Beat ‘Em Like They Stole Something (Part Two)

Yesterday, I looked at the death of the stolen base in recent years, as well as how the stolen base has changed throughout baseball history. Today, I want to take a look at one of the most interesting teams in baseball history and the modern record holders for most stolen bases in a season, the 1976 Oakland Athletics.

1976 Oakland Athletics

Record: 87-74 (2nd in AL West, 2.5 GB)
Runs Scored: 686 (5th) | Runs Allowed: 598 (2nd-tie)

Let’s start with the reason I stumbled across this particular team: Their stolen bases.

The ’76 A’s stole 341 bases and were caught 123 times — a success rate of 73.5%. To put that in some context, the rest of the American League stole bases at a 64.5% clip in 1976.

The team leader in steals was centerfielder Billy North, who went 75-for-104 (72%). North was a nice little player during the 70s, despite not having even the slightest bit of power. He typically hit for a fairly good batting average, took a lot of walks and had great speed. But, despite batting averages that were almost always above league-average, he never slugged league-average and hit only 20 career homers in 3,900 at-bats. North stole a ton of bases throughout his career and was usually successful right around 70% of the time.

Here are his year-by-year stolen base numbers:

YEAR     SB     CS      SB%
1973     53     20     72.6
1974     54     26     67.5
1975     30     12     71.4
1976     75     29     72.1
1977     17     13     56.7     (Only 56 games)
1978     30     10     75.0
1979     58     24     70.7
1980     49     19     72.1

For his whole career, North was 395-for-557 (70.9%). 1976 was North’s best season for stealing bases, but otherwise it was your basic Billy North-season. He hit .276 and walked 73 times in 154 games, for a .356 on-base percentage. He had only 27 extra-base hits, including just two homers, in 590 at-bats. He drove in only 31 runs in 675 plate appearances, which is the 8th-lowest total for an outfielder with over 670 plate appearances in baseball history.

While North certainly did not have any power, his slugging numbers look a lot worse than they actually were. North slugged .337 in 1976, which looks incredibly bad. However, when you look at the environment he was playing in, it wasn’t so horrible. The American League, adjusted to the Oakland Coliseum, had a .354 slugging percentage in 1976. In case you’re wondering, the AL slugged .428 last season.

North slugged about 5% below league-average in 1976. Some guys who were around 5% below league-average in slugging percentage last year: Rich Aurilia, Bernie Williams, Craig Biggio, Sean Casey and Pat Burrell. Basically, a .337 slugging percentage in 1976 is equivalent to a .407 slugging percentage last season, which really isn’t so incredibly awful for a centerfielder, and certainly looks a whole lot better than “.337″ on the back of a baseball card.

If “environment” can turn a .337 slugging percentage into a .407 slugging percentage, what can it do for a .356 on-base percentage? Quite a bit actually. North’s .356 OBP in 1976 was about 13% better than the adjusted league-average of .315. Last year the AL OBP’d at .329, which means his on-base percentage was equivalent to about .372 last year.

We might as well finish his “new” stat line by doing his batting average. He hit .276 in 1976, about 10% higher than league-average. So, after adjusting all his stats from 1976 AL to 2003 AL, his new numbers are: .294/.371/.407.

That puts Billy North’s 1976 season, in which he hit .276/.356/.337, at nearly the same level as the 2003 season of Luis Castillo (.314/.381/.397) or the 2002 season of Derek Jeter (.293/.373/.421).

It’s really amazing what adjusting someone’s “raw” statistics for the era and environment they played in can do to your perception of a player. I mean, if I just showed you Billy North’s stats from 1976 and you saw the .276/.356/.337, you’d think he was a pretty miserable hitter. The fact that the performance was actually about the equivalent of .294/.371/.407 last season in the American League just shows how different baseball is now.

Believe it or not, Billy North’s .337 slugging percentage wasn’t even the lowest among Oakland’s everyday players in 1976. Their starting shortstop, Bert Campaneris, slugged .291 with a .256 batting average, which is damn near impossible. In fact, since 1920, only two players have ever had a higher batting average while slugging below .300:

Frank Taveras — .258 AVG / .297 SLG (1976)
Spook Jacobs — .258 AVG / .283 SLG (1954)

That ’76 season must have really been something, huh? Two of the “top” three seasons ever in this category took place in 1976!

Frank Taveras had 519 at-bats in 1976 and hit zero homers, eight doubles and six triples. 90% of his hits were singles and he got an extra-base hit once every 37.1 at-bats. Simply amazing. Taveras played for the Pirates the next season (1977) and his manager was none other than Chuck Tanner, who was the manager of the 1976 A’s! Taveras slugged .331 for Tanner in ’77 and stole 70 bases, a career high.

Oh, and before you go thinking that Campaneris’ slugging percentage from 1976 really wasn’t all that bad and just needs “adjusting” like North’s … no, it’s still awful. His .291 SLG was about 22% worse than league-average, which is the equivalent of about .334 last year. Campy did manage to get on base 33.1% of the time in 1976, which, along with his defense and baserunning, made him a fairly valuable player, especially for a shortstop. When Campaneris got on base he did a lot of damage, going 54-for-66 on steals (82%), which ranked second on the team to North.

A somewhat related note: A lot of people make a big deal about Brady Anderson‘s 50-homer season or Luis Gonzalez‘s 57-homer season being gigantic fluke seasons for power, but what about Bert Campaneris in 1970? Campy hit 22 homers in 603 at-bats. Taking that season out, he averaged 4.25 home runs per 603 at-bats for the other 18 years of his career.

The ’76 A’s scored the 5th-most runs in the AL, so they must have had a little power, right? Actually, yes. The A’s were 4th in the AL with 113 homers. There’s another “think about that for a minute” stat. 113 homers was good for 4th in the AL in 1976. Last year that would have ranked them dead last in all of baseball.

Sal Bando led the A’s with 27 homers, which ranked 2nd in the AL behind only Graig Nettles (32). Bando didn’t hit for much of a batting average (.240), so his slugging percentage and on-base percentage weren’t that great for someone who was one of the league’s top home run hitters. His adjusted OPS+ was 127, which is about the same as Alfonso Soriano and Andruw Jones last year.

Despite being one of the AL’s best sluggers, Bando fit right in with the A’s in 1976, because he went 20-for-26 (77%) on steal attempts. That is a career high in steals for Bando, by a pretty big margin. He stole only 55 bases in the other 1,861 games of his career, combined.

While Bando was the best home run hitter on the 1976 A’s, Gene Tenace was the best overall hitter. Tenace is a player I find fascinating. He came up as catcher in the late-60s/early-70s and eventually split time between catcher and first base. Why is he so interesting to me? For one thing, he walked 100+ times in a season six different times in his career.

The idea of a catcher who walks 100 times a year gets me all excited and Tenace wasn’t just a walking-machine, he was a power-machine too. Despite very low batting averages (.241 career), Tenace managed to post a career slugging percentage that was about 15% better than the leagues he played in.

Since I seem to be doing a lot of “adjusting” to today’s environment, I might as well do it again: Ivan Rodriguez, one of the greatest hitting catchers of all-time, has a career slugging percentage that is about 14% better than league-average.

So, Gene Tenace walked 100 times a year and slugged like Ivan Rodriguez. He obviously didn’t win any Gold Gloves like Pudge, but that’s definitely the type of player I would want on my team. Tenace was one of the few Oakland players who didn’t get in on all the running fun in 1976. He stole only five bases and was caught four times.

The only other everyday or semi-everyday players on the team who didn’t run a lot were Joe Rudi (6-for-7) and Billy Williams (4-for-6).

Williams was never much of a basestealer and, at 38, was at the end of his playing days. He hit only .211/.320/.339 in 413 plate appearances, in what was the final season of his Hall of Fame career.

Joe Rudi was only 29, but he was also coming to the end of his career, or at least his days as a good player. From 1972-1976 Rudi had OPS+ figures of 151, 109, 140, 135 and 122. He had an OPS+ of 127 in 1977, but in only 64 games. He posted a 102 OPS+ in 1978, which is the last time he was an “average” hitter. He hit only .227/.283/.385 in the remaining four years of his career.

In 1976 though, Joe Rudi was a very good hitter. Rudi hit .270/.323/.424, which was about the same as Bando hit. He also drove in a team-high 94 runs, but strangely scored only 54.

The only guy on the team who stole a lot of bases and did so with a below-average success rate was Claudell Washington, who swiped 37 bags and was caught 20 times (65%). Claudell was very fast and was only 21 years old in 1976, so it’s somewhat understandable that he’d steal a lot of bases and get thrown out quite a bit too. That said, he was 40-for-55 (73%) as a 20-year-old in 1975. He never really developed into a great basestealer (or the all-around player many thought he would become), but he did have some pretty good years swiping bases. He played for the Texas Rangers in 1977 and went 21-for-29 (72%).

In looking at the 1976 A’s and their stolen base totals, the most surprising thing for me was that Don Baylor went 52-for-64 (81.3%) on steal attempts. I know Don Baylor as “Big Don Baylor the Manager” and I have a hard time wrapping my head around the idea that he could somehow be one of the best basestealers in baseball, at least for that one season.

Before and after 1976, Don ran a lot, but wasn’t very successful. He went 32-for-49 (65%) with the Orioles the year before and 26-for-38 (68%) with the Angels the year after. In fact, if you take out 1976, Don Baylor had a career SB% of 68.3%. But, for whatever reason, he ran wild in 1976.

Baylor wasn’t the only future manager doing a lot of running on that team. Phil Garner, who would later go on to do horrible jobs managing the Brewers and Tigers, was 35-for-48 (73%). As with a lot of guys on that team, the 35 steals were a career-high for Garner. He did go 32-for-41 (78%) with the Pirates in 1977 — on that same team with Taveras, managed by Tanner.

That pretty much covers the everyday players for the A’s in 1976. The only other hitters with over 100 at-bats in 1976 were Larry Haney and Ken McMullen, who went a combined 1-for-3 on stolen bases. You may have noticed that the everyday players don’t quite add up to 341 stolen bases. Actually, they don’t even add up to 300 SBs. That’s because the 1976 Oakland A’s had two bench players who combined to steal 51 bases while totaling only 31 at-bats.

Matt Alexander, who was officially a backup “outfielder,” went 20-for-27 (74%) on steals and got a total of 30 at-bats in 61 games. This wasn’t the first time this sort of thing had happened to Alexander. He stole 17 bases and had only 10 at-bats for the A’s in 1975 and stole 26 with 42 at-bats in 1977. In fact, for his career, Matt Alexander stole 103 bases and had only 168 at-bats. If you think that’s something, check this one out: He scored 111 career runs and had four career RBIs (yes, four).

Even with all that said, Matt Alexander had absolutely nothing on Larry Lintz in 1976. Lintz had been a semi-everyday player as an infielder with the Expos from 1973-1975. 1974 was his best season. He had 319 at-bats, hit .238/.334/.276 and went 50-for-57 (88%) stealing bases. He joined the A’s in 1976 and let’s just say he didn’t use his bat a whole lot.

Larry Lintz appeared in 68 games for the A’s and stole 31 bases, while being caught 11 times (74%). Not so weird, right? He also had a grand total of one at-bat the entire season. To be fair, that is short-changing him a bit. He actually had four plate appearances and walked twice and had one sacrifice bunt. Still, one at-bat.

Three of his four plate appearances came in one series in May, against the Yankees. His one at-bat came on May 7th against the Yankees. On a Friday night in Oakland, with the score 14-4 (Yankees) and two outs in the bottom of the 9th inning, Lintz came up and promptly hit into a 6-4 forceout for the final out of the game.

The attendance for the game was 6,810. I figure that a game that starts with 6,810 people and is 14-4 in the 9th inning probably has about 100-200 people left by the time the final out of the game is made. Which means Lintz’s one at-bat the entire season was seen by about 200 people, maybe 300 if you want to count all the players and coaches on both teams and the guys selling hot dogs.

The interesting stuff on the 1976 A’s doesn’t even end with the everyday players and the “pinch-runners.” The ’76 A’s also featured, at one time or another, the following players:

Willie McCovey (Hall of Famer, 521 career home runs)
Ron Fairly (two-time All-Star, 21 seasons, 215 career home runs)
Cesar Tovar (Twins’ everyday player from 1966-1972, 1,546 career hits)
Nate Colbert (three-time All-Star, 10 seasons, 38 homers in 1970 and 1972)

And that’s just the hitters!

The pitching-staff featured Vida Blue, who went 18-13 with a 2.35 ERA in 298 innings, and Rollie Fingers, who was the very definition of an “ace reliever,” going 13-11 with 20 saves and a 2.47 ERA in 135 innings — all in relief! Obviously not many pitchers are as good as Rollie Fingers, but the way Fingers was used in 1976 is the sort of way I think elite “closers” should be used today.

His 13-11 record and 20 saves show that he was obviously put into a ton of close games, when the A’s were up or down by a run or two and tied. And he appeared in 70 games and averaged nearly two innings per appearance. There is no way you can make me believe that today’s top closers are coming anywhere close to maximizing their value to a team by pitching the 9th inning when their team has a lead of fewer than four runs.

Perhaps the most amazing thing about Oakland’s pitching-staff is that they got through an entire season using only 12 pitchers. Not “using 12 pitchers” like a lot of teams do now, I mean they literally used 12 pitchers the entire season.

PITCHER                  IP     
Vida Blue               298   
Mike Torrez             266   
Stan Bahnsen            143     
Paul Mitchell           142     
Rollie Fingers          134   
Paul Lindblad           115     
Dick Bosman             112     
Mike Norris              96     
Jim Todd                 83     
Glenn Abbott             62   
Chris Batton              4     
Craig Mitchell            3

Batton (4 IP) and Mitchell (3 IP) were actually both September call-ups, which means the 1976 A’s went the entire 25-man roster portion of the season with only 10 pitchers and none of them needed even a single trip to the disabled list!

In case you haven’t noticed, this article is a perfect example of why I love baseball so much. There is so much information about the history of the game, so many interesting stories and interesting players, that can be found simply by picking some random team that played decades ago.

The 1976 A’s werent particularly memorable. They won 87 games and finished in second-place, while the 1972, 1973 and 1974 Oakland A’s all won World Series titles. The 1971 and 1975 A’s won the AL West division.

Yet the 1976 A’s are just as full of interesting “stuff” as any of those championship teams were, and that is the beauty of baseball. It is the only sport in which a page of statistics can tell so much of the story, can provide such an amazing amount of information.

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