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.

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