The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Chicago White Sox”

Remarkable Relief Pitcher Seasons (Or Why the Modern Closer is a Bore)

Cropped picture of Tony La Russa on the outfie...

“If only I had another dozen lefties in my ‘pen, the world would be a better place.”

There’s no tactful way to say this, but you have to be pretty old to remember when the best relief pitchers weren’t merely “closers.”  Certainly, you have to go back to at least before Tony LaRussa stuck Dennis Eckersley in that role in the late 1980’s.

In truth, if you want to rediscover a time when relief pitchers were true workhorses, you have to go all the way back to the 1950’s through the ’70’s. Looking back on some of the statistics compiled by several of the best relief pitchers of that era reveals how much baseball has changed over the past generation or so.

Next time you wonder why your favorite team often seems to run out of position players so quickly, especially during extra-inning games, keep in mind that it wasn’t always this way.  Once upon a time, managers didn’t switch relief pitchers every time a new batter stepped up to the plate.

In chronological order, here are seven remarkable relief pitcher seasons from days gone by:

1)  Joe Black1952:  Back in the days when the Dodgers played in Brooklyn, just a few years after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier, another 28-year old African-American played a significant role on the franchise from Brooklyn.

Manager Chuck Dressen utilized his rubber-armed rookie to great effect.  Black appeared in 56 games, leading the league in games finished with 41.  He pitched a total of 142 innings (which would be his career high), and posted 15 saves and an outstanding 2.15 ERA.

Now, the 15 saves might not seem like a remarkable total, but that was a pretty high total in those days.  Perhaps most remarkably, Black posted a record of 15-4.  Modern closers who accumulate 19 decisions in a year are as rare as a watchable Nicholas Cage film.

English: Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Joe Black in...

English: Brooklyn Dodgers pitcher Joe Black in a 1953 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

2)  Hoyt Wilhelm1952:  There must have been something in the drinking water in 1952 that only affected older rookie relief pitchers.

Wilhelm, like Black, was an “old” rookie in ’52, throwing his first MLB pitch at age 29.  What a way for a Hall of Fame career to begin.

Wilhelm toiled for the Dodgers’ crosstown rival Giants over in the Polo Grounds.  Wilhelm’s numbers were also remarkably similar to Black’s.  Wilhelm appeared in 71 games and pitched a total of 159 innings.  Although his ERA was a little higher than Blacks’s (2.43), Wilhelm actually officially led the N.L. in ERA because Black just missed the number of innings pitched required to win the title.

Wilhelm also saved 11 games, and posted a win-loss record of 15-3, virtually identical to Black’s.  Joe Black won the Rookie of the Year award, and Wilhelm finished as the runner-up.  Black also finished 3rd in MVP voting in the N.L., while Wilhelm finished 4th.

But while Black was out of baseball after half a dozen years, Wilhelm pitched 21 years, until he was 49 years old!

3)  Roy Face1959:  Though he wasn’t a rookie, Roy Face was even older (31) than Black and Wilhelm when he enjoyed his most amazing season.  Face had some success in parts of five previous seasons with the Pirates, but nothing like the year he enjoyed in ’59.

Although his 57 appearances, 47 games finished, and 93 innings were not career highs, nor was the 2.70 ERA he recorded a career low.  And his ten saves, even by the standards of the day, don’t cause one to do a double-take. Yet there is no denying that Face’s 1959 season is one of the most awe-inspiring in baseball history.

Face recorded 19 decisions that season, the same number that Joe Black did in ’52.  While Black’s 15-4 record was fantastic, Roy Face’s final tally, 18-1, was simply unbelievable.  Face won 17 straight games in relief in one year.  He finished 7th in N.L. MVP voting in 1959, and would certainly have done well in Cy Young voting, but there wasn’t yet a Cy Young award to vote upon.

Though Face was never a serious Hall of Fame candidate, he did have a fine career, leading his league in saves three times, he pitched for another decade, finally retiring after the 1969 season at age 41.

English: Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Roy Face i...

English: Pittsburgh Pirates pitcher Roy Face in a 1959 issue of Baseball Digest. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

4)  Eddie Fisher1965:  There’s a good chance you’ve never heard of Eddie Fisher.  That’s what happens when you toil for the White Sox in the mid ’60’s (they actually finished in second place in ’65.)

Like Hoyt Wilhelm, Eddie Fisher began his career with the Giants, then pitched for the White Sox.  In fact, Fisher and Wilhelm were teammates on the ’65 White Sox. The de facto staff ace of that team was Joe Horlen; he was the only pitcher on the team to top 200 innings pitched.

But there were six other pitchers on the team that pitched at least 140 innings.  Relief pitchers Fisher and Wilhelm were two of them.  Though Wilhelm finished with a better ERA than Fisher (1.81 to 2.40), and more strikeouts, Fisher saved 24 games to Wilhelm’s 20.

The biggest difference, however was that while Wilhelm garnered seven wins in relief, Fisher posted a record of 15-7.  In fact, Fisher led the White Sox in victories, and in win-loss percentage (.682.)

Fisher also led the A.L. in WHIP with a mark of 0.974.  His 82 appearances and 60 games finished also led the league.

Fisher would go on to pitch effectively for several more years, finally retiring in 1973 at the age of 36 as a member of the St. Louis Cardinals.

5)  Wilbur Wood1968:  If you’re old enough, you may remember Wood as one of those workhorse starting pitchers who was as likely to lose 20 games as he was to win that many.  In fact, in 1973, this White Sox pitcher posted a record of 24-20 in 48 (yes, 48) starts.  Wood enjoyed four consecutive 2o-win seasons (1971-74) to go along with his two 20-loss seasons.  But before he was a workhorse starter, he was a tireless reliever.

English: Hoyt Wilhelm of the New York Giants

English: Hoyt Wilhelm of the New York Giants (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

At the age of 26, Wood produced his first of three consecutive years leading the A.L. in appearances.  In all three years, he tossed well over 100 innings.

The most impressive of those three seasons, though, was 1968.  That year, in addition to saving a respectable 16 games and posting a sparkling 1.87 ERA, he also managed to accumulate 25 decisions in relief.  On a team that finished the year 67-95, Wood was one of two pitchers on the team (the other being some kid named Tommy John) that finished with a record above .500 (minimum of ten decisions.)

Wood’s record was 13-12, but obviously his ERA (as well as his ERA+ of 171) demonstrate that he was a much better pitcher than his record indicates.  And yes, Hoyt Wilhelm was on this team, too.

Wood retired after a 17-year career in 1978 at age 36.  His career ERA+ of 114 is the same as Luis Tiant and Rick Reuschel.

6)  John Hiller1974:  Hiller’s story is one of the most remarkable in baseball history.

This native of Ontario, Canada, was drafted by the Tigers at the age of 19 in 1962.  He threw his first pitch in the Majors at age 25 in 1965.  By 1967, he was firmly entrenched in the Tigers bullpen.  In 1970, Hiller enjoyed what to that point was a typical Hiller season:  104 innings, mostly in relief, a 3.03 ERA, an ERA+ of 124, a 6-6 record, and a hat-full of saves.

Then in 1971, at age 28, Hiller suffered a serious heart-attack.  Though he survived, most analysts at the time doubted he would ever pitch again.  But Hiller was determined that he would not allow his career to end prematurely.  He worked himself back into shape, and enjoyed the best part of his career in the years immediately following his return.

Pitching just 44 innings in 1972, Hiller posted a 2.03 ERA, and proved that he was ready for an even bigger workload.  In 1973, Hiller led the A.L. in appearance (65) and games finished (60.)  His 38 saves (a career high) also led the league.  And his 1.44 ERA was also outstanding.  In can be argued that ’73 was his finest season, but 1974 was, in some ways, even more amazing.

Hiller, just three years removed from a near-fatal heart-attack, pitched 150 innings in relief for the Tigers.  His ERA rose to a still very nice 2.64, and he saved just 13 games.  His win-loss record, however, nearly defies belief.  In 59 appearances, Hiller posted a record of 17-14, leading the 6th-place Tigers in victories…as a relief pitcher.  Thirty-one decisions in relief is the most I was able to uncover, and will never be approached again.

Hiller finally retired in 1980 at age 37.  Now 70-years old, Hiller is still one of the most beloved of all Tigers players.

7)  Mike Marshall1974:  You and I both know that this post can only conclude with Mike Marshall’s fascinating 1974 season.  We began this post with a pair of relievers battling across one city in the same season, 1952, and now we’re ending it with a pair of relievers — Hiller and Marshall — battling across two separate leagues, again in the same year, 1974.

Mike Marshall had already won 14 games in relief twice, in 1972 and ’73, and had pitched as many as 173 innings in relief in 1973, his final season with the Expos.  Traded to the Dodgers (for Willie Davis) before the 1974 season, he set a record of usage that no reliever is ever likely to break.

In 1974, Mike Marshall pitched in an astronomical 106 games, finishing 83 of them, and he led the N.L. with 21 saves.  As if his record of 15-12, all in relief, wasn’t impressive enough, Marshall pitched a still unbelievable 208 innings in relief, more innings than many starters pitch in a season these days.  His ERA was a solid 2.42, and his ERA+ was 141.  Clearly, the excessive number of innings pitched didn’t hinder his performance.

Marshall dropped to “only” 109 innings in 1975, but as late as 1979, at age 36, he was still leading the league in saves.  Five times in his career, Marshall won at least ten games in relief.  It may come as no surprise that Marshall won the N.L. Cy Young award in 1974, and finished 3rd in the MVP voting as well.

Marshall was one of the last of a line of relief pitchers for whom the term “overworked” was not in their vocabulary.  It’s unlikely, thanks to the current philosophy of bullpen use, that we’ll ever see their like again.

Baseball Standings 2012: The Good, The Bad, and the Lucky

Now that the 2012 baseball season is around one-quarter over, I thought it might be a good time to take a break from the normal fare of this blog, and check in with what’s been happening around the Majors.

It is common in the late winter and early spring to prognosticate about what will happen in the up-coming baseball season.  Baseball magazines and blogs are rife with predictions.  Inevitably, many of those predictions soon look pretty foolish.  I’m as guilty as the next guy as far as these predictions are concerned.

But sometimes, baseball surprises us much more than usual.

Take for example, the early success of the Baltimore Orioles who currently sport a gaudy 28-17 record.  They have a simply remarkable record of 15-6 on the road.

Did you see this coming?  I doubt anyone else, including Orioles management on down to the lowliest clubhouse attendant, did either.

But how much of any particular teams success or failure at this point is simply pure dumb luck?  Which teams are either underachieving or overachieving?  And which teams are playing about as well as they should be?

One easy way to measure the difference between how a team is actually performing (its won-loss record) is to compare that team’s performance with its run differential.  Run differential simply measures how many runs a team has scored vs. how many they have surrendered.  The Giants, for example, have scored 184 runs this season, and they have given up 181.  Thus their run differential is +3.

You would expect a team with a +3 run differential to be about one game over .500.  The Giants, in fact, are three games over .500 (24-21), so it can be deduced that they’ve overachieved a little bit.

Now, let’s look at the rest of the teams.  In the left-hand column is a list of teams, from best to worst, based on their winning percentage.  In the right-hand column is a list of each team’s run differential, also rated from best to worst.  It is interesting to note which teams are either underachieving or overachieving at this point.

1)  Dodgers – .682                                            1)  Rangers  +79

2)  Orioles – .622                                              2)  Cardinals  +64

3)  Rangers –  .600                                           3)  Dodgers  +44

3)  Rays –  .600                                                 4)  Blue Jays  +35

5)  Indians – .591                                               5)  Braves  +32

5)  Nationals – .591                                            6)  Nationals  +19

7)  Reds – .568                                                   7)  Red Sox  +17

8)  Braves – .565                                                8)  Orioles  +14

9)  Cardinals – .556                                            8)  Rays  +14

10)  Blue Jays – .533                                         10) Houston  +12

10)  Giants – .533                                               11) White Sox  +11

10)  Marlins – .533                                             12) Reds  +8

10)  Mets – .533                                                  13)  Yankees  +7

14)  Yankees – .523                                            14)  Phillies +4

15)  White Sox – .511                                          15) Giants +3

16)  Phillies – .500                                              16) Cleveland +1

16)  Red Sox – .500                                             17) Angels -2

18)  Oakland – .489                                             18) Marlins -6

19)  Houston –  .477                                             19) Detroit -10

20)  Angels – .457                                                 19) Seattle -10

21)  Detroit – .455                                                 21) Arizona -14

21)  Pirates – .455                                                 22) Oakland -20

23)  Seattle – .447                                                 23) Kansas City -22

24)  Arizona – .444                                                24) Colorado -27

25)  Milwaukee – .409                                          25) Milwaukee -29

26)  Kansas City – .395                                         26) Pirates -34

27)  Colorado – .372                                               27) Mets -35

28)  San Diego – .370                                             28) San Diego -37

29)  Cubs – .341                                                      29) Cubs -46

29)  Twins – .341                                                    30) Twins -72

Starting at the bottom, no matter how you cut it, it’s going to be a long year for the Padres, Cubs, and Twins.  Unfortunately for the Brewers, their run differential matches their record, so there’s not much reason to expect a big turnaround there.  It’s time to start selling off some of their most tradeable parts.

As for the Mets, they better not start printing playoff tickets just yet.  Their run differential is that of a sub-.500 team.  They’ve been playing with a lot of heart, but over the course of a 162 game season, talent usually trumps heart.

Houston is a big surprise to me, not because they are a sub-.500 team, but because their run differential suggests they should be playing better than .500 baseball.

The Cardinals already appear to be playoff bound, but their run differential suggests that the best may be yet to come for them.

The Red Sox, who have recently been playing better baseball, actually have a better run differential than the division-leading Orioles.  Expect the Red Sox to close ground on Baltimore over the next several weeks, even if the slightly overachieving Orioles continue to play good baseball.

The Yankees are a decent team, but are a long way from being a 95 win team.  At this point, they more closely resemble an 84-win team.  It’ll certainly be interesting to see how that new reality plays out in New York.

If the White Sox can figure out how to win at home, their run differential shows that they can yet win their division this year, but Cleveland is not at all a bad team.

The Phillies, like the Yankees may be, in fact, a mediocre team masquerading as division contenders.  On the other hand, the Braves and the Nationals appear to be for real.

Comparing the two columns above, what did you notice?

Soundtrack for Baseball: April, 2012

There are many different ways to summarize the first month of the year.  You can parse endless stats, compose paragraphs of the sweetest prose, or just make yet another damned list.

I decided to change things up around here.  You know, wake the neighbors, scandalize the community, turn the volume up to 11, things like that.

In other words, I have created a video-soundtrack, via Youtube, for what I very subjectively consider to be the most significant story-lines in baseball for the first month of the season.  I hope you enjoy it.  And, as it says on the back of the Rolling Stones L.P. “Let it Bleed,”  play it loud!

To begin with, let’s honor Robin Ventura’s Chicago White Sox, under whose steady hand the South-Siders are keeping their collective heads at or above .500.  More to the point, the White Sox currently enjoy the best run differential, +3, in their division.

So let’s celebrate with a rousing version of “Sweet Home Chicago,” brought to you by an unbelievable All-Star cast of blues musicians.  Guaranteed to get you up and rocking, even if you aren’t a White Sox fan.

On the other hand, Chicago still has to answer for the Cubs, who finished the month of April with an extremely dismal 8-15 record.  Sure, they have a few interesting players.  Starlin Castro is a star in the making, and my kids love Darwin Barney, but let’s face it, this is a team going nowhere.

The song I’ve decided to dedicate to the Cubs for their April performance is a classic of the 1970’s, a song that when I first heard it as a kid of around 8 years old, I was fascinated and mesmerized.  Unfortunately, the same can’t be said (except in a negative sense) about the Cubbies so far this year.

So listen, if you will, to the most original Rock song ever, “The Night Chicago Died,” by a band called Paper Lace.

Are you still with me?  Good.  Now let’s turn to a player who may be the most underrated star in the game, Joey Votto.  Votto currently sports a .939 OPS and an OPS+ of a cool 158.  He also leads the N.L. in doubles with ten, and in walks with 20.

Did I say walks?  Perhaps he should show the rest of the league how to Walk This Way, as Run DMC does with Aerosmith, in one of my favorite Rock songs and videos.  Again, if you missed the original announcement, PLAY IT LOUD!

Poor Bobby Valentine.  Hasn’t Managed a Major League baseball team in years, then gets shanghaied into taking the helm of a Red Sox team more in need of a psychoanalyst than a manager.  He found out just how quickly the Red Sox fans, media and even the players could turn on someone who had the temerity to, you know, speak honestly and candidly, (if not very wisely) about, just perhaps, the lack of focus of one semi-star (Kevin Youkilis) player.

Boston currently sits in last place in the always tough A.L. East.  Although it’s not too late to turn this season around for a talented team like the Red Sox, one has to wonder if Bobby V. will still even be around at the end of the year to take credit if a turn-around does occur.  Bobby V. must be confused now, and thinking something along the lines of, Should I Stay or Should I Go?

Mick Jones, Joe Strummer and the boys in The Clash just happened to be wondering the same thing back in 1982.  Here’s how that sounded.  (Incidentally, I was at the show at Shea Stadium where this live footage was shot.)

Speaking of managers who put their foot their foot in their mouth this past month, it’s hard to top Ozzie Guillen’s mega-stupid comment (in Miami, no less), that he admired Cuban dictator Fidel Castro.  That’s a little like Mayor Bloomberg of New York City saying to a throng of Orthodox Jews in Brooklyn that he kind of admired Adolf Hitler.

But Ozzie has made a career of allowing his mouth to function at 45 RPM’s while his brain spins around (when it functions at all) at about 33 RPM’s.  He likes to impress people, I guess, but not everyone is amused by a Big Shot.  Just ask Billy Joel.

On the other hand, the news out of Baltimore is positive for the first time in many years.  The Orioles finished April with a record of 14-9, just one game out of first place.  Manager Buck Showalter has his kids playing fundamentally sound baseball, outfielder Adam Jones is off to a strong start, catcher Matt Wieters is displaying the multiple skills scouts raved about a few years back, and the pitching is holding its own.

Wouldn’t it be nice if this could last the whole year?  Wouldn’t it be nice if they were in a weaker division, say, the A.L. Central?  Wouldn’t it be nice to hear the Beach Boys about now?

If you don’t love this song, your U.S. citizenship will be revoked.  Please proceed to the line to the left marked, “Un-Americans.”  Thank you. Waterboarding begins at Noon.

Then there’s Albert Pujols, formerly the best player in the game.  Is it too soon to say that Sir Albert may never again be the best player in baseball?  How is it possible that he didn’t hit a single home run in April?  Is it the pressure of his huge new multi-year contract?  The change of leagues and ballparks?  Is age prematurely setting in?

The Angels and Albert Pujols himself must be wondering if somehow, he made a wrong turn somewhere out in the California desert, and left his talent behind in some long-forgotten hotel along the way.  ‘Cause, you know, the heat of the California wastelands can cause hallucinations and create mirages.  Perhaps that’s what happened.

If Albert’s nightmare season continues, the lyrics of “Hotel California” might come to seem benign by comparison.  Here’s hoping it doesn’t come to that.

Has there been a less fortunate pitcher in all of baseball over the past half-dozen years than Matt Cain of the Giants?  Through 207 career starts dating back to 2005, Cain has a career ERA of 3.33, an ERA+ of 125, and a 1.183 career WHIP.  Somehow, though, his career record stands at 70 wins and 74 losses.

This April, it was more of the same.  In four starts, he has recorded a 2.37 ERA, and has just one win to show for his efforts, and it took a complete game shutout to earn that win.

Matt Cain displays a stoic demeanor, but internally, he must be a “Man of Constant Sorrow.”  Wouldn’t you be?  Hot Damn, it’s the Soggy Bottom Boys!

Speaking of people who must be ready to stick forks in their eyes so they don’t have to watch what’s going on down on the field anymore, how would you like to be a Royals fan?  Not only are the Royals an A.L worst (tied with the Twins) 6-16, they have yet to win a game at home!  That’s right, folks, no Royals fan this year has yet witnessed their team triumph over the opposition on their home turf.  The Royals are 0-10 at home.

Now this was a team featuring a youth movement of talented young players like Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas, among others.  How did it all go so wrong?  It’s like washing your car, changing the oil, rotating the tires, then ending up with a Flat Tire.

What’s that like?  Just ask Joe Fletcher and the Wrong Reasons.

Well, folks, there are an endless number of story-lines to choose from, but we don’t have time for them all.  I’d be interested to hear your story-line / songs that you would have added to this soundtrack.  I hope you enjoyed at least some of it.

Maybe we’ll do it again at the end of May.  Thanks again for reading, er, listening.

Phil Humber’s Perfect Game: How Perfectly Rare

Phil Humber of the Chicago White Sox has just tossed the 21st perfect game in Major League history, defeating the Seattle Mariners this afternoon, 4-0.

Philip Humber

Philip Humber (Photo credit: Keith Allison)

To put this extremely rare event into perspective, more people have orbited the moon than have thrown a complete perfect game, and no pitcher has ever thrown two of them.

Among the pitchers who never threw a perfect game are Babe Ruth, Walter Johnson, Christy Mathewson, Lefty Grove, Grover Cleveland Alexander, Carl Hubbell, Bob Feller, Robin Roberts, Steve Carlton, Bob Gibson, Tom Seaver, Jim Palmer, Nolan Ryan, Roger Clemens, Dwight Gooden, Greg Maddux, and Pedro Martinez.

Twenty perfect games have been pitched during the regular season.  Two perfect games were pitched in the 19th century, 14 were tossed in the entire 20th century, and now five have already been hurled in the 21st century.

Six pitchers who pitched a perfect game are currently in the Hall of Fame:  Montgomery Ward, Cy Young, Addie Joss, Jim Bunning, Sandy Koufax and Catfish Hunter.  At least two more pitchers — Randy Johnson and Roy Halladay — will eventually be enshrined as well.

Mark Buehrle takes a sign during his 2009 perf...

Mark Buehrle takes a sign during his 2009 perfect game. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Eight of the 21 perfect pitchers were left-handed:  Lee Richmond, Tom Browning, Randy Johnson, Sandy Koufax, Dallas Braden, David Wells, Mark Buehrle, and Kenny Rogers.

The most common score of a perfect game has been 1-0.  This has happened six times.  The greatest amount of run support pitchers have received while tossing perfect games has been six runs.  David Cone won 6-0 in 1999 while pitching for the Yankees, and Jim Bunning received six runs of support in 1964 while pitching against the Mets.

May has been the most common month for perfect games (7), while none have ever been pitched in the month of August.

Thirteen perfect games have been thrown by A.L. pitchers, while only eight N.L. pitchers have ever pitched one.

Here is a complete list of pitchers who have tossed a perfect game prior to Humber’s masterpiece today, as well as the date on which it was thrown, and the score of the game:

Roy Halladay
Philadelphia Phillies at Florida Marlins, 1-0
May 29, 2010

Dallas Braden
Oakland A’s vs. Tampa Bay Rays, 4-0
May 9, 2010

Mark Buehrle
Chicago White Sox vs. Tampa Bay Rays, 5-0
July 23, 2009

Randy Johnson
Arizona Diamondbacks at Atlanta Braves, 2-0
May 18, 2004

David Cone
New York Yankees vs. Montreal Expos, 6-0
July 18, 1999

David Wells
New York Yankees vs. Minnesota Twins, 4-0
May 17, 1998

Kenny Rogers
Texas Rangers vs. California Angels, 4-0
July 28, 1994

Dennis Martinez
Montreal Expos at Los Angeles Dodgers, 2-0
July 28, 1991

Tom Browning
Cincinnati Reds vs. Los Angeles Dodgers, 1-0
Sept. 16, 1988

Mike Witt
California Angels at Texas Rangers, 1-0
Sept. 30, 1984

Len Barker
Cleveland Indians vs. Toronto Blue Jays, 3-0
May 15, 1981

Catfish Hunter
Oakland A’s vs. Minnesota Twins, 4-0
May 8, 1968

Sandy Koufax
Los Angeles Dodgers vs. Chicago Cubs, 1-0
Sept. 9, 1965

Jim Bunning
Philadelphia Phillies at New York Mets, 6-0
June 21, 1964

Don Larsen
New York Yankees vs. Brooklyn Dodgers, 2-0
Oct. 8, 1956
(World Series)

Charles Robertson
Chicago at Detroit (AL), 2-0
April 30, 1922

Addie Joss
Cleveland vs. Chicago (AL), 1-0
Oct. 2, 1908

Cy Young
Boston vs. Philadelphia (AL), 3-0
May 5, 1904

Prior to Modern Era

John Montgomery Ward
Providence vs. Buffalo (NL), 5-0
June 17, 1880

Lee Richmond
Worcester vs. Cleveland (NL), 1-0
June 12, 1880

They say nobody’s perfect, but 21 pitchers can say they have been perfect for a day.  And that’s something no one can ever take away from them.

Best Forgotten Baseball Seasons: Part 21 – The Chicago White Sox

 

Fielder Jones of the White Sox hits the ball a...

Image via Wikipedia

 

You can put together a pretty damn good team composed entirely of players who toiled for Chicago’s south side franchise over the past hundred years or so.  The list of best players in White Sox history looks something like this:

Carlton Fisk

C  Ray Schalk

1B  Frank Thomas

1B  Dick Allen

1B  Paul Konerko

2B  Eddie Collins

2B  Nellie Fox

SS  Luke Appling

SS  Luis Apparicio

3B  Robin Ventura

OF  Shoeless Joe Jackson

OF Magglio Ordonez

OF  Lance Johnson

DH  Harold Baines

SP  Eddie Walsh

SP  Red Faber

SP  Ted Lyons

SP  Lamarr Hoyt

SP  Jack McDowell

SP  Mark Buehrle

RP  Goose Gossage

RP  Hoyt Wilhelm

RP  Bobby Thigpen

A couple of the players on this list are more readily identified with teams they played with prior to coming over to the White Sox.  I am referring specifically to Carlton Fisk (Red Sox) and Dick Allen (Phillies).

Both players were born in the region or the state where they first debuted in the Major Leagues:  Fisk in northern New England (Bellows Falls, VT, a couple of hours north of Boston) and Allen in the small town of Wampum, PA (about an hour from Pittsburgh, six hours to Philadelphia.)    Both are small, rural towns, and both are about 97% white.

This is approximately where any similarities between the two players end.

Fisk is white; Allen is black.

Fisk was reticent; Allen sang in his own band.

Fisk was lionized by the people of Boston; Allen was generally regarded with disdain by the people of Philadelphia.

Fisk is in the Hall of Fame; Allen…should be?  We’ll get back to that topic later.

Although they both played for the White Sox, their careers never overlapped.  Fisk played 13 seasons for the White Sox beginning in 1981.  Allen played just three years with the White Sox, from 1972-74 (about the time Fisk’s career was just getting underway in Boston.)

Actually, they do have one more thing in common.  They each enjoyed one very productive season as hitters while playing in Chicago.  Although Fisk was generally productive in several of his seasons with the White Sox, one season in particular stands out.

1985 was Carlton Fisk’s Best Forgotten Season with the White Sox.

In 1985, Fisk was already 37-years old.  Yet he played in 153 games that year, catching in 130 of them.  He accumulated 543 at bats and 620 plate appearances.

While his .238 batting average might not seem all that impressive, his 37 home runs and 107 RBI’s were both career highs.

Fisk also scored an impressive 85 runs, quite a lot for an aging catcher who managed just 129 hits on the season.  Shockingly, Fisk even stole 17 bases, matching a career high he had set three seasons earlier (also with the White Sox.)

His .488 slugging percentage was good for tenth place in the A.L. in ’85.

He even chipped in 17 time hit by pitch, second most in the league.

Defensively, his range factor of 6.63 paced the junior circuit, as did his 801 putouts.

He made the 1985 All-Star team for the tenth time in his career.  (He was named to eleven All-Star teams in his career.)

For his efforts, and despite his low batting average, Fisk finished a respectable 13th in MVP voting in ’85.

Other than his famous moment in Game Six of the 1975 World Series in which he hit the game winning home run vs, the Reds, Fisk put together a quiet and steady 24-year career during which he belted 376 home runs, drove in 1,330 and amassed 2,356 hits.

When Fisk retired, he had caught more games and had hit more home runs than any other catcher in history.  ( Both records have since been broken.)

Fisk is obviously one of the top ten catchers in baseball history, perhaps top five.  He was a worthy inductee into baseball’s Hall of Fame in the year 2000.

One word that has never (to my knowledge) been used to describe Carlton Fisk is “controversial.”

Which brings us to Dick Allen.

In “The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract (p. 438), baseball stat guru Bill James called Dick Allen, “The second most controversial player in history, behind Rogers Hornsby.” He finished his terse little paragraph on Allen by claiming that he “…lost half of his career or more to immaturity and emotional instability.”

Harsh words.

What are we to make of that damning sentence?

Was Dick Allen diagnosed with a mental illness that only Bill James was aware of?  Can immaturity really shorten the career of an otherwise highly productive player?  Allen was enjoying an outstanding career through age 32.  Eying his age-33 year off in the distance, did he suddenly panic and become the black Adam Sandler?

It’s true that Dick Allen rubbed some people the wrong way, like the population of the city of Philadelphia.  But Phillies fans are notorious for their ability to find the dark cloud in the silver lining.  They have never been considered baseball’s most forgiving bunch of fans.

But let’s have a reality check.

Here’s what some players who were actually teammates of Allen said about him years later:  ( All quotes and text in the following three full paragraphs below are from Wikipedia-Dick Allen.)

Gene Mauch of the Phillies and Chuck Tanner of the White Sox  managed Allen the longest.  Asked if Allen’s behavior ever had a negative influence on the team, Mauch said: “Never.” According to Tanner, “Dick was the leader of our team, the captain, the manager on the field. He took care of the young kids, took them under his wing. And he played every game as if it was his last day on earth.”

Hall of Fame teammate, Mike Schmidt, credited Dick Allen in his book, “Clearing the Bases,” as his mentor.

In a Mike Schmidt biography written by historian William C. Kashatus, Mike Schmidt fondly recalls Dick Allen mentoring him before a game in Chicago in 1976, saying to him, “Mike, you’ve got to relax. You’ve got to have some fun. Remember when you were just a kid and you’d skip supper to play ball? You were having fun. Hey, with all the talent you’ve got, baseball ought to be fun. Enjoy it. Be a kid again.”

Mike Schmidt responded by hitting four home runs in that game. Mike Schmidt is quoted in the same book, “The baseball writers used to claim that Dick would divide the clubhouse along racial lines. That was a lie. The truth is that Dick never divided any clubhouse.”

Playing in a pitcher’s era, Dick Allen amassed some outstanding statistics in his 15-year career.

From 1966-74, he led his league in slugging percentage three times.  He led his league in on-base percentage twice.  He also led his league in OPS four times.  In various seasons, he also led his league in runs scored once, triples once, home runs twice, walks once, RBI’s once, total bases once, and OPS+ three times.

Dick Allen won the 1964 Rookie of the Year award.

He was named to seven All-Star teams.

His career .534 slugging percentage is good for 44th best of all time.

Perhaps most impressively, his career adjusted OPS+ is 156, good for 19th best in baseball history, and tied with another White Sox slugger, future Hall of Famer Frank Thomas.

By way of comparison, Stan Musial’s OPS+ was 159; Tris Speaker’s was 157; Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, and Joe DiMaggio are each at 155.

That’s pretty select company to be able to share.

But Dick Allen’s Best Forgotten Baseball Season with the White Sox was in 1972.

Dick Allen won the A.L. MVP award in 1972 by leading the league in home runs (37), RBI’s (113), walks (99), OBP (.420), slugging (.603), OPS (1.023), and OPS+ (199).

An OPS+ of 200 means that a player is exactly twice as good as a typical replacement level ballplayer.

Allen also batted .308 and scored an even 90 runs.  His 131 runs created also led the American League.  Not usually a prolific base-stealer, Allen even contributed 19 stolen bases to his efforts.

He enjoyed another fine season for the White Sox in 1974 at age 32.  His swift and steep decline dovetailed with his off-season trade back to the city he once demanded to be traded from in the first place, Philadelphia.

Dick Allen retired after playing in a limited capacity for the Oakland A’s after the 1977 season.  Allen was 35-years old.

Two questions come to mind:

1)  Was Dick Allen a victim of racism?

2)  Does Dick Allen belong in the Hall of Fame?

As for question #1, yes, of course.  Phillies fans often hollered highly offensive racial slurs at him, not to mention bottles and batteries while he played the outfield.

More to the point, some writers then (and now) have always been uncomfortable with the idea of an assertive black man who isn’t interested in schmoozing with the media.

Historically, black athletes in America who have flaunted their wealth, confidence and pride have often been labeled as surly, divisive, angry and controversial.  This reality goes all the way back to the great heavy-weight boxer Jack Johnson a hundred years ago, and has continued in recent years with players like Gary Sheffield and Barry Bonds.  (Bonds was subject to many of these demeaning terms long before he was linked to steroids.)

Meanwhile, Joe DiMaggio, who certainly flaunted his confidence, wealth and pride was spoken of as, at worse, aloof, but was more frequently praised as classy and noble.

For what it’s worth, if you do a google search using key words: “Controversial white baseball players,”  you will find there are 174,000 hits.

If you substitute the word “white” with the term “African-American”, you will find there are 263,000 hits.

Do I think baseball writers like Bill James and others are inherently racist?  No.  Bill James, for example, has also written eloquently on the subject of race in baseball in  books like, “Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame.”

But I do think there is an intrinsic racial bias in the kinds of knee-jerk reactions and words writers, fans and others use that has evolved down through the generations.  These auto-responses have imprinted themselves in our psyches, and  handily come to the fore in place of more reasonable, sensible alternatives for which we might have to dig just a bit deeper.

I think this is as true for myself, Bill James and perhaps you today as it was for others generations ago.

So does Dick Allen belong in the Hall of Fame?

Depends on your definition of a Hall of Famer.

A case can be made that he does belong in The Hall.  Some of the numbers and other career accomplishments I have alluded to already in this post make the case that he is a viable candidate.

For those of you, however, who favor a more Career Numbers and Milestones approach, I suspect that Allen’s 351 career home runs, 1119 RBI’s, .292 career batting average, and fewer than 2,000 career hits has you firmly ensconced in the NO column.

So be it.

But one thing remains true.  During his career, few players were as feared, respected and productive between the lines as Dick Allen.

And it is also true that places like Wampum, PA, Bellows Falls, VT, and other small towns and hamlets across our country will continue to produce ball players who will, whether controversial or not, bestow their legacy in some fashion on our timeless yet ever-changing National Pastime.

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