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Disappointments and Surprises III

October 25, 2018


25 Players who Turned out to be far better than it looked like they could be as rookies


As opposed to the list of 25 rookies who disappointed, this is more of a curated list.  The list of disappointing rookies (yesterday) was pretty much a computer-generated list, defined by the distance between expected and actual Win Shares.  If you do that on the other end, you get a list of Hall of Famers who had moderately successful rookie seasons, several of them winning the Rookie of the Year Award, but were projected for only 250 or 300 Win Shares, but went on to 500 or 700.   That’s not really what we’re looking for, I don’t think, so I imposed some other conditions on the list.  

25.  Bobby Bonilla, 1986

Drafted by the White Sox from the Pirates in the 1985 Rule 5 draft, Bonilla was traded back to the Pirates after hitting just 2 home runs in 234 at bats.   He was a big, big man; he is listed at 210 to 240 pounds, and he was all of that and it was mostly muscle.  The White Sox weren’t looking for one home run every two months.  For the Pirates he hit 1 more home run in 192 at bats, finished with three bombs in 426 at bats.   Took him a couple of years for his power to show up, but it eventually did.  Projected for 102 Win Shares off of his rookie season, he finished with 272. 

What I loved about Bonilla was that he was the kind of player who was not defeated by his failings.  You could put him at third base; he couldn’t play third base at all, but it didn’t beat him.  He kept trying to play third base, and he kept on hitting.  That’s a rare thing.  That was like Greenberg in the outfield in 1940 (which I wrote about in the last segment of this series); Greenberg couldn’t play the outfield at all, but he just kept playing. 


24.  Paul Konerko, 1997

Physically similar to Bobby Bonilla but even slower, Konerko reached the majors after hitting .323 with 37 homers, 127 RBI at Albuquerque in 1996.   The Dodgers had a first baseman already so the Dodgers attempted to play Konerko at third base, where he was sharing time, oddly enough, with Bobby Bonilla.  After hitting .215 with 4 homers in 49 games with the Dodgers he was traded to Cincinnati.  Konerko, still trying to play third base, hit .219 for Cincinnati, completing a thoroughly miserable rookie season (.217 with 7 homers in 75 games), and the Reds traded him to the White Sox. 

The White Sox made him a first baseman/designated hitter, and he started to hit immediately, although he didn’t reach the 40-homer level for several years.  Projected for 79 Win Shares off of his rookie season, he finished with 257.

  For much of his career, Konerko had almost exactly the same career statistics as David Ortiz in many categories.  The two players were the same age, and David’s career also, you will remember, started slowly. 

Through the 2006 season Konerko had hit .283 with 245 homers, 805 RBI; Ortiz had hit .283 with 231 homers, 763 RBI. 

Through the 2008 season Konerko was at .277 with 298 homers, 957 RBI; Ortiz was at .287 with 289 homers, 969 RBI. 

Through 2011 Konerko was hitting .282 with 396 homers, 1261 RBI; Ortiz was at .283 with 378 homers, 1,266 RBI. 

Through 2013 Konerko had hit .281 with 434 homers, 1,390 RBI; Ortiz had hit .287 with 431 homers, 1,429 RBI.   Ortiz just outlasted him by a couple of years and pulled ahead at the end.  Konerko was also the MVP of the 2005 American League Championship Series, driving in 7 runs in a five-game series. 


23.  Roy White, 1966 Yankees

As a rookie he hit just .225 and drove in only 20 runs in 115 games, 356 plate appearances.  His second season (1967) was even worse, dropping to .224 with a 76-point drop in OPS.  He went on to a fine career, of course.  I always think of him as the Yankees’ version of Amos Otis.  Those guys are underrated because they do everything pretty well, rather than doing one thing extremely well.  The human mind just doesn’t process complex combinations as well as it does simple combinations.   If he you hit .300 with 25 homers, everybody understands. If you hit 30 homers and steal 30 bases, everybody understands.  If you hit .295 with 18 homers, 25 stolen bases, 80 walks and good defense, you may have equal or greater value but it takes longer for people to pick it up. 

Projected for 79 Win Shares, he finished with 263. 


22.  Steve Garvey, 1971

As a rookie Garvey had almost the same numbers as Roy White, .227 with 7 homers.  His second year was better but not much better; his third season was a little better but he still wasn’t a regular.  In the spring of 1974 I was student teaching, and car-pooled with a guy who was a baseball fan, and he named his "jerk of the year" candidates as a sort of parody of the MVP candidates.  He picked Garvey as the nothing player of the year.   Garvey won the MVP Award that year, 1974. 

From 1969 to 1972 Garvey was mostly a third baseman or, in keeping with the theme of this article, attempting to be one.  He did not have a third baseman’s arm, lost confidence in his ability to make throws and developed a phobia about throwing that was with him the rest of his career, and diminished his value.  Although he did win some Gold Gloves, if there was a runner on first and a ground ball was hit right at him he would just take the out at first, because he lacked confidence in his ability to make the throw to second. 

Anyway, from 69-72 he was a bad third baseman; in 1973 he was a part-time first baseman, fighting for playing time with Bill Buckner and playing some in the outfield.  He broke through in 1974. 


21.  Michael Young, 2001

Hit just .249 as a rookie and just .262 in his second season, playing regularly both seasons.  That put him 42 and a half hits below a .300 career average, but he managed to finish his career as a .300 hitter.   He also started his career as a second baseman, converted to shortstop.


20.  Ken Caminiti, 1987

Hit just .246 with 3 homers in 63 games as a rookie, then hit just .181 his second season.  Both Michael Young and  Ken Caminiti Gritty would be projected for 52 Win Shares off of their rookie seasons, but finished with 242, same data in both cases. 

19.  Gil Hodges, 1948

A minor league catcher, Hodges made the majors as a catching prospect in 1947, was moved to first base with the emergence of Roy Campanella as a star catcher.   His rookie season was poor; he hit just .249 with 11 homers in 134 games.  With an OPS of .687 he was the only first baseman in the league with an OPS under .700, and it was not a strong league for first basemen.  He was not young, either; he was 24.  He started hitting in 1949. 

Hodges was very athletic.  He had those "springup" muscles in his thighs that catchers have sometimes, that make them a little bow-legged and able to hop out of a crouch, and he had a very strong throwing arm.  Average speed or a tick above; much faster than Garvey, Konerko or Bonilla.  Projected for 85 Win Shares, he got to 277. 


18.  Tony Phillips, 1983

As a rookie he hit just .248 with 4 homers, 35 RBI, and he had no defensive position.  Playing in Oakland, it took him an exceptionally long time to start hitting; he really didn’t hit through 1990, by which time he was 31 years old and appeared to be about at the end of his career. 

He was, however, an exceptional percentage player.  He started at 48 walks and became a guy who would walk 100 times a year, 100 walks five times and 95 or more 7 times.  And, without a clear defensive position, he became a player who could play anywhere on the field and be the best defensive player at any position except short or catcher; he could play short (294 games in his career), but he wasn’t the best shortstop in the league.  At second, third or in the outfield, he was a tremendous defensive player.  His versatility, speed, competitiveness, intelligence and adaptability made his career last until he was 40 years old.   Projected for 77 Win Shares, he finished with 268. 


17.  Doc Cramer, 1931

As a rookie outfielder in 1931 Doc Cramer hit just .260 with a .642 OPS; adding in his few at bats in 1929 and 1930 his career average was .248, and in 1931 there were .300 hitters who couldn’t find work.  He was 25 years old then, and he had absolutely no power; later in his career he would establish a major league record, which I believe still stands, for consecutive at bats without ever hitting a home run.  It was not a promising premise for a career—not young, no power, .248 average in the majors, and he wasn’t really fast, either; he was kind of fast but not really.  In his career he stole 62 bases but was caught stealing 73 times.

He was a regular in the major leagues until he was 39 years old, played until he was 42, and got 2,705 hits in the majors.  I should use Doc Cramer to explain something about Win Shares and WAR.   WAR is like profit; Win Shares is more like revenue.   In business, you need to know what both of those things are, your revenue, your expected revenue, and your profit.  Cramer had a lot of Win Shares, 242, but not a lot of profit in it; he is credited by Baseball Reference with just 8.5 WAR. 

Do you know the famous exchange between a businessman and his accountant, and the businessman asks "What was our profit this year?" and the accountant says "What did you want it to be?"  "Profit" is like that; it is a difficult concept.   Revenue is a relatively simple thing to measure; profit, which relies on attribution of costs, is much trickier. 

You wouldn’t want to bet a lot of money that our estimates of Doc Cramer’s WAR are accurate.  He was a center fielder, supposedly a good defensive center fielder, playing a game in which defense was measured only by old, poorly defined categories.  In general I accept that he was not a Hall of Fame candidate despite the 2,705 career hits, and in a general way I accept that the profit on his playing time was limited, but he may have had much more defensive value than modern analysts believe that he did.  44 expected Win Shares, 242 actual.


16, Omar Vizquel, 1989

A part of the greatest rookie class of all time with Seattle in 1989 (Vizquel, Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey Jr. and Edgar Martinez), he hit just .220 as a rookie, with a .534 OPS.   He was close to losing his job, losing his career; he lost playing time in 1990, as the Mariners experimented with other shortstops but couldn’t find one.  Vizquel didn’t really start to hit until 1992, and of course hitting was never what he did best. 

Edgar Martinez would also be on this list, I think, if I had defined the candidates in such a way that he fit.  To make the list, a player had to have 200 plate appearances in a rookie season, because the projections get weird if you’re working with too little playing time.  Martinez had only 196 plate appearances in his last rookie-eligible season, thus isn’t on the list. Vizquel was projected for 79 career Win Shares, wound up with 282.


15.  Brett Butler, 1982

Hit just .217 as a rookie, driving in only 7 runs in 89 games.  Like Doc Cramer, he was 25 years old in his rookie season.   He played well in 1983, becoming the Brett Butler that most of us remember, and went on to a long major league career in which he scored 100 or more runs six times. 

I loved Brett Butler, as a player, and I absolutely believe that his game would work in 21st century baseball.  I believe that it would work better now than it did in the 1980s, but there really is no Brett Butler left in the majors; Brett Gardner, maybe. 

One thing you will notice is how many of these players were traded early in their careers.  Omar Vizquel, after four seasons in the majors, was traded to Cleveland for Felix Fermin, Reggie Jefferson and cash.  Doc Cramer was traded early in his career, Bonilla was, Konerko.   They were traded because their teams underestimated their upside, which is our selection criteria in a sense.   Butler was traded to Cleveland after his first good season in a disastrous trade that substantially undermined the Braves of the 1980s.  40 Projected Win Shares; 245 actual. 


14.  Miguel Tejada, 1998

Hit just .233 with 11 home runs as a rookie, but reached 30 homers two years later and would drive in 100 runs five straight times with totals including 131 and 150.   79 Projected Win Shares, 280 actual.


13.  Steve Finley, 1991

Similar to Brett Butler but not as much fun, since he developed power in mid-career.  Finley signed with the Orioles, had a bad rookie season for them in 1991, hitting just .249 in 81 games with a .616 OPS.  He was a regular in 1992 but wasn’t much better, hitting .256 with a .632 OPS, and was traded to Houston that winter, with Curt Schilling and Pete Harnsich, in a package for Glenn Davis.  Finished with 2500+ hits, 300+ homers, 289 Win Shares.  As a rookie we would have projected him for 77. 


12. Torii Hunter, 1989

Played 135 games as a rookie, but hit just .255 with 9 home runs.  Of course he went on to a long and successful career.   A positive, friendly person, he was the first person to become famous for home-run robbing catches, after we started counting those.  The most famous moment of his career was probably when he went head-first over the fence in Fenway during the 2013 post-season, trying to rob David Ortiz of a Grand Slam home run.  Ortiz and Hunter were the best of friends, having been together as young players in the Minnesota farm system.  63 projected Win Shares, 276 actual.


11. Maury Wills, 1959

Buried in the minor leagues for eight and a half seasons, Wills was on the verge of being released until he decided to try switch hitting and bunting a lot to take maximum advantage of his speed.  Called to the majors as an emergency stop gap in 1959, he played dreadfully in his first month in the majors, hitting .143 in his first 15 games, being 0-for-3 as a base stealer, and making two errors in his first major league game.   He was 26 years old.  The Dodgers, desperately short of options at shortstop due to injuries, stuck with him.  He caught fire in September, 1959, hitting .345 in that month after hitting no better than .241 in any other, and went on from there to a near-Hall of Fame career.   32 projected Win Shares, 253 actual.


10.  Dwight Evans, 1973

Batted just .223 in 119 games as a rookie.   55% of rookies who hit .220 to .229 will retire with less than 600 career games, and Evans did not explode on the league in his second year; kind of like Tony Phillips, he didn’t really find himself as a hitter until he was about 30.  He hit .272 in his career, but while he hit "only" .272 he had 3,214 secondary bases in his career, as opposed to 2,447 hits.  Secondary bases are extra bases on hits (Evans had 1,745), walks (1,391) and stolen bases (78).   On average over time, there are about as many secondary bases as hits.  Doc Cramer had 2,705 hits but only 1,259 secondary bases.   A player with significantly more secondary bases than hits will virtually always also have more runs scored + RBI than hits, and a player with significantly fewer secondary bases than hits will almost always have less.   In this case, Evans had 2,447 hits but 2,861 runs scored and RBI, while Cramer had 2,705 hits but only 2,199 runs scored and hits.  Evans as a rookie projected for just 94 career Win Shares, but actually had 347.  


9.  Bobby Abreu, 1998

Another right fielder who was very similar to Evans in career hits, secondary bases and runs scored + RBI, and who was always underrated because of that.  Abreu hit just .250 as a rookie, with 3 homers in 59 games.  After that season he was taken by Tampa Bay in the 1998 expansion draft, but was traded immediately (by Tampa Bay) to Philadelphia, where he began his great career.  He was traded for Kevin Stocker, which illustrates the general point of this list.   If Houston had any idea how good he was going to be they would never have left him exposed in the expansion draft, and if Tampa Bay had any idea how good he was they would never have traded him for Kevin Stocker.  Projected for 102 Win Shares based on his rookie season; wound up with 359. 


8.  Roberto Clemente, 1955

Had 501 plate appearances as a rookie but hit only .255 with 5 homers.   Didn’t hit his stride as a hitter until 1960, but was only 25 years old in 1960.   Projected for 118 Win Shares based on his rookie season, he wound up with 377. 


7.  Graig Nettles, 1969

Hit just .222 as a rookie for the Twins in 1969; see note about Dwight Evans, who hit .223.   After his rookie season he was traded as part of a package for Luis Tiant, who won only 7 games for the Twins before entering a career crisis.   Nettles was a tremendous defender and had a great launch angle, hit everything in the air.   Based on his rookie season we would have projected him for 52 Win Shares; he wound up with 311. 


6.  Darrell Evans, 1971

Similar to Nettles, a good defensive third baseman (not as good as Nettles) with a great launch angle.  As a rookie he hit .242 but with 12 homers in 89 games, not terrible numbers, but he would have projected for only 89 career Win Shares.  He wound up with 363.  These comments are short because I assume you all know the stories of guys like Dwight and Darrell Evans, Roberto Clemente and Graig Nettles.   Let me know if I’m wrong about that. 


5.  Lou Brock, 1962

Brock hit just OK as a rookie, .263 with 9 homers, 16 stolen bases, and basically duplicated that season in 1963.  The Cubs had Billy Williams in left field, just a year older than Brock; Williams did not have the speed or arm to play the other outfield positions.  They tried to make Brock a center fielder based on his speed and their needs, but he just was not a center fielder, so they tried him in right, but that didn’t work, either.  They had to trade him, really; they didn’t have any option about that.  They didn’t make a good trade.  Based on his rookie season we would have projected him for 70 career Win Shares.  He wound up with 348. 


4. Tony Perez, 1965

Hit .260 as a rookie, 12 homers and 47 RBI.   He was playing first base as a rookie, which limited what we would expect from him. . . .a 23-year-old rookie first baseman hitting 12 homers in 104 games; that’s not Johnny Mize or Willie McCovey.   In 1967 he moved to third base; the Reds were trying to get both Perez and Lee May in the lineup, like the Giants trying to squeeze McCovey and Cepeda both into the lineup.   Perez had a couple of big years with the bat at third base, but was defensively challenged.  The Reds eventually traded Lee May and moved Perez back to first, and he made the Hall of Fame as the first baseman on the Big Red Machine.   70 Win Shares projected, 348 actual.


3.      Gary Sheffield, 1989


There has always been machinery in place to pick over the upcoming rookies and let the public know who was supposed to be good.  In my youth, Topps baseball cards featured selections of rookies who were coming up, three or four on a card, and pre-season magazines picked the pre-season rookie of the year, etc.  There was an Associated Press poll on the subject.  I could rummage around in my memory and tell you who was the pre-season rookie of the year in 1961 (Yastrzemski) or 1964 (Don Buford); of course the voters were usually wrong, but my point is that the machinery existed.  It existed 50 years before that; writers would go to spring training and compile lists of the best "bush leaguers" who were trying to cut the mustard. 

By 1989 this machinery was in a fairly modern state, and Gary Sheffield had set off the Hype Machines before the season started.  He was supposed to be the big news among rookies of that season.  He had a dreadful rookie campaign, hitting .247 with 5 homers, 32 RBI, but also attempting to play shortstop and failing that test in a more dramatic fashion.  That is another theme of this list:  very often these players who don’t do anything as rookies but later become stars struggled as rookies in part because they were being asked to play a defensive position that they couldn’t really handle.   Another theme is, of course, that then they get traded.  Sheffield moved to third base in 1990, hit .294 but without a lot of power, then lost most of the 1991 season to injuries, hitting .194 with two homers in 50 games.   After that he was traded to San Diego, where he hit .330 with 33 homers his first season.   As a rookie we would have projected him for 118 Win Shares.  He wound up with 431.


1.       Luke Appling

Luke Appling in 1931 was on the older side for a rookie (24), didn’t hit a lick and also made—this is a little hard to believe—42 errors in 76 games at shortstop.  In his second season he jumped his batting average from .232 to .274, but made more errors than any other American League player at any position (49).  That wasn’t at one position; he made 37 errors at shortstop, 6 at third base and 6 at second base.   At that, making 37 errors at shortstop, he improved his fielding percentage from .900 to .929.  By 1933 he had settled in as a hitter, hitting .322 and collecting 197 hits, but still made 55 errors at shortstop. 

After a Hall of Fame playing career Appling was a very successful minor league manager, but wasn’t perceived as having the personality of a major league manager.  Because Charlie Finley, owner of the A’s, had grown up in Chicago while Appling was playing, he found Appling and brought him to the majors as a coach, as he had done with Gabby Hartnett, mentioned earlier in the series.  Because Appling was part of the A’s organization I knew who he was from an early age, before I knew anything about baseball history; he was always referred to as "Old Aches and Pains."  But the "Old Aches and Pains" nickname wasn’t put on him until 1948, when he gave a pre-game interview talking about how stiff and sore he was, then went out and played a terrific game in the field.  Projected as a rookie for 52 Win Shares, he went on to 378. 


1.       Mike Schmidt, 1973

Among the 2,640 rookies in this study, only 59 hit less than .200 as rookies, or 2% of the group.  Among the 59 who hit under .200, only 13 went on to moderately successful careers:  Ed Bailey, Mark Belanger, Jerry Grote, Ken Henderson, Brandon Inge, Jeff King, Spike Owen, Dean Palmer, Bill Robinson, Mike Schmidt, Dick Schofield Jr., Eric Soderholm and Matt Williams.  Only three of those had what I would call clearly successful careers:  Belanger, Schmidt and Matt Williams.

Schmidt was, of course, by far the best of them.  He was not a young rookie above his level, either; he was 23 years old, and had had a big year in the PCL in 1972.  He did some things well as a rookie; he hit 18 homers, drew 62 walks in 367 at bats, and he played well in the field.  Still, based on his overall rookie profile, we would have projected him for only 81 major league Win Shares.   He wound up with 467. 




COMMENTS (44 Comments, most recent shown first)

Wasn't Carney Lansford really overrated with the glove? He dove for everything.
2:33 PM Nov 6th
I'm with the post below (it's along the lines of what I've said), but just wanted to say, we've started getting sloppy of how we're putting it ourselves (including me), which is probably also the most we can be criticizing about what Bill said.

He did indicate those guys as being "successful," at least moderately so. It's just that he then indicated that their careers weren't "clearly" successful, and, on thinking of it a little more, I think it probably wasn't any difference in how we're seeing the players but just that as he was writing it, he happened to express some conceptual rating thing into parsings of degree of successful-ness that didn't come out the way he meant it.

Cliff's Notes: If Bill is still looking and if he cares, if he ever puts out this series of articles more widely or makes it into a book or something, it would be good to put that little thing differently.
10:49 AM Nov 4th
Hey, all we're saying is what we're saying! :-)
It's about your having seemingly indicated that you didn't think their careers were successful. Of course we may have not gathered what you meant by successful....we weren't talking about putting them in a class with those other guys.

(I wonder why you didn't just say, "Maybe I used an inapt word.....")
10:25 PM Nov 2nd
Is there anybody on this list who DIDN'T have at least a few All-Star seasons? Jerry Grote to the Max appearing in two all-star games does not mean that he belongs on a list with Mike Schmidt, Luke Appling or, for that matter, Bobby Bonilla or Paul Konerko. Konerko and Bonilla, the bottom two guys on the list, played in six All-Star games each.
10:58 PM Nov 1st
Dean Palmer, at least in Kansas City, was as bad a third baseman as I've ever seen. I swear you should have bunted on him any time there was a runner on first, because there was at least a 15% chance he was going to throw the ball into the right field corner.
10:54 PM Nov 1st
Yeah I thought Dean Palmer was okay, you know? Had a fugly K-W ratio etc but he could still play, kinda Mark Reynolds or whatever.
7:48 PM Nov 1st
Hodges beat out Chuck Connors in Brooklyn. Connors went on to star as “The Rifleman.”
4:23 PM Nov 1st
That caught my eye too, especially Bailey, about whom I'd say it's less far off to call him a borderline Hall of Famer than someone who didn't have a clearly successful career.
I'd add Dean Palmer to the two you mentioned.

I wonder if this was just an oversight by Bill. In fact, again especially about Bailey but really all of them, I almost can't imagine at all that he meant it.​
11:32 AM Nov 1st
Steve -- thanks, that's right.
10:54 AM Oct 30th
I believe Bill said in the Intro that Part IV would deal with current rookies, but that we might have to wait a while for it.
10:23 AM Oct 30th
BTW, re the Doc Cramer piece: It's wonderful to see such a recognition that current metrics may not necessarily be fair about long-ago players.

(I know that the article doesn't say the metrics on him are wrong.)

He's a good example of a player on whom we might always have reasonably wondered if he could have been as bad as metrics say.

That can also be true of not-so-long-ago players.
My Exhibit A: Bobby Richardson
3:54 PM Oct 29th
Disappointment: No Part IV yet! :-)

Or, did the un-numbered Intro count as #1, so that in fact, III is #4....

Funnily, the latter could well be. I don't see any obvious loose ends, except maybe a summary-reflection.
1:29 PM Oct 29th
You mention Matt Williams in the Mike Schmidt comment. I wonder where he would appear on the list? Does he make the top 50?

I like to think of Williams as a poor man's Mike Schmidt. Both were gold glove quality 3rd basemen who could play shortstop if you needed an extra bat in the line up. Both had terrific power with decent but not great batting averages (.270 range). The difference of course is that Williams never did learn to lay off the slider low and away and wound up with a thousand fewer career walks than Schmidt leading to a putrid career on-base percentage of .317 (compared to Schmidt's .380).

I still believe that Matt Williams with decent strike zone judgment would have been the equal of Mike Schmidt.
11:18 PM Oct 28th
Now I want to compare and contrast Bobby Brown and Bobby Bonilla, but I think I'm working from an inadequate knowledge base there. Bobby Bonilla was much, much, much less married to Whitney Houston.
5:10 PM Oct 27th
Pedro Guerrero and Pete Rose were the same as Bobby Bonilla— play a position and still hit. Juan Bonilla, however, was nothing like Bobby Bonilla.
1:44 PM Oct 27th
I loved Bobby Bonilla when he was an Oriole, and I was ticked that Davey Johnson took pot shots at his third base play after he was gone, Spring Training 1997. No, he wasn't a good third baseman at all, but the guy kept getting asked to play there anyways, and gave it his best shot every time.
11:36 AM Oct 27th
Nettles9, nice anecdote. Always fun to confuse your idols. I once met the members of the band Yes (well - Anderson, Bruford, Wakeman, and Howe) at a record store appearance, and when I got to Howe, the guitarist, I asked if he had any extra plectrums on him. A plectrum is the fancy-pants term for a guitar pick. Anyway, he gave me a look like as if I'd asked him if I could fondle his balls. Then some beefy security guy said, "Okay, let's keep it moving," and that was that.
11:34 AM Oct 27th
As I began reading this article, I wondered if or when I would see Graig Nettles show up. Too bad he wasn’t number nine in the list. Only as a means of expanding the knowledge base for Nettles, while he was playing for Cleveland, he wasn’t such an extreme pull hitter as he became with the Yankees. He used the whole field quite a bit more. I believe he still holds the major league record for defensive double plays by a third baseman, 54 in 1971. He once held the American League record for home runs in April, 11 in 1974. My favorite player. I met him at a card show when I was in my 20s, shook his hand, told him he was my favorite player, then told him I always drafted him first when I played Strat-O-Matic. He gave me an odd-ish look at that statement.
11:06 AM Oct 27th
Steven Goldleaf
I lived there, too--first game I ever saw was Yaz's rookie year vs NY. I don't think there's much of a difference between a "bad attitude" and "head case." That's kinda my point--white guys have bad attitudes, black and brown guys with bad attitudes are head cases.
5:14 PM Oct 26th
Fireball Wenz
I think Stanky meant Yaz had a bad attitude. He might have been tight with one of the managers Yaz had run off. Boston guy here - Yaz was never considered flaky or dumb - mostly selfish and cheap.
5:01 PM Oct 26th
Bobby Bonilla: I saw him play in person in Comiskey Park in his rookie year. The park used to have visible areas in the outfield walls so concession-buyers could still see some things. Can’t recall if the holes were netted, clear plastic or what…Anyhow, I got a look at him in the outfield and thought, “Wow, that guy REALLY looks like a Major League ballplayer!” For whatever reason, everything about how he threw, ran, and even stood still, made me think that. I’ve never had that thought about any other player I’ve seen. I guess I’ve never thought, “That guy does NOT look like an MLB player,” either, except maybe guys like Luzinski when he was old.

Tony Phillips, when he was 40, had a .362 OBA and a .433 SLG as an Oakland Athletic. I was incensed – INCENSED! – that nobody signed him after that in a world where Alex Gonzalez (does it matter which one?) was given 700 plate appearances. Over time, I was no longer incensed. Possibly also no longer had sense.
4:46 PM Oct 26th
Steven Goldleaf
How do you interpret "an All-Star from the neck down", Fireball? (credit: Eddie Stanky, which is all I'm basing Yaz's reputation on.)
1:25 PM Oct 26th
I would guess my namesake was a headcase, at least if the stories about the bad temper are true. His career went about as the rookie season predicted too, bookends first full and last.
1:09 PM Oct 26th
Fireball Wenz
Disagree on Yaz being considered not bright and a little crazy. He matriculated at Notre Dame; he was considered an owner's pet who ran off managers he didn't like and who divided the clubhouse into cliques. Sometime in the 1970s, he became an example of hard work and elder statesman.
12:22 PM Oct 26th
This series is a great example of the power of framing: the way data is organized powerfully shapes the story told. Bill could have just as easily told this story in reverse, by comparing rookie performance to career performance. Then these "overperformers" would be seen as the opposite: players who failed to play at their true ability as rookies (and perhaps nearly derailed what would become successful careers). The "disappointments," in turn, would be the ones who overachieved as rookies -- the "one hit wonders" of baseball.

The story Bill chose is much truer to our experience and emotions as fans: we build up hopes for these young players, and then watch as those hopes are -- or are not -- fulfilled. The second story is arguably more true in an analytical sense: most of the time, a player's career performance is a more true measure of his ability than his rookie season (or any single season). The first story focuses our attention on the players, and whether they succeeded or failed to reach a benchmark; the second story is more about our expectations, and how they can sometimes lead us astray (especially when based on small samples).

Neither story alone is "correct." Tony C's career stats obviously don't reveal that he wasn't really a great hitter; on the other hand, the lesson of Mike Schmidt is not about overperformance, it's that almost anything can happen over 443 PA. But the choice about which way to frame the comparison greatly affects how we interpret the results, even though the numerical rookie/career disparity is the same either way.

Bill could also have reversed the story in another way: focusing on the three middle groups rather than the extremes. Then the story is about the power of forecasts, the surprising possibility of predicting with some success entire careers based on just a single season of data. This story would extend what is probably still Bill's greatest discovery, that minor league performance predicts MLB performance (MLEs). Again, the point is not that one story or the other is "correct," but that the same data can be used to tell stories that direct our attention in very different directions.​
9:13 AM Oct 26th
Steven Goldleaf
Yaz was just thought not to be bright--not really a head case, i.e., a little crazy. Similarly, Jackie Brandt (whom I always think of when I hear Jackie Bradley jr.) was nicknamed "Flakey." Maybe it was hard for white guys to be thought of as dangerously imbalanced, just dumb or a tad eccentric, but it was easier with players of color?
8:38 AM Oct 26th
Fireball Wenz
Regarding guys who overcame the "head case" label: I would say Frank Robinson, Roberto Clemente and to some extent Carl Yastrzemski are in that category. Maybe Orlando Cepeda as well.
8:27 AM Oct 26th
Have thoroughly enjoyed this series of articles. I was thrilled, frankly, to scan through the surprises and see many of my personal favorites (Roy White, Brett Butler, Tony Phillips, the Evans Brothers and, especially, Gary Sheffield) on the list. The value of having a good eye certainly outweighs other perceived skills considered to be average.
Thanks Bill!
6:56 AM Oct 26th
Bill: Not necessarily to be addressed right now (not to mention at all) :-) .....I mean, I know you must be like real busy and stuff right now (I would be), but maybe at least file this away to be addressed somwhere some time.
Or maybe someone else can address it.

Re the Bonilla thing, about "not being defeated" by being at a position he couldn't play:
I've noticed a couple of such comments in the past, about a player or two, including in the last Historical Abstract, but never till this piece did I get such a feeling that you mean it literally -- i.e. that being at a position a guy can't really play is apt to screw up his whole game, to the point that it's noteworthy and praiseworthy if it doesn't.

Do you really mean that? If so, have you in fact written about it more than the couple of passing references of unclear literal intent that I've noticed?
(Maybe other members can point out such other instances, if there be such.)

This is a kind of thing that's of particular interest to me, because it's about what we might call the human element and the environmental element of baseball performance. I know that you (i.e. Bill) do believe strongly in such aspects, but I think many people here and many other serious sabermetricians don't often give such aspects enough emphasis.
I'd add that such a thing, by its nature, would seem to lie broadly in the same category as things like "chemistry" and "leadership," and just, well, how a player happens to feeling during a given period of time.

I'm not at all surprised that Bill would feel such a thing. I just haven't noticed him fleshing it out anywhere, and I think here maybe we have the first indication that he means it literally and directly.
11:28 PM Oct 25th
Good to see Tony Phillips on this list. Sabermetricians appreciate his walks, but Phillips doesn't get noticed the way Grich and Abreu do. He died in February 2016.
6:41 PM Oct 25th
Joe Cronin comes to mind as someone with a poor beginning who had a good career.
5:49 PM Oct 25th
If I'm 0-2 I might play guys out of position. 2-0? Dance with the one that brung you.
2:50 PM Oct 25th
I expected Ken Phelps to be here somewhere.
2:48 PM Oct 25th
Saving Mookie Betts for the 5th inning? Baseball isn't an edurance sport like soccer football.

National League games need more pinch hitters, so it makes more sense to me that rather than bench Kinsler and Holt, let alone Mookie or J.D. to have Moreland and Pearce on the bench with Betts or Martinez playing first-base.

The least disruptive and, perhaps, the best solution is to simply bench Bradley Jr. instead of Betts.

However, if Cora thinks the Red Sox are better with Mookie at seond-base, I would defer. It is a bit freightening. Except for 1 game, he hasn't played there since 2014 - and that consisted of 14 games started, 3 errors and a negative (bad) UZR (FanGraphs' range measure). However, that is a tiny sample and it was his position in the minors.

And, just for the fun of the Mickey Stanley comparisons, no one on the right side of the Red Sox infield is part of the same genus as the guy Stanley replaced at short. Ray Oyler batted .135 with 1 HR, 1 3B, 6 2B, 20 BB, .213 OBA, .186 Slg.
1:29 PM Oct 25th
Mike Young had a really good run there too. I donno if he was appreciated as much as you'd think. Butler was a fun player to watch and I agree wish there were more like him today.
11:19 AM Oct 25th
Or Martinez, you could do it with Martinez too, obviously. That's probably better.
10:54 AM Oct 25th
BobGill: This is obviously true. What strikes me is that (like you) most everyone is hand-waving it away, saying "Betts is such a great athlete it'll work out fine," whereas the likely truth is that the Betts-at-2B thing could be a significant problem for the Sox in LA. It's a very hard position and he has a tiny amount of experience doing it at the MLB level. Betts is a great athlete but so are most of the other people on the field. If I were Boston I would give serious consideration to starting him on the bench with the intention of inserting him around the 5th inning of each of the games. It's not a terrible thing to have an MVP candidate available on the bench.
10:48 AM Oct 25th
Per wovenstrap's comment, it seems to me that as a fielder Mookie Betts has a lot more in common with Mickey Stanley than with Gary Sheffield.
10:44 AM Oct 25th
From before the series began, in a NY Times writeup on Sheffield switching positions, I find this sentence: "It is somewhat risky to trust a critical infield position to someone who had appeared in 1,624 of his last 1,626 games as an outfielder or a designated hitter before this month."

I trust that the relevance to 2018 will be apparent.
10:15 AM Oct 25th
Ran a quick tracer. Sheffield only played in the World Series as a Marlin. You're referring to game 4 of the 2006 ALDS against Detroit. Anyone have video? (YouTube does not appear to.)
10:12 AM Oct 25th
I have this vivid memory of Sheffield in the World Series with the Yanks. He had to play 1B. Jeter threw a strike at him. Sheffield did not stretch like a 1B, but rather kinda stood there. Jeter was in the middle of a fist-pump that Sheff had made the play, then stopped in the middle, realizing that Sheff dropped it. Sheff was lackadaisical in his reaction. I'm not even sure he tried to even pick up the ball. Jeter turned away, but did not show his displeasure.

1B may be the easiest position to play, but you still have to put some effort into it. And it just takes one play to actively not try (-0.75 runs) to undo whatever contributions your bat can add (Trout's career is +0.4 runs per game in offense).
9:41 AM Oct 25th
Sheffield's reputation as a head case started in Milwaukee. Actually, it started when he was a child. He was suspended from his Little League in Tampa for a full year due to some sort of behavioral problem. I remember reading in the early to mid 90s (after he had become a star) that he and his agent had hired some professionals to help with his image. There was a PR firm involved, and maybe some sort of personal therapist of life coach. I always thought the turnaround in his public image came after this. I could be wrong; it could be that he just stopped saying controversial stuff to the press.
9:24 AM Oct 25th
Steven Goldleaf
I've often heard Sheffield being compared to Dick Allen--wrong position as rookie, traded because of personality conflicts, chip on his shoulder, tremendous talent, etc. But in this regard they're polar opposites.
8:36 AM Oct 25th
I'd be interested in Bill's thoughts about a guy -- Sheffield -- who became notorious for being a head case and then totally beat the rap over time. I'd imagine that sort of thing is pretty rare. Obviously if you're a talented player being asked to play the wrong position and your career is stalling, that'll create some moods and is also the kind of thing that leads to a trade, where maybe the situation works out. It would be fun and informative to investigate guys who overcame the "head case" label.​
8:07 AM Oct 25th
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