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.

KalDaniels.png

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.

ominous

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:

kal-daniels-high

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

Notes

    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”.
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