The all-month team: August

Just four months to go before we find out, once and for all, which month can produce the best team. Today we tackle August. It seems to me that August might be the least appreciated month of the baseball season. Too early for real drama among contenders (or for September call-ups for those clubs looking for the future) sometimes it just seems fans want to run out the clock on the month and get to the real excitement. We shall do nothing of the kind, of course, and give August—and its team—a fair shake.

As usual, the rule remains that to qualify for any position a player must have played 50 percent or more of his games there. This has the unfortunate side effect of ruling out some players who bounced around the diamond for most of their careers—for this month, Frank Robinson and Paul Molitor—but is necessary to establish that any player at a position could truly play there. With that out of the way, let’s begin:

Catcher: Ted Simmons

Simmons, as I have surely mentioned before, is among the most criminally underrated players in baseball history. An eight-time All-Star, Simmons’ name still dots the list of offensive leaders among catchers: he is fifth all-time in runs scored and second in doubles and RBI among backstops. Even in his best seasons, like 1975 when he hit .332 with a 142 OPS+, Simmons finished well below defensive nightmares like Greg Luzinski (whose flashier offensive numbers masked Simmons’ superiority) in MVP voting.

First Base: Todd Helton

In the “real world,” it is likely this spot would be occupied by one of three August births who had experience at first base: the aforementioned Robinson and Molitor, or Jim Thome. None of them qualify under my rules, however, which means the position belongs to Helton. Luckily for August, though Helton is not quite the player those men are, he is still a strong player. It goes without saying that Helton has benefited from playing a good portion of his games at Coors Field, but Helton is an excellent hitter nonetheless; besides a career 135 OPS+, should he prove able to recover from his recent hip surgery, Helton has a shot at finishing his career with more doubles than any other first baseman.

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Doubles machine and August 1B Todd Helton (US Presswire)

Second Base: Lonny Frey

Assuming this season is an aberration of injury and poor performance, it seems likely this spot will belong to Dustin Pedroia. For now though, Lonny Frey is on the keystone for August. And if it makes you feel any better, I hadn’t heard of him either. Frey played from 1933 into 1948, missing two seasons due to service in World War II. Frey began his career at shortstop, but after a trio of nightmarish defensive seasons (during which is made a combined 130 errors in 353 games, or nearly 60 per 162 games) he moved to second base and quickly found his niche. His best offensive season came in 1939, when Frey posted an .840 OPS and helped lead the Reds to the World Series.

Third Base: Graig Nettles

On the subject of the underrated players, here’s Graig Nettles. Nettles is probably not quite in the same order of having his value overlooked as Simmons, but—with Ron Santo’s recent, and well-deserved election to the Hall of Fame, Nettles is the best third baseman currently on the outside looking in. A large part of Nettles’ value is that he played, and remained effective, virtually forever. Nettles was great for Cleveland in 1970 and still a better-than-average player for the Padres in 1985. In between, Nettles was part of five World Series teams, winning rings with the Yankees in 1977 and 1978. He retired with nearly 400 home runs—only four men hit more homers at third.

Shortstop: Cal Ripken

It occurs to me just now that when I’m done with the month-by-month teams, I could do one for each season. Even without having done any of fall, I feel confident in saying that summer would crush all comers when it comes to the shortstop position. After Derek Jeter in June and Alex Rodriguez in July, August can counter with Cal Ripken. You all know of Ripken’s accomplishments (since Wagner no shortstop has more doubles, only Rodriguez has more homers and Jeter more hits) to say nothing of his impressive games played streak. I can’t claim to know what it is about the summer months that produce great shortstops, but it seems to be something.

Left Field: Ted Williams

Carl Yastrzemski, as you surely know, is one of the finest left fielders to ever play. Arguably only three men have ever played the position better. Two are Barry Bonds and Rickey Henderson. And the third is Ted Williams. Of course, it is Yaz’s unfortunate fate to forever be behind Williams when it comes to listing left fielders in general and left fielders who played for the Red Sox. And if all that were not enough, Yaz has the hard luck to also be born in August, same as Williams and find himself stuck behind him once again.

Center Field: Vada Pinson

As with first base, in the real world it seems likely Yastrzemski would find himself in center field, stretched defensively, perhaps, but making up for it with the offense. But as with first base, the team is hardly badly off. A two-time All-Star, Pinson led the league, at various times, in hits, doubles, and triples. A strong base stealer, he nabbed 305 in his career, doing it at better than a 70 percent success rate. Pinson is one of just five centerfielders—along with names like Mays, Cobb and Speaker—to record at least 300 steals, 2,750 hits and 475 doubles.

Right Field: Roberto Clemente

I have to admit, my first instinct is that Clemente might be, through no fault of his own, guilty of being a slightly overrated player. Martyrdom tends to do that to a man, whether deliberately driven by his supporters or not. This isn’t to say I thought Clemente was a poor choice for the Hall of Fame. With 3,000 hits, four batting titles and the 1966 MVP award, his 1973 Election (under special circumstances after his tragic death) was no mistake. Still, I imagined that his death might have exaggerated his feats. But despite being 37, Clemente was still an offensive force—he posted a 137 OPS+ his final season, second only to Jimmy Wynn among NL right fielders—and won a Gold Glove for his defense. As it turns out, despite my first thoughts, Clemente’s death took not only a great man, but also one who was still a great ballplayer.

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August’s mustachioed relief ace (US Presswire)

Starting Pitchers: Roger Clemens, Christy Mathewson Eddie Plank, Roy Oswalt, Burleigh Grimes

You might remember that last month’s starting rotation was not too great. August does not have that problem. The first two men in this rotation have legitimate claim to being among the top 10, if not top five, pitchers in baseball history. No other month can match that. Both the good and the bad of Clemens are well known, so I won’t spend more time on him. Mathewson meanwhile is nearly as great a pitcher as the Rocket and still holds one of the greatest records in postseason history: in the 1905 World Series “Big Six” threw three straight shutouts in Games One, Three and Five. Had there been such a thing as the World Series MVP in those days, Mathewson’s performance (which included give just one walk and 13 hits in his 27 innings) would have won it easily.

Meanwhile, the victim of not only Mathewson’s great pitching, but also that of teammate “Iron Man” Joe McGinnity (2 GS, 17 IP, 0 ER) was Eddie Plank. Plank was brilliant in the ’05 Series, starting two games and throwing 15 innings with a 1.59 ERA but watched his Athletics get shut out in both his starts. Fortunately for “Gettysburg Eddie,” he was just 29 years old and still had more than 215 wins ahead of him on the way to 326 career victories. Plank would get his revenge on Matty in the 1913 series when he outdueled the Giants’ ace twice to help secure the A’s victory.

Despite his recent unhappiness with the Rangers, Roy Oswalt’s place on the August team is cemented. A gold medal winner with the 2000 Sydney Olympic team, Oswalt finished in the top five in Cy Young voting five times, and from 2002 through 2007 he averaged more than 210 innings per season with a 140 ERA+. Last but not least is Hall of Famer Burleigh Grimes. A grandfathered spitballer—the last active one, in fact—Grimes won 270 games in his career, including 105 in the five years from 1920 to 1924. Best of all, though, is that he was nicknamed “Ol’ Stubblebeard.”

Closer: Rollie Fingers

And from Ol’ Stubblebeard, we come to Rollie Fingers whose well-manicure mustache is probably his most notable feature. Of course, that’s selling Fingers’ career very short; he has a deserved spot in the Hall of Fame. To modern eyes, his save totals look relatively low (Fingers never had more than 37 in a season) but his inning totals—an average of 115 without a game started from 1974 through 1980—more than make up for it. And all this is without considering Fingers’ strong postseason performance, including a 1.35 ERA in 33 and a third World Series innings.

Manager: Earl Weaver

Speaking of people remembered for something other than their greatness, we have Earl Weaver. A Google search for Weaver produces his Wikipedia page as the first result followed by two You Tube movies titled, respectively “Earl Weaver gets pissed” and “Earl Weaver Was a Badass.” Both clips, you’ll not be shocked to learn, feature Weaver shouting at umpires as do three of the first 10 image results for Google. To some extent this is understandable, as it’s hard to have a picture of someone managing a team astutely. Nonetheless, Weaver should be so remembered, as he led the Orioles to five seasons of 100 wins or more, along with four pennants and a World Series title in 1970.

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Comments

  1. Paul G. said...

    I’ve heard of Lonny Frey.  In the Baseball Hall of Shame 3 book he is featured as Lonny “Error-a-Day” Frey.  (I’m not sure if that is a period “nickname” or not.  I have not found it in other sources and it is certainly not something he would call himself.)  Bill James also discusses him in the Abstract, comparing his career path to Jose Offerman.  The big difference between the two is after Frey failed at shortstop he became an excellent defensive second baseman, while Offerman was pretty brutal defensively wherever you tried to hide him.

  2. mando3b said...

    I think calling Roberto Clemente “overrated” is a stretch—especially after implying that Greg Nettles is a HOF-caliber player! (If he had stayed with the Indians and had the same career stats, would that possibility even be raised?) My salient memory of Nettles is of him sucker-punching Bill Lee during an on-field confrontation after Lee’s left arm had been all but pulled out of its socket during the initial scrum. Not quite Ty Cobb beating up a man with no hands, but not exactly the stuff of legend, either. Great defensive third baseman, though. Let me put in a word for another very good outfielder, Rocky Colovito, who was the only ballplayer when I was growing up who had the same birthday as me—Aug. 10. I like this series of yours a lot—keep up the good work!

  3. Ted M said...

    A couple of things… while Musial played more 1b than any other position, he played in the outfield more than he played 1b, and he played LF more than the other outfield positions, so a lot of people consider him a left fielder, and if you do, he’d also rate ahead of Yaz. 

    I think the instinct is to consider Clemente overrated because a lot of the baby boom generation seems to consider him one of the top 20 or so players of all time.  He was a great player but for most of his career he was the third best right fielder in the majors, he didn’t walk much or have great power, and his career got off to a somewhat slow start, not really picking up until after he’d been in the league 5 years.  When I was a kid (late 70’s & 80’s) Clemente was generally talked about in the same breath as Aaron and Mays.  As great a player as he was, that over rates him by quite a bit.

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