Friday, January 30, 2009

Talkin' Homer, Ozzie and the Straw

In my "Prospect Preview: 1979" post earlier this week, former Dodgers backstop and current Angels manager-of-the-next-decade Mike Scioscia was mentioned, and I made a cute little comment about him being a part of the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team. It seemed appropriate. After all, did Mike Scioscia ever have a bigger moment in the national spotlight? And who doesn't love that Simpsons episode anyway?

Then I saw this post over at Baseball Think Factory today, wishing Steve Sax a happy birthday. My first thought on seeing Sax's name was of his short stint alongside Scioscia on Mr. Burns' softball team (and then his long stint in Springfield jail). Sure enough, I wasn't the only one who thought that, as that was everybody else in the thread's first thought too. Which made me think, with the universe conspiring to put that nuclear-powered all-star squad of ringers front-and-center, I may as well take a look back and see what the baseball world would have thought of that team if it had ever actually existed at that time.

In the "Homer at the Bat" episode entry on Wikipedia, it notes that the episode first aired on February 20, 1992, putting it right in line with that spring's preview guides. A Simpsons viewer watching the episode that night would have been in the same preseason mindset about these players - how good will he be? will he make the actual all-star team? - as the preview guides themselves. These quotes from the 1992 Sporting News preview guides are about as apt as possible then.

Catcher: Mike Scioscia (Mr. Burns' initial pick: Gabby Street)
"At 33, Mike Scioscia is entering his 12th season as the Dodgers' starting catcher. Last year, he played in only 119 games, his lowest total in seven seasons. Also, more and more clubs are taking liberties with his throwing arm."
At this point in his career, Scioscia was getting a little old, but was still mostly effective. Apparently, Carlton Fisk was the writers' initial choice, but he turned them down. If I recall, it was pretty well accepted that Mike had a great head for the game, which is probably why he became a successful manager so quickly. Whatever the reason they chose him, he worked out perfectly. His desire to work in the blue collar world, and his subsequent radiation poisoning, seemed so... plausible.

First-base: Don Mattingly (Cap Anson)
"On the surface, there was no reason to get excited about Mattingly's 1991 season. His numbers (.288, nine homers, 68 RBIs) were far from overwhelming. But his number of games (152) and at-bats (587) were encouraging, considering he had missed one-third of the previous season because of chronic back problems, and he regained the Gold Glove. Now, if only he can regain the Silver Bat, there may be reason for the Yankees to be encouraged."
This was also a turning point in Mattingly's career, as his injured back was begining to take its toll on him. Still, there were plenty of reasons to believe that Donnie Baseball would be able to finish out his Hall of Fame career. The funniest thing about this is that Mattingly's trouble with Burns over his "hippie sideburns" actually preceded the real skirmish over his hair.

Second-base: Steve Sax (Nap Lajoie)
"The acquisition of Sax, who led the Yankees with a .304 average and 38 doubles while stealing 31 bases, solidifies second base. The arrival of the 10-year veteran means the White Sox have no weak links in their infield. Chicago was going to start Craig Grebeck, who had spent most of his career on the left side of the infield, at second."
The Yankees traded Sax to the White Sox only a month or so before the airing of the episode, in order to make room for prospect Pat Kelly. He seems to have been a welcome addition in Chicago, providing a good batting average and some speed. Of course, if they knew about all those murders he committed in New York, they probably would have never made the deal...

Shortstop: Ozzie Smith (Honus Wagner)
"Smith, who set an NL record for fewest errors in at least 150 games (eight) at shortstop, probably is entering his last year with St. Louis. He's still a solid offensive player, and last year was his 14th straight with at least 20 stolen bases."
Ozzie had long ago solidified his reputation as the Wizard of Oz, and was already considered a (likely) Hall of Famer. The reference to his "last year with St. Louis" was regarding the Cards' management saying they wouldn't offer him any guaranteed money beyond 1992. He stayed with the team 4 more years, though, to the delight of St. Louis fans everywhere. Of course, everyone is grateful that he found his way out of that bottomless pit. I just wonder how long it was before he ran out of film for all those cameras.

Third-base: Wade Boggs (Pie Traynor)
"Wade Boggs will be Boston's regular third-baseman for the 10th straight year. His .332 average was the second highest in the majors last summer, and he was the league's toughest player to strike out (32 whiffs in 546 at-bats). Although back and right shoulder ailments limited him to 144 games, Boggs was steady in the field and committed only 12 errors."
Ten years into his career, Boggs had proven himself to be one of the best pure hitters in baseball history. Sure, he had some strangeness associated with him - feuding with the Red Sox, eating chicken everyday, an affinity for British Prime Minister Pitt the Elder - but, in the end, he was an excellent ballplayer who earned his way into the Hall of Fame.

Leftfield: Jose Canseco (Shoeless Joe Jackson)
"Canseco is an offensive force and more than adequate defensively. After hitting just 10 home runs with 35 runs batted in through June 10, Canseco proceeded to hit 34 homers and collect 87 RBIs over is last 100 games. His 44 homers tied for the major league lead."
At the time, it was difficult to find a better player in baseball than Jose Canseco (who normally played rightfield). We all know what happened to him since that time, but, in early-1992, he was a bona-fide superstar on and off the field. I'm not a fan of Canseco's, personally, but I do wonder if anyone ever took into account his heroic saving of that poor woman and her cat (and her washing machine and her...) from that fire when they were considering him for the Hall of Fame. Character counts, after all.

Centerfield: Ken Griffey, Jr. (none?)
"Even without any protection in the cleanup spot behind him last season, Griffey set or tied club records for batting average (.327), doubles (42), slugging percentage (.527), intentional walks (21) and grand slams (three). He was just as good, if not better, in the field and was awarded his second straight Gold Glove."
Okay, maybe Griffey had already taken the crown as best player in baseball away from Canseco. Thankfully, Kid Griffey has been mostly free from steroid talk all his career. It's good to see the nice guys succeed so tremendously sometimes. If I had been the Mariners trainer, or even an MLB official, though, I would've been worried about that addiction to nerve tonic. That had to have had some affect on his numbers...

Rightfield: Darryl Strawberry (Harry Hooper)
"Strawberry is starting the second year of his five-year free-agent deal with the Dodgers. Last year, he had two seasons in one--the dismal first half (.229 average, eight homers and 30 RBIs) and the sparkling second half (.290, 20 homers and 69 RBIs)."
Of all the players to visit Springfield on Mr. Burns' dime, it was Darryl Strawberry, who played Homer's rightfield, who was able to keep things clean the entire time. I don't know if that's technically "ironic", considering all of Strawberry's other problems, but it certainly makes for one heckuva coincidence. That tear, though, after the chants of "Darr-yl! Darr-yl!", always got to me. What if he was that sensitive? What kind of damage were we inflicting on the poor guy?

Pitcher: Roger Clemens (Three-Finger Brown, Jim Creighton - though I think Burns put Creighton in the outfield)
"Even with the addition of Viola, the Boston ace still is Clemens, who won 18 games with an American League-best 2.62 ERA en route to winning his third Cy Young Award last season. Other AL pitchers won more games, but none was better than Clemens, who also led the league in strikeouts (241), innings pitched (271 1/3) and shutouts (four)."
Clemens' talent and status as one of the greatest pitchers of all-time has never really been debated. Clearly, Clemens was an amazing pitching talent, and had already proven that by the time he joined the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team. His attitude, on the other hand, has definitely been questioned, especially since his poorly judged day in Congress. I imagine his friends and family wished that they had hypnotized him to think he was a chicken before he made that decision.

Overall, the Springfield Nuclear Power Plant softball team ringers ended their careers as a mixed bag. A few of the players - Ozzie, Boggs, Griffey, and Clemens - finished out their careers as imagined, with impossible to argue Hall of Fame credentials. Clemens, though, has been in a bit of trouble, so it's hard to decide if he is a plus or a minur. Sax and Scioscia didn't add much to their playing record after the episode aired (Scioscia retired in '92, Sax in '94), but neither of them were the writers' first choice, so we'll give them a pass there (Sandberg was the first choice for second-base, apparently). Mattingly also only played a few more years post-Springfield, but his career was shortened by injury. And then there are Canseco and Strawberry, who both played out the rest of their careers with dark clouds swirling behind them. The fact that those clouds were of their own making helps keep us from feeling too bad for the guys, though. They both have to count as strikes against the team, though.

In nine playing positions then, the writers' scorecard looks like this: 3 hits, 2 free passes, 1 hit-by-pitch, 1 groundout and 2 strikeouts. Technically, it's a .500 average, though we may have to see how they score Clemens in the end before we can get a final answer.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Prospect Preview: 1979

Baseball of the 1970s is almost entirely foreign to me. Having been born at the end of October 1980, the Phillies were already World Champs by the time I entered the world, and Ronald Reagan was only one week away from being elected President. For all intents and purposes, then, the last vestiges of the '70s have been gone all of my life.

Looking through the 1979 Street & Smith's preview guide, then, is an interesting exercise. Most of it covers teams and players that I just don't have any knowledge about (the 1976 Rangers? the 1978 Blue Jays?), and so I get a nice little peak at history. But the minor league sections of the magazines, while a little tougher to wade through than, say, the 1996 guide, do give me some insight into a time that I'm familiar with, since most of these players played into the '90s and beyond.

With that in mind, and with the knowledge that greatness lasts forever - after all, we're still talking about some of these players 30 years later, and will be for years to come - I submit these names from the '79 Street & Smith's guide:
Alfredo Griffin: "A sure-shot to stick is young shortstop Alfredo Griffin, who came over from the Indians in a swap for Jays' ace reliever Victor Cruz. Griffin covers plenty of ground and hit .291 with 35 stolen bases for Portland (Pacific Coast). He'll be tough to beat as the starting SS candidate."
The American League Rookie of the Year in 1979, Griffin quickly capitalized on his minor league promise. And although his rookie year numbers were pretty much his career highs, he ended up with a solid, if unspectacular and offensively-challenged, 15-year career, including three World Series rings and a gold glove (in a year that he committed 30 errors at short...)
Kirk Gibson: "Aside from pitching, other prospects can basically be found in the outfield. Like Kirk Gibson, the All-American wide receiver at Michigan State. The club's top draft pick in June '78, lefty-swinging Gibson only hit .240 in his pro baptism, but had seven HRs, 40 ribbies, 13 thefts in 14 tries in 54 games at Lakeland."
The first time I remember hearing Alfredo Griffin's name was during the 1988 World Series, when they mentioned how comfortable he was playing in Oakland's spacious Coliseum since he had only been traded to the Dodgers that offseason. It's funny that I remember that, since the '88 World Series so clearly belongs to Gibby (and of course I remember his moment quite well too). I do love the image of Gibson the wide-reciever. Somehow it goes well with his famous fist-pumping, gimpy home run trot.
Ned Yost: "Ed Yost [sic] is a catching candidate whose AAA duty at Spokane was limited to 89 games because of back problems that have been corrected. Yost, who has an outstanding arm, hit .262 in the PCL."
The Brewers manager on Opening Day 2008, Yost's playing career was never one to write home about (a .212/.237/.329 line in six seasons and 600 at-bats). Some might say the same about his managing career, but I'm not one of them. He absolutely had his weaknesses, but, for a while, he was exactly what the Brewers needed, and we should always remember him for that.
Ken Macha: "But 28-year-old Ken Macha, with a year in the bigs already, can fill in back of the plate, as well as play third and the outfield. He's no golden-glover, but hit .262 at Columbus (International). He also hit .212 with the Pirates, from whom the Expos drafted him."
And here's the Brewers manager for Opening Day 2009. Not that Yost or Macha are all that interesting, especially as prospects from thirty years ago. I understand that. I just thought it was kind of interesting to see the both of them listed as prospects in the same magazine, considering their recent ties to the Brewers. (I also found interim manager Dale Sveum mentioned in the 1985 preview guide.)
Dave Righetti: "The best bet of the newcomers to make it to Yankee Stadium in the near future is southpaw Dave Righetti, 20, who was 5-5, 3.61 at Tulsa (Amer. Assoc.) in only his second year of pro ball. Righetti completed six of 13 starts, had 127 whiffs in 91 innings."
The Yankees Rookie of the Year pitcher in the strike-shortened 1981 season, Righetti had a good career as New York's closer. He saved 46 games in 1986 and finished 4th in the Cy Young voting that year. He's currently the Giants' pitching coach - I imagine dealing with Barry Zito every fifth day might be more stressful than closing in New York City.
Mike Scioscia: "Meanwhile, another catching hopeful for the future is Mike Scioscia (.299 in 58 games at San Antonio in AA)."
The 2002 AL Manager of the Year, and the man that the Angels recently signed to a 10 year contract as manager, started his career in 1980 as the Dodgers backstop. Eleven years later, he would find himself on the Springfield Power Plant's softball team, and eleven years after that he'd find himself winning the World Series and Manager of the Year award in the same year. All in all, not a bad career.
Rickey Henderson: "Outfielder Rick Henderson [sic] is a 20-year-old swifty who stole 81 bases at Jersey City (AA Eastern) last season, when he hit .310. A singles hitter, Henderson did not have any homers, drove in 33 runs. The year before, Henderson stole 90 bases in A-ball at Modesto (California)."
Yes, apparently Rickey was known strictly as Rick back then. I can't imagine... I especially like the categorization of him as "a swifty" (they use the same word to describe Lonnie Smith) and the comments about him being a "singles hitter" with no power. From reading other accounts of Rickey as he was playing, it's clear that he took his career one challenge at a time, mastering one skill after another. I imagine that the 20-year-old Rickey wanted to prove one thing - his speed - before going on to the next. It's a great example of a talented individual making himself even greater. Which is precisely why we're still talking about him thirty years later, and why there was an actual uproar about him not being a unanimous Hall of Fame choice.

Monday, January 26, 2009

Through the Years: Jeff Kent

Last week, I took a look at the career of Craig Biggio, arguably the most successful second-baseman of the last 20 years. It's a pretty safe bet that, in 4 years time, he'll be getting his call into Cooperstown. Only a couple of days after that, I read an interesting article on Bill James Online by Matthew Namee, comparing Biggio to his contemporary second-baseman, Roberto Alomar. For some reason, I had never made the connection between these two Hall-of-Famers, despite being fans of both. It only made sense then that I would continue to look at the second-basemen of the '90s and write my next Through the Years post on Alomar.

But then Jeff Kent went and announced his retirement after 17 years in the major leagues, and the topic suddenly shifted to Kent and his career. How good was he, really? Did his attitude affect the way we remember him? How much did he benefit from the era and, more importantly, from hitting behind Barry Bonds? And, finally, is he a Hall of Famer?

The HOF debate around Kent seems to focus on his power, his defense, and, to a lesser extent, his attitude or his value as a teammate. Some people seem to be saying that since he never seemed like a HOFer, then he obviously isn't one (kind of the reverse-Rice defense), while others seem to be saying that his numbers are just too good for a middle infielder to deny him a spot. And still others seem to be going out of their way to come up with excuses for not voting him in (kind of the anti-Jack Morris defense, I suppose).

But what's lost in this debate over Kent's Hall-worthiness (and all those who are so certain of his credentials) is the fact that there is a legitimate debate to begin with. With Alomar and Biggio out there playing second-base at such a high level for such a long time, it was easy to forget about Kent out in San Francisco. But there he was, putting up terrific numbers and doing his part to help Bonds do his thing, even winning an MVP award in the process. Kent belongs alongside those two as the top second-basemen of their generation. Which makes him perfect for a "Through the Years" piece.

As with all other "Through the Years" posts, I'll be looking at his career through my collection of baseball preview guides to see how he was being viewed by writers on a year-to-year basis, and to see if they ever viewed him as the best player at his position.

Kent began his career in Toronto in 1992 as a second-base/third-base utility man, backing up Kelly Gruber and, yes, Roberto Alomar. He wasn't a top-rated prospect, though, as the immortal Eddie Zosky (from my hometown Fresno State Bulldogs) was mentioned before him. He was a good enough prospect, however, to be packaged in a deal to the Mets for soon-to-be free agent David Cone in late August. In '93, he began the season as the Mets' starting second-baseman who the Mets were "counting heavily on." He started off poorly, but ended the season with very respectable numbers: .270/.320/.446 with 21 HRs, 80 RBIs, and a 104 OPS+.

The 1994 Sporting News preview guide seemed to be won over:
"...the only certainty on the infield is Kent at second base.

Certainly, he had earned that much with his work in the team's final 95 games. Kent, who was batting .217 with 23 runs batted in and five homers in 184 at-bats through June 20, finished at .270 with 21 homers and 80 RBIs, establishing club records for homers and RBIs by a second baseman. Kent led all NL second baseman in RBIs and tied Houston's Craig Biggio for the home run lead.

Kent's season took off after he was moved back to second base following an unsuccessful 12-game experiment at third base. Although rough edges still exist, his defense at second base improved over the second half of the season."
Kent improved his rate stats in 1994, hitting .292/.341/.475 with a 111 OPS+ before the strike cut short his season. His defense wasn't much to write home about, though, with TSN calling him an "essentially offensive player" and one of the team's "primary RBI men." He continued his strong offense in 1995, with a .278/.327/.464 line with 20 HRs, 65 RBIs, and a 110 OPS+ (he still hadn't learned to take a walk). The ballclub didn't see him in the best light, though. From the 1996 TSN:
"Kent fell into disfavor last season when he placed among the bottom five in the league in batting with runners in scoring position (.197) and in second-base fielding percentage. Third base probably is the assignment for Kent if [Rey] Ordonez plays short."
Kent did end up playing at third that year for the Mets, though he didn't last the full season. Apparently, the "disfavor" he fell into was bigger than TSN let on, and he (and Jose Vizciano) was traded to the Indians near the trade deadline for Carlos Baerga. He never fit in with the Indians, though, getting only 102 at-bats in August and September. That winter, Kent and Vizcaino were sent on to San Francisco for Matt Williams.

It marked a major change in fortunes for both the Giants and for Kent. Having finished last in the NL West in 1996, the Giants moved up to first, winning 90 games. They would continue to play at the top of their division for the next eight years. Kent had a strong year in '97, though his rate stats were down and his strikeouts were up. He batted .250/.316/472, with 29 HRs, 90 runs scored, 121 RBIs and a 105 OPS+.
"Fans who derided the Matt Williams trade in November 1996 - and there were many - sang a different tune when the Giants started winning behind the explosive bat of second baseman Jeff Kent, one of three players acquired from Cleveland in the Williams deal. With 29 homers and 121 RBIs, Kent had a career year. ... With a year in San Francisco under their belts, Kent and [JT] Snow should do even better in '98."
And he did. Even considering the expanded offense that year, Kent's '98 campaign was better all-around, with him posting a line of .297/.359/.555 with 31 HRs, 128 RBIs, 94 Rs and a 142 OPS+. His season was not overlooked. From the 1999 TSN:
"After Craig Biggio, Kent may be the best offensive second baseman in baseball. After hitting 29 homers with 121 RBIs in 1997, he proved it was no fluke by increasing his numbers to 31 and 128, a remarkable inprovement considering he missed a month because of a knee injury."
The Athlon preview guide that year was no less complimentary:
"Kent will make errors, but those can be overlooked because he has become the most dangerous second baseman in baseball. In two seasons, Kent has averaged 30 homers and 124 RBIs."
His numbers went down some in 1999, but he still managed to hit 23 HRs with 101 RBIs while batting .290/.366/.511 and a 124 OPS+. As Athlon points out, "[in 1999, Kent] joined Charlie Gehringer and Bobby Doerr as the only second basemen in major league history to record three straight 100-RBI seasons." And he did this while missing 24 games due to an injured foot. TSN identified Kent as a "key player" who "must stay healthy because he offers the most protection for Bonds."

Kent did stay healthy in the year 2000, and it netted him the National League Most Valuable Player Award. His numbers were very impressive: .334/.424/.596 with 114 Rs, 33 HRs, 125 RBIs, and a 162 OPS+. Bonds also had a terrific year that year (49 HRs and a 188 OPS+), but the writers felt Kent was more MVP-worthy (they finished 1-2 in the voting, with Kent receiving 22 first-place votes). By this time, Kent had secured himself as one of the best second-basemen in baseball. In the 2001 TSN:
"Kent has emerged as one of the best hitters in the game. As a bonus, he has gotten much better on defense as his range has improved, which is rare for a player getting older."
And the Athlon:
"Jeff Kent, the NL MVP, hit 33 homers and drove in 125 runs, marking the fourth straight season he's topped 100 RBI. No second baseman has been as prolific as Kent during a four-year-span. His 475 RBIs during that stretch are the most for any player at his position."
Kent's 2001 campaign was down statistically from his MVP season the year before, but he still performed rather well. He rebounded strongly in 2002, hitting .313/.368/.565 with 37 HRs, 108 RBIs, and a 147 OPS+, and helped lead the team to the World Series for the first time since 1989. Kent did his part in the Series, slugging .621 in the 7 games, but it wasn't enough, as the Giants lost to the Angels.

Shortly after the Series ended, Kent was granted his free agency and soon signed a two-year contract with the Astros. And though he was 35 and not known for his sparkling defense, the Astros accomodated him by moving their star second-baseman, Craig Biggio, to centerfield. He has since played the last four years of his career with the Los Angeles Dodgers and though he is no longer the offensive player he once was, he has performed more than capably (for example, 2008 was the only season that his OPS+ was below 119).

With his retirement announcement last week, Kent has brought his career back into the national conversation, which is a good thing. Though his personality has never been considered his strong suit - just ask Barry Bonds or Vin Scully - he has still been one of the most valuable second basemen in baseball over the last ten years, and should definitely warrant Hall of Fame consideration.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

All-Time Jersey Numbers

Reading through a new batch of preview guides that I got on eBay this week, I came across an interesting article. In the article "By the Numbers" in the 1993 Street & Smith's preview guide, Rich Gagnon of the Oakland Tribune tries to find "the best players ever to wear" each uniform number. While the premise of the article is interesting enough, what really piqued my interest in it was just how different this list looks in 1993 than it does today. Much of the list, and maybe even most of the list, has stayed the same in the last 16 years, but there are plenty of spots on the list that have changed. For example, it's pretty clear with today's perspective that Willie McGee will not go down in history as the greatest player ever to wear #51 - that number forever belongs to the Big Unit.

I figured, then, that it might be fun to go through the list that was provided in the Street & Smith's and then make changes as necessary. I have to say up front, though, that I am not the perfect guy to do this. I do not have a perfect memory when it comes to players' jersey numbers, and so it's easy for me to forget someone or remember their number wrong. Also, though I have a good respect for baseball history, there are many great pre-war players that I just don't know enough about to fairly judge. I'll have to ask anyone visiting the site to make any suggestions or comments about the my list... chances are, you know more about this than I do.

For reference, there's a pretty similar list written by USA Today's Steve Gardner (written in 2001). The "list of retired numbers" found on Wikipedia is also helpful.

Here's the list of players that was included in the original 1993 article. Players listed in parentheses are named as "runner-ups" in the same article. If I have any comments or a different suggestion than the one from 1993, you'll see those [in bold with my new choice italicized].

0 - Al Oliver
00 - Jeffrey Leonard [the author was really stretching if he felt he needed to put Jeffrey Leonard in here... in my opinion, there should be no '00' representative]
1 - Ozzie Smith
2 - Charlie Gehringer (Leo Durocher, Nellie Fox, Billy Herman, Red Schoendienst) [by now, I think it has to be Derek Jeter]
3 - Babe Ruth (Earl Averill, Harold Baines, Jim Bottomley, Mickey Cochrane, Kiki Cuyler, Jimmie Foxx, Frankie Frisch, Harmon Killebrew, Heinie Manush, Dale Murphy, Sam Rice, Bill Terry, Alan Trammell)
4 - Lou Gehrig (Appling, Cronin, Goslin, Kiner, Molitor, Mel Ott, Duke Snider, Earl Weaver)
5 - Joe DiMaggio (Bench, Boudreau, Brett, Greenberg, Brooks Robinson) [it stays DiMaggio for now, but time may soon make it Albert Pujols... Jeff Bagwell deserves a small mention too]
6 - Stan Musial (Garvey, Kaline)
7 - Mickey Mantle (Belanger)
8 - Carl Yastrzemski (Yogi, Gary Carter, Andre Dawson, Cal, Stargell) [there are a lot of fantastic names there, but I think #8 belongs to Cal Ripken, Jr. now... and I'm not just saying that because he's my favorite player of all time]
9 - Ted Williams (Maris, Minnie Minoso, Graig Nettles, Enos Slaughter)
10 - Lefty Grove (Johnny Mize, Rizzuto, Santo) [it seems like there should be someone else there from recent days, but all I can think of is Sheffield, and he doesn't count]
11 - Carl Hubbell (Sparky Anderson, Lefty Gomez, Luis Aparicio) [does Barry Larkin overtake Carl Hubbell?]
12 - Bill White (Dusty Baker) [Future HOFer Roberto Alomar... Jeff Kent also wore #12, but, even if they're both HOFers, I think it belongs to Robbie... you'll probably see a post about each of those guys in the next couple of weeks]
13 - Dave Concepcion (Ralph Branca, Lance Parrish) [Alex Rodriguez... he started out #3, but he's been #13 long enough to go here, right?]
14 - Pete Rose (Ernie Banks, Vida Blue, Gil Hodges, Jim Rice)
15 - Thurman Munson (George Foster, Red Ruffing) [it really feels like someone else should be here, but I can't seem to find anyone... I don't think Ben Sheets quite fits the bill]
16 - Whitey Ford (Gooden)
17 - Dizzy Dean (Cool Papa Bell, Denny Mclain) [can we include Mark Grace? I'm gonna go with Cool Papa Bell as my choice]
18 - Red Faber (Mel Harder, Ted Kluszewski, Don Larsen, Eppa Rixey) [Strawberry? nah, I don't think so]
19 - Bob Feller (Gwynn, Yount, Righetti, Waite Hoyt) [as much as the Brewer fan in me wants to put Robin Yount here, it has to be... Tony Gwynn]
20 - Frank Robinson (Lou Brock, Josh Gibson, Schmidt, Sutton)
21 - Roberto Clemente (Clemens, Spahn) [Roger Clemens might've overtaken Clemente, but his number-hopping and attitude problems have prevented that]
22 - Jim Palmer (Jack Clark, Will Clark)
23 - Ryne Sandberg (Mattingly, Luis Tiant, Bobby Thomson)
24 - Willie Mays (Dwight Evans, Walter Alston, Tony Perez)
25 - Tommy John (Bobby Bonds, Norm Cash) [wow, Tommy John... obviously, it's Barry Bonds]
26 - Satchel Paige (Boggs, Billy Williams) [is Wade Boggs remembered as #26 or #12? Either way, I think Paige is appropriate]
27 - Juan Marichal (Catfish Hunter, Kent Tekulve) [Vlad Guerrero? I don't think he's usurped Marichal just yet]
28 - Bert Blyleven (Preacher Roe)
29 - Rod Carew (Lolich, Quisenberry) [I love that Quisenberry is included here... Smoltz should be included to, but I don't know if he overtakes Carew]
30 - Nolan Ryan (Cepeda, Griffey Sr, Willie Randolph) [personally, I think of Ryan as #34, but I understand keeping him at #30... is Ken Griffey, Jr. #24 or #30 for this list?]
31 - Ferguson Jenkins (Winfield only) [Greg Maddux, far and away. Mike Piazza is a good runner-up]
32 - Sandy Koufax (Steve Carlton, Elston Howard)
33 - Honus Wagner (Lew Burdette, Frank Howard, Eddie Murray) [Jose Canseco... just kidding]
34 - Rollie Fingers (Puckett, Dave Stewart, Fernando)
35 - Rickey Henderson (Phil Niekro, Bob Welch) [Rickey is forever #24 to me, so he can't be here... is Mike Mussina great enough to be included? in my book, yes - unless someone can give me a better choice]
36 - Gaylord Perry (Jim Kaat, Johnny Mize, Robin Roberts) [seems like an underwhelming choice, but who else?]
37 - Casey Stengel (Dave Stieb)
38 - Ray Dandridge [does Curt Schilling bypass the Negro League HOFer? I'll let others make the call...]
39 - Roy Campanella (Dave Parker)
40 - Frank Tanana (Danny Murtaugh, Don Wilson) [really? Frank Tanana?]
41 - Tom Seaver (Darrell Evans, Eddie Mathews, Jeff Reardon)
42 - Jackie Robinson (Bruce Sutter)
43 - Dennis Eckersley
44 - Hank Aaron (Reggie Jackson, Mccovey)
45 - Bob Gibson (Tug Mcgraw) [aren't Bob Gibson and Pedro Martinez the same person? Fitting that they wear the same number... who should be the guy here, though?]
46 - Lee Smith (Mike Flanagan) [is Andy Pettite the better answer here, or do we think that only because he's a Yankee?]
47 - Jack Morris [I really, really want to put Jesse Orosco here, but it obviously belongs to Tom Glavine]
48 - Rick Reuschel [umm...]
49 - Hoyt Wilhelm (Ron Guidry)
50 - JR Richard
51 - Willie Mcgee [Randy Johnson, no doubt]
52 - Mike Boddicker [we should probably just drop this from the list]
53 - Don Drysdale
54 - Goose Gossage
55 - Orel Hershiser [how quickly before Tim Lincecum takes over this spot? two more years?]
65 - Bill McKechnie [I'm taking their word for this]
72 - Carlton Fisk
96 - Bill Voiselle [taking their word here, too]

So that's it... Like I said, I may not be the best person to trust this list to, but I figured I'd give it a start. I'd love to hear some suggestions, especially for those few in the teens and the mid-20s, where it seems like there should be some better names.

Time will tell if we'll be adding "#57 - Johan Santana" to the list, or a few other names. And, who knows, maybe in 15 years time someone will see my revised version of the list and think "wow, it's pretty weird not seeing Rickie Weeks at #23." Okay, maybe they won't be saying that about Rickie, but you get the point...

Friday, January 23, 2009

Quick Notes: Being Commissioner and the Vault

A couple of quick links on an early Friday evening...

1. Jason over at It Is About the Money, Stupid... asked for people's suggestions last week on what they would do if they were Commissioner for a Day. I decided to put in my two cents and so I sent him some (atypically) brief thoughts on stadium financing and the World Baseball Classic. He posted my submission earlier today; go check it out.

2. It was only this past Sunday that I put up a link detailing The Sporting News Vault. Sadly, though, I found out today that Paper of Record, the company that was handling the Vault, has been taken over by Google News and that the TSN vault is no longer available. If you do an Advanced Search with "Sporting News" as the Source, you can find some issues from about 1999 and on. It's nowhere near as complete or detailed as what it was in the past, though.

Over at the Baseball Think Factory thread where I discovered this, user Howard Megdal posted a note he received from the POR webmaster. This seems to be the only real word we can find about what has happened. Hopefully things will get resolved in the future, but I doubt it'll be anytime soon. Here's the note Howard received:
Howard -- Thanks for your note. It's been re-directed to Google as they acquired our content in 2006. I spoke at length with SABR to no avail. The Sporting News database was not moved over a Google could not come to a deal with TSN. However all the data is there and could be made available if we could find someone to pay for it. It's frustrating, but we've attempted to secure SABR for two years now--Best---Bob Huggins
I'll update the reference pages soon...

Thursday, January 22, 2009

Historic Hot Stove: Randy Johnson & Kevin Brown

The winter of 1998 made for one of the most interesting offseasons in a long, long time. With all the excitement of the regular season - McGwire and Sosa blowing past Ruth and Maris, the Yankees winning 114 games, David Wells' perfect game, Cal sitting down at 2,632, and Kerry Wood's 20-strikeout performance - there were understandably a lot of stories for people to follow and a lot of things for people to be excited about in the upcoming season.

By the time Opening Day rolled around in April 1999, the biggest story, at least in the southwest, was the arrival of two of the biggest pitchers in baseball in the NL West at two of the heftiest price tags imaginable. On December 10, the Arizona Diamondbacks, not even in their second year of existence, signed 35-year-old Randy Johnson to a 4-year, $52 million deal. Only two days later, on December 12, the Los Angeles Dodgers made soon to be 34-year-old Kevin Brown the highest paid player in baseball history, signing him to a 7-year, $105 million contract.

Brown was coming off three consecutive great years (with ERAs of 1.89, 2.69, and 2.38) and a couple of top-three Cy Young finishes. He had also just led two different teams to two consecutive World Series appearances. Clearly, the man was a winner with dominating stuff, and Rupert Murdoch was doing his best to secure some winning baseball in Los Angeles.

Johnson was also coming off a hot streak. He had been traded from the Mariners to the Astros at the trade deadline, and proceeded to destroy NL hitting. In his 11 starts for the Astros, Johnson was 10-1 with a 1.28 ERA and 116 strikeouts in only 84 innings. D-backs owner Jerry Colangelo was on a mission to sign the best pitching available, and the Big Unit clearly fit the bill. The fact that the full National League had yet to see Johnson's stuff only made him more appealing.

To top it off, the schedule-making gods happened to be smiling on the NL West that year, and Opening Day 1999 would see the Diamondbacks playing the Dodgers in Los Angeles. The full $157 million dollars spent on these two pitchers would be displayed on the same mound in the same stadium to start off the season. It was truly a day to look forward to.

With all the money spent on these two pitchers, and with all the hoopla surrounding the Dodgers and Brown's $100 million payday, it'd go to figure that the signings would be the focus of all pre-season talk about these two clubs. The fact is, though, that both clubs had many more holes than pitching, so any preview would be incomplete if it didn't highlight everything. Still, the addition of both players to their respective rosters was clearly viewed as a positive for each team.

For Randy Johnson, the 1999 Athlon Preview Guide had this to say:
"In 1998, Jerry Colangelo would sit in manager Buck Showalter's office and look at the large greaseboard on the wall with starting pitchers written in day by day.

'It left a lot to be desired,' Colangelo, the D-Backs managing general partner, admits. 'We felt we could compete now if we could go get the pitching it would require. If you could add people to the rotation at the top, you could cut short the process dramatically.'

So he signed Randy Johnson ($52.4 million for four years), Todd Stottlemyre ($32 million for four years) and Armando Reynoso ($5 million for two years). A revamped, veteran rotation has uncovered optimism faster than the D-Backs can open the roof at Bank One Ballpark."
It goes on to say that "Johnson gives Arizona a legitimate ace and power on the mound." The Sporting News focused on why Colangelo was so willing to pay Johnson the big bucks:
"Colangelo doesn't adhere to the concept of expansion growing pains. He spent nearly $80 million on multiyear contracts for Matt Williams and Jay Bell before the 1998 season. The payoff was underwhelming - and the criticism heavy - but that only served to embolden Colangelo. He signed Johnson, Todd Stottlemyre and Steve Finley as part of a $120 million binge since the end of last season. 'Our honeymoon ended after one year,' Colangelo says. 'A four or five-year plan wasn't going to work, and the quick way for us to get competitive was to concentrate on pitching.' "
With Brown, the magazines focused on the talent level he brought to the Dodgers, and how it would play in Dodger Stadium. The weight of the $105 million contract was definitely addressed, but it was how he fit in with the Dodgers that they focused on:
"NL West Player to Watch: Los Angeles pitcher Kevin Brown. Sign the game's first $100 million contract, and scrutiny is part of the package. Brown, who ranked second in the league to Greg Maddux in ERA last season, should benefit from the move to pitcher-friendly Dodger Stadium. But he won't be so sanguine when his infield starts booting double-play grounders. The Dodgers' .978 fielding percentage ranked 13th among the 16 NL clubs last season, and they did nothing to improve over the winter.
Brown helped lead the Marlins to the 1997 World Series title and propelled the Padres to the 1998 World Series. Brown, whose fastball has been clocked at 97 mph, was the most coveted starting pitcher in the free-agent market because of his talent and competitive drive. The Dodgers expect him to have a positive influence on their talented young staff."
The Athlon preview guide had a similar guarded optimism:
"With the addition of Brown, Los Angeles possesses the deepest staff of power arms in the league, and certainly the type of pitching that could dominate. But they have other problems that could ultimately render Murdoch's team a money pit.
Clemens may intimidate, Maddux may infuriate. But Brown remains the most difficult pitcher in baseball to hit, with his overpowering sinking fastball and split-finger. And his stuff may not be as good as Chan Ho Park's..."
Ultimately, the Diamondbacks' signing of Randy Johnson proved to be the better signing. Not only did he take the D-Backs from 65 wins and last place in the NL West to 100 wins and first place in his first year, he also played a very large role in helping the D-Backs win their first World Series in 2001. The four consecutive Cy Young awards that he won in a D-Backs uniform are also rather nice. Brown performed well for the Dodgers, posting ERAs of 3.00, 2.58, 2.65, 4.81, and 2.39, but it was never enough to lead the Dodgers anywhere. They just had too many problems other than pitching. It's interesting to note that, by the time the D-Backs traded Johnson in January 2005, they had paid him only $86 million dollars over 6 years.

But back to Opening Day 1999 at Dodger Stadium. At the time, no one knew for sure how these contracts would play out. Instead, all anyone knew was that two of the best pitchers in baseball, with two of the biggest contracts ever, would be facing off against each other, wearing their new uniforms for the first time. Papers were calling it "potentially the best pitching matchup of all time" (someone said that in the LA Times that morning - it seemed a little extreme, even at the time).

I happened to be at the game. It was my freshmen year in college, and my first ever Opening Day. My brother and his buddies and I made it a Los Angeles sports weekend, seeing the Lakers on Saturday night, the final day of Spring Training on Sunday versus the Yankees at Dodger Stadium, and then Opening Day on Monday. It was a definitely memorable game, as you can see.

Kevin Brown didn't pitch all too great, getting yanked in the sixth after giving up ten hits and five earned runs (and a three-run homer to Jay Bell). Johnson, on the other hand, was pitching fantastically, until he was pinch hit for leading off the 8th with Arizona up 6-2. The Dodgers quickly got a run back, but it was 6-3 with two outs in the bottom of the ninth after Sheffield struck out. Up steps Raul Mondesi, though, and, with one swing of the bat the game is tied at 6. The 55,000 people at Dodger Stadium were on their feet screaming and hollering. Nothing happened for the next inning-and-a-half, but in the bottom of the eleventh, magic happened. After the first two batters got out, Sheffield drew a walk and Mondesi steps to the plate again and, with one more swing of the bat, ends the game, hitting a second home run to the exact same part of the ballpark. It was definitely one of the coolest moments I've ever seen at a ballpark, and not a bad way to start the season.

In the Sporting News preview guide, the allure of the Opening Day game was not lost:
"The most riveting Opening Day matchup of 1999 could take place at Chavez Ravine on April 5, when the Dodgers play the Diamondbacks. 'The Big Unit and Kevin Brown,' says LA manager Davey Johnson. 'Now that's the way to start off a season.' "
Throw in a little Raul Mondesi there, Davey, and you're absolutely right...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Prospect Preview: 1989

It's hard to say for sure, but I'm pretty sure that 1989 is the first season that I remember following from start to finish. My brothers and I had really gotten into collecting baseball cards in 1988, going to card shows and whatnot, but I was still too young to fully appreciate everything. I must have grown a lot over that offseason, though, because by the time the summer got under way in 1989, I felt pretty on top of everything. We also collected a lot of baseball cards that year, and the ones that I remember focusing on the most were the top prospect cards: the Topps Future Stars, the Donruss Rated Rookies, the Upper Deck Star Rookies... they were all highly sought after cards, and we were always excited to pull one from a pack.

That was 20 years ago now, but I still remember some of those cards quite vividly. Which makes this "Prospect Preview" post something different, since these prospects are the same ones that I remember pulling from pack after pack. Not all of them reached the potential that was promised *cough*Gregg Jefferies*cough*, but that doesn't mean there weren't some phenomenal players coming up that year.

This is what the 1989 Sporting News Baseball Yearbook had to say about these "rising stars":
Jerome Walton: "In each of the last two years, an exciting offensive player in the Cubs' organization has jumped from Double-A to the majors in less than half a season. It was Rafael Palmiero in 1987 and Mark Grace last summer, and Walton could make it three in a row.
Walton, who batted .331 at Pittsfield last season, is a gap hitter, although he'll hit a couple of homers when the wind blows out at Wrigley Field. He also has the speed (42 steals in '88) to dig out extra-base hits. Defensively, he covers lots of ground in center field and has a strong arm that keeps baserunners honest."
We start with the NL Rookie of the Year for 1989. Walton was a very highly touted player that year, and seemed to be the next "sure thing." I don't know if all the publicity he got was due to his talent or was just because everyone was dying for a star out in Chicago, but it proved justified when he took home the ROY award that November. His career didn't last all too long, though, as injuries (presumably) only allowed him to play in 100 games in a season once after 1991.
Sandy Alomar, Jr.: "All that stands between Alomar and a big-league job is Benito Santiago, the NL Rookie of the Year in 1987. Even the Padres admit that Alomar should be a better player in the long run, but Santiago has two years of experience and no major weaknesses, and the Padres are talking division title this season.

Alomar, whose brother Roberto debuted at second base for the Padres in 1988, has improved steadily in his five-year pro career, establishing himself as an offensive threat the last two seasons. After hitting .307 at Double-A Wichita (Texas) in 1987, Alomar compiled a .297 average with 16 homers and 71 RBIs at Las Vegas (Pacific Coast) last year despite being limited to 93 games because of a minor knee injury. He shared The Sporting News' Minor League Player of the Year with [Gary] Sheffield."
It may be hard to remember now, twenty years after the fact, but there was a good five-or-so year stretch where Sandy Alomar, Jr., was considered the best catcher in baseball. In those early years, the brothers Alomar looked like they could be one of the best family pairings in baseball history. A serious history of injuries prevented that from coming to be. Sandy Jr. did go on to win the 1990 AL Rookie of the Year award, though, and provided some very memorable moments in the 1997 All-Star game at Jacobs Field.
Gary Sheffield: " 'When I signed, I knew it would be that way, that I would be Dwight [Gooden]'s nephew, not just Gary Sheffield,' he said. 'That doesn't bother me because I'm proud to be related with Dwight. But one of my goals is to have a big name on my own.'

Sheffield has begun to establish just that. Before becoming the Brewers' starting shortsop when Dale Sveum broke his leg last September, Sheffield tore up the Texas League at El Paso and the American Association at Denver. He totaled 28 homers and 119 RBIs between the two clubs while batting .327 and was named The Sporting News' Minor League co-Player of the Year.

'I'm not shocked by the year that I had,' Sheffield said. 'If I had a mediocre year, I would have been shocked... I don't think it's expecting too much for me to stay in the big leagues for good.' Despite Sheffield's own bravado, the Brewers have tried to downplay the 20-year-old's potential."
For those baseball fans who weren't around in '89, I think it'd be a surprise to them that Gary Sheffield was both a shortstop and a Milwaukee Brewer. But he was, though the excerpt above gives a glimpse as to why he wasn't one for long: his attitude just didn't fly in Milwaukee, especially when he decided that he didn't want to be there. In the end, his talent eventually won out. Twenty years later, he has 499 career home runs, 1,603 RBIs and a career OPS+ of 141(!). No one talks anymore about him being Dwight Gooden's nephew.
Kevin Brown: "Fastball in mid-90s will have him ready as soon as rotation spot opens."
The format of the this TSN minor league preview section includes a short write-up of the top ten or so prospects, and then a single short sentence about the other top prospects for each team around the league. This is the single sentence write-up of Keving Brown, who is elsewhere referred to as the Rangers "top prospect." Brown would make it into the rotation in '89, and perform well enough to garner a couple of third place votes in the ROY balloting. Eventually, he would sign the first $100 million contract in baseball history after putting up some of the best numbers of any pitcher in the '90s. It was an inauspicious start for the original $100 million man.
Ken Griffey, Jr.: "Needs at least another year in minors, but anxious owner could push."
Speaking of inauspicious starts... Griffey was the top prospect of 1989, as anyone who collected Upper Deck baseball cards that year and looked for the fourth pack down in the lower left corner of the box, hoping to find that Griffey rookie card, can attest. Obviously, though, the staff at TSN were being conservative, probably thinking that no one that young could live up to that type of hype. He did end up playing most of the 1989 season, finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. Of course, his career only got better from there.
Randy Johnson: "When the 6-10, 225-pound Johnson made his major league debut last September, he became the tallest player in major league history. And it is that size that had kept him from reaching the majors sooner.

Johnson, a pure power pitcher, whose fastball is consistently in the mid-90s, is so big that his mechanics sometimes get messed up and he has trouble finding the strike zone. In 400 1/3 minor league innings, Johnson has walked 318 batters. But he also has struck out 428.

The lefthander seemed to have found a rhythm in his four-start stint with the Expos last September. He struck out 25 batters and walked only seven while going 3-0 with a 2.42 ERA.

'We've known he has the fastball for several years,' Expos Manager Buck Rodgers said. 'But he had a control problem. That's the only reason we've brought him along slowly.' "
Griffey's teammate during the Mariners' mid-90s heyday, the Big Unit was still an Expos prospect at this time. His velocity and physical intimidation were never in doubt, but obviously his control was a long time coming. Johnson came over to the M's early in the '89 season as a key prospect in the trade for Mark Langston. As we all know, his control did eventually come around, and the Mariners, the Diamondbacks, and Major League Baseball are all much better for it. The dominance that he has shown throughout his career, including his four consecutive NL Cy Young awards, his perfect game, his 20-strikeout performance, and one of the best World Series performances I've ever seen, has been matched by no one in baseball history. I've always counted myself as lucky for having been able to see him during his peak.

Monday, January 19, 2009

Through the Years: Craig Biggio

For the past few weeks, I've been focusing these "Through the Years" posts on players on the 2009 Hall of Fame ballot. I think it's been a good exercise, and I was glad to do it. I wasn't able to get to all the players that I was hoping to get to before the election took place, though, but that's okay. It just means that I get to tackle the stories of players like Tim Raines and Alan Trammell and Dale Murphy at some other time, when people aren't in over their heads with Hall of Fame columns, and that's not a bad thing.

I thought I'd take a break from players on the current Hall of Fame ballot and look at one of the more underrated superstars of our time, the Astros second-baseman & leadoff hitter extraordinaire Craig Biggio. I remember a story my brother told me sometime in spring 2004: a friend of his who had owned the Astros in his stratomatic league for years had been standing in line at Six Flags one winter day and realized that the man standing behind him was Craig Biggio. He approached him, and they proceeded to talk baseball for the remainder of their time in line. It sounded like a good story, but I remember both my brother and myself asking the question, if Craig Biggio was standing behind us in line for 45 minutes while waiting to get on a roller coaster, would we recognize him at all in that time?

The point isn't that Biggio talked shop with a random fan for 25 minutes in line at Six Flags, but that neither my brother nor myself ever felt that we would recognize him if he was standing 3 feet from us for 45 minutes, and we're pretty big baseball fans. I mean, can you name any other future first-ballot Hall of Famer that that would be true about? It's hard to say why Biggio was so underrated. It could be that he played his entire career in Houston and not in a city like New York or Boston or Chicago or Los Angeles; it could be that he played the highly-ignored second base (and equally ignored catcher); it could be that his greatness came through in doubles and hit-by-pitches and avoiding double-plays, etc.; whatever it is, though, it's pretty clear to most non-Texans that Biggio was a superstar player without the superstar attention.

Let's give him some due attention then. As with all other "Through the Years" posts, I'll be looking at Biggio's career through my collection of baseball preview guides to see how he was being viewed by writers on a year-to-year basis, and to see just how long it took for people to realize that they were watching a likely future Hall of Famer.

Biggio's first appearance in any of my preview guides comes in the Minor Leagues section of the 1988 Street & Smith's. It is a rather underwhelming first mention and the (likely) typo in his first name is fitting for the most underrated superstar of his time:
"Catcher Graig Biggio [sic], the Astros' No. 1 draft pick in '87, hit .375 with 49 RBIs and 31 SBs in 64 games at Asheville."
Biggio played in 50 games that first year, spread around the summer, but wasn't able to make the impact that I'm sure he was hoping to. He was only 22 years old, though, so there was still a lot of potential in that young catcher. Heading into the 1989 campaign, the Sporting News was still high on his talent:
"[The Alan Ashby-Alex Trevino tandem] would allow Biggio, who was rushed to the majors last year after Ashby was injured, to get some much-needed playing time in the minors. Biggio was overmatched at the plate but showed enough flashes to encourage the Astros about their catching future."
His first full year in the majors, Biggio earned himself a Silver Slugger award and put the league on notice. His future as a catcher wasn't certain to everyone though, despite the value his bat brought. From the 1990 TSN preview guide:
"The Astros have one of the majors' top offenseive receivers in Biggio. Exhibiting a rare combination of power and speed for a catcher, he produced 13 homers, 60 runs batted in, and 21 stolen bases last season. He's targeted as the No. 3 hitter in 1990.

Defensively, Biggio's enthusiasm and quickness are overshadowed by his inability to throw out basestealers. Granted, the Astros' pitching staff often didn't give Biggio a chance last season, but opponents stole 140 bases in 169 tries (a whopping 82.8 percent success rate) when he was catching.

Some scouts believe Houston eventually will move Biggio to second base or the outfield. For now, he'll remain behind the plate and receive on-the-job training to improve his throwing."
Biggio would continue to play catcher for two more years, through 1991, though it seems obvious that his catching abilities were already up in the air. He did improve in his 1990 season some, though it was a mixed bag. His slightly higher average and on-base percentage and the increased number of stolen bases were offset by his drastic drop in power and OPS+. The Astros weren't about to give up on him, though.
"At least for now, the Craig Biggio shuffle is over.

Biggio, moved from catcher to the outfield and back to catcher last year, will start the '91 season behind the plate and stay there.

The Astros wanted to conserve Biggio's speed (46 steals over the last two seasons), so they put him in the outfield. Biggio wasn't happy with it, and the catchers the Astros used in his place (Rich Gedman, Carl Nichols and Alex Trevino) didn't exactly bring back memories of Johnny Bench. Until someone better both offensively and defensively comes along, Biggio is No. 1.

While Biggio's average rose 19 points last year to .276, his homer/RBI production skidded from 13/60 to 4/42. This could be a key year for Biggio, 25, whom many still think can be a .300 hitter with average power and above-average speed."
Biggio made more improvements in '91, bringing all three rate stats up and keeping his counting stats in line with the year before. His time behind the plate wasn't getting much easier, though. By the end of 1991, he was still getting run on at a 75% clip. His fielding percentage put him in the middle of the pack, but he was near the top of the list in both errors and wild pitches, neither of which is very desirable in a backstop. The next season would see Biggio change positions, in an effort to get more production out of him. From the 1992 TSN:
"First, the Astros persuaded Biggio to move from catcher to second base. The reason? The Astros felt that Biggio's speed, far above average for a catcher, was being sapped behind the plate. Also, they felt he hadn't progressed defensively.
Biggio and shortsop [Andujar] Cedeno both figure to give the Astros more offense than defense, Biggio because he will learn virtually from scratch how to play second base..."
He did perform better at second in '92, and, as he got more comfortable there, his numbers got improved. He broke the 30 Win Share threshold that year, and put up an impressive 26 Win Shares in 1993, when his power jumped dramatically and he hit 20 homers for the first time. By the start of the 1994 season, he was already a two-time All-Star and quickly becoming a well-respected player. His status as the leadoff man in the lineup was questioned, though.
"No NL leadoff hitter hit more home runs than second baseman Biggio, who had 21 after hitting a total of 14 in his three previous seasons. Biggio's stolen-base number fell from 38 to 15, though, leading some people to believe the Astros would be better served if he hit lower in the batting order."
The 1994 season began with Biggio hitting in the three-spot, apparently trying to capitalize on his power and on-base percentage. He performed well in that spot and, by July, had worked his way back to the leadoff spot. By the time the strike rolled around in mid-August, he was hitting .318/.411/.483 with 39 stolen bases, only 4 caught stealings, and a 138 OPS+. It was a great year, and he wouldn't look back for another 6 years or so.
"With all eyes on Bagwell, second baseman Craig Biggio's big season almost went unnoticed. Biggio hit .318, led the league in steals (39) and won a Gold Glove. He hit .347 in 32 games batting leadoff, where he'll likely start this season."
Going into the 1995 season, Biggio was 28 years old and was fitting comfortably into his dual roles of second baseman and leadoff hitter, and he was finally getting noticed by people outside of Houston. His 1995 season, where he stole 33 bases (8 caught stealing), slugged 22 home runs, and scored 123 runs with a .302/.406/.483 line and a 141 OPS+ all while playing Gold Glove defense, would only help him get noticed even more, and clearly the people of Houston loved him.
"By agreeing to stay in Houston, All-Star second baseman Craig Biggio not only gave the Astros hope for a reasonably good 1996 season, he may have saved the franchise from leaving the city after this year.

It's doubtful that a decision by one player ever has meant more to the future of a baseball team than Biggio's acceptance of a four-year, $22.36 million offer from the Astros. How much of a difference can Biggio make in '96?

'I'll tell you how much,' relieve Todd Jones said. 'It makes the difference between losing 100 games and winning the division. I love him. And this wasn't about the money. He turned down five years for $25 million from St. Louis. This was about whether he thought we could win, and now we know he does.'...

'People always say there's no loyalty in the game anymore,' Manager Terry Collins said. 'But this is a superstar who stood up and said: 'I'm loyal to the city.' He made our day and our year.' "
That was a lot of pressure that people were putting on Biggio's shoulders. Not only the weight of his contract, or of his teammates, but also of the city itself. That is talk reserved for true superstars, and it's clear that Biggio had reached that status within Texas. The pressure did not seem to get to him, though, as he put up another solid year, reaching 32 Win Shares for the second year. It wasn't impressive enough for the writers at Sporting News though.
"[Jeff] Bagwell and second baseman Biggio played too many games (all 162) and tired in September. Biggio won his third consecutive Gold Glove but may not have deserved it. His range was off, and he shared blame for the club ranking 13th in the league in double plays. Numerous nagging injuries limited him offensively and defensively. When healthy, Biggio has 20-homer, 30-steal ability."
He rebounded from that (relatively) poor season in '96 to have the best season of his career in 1997. His 38 Win Shares that year were supported by 146 runs scored, 22 home runs, 81 runs batted in, 47 stolen bases, and a .309/.415/.501 line with a 143 OPS+. He also earned his fourth consecutive Gold Glove that year, and finished 4th in the MVP voting, all while helping lead the Astros to their first postseason in 11 years. What's uniquely impressive about this season is that he led the league in hit by pitches with 34 and played the entire season - 619 at-bats - without grounding into a single double play.

A few years later, Bill James would rank Biggio as the 35th greatest player of all time, and the 5th greatest second-baseman, in his New Historical Abstract. In the Abstract, James flat out states "Craig Biggio is the best player in major league baseball today," and then goes on to use his 1997 season as evidence.

Granted, Bill James is far from the mainstream media, and so his praise of a player isn't exactly representative of writers as a whole. Still, the fact that Biggio is so high in the discussion says a lot. Plus, being called the "consummate leadoff hitter" and the "strength of the team" by the likes of TSN shows overall acceptance by the more mainstream writers.

Biggio would go on to play 10 more years in the majors, all with the Astros, and would hit some significant milestones, including 3,000+ hits, 1,800+ runs scored, and 400+ stolen bases, all while batting .281/.363/.433 with a 111 OPS+. He should be going into the Hall of Fame on the first ballot in 2013, and it'll be quite a celebration. Hopefully his career will prove a good foil to the countless steroids stories that will resound that year, with the likes of Bonds and Clemens also on the ballot for the first time that year as well.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Sporting News Vault

Updated (1/23/09): So, only five days after I discover the Sporting News Vault, this happens: the TSN Vault is no longer available, so all of the below is pretty much moot...

In keeping with my promise to track the various baseball magazine and newspapers available in digital archives online, I want to make sure to link everyone to this.

While reading some discussions online last week, I came across someone who was able to cite specifically the number of times a certain player's name appeared in the The Sporting News back in 1905 or something similar. That sounded pretty precise to me, so it made me wonder if TSN had some kind of archive available online.

I checked out their site and, sure enough, they do have an archive available. It's called The Sporting News Vault, and is available for free. It's not the greatest, though. TSN has partnered with a company called Paper of Record to provide the Vault. POR is apparently an archival company, providing decades of newspaper archives for papers all over the world. In order to get full search capabilities, you'll need to register with Paper of Record. It's a simple, free process, but they may require more information than some are willing to give.

The search capabilities of TSN's Vault are a mixed bag. It does seem to have excellent full-text search, unlike SI's own Vault, but the results are tough to utilize. Every page that the search term appears on is shown in the search results, with the ability to view that single page as a pdf. There are simple browsing capabilities (next page, previous page, etc), but it's not nearly as simple as, for example, Google Books. It's especially a pain if you're interested in reading a whole article, since it only opens one page at a time for you.

Regardless of its faults, though, it's definitely a nice thing to be able to read every page of The Sporting News. Now, if they could also include their annual baseball yearbooks, that'd be perfect.

The Sporting News Vault homepage can be found here. To go directly to The Sporting News search at Paper of Record, go here (remember, you'll need a login).

I'll be sure to add what I can to the "Preview Guides Available Online" post.

Friday, January 16, 2009

High Win Shares, Low Hall of Fame Votes

For those who have been living under a rock for the last week or so, the Hall of Fame vote for the class of 2009 was announced on Monday. At the top of the list were leadoff hitter extraordinaire and Man of Steal Rickey Henderson and "the most feared hitter" of his day Jim Rice. They'll be finding themselves at Cooperstown's doorstep come July. It's not the top of the list that I'm interested in, however. After all, we'll be remembering who topped the vote for the rest of eternity.

But that's not the case for those on the bottom of the list. For players like Mo Vaughn or David Cone, who fell off the ballot this year for receiving less than 5% of the vote, their time in the Hall of Fame spotlight is over. And while it's probably an accurate reflection of their career - does anyone really believe that David Cone is a Hall of Famer? - that doesn't mean that they had bad careers. In fact, if you look at their careers as a whole, those two actually had productive careers. Despite that, they fell off the HOF ballot this year because of very low vote totals. Which got me thinking, what player had the best career while receiving the lowest Hall of Fame support?

First off, players like Harold Baines or Dale Murphy are disqualified from this discussion because, even though they're getting low vote totals every year, they're still getting enough votes to stay on the ballot. Any player who gets enough support to stay on the ballot for even one additional year is getting too much support for the purpose of this list. Second, we need to decide on a metric to use to measure the player's career. For ease of use, I'll be using Win Shares. I understand that there are limitations and biases with Win Shares, but it's a solid enough stat and helps us get at what we need right now.

What I'm looking for, then, is which players had the highest career Win Shares while receiving the fewest Hall of Fame votes. The data gets a little cluttered when you look at it because the "<5% and you're out" rule didn't exist originally (in fact, I'm a little unclear about when it showed up because, for example, George Foster only received 3.5% of the vote in 1994 but stayed on the ballot). It can still produce some good lists, though.

I'm using the Lahman database and a spreadsheet compiled by Keith Hemmelman at the Baseball Databank Yahoo Group to create these lists. I'm also only looking at voted from 1950 and on, since the voting in the prior years is so scattered.

Let's start out with players who were on the ballot and received zero votes:

Most Career Win Shares by Players Receiving Zero HOF Votes (since 1950)
Player..............Year..Win Shares...Votes

Jimmy Wynn..........1983....305........0
Ken Singleton.......1990....302........0
Amos Otis...........1990....286........0
Ron Fairly..........1984....269........0
Roy White...........1985....263
Gary Matthews.......1993....257
Wally Joyner........2007....253
Cecil Cooper........1993....241
Dick McAuliffe......1981....241
Frank Tanana........1991....241

In 1990, both Jim Palmer and Joe Morgan were elected into the Hall, and in 1993 Reggie Jackson was voted in. Those slam-dunk candidates could explain why a few players from these years dropped off the ballot so quickly.

Most Career Win Shares by Players Receiving a Single HOF Vote (since 1950)
Player..............Year..Win Shares...Votes
Sherry Magee........1950*...354........1
Stan Hack...........1956....316........1
Fielder Jones.......1950*...290........1
Bob Elliott.........1962*...287
Bob Johnson.........1956....287
Jack Quinn..........1956*...287
Toby Harrah.........1992....287
Dixie Walker........1962*...278
Rocky Colavito......1975....273
Heinie Groh.........1954*...272
* indicates received low-tally votes in multiple years

Hank Greenberg and Joe Cronin were both elected into the Hall in 1956. There were no further BBWAA inductions until Bob Feller and Jackie Robinson in 1962. Clearly, there was something going on at this time in the Hall. I'll need to look into that. It doesn't affect our lists though.

Most Career Win Shares by Players Receiving a Two HOF Votes (since 1950)
Player..............Year..Win Shares...Votes
Jose Cruz...........1994....313........2
Brian Downing.......1998....298
Cesar Cedeno........1992....296
Brett Butler........2003....295
George Burns........1950*...290
Joe Judge...........1955*...270........2
Bobby Bonilla.......2007....267
Bill Freehan........1982....267........2
Wilbur Cooper.......1952*...266
Augie Galan.........1968....263........2
* indicates received low-tally votes in multiple years

A number of players who appeared on the "Single HOF Vote" list, like Sherry Magee, Fielder Jones, and Bob Elliott, also qualified to appear on the "Two HOF Votes" list since there wasn't a "drop off" rule back then. I only included those players on one of the two tables, however (whichever list they appeared on first).

And now, since I can't put up a table like this for every single-digit HOF vote, here's a list of some other players with low-tally votes and large career Win Share values.

Notable Low HOF Votes for Players with Large Career Win Share Values
Player..............Year..Win Shares...Votes
Bill Dahlen.........1938....394........1
Darrell Evans.......1995....363........8
Lou Whitaker........2001....351........15
Dwight Evans........1999....347........18
Dick Allen..........1983....342........14
Bobby Grich.........1992....329........11
Jack Clark..........1998....316........7
Norm Cash...........1980....315........6
Ted Simmons.........1994....315........17
Willie Randolph.....1998....312........5

Bill Dahlen is actually the player with the highest career Win Shares, non-Pete Rose or non-Shoeless Joe Division, who is not in the Hall that I could find. He isn't on any of the other lists, though, because he received his vote in 1938, well before my 1950 cut-off.

There's likely an interesting story for each player on this last list about why he was dropped from Hall consideration so soon. Dick Allen has his attitude problems. Norm Cash had one great season and probably seemed sub-par every other year because of that. Ted Simmons was neither Johnny Bench nor Carlton Fisk. But then there's Dwight Evans and Bobby Grich and Lou Whitaker, all great players with great careers who were ignored anyway. I'm not even going to try to go into their stories - there are other people on the internet much more knowledgable about each of them than me.

Whatever the case was that caused each of these players to fall from consideration so quickly, I think it's a good thing to go back and consider their careers every now and then. Sure, none of them are Hank Aaron or Willie Mays, but they're not Mario Mendoza or Joe Schlabotnik either. In fact, it's pretty likely that a lot of these players had some big fans in their day who were quite devastated when their hero was dropped so unceremoniously. With that kind of support, it's only fair that we try to keep their memories alive, if even for just a little bit.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Past Products: Franklin Fantasy Baseball Analyst

Looking through an old preview guide from 1994 that I just recently acquired, I came across this excellent two-page advertisement for the Franklin Fantasy Baseball Analyst. Franklin is probably best known for those pocket electronic dictionaries that all of us geeky kids thought were way-too-cool in the sixth grade (like calculator watches, for some reason), but apparently they started branching out into "digital books" around this time, and this Fantasy Baseball Analyst was one of their "books" (or "software") available.

(click on image to see full-size)

With the Franklin Fantasy Baseball Analyst, you can: (remember, this is 1994)
  • View career stats for all current major league players
  • Query the data for specific stats, such as "What middle infielders in 1993 had at least a .250 average, 10 home runs, 50 RBIs, and 10 stolen bases?"
  • Rank players by any combination or ratio of two dozen performance categories
  • and more...
In all seriousness, I think this was a pretty cool product for its time. If I had had the means (and if I hadn't been 13 years old), it would've been a tempting buy. The price is a little steep, though. If it were merely $49.95 , then I wouldn't be complaining, but $49.95 a month for five months does push it pretty far. It does come with a free All-Star break data update, though, and that "charter renewal rate" of $49.95 per year does seem enticing...

I wouldn't mind finding one of these on ebay, though, and playing around with it. The closest I can find right now are this baseball encyclopedia and this Digital Book System (without the Fantasy Baseball Analyst). I wonder how many of these they even sold.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Prospect Preview: 1994

The upcoming season marks the fifteenth anniversary of the strike-shortened 1994 season. There's a lot of things to remember about that season - the canceled World Series, Tony Gwynn's run at .400, Matt Williams' 43 home runs in 112 games - but what no one seems to remember from that year are the postseason awards. Sure, some of us remember Maddux's third consecutive Cy Young, or Bagwell's lone MVP award, and we can all go over and check out the list at Baseball Reference, but the award winners are usually the last thing on our mind when we think of '94. It's almost as if, with the canceled World Series, we forget that the rest of the season was ever "officially" wrapped up.

But it was, and one of those awards that was handed out that November was the Rookie of the Year award. Raul Mondesi took home the third of five consecutive awards given to Dodgers' rookies, and, for those of us not living in Kansas City or members of the immediate Hamelin family, the illustrious Bob Hamelin of the Kansas City Royals took home the award in the AL.

The winners of the 1994 Rookie of the Year award are less than memorable fifteen years later, but that doesn't mean that there were no memorable rookies breaking into the bigs. Here's a look at the 1994 Sporting News preview guide, and the players that they highlighted as top prospects:
Alex Rodriguez: "Top pick in last June's draft could be in bigs by September"
As with other 1990s TSN preview guides, the 1994 guide gave only brief scouting reports for each team's top prospects. This is the synopsis given to A-Rod. It seems a little underwhelming, considering he has become the highest paid player in baseball history and, arguably, the best player in baseball.
Javier Lopez: "The Braves are sufficiently committed to the 23-year-old Lopez that they released Greg Olson and did not offer a contract to Damon Berryhill, the veteran catching duo they employed in '93. Catching an established pitching staff this season should help Lopez, who still needs to work on his defense but has the arm strength necessary to play the position. Offensively, he has blossomed the last two seasons, hitting a combined .314 in Classes AAA and AA with 33 home runs, 51 doubles and 134 RBIs."
The magazine also highlights the top five Rookie of the Year contenders from each league, including a longer report on each of them. Javy Lopez was one of the NL's top five rookie contenders this year, and he actually finished the season 10th in ROY voting. The scouting report seems fairly spot on, praising his offense and giving a mild warning about his defense. Maybe Braves fans would be able to say more about it than me, but that sounds about right.
Carlos Delgado: "Management is more certain about the hitting of Carlos Delgado, who clubbed 25 homers en route to winning Most Valuable Player honors in the Class AA Southern League. The 21-year-old Delgado is still being tutored on his defense, but there's little doubt that Delgado will get some playing time in Toronto this year."
Another top catching prospect of the year, Delgado was actually close enough to the majors that this preview was included in the Blue Jays section and not just the "prospects" section. Delgado didn't actually make it to the majors as a regular player until 1996, however, and he only ever played in 2 games behind the plate (one in '93 and one in '94). Regardless, I doubt that any Toronto or New York fans are really complaining about his catching prowess.
Armando Benitez: "Has powerful fastball that a legitimate stopper must have."
"Also has the uncanny ability to give up mammoth home runs in the biggest possible moments." (Okay, please forgive the snark. Let's just say that I am not a big Armando Benitez fan.)
Manny Ramirez: "With or without Manny Ramirez, the Indians have every right to be excited about their outfield.

Named Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year after hitting a combined 31 homers between Class AA Canton/Akron and Class AAA Charlotte, Ramirez hit two home runs and a double at Yankee Stadium in his second big-league game. However, his fortunes took a steep decline and he finished his brief major league stint with a .170 average. Ramirez, 21, likely will polish his considerable skills in Class AAA, possibly getting another crack at the majors late in the season."
And, of course, we have to end with Manny. Like Delgado, this scouting report was included alongside the rest of the Indians lineup, indicating just how promising he was as a young kid. Manny did start the '94 season on Cleveland's roster, and he came out swinging, hitting .312/.397/.672 in April. He slowed down as the summer began, but he was hitting .269/.357.521 with 17 HR and 60 RBI as August began. His season ended prematurely, though, in early August, and I can only imagine it was due to injury (though I can't find anything to verify that). Despite that, Manny finished a very respectable 2nd place in ROY voting. It was the first in a long string of years that Manny's offensive prowess, defensive struggles, and personality "quirks" were on full display to the world, for better or worse. I'll take "better."

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Past Future Hall of Famers

Well, tomorrow afternoon sometime the BBWAA will announce the Hall of Fame class for 2009. The smart money has Rickey headlining the class, and Jim Rice following him through in his last year on the ballot. Someone like Bert Blyleven or Andre Dawson might squeak in too, though that's pretty unlikely.

This seems like the perfect time, then, to take a look back at the 1992 Sporting News preview guide and their article "Countdown to Cooperstown?". The article polls the 26 TSN sportswriters and asks each of them what they think the chances are of 70 or so contemporary players to make it into the Hall eventually. They describe the article thusly:
"After the 1991 season, The Sporting News polled its baseball correspondents - whose votes help decide who is elected by the BBWAA - to determine who has a lock on Hall of Fame enshrinement and who needs to turn up the volume.
We looked at players either active or recently retired with at least six years of big-league service (no minor league duty in those seasons and thus no Will Clark or Ruben Sierra)."
That last sentence should give you an idea of what era we're talking about. Players on the "ballot" included: Jose Canseco, Dwight Gooden, Steve Garvey, Tony Gwynn, Steve Carlton, Dan Quisenberry, Roger Clemens, Cal Ripken, and a whole lot more. Some of these players had only 6 or 7 years MLB experience at the time, so the voters were being asked to make some serious guesses, while others had 20+ years of experience. Regardless, looking back at this article 17 years later, when the vast majority of the ballplayers on the list have retired and most have already become eligible for the Hall, it becomes an interesting snapshot about how some players were perceived at or near the end of their careers.

For example, by the end of 1991, Nolan Ryan had already been pitching for 25 years and, although he still had two more seasons in him, it was clear that he had punched his ticket into Cooperstown - all 26 writers voted him as a "Shoo-In" for the Hall. On the other hand, Tommy John had already been retired for over two years (and was still three years away from being on the official ballot), but the writers had no real clear answer about his HOF chances. Of the 26 ballots, he received zero "Shoo-In" votes, seven "Good Chance" votes, seven "Doubtful" votes, one "No Chance" vote, and eleven "Even Money" votes. Clearly, the writers of the day were unsure of John's place in baseball history, and that uncertainty has played out over the last 14 elections.

A selected list of about 45 of these players can be found here. I've included the voting totals for each of these players, as well as their career stats through the end of the 1991 season (when this voting took place). I've also created a crude metric to rank the "certainty" of a given player's Hall chances, according to these votes (+1 pt for each "Shoo-In" vote, +0.5 pts for each "Good Chance" vote, -0.5 pts for each "Doubtful" vote, and -1 pt for each "No Chance" vote; "Even Money" votes are neutral). Players in bold are currently in the Hall of Fame. Keep reading to see what more the TSN writers had to say about some of these players.

Some people might look at this list and and think that it doesn't tell us anything new. After all, it's pretty obvious from 14 years of HOF votes that Tommy John's career, for example, was a tough one to gauge by the writers, especially since the same people that have kept him on the ballot all these years are the ones voting in this article. That's all true, but I prefer to look at the list and find the surprises: Roger Clemens' HOF career was that obvious, even after only 8 years? Why were people so down on Paul Molitor after 1700 games played and nearly 2100 hits, or on Eddie Murray after 2300 games played, 2500 hits, and 400 home runs? Insights like that are what I love, and why I keep reading these magazines.

Along with the big chart detailing all 70+ players voted on, the article also includes some notes and observations about some of the "active players whose cases could go either way."
"Jose Canseco - Age and raw power are two of Canseco' credentials, but probably not the most valuable. In the last six American League seasons, he has averaged 34 homers and 106 runs batted in - amazing figures, considering that problems with his hands and back have forced him to miss 136 games in the last three years. But Canseco may have paved his way into the Hall as much on the basepaths as in the batter's box. His 42-homer, 40-steal season in 1988 is the only 40/40 performance in big-league history."
Canseco is the biggest "false positive" mistake on the list, with 17 "positive" votes and only 1 "negative" vote. This isn't too big of a surprise, though, considering Canseco was the shortest tenured player voted on and also had the most unpredictable career of the last 20 years (other than maybe Sammy Sosa). You can't really fault someone for not accurately predicting all of that. What is interesting to note, though, is just how certain people were of where his career was heading, ranking ahead of, among others, Dave Winfield and Gary Carter.
"Paul Molitor - He's a shoo-in for the trainer's room Hall of Fame, if not Cooperstown. Molitor has played more than 145 games only five times in a 14-year career, as injuries have sidelined him for 570 games, the equivalent of 3.5 seasons. It's a shame, because Molitor could have piled up the numbers to make him a sure thing. He's a lifetime .302 hitter who has scored one run every 1.43 games. Ty Cobb, who holds the record with 2,245 runs scored, averaged one run for every 1.35 games; Pete Rose had one for every 1.65 games."
Molitor represents the biggest "false negative" mistake on the list, with 11 "negative" votes (including two "No Chance" votes) and only 8 "positive" votes. Of course, it's pretty clear from the write-up that Molitor's talents and achievements were well-respected, and that it was just his injury-risk that seemed to scare people away. No one really had any reason to think that he would continue to play over 900 more games, almost all of which at DH.
"Dennis Eckersley - He'd be posing for a bronze bust right now if he had been quicker to realize the dangers of night life and being a starting pitcher at Fenway Park. Eckersley has saved 185 games in only five years with the Oakland Athletics (he had only three saves before that), but he's still 153 behind the record (341) that got Rollie Fingers into the Hall in January [1992]. Eckersley spent his first 12 big-league seasons as a starter, but was healthy enough to pitch 200 innings in only six of those years."
Looking back today, we know just how impressed the writers were with Eck's two-part career, but this article gives us a taste of how uncertain everyone was with his career as it was happening.
"Alan Trammell - Here's how long Trammell has been in Detroit: The Tigers' last regular shortstop was Tom Veryzer. Trammell has been the No. 1 shortstop in Detroit for 14 seasons. A good offensive player, he has been helped by his ballpark but rates far behind his counterpart in Baltimore, Cal Ripken, in consideration for the Hall. He needs to make some magic in his last few years to rank among the elite."
The argument for Trammell these days is that he was a great offensive and defensive shortstop, but he had the misfortune of playing right when Ripken was revolutionizing the way we value shortstops and their contributions. I guess that was even happening almost 20 years ago.
"Jack Morris - There's nothing striking about his career earned-run average (3.71), but voters could be swayed by his true grit while spending a career in hitter's parks. He has won 216 games but will be remembered - and perhaps honored - for his 7-1 postseason record. His 1-0 victory over Atlanta last fall was the best performance ever in a Game 7 of the World Series."
In the debates we read every year over Jack Morris, his performance in Game 7 of the 1991 World Series always seems to come up to some degree. Seeing this article then, written with that fresh in mind, you can see the genesis of that argument. His performance is mentioned explicitly in the article, and it can likely be seen in the voting, where Morris gets 11 "Good Chance" votes and even 1 "Shoo-In" vote.

Jim Rice wasn't highlighted by the article, so it's hard to know what the voters in the article were thinking. I think it is interesting to note that Dwight Evans actually received more support in this than Rice. The votes for Rice were: 0-3-13-10-0, for a -3.5 certainty. The votes for Evans were: 0-6-10-10-0, for a -2 certainty. Neither Red Sox outfielder had overwhelming support, but Evans' was slightly more. It makes you wonder how Evans fell off after three years while Rice was able to push on to his 15th year, where he is on the verge of getting inducted.

The votes for Blyleven (0-6-13-6-1 = -1), Sutter (1-5-12-7-1 = -1) and Raines (0-4-6-14-2 = -7) are also notable, though they really only show you that voters weren't ready to vote for these guys yet. And that's something that is pretty obvious from their being on the HOF ballot for so many years. In any case, being able to look back in time and see how writers were judging players' HOF chances before they were eligible is quite enlightening and, to me at least, quite interesting.