Baseball’s Randy Moss All-Starsby Chris Jaffe
August 15, 2011
Last week Randy Moss—the talented and controversial wide receiver—retired from the NFL. When he made that announcement, my first thought was, which baseball players most resembled Moss?
Moss had a very interesting career in that he combined two features that rarely go together. First, he had a terrific career. Not only was he football's best receiver in his prime, but he ended his days fifth in receiving yards all-time, eighth in receptions, and second only to Jerry Rice in touchdowns caught. That makes him historically great.
Yet, despite his terrific career, he was a terrific disappointment. There was always a sense he could’ve been so much more. Moss had an empty hole in the middle of his career that featured indifferent play. In 2009, he was a top wide receiver, but in 2010 two teams cut him and he did nothing for a third squad.
Worst of all, the general perception was that his problems were self-inflicted. It wasn’t necessarily inflated expectations or injuries that prevented Moss from living up to his hype, but Moss himself.
So what baseball players are like this? Who belongs on the Randy Moss All-Stars?
Some ground rules for figuring who belongs.
First, try to find guys with some impressive career value. A bunch of guys have great peaks without great career value, but Moss actually had tremendous career numbers, not just his historic peak.
Second, this isn’t supposed to be the best players who got injured. Injuries were never the problem for Moss. The injured players are often the biggest disappointments, but the primary focus is people whose problems are self-inflicted. That said, a person can be both a disappointment and sometimes injured.
Third, do the best you can. Sometimes there isn’t a great fit. Sometimes there might not be a good fit. You can only play the cards you’re dealt.
With that in mind, here are the Randy Moss All-Stars, guy with tremendous careers who seemed like tremendous letdowns.
Catcher: Jimmie Foxx
Wait, Foxx at catcher? He played first base. Yeah, but there are no great catching candidates, and Foxx did play over 100 games as a backstop early in his career.
Without question, Foxx had a terrific career: 534 homers with a .325 average sure looks nice. Yet strangely, his gaudy career numbers are a bit of a disappointment. At the end of 1940, Foxx had exactly 500 homers. To this day, Foxx is one of only two players to reach 500 homers by the end of his age-32 season. However, he only hit 34 more dingers.
Foxx turned into a pumpkin. Within three years, he went from being maybe the best player in the league to a man swatting eight homers in 100 games with a .226 average.
His decline wasn’t just one of those things, either. Foxx was an alcoholic, and that contributed to his decline.
Want an actual catcher? Maybe Thurman Munson. That’s a bit harsh, but he can’t blame his plane crash on anyone else. Or, by the same approach, Roy Campanella. But, if I want to avoid injuries, I probably should avoid guys with such serious issues.
There’s also Darrell Porter, who battled drug problems in his career, but I’m not sure his career can be called a disappointment. So we’ll put Foxx here.
First base: Hal Chase
There’s another reason I put Foxx at catcher—I already had Hal chase at first. Chase was a highly-regarded first baseman, especially well known for his defense. That isn’t why he was remembered, though.
He was the most corrupt ballplayer of them all, probably involved in the throwing of more ballgames than any other player in history. His career was a disappointment because he spent much of the time actively trying to lose games for money.
Second base: I dunno. Possibly no one. Maybe Roberto Alomar
This is the hardest position to find someone. Who do you got? Rogers Hornsby declined quickly and was widely regarded as a first class jerk, but nothing really combines those two points. Ryne Sandberg retired early then came back, but he was already past his prime by the first retirement. Jeff Kent had controversies but got the most out of his career.
Alomar was like Foxx in that he got old quick. He was one of the best players in the game in 2001, and lousy from 2002 onward. That’s probably just aging. It doesn’t work the same for everyone.
Then again, Alomar has been sued twice for exposing women to HIV via unprotected sex. Neither case has gone against him, and it's not certain if he has HIV. And if he does, it's still not clear that's why he declined. But there's no other good candidate at second.
For the Randy Moss All-Stars, though, it's either Alomar or no one at second base; but possibly no one.
If nothing else, Alomar was certainly a terrific disappointment to the Mets when he joined their team in 2002.
Alomar near the end of the line
Shortstop: Garry Templeton
Bill James had an interesting bit on Templeton once. He remembered that when Templeton was the young star with the Cardinals, a reporter asked him what he planned to do from here to improve his game further. Templeton’s reply: He was just going to let it come to him. That raised a red flag for James. It was a little too passive. Rather than working for it, Templeton was just going to rely on pure talent.
Templeton never lived up to his early promise. Before his 24th birthday, he had two 200-hit seasons and three triples titles. After age 24, he never came close to that again. He was still good enough to last over 2,000 games and record over 2,000 hits and 100 triples, but he was still a major disappointment.
Third base: Dick Allen
In terms of popular perception, Allen might be closest to Moss. He had undeniably talent, and his career numbers were impressive enough to garner him some Hall of Fame support (despite the fact that his off-field reputation didn’t help him with the voters).
Maybe if Allen had been healthier, he’d be a better comp for Moss. Allen topped 130 games played only a half-dozen times. Otherwise, he probably would be in Cooperstown, reputation not withstanding.
Then there are the controversies Allen kept finding himself in the middle of. Recounting all of them and their counter-arguments would take a column or 20 just for that alone, and I have no interest getting caught up in the Dick Allen whirligig.
For now, we’ll just note that in his own autobiography Allen admitted he would drink before and during games with the Phillies in the late 1960s, and that he walked off the White Sox roster in late 1974. Clearly, at least some of his problems were self-inflicted.
Right field: Dave Parker
Parker is a borderline Hall of Famer who probably would’ve been a shoe-in had it not been for his mid-career meltdown. In the late 1970s, he looked like he could win the Triple Crown. From 1985-90, he made the All-Star Game three times. In between, Parker was a mediocrity.
Parker’s problems were two-fold. He lost a few years to cocaine, and his weight ballooned upwards. He didn’t improve until he’d gotten past his problems.
Center field: Andruw Jones
Andruw Jones is the biggest waste of talent of his generation.
Jones was good enough to make the majors as a teen and become a full-time starter at age 20. By age 23, he could do it all. At the plate, he bashed 36 homers with a .303 average while stealing 21 bases in 27 attempts. In the field, he was one of the best defensive center fielders of all time.
And that age-23 season was no fluke. At age 21, he belted 31 homers with a .271 average, recorded 27 steals in 31 attempts, and evidenced that tremendous defensive ability. You could be forgiven for thinking Jones was the next Willie Mays.
Nope. He put on some weight, lost a few steps, and became a one-dimensional slugger at the plate. And that all happened in his 20s. By age 30, he was a lousy glove who couldn’t hit and was already losing his power.
But he still has over 400 homers, and WAR gives him credit for almost 60 wins. Just think what he could’ve been.
Jones in happier times
Left field: Jose Canseco
At the end of Canseco’s career, Peter Gammons wrote that the three biggest waste of talents he’d ever seen were Dwight Gooden, Darryl Strawberry, and Jose Canseco.
Canseco won the Rookie of The Year award and an MVP, and he was baseball’s first 40-homer/40-steal player. And that was all prior to turning 27, when players are supposed to reach their prime. Canseco turned into an oft-injured, fairly one-dimensional slugger that teams didn’t want to keep for very long.
Normally an injury-riddled career wouldn’t make the list, but Canseco’s injures weren’t just random. He went all-out to get big muscles, most obviously by using steroids. Then he didn’t put nearly as much emphasis on stretching or conditioning as he should’ve, making the big man fragile.
Designated hitter: Hack Wilson
While there are few catchers and second basemen to pick from, there are an abundance of outfielders. Aside from Wilson and the three men slotted in the outfield, there’s banned Black Sox Joe Jackson, Strawberry, or chronic drinker Paul Waner. Heck, in Ball Four, Jim Bouton ponders how much better Mickey Mantle could’ve been if he hadn’t spent so much time carousing.
But Wilson wins the nod here. Waner was terrific into his mid-30s, and does anyone really think Mantle’s career was terrifically disappointing? As for Jackson, well, we’ll get to the Black Sox in a little bit. It’s between Wilson and Strawberry, and I want to vary the eras a bit more.
Wilson drank his way out of the game, though. In 1930, he famously tallied a still-record 191 RBIs in a season, largely thanks to his 56 homers on the year. He’d knock out only 51 more homers in his career. The man who led the league in homers four times in five years just hit a wall very suddenly at age 31.
His overall career counting stats aren’t as impressive as the others here, but he was sixth all-time in homers when his career ended.
Starting pitcher: Eddie Cicotte
There has to be at least one Black Sox on this team.
Cicotte took $10,000 for helping to throw the 1919 World Series, and for that baseball banned him for life. That might have cost him 300 wins for his career.
Though he was already in his mid-30s when banned and with only 209 career wins, Cicotte was a spitballer (shineball, technically) and those guys aged well. They put less stress on their arms, allowing spitters like Burleigh Grimes and Jack Quinn to pitch effectively for a long time. Besides, Cicotte was still in his prime when banned.
Maybe he wouldn’t have won 300 games. That’s the most likely scenario, but he could have.
Starting pitcher: Dwight Gooden
It’s hard to pick pitchers for this team. Most disappointing pitchers suffer injuries, and that’s just part of the job. Gooden is on here because he seemed so inhumanly good when he started. At age 19, he set a record for most strikeouts per nine innings. At age 20, he went 24-4 with a 1.53 ERA.
How much of his future problems stemmed from arm wear and tear and how much from cocaine? Tim Raines, Keith Hernandez, and Paul Molitor used cocaine and did fine. But Gooden’s drug problems were more serious, including a suspension for the entire 1995 season.
Gooden’s production mostly declined due to overuse, but his entire career seemed like such a tremendous disappointment. Yet, he still won 194 games.
Starting pitcher: Bob Welch
Welch entered baseball as a promising young fireballer. Later, he won 27 games in a season. In between, he battled the bottle and looked like a journeyman pitcher for much of the 1980s. Despite seeming like a disappointment for much of his career, Welch still went 211-146 with a solid ERA.
Starting pitcher: Dennis Martinez
El Presidente is a superior version of Welch. Martinez came up a talented young pitcher, but he devolved into alcoholism. Martinez went 7-16 for the world champion 1983 Orioles, and in 1986 won three games all year long. Then Martinez recovered, and pitched long enough to pass Juan Marichal as the all-time winningest Latino pitcher.
Starting pitcher: Denny McLain
McLain doesn’t really belong, as his career numbers aren’t that great, and an arm injury largely derailed his career. But it wasn’t just an arm injury, and his other problems really stand out.
McLain won the Cy Young in 1968 and again in 1969, but he went 3-5 in 1970 despite no serious arm injuries. Instead, baseball repeatedly suspended him for misconduct for gambling and being a bookie. He also didn’t take care of his overall health, noting he drank a case of Pepsi a day.
Closer: John Rocker
No, Rocker doesn’t really belong. He doesn’t have much career value. Then, again, not many closers last that long. Guys frequently flame out pretty quickly in this position, so frequently that it’s hard to call the ones that last disappointments.
Also, the position as a whole is overrated, so it’s hard to find a long-lasting closer whose career seems like a serious disappointment. Seriously, try to think of one. Billy Wagner? That’s mostly for his postseason performances, but looking at his career numbers, it’s hard to call him a disappointment.
So let’s say Rocker. He had two great seasons and then gave that memorable interview with Sports Illustrated.
From a storyline perspective, it would be great if Rocker immediately collapsed under the backlash and pressure. And it was considerable: In his first game in Shea after the interview, the stadium had nearly 12 times as many police on duty as normal, and Rocker had to leave separately from the team after the game, trailed by numerous security vehicles. It’s enough pressure and backlash to affect someone.
But life doesn’t work according to storylines. After his SI interview, Rocker had his third consecutive high-quality season, and he did pretty well for the first half of the next season. Then the Braves traded him and he cratered.
Manager: Billy Southworth
He’s a Hall of Fame skipper who had to overcome himself to get there. He battled alcoholism throughout his career and near the end suffered a possible nervous breakdown. Southworth has one of the shortest managerial careers for a Hall of Fame skipper. It was long enough to get him in Cooperstown, but who knows how much more he could’ve done had he not battled his personal demons?
References and Resources
Info comes from Baseball-Reference.com. I used its Play Index to find the best players at each position and kept looking for the first disappointments I could find. I may have missed some, most notably at pitcher.
Also, I did do the lazy's man research and check wikipedia for info on John Rocker's fun.
Finally, I first asked the question, who is most similar to Moss at Baseball-Reference.com when he retired, and many of the answers came from people's responses. That said, I think I would've come across them anyway by my Play Index checks.
History instructor by day, statnerd by night, Chris Jaffe leads one of the most exciting double lives imaginable; with the exception of every other double life possible to imagine. Despite his lack of comic-book-hero-worthiness, Chris enjoys farting around with this stuff. His new book, Evaluating Baseball's Managers is available for order. Chris welcomes responses to his articles via e-mail. Oh, and now he's on twitter.
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