Tuesday, February 9, 2010

William Bryan, 1963 Kansas City Athletics

If it weren’t for this guy, William “Billy” Ronald Bryan would be the – if you could believe such a thing – best baseball player ever born in Morgan, Georgia. Strong words, I know, but as true today as the day they were first thought of [note: that was also today]. As it stands now, Bryan was simply a very decent backup catcher who never really got a chance to strut his stuff. Over his first two years in the bigs, Bryan only accumulated 100 plate appearances for mostly-terrible Athletics teams who seemed adverse to giving him a chance. This trend continued into the 1963 season when 24 year-old Bryan, who had an OPS+ of 28 a year earlier, turned in a remarkable hitting performance. Now, by “remarkable,” I hardly mean “good” (Billy had a .169/.270/.354 slash line, with a 70 OPS+). Heck, I don’t even mean “bad” (though he did have a crap year at the plate). No, the remarkable thing about Bryan’s year was that he became the first ballplayer in Major League Baseball history to collect five or more intentional walks in fewer than twenty-five games played. I have no clue why opposing teams intentionally walked Bryan five times in seventy-four plate appearances. Like, none. Maybe they knew he wasn’t actually as bad a hitter as he seemed. Over the next two years, Bryan would collect 599 plate appearances, accruing 27 home runs and 250 total bases. Still, how were opposing teams to know that in ’63? Perhaps his two year offensive spurt was the aberration, as the 1966 Athletics shipped Bryan (who was .132 over 83 plate appearances that) to the Yankees. Bryan would go on to have a 152 OPS+ as the 72-win Yankees' backup catcher in 1967. This led the Yankees, naturally enough, to allow Washington to claim Bryan in the Rule 5 draft in the offseason. Bryan slumped back down to a 90 OPS+ in 1968 and then left pro ball for good. If there’s a lesson in there, I'll be damned if I know what it is.

25- G, 5+ IBB

Wilfred Lefebvre, 1938 Boston Red Sox

Believe it or not [note: you’ve already decided not to believe it, haven’t you? HAVEN’T YOU!?] there has only been one instance in all of MLB history in which a player received one at-bat in a season and, in that at-bat, hit a home run. It’s despicable, disgraceful, and distended, but true nonetheless. Furthermore, this player was a pitcher! And not only was he a pitcher, but he was the pitcher, the one and only Bill “Lefty” LeFebvre. A product of College of the Holy Cross (motto: “Don’t Cross Us, We’re a Holy College”), Lefebvre broke in with the ’32 BoSox as a 22 year-old. Manager Joe Cronin, likely wary of Lefebvre’s inexperience and lack of pitching acumen, only gave the ball to Lefebvre once that year, on June 10. Facing a lousy ChiSox team, and trailing 9-1, Cronin brought the southpaw in and Lefty delivered…a crappy performance. The Pale Hose went on to win 15-2, as mop-up man Lefebvre went four innings, giving up six earned-runs and two home runs. He also got one at-bat, delivering one of the Red Sox’ two runs with a solo blast, over the Green Monster no less, off ChiSox starter Monty Stratton in the eighth inning. Lefebvre’s performance (37 ERA+) wasn’t enough to get him another shot that year. On the plus side, this left Wilfred with a perfect 1.000/1.000/4.000 slash line for the year. Lefebvre, surprisingly enough, failed to maintain his 1071 OPS+. Following a marginally less-horrible (pitching-wise) 1939 season, Lefebvre enrolled in the army, serving from 1940 through 1942, before returning to the war-depleted majors in 1943. After some serious ’43 and ’44 stankonia (72 ERA+), Lefty retired, later becoming the pitching coach of the Brown University Bears. Maybe he should have stuck to hitting, having accumulated a .382 on-base percentage and 127 OPS+ over 102 plate appearances. Oh, and he hit that home run. Did I mention that already?

1 PA, 1 HR

Charlie Devens, 1934 New York Yankees

I have an inkling that Charlie Devens could have written a pretty fabulous autobiography. Born in Milton, Massachusetts in 1910, Devens’ life began on the eve of the Great War and ended in the wake of 9/11. I suppose someone more waggish than myself might claim Devens lived a truly Modern life. Certainly, Devens’ brief baseball career does nothing to diminish the sense of exceptionalism surrounding the man. After graduating from Harvard (pronounced: Hahvad) University in the early ‘30s, Devens signed on with the Yankees as an amateur free agent in 1932. The powerhouse Bombers gave Devens just one shot that year, allowing him to start a game in which he gave up two earned runs, six hits, struck out four and went the distance. The game wasn’t much to speak of, as the green 22 year-old walked seven. Still, he got the ‘W,’ so I’m guessing Joe McCarthy wasn’t too upset. In fact, the next year, the Yankees handed the ball to Devens a few more times, letting him start eight games and relieve six others (Devens finished an unremarkable 3-3, with a 4.35 ERA and 1.758 WHIP). Devens’ unexceptional ’33 season wasn’t reason enough for the Yankees to cut him, apparently. In 1934, Devens returned to the team and lived out what is likely the greatest cup of coffee in baseball history. The team traveled to Shibe Park to face a lousy Athletics team. Joey-Mac handed Devens the ball, nary expecting the remarkable performance to come. Charlie, staring down a surprisingly decent Athletics lineup anchored by Jimmie Foxx, Bob Johnson, and Pinky Higgins, took the mound and threw an 11-inning complete game. Receiving virtually no run support from his Hall of Fame lineup (Gehrig, Ruth, Crosetti, and Lazerri went a combined 3 for 16 with no runs batted in), Devens out-dueled the A’s Sugar Cain and George Caster, giving up two earned runs, nine hits, and five walks. Dominating pitching performance aside, Devens set a record with his bat that day. Accruing five plate appearances, Charlie got one hit and walked three times. Not only did that give him an .800 on-base percentage for the day (and season), but it was the only time in Major League history that someone played just one game in a season and walked three or more times. Devens’ amazing game was just an incredible tease, however, as the 6’1 righty retired from pro ball the following year due to pressure from his father-in-law. Devens had another sixty-nine years on this planet (he was the last surviving member of the ’32 Yankees) to reflect on this decision.

1 GP, 3+ BB

Bronson Arroyo, 2004 Boston Red Sox

Ever hear of him? Arroyo has great hair, a live arm, and he sported red socks in 2004. Y’see, the 2004 Red Sox…I don’t know if you’ve heard…won some sort of baseball-related contest that the city of Boston hasn’t bothered clamming up about for a number of years now. Personally, I’m not that interested in adding to the 2004 BoSox hagiography. I’m more interested in developing the Bronson Arroyo songbook. Did you know Arroyo was once traded for Wily Mo Pena? Did you know that Bronson Arroyo once admitted to using androstenedione and amphetamines? Did you know that Bronson Arroyo released an album of ‘90s alternative rock covers? Or how about: Did you know that Bronson Arroyo set a record in 2004? Before giving the world a much-needed acoustic version of “Plush,” Bronson punctuated his very good (121 ERA+, 1.22 WHIP) 2004 season by becoming the first pitcher to face fewer than 800 batters and chalk up 20 or more hit-by-pitches. Staring down just 764 batsmen over his 178.2 innings pitched, Arroyo plunked a league-leading twenty men. I suppose we can add “headhunter” to Arroyo’s interests, along with “baseball player,” “musical savant,” and “drug enthusiast.”

800- batters faced, 20+ HBP

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Dal Maxvill, 1970 St. Louis Cardinals

The surprisingly gaunt Maxvill (5’11, 160 lbs) is, to borrow a cliché, a St. Louis institution. A product of Washington University-St. Louis, this longtime Cardinals utility infielder (and short-time Athletics and Pirates stopgap) ground out 14 seasons in the show, accumulating 3898 plate appearances at a ridiculously low 57 OPS+. Whatever gains the excellent Gibson/Brock-era Cardinals believed they were getting from Maxvill’s glove were surely defaulted by virtue of what Jim Bouton might call his “cancer bat.” Maxvill was, for a full-time player, a historically bad hitter. He was worse (I’m guessing) than Mark Belanger (68 career OPS+), Neifi Perez (64 OPS+), and the other poor-hitting, slick fielding middle infielders we so enjoy mocking. In 1965, Maxvill accumulated an OPS+ of 11 in 98 plate appearances. Eleven. Think about it. As bad as that season was, however, Maxvill’s nadir surely came in 1970 when he was serving as the starting shortstop for a disappointing 76-86 Cardinals team that was just two years removed from a World Series appearance (the Cardinals lost to the Tigers in 7, of course, with Maxvill going a predictable 0 for 22 against a formidable Detroit staff). In 1970, Maxvill was also personally two years removed from “greatness” (of a sort), as he had won a Gold Glove and come 20th in MVP voting in ’68, finishing with a monster (for him) OPS+ of 91. Following this high point, though, Maxvill proved, beyond dispute, that he was a historically terrible hitter. Even in an extreme pitcher’s era, he was particularly bad at producing runs. In 1970, Dal proved his singular hitting badness by becoming the first player to accumulate fewer than 80 hits in over 150 games played. Maxvill racked up 466 plate appearances, exactly 80 hits, 5 doubles, 2 triples, and 0 home runs for an eye-popping .201/.287/.223 slash line…which was largely IN LINE WITH HIS CAREER NUMBERS! Yes, Maxvill was so bad a hitter that he set a record for hitting futility and it didn’t even result in a particularly “down” year. Given this amazing fact, one needn’t be surprised that, when Maxvill came up for Hall of Fame voting, he received exactly zero votes, finishing behind such luminaries as Jim Northup and Leo Cardenas (remember that name). Maxvill would have the last laugh, though, catching on as a coach with the A’s, Mets, Braves, and, of course, the Cardinals, before becoming the General Manager of the Cardinals between 1984 and 1994, delivering two World Series appearances (and two very narrow losses) to St. Louis in 1985 and 1987. Not bad for a cancer bat.

150+ G, 80- hits

Leo Cardenas, 1972 California Angels

While I’m sure they seemed wildly different at the time (one’s from Matanzas, Cuba while the other’s from the heart of America, Granite City, Illinois, dammit), Leo “Chico” Cardenas and Dal Maxvill seem remarkably similar in context. They were about the same size (Leo was reportedly one inch shorter, three pounds heavier), both received some MVP love (Dal finished 20th in 1968, Leo finished 21st twice and 12th once), both won Gold Gloves (as if I cared), and both were ludicrously bad hitters. Cardenas, a five-time All-Star who played the majority of his career in Cincinnati and Minnesota, was nicknamed “Mr. Automatic,” presumably based on the type of out he represented. To be fair to Mr. Cardenas, he did finish with an OPS+ of 100 or higher four times and, in 1971, the year before he set a largely unwanted offensive record, he swatted the ball at a 107 OPS+ for the Twinkies. This occasional offensive production is surely why Cardenas’s similarity scores show him to be a comparable player to occasionally-decent hitters like Greg Gagne and Mike Bordick, whereas Dal Maxvill – Leo’s natural foil in many ways – is most comparable to the likes of Hal Lanier (who possesses his own entry on this very blog), Dick Schoefield, and Rafael Belliard. But, I should note, that Chico’s occasionally decent offence was just that – occasional. In 1972, his offence went AWOL, never to return. Luckily, things got bad enough that Cardenas actually set a record that year, too. Getting a full season of playing time, presumably based on the strength of his 1971 season, Cardenas became the first player to appear in 150 games but score fewer than 30 runs. He collected 602 plate appearances but only crossed the plate 25 times. Such is the fate for players with .223/.272/.283 slash lines, though Leo’s 70 OPS+ still didn’t quite enter Maxvillian territory. Following his record-setting affair, Cardenas moved on to Cleveland (1973) and Texas (1974/5) before retiring and collecting 1 Hall of Fame vote in 1981, placing him exactly one spot ahead of – you guessed it – Dal Maxvill.

Note: Leo Cardenas – he of the 88 career OPS+ - is 74th all-time in intentional walks, having finished first in 1965 and 1966. This may be the most amazing fact about professional baseball you will ever read.

150+ G, 30- R

Walt Bond, 1962 Cleveland Indians

Walt Bond was a slugger in the mould of, I don’t know…Billy Ashley? J.R. Phillips? Well, lots of people. The difference is, when Bond got his opportunities, he made good (sort of). In 1960/61, Bond wracked up 209 undistinguished plate appearances with the Indians, who he had signed with as an undrafted free agent in 1957. In 1962, with the truly average Tito Francona entrenched at first base, Bond spent another year riding the pine for Cleveland, collecting only 54 plate appearances over 12 games. Those twelve games, though, allowed Bond to very briefly set the world afire. Bond collected 6 home runs, 3 doubles, and a .380/.426/.800 slash line to finish the year with a 226 OPS+. His season marked the first time in baseball history someone had collected 40 or more total bases (he had exactly 40) in 15 or fewer games. In the same way Mike Benjamin’s three game tear in June, 1995 got him another look around baseball, Bond suddenly piqued the interest of some GMs. In December, 1963 the Houston Colt .45s purchased Bond, who would serve as their new first sacker. Bond played this position adequately throughout the 1964 season, popping 20 homers in 597 plate appearances, good for a 108 OPS+. After slumping ever so slightly in 1965 (7 HR, 106 OPS+) and missing the entire next year, Houston traded Bond to Minnesota for the Ken Retzer (is there another one I don’t know about?) After 20 plate appearances with the ’67 Twins, Bond retired to his Houston home before succumbing to leukemia later that year. Bond’s illness cut short a career that, judging from his 162 game averages (18 HR, 79 RBI, 109 OPS+) would have made him an above-average big leaguer. While he spent a career playing like Mickey Brantley (similarity score: 962), he spent a dozen games as the greatest slugger this side of Barry Bonds.

40+ TB, 15- G