Saturday, January 24, 2015

Ernie's Banking on Two

The perpetually sunny Ernie Banks passed to a world where it's always a great day to play two on January 23. The temperature was in the thirties and mostly overcast in Chicago. That would have been just fine for Mr. Banks if it were opening day at Wrigley Field, a season of hope beckoning ahead. But no matter how it ended--and for the Cubs in Mr. Cub's time at Wrigley, it never ended with the team playing any games beyond the regular-season schedule--it was all beautiful to Ernie Banks.

Ernie's Banking on Two

Most, if not all,of us Boomers born after Ernie Banks broke into the major leagues in September 1953, remember him as the Cubs' first baseman. And in fact, he started more often at first base--1,126 games, mostly from 1962 to the end of his career in 1971--than at shortstop, where he started in 1,121 games. But it was at shortstop that Ernie Banks built his Hall of Fame resume, although the 214 home runs he hit after moving to first base to give him 512 on his career didn't hurt.

The first thing to remember about Ernie Banks is that he was one of integration's trailblazers. His rookie season of 1954 was the same year Hank Aaron broke in with the Milwaukee Braves. That was also the year Willie Mays really took off; the Say Hey Kid's rookie year may have been 1951, but let us not forget the start of his career was interrupted in 1952 when he was drafted for two years during the Korean War. Banks finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting, and Aaron fourth, to the Cardinals' Wally Moon.

At the time Banks became the Cubs' regular shortstop in 1954, shortstop was a position looking for new major league star power. The Yankees' Phil Rizzuto was no longer playing regularly, and the Dodgers' Pee Wee Reese was in his mid-thirties and nearing the end of the road. Although he played shortstop for only eight years before shifting over to first base because his range in the middle infield had been compromised by assorted leg ailments, Ernie Banks was the best all-around shortstop to play the game from when he broke in until the late-1970s and early-1980s when Robin Yount, Ozzie Smith and Cal Ripken made the grade,

In part because he began losing range relative to other shortstops of his time--including Roy McMillan, Luis Aparicio and Johnny Logan--Banks is generally not considered to have been especially good at the position. Bill James in his 2002 book on win shares gives him a "C" for defense, compared to McMillan's "A-", Logan's "B+" and Aparicio's "B". In 1959, however, Banks set a record by making only 12 errors at shortstop while also playing every game on the schedule. Quite likely benefiting from that performance, Banks won his first and only Gold Glove award the following year.

He may not have been a defensive wizard, but Ernie Banks was an offensive force at the position. Taking into account his offense, Banks was the best all-around shortstop the major leagues had seen since Honus Wagner, although a strong argument can also be made for Arky Vaughan (who hit only 98 career home runs but was a very dangerous hitter and much better defensively than Banks).

Ernie Banks is an anomaly among shortstops in historical context because he hit with unprecedented power for the premier defensive position on the diamond. Certainly in the era he played, and well beyond, "good-field / no-hit" was the description of a typical shortstop. This did not mean they were offensive zeros, rather that most shortstops hit at the top or the bottom of the order and were not counted on to be major run producers.

The only shortstop prior to Banks who was a persistent power threat was Vern Stephens, who had back-to-back years in 1949 and 1950 when he led the majors in RBIs (although he had to settle for a tie both years). By the time he retired in 1955, Stephens held the career record for home runs by a shortstop with 214, but he had only two 30-home run seasons in his career and never hit more than 39.

Banks did Stephens far better by hitting 40 home runs five times in six years between 1955 and 1960. He led the major leagues with 47 in 1958 and 41 in 1960. He led majors in RBIs in 1958 with 129 and again in 1959 with 143. In 1958 and 1959, Banks won back-to-back MVP awards despite playing for a team that finished well out of the money, in sixth place with a losing record each time. And it wasn't even close; Banks far outpaced Mays in votes in 1958 and had double the number of first place votes than runner-up Eddie Mathews in 1959.

As it happened, the first home run Banks hit in the 1960 season broke Stephens' record. When Ernie shifted over to first base in 1962, he had hit 282 as a shortstop. That record stood until 1993 when Cal Ripken passed Banks on his way to 353 home runs by a shortstop--still the record. If Banks as the paradigm of a power-hitting shortstop anticipated the future Ripken, so too did he prefigure Alex Rodriguez, who eclipsed Banks in 2002 and hit 345 home runs as a shortstop before going to the Yankees and becoming a third baseman.

Ernie Banks said in his Hall of Fame acceptance speech in 1977, thirty-two years since the last time the Cubs had been to the World Series, "There's an indescribable love for baseball in Wrigley Field."

Perhaps the moves Theo Epstein has made this winter to bolster the Cubs, particularly signing free agent ace Jon Lester, bringing back free agent pitcher Jason Hammel and trading for center fielder Dexter Fowler, will reward that love in 2015 with a post-season appearance ... preferably by winning the division ... and then the pennant ... and ultimately--yes!--the World Series.

That would surely please Ernie Banks--a World Series game in blustery conditions in frigid late October in Chicago, the flag with his retired # 14 on the left field pole at Wrigley reminding long-enduring Cubs fans: hey, it's a beautiful day for baseball. Do they play two in the World Series?

The following is a link to the New York Times obituary on Ernie Banks:

Friday, January 9, 2015

Of Bagwell, Mize and McCovey

A subsidiary storyline from this year's Hall of Fame balloting was which player who fell short might have been best positioned by the vote for election in 2016, when the ballot will include for the first time Ken Griffey, Jr. The answer is ... Mike Piazza. But why not Jeff Bagwell--arguably the best first baseman in National League history until Albert Pujols came along, although Willie McCovey and even Johnny Mize might beg to differ?

Of Bagwell, Mize and McCovey

Finishing fifth in the voting this year, Mike Piazza saw a significant boost of support for his candidacy by being named on 69.9 percent of the ballots cast, up from 62.2 percent last year. This makes him the presumed front-runner of the returning eligibles next year. (see the following New York Times article: Tim Raines, who came in seventh in this year's vote, made the biggest gain, seeing his name appear on 55 percent of the ballots compared to only 46 percent last year.

Nestled between Piazza and Raines was Jeff Bagwell, whose total barely budged, but was at least in an upward direction, from 54.3 percent to 55.7 percent of the voters' ballots. Bagwell, however, had received as much as 60 percent of the vote in 2013--his third year of eligibility--when the writers did not elect anybody to the Hall.

Jeff Bagwell was indisputably one of the game's best players in his prime during the 1990s. While Frank Thomas, Cooperstown class of 2014, was the best first baseman in the American League in the 1990s, Bagwell had that distinction in the National League. Bagwell's peak years of performance based on the WAR metric are a strong argument to put him in the discussion with Willie McCovey and Johnny Mize as the premier National League first baseman of the twentieth century. Albert Pujols, of course, clearly established himself in the first decade of this century as the greatest first baseman in the entire history of the senior circuit, and Pujols is in the conversation with Lou Gehrig and Jimmie Foxx as the best at the position in all of baseball history.

From 1993, his third year in the majors, to 2001, Bagwell averaged 6.5 wins above replacement and was better than 5 WAR--which represents an All-Star level quality of play--each of those nine years except for 1995, when he just missed with a 4.8 WAR. There were, however, extenuating circumstances in 1995: like everyone else in major league baseball, Bagwell's season was shortened by 18 games at the front end because of the 1994-95 players' strike/owners' lockout, but Bagwell also missed the entire month of August with a broken hand after being hit by a pitch.

Bagwell retired with a .297 batting average, got on base in nearly 41 percent of his plate appearances and hit 449 home runs over his fifteen-year big league career, but in the nine years between 1993 and 2001 he hit 316 of his home runs, had six consecutive 100-RBI seasons (which would have been eight, if not for his injury in 1995, when he finished with 87 RBIs) and batted .308.

Johnny Mize also had nine years of peak performance with almost exactly the same player value as Bagwell (an average annual WAR of 6.7 for The Big Cat) from 1937 to 1948, three years of which he was wearing the uniform of Uncle Sam during World War II instead of that of the New York Giants, to whom the big first baseman was traded from the Cardinals after the 1941 season. One of the most prolific power hitters of his generation, Mize hit 278 home runs between 1937 and 1948, leading his league four times. His career total was 359 in a fifteen-year career, the last three of which were primarily as a part-time first baseman and exceptional pinch hitter with the Yankees.

Mize had six straight 100 RBI seasons from 1937 to 1942 and two more in 1947 and 1948. Were it not for missing the last two months of the 1946 season, stuck on 70 runs batted in, because his hand got in the way of a pitch and was broken, it would have been nine straight years of 100 RBIs. Unlike Bagwell's broken hand in 1995, Mize suffered his in the annual New York Mayor's Trophy exhibition game between the Yankees and Giants.

And then there is Willie McCovey, perhaps the most potent power hitter of his generation when taking into account the negative Candlestick factor. McCovey hit 521 career home runs, 469 of them in nineteen years with the Giants, all but 13 of those after the San Francisco team moved into wind-swept Candlestick Park in 1960. The Candlestick winds limited McCovey to 236 home runs in the park where he played 42 percent of his games. The man known as Stretch reached the 500-home run plateau, once a very big deal, not only playing most of the primetime years of his career in the 1960s, when pitchers were dominant, but getting many fewer plate appearances than he should have in the first six years of his career despite having burst on the scene with 13 home runs and a .354 batting average to win Rookie of the Year honors in 1959. It being he was not called up till the end of July, McCovey did all of that in only 52 games and just 192 at bats.

McCovey's career was stalled for three years because Orlando Cepeda had primacy at first base. Then, after a breakout season playing left field in 1963 when he led the league in home runs for the first time with 44, McCovey was hobbled by a foot injury throughout 1964, limiting his ability to generate power, and he hit only 18 home runs. His manager, Alvin Dark, was less than sympathetic and not convinced McCovey's dramatic falloff in production was attributable to an injured foot. This, of course, was the year Dark stirred controversy by questioning the work ethic of the Giants' African American and Latin players. (See my November 19 article, "Alvin Dark and the Persistence of Racial Stereotypes"

Cepeda's season-long absence in 1965 made McCovey the Giants' new first baseman, which proved to be his big Hall of Fame-career-making break. McCovey's best years were from 1965 to 1970, during which he hit 226 home runs--(43 percent of his career total); had at least 30 go out of the park each of those six years; led the National League in both home runs and RBIs in 1968 (with 36 and 105 in the infamous Year of the Pitcher) and 1969 (with 45 and 126); and had an average annual player value of  6.4 wins above replacement.

But back to Jeff Bagwell.

Like Piazza, Bagwell has endured suspicions of steroid use that have not been proven. There is no actual evidence that either player used performance enhancing drugs. While it is clear by now that being linked to steroids by testing, personally admitting to their use, or being named in the Mitchell Report or in federal investigations into illegal performance-enhancing drugs have sunk the Hall of Fame candidacies of Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa, and damaged at least the near-term prospects for Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens, Piazza and Bagwell are likely to be the test case for whether players about whom there are suspicions but no proof will be elected by the cohort of Baseball Writers Association of America members who vote for the Hall of Fame. Should either, and especially both, Piazza and Bagwell clear that bar in the next few years, the writers may eventually soften their objections to at least Bonds and Clemens as they approach the end of their ten-year ballot eligibility in 2022.

Thursday, January 1, 2015

2015 Hall of Fame Team

The results of the annual Baseball Writers Association of America vote for the 2015 Hall of Fame class will be announced on January 6. Including players carried over from previous years, this year's eligible cast has more potential worthies than BBWAA members qualified to vote can list on their ballot since the rules specify that no more than ten players can be named by any one voter. But this year's Hall of Fame ballot has a worthy candidate for every position on the diamond, with the arguable exception of third base, including five starting pitchers and a closer.

2015 Hall of Fame Team

At first and second base, a pair of Houston Astros--Jeff Bagwell and Craig Biggio. Bagwell has fallen short in each of his first four years of eligibility, probably because of suspicions he used performance-enhancing drugs, although he has not been identified as a known steroid user. Biggio just missed last year by two-tenths of a percentage point in his second year of eligibility, and his chances may be worse this year because of impressive first-year of eligibility additions to the ballot--especially pitchers Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez and John Smoltz.

At shortstop, Detroit's Alan Trammell, in his next-to-last year of eligibility and little hope for this year. A terrific all-around shortstop, Trammell had the misfortune of being a direct contemporary of Cal Ripken, Jr., and Ozzie Smith when all three were in their prime.

At third base, Seattle's Edgar Martinez--the first player with a realistic shot at Cooperstown whose career was primarily as a designated hitter. Martinez started only 532 games of his 2.055 total games at third, virtually all at the beginning of his career, but fits my 2015 Hall of Fame team at the hot corner because there is no other third baseman on the ballot worthy of Cooperstown.

Hall of Fame-worthy outfielders this year include Barry Bonds--even if just for the first thirteen years of his career, 1986 to 1998, before jealousy of the accolades given to Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa in their 1998 race to eclipse Roger Maris's 61 was said to have motivated his use of steroids--Tim Raines and first-time-on-the-ballot Gary Sheffield. Similar to Trammell at shortstop, Raines's achievements, including a .294 lifetime average and 808 steals (fifth all-time) hitting mostly at the top of the order, were somewhat obscured by his being a direct contemporary of two of the greatest lead-off batters in history--Rickey Henderson and Paul Molitor--as well as his playing in Montreal in the years he was at his best.

If we exclude Bonds because he betrayed the game by using performance-enhancing drugs in the last third of his career, Larry Walker's career is also worthy of Hall of Fame consideration. Walker's .313 lifetime average, however, was built on the foundation of his ten seasons playing in Colorado, where his .334 batting average and three batting titles in ten years may be somewhat open to question given the Rockies' mountain-high thin-air advantage. Walker hit only .282 in his eight other big league seasons and seems a long shot for election by the BBWAA, especially now that eligibility has been reduced to at most ten years.

At catcher, Mike Piazza, who's on the ballot for the third time. There are widespread suspicions that Piazza used performance-enhancers, but no catcher in history was the offensive force he was.

A terrific starting rotation could be had from this year's ballot with Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz--all being considered for the first time--and Curt Schilling and Mike Mussina, who are on the ballot for their third and second year, respectively. Neither Schilling nor Mussina are likely this year, and either or both may ultimately suffer the fate of Jack Morris, one of the best pitchers of his generation in the 1980s, who was considered to have a borderline Hall of Fame career and failed in his last year of eligibility, which (in an untimely coincidence for his prospects) came in the first year of eligibility for Greg Maddux and Tom Glavine, whose Cooperstown credentials were never in doubt.

And then, of course, there is Roger Clemens, who like Bonds has been hurt in Hall of Fame voting by his very close association with steroids. If we discount the entire second-half of his career, which is when the PED allegations against Clemens are focused, Rocket Roger's years with the Boston Red Sox would by themselves be a strong knock at the Hall of Fame door--even a battering ram. Clemens had three of his six career 20-win seasons, won four of his seven ERA titles, three of his five strikeout titles, won 192 of his career 354 victories, threw 100 of his 118 complete games, completed 38 of his 46 shutouts, and pitched 56 percent of his total innings with the Red Sox between 1984 and 1996. He was the major league's most dominant pitcher most of those years.

The closer for this 2015 Hall of Fame team would be Lee Smith, a power reliever with no fewer than 29 saves every year between 1983 and 1995. Smith has only three more years of eligibility remaining on the BBWAA ballot, but was down to less than 30 percent of the vote last year after having been named on more than half the submitted ballots in 2012.