Players worth remembering, 1969-1989

Greatness is a funny concept. Achieve that largely subjective title and you are remembered well for years to come. Miss it by even the slightest of margins and risk being relegated to relative obscurity.

I’ve been thinking about players who fall into the latter camp. And being a sucker for lists, I’ve created one.

In general, I’m going for the best OPS+ or ERA+ (simplistic metrics that don’t account for defense, I know, but sufficient for our purposes) of non-Hall of Famers whose careers spanned the years 1969-1989. By definition, this list is nowhere near complete. There are dozens of players in any given 21-year stretch who played darned good baseball and that maybe don’t get the recognition they deserve after their careers have ended.

This is one man’s list, and its primary intent is to appreciate some overlooked players. A secondary impact may be to spark an interest in creating similar lists or at the very least, remembering other good players from that or any other era. In short, it’s a tribute to those whom greatness—or at least a concept of greatness—managed to elude.

The format is straightforward enough. I’ve got one or two players at each position. For each, I give the career line as well as that of his best season, followed by a (too) brief discussion of his career. I also provide a few honorable mentions because, again, there are plenty of good players in baseball history whom it is easy (but not necessarily right) to overlook.

Catcher

Gene Tenace
Career: .241/.388/.429, 130 OPS+
’75 Oak: .255/.395/.464, 145 OPS+

Selected by the Kansas City A’s out of an Ohio high school in the 20th round of the 1965 draft, the man born Fiore Gino Tennaci enjoyed a career that spanned parts of 15 seasons. Tenace was the original Mickey Tettleton, only better: Low average, good power, good on-base skills. As I said of him in the Ducksnorts 2007 Baseball Annual, “Tenace had sabermetric street cred before sabermetrics was even a word.”

Tenace hit 20 homers or more in a season five times. He drew 100 walks or more six times, leading the American League with 110 in 1974 and the National League with 125 in 1977. Tenace, who also spent much of his career at first base, won four World Championships (three with the A’s, one with the Cardinals) and finished with 201 career homers.

Not surprisingly, Tenace’s most similar player at Baseball-Reference is Tettleton. In The New Bill James Historical Abstract, Tenace ranks as the No. 23 catcher in big-league history.

Honorable mentions: Ted Simmons (who can make a strong case for Cooperstown), Joe Ferguson, Thurman Munson, Darrell Porter, Bill Freehan.

First base

Cecil Cooper
Career: .298/.337/.466, 121 OPS+
’80 Mil: .352/.387/.539, 155 OPS+

Before he became the much-maligned manager of the Houston Astros, Cooper was one fine hitter. Unfortunately his best season came when George Brett decided to hit .390.

Originally drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the sixth round out of a Texas high school in 1968, Cooper led the AL in RBI twice (’80, ’83) and was named to five All-Star teams. From 1978 to 1983, Cooper hit .319/.359/.512. Only Rod Carew (.322) and Brett (.326) had higher batting averages during that period.

Cooper’s most similar player at B-R is Don Mattingly. TNBJHBA ranks Cooper as the No. 28 first baseman in history.

Honorable mentions: Jason Thompson, Mike Hargrove. It hardly seems sporting to keep John Mayberry Sr., who played four games in ’68, off this list so we’ll include him as well.

Second base

Bobby Grich
Career: .266/.371/.424, 125 OPS+
’81 Cal: .304/.378/.543, 164 OPS+

Grich is probably too good for this list because anyone who has been paying attention knows that he is one of the best second baseman of all time. Unfortunately, many people haven’t been paying attention.

Grich was a first-round pick (19th overall, shortly after Mayberry and Simmons) of the Baltimore Orioles in 1967 out of a California high school. He had the misfortune of seeing his best season interrupted by a strike. A good defender who won four Gold Gloves, Grich led the AL in slugging percentage and home runs in 1981. His reward? He finished 14th in the MVP Award voting.

There aren’t really any players similar to Grich, who ranks as the No. 12 second baseman in history according to TNBJHBA.

Honorable mention: Davey Lopes (who gets bonus points for not making his big-league debut until age 27).

Third base

Bill Madlock
Career: .305/.365/.442, 123 OPS+
’76 ChN: .339/.412/.500, 151 OPS+

Darrell Evans
Career: .248/.361/.431, 119 OPS+
’73 Atl: .281/.403/.556, 156 OPS+

I couldn’t decide on just one third baseman, so I chose two (and easily could have added a third, Ron Cey). Madlock and Evans achieved similar results in radically different ways.

Selected out of Southeastern Illinois College by the Washington Senators in the fifth round of the 1970 January draft (secondary phase), Madlock was a hitting machine who won the NL batting title in 1975, 1976, 1981 and 1983. He broke the .300 mark eight times in his career and finished with 2008 hits. Madlock won a World Championship while playing for the Pirates in 1979.

His most similar player at B-R is Carney Lansford, which seems about right to me. TNBJHBA ranks Madlock as the No. 48 third baseman ever to play the game.

As for Evans, the Kansas City A’s picked him in the seventh round of the 1967 June draft (secondary phase) out of Pasadena City College (Alan Wiggins, Matt Young). Evans hit 30 or more homers in a season four times in his career—at age 26, 36, 38 and 40. He led the NL in walks in 1973 and 1974, and led the AL with 40 home runs in 1985.

Evans’ most similar player at B-R is Graig Nettles (although Dwight Evans checks in at No. 3, which seems fitting given the lack of respect his career gets). Evans is the No. 10 third baseman of all time according to TNBJHBA, which also cites him as the most underrated player in baseball history.

Fun fact: Among currently eligible players who have collected at least 2,000 hits and 400 homers, Evans and Andre Dawson are the only ones not enshrined in the Hall of Fame.

Honorable mentions: Cey, Richie Hebner, Doug DeCinces, Toby Harrah, Buddy Bell.

Shortstop

Roy Smalley Jr.
Career: .257/.345/.395, 103 OPS+
’78 Min: .273/.362/.433, 122 OPS+

Taken first overall in the 1974 January draft out of USC by the Texas Rangers, the son of Roy Smalley Sr. (and nephew of Gene Mauch) played shortstop back when it was a defense-first position. Smalley was a contemporary of Robin Yount (who is in the Hall of Fame) and Alan Trammell (who isn’t but should be). Trammell’s career extended well into the ’90s, so we’ll go with Smalley here.

Smalley was named to the AL All-Star team in 1979 and won a World Championship with the Twins in 1987. His most similar player according to B-R is Damion Easley, but that’s not a good comparison. If I had to pick someone from today’s game, I’d go with Austin Kearns. TNBJHBA ranks Smalley No. 55 all time among shortstops.

Honorable mentions: Chris Speier, Dave Concepcion. There were many good shortstops playing in the early-’80s, but most of them weren’t great hitters.

Left field

Greg Luzinski
Career: .276/.363/.478, 130 OPS+
’77 Phi: .309/.394/.594, 156 OPS+

George Foster
Career: .274/.338/.480, 126 OPS+
’77 Cin: .320/.382/.631, 165 OPS+

As at third base, I couldn’t make up my mind. These two belong together.

A first-round pick of the Phillies in ’68 out of an Illinois high school, Luzinski enjoyed a productive career before fizzling at age 33. His three best seasons (’75, ’77 and ’78) are virtually indistinguishable. From 1975 to 1978, Luzinski hit .295/.386/.535 with 129 home runs. Only three players knocked more homers during that stretch: Jim Rice (132), Mike Schmidt (135) and Foster (144).

Luzinski was named to four NL All-Star teams and won a World Championship with the Phillies in 1980. His most similar player at B-R is Roy Sievers. Among more recent players, Luzinski’s career bears some resemblance to those of Tim Salmon and Ryan Klesko.

As for Foster, he was taken by the Giants out of El Camino College in California in the third round of the 1968 January draft. After seeing little playing time in San Francisco (thanks to the presence of Bobby Bonds and Willie Mays), Foster was shipped to Cincinnati in May 1971.

There, he blossomed, leading the NL in RBI for three straight years and hitting 52 homers in 1977. Between 1965 (Mays) and 1990 (Cecil Fielder), Foster was the only player to hit 50 or more home runs in a season. Foster won the NL MVP in ’77 (Luzinski finished second) and picked up two World Series rings as part of the Big Red Machine.

Foster’s most similar player at B-R is Gil Hodges. According to TNBJHBA, Foster is the No. 34 left fielder of all time. Luzinski checks in one spot behind him, at #35.

Honorable mentions: Jose Cruz Sr., Gary Matthews Sr. (taken six slots after Luzinski in the ’68 draft), Ben Oglivie. I’m assuming that if Oglivie had a kid who played ball, we’d have heard about him by now.

Center field

Cesar Cedeno
Career: .285/.347/.443, 123 OPS+
’72 Hou: .320/.385/.537, 162 OPS+

Signed as a free agent out of the Dominican Republic in 1967, Cedeno burst into the big leagues as a 19-year-old and was productive (.310/.340/.451) on arrival. By age 26, he had 1,245 hits, 135 homers and 374 stolen bases to his credit (Cedeno is the only player in MLB history to have collected 1,000 hits, 100 homers, and 300 stolen bases at such a young age). Cedeno swiped 50 bases or more in six straight seasons.

Cedeno’s career can be split into two distinct halves:

Age 19-26: .292/.350/.466, 131 OPS+, 374 SB, 5 Gold Glove awards
Age 27-35: .277/.341/.411, 111 OPS+, 176 SB, 0 Gold Gloves awards

That’s roughly the difference between a faster Jim Edmonds and a less powerful Vernon Wells.

Cedeno’s most similar player at B-R is Amos Otis, although a better comp might be Chet Lemon. TNBJHBA ranks Cedeno as the No. 21 center fielder of all time.

Honorable mentions: Dwayne Murphy, Gorman Thomas.

Right field

Ken Singleton
career: .282/.388/.436, 132 OPS+
’77 Bal: .328/.438/.507, 165 OPS+

A local product taken by the New York Mets in the first round of the 1967 January draft (just ahead of Carlton Fisk), Singleton spent two years with the Mets before making a name for himself first with the Expos and then with the Orioles.

Singleton’s season high in hits was 177 and he topped out at 35 homers, but for most of the ’70s, he was a fine hitter. From 1972 to 1981, he hit .294/.400/.456. If you have a .400 OBP over a full decade (1,480 games), you’re doing something right.

As was the case with Luzinski and Foster, Singleton’s best season came in ’77. He hit .328/.438/.507 and finished third in the AL MVP voting (that was the year Rod Carew hit .388).

Singleton’s most similar player at B-R is Dusty Baker, but Singleton was a better hitter. I’m struggling to think of current players whose offensive game resembles that of Singleton. Maybe Nick Johnson if he could ever stay healthy. TNBJHBA rates Singleton the No. 18 right fielder in MLB history.

Honorable mentions: One drawback to arbitrary cutoffs is that it’s not always possible to find guys who meet the established criteria. Such is the case in right field. If we wanted to cheat, we could include Reggie Smith, Jack Clark, Bobby Bonds, Dwight Evans and Dave Parker in this space. There were some terrific right fielders during that era, but most of them had careers that either started before 1969 or ended after 1989.

Right-handed pitcher

Steve Rogers
career: 158-152, 3.17 ERA, 116 ERA+
’82 Mtl: 19-8, 2.40 ERA, 152 ERA+

The Expos selected Rogers out of the University of Tulsa with the fourth overall pick in the 1971 June draft (secondary phase, delayed, perhaps with a cherry on top). He finished second to Gary Matthews Sr. in NL Rookie of the Year voting in 1973, made five All-Star teams, and was runner-up to Steve Carlton in Cy Young voting in 1982.

Rogers’ most similar player at B-R is Burt Hooton, which seems fair (and somewhat poetic given that Hooton was taken two picks ahead of Rogers in the draft). Both occupy roughly the same spot in my memory (although I remain somewhat partial to Rogers for serving up a homer to Rick Monday in ’81). Rogers is not ranked in TNBJHBA.

Honorable mentions: Dan Quisenberry (he pitched five games in ’90, but by all accounts he was one of the game’s true gentlemen, so we’ll let it slide), Kent Tekulve, Hooton, Dennis Leonard, Bob Stanley. As with right fielders, we’d do better here if we fudged the parameters and let in guys like Bert Blyleven and Rick Reuschel.

Left-handed pitcher

Ron Guidry
career: 170-91, 3.29 ERA, 119 ERA+
’78 NYA: 25-3, 1.74 ERA, 208 ERA+

The Yankees selected Guidry out of the University of Louisiana-Lafayette in the third round of the 1971 draft. Good thing, because the rest of that draft stunk for the Yankees, who got a total of 102 plate appearances and zero innings from the other 31 players they tabbed.

Guidry had a bizarre career. He didn’t establish himself at the big-league level until age 26, when he won 16 games for the Yankees. The next year, he notched 25 wins, spun nine shutouts, won his second straight World Championship, and picked up the Cy Young award.

Guidry enjoyed a fine encore in ’79 and then settled in as a good but not great pitcher for nine years. He was nearly unstoppable in the ’70s:

1970s: 59-19, 2.49 ERA, 155 ERA+
1980s: 111-72, 3.66 ERA, 108 ERA+

Guidry’s most similar player at B-R is Ed Lopat. A little further down the list is Jimmy Key, who didn’t have Guidry’s peak but who had more staying power. Guidry checks in at No. 66 among pitchers in TNBJHBA.

Honorable mentions: Vida Blue, Gary Lavelle, Al Hrabosky, Terry Forster, Jon Matlack.

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference, The New Bill James Historical Abstract.

Print Friendly
 Share on Facebook0Tweet about this on Twitter0Share on Google+0Share on Reddit0Email this to someone
« Previous: THT Awards
Next: The high variability second half team »

Comments

  1. Steve Treder said...

    Lots of fun, Geoff.  You might have used a more sophisticated metric, such as Win Shares or WARP, but that’s a quibble.  Every one of the guys you mention definitely deserves mention.

  2. Doug B said...

    Fun list.  Seems to me, as a list of forgotten Hall of Very Good players, you should take out Grich, who was a star and is regarded as such today, Darrell Evans, who gets a lot of love on all-time underrated teams to the point that he is not forgotten, and guys like Foster and Guidry who won MVPs or Cy Young’s.  Guidry’s ‘78 and Foster’s ‘77 won’t be forgotten, but Steve Rogers or the Mad Hungarian might be.  Gene Tenace has, retrospectively also gotten a lot of love, but perhaps not so much that Darrell Porter should get the nod.

  3. Jim said...

    I have always wondered in Roy Smalley’s 1979 season was the greatest single drop-off from pre-All-Star game to post-All-Star game in MLB history. At the break Smalley was hitting

    .342/.424/.535 with 15 HRs and 65 RBIs; OPS+ 162

    Excellent numbers for a shortstop NOW. Back then nearly unheard of.

    After the break he went

    .185/.262./.327 with 9 HRs and 30 RBIs; OPS+ 63

    He played in every game and led the leagues in plate appearances. Almost nearly an unbelieveable drop. Would love to see an article on the great first halves vs. terrible second halves.

  4. puck said...

    Very nice, even with the contraints of the cutoff.  I’d have found a way to fit Cey in there (Career OPS+ 121, top 143) since he played 500 more games at 3rd than Madlock and Evans and did quite well in terms of Chone’s WAR totals.

  5. Charley said...

    What about Willie Wilson?  The man was overshadowed by Rickey Henderson, but ended his career with 668 SBs, 1169 Runs, and 2207 Hits.  In 1980 he had 230 Hits, 133 Runs, 79 SBs, and hit .326.

    hawk4thehall.blogspot

  6. Jason said...

    Using a seriously flawed, garbage stat like winshares would have only hurt this piece.

    Even James doesn’t use winshares.

  7. Jim said...

    They just covered some Willie Wilson on this site a few days ago in the SBs vs. BBs article. Willie was an interesting case. Basically, he walked very rarely (career high of 39), he struck out a lot (between 80-100 times/year on average), his best OBP was .365 and that was the year he hit .332, he only topped 100 in the OPS+ 6 times in 16 full seasons and his career OPS+ is only 94. That being said I remember Willie as a super dangerous guy back in the day that hit a ton of triples and was a terrific base stealer. I think the stats work against him and that he was a better player on the field than on paper. He was a very good fielder, a super base-runner and you hated having him on first base because he was a distraction and could get himself into scoring position a high percentage of the time. I remember a game against the Sox (pitched by Mike Torrez) where he led off the game with an inside the park HR that stood up for a 1-0 KC win. Willie may not get the benefit of the doubt on paper but I remember the guy as a bitch of a player to deal with (Tug McGraw and the rest of the Phillies staff may have a different point of view however).

  8. Geoff Young said...

    @Bob Kelly: Hendrick is an excellent call; sorry I missed him.

    @Hugh: Evans played in nearly 900 more games than Madlock.

    @Bob Rutner: You are right about Freehan. I added him at the last minute, thinking he belonged here. Didn’t realize he’d started so early.

    Gamble was a fun one. Along those lines, it wouldn’t be outrageous to include Gary Roenicke and John Lowenstein.

    Thanks, all, for the thoughtful comments.

  9. Geoff Young said...

    @CharlieH: Yes, he certainly is; thanks!

    @Steve: Glad you enjoyed. If I do this again (tempting; it was fun to research), I will look into including other metrics.

    @Doug: Yeah, Grich and Evans probably get enough love from the stathead community that they don’t need any more from me. Tenace vs Porter was a very tough call. I confess I have a soft spot for Tenace because he hit two home runs in the first game I ever attended.

    @Jim: Didn’t realize that about Smalley’s ‘79. Amazing dropoff.

    @Puck: I may have to make up for the omission of Cey by writing about him another time.

    @Charley: The two main issues with Wilson are that he stopped being a force well before he reached 30 and that his career lasted till ‘94.

  10. Craig Brown said...

    For those of us whose baseball awareness started in the mid-70s, this list is just outstanding. As I’m reading these names and discussions, is it weird that I’m picturing their ‘77 Topps (or ‘78 or ‘79) baseball cards in my mind?  Seriously, what was better than turning on the NBC Game of the Week and watching guys like Foster or Cooper or Evans or Madlock in their prime?  Thanks, Geoff.

  11. Hugh Jorgan said...

    Wait, Maddog Madlock career OPS+ is 123 and he’s ranked 48th and Evans career OPT+ is 119 and he’s ranked 10th???
    Is there some massive difference in time played or a huge difference in the their fielding capabilities that I wasn’t aware of?

  12. Mike Jones said...

    I’ll always have a soft spot for Dwayne Murphy if only because of the great description of his fielding prowess: “Water covers 3/4 of the earth. Dwayne Murphy covers the rest.”

  13. Bob Rittner said...

    Are you stretching your criteria for honorable mentions? If not, Freehan falls outside your era as he arrived briefly in 1961 and became a regular in 1964. He is certainly deserving of being on a list like this, of course. Nice job.

    If you want to add someone in the role of platoon/reserve player, consider Oscar Gamble. I suppose by definition such players cannot be forgotten stars, but he certainly filled his role excellently. He ended his career with an OPS+ of 127, and in 3 separate years had an OPS+ of 150 or better.

    In 1977, given 470 PAs his line was .297/.386/.588 for an OPS+ of 162. He also hit 31 home runs.

    In 1979, with Texas and NYY, he got 327 PAs and hit .358/.456/.609 for an OPS+ of 187.

    And in 1982, in 382 PAs. he hit .272/.387/.522 for an OPS+ of 150.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>