Candles in the wind (Part 2)

If you missed the first installment, here it is so you can catch up on the whys and wherefores of the methodology employed here.

I should note that my lists in all these articles start at 1901, primarily to make the pitcher lists look right. After the last article, I went back and checked how much changes if the numbers go back to 1876, and it’s not really a whole lot. None of the changes affects any current player’s chances of getting on the list, so we’re in the clear to talk about recent developments. Once again, stats for games played are current as of April 25, 2008, just to preserve consistency.

To the lists….


Most Games Before 26: Johnny Bench, 978
30th Place: Lance Parrish, 480
Active Players Soon on the List: Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina might get in before the All-Star break; Brian McCann’s a lock for next year, with Dioner Navarro a dark-horse candidate.

Player                  To 26     26+     Perc.    Actual       Normal
Ed Sweeney                574      70       89%    1908-1919    1913-1929
Mickey O'Neil             576      96       86%    1919-1927    1924-1940
Earl Williams             556     333       63%    1970-1977    1973-1989
Butch Wynegar             770     531       59%    1976-1988    1980-1996
Shanty Hogan              562     427       57%    1925-1937    1930-1946
Rich Gedman               521     512       50%    1980-1992    1984-2000
Frankie Hayes             658     706       48%    1933-1947    1939-1955
Mickey Owen               578     631       48%    1937-1954    1940-1956
Ray Schalk                800     962       45%    1912-1929    1917-1933
Frank Snyder              630     762       45%    1912-1927    1918-1934

We haven’t seen a lot of DuraCatchers (“ride ‘em till they drop”) since the breed was invented with Bench, Simmons, Carter, McCarver and the rest, so to have this many young catchers at one time is rare. Of course, most of the active young catchers have done more already than the guys atop this list. It’s a good era for young catchers, even though we don’t think of it that way because we got spoiled by Bench and company.

Of course, not every catcher can measure up to that standard. Gedman, a native of Worcester, Mass., turned from a power hitter into a banjo one overnight, but at least he made the switch after the Sox went to the World Series in 1986. Buckner got bad enough treatment, and he wasn’t from the next town over. If Gedman had turned patsy to the extent the Sox got overtaken by the Yankees that year… no good.

Wynegar’s career is summarized best by Aaron Gleeman. In particular, the comparison to Joe Mauer is apt in terms of franchise impact. I bet that, unless you’ve looked this up specifically or are just very up on this subject, none of you can name the longest tenured Senators/Twins catcher off the top of your head. The franchise has rarely been possessed of good durable catching, and if the Twins aren’t careful with Mauer, they still won’t be.

What interests me most about Wynegar is his exceptional batting eye, with an OBP consistently 80-100 points above his batting average. I have a vague theory that, all things being equal, catchers should be taught to be on-base machines, for two main reasons: not having to run things out as much will preserve them better over the long haul; and they see so many more pitches than anyone else (on defense) that perhaps plate discipline is easier taught to them than to other players. If I were a minor-league coach and I had a catcher whose hitting was about to get him a release, I’d at least try to turn him into a souped-up Scott Hatteberg. Eh, it’s just a theory….

Williams is a nice example of defensive spectrum values. In terms of offense, he was still a productive catcher by the end of his career at 28—not much on batting average, but he had respectable plate discipline and excellent power. His best lines make me think of a poor man’s Cliff Johnson. The problem was that Williams “didn’t want to catch.” As a first baseman, his numbers weren’t nearly as good-looking.

Mickey Owen wouldn’t be on the list had it not been for the Mexican League, but his career has enough quirks that it’s worth discussing. Owen is most identified with the Dodgers due to the 1941 World Series, but he came up with the Cardinals. The year 1941 was his first with the Dodgers, coming over in the offseason from St. Louis for veteran backstop Gus Mancuso and a bunch of cash. Mancuso’s aging paved the way for the Cardinals to establish Walker Cooper behind the plate during the war. Owen made the All-Star team every year from 1941-1944; the slightly older Cooper, every year from 1942-1944.

Of course, Cooper didn’t get suspended, and he spent the late 1940s dominating in the Polo Grounds. He had always been the better hitter (Cooper had tons of power, whereas Owen was Wynegar: The Prequel), and he stuck around until age 42. After his suspension, Owen managed to come back as one of the more productive of the Mexican defectors, spending a few seasons as a Cubs reserve (Roy Campanella had firmly established himself in Brooklyn by the time Owen came back) and then a few games with the Red Sox three years after his last Cubs game. Owen’s career wasn’t amazing by any stretch of the imagination, but it was certainly better than it has been remembered.

Apparently, Connie Mack didn’t mind playing catchers a lot. During his time managing, there were 218 instances of a catcher playing at least 120 games in a season; Mack’s teams produced 21 of those seasons, second only to the Giants’ 23. Nineteen of the 21 seasons involved Mickey Cochrane, Cy Perkins or Frankie Hayes. Before the 1960s, Hayes stood second only to Ray Schalk for games played at catcher before 26; Hayes is now 11th. His hitting never completely left, but he was done by age 32. He’s also one of three players to be known well as Blimp; the other two also played during that era.

Left Field

Most Games Before 26: Sherry Magee, 984
30th Place: Willie Horton, 594
Active Players Soon on the List: Nobody.

Player                  To 26     26+     Perc.    Actual       Normal
Carl Crawford             816      25       97%    2002-        2006-2022
Max West                  664     160       81%    1938-1948    1941-1957
Curt Blefary              722     252       74%    1965-1972    1968-1984
Adam Dunn                 661     337       66%    2001-        2004-2020
Ben Grieve                639     337       65%    1997-2005    2000-2016
Carlos May                705     460       61%    1968-1977    1972-1988
Les Mann                  754     744       50%    1913-1928    1917-1933
Joe Vosmik                686     728       49%    1930-1944    1934-1950
Sherry Magee              984    1103       47%    1904-1919    1909-1925
Whitey Lockman            767     899       46%    1945-1960    1951-1967

Boy, the two active ones couldn’t be any more different players, could they? I really can’t think of any similarity between Crawford and Dunn other than their position. The top 30 list for left field kinda runs along the same contrast, with Dunn/Grieve/Blefary representative of the dominant model and Crawford serving as the poster boy for the Henderson/Raines/Matthews group.

That Grieve’s career was not long for this world might have been presaged by Ryan Christenson pinch-running for him specifically 27 times in 2000, when Grieve was only 24 years old. I don’t know if Christenson ever got called “Ben Grieve’s Legs,” but in any event, players as young as Grieve almost never have a caddy on the roster at so young an age. It’s a precarious position when several of your skills are just barely acceptable at the major league level, and that appears to have been Grieve’s problem—kinda the anti-Schofield in terms of playing young.

Blefary was Grieve: The Prequel. Both were left-handed-hitting Rookies of the Year before turning 23. Grieve’s career OPS+ is 113, Blefary’s 115, both with OBPs that were 100 points above their batting average and slugging percentages that were 65 points above their OBPs. Grieve played 976 career games, Blefary 974. Both were traded after their age-24 season in trades that left their original franchises clear winners (A’s got Johnny Damon and Cory Lidle for Grieve in a four-way deal, Orioles got Mike Cuellar for Blefary). Both were done around age 28.

Retroactive Review: Ace
Looking back at some of Justin Verlander's most interesting moments.

Carlos May’s profile isn’t identical, but the career path was the same. May was third in RoY voting and then washed out by age 29. His career OPS+ of 111 was made with similar on-base skills to Grieve and Blefary, but his slugging was more speed-and-average based—plenty of singles and doubles, though he hit 20 home runs in 1973. It was a fairly balanced offensive profile, but it all went south before 30. I don’t know how many younger brothers played at least 1,000 games and had their older brothers (Lee May in this case) play before and after them in the major leagues; do any of you readers more industrious than me know the answer?

Center Field

Most Games Before 26: Andruw Jones, 981
30th Place: Corey Patterson, 589
Active Players Soon on the List: Grady Sizemore should knock Patterson off by the All-Star break. Look for Melky Cabrera in either late 2009 or early 2010 and B.J. Upton a couple months after.

Player                  To 26     26+     Perc.    Actual       Normal
Rowland Office            628     271       70%    1972-1983    1977-1993
Gary Thomasson            604     297       67%    1972-1980    1976-1992
Corey Patterson           589     292       67%    2000-        2004-2020
Fred Snodgrass            595     328       64%    1908-1916    1912-1928
Andruw Jones              981     805       55%    1996-        2001-2017
Lloyd Moseby              822     766       52%    1980-1991    1984-2000
Rick Manning              758     797       49%    1975-1987    1979-1995
Cesar Cedeno              968    1036       48%    1970-1986    1975-1991
Curt Flood                831     928       47%    1956-1971    1962-1978
Cliff Heathcote           624     791       44%    1918-1932    1922-1938

The Dusty Baker Express is about to be knocked off this list for not playing enough games before 26, but he’s one of the classic guys you think of on a list like this: prodigies who couldn’t “put it all together,” or who maybe didn’t have it all together in the first place. You expect guys who reach the majors so fast to develop and become franchise saviors, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Andruw Jones is somewhat in the same boat, though the feel of his career is far more like Cedeno’s than Patterson’s. Jones’ numbers are looking more and more like those of Mike Cameron, but since Andruw was supposed to be Griffey-like, being Mike Cameron isn’t good enough.

We know somewhat the effects of being in the majors on pitchers, and clubs are wisely protecting their investments better that way, but it’s hard and in most cases impossible to know what being a prodigy will do to a person’s head. When necessary adjustments need to be made, prodigies don’t always realize it because they’ve never encountered an obstacle. I felt like high school and undergraduate really didn’t throw many challenges at me, and I was young for entering law school. When I hit actual hard classes and reasons to study diligently, I didn’t make the transition like I should, and I’m still trying to make up for it, and the damage to my transcript is permanent. Being ahead of the curve initially makes you play catch-up later, and it’s hard to warn somebody about that without them going through it themselves. I have no idea if that’s what guys like Patterson and Jones have gone through, but if it is, I feel for them. Then again, real life would be a lot easier if the only adjustment was to take more pitches.

Lloyd “Shaker” Moseby, along with early exits George Bell and Jesse Barfield, not only were the best young outfield of the eighties, they were also born 15 days apart, from October 21 to November 5, 1959. I don’t know if the game has seen anything comparable other than Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell being born on the same day, but it’s certainly noteworthy.

Figuring I wasn’t much of a Blue Jays expert to talk about Moseby, I consulted John Brattain. Joining us live via a prior e-mail (John did his own censoring on this one)…

Great flycatcher, no arm to speak of, Alex Rios’ swing looks like a right-handed version of Moseby’s. Exciting player to watch … good power for a centerfielder of his time, he was very aggressive at the plate but would take a walk if offered … but he was up there looking for a pitch to drive.

I think his career might have found a second wind had he not been allowed to leave as a FA–he really loved being part of the Bell-Moseby-Barfield “best outfield in the American League.” However, they tried to make Bell a DH (after winning the MVP) and let Sal Campusano (try to) be the everyday LF, traded Barfield for Al [expletive] Leiter early in ‘89 and he saw the writing on the wall.

I know it’s lame to talk of “synergy” but those three made each other better. None of them did as well once they were broken up. I’ll tell you–watching that outfield was an absolute blast. While all three were terrific ballplayers, they fed off each other and became better than the sum of their considerable parts.

As for Manning, his was a case of back problems knocking him out early, but it’s not like he was a superstar before then. His OPS+ every year hovered around either 70 or 90, and he offered some walks and some steals but he had more sacrifice hits than homers in his career, and it was a good year if he hit .270. Thomasson’s main claim to fame appears to be his record salary in Japan; he played a lot of games at a young age when the Giants weren’t very good (better to play the young guys than the aging vets), and shipped off when they wanted to get Vida Blue. That’s at least more than the Cubs got for Patterson, so it’s not a total loss, I guess.

Right Field

Most Games Before 26: Mel Ott, 1,136 (three of the four players with over 1,000 games were right fielders; the other is Robin Yount)
30th Place: Dwight Evans, 617
Active Players Soon on the List: Jeff Francoeur in 2009 if he stays a regular, Delmon Young in 2010 if he hits enough, and Matt Kemp in 2010 if he starts playing regularly now.

Player                  To 26     26+     Perc.    Actual       Normal
Tony Conigliaro           781      95       89%    1964-1975    1969-1985
Ron Swoboda               622     306       67%    1965-1973    1968-1984
Ross Youngs               701     510       58%    1917-1926    1921-1937
Joe Jackson               729     603       55%    1908-1920    1914-1930
Sixto Lezcano             673     618       52%    1974-1984    1978-1994
Terry Puhl                748     783       49%    1977-1991    1981-1997
Vladimir Guerrero         731     902       45%    1996-        2000-2016
Claudell Washington       824    1088       43%    1974-1990    1979-1995
Darryl Strawberry         670     913       42%    1983-1999    1986-2002
Tom Brunansky             758    1042       42%    1981-1994    1985-2001

The percentages are severely lower here than at other positions, and even the high ones have some very unusual causes. I suspect it’s because right field is somewhat in the middle of the defensive spectrum. In the middle of the spectrum, teams are looking for a well-rounded profile out of young players before promoting them, which differentiates young right fielders from Ozzie Smith on the one hand and Bob Hamelin on the other. Plus, if the skill set does change for some reason, the middle of the spectrum has some options: If defense gets better, they can move to center; if it gets worse, they can go to left. In any event, there are a ton of similar-looking right fielders on the list, and the youngsters about to get on the list are cut from the same mold, particularly Francoeur.

Guerrero, Strawberry and Brunansky are textbook examples of right fielders, and they look like just about every young player on the list. Brunansky is perhaps best known to sabermetricians for being a textbook example of “old player’s skills,” but to me he’ll be best known for providing the game-winning homer in 10 innings in the first game I ever attended (Fenway Park, 8/26/92; Frank Viola pitched a 10-inning complete game and I was too young to know that was cool).

Terry Puhl is an odd case, known primarily for his high fielding percentage but worth so much more than that. Although he didn’t always get a starting role with the Astros, where he spent 15 years, he was always around and always contributing. Because of the offensive constraints of the Astrodome, his high-average, medium-walk game combined with a positive effect on the basepaths (if not asked to steal incessantly) played much better than his stats. Any guy who gets an OPS+ above 130 in a season without clearing .400 in any percentage gets my respect. I keep looking at his numbers and thinking that he’d fit perfectly on the Angels, maybe a Canadian Reggie Willits. Puhl seems to be one of those players that, if you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t notice he contributed a bunch to his team. Smart GMs pick up guys like this for cheaper than more ballyhooed players and win pennants all the time.

Lezcano was one of the up-and-coming young sluggers for the ‘70s Brew Crew, but his main contribution was getting traded for more important players. The Brewers sent him away for Rollie Fingers and Ted Simmons after 1980; after a year in St. Louis, he was traded for Ozzie Smith. This makes the 1982 World Series odd for featuring two teams who got to greatness because both traded Sixto Lezcano. Lezcano did get traded to the Phillies for their 1983 wheeze to the finish in an August 31 deal, one of those that gets the player on the playoff roster just in time. He was great in the NLCS but went 1-for-8 in the World Series and was never really significant after that.

Next time: the wacky world of pitchers.

References & Resources

I mentioned only the best parts of John Brattain’s e-mail but the whole thing was great, and the time taken to do it is very much appreciated.

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