Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Happy Birthday...

Toby Harrah!

Hello, birthday post, my old copout/fallback/friend. I haven't done one of you in a while. But on the eve of the Texas Rangers' first-ever World Series game tomorrow, I thought it would be appropriate to celebrate the career of the guy who, by at least one measure, is the fourth-best position player in the team's history. Harrah turns 62 today.

Toby Harrah made four All-Star teams and twice was named on MVP ballots, but my sense is that he's a guy who didn't get the credit due him when he played, and is scarcely remembered at all now. In an era in which the ideal shortstop was short, slight, and quick, and might put up an OBP of .280 but could slap it the other way or execute a sac bunt with the best of them, Harrah was more or less the opposite of that. Harrah played decent defense and stole a few bases (everybody stole a few bases in that period), but he wasn't terribly fast or flashy. He hit .300 just once (.290 twice) and put up a career average of .264, but at his peak, he drew nearly 100 walks and hit more than 20 homers a year. He was kind of a Cal Ripken Jr. lite, before there was a Cal Ripken Jr. Less defense and a better eye at the plate, and nowhere near the durability or staying power, but there's just nobody else from that period to compare him to.

The first line on Harrah's major league stat sheet is one of the more interesting ones you'll ever see; toward the end of 1969, when the franchise was still the Washington Senators, the twenty year old Harrah got into eight games, seven as a pinch runner and one as a pinch hitter. He got just that one plate appearance (he flew out to center), and played just one inning in the field (he entered as a pinch runner and stayed in at short, seeing no chances), but in those seven pinch-running appearances, he managed to score four runs. 1 AB, .000/.000/.000, 4 runs scored. He doesn't appear ever to have been regarded as any kind of speed demon, so the usage (and his apparent success) is a bit surprising.

Anyway, after one more full season in the minors, Harrah won the still-Senators' starting shortstop job out of spring training in 1971. And the kid (born Colbert Dale Harrah in Sissonville, West Virginia, though he grew up in Ohio) was awfully excited following his first game, in which he'd gone 2-for-4 with a walk and two runs scored:
"Every time they start cheering, it's like a great rumble," said the wholesome youngster who still talks like "wow" and "golly" and "gee" and calls newsmen "mister" and says "yes, sir." . . .  "I never played before so many people before. It was the greatest feeling in my life. I hope they don't expect too much because I don't want them to be disappointed. Golly!"
The Senators were being managed by a guy named Ted Williams back then, and he didn't really seem concerned about keeping the pressure off the kid:

I've said all spring, a great deal depends on how Toby does," said Williams. "If he does well, we'll be a good team."
Well, Toby didn't do well -- he hit just .230/.300/.290 and put up just 0.3 WAR -- but he would've had to be something better than Honus Wagner at his peak to make the 1971 Senators a good team. They lost 96.

And they lost 100 the next year (the Splinter's last as manager and the team's first in Texas), but Harrah made a significant improvement, putting up about an average offensive year for a shortstop and making (for some reason) his first All-Star team. He still hit just one home run, giving him three in his first 848 career plate appearances. He hit ten in 1973, though, and jumped again to 21 in 1974, with a steady overall improvement in his game each year.

It wasn't until 1975, however, at age 26, that the Rangers and the league saw Toby Harrah at his best. In 151 games, Harrah hit .293/.403/.458 (145 OPS+) with 20 homers, 23 steals in 32 tries, 98 walks, 81 runs scored and 93 driven in. He even posted positive fielding runs for one of the only times in his career, and put up a career-high 6.6 WAR, fifth best in the league among position players.

Harrah may never have reached quite that level again, but he spent the next several years as a good-to-great hitter and a very solid all-around player. In 1977, perhaps his second-best year, Harrah moved to third base but put up 27 homers, 27 steals, a league-leading 109 walks, a 136 OPS+, and 5.5 WAR, but somehow missed the All-Star team behind not only established stars George Brett and Graig Nettles, but rookie Wayne Gross (hit .235 in the first half, 2.1 WAR on the year).

Harrah's next year was a huge disappointment, and ended up being his last as a Ranger. The big story of the 1978 winter meetings was Rod Carew refusing a trade to the Giants, but a big challenge trade between the Rangers and Cleveland got second billing. Both Buddy Bell and Harrah were All-Star third basemen (well, All-Stars who were now third basemen, in Harrah's case), though Harrah was 30 when the trade went down, Bell only 27. Here's Josh Wilker writing about the trade. And the article I linked above gives a refreshingly honest quote from Cleveland President Gabe Paul, complaining about making deals in the free agent era: "In the past, players had no voice in things and it was easy."

The Rangers won the trade. They got Bell for eight good years, and he became the franchise's third best player by WAR, right ahead of Harrah. Harrah gave Cleveland five pretty good years -- great with the stick, highlighted by a .383 OBP, but decreasingly playable in the field, totaling 16.8 WAR -- but he was no Buddy Bell, who never put up the offensive numbers but played an awesome third base. Harrah moved on to a terrible half-season with the Yankees, in 1984, and then wound up back with the Rangers -- this time as a second baseman, sharing the infield with Bell -- and found a fountain of youth at age 36 in 1985. He hit just .270 and had lost most of his power, but he drew a career high 113 walks and put up a career high .436 OBP, managing 3.8 WAR in just 126 games. It was essentially his swan song (he played a terrible 95 games for the Rangers in '86), but it was a darned good one.

In his 17 years, Harrah never played a single postseason game and rarely experienced a winning season. But he put up a career 47.1 WAR, 30.0 of those in his eleven seasons with the Senators/Rangers. He later coached with the Rangers, and was named interim manager of the team when Bobby Valentine was fired in 1992 (the Rangers went 32-44 under Harrah, who was replaced by Kevin Kennedy after the season). I have no idea whether he considers himself a Ranger fan or has any connection remaining to the Rangers at all (he's an instructor in the Tigers organization these days). But it seems like a good day to celebrate one of the Rangers' best players, so it works out well that one of them was born on this date. Happy birthday, Toby!

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