Candles in the wind (Part 2)by Brandon Isleib
May 15, 2008
If you missed the first installment, here it is so you can catch up on the whys and wherefores of the methodology employed here.
I should note that my lists in all these articles start at 1901, primarily to make the pitcher lists look right. After the last article, I went back and checked how much changes if the numbers go back to 1876, and it’s not really a whole lot. None of the changes affects any current player’s chances of getting on the list, so we’re in the clear to talk about recent developments. Once again, stats for games played are current as of April 25, 2008, just to preserve consistency.
To the lists....
CatcherMost Games Before 26: Johnny Bench, 978
30th Place: Lance Parrish, 480
Active Players Soon on the List: Joe Mauer and Yadier Molina might get in before the All-Star break; Brian McCann’s a lock for next year, with Dioner Navarro a dark-horse candidate.
Player To 26 26+ Perc. Actual Normal Ed Sweeney 574 70 89% 1908-1919 1913-1929 Mickey O'Neil 576 96 86% 1919-1927 1924-1940 Earl Williams 556 333 63% 1970-1977 1973-1989 Butch Wynegar 770 531 59% 1976-1988 1980-1996 Shanty Hogan 562 427 57% 1925-1937 1930-1946 Rich Gedman 521 512 50% 1980-1992 1984-2000 Frankie Hayes 658 706 48% 1933-1947 1939-1955 Mickey Owen 578 631 48% 1937-1954 1940-1956 Ray Schalk 800 962 45% 1912-1929 1917-1933 Frank Snyder 630 762 45% 1912-1927 1918-1934
We haven’t seen a lot of DuraCatchers ("ride ‘em till they drop") since the breed was invented with Bench, Simmons, Carter, McCarver and the rest, so to have this many young catchers at one time is rare. Of course, most of the active young catchers have done more already than the guys atop this list. It's a good era for young catchers, even though we don't think of it that way because we got spoiled by Bench and company.
Of course, not every catcher can measure up to that standard. Gedman, a native of Worcester, Mass., turned from a power hitter into a banjo one overnight, but at least he made the switch after the Sox went to the World Series in 1986. Buckner got bad enough treatment, and he wasn’t from the next town over. If Gedman had turned patsy to the extent the Sox got overtaken by the Yankees that year... no good.
Wynegar’s career is summarized best by Aaron Gleeman. In particular, the comparison to Joe Mauer is apt in terms of franchise impact. I bet that, unless you’ve looked this up specifically or are just very up on this subject, none of you can name the longest tenured Senators/Twins catcher off the top of your head. The franchise has rarely been possessed of good durable catching, and if the Twins aren’t careful with Mauer, they still won’t be.
What interests me most about Wynegar is his exceptional batting eye, with an OBP consistently 80-100 points above his batting average. I have a vague theory that, all things being equal, catchers should be taught to be on-base machines, for two main reasons: not having to run things out as much will preserve them better over the long haul; and they see so many more pitches than anyone else (on defense) that perhaps plate discipline is easier taught to them than to other players. If I were a minor-league coach and I had a catcher whose hitting was about to get him a release, I’d at least try to turn him into a souped-up Scott Hatteberg. Eh, it’s just a theory....
Williams is a nice example of defensive spectrum values. In terms of offense, he was still a productive catcher by the end of his career at 28—not much on batting average, but he had respectable plate discipline and excellent power. His best lines make me think of a poor man’s Cliff Johnson. The problem was that Williams "didn't want to catch." As a first baseman, his numbers weren’t nearly as good-looking.
Mickey Owen wouldn’t be on the list had it not been for the Mexican League, but his career has enough quirks that it’s worth discussing. Owen is most identified with the Dodgers due to the 1941 World Series, but he came up with the Cardinals. The year 1941 was his first with the Dodgers, coming over in the offseason from St. Louis for veteran backstop Gus Mancuso and a bunch of cash. Mancuso’s aging paved the way for the Cardinals to establish Walker Cooper behind the plate during the war. Owen made the All-Star team every year from 1941-1944; the slightly older Cooper, every year from 1942-1944.
Of course, Cooper didn’t get suspended, and he spent the late 1940s dominating in the Polo Grounds. He had always been the better hitter (Cooper had tons of power, whereas Owen was Wynegar: The Prequel), and he stuck around until age 42. After his suspension, Owen managed to come back as one of the more productive of the Mexican defectors, spending a few seasons as a Cubs reserve (Roy Campanella had firmly established himself in Brooklyn by the time Owen came back) and then a few games with the Red Sox three years after his last Cubs game. Owen's career wasn’t amazing by any stretch of the imagination, but it was certainly better than it has been remembered.
Apparently, Connie Mack didn’t mind playing catchers a lot. During his time managing, there were 218 instances of a catcher playing at least 120 games in a season; Mack’s teams produced 21 of those seasons, second only to the Giants’ 23. Nineteen of the 21 seasons involved Mickey Cochrane, Cy Perkins or Frankie Hayes. Before the 1960s, Hayes stood second only to Ray Schalk for games played at catcher before 26; Hayes is now 11th. His hitting never completely left, but he was done by age 32. He's also one of three players to be known well as Blimp; the other two also played during that era.
Left FieldMost Games Before 26: Sherry Magee, 984
30th Place: Willie Horton, 594
Active Players Soon on the List: Nobody.
Player To 26 26+ Perc. Actual Normal Carl Crawford 816 25 97% 2002- 2006-2022 Max West 664 160 81% 1938-1948 1941-1957 Curt Blefary 722 252 74% 1965-1972 1968-1984 Adam Dunn 661 337 66% 2001- 2004-2020 Ben Grieve 639 337 65% 1997-2005 2000-2016 Carlos May 705 460 61% 1968-1977 1972-1988 Les Mann 754 744 50% 1913-1928 1917-1933 Joe Vosmik 686 728 49% 1930-1944 1934-1950 Sherry Magee 984 1103 47% 1904-1919 1909-1925 Whitey Lockman 767 899 46% 1945-1960 1951-1967
Boy, the two active ones couldn't be any more different players, could they? I really can’t think of any similarity between Crawford and Dunn other than their position. The top 30 list for left field kinda runs along the same contrast, with Dunn/Grieve/Blefary representative of the dominant model and Crawford serving as the poster boy for the Henderson/Raines/Matthews group.
That Grieve’s career was not long for this world might have been presaged by Ryan Christenson pinch-running for him specifically 27 times in 2000, when Grieve was only 24 years old. I don’t know if Christenson ever got called “Ben Grieve’s Legs,” but in any event, players as young as Grieve almost never have a caddy on the roster at so young an age. It’s a precarious position when several of your skills are just barely acceptable at the major league level, and that appears to have been Grieve’s problem—kinda the anti-Schofield in terms of playing young.
Blefary was Grieve: The Prequel. Both were left-handed-hitting Rookies of the Year before turning 23. Grieve’s career OPS+ is 113, Blefary’s 115, both with OBPs that were 100 points above their batting average and slugging percentages that were 65 points above their OBPs. Grieve played 976 career games, Blefary 974. Both were traded after their age-24 season in trades that left their original franchises clear winners (A’s got Johnny Damon and Cory Lidle for Grieve in a four-way deal, Orioles got Mike Cuellar for Blefary). Both were done around age 28.
Carlos May’s profile isn’t identical, but the career path was the same. May was third in RoY voting and then washed out by age 29. His career OPS+ of 111 was made with similar on-base skills to Grieve and Blefary, but his slugging was more speed-and-average based—plenty of singles and doubles, though he hit 20 home runs in 1973. It was a fairly balanced offensive profile, but it all went south before 30. I don’t know how many younger brothers played at least 1,000 games and had their older brothers (Lee May in this case) play before and after them in the major leagues; do any of you readers more industrious than me know the answer?
Center FieldMost Games Before 26: Andruw Jones, 981
30th Place: Corey Patterson, 589
Active Players Soon on the List: Grady Sizemore should knock Patterson off by the All-Star break. Look for Melky Cabrera in either late 2009 or early 2010 and B.J. Upton a couple months after.
Player To 26 26+ Perc. Actual Normal Rowland Office 628 271 70% 1972-1983 1977-1993 Gary Thomasson 604 297 67% 1972-1980 1976-1992 Corey Patterson 589 292 67% 2000- 2004-2020 Fred Snodgrass 595 328 64% 1908-1916 1912-1928 Andruw Jones 981 805 55% 1996- 2001-2017 Lloyd Moseby 822 766 52% 1980-1991 1984-2000 Rick Manning 758 797 49% 1975-1987 1979-1995 Cesar Cedeno 968 1036 48% 1970-1986 1975-1991 Curt Flood 831 928 47% 1956-1971 1962-1978 Cliff Heathcote 624 791 44% 1918-1932 1922-1938
The Dusty Baker Express is about to be knocked off this list for not playing enough games before 26, but he’s one of the classic guys you think of on a list like this: prodigies who couldn’t “put it all together,” or who maybe didn’t have it all together in the first place. You expect guys who reach the majors so fast to develop and become franchise saviors, but it doesn’t always happen that way. Andruw Jones is somewhat in the same boat, though the feel of his career is far more like Cedeno's than Patterson's. Jones' numbers are looking more and more like those of Mike Cameron, but since Andruw was supposed to be Griffey-like, being Mike Cameron isn’t good enough.
We know somewhat the effects of being in the majors on pitchers, and clubs are wisely protecting their investments better that way, but it’s hard and in most cases impossible to know what being a prodigy will do to a person’s head. When necessary adjustments need to be made, prodigies don’t always realize it because they’ve never encountered an obstacle. I felt like high school and undergraduate really didn’t throw many challenges at me, and I was young for entering law school. When I hit actual hard classes and reasons to study diligently, I didn’t make the transition like I should, and I’m still trying to make up for it, and the damage to my transcript is permanent. Being ahead of the curve initially makes you play catch-up later, and it’s hard to warn somebody about that without them going through it themselves. I have no idea if that’s what guys like Patterson and Jones have gone through, but if it is, I feel for them. Then again, real life would be a lot easier if the only adjustment was to take more pitches.
Lloyd “Shaker” Moseby, along with early exits George Bell and Jesse Barfield, not only were the best young outfield of the eighties, they were also born 15 days apart, from October 21 to November 5, 1959. I don’t know if the game has seen anything comparable other than Frank Thomas and Jeff Bagwell being born on the same day, but it’s certainly noteworthy.
Figuring I wasn’t much of a Blue Jays expert to talk about Moseby, I consulted John Brattain. Joining us live via a prior e-mail (John did his own censoring on this one)...
Great flycatcher, no arm to speak of, Alex Rios’ swing looks like a right-handed version of Moseby’s. Exciting player to watch … good power for a centerfielder of his time, he was very aggressive at the plate but would take a walk if offered … but he was up there looking for a pitch to drive.
I think his career might have found a second wind had he not been allowed to leave as a FA--he really loved being part of the Bell-Moseby-Barfield “best outfield in the American League.” However, they tried to make Bell a DH (after winning the MVP) and let Sal Campusano (try to) be the everyday LF, traded Barfield for Al [expletive] Leiter early in ‘89 and he saw the writing on the wall.
I know it’s lame to talk of “synergy” but those three made each other better. None of them did as well once they were broken up. I’ll tell you--watching that outfield was an absolute blast. While all three were terrific ballplayers, they fed off each other and became better than the sum of their considerable parts.
As for Manning, his was a case of back problems knocking him out early, but it’s not like he was a superstar before then. His OPS+ every year hovered around either 70 or 90, and he offered some walks and some steals but he had more sacrifice hits than homers in his career, and it was a good year if he hit .270. Thomasson’s main claim to fame appears to be his record salary in Japan; he played a lot of games at a young age when the Giants weren’t very good (better to play the young guys than the aging vets), and shipped off when they wanted to get Vida Blue. That’s at least more than the Cubs got for Patterson, so it’s not a total loss, I guess.
Right FieldMost Games Before 26: Mel Ott, 1,136 (three of the four players with over 1,000 games were right fielders; the other is Robin Yount)
30th Place: Dwight Evans, 617
Active Players Soon on the List: Jeff Francoeur in 2009 if he stays a regular, Delmon Young in 2010 if he hits enough, and Matt Kemp in 2010 if he starts playing regularly now.
Player To 26 26+ Perc. Actual Normal Tony Conigliaro 781 95 89% 1964-1975 1969-1985 Ron Swoboda 622 306 67% 1965-1973 1968-1984 Ross Youngs 701 510 58% 1917-1926 1921-1937 Joe Jackson 729 603 55% 1908-1920 1914-1930 Sixto Lezcano 673 618 52% 1974-1984 1978-1994 Terry Puhl 748 783 49% 1977-1991 1981-1997 Vladimir Guerrero 731 902 45% 1996- 2000-2016 Claudell Washington 824 1088 43% 1974-1990 1979-1995 Darryl Strawberry 670 913 42% 1983-1999 1986-2002 Tom Brunansky 758 1042 42% 1981-1994 1985-2001
The percentages are severely lower here than at other positions, and even the high ones have some very unusual causes. I suspect it’s because right field is somewhat in the middle of the defensive spectrum. In the middle of the spectrum, teams are looking for a well-rounded profile out of young players before promoting them, which differentiates young right fielders from Ozzie Smith on the one hand and Bob Hamelin on the other. Plus, if the skill set does change for some reason, the middle of the spectrum has some options: If defense gets better, they can move to center; if it gets worse, they can go to left. In any event, there are a ton of similar-looking right fielders on the list, and the youngsters about to get on the list are cut from the same mold, particularly Francoeur.
Guerrero, Strawberry and Brunansky are textbook examples of right fielders, and they look like just about every young player on the list. Brunansky is perhaps best known to sabermetricians for being a textbook example of “old player’s skills,” but to me he’ll be best known for providing the game-winning homer in 10 innings in the first game I ever attended (Fenway Park, 8/26/92; Frank Viola pitched a 10-inning complete game and I was too young to know that was cool).
Terry Puhl is an odd case, known primarily for his high fielding percentage but worth so much more than that. Although he didn’t always get a starting role with the Astros, where he spent 15 years, he was always around and always contributing. Because of the offensive constraints of the Astrodome, his high-average, medium-walk game combined with a positive effect on the basepaths (if not asked to steal incessantly) played much better than his stats. Any guy who gets an OPS+ above 130 in a season without clearing .400 in any percentage gets my respect. I keep looking at his numbers and thinking that he’d fit perfectly on the Angels, maybe a Canadian Reggie Willits. Puhl seems to be one of those players that, if you weren’t paying attention, you wouldn’t notice he contributed a bunch to his team. Smart GMs pick up guys like this for cheaper than more ballyhooed players and win pennants all the time.
Lezcano was one of the up-and-coming young sluggers for the ‘70s Brew Crew, but his main contribution was getting traded for more important players. The Brewers sent him away for Rollie Fingers and Ted Simmons after 1980; after a year in St. Louis, he was traded for Ozzie Smith. This makes the 1982 World Series odd for featuring two teams who got to greatness because both traded Sixto Lezcano. Lezcano did get traded to the Phillies for their 1983 wheeze to the finish in an August 31 deal, one of those that gets the player on the playoff roster just in time. He was great in the NLCS but went 1-for-8 in the World Series and was never really significant after that.
Next time: the wacky world of pitchers.
References and Resources
I mentioned only the best parts of John Brattain's e-mail but the whole thing was great, and the time taken to do it is very much appreciated.
Brandon Isleib is a lawyer and writes about stuff sometimes. He can be reached via the electronic mails.
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