Baseball’s O.Z.: Original Zoilo

Zoilo is — to put it lightly — not a popular name. So when Zoilo Almonte madness happened over the weekend, it was only natural to think of the other Zoilo in major league history: Zoilo Versalles. One of just 13 shortstops to be voted the most valuable player by the Baseball Writers Association of America, Versalles didn’t have a very long career. But in 1965, he commanded the nation’s attention.

Baseball has been played professionally for so long that if you scroll through the history books or player pages long enough, you’ll see just about every name. Never has that been more true than with “Zoilo.” To wit:

Zoilo

And then:

Zoilo2

“Zoilo” just isn’t a popular name, and it doesn’t turn up as a popular name in searches for Cuban or Dominican names, either. But we’ve had two “Zoilo’s” play in the majors. I don’t know about you, but this sort of thing just tickles me.

Versalles was as unique as his name. When Versalles’ career started, Cuban middle infielders were known for one thing: the leather. Versalles helped change that. He was just the second Cuban middle infielder to pop 20 homers in a season. But unlike Chico Fernandez — who hit 20 homers in 1962 and then never more than six in any of his other seven major league seasons — Versalles hit double digits in four consecutive seasons.

It wasn’t just the homers, though. In his final season popping double-digit homers, 1965, he also stroked a league-leading 45 doubles. And he led, or tied for the league lead, in triples in three consecutive occasions. If that sounds impressive, it’s because it is. Here are the people on that list:

 

Player Years # 3B
Carl Crawford 2004-06 19, 15, 16
Lance Johnson 1991-94 13, 12, 14, 14
Garry Templeton 1977-79 18, 13, 19
Zoilo Versalles 1963-65 13, 10, 12
Sam Crawford 1913-15 23, 26, 19
Elmer Flick 1905-07 18, 22, 18

Austin Jackson is trying to become the seventh member of this list, but his stint on the disabled list this season has him behind the eight ball in a big way.

All of this isn’t to suggest Versalles was some sort of offensive superstar, because that certainly wasn’t the case. For his career, he had an 81 wRC+, and when he bashed 17 homers in 1962 he had just a .373 slugging percentage. That’s more Yuniesky Betancourt than it is Miguel Tejada. In 1965 though, Versalles busted out in every way possible.

Stick with me here. In 1965, Versalles posted career bests in plate appearances, runs scored, doubles, RBI, stolen bases, ISO, on-base percentage, SLG, wOBA, wRC+, Fld/TZ, BsR, wSB and WAR. In addition to Versalles hitting, fielding and running the bases at the peak of his career, the Twins also were a contender, thanks largely to his play. As such, he was awarded the American League’s Most Valuable Player Award. Back in those days, there was usually a case to be made for four or five guys to win the award over the player who actually won, but this one seems pretty legit in retrospect. “Sudden Sam” McDowell probably was more deserving, but he finished 17th in the voting. Among position players — who were generally the players who took home MVP hardware (when Bob Gibson and Denny McLain swept the ’68 MVPs for pitchers, it was the first time a pitcher had won MVP since 1956) — Versalles paced the junior circuit by 0.7 WAR, and he was 1.6 WAR ahead of the third-best position player.

It wasn’t just individual glory for Versalles, either. He helped lead the Twins to the pennant, and he pushed the Sandy KoufaxDon DrysdaleClaude Osteen trio to a Game 7 before Minnesota finally succumbed under the weight of Koufax’s greatness. The entire Twins team slumped as the series went on — they scored 13 runs in the first two games and then just seven in the final five — but Versalles was still among his team’s leaders in hitting. He led the team in slugging, and only Harmon Killebrew outpaced him in OPS.

Unfortunately, a back injury the following season would linger and rob Versalles of much of his prime. He was only 25 in his MVP campaign, and while he probably wouldn’t have kept slugging in the .460s, there clearly was at least a little lightning in his bat. If healthy, he likely would have had a few more two- or three-win seasons on his ledger. Instead, ’66 marked the beginning of his decline. From 1967 through 1969, he posted -0.8, -0.6 and 0.2 WAR, respectively. He played in the Mexican League in 1970 before one last gasp in ’71 with the Braves — where he posted a -1.5 WAR. He didn’t play in the majors again; he was even done in the Mexican League by the end of 1974, when he was still just 34 years old.

I discussed the random career-year back in January. When I was doing the research for that idea, it was before FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference had aligned their replacement-level stars, and as a result Versalles’ ’65 season just missed the cut. Now, he would make it, as I’m sure a few other players would. But just as Tommy Harper was unable to duplicate his 1970 campaign, Versalles was likewise never able to duplicate his ’65 season. Unlike Harper, Versalles got the recognition he deserved, since his team was a contender. As a result, he became the first Latin-born player to win the MVP, and just the eighth shortstop (seventh as voted by the BBWAA):

Player Year League
Roger Peckinpaugh 1925 AL
Marty Marion 1944 NL
Lou Boudreau 1948 AL
Phil Rizzuto 1950 AL
Ernie Banks 1958, 1959 NL
Dick Groat 1960 NL
Maury Wills 1962 NL
Zoilo Versalles 1965 AL

It would be another 17 years before Robin Yount became the next shortstop to take home the hardware.

It’s hard to find a good Zoilo, but baseball has had two of them. Only time will tell if Almonte will take advantage of the opportunity that has been presented to him in New York this year. But we do know that the original Zoilo — or “Zorro,” as he was sometimes known — took advantage of his, even if it ended far too soon.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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KillahYeast
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KillahYeast
3 years 1 month ago

Most important fact about the original Zoilo being that he sung opera in the clubhouse before games.

Fred Vincy
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3 years 1 month ago

Also the first player in baseball history with the initial “Z.A.”: http://valueoverreplacementgrit.com/2013/06/24/zoilo-almonte-is-our-first-z-a/

Visitor
Guest
Visitor
3 years 1 month ago

Zoilo Versalles deserved an MVP just for his name, perhaps the greatest in all of sports history.

Rusty Kuntz
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Rusty Kuntz
3 years 1 month ago

Don’t forget about me

Wobatus
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Wobatus
3 years 1 month ago

Yeah, I mentioned Zoilo in the comments to your article on Harper and outlier career years, and seems his WAR numbers changed since then.

Another ss from that era who burned bright briefly was Ron Hansen, although Zoilo had more speed was was more exciting all around player. Hansen would have been more the saber darling.

Mac
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Mac
3 years 1 month ago

The Hylink+ (normalized hyperlink tally) in the article is a robust 113. Nice work.

I was always partial to Tristram “Tris” Speaker as an odd first name.

Yuniesky Betancourt
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Yuniesky Betancourt
3 years 1 month ago

Zoilo – what a dorky name.

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