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The Speedy Tommy Harper And The Random Career Year
Posted By Paul Swydan On January 9, 2013 @ 4:00 pm In Angels,Athletics,Brewers,Daily Graphings,Indians,Orioles,Red Sox,Reds | 21 Comments
Only 27 players have hit 100 or more homers and stolen 400 or more bases in their career. Eleven of them are in the Baseball Hall of Fame, and four others can reasonably be expected to reach Cooperstown. But there are some names on the list you wouldn’t pull off the top of your head. Tommy Harper? Yep, he’s one of those names. He is also a possessor of that rare feat: the Random Career Year.
You probably know Harper best as a coach and instructor, which he has been for quite some time — particularly with the Red Sox — but he also played in the majors from 1962 to 1976 with the Reds, Indians, Pilots/Brewers, Red Sox, Angels, Athletics and Orioles. He was, as the intro alluded, quite the speedster. But he was not without power, especially when you consider he spent a good portion of his career during the second dead-ball era, which by-and-large had far fewer home runs than we see league-wide today. Here’s how he stacks up against the other members of the 100-400 club:
Unlike most of these 27 gents, Harper didn’t have a spectacular career — though he had a very good career. He posted 29.4 WAR, which is better than a great deal of players. But on this list, he’s last, even below Marquis Grissom. In fact, only Harper, Grissom and the still-active Carl Crawford are the only members of the 100-400 club below the 40 WAR threshold. The reason? Harper simply didn’t play enough.
Going back through his playing record, it’s clear Harper was something of an enigma. Teams knew he was good, but they didn’t quite know what to do with him. He was fast, but he wasn’t overly special on defense. So he didn’t have a natural position. In his time in the minors, he played second base and third base, but was a corner outfielder in his seven years in Cincinnati and Cleveland. He moved back to the infield when the Seattle Pilots made him their first pick in the 1969 expansion draft, and then amazingly, he played center for a year with the 1972 Red Sox. That, despite the notable disadvantages of being 31 and never having been a full-time center fielder before. He finished his career in left field and at designated hitter, but he wasn’t made a DH because his speed had evaporated. In fact, in the two seasons where he was mainly a DH (1974 and 1975), he stole a combined 54 bases.
As a result of often irregular playing time, Harper managed to fly under the radar even though he played long enough to pile up some nice counting stats. While he was capable of 50-stolen-base seasons — a mark he hit twice — Harper routinely only reached the 20-stolen-base plateau each season. There’s actually a pretty decent argument that if the Pilots hadn’t rescued him from the Indians in their expansion draft, Harper may have been reduced to a fifth outfielder during his prime. The Indians sent three players — none of who were very good — to the Reds in exchange for Harper after the 1967 season. But when he reached Cleveland, he landed in a crowded outfield where he found it difficult to net significant playing time.
That season, the Indians cycled through a bevy of corner outfielders:
|Player||LF GS||RF GS||Total|
As you can see, not one player started even half a season’s worth of games across the two spots. This is pretty unusual, and while Harper managed to rank second among when it came to games started, it was still a paltry 52 games. As a result, he only logged 266 plate appearances that season — a shockingly low number for a player in his age-27 season. And it wasn’t as if he had a major injury, either. Harper played sporadically through the season up until September, when it looks like he may have missed the final month of the season to injury. Freed from the glut of outfielders in Cleveland, he found new life in Seattle, and joined the wondrous club of the Random Career Year.
The Random Career Year is quite the interesting phenomenon. The first thing we need to do is set the parameters for the Random Career Year. It has to be the player’s peak season, and by a lot. It has to seemingly come out of nowhere, as well. Brady Anderson’s 1996 season is often cited, but we can do even better than that. And we’re certainly not talking about when Albert Pujols posted 10.1 WAR in 2003 — that is simply his best year, not a random event. He would go on to post six straight seasons with at least 8.0 WAR. His 10.1 WAR season was great, but it wasn’t out of line with what he would do later.
No, we’re looking for something different. Something like Harper’s 1970 season, for instance. In 1970, Harper decided he was going to hit home runs, and he belted 31 bombs. If you go back and check your league totals, you’ll note that 1970 was the most homer-laden year to that date, as 3,429 taters were mashed that season. But you’ll also note that it was the first time Harper appeared among the league leaders. When he hit 18 homers in 1965, it only placed him in a tie for 45th place. When he hit 10 in 1963, he tied for 91st place. But in 1970, his 31 homers tied him at 17th with Willie Stargell. So there was a jump in his totals, relative to his peers.
Harper also added 38 stolen bases, which made him the only 30-30 man that season. In fact, it was just the third 30-30 season in a decade — only Hank Aaron in 1963 (44 HR, 31 SB) and Bobby Bonds in ’69 (32 HR, 45 SB) turned that particular trick in the recent history. In other words, the feat was a little harder to pull off back then than it is today. (For context, in the past decade, there have been 17 30-30 seasons.) As an added bonus, it was also the first time an infielder pulled a 30-30 year. It would be the only 30-30-homer campaign for Harper, as he never popped more than 18 home runs in any other season. Harper would never hit .300, though in 1970 he came pretty close at .296. And the icing on the cake was a defensively neutral season. Given the chance to start in one spot for more than 100 games for the first time in five years, Harper played a little bit more evenly on the defensive end. The result was a seven-win season.
This was quite the anomaly. Harper posted 4.2 WAR in 1965, and posted 4.0 WAR in 1973. But in his other 12 seasons, 2.1 WAR was his high-water mark. In 1969, he was only worth 1.1 WAR, and in 1971, he managed only 2.0 WAR. That is quite the difference, but still, that must happen all the time, right? No, not really.
Since 1947, there have been 48,249 position-player seasons. Of those, 468 of them, or 0.97%, were at least seven-win seasons. Most of these came from players who, like Pujols, had multiple such seasons. Barry Bonds had 14, Eddie Mathews had eight, Mark McGwire had two. You get the idea. Just 115 of them were one-offs. But even here, we see most of these players were in the midst of a good string of years. For instance, Chuck Knoblauch’s posted 8.4 WAR in 1996 — and while he never climbed over the seven-win bar again — he posted 6.6 WAR in a shortened 1995 season and then tallied 6.3 WAR in 1997. That’s 21.3 WAR in three seasons, and as such, it would be hard to call Knoblauch’s ’96 season a random one. Of these 115 seven-win seasons, there were just 16 — including Harper’s — that were neither preceded nor followed by at least a three-win season:
|Season||Name||Team||WAR||WAR -1||WAR +1||Total||Other 4+ WAR seasons|
|2011||Jacoby Ellsbury||Red Sox||9.4||-0.2||1.5||1.3||1|
(With “WAR-1″ meaning the season before, “WAR+1″ meaning the season after and “Total” being the sum of “WAR-1″ and “WAR+1″)
Even here, we can see for some of these guys, their seven-win season wasn’t entirely random. Willie Davis had six other seasons with at least 4.0 WAR. J.D. Drew had five. For some of these guys, injuries played a role. In 1988, Jose Canseco posted 8.2 WAR, but he only played in 65 games the next year, which held him to 2.3 WAR. The following two seasons though, he posted WAR’s of 5.4 and 5.8, respectively. In that light, his 1988 seems a little less out of place than it did before. There were no such issues for Harper, though. In 1969, he played in 148 games, and in 1971 he took the field 152 times. You could blame irrational defensive numbers for dragging Harper’s WAR down in those years, but it’s safe to say if Harper really were good defensively that he wouldn’t have been shuttled from position to position throughout his career.
Certainly, Harper’s isn’t the most inexplicable breakout season here. That title probably goes to either Darin Erstad or Rich Aurilia. But Harper is definitely in the discussion. Aside from his 1970 season — in which it should be noted he should have finished higher than sixth in the Most Valuable Player Award voting — he led the American League in stolen bases twice, and for his career he ranks in the top 100 in both stolen bases (tied at 66th with Johnny Damon) and Bsr (54th). And then there’s his status in the prestigious 100-400 club that I also just made up. In order to get there, Harper had to prove that he was a survivor, capable of playing for wherever he was asked, in more ways than one. Since his career ended just as free agency was beginning, he was always at the mercy of the general managers trading and acquiring him. But he hung around long enough to put up some impressive career stats, and when opportunity smiled upon him, he smiled right back, and his Random Career Year in 1970 is the proof.
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