Ellis Valentine


Ellis Valentine, sporting the distinctive, jury-rigged protective mask he wore for much of 1980 and ’81. The injury that made it necessary may have changed the course of his career.

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.

Ellis Valentine’s Stats on Baseball Reference

Twelve minutes of video, including clips focusing on his arm


    1. 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.
    2. A nice coincidence—Snider was a broadcaster for the Expos for nineteen years, including all the seasons when Valentine was with the team.
    3. 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.
    4. 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.
    5. Though probably most of them had a goddamn second baseman.
    6. 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.

Kal Daniels

The Cincinnati Reds of the mid-1980s rolled a natural 20 three times on young outfielders. One was Paul O’Neill, who had a seventeen-year career end with 2101 hits and 281 homers, and who was a member of five World Series winners. Unfortunately for them he won four of those with the Yankees after being traded when Reggie Sanders developed in 1992.

If O’Neill had the best career of the three, the most talented was Eric Davis, who in the author’s opinion was the best of the “next Willie Mays” guys that we’ve had over the last fifty years, at least in terms of sheer talent. Over 1986-87 he hit 64 home runs and went 130-17 on the basepaths, plus he could draw a walk and was a plus defender in center field. Let that sink in for a bit.

Unfortunately, staying healthy is a skill too and in Davis’ golf bag full of talents that was the one he was missing. He still managed a seventeen-year career too, and so like Don Mattingly in our previous entry he’s a bit outside this blog’s purview, but he never lived up to that early promise.


Kal Daniels at his peak, in July 1988. Original image from Wikimedia Commons, by Kevin McClave, used under a Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike 3.0 Unported license.

As broad as Eric Davis’ skills were, though, he wasn’t the best hitter of the three. That would be the third good young outfielder the Reds developed at the time. Davis had made his debut in ’84, O’Neill took his bow in ’85, and one Kalvoski “Kal” Daniels was the gem of ’86. He edged out Paul O’Neill for the fourth outfielder spot in spring training (the regulars being Davis, Eddie Milner, and veteran hit machine Dave Parker coming off a career-high 34 homers). He stayed with the team for six weeks before being sent down to AAA Denver. Motivated by that, or just a great hitter against minor league pitching at altitude, Daniels hit .371/.503/.674 over the next seven weeks. Understandably the Reds called him back up and he celebrated by going two for four with a walk and two RBIs against the Giants. By season’s end he hit .320/.398/.519 over 207 plate appearances and even went 15-2 in base-stealing.

The thing was, the Reds couldn’t seem to decide what to do about their outfield for another year. They went through 1988 with Davis and Parker as the sole regulars, with Daniels, O’Neill, and Tracy Jones (who had hit .349/.406/.453 in almost 100 PAs in 1986) circulating around left field. Daniels was also injured, a knee injury, which cost him most of July.

Parker was traded over the winter to Oakland1 and, with the log-jam finally mostly gone, they slotted O’Neill in right and Daniels in left, with Jones sent to the bench. Kal would play only 140 games, though, as Jones spelled him occasionally, and the Reds gave a shot to another prospect (who turned out to be nothing) named Van Snider in September.

In his 108 games as a sort-of regular in 1987 Daniels greatly improved his already stellar slash line to .334/.429/.617. If he’d played enough to qualify for the batting title this would have put him second in the league in OPS behind Jack Clark. 1988 was a drop-off to .291/.397/.463, but as offense was down that year and he was a full-timer for the first time, he led the league in OBA and had his career high in WAR at 5.6. To that point the budding star had played 322 games in the majors, or roughly two full seasons’ worth, and had a career slash line of .311/.408/.527 with an OPS+ of 154. He also had pretty good speed, if not up to Eric Davis’ standard, having stolen 68 bases and only getting caught 16 times.

That speed, and a thing mentioned in passing above, the health of his knees, are the story for the rest of his career. He got off to a bad, injured start with the Reds in 1989 and, hitting .230/.419/.356 on May 9th, went for surgery on his knees. You see, he’d already had three other surgeries on them before, two on one and one on the other. This time the surgeon smoothed out bone spurs and cartilage, and the operation kept him out until the third week of June. After his return his numbers continued to drop, and then in a shocker of a deal at the time, Daniels was traded to the Dodgers with then-young super-utility man Lenny Harris for Mariano Duncan and starting pitcher Tim Leary2. He hit well after the trade, but he only played eleven games for LA through August 1st, then he was on the DL to undergo arthroscopic surgery on the same knee. When the season was over, he’d have a third procedure to fix what they found in the second. Final line for the year: .246/.399/.392 and, ominously, only five stolen bases after the first week of May.


The red flag seen flying in the LA Times sport section partway through August, 1989.

He lasted two seasons in LA. As a 26-year old in the first one, he bounced back pretty much all the way to his 1988 standard, especially considering LA’s friendliness to pitchers, with a slash line of .296/.389/.531. His knees kept bothering him, though, as he stole only four bases all season and was caught three times. By the end of his second year with the Dodgers it was clear that mobility problems were bringing his career to an end. He played 137 games in 1992, the second-most for any season in his career, but returned to his 1989 levels of production (with even fewer walks, leading to a .337 OBA) and his defense went in the tank with -1.5 defensive WAR. In the minds of the team management, it probably didn’t help that he’d reached the end of his cheap tenure in the majors and quadrupled his salary to just over $2 million that spring.

After 35 more games with the Dodgers in 1992 he was traded to the Cubs for a minor league pitcher who never pitched more than 37.2 innings above AA; Chicago then released him outright at the end of the season. He never played another game in organized baseball.

So what about those knees? If he’d been able to stay healthy instead, what might he have done? The tricky thing here is to decide if his career through the end of 1987 is his true talent level, or if the end of 1988, despite his relatively down year that season, is closer to the truth.

Interestingly, Daniels’ projection actually gets better if you run it after 1988 instead of before. I chose not to do so, though, as this is entirely because Babe Ruth makes his one and only appearance on Kal’s comp list here and drags Daniels’ High Cut projection up through the roof all by himself. As he was the #10 comp, and Ruth had such a peculiar early career, the result didn’t seem representative of what Daniels’ numbers through ’88 were trying to tell us3. So I went with the end of ’87 instead despite the fact that it reduces by half the number of plate appearances he’d had to show us what he was made of. Small sample sizes generally make me nervous, but my instinct pointed me in the opposite direction here.

His top three Similarity Score comparables for our purposes are:

  • Frank Thomas
  • ’30s HOFer Paul Waner
  • Mark McGwire

None is a perfect match. Waner has the batting average and the speed (as reflected by the number of triples he hit in an era when nobody stole bases) but considerably less power. Thomas has the batting average, the power, and the ability to draw a walk, but had no speed. McGwire is the most surprising comp, as he hit only .280 over the part of his career in question. It seems he’s pulled out of the hat because it’s otherwise so hard to find someone who is so good at getting on base while also hitting with power as Daniels was early in his career. The good thing is that for each of the three comps their one divergence vis-a-vis our subject is balanced out by the other two being a better match.

This is how those three did over the remainder of their careers, with the average of that being what comes out as Daniels’ projected remaining career if everything had gone well for him:


The total is the projection plus Kal Daniels’ actual starts through 1987. They seem reasonable except for the triples, which is too high, and the stolen bases, which is too low.

If he’d actually done this, would he have made the Hall of Fame? His counting stats are a bit lower that Cooperstown voters like, but I think so. The cutoff point for left fielders to be a sure thing is about 60 WAR—only two players at that position have failed to make it despite clearing that number, Pete Rose and Barry Bonds. As we all know neither of them have been left out because of their on-field accomplishments. Our “perfect” Kal Daniels is almost ten WAR above this and has basically Willie Stargell’s career with a bit less home-run power but a higher batting average and ability to get on base.

It seems likely that he would have fallen into one of two categories, though, outside of the inner-circle of baseball legends. Like Frank Thomas he might have been one of those players who drops off sharply in his thirties, though not enough to keep him from playing for several more years.

Alternatively he could have been like Mark McGwire and suffer a series of nagging injuries. He’d miss a dozen games a year more often than not and, while the injuries would not affect his ability to hit, they would lead him to retire early when he started to slip. The main argument against this would be that Daniels did possess considerably greater speed than both of those players, and as a “young player’s skill” that speed would stead him well even as it declined as he got older.

Kal Daniels’ Stats on Baseball Reference


    1. Traded for Jose Rijo, and a darned fine trade that was, as he blossomed into one of the best starting pitchers in baseball over the next five years.
    2. Not the LSD guy. This Leary they’d flip the next winter for perennial .300-hitting first baseman Hal Morris, then a rookie.
    3. But for the record, let it be noted that a somewhat systematic attempt to analyze Kal Daniels’ hitting has part of the system saying “You know, his early career looks a bit like Babe Ruth”.

Don Hurst

The Yankees of the 80s and early 90s are largely forgotten, mostly because they’re bracketed by 1976-78 team that went to the World Series three times and won twice, and the even-better 1996-2012 era. That said they were only a bad team for a few years and the early 80s team was only a notch below the stereotypical New York powerhouse.

In 1986 they had two Hall of Famers in the regular lineup. Rickey Henderson is the best lead-off man in history, but a wide margin, and while Dave Winfield wasn’t in the same class he was approximately one of the ten best hitters in the league for the 80s and turned consistency and longevity at a fairly high level into a call to Cooperstown. Even so, neither of them was the biggest star on the team. That was Don Mattingly.

Mattingly doesn’t quite fit the profile of this blog, as he managed four years of top-flight play and, though he dropped off badly after that, he managed to stay in the majors for eight more seasons as a slightly better than league-average hitter with a reputation for good defense. But studying him the same way we’ve studied other players turns up an old-time hitter who does.

A back injury was the culprit in Mattingly’s decline, and it’s obvious that if he had kept playing like he did through his age-26 season he would have been an inner-circle HOFer. Through the end of 1987 he had a career line of .331/.376/.543 with 93 home runs, which is a bit weak in the OBA but is such a high batting average with good power, in a relatively down period for offense, that he’d have skated in when Cooperstown called. His career comps include Hank Greenberg, Frank Thomas, and Vladimir Guerrero, and those aren’t even the three players that make his High Cut projection.

Those three are Manny Ramirez, Al Simmons, and the sublime Stan Musial. Tack the average of their post-26 careers on to Mattingly and you get this (click for larger):


That, ladies and gentlemen, is a career for the ages, the fifth best first baseman of all time by WAR in fact. 3063 hits, 467 homers, a career slash line of .305/.396/.557 and an OPS+ of 149 is pretty nice. It also hits some traditional buttons for a casual fan, like 3000 hits and a .300 career batting average. Couple that with Mattingly’s defensive reputation and the way the New York media lionized him when he was a star, and he’d be a golden god of the Joe DiMaggio class down to this day.

Even the remaining names on his comp list are impressive: Will Clark, Jim Rice, and 20s and 30s-era first baseman Jim Bottomley. If you’ve been counting, though, that’s still only nine players. The tenth man (he said, finally getting to the point) is one who shares Mattingly’s first name if not his given name1, one who failed to follow up on his early numbers even more badly, one who is in fact the closest comparable for Donnie Baseball’s first seasons, and the one who is named at the top of this post.

Don Hurst had a six-year career from 1928-34, debuting with the Phillies two days after a trade as a minor-leaguer from the St. Louis Cardinals. Five and half of his seasons were with Philadelphia, but he also played with the Cubs for the last part of his final season. Like Mattingly he played first base, though his reputation as a defender was poor, and his actual performance around the bag was in fact borderline catastrophic: -7.0 WAR in just those six years.

He matched Mattingly up to age 26 by hitting .316/.396/.516 with 102 homers and that, coupled with a close reading of the previous paragraph, largely explains why you’ve never heard of him and why he was out of the majors by 29. As mentioned, he was already down a strike by being a poor defender. The other strikes are:

  • He played from ’28 to ’34, which was the highest offense period in baseball history until the Steroid Era. Hurst’s line is actually considerably worse than Mattingly’s in context, as evidenced by their OPS+ for those seasons (which, remember, is adjusted for offensive context). Mattingly’s is 151, while Hurst’s is just 126.
  • Hurst played for the Phillies, and in those years the Phillies played in the Baker Bowl, the last of the 19th century ballparks which didn’t close until 1938. It was, until Denver entered the majors, the most hitting-friendly park in National League history. The right field wall was only 280 feet from home plate, and even a sixty-foot wall didn’t keep left-handed hitters from rattling extra base hits off it and over it. Hurst was left-handed. At home, he hit .323/.403/.526 in his career, but only .274/.347/.432 in away games. This wouldn’t be that hot even now, and is very weak for a first baseman in the 1930s.

That’s the right-field wall in the Baker Bowl. Don’t forget to buy soap when you’re out. (via Wikimedia Commons)

Look at it another way. Hurst was putting up runs, to be sure—he had 125 RBI in 1929, and a league-leading 143 in 1932, and scored more than 100 runs each season too—but the Phillies were giving up no less than 4.47 earned runs a game (1932) and as high as an eye-watering 6.71 in 1930. They didn’t have great pitchers, to be sure, but they weren’t that bad. It was largely about the context in which they played.

Or take one more number: in 1930, all of the away players in the Baker Bowl, from .401-hitting Bill Terry and 56-homer man Hack Wilson2 down to the lowliest scrub, hit a collective .351 in the Baker Bowl. Hurst’s hitting .323 there in that general time period was not enough.

Hurst had one more thing going against him: by spring training of 1933 he was believing his superficial numbers and demanding to be paid like one of the best hitters in the league, engaging in a multi-week contract holdout. When you’re Rickey Henderson, or even Don Mattingly, you can get away with this. When you’re a player whose team owners probably have a crude (if unsystematic) idea of how much your numbers are inflated by your home stadium, not so much.


The salary dispute even made the wire services. “Nugent” is the Phillies’ penurious owner from 1931 to 1942, Gerald Nugent. From the Lewiston Daily Sun, March 25, 1933.

Then he went into a season-long slump: in 1933 he hit only .267/.327/.389. By the stat considered most important at the time, he dropped from 143 RBI to just 76; if you want a more modern measure, that was good for an OPS+ of only 94 and 0.9 WAR once his defense was factored in—barely more than replacement value.

The slump continued into 1934. After he hit even slightly worse over 142 plate appearances, Philadelphia traded him to the Cubs on June 11, 1934. It turned out to be one of the better trades in Phillies history, as the return was Dolph Camilli, who would hit .295/.395/.510 for them before being sent to the Dodgers four years later, even better numbers than the man he was replacing had done at his best: offensive levels dropped to more reasonable levels as the ’30s wore on. Hurst only put up a .199/.239/.291 during his half-season in Chicago and was out of the majors after that. The Cardinals picked him back up during the next off-season, but set him to the minors where he played until 1937. After a year off, he had a 61-game stint with the Hamilton, Ontario Red Wings, in the very low minors, where he managed, played first base, and even pitched a little (not well). Then he retired for good. Having spent ’36 and ’37 with the old Los Angeles Angels of the PCL, he returned to California where he died young in 1952, only 47.

Don Hurst’s Stats on Baseball Reference


    1. But not his given name. Born Frank O’Donnell Hurst, his preferred name probably came from a contraction of his middle name.
    2. Speaking of another player whose numbers were vastly inflated by context. But not as much as Hurst’s.