As I have mentioned in the past with these columns, it occurred to me that while constructing variously goofy all-Something teams is fun, they are essentially one-shots. Creating teams based on the best players born in each month, on the other hand, produces squads that can be compared to see which is best. With that in mind, each month through November I will be constructing a team from the players born in that month, and come December, attempting to determine who—or when—comes out on top.
Before we begin this month’s list—which I am curious to see, given February’s status as the shortest month—a quick review of the ground rules: each player’s date of birth is as listed on his Baseball-Reference.com page and the player must have played at least 50 percent of his games at a position to qualify for the spot. And—most importantly of all—I reserve the right to realize I made a terrible mistake and change the team up to next December when we compare.
Having gotten that out of the way, let’s begin:
Catcher: Elston Howard
Generally speaking, I use Baseball-Reference’s WAR to pick each of these positions, though I am not necessarily wedded to it. In this case, for example, Elston Howard is technically second in WAR by a February catcher to Smoky Burgess. Burgess was a fine player—he would be a fine choice behind the plate—but never reached Howard’s heights in peak value. Moreover, Burgess spent much of his career as a pinch hitter, never catching more than 113 games in a season.
Also of note: By the end of his career, this spot might belong to Brian McCann. The Braves’ catcher seems unlikely to ever match Howard’s peak, but having started as a regular at 22, could accumulate enough value to overwhelm that advantage.
First Base: Eddie Murray
Conversely, there was no question for picking Eddie Murray at the first base spot. In addition to his substantial lead in WAR over second-place Wally Pipp, Murray is undoubtedly an all-time great. Playing primarily for the Orioles, the switch-hitter finished his career with more than 500 home runs and placed fifth or higher in the MVP voting every year from 1981 through to 1985.
|His time in NY was not the best, but no one can question Roberto Alomar’s greatness (Icon/SMI)|
Second Base: Roberto Alomar
Every month seems to have a position where there is a wealth of good choices. For February, that position is second base. In addition to Alomar—about whom more in a moment—the Groundhogs (what else would a February team be called?) could turn to Hall of Famer Joe Gordon or Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst.
Despite those names, Alomar is an easy choice. The switch-hitting second generation player was a 12-time All-Star, 10-time Gold Glove winner at second (no one has more) and four-time Silver Slugger award winner.
Third Base: Ron Santo
Finally elected—a year too late to see it, shamefully—to the Hall of Fame this past December, Ron Santo is one of the 10 best third basemen who ever lived. Santo’s skills, including leading the National League in walks four times and finishing in the top five eight times, were severely underappreciated in their time but will be on Team February.
Shortstop: Honus Wagner
There have been some tremendous shortstops in baseball history: Hall of Famers like Cal Ripken, Arky Vaughn and recent electee Barry Larkin. They go along, of course, with recent and still active greats like Alan Trammell (a February birth himself) and Derek Jeter. But Honus Wagner stands alone as the greatest. The Flying Dutchman—an outstanding nickname, incidentally—remained a dominant offensive force while playing short through age 38 and his performance in the years before that was simply outstanding. If, as the saying goes, great teams are built up the middle, February is in good shape with their double-play combination.
Left Field: Monte Irvin
Monte Irvin did not debut in the Major Leagues until age 30 and because of this played fewer than 775 games. This holds his career numbers down considerably; he has fewer than 750 hits, 500 RBI and 100 home runs. He earns the spot on the all-February team, ahead of players with better career numbers like Chick Hafey and Rondell White because Irvin’s debut at age 30 came in 1949, nearly as soon as he could if not for baseball’s segregation policy.
Irvin—who made five Negro League All-Star teams and hit a reported .358 over his Negro League career—was clearly ready for the Majors long before ’49, and any reasonable person would have to award him credit for that time.
Center Field: Cesar Cedeno
On the subject of players, like Santo, who are underappreciated, we come to Cesar Cedeno. Cedeno was the victim of his home park, one which made his actual performance appear far less than it was. At age 21, for example, in 1972, Cedeno put up a total line of .320/.385/.537 in Houston’s Astrodome. He finished sixth in the MVP voting. The third place finisher was Pittsburgh’s Willie Stargell, who hit .293/.373/.558 at Three Rivers Stadium.
In raw terms, Cedeno’s OPS was nine points lower. If one adjusts for their home parks, however, and puts Stargell into the Astrodome his line drops to .291/.371/.551, identical OPS to Cedeno with a batting average nearly 30 points less.
Right Field: Hank Aaron
What is there to say about Aaron that you don’t already know? Outside of Barry Bonds, no one has ever hit more home runs. (And inside of Barry Bonds, as Groucho Marx almost said, it is too dark to hit home runs.) If not for Babe Ruth, Hammerin’ Hank could lay claim to being the best right fielder of all-time. For this team though, he and Wagner form a tremendous one-two punch, the best seen on any month team thus far.
|Just Verlander, climbing the list of February greats (Icon/SMI)|
Starting Pitchers: Pete Alexander, Wilbur Cooper, Wes Ferrell, Herb Pennock, Justin Verlander
Yikes, that is some drop from staff ace down to the rest of the staff. Of course, when one is discussing a pitcher as great as Alexander—who is arguably a top five starter of all-time—there will be inevitably be a slump in quality. None of which is speak ill of Wilbur Cooper and his cohorts. For his part, Cooper won 216 games pitching primarily for the Pirates in the teens and early ‘20s. Wes Ferrell could not match that total for victories; he won 193 over his career, but made up substantial value with his bat: he was a lifetime .280 hitter and was a greater than two WAR player with the bat alone in 1935.
Herb Pennock is actually second all-time in February wins, behind Alexander. Most of Pennock’s 241 wins came after age 30. Already 29, and owner of a 77-72 lifetime record, the Knight of Kennett Square was traded to the Yankees in 1923 and proceeded to go 164-90 for the rest of his career.
Verlander is a bit of an unusual choice. Though several February pitchers had better careers, a peak does count for something and Verlander’s last three years (averaging 238 IP with a 140 ERA+) are pretty impressive. Moreover, Verlander is still on the “right” side of 30, and while pitchers are always dangerous to predict, it seems a strong bet that by the time his career is over, this spot will be his without question.
Relief Pitcher: Dan Quisenberry
These days, I suspect Quisenberry is remembered as much for his wit (I found a delivery in my flaw…Natural grass is a wonderful thing for little bugs and sinkerball pitchers, etc.) and his tragic early death at age 45, as he is for his pitching. That’s too bad. At his absolute best, “Quiz” was a masterful reliever in what might be roughly called the Mariano Rivera Model of Relief Pitching: force the other guys to beat you. That is, no walks, no home runs, make them string together a bunch of hits to beat you. That earned him his place on the February team.
(The other way to do it is what might be called the Billy Wagner Model of Relief Pitching: giving up the occasion—or more than occasional—walk or home run, but covering your sins with a huge number of strikeouts.)
Manager: Pat Moran
February, if we’re being honest, is a little shallow in the managerial department. Nonetheless, one could do far worse than Pat Moran. Moran’s greatest gift was apparently his leadership in his first season. First taking over the Phillies in 1915, who finished 74-80 the year before, Moran led them to a 90-62 record and the National League pennant. The Phillies would finish second the next two years, before Moran lost his job after a 55-68 year in 1918.
Taking over the Cincinnati Reds the next season, Moran again led a turnaround, taking the Reds, who finished 68-60 the year prior, to a 96-44 record and a trip to the World Series. The Reds’ victory in that World Series, is, of course, somewhat tainted by the “Black Sox” scandal, but Moran nonetheless led his team to victory.