The 10 most interesting Rule 5 Draft picks, 1941-1966by Steve Treder
November 04, 2008
In our previous installment, we profiled the most interesting Rule 5 draft picks from 1903 to 1940. This time we'll go from there into the mid-1960s.
But first, let's quickly review just what the Rule 5 draft is.
How it works
In its early years, the Rule 5 draft was held at the immediate conclusion of the regular season, at the end of September or the beginning of October. In the modern era, it takes place during the MLB winter meetings.
To be eligible for the draft in its current form, a player:
- Is not included on the 40-man roster of the organization holding his contract
- Has been in the minors and/or majors for at least four years, if he was signed after his 19th birthday
- Has been in the minors and/or majors for at least five years, if he was signed before his 19th birthday
During that first season, Rule 5 draftees can be traded or sold to a new team, but the new team takes on the restriction of being unable to send him to the minors without first offering him back to the team that lost him in the draft.
Minor league teams also can participate in the Rule 5 draft (indeed in the early years of the arrangement, with minor league teams operating independently from parent major league organizations, this portion of the Rule 5 draft was a very big deal). As the draft currently is structured, Triple-A teams can draft any player eligible from Double-A, and Double-A teams can draft any players who are eligible from Single-A, in both cases for a nominal fee. Players chosen in the minor league part of the draft don’t need to be offered back to their original teams for any reason.
Clearly, the manner in which the Rule 5 draft is set up means that first-tier players typically aren't involved; teams rarely allow their stars and top prospects to be left unprotected off the 40-man roster. The great majority of players drafted under Rule 5, today and in the past, have been long-shot prospects (and in past decades many were major league-level role players as well, but the advent of free agency rendered that practice obsolete).
But not all Rule 5 draftees are destined for oblivion. Occasionally over the years—maybe more often than occasionally—a genuine star, even a superstar, has emerged from the Rule 5 process. In this series we’re identifying those cases, and examining as well those situations in which a Rule 5 draftee didn’t turn out to be much of a player, but his story is intriguing nonetheless.
10. Monte Irvin
Nov. 27, 1955: Drafted by the Chicago Cubs from the New York Giants.
Well, how about this. It's one thing to see a then-obscure prospect taken in the Rule 5 draft and later emerging as a star, perhaps even a Hall of Famer. But it's something else again to see a once-great star, a member of the Hall of Fame and the Hall of Merit, taken in the Rule 5 draft in the twilight of his career.
All through the 1970s (really, from the late '60s and into the mid-'80s), the Veterans Committee of the Hall of Fame elected way too many players to Cooperstown. regrettably lowering the de facto standard and thus, to some extent, cheapening the honor. But simultaneously in the 1970s the Negro Leagues Committee was doing a superb job of righting the wrong regarding many overlooked Negro League greats, but doing so in a serious and disciplined manner that ensured that only the very best were clearing the hurdle.
Irvin was one of them, elected in 1973. His major league career represented less than half of Irvin's professional baseball output, and in more than half of that he was hobbling about following a compound fracture of the ankle he suffered in spring training of 1952. At his best Irvin had been a rock-solid all-around talent, the rare player who isn't great at any one thing but is just darn good at everything, across the board, hitting for average and for power with fine strike zone discipline. In his 20s he was quite mobile as well, starting out as a shortstop and then playing mostly center field in the Negro Leagues.
But in 1955, at the age of 36, Irvin had suffered through an injury-racked year in which he neither hit well nor fielded well, and had lost his first-string role. The Giants didn't see fit to release him at season's end, but neither did they think it necessary to protect Irvin from Rule 5 by including him on their 40-man roster. So along came the Cubs, not exactly overburdened with outfield talent, deciding to take a chance on the veteran. Irvin would regroup and deliver a solid year in a semi-regular role in Chicago before retiring as a player.
9. Harry Dorish
Nov. 16, 1950: Drafted by the Chicago White Sox from the St. Louis Browns.
To be a reject from the 1950 St. Louis Browns' pitching staff was a lowly status indeed. But Dorish's performance with that sad-sack ball club would seem to clearly warrant it: he was 4-9 with a 6.44 ERA (ERA+ of 77), surrendering no fewer than 162 hits (including 13 homers) in 109 innings of work. Even by St. Louis Browns standards, that was excessively ineffective pitching.
Yet his selection by the White Sox in that fall's Rule 5 draft, and his subsequent blooming into a first-rate reliever, combine to demonstrate the best work of two of the sport's sharpest operators.
Frank Lane was the Chicago GM who perceived Dorish's underlying potential beneath the ugly crust of that 1950 stat line. (And even of the line that preceded it: following a strong minor league career up to that point, Dorish had struggled in Triple-A in 1949, with a 5.10 ERA in 90 innings.) Lane would spend much of his later career recklessly overdoing it, generating piles of pointless transactions in "Frantic Frankie" mode, but in this period he was purposefully executing a series of brilliant moves that would transform the White Sox from tail-ender to contender.
And Paul Richards was the Chicago manager (hired as a rookie big league skipper by Lane for the 1951 season) who would figure out how to get optimal performance from a journeyman such as Dorish, minimizing his weaknesses and allowing his strengths to shine through. With Dorish, it was a combination of:
- teaching him to throw a good slider (Richards's favorite, which he usually called the "slip pitch," but Dorish colorfully dubbed it the "cosmic")
- allowing him to concentrate on relief pitching and only occasionally asking him to start
- insisting that he throw strikes and pitch aggressively, another Richards trademark
- and last but certainly not least, putting the best possible defense on the field behind him, rewarding the challenge-the-hitters approach by efficiently converting batted balls into outs
The list of struggling pitchers who suddenly blossomed under Richards, not only in Chicago but later in Baltimore and then in Houston (where he was strictly the GM, but still enacting the same approach) is amazingly long, almost hysterically long. It was this magic that caused Richards to be known as "The Wizard of Waxahachie," and no example of this sorcery is more vivid than the case of "Fritz" Dorish.
8. Joe Hoerner
Nov. 29, 1965: Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals from the Houston Astros.
Hoerner was just the sort whom Richards might transform from ugly duckling into swan—and, in fact, that's what happened. Well, almost.
As a 21-year-old in the Three-I League in 1958, Hoerner suffered a heart attack while on the pitchers mound. He recovered from this near-tragedy, but as a means of reducing the strain of his delivery the southpaw Hoerner became a sidearmer. As a result he had a fastball that wasn't especially high-velocity but it had natural sinking action, a groundball-maker.
But Hoerner didn't have much of a breaking pitch to go with it, and he spent the next several years knocking around the minors, not doing badly but not doing well enough to get promoted as high as Triple-A for more than a cup of coffee. Richards acquired the minor league journeyman into his Houston organization and gave him a shot at the majors, but Hoerner couldn't get over the hump. In mid-1964 he was sent back to the minors, and at the age of 27 it looked as though he was never going to make it.
Hoerner's manager in the Pacific Coast League in 1964 was Grady Hatton, and here's what Hoerner later recalled Hatton telling him:
"Joe, you don't have enough pitches to be a starting pitcher. You throw hard enough, you've got good movement on your ball, you've got good control, you get left handers out real well. I think you've got an opportunity to be a relief pitcher, in the major leagues. You're going to be strictly ... in the eighth and ninth innings, that's all I'm going to use you. I think that'll get you to the major leagues."Deployed for the first time in strict short-relief mode, Hoerner was suddenly unhittable. In Triple-A over the balance of the 1964 season, Hoerner put up a 1.31 ERA in 51 games and 62 innings, allowing just 34 hits and striking out 71. Yet Richards declined to find room for him again on the big league roster, either that year or in 1965, when Hoerner wasn't quite as brilliant in the minors, but he was close, at 8-3 with a 1.94 ERA in 53 games.
Nor did Richards see fit to include Hoerner on the Astros' 40-man roster in the fall of 1965, and St. Louis GM Bob Howsam was quick to nab him in the draft. For the Cardinals, Hoerner immediately would settle in as a top-flight major league reliever: His work stints were always tightly modulated, as Hatton had suggested, but in his limited innings the sidewinding Hoerner was pretty much lights-out through the 1960s and into the early '70s.
Nov. 27, 1961: Drafted by the Cincinnati Reds from the Milwaukee Braves.
Nov. 29, 1965: Drafted by the Baltimore Orioles from the St. Louis Cardinals.
This guy's career was as clear an illustration as we'll ever see of the power of not just the second chance, not just the third, not just the fourth, but, by golly, the fifth.
Drabowsky's fastball was a blazer, one of the very best around. But soon after successfully breaking in as a 20-year-old Bonus Baby with the Cubs in 1956, he began to encounter arm trouble, and his effectiveness steadily declined. Eventually Chicago gave up on him at the end of spring training in 1961, trading him to the Braves and providing him a second chance.
But Drabowsky failed badly there, and following the 1961 season the Reds grabbed him in that year's Rule 5 draft—chance No. 3. Drabowsky's rebounding strikeout rate with the Reds indicates that his arm was now again sound, but at the age of 26 he still hadn't learned to "pitch": He was surrendering a few too many walks, and far too many home runs. Cincinnati owner/GM Bill DeWitt, embroiled in a pennant race, lost patience with this package of stuff without success, and in August of 1962 gave Drabowsky up for sale to the Kansas City A's—yes, that was chance No. 4.
In Kansas City in 1963, Drabowsky would enjoy his best performance since his initial seasons with the Cubs, but in 1964-65 he would distinctly regress yet again. The A's outrighted him back to the minors in June of 1965, but over the rest of that season Drabowsky would perform splendidly in Triple-A: 8-2 with a 2.44 ERA in 17 games and 96 innings, allowing just 24 walks against 85 strikeouts.
That was enough to catch the attention of sharp-eyed Bob Howsam of St. Louis, who purchased Drabowsky's contract from Vancouver of the PCL at the close of the season. But the Cardinals couldn't fit Drabowsky into their 40-man roster, and the Orioles organization—where the ever-solid Lee MacPhail was in the process of turning over the GM reins to the exceptionally adroit Harry Dalton—nailed Drabowsky via Rule 5, for chance no. 5.
Their timing was exquisite, as it was so often in Baltimore in that era. Intelligently deployed in a relief-speciality role by Orioles manager Hank Bauer, Drabowsky at the age of 30 was finally ready to put it all together. He would deliver an outstanding season in 1966, and was sensational in that fall's World Series. Following that he'd spend several more years as one of the better relievers in the American League.
Drabowsky's wildly jovial personality earned him a reputation as a great character. Jim Bouton was never a teammate of Drabowsky's, yet Bouton offers a couple of Drabowsky anecdotes in Ball Four: one in which Drabowsky is recalled as having gotten sick on a team bus and "puked up a panty girdle," and another in which Drabowsky used the bullpen telephone in Anaheim to call a restaurant in Hong Kong and order a full-course Chinese dinner—to go, naturally. Bullpen phone mischief was a specialty of Drabowsky's; he was skilled at vocal mimicry and delighted in calling the opponent's bullpen, imitating the voice of the opponent's manager, and ordering this or that reliever to start warming up.
There are those stories and many more in the Drabowsky lore. But too often, I think, this aspect (the headline of his Associated Press obituary was "Prankster pitcher Moe Drabowsky dies at age 70") overshadows just what a heckuva good pitcher he was, if only for a few seasons.
6. Elroy Face
Dec. 1, 1952: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Brooklyn Dodgers.
Though Pittsburgh GM Branch Rickey had recently been running the Brooklyn organization, it wasn't recently enough for his Dodger tenure and that of the young right-hander Face to have coincided. It was Rickey's successor Buzzie Bavasi who'd selected Face from the Phillies organization in the minor league draft (a different process from Rule 5) in December of 1950.
In four minor league seasons through 1952, Face had been thoroughly excellent, compiling a 69-27 record with a 2.83 ERA in 841 innings. But he hadn't risen as high as Triple-A, and his being exposed to two drafts by two organizations in four years is likely a function of the fact that, then as now, scouts are highly reluctant to project major league success for pitchers of very small stature. And at 5-foot-8 and 155 pounds, Face was very small indeed.
Rickey's Pirates would give him the full big league shot in 1953, and Face's performance would validate the skeptics, as in 119 innings he was pounded for 145 hits, 19 home runs, and a 6.58 ERA. So it would be back to the minors for Face in 1954, and it was in that season that Face's career would encounter its turning point: He taught himself a new and highly unusual pitch, the forkball.
Almost no one else threw the forkball in those days, and once Face developed the ability to control the pitch, its dramatic sinking action transformed him into a seriously effective performer. He would return to the majors in 1955, and enjoy a very long career as one of the game's elite bullpen stars, a prominent exemplar of the fireman/ace reliever usage mode that became the standard in the '50s and '60s.
The forkball was the precursor of the split-fingered fastball that would be featured by Bruce Sutter and become widely popular in the 1980s. The only difference between the pitches is velocity: Face's forkball was an off-speed delivery that he countered against his fastball, while the split-finger would generally be thrown at near-fastball speed.
5. Jerry Lynch
Nov. 30, 1953: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates from the New York Yankees.
Dec. 3, 1956: Drafted by the Cincinnati Redlegs from the Pittsburgh Pirates.
It was only the sheer bulging overabundance of the Yankees' farm system that allowed Lynch to be unprotected in the 1953 Rule 5 draft, because everybody knew this guy could flat-out hit.
He'd played in the Piedmont League in 1953, and while it was only Class B, and while Lynch had spent the previous couple of years in the Army and was thus probably a little bit old for this level of competition, still: In an exceptionally low-scoring environment, Lynch had hit .333 with 33 doubles, 22 triples (!) and 21 homers, leading the league by a mile in nearly every important category. Apply every caveat in the book, and it remained obvious what a bat this guy wielded.
With Rickey's Pirates in 1954, Lynch would struggle a little bit making the big leap to the majors. But in '55 at the age of 24 he was emerging as a good hitter at the big league level. Then in 1956 he would miss nearly the entire season due to an illness (I don't know what it was, but it was obviously pretty serious), and that fall the Pirates' (with Joe Brown, now in the GM role), opted not to keep Lynch on the 40-man.
Cincinnati that year would seem to be the last team on earth looking to add another left-handed bat to the bench. The 1956 Reds, tying the major league record with 221 team home runs, had presented the most fearsome array of lefty-swinging substitutes ever seen: backup catcher Smoky Burgess, backup first baseman George Crowe and backup outfielder Bob Thurman combined to deliver 30 bombs in 512 at-bats.
Nonetheless GM Gabe Paul decided that Lynch's bat was worth squeezing onto the roster. And it would be in Cincinnati that Lynch would emerge as one of the most productive pinch hitter/platoon players of all time.
4. Ferris Fain
Nov. 1, 1946: Drafted by the Philadelphia Athletics from the San Francisco Seals of the Pacific Coast League (Class AAA).
The PCL in the late 1940s/early 1950s presented the last hurrah of the big-time independent minors (so much so that in that period the PCL was actively campaigning to become recognized as a third major league, a campaign that would result in its unique "Open Classification" status from 1952 through 1957). Being a big-time independent minor league had its benefits, but also had its costs, and among them was running the risk of losing talent through the Rule 5 draft.
Fain had been signed by the Seals directly out of Roosevelt High School in Oakland, and had taken over as their first-string first baseman in 1940. Coming back from three years of military service, Fain in 1946 had presented his best season yet for the pennant-winning Seals, hitting .301 with 11 homers, leading the league in runs scored and RBIs, and placing second in the league with 129 walks.
Why San Francisco then left Fain exposed to the draft isn't clear; one suspects it was a function of his abrasive personality. Fain's nicknames were "Cocky" and "Burrhead," and he rarely missed an argument, or a cocktail hour. But Connie Mack's A's were in no position to be finicky about baggage, having suffered a miserable 49-105 season in 1946, their ninth last-place finish in 12 years. Fain would be among the better players in the American League into the early '50s, an old-fashioned-style quick, agile, aggressively fielding first baseman who didn't hit for power but did everything else well, most especially getting on base.
But Fain would also always be, well, someone who insisted upon doing things his way. After retiring from baseball he became a building contractor in the Sierra Nevada foothills in Northern California, and also an underground entrepreneur: In the 1980s, the over-60 Fain was convicted not just once but twice of marijuana cultivation, and spent time in prison. Ever blunt and unrepentant, Fain's explanation couldn't be simpler: "I knew how to grow the stuff. I was as adept at it as I was in playing baseball."
3. Bo Belinsky
Nov. 27, 1961: Drafted by the Los Angeles Angels from the Baltimore Orioles.
Nov. 28, 1966: Drafted by the Houston Astros from the Philadelphia Phillies.
Dec. 2, 1968: Drafted by the St. Louis Cardinals from the Houston Astros.
Speaking of free spirits.
In the Orioles system from 1956 through 1961, Belinsky got around in more ways than one, flinging his high fastball (and fast highball—rim shot!) for ball clubs in Brunswick, Pensacola (twice), Knoxville, Aberdeen (twice), Amarillo, Stockton, Vancouver and Little Rock. Along that odyssey he racked up a lot of strikeouts but not too many wins, yet the Angels, fresh off their first season, figured they had little to lose by taking a flyer on the high-flyer.
The southpaw Belinsky would then flirt with stardom at the major league level (and also flirt with—okay, I'll knock it off), but he would never sustain consistent effectiveness. And among the many interesting aspects of his career was the fact that, despite his combination of erratic on-field performance and spectacular off-field baggage, he would be given an opportunity by organization after organization.
Belinsky wore out his welcome with the Angels (the coup de grace being his 1964 suspension for slugging a sportswriter). The Phillies traded for him, and he flopped there. Then the Astros drafted him and he flopped there. Yet the Cardinals then decided they ought to offer Belinsky a chance—the 1968 St. Louis Cardinals, for crying out loud, fresh off back-to-back pennants and featuring one of the deepest and strongest pitching staffs of that or any other era.
In the spring, Belinsky wouldn't make the Cardinals' staff (gosh, how shocking), but the Angels were ready to give him a whirl, purchasing him from St. Louis in April 1969 (the Astros having politely declined the offer to take him back). Belinsky pitched pretty well for the Angels' Triple-A team that year, and in July of '69 the Pirates—who were a good ball club, and moreover already had four left handers active on their staff (Bob Veale, Luke Walker, Joe Gibbon and Lou Marone), all of whom were performing effectively—felt the need to buy Belinsky's contract. He would be lightly used by Pittsburgh over the remainder of the 1969 season, and deliver poor results when called upon.
Yet this wouldn't stop the Cincinnati Reds from trading for Belinsky that winter. To be fair, the Reds at that point were struggling with pitching depth, but come on: Belinsky was now 33 years old, had famously lived those years in the ultra-fast lane, hadn't been an effective major league pitcher since 1964, and had in fact been let go by no fewer than six succeeding organizations. Come on.
Nevertheless Cincinnati GM Bob Howsam, whom as we've noted was among the wisest judges of talent in his era, would put Belinsky on the Reds' staff at the outset of the 1970 season. They'd make use of him as a mop-up reliever in three blowout losses that spring before sending him down to the minors, and at last Belinsky would never again appear in the major leagues.
I guess the conclusion I'm led to is this: Recommending to your young son the pursuit of a hard-partying, free-wheeling lifestyle probably isn't good advice. But recommending to your young son that he practice throwing hard with his left arm is very, very good advice.
2. Tony Taylor
Dec. 2, 1957: Drafted by the Chicago Cubs from the San Francisco Giants.
Ah, from this inconspicuous selection, by the perennially second-division Cubs, of a not-quite-22-year-old infielder who'd batted .217 in Double-A, flowed so many intriguing consequences.
First, from the Giants' perspective. The Giants in the 1960s would become one of the most notorious "what might have been" franchises of all time. They amassed a collection of front-line talent matched by few ball clubs in history, yet were unable to achieve more than a single pennant because they couldn't manage to provide their superstar core with an adequate supporting cast.
And among the Giants' persistent problems was their inability to a come up with a consistently dependable second baseman—this after allowing Taylor, who would play nearly 1,500 major league games at second base and compile nearly 200 Win Shares, to slip through their fingers. Taylor was never a star, but he was just the sort of solid pro who would've been an entirely sufficient remedy to the Giants' second base headache.
But to be fair to the Giants, it was anything but obvious in 1957 that Taylor was going to become that player. He was, as we noted, coming off a dreadful batting performance in the Texas League. And though he'd hit pretty well in his three minor league seasons before then, he'd done so not as a second baseman at all, but as a third baseman; despite great speed and limited power, the Giants' organization hadn't seen fit to deploy Taylor at second base for as much as a single inning.
So, let's give Cubs GM John Holland due credit, not only for perceiving major league potential in the obscure bush leaguer, but moreover in demonstrating the audacity not just to have his field manager Bob Scheffing convert Taylor into a second baseman at the major league level, but to hand the first-string second base job to him in his rookie year, and to stick with the plan while Taylor took his inevitable developmental lumps.
And then there's this, as pointed out by Bill James in his 1982 Abstract:
1) [The Cubs] picked Tony Taylor out a winter draft and got a couple of good years out of him;
2) traded Taylor for Don Cardwell and got 2 years (and 23 wins) out of Cardwell;
3) traded Cardwell for Larry Jackson and got 3 years (and 52 wins) out of Jackson;
4) traded Jackson for Ferguson Jenkins and got 8 years (and 147 wins) out of Jenkins;
5) traded Jenkins for Bill Madlock and got 3 years (and 2 batting titles) out of Madlock;
6) traded Madlock for Bobby Murcer and got 2 seasons (and 153 RBI) out of Murcer.
Nov. 22, 1954: Drafted by the Pittsburgh Pirates from the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The story of Clemente's journey from Puerto Rico to Pittsburgh, by way of the Brooklyn organization, is well-known: the Dodgers were excited with his potential, but not enough to commit a place to him on their 40-man roster, thus exposing him to the Rule 5 draft. They'd attempted to navigate the situation by "hiding" Clemente on the roster of their Triple-A farm club in Montreal in 1954, deploying him in a backup role to prevent impressive statistics. The Pirates' Branch Rickey wasn't taken in by the ruse, and in his rebuilding mode could provide room for the raw-but-impressive prospect to develop.
Regular THT readers may recall that I was less than delighted with the ambitious Clemente biography written by David Maraniss. But while I didn't find the author's analytical conclusions persuasive, his work includes a great deal of first-rate historical research. Among the precious gems he presents is an extensive quotation from the scouting report Rickey himself filed after watching the 20-year-old Clemente play winter ball in Puerto Rico in January 1955.
It's a fascinating thing to read, revealing exceptionally perceptive insight on the part of the septugenarian Rickey, predicting with remarkable precision the unique combination of strengths and limitations Clemente would display in his long career, including the extent to which he would struggle at the major league level in his first few seasons. It also reveals a bit of sly Rickey sarcasm:
I have been told very often about his running speed. I was sorely disappointed with it. His running form is bad, definitely bad, and based upon what I saw tonight, he had only a bit above average major league running speed. He has a beautiful throwing arm. He throws the ball down and it really goes places. However, he runs with the ball every time he makes a throw and that's bad.
He has no adventure whatever on the bases, takes a comparativey small lead, and doesn't have in mind, apparently, getting a break. I can imagine that he has never stolen a base in his life with skill and cleverness. I can guess that if it was done, it was because he was pushed off.
His form at the plate is perfect. The bat is out and back and in good position to give him power. There is not the slightest hitch or movement in his hands or arms and the big end of the bat is completely quiet when the ball leaves the pitcher's hand. His sweep is level—very level. His stride is short and his stance is good to start with and he finishes good with his body. I know of no reason why he should not become a very fine hitter. I would not class him, however, as even a prospective home run hitter.
I do not believe he can possibly do a major league club any good in 1955. It is just too bad that he could not have had his first year in Class B or C league and then this year he might have profited greatly with a second year as a regular say in Class A ... So, we are stuck with him—stuck indeed, until such time as he can really help a major league club.
The most interesting Rule 5 picks from the late 1960s through 1980.
References and Resources
The info on pitchers' stuff repertoires, including the Grady Hatton quote, are from Bill James and Rob Neyer, The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2004.
Bill James, The Bill James Baseball Abstract 1982, New York: Ballantine, 1982, p. 96.
David Maraniss, Clemente: The Passion and Grace of Baseball's Last Hero, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006, pp. 62-64.
Steve Treder can often be found spending way too much time talking baseball at Baseball Primer. He welcomes your questions and comments via e-mail.