which he batted .220 with five home runs, 16 RBI and an OPS+ of 88.  Not really all that bad for a young kid.

And that may be the point we are forgetting here.  Yes, we know they are young.  But let’s really try to put into perspective how young they are.

Mike Trout was born on August 7, 1991.  Bryce Harper was born October 16, 1992.  Let’s take a look at what was going on in the world in each of those years.

In 1991, the year Trout was born:

1)  Operation Desert Storm was launched by Bush I vs. Iraq.

2)  Boris Yeltsin becomes Russia’s first popularly elected President.

3)  Apartheid in South Africa is officially dismantled.

4)  The internet is first made available to unrestricted commercial use.

5)  The Balkan War begins when Slovenia and Croatia declare independence from Yugoslavia.

6)  Lead singer Freddie Mercury of the Rock band Queen dies of AIDS.

7)  A former postal worker kills four people in the post office where he used to work in Ridgewood, N.J., resulting in the first use of the phrase, “Going Postal.”

8)  Serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer is arrested in his apartment in Milwaukee.

9)  Heavyweight boxer Mike Tyson is arrested and charged with rape.

10)  The Twins defeat the Braves, 4 games to 3, in the World Series.  Jack Morris pitches a ten-inning complete game in the Series Game 7 clincher.

In 1992, the year Harper was born:

Bryce Harper

Bryce Harper (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

1)  Prince Charles and Princess Diana separate.

2)  Bill Clinton is elected President of the U.S.A.

3)  The Nicotene patch is introduced to help stop smoking.

4)  America’s largest shopping mall, The Mall of America, opens in Minnesota.

5)  In a triumph of the public sector over the private sector, Mafia boss John Gotti is sentenced to life in prison.

6)  The first McDonald’s restaurant opens in China.

7)  Rioting breaks out in Los Angeles following the acquittal of four police officers in the Rodney King trial.

8)  The NAFTA Treaty, between the U.S., Canada and Mexico, is signed.

9)  The F.D.A. urges stopping the use of silicone gel breast implants.  The high water mark of the big-busted beach bimbo comes to an end.

10)  The Toronto Blue Jays defeat the Atlanta Braves in a six game World Series.

I don’t know about you, but most of these events don’t feel like they took place two decades ago.  I suppose two decades from now, if we’re still around, we’ll be able to evaluate the careers of Mike Trout and Bryce Harper.  Here’s wishing both young men the best of luck.

Happy Endings: The Art of Going Out On Top

Andy Pettitte

Andy Pettitte (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Once it was announced that Andy Pettitte was going to come out of retirement to pitch yet another season for the Yankees, the first thing I thought was, why bother?  What does he have left to prove?  He has 240 regular season wins to his credit, plus another 19 playoff game wins.  Pettitte will turn 40-years old in June.  Why take the risk of potentially embarrassing himself in front of his fans?

Meanwhile, Chipper Jones is heading the other way, recently announcing that 2o12 will be his final season in the Majors.  When he was healthy enough to play, Chipper (who turns 40 in April) put up some decent numbers last season.  Again, though, one has to wonder why it is even necessary to attempt one more season.  Like Pettitte, Jones has had a long and distinguished career, so why risk going out with a sub-par performance?

This led me to consider how few players in baseball history have retired at or near the top of their game.  After examining the final seasons of many of baseball’s best players, the answer is damn few.

If Pettitte had decided to stay retired, his final performance in 2010, an 11-3 record in 21 starts with a 3.28 ERA (and an ERA+ of 132), would actually qualify as one of the finest final season performances by any pitcher in baseball history.

Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves

Chipper Jones of the Atlanta Braves (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Similarly, if Chipper Jones had retired after last season when he swatted 33 doubles to go along with his 18 homers, 70 RBI and OPS+ of 123, he could have held his head high.

This is not to say that Chipper or Pettitte will perform terribly in 2012, but baseball’s long history of final performances is one long, ugly indictment of playing one season too many.

Having said that, here are eight random final season performances that were actually quite impressive.  In some cases, the player was forced into retirement due to physical reasons.  In other cases, the player had become so controversial that no team would sign him, regardless of his ability to remain productive.

Albert Belle

Albert Belle (Photo credit: Keith Fujimoto)

1)  Albert (Joey) Belle – You remember him best, perhaps, as the infamous sociopath who tried to run over some kids with his car on Halloween night.  You might also remember that Belle was one hell of a hitter during his career.  As far as I can tell, Belle is the only player in history to drive in at least 95 runs in every one of his full seasons in the Majors, including 103 in 2000, his final season.

In 2000, Belle cranked 37 doubles to go with 23 homers and a .281 batting average for the Orioles.  His OPS was .817.  While not one of his greatest years, it was far superior to the average final season of most Major League sluggers.  He retired at the age of 33.

Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank,...

Photograph shows Eddie (Edward Stewart) Plank, pitcher for the Philadelphia Athletics, head-and-shoulders portrait, facing slightly right. Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2)  Eddie Plank – “Gettysburg”  Eddie Plank, unlike the vast majority of highly successful pitchers, Plank did just fine in his last season in the Majors.  Although his record in his final season in 1917 (pitching for the St. Louis Browns) was just  5-6, he posted a sparkling 1.79 ERA in 131 innings.  His ERA+ was an outstanding 147.  Clearly, this 41-year old future HOF’er had something left in the tank.  But he wisely decided to call it quits after that final season.

3)  Reggie Smith –  One of the most underrated players in baseball history, and one of the top 50 players not in the Hall of Fame, Smith enjoyed his final hurrah in 1982 at the age of 37 while playing for the San Francisco Giants.  Entering ’82, Smith was just four homers shy of 300 for his career.  He ended up slugging 18 while playing his home games in Candlestick Park, a notoriously difficult park for hitters.

Smith’s triple slash line in ’82:  .284 / .364 / .470, with an OPS+ of 134, were remarkably similar to his overall career numbers:  .287 / .366 / .489, OPS+ of 137.  In other words, Smith was about as productive in his final season as he had been in any previous average year.  That’s not at all a bad way to go out.

4)  Tony Gwynn– Even in his final season at age 41, was anyone really surprised that Gwynn batted .324?  Granted, he played in just 71 games in 2001, but his OPS+ during those plate appearance, 127, was pretty close to his career OPS+ of 132.  Gwynn was essentially the same professional hitter at age 41 as he had been much earlier in his career.

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers unif...

Jackie Robinson swinging a bat in Dodgers uniform, 1954. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

5)  Jackie Robinson –  Given the relentless abuse heaped upon him day after day, year after year, it’s a wonder he played as long as he did.

Robinson was already 28-years old when he debuted in the Majors in 1947.  He played a solid decade before retiring after the 1956 season at the age of 37.  During this decade, he was a career .311 hitter who scored at least 99 runs in each of his first seven seasons.  His career OPS+ was an excellent 131.

In his final season, despite playing in just 117 games, Robinson drew 60 walks while striking out just 32 times, posting a .382 on-base percentage.  He posted an outstanding dWAR of 1.9, and a respectable overall WAR of 4.6, third best on the 1st place Dodgers.  He also finished 16th in MVP voting, not a bad way to end a legendary career.

Will Clark preparing to bat during seventh inn...

Will Clark preparing to bat during seventh inning of 12 August 1992 game between San Francisco Giants and Houston Astros, at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. Game boxscore (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

6)  Will Clark – Will “The Thrill” Clark was one of my favorite players of the late 1980’s into the early ’90’s.  He played with intensity, had a beautiful left-handed line-drive swing, and was nimble around first base.  His career OPS+ of 137 is the same as the aforementioned Reggie Smith, and is better than those of Hall of Famers Bill Terry, George Brett, Al Kaline, and Paul Waner.

His final season in the year 2000 did nothing to blemish his fine career.  In splitting his season between Baltimore and St. Louis, Clark posted a fine triple slash line of .318 / .419 / .546 and an OPS+ of 144 in 507 plate appearances.  His overall WAR was a respectable 4.1.  Retiring at the age of 36, Clark certainly went out at the top of his game.

7)  Mike Mussina –  That rarest of rare pitchers, Mussina decided to retire after winning 20 games for the first time in his career (at age 39) while pitching for the New York Yankees in 2008.  As far as I know, no health issues would have prevented him from returning for yet another season at the age of 40.  Clearly, he decided he’d had enough.

Those 20 victories pushed his career total to 270, and probable induction into the Hall of Fame when he becomes eligible.

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and Hall of Famer ...

Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher and Hall of Famer in a 1961 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

8)  Sandy Koufax – Koufax and Mussina are the only two pitchers since 1920 who retired after posting 20-win seasons.  Mussina did it out of choice.  Koufax was forced into retirement due to chronic pain in his elbow.

It’s interesting to speculate how much longer Koufax would have pitched had he not suffered from this lingering pain.  Would he have eventually bounced around like Steve Carlton in his final years, trying to recapture lost glory?  And if he had tried to pitch while declining in effectiveness year after year, would his legendary reputation have become diminished over time?

Regardless, Koufax’s final season in 1966 at age 30, pitching for the L.A. Dodgers, was the single finest final performance in baseball history.  En route to his third Cy Young award over four seasons, Koufax posted a 27-9 record, a 1.73 ERA (which led the league for the fifth straight year), 27 complete games in 41 starts (both of which led the league), 317 strikeouts, and a ridiculous ERA+ of 190.  His WAR was 10.8, matching his career high set in 1963.

I think Neil Young had it correct when he said it’s better to burn out than to fade away.

Regarding Chipper Jones and Andy Pettitte, it remains to be seen if their final seasons will match those listed above, or if their respective final seasons were one year too many.

Cleaning Up The Hall of Fame: Lloyd Waner vs. Dale Murphy

Dale Murphy Braves JerseyIn this second installment of the series, “Cleaning Up the Hall,” we are going to move out to center field to compare a couple of ball players who played two generations apart, Lloyd Waner and Dale Murphy.

But before I go any further, let me briefly state, as I did in Part 1, that the purpose of this series is to incrementally improve the Hall of Fame one player at a time.  It is not, therefore, to find the perfect, overlooked Hall of Famer.

Also, let me be clear that these are meant to be purely hypothetical arguments.  I am not suggesting that the readers of this blog should Occupy the Hall until certain HOF plaques are removed, to be replaced by more deserving players.

Having said that, one of the worst mistakes the Veteran’s committee has ever made was to vote to induct former Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Lloyd (Little Poison) Waner into the Hall of Fame.

Lloyd Waner, the younger brother of legitimate HOF’er Paul Waner, never received more than 23% of the vote of the BBWAA in all his years on the HOF ballot.  Yet, in 1967, the Veteran’s Committee, apparently influenced by Lloyd’s inflated batting averages and not much else, voted to pair Lloyd with his brother in The Hall.

At first glance, there is a case to be made for Lloyd Waner, who played from 1927-45.

Although he never won a batting title, Little Poison enjoyed ten seasons in which he batted over .300.  He enjoyed four 200 hit campaigns in his first five seasons, including a league-leading 214 hits in 1931.  He also led the league in triples with 20 in 1929, and he scored over 100 runs in each of his first three seasons.  He also led the N.L. in at bats three times.

A good center fielder, Waner led the senior circuit in put outs four times, in fielding percentage three times, and in range factor three times as well.  Had the Gold Glove been awarded in his era, he would probably have won three or four.

Waner retired after an 18-year Major League career (the first 14 with the Pirates) at the age of 39.  But his last truly productive season occurred in 1938, when Waner was 32-years old.

His final career numbers are as follows:  2,459 hits, 281 doubles, 118 triples, 27 home runs, 1,201 runs scored, 598 RBI, 67 stolen bases, and 420 bases on balls.  His 426 career extra base hits is one of the lowest totals by any position player in The Hall.

His career triple slash line is .316 / .353 / .393.  While the batting average is 69th best of all-time, he played in an era when it was very common to bat over .300.  Drawing few walks, Waner’s on-base percentage is not impressive at all for his era.  And his slugging percentage is abysmal for any era.

Lloyd Waner’s career WAR is 24.3, also among the lowest in The Hall.  Perhaps most damning is his career OPS+ of 99, which means he was actually one point below the average replacement level player.

Waner was a good player who hit a ton of singles, (2,033 of his hits were singles, good for 41st all-time), scored lots of runs in his first three years (in a huge run-scoring era), played some good defense, and not much else.

Lloyd Waner simply does not belong in the Hall of Fame.

A better candidate for The Hall would be a slugger now almost forgotten by the under-40 year old baseball fan, former Atlanta Braves center fielder Dale Murphy.

There are actually a few similarities between Lloyd Waner and Dale Murphy.  They each played approximately 14 of their first 18 years with one team (the Pirates and Braves, respectively.)  They each peaked at about 23% of the vote of the BBWAA for Hall induction, and each of their careers were essentially over before they turned 33-years of age.

But there are also several important differences between these two center fielders.

From 1980, when he became a full-time outfielder for the Braves (he came up as a catcher) through 1987, Dale Murphy was arguably the best player in the National League.  He won two N.L. MVP awards (1982-83), and he finished in the top 10 in two other seasons (1984-85.)

Dale Murphy was a seven time All-Star, he won five Gold Gloves, and he was a four-time winner of the Silver Slugger award.  An iron man, Murphy played every single game from 1982-’85, and he missed a total of five games over a six-year period.

Unlike Lloyd Waner, Murphy also had a lot of power.  Six times he hit at least 30 home runs in a season, leading the league twice.  He slugged a career-high 44 home runs in 1987.  He also led the league in slugging percentage twice, Runs Batted In two times, and OPS once.

Murphy drove in over 100 runs five times, drew over 90 walks in a season four times, and topped .900 OPS four times.  Whereas Lloyd Waner’s single-season best OPS+ was just 116, Murphy reached an OPS+ of at least 135 in six different seasons.

Dale Murphy’s career WAR of 44.2 is also significantly better than Waner’s.

Murphy finished his career with 2,111 hits, 350 doubles, 39 triples, 398 home runs, 1,197 runs scored, 1,266 RBI, 161 stolen bases, and 986 walks.  Waner has the edge in hits, runs scored (though not by many) and triples.  Murphy has a big edge in doubles, home runs, extra base hits, stolen bases, RBI and walks.

Dale Murphy’s career OPS+ of 121 is also better than Waner’s score of 99.  And although Waner ranks 41st all-time in singles, Murphy ranks 5oth all-time in home runs.  Whom would you rather have?

Therefore, in our ongoing quest to clean up The Hall, Dale Murphy would make a more than adequate replacement for Lloyd Waner in the Hall of Fame.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this series, with a movie review coming soon as well.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 25 – The Milwaukee Brewers

Cover

Image via Wikipedia

The Milwaukee Brewers:  The Team That Selig Built.

Question:  How does a used car salesman from Milwaukee get to buy his very own pet Major League baseball team?

Answer:  When apparently no one else in North America has the capital to put up front for the purchase.

Some background:  When the Kansas City A’s unceremoniously vacated K.C. for Oakland (it seemed like a good idea at the time) in 1968, a U.S. Senator from Missouri (Stuart Symington) decided to hold hostage baseball’s antitrust exemption, unless Kansas City was  awarded a brand new expansion team, to begin play immediately in the 1969 baseball season.

Thus baseball brought forth four new expansion teams for the ’69 season:  Montreal Expos, San Diego Padres, Seattle Pilots, and Kansas City Royals.

The Seattle Pilots were the sorriest team of the lot, finishing their one and only campaign as a major league franchise (in Seattle) last in their division with a 64-98 record.  If you’ve read Jim Bouton’s classic book, “Ball Four,” you know what a pathetic excuse for a team the Pilot’s were.

Milwaukee, however, had already established itself as a baseball town.  The Braves called Milwaukee home for thirteen seasons (1953-65) during which they never played less than .500 baseball in any single season.  In fact, in the Milwaukee Braves inaugural season, they set a then-baseball attendance record of 1.8 million fans.

(On a side note, Selig, a minority Braves stockholder, had sued the Braves to try to force them to stay in Milwaukee, claiming that a baseball team owes it to their city and to their fans to stay put.  The Braves finally got their wish and moved to Atlanta where they believed attendance would be better.)

Bud Selig got his team, though, and, after just five seasons without a Major League franchise, Milwaukee would once again host a team of its own, beginning in 1970.

It wasn’t pretty.  The 1970 Brewers, née Pilots, finished 65-97, just one game better than their one year in Seattle.

Yet virtually every bad team has at least one bright spot.  And the bright spot on the 1970 Milwaukee Brewers burned surprisingly bright, indeed.

His name was Tommy Harper.

Now, I have to confess that when I started researching this blog-post, I thought I would end up profiling someone like Ben Oglivie in 1980:  41 homers, 118 RBI’s, 333 total bases, Silver Slugger winner, .925 OPS.

Or Sixto Lezcano in 1979:  28 homers, 101 RBI’s, .321 batting average, .987 OPS, Gold Glove.

Or Larry Hisle: Excellent overall campaign in ’78.  Well over 100 RBI’s.  Made the All-Star team.  Finished 3rd in A.L. MVP voting.

Or Cecil Cooper: At least four excellent seasons.  One hell of an underrated ballplayer.  If he had stayed in Boston, he might have been able to have produced Hall of Fame numbers.

But settling on Tommy Harper was a no-brainer.  Here’s why.

Most of the fine Brewers hitters that many of us remember played sometime in the late ’70’s or ’80’s.  I didn’t expect to be able to go so far back in team history and stumble across a player who had one season that overshadowed all the other players.

1970 was Tommy Harper’s Best Forgotten Season:

The previous year, toiling away with the Pilots at age 28, Harper had led the A.L. with 73 stolen bases.  But he had produced a pathetic 21 extra base hits in 537 at bats, including nine homers and just ten doubles!  His .235 batting average and 78 runs scored were also unimpressive.

He did, however, draw 95 walks, and his versatility (he could play 2nd, 3rd or OF) along with his base-stealing abilities, provided some value.

Then something strange happened in his first season in Milwaukee.  Tommy Harper must have sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads in some working-class Milwaukee neighborhood, because overnight and without warning, he became an extremely dangerous hitter.

His final numbers for 1970:

Games: 154

At Bats:  604

Hits:  179

Doubles:  35

Home Runs:  31 (!)

RBI’s:  82

Runs Scored:  104

Batting Average: .296

On-Base Percentage:  .377

Slugging Percentage:  .522 (an increase of .211 points from ’69.)

OPS:  .899 (6th best in league)

OPS+:  146 (6th best in league)

Total Bases:  315 (3rd highest)

Extra Base Hits:  70  (First Place!)

Stolen Bases:  38 (2nd place)

WAR:   7.7 (2nd best in team history)

Power-Speed #:  34.1 (First Place)

In short, in one season he had morphed from Omar Moreno to Bobby Bonds.

Tommy Harper finished sixth in the 1970 MVP voting, and he is still the only 30-30-30 man (doubles, homers, steals) in Brewers history.  In fact, Tommy Harper was the first 30-30 man in American League history.

The 31 home runs Harper hit in 1970 were more than he had hit in the previous four seasons combined.  In fact, they represented 21 percent of all the home runs he would hit in his 15-year career.

But Tommy Harper wasn’t finished playing ball after 1970.  After playing just one more year in Milwaukee, Harper enjoyed three productive years with the Red Sox, scoring over 90 runs twice, and leading the league in stolen bases in 1973 (at age 32,) with 54, breaking the 61-year old Red Sox record of 52 stolen bases previously set by Tris Speaker in 1912.  (Harper’s record has since been broken by Jacoby Ellsbury.)

Tommy Harper finally retired in 1976 at the age of 35.

Why some players suddenly produce one explosive season in an otherwise solid career has always been something of a mystery.  I’m reasonably sure even Tommy Harper didn’t see it coming.

But this is one of the reasons why we love baseball; you can always expect the unexpected.




Best Forgotten Seasons: Part 24 – The Toronto Blue Jays

"Laverne & Shirley Sing"-1976 LP cover

Image via Wikipedia

The Toronto Blue Jays, a franchise that played its inaugural season back in 1977, were born in the era of disco, Jimmy Carter, and Laverne and Shirley, not exactly the high water mark of Western Civilization.

Tweeners like myself (neither a true Baby-Boomer nor a Gen-X‘er), remember this period as our awkward transition through puberty and on into high school.

Blue Jays fans remember the late ’70’s as the Doug Ault / Jesse Jefferson era.  Back then, Toronto was to baseball what the Donner Party was to holiday travel.

After six miserable seasons, however, the Blue Jays became a respectable ball-club —  and stayed that way —  for the next eleven consecutive seasons.  They reached the pinnacle of success by winning back-to-back World Championships over first the Braves, then the Phillies, in 1992-93.

Alas, Joe Carter‘s walk-off home run off of Mitch Williams in ’93 would be, up to this point, the last great moment in Jays history.  Not that they’ve been a bad team, mind you.  They finished in third place in their division eight times in ten years from 1998-2007, with a second place finish thrown in as well.

But the glory days, when they regularly drew over 4 million fans per year to the Skydome, have passed them by.  The Blue Jays drew just 1.49 million fans this past season, their lowest attendance total since 1982.

Nevertheless, in good times and bad, the Blue Jays have produced their fair share of talented baseball players.  Not a single Blue Jay has yet made it into the Hall of Fame, however, although HOF’ers Rickey Henderson, Phil Niekro, Dave Winfield and Paul Molitor have worn the Blue Jay uniform.

One other player who wore a Blue Jay uniform and who has a solid case in his favor regarding Hall of Fame worthiness is retired first baseman Fred McGriff.

Fred (Crime Dog) McGriff, who made his major league  debut with the Blue Jays in 1986 at the age of 22, was one of the first excellent players the Jays produced.  By age 24, McGriff was already one of the most lethal players in his league, smashing 34 homers, scoring 100 runs, and producing an OPS of .928.

But Fred McGriff’s Best Forgotten Season with the Blue Jays was 1989.

In 1989, McGriff smashed an A.L. leading 36 home runs.  He also led the league in OPS (.924) and OPS+ (166).  He scored 98 runs, drove in 92, collected 289 total bases, and drew a career high 119 walks (second most in the league.)  His .524 slugging percentage was also second-best in the league.

McGriff won a Silver Slugger award ’89, and he finished sixth in the MVP voting in only his third big league season.

In December, 1990, McGriff, along with teammate Tony Fernandez, was traded to San Diego for Roberto Alomar and Joe Carter.  As great a player as McGriff was, this was a trade the Blue Jays certainly cannot regret having made.

McGriff went on to enjoy an excellent career until his retirement at the age of 40 in 2004, having helped lead the Atlanta Braves to a World Championship in 1995.

His final career numbers include 493 homers (tied with Lou Gehrig for 26th all-time), 1,550 RBI’s, 1,349 runs scored, 2,490 hits, 441 doubles, and 4,458 total bases (top 50 all-time.)

Only eight first basemen in history have ever out-homered McGriff (only six if you subtract steroids-tainted Mark McGwire and Rafael Palmiero.)

McGriff’s career OPS+ (134) is better than approximately 85 current Hall of Famers.

Now, if you’re still with me,  let’s take a look at five other first basemen currently in the Hall of Fame:  Eddie Murray, Tony Perez, Orlando Cepeda, George Sisler and Bill Terry, and compare them with Fred McGriff.  We’ll begin with OPS (on-base + slugging percentage.)  Here’s how they stack up:

1)  Bill Terry – .899

2)  Fred McGriff – .886

3)  Orlando Cepeda –  .849

4)  George Sisler – .847

5)  Eddie Murray – .836

6)  Tony Perez – .804

Now how about OPS+ (which takes into consideration the era and the home ballpark of the particular player):

1)  Bill Terry – 134

2) Fred McGriff – 134

3) Orlando Cepeda – 133

4) Eddie Murray – 129

5) George Sisler – 124

6) Tony Perez – 122

Want still more?  How about career WAR? (a cumulative stat):

1)  Eddie Murray – 60.2

2)  Fred McGriff – 53.2

3)  George Sisler – 50.4

4)  Tony Perez – 49.6

5)  Bill Terry – 48.1

6) Orlando Cepeda – 46.8

Just for the hell of it, how about runs created (the hitter’s basic purpose):

1)  Eddie Murray – 1,942

2)  Fred McGriff – 1,704

3)  Tony Perez – 1,524

4)  George Sisler – 1,468

5)  Orlando Cepeda – 1,337

6)  Bill Terry – 1,280

Notice a trend?  When compared to five other HOF first basemen, Fred McGriff comes in second place on each list.

There are those of you who hate these kinds of arguments (A is as good as B, and B is as good as C, so A is as good as C.)  You might argue that perhaps none of these players (with the exception of Eddie Murray) belongs in The Hall.  Perhaps, you might reason, The Hall should be reserved for only the VERY BEST of the VERY BEST.  Guys like Gehrig, Ruth, Williams, DiMaggio, etc.

Well, my friends, we crossed that Rubicon a long, lonely time ago.

Democracy has its merits, but perhaps its one great flaw is the idea that there really isn’t that much difference between the truly great and the merely very good.  We live in a democracy, and lots of very good people (and some true mediocrities) have assumed positions of great power,wealth and prestige.

Why should we expect Baseball’s Hall of Fame to be any different?

This is no slight against the career of Fred McGriff, nor against any of the other players on the above lists, for that matter.

Just don’t tell me you know a HOF’er when you see one.  Or that a true HOF’er is always obvious.

Numbers are the mother’s milk of this pastime, and the numbers indicate that it is virtually impossible to make an objective, reasonable argument as to why Fred McGriff does not belong in the Hall of Fame.

Now, anyone for a Nick at Night Mork and Mindy Marathon?

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 10 – The Atlanta Braves

To the approbation of their fans, and the consternation of their foes, the Atlanta Braves were the most consistently successful baseball franchise of the period lasting from 1991-2005. During that time-span, they won 14 straight division titles, five N.L. pennants, and one World Championship.

Interestingly, during the era of the steroid-induced home run hitters, it was pitching that was primarily responsible for the Braves good fortune. Specifically, the success of the Braves was largely attributable to the combined talents of starting pitchers Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. These three All-Stars combined to win seven Cy Young Awards between them.

But in a typical season, these three future Hall of Famers would combine to make about 100 starts per season.  Surely, given the inconsistent nature of the Braves offenses in those days, there must have been some pretty good back-of-the-rotation starters on those teams as well stepping up on the pitcher’s mound for the other 62 games per season.

Turns out there was.  Many Braves fans will remember Steve Avery.  The name Jason Schmidt might ring a bell to others.  And ex-Brave Kevin Millwood now toils away in Baltimore.

But how about Denny Neagle?  He was perhaps the best fourth starter on any of those great Braves pitching staffs.  Now, that may sound like a backhanded complement, but keep in mind that, in his prime,  Neagle could have been the ace of many major league teams.

Denny Neagle’s Best Forgotten Season was 1997.

Normally in this series, I choose a player who performed in a season somewhat further removed from our contemporary era.  Yet although ’97 is just thirteen years ago, it feels closer to twenty, especially when one stops to consider how many other fourth starters the Braves have utilized over the past dozen years.

In 1997, the southpaw Neagle rivaled each of the Braves other top three starters for the title of Staff Ace.  In 34 starts, he posted a record of 20-5, with an ERA of 2.97.  He tossed 233 innings, notched four shutouts, struck out 172 batters, and posted a WHIP of 1.08.  His ERA+ was 140.  His twenty victories led the National League.

Neagle finished third in the N.L. Cy Young voting in ’97  behind the winner Pedro Martinez (then with the Expos), and runner-up, and teammate, Greg Maddux.  Maddux, once again asserting himself as the true staff ace, finished 19-4, but posted an ERA of 2.20,  even better than that posted by Neagle.

Neagle sandwiched his league-leading twenty win season in ’97 between two sixteen win seasons.  His first sixteen win season occurred while pitching part of the season for the Pirates in ’96 before coming over to the Braves in a timely and fortuitous deal.  His second and final sixteen win season came while pitching in his second and final season for the Braves, 1998.

Neagle never had another season in which he pitched quite so effectively as he did in 1997.  Despite signing a four-year, 32 million dollar free agent contract to pitch for the Rockies in 2001, he turned out to be a major bust.

Neagle finally retired after the 2003 season, at age 34, with a career record of 124-92.

But the Braves have not, of course, always been a very good ball-club.

Although there aren’t many people under the age of 35 who remember this, the Braves of the 1980’s were sometimes absolutely terrible.  In 1989, for example, just a couple of years before the Braves began their incredible run of success, they finished in sixth place in their division (the N.L. West, at that time), with a record of 63-97.

Still, even bad teams sometimes have very good players.

The Best Forgotten Player on the 1989 Braves was Lonnie Smith.

Lonnie Smith patrolled left-field for the Braves for all or most of five seasons, from 1988-92, inclusive.  The Braves had picked Smith up as a free-agent after he had been released by the Royals after the 1987 season.

At 5’9″ and 170 pounds, Smith certainly wasn’t a big man, but he did have some pop in his bat, and he could also steal a base.  Although his fielding could sometimes be an adventure, he did finish second in Range Factor among N.L. left-fielders in ’89.  His Fielding Percentage was also a very decent .993.

But Smith’s greatest contributions in ’89 came with the bat and on the base-paths.  Already 33-years old, Smith produced the one and only 20 homer, 20 steal season of his career.  Specifically, Smith hit 21 homers and stole 25 bases to go with along with a .315 batting average.

Even more impressively, his 76 walks and eleven times hit by a pitch resulted in a league- leading .415 On-Base Percentage.

Surprisingly, despite his high On-Base Percentage, Smith scored just 89 runs.  Apparently, his teammates lack-luster hitting with men on base was just one reason why they lost 97 games.

Smith’s OPS was a stunning .948, and his OPS+ of 168 was good for fourth place in the N.L.  He also produced 257 Total Bases for the Braves otherwise anemic offense.

Lonnie Smith finished eleventh in the N.L. MVP voting in 1989, a strong showing for a player on a last-place team who was not a power hitter.

Unfortunately, as with Denny Neagle eight years later, Smith could not duplicate his success the following year.  Although Smith was still a useful player in 1990, his skills were quickly eroding as he approached age 35.  The Braves released Smith after the 1992 season.

The Pirates, foreshadowing the hapless and misguided personnel decisions that have marked their descent into obscurity, signed the 36-year old Smith as a free-agent for the 1993 season.

Smith, his skills long since having deserted him,  inevitably retired in 1994 at the age of 38.  He had played for six Major League teams in his seventeen- year career.

But only once did Smith produce a season that truly deserves to be remembered.  Lonnie Smith’s 1989 season was one of the Best Forgotten Seasons in Braves history.

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