As I mentioned last month, 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 which 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, a quick review of the ground rules: each player’s date of birth is as listed on their 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: Darrell Porter
The all-December team, you might remember, featured an embarrassment of riches at catcher with the likes of Johnny Bench, Carlton Fisk, Josh Gibson and Gabby Hartnett all born in December. January is not so lucky. Darrell Porter is no slouch—he would back-up Ted Simmons on the all-underrated team—but he’s obviously not at the level of the likes of Bench or Gibson. Meanwhile, behind Porter the talent is underwhelming with names like Walker Cooper and Mike Lieberthal in the top five all-time.
First Base: Albert Pujols
On the other hand, while first base was a relative weak spot for team December, it is an abundance for January. Besides Pujols—obviously a Hall of Famer when the time comes—January could also choose from Hall of Famer Johnny Mize or Hall of Famer Willie McCovey or Hall of Famer Hank Greenberg. Even the fifth best first baseman on the January list, Jason Giambi, is better than what December had to offer.
|Erstwhile Cardinal teammates Pujols and Holliday, reunited for their month (Icon/SMI)|
Second Base: Jackie Robinson
There is, let’s face it, very little (and maybe nothing) I can say about Jackie Robinson that hasn’t already been said. So I will instead take this time to focus on the man Robinson beat out for second base on the all-January team: Bobby Grich. Grich had the misfortune of being a player whose best skills—getting on base, in particular—were underappreciated in their time. Even more so for a man like Grich, who had a lifetime OBP of .371 while playing second base at a Gold Glove level. His falling off the Hall of Fame ballot after just one year remains one of the worst—and maybe the worst—examples of voting in recent memory.
Third Base: Bill Madlock
Only nine players—with names like Cobb, Gwynn, Wagner and Musial—have ever won more batting titles than the four Madlock won over the course of his 15-year career. He had other skills (from 1979 through 1982 he stole 84 bases in 117 chances) and could handle third base defensively, but was criticized for being focused on the batting title even at the cost of hurting his team. Bill James, for example, cites a story that reporters would take bets in the press box on the days when Madlock would claim injury to remove himself from the line-up in order to protect his average.
Shortstop: Art Fletcher
It’s hard to imagine double-play partners with a greater difference in the public consciousness than Robinson and Fletcher. Fletcher spent all but the tail end of his career with the Giants, manning shortstop for John McGraw. During Fletcher’s time, the Giants won four pennants, though they lost in the World Series all four times. For his part, Fletcher was a strong contributor posting six seasons of 4 WAR or better. His greatest skill as a ballplayer—offensively, at least—lay in taking one for the team: Fletcher led the league in HBP five times and still ranks just outside of the top 25 all-time.
Left Field: Matt Holliday
Pujols and Holliday may no longer be teammates in reality, but they remain so here on the all-January team. Left is a competitive position on the team, January birthday boy Kevin Mitchell actually played most of his career games here, though the team would probably prefer to exploit his versatility—he played 25 or more games at both outfield corners, third base and even shortstop. (This is the source of Mitchell’s otherwise baffling “World” nickname.)
Center Field: Max Carey
Carey is one of those guys—there’s a fair number of them on his team, actually—who nobody except real baseball history devotees have heard of, despite being pretty fair players. A speedy centerfielder, Carey led the league in steals 10 times, and at the time of his retirement only Ty Cobb and Eddie Collins had nabbed more. Carey is currently ninth all-time and is arguably the greatest base stealer in NL history. Not surprisingly, he was a strong defensive player (to the extent he was nicknamed “Scoops”) and earned himself induction to Cooperstown—via the Veterans Committee—in 1976.
Right Field: Elmer Flick
Speaking of pretty good players who are largely forgotten, here we come to Elmer Flick. In addition to his frankly hilarious name, Flick was a power-hitting outfielder whose bat covered his defensive shortcomings before going to pieces at a relatively young age. Those defensive shortcomings were no small thing; in 1899 Flick’s teammate Nap Lajoie was instructed to make a full effort on all balls in shallow right field. This displeased Flick so much that the next season the two apparently got into a fistfight over who owned a bat, which ended with Lajoie missing Flick with a punch but connecting with the wall and breaking his thumb.
For his part, Flick developed stomach problems in 1907 and was never the same player again. To age 31, he earned more WAR than men like Frank Thomas, Roberto Alomar and Sam Crawford. But his career was essentially over—he played less than 100 total games the next three seasons before leaving the majors for good.
|All-January Manager Davey Johnson (Icon/SMI)|
Starting Rotation: Nolan Ryan, David Cone, Early Wynn, Dizzy Dean, Jon Matlack
Ryan has done a pretty good job running the Texas Rangers the past couple of years, but there can be little doubt that given only one role in the team, “The Ryan Express” should be a pitcher. The pitchers behind Ryan are an interesting bunch. Cone was a masterful pitcher who finished with an ERA of three or below five times, no small feat for a pitcher in modern times. Ryan and Wynn have much in common; both were workhorses who hung on as effective pitchers for years, with Wynn posting an All-Star season at age 40. Meanwhile, at his peak, Dean might be the best pitcher of the bunch. From 1934 through 1936 he averaged an astounding 317 IP and 27 wins. Despite a short career, he led the league in strikeouts four times. Matlack does not have the resume to compare to his rotation mates, but did win the 1972 Rookie of the Year award and twice led the National League in shutouts.
Closer: Bruce Sutter
To some extent, this pick is a matter of taste. One could just as easily choose Francisco Rodriguez for this spot—and it seems likely that by the time his career is over K-Rod will have more accumulated value than Sutter. On the other hand, Sutter is in the Hall of Fame (though probably not deservedly) and was the kind of fireman who threw inning totals in individual seasons that Rodriguez has never approached. If you prefer a hybrid choice of the two styles, one could also make a reasonable case for Jeff Montgomery who had a relatively short career (13 seasons, less than 875 innings) but also represents a step on the path from reliever types like Sutter to those like Rodriguez.
Manager: Davey Johnson
Johnson returned to managing Major League Baseball last year, with the Nationals, for the first time since he left the Dodgers after the 2000 season. Prior to his underwhelming two-year stint in LA—just over .500—Johnson had success everywhere he went. His first stop, with the Mets, peaked with the 1986 World Series title, of course, but also saw the team never finish below second place. After a rough start in Cincinnati, Johnson had the team in first place when the strike came in 1994 and led them to the playoffs in 1995. Taking over the Orioles in ’96, Johnson took the team to the ALCS both years at Camden Yards and the team won the AL East start-to-finish in ’97.