Sunday, April 24, 2016

HIdden Talents of Major Leaguers (Part II--Slaughter, Jennings, Rice, Yost and Long)


Elected to the Hall of  Fame via the Veterans Committee in 1985, Slaughter had a host of impressive statistics. What he didn't have was speed on the bases. In nineteen major league seasons, he stole just 71 bags--an average of less than 4 per year. He spent a majority of his career in St. Louis, where the cozy dimensions of Sportsmans Park created a power-hitter's paradise. With below average speed and a small ballpark to boot, it's a small wonder that Slaughter attained a rank of #54 on the all time list for triples. Only one player ahead of Slaughter on the list had a career stretching into the 1950s. The remainder played in baseball's dim and distant past when cavernous ballparks and stolen bases were intrinsic features of the game. Slaughter finished with double digit totals for triples in seven seasons and retired with an impressive total of 148--not bad for a slowpoke. So how did he do it? Sheer hustle. Slaughter's so-called "Mad Dash" home in Game 7 of the 1946 World Series is just one example. Stationed at first base with the game tied in the bottom of the eighth, Slaughter ran right through coach Mike Gonzalez's stop sign at third, delivering the series-clinching run on a single by Harry Walker.  It was that same determination that allowed Slaughter to rack up so many three-baggers during his career.


Jennings was many things during his Hall of Fame playing career--daring baserunner, reliable run-producer, cheerleader and heckler extraordinaire. After helping the old Baltimore Orioles to four consecutive postseason appearances (1894-1897), Jennings took the helm of the Tigers, piloting the club to three straight pennants. He earned the nickname "Ee-Yah" for the piercing shouts and whistles he produced in the coach's box. The exclamations were often accompanied by quirky little jumps and dramatic fist-pumps. As a player, Jennings had an unfortunate talent--an unparalleled (and almost psychotic) propensity to lean into pitches. He was hit more often than any major league player for five straight seasons. In 1896, he set a single-season record with 51 beanings. His lifetime total of 287 is another painful record. Because he made such an excellent target, Jennings's skull was fractured on multiple occasions. During one particular game, he was hit in the head yet somehow managed to play all nine innings. Afterward, he collapsed and remained unconscious for three days. 


Few would argue that Rice was one of the most productive Red Sox players of all time. An eight-time All-Star, he led the league in total bases for three consecutive seasons. In 1978, he was recognized as the American League's Most Valuable Player. With close to 2,500 career hits and a lifetime .298 batting average, it's hard to believe that Rice was ever a liability at the plate.  But his hidden talent was actually a major deficit. From 1982-1985, he grounded into more double plays than any of his AL counterparts every year. This was no fluke as he placed among the top ten in that category eleven times. In 1984, he set a single-season record with 36 twin killings yet still managed to drive-in 122 runs--a remarkable yet puzzling accomplishment. Rice has his Boston teammates to thank for his dubious distinction as "Mr. Double Play." They put him in double play situations more than 2,000 times during his career. He made it to the Hall of Fame nevertheless.  


It's not as if Dale Long wasn't a decent hitter. Over portions of ten major league seasons, he drove 132 pitches over the fences while compiling a competent .267 batting average. But no one expected the impressive display of power put on by Long in May of 1956. From May 19 to May 28, Long was the most prolific slugger in baseball, going deep in eight consecutive games--a major league record that has stood to the present day. On the thirtieth anniversary of the streak, Long told reporters: "Somebody will break it and they'll forget about me." He was wrong about the record being broken, though he has definitely faded into the mists of time. The eight-game skein was tied by Don Mattingly in 1987 and Ken Griffey Jr. in 1993. No one was terribly surprised when either man accomplished the feat.


Yost didn't impress too many people with his hitting. Over seventy percent of his lifetime hits were singles. And he compiled a batting average below the .250 mark on ten occasions. What impressed Yost's legions of supporters most was his uncanny ability to keep the bat on his shoulder. He drew so many bases on balls, he earned the nickname "The Walking Man." He led the league six times in that category and averaged one free pass for every 5.7 plate appearances during his career. It wasn't as if teams were afraid to pitch to him. Despite his 28 leadoff homers, he wasn't much of a power threat. But in 1953, Senators owner Clark Griffith referred to his table-setter as "the most sought after .233 hitter in the American League." Yost crouched slightly at the plate and had a habit of dropping his right shoulder, making the strike zone even smaller. "Once I got a reputation for walking a lot, it seemed like the umpires began to give me the calls on the close ones," he once said. They certainly did, granting him first base more than 1,600 times over eighteen seasons. 

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Hidden Talents of Major Leaguers (Part I--Beltran, Matsui, Abreu, Brown and Webb)


Known more for his power and ability to deliver in the clutch (especially during the postseason), Beltran is actually a prolific base-stealer. He demonstrated this dramatically in 2001 with the Royals, when he swiped 31 bags while getting caught just once. In 2004, when he reached a career-high of 42 thefts, he was nabbed just three times. His lifetime stolen base percentage of 86.39 was fifth on the all time list at the time of this writing. By way of comparison, stolen base kings Lou Brock and Rickey Henderson had lifetime success rates of 75.34 and 80.75 respectively. Entering his nineteenth major league season, Beltran had over 300 steals.


Matsui beame a national hero in Japan when he clubbed 332 homers during his ten-year career with the Yomiuri Giants. Though his major league totals were not as impressive, he did prove himself to be one of the game's great "Iron Men." Beginning on Apr. 31, 2003, when he made his big league debut with the Yankees, he appeared in 518 consecutive games. He would have stretched that mark to at least 519 had he not fractured his wrist diving for a ball hit by Mark Loretta on May 12, 2006. The 518 game streak from the beginning of his major league career is the longest of its kind. Including Japanese Central League play, Matsui appeared in 1,768 consecutive games--a mark that would have placed him third behind Cal Ripken Jr. and Lou Gehrig had he played his entire career in the majors.


Abreu is one of those players who never seemed to get the attention he deserved. Playing for six different clubs, he reached the 100 RBI mark eight times, was a 30/30 man twice and finished among the top twenty-five of all time in doubles. Yet he only appeared on two All-Star teams. Abreu's most unheralded skill was his ability to draw walks. During his prime, which stretched from 1998 through 2011, he averaged 99.7 bases on balls per year, reaching the century mark in eight consecutive seasons--a record he shares with Hall of Famer Frank Thomas. Abreu's on-base percentage was .390 or better in ten campaigns. And though he most often hit third in the lineup, he was intentionally walked 115 times. This means that pitchers were avoiding him regularly to face clean-up hitters. Abreu can only hope he gets as much respect from the panel of voters at Cooperstown when he becomes eligible for the Hall of Fame three years from now.


To look at Gates Brown's stats, you wouldn't think he was a statistical leader in any category. Most people outside of Detroit have never heard of him. During his thirteen years in the majors, spent entirely with the Tigers, he appeared in 100 or more games just three times. He fielded his outfield position below the league average and was a liability on the base paths at 5-foot-11, 220 pounds. Additionally, he failed to raise his average above the "Mendoza Line" twice in his career (He barely cleared that hurdle in 1969, finishing with a .204 mark). The reason the Tigers kept him around for so long was his ability to come off the bench and hit. The trend was set in 1963 when he delivered a pinch home run in his first major league at-bat. He added 15 more over the course of his career for an all time ranking of #5 in that category. He currently resides among the top ten in pinch-hits with 107. His .462 pinch-hit average in 1968 was the third highest in history behind Ed Kranepool and Frenchy Bordagaray. During one particular game in '68, Brown admitted to being in the process of secretly eating a pair of hot dogs on the bench when he was summoned by manager Mayo Smith to pinch hit. He stuffed one of the franks under his jersey and the ketchup seeped through as he stood on first base after hitting safely.


The record books are full of "one year wonders" and Webb is perhaps the most wondrous of all. Discarded by four major league teams, the lefty-swinging right fielder was thirty-two years old when he arrived in Boston for the 1930 slate. Soft-spoken and shy, he was known to duck inside buildings to avoid being noticed on the street. This wasn't really a problem for him until 1931, when he set the all time record for doubles in a season with 67. To date, only five other players have collected as many as 60 in a season. All of them are dead. And Webb's record has not been challenged since 2000, when Todd Helton of the Rockies ended up with 59. Sportswriters in Boston sarcastically referred to Webb as "The Earl of Dublin" and complained that he deliberately "stretched triples into doubles." In Webb's defense, he was painfully slow afoot, stealing just 8 bases over portions of seven seasons. In 1931, Fenway Park in Boston was even quirkier than it is today with a ten-foot embankment in front of the left field wall (known as "Duffy's Cliff") and a 550-foot expanse from home plate to deepest center field. According to one historian, at least 10 or 15 of Webb's doubles that year were a result of misplays by visiting outfielders on the treacherous left field embankment. "Outfielders would come tumbling down the cliff and [Webb would] be jogging into second when he could have been on third," commented one scribe. Whatever the case, at least one writer referred to Webb's record as a "stunt" and he received little acclaim for it. He managed just 28 doubles the following year and his shaky defense ended his career after the 1933 campaign. Webb once referred to himself as "The All American Stumbler" in the outfield. He has since faded into relative obscurity.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Island of Lost Teams (Part IV--The Montreal Expos)

Pro baseball was being played in Montreal as early as 1890 with entries in the International Association. The Montreal Royals of the Eastern League lasted for twenty seasons and were later revived as a Dodger farm club in 1939. The team was sold and relocated in 1960, prompting city officials to rally for a major league franchise. A bid was placed at the 1967 winter meetings. Dodger owner Walter O'Malley, who was chairman of the expansion committee, endorsed the proposal and convinced his peers to do the same. In May of '68, it was officially announced that teams would be added in San Diego and Montreal for the '69 campaign. The Expos' team name was derived from the Expo 67 World's Fair, which had been held in Montreal. Under pressure from league officials, club owners settled on Jarry Park as a home. The 30,000 seat venue would remain the site of home games until 1977, when the club moved into Olympic Stadium.

The Expos finished below .500 in each of their first ten seasons. Fan interest reached an all time low in 1976, when the club ended up 46 games behind the Phillies and averaged less than 8,000 paying customers per game. Things began to turn around in the late-'70s with the addition of several future Hall of Famers--outfielder Andre Dawson, catcher Gary Carter and first baseman Tony Perez. Tim Raines--a borderline Hall of Famer--made his debut in 1980 as the Expos finished among the top three teams in the division for five straight years.

In 1981, a players strike caused the season to be split into halves. Montreal won the NL East in the second half, earning the first postseason berth in franchise history. They faced the Dodgers in the NLCS and held a 2 games to 1 advantage before losing the last two meetings. Game 5 was decided on a two-out ninth inning homer by Rick Monday. The Expos never made it back to the postseason though they came close. In 1994, they had the best record in the majors at 74-40 when another strike wiped out the rest of the campaign.

Over the years, the Expos developed a reputation for being unable to hang onto their best playersAmong the prominent stars to depart were Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and Andres Galarraga (to name just a few). The '94 players strike angered fans in Montreal and attendance slumped mightily. When Jeffrey Loria took over as managing general partner, he made an earnest attempt to revitalize the club, even going so far as to lay plans for a new stadium. As Loria increased his share of the revenue, the other minority owners failed to follow suit. Despite Loria's efforts, the Expos posted the lowest attendance figures in decades during the 2001 slate. Major League baseball sought to oust the Twins and Expos after the season was over and owners voted 28-2 in favor of the move. But both teams survived through legal means.

The Expos played their last season in 2004. With the loss of fan favorite Vladimir Guerrero to free agency, there were few stars left on the roster. The club got off to a horrific 5-19 start then never got back on track, finishing at 67-95. In late-September, MLB officials announced that the club would be moving to Washington in 2005. The last home game was played on September 29 and resulted in a humbling 9-1 loss. The club ended its tenure in Montreal with a sub-.500 record.