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.
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.
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.
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).
Career: .305/.365/.442, 123 OPS+
’76 ChN: .339/.412/.500, 151 OPS+
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.
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.
Career: .276/.363/.478, 130 OPS+
’77 Phi: .309/.394/.594, 156 OPS+
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
References & Resources
Baseball-Reference, The New Bill James Historical Abstract.