Players worth remembering, Others (Part 2)

You know the drill, but for the benefit of those who are just now joining us, here’s the deal: We’re taking a look at players who were pretty darned good during their day but who are not in the Hall of Fame. Thanks to some poor planning on my part, I’ve used the arbitrary ranges of 1969-1989, 1947-1968, 1925-1946, and 1901-1924.

Our most recent installment focused on catchers and infielders whose careers didn’t fit neatly into one of those little boxes. This final installment does the same, but for outfielders and pitchers. Again, the methodology is crude—basically the top OPS+ and ERA+ of guys whose entire career falls within the time frame and who aren’t in the Hall of Fame. The intent hasn’t been to rank these players, but rather to highlight their accomplishments.

Left field

Charlie Keller
Career: 4,604 PA, .286/.410/.518, 152 OPS+
’43 NYA: 620 PA, .271/.396/.525, 168 OPS+

Keller was born in 1916, in Middletown, Md., and made his big-league debut in 1939. Coming off a season in which he hit .365 with 22 home runs for the Newark Bears of the International League (Double-A), Keller wasted no time in establishing himself as a productive member of the vaunted Yankees lineup. He hit .334/.447/.500 in 111 games as a rookie and even received a smattering of support for AL MVP (won by teammate Joe DiMaggio).

Keller split time between left and right field during his first two seasons in the Bronx, sharing duties on both corners with George Selkirk and Tommy Henrich (excellent, if underappreciated, hitters in their own rights). In 1941, Keller took over full time in left and hit a tidy .298/.416/.580. That year he reached high-water marks in hits (151), home runs (33), RBI (122), and SLG.

Although Keller’s days as a regular were over before he reached age 30, the squat left-handed hitter continued to thrive in a reduced role for several more years (he hit .260/.390/.455 from 1947 to 1952 despite seeing as many as 200 PA only once in a season during that stretch) before calling it quits. In his prime, Keller typically found himself among league leaders in many categories.

Keller twice paced the AL in walks (1940, 1943) and finished top three in homers on three separate occasions. In 1942, 1943, and 1946, Keller ranked among the top three in both OBP and SLG. He drew 100 or more walks every year from 1940 through 1946, except 1945, when he played only 44 games.

I chose 1943 as Keller’s best season, although 1941 (.298/.416/.580, 162 OPS+) and 1942 (.292/.417/.513, 163 OPS+) weren’t much different. Keller was brilliant in his 20s (.292/.414/.530, 157 OPS+, 162 HR), but faded quickly thereafter (.260/.390/.455, 126 OPS+, 27 HR).

Keller’s most similar player at Baseball-Reference is Kevin Mitchell, which isn’t far off if you add 50 points to Mitchell’s OBP. Al Rosen is second on the list, while J.D. Drew and Jason Bay also make appearances. Keller was a better hitter than most of the guys on his list of comps, with the best fit probably being Gavvy Cravath. Among more modern players, you don’t see his skill set a lot. Edgar Martinez and Jason Giambi are in the general vicinity:

Player           PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Charlie Keller 4,604 .286 .410 .518 152
Edgar Martinez 8,672 .312 .418 .515 147
Jason Giambi   8,135 .282 .405 .527 143

Keller’s peak wasn’t nearly as high as those of Martinez (.356/.479/.628, 185 OPS+ in 1995) or Giambi (.342/.477/.660, 198 OPS+ in 2001), and he falls well short in every counting stat, but for a brief time, that’s roughly the caliber of hitter he was.

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract rates Keller the 17th best left fielder of all time, behind Goose Goslin and ahead of Ralph Kiner. Although Keller played until 1952, James notes that:

In June, 1947, Keller was trapped in a rundown play in Detroit, when something snapped in his back. He had a ruptured disk. That basically finished him as a player.

Honorable mentions: George Stone (No. 63), Jeff Heath (No. 44), Ken Williams (No. 50), Bob Nieman, Sid Gordon (No. 49), Riggs Stephenson (No. 61), Bobby Veach (No. 33), Gene Woodling (No. 57), Augie Galan (No. 42), Roy White (No. 25, just ahead of Jim Rice), Johnny Briggs, Wes Covington, Willie Horton (No. 55), Leon Wagner (No. 78)

Center field

Jimmy Wynn
Career: 8,010 PA, .250/.366/.436, 128 OPS+
’69 Hou: 653 PA, .269/.436/.507, 167 OPS+

Rick Monday
Career: 7,162 PA, .264/.361/.443, 125 OPS+
’68 Oak: 563 PA, .274/.371/.402, 141 OPS+

Cy Williams
Career: 7,720 PA, .292/.365/.470, 125 OPS+
’20 PhN: 643 PA, .325/.364/.497, 141 OPS+

Wynn never hit better than .282 in a season, but his secondary skills were fantastic. The man they called “The Toy Cannon” led the NL in walks twice (1969, 1976) and hit nearly 300 home runs despite spending most of his career playing for the Astros, whose home park destroyed offense.

Wynn’s most similar players according to B-R are Ron Gant and Mike Cameron. Although both bear some resemblance to Wynn (good speed, power, and on-base skills), neither hit nearly as well (Gant’s OPS+ was 112; Cameron’s is 107). Better fits further down the list are Bobby Murcer and Monday.

According to TNBJHBA, Wynn is the No. 10 center fielder in history, behind Billy Hamilton and ahead of Larry Doby. Among more recent players, Wynn falls between Kirby Puckett and Dale Murphy.

Speaking of Monday, he was pretty good. He didn’t soar to the heights that Wynn did, but the first man ever taken in the amateur draft provided solid production for a very long time. His best season, 1968, came when he was 22 years old. In 1981, as a role player for the Dodgers, he hit .315/.423/.608 (194 OPS+) and knocked a crucial home run against Montreal’s Steve Rogers in the playoffs that made some school kids in LA very happy.

Monday also garnered accolades in 1976 for swiping the American flag from two protesters who intended to set it ablaze on the field at Dodger Stadium.

Monday’s top comp at B-R is Johnny Callison. Better fits among the top 10 include Kirk Gibson, Murcer, and Ray Lankford (whom I’d expected to find among the players similar to Wynn). TNBJHBA puts Monday at No. 42, behind Kenny Lofton and ahead of Willie McGee.

I wasn’t planning to go three deep at this position, but Williams’ offensive exploits so closely resemble those of Monday that I feel compelled to include him. Plus it’s nice to represent a different era, don’t you think?

Williams led the NL in home runs four times (1916, 1920, 1923, 1927) and led in SLG once (1926, at age 38). Williams didn’t really get started until he was 27, and his best seasons came well into his 30s. From 1920 to 1926 (ages 32 to 38), he hit .320/.387/.528 (134 OPS+) with 155 homers. Only Babe Ruth, Rogers Hornsby, and Ken Williams hit more bombs during that period.

Williams’ most similar player according to B-R is Murcer, which looks about right to me. Williams checks in at No. 75 in TNBJHBA. Cappy Gagnon notes that Williams held the career NL home run mark (251) until 1929, when Hornsby passed him.

Honorable mentions: Stan Spence, Wally Judnich (No. 97), Amos Otis (No. 22), Tony Gonzalez (No. 82), Johnny Mostil (No. 99), Don Lock, Dom DiMaggio (No. 24), Baby Doll Jacobson (No. 85), Vada Pinson (No. 18), Bobby Thomson (No. 59 right fielder; he’s not really in danger of being forgotten, but he deserves a mention)

Right field

Bill Nicholson
Career: 6,418 PA, .268/.365/.465, 132 OPS+
’43 ChN: 684 PA, .309/.386/.531, 165 OPS+

Nicholson had three almost indistinguishably great seasons during World War II. From 1942 to 1944, he hit .297/.386/.517 (160 OPS+), leading the NL in homers and RBIs in ’43 and ’44.

Nicholson was one of the players (Dixie Walker and Stan Musial being the others) deprived of the MVP award in ’44 thanks to the curious selection of Marty Marion. Here are the top four vote getters that year:

Rank Player         Vote Pts  PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
1.   Marty Marion      190.0 565 .267 .324 .362  91
2.   Bill Nicholson    189.0 686 .287 .391 .545 161
3.   Dixie Walker      145.0 611 .357 .434 .529 172
4.   Stan Musial       136.0 667 .347 .440 .549 175

By all accounts, Marion was a spectacular defensive shortstop, but really. There’s not enough glove in the world to make up for that offensive discrepancy.

Nicholson is another on our list that didn’t age well. Although he played until he was 38, in his 30s he hit just .243/.354/.420 (113 OPS+).

The most similar batter to Nicholson according to B-R is Ben Oglivie, whose 118 OPS+ pales in comparison. Further down the list, Larry Doby is a better comp:

Player           PA   BA  OBP  SLG OPS+
Bill Nicholson 6,418 .268 .365 .465 132
Larry Doby     6,302 .283 .386 .490 136

There aren’t any good current analogs. Maybe a better Nick Swisher?

TNBJHBA ranks Nicholson as the 65th best right fielder in history. I mentioned the war (despite being warned that I shouldn’t). James notes that Nicholson didn’t serve because, although he had “read Navy books the way other boys read sports books,” there was a small problem:

When he took his physical… the Navy doctors discovered that he was color blind. It is a perfect irony: While dozens of athletes who dreamed of nothing but being baseball players were busy fighting a war, perhaps the best player left in the National League was a man who had grown up dreaming of being a Navy officer.

James also concedes that “the ‘historic mark down’” of the wartime seasons has been disproportionate, and that Nicholson is entitled to more respect than he has received.”

Honorable mentions: Henrich (No. 34), Roy Cullenbine (No. 65), Tony Oliva (No. 21), Bobby Bonds (No. 15), Selkirk, Sixto Lezcano (No. 81), Rusty Staub (No. 24), Ron Northey, Braggo Roth, Tommy Holmes (No. 58), Dixie Walker (No. 30), Tony Conigliaro (No. 95)

Right-handed pitcher

Urban Shocker
Career: 2,681.2 IP, 187-117, 3.17 ERA, 124 ERA+
’22 SLA: 348 IP, 24-17, 2.97 ERA, 140 ERA+

Dizzy Trout
Career: 2725.2 IP, 170-161, 3.23 ERA, 124 ERA+
’44 Det: 352.1 IP, 27-14, 2.12 ERA, 168 ERA+

I’ve identified 1922 as Shocker’s best season. What a fun collection of names the Blues had on their pitching staff that year: Elam Vangilder, Dixie Davis, Rasty Wright, Hub Pruett, Dutch Henry, Heinie Meine

Anyway, Shocker didn’t make it to the big leagues until age 25. Before then, he’d gone 60-28 with a 2.01 ERA over four minor-league seasons in Canada (he was 15-3 with a 1.31 ERA at Toronto in ’16 before debuting with the Yankees that same year).

Shocker didn’t have a monstrous peak, but neither did he have any appreciable valleys. His worst performance came in 1924, but even then, he was 16-13 with a 4.20 ERA (107 ERA+) over 246.1 innings. He won 10 games or more every year from 1919 to 1927, and 20 or more every year from 1920 to 1923.

According to B-R, Lon Warneke is Shocker’s most similar pitcher, and that looks about right. Among more recent pitchers, Jimmy Key isn’t a bad comp (except for the whole throwing with his left hand thing).

TNBJHBA ranks Shocker as the No. 71 pitcher of all time, behind Clark Griffith and ahead of Mickey Lolich.

Trout had a better peak (thanks in part to World War II) and a worse win-loss record, but in many respects was quite similar to Shocker. B-R lists Bill Doak as Trout’s top comp, but that’s not right (Doak had a career 106 ERA+). Steve Rogers appears further down the list, and he’s a little closer.

In 1945, Trout helped lead the Tigers past the Chicago Cubs in the World Series. With his club down, 2 games to 1, Trout spun a five-hit complete game victory at Wrigley Field to even the series. Two days later, he was summoned from the bullpen and pitched well before giving up a game-winning double to Stan Hack in his fifth inning of work.

Trout also was a decent hitter (.213/.260/.319, 56 OPS+, 20 HR). He is unranked in TNBJHBA. His son, Steve, pitched in the big leagues from 1978 to 1989.

Honorable mentions: Eddie Rommel (No. 85), Andy Messersmith (not likely to be forgotten thanks to his challenge of the reserve clause), Carl Mays (No. 38; remembered, unfortunately, for the beaning of Ray Chapman), Dean Chance, Babe Adams (No. 93), Dolf Luque (No. 90), Firpo Marberry, Virgil Trucks (No. 61), Wilbur Cooper (No. 55), Bucky Walters (No. 69), Luis Tiant (No. 52), Jack Quinn, Wilbur Wood, Claude Passeau, Bob Shawkey (No. 95), Mel Harder (No. 92), Joe Dobson, Mel Stottlemyre Sr., Charley Root, Sonny Siebert, Schoolboy Rowe, Van Mungo (immortalized in song; Passeau shows up in that tune as well), Milt Pappas, Allie Reynolds, Murry Dickson

Left-handed pitcher

Ed Lopat
Career: 2,439.1 IP, 166-112, 3.21 ERA, 116 ERA+
’53 NYA: 178.1 IP, 16-4, 2.42 ERA, 153 ERA+

It’s too bad Lopat got such a late start. He didn’t make his big-league debut until age 26 and then proceeded to win 10 or more games in each of his first 11 seasons. Lopat also excelled in the postseason. As a a member of five World Championship teams with the Yankees, he went 4-1 with a 2.60 ERA in seven World Series starts.

Lopat was a terrific control artist, finishing in the top three in BB/9 eight times. He led the AL in that category in ’53 and ’54. In ’53, he also led in ERA, WHIP, and winning percentage.

B-R lists Art Nehf as Lopat’s most similar pitcher. Another Yankee left-hander, Ron Guidry, is fifth on the list and is probably a better fit. Lopat is unranked in TNBJHBA.

Honorable mentions: Howie Pollet, Sam McDowell, Tommy John (No. 63; in no danger of being forgotten, but we’re short on southpaws and he’s worth noting), Jerry Koosman.

* * *

That is, as they say, a wrap. In closing, I would like to thank everyone for reading and responding so positively to this series of articles. When I started out, I had no idea how much interest there would be. Without your encouragement and suggestions, I could not have made it this far. Thank you.

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

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Comments

  1. Jon J. said...

    I like that Nick Swisher is Bill Nicholson’s active comp. given that Nicholson’s nickname was “Swish”

  2. Ian said...

    I assume you meant the Browns, not the Blues, for the 1922 pitching staff Urban Shocker was a part of. Right city, wrong sport.

  3. Steve Millburg said...

    Bill Nicholson, my mother’s favorite baseball player, was indeed the original “Swish” Nicholson, supposedly so-called because of the vigorous practice swings he took before stepping into the batter’s box.  My father, however, insisted that it was because he struck out so much (though not by today’s standards; his top season total was 91, and he led the league in strikeouts only once).  Until the day my father died, he could annoy my mother by calling Nicholson “Swish.”

    Thanks for this series; it’s been fun.

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