The all-month team: December

One of my regrets in all the slightly ridiculous “All-Something” teams I’ve put together is that they can’t really be compared. They can in theory, but most are based on wildly different principles. Even those which are the same basic idea—like the geographically-based teams—are ultimately cutting across unequal standards.

But it occurred to me—at work, where I do most of my best column-related thinking, of course—that if one constructed teams based around players born in each month that would be a fair comparison. So this will be in the first in a year-long series of pieces of making a team for each month. Next December, when the teams for each month have rolled out, we can find out just which month will be the best.

For this exercise, the ground rules are simple. Each player’s date of birth is as listed on his page—I don’t imagine there will be much confusion on this point, but it never hurts to head it off at the start—and the player must have played at least 50 percent of his games at a position to qualify for the spot. And of course, I reserve the right to realize I made a terrible mistake and change the team up to next December when we compare.

Having gotten that out of the way, let’s begin:

Catcher: Johnny Bench

This is the strong spot on the All-December team, as Bench’s back-up catcher is Carlton Fisk who could start for a lot of months. And just in case either Bench or Fisk suffers an injury, another Hall of Famer, Gabby Harnett, could also play for the team. This is as impressive a line-up at any catcher as any month can hope for, especially given there are only 12 catchers in the Hall of Fame who played Major League baseball entirely (or primarily) in the 20th century.

First base: Steve Garvey

If December were a real team, it would likely either move one of its Hall of Fame-caliber catchers to first base, or attempt to make a trade. But here under my rules, the team is stuck with Garvey. Now this is not a truly terrible thing since Garvey was not by any means a bad player. Nonetheless, he is surely not on the same level as some of the rest of the men in the December infield.

The All-December second baseman acknowledges his fans (Icon/SMI)

Second base: Craig Biggio

Luckily for both Biggio and the all-December team, his move from out behind home plate to second after the 1991 season earns him this spot on the team. Biggio hung on too long in the quest for 3,000 hits—his last season in particular was pretty brutal—but that should not take away anything from the career he put together which including leading the league in steals, runs (twice), doubles (thrice) and HBP (five painful times).

Third base: Stan Hack

There was a time—not too long ago really—when I would have written that Hack was just keeping this space warm for David Wright. The Mets stalwart might yet take over this spot, since he remains young enough to regain his form of years past. For now though, the spot belongs to Hack. The lifetime Cub led the league in hits twice and stolen bases in back-to-back years in 1938 and 1939. (Stealing a combined 33 bases—the late ‘30s were not a running time.)

Shortstop: Ozzie Smith

Since there’s nothing anyone likes more than hearing a writer complain about the process—I assume—I will say that the one bad part about writing these columns is that it is often difficult to find something to say about a great player that hasn’t already been said. Of course, we all know Smith was a brilliant defensive shortstop and even developed his bat into an asset late in his career. So instead I will say that Jay Bell, probably the second best shortstop born in December, would rank as the back-up infielder on the team since he can play all of the middle infield positions, while Eric Chavez would back up at the corners.

Left field: Rickey Henderson

He’d probably still be playing today—at 52—if someone would give him a job. And he could probably still get on base better than some players holding down everyday roles, even if that might be his only plus skill left. Of course, the young Rickey was not lacking for talent. A 10-time All-Star, 1990 American League MVP and two-time World Series winner, Henderson is almost comfortable ensconced as the all-time leader in stolen bases where no active player is within 850. Alex Rodriguez is the only player with a reasonable shot at Henderson’s all-time lead in runs (he is less than 500 away) but will still need to average more than 78 runs per season for the rest of his Yankee contract—a figure he hasn’t bettered since 2008.

Center field: Ty Cobb

For players with a similar set of skills—getting on base, stealing bases, scoring runs—it is hard to imagine two people more different in the public consciousness than Rickey Henderson and Ty Cobb. Rickey is a figure of fun, and the source of a million goofy stories, some of which are actually true. Cobb meanwhile is the personification of the excesses of a win at all costs attitude, a caricature villain who sharpened his spikes, fought fans in the stands and was a galloping racist to boot. Both are more complicated than that, but as we get farther from their respective times, it seems likely the images will only be entrenched.

Right field: Al Kaline

A Detroit Tiger for his entire career, Al Kaline is among the small handful of players to have a truly outstanding season at a very young age (20 in Kaline’s case) and then never quite better it. Of course, there is no shame for Kaline who hit .340 in 1955 with 200 hits and 321 total bases, all league-leading totals. Even if he never topped ’55, Kaline continued to be an offensive force into his 30s—he had 55 extra-base hits at age 32—and at the time of his retirement after the 1974 season, only Mel Ott and Hank Aaron had hit more home runs as a right fielder.

Starting rotation: Steve Carlton, Sandy Koufax, Fergie Jenkins, Mike Mussina, Ted Lyons

That’s a pretty solid one-two punch at the top of the rotation. Depending on how one feels about career value compare to peak, Carlton and Koufax could arguably be two of the top left-handed pitchers of all-time. I’m glad to see Mussina make this team since Moose (as I’ve probably complained before) is a chronically underrated pitcher. Lyons, meanwhile, would presumably be counted on to start more frequently than he did in his later years when he was known as “Sunday Teddy” for pitching almost exclusively on that day of the week—a plan which allowed him to lead the American League in ERA (2.10) at age 41.

Mike Mussina, most recent ace born in December (Icon/SMI)

Closer: Lee Smith

Closer has almost the same wealth as catcher for the All-December team. Of the 22 pitchers with 300 or more saves, three—Smith, Tom Henke and Rick Aguilera were all born in December. In a few years, December may have another name to that list as another career resurrection from Brad Lidge might give him the 77 saves needed to reach 300. But even without Lidge, the pen for December has some strong arms.

Manager: Walt Alston

Alston is a figure—like a couple of others—who watched the game evolve around him. At the time he took over as Dodgers manager the team still played in Brooklyn and never traveled farther than St. Louis for a road trip. By the time he retired, he had led the team to the west coast and into an era of free agency and unprecedented player movement. More importantly for his place on this team, Alston won more than 2000 games—still ninth all-time—along with seven pennants and four World Series titles.

As this is my last column of 2011, I would to take the chance to thank all of you who read it and especially those who take the time to comment—even when you’re pointing out my mistakes. It is always appreciated and never something I take for granted. I wish everyone the best for the holidays, and will see you all in 2012.

A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

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Chris Jaffe
Chris Jaffe

You could also put Josh Gibson behind the plate.

Paul E
Paul E

No shortage of leadoff hitters there