Thursday, October 28, 2010

The Team of Very Good

By Bill

Writing about Toby Harrah the other day got me thinking about a certain type of player, of which Harrah is one. I don't know what to call these guys, but what it makes me think of is one of my least favorite things people say when talking about baseball: "it's not the Hall of Very Good."

Because: where the hell did that term come from? Who thought that "Very Good" was a clever little play on "Fame"? What do those two terms have to do with each other? It makes no sense.

But anyway. It works well for the guys I have in mind. Guys I wouldn't call "overrated," necessarily, both because I hate that word and because I'm not sure it really fits; they're not Hall of Famers, but they shouldn't be, either. Guys who were excellent baseball players, just not great ones, and who have just been kind of forgotten now. You know, guys who were very good.

Here's a team of 'em, completely and frivolously subjective. The majority of these guys played between the 1950s and 1980s, because the prior eras already have way too many guys in the Hall and the later ones are still too well-remembered. So here they are (wins above replacement numbers from

Catcher: Gene Tenace (1969-1983, 48.7)
I'm not actually sure that Tenace shouldn't be a Hall of Famer, but I'd lean toward no just because his career as a full-time player was so short. Tenace wasn't a catcher so much as a hitter who caught; in his best offensive years, he spent a large portion of his games at other positions (mostly first base), and was never particularly good anywhere (but wasn't bad either). But Tenace could really hit, in ways that weren't much appreciated during his time. They'd call him a ".241 hitter," never noticing that he was a ".388 OBPer" with (at his best) good home run power.
He's like this guy you know: I don't know, Hall of Famer Gabby Hartnett? Tenace was a very different player and had a shorter career, but was a much more productive hitter than Hartnett (despite trailing him by more than 50 points of batting average) and a better player on a game-by-game basis. By bWAR, it's essentially even, Gabby with 50.3, Gene with 48.7.

First Base: John Olerud (1989-2005, 56.8 WAR)
No, Olerud hasn't been "forgotten," per se. It's too fresh. But he's remembered for wearing a helmet in the field, or for a great, false Rickey Henderson anecdote; what I think has already been forgotten (or maybe was never known) was how damn good he was. In an era when several first basemen a year were hitting 40-70 home runs, Olerud topped out at 24, but he more than made up for it with a good batting average, gap power, a great eye, and phenomenal defense (at a position at which teams were becoming increasingly more comfortable with sending tree stumps out there).
He's like this guy you know: Keith Hernandez. I don't know how Hernandez isn't Olerud's number-one comp on baseball-reference, actually. They're awfully similar. If Olerud had played longer in New York and/or appeared on Seinfeld, you'd hear a lot more people semi-angrily wondering why he isn't considered a Hall of Famer.

Second Base: Willie Randolph (1975-1992, 60.5 WAR)
Again, he hasn't been forgotten...but his playing days more or less have. I've written plenty about him already. Lou Whitaker and Bobby Grich don't qualify, because I know they're Hall of Famers.
He's like this guy you know: Roberto Alomar. Less power (though a lot of that is probably era), but better defense--less flash, more results. Yes, I would put Alomar in the Hall, and no, I wouldn't put Randolph in. But a lot of that is because I believe things like public perception, popularity, and postseasons (and other things that start with 'p') should matter, a little, in the HOF voting. They're awfully close as players.

Third Base: Toby Harrah (1969-1986, 47.1 WAR)
You knew he had to be here, and he actually played third a touch more than short. There are several better 3Bs not in the Hall, but third is terribly underrepresented, and I think a lot of them should be (and more of them haven't really been "forgotten," per se, the way I think Harrah has).
He's like this guy you know: Matt Williams. Actually, they could scarcely be more different as players -- Harrah was all OBP with a little pop and D, Williams was all pop and defense with no OBP -- but Williams is a guy people seem to remember as a near-HOF slugger. In value terms, they were awfully close.

Shortstop: Jim Fregosi (1961-1978, 46.1 WAR)
Nothing about Fregosi jumps out; he was just pretty good at everything. He's also hurt by playing through his peak years in the pitcher's era: his 141 OPS+ in 1964 looks a lot more impressive than his raw .277/.369/.463 does. Just a tremendous player from 1963-1970, in which he put up a 119 OPS+ and 43.0 WAR and had MVP-level seasons in 1964 and 1970. But injuries wrecked his career after that; a 28 year old superstar in 1970, he never managed 400 plate appearances again. Fregosi had, in my opinion, a much better and more valuable career than Dave Concepcion and Maury Wills, two shortstops from the same era who get a lot of HOF talk in some quarters.
He's like this guy you know: Nomar Garciaparra. May be the most obvious comparison of them all on a story level, though I think Nomar was a better hitter and Fregosi was better at everything else. Both had great peaks and were effectively done way too early.

Left Field: Jose Cruz (Sr.) (1970-1988, 52.2 WAR)
The Astrodome killed a lot of hitters' careers, or at least their popularity. Cruz was another guy who was just very good at everything, but not great at anything. He had seven seasons of over 4.0 WAR (including two over six), but made just two All-Star teams.
He's like this guy you know: Bobby Abreu. Who was mostly a right fielder, of course, but he had a similar skillset and talent level.

Center Field: Jimmy Wynn (1963-1977, 59.8 WAR)
See what I mean about the Astrodome? Cesar Cedeno could've been picked for this spot, too. Wynn is actually a borderline Hall of Famer to me, but he seems just too perfect for this team. There was nothing the Toy Cannon couldn't do...except get out of the Astrodome during his prime. He hit just .250 for his career, but he led the league in walks twice, once stole 43 bases (in 47 attempts), and once hit 37 home runs. Wasn't a gold glover, but held his own wherever he played. He was just very, very good. And when's the last time somebody mentioned him?
He's like this guy you know: Dale Murphy. Murphy still has ardent Hall of Fame supporters, because he spent almost his entire career playing his home games in a place that was known as "The Launching Pad" (and for good reason). Wynn was the better all-around player.

Right Field: Jack Clark (1975-1982, 55.0 WAR)
I'd like to pick Bobby Bonds, but Bonds was almost a focal point of Ken Burns' latest Baseball installment for some reason, so he's hardly "forgotten" nowadays (also, I think I'd put him in the Hall, along with Dwight Evans and Larry Walker). Clark was a hell of a hitter -- he put up a 145 OPS+ from age 22 through 34 -- and didn't embarrass himself in the field. If he can just stay healthy through the last month or so of the 1987 season, he probably wins the MVP (he might have deserved it anyway, certainly more than Andre Dawson did), and the Cardinals might well win the World Series. Thanks for that, Jack!
He's like this guy you know: Willie Stargell. Yeah, it might be a stretch. No, Clark wasn't quite the hitter Stargell was, and not for quite as long. But Clark also wasn't a disaster in the field, and their bats are closer than you'd think (it's just that more of Willie's value comes from his home runs). Stargell's better, and I think it's right that Stargell's in the Hall and Clark is not. But that's the problem with a binomial system -- Stargell is IN and Clark is OUT, but the actual difference between them is something sort of approaching trivial.

Starting Pitcher: Larry Jackson (1955-1968, 55.6)
I was this close to picking Dave Stieb, but honoring the Official Retired Pitcher of my old blog yet again just seemed too obvious. Besides, Jackson was actually a little bit better, and has been, I think, quite a bit more forgotten. He pitched for the Cardinals during one of the few kind of bad periods in their history, then just as they got good again he was shipped to the Cubs during that bad period that started in about 1910 and continued until 2015 or so, and then he pitched for the Phillies during that bad period they had that went from about the beginning of time through 2005. As a result, Jackson was one of the best pitchers of his time, but had a "winning percentage" of just .515. He was no Bert Blyleven -- who is an obvious Hall of Famer and is anything but forgotten these days -- but he was underappreciated for a lot of the same reasons.
He's like this guy you know: Whitey Ford. I guess baseball-reference's system thinks the Yankees played better defense than the Cards, Cubs and Phils (seems like a safe assumption, come to think of it). Ford and Jackson started about the same number of games and pitched about the same number of innings, but despite the ERA+ differential of 133 for Whitey to 113 for Larry, their WARs are 55.6 and 55.3. Interesting. They were both really good over relatively short careers, at any rate, and whatever the actual difference between them, it's certainly much, much less than is suggested by their winning percentages.

Relief Pitcher: Kent Tekulve (1974-1989, 24.8 WAR)
Only occasionally a closer (184 career "saves"), but a consistently excellent reliever over a long career (for a reliever). Better than some of the relievers in the Hall, though still not nearly good enough to make mine.
He's like this guy you know: Rollie Fingers. Fingers pitched 260 more innings, but much less effectively (when you adjust for ballparks and such), giving up twice as many home runs in about 20% more innings. Their WARs come out virtually identical, 24.8 to 24.4. I'd rather have the guy who is better at getting batters out than the one who's "better" at happening to be on the hill when the final out of a win is recorded.

1 comment:

Chris said...

I really enjoyed this piece, Bill.

One of my favorite "forgotten" guys is Darrell Evans.

Numbers from Baseball-Reference:

- 57.3 career WAR
- 119 career OPS+
- Led the National League in walks in back-to-back years in '73(124) and '74(126).
- He had some truly great years on offense. OPS+ numbers and year: 156('73), 150('83), 137('85), and 135('87).
- 414 career home runs. Led the AL in home runs with 40 in 1985

I don't know why I like Evans so much, but he represented a guy with strong plate approach (5x 100+ walk seasons) and power. Defensively, he wasn't a butcher, either. For his career he ends up at +36 runs above average at the positions of 3B, 1B, and LF.

Just a solid, very good player that you don't hear much about.