Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Prospect Preview: 1991

It was eighteen years ago that baseball officially entered the decade of the '90s. The A's were fresh off their third consecutive trip to the World Series (and a Series sweep by the hands of the Reds), and the Yankees had just lost 95 games to finish at the bottom of the cellar. In the 1990 MVP voting, Pittsburgh's Barry Bonds and Bobby Bonilla finished 1 and 2, and fellow-Pirate Doug Drabek won the Cy Young. Yes, it truly was a long time ago.

Being that far removed from the time then, it becomes an interesting exercise to see who the prospects were at the time and what people were saying about them. After all, we are now far enough removed that the shorter-lived all-stars (think Chuck Knoblauch) are coming up on Hall of Fame eligibility, while the longer-lived all-stars, and potential HOFers (think Ivan Rodriguez), are beginning to retire. And some of those prospects are actually still playing (Mike Timlin).

Here's what the 1991 Sporting News Baseball Yearbook and the March 1991 Baseball Digest have to say about the season's prospects:
Chuck Knoblauch: "Switched from short to second in 1990 and made a positive adjustment. Showed consistency with the bat and good range in the field, strong arm. Steady improvement in making doubleplay. Has ability to steal 20-plus bases."
We'll begin with the run-away AL Rookie of the Year and end with the run-away NL Rookie of the Year. It was actually a bad year for predicting the top prospects, as Knoblauch wasn't mentioned at all in the TSN yearbook, and only recieved this basic scouting report in BD. The report, though, was fairly spot on, as all of those strengths were hallmarks of Knoblauch's career. That is, until his mental issues surfaced for the Yankees.
Mo Vaughn: "Vaughn is an ideal middle-of-the-lineup hitter, combining average (.295 at Class AAA Pawtucket in his first full season) and power (22 homers, 26 doubles). He also strikes out a lot (134 in 631 pro at-bats). Vaughn, a first-round pick out of Seton Hall in June 1989, carries the label of a defensive liability but has worked hard to improve."
This is another write-up that was pretty spot-on in predicting his career. However, it is surprising that there was no mention about Vaughn's weight, as I remember him being a pretty big guy even in his rookie year. And, of course, it ended up playing a big role in how his career played out. This write-up appeared in TSN, labeling Vaughn as one of the top 5 American League Rookie of the Year candidates. He didn't actually get called up until June of that year, though, so he didn't have much chance at the award.
Juan Gonzalez: "Gonzalez's exceptional strength and consistent ability to hit line drives makes him the most desirable type of rookie position player - good hitter with power, the strongest arm in the minor leagues and decent running ability. He could well be the rookie sensation of the AL in 1991."
Though Gonzalez had tasted the big leagues as a September call-up in both 1989 and 1990, it wasn't until 1991 that he became a full-time major leaguer. Throughout the '90s, Juan-Gone was a legitimate star, winning five Silver Slugger awards and 2 MVPs (though he only made two All-Star teams). Of course, his career turned into something else, as his injury history and steroid accusations have made us give him a second and even third look.
Ray Lankford: "Willie McGee's replacement in center field at Busch Stadium will be Lankford, who appears to be a McGee clone. The 23-year-old sparkles on defense; he was the run-away leader in total chances in the Texas League in 1989 and in the American Association last season. He also has a lefthanded bat with explosive potential and can steal a base. Lankford, a third-round draft pick in June 1987, has a career minor league .290 average with 96 doubles, 40 triples, 35 homers and 115 stolen bases in 1756 minor league at-bats."
Lankford was included in TSN as one of the top five candidates for the NL Rookie of the Year, and he performed up to it, finishing third in the balloting that year. He ended up with a solid career, batting .272/.364/.477 over 14 injury-marred seasons. Despite that, he was a member of the 20/20 club in five different seasons, and had career highs of 31 homers and 44 stolen bases throughout his career. I'm not sure I ever saw him as a Willie McGee clone, though - he was always a pretty strong guy.
Ivan Rodriguez: "Was the Florida State League's All-Star catcher at the age of 18 in 1990. Is an outstanding catching prospect with good arm and defensive skill. Has also made surprising offensive progress, hitting .287 with 55 RBI last year. Defensive ability wil probably mean rapid rise in the minor leagues."
Though Rodriguez wasn't called up to the big club until late-June, he still performed well enough to finish 4th in the ROY voting. Of course, having had the chance to watch Pudge play for the last 18 years, I don't think it comes as any surprise that he moved so quickly to the head of the class. After all, Hall of Fame-caliber backstops come along so rarely. This was definitely a strong time for the Rangers ballclub, with Nolan Ryan, Kevin Brown, Ivan Rodriguez, Ruben Sierra, and Juan Gonzalez all playing good ball for them.
Jeff Bagwell: "A legitimate hitter for average who is learning to turn on the ball."
This is the only mention I can find of the future-Hall of Famer in either magazine. With Glenn Davis having recently been traded to the Orioles for, among others, Curt Schilling, it was probably a surprise that a player who had never played above AA (and who, only a season before, had been traded straight-up for Larry Andersen) would be able to step in to fill the void. But Bagwell certainly did that, hitting 294./.387/.437 in his Rookie of the Year campaign with a 139 OPS+. The Astros didn't have to worry about first base again until 2005. Not a bad deal for the Astros, I'd say.

Tuesday, December 30, 2008

The Black-Ink Test

Updated: While working on the Gray-Ink Test numbers, I noticed that the Innings Pitched and Games Played leaderboards weren't quite accurate, and that this caused some of the Black-Ink Test scores to change. The changes can be seen here. The biggest changes can be seen at the top of the list, where a number of pitchers jump higher on the list (because the IP category is worth 3 points). Also, the number one season is no longer held solely by Walter Johnson, as Christy Mathewson's 1908 season and Joe Medwick's 1937 are now tied with the Big Train's 1912 season. Take a look at the list for more changes, or check out the Gray-Ink Test numbers for a more thorough look at season leaders. I apologize for that.

In an interesting exploration of Triple Crown seasons and OBP, Tom Stone over at brought up a statistic that I had never heard of:
"And that got me thinking: what single-season has the highest Black Ink or Gray Ink score? These measures don’t actually include OBP, though they do include total walks. Even so, it would be an interesting ranking I think. So I went over to, assuming I’d find the answer there. But I can’t seem to locate single-season Black Ink or Gray Ink numbers, or an all-time single-season leaderboard for these measures (they only list career totals it seems). If you can find this analysis online somewhere, please let me know."
According to the definition of Black-Ink Test that Tom linked to above, the statistic measures how often a player led the league in certain categories. Each category is given a point value between 1 and 4, with the triple crown categories having the highest point values and games played/appearances, at-bats, etc. having the lowest point value. It's a simple little statistic and it does have some weaknesses (penalizes modern players for being a bigger pool, does not allow for positional or ballpark adjustments, etc.), but it does get directly at what a lot of people wonder about anyway: what did he lead the league in that year?

Because it was such a simple statistic, in principle, and because it promised to return some interesting results, I figured I'd tackle it on my own. Now, someone else may have already ran these numbers somewhere, so I may just be repeating someone else's work, but it seemed like a good exercise anyway. Actually, the Grey-Ink Test would probably return even more interesting results, since it accounts for Top-10 finishes instead of just league-leading finishes, but that will have to wait since it requires a little more SQL magic than I felt like doing yesterday.

Anyhow, I ran through the work required for the Black-Ink Test yesterday, and I did my best to account for all the little nuances of the minimum requirements needed to lead a stat like batting average. I feel pretty confident that my numbers match those shown at places like

The full list of the top 150 or so seasons, as rated by the Black-Ink Test, can be found here, along with a selected list of categories led for some player-seasons. Before I highlight some of these seasons, a couple of notes:
  • The leaders are broken down by league (i.e., AL vs NL), so players who change leagues during the season are penalized. Think Mark McGwire in 1997, who led the majors with 58 home runs, but led neither the AL nor NL individually. This, I believe, is consistent with MLB's record books, so I don't feel too bad about this.
  • The list I provided is only since 1901. It's already top-heavy with dead-ball era players, and it didn't seem worth including players from the 1880s as well.
  • I haven't checked thoroughly, but there is a small possibility that a rate-stat like batting average might be incorrectly placed at the top of a list due to rounding errors. I spot-checked as best I could, but I couldn't do all of them.
  • Players who share a lead in a category (such as Jose Canseco and Cecil Fielder each hitting 44 home runs in 1991) are both credited with the points for the Black-Ink Test.
With all of that said, here are some notable seasons near the top of the list:

#1 - Walter Johnson, 1913 (25 points): The Big Train won the MVP this season, after leading the league in: Wins, ERA, Strikeouts, IP, Win PCT, Complete Games, BB/9 innings, Hits/9 innings, and Shutouts (that's 9 of the 12 measured categories).

#2 - Joe Medwick, 1937
(24 points): The St. Louis outfielder also won the MVP in this Triple Crown season, after leading the league in: HR, RBI, Average, Runs, Hits, Slugging, Doubles, and AB.

#3 - Ty Cobb, 1909; Nap Lajoie, 1901; and Rogers Hornsby, 1922
(23 points): All three players won the Triple Crown in these years, while also leading in Runs, Hits, and Slugging. Lajoie and Hornsby also led the season in Doubles, but Cobb got his additional points from leading the league in Stolen Bases.

#10 - Carl Yastrzemski, 1967
(21 points): Yaz's Triple Crown year is the highest "modern" year, with the only post-World War season ranking above it being Williams' 1949 Triple Crown season. Yaz ranks this high by leading the league in: HR, RBI, Average, Runs, Hits, and Slugging.

#11 - Randy Johnson, 2002
(20 points - tied with 8 others, including two Triple Crown years from Ted Williams): The Big Unit's final Cy Young season in the desert is, by far, the highest ranking season of anyone who has played in the last 10 years. He managed this by leading the league in: Wins, ERA, Strikeouts, IP, Win PCT, and Complete Games.

#20 - Sandy Koufax, 1965 and 1966
(19 points - tied with 6 others): Koufax won the "pitching Triple Crown" in back-to-back years, placing in the top-20 best Black-Ink seasons each time. Besides Wins, ERA, and Strikeouts, Koufax led the league in Win PCT, Complete Games and Hits/9 innings in 1965 and IP, Complete Games, Games Started and Shutouts in 1966.

#28 - Roger Clemens, 1997
(18 points - tied with 5 others, including Triple Crown years from Mickey Mantle and Frank Robinson): Clemens is the next highest player from the last 10 years to make the list, leading the league in Win, ERA, Strikouts, IP, Complete Games, and Shutouts.

#34 - Pedro Martinez, 1999; Jim Rice, 1978
(17 points - tied with 7 others): In Pedro's dominating year (when he really, really should have won the MVP), he led the league in Wins, ERA, Strikeouts, Win PCT, and hits/9 innings. Then there's perennial HOF argument Jim Rice, who had a phenomenal year in 1978. That season, Rice led the league in HR, RBI, Hits, Slugging, Games, AB, and triples. It was the highest ranking season of any player from the 1970s.

#43 - Greg Maddux, 1994 and 1995; Albert Belle, 1995; Todd Helton, 2000
(16 points - tied with 15 others): This is where I'll stop. Maddux's two best seasons, by the Black-Ink Test, were back-to-back, just like Koufax. He led the league each year in Wins, ERA, Complete Games, and Shutouts. He also led the league in IP and Hits/9 innings in 1994 and in Win PCT and BB/9 innings in 1995. Helton and Belle are the next highest players of the last ten years to appear on the list. Belle led the league in 1995 in HR, RBI, Runs, Slugging, and Doubles, while Helton led the league in 2000 in RBI, Average, Hits, Slugging, and Double.

Those are the players I found to be most interesting. The original post by Tom at Seamheads was dealing with OBP, so it's interesting to note that, of the players that I checked in the top 20, only Ted Williams, in his 1942 and 1949 Triple Crown seasons, also led the league in walks.

I'll probably follow this up at some point this weekend, maybe, with leaders in the Grey-Ink Test. Like I said, though, that might require a little more SQL magic than I'd like, though.

Monday, December 29, 2008

A few follow-up notes...

Playing around on the internet over this long holiday weekend, I came across a few items that were related to past posts here on wezen-ball. It seemed like a good idea to share these pieces in a "follow-up" manner...

On the Pitcher of the '80s:
In the original post, I discussed an article in the 1990 Street & Smith's preview guide that named Jack Morris and Fernando Valenzuela as right-handed and left-handed pitchers of the 1980s. I thought it was note-worthy because it showed that contemporary writers put Morris and Fernando on even-footing in the "pitcher of the decade" argument, an argument that many use to bolster Morris' Hall of Fame bid even though Fernando never had so much as a sniff of the Hall.

Well, in a similar article written in the December 1989 issue of Baseball Digest, the authors come to the same conclusion: Morris and Valenzuela as pitchers of the decade. Again, I'm glad to find articles like this because a) it helps to show the relative weakness of the "Pitcher of the '80s" argument for Morris' HOF candidacy and b) it helps people remember Fernando and his legacy.

On A Charlie Brown Christmas:
I mentioned one of the best gifts I had ever been was a copy of Sandlot Peanuts that my brother had found in some random used book store. Well, it turns out that 1978 baseball preview issue of Sports Illustrated included a review of the book:
"These inner struggles take place in a closed world in which we never see grown-ups or many of the opponents who roll up astronomical scores. Yet the outside world can intrude, as in the sequence in which Snoopy challenges Henry Aaron in an attempt to be the first to break Babe Ruth's home-run record. Lucy howls. 'It'll be a disgrace. You're not even human.' Ignoring her and his hate mail, the canine slugger ruminates, 'I just want to be a credit to my breed.'"
On Finding Preview Guides Online:
In a blog I just found through a post by TangoTiger, the good folks over at BaseballGB (as in Baseball - Great Britain) seem to be just as excited as I am about the availability of Baseball Digest on Google Books. They also provide a great service by pointing out that Baseball Mercury, a "modest British equivalent," is also available online. Thanks for that!

Through the Years: Jim Rice

Was Jim Rice truly "feared" in his time?

In recent years, it has become very much in vogue to discuss the merits of Jim Rice's candidacy for the Hall of Fame. Similar to Jack Morris, proponents of Rice's candidacy cite two key areas as their basis for support: his traditional batting statistics, specifically average, home runs, and runs batted in; and his "aura", or legacy. With Morris, the aura-argument is that he was the "Pitcher of the 1980s" or that he was a "clutch pitcher who finished his own games." With Rice, it is that he was the "most feared hitter of his time" and that opposing managers would "consider walking him with the bases loaded rather than pitch to him."

Opponents of Rice's (and Morris's) candidacy, on the other hand, focus solely on the statistics and generally come to the conclusion that the stats just don't quite cut it - that they are marginal candidates who can't beat those margins.

The problem with this discussion, though, is that the sides aren't exactly speaking the same language. In Rice's case, it is the "feared hitter" argument that seems to cause the communication problem. Proponents know this to be true, and they see the traditional statistics as evidence of it. Opponents, however, see it as a subjective argument that has little to no place in the Hall of Fame discussion and, when they try to show that there's no quantifiable basis for the argument - that there are no numbers to back up the claim - it gains no traction with the proponents.

All of this is a long-winded way of saying that one of the key arguments of Jim Rice supporters, that he was the "most feared hitter of his generation," has never really been addressed in the right language. Throwing statistics around, no matter how traditional, just doesn't seem to do it because the phrase "most feared" can be interpreted in so many different ways that the stats end up being meaningless. There is a way to address this argument in the right language, though, and I hope to do so in this post.

In much the same way as my post about the "Pitcher of the '80s", it should be possible to determine if Jim Rice truly was the "most feared hitter of his time" by looking at what people were writing about him as he was playing. If he was truly as feared as it's claimed, then it shouldn't be too difficult to find contemporary writers saying as much (just think about how much people wrote about McGwire and Bonds as they were going on their tears). Of course, finding the truth of the argument and discussing the merit of the argument are two different things, and I'm not here to judge its merit.

In past "Through the Years" posts, I looked through my collection of annual preview magazines to find what they were saying about my subject as he climbed into the top-tier of ballplayers. In those, I tried to see if the writers of the time were able to tell that certain players - Greg Maddux, Rickey Henderson, etc - were truly special, or if it was something that couldn't be noticed until it was undeniable. In this post, I will try to do the same for Jim Rice, but I'll be looking especially for any evidence that he was rated as the "feared" hitter of the era. Hopefully, it will be clear one way or the other. (Be warned, it is rather long.)

Jim Rice first appeared in the Street & Smith's preview guides in 1974, in the minor league preview section. His talent was easily recognizable at the time, though it was impossible to know if he was a sure-fire star or just another prospect ready to fizzle out:
"A year away are infielder Frank Vazquez ... and outfielder Jim Rice. [Rice]'ll be in Triple A after a spectacular Double A campaign at Bristol (.317, 27 HRs, 93 RBIs). He also mashed AAA pitching the last year [sic] of the season."
Of course, Rice didn't become a full-time member of the Red Sox until 1975, and, boy, what a season that was. Fred Lynn had probably the most phenomenal rookie season of all-time, winning both the Rookie of the Year and Most Valuable Player awards, and the Red Sox went on to play one of the most memorable World Series ever. Jim Rice's emergence that year as a rookie was just as important to the Sox's season as Lynn's, though. In any other year, in fact, he would have won ROY himself. Instead, he finished second in the voting and third in MVP voting. Baseball Digest was very succinct in their 1976 preview:
"No one needs to add plaudits those already bestowed on the Red Sox outfield of Fred Lynn, Jim Rice, and Dwight Evans. Lynn was MVP and Rookie of the Year in the AL and his closest challenger for the debut honors was Rice."
That season's baseball preview issue of Sports Illustrated was less succinct, devoting an entire article to the Boston two-some. Their praise was not only reserved for the MVP-winner:
"Rice's year could also be described as prodigious. Henry Aaron watched him swing and pronounced all home-run records in jeopardy. Rice hit a 500-foot shot to the right of the flagpole in Fenway Park, a feat matched by only five others, including Hank Greenberg and Jimmie Foxx. In a 56-game streak he had 45 RBIs and five four-hit games."
Despite all of this early praise, it's still too soon to expect any talk about him being the "feared" hitter of his era. Rookie performances are just too unpredictable for anyone to be confident that one's career would continue at that high level. He did perform well in 1976 for a sophomore, but the season was nowhere near as good as his rookie campaign. It was the next year, 1977, where Rice really started getting into the mainstream. That year began a three-year string of performances that solidified him as a superstar hitter, and became the genesis of his Hall of Fame candidacy.

It was a brilliant stretch of baseball where Rice hit at least 39 home runs, had at least 114 RBIs, 104 runs, 201 hits and batted at least .315/.370/.593 each year. His lowest OPS+ of the three years was 147. He placed fifth or better in the MVP voting each year, and won the award with his 46/139/.315/.370/.600 line in 1978. If there ever was a stretch where someone could be considered the most feared hitter of his time, this stretch could easily be it.

Following his MVP season of 1978, there was a lot written about Rice. SI featured him, along with fellow MVP Dave Parker, on the cover of their annual baseball preview. The article on Rice is the first I've found to mention Rice as "feared":
"At 6'2", 205 pounds, Rice is not as imposing physically as those Brobdingnagians, [Frank] Howard and [Dave] Parker, but he has powerful arms and feline reflexes. His swing is swift and compact. He is among the most fearless as well as feared hitters in the game, because he will stand his ground against the fiercest brushback artist. For that matter, he may be at his most dangerous after being hit or threatened by a pitch. And, as his four-year major league batting average of .306 attests, he is not exclusively a power hitter."
That same article also pointed out that, though he was a feared hitter, he was not considered the best player in baseball:
"In fact, when SPORTS ILLUSTRATED recently polled baseball experts, asking them to choose between Pirate Dave Parker and Rice as the game's best player, a majority selected Parker, mainly because of his expertise as a fielder and his speed. Among those who picked Rice, his strength—his ability to drive the ball high and long—was usually the deciding factor in his favor."
The Baseball Digest preview magazine from the same year also held Rice in great regard. In their list of "Best of Everything in the Majors in 1978", he was given the title of "Most Dangerous Hitter, American League". The magazine had this to say by way of commentary (the emphasis is from the original):
"It came as no surprise that American League voters were unanimous in picking Boston's Jim Rice as the most dangerous hitter. In other years, they may have leaned toward Rod Carew, but in 1978, Carew didn't have Lyman Bostock hitting ahead of him and Larry Hisle hitting behind him. Pitchers could work around Carew last year, if they chose.

But, in 1978, Rice was an awesome figure to confront, particularly in Fenway Park. As former Texas manager Billy Hunter put it, 'Carew can single you to death. He might even beat you with a bunt. But Rice can win games with one swipe of his bat.'"
But this was only a few months after his 1978 season, a season in which he very deservedly won the MVP award and earned himself a 7-year, $5.4 million contract. He was at his peak, and it's only sensible that he would get accolades for it. The question is, would these accolades hold up for the rest of his career?

Following another great year in 1979, Baseball Digest named Jim Rice to their "Super All-Star Team of the 1980s," a gimmick in which they tried to foresee the best players among the next ten years, keeping in mind "quality and potential." Clearly, Rice's first five years in baseball made people believe in his ability.
"Designated Hitter: Jim Rice in a no-contest. Rice, 27, would be the clean-up batter on this super-team and should be a slugger for at least 10 more years. Barring injury, he'll approach 600 homers before his career ends, with a current total of 173."
The next couple of years were tough on Rice, though he did put up some solid, if unspectacular, numbers. His 1980 season was shortened by about 40 games due to a wrist injury, and the strike-shortened 1981 season was his first without all-star Fred Lynn hitting in front of him.

Rice raised his average for the 1982 season, hitting .309/.375/.494 with a 130 OPS+. The season earned him a few points in the MVP voting, finishing 19th in the voting that year. For 1983, the Sox upgraded their line-up, trading for slugger Tony Armas to hit behind Rice. Everyone seemed to agree that this move would only help Rice, and it did. He hit 39 home runs for the fourth time in his career, and his 141 OPS+ helped him finish 4th in the MVP voting.

The Street & Smith's preview magazine the following year didn't miss a chance to praise Rice.
"With Yaz departed, Rice steps into the fans' spotlight. He led the league in total bases (344) for the fourth time and in homers for the third time, and was second in RBI. 'Jim can do in 18 years what it took me 23 to do,' Yastrzemski said of the nine-year left fielder. Armas in center played through incredible good-bad streaks, striking out 131 times, then had elbow chips removed. Dwight Evans in right slipped 54 points in average (.238, 22 HR, 58 RBI)."
Rice's 1984 season was his tenth in the big leagues and he entered it on the verge of an impressive achievement. Baseball Digest marked it thusly:
"However, one current player still in the prime of his career - 31-year-old Jim Rice of the Red Sox - is on the verge of attaining a milestone so significant it will virtually guarantee him a spot in Cooperstown.

Rice's 'gimmick' is his combination of two distinct and important offensive talents: hitting for power and hitting for high average. In 1983, the Boston slugger collected his third American League home run title and his sixth .300 season, giving him ten-year totals of 276 homers and a .306 average. Another 24 four-baggers will earn Rice membership in the exclusive '300-.300 Club', for players with at least 300 homers and a lifetime .300 average. Rice should make it around August of this year.

Only 14 players in the history of baseball have finished their careers as members of this elite club, and all 14 are enshrined in the Hall of Fame."
Though the season ended as a down year for Rice, he did end the season with 304 career home runs and a .303 career average. The off-season saw him get into a "piping-hot winter argument with club owner Haywood Sullivan over salary negotiations."

But writer's didn't seem to begrudge Rice his off-season arguments, and the 1985 Street & Smith's preview guide even featured a long article called "Jim Rice: Baseball's Best Hitter the Last 10 Years." In it, the author talks about Rice's curmudgeonly attitude towards sports-writers but mentions that "no one denies that Jim Rice can hit like few men who ever lived."

The author, Columbia, SC, reporter Bob Spear never mentions the word "feared," but he does spend paragraph after paragraph comparing Rice's numbers to inner-circle players like Ruth and Gehrig. He does write that "members of the pitching fraternity recognize that facing him is hazardous to the earned-run average."

An interesting part of the article is the discussion of the effects of playing at Fenway Park:
"And the friendly-looking left-field fence isn't so friendly. For one thing, the right-handed-hitting Rice sees few left-handed pitchers at home. For another, the wall stands 37 feet high. 'I expect I've lost 100 home runs, line drives that hit high on the wall rather than going out,' he estimated after only four years in the majors. Obviously, that total has sky-rocketed.

'That park has hurt him,' agreed Twins' superscout Ellis Clary. 'I remember Charlie Dressen talking about how Joe DiMaggio would hit 75 homers a year in Ebbets Field (in Brooklyn). Along the same lines, put Rice in a park like Atlanta, and he'd hit 95 a year...'"
Still, this article makes it obvious that Rice was highly regarded as a hitter ten years into his career, even accounting for the biases of the publishers and of the home-town author.

In the 1986 Sporting News preview guide, following another injury-plagued year from Rice, Peter Gammons wrote, in a "who to watch in 1986" article:
"Jim Rice of the Boston Red Sox. You look at his 103-RBI 1985 season and presume he had a good year. But AL batting champion Wade Boggs hit in front of Rice and set a record for reaching base without scoring. Rice's left knee bothered him most of the season, and he finally had it operated on in October, surgery that might keep him out of left field until May. Another interesting note is that Rice will be trying a contact lens in his left to correct an astigmatism that has bothered him for years."
Also, the 1986 preview issue of Baseball Digest featured an article titled "Eddie Murray: The American League's Most Feared Hitter." Rice's 1986 campaign proved to be a quality one, as he hit .324/.384/.490 with 98 runs scored and 110 runs batted in for the AL champion Red Sox, finishing fifth in the AL in batting average and third in MVP voting. But it would prove to be his final full season, playing in only 108 games, 135 games, and 56 games over the next three seasons and undergoing arthroscopic surgery on both knees before the 1988 season.

In Jim Rice's 14 full seasons in the majors, he had six where he finished in the top-5 in MVP voting, winning once, and his first five years had very little precedent. During this time, it was clear that contemporary writers held Rice and his power in high esteem. Retrospective articles ten years into his career couldn't help but be amazed at his body of work, and there were multiple mentions of Rice as the most "feared" or "dangerous" player in the American League, though these seem to have come solely during his three-year streak of sustained excellence early in his career. In fact, doing a search in Baseball Digest for "feared" or "dangerous" hitter during the years of Rice's career will give you more hits for people like Dave Parker, Eddie Murray or Reggie Jackson.

But Rice did have a great career, as short as it was. Advanced statistics will show that he benefited much more from Fenway Park than some would like to believe, but it's hard to argue that with some people when looking at the sheer numbers he put up in his big years. However, as great as Rice was for his relatively short career, the argument his supporters make today - that he was the "most feared hitter" of his time - is hard to substantiate when you look at the press clippings from the day. There were plenty of accolades written about him during those years, and there was a short time-frame where people did call him the "most feared hitter," but it did not persist throughout his career. As questionable as the argument may be, there is some truth in it, but not nearly enough to make it such a cornerstone of Rice's candidacy.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

A Charlie Brown Christmas

For people who know me well, there are few things that are more obvious to them about me and my personality than my love for the comic strip Peanuts and my kinship with Charlie Brown himself. I realize that this is a fairly geeky thing to admit to, to say the least, but I'm not ashamed of it.

Growing up, there was always something familiar and endearing about the personality of Charlie Brown and the tone of the strip itself that drew me in. I won't say that I learned a lot of life's lessons from Peanuts because one has to actually live life to learn those particular lessons. But, the way those lessons have been expressed in the four panels of a Peanuts comic strip... it's pretty difficult to find someone or something that did it better.

With that said, it's undeniable that Charlie Brown's love for baseball and the way baseball is always around helped me to connect with the comic strip, and it's one of the main reasons that I have gone back to the comic strips over and over again in my life. One of the coolest gifts I've ever received was when my brother found me a copy of Sandlot Peanuts at some used book shop - a 200-page hardcover book featuring nothing but baseball-themed Peanuts comics is pretty great.

It's Christmas-time now and, with the Yankees' signing of Mark Teixeira yesterday, I thought nothing seemed more appropriate going into the holiday than a few words about the sport - what it's like to win, what it's like to lose, and what it's like to be a fan - from Charlie Brown and company.

Enjoy, and Merry Christmas!

(I'm leaving the strips small because I don't want to get anyone angry. That's why I've included transcripts of the comics below each one. Click on the image to make it slightly more readable.)

On Winning
There's actually not a whole lot in the Peanuts oeuvre about winning, as Charlie Brown was rarely lucky enough to be on that side of the field. Still, there are some good bits if you look.

Charlie Brown lies in bed, clearly happy
Charlie Brown: We won our first game of the season... I can't believe it!
He starts tossing and turning
CB: I wonder how the other team feels...
He sits up, with a look of sadness
CB: I don't know... when we lose, I'm miserable... When we win, I feel guilty!

Charlie Brown ecstatically does cartwheels down the road
Charlie Brown: I hit a home run in the ninth inning, and we won! I was the hero!!
Sally (meeting him at the doorstep): YOU?!

Lucy walks up to Charlie Brown on the mound.
Lucy: What's the sense in playing when we know we're going to lose? If there was even a million-to-one chance we might win, it would make some sense...
Charlie Brown: Well, there may not be a million-to-one chance, but I'm sure there's a billion-to-one chance...
Lucy: There is? PLAY BALL!

On Losing
As you can imagine, there's are quite a number of strips dealing with losing. Charlie Brown, after all, was the consummate loser. His eternal optimism in spite of that was what made him so endearing.

Linus is looking through some papers with Charlie Brown looking on
Linus: I've been going over our team records, Charlie Brown... We lost every game this season!
Charlie Brown (after looking for himself): Maybe we're building character

Charlie Brown is on the mound, lamenting another loss, as Lucy strolls up.
Charlie Brown: One hundred and twenty-three to nothing! No one should ever have to lose the first game of the season by a score of 123-0! It just not right... Besides, how could we possibly lose a game 123 to 0?
Lucy: We never got any breaks!

Peppermint Patty, the athlete, is very upset as Linus, Snoopy, and Charlie Brown look on.
Peppermint Patty: THIS IS RIDICULOUS! I've hit five home runs and pitched a no-hit game, and we're behind thirty-seven to five! Whoever heard of thirty-seven unearned runs? This is ridiculous! I thought I could help your team, Chuck. But it's hopeless! I'm going back where I came from!
Charlie Brown: That must be a nice thing to be able to do...

On Being a Fan
Charlie Brown was very famously a fan of Joe Shlabotnik, quite possibly the worst player in baseball history. His devotion was complete, though, despite all that his hero had to endure. If only we could all be so devoted...

Linus, Charlie Brown, and Snoopy are all seated at a table, waiting for Joe Shlabotnik to arrive to the sports banquet they paid to attend.
Linus: Where's Joe Shlatbonik?
Charlie Brown: He'll be here! When Joe Shlabotnik says he's going to do something, he does it! I remember one game last year... He came up to bat in the ninth inning, and said he was going to hit a home run...
Linus: Did he?
Charlie Brown: No, he popped up... But he ran it out!
Linus: I'm glad you have faith in your hero, Charlie Brown
Charlie Brown: He'll be here... He probably stopped to fix a flat tire on some elderly person's car...

Charlie Brown is reading the paper with Schroeder nearby.
Charlie Brown: Oh, no! My favorite player, Joe Shlabotnik, has been sent down to the minors again! He's going to play for Stumptown in the Green Grass League... I hope the fans appreciate what a great player they're getting. I bet he'll lead Stumptown to its first pennant!
Schroeder: With a .004 batting average?

A depressed Charlie Brown sits under a tree.
Charlie Brown: Well, it was another bad baseball year for me..
He walks to the front porch and picks up the paper
CB: Maybe my hero, Joe Shlabotnik, is having a better time... I'll see how he's doing...
Reading the paper
CB: "Joe Shlabotnik struck out last night in the bottom of the ninth as Stumptown of the Green Grass League sank deeper into the cellar."
CB, writing a letter: Dear Joe, Don't be discouraged. Someone understands.

Bonus: On Statistics
At one point, Linus, the brainy one, became enamored with statistics and went around telling everyone what he discovered. I don't know exactly when these were published, but it was likely before Bill James and his Abstracts...

Linus and Charlie Brown, sitting at their brick wall.
Linus: Do you want to hear some baseball statistics, Charlie Brown? According to my figures, as our pitcher, you had an earned run average this year of eighty runs per game. Statistics don't lie, Charlie Brown.
Charlie Brown: No, but they sure shoot off their mouth a lot!

Charlie Brown, addressing his team as a smug Linus looks on.
Charlie Brown: All right. We've heard the report from our statistician. Both our hitting and our fielding averages were down this year. So you all know what we have to do next season
Team, together: GET A NEW STATISTICIAN!!!

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Prospect Preview: 1996

It's pretty hard to believe sometimes, but with the 2009 season upcoming that means that the 1996 season was 13 years ago. Thirteen. To put that into perspective, by the time the 1991 season rolled around - the first season that I remember really well, as it was the year I turned 11 - both Ozzie Smith and Paul Molitor had been in the league for 13 years, Rickey Henderson had been in the league for 12 years and had already broken Lou Brock's record, and Eddie Murray had been playing for 14 years. These were all legitimate, certain stars that had all-but-punched their ticket to Cooperstown by that time.

It's with that perspective, then, that I look back at 1996 and think "Wow, was it really that long ago?" I remember those two home runs that 19-year old Andruw Jones hit in Game 1 of the World Series at Yankee Stadium. None of that seems like it was an Ozzie Smith-career ago, but it was, so we might as well embrace it.

The young talent in the majors in 1996 was pretty impressive. It was the year of Jeter's ROY award, and A-Rod's breakout season. The young talent went throughout the minors as well. Scott Rolen and Nomar were a year away from the majors, and others were getting close too. With all the young talent in the system at the time, it should be interesting to see what the preview guides had to say.

The 1996 Sporting News baseball yearbook had a slightly different format than other preview guides when it comes to the minor league preview. In an effort to streamline the magazine, the minor league comments were shortened to two pages, with the franchises' top players listed with a single-line comment in a table. Despite this, there are plenty of interesting comments to be found and read 13 years later.
Derek Jeter: "Derek Jeter's time has arrived at shortstop. The Yankees' top prospect, who showed a nice flair in a brief call-up last year, has good speed, a fine arm, and a nice hitting technique. The question is whether he will be consistent afield."It also mentions that he "has physical ability and instincts to be a star."
The reports on Jeter were quite accurate, right down to the instincts to be a star, the nice hitting technique, and the questions about his fielding consistency (not that everybody agrees with that last point). Jeter's run-away Rookie of the Year award was also good evidence of just how ready he was for the majors that year.
Bobby Abreu: Listed as Bob Abreu, it is said that he "has speed and gap-power that's so vital in Astrodome."
Abreu made his debut as a September call-up in '96 and struggled some. He didn't become an everyday major leaguer until the 1998 season, but he quickly turned into one of the more underrated players in baseball. Of course, he just as quickly turned into one of those so-underrated-he's-overrated players.
Nomar Garciaparra: "Solid defensively; has shown offensive ability"
It's been a few years since Nomar was near the top of the list of best shortstops in baseball, but he certainly was a big star for those few years. It was mostly with his bat, though, winning those batting titles. It's interesting that, as a minor leaguer one year away from the Bigs, his offense was the afterthought in the comment.
Kerry Wood: "Polished delivery and a fastball that touches 98 mph"
Wood actually didn't break on the MLB scene until 1998, two years later, but it's interesting to see that he was already highly regarded in Single A. So often, you see young power pitchers featured in a team's "hot prospects" list, but it always seems like they won't pan out. This is a nice reminder that some of those pitchers truly are special. Hopefully, though, your organization doesn't have Dusty Baker out there managing, trying his hardest to have a 20-something's arm literally fall off while on the hill.

The Atlanta Braves had quite the system in 1996, even after half a decade of NL dominance and coming off a World Series victory. They were ranked as the second best system in baseball, behind only the Los Angeles Dodgers (whose Todd Hollandsworth won the Dodgers' fifth ROY award in a row in 1996). All of the following players were ranked in the Braves' system in the 1996 TSN Yearbook:
Andruw Jones: "Only 18; has the tools to be plus-player in every aspect"

Jason Schmidt: "Power fastball with hard slider for out pitch"

Jermaine Dye
: "Excellent arm, developing power at plate"
While none of those three have gone on to Hall of Fame careers - though Jones could have been until he was replaced by an alien clone - they all have been quality all-stars across multiple seasons. That was a good time for the Braves organization, with the World championship and the stars waiting in the wings. It's a shame they weren't able to turn it into any further championships.

As recent as 1996 seems, we all know that a significant amount of time has elapsed. Many, many players' careers - all-stars and Rookies of the Year even - have come and gone. Still, there are dozens of players still playing today who were only up-and-coming at the time, and it's always fun to see what writers were saying about them before they hit it big.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Top Talent-Producing Universities (Revisited)

Thanks to some great discussion over at Baseball Think Factory, I felt it was important to take at least one more look at my post on Top Talent-Producing Universities. As I said in that post, I was only playing around with the numbers, so I didn't do much beyond a couple of simple calculations. But it's obvious that a simple average doesn't quite do it justice: it penalizes schools like USC who churn out many major leaguers (who tend to drag down the average since they all can't be Mark McGwire or Randy Johnson).

One suggestion, then, is to rank the schools solely by Total Win Shares:

School# Major Leaguers
Total WS
Notable Alumni
Tom Seaver (388 WS), Mark McGwire (343 WS), Randy Johnson (315 WS), Fred Lynn (280 WS)
Arizona St. University
4244Barry Bonds (714 WS), Reggie Jackson (444 WS), Sal Bando (283 WS)
University of Michigan
3026Charlie Gehringer (383 WS), Barry Larkin (346 WS), George Sisler (292 WS)
Saint Mary's College of California
2816Von Hayes (177 WS), Tom Candiotti (158 WS)
2721Jackie Robinson (257 WS), Todd Zeile (221 WS), Troy Glaus (158 WS)
University of Texas at Austin
Roger Clemens (440 WS), Burt Hooten (164 WS), Greg Swindell (136 WS)
Notre Dame
2567Carl Yastrzemski (488 WS), Cap Anson (381 WS), Cy Williams (235 WS)
1904Jeff Kent (335 WS), Jackie Jensen (187 WS)
Mississippi State University
Rafael Palmiero (395 WS), Will Clark (331 WS)
University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
1876Lou Boudreau (277 WS), Tom Haller (179 WS)

I'm not convinced that this is the best way to look at it, though. It allows for quantity to be ranked over quality, at least in theory. Somehow, we need to account for the schools who have produced the higher level talent while also making sure not to ignore the contributions of the lower level talent they produced.

There were suggestions about taking the top 10% of each school and weighting their contributions differently, or of taking each alumni's total Win Shares and weighting them by their ranking, and so on. While those all would probably re-shape the output into something closer to what we're looking for, I think that they may be needlessly complex (plus, they'd make me work a little harder than I really want to right now).

The method I decided to use incorporates the Average Win Shares shown in the last post and combines it with the number of quality players each school produces. The idea behind this is that schools who produce more high-quality players will be pushed up in the rankings. The formula is this: for schools who have produced 10 or more major leaguers, multiply the average Win Share value by the total number of alumni who accrued 100 or more Win Shares in their career.

This method produces a list of schools that seems a little more likely.

School# Major Leaguers
Average WS
# Alumni (100+ Career WS)
Weighted Average
Notable Alumni
Tom Seaver (388 WS), Mark McGwire (343 WS), Randy Johnson (315 WS), Fred Lynn (280 WS)
Arizona St. University
578.7Barry Bonds (714 WS), Reggie Jackson (444 WS), Sal Bando (283 WS)
Saint Mary's College of California62
500.0Von Hayes (177 WS), Tom Candiotti (158 WS)
345.5Jackie Robinson (257 WS), Todd Zeile (221 WS), Troy Glaus (158 WS)
University of Michigan
336.2Charlie Gehringer (383 WS), Barry Larkin (346 WS), George Sisler (292 WS)
Jeff Kent (335 WS), Jackie Jensen (187 WS)
Notre Dame
268.2Carl Yastrzemski (488 WS), Cap Anson (381 WS), Cy Williams (235 WS)
San Diego St.
258.7Tony Gwynn (398 WS), Graig Nettles (321 WS), Mark Grace (294 WS)
University of Minnesota
Dave Winfield (415 WS), Paul Molitor (414 WS), Terry Steinbach (173 WS)
University of Tennessee
255.6Todd Helton (258 WS), Phil Garner (195 WS), Rick Honeycutt (130 WS)

A few notes:
  • The second method, that tries to account for quantity and quality, gives a pretty similar list to the first list. Now, maybe this means that we came up with a better, more logical method to rank the universities. However, it might also mean that we fudged with the method enough to give us whatever we were looking for originally. I'd like to think it's the former, but we have to recognize that the latter might be possible.
  • Schools like Columbia and Cal Poly, which placed highly in the previous post, end up ranking 21st and 23rd, respectively, in this method, which is still higher than I would've expected from my less-than-famous alma mater. (Georgia Tech finishes 12th)
  • In this ranking, I did my best to account for players who played at more than one school (like Barry Zito who transferred from UCSB to USC). Players are credited to the school they played at last. However, there are about 60 players in the database who are listed as having played at multiple schools in the same years, so there was no way for me to know who they played with last. I left them as is; they didn't affect the top of the rankings.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Top Talent-Producing Universities

Well, it's a snow day here in Milwaukee - twelve inches of snow in the overnight and early-morning hours will do that - so I didn't do much this morning except sleep in, watch 30 Rock, and goof off on the computer (there was a new iPod thrown in there too, so that kept me pretty busy). Part of that goofing off is, of course, playing with various baseball statistics.

While doing just that, I decided to look at what colleges have produced the best players. It's easy to look at some lists and see that Arizona St. has produced the likes Barry Bonds and Reggie Jackson, or that USC has produced Tom Seaver, Mark McGwire, and Randy Johnson, but that seems a little too subjective to me. I decided to try something a little more objective to see what we get.

Using the database info available at Baseball Databank and the Win Shares info found on the Baseball Graphs Blog (limited through 2007 for now), I calculated how many players have come from each school and then summed up the total Win Shares of each of those players. In order to rank the schools in a meaningful way, I found the average Win Shares of each school's alumni. So, for example, there were 26 MLB players who attended the University of Wisconsin - Madison, and those 26 players accumulated a total of 933 Win Shares throughout their career (with Harvey Kuenn earning the most with 223 WS). That gives UW an average Win Share value of 35.9.

Using that admittedly-basic methodology, I created two lists of the top talent-producing schools, one for all players and one only for players since 1950. However, there are a number of schools who only ever produced one or two players, and when they happen to be quality players, the average gets a little skewed. The ultimate example of this is Texas Wesleyan University, which has produced only two major leaguers: Tris Speaker, who had 630 Win Shares in his career, and Jeff Moronko, a career minor leaguer who played in 7 games in each of 1984 and 1987. This gives Texas Wesleyan an average of 315 Win Shares between its two alumni, but that is clearly a misleading number. The lists, therefore, are limited to schools who have produced 10 or more players.

Average Win Shares of Alumni, by College (All-Time)

School# Major Leaguers
Avg WSNotable Alumni
Columbia University12
Lou Gehrig (489 WS), Eddie Collins (574 WS)
Guilford College10
65.5Tony Womack (118 WS), Rick Ferrell (206 WS), Tom Zachary (205 WS)
Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo10
63.3Ozzie Smith (325 WS), Thornton Lee (165 WS), Mike Krukow (109 WS)
University of Vermont12
62.3Larry Gardner (258 WS), Ed Reulbach (206 WS)
University of South Alabama18
54.7Luis Gonzalez (316 WS), Juan Pierre (122 WS), Jon Lieber (109 WS)
San Diego State University
Tony Gwynn (398 WS), Graig Nettles (321 WS), Mark Grace (294 WS)
University of Minnesota31
51.3Dave Winfield (415 WS), Paul Molitor (414 WS), Terry Steinbach (173 WS)
Ohio University23
51.0Mike Schmidt (467 WS), Bob Brenly (93 WS)
Seton Hall University28
49.6Craig Biggio (431 WS), Mo Vaughn (200 WS), Johnny Briggs (159 WS)
Arizona State University88
48.2Barry Bonds (714 WS), Reggie Jackson (444 WS), Sal Bando (283 WS)
* Updated: The Average Win Shares value for Columbia was originally incorrectly transcribed as 66.6. I apologize for that.

Average Win Shares of Alumni, by College (finishing career since 1950)

School# Major Leaguers
Avg WSNotable Alumni
Seton Hall University
Craig Biggio (431 WS), Mo Vaughn (200 WS), Johnny Briggs (159 WS)
Purdue University
Bob Friend (207 WS), Bill Skowron (183 WS)
University of Minnesota
Dave Winfield (415 WS), Paul Molitor (414 WS), Terry Steinbach (173 WS)
University of South Alabama
Luis Gonzalez (316 WS), Juan Pierre (122 WS), Jon Lieber (109 WS)
Ohio University
Mike Schmidt (467 WS), Bob Brenly (93 WS)
San Diego State University
Tony Gwynn (398 WS), Graig Nettles (321 WS), Mark Grace (294 WS)
Mississippi State University
Rafael Palmiero (395 WS), Will Clark (331 WS)
Saint Mary's College of California
Von Hayes (177 WS), Tom Candiotti (158 WS)
Michigan State University
Robin Roberts (339 WS), Steve Garvey (279 WS), Kirk Gibson (218 WS)
University of Southern California
Tom Seaver (388 WS), Mark McGwire (343 WS), Randy Johnson (315 WS), Fred Lynn (280 WS)

A few notes:
  • As a Cal Poly alum myself, I'm quite proud to see it place so highly on the list
  • There are alumni from 698 different universities in MLB history
  • The three schools that have the most alumni in MLB history are: USC (100), University of Texas at Austin (95), and Arizona St. (88)
  • The three schools with the most alumni in MLB history who accumulated 50 or more Win Shares in their careers are: Arizona St. (24), USC (22), and UCLA (19) & Michigan (19)
  • The three schools with the most alumni in MLB history who accumulated 100 or more Win Shares in their careers are: USC (17), Arizona St. (12), and St. Mary's College of California (11)
  • It's hard to decide what the minimum number of alum should be... is 10 too few? what about 20? Of the 698 different universities that have had alumni in the major leagues, only 53 have 30 or more alumni and only 160 have 10 or more alumni
I'll keep looking at these numbers and post any findings as they come. There's actually a lot fewer top-producing schools than I imagined, but it does at least feel good to have graduated from one of the schools near the top of the list (sure, they barely meet eligibility, but that's beside the point).

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Historic Hot Stove: Greg Vaughn

This past weekend marked the anniversary of a major day in Tampa Bay Devil Rays history and, sadly, the world seemed to let it pass without mention. I can't say why that is exactly, but I can guess that most Rays fans are hoping to focus more on their recent stunning success and less on their past failures (David Chalk notwithstanding). And though I can fully understand and appreciate that, I think the "anniversary" of the free agent signing of Greg Vaughn on December 13, 1999, is a great place to start my studies into past free agent signings and how they were received by contemporary experts and writers.

If we remember, and I'm sure few of us do since the 1999 Devil Rays were not quite the '75 Reds, this was only the Rays' second winter. The first season did not go well - they won 63 games when management was hoping for 70 - and this season hardly went better. In 1999, the Devil Rays were 69-93 and had dealt with injury after injury throughout the season. In fact, for the year, 18 Devil Rays players spent a total of 863 days on the disabled list. Wade Boggs, at age 41, inched his way to the 3,000 hit milestone, playing in only 90 games and cracking only 88 hits (he ended the season with 3,010 hits and promptly retired). Wilson Alvarez was the de facto ace, but he threw only 160 innings. DH Jose Canseco played in only 114 games, but he did hit 34 home runs with 95 RBIs and an OPS of .932. Fred McGriff was the club leader in most categories, playing in 144 games with a more than respectable line of .310/.405/.552 with 32 HR and 104 RBIs.

Greg Vaughn entered that off-season at age 34 and at the most productive point in his career. In the previous two seasons for San Diego and Cincinnati, he had hit a total of 95 home runs and knocked in 237 RBIs. He had finished 4th in the MVP voting each year, and seemed like a legitimate slugger worth pursuing. In the December 1999 issue of Baseball Digest Monthly, published before Vaughn had signed with anybody, he was credited with being the clubhouse leader of the Reds who, at 96-67, had finished 19 games better than the year before and only a 163rd-game loss out of the wild card:
"Everybody around the team, including general manager Jim Bowden, manager Jack McKeon and numerous players, gives Vaughn credit for the Reds' new attitude.

'I think he instilled a feeling in this clubhouse that we know we can beat anybody,' thid baseman Aaron Boone said.

'His presence changed the attitude of our club from the very beginning of spring training,' Bowden said.

'Believe me - the way he is is just as important as his numbers,' first baseman Sean Casey said' "
With the legitimate bat Vaughn offered and the strong positive clubhouse presence he seemed to have, I imagine it was a pretty easy decision for GM Chuck LaMar to make. Both were key issues that the Devil Rays needed addressed. Vaughn's history of knee problems and a strained abdominal early in the 1999 season were certainly cause for alarm - not to mention the slugger's 34-year old body - but they had only kept him out of 8 games during the season. The deal of 4-years and $34 million was mostly well-received. Sports Illustrated said:
"Last fall [Owner Vince] Naimoli gave LaMar permission to increase the payroll—it's up $25 million over last year's, to $62 million—and LaMar appears to have spent wisely in signing free-agent outfielders Greg Vaughn and Gerald Williams and starting pitchers Juan Guzman and Steve Trachsel."
The annual Athlon baseball preview magazine for the 2000 season was also impressed:
"By forming what Tigers manager Phil Garner calls 'a whomping offense', GM Chuck LaMar certainly got the attention of apathetic fans. Both newcomers [Castilla and Vaughn] have three 40-homer seasons since '95. Adding them to a lineup that includes mashers Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff 'changes the way I will approach games,' says skipper Larry Rothschild."
But even with the positive reviews, the Sporting News preview magazine was a little more cautious:
"You can look at it in two ways: by adding Vinny Castilla and Greg Vaughn to a lineup that already includes Jose Canseco and Fred McGriff, the Devil Rays have 1) added 78 homers and 220 RBIs in '99 at hitter-friendly Tropicana Field or 2) will be bogged down by a big-bang AL lineup in a division dominated by the very NL-like Yankees."
With hindsight, it's easy to see that TSN's cautious tone was the right one to take. Vaughn quickly aged on the Rays, playing in no more than 136 games in either of his first two seasons. He did manage to hit 54 home runs across those two years, but his batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage were all slipping. In 2002, the third year of his four year contract, Vaughn had clearly become dead weight, playing in only 69 games and batting a sub-Mendoza .163/.286/.315. And though his annual salary of around $8 million dollars did not put him in the upper echelon of salaries for any of his Devil Ray tenure (he was about the 40th highest paid player each of those years), it was obviously a burden on the budget-minded Rays, whose payroll for the 2002 season was around $35 million.

Vaughn was released by the Rays in March of 2003. He signed with the Rockies a few weeks later but was out of baseball by the All-Star Game.

Overall, the free agent signing of Greg Vaughn has to be considered a failure for the Devil Rays. He was not able to maintain his health for any part of his contract, and the big bat that they were paying for never materialized. LaMar should not have focused so much of his limited financial resources on a 34-year-old slugger with a history of knee problems, no matter his recent production. The unrealized hope that they likely had for him taking over the clubhouse in a positive way cannot be put on his shoulders, though. The team they had assembled was old and rickety, with the biggest names being Canseco, Castilla, McGriff, and Alvarez, all of whom were either old or unreliable to begin with. Being put into that situation, it would've taken Kid Griffey and the Say Hey Kid himself to positively affect that clubhouse. Still, it was a big time in Devil Ray history, as it showed the Tampa fans that the organization wasn't going to sit still and do nothing in the face of a mostly apathetic public. It's just too bad that this was the direction they took - not only did it kill their chances of winning in those first few years, but it also seemed to put management off of signing big free agents for a long time.

Of course, now that the Rays have been to the World Series and boast such jaw-dropping talent, we'll never have to worry about this kind of mess again...

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Prospect Preview: 1974

For someone like me, who grew up with the baseball played in the late-'80s and early-'90s (from Gibson's home run to the strike-year and on), looking back through preview guides from the 1970s can seem a little foreign. I know the names and strengths of the players listed, but I don't know them the same way that I know players from the early-'90s.

If, for example, someone told me that a pitcher reminded them of Ben McDonald, then I know something about that player's talent because I remember his hot start for the Orioles. Or if they say that someone looks like Terry Steinbach, then I know something else about that player. But if they say that the pitcher reminds them of Catfish Hunter or that the hitter reminds them of Dave Concepcion, then I can only try to understand what they're saying. I can appreciate that someone might say Troy Tulowitzki looks like Garry Templeton, but I can't know innately if it's a valid comparison.

The minor league prospects sections of these magazines are a little different story, though. When I look through these, the Hall of Fame and other notable names pop-out just as much as any other time frame, and the comments and predictions about these players feel just as understated and odd as anyone else. Fewer names of the Chris Sabo or Chilli Davis variety - quality players who didn't quite reach the annals of immortality - jump out at me, but the All-Star and Hall of Fame names are hard to miss. The names below caught my attention from the 1974 Street and Smith's preview guide.
Frank Tanana: "Southpaw Frank Tanana was great last year in the Texas League. The 20-year-old posted a 16-6 mark, 2.58 ERA, led the loop in strikeouts (197 in 205 innings), while chalking up 15 complete games.""
Tanana's career did not take him to Cooperstown's doorstep, but he was a productive pitcher for 20 years. Pitching for few quality teams, Tanana retired with a 240-236 record and a slightly better-than-average 3.66 ERA. He also had 143 complete games in his career. He did finish high in the Cy Young voting in 1975 and 1976, and he is currently 21st in all-time strikeouts, just behind Mike Mussina and Cy Young and just ahead of David Cone and Tom Glavine. He's in good company there. The most surprising thing is how well the minor league scouting report does of encapsulating his career.
Ken Griffey: "National League fans had a preview of a leading candidate for 1974 rookie ofthe year honors when lefty Ken Griffey was called up from Indianapolis in late August last season, after hitting .327. Griffey responded by hitting .384 for the Reds and should be Sparky Anderson's starting rightfielder this year."
Father of all-time great Ken Griffey, Jr., the senior Griffey was a quality player himself, and a highly touted prospect for what turned out to be the greatest team of all time. Griffey played in 88 games in 1974 and performed adequately. He became a full-time player in 1975 and played very well, earning a starter's spot for what was to become a 19-year career.
Jim Rice: "A year away are infielder Frank Vazquez, a switch hitter who hit .269 after making the jump from Class A to AAA and outfielder Jim Rice. He'll be in Triple A after a spectacular Double A campaign at Bristol (.317, 27 HRs, 93 RBIs). He also mashed AAA pitching the last year [sic] of the season."

Dave Parker: "This time, it'll be another outfielder, 6-5, 225-pounder Dave Parker. Most talented player in the International League in '73, Parker hit .317 with 57 RBIs in 84 games at Charleston and gained All-Stars honors, then batted .288 the last couple of months with the Buccos. Keeping Parker out of the starting lineup could be impossible."
I put Rice and Parker together because, for much of their career, these two were linked. They won matching MVP awards with monster seasons in 1978, and there were three other seasons where they both placed in the top-5 in the MVP voting of their respective leagues at the same time. Though Parker ended up playing in 73 games in the 1974 season, he didn't get to play a full season until the '75 season, the same as Rice. Though today Rice enjoys heated discussions on an annual basis about his Hall-worthiness, Parker seems to be forgotten in the discussion despite a similar case (1 MVP award & 7 all-star appearances, .290/.339/.471 with 339 HRs and 1493 RBIs) to Rice (1 MVP award & 8 all-star appearances, .298/.352/.502 with 382 HRs and 1451 RBIs). I think it's great to see that the two were linked together even during their minor league careers.
Gary Carter: "Also down on the farm is 19-year-old catcher Gary Carter, who hit .253 at Quebec City and led the Expos' Instructional hitters."
Here's where we finally reach our first definite Hall of Fame player from this preview guide. Though Carter didn't fully reach the bigs until 1975, when he finished second in Rookie of the Year voting, the young Carter was still noteworthy. Having been drafted just a year-and-a-half before, in June 1972, he was moving through the minors quickly on the way to his Hall of Fame career.
George Brett: "Third base is the infield hole [for the Royals]. Vet Paul Schaal batted .288 last year and is the incumbent but is 31 years old and will be challenged by George Brett, an impressive 20-year-old who batted .284 at Omaha."

"The Royals, whose minor league clubs had an over-all winning percentage of .552, have some other players who may stick. There's Amer. Assn. All-Star third baseman George Brett (.284), a quick gloveman and only 20 years old."
Brett is viewed by many as the greatest third-baseman of all time (though that view is probably stronger in the Kansas/Missouri area than in the rest of the country), and is one of three members of the prestigious 1999 Hall of Fame class (along with Nolan Ryan and Robin Yount). He finished third in the Rookie of the Year voting this year, and went on to win an MVP award in 1980 and be selected to 13 All-Star teams, among other more memorable events.

Thirty-five years ago, when the above comments were written, it was impossible to know who would live up to their promise, and who would never pan out. The comments on George Brett were just as valid as the comments on Rick Sawyer. And I love the uncertainty and promise of it because it means that any magazine I pick up today or in the future could have the next Gary Carter or George Brett featured in it, hidden under my nose. And it'll be my pleasure to read the magazines and watch the games and try to figure it all out.