Saturday, January 23, 2016

The Greatest Players From Each Franchise (Part IV--NL East)


Tom Seaver
After working his way rapidly through the minor league system, Seaver posted 16 wins in his major league debut with the tenth place Mets. Baseball writers were so impressed, they named him Rookie of the Year. Over the next eleven seasons in New York, "Tom Terrific" would capture three Cy Young Awards and appear on ten All-Star rosters. Slugger Reggie Jackson once commented of Seaver's greatness: "Blind people come to the park just to hear him pitch." Seaver injected life and respectability into a woeful franchise, leading the Mets to a pair of World Series appearances. He compiled a 2.70 ERA in Series play. He tossed five one-hitters with the Mets and came within two outs of a perfect game in July of '69. In April of 1970, he struck out ten consecutive batters--a major league record. He averaged 17 wins per season during his time in New York.


Tim Raines
The Nationals are a young team--established in 2005--and to find a suitable candidate I had to journey back to the days of the Expos. Though the Expos produced several Hall of Famers, my choice for greatest player in franchise history is on the cusp--for now anyway. In 2016, Raines received his highest percentage of Hall of Fame votes to date (69.8%) and, with six years of eligibility to go, he may end up being enshrined. From '81-'87, Raines was a member of the All-Star team every year. He led the league in steals for four straight seasons and captured a batting title in '86 with a .334 average. Though he never received a Gold Glove, a careful examination of his defensive stats suggests that he was robbed. He posted the highest fielding percentage among players at his position (LF) six times. After a highly publicized battle with cocaine addiction, Raines cleaned himself up and turned his career around. He lasted more than two decades in the majors. His 808 career steals are fifth on the all time list.


Luis Castillo
Though the Marlins have been around since 1993, few players have stuck with the club long enough to put up impressive numbers. In terms of longevity and consistency, my vote for best franchise player goes to Luis Castillo. After spending three straight seasons bouncing up and down from the majors to the minors, Castillo finally found a permanent home in Florida. The Dominican native had a breakout year in '99, hitting .302 in 128 games while stealing 50 bases. He would lead the league twice in steals. Castillo spent portions of ten seasons with the Marlins altogether, compiling a highly proficient .293 batting mark while averaging 28 steals per year. A solid defensive player, he captured three consecutive Gold Gloves at second base. His efforts led the Marlins to a World Series title in 2003. Traded to the Twins in '06, he finished his major league career with the Mets.


Hank Aaron 
Aaron is not only the greatest player in Braves history, but he is among the most gifted athletes ever to grace the diamond. In a time when racial prejudice still ran deep, he carried himself with quiet dignity while assembling one of the most impressive careers ever. Given the fact that the only player to surpass him was a known PED abuser, Aaron remains the all time home run leader in the minds of many. He still holds records for RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases. During his twenty-three seasons in the majors, he was named to the All-Star team twenty-one times. He hit .362 in postseason play. A model of consistency, he scored at least 100 runs in thirteen straight seasons. From 1955-1970, he gathered no fewer than 150 hits each year--the longest streak of its kind. He finished his career with 3,771 hits, which is third on the all time list. 


Mike Schmidt
When assessing the franchise history of the Phillies, one can't ignore the contributions of pitchers Pete Alexander and Robin Roberts. Alexander captured three straight triple crowns and led the club to a World Series berth in 1915. Roberts logged six consecutive 20-win seasons and was a key member of the 1950 pennant-winning squad. But nobody put the franchise on the map like Mike Schmidt. From 1974-1986, Schmidt won eight home run crowns and three MVP awards. A gifted defensive player, he captured nine straight Gold Gloves. Of all the third basemen in the Hall of Fame, Schmidt is the leader in homers, RBIs and slugging percentage. His contributions led the Phillies to six postseason berths, including the first world championship in franchise history. Schmidt was MVP of the 1980 Series, hitting .381 with 6 runs scored and 7 RBIs. Teammate Pete Rose once remarked: "Mike Schmidt is the best player in the National League today. There's no question about that. He honestly doesn't realize how much ability he has." When Schmidt retired in 1989, a New York Times writer commented: "No other third baseman has ever done what he did with both his bat and his glove. Not Brooks Robinson, not Eddie Mathews, not Pie Traynor." A statue erected in Schmidt's honor stands outside Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The Greatest Players From Each Franchise (Part III--AL West)


Ivan Rodriguez
Rodriguez--also known as "Pudge" or "I-Rod"--gave thirteen of his best seasons to the Rangers between 1991 and 2002. During that span, he made ten consecutive All-Star appearances and won the same number of Gold Gloves. He retired with thirteen Gold Glove Awards altogether--more than any catcher in history. His offense improved as time wore on and he reached the peak of his career in '99 with 35 homers, 113 RBIs and a .332 batting average--numbers good enough to capture MVP honors. After his departure from Texas in 2003, he led two other clubs to World Series appearances. He was named MVP of the 2003 NLCS and compiled a .313 postseason batting average during the Marlins championship run that year. Behind the plate, he had an accurate arm and quick release. He led the league in caught stealing percentage nine times. His is the all-time leader in putouts among catchers.


Craig Biggio
It would be just as easy to name Jeff Bagwell the top Astros player of all time, but I chose Biggio because he gave twenty seasons to the club as opposed to Bagwell's fifteen. Biggio started his career as a catcher and spent a fair amount of time in the outfield before making the switch to second base in 1992. The position suited him well as he led the NL in assists six times and putouts on five occasions. He captured four Gold Gloves. One of Biggio's most useful talents was getting on base. He drew 60 or more walks ten times and led the league in hit-by-pitch during five seasons. He wore an over-sized elbow guard and had a tendency to lean out over the plate. Only one other player was plunked more times than Biggio--Hall of Famer Hughie Jennings. Biggio had excellent speed, stealing more than 400 bases during his career. He led the league in 1994. His 3060 base hits secured him a place in the Hall of Fame. He was elected in 2015.


Chuck Finley
Had Nolan Ryan remained in an Angels uniform a bit longer, he would likely have broken every franchise pitching record. But in examining the team data, the player who really stands out is left-hander Chuck Finley. During his fourteen years with the club, Finley set franchise records for wins and innings pitched. He ranks second behind Ryan in strikeouts. Highly durable, Finley made 30 or more starts eleven times during his career. He led the AL with 13 complete games during the '93 slate. The Angels weren't particularly good during many of Finley's seasons, but he was a model of consistency almost every year. He had several good pitches in his arsenal, including a fastball, forkball and curve. An unusual claim to fame, he struck out four batters in an inning three times. Throughout his career, he maintained a sense of humor about himself. After being named Player of the Week one year, he quipped: "That just shows you how this league has gone to hell." 


Ken Griffey Jr.
Though Ichiro Suzuki and Edgar Martinez put up impressive stats over the years, Griffey Jr. was a better player all around. With more power than Ichiro and more versatility than Martinez, Griffey led the league in homers four times and captured ten straight Gold Gloves. He got started in the majors at the age of nineteen and demonstrated so much poise, he was nicknamed "The Natural." He retired with 630 career homers--placing him sixth on the all time list. He accomplished this presumably without the aid of steroids. He holds the record for most homers in a season by a center fielder (56--tied with Hack Wilson). He captured more than ninety percent of the Hall of Fame vote in 2016.  


The A's have resided in three different cities over the years, spending more than fifty seasons in Philadelphia and close to fifty more in Oakland after a brief layover in Kansas City. During the Philadelphia years, pitcher Eddie Plank was arguably the most valuable asset to the club. The first left-hander to win 300 games, "Gettysburg Eddie" was a workhorse for manager Connie Mack, averaging 20 wins per year between 1901 and 1914. He accrued a stellar 2.39 ERA in that span while leading the AL in shutouts twice. Plank was even better in the postseason, allowing just 8 earned runs in 6 World Series starts. A victim of poor run support, he won just two of those starts in spite of a miserly 1.32 ERA.   

During the Oakland era, nobody carried the club like Rickey Henderson. The greatest leadoff man in history, Henderson is the all time leader in runs scored and stolen bases. He ranks second in bases on balls. Though he remained in the game long after his prime, he still manged to retire with an on-base percentage above .400. Henderson had some power for a leadoff man, cracking 297 career homers. He holds the record for most homers leading off a game with 81. Imminently aware of his abilities, he often bragged about his on-field accomplishments while referring to himself in the third person. In a story he vehemently denied, he allegedly left a message on the answering machine of Padres' GM Kevin Towers saying: "This is Rickey calling on behalf of Rickey. Rickey wants to play ball."  

Sunday, January 3, 2016

The Greatest Players From Each Franchise (Part II--AL Central)


Napoleon Lajoie
In examining the body of evidence, most of the players who had the greatest impact in Cleveland are figures from the dim and distant past. Lajoie played so long ago that the proper pronunciation of his name (Lah-zhuh-way) has been largely forgotten. He got his start with the Phillies in the nineteenth century and, seduced by a more lucrative contract offer, defected to the American League during its inaugural campaign. He led the league in nearly a dozen offensive categories before a dispute of ownership sent him to Cleveland. Between 1902 and 1913, Lajoie won four batting titles and exceeded the .350 mark at the plate on six occasions. His .426 average in 1901 has not been surpassed since. He was so successful in Cleveland that the team was actually renamed after him. They were known as the Naps until 1915. Defensively, Lajoie was among the best in the majors. His quick reflexes, exceptional speed and sure hands drew lavish praise from contemporaries. "He plays so naturally and easily that it looks like lack of effort," Connie Mack once observed. Lajoie was the first second baseman elected to the Hall of Fame in 1937.


Nellie Fox
Fox was somewhat diminutive in stature, bu his value to the club was immense. "I hate to play a single game without him," said manager Marty Marion. "It's like trying to run an auto without spark plugs." A spirited team leader, Fox was a pest to opposing teams. "That little feller, he ain't so big, but he's all fire," griped Yankee manager Casey Stengel. "He's caused me more grief than any other player on the White Sox." From 1951-1961, Fox was a member of the All-Star team every year. An exceptional defensive second baseman, he captured three Gold Gloves. He reached the pinnacle of his career in 1959, when he led the Sox to their first World Series appearance in four decades. He hit .375 in a losing cause and was later named AL MVP. Surprisingly, he was eliminated from the primary Hall of Fame ballot in 1984, gaining entry via the Veterans Committee.


Kirby Puckett
Puckett's career was somewhat brief--cut short by glaucoma that left him essentially blind in one eye. But during his twelve seasons in the majors, he accomplished a lot. A lifetime .318 hitter, he gathered more than 200 hits on five occasions. He proved his worth defensively by capturing six Gold Gloves in center field. His tireless efforts propelled the Twins to a pair of World Series titles--the only championships in post-Senators history. Puckett's warm, engaging personality made him immensely popular among fans. GM Andy MacPhail contended that "If he had been playing in New York or Los Angeles, they would be building statues to him."


George Brett
Though a host of great players have passed through Kansas City since the team was established in 1969, the club's greatest period of success coincided with the career of George Brett. Sabermetricians have come up with a statistic known as Wins Above Replacement, in which a complex and mysterious formula is used to determine how much better a player is than another player who would typically replace him (Don't worry--most normal fans don't understand it either). Brett's WAR score is nearly twice as much as the next worthy Kansas City hero. From 1974-1990, he was arguably the best third baseman in the league. He made thirteen consecutive All-Star appearances while claiming an MVP Award and a Gold Glove. In 1980, he flirted with the .400 mark into early-September before finishing the season at .390. He still holds the all time records for most consecutive games with 3 or more hits (6) and most decades with a batting title (3--He won it in 1976, 1980 and 1990). He retired with 3,154 hits--among the top twenty totals of all time. Throughout his career he was the face of the franchise. "He was always the guy," said Royals broadcaster Denny Mathews. "He was so mentally tough, he accepted being the guy." Brett remained "the guy" even after his retirement when he aspired to the position of team VP.


Ty Cobb
While Miguel Cabrera has assembled an impressive batch of statistics over the past several years, there is little doubt who the greatest player in Tigers history is. Among the fiercest competitors of all time, Cobb captured twelve batting titles in a thirteen-year span. He exceeded the .400 mark at the plate during three seasons and retired with the highest batting average of all time at .366. He is the current holder of multiple records including most seasons with 10 or more triples (17) and most games with 5 or more hits (14). When teammates failed to drive him in, he often stole his way around the bases--sometimes announcing his intentions to opponents beforehand. He stole home 54 times during his career. With a menacing persona, he made plenty of enemies over the years, but he had his share of advocates as well. Tris Speaker once said; "The Babe was a great ballplayer, sure, but Cobb was even greater. Babe could knock your brains out, but Cobb would drive you crazy." Describing his life experience to a writer, Cobb once said: "I had to fight all my life to survive. They were all against me. But I beat the bastards and left them in the ditch."