The On Deck Circle

Baseball History, Commentary and Analysis

Archive for the tag “Minor league baseball”

The Hall of Fame’s Most Under-Appreciated Players: Part 8

If you’ve been following along with this series, you know that we are constructing an all-time, most under-appreciated Hall of Fame baseball team.  Lately, we’ve been putting together a pitching staff. Currently, we have three pitchers on this staff:  Kid Nichols, Hal Newhouser, and Eddie Plank.  It’s staff long on talent, but short on appreciation for their respective efforts.

So let’s add another pitcher to the staff.

How about one who didn’t win his first Major League ballgame until he was already past 30 years old?  In his first 20 appearances, he posted a record of 0-8, with more walks than strikeouts in 63.2 innings pitched.

Clearly, not an auspicious debut for any big league pitcher, let alone one who would end up in the Hall of Fame.

Charles Arthur (Dazzy) Vance was born in Orient, IA, in 1891, but was raised on a farm in Nebraska.  He began playing Class D ball at the age of 21 in the Nebraska State League.  At first, he was considered a strong prospect because he threw so hard he “dazzled” the hitters, thus his nickname.  The problem was, as it is with so many young pitching prospects, he had a difficult time staying healthy.

He made his MLB debut on April 16, 1915 for the Pittsburgh Pirates, and was a disaster.  He lasted just 2.2 innings, walked five batters, hit another, struck out none, and was charged with three earned runs.  The Pirates immediately shipped Vance over to the Yankees where, appearing in eight games, he was nearly as bad.

Over the next half-dozen years, Vance appeared in only two more Major League games.  Then, at age 29, when most minor league ball players his age have either long since washed out or are certainly looking for an alternative career, a strange thing happened.

The story goes that Vance was playing poker with a few of his minor league buddies.  Winning a hand, he reached over to rake in the pot of cash in front of him on the table.  While doing so, he banged his arm on the side of the table, the same arm that had been causing him so much trouble throughout his career.  Apparently, once he banged it, it hurt so badly that he couldn’t sleep.

English: A 1933 Goudey Baseball Card of Dazzy ...

English: A 1933 Goudey Baseball Card of Dazzy Vance #2. I did a proper copyright search of the card, and the copyright wasn’t renewed. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The next day, we went to a doctor who examined his arm, performed some sort of procedure (Bill James speculates that the doctor removed floating bone-chips that, somehow, previous doctors had managed to miss), and rested for a few days.

Vance later said that his arm returned to life as quickly as it went sore on him back in 1915.  Vance rebounded to win 21 games for the (minor league) New Orleans Pelicans in 1921.  He was now 30-years old.

The following season, at age 31, the Brooklyn Robins (later, the Dodgers), took a chance on him.  They actually wanted no part of Dazzy Vance, but his friend, a minor league catcher named DeBerry, was called up to the Majors. He said, however, that he wouldn’t go unless Vance could come up with him.

After ten years and 133 minor league wins, Dazzy Vance had finally made it back to the Majors.  Thus was launched the highly improbable Hall of Fame career of Dazzy Vance.

In his “rookie” season of 1922, 31-year old Dazzy Vance led the N.L. in strikeouts, shutouts, and posted an 18-12 record for a team that finished the season with a losing record.

In 1922, Vance began a string of seven consecutive seasons in which he would lead the N.L. in strikeouts.  It is still the league record.  Only Walter Johnson (eight consecutive times) and Lefty Grove (seven consecutive times, almost concurrently with Vance) have either matched or topped Vance’s performance, and both of them toiled in the Junior Circuit.

In 1924 and ’25, Vance led the N.L. in wins both seasons, posting a combined record of 50-15.  While the ’24 Robins were very good, the ’25 team was very bad.  Either way, Vance was outstanding.

Vance was named the N.L.’s Most Valuable Player in 1924 at age 33.  That year, he won the pitching triple-crown, leading the league in wins, ERA and strikeouts.  He also led the league in ERA+, complete games and (not that anyone knew this at the time) WAR for pitchers.

From 1922-1930, in addition to the seven strikeout titles, Vance led the league in wins twice, ERA three times, complete games twice, shutouts four times, ERA+ three times, WHIP three times, and strikeouts / 9 innings eight times.

Vance also led league pitchers in WAR four times, which is another way of saying that, had the Cy Young award existed in his day, he would have deserved four of those awards, as many as Steve Carlton and Greg Maddux each earned in their careers.

His career WAR of 60.5 is higher than several other Hall of Fame pitchers, including Bob Feller, Ed Walsh, Juan Marichal and Rube Waddell, to name a few.

But age did finally catch up with Dazzy Vance.  After age 40, he won just 34 more games over the next five seasons.  Never having made it to the playoffs during his eleven seasons spent pitching for Brooklyn, Vance eventually did make it to the post-season, in 1934, with the St. Louis Cardinals.  Vance appeared in Game 4, a game Detroit would go on to win, but the Cardinals ultimately defeated the Tigers in seven games.   So, in the twilight of his career, Vance finally got to experience a World Championship.

Vance retired in 1935 at age 44, having accumulated 197 wins vs. 140 losses, while pitching for mostly bad Brooklyn teams.  A couple of years later, the Baseball Hall of Fame would open for business.

In a way, his lengthy journey (back) to the Majors would be mirrored by the amount of time it took him to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame.  First appearing on the ballot in 1936, he received just one vote.  It wasn’t until 1955, about twenty years later, that Vance would finally be enshrined in Cooperstown.

Vance was already 64-years old when he was voted into The Hall.  But, having waited nearly a decade to make it back to the Majors, I’m guessing he was used to waiting for good things to happen.    At least he lived to enjoy the experience.  Vance died in 1961, age 69, and remains to this day, I think, a very under-appreciated player.

The next post will be the last in this series.  We have one more pitcher to go to round out our rotation.

Billy Hamilton, and the New Stolen Base Record

On Tuesday night, Reds prospect Billy Hamilton, a shortstop with the Double-A Pensacola Blue Wahoos, set a new professional baseball record for stolen bases in a season.  He now has 147 steals in 2012.

Hamilton broke the old record set in 1983 by Vince Coleman, then an outfielder on the Cardinals Single-A Macon baseball team.  Coleman, of course, went on to steal over 100 bases in each of his first three MLB seasons, and he led the N.L. in steals in each of his first six years.  He also led the N.L. in times caught stealing three times during that period (1985-90.)

Coleman went on to steal 752 bags in his career, sixth best all-time.  More impressively, Coleman’s successful steal percentage for his career was about 81%.

Yet Vince Coleman ultimately was not a very valuable baseball player.  His career WAR was just 10.5, and he never reached 3.0 WAR in any of his 13 seasons.  His career OPS+ of 83 is even less impressive.  Coleman never reached 25 doubles or even seven home runs in a season, and despite all the plate appearances he accumulated, especially in his first half-dozen years, he reached a hundred runs scored just twice.

All of which brings us back to Billy Hamilton.  (And yes, it is a bit ironic that he has the same name as a famous 19th-century baseball player who also stole a lot of bases.)

While his stolen base totals are impressive, there are four things that will enable Hamilton to be a truly valuable MLB player.

1 On-Base Percentage:  If he knows how to draw a walk (say, 70-80 per year), those walks will add significant value, as long as he can hit above .275.

 2) Gap power:  Even though reaching first base appears to be a virtual automatic double with him, he should still (in his prime) be able to drive the ball into the gaps and leg out at least 25-35 doubles and double-digit triples.  50-60 extra base hits per year should be his baseline.

3) Stolen Base percentage:  Loads of steals are nice, but the goal is not simply to reach second base (or even third base), it is to score runs.  A caught stealing is much more harmful than a stolen base is helpful.  If he can steal at something very nearly at (or, preferably, above) an 80% success rate, then all the running will be worthwhile.  If he gets caught 30% or more of the time, then this is all much ado about nothing.

 4) Defense:  Will his quickness on the base-paths translate into good range in the field?  Will he end up being a defensive asset?  If so, then he becomes much more valuable.  If not, then we are looking at a fast guy without a real position, and that means a glorified pinch-runner.

At least three out of these four aptitudes will be necessary for him to be a useful ball player.  Two will allow him to hang around for a while.  One means a future career as a pinch-runner who ends up back in Triple-A for good before he turns 30.  On the other hand, if he hits all four of the above benchmarks, then we might be looking at the next Kenny Lofton or Tim Raines.

It’ll be interesting to see how much the Reds allow him to develop as an actual baseball player before he is let loose on the base-paths.  They might be sorry if they rush this kid before he is ready, because though he’d be fun to watch with the one skill he was born with, he’ll be a lot more useful when he is truly Major League ready.

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