Given the wishful outlook of this blog, it will probably come as no surprise to you that I’m a Montreal Expos fan. In their short history, Montreal had as many team-level and player-level reasons to cry “Wait ’til next year!” as any franchise. One particular player who epitomizes their plight as much as anyone was Ellis Valentine.
After coming into the league in 1969, the Expos rose to moderate respectability almost immediately by winning 73 games in 1970. The problem was that they then had a very hard time taking the next step, finishing with somewhere between 70 and 79 wins through the end of 1975. 1976 was a complete bust, but by then their farm system had started a remarkable run of producing stars and solid everyday regulars that had them fighting regularly for the division through to the early 80s. The haul included three Hall-of-Famers: Gary Carter made his debut in 1974, and Andre Dawson took a bow in 1976. Newest member of the Hall Tim Raines appeared at the end of this boom, making a few appearances as a pinch runner in 1979. Throw in Larry Parrish, and three pitchers who would win more than 470 games between them (Steve “No, Not Captain America” Rogers, Bill Gullickson, and Scott Sanderson) and you had yourself as good a young team as you could possibly wish1.
The consensus at the time was that the single most talented of them all was Valentine. Positioned in right field, Valentine’s signature asset was his arm, which is even now cited as possibly the best outfield arm ever. He could hit too, and run the basepaths. Just how good was he in his early days?
If we do a High Cut projection on Valentine’s stats up to the end of his age 22 season, after which he’d put up 917 plate appearances (a decent-sized sample) he looks very good indeed. His three most productive comps in their post-22 careers are Carlos Beltran, HOFer Duke Snider2, and Willie Davis, the average of which added on to Valentine’s career up to that point produces (as always) the bottom line below. Click for a larger view.
However there’s some cause for concern as a number of similarly good young players on his comp list are memorable career busts: Grady Sizemore, Ben Grieve, Jeff Francoeur, and other, lesser-known names from further back in history. Even Willie Davis has long been considered a bit of a bust, though personally I think this is largely because his numbers are depressed by playing in Dodger Stadium in the 60s. Snider was much the equal of his fellow 50s New York center fielders Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays, but faded fast after he hit 30.
(As an aside, Mookie Betts is Valentine’s most comparable player through age 22, and tenth most comparable through 23. This has to be a little worrying for Red Sox fans. I’d personally have guessed that the young slugger had a better than 50/50 chance of being a long-term superstar, but these comps suggest otherwise. I suppose a 50% chance of a borderline HOF is not so bad).
Valentine’s numbers dropped quite a bit in his age 24 season (.276/.303/454 and a 105 OPS+, with that OBA being particularly painful), but at 25 he would have been in the running for the NL MVP Award if he hadn’t he missed half the season with injury: he hit .315/.367/.524 in the time he was available and the Expos just missed winning the division3. Valentine’s projection based on his accomplishments through that last good season at age 25 makes it clear that he was already showing worrying signs of failing to develop all the potential he’d shown at age 23 despite having superficially good numbers for the next two seasons.
The purpose of a High Cut is to find the point in a player’s career where his career projection is highest, so I won’t run the whole thing again now. Still, because the sample size to work with is bigger (Valentine had parts of six seasons under his belt now, and just shy of 2500 plate appearances), it’s interesting to note how quickly he fell from what was still looking like a very good career. Now his High Cut basically produces Magglio Ordonez‘s lifetime numbers: Mags has a higher batting average, which cascades through his OBA and SLG, but he also played in an era of higher offense. Their OPS+ matches up to three decimal places, and once you get past the extra singles Ordonez put up they’re quite similar (e.g., 294-284 on homers, 94/50-96/52 on stolen bases). 1960s minor star Johnny Callison is also a good match. Neither Orodonez or Callison is anybody’s idea of a HOFer4, but they’re at the next tier down.
So while our “Age 25” Ellis Valentine is not a superstar or HOFer like the “Age 23” version, he’s still one of the fifty best-hitting right fielders of all time, and one with decent defensive skills and an all-time great arm too. Either way, it’s interesting to consider how the Expos might have turned out in the early 80s if they had not only Dawson, Carter, and Raines, but either of these two versions of Valentine in right field. There’s not many teams that have had that many regulars of that level of quality without having a record of success5.
Of course we wouldn’t be discussing him here if he’d followed either of those two courses. In 1980, at age 25, his numbers were at their peak, and he rang up an OPS+ of 147. However some point to this season as the real start of his decline. The bulk of his time missed was not because of a run-of-the-mill injury, but rather his taking a pitch to the face from Cardinal swing man Roy Thomas on May 30th, breaking his cheekbone in six places. After his return on July 10th Valentine wore a distinctive, jury-rigged protective mask for the rest of the season and into the next, one made from half of a football facemask. One argument is that he became gun-shy after this, but that’s belied by the fact that he actually hit better after his return than he did before.
In any case, it’s not the most common explanation. Imagine that you’re a young, black athlete born in the Arkansas Delta and raised in Los Angeles. At 21 you’ve made it to the majors. It’s the ’70s, and your new hometown is noted for its nightlife and relative tolerance of race—Jackie Robinson made his first big mark here, not even thirty years before. It’s enough to turn your head. That’s the narrative key to Ellis Valentine’s career for most people, including Valentine himself, though he’s added nuance to it when asked about it: “I didn’t really have a drug problem, I had an Ellis problem and I used drugs to deal with it”.
His recall is that he started using marijuana and alcohol while in the minors to help with the pain of a pin put into his leg, and that once he graduated to the majors and their money, he added cocaine to the mix. Prior to the Steroid Era, from about the mid-70s to the early 80s, baseball’s substance abuse problem was cocaine, and the Expos (along with the Pirates and Royals) were one of the the teams most strongly affected by by it6.
You can see the shape of the problem in the next few years of Valentine’s career: adversity piled on him through injury, he was traded away from the team that he considered family (to the Mets partway through 1981, with relief ace Jeff Reardon being most of the return), and then he suffered through a dreadful slump during the strike season to .208/.238/.359. He would play only 208 more games after that, spread across three teams and five injury-riddled seasons, before retiring with Texas in 1985. He remains a celebrity in Montreal, feted when he comes to town by fans who know what he went through and who embrace him nevertheless.
- Except for second base. The less said about the second basemen who played for Montreal in the late 70s, the better. If you don’t believe me, feast your eyes on this.
- A nice coincidence—Snider was a broadcaster for the Expos for nineteen years, including all the seasons when Valentine was with the team.
- They went into the last series of the season tied with Philadelphia, and they were playing Philadelphia. They lost two of three, and the opposing Mike Schmidt won the MVP. Schmidt’s extra-inning homer in the penultimate game eliminated Montreal and I’ll have you know that he literally has small horns on his head and smells of brimstone.
- Well, OK, the former got 0.7% of the vote in his one year on the ballot and the latter got 0.2%. I strongly suspect that in both cases that it was their mothers who voted for them.
- Though probably most of them had a goddamn second baseman.
- It’s even disputed that Tim Raines’ nickname, “Rock”, was intended as a compliment, instead referring to the vial of coke he’s admitted having in his back pocket during games in 1982. Fortunately for himself and for baseball, he managed to get clean afterward.