Monday, January 26, 2015

The All Bat/ No Glove American League All-Star Team

There are numerous qualities a ballplayer needs to make it in the majors. Few players excel in every department. For instance, Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson--despite his penchant for dramatic homers--was a liability in the field. "Let's face it," teammate Sparky Lyle commented in his book, The Bronx Zoo, "Reggie's a bad outfielder. He has good speed to the ball, but the catching part is shaky." To be certain, the designated hitter rule has helped prolong the careers of many players like Reggie. But even before the AL started using designated hitters, there were plenty of players who made a living off of swinging the bat...Enough to fill an All-Star team.

Here are my nominees for the American League's All Bat/ No Glove All Time All-Stars.

Jose Canseco: Canseco had both power and speed, becoming baseball's first 40/40 man in 1988. What he didn't have was a glove to go with it. He provided one of the most spectacular bloopers of all time when he misjudged a fly ball that bounced off his head and over the fence for a home run. He was allegedly offered a pro soccer contract shortly after the incident. When his defensive ineptitude could be ignored no longer, he was used primarily as a DH. Forty-six percent of his lifetime appearances were in that capacity. Still, his career error total is among the top 100 for right fielders.

Reggie Jackson: Jackson was aware of his defensive shortcomings, commenting: "The only way I'm going to win a Gold Glove is with a can of spray paint." Manager and nemesis Billy Martin was acquainted with the slugger's weaknesses as well, telling reporters one day: "It's not that Reggie's a bad outfielder. He just has trouble judging the ball and picking it up." Most people know Jackson as "Mr. October," a nickname bestowed upon him for his postseason heroics. When he retired, his 563 regular season homers were among the top totals of all time. But he was always a little scary in the outfield, finishing among the top three in errors during nine seasons. The low-light of his defensive career came during a nationally televised game at Fenway Park, when Martin pulled him off the field for not hustling after a bloop hit by Jim Rice. Rice ended up with a double. Jackson ended up with a tarnished reputation.

Smead Jolley: Jolley had one of the greatest player names of the 1930s. In sixteen minor league seasons, he hit .367. In four campaigns with the White Sox and Red Sox, he hit .305. The reason he didn't stay in the majors longer was his abominable fielding. Cardinals coach Johnny Riddle remarked that Jolley looked "like a kid chasing soap bubbles" in the outfield. Numerous legends exist about Jolley's fielding exploits--none of which can be confirmed. According to one popular story, he committed three errors on a single play. According to another, he fell flat on his face coming down the steep left field embankment at Fenway Park (known to contemporaries as "Duffy's Cliff"). A verifiable fact, Jolley averaged one error per every 9 outfield assignments, which would have put him on pace to shatter any error record ever established.

Wally Schang: Schang's career began in the Deadball Era and extended into the offensive renaissance of the 1920s/30s. During his nineteen seasons in the majors, he hit .280 or better on ten occasions, frequently leading AL backstops in numerous offensive categories. His lifetime on-base percentage is second only to Hall of Famer Mickey Cochrane among catchers. He also had the distinction of being the first switch hitter to homer from both sides of the plate in a game. Schang often earned glowing praise from contemporaries for his defense. One contemporary remarked that: "Just to watch him was an education in the art of catching." It's true that he was equipped with a strong arm behind the plate, but he was lacking other defensive attributes. He finished among the top three in errors committed nine times and also led the league twice in passed balls. His 223 lifetime errors as a catcher currently place him among the top forty of all time in that dubious category.

Mo Vaughn: Nicknamed "Hit Dog," Vaughn was a staple at first base for the Red Sox and Angels from 1993-2000. He averaged 35 homers and 111 RBIs per year during that span, capturing an MVP Award in '95. But throughout his career, the hulking first-sacker struggled defensively. One writer remarked that a pop fly for Vaughn "was an adventure." A 1996 Red Sox spring training report cited him as a defensive weakness. The headline read: "The Balls Should be Flying--But Will Any be Caught?" Plenty of balls eluded Vaughn over the years as he led the league in errors seven times--a major league record. What boggles the mind is that he played in just 175 games as a designated hitter.

Chuck Knoblauch: Knoblauch never had any difficulty with the offensive side of the game. After capturing Rookie of the Year honors in '91, he became one of the premier lead-off men in the American League, stealing 30 or more bases in six of eight seasons between 1992 and 1998. In '96, he hit .341 and led the league with 14 triples. Though he captured a Gold Glove the following year, he later developed a puzzling inability to throw to first base (sometimes referred to as "The Yips" or "Steve Blass Disease"). One of his errant throws sailed into the stands and hit a fan in the head. During a game on June 16, 2000, he voluntarily left the game after making three throwing errors in six innings for the Yankees. He never recovered and was subsequently moved to left field. 

Luke Appling: Appling was nicknamed "Old Aches and Pains" for his incessant griping about various physical ailments. During his twenty years in the majors, he won a pair of batting crowns while finishing among the top ten in batting average eight times. But Appling's glovework left something to be desired. In the minors, he was known as "Kid Boots" for his poor fielding. Between 1933 and 1939, he led the American League in errors four times. Despite his defensive shortcomings, he set a major league record with 2,153 consecutive games played at shortstop. He was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1964.  

Edwin Encarnacion: A ninth round pick in the 2000 Amateur Draft, Dominican standout Encarnacion was a late-bloomer. After putting up middling numbers in his first few seasons, he has suddenly emerged as one of the Blue Jays' top sluggers with three consecutive 30-homer seasons from 2012-2014. Primarily a third baseman, Encarnacion's shoddy glovework has confined him to the role of a DH. 'Jays manager John Gibbons gave him a trial at first base in 2014, but he continued to disappoint. In 674 games at third base, Encarnacion has fielded his position more than 20 points below the league average--Yikes!        

Monday, January 19, 2015

Piazza in the Hall?

The doors to Cooperstown have suddenly swung wide open. For the second year in a row, baseball writers saw fit to elect three or more players at once. It's an interesting development considering that only fourteen men were granted access to the Hall by the BBWAA over the previous decade. Will the mass enshrinement continue in the coming years?

(My Magic 8 Ball says...)
Don't Count on it.

Among the holdovers from this year's election, there are only a handful who meet Hall of Fame standards according to the Bill James scoring system (which is a fairly reliable indicator). Even fewer in that group have received any considerable support from voters. Curt Schilling, who will be entering his fourth year on the ballot, peaked at 39.2% of the vote this year--only slightly above his debut of 38.8%. The same holds true for bad boys Roger Clemens and Barry Bonds. Both have been holding steady in the thirtieth percentile over the last three elections. Though speedster Tim Raines reached a personal high of 55% in 2015, it took him eight years to get there and he's still a long way off. Former Astros' slugger Jeff Bagwell has failed to gain any momentum, hovering in the fiftieth percentile for four years running.  

One player who appears to be on a Hall of Fame trajectory is Mike Piazza. Among the greatest offensive catchers of all time, Piazza captured 69.9% of the vote this year, falling just five percentage points shy of enshrinement. In the coming years, only a handful of new candidates will seriously compete with Piazza for Hall of Fame consideration. In 2016, Ken Griffey Jr. will be added to the ballot along with relief specialist Trevor Hoffman. 2017 will mark the arrival of Ivan Rodriguez. He'll be joined in 2018 by first-timers Omar Vizquel, Chipper Jones and Jim Thome. Looking even further into the future, Mariano Rivera will become eligible in 2019. Assuming there will be no sudden inclination among voters toward electing steroid abusers, designated hitters and assorted trouble makers like Manny Ramirez, the list of inductees should be considerably smaller over the next several elections. 

Monday, January 12, 2015

Record-Setting Streaks (Part IX--Ted Williams, Piggy Ward and Earl Averill Jr.)

Considered by many to be the greatest natural hitter in baseball history, Ted Williams preyed upon American League pitching for nineteen seasons, retiring with a slew of notable accomplishments under his belt. Among his less-heralded feats was a streak of reaching base safely in sixteen consecutive plate appearances. He assembled the skein in September of 1957--the same year he won his fifth batting crown with a mark of .388. Over a one-week span, "Teddy Ballgame" collected 6 hits, 9 free passes, an intentional walk and a hit-by-pitch all in succession. 4 of his 6 hits were homers. Rendering the feat even more extraordinary, he was thirty-nine years old at the time. 

Williams' streak is not the longest of its kind, though it is (perhaps) the most impressive. In 1893, Piggy Ward of the Cincinnati Reds reached safely in seventeen straight trips to the plate--a mark that still stands. But the rules were quite different in Ward's day. Back in 1893, foul bunts and held foul tips were not classified as strikes. Additionally, there was no infield fly rule and the height of the mound was not yet regulated. If ever there was a record in need of an asterisk, this is the one!

Ward's dubious mark was tied in 1962 by Earl Averill Jr.--son of the Hall of Fame center fielder.  Averill's string was rendered less remarkable by the inclusion of an error and a fielder's choice. He finished the season with a feeble .219 batting average--nearly a hundred points below his father's lifetime mark. The streak was his only claim to fame (aside from ties to baseball royalty) during a mediocre career that spanned portions of seven major league seasons.

In terms of getting on base, there are few players who came close to matching the career numbers put up by Ted Williams. In addition to compiling the highest on-base percentage in history at .482, Williams also holds the record for reaching base safely in consecutive games--84 in 1949. Even DiMaggio fell short of that mark during his incredible 1941 campaign. "The Yankee Clipper" reached base in 74 straight games that year--the second longest streak to date. Interestingly, Williams wasn't far behind in '41, finding his way aboard in 69 consecutive contests.           


Monday, January 5, 2015

Record-Setting Streaks (Part VIII--Tom Seaver)

Some of baseball's most astonishing records are held by players who are virtually unknown. Other extraordinary accomplishments can be traced to prominent sources. In April of 1970, the illustrious Tom Seaver struck out 19 batters in a game, tying a record (since broken) set by fellow Hall of Famer Steve Carlton the year before. Not to be outdone, "Tom Terrific" collected ten of those strikeouts consecutively--a feat that has stood the test of time.

After lending the woeful Mets some credibility with his remarkable rookie performance in '67, Seaver led baseball's loveable losers to an improbable world championship in '69. During his storied career, he captured three Cy Young awards and ended up on twelve All-Star teams.  Perhaps Reggie Jackson said it best when he remarked of the five-time NL strikeout leader: "Blind people come to the park just to listen to him pitch."

Seaver once asserted that it wasn't his job to strike people out. But he did it with remarkable proficiency--especially on April 22, 1970, when he punched out every San Diego batter he faced from the end of the sixth inning on. The hard-throwing right-hander struck out every player who came to the plate at least once with the exception of shortstop Jose Arcia (a lifetime .215 hitter who averaged one "K" per every 5.7 at-bats). Umpire Harry Wendelstedt told reporters after the game: "Seaver had a helluva fastball and it was moving two different ways--it was spinning in and zipping out. He moved the ball around and changed speeds well. But at the very end, he was really bringing it." A second inning homer was all the scoring Seaver allowed in a 2-hit victory. He later said that the only strikeouts he actually tried for that day were the tenth and the nineteenth.

Up until 2012, Seaver's consecutive strikeout record had not been seriously challenged in the majors since the Deadball Era. Back in 1884, when the mound was only fifty feet from home plate and six "called balls" were required to draw a walk, Hall of Famer "Smiling Mickey" Welch struck out the first 9 hitters he faced in an August 28 game against the Cleveland Blues. That mark was tied by Doug Fister of the Tigers in September of 2012. Fister had no idea he had set an AL record at the time. "Coming into today, it was just like any other day," he commented afterward. "My focus was just to get early contact."

To date, six men have struck out 8 consecutive batters, including Nolan Ryan, who did it twice. The only other high profile player on that list is Roger Clemens, who mowed down eight straight opponents with the Red Sox in 1986. In 2014, Seaver's record of ten successive "K's" was tied at the low minor league level by A's prospect Mark Lamb.