The all-month team: July

Hard as it is to believe we are—for better or worse—down to just the last handful of months in our All-Month team exercise, with just four months to go after this one. That’s no reason to give July the short shrift, so we’ll find out if one of the year’s hottest months can also general one of its best teams.

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, Andre Dawson and Joe Torre—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: Chief Meyers

Born John Meyers, and educated at Dartmouth, Meyers was nonetheless known as “Chief” because of his Native American ancestry. Meyers debuted at age 28, and though he was ready from the moment he took a Major League field, this prevented him from having a career of any real length; despite playing until he was 36, he appeared in fewer than 1,000 games. Meyers’ peak is nothing to scoff at—he led the league in OBP in 1912 and batted over .300 three times—but the short span of his career makes him one of the weaker players we’ve seen so far.

First Base: Harry Davis

We are not off to a good start here. Meyers is probably the least of the all-Month catchers, but he is relatively close to the likes of Terry Steinbach, who starts for the March team. On the other hand, Davis is a major step-down from the other all-Month first basemen. Among the seven other months we’ve done this far, there are four men who are either in the Hall of Fame, or will be someday. Even the least of the first baseman, Steve Garvey, who no one is going to presume a Hall of Fame caliber first baseman (well, not no one, he has gotten as many as 196 votes from the BBWAA) is a significantly better ballplayer than Davis.

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All-July 3B Robin Ventura (US Presswire)

Second Base: Willie Randolph

At long last, July has a player who isn’t the least of the men at their position. Randolph was a quality player for a long, long time and remains, even now, criminally underrated in many circles. (For example, Randolph is a noticeably better player than the aforementioned Garvey, but received just five votes and fell off the Hall of Fame ballot his first year.)

A winner of multiple pennants, and the starter for the Yankees’ 1977 and 1978 World Series championships—Randolph made six All-Star teams and retired with a career .373 OBP. Though he never won a Gold Glove (in large because his career was contemporaneous to that of the Royals’ outstanding Frank White) Randolph was also a smooth and well-regarded second baseman.

Third Base: Robin Ventura

Presented in no particular order, five things I didn’t know about Robin Ventura. Or, perhaps more accurately, five things I probably knew at some point but have since forgotten:
1. Venture won a Gold Medal with the US Baseball team at the Seoul Olympics in 1988. Others on that team include Jim Abbott, Tino Martinez and Charles Nagy.
2. Ventura hit 18 Grand Slams in his career—fifth most all-time. Among those players with at least 250 HRs, Ventura has a higher percentage of grand slams than any other player. He finished his career with a lifetime 1.045 OPS with the bases loaded.
3. Ventura was the first player to hit a grand slam in both games of a double-header. (This is one I’m sure I knew—the dual games are an off-season programming staple of the Mets’ SNY network.)
4. He was the inspiration for one of John Sterling’s worst name-centric home run calls: “Robin becomes Batman!” I mean, terrible, just terrible.
5. Ventura was a much better player than I remember. A six-time Gold Glove winner at third, Ventura ranks 16th all-time in WAR at the position ahead of guys like Matt Williams, Ron Cey, and Troy Glaus. {/exp:list_maker}

Shortstop: Alex Rodriguez

For now, at least, A-Rod still qualifies as a shortstop under our rules. It seems likely that by the time his career is over, he will have played more games at third base (as of this writing, he has about 125 more games at short) so by 2014 or ’15 this spot will belong to either Pee Wee Reese or Lou Boudreau, who are both pretty good choices. In fact, July is really spoiled for choice when it comes to shortstop, with Joe Tinker and Nomar Garciaparra also born this month. In fact, of the 25 shortstops with42 or more career WAR, July’s group represents a full fifth of them.

Left Field: Barry Bonds

In constructing this team, my first thought was that it was going to be extremely difficult to overcome having a relative offense non-entity at first base like Davis, but if Rodriguez doesn’t make up for it, having someone like Bonds sure covers a multitude of sins offensively elsewhere on the diamond. There’s not much to say about Bonds that hasn’t been already, so I won’t try, except to point out that the Rodriguez/Bonds combination is, if not the best offensive duo we’ll see in these months, on the shortlist for that distinction.

Center Field: Willie Wilson

I have to admit, I had no idea Willie Wilson was this good. Previously, I thought Wilson was sort of a 1970s version of Lance Johnson: center fielder, quick, good-but-not-great. As is turns out, Wilson is miles ahead of Johnson, particularly at his peak. Wilson’s best season came in 1980 when he led the league in runs, hits and triples. Wilson also won the 1982 batting title, and stole 668 career bases, still good for twelfth all-time.

Right Field: Tony Oliva

This is silly, but I’ve always had Oliva and Harmon Killebrew a little jumbled up in my head. As such, whenever I look at the numbers of one or the other, I’m always either a bit impressed (for Killebrew) or underwhelmed (for Oliva).

Of course, it is only by comparison to the likes of Harmon Killebrew that Oliva’s numbers are underwhelming. The 1964 Rookie of the Year, he won three batting titles, led the league in doubles four times and hits five times. Like Meyers, Oliva’s career is marred probably by its shortness; he played in fewer than 1,700 games despite debuting at age 23. Nonetheless, among players with a similar number of games played, only Earl Averill and Juan Gonzalez had more hits.

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3-time batting champ Tony Oliva (US Presswire)

Starting Pitchers: Stan Coveleski, Don Drysdale, Dave Stieb, Frank Tanana, CC Sabathia

This is not, in all candor, an especially inspired group. For example, only Coveleski would have a shot at cracking the March or April starting rotation. That’s not to say it’s a bad group—there’s two Hall of Famers, plus Stieb who arguably should be in and Sabathia who someday might—but compared to some of the other months, it is rather underwhelming. One of the grandfathered spitballers, Coveleski won 215 games in his career, despite appearing in just five Major League game prior to his 26th birthday. From 1917 through 1921, he won 112 games—no pitcher won more—and turned in a dominant performance in the 1920 World Series, throwing complete games victories in Game One, Four and Seven to lead the Indians to the title.

Sometimes overshadowed by rotation-mate Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale nonetheless was an ace in his own right for many years, peaking during a 1964 season when he won 18 games, and put up a 2.18 ERA while leading the league in innings. Also on the subject of pitchers overshadowed by others, no pitcher was more effective in the 1980s than David Steib, who threw the second most innings with the best ERA+ among those pitchers who pitched at least 1,500 innings. But Stieb won “just” 140 games, and is rarely mentioned in discussions for best of the decade that instead focus on the wildly overrated Jack Morris.

After debuting at age 19, Frank Tanana’s first five years in the league saw him record a 66-49 record with a 2.69 ERA in nearly 1100 innings. That culminated in his 1977 season when he led the league in ERA and shutouts, winning 15 games for an Angels team that went 57-74 (.435) in games not started by Tanana. He was never that good again, and a shoulder injury in 1979 robbed him of his velocity. Nonetheless, he hung on throwing an assortment of off-speed pitches and remained an effective pitcher as late as 1991.

Technically speaking, Tim Hudson has accumulated more career WAR than CC Sabathia. Despite this, Sabathia—whose peak compares favorably to Hudson—seems likely to end up with the better career numbers and therefore takes the final spot in the all-July rotation.

Closer: Billy Wagner

Well, the starting staff may not be an especially impressive one, but at least the all-July team can know that if they have any leads entering the ninth inning, there’s a good chance of them locking it down. Among modern closers not named Mariano Rivera, Wagner is probably the finest, even if he did not amass the raw number of saves that Trevor Hoffman did. For his career, Wagner struck out nearly 12 men per nine innings; no pitcher with more than 750 innings has ever earned K’s at a better rate.

(Incidentally, there’s a very good argument to be made that Hoyt Wilhelm deserves this spot. Wagner was more dominant on a per inning basis, but the knuckleball-throwing Wilhelm was capable of inning totals unlike that of any modern short-reliever. There’s no question Wilhelm would find a role on this team somewhere—especially given the iffy nature of the starting rotation.)

Manager: Casey Stengel

The July team may not be the most talented at every position, but they have a strong manager at the helm. Over the course of his career, Stengel won 7 World Series titles, and three more American League pennants. Excluding his years with the Mets—when he was as much mascot as manager for the struggling expansion team—Stengel had a career .542 winning percentage. Even more impressive is his Yankee tenure, during which the Old Perfessor led his team to a winning percentage, .623, that is equivalent to nearly 101 wins in the 162-game schedule.

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Comments

  1. Steve I said...

    David -
    I read somewhere that Oliva had arthritic knees even before the injury.  Do you know if that’s true?  Not that it matters much, but would help explain his relatively rapid decline.

  2. David said...

    A couple things on Tony Oliva:

    There are still a lot of people who call for his Hall of Fame induction, though I’m not one of them.  The truth of the matter is, in his frist 8 seasons, he had led the league in either hits, average, or doubles every year but one – a clear path to Cooperstown.  But he go hurt in his age 33 season, and had (what seems to be) an abnormally rapid decline:  OPS+ of 141 before the injury, OPS+ of 102 after.  Now, of course, much of that could have just been getting older, but everyone’s a bit of a sucker for a “what if.”

    Second, I was at a Twins game in section 219 earlier this year.  While heading to my seat, there was Tony Oliva, standing right outside his little food kiosk in the stadium.  He shook the hand of and took a picture with EVERYONE who stopped by to meet him.  He was a unbelievably friendly, and I really appreciated him for that.  He’s the second 60s/70s-era Twin I’ve met (Harmon Killebrew being the other), and they’ve both been ridiculously friendly.

  3. boisterous said...

    didn’t oliva have multiple knee procedures?  and, surely the first came well before his age 33 season…

  4. David said...

    Well, I was reading up on Oliva at the SABR bio project (http://sabr.org/bioproj/person/244de7d2).  It seems you are correct, boisterous, in that Oliva had two ligament-repair surgeries (in 1966 and ‘67).  In midseason ‘71, Oliva went after a Joe Rudi smash, he injured the knee, and missed 30 games that year, and the All-Star game, as well (but still won the batting title).

    He remained unable to recover from the injury, playing just ten games in ‘72.  The next season, in came the DH.  Oliva never played another game in the field.

    So, while it’s certainly true that the knees were shaky before the injury, he went from a BABIP of .319 through 1971, to a BABIP of .280 after.  And it was a steep drop, basically centering on that injury.  Certainly, age may have had a lot to do with it, too, but it’s pretty tough to imagine a guy suffering a catastrophic injury that causes a batting champ to miss an entire year, and then just being a (slightly better than) league-average hitter the rest of his career.  It’s a shame, but them’s the breaks, I suppose.

  5. Paul G. said...

    Bill James goes on for some length about Willie Wilson in the Abstract.  IIRC, when he first came up the batting coach at the time taught Willie how to serve the ball into the outfield turning him into an adept singles hitter, which was fine since he could then leverage his speed into stolen “doubles” and the Astroturf would speed some of those liners to the wall for a triple.  Then they changed batting coaches – I believe it was Lee May – who espoused a more “normal” batting philosophy.  The “conventional hitter” Willie was not nearly as productive as the “slap hitter” Willie, but apparently Willie was proud of the fact that he was a “real hitter” now.  He was genuinely great in the field though.

    If I had to choose only one, I’d much rather have Hoyt Wilhelm than Billy Wagner.  Hoyt’s going to give me 80 to 140 innings of superb relief every year; Billy reached 80 innings once.  Yeah, Billy’s ERA is going to be better but Hoyt is essentially two excellent relief pitchers.  Compared to that, Billy is basically 60-80 innings of Billy and 60-80 innings of the other guys in the bullpen not named Billy Wagner, a good chunk of that going to the end of the bullpen where games get lost in the 6th inning and the gopher eats well.  I suppose if you had both of them it may make more sense to have Wagner as the closer and Hoyt as the setup guy who throws 2-3 innings a game, but it would probably lead to the most peculiar situation of the closer being the second best reliever on the team.

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