Blast From The Past: Jimmy Wynn

I’m numb.

We’ve been hearing about steroids, bigger bodies and biceps, longer home runs, Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds ad nauseum. Is bigger better? Well, I thought for a change of pace, we’d take a quick look at a little guy with big time power. A player who was living proof that….

….good things come in small packages.

Baseball is a sport where change comes slowly. George Toporcer of the St. Louis Cardinals was the first position player to wear glasses (in 1921). Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Expansion did not come until 1961. The designated hitter arrived in 1973. Relievers were not considered superstars at the pay window until 1979. Still, some prejudices persist to this day. One of those is size. Certain teams passed on Hall of Famers Phil Rizzuto and Whitey Ford because they were thought to be too small to play major league baseball.

Jimmy Wynn’s career began when he signed with the hometown Cincinnati Reds. In 1962, the National League expanded for the first time — adding two teams. New York finally received a team to replace the departed Giants and Dodgers, who fled the “Big Apple” just a few seasons previously. The other city that received a team was in the state of Texas — Houston. The Houston National League team was initially dubbed “The Colt 45’s.” Wynn was drafted by the Colt .45s from the Reds in November 1962, in the “first year” draft (a variation of the Rule 5 draft). Wynn’s first two seasons did not give any hint that this smallish outfielder would eventually be nicknamed: “The Toy Cannon.” Wynn, playing part time in 1963 (when he was victimized with the “hidden ball trick” by Mets 1B Frank Thomas) and 1964, did not hit a total of ten home runs in those first two seasons. Wynn also failed to hit any higher than .244. If anything, Wynn looked more like an air conditioner than cannon, as Wynn struck out at an alarming rate.

In 1965, the Colt 45’s were renamed: the Houston Astros. The name change coincided with the franchise’s move to the first domed stadium in baseball history — the Astrodome. Despite a shaky first two seasons, coupled with moving into a venue that would drastically favor pitchers, Astros’ skipper Lum Harris, tabbed Wynn to be an everyday outfielder after a strong Spring Training.

Lum Harris’s faith in Wynn was not disappointed. “The Toy Cannon” went off 22 times that year. Wynn also ripped 30 doubles, and seven triples. Although Wynn struck out a lot, Wynn also demonstrated another weapon in his arsenal: a keen batting eye. Wynn struck out 126 times, but also drew 84 walks. Wynn’s low RBI total (73) masked what a great year he had (143 adj. OPS+). Wynn enjoyed a solid season in 1966 which was cut short by a broken wrist, elbow and hand after running into the fence at Connie Mack Stadium on August 1.

Showing no ill effects of his arm injury, Wynn had his “break out” season in 1967 — although he was actually far more productive in ‘65. Although Wynn hit just .249 that year; it didn’t tell the story how good Wynn actually was. Wynn played in the toughest hitter’s park west of Chavez Ravine in a season dominated by pitchers (National League ERA in 1967: 3.38). Wynn scored, and drove in, a 100-plus runs; slugged a career high 37 home runs; and drew 74 free passes. Wynn, for his efforts, was named to the All Star team. It was then that the nickname “Toy Cannon” was firmly affixed to the little dynamo.

Wynn continued to hit well the following year. 1968 will forever be remembered as: “The Year of the Pitcher.” St. Louis Cardinals’ ace, Bob Gibson posted a microscopic ERA of 1.12, and in the American League, Detroit Tigers’ ace Denny McLain won 31 games. Wynn, while not up to his standard set the previous year, enjoyed a fine season nonetheless. Wynn batted a solid .268/.376/.474 (the National League hit a collective .243), and hammered 26 home runs (157 adj. OPS+).

Due to the dominance of pitching since 1963, Major League Baseball decided to lower the mound to increase offense. Wynn continued at his normal level except in one regard — walks. With pitchers throwing from a lower angle, Wynn was able to pick up the ball quicker. The effects were immediate, as Wynn lead the National League in bases on balls with a lofty 148. Wynn hit exactly what he did the previous season — .269. However, Wynn’s on base percentage swelled from .376 to .436 and he posted the best adj OPS+ of his career (167). Wynn also slugged 33 round-trippers; it was the second time in Wynn’s career that he topped 30.

Wynn continued to toil in the Astros’ organization. Other than a horrific 1971 campaign — caused by a knife injury in his abdomen that was inflicted by his wife — Wynn was hot, but the Astros’ were not. In 1973, the Dodgers came agonizingly close to copping the National League Western Division championship, finishing behind the Cincinnati Reds. The Dodgers biggest bugaboo was hitting. Joe Ferguson, the Dodgers’ catcher, was the only member of his team to top 20 home runs (he hit 25). Needing power, the Dodgers acquired Wynn for the 1974 season, trading Claude Osteen and minor leaguer Dave Culpepper to acquire him. Chavez Ravine, also known as Dodger Stadium, was the toughest park in the league in which to hit. Wynn however, was up to the challenge, and Wynn enjoyed a magical season as he topped 100 in three categories: runs, RBIs and walks. Wynn also enjoyed his final 30-home run campaign as he launched 32 and had his best overall season since 1969 (151 adj. OPS+). Wynn was honored as Comeback Player of the Year for the NL by The Sporting News. The Dodgers usurped the National League Western Division championship from Cincinnati, winning the division by four games over the Reds.

Wynn batted .200 in the National League Championship Series against the Pirates. This is the classic case of how numbers lie. The Dodgers three biggest offensive contributors in the series were: Steve Garvey, Davey Lopes, and Jimmy Wynn. The Dodgers scored 20 runs as they won the series 3-1. Steve Garvey accounted for seven of them; Davey Lopes also was responsible for seven; and Jimmy Wynn accounted for six. In the four game series, Wynn walked nine times, giving him a series on base percentage of .684. Although the Dodgers did not fare as well against the Oakland A’s in the World Series, Wynn still had a deceptively good series. Although Wynn just batted .188, Wynn did draw four walks, raising his on base percentage to .350. Wynn got three hits: a single, a double, and a home run. It might be concluded that Wynn slumped in the 1974 post season since he hit .192. However it might have been the greatest .192 performance in post season history. Wynn posted an OBP of .462; slugged .423; scored five runs, and drove in four others. Of Wynn’s five base hits, four went for extra bases. Wynn drew 13 walks in nine post season games.

The 1974 World Series was a watershed for Wynn. It foreshadowed the rest of his career. Wynn slipped across the board in every respect but one — walks. Over his next two seasons; one in Los Angeles, one in Atlanta (where he was traded with Lee Lacy, Tom Paciorek, and Jerry Royster to the Braves for Dusty Baker and Ed Goodson), Wynn would not hit over .250, or slug 20 home runs. Wynn compensated by being unbelievably picky at the plate. In 1975 and 1976, Wynn would walk an amazing 237 times in less than 900 at bats.

In the 1976 World Series, the Yankees were embarrassingly swept by the “Big Red Machine” a.k.a. the Cincinnati Reds. The Yankees never took defeat well, and looked to improve the roster for 1977. The Bronx Bombers were dissatisfied with the production they were getting out of the designated hitter spot. Lou Pinella had hit an abysmal .196 (41 adj. OPS+) in 1975. The following season Pinella’s average improved to .281 (111 adj. OPS+), but hit just three home runs. It was plain to see that the Yankees needed more pop from that particular spot. So, on November 30, 1976, the Bronx Bombers purchased a diminutive player … from the Atlanta Braves. For a team that was looking for power, it seemed odd that they would look to a player who was smaller than a certain Brooklyn Dodger shortstop who had the nickname “Pee Wee” — Harold “Pee Wee” Reese.

The story did not get much ink; after all, the Yankees had signed a slugger just the previous day — Reggie Jackson. Interestingly, Jackson had 281 lifetime home runs when he donned the pinstripes. The tiny DH the Yankees had signed had belted 290 in his career.

The Yankees saw the almost 300 career home runs, not the 5’9” 170 lb. package it came in.

On April 7, 1977, Wynn made his debut in pinstripes against the Milwaukee Brewers. Wynn would go 2-for-3 and hit a home run. Two days later, Wynn continued his hot hitting against the Brewers. Wynn went 2-for-3 with a double and an RBI. The Yankees wondered if they had caught lightning in a bottle, as Wynn was hitting .571, with a double, a home run and two RBI.

After pinch hitting unsuccessfully on April 10, Wynn went 2-for-4 against the Royals with his third RBI of the season. By mid-April, Wynn was still batting .500, and the Yankees quietly hoped their DH problem was solved. Unfortunately Wynn went into a horrific slump. Wynn went 4-for-62, including a 0-for-32 skid that was lowlighted by a 0-for-6, fifteen-inning performance on May 17, against the Oakland A’s. On July 3, at Yankee Stadium, Wynn pinch hit for Fred Stanley in the sixth inning against Detroit. Wynn grounded out and was released shortly thereafter.

Wynn was picked up by the Brewers and batted .197/.294/.239. Wynn was released, and he retired. Wynn’s home run in his debut with the Yankees was the last time the “Toy Cannon” was fired.

The “Cannon” was forever silenced.

I’ve often been amazed that Wynn never got more love from the BBWAA or the VC in Hall of Fame consideration. No, I’m not advocating him, but when I watched this little dynamo, I was always very impressed how he played the game. When you consider that he played the bulk of his career in what were at the time the toughest hitter’s parks in the game (the Astrodome and Dodger Stadium) his 291 home runs looks very impressive. Wynn was a plus defender (albeit a rag arm which caused right fielder Joe Ferguson to cut in front of Wynn to make a catch with a runner on third during the 1974 World Series) with a terrific batting eye. He has a number of legitimate knocks against him: short career (6653 AB), no hardware save three All Star Game rings, just 26 post-season AB, no big career milestones etc. According to Lee Sinins’ sabermetric encyclopedia, Wynn was the second best (albeit a distant second) CF in the NL from 1960 to 1980 (using the Runs Created Against Position metric). If there was ever an “Unappreciated Player Hall-of-Fame” I’m guessing Wynn would go in on the first ballot.

Wynner’s Circle….

  • Jimmy Wynn had seven seasons where he struck out over 100 times. Wynn also had six seasons where he walked over 100 times.

  • Wynn led the Astros in: home runs from 1965-70; Runs from 1967-69; Total Bases from 1967-70; On Base Percentage from 1968-70; Slugging Percentage from 1967-70; and Walks from 1968-70.
  • Wynn was named to three All Star teams.
  • Wynn led the National League in walks twice: 1969 and 1976.
  • Wynn was among the top six in walks drawn in the National League every year from 1968-76.
  • Although Wynn never hit .300 in any season, he twice posted an OBP over .400 (1969 and 1975).
  • In 1968 and 1969, Wynn finished sixth in National League OPS. Both years he hit just .269.
  • Wynn led the National League in strikeouts in 1967 with 137.
  • Despite playing half of his games in pitchers’ parks, Wynn finished among the top ten in NL home runs five times over eight years (1967-74). He was in the top six in all but one of those seasons (he finished 10th in 1972).
  • In 1969, and 1975-76 Wynn finished the season with more walks than hits.
  • In his 30-game stint with the 1977 Yankees, Wynn walked (15) more often than he hit (11).
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