Posts Tagged ‘Willie Mays’

The Best of the Giants

May 27, 2013
Will Clark

Will Clark

It’s been a while since I stuck my foot deep in my mouth and picked an all-time team for a franchise. So it’s time to do it again. I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time this month dealing with the Giants, especially the New York version, so it seems like a good franchise to work with now.

A few caveats first (you knew I’d do that, right?). Let me start with a simple disclaimer: I’ve never been a particular Giants fan. Growing up supporting the Dodgers, there’s not a lot of nice things to say about the Giants (only the Yankees are as deep in perdition as the Giants). That means I’ll admit to being less than confident about my choices, but it’s the best I can do using only research and a few memories. Second, I put together a 25 man roster that does not mirror a Major League roster, but it’s my list and I get to do it my way. There are nine infielders, five outfielders, two catchers, and nine pitchers. I decided to go with three bullpen men and six men who were primarily starters. I also picked a manager (bet you can guess him). Finally there are no players whose primary career is before the advent of the mound. There are som really fine Giants prior to 1892, like Roger Connor, Tim Keefe, Mike Tiernan, but they play a game that is different, so different I decided to drop them from consideration.

So with all that said, here we go diving in where God knows what we will find. Each list is alphabetical.

The Infield:  Will Clark, Al Dark, George Davis, Art Fletcher, Frankie Frisch, Travis Jackson, Jeff Kent, Johnny Mize, Willie McCovey.

Did you ever notice that the Giants have produced an inordinate number of quality first basemen? I chose McCovey, Mize, and Clark (and Cepeda spent a lot of time at first) and left out Hall of Fame first sackers Bill Terry and George Kelly. Frankly, I didn’t really have to think that hard about it. The only hard choice was Mize, who spent significant time with both St. Louis and the Yankees. I decided he was in. If they’ve had great first basemen, they’ve had mediocre third basemen. I went with Fletcher as the only third baseman because the rest of the list was Fred Lindstrom and Jim Davenport and guys like that. OK, maybe I should have considered Sandoval, but as a rule I like to stay away from current players because we don’t know how they’re stay with their team will go (but see Posey below). Short and second were mixed bags. Frisch, Kent, and Larry Doyle stood out but there wasn’t much below them. Short on the other hand had more quality players, but no one at the level of either Frisch or Kent. I left off Dave Bancroft and added Dark which may strike some as odd, but I suppose it’s merely a personal preference. And of course Jackson (who was in the top 10 Giants in WAR, which surprised me) played third toward the end of his career. 

The Outfield: Barry Bonds, Orlando Cepeda, Monte Irvin, Willie Mays, Mel Ott.

There is Bonds (whatever you think of him as a person or as a steroids user), there is Mays, and there is Ott. Everyone else is a huge drop, a really huge drop. You could make an argument that across the three outfield positions (left, center, and right) the Giants may have the best starting outfield ever. But you need backups and at the point you get past the big three you end up with a lot of quality outfielders. Cepeda’s knees sent him to first, but he began in the outfield. Irvin was a converted middle infielder who lost several years to segregation. Both are just short of the top-tier. I had to leave out both Felipe and Matty Alou, which I was sorry to do because I’d liked both when they played. Jeff Leonard and Kevin Mitchell were good for too short a time to be considered at the top.

The Catchers: Roger Bresnahan and Buster Posey.

OK, who else was there? Look at the Giants’ list of catchers and tell me you like anyone better. As a rule, Giants catching has been very weak. Buck Ewing is excluded as a pre-1890s player.  Hank Severeid maybe, but if that’s the best you can do then we’re stuck with these two. I hesitate to pick a current player like Posey, but it’s a really weak position and Posey has the advantage of coming to the Giants and they win a World Series. Then he gets hurt and they falter. Then he’s healthy again and they win another World Series. That’s a pretty good legacy, isn’t it?

The Starters: Carl Hubbell, Juan Marichal, Christy Mathewson, Joe McGinnity, Gaylord Perry, Amos Rusie.

You know, you could make a pretty fair five man rotation for the Giants just using pitchers whose last name began with the letter “M”. You could dump those bums Perry and Rusie and insert Rube Marquard and Sal Maglie and still have a darned good staff. I didn’t. I have a feeling that in a few years both Lincecum and Cain will be getting some consideration on lists like this.

The Bullpen: Rod Beck, Rob Nen, Hoyt Wilhelm.

Not the strongest part of the Giants history. Wilhelm made the Hall of Fame, but his tenure with New York was relatively short. Most of his Cooperstown credentials are from other teams. Nen and Beck are simply one, two in saves, so why not?

The Manager: John J. McGraw.

Surely you saw that coming.

So there it is in all its glory; for good ,bad, or indifferent. I think it’s a pretty fair list, but I’m sure a lot of people will disagree. Feel free to do so. (I have this nagging feeling I’ve left somebody out).

The Barber

May 20, 2013
Sal Maglie

Sal Maglie

Sal Maglie was one of the aces of the Giants teams that won a pennant in 1951 and the World Series title in 1954. His nickname was “The Barber” (a nickname he hated) because he pitched high and inside. He was a good solid pitcher who helped four teams to pennants. In other words, he was a heck of a pitcher. Unfortunately, he’s most famous today for a game he lost.

Magile was born in Niagara Falls (the town, not the falls, obviously) in 1917. He’s another of that generation of players who were first generation Americans (his family coming from Italy). Maglie loved baseball, his parents were certain it was ruining his life. Apparently that was a fairly common problem in the period. In researching a lot of different players, I’ve found an inordinate number had immigrant parents who were entirely buffaloed by their son’s desire to play ball and the country’s willingness to pay the kid to do so.

Maglie played semipro ball while working in a factory in Buffalo. He was good enough that the Double A Bisons picked him up. He was raw and ended up in Class D. Desperate for talent in 1942, the Giants picked him up for their Jersey City farm team. He stayed one year, then left to work in a defense plant. In 1945, the Giants enticed him back to baseball. By the end of the season he was in the Majors going 5-4 with an ERA of 2.35 and a 1.115 WHIP. He was 28 and had finally made it.

In 1946 the Mexican League, under new management, began luring big leaguers to Mexico with big salaries. Maglie, who was playing in the Cuban League (under ex-Giants pitcher Dolf Luque), took one of the contracts. Major League baseball was appalled. Commissioner “Happy” Chandler announced a five-year ban on players who jumped to the Mexican League. That included Maglie. He pitched two seasons at Puebla, establishing himself as a quality pitcher. But the Mexican League was in trouble. The big salaries didn’t translate to big attendance and the league began faltering. Maglie jumped ship in 1948 joining a barnstorming team that folded at the end of the season. He bought a gas station in Niagara Falls, then got a call to join a minor league team in Canada. He pitched in Canada in 1949, leading his team to its league championship. At the end of the 1949 season, Chandler lifted the ban on the Mexican League refugees (it lasted four of the five years) and Maglie rejoined the Giants.

Maglie, now 33, was a hit. He won the ERA title (and the ERA+ crown) in 1950, had his career year in 1951 with a league leading 23 wins, and led the Giants to a three game playoff with the Dodgers. He pitched eight innings of game three, the Bobby Thomson “Shot Heard ‘Round the World” game, but took a no decision. The Giants victory took them to the World Series. They lost to the Yankees, Maglie pitching one game, lasting five innings, and getting clobbered (he gave up four runs in five innings in game three).  He had a good year in 1952, not such a good year in 1953 (he was having back problems), and opened 1954 as the Giants three pitcher (behind Johnny Antonelli and Ruben Gomez). He went 14-6, struck out 117 batters, but allowed more hits than he had innings pitched. The Giants were again in the World Series and Maglie drew game one. Again he picked up a no decision in the game made famous by Willie Mays’ catch and Dusty Rhodes’ homer. The Giants swept the Series with Maglie not taking the mound after game one.

Despite a good start in 1955, Maglie was traded to Cleveland. After two games in Cleveland in 1956, the Indians sold him to Brooklyn. The Dodgers, needing pitching, returned Maglie to a starting role (he’d mostly relieved in Cleveland) and he went 13-5 with a 2.87 ERA and a league leading 139 ERA+. He pitched his only no-hitter in 1956 and pitched the pennant clinching game for Brooklyn.  That meant the Dodgers would play in their second consecutive World Series, squaring off against the Yankees. Maglie pitched and won the first game of the Series (beating Whitey Ford), then drew game five in Yankee Stadium. It was his most famous game. He was great, giving up only two runs and five hits while striking out five. The problem was that Yankees starter Don Larsen threw the World Series’ only perfect game that day.

Maglie began 1957 with the Dodgers, went 6-6, and was sent across the city to the Bronx. He was 2-0 for the Yankees as they made another World Series. He didn’t pitch in the Series (which New York lost to Milwaukee in seven games).  In 1958 he was 41 and done. He pitched a few games for New York, then ended the season for the Cardinals. They released him before the 1959 season. He’d played parts of 10 seasons in the Majors, becoming the last man to wear the uniform of all three New York teams (this doesn’t count anyone who played for all three teams once the Dodgers and Giants moved to California).

He coached one year in the Cards minor league system, then became Red Sox pitching coach in 1961 and 1962. He was out of baseball in 1963, ’64, and ’65. He spent part of 1965 with the New York Athletic Commission, but most of his time was taken nursing his dying wife (she had cancer). He returned to baseball as pitching coach of the 1966-67 Red Sox, including the “Impossible Dream” team that lost the 1967 World Series. He was fired at the end of the Series (he and manager Dick Williams didn’t get along). He spent time after 1967 as a pitching coach for the Pilots (now the Brewers), general manager for the Niagara Falls minor league team, ran a liquor distributorship, and was a coordinator for the Niagara Falls Convention Bureau. He retired in 1979 and died in December 1992.

For his Major League career “The Barber” was 119-62, had an ERA of 3.15 (ERA+ of 127), 25 shutouts, 562 walks, and 862 strikeouts in 1723 innings pitched (a WHIP of 1.250). He was a member of four pennant winning teams and one World Series champion (1954). In postseason play he was 1-2 with a 3.41 ERA, 20 strikeouts and a 1.345 ERA. All this with four years lost to the Mexican League.

It’s useless to speculated how much Maglie lost because of the Mexican League fiasco. We can never know. He didn’t make the big leagues until he was 28 and didn’t become a regular until he was 33. It was not in the cards that he would join the Hall of Fame. But he was considered one of the better “money” pitchers of his era, especially in the regular season. Not a bad legacy for a man who hated what is one of the better nicknames of all time.

Maglie's final resting place

Maglie’s final resting place

The Last Win in New York

May 16, 2013
Willie Mays as a New York Giant

Willie Mays as a New York Giant

You’ve all seen the film. Willie Mays turns, runs back, his cap goes off, he reaches out, the ball falls in his mitt and he turns to fire the ball back to the infield. It’s the famous catch off Vic Wertz’s bat and is one of the handful of most famous plays in World Series history. It occurred in 1954, the last stand of the New York Giants in postseason.

The 1954 Giants were a team coming off a down season in 1953. After winning the National League pennant in 1951, they’d dropped to second in 1952, then fallen to fifth in 1953. It was much the same team, but with a couple of significant changes. Wes Westrum was still the catcher. He hit under the Mendoza Line for the season, but was a decent catcher. He’d led the league in caught stealing a couple of times, but also in passed balls (more on that later). The infield was Whitey Lockman, Davey Williams, Alvin Dark, and Hank Thompson. They had all been around in 1953. Dark and Thompson both hit 20 plus home runs with Dark leading the infield with a .293 average. Hall of Famer Monte Irvin and Don Mueller patrolled the outfield corners. Irvin had 19 home runs and Mueller hit .342. But the big change was the return of Willie Mays from the military. Mays hit .345, slugged .667, had an OPS+ of 175 and hit 41 home runs with 110 RBIs. He was also, of course, a superb center fielder.

The pitching staff consisted of Johnny Antonelli having a career year, Ruben Gomez continuing his run as a starter, and 37-year-old Sal Maglie contributing 14 wins. The closer was Hall of Fame reliever Hoyt Wilhelm, whose knuckleball accounted for most of Westrum’s passed balls. Manager Leo Durocher’s bench was fairly thin, but ace pinch hitter and sometime outfielder Dusty Rhodes hit .341, had an OPS+ of 181 (higher than Mays).

The Giants weren’t favored in 1954, the Dodgers were. But the Giants went 25-19 against Brooklyn and Milwaukee (the other NL teams that played .500 ball) while the Dodgers were only19-25. The six games made a difference as New York took the pennant by five games, posting a 97-57 record.

They drew record-setting Cleveland in the World Series. The Indians had rolled to an American League record 111 wins (since bettered) but the number was deceiving. They’d feasted on the second division teams and played only so-so against the first division. There were no second division teams in the Series. Behind Mays’ famous catch, Rhodes two home runs, Dark’s .412 average, and pitching that held Cleveland to a .190 average New York swept the Indians in four games.

For the Giants it was the end. In 1955 they finished third. In both 1956 and 1957 they were sixth (of eight teams). By 1958 they were no longer the New York Giants. They moved to San Francisco at the end of the 1957 season. They had been a great franchise in the 1880s and had gone on to glory in the first 25 years of the 20th Century. After that they were sporadically good, but had become the third team in New York (behind both the Yankees and Dodgers). The 1954 season was their last hurrah. They would not win again until the 21st Century.

From New York to Frisco

October 23, 2012

Giants Logo

So it’s the Giants, is it? They’ve had a long and distinguished history. Interestingly enough they’ve never played Detroit in the postseason. Of all the original American League teams from 1901 the Giants have played each except for Detroit and the team now in Baltimore (via Milwaukee and St. Louis). How have they done?

Frankly, the Giants have, as a rule, been a disappointment in postseason play (I reference here only the 20th and 21st Century teams, not the successful 19th Century team.). In 1904 they won a pennant then refused to play Boston in the World Series. In 1905, under great public pressure, they changed their mind and bested Philadelphia in five games. It was their last win until the 1920s. They made the World Series each year from 1911 through 1913 and proceeded to lose all three. They lost again in 1917, going 0 for 4 for the teens.

They did better in the 1920s. From 1921 through 1924 they won consecutive National League pennants. In World Series play they beat the Yankees in the first two “Subway Series” in 1921 and 1922. Then they lost to the Yanks in 1923 and to Walter Johnson and the Senators in 1924. That was it for John McGraw’s tenure as manager.

In the 1930s they got back to the World Series on three occasions: 1933, 1936, and 1937. They won the first (against Washington), then dropped two Subway Series to Lou Gehrig’s Yankees.  For the 1940s they did nothing. The decade was doubly painful because they saw their status as New York’s premier NL team be eclipsed by the Dodgers.

In 1951 they won the most famous of all playoff games and finally got back to the World Series. I’ve always been amazed at the number of people who think that either Bobby Thomson’s home run won the World Series, or that the Giants went on to coast to a World Series victory. They didn’t as the Giants hashed the Series in six games. They were back again in 1954 when they pulled off one of the great upsets ever by knocking off the 111 game winning Indians in four games.

And that was it for the New York version of the Giants. In 1958 they headed for San Francisco. They won the pennant in 1962 and faced the Yankees in a “Jetliner Series”. They lost in seven games on a smoking line drive by Willie McCovey that Bobby Richardson speared (The ball was hit so hard I always wondered if it dislocated Richardson’s shoulder). And then they went into hibernation. For the rest of the 1960s, most of the 1970s (one playoff appearance that they lost), and the 1980s they were dismal. In 1989 they made a second San Francisco World Series losing the “Bay Area Classic” to Oakland in four games (interrupted by an earthquake).

Then it was back to the boondocks until 2002. They won the NL pennant that year, had the Angels on the ropes in game six of the World Series, and managed to hash another playoff run. That finally changed in 2010 when they blew Texas out of the Series and claimed their first championship in San Francisco.

So it’s a very mixed bag if you’re a Giants fan. You lose more than you win, but your wins are as glorious as they are for any other team. And like Detroit, you can put together a heck of a team. Here’s a sample of what they Giants could put in the field over the years: an oufield of Mel Ott, Willie Mays, and Barry Bonds (before his head got big); an infield of Willie McCovey, Frankie Frisch, Al Dark, and Matt Williams; and Roger Bresnahan behind the plate. And the pitching? Try this staff without leaving the letter “M”: Christy Mathewson, Joe McGinnity, Rube Marquard, Sal Maglie, Juan Marichal. And of course that leaves out Carl Hubbell and company. They’ve even got a great pair of managers in John McGraw and Leo Durocher. Not bad, right?

So good luck to the Giants (You have any idea how hard that is for a Dodgers fan to type?). Win or lose I hope they play well. Most importantly, I hope it’s a great Series.

The Core of the Hall: Notes

July 6, 2012

The post just below this one touches on the 50 people who I think most belong in the Hall of Fame (of those already enshrined). The public comments have been positive, but I’ve also received a handful of private comments (and emails) with questions about the list. This is an attempt to answer those.

1. SportsPhD in his comment below notes a paucity of 19th Century players and speculates that I’m purposefully leaving off players who were active primarily before the advent of the mound. He is correct. I think the change in pitching distance and motion have so effected the game that players before and after those changes must be viewed in entirely different categories. And, yes, there is a certain amount of justice in placing Campanella above Anson.

2. A number of comments have asked why so many Negro Leaguers, especially Turkey Stearnes and Martin DiHigo. I am entirely comfortable in believing that five Negro League players are among the 50 finest players ever. Look at the National League in the 1950s and you’ll note that guys like Aaron, Mays, Clemente, and Frank Robinson are on my list. I don’t think it unreasonable to believe that five players from the period 1920-1950 who were Negro League stars should be included. If you can find four in ten years, surely you can find five in thirty. As to DiHigo I placed him here because of his playing ability, his versatility, and his impact on the game among Latin players. He is instrumental on growing the game in Latin America (as is Clemente) and when coupled with his skills that puts him on my list. Stearnes is a little harder to justify and frankly was one of the last people I included. Most sources claim he is the leader in home runs among Negro Leaguers. That probably is worth adding him, even at the expense of guys like Buck Leonard and John Henry Lloyd.

3. Most people, including those who made public comment on the first Core post, indicate they might have changed a half dozen or so. Actually I think that’s really good. It means that, at least among those people who read this blog, there is a fairly solid consensus as to the top 40 or so players.

4. Someone asked if I was sorry to have to leave off current players or Hall eligible (or in the case of Joe Jackson and Pete Rose ineligible) players. Yes, I was. I’d love to put Albert Pujols on the list as well as Greg Maddux and possibly Rose although I’d have to think long and hard about Charlie Hustle. I’m not sure I see him as a top 50 without reference to the gambling issue. Maybe, maybe not.

5. I was asked “If Campanella was the last man on, who was the last man off?” The answer is Eddie Murray. I really miss putting Murray on the list and I have to admit that a personal prejudice may have gotten in the way here. I always liked Murray, but I loved Campy. I guess in the end that made a difference.

6. Someone asked “If you could cut it down to 10 who would you pick?” Pass.

All this typed for the information of those who asked. This way I don’t have to write up a dozen different responses to a dozen different emails.

The Winningest Pitcher in the last 100 Years

June 9, 2011

Warren Spahn in wind up

On this date in 1911 Grover Cleveland Alexander won his 11th game for Philadelphia, 4-1 over Cincinnati. It made him 11-2 for the season. It also meant that at the end of the day he would go on to win 362 games for the rest of his career. That means as of today no pitcher has won more games in the last 100 years (9 June 1911 to right now) than Warren Spahn.

Somehow Spahn gets overlooked in the roll-call of great pitchers. Even if you restrict it to left-handers he tends to fall short of the top rung. I suppose there are a lot or reasons for that. He did pitch so long ago that only a few geezers like me even remember him and that enormous leg kick of his. He was never very flashy. He went out day after day season after season and won 20 games with regularity and nobody noticed. Milwaukee, and earlier Boston, were not hot spots for Major League baseball when he pitched. OK, Boston was a big deal but it was a big deal for the Red Sox, not for the Braves. He also tended to be overshadowed by his teammates. He had Johnny Sain in Boston, then came Eddie Mathews, Hank Aaron. Even Lew Burdette overshadowed him for a while as a pitcher. But Spahn was always there and always winning.

Spahn had a cup of coffee with the Braves before World War II, went off to war, won a Purple Heart, then got back to the Majors in 1946. He won eight games. The next time he won less than 14 was 1964. In 1948 the Braves got to the World Series for the first time since the “Miracle Braves” of 1914. He teamed with Johnny Sain to form a formidable one-two pitching punch (“Spahn and Sain and pray for rain” was the mantra), but Boston lost to Cleveland in six games. In 1957, ’58, and ’59 the Braves were again in contention, winning the Series in ’57, losing it in ’58, and losing a best of three playoff series to Los Angeles in 1959. In 1961 he won 21 games at age 40, including his second no-hitter, proving that some players do actually get better with age without the use of steroids.  Spahn had a miserable 1964. He was traded to the Mets and then to the Giants for his final year. After retirement he coached and managed in the minors, occasionally pitching a game for his team. That put off his Hall of fame induction to 1973. He died in Oklahoma in 2003.

What Spahn did was win and eat innings for his team. Between 1947 and 1963 inclusive he won 342 games (an average of 20 a season). He led the National League in wins eight times, in winning percentage once, innings pitched four times, in complete games nine times, in shutouts five, in strikeouts four, and picked up two ERA titles. In all of that his peak number of wins was 23. In other words Spahn was winning consistently every year, not just putting together a great year followed by a weaker season, then dropping in another great year a season or so later. Between 1957 and 1961 he never won more than 22 games nor less than 21. For his career he was 363-245 (.597 winning percentage) with 2583 strikeouts, 1434 walks, an ERA of 3.09 (ERA+ of 119) and a 1.195 WHIP. He even picked up 29 saves along the way. All while facing 21,547 batters. In the World Series he was 4-3 with 32 strikeouts and 13 walks, and ERA of 3.05 (almost dead-on his regular season average) and 1.071 WHIP.

He also had a decent sense of humor and was something of a philosopher. He gave up Willie Mays’ first home run. In later years Spahn said he took full responsibility for Mays’ career. If he’d gotten him out, maybe Mays would have ended up back in the Minors and National League pitchers would have been spared a lot of grief. He is also supposed to have come up with the comment to the effect that hitting is timing. Pitching is disrupting timing (I’ve seen that quoted a couple of ways, so it isn’t in quotation marks.). Not a bad philosophy for a pitcher.

Over the years there has been a lot of discussion about which left-hander was the greatest. Lefty Grove gets a lot of support. So do Randy Johnson and Steve Carlton. Sandy Koufax enters some discussions, as does Carl Hubbell. But Spahn almost never does. The others were each, in their own way, more spectacular, but none was more consistent than Spahn.I know it’s fashionable to downplay the “win”statistic, but back in the 1950s (the bulk of Spahn’s career) it meant more. Pitchers completed more games, regularly pitched more innings, certainly started more games. Those make the win a more important stat in the era than it is today. And Warren Spahn has more of them than anyone else in the last 100 years.

Someone, at least, finally recognized Spahn’s greatness. In 1999 the Warren Spahn Award was initiated recognizing the best lefty in baseball. Randy Johnson won the first one (actually the first four) and Spahn was there to hand it to him. I always thought that was nice of them.

Warren Spahn Award trophy

El Senor

May 6, 2011

 

Al Lopez calling out for a pizza at Chicago

Between the coming of Casey Stengel in 1949 and the end of the Yankees Dynasty in 1964, the Bronx Bombers won every American League pennant except two. Those were the 1954 pennant won by Cleveland and the 1959 pennant won by Chicago. Know what those teams had in common? Well, the both featured Early Wynn on the mound. They also had Larry Doby, although Doby, a center piece in 1954 only had a few games with Chicago in 1959. They also had Al Lopez as their manager. Between 1949 and 1964 Lopez was the only non-Yankees manager to win an AL pennant.

Lopez was from Florida and got to Brooklyn for a three game cup of coffee at age 19 in 1928. He settled in as the Dodgers’ front line catcher in the 1930s, playing a career high 140 games in 1934. Early on he earned the nickname “El Senor” (roughly, “The Man”). He stayed with Brooklyn through 1935, then went to Boston (the Braves not the Red Sox) and Pittsburgh before finishing up with Cleveland in 1947, the year before they won the last pennant before the Yankees dominated the next 16 years. For his career he hit .261, slugged .337 with an OBP of .326 for an OPS of .663 (OPS+ of 83). He hit 51 home runs, 206 doubles, and 1992 total bases. He scored 613 runs and knocked in another 652. By the time he was through he had caught more games than any catcher in Major League history, a record that lasted into the 1980s. As a backup catcher for the latter part of his career, he was considered especially knowledgable about the game and considered an exceptional handler of pitchers. I’ve discovered that backup catchers, particularly aging ones, frequently get labeled as knowledgable and a handler of pitchers. I’ve never known if that was true or simply way of justifying keeping a low-cost player who wasn’t going to appear in many games around.

For Lopez it was apparently true. In 1951 he took over managing the Cleveland Indians. In 1950 the Indians finished fourth. With essentially the same roster, Lopez guided them to second in his rookie year as manager. They stayed there the next two years, then swept to a pennant in 1954. They set an AL record with 111 wins (not bested until 1998). But there was a flaw in that stat. They beat up on the second division teams and had only moderate success against the second and third place teams. Of course in the World Series you don’t get to play a second division team and Cleveland was swept by the Giants led by Willie Mays and Dusty Rhodes.

Lopez stayed with Cleveland through 1956, never finishing below second. In 1957 he jumped to Chicago and again guided the White Sox to a second place finish (you starting to notice a pattern here?). The Sox were also second in 1958, then won their first pennant since 1918 in 1959. They lost the World Series in six games. The White Sox dropped to third in 1960, fourth in 1961, and fifth in 1962 before bouncing back to second in 1963. They stayed there until Lopez’s retirement after the 1965 season.   He remained retired until Chicago brought him back in 1968 for two short stints (they fired a manager, had Lopez replace him as interim, then fired the new guy and had Lopez finish out the season). He managed 17 games into 1969 then retired permanently. For his career he was 570-354 for a .617 winning percentage. Between his debut in 1951 and 1959 his teams never finished lower than second. He had three years outside the top two slots, then finished second three more times. In fifteen full seasons Al Lopez teams finished lower than second three times. That’s quite a feat in the American League when you are never the Yankees manager. He made the Hall of Fame in 1977 and died in 2005 at age 97.

I have, in previous posts, be critical of managers. I’ve said I have little idea how to judge the effect of a manager on a team. Given the talent of the 1927 Yankees I could have won a few games as manager (write in Ruth and Gehrig a lot and pitch Hoyt and Pennock a bunch). I could have eked out a few wins for the 1930s Yankees (pitch Ruffing and Gomez, bat DiMaggio and Gehrig three and four). Heck, I could have even managed the 1962 Mets to 140 or so losses (instead of 120). Talent seems to matter most. But somehow Lopez is different. He wins every time. Yep, he has good talent, but he also wins with weaker teams like the mid-1960s White Sox. In 1954 he acquires Hal Newhouser from Detroit, shifts him to reliever and gets one last good year out of the future Hall of Fame pitcher. Obviously I like Lopez a lot and think he made a major difference to his teams. For most of his career he was overshadowed by Stengel, which is too bad.

My 10 Best Center Fielders

March 30, 2011

Now that I’ve made up my mind about who I think are the top ten center fielders, I’ll present the list in a moment. I thought about it, read over comments on my question about the “tenth man,” and decided on a list. I’m putting it down in alphabetical order, not in order of 1-10:

Richie Ashburn, Ty Cobb, Joe DiMaggio, Jim Edmonds, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Kirby Puckett, Duke Snider, Tris Speaker.

Now, of course, the usual commentary is going to show its ugly head. First, I left out all Negro League players who spent the bulk of their careers in the Negro Leagues (guys like Oscar Charleston). I just don’t think there is enough information available for analysis to compare them directly with Major League players. Are some of them as good or better than the people listed? I’m sure they are, I just can’t prove it. My guess is that Charleston, and maybe Torriente and/or Bell, might make this list. Proving it is another story. I also dropped in pre-mound players. I simply think the game is too different to compare the players. I know a bunch of people have come up with statistical programs that claim to have overcome that problem. Obviously I don’t buy that. Feel free, particularly if you’ve invented one of those programs, to disagree.

You’ll notice it’s a pretty standard list. My guess is that almost anyone reading this then putting together their own list is going to have seven or eight names that are just like mine. It’s the other couple that will create the problem. So let me take a second of commentary and at least partially justify three of my picks, the three I think will create the most “Huh?” factor from readers.

Ashburn: Richie Ashburn is simply the best center fielder I ever saw (which has nothing to do with how well he hit). He had incredible range and a fine glove. He led the league in putouts nine times, in assists three times, and range 10 times. The argument is always made that he played behind a staff that threw an inordinate amount of fly balls. If you had Ashburn behind you, wouldn’t you throw a lot of fly balls too? Additionally he could hit a little. He led the league in average twice, on base percentage four times, hits three times, triples twice, walks four times, and stolen bases once. For a man who hit only 29 home runs for a career (his career high was 7 in his final season with the 1962 Mets) he has a respectable OPS of  778 (OPS+ of 111). His black ink total is 32, his gray ink is 156, both above Hall of Fame standards. I remember we didn’t see the Phillies much when I was small (they were usually terrible), but when we did it was Ashburn you were drawn to. I’ve always been a little surprised he took as long to make the Hall of Fame as he did.

Puckett: I’m amazed at how quickly Kirby Puckett has disappeared from our conciousness. OK, I know he’s dead, but he seemed to be fading already by the time he died. His post baseball career was a tragedy of weight gain, vision problems, and allegations of abuse. It seems he just didn’t know what to do with himself when the thing that defined him, his baseball career, was over. But let me remind you how terrific he was. The greatest catch of the last 25 years may have been in game 6 of the 1991 World Series. Frankly, I didn’t think short-legged, chubby Kirby Puckett could run that far that fast. He was a very good center fielder. Three times he led the league in both assists and putouts by a center fielder and twice in range. He hit well, winning a batting title, leading the league in hits four times, total bases twice, and in RBIs once. His OPS is 837 (OPS+ of 124). The Minnesota Twins have won exactly two World Series’ ever. Puckett hit third on both teams.

Edmonds: Obviously, based on the last post I made, he was the person I thought longest and hardest about (and just as obviously Andruw Jones is 11th on this list). I finally chose him based on his fielding and his overall hitting  stats. I decided that both he and Jones have differences, but that they are pretty much miniscule. Even at strange stats like gray ink and Hall of Fame standards they end up a wash (Edmonds leads in gray, Jones in HoF standards). The key difference to me was the OPS+ stat where Edmonds leads 132 to 111 (which is quite a difference). I finally decided if Ashburn gets in at 111, then Edmonds, who has a higher number, should be in too.

So there’s the list. I’m sorry to have had to leave out Earl Averill, Earle Combs, Hack Wilson and an entire group of good center fielders, but somebody had to be left out. I especially hate having to leave out Vada Pinson, who I thought was great when I was much younger. I also have some problems with including either Edmonds or Jones (or even Griffey for that matter). I don’t like to put in players who are still active or who have just retired. We have absolutely no perspective yet on them and that always worries me. I’m not sure how, ten years from now, their careers will stack up, but to leave them off smacks of fogeyism. You know fogeyism, don’t you? It usually starts with a comment along the following lines, “Heck, everyone was better when I was a kid. These guys couldn’t hold Paul Blair’s glove.” Most of us are probably guilty of it from time to time. Hopefully I haven’t been in this case.

 Thoughts appreciated, but remember to be kind in your comments. This is a family site. 🙂

Power Center

March 21, 2011

I saw that the Hall of Fame is honoring the guy who wrote “Talkin’ Baseball” at this year’s Cooperstown festivities. The line from it that everyone knows is “Willie, Mickey, and the Duke.” All were center fielders and as I’ve been looking through information on the position, I’ve discovered just how extraordinary they were.

What came to my attention is how few major power hitters occupy center field as their primary position. Having three at one time is really very odd. Let me show you a particular stat that points that out. I remembered that Joe DiMaggio had 361 home runs. So I decided to make him the bottom of my list of center fielders with power. When I looked over the list of home run hitters in order, I found DiMaggio was 71st, which worked for a good base after all. It would have been better it he was 75th, but 71 will work. Obviously if I run the list longer, the numbers will change, but a cursory look all the way to 100 didn’t seem to make that much difference (and I should stress “cursory” in that sentence).

What I noticed is that there are less center fielders on the list than either of the other outfield positions. Now the usual caveats. As outfielders can sometimes be interchangeable, especially as stat types tend to lump them together as “outfielders” rather than “left fielders” or either of the others (and I’ve also noticed that the more modern the source, the less common this is, which I think is good), I went to  Baseball Reference.com to determine which outfield position guys like Gary Sheffield actually played most often (right in his case). I also took the Hall of Fame listing to determine a player’s primary position. The Hall lists Willie Stargell as a “left fielder” rather than a “first baseman” so Willie becomes one of the people I looked at. Finally I realize not all the people in the top 71 played all games at one position, so that they hit home runs at other positions rather than their primary position. For instance both Mickey Mantle and Stan Musial spent significant time at first base (as, obviously, did Stargell). So this is not a list to determine who hit the most homers while in center or anything like that.

Here’s what I found. Of the top 71 home runs hitters in Major League history, 17 were primary right fielders (I’m not listing them all, but they run from Hank Aaron to Rocky Colavito), 13 were primary left fielders (from Barry Bonds to Ralph Kiner), and only eight were in center. Here I’ll list them all in order of home runs: Willie Mays, Ken Griffey, Mickey Mantle, Andruw Jones, Duke Snider, Dale Murphy, Jim Edmonds, Joe DiMaggio.

A few observations:

1. It seems big league baseball really does like the old “defense up the middle, power at the corners” idea. I heard that all the way back in Little League. The idea is that if you have solid defense up the middle (shortstop, 2nd base, center field) then you can get your power from the corner players (1st base,  3rd base, left and right field). From the info above 24% of the 71 best power hitters played right field, 18% played left field, and 11% played center field as their primary position. The drop from 24% to 11% is noticeable. I’m not saying that you can’t play center if you hit for power, but that the power hitters tend to cluster towards the edges. If you think about it you probably already knew that intuitively.

2. Those numbers hold even if you move the base to another arbitrary position, like 400 home runs. Then you get 11 right fielders, nine left fielders, and five center fielders (losing Murphy, Edmonds, and DiMaggio).

3. Those numbers and percentage will change as soon as the opening of the 2011 season. Just a few men hitting just a few home runs will drop DiMaggio further down the all-time list and change things. I briefly looked over the top 100 and it appears it won’t add an inordinate number of center fielders, so the general trend will remain the same (more or less).

4. They tend to clump. Mays, Mantle, Snider, and DiMaggio all have careers that overlap. Having said that, both Mays’ and Mantle’s rookie year is DiMaggio’s last, so only Snider overlaps DiMaggio by more than one year. Of course Mays , Mantle, and Snider play a decade together. Griffey, Jones, and Edmonds are also contemporaries.  And Murphy actually overlaps Griffey and Edmonds (although his final season is Edmonds rookie campaign).

5. On a personal note. I hadn’t realized that Andruw Jones was already fourth on the list of home runs among primary center fielders. I’ve never considered him a truly elite player. He was a great center fielder, but I guess I had managed to more or less ignore his hitting contributions. Silly me.

I don’t think the stats above are all that significant in the long list of baseball information. I merely find them interesting and am sure that if I were to change the criteria it would change the info. For instance I left out Earl Averill, who didn’t make the top 71 home runs hitters, but was a significant power hitter in the 1930s.  They do remind me just how lucky we were to have Mays, Mantle, and Snider playing at the same time.

The Nice Guy

March 4, 2011

Mel Ott

I tried a little trick with some friends of mine both locally and online. I handed (or sent) them a list of all the men who had 500 plus home runs in Major League history. But instead of writing down the names, I provided only the initials and asked them to fill in the names without resorting to a baseball encyclopedia or the internet. Well, everybody got BR as Babe Ruth and HA as Hank Aaron (although a couple missed BB as Barry Bonds). Most of the rest were hit and miss with more modern players doing better than the old guys. There was one set of initials that absolutely no one got, not a single guy: MO. Everyone forgot Mel Ott, making him,at least among my crowd, the most obscure power hitter ever.

They told Ott he was too short to play. Well, he fooled them all. He learned to pull the ball, draw a lot of  walks, and played right field almost flawlessly. Oh, and by the way, when he retired he held the National League record for home runs and was third on the all-time list. Not bad for a short guy, right?

Ott was a catcher by trade when he arrived in New York at age 19. John McGraw moved him to the outfield because he thought Ott would have a longer career. He pinch hit most of 1927, hitting .239 (.282 overall). In 1928 he became the Giants regular right fielder and the next year set a career high with 42 home runs. Ott won numerous home run titles, but his highest total was good for only second. There’s a reason for that. He played in Philadelphia on the last day of the season. Phillies right fielder Chuck Klein had 43 home runs going into the game. The Phils walked Ott each time to ensure that Klein won the homer title. As neither team was going anywhere, I’ve never been quite sure what I think of that.  The 1929 season was also unique for Ott in that he had more home runs that strikeouts (42 to 38). He won five home run titles during the 1930s. His lowest total was 23 in 1933, his highest 38 in 1932. He had a strange batting stance that included a high leg kick with swinging. It’s supposed to have helped him generate power. Here’s a posed shot of it:

Ott swinging away

For the decade of the 1930s he was terrific, joining Carl Hubbell as the driving force on the Giants.  He scored a lot of runs, knocked in a lot of runs, and had seven years of 100 walks. In 1933, the Giants won the NL pennant. It was Ott’s weakest season in the decade, but he made up for it by clubbing .389 in the World Series. His tenth inning home run in game five clinched the Series for New York. The Giants also took pennants in 1936 and 1937, but dropped both World Series’ to the Yankees. Ott did all right in the ’36 Series, but had a down Series in 1937.

His first really sub par season in years occurred in 1940. He bounced back in 1941. In 1942 the Giants made him their manager. He responded by leading the NL in home runs one final time. His first season hitting below .250 was 1943. It was also his lowest home run total since 1927. In the war depleted ranks of 1945, he had one final good season. He hit .300 one last time and picked up his 500th home run, passing Lou Gehrig in the process. In 1946 he concentrated on managing and his average plummeted to .074. In 1947 he went 0 for 4 and retired as an active players. He managed the Giants without much success through 1948 and made the Hall of Fame in 1951. In 1958 he died in a car wreck. It was about him that Leo Durocher is supposed to have said, “Nice guys finish last.”

For his career Ott had 2876 hits, 488 doubles, 72 triples, 511 home runs, scored 1859 runs with 1861 RBIs (another amazingly close number), and walked 1708 times to only 896 strikeouts.  He hit.304, slugged .533, had an on base percentage of .410, and an OPS of 943 (OPS + of 155). All good numbers. All certainly Hall of Fame worthy.

But despite all the superlatives you can recount about Ott’s career, there’s always one complaint raised over and over. He got an unfair advantage because he played in the Polo Grounds. During his career Ott hit 63% of his home runs (323 of 511) at home. By contrast, Babe Ruth hit 49% of his at home, Mickey Mantle hit 50% at home, and Willie Mays got 51% of his at home (and for part of Mays’ career, the Polo Grounds was home). It was 258 feet down the right field line at the Polo Grounds, so the argument goes that the left-handed hitting Ott got a lot of cheap home runs and therefore isn’t really as great as he appears.

Oh? Let’s see if I have this right. Ott regularly drives in 100 runs a year, scores 100 runs a year, and has 140-190 hits a year. Of those he regularly deposits nineteen of them over the wall at the Polo Grounds (That’s 63% of his average home run total from 1929 through 1942, his productive years.) and isn’t really a geat player. What did I miss? There are a bunch of runs scored and RBI’s that don’t have a thing to do with 258 feet fences. For his career, excluding 1926, 1946, and 1947 when he played less than 40 games, Ott averaged 150 hits, of which nineteen flew over the fence in New York. He scored 97 runs, nineteen of which came from a ball that he hit over the fence in New York. He knocked in 98 runners a year, an indeterminate number of which were on base when a ball flew over the fence in New York. He walked 89 times a season, none of which came from a ball flying over a fence in New York, thus putting himself on base a lot and giving his team a chance to score runs whether or not they put a ball over the fence in New York. Frankly, I don’t think the Polo Grounds had a lot to do with Ott’s status as a great player. As a power hitter, yes; as a great player, no.

Even if it did help his power numbers, he’s not the only one. You don’t hear people complain about Wade Boggs’ inflated hit totals because he knew how to use Fenway Park, do you? A lot of people will tell you that the two greatest seasons any player ever had were Ruth’s 1920 and 1921 years. In 1920 Ruth had 29 home runs at home, 24 on the road (54% at home). In 1921 he hit 32 at home and 27 on the road (again 54%). Want to guess where he played his home games? You got it, the Polo Grounds with its 258 foot fence that aided left-handed hitters like Ruth and Ott. According to Green Cathedrals it was actually 256 feet in 1920-1921. I wonder how many home runs just barely cleared that 256 feet? (and how they got an extra two feet in 1929) OK, I know 63% is a lot more than 54%, but you just don’t hear anyone complain that Ruth got an extra benefit from the Polo Grounds. I’m not arguing that Ott didn’t get a lot of help by playing his home games in the Polo Grounds, he obviously did when it comes to power numbers. But that fact alone doesn’t take away from his greatness any more than it would take away from either Boggs or Ruth.

Mel Ott was one of the finest players of the 1930s. He was third in both home runs and RBIs for the decade and was a part of three pennant winners. And for all that he’s managed to become utterly obscure. Isn’t that a great shame?