Posted tagged ‘Kirby Puckett’

Loving the Twins and Tim Wakefield


My favorite players are Twins.  My all-time favorite was Kirby Puckett, followed ever so slightly by Roy Smalley.  My next favorite players include Brad Radke, Torii Hunter, and Joe Mauer.  I’m a Twins fan to the core, and unsurprisingly all of my favorite players have spent significant chunks of their career with the franchise.  But if you move into that benighted circle of those who have never been graced by a Twins uniform, all is not darkness and despair.  And in this realm full of non-Twins, written about extensively by such famous sports journalists as Dante Alighieri, my favorite player, for years, has been Tim Wakefield.

Last night, Wakefield pursued his elusive 200th victory against God’s elect, getting a lead in the eight on an error by the aforementioned Joe Mauer.  In a year in which the Twins are disastrously bad, it was easy, for a single night, to hope for Wakefield’s triumph, and I would be thrilled to welcome him to the 200-win club.  Unfortunately, his bullpen blew it in the bottom of the eighth, delaying his quest for 200 for another start.

What’s not to like about Wakefield?  He had the misfortune of joining the Pirates just as the franchise collapsed, and he did not start his career until age 25.  He lost part of his best season to the strike in 1995.  In that season, he went 16-8 with a 2.95 ERA (165 ERA+).  He finished third in AL Cy Young voting, behind his polar opposite, Randy Johnson.  Without the strike he would already have 200 wins.  His best playoff run was in the ALCS in 2003, when he went 2-1 with a 2.57 ERA in 14 innings.   But the 5.65 ERA of Pedro Martinez, the 6.43 ERA of Derek Lowe, and the 7.36 ERA of John Burkett kept the Yankees in the series, leading to Wakefield’s one bad pitch to Aaron Boone.

Through it all, Wakefield kept pitching.  He is now 45, and he has pitched for 19 seasons despite his late call-up.  He is now third on the Red Sox all-time wins list, second in games pitched, first in innings, second in strikeouts, and as any good knuckleballer should be, first in wild pitches by nearly 50.  He has been a model of class and skill.  He will never touch the Hall of Fame and shouldn’t.  But I hope that people will remember one of my all-time favorites, even if he never was a Twin.  May God have mercy on his soul despite that.


Joe Mauer’s New Contract


Yesterday, the Twins signed Joe Mauer to an 8-year, $184 million extension.  It is rare to watch your favorite team lock up its best player long-term and have mixed emotions, but that is how this contract makes me feel.  Let me try to elaborate on my mixed feelings in order to sort this out for my own self.  Hopefully, someone else can find the discussion at least vaguely illuminating as well.

First, if any player is worth being paid $23 million, it is the reigning MVP. Last year, Mauer won his third batting title, giving him as many as every other catcher in major league history combined. He also cruised to the AL MVP, picking up all but one vote. He led the Twins to the postseason, despite missing a month of the season himself and the Twins’ second best player, Justin Morneau, missing the month of September. Fangraphs credited Mauer with 8.1 WAR last season, and their measure does not include catching defense. They almost certainly undervalued his season, and they convert his WAR into approximately $36.6 million dollars of value. His 2008 was also excellent, as he won the batting title and produced 5.8 WAR ($26 million). Those sort of numbers make $23 million a year seem downright reasonable.

Second, Mauer is a Minnesota native. Being from St. Paul, he was a locally popular first overall draft choice in 2001. He is already a legend in the area, by far the Twins most popular player since Kirby Puckett. Mauer’s presence on the Twins sells tickets, even if he wasn’t as outstanding a player as he is. In this sense, Mauer is worth more than just his onfield performance to the Twins organization.

Third, Mauer is only 26 right now. At that age, his prime might still be ahead of him. Players tend to peak around age 27-29, and Mauer is one of the best players in all of baseball before he reaches what are usually players best years. Huge free agent contracts are often inflated by being based on past performance more than future results. At Mauer’s age, that problem is not as severe as it otherwise could be.

Fourth, Mauer is injury prone. Catchers already play less games than most position players, and Mauer is not at the high-end of catchers. Consider his games played in his 5 full seasons as a major leaguer: 131, 140, 109, 146, 138. The three years in which he played more than 132 games, he won a batting title and was in MVP contention. But for a player going into his seventh season, it is worrisome to look at only two seasons over the 140-game mark. Cal Ripken he clearly is not. At this same point in Mike Piazza‘s career, following the 1998 season, he had topped 140 games 4 times, and he missed it twice due to the 1994-95 strike. Ivan Rodriguez had only topped 140 games twice, like Mauer, but he also had two seasons caught up in the strike and his two big seasons topped the 150 game mark. Neither of those players lost much time to injury, and it is tough to see how a catcher much worse than them can be worth $23 million a year.

Is Joe Mauer worth it? Probably not. Given his struggles with injury, the quick dropoffs of most catchers, and the length of the contract, it is tough to imagine him living up to the money being paid. However, this contract is the Twins best chance to win in the next couple of seasons. Paying Mauer big money when he is 35 is much more palatable if he led the Twins to the World Series at age 28. It is certainly more palatable that watching him lead the Yankees to the World Series at 29.

The Best Player Not in the Hall of Fame?


To get at the question posed in the title, let me clear away a bit of clutter first. This post is not about Roy Smalley, despite his being the clearly correct answer to the question. Second, it excludes all players not eligible. No active players, no banned players, no players retired for 5 or less years (i.e. not even the players coming up for election for the first time next month.) Finally, it excludes Bert Blyleven. I think that he is the real answer to the question, but the internet, and especially sabermetric sites, are full of Blyleven support, as they should be. Instead, I want to focus on a player just below Blyleven’s stature but nonetheless even more overlooked. I would like to talk a bit about Lou Whitaker.

Sean Smith, at his Baseball Projection site, ranks all position players by his version of Wins Above Replacement. The list contains no adjustments, instead being a straight ranking by this one stat. The first eligible player not in the Hall of Fame is Bill Dahlen, ranked 42nd with 75.9 WAR. This places him between Sam Crawford and Frank Thomas. Dahlen was a shortstop who spent half his career in the 19th Century. For his first two years, pitchers still threw from 50 feet away, instead of 60’6″. Given that, I want to exclude Dahlen from consideration and move to the next eligible missing player, Lou Whittaker. Whitaker ranks 55th, between Billy Hamilton and Harry Heilmann, with 69.5 WAR. Despite such lofty praise, Whitaker was on the Hall of Fame ballot only once, in 2001, earning 15 votes, just two more than former teammate Kirk Gibson. What happened? Why did Whitaker get ignored?

Whitaker is the sort of player easy to overlook by Hall of Fame voters. Consider his stats. He had 2,369 hits for his career, hitting .276 with 244 home runs. None of those numbers are spectacular. None of them catch the eye. Similarly he hit .204 in three postseason series. Again, nothing to help his case. Whitaker’s case for the Hall of Fame is only partially about the traditional stats. As a second basemen, his numbers instantly start looking better. But look farther. For his career, Whitaker walked almost 100 times more than he struck out. He only grounded into double-digit double plays three times in his career. He won three gold gloves and was a consistently above average fielder at a position that thrives on fielding prowess. Unfortunately, Whitaker was overshadowed for most of his career by Ryne Sandberg. Sandberg ended his career with more hits, more home runs, and a higher batting average. He also won more gold gloves. For what it’s worth, Smith’s ranking considers Sandberg overrated, putting his fielding only slightly better than Whitaker and giving a serious edge because of his longer career.

Without any number to hang a voter’s hat on, Whitaker slipped through the cracks. He came up for the vote on a strong ballot. Two players, Dave Winfield and Kirby Puckett, were both elected that year in their first year of eligibility. The next four players, Gary Carter, Jim Rice, Bruce Sutter, and Goose Gossage, would all be elected soon thereafter. He slipped through the cracks. Sadly, Whitaker will have to wait until the Veterans’ Committee considers him 10 or so years from now.

Who do you think is the best eligible player not in?

Roy Smalley, Superstar


If I ever made it to Cooperstown, I would be a bit disappointed that there was not an entire wing devoted to the greatness of Roy Smalley. Sadly, Smalley never sniffed the Hall of Fame, and even more sadly his exclusion is entirely correct. Nevertheless, if I had my own personal Hall, he would be a charter member. I think many baseball fans have a player like Roy Smalley in their background, someone they loved when they were younger for reasons that are a bit tricky to articulate. As a matter of fact, most folks I know tended to have two favorite players as kids, one true superstar and one truly unique to the fan. In my case, I loved Kirby Puckett, but I loved Smalley first. So today, let’s here the tale of Roy Smalley, one time shortstop for the Texas Rangers, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox, and New York Yankees.

As a shortstop, Roy Smalley was a failed prototype of the Cal Ripken model. Smalley was the first overall pick in the January amateur draft in 1974, a draft open to players who graduated from high school or college in December. (This draft was discontinued in 1986.) Smalley came out of USC, where he had won the College World Series every year he was in college. Taken by the Rangers, Smalley quickly became one of the larger shortstops in baseball, and an early power-hitting shortstop. Compare him to two top shortstops of the time, Mark Belanger and Dave Concepcion.

Belanger was 6’1″, and weighed 170 lbs. In his biggest power year, he hit 5 home runs in 1974. Concepcion was slightly bigger, at 6’1″, 180. He hit double digit home runs twice in his career, with 14 in 1974 and 16 in 1979. Smalley, a rookie in 1975, was 6’1″, 185, but he combined the slightly higher weight with legitimate home run power for a shortstop. He would hit double digit home runs 9 times, topping 20 on 4 separate occasions. During the 1976 season, he was traded to the Twins for, among others, Bert Blyleven. While with the Twins, he would be one of the best hitting shortstops in the American League, trailing Robin Yount. He would make the All Star team once, in 1979, also the only time he received an MVP vote. In 1982, the promise of the power-hitting shortstop, first seen in Ernie Banks and then revived by Roy Smalley would come to fruition in Cal Ripken, Jr. While Smalley would hit double digit home runs 9 times and top 20 4 times, Ripken would top 20 home runs each of his first 10 full seasons. Smalley was an important part of that transition, but obviously his numbers don’t stack up to his Hall of Fame contemporaries.

For his last hurrah, Smalley would make the World Series with the 1987 Twins, in his last season. He would pinch hit four times, going 1 for 2 with a double and two walks. For his career, Smalley hit .257 with 163 home runs. He had an OPS+ of 103. He was a fairly average fielder, with a fielding percentage nearly identical with the league average for shortstops and a range factor slightly above the average. This is not the resume of a Hall of Famer, though it is arguably the resume of the best shortstop the Twins have ever had.  Smalley was a good player, and in his best years he was very good.  Unfortunately, that description pretty accurately fits many players that have been or will be long forgotten.

Who are the completely random players that would make your own personal Hall of Fame?