In a nice bit of timing, this column is running on my birthday. So that means I will get to introduce the All-Month team I will be supporting on the very day that prompts my support. Of course, I won’t let my preference for a March team influence my team construction or analysis of the players.
As usual, the rule remains; to qualify for any position, a player must have played 50 percent or more of his games there. With that done, let’s see what kind of team I’m rooting for:
Catcher: Terry Steinbach
Well, obviously March is not going to make anyone forget the December team, which featured the likes of Johnny Bench, Josh Gibson and Carlton Fisk. Terry Steinbach is more of a “first do no harm” style catcher. Conceding that point, he was a three-time All-Star, including being named MVP of the 1988 game. Steinbach is also one of only two catchers—Fisk is the other—to have at least 100 RBI in a season after turning 34. That’s more in the element of trivia than talent, but it is an indication of the long-time Athletics’ durability.
First Base: Will Clark
There are, I assume, a lot of people my age who only remember Will Clark as a good-but-not-great first baseman for the Rangers and Orioles at the tail end of his career. After a strong debut season in Texas, Clark’s performance was erratic, sometimes dropping to the level of mediocrity, sometimes very good. For my part, the image of Clark isn’t helped by his wretched performance in the 1996 and 1998 ALDS against the Yankees, when he had just three singles across seven postseason games.
That’s the problem with an awareness of baseball that starts only with a player’s decline phase. In San Francisco, Clark was an absolute beast at the plate; his 1989 season in Candlestick translated to the environment of his later years in Texas comes to a .390 batting average with nearly 50 doubles and a 1.104 OPS. And of course, his postseason performance in the 1989 playoffs—when he almost single-handedly took the Giants to the World Series—should easily outweigh any memories of his later career postseason struggles.
Second Base: Jeff Kent
Through age 29, Jeff Kent played for four teams, averaged around 125 games a season and posted a 106 OPS+. That isn’t bad, especially for someone who could handle second base, but players like Johnny Ray and Aaron Hill showed more while playing second before turning 30.
|The All-March Second Baseman slugs away (Icon/SMI)|
Once age 30 came, Kent exploded and posted a 130 OPS+ for the rest of his career. Among all second baseman, only five players were more valuable than Kent after reaching their fourth decade, so it goes almost without saying that he was the dominant force at that position among those born in March. It is that performance which earned Kent his place on this team.
Third Base: Home Run Baker
It is popular for people not understanding the importance of era-adjustments to point out that “Home Run” Baker only hit 96 in his career. That’s silly, of course, but it does serve to reflect just how different baseball of Baker’s day was. Baker led the American League for four straight years (1911-14) hitting a total of 42 home runs and peaking at 12. Since 2007—an era of decreasing offense compared to those just before it—seven players have hit 42 home runs in a single season. The days of being dubbed “Home Run” while slugging less than—pardon the pun—a Baker’s dozen of home runs per season are long gone.
Shortstop: Arky Vaughan
In arguably the most unexpected entry in New Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranked Arky Vaughan as the second best shortstop in baseball history. James wrote that Vaughan’s place was “as much a surprise to [him] as it is to you.” I’m not sure I completely agree with James’ choice—among other things, Vaughan played just 14 total seasons, and fewer than 1825 games in his whole career. Some of that is mitigated on account of Vaughan missing time due to the Second World War, but he still topped 150 games just four times in his career.
It is indisputable that when Vaughan was on the field he was the equal of any shortstop save Wagner. His 1934 season—when he led the league in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS+ is dominating. Among American League-era shortstops, he still has more career WAR than players like Derek Jeter, Barry Larkin and Ozzie Smith.
Left Field: Willie Stargell
I wonder how often players fall short of an MVP (or Cy Young) award in their greatest seasons only to end up winning one during a less-great year. That was certainly the case for Pops, who finished second in the MVP voting in 1971 and 1973—turning in brilliant performances both times—but didn’t win until 1979. Admittedly, Stargell split the award that season with Keith Hernandez but Stargell wasn’t even the best player on the Pirates (not even close, really) let alone the best in the National League. I suspect that in most cases the “make-up” award is not intended as such, but it does raise an interesting thought of how frequently it happens.
Center Field: Jimmy Wynn
Our second month in a row with a longtime Houston Astros’ center-fielder; in fact, Wynn and February’s Cesar Cedeno rank second and first respectively in Astro CF starts. The Toy Cannon—the nickname came from his small stature—hit 223 home runs during his career in Houston, and doubtless would have had more if not for playing most of his games in the cavernous Astrodome. Indeed, only Jeff Bagwell and Moises Alou hit more home runs with the Astrodome as their home park in a single season, and only Bagwell hit more as an Astro during the Astrodome years.
Right Field: Mel Ott
I’ve written about Ott in the past—extensively, actually—so there’s not much to add here. So I’ll just state the obvious: Ott is one of the great right fielders of all-time (arguably top five, unquestionably top 10) and completes an outfield which features three players who are all-time greats at their position.
Starting Pitchers: Lefty Grove, Cy Young , Kevin Brown, Tom Glavine, Dazzy Vance
There are some very talented players on the March team, but it is pretty clear that the team’s real strength lies in its pitching. All of those men have legitimate claim to a place in the Hall of Fame; they collectively won two MVP Awards and two Cy Young Awards. And one of them, of course, is the very namesake for the latter award.
|March’s “other” 300-game winning lefty: Tom Glavine (Icon/SMI)|
Despite Young’s eponymous award, the best pitcher of the group is Grove. Depending on how one rates elements like era adjustment, peak vs. career and others, he might be the greatest pitcher to ever live. For his career, the Maryland native won exactly 300 games, while leading the league in wins four times—including a collective 172-54 record from 1927 to 1933; that’s better than a .750 winning percentage. For good measure, Grove also led the league in ERA nine times, which goes along nicely with the seven times he led in strikeouts.
Cy Young’s biography is well known—and he is probably holder of baseball’s most unassailable records—but it is sometime forgotten that, besides his huge win totals, Young was a great pitcher on a per inning basis as well. In 1901, he led the American League not only in wins but also in ERA, strikeouts, WHIP and ERA+. His career 138 ERA+ compares favorably to the likes of names like Randy Johnson and Greg Maddux.
Speaking of Maddux, this team features two of his long-time contemporaries: Brown and Glavine. Much mocked for his famously bad attitude with the media and humiliating tenure with the Yankees, Brown dropped off the Hall of Fame ballot this year after receiving just 12 votes. Prickly personality—and possible PED use—aside, Brown deserved more votes. His 1996 through 2000 peak, which included throwing more than 1,200 innings at a 165 ERA+, went equally unnoticed. Despite posting brilliant seasons in both 1996 (1.89 ERA in 233 IP) and 1998 (2.38 ERA in 257 IP), Brown received just 10 total first place Cy Young award votes in those years.
Glavine, meanwhile, had no such problem with voters, winning two Cy Young awards—including the 1998 trophy that should have gone to his March teammate. That doesn’t take away from Glavine’s own excellence. Five-time winner of 20 games, he finished in the top three in Cy Young voting six times and will easily earn the Hall of Fame election which eluded Brown.
Vance meanwhile, earned his place in the Hall of Fame in no small part owing to his 1924 and 1925 seasons. Those years, Vance went a combined 50-15, winning the MVP award the first season on the back of a 28-6 record with a league-leading 2.16 ERA in nearly 310 innings. Vance was past 30 by the time he became a dominant force, and finished his career with only 197 wins. Nonetheless, he remains just one of 15 pitchers to have two (or more) seasons with a WAR of nine or higher since 1901.
Relief Pitcher: Kent Tekulve
A real-world teammate of All-March left fielder Willie Stargell, Tekulve is best remembered today for his distinctive look: wearing thick, dark-tinted glasses and throwing with a submarine motion, he made a unique presence on the mound.
Unfortunately, that overshadows Tekulve’s excellence. At his best, he was a workhorse fireman in the mold of pre-Eckersley relievers, thrice appearing in 90 or more games in a season. He remains second all-time in Pirate saves, and—more unusually, but owing to his delivery—the all-time leader in intentional walks since the statistic began being tracked.
Manager: Miller Huggins
I haven’t put together all the teams yet, so I can’t say this for sure, but I’m pretty confident that Huggins will come the closest of any manager to making “his” team as a player. Huggins was a very good second baseman and only two March-men earned more WAR at the keystone. Of course, Huggins doesn’t need to feel too bad about missing out on his position, as his managerial resume easily gives him the job. As Yankee skipper, Huggins won six pennants and three championships to go along with more than 1,050 wins at nearly a .600 winning percentage. And maybe, when Jeff Kent needs a day off, Huggins can pencil himself into the line-up.