Didn’t Make the Cut: LaVel Freeman

(This is the first of series of short profiles that will be interspersed with the usual, longer examinations of players that you see here. They’ll be quick takes on players where there’s too little data for the High Cut method to get its teeth into and tell us what they might have done. But for whatever reason, they’re still interesting enough that it’s worth taking a look at them.)

In the early mid-1980s the Milwaukee Brewers had the strongest minor league farm systems around, or so it was thought. That turned to not be the case, as prospects like Steve Stanicek, Dale Sveum, and Billy Jo Robidoux had peculiarly low ceilings. Of all their hyped players at the time, only Gary Sheffield lived up to his billing.

Even at the time, though, one player exemplified the Brewers’ minor leagues by having the most eye-popping numbers of all while simultaneously not being anywhere near as good as he looked. This was LaVel Freeman.

A superficial look at Freeman’s numbers can fool you into thinking he was a potential star. He actually was a serious prospect at first, having been drafted 26th over all, in the first round of the 1983 draft. To be more precise he went in the January draft, which was kind of a stepchild of the main draft phased out not long after this, in which lesser players tended to be picked. Even so, Ellis Burks went six picks before him, and there were four other future major-leaguers (not counting Freeman) in the round, though admittedly none of them were above replacement value.

Somewhat unusually for a high pick out of college, Freeman went to rookie ball and hit well, but then he scuffled around in A-ball the next year. Both of those are early signs of trouble: good college prospects skip Rookie ball altogether, and they usually do well after promotion to the next level. He did show enough on his second try at the A level, in 1985, to be given the next season what is generally acknowledged as a prospect’s biggest test: Double-A. It’s possible to put up really nice numbers below AA and not have major league ability, but once you get two steps away from the Show the typical scouting thinking is that you have to have talent to thrive.

At 23, Freeman was getting a bit long in the tooth, but he put up some nice-looking numbers in El Paso that year: .322/.393/.483. For a reason that will become clear shortly, the Brewers kept him in the Texas League for another year (another bad sign) and this is where the Legend of LaVel Freeman begins.

The Texas League has been around since 1902, and as it plays a relatively short schedule and only two players have ever had 200 hits in a season. Freeman’s ’87 is one of them: 208 hits with 24 homers (ten more than his next best), good for 96 RBI and 117 runs scored. Going into the last game of the season he had a chance to hit .400, needing a 4 for 4, but as the Diablos had already clinched a playoff spot he sat it out to rest up instead. Even so his final numbers were astonishing: .395/.467/.627.

You’d think that would be good for something, especially as the major-league Brewers were hanging around the fringes of the pennant race in September of 1987, but Freeman didn’t get the call. He did go to spring training in ’88 and ’89, but didn’t make the team then either. His sole stint in the majors was a few days during April of 1989 as an injury replacement.

The obvious question is: how on Earth does somebody hit .395 with some walks and power and never even get a sniff at the big club, let alone become a star in the major leagues? In Freeman’s case, it’s two-fold. One I mentioned earlier, his age. He was 24 when he put up his huge numbers, and still in AA. Good position players have made it to the majors by then, and while there are some who don’t get a chance until they’re 25 or 26, they’re the exception. A 24-year old player who hasn’t made it to AAA yet is going to get the side eye from his organization.

More important, though, was offensive context. At the time the Texas League put up big numbers. Parks were small, and at altitude: the city of El Paso is 3800 feet up. Take a look at the batting averages that led the TL for the three years before Freeman’s accomplishment: .340, .332, 342. That’s not .395, but it’s it’s in the suburbs. Further, he played in Denver in the American Association in 1988, which also inflated numbers (an effect that would become much better known starting in 1993 as “the Colorado Rockies Effect”), and while Freeman did hit .300 there he didn’t even approach his 1987 numbers when he would have if he’d actually been anywhere near a .395 hitter.

This is pretty apparent to the sabermetrics-savvy reader of 2017, but it was less clear in the 80s. What did in Freeman was that his organization had learned the lesson the hard way. By 1987 the Brewers were getting toward the tail end of a run of prospects who’d done (apparently) very well in the minors only to flop in Milwaukee. The previously mentioned Stanicek hit .343/.448/.583 in El Paso and .352/.396/.616 in Denver. Billy Jo Robidoux pounded the Texas League for .342/.443/.577. Glenn Braggs his .360/.443/.615 for their AAA affiliate Vancouver (they switched to Denver the next year) in 1986. Randy Ready nearly duplicated Freeman’s numbers in El Paso in 1982, at .375/.474/.592 and then hit .329/.463/.499 in AAA. Between the four of them they had one good major league season (Ready’s 1987, which was injury-shortened and came after he was traded to San Diego).

So there were all these fantastic minor league numbers flying about and the Brewers had been burned repeatedly. By the time Freeman rang up his amazing season, the Brewers were getting really suspicious of any supposed super-prospect they had playing at AA or AAA. They may have overreacted a little, but the general idea was right. Few really understood park effects at the time, and especially did not understand how extreme minor leagues could take the phenomenon. The Brewers farm system of the 80s rubbed everyone’s nose in it.

LaVel Freeman’s minor league stats on Baseball Reference

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Ron Blomberg

blomberg

Last stop before the Yankees: Ron Blomberg in Syracuse, either 1970 or ’71. Image source unknown; if you know, please contact the author. Click for a larger view.

Ron Blomberg is best-known as the answer to a trivia question1, but the Yankees probably didn’t think he’d make his mark on history in such a superficial way. Picked out of high school first overall in the 1967 amateur draft, he was projected as the superstar replacement to Mickey Mantle, in the way that Mantle was the heir to Joe DiMaggio, and how Joltin’ Joe was in turn the man who took on the mantle2 of Babe Ruth.

He was probably over his head as far as that goes (of the three, DiMaggio has the worst career OPS+, and he’s tied for 24th all-time. Mantle and Ruth are 7th and 1st), but he was a pretty good hitter. Blessed with considerable power3, the Yankees pushed him hard through the minors. His numbers were modest until three months at Syracuse in 1971 produced a healthy .326/.411/.565 line and a call up to New York for the rest of the season. While he didn’t ever quite hit that well in the majors, and at 22 he was a bit old to be a true future-superstar rookie, he did put up a very creditable .323/.363/.477 in 216 plate appearances over the rest of the season, good for an OPS+ of 143.

Blomberg’s stick would play for all but the last 200 or so PA of his career (when he was trying to make a comeback with the White Sox after being out of baseball for basically two and a half years), as he hit over .300 for all but one of those seasons and never slugged less than .481. Putting it in context, his career OPS+ is 140, which may not stack up against Mantle’s 172, but is in the same general neighborhood as Josh Donaldson, Giancarlo Stanton, and his near-contemporary Reggie Jackson. No two ways about it, Ron Blomberg could rake. But hitting against both sides is a tool just as much as the other five, more traditional ones. “Boomer” Blomberg4 was missing that tool. Lefties ate him alive, though it’s an open question whether or not that was a self-fulfilling prophecy as Yankees manager Ralph Houk would sit him against one every time, leading to just 180 PAs in his eight-year career against southpaws. Was he really a .215/.306/.272 against them? Or did he just need a chance to show what he could do? For the purposes of this discussion we’ll assume yes, as our general goal here is to shoot for the sky when we say “What If?”. Baseball is a game of repetitions—the main reason the minor leagues exist, from the standpoint of MLB—so it’s not an unreasonable assumption that he’d have done well given more opportunities, even if it’s far from a sure thing.

So let’s run it down year by year, covering both what he did when he was able to get onto the field, and just how much (and why) he wasn’t able to half the time:

1971: As a rookie, he put up those nice-looking raw numbers mentioned earlier, .322/.363/.477 beginning after his call up from the minors at the end of June. He hit right from the start, going 2-for-5 with a homer in his first game on the 25th. He was used exclusively in right field (or as a pinch-hitter) but a poor range factor of 1.90 foreshadowed a move to first base the next season, then playing more at DH than anywhere on the field any year after that. He sat out a few games at the end of the season, long after the Yankees were eliminated from the pennant chance, but his 216 PAs were more about his late call-up and a solid outfield for him to crack: Roy White, Bobby Murcer, and an aging Felipe Alou having a good season.

1972: This was a strike season, though most don’t remember it as such. The first in-season strike in history ran through the first two weeks of play, and so Blomberg missed eight games then like the rest of the Yankees, never to make them up. Then he was not quite a regular through the end of June — every time the Yanks played a double-header he sat out one game, and he sat in the bench for lefties the whole year. By the end of the season New York had played only 155 games and Bloomberg just 107—and that would be his career high. His raw numbers were superficially lower than ’72’s, at .268/.355/.488, but that was mostly batting average illusion. As offense was down a bit across the league that year, this was good for an OPS+ of 153.

1973: This was the year the DH was introduced to the American League, a position Boomer was born to play every bit as much as David Ortiz or Edgar Martinez. It was injury troubles that actually got him there, though, in fact making him the very first DH to take to the field. The plan had been to use the now-37-year old Alou as the Yankees’ DH on April 6th, 1973 (the Yankees had picked up Bobby Bonds in the off-season, making the outfield even more crowded), when they went up against Luis Tiant and the Red Sox. Instead a hamstring pull had him swapping positions with Blomberg, Alou heading to first base while the young hitter subbed for Mel Stottlemyre with the bat5. He did well, walking with the bases loaded in his first plate appearance on the way to a .329/.395/.498 (OPS+ 155), career highs in all numbers.  As late as the start of play on June 1st he was hitting .400, which generated quite a buzz in New York City and, by extension, the rest of the country. Unfortunately his games played for the season dipped to 100, again because he was sat on the bench by Houk when lefties called, but also because he re-injured his hamstring on June 17 and was restricted to DH when he could play.

1974: In ’74, Houk was gone (replaced by Bill Virdon), but the rap against left-handers remained, and his playing time dropped again, to just 90 games and 301 plate appearances. Various muscle strains and other small ailments left him with just 26 games in the second half. He still hit .311/.375/.481, for an OPS of 147.

1975: This was the year in which Blomberg’s career definitively went south. Despite having a reputation for being injury-prone, he’d never been seriously injured, not to the point that he couldn’t DH and still paste the ball anyway. This season, though, on June 16th against the Brewers, Blomberg popped a tendon in his right shoulder (he said later “I hit a double, but when I swung, I fell down”). It would not heal, and he went from hitting .327/.403/.618 at the end of play that day to .255/.336/.418 by the time he wrapped it up for the season on July 12th, a brutal stretch of games in which he hit under .180 with no power.

1976: Come spring training, his shoulder still had not healed and the Yankees finally gave way, sending him to Frank Jobe to get it repaired. He sat out the whole season, except for two at-bats.

1977: Healthy again, in the last week of spring training he hit the outfield wall while going after a fly ball and destroyed his knee. Half his knee cap had to be removed, and he had other procedures to clear remaining bone chips. Again, his whole year was lost. The Yankees essentially replaced him with Reggie Jackson, who’d signed with them during the off-season, and would head to the All-Star Game before finishing eighth in the MVP voting.

1978: Having signed with the White Sox as a $600,000 free agent6, there was a moment on Opening Day where it looked like a Cinderella story was going to unfold: with one out in the bottom of the ninth he hit a homer to overcome a two-run deficit and win the game for his new team. It was not to be, however, and and after 61 games he .231/.280/.372 for the season. It’s not good when your DH needs a DH. In August he pulled a groin muscle and was out for the rest of the season, and the White Sox released him during spring training the next year.

Before I move on to analyzing what he might have been, minus injuries and assuming that he could have hit lefties if given more chances against them, I think I should point out that the numbers don’t tell the whole tale of Ron Blomberg. If ever a person was made to be a hero for the ugly, exuberant, off-kilter decade that was the 1970s, it was Ron Blomberg: his personality was compared, in print, to that of a St. Bernard, and for most of the 70s he sported a glorious mustache and flowing locks—possibly made of polyester as was the style at the time. The contemporary Yankees yearbooks mentioned, multiple times, that he once ate 28 hamburgers because the burger joint was having a penny sale. As the first prominent Jewish Yankee, little old bubbies apparently made him bagels and sent them by mail. In 1973 he was on Johnny Carson, Dick Cavett, and Tom Snyder, which is so Seventies that my pants just turned into bell bottoms. He had the makeup of a star, even if it never worked out.

Well, suppose it did?

Blomberg’s top ten comps through the age of 24 produce the best projection using the High Cut. They fall into two fairly obvious groups: in one, guys whose career tailed off fairly quickly (without necessarily ending) like James Loney and early-2000s Reds stalwart Sean Casey, in the other several guys who went on very nice careers. In the middle sits Dave Parker, who was arguably the most fearsome hitter in baseball in the back half of the Seventies but was nothing for a decade after that—giving him career numbers that resemble the lower end of the second group, but with a shape that makes him much more like the first. He’s getting a write-up of his own soon, so for now we’ll leave him aside.

The three best comps for Blomberg are all recent: Todd Helton, Joey Votto, and Adrian Gonzalez. This leads to a peculiar situation in that Votto and Gonzalez are still active, and so depending on how they do in their games tonight, my projection of Blomberg’s career would change tomorrow, a little bit anyway. Gonzalez looks like he might be washed up and so he’s not going to be shifting the bar very much for much longer, but Votto’s still being his usual self (.287/.413/.567 as of this writing) and so looks like he could be adding to Blomberg’s “total” for years to come. Still, it’s what we’ve got, so here goes:

Ron Blomberg (High)

Click for a larger view

Not a bad career at all, though shorter than I expected. The lack of seasons is pretty explicable, though, even putting aside Schrödinger’s Comp in Joey Votto. Of all his ten comparables, only Helton and Parker had careers lasting past the age of 35. All the others fade away or stop entirely before that, and even the “gone by 30” group has more examples than “past 35”. I suspect that this is because young players with old player skills—power, walks, doesn’t really run—don’t age as well as those who grow into their power and are more fleet of foot (e.g., Carl Yastrzemski, or Carlos Beltran).

This keeps him from being a Hall of Famer even under these idealized circumstances, either if you go by WAR or prefer to look at the counting stats. Just looking at the career WAR of first basemen, there are a couple with a similar number who made it to the Hall in Tony Perez and Orlando Cepeda, but both had stories behind them and both waited a long time to get it. Other names nearby are the likes of Fred McGriff, Will Clark, and Norm Cash. Would this version of Blomberg had the necessary fame to make up for his numbers? Maybe. Besides what I mentioned about his 70s-friendly makeup previously, all other things being equal he would have been one of the stars of the ’75-76 Yankees that won two World Series, played in another Series in ’74, and been edging into “grizzled veteran” territory when they played the Series in ’81—a suit of clothes that had been worn well by Willie Stargell a couple of years earlier and probably clinched Pops’s HOF status.

You could also argue that he’d get in on the strength of being a Yankee star, but I think that effect is overstated when it comes to awards. Hell, since Don Mattingly won the MVP in 1985, the Toronto Blue Jays have won as many MVPs and more Cy Youngs than the Yanks have7, and they missed the post-season for 20 years in a row.

These days Blomberg acts as a scout in the Atlanta area and runs kids baseball camps in New Jersey during the summer. In 2006 his ghost-written autobiography was published, and the next year he was a manager in the Israeli Baseball League.

Ron Blomberg’s stats on Baseball Reference

A very nice poem about him. Really, he’s inspired poetry.

Sources

First designated hitter Ron Blomberg proud to be father of position“, Dan Schlossberg. USA Today Sports, April 10, 2013.

“Ron Blomberg”, Joe Gergen. The Complete Handbook of Baseball, 1973.

“Ron Blomberg Has a Blast”, David Israel. Chicago Tribune, April 8, 1978.

1973 New York Yankees Press/TV/Radio Guide, Unknown. 1973.

Yankees: Where Have You Gone?, Maury Allen. Sports Publishing LLC, 2004.

The Big Book of Jewish Baseball, Peter S. Horvitz and Joachim Horvitz. SP Books, 2001.

“A Whole New Ballgame for Blomberg”, Murray Chass. New York Times, February 7, 2007.

Notes

    1. “Who was the first DH in major league history?”
    2. No pun intended. Oh, who am I kidding? So, so intended.
    3. As a 20-year old, he hit a batting practice homer to right field that left Tiger Stadium entirely.
    4. And seriously, how was he not “The Bronx Blomber”? He pronounced his name “Bloomberg”, but it still works in print. I checked and Roy Blount, Jr. called him that once in 1975, that I can find, but it inexplicably never caught on.
    5. Stott had hit for a resounding .160/.213/.223 through 1972, and never batted again.
    6. For four years, not one. This was still the 1970s, after all.
    7. George Bell and Josh Donaldson for Toronto versus twice for Alex Rodriguez, and Roger Clemens twice, Roy Halladay, and Pat Hentgen versus the well-travelled Roger Clemens.

Charlie Hollocher

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Charlie Hollocher as a hot-hitting rookie in 1919. Public Domain image via the Library of Congress, reproduction number LC-DIG-ggbain-27043. Click for a larger view.

There’s a lot of players who had ugly gaps in their careers due to World War II, but far fewer who were affected by its predecessor. This is largely due to timing: the US didn’t join WWI until April 2, 1917, by which time the 1917 season was already underway, and while there was talk of curtailing the season nothing ever came of it. Likewise, while everyone expected the war to continue into 1919 until it suddenly didn’t, the rapid collapse of the Germans on the Western Front had the conflict over shortly after the end of the 1918 season, and while the season was two weeks late to start in April, most ballplayers who’d been called up or had shifted over to steel mills and ship building were back on the field by Opening Day.

1918 was affected though, as the so-called “Work or Fight” rule for draft-eligible men was introduced mid-summer. Baseball managed to negotiate an extension but even so the season ended the day before Labor Day, a month early, leading to the shortest non-strike season in modern baseball history: the NL champion Cubs played only 129 games, and the first place Red Sox over in the AL just 126. It’s with that in mind that a peculiar number makes more sense: the National League’s leader in hits had only 161, and the same player was the only one to have more than 200 total bases1.

That wizard with the bat was not one of the several top sluggers then in the NL (which included Zack Wheat and Rogers Hornsby) but the rookie shortstop of the league champion Cubs: Charlie Hollocher. Hollocher was typical of middle infielders at the time in that he was a small man, just 5′ 7″ and 154 pounds according to the usual references, but he had some pop in his bat: bearing in mind that 1918 was at the tail end of a very low period in offense, his .397 slugging percentage that season was good for sixth in the league. As a 22-year old he was a very valuable property, enough that the Cubs reportedly dangled him and cash as a package for the aforementioned Hornsby without the proposed deal being obviously laughable to commentators.

Though he would never top the 134 OPS+ that he rang up as a rookie, Hollocher played quite well for the rest of his career, abbreviated as it was. Not only was he a pretty good hitter for a shortstop (twice hitting .340, once in a full season and once in a half-year), he was a pretty good shortstop, regularly putting up a win and a half or more of defensive WAR if you go by Baseball Reference’s version of the stat. He did have a bit of trouble staying in the field, three times playing 80 or fewer games in his seven seasons, but he was arguably the top player at his position in the league, or at least top two. Then at age 27 he not only played less than half a season for the second year in a row, his numbers plummeted to just .245/.292/.336. By this time the Babe Ruth Offensive Explosion™ was well underway and so that translates into a putrid 67 OPS+. Even so, you’d figure his previous prowess would buy him a chance or two more, but in reality that ended his major league career.

If his lack of future chances are the first clue that there was more to the story, the fact that he didn’t even continue in the high minors (as was common at the time) is a second. Hollocher’s baseball career just stopped, and it was due to injury—or, to be more exact, illness.

The first serious break in Hollocher’s playing time came in his third season, 1920. After a down year in 1919 (.270/.347/.347, still good for an OPS+ of 109), he had rebounded to .319/.406/.389 through July 25th. A week into the previous month he’d gone down with “ptomaine poisoning”2 that kept him in and out of the lineup for a few days. Then, ten days before his final game of the season, it was reported that he’d had a recurrence, which seems a bit unlucky. Who gets food poisoning twice in five weeks? Recovering again he was back for two games before coming out of the lineup for good. It was three weeks after that before the Cubs announced that he’d been hospitalized, and they pointedly didn’t say why.

Hollocher was back next spring training and was fine for the next two seasons. Granted, he didn’t play very well in 1921 (just 91 OPS+, the only time he was below league average in offense until his final season) but in 1922, now 26, he put it all together with a .340/.403/.444 line. A large part of that was the great change in the offensive environment in just the previous few years—these numbers were good for “just” a WAR of 4.9, as opposed to the superficially poorer numbers of his rookie season’s producing a 5.0 WAR—but he looked to be cementing his place as one of the best players in the game3.

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Hollocher posing for the camera in 1923. Get a load of his fielder’s glove. Public Domain image.

Then came the good half-year alluded to earlier. In 1923 he picked up right where he’d left off in ’22, and after 66 games was hitting .342/.410/.423. Hollocher had already made a late start to this season, not playing until May 11th, after two bouts of “stomach flu” in January and then March. Note the similarity of that diagnosis to his supposed ptomaine poisoning in 1920. Now the stomach troubles were back for a third time, or that was the presumption at least. He missed the first game of a homestand on Friday, July 26th, and then a double-header on the following Sunday. On the Friday following, the Cubs announced nebulously that he was “ailing”, but that he’d be back for the double-header the coming Sunday.

Instead, Hollocher jumped the team, leaving a strange note for the team’s manager, Bill Killefer (one of those who’d made it to the front in 1918), the meat of which was: “Tried to see you at the clubhouse this afternoon but guess I missed you. Feeling pretty rotten so made up my mind to go home and take a rest and forget baseball for the rest of the year. No hard feelings, just didn’t feel like playing anymore.”

By August 11th, Hollocher had asked to be placed on the voluntarily retired list, which request was granted him by Commissioner Landis. This put him in good standing with the league from a legal standpoint4, but over the winter he weirdly held out for some of the salary he lost while he sat out the remainder of 1923. He didn’t sign a new contract, a two-year deal, until well into spring training of 1924.

He made it another half-season and that was it. Before we get to tackling what was going wrong with Charlie Hollocher, let’s address our more usual question: given what he’d done on the field, what might he have done if all were right? Unlike most of the players we look at, there are three possible points from which we can project forward. One is to take his career up to the stage we’ve discussed, prior to the disastrous half season to come; this gives us the advantage of a larger sample of his talent at work. The next is to go for the end of 1922—after all, he did lose a half season in ’23, as well as he played, so that will skew things in a direction we don’t want. Finally, as he was already running into difficulty halfway through 1920, hitting well (usually) but missing many games, you could argue that his sporadic great play after is unrepresentative of what he could have done and stump for a projection based on just his first season and a half.

Interestingly, it doesn’t make much difference. Going backwards from the order above: ff we start with the end of 1920, his three most successful comps are Barry Larkin (70.0 career WAR), Tony Fernandez (45.0) and the improbably named Hughie “Ee-Yah” Jennings (42.3). On the other hand, picking the start his 1922 season as the cutoff gives you Larkin, Fernandez, and Phil Rizzuto (40.8 WAR) instead of Jennings. Using the end of 1923 brings you back to the 1920. This is a very good sign, as it suggests that there’s a “type” of player in play here, and that Hollocher is quite comparable to it. There are, in fact, six players common to both of his comparable lists, the others being Rafael Furcal, and modern Diamondback Jean Segura.

As the three possible sets of comps are so similar, let’s go with the one that occurs twice, as it produces the better projection (marginally):

Charlie Hollocher (High)

Click for a larger view. Incidentally, Jennings played as late as 1918, but he only had nine PAs after 1903, so they’ve been left off as irrelevant.

The homers are too high, and the caught stealing too low, plus if we’re assuming that Hollocher stayed healthy then he’s not getting quite the break that he should: all three of these guys were hampered by injuries, if not to the catastrophic extent that Hollocher was. Even so, this is basically Joe Sewell‘s career, a low-end Hall of Famer more or less. It’s an interesting match since Sewell was also a shortstop, was an exact contemporary of Hollocher’s within just two years, and had the same penchant for not striking out: the only season better for that than the one of Hollocher’s I footnoted earlier is Sewell’s 1925. I do say Hall-of-Famer for the same reason that Sewell is in: though a bit marginal, the Veteran’s Committee was forgiving of players from the 20s and 30s, which would have worked to Hollocher’s advantage too. Really the only reason Sewell doesn’t show up on Hollocher’s comp lists is because Charlie had a couple of seasons played before offense really picked up, and that depressed his raw numbers as compared to Joe. A more recent player of about the same value and position (but with a very different shape to his career than this hypothetical one) would be Ian Kinsler.

But of course instead of having either of these two hypothetical careers, Hollocher had only half a season left after his 1923, and it was pretty terrible: .245/.292/.336, below replacement value at -0.2 WAR with the bat, though his usual good defense dragged that back up into positive territory as a whole. He was absent from the Cub lineup after the game on August 20, 1924, and the team manager told the press two weeks later that he’d given his shortstop permission to return home again for the remainder of the season, Hollocher did return for one game, as a defensive sub in an exhibition against the White Sox on October 3rd, but after that he never went between the lines as a player again, not even in the minor leagues.

Hollocher drifted after retiring, announcing that he was coming back a few times between 1925 and 1930 (but never doing so), and working as a scout for the Cubs in 19315. He ran a bar, then worked as an investigator and night watchman in St. Louis, divorced his wife in 1939, and soon remarried.

On August 14, 1940, a police constable was dispatched to investigate a car parked unexpectedly on Lindbergh Boulevard, a bypass road in the suburbs of St. Louis. Within he found the body of Charlie Hollocher, aged 44, and a short suicide note giving his home address and asking that his new wife be informed. He had died of a self-inflicted shotgun wound. Charlie’s former teammates apparently expressed little surprise, and in the aftermath it was noted that his death followed just 11 days after the suicide of Willard Hershberger, the only active player in history to have died by his own hand during the season.

Modern commentators tend to try and come to an either/or answer on whether or not Hollocher had a real, undiagnosed stomach illness or if he was suffering from mental illness, probably the common combination of anxiety and depression. It seems to me that it’s just as likely to be both, with the physical ailment feeding into the mental one. It’s the nature of anxiety disorders to pick on something in a person’s life that is bad—and who doesn’t have something worrying happening in their life?—and then blow it into a problem that feels impossible to face. I’m also struck by the coincidental similarity between Hollocher’s death and that of an icon of my generation: Kurt Cobain. At the risk of a glib comparison, he too had chronic stomach issues and committed suicide by shotgun, most definitely because of depression that had focused around that medical problem. It’s no great stretch to see the same chain of consequence in Hollocher’s life.

Unlike Cobain, Hollocher lived in a time when the mentally ill could expect sympathy, but not much else. The medicines and psychotherapeutic treatments preferred today didn’t exist in 1920, or even 1940, and unless obviously insane or dangerous to others, those afflicted with mental illness had no option but to try and get on with their lives. Like many others, Hollocher could do that for only so long, and as a result Cubs fans lost a player who could have been, if not mentioned in the same breath as the likes of Ernie Banks and Ron Santo, at least mentioned not long after them. Just another thing that damned billy goat has to answer for, I suppose.

Charlie Hollocher’s stats on Baseball Reference

Coming Up

We’ve wandered around the early days of baseball enough the past little while, though we’ll certainly return. Next up is a visit to the 70s, so pack your bell bottoms and mustache wax for a trip to New York!

Sources

The Tragic Saga of Charlie Hollocher“, Arthur Ahrens. The Baseball Research Journal 15, 1985. Much of what we know about Hollocher’s illness and life outside of baseball come from this worthy writer’s work here; most of the other sources you’ll find (including the James below) rely on it and just add a detail here and there.

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James. Simon and Schuster, 2010.

From the Dugouts to the Trenches: Baseball during the Great War, Jim Leeke. University of Nebraska Press, 2017.

Notes

    1. By contrast, Babe Ruth set the all-time record with 457 just a few years later, and someone’s put up over 350 total bases in a season 246 times as of this writing.
    2. A then-current fancy way to say food poisoning, based on a misunderstanding of what exactly was making you sick when you ate bad food.
    3. He also put up a dumbfounding number by modern standards: in 691 plate appearances he struck out 5 times. Sammy Sosa struck out five times in a game four times. Of course Sosa did have 595 more career homers than Charlie Hollocher.
    4. Then, as now, going AWOL from your team resulted in a suspension.
    5. Researcher Arthur Ahrens speculates this was to round out the two-year contract he’d signed in 1924.

Dick Wakefield

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Dick Wakefield showing off his left-handed swing. Exhibition baseball card c.1947, Public Domain image. Click for a larger view.

If you look into Dick Wakefield today, almost every one of the stories about him begins with some variation of “Wakefield was one of the first bonus babies…”, a fact that’s obscured a lot else of what’s interesting about him. When said today the term usually refers to those players who were affected by the so-called bonus baby rule, which was brought in for the 1952 season1. In an effort to control signing bonuses, any player given $4,000 or more up front on his contract had to be kept on the major league roster for two years or else he’d be exposed on the waiver wire. This had no impact on established players, but meant that the only free agents of the era—young, unsigned prospects—would find it harder to spark a bidding war among clubs.

However the original bonus babies were the ones who provoked the rule in the first place: a number of young players from the late 1930s onwards who had commanded then-astronomical prices. In Wakefield’s case it had been $52,000, or roughly $850,000 when adjusted for inflation. That amount of money sparked resentment among his teammates and apparently went to Wakefield’s head too, with various stories circulating about his unusual behavior while a rookie2.

As we all know, though, you can act any way you like if you can hit and Wakefield certainly did. Through 1942 he played in the minor leagues, the most notable thing about him being the story that he was the victim of Rip Sewell‘s first recorded eephus pitch during spring training of 1942. But in 1943, as a 22-year old left fielder in his first full season, he led the league in games played, at bats, hits, and doubles on the way to a .316/.377/.434 line. There was no official Rookie of the Year award at the time, but he was rewarded with an All-Star selection and sixth place in the AL MVP voting.

He missed the first half of 1944 by training to join the Army Air Force, but he was released along with half his class as unneeded and could play the second half of the season. In 332 plate appearances he put up an amazing .355/.464/.576—enough to move him up a notch in MVP voting despite only appearing in 78 games; with 3.9 WAR his rate of production per game was second for all non-pitchers in the AL3. With an OPS+ of 190 to boot, he had clearly established himself as one of the top players in baseball. He’d applied to join the Navy, however, and got called up for 1945.

His three most successful comps through the end of 1944, as taken by the High Cut to play “what if?”, are pretty nice: Rafael Palmeiro, Enos Slaughter, and Elmer Flick. Slaughter in particular fits the mold nicely: just four years older, he profiles very similarly to Wakefield and was caught up in the war too, missing three years. Slaughter ended up as a paragon of longevity, serving as a pinch hitter and bench player for the Yankees as late as age 43.

If we run a High Cut on Wakefield, we get this:

Dick Wakefield (High)

Click for larger view

Not bad, not bad at all. This is basically Todd Helton‘s career, once you adjust for batting in Colorado. Helton also played 17 years, put up 61.2 WAR with an OPS+ of 133, batted left like Wakefield, and played at the wrong end of the defensive spectrum, so the match is actually quite good. Helton’s going to draw a few votes for the HOF in 2019, so this projection probably puts Wakefield into the Hall; the voters were historically generous to players who lost time to WWII so we can spot him a couple of hundred hits over his missing season and a half. That says “voted in after multiple tries, or by the Veterans Committee” to me, one of the guys who gets in towards the end of his eligibility unless he’s got a story like World Series heroics pushing him higher.

I’m also going to go ahead and state that if Dick Wakefield could have done this, even under ideal circumstances, I will eat my Montreal Expos cap. There are a number of concerning things about his record—and one in particular—that, when added up, show that Wakefield (while still a pretty good player who got kind of shafted) had little chance of becoming the third-tier HOFer his High Cut suggests he could have been.

I’ll start with the “pro” argument before getting to the “con”. Though he would never come close to hitting like he did in 1943-44, over the remainder of his career from 1946 through 1952, Wakefield did produce a career line of .268/.391/.426 for 6.0 WAR. For a so-called bust this is surprisingly good, a 119 OPS+ over 1470 PAs. Unlike a lot of the other players we discuss, he actually out-performed half of his other comps in their post-age 23 careers (Johnny Groth, Heinie Mueller, and Jimmy Bannon, plus Yasiel Puig hasn’t yet put up 6.0 career WAR post-age 23). Some “bust” players end up outperforming their comps because they have a catastrophic injury that stops their career cold, but Wakefield never had a long spell on the DL. Normally if you’re a disappointment, almost all of the other players like you have done better—that’s why you’re a disappointment.

At first blush you’d think that this would be a positive, but rather it suggests that there’s a class of player like him that doesn’t do that well after a great start. It’s worth pointing out that Wakefield showed three of the four canonical “old player skills”, with only a high batting average preventing a clean sweep. Players like that do tend to fade away early. There’s also the fact that Wakefield was 22 when broke through, which is not that young for a truly great player. A similar case closer to the present day would be Ben Grieve, who was widely heralded as the Next Big Thing when he came up with the Athletics twenty years ago. His numbers were not as impressive as Wakefield’s (a 123 OPS+ in his Rookie of the Year campaign) but he had all four old skills and was 22 that year too. The arc of his career was as disappointing as his Tiger counterpart. You can also think of Wakefield as like Wil Myers, though the early returns on 2017 are looking promising for that player.

Outside of his High Cut trio, the rest of Wakefield’s comp list is Mike Donlin and injury-plagued coulda-been Don Mattingly. Interestingly, that means that two of his ten closest comps are famous headcases who could also hit the crap out of the ball, at least for a while: Puig, who I’m quite sure I don’t need to introduce to you, and Donlin, who I can introduce and explain with just two facts: his nickname was “Turkey Mike” and he missed three years of his prime because he wanted to pursue acting. I’m not inclined to put too much into this, though: at this distance it’s hard to tell if Wakefield’s money-related ego stories are true. If anything, the bad-mouthing may even have come from the top: Wakefield was involved in the organizing of a player pension fund, and in 1950 he refused to report to the White Sox after being traded to the Yankees unless the White Sox undid a cut in salary that he’d suffered in New York5. He might as well have been pen pals with Karl Marx.

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Dick Wakefield, on the right. The Boardwalk Empire extra on the left is Pinky Higgins

That said, his personality and the resentment over his rapid rise were another thing working against him, and while they wouldn’t have directly affected his game they do seem to have limited the number of chances he got—consider that after a season of 470 PA in which he had an OPS+ of 130, he only had 166 more PA for the rest of his career, spread over three teams. There was also the Tigers’ disappointment that he wasn’t a superstar. In ’47 and ’48 they used him more often at cleanup than at any other position in the batting order and he “only” slugged about .440 over those seasons. It wasn’t enough, especially for a left fielder, and they soured on him because they had expected more.

His middling power and not the main problem with his bat, however. His big flaw with his bat, and the thing that makes me think he couldn’t have reached his High Cut projection, was his split against left-handed pitching. It was bad: a career .206/.335/.356. Unfortunately, the data for 1943 and ’44 are incomplete, so we don’t really know how well he hit lefties before the war, but certainly after he was a liability. He quickly drifted into a platoon role.

It likely also didn’t help that his key skill post-War was a top-flight batting eye: he had a .412 OBA in 1947 and .406 in 1948. Weirdly, drawing a walk was stigmatized by many baseball people as some kind of moral failure as late as the 1980s. Players like Wakefield felt pressure to “swing the bat” and overcome the perceived flaw

Readers of a certain age can think of him as an “Earl Weaver player”: a hitter that had a few things he could do very well, but who was run down and discarded by his organization because he was expected to do everything well. Weaver loved picking up guys like these on the cheap and would platoon them or otherwise minimize their weaknesses. Not to suggest that having Robinsons Frank and Brooks or Jim Palmer wasn’t important, this was a strategy that helped drive Weaver’s Orioles to many winning seasons. While not as close a match, Billy Beane has a knack for this too, though the Blob-like takeover of roster spots by relief pitchers in recent decades has made it harder to pull off in practice. The point is that, while not superstars, they’re darned useful if you know what to do with them. Many organizations don’t.

And as Wakefield wasn’t a superstar, his collapse at age 30 isn’t too surprising. Many players tail off quite badly when they hit that age, Albert Pujols being the most recent dramatic example6. While the superstars that hit this wall are still able to stick in the majors at their reduced level, those that start at the next notch down often wash out entirely by their early thirties. Given fewer chances to redeem himself for the reasons mentioned earlier, Wakefield played his last game, with the Giants, at 31.

In all, I think that Wakefield actually might have done very well if he came to baseball now: the money’s so good now his bonus would not be an issue with other players, his OBA skill would be highly valued, and teams seem to have a better handle these days on how to keep problematic players focused. Even so, his weakness against lefties looks like a killer. Even with every possible break, he’d be meat for lefty-one-out guys and I’m not sure that any great player ever had such a large weakness in his game. He was a good player, one I’d be glad to have on my team, but if you relied on him to be your #1 guy, you’d be setting yourself up for disappointment. What happened to him after that would be more about you than him, though.

Dick Wakefield’s statistics on Baseball Reference

Sources

“DICK WAKEFIELD”, New York Times. August 29, 1985.

The Detroit Tigers Encyclopedia, Jim Hawkins, Dan Ewald, and George Van Dusen. Sports Publishing LLC, 2002.

Baseball Between the Lines: Baseball in the Forties and Fifties as Told by the Men who Played it, Donald Honig. University of Nebraska Press, 1993.

For the Good of the Country: World War II Baseball in the Major and Minor Leagues, David Finoli. McFarland, 2002.

Notes

    1. Early versions of the rule started in 1947.
    2. Wakefield thought of himself as a bit of an oddball too. Later in life he’d tell a story about a game played in Seattle — likely when he was with Oakland in the PCL after his big league career was over as he mention Artie Wilson — where he faked a catch on a home run and then jogged toward the infield nonchalantly until the batter had returned to the dugout. At which point he revealed that he hadn’t caught the ball, but that the batter had to be out because he’d left the field of play.
    3. Snuffy Stirnweiss led the league in total batting WAR. I know…”who?” Second baseman for the Yankees, played very well while the usual suspects like Ted Williams and Hank Greenberg were off to war, faded badly when they came back.
    4. Joe Gordon, anyone?
    5. He was returned to the Yankees, then shipped off to the Pacific Coast League right after.
    6. If you want some more examples, look up the careers of Frank Thomas, Juan Gonzalez, or Dale Murphy. Thomas stuck around for a while since he was dropping down from such a high level, much like Pujols, while the other two got multiple chances because no-one could believe they were done so quickly. For a player at the next level down who was gone really quick try Howard Johnson.

Pete Schneider

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1922 Zee-Nut card of Pete Schneider, already back in the minors with the Vernon Tigers. Public domain image.

When a young baseball fan first starts to learn about baseball’s all-time records, one of the first things he discovers is the astonishing numbers put up by starting pitchers prior to 1920. The big one is Cy Young‘s 511 wins, but there’s also a plethora of 30-game winners, Walter Johnson‘s 110 shutouts, and so on. It was a different time, of course, and unless conditions change in baseball these records will never be beaten.

A more subtle thing to know about early baseball pitching is that these records were built on a  foundation of shredded arms. It may have been easier to “coast”—the currently accepted reason for the high record totals—but even so many talented pitchers were not up to the workload. Consider, for example, Smoky Joe Wood, who pitched very well indeed from the ages of 19 to 22 but injured his arm after pitching 344 innings in 1912. He could still pitch well but was restricted to half that workload, then was injured again and thoroughly washed up by the end of his age-25 season. With a 117-57 record and a 146 ERA+ his performance holds up against the very best pitchers of his era in peak if not in length. There are others in the same boat: Ray Collins, Frank Owen, Johnny Lush, Ed Karger, and a host of other forgotten names. It’s a long and pretty depressing list once you start digging into it.

Arguably the the most interesting of these is Pete Schneider. Hailing from Los Angeles, Schneider was born in 1895 when LA was just a small city of about 70,000 people and all of California had just north of a million. He broke into organized ball at the tender age of 16, with Seattle of the Class-B Northwestern League, where he didn’t pitch well at all1. After a year playing for the Medicine Hat Hatters of D-ball, he was back in Seattle and made good his previous failure, going 12-2 with a 1.42 ERA by June.

That was enough to attract the attention of both the Chicago Whales of the Federal League and the Cincinnati Reds. The Whales had an oral agreement with him first, but he returned his bonus and settled on Cincinnati later the same day. The Reds then brought him straight to the majors. For the rest of the year he lurked at the back end of the rotation and gained some experience as an 18-year old in the National League. He was already capable of pitching above league average, putting up an ERA+ of 105 in his 144 innings; his raw number there was an apparently sparkling 2.81, but since this was the Deadball Era that’s only about equivalent to a 3.96 ERA in 2016. As a harbinger of much of the rest of his career, he also put up a 5-13 record, as the Reds were dire that season at 60-94 and 34.5 games behind in last place. Note that that record of his is a lower winning percentage than his team put up, a problem that would dog him, particularly as teams at the time were hypersensitive to pitcher won/loss records.

Pete

Can’t say I agree with you, Mr. Gallagher. Seems to me like all these newfangled statistics like your “E.R.A.” are ruining the game. (Schneider had 50 unearned runs, not 53, so the math is off). Public domain image, click for larger view.

The next year the still-teenage Schneider moved to the front of the rotation, sharing the role with the comparatively grizzled Gene Dale. The Reds were a bit better too, at 71-83, and Schneider’s record still reflected that level, at 14-19. The numbers under his control were decent, though: a 2.48 ERA, or a 116 ERA+, about 3.59 in 2016.

After a down year in 1916, Schneider came into his own as a 21-year old in 1917. Under a big workload of 333.2 innings, he produced the best ERA of his career, 2.10 (125 ERA+, 3.33 ERA in 2016), was second in the league in starts, third in innings pitched, and fifth in shutouts. This was his sole 20-win season, and even that was just part of a 20-19 record—meaning that for the previous three seasons he’d been first, second, and fifth in the league in losses. He was, in fact, of pitchers with 100 or more decisions, the one with the lowest winning percentage for the 1910s. Those are facts you can be sure were noticed; the notion that pitcher wins don’t mean much is relatively new, and didn’t even make the radar in 19172. He also led the league in walks for the first time, with 117, at a time when issuing a walk was also a bigger no-no than it is today.

This all added up to a short leash on him when he came up with a “dead arm” in 1918 (that being as far as the diagnosis would go in those days). The Reds did stick with him for a big chunk of the season, and he made 33 starts, but his ERA rocketed to 3.53 (ERA+ 76, 2016 equivalent 5.47). Just as worryingly he led the league in walks again at 117 despite pitching 126.2 innings less than the year before (the NL’s #2 in free passes had thirty fewer, in more innings), and his SO/BB rate dropped from 1.18 to 0.44. Over all his starts he struck out only 51. He then reportedly injured his arm further while pitching winter ball in LA.

That was pretty much it for his career in the major leagues. The Yankees (who were a year away from buying Babe Ruth and becoming the Yankees) traded Ray Fisher to the Reds for him, but he made it into only seven games with similar results to 1918. In mid-August Schneider returned to the West Coast when he was traded to the Vernon Tigers of the Pacific Coast League3; part of that deal had Bob Meusel coming back to New York. He washed out as a pitcher for them, but after bouncing down to Beaumont in Texas and then back up again he reinvented himself as an outfielder. A decent-enough hitter in the big leagues4, the move was a successful one: a .342 batting average and a .586 slugging percentage over the next four seasons, including one game with five homers and 14 RBI5. He also served as an emergency pitcher for the team from 1921-22, but was dreadful in the role.

If he was ever offered a chance to come back East at his new position, he didn’t take it. Partway through 1924 he was traded to Sacramento, then he spent 1926 in the low minors. At age 30 now, he then retired from baseball, though he apparently made the roster of an Illinois class B team for a month in 1928 before retiring again. Seven years later he killed a man in a bar fight, supposedly over an insult to his wife, and was convicted of manslaughter. He did manage the San Quentin baseball team while he was in, so there’s that.

Schneider seems to have been lightly regarded when he was in the majors, presumably because of the previously mentioned beliefs about pitcher wins and walks that prevailed at the time. Certainly if a pitcher came up today at the age of 19, immediately started pitching decently, and showed obvious growth for the next three seasons, he’d be talked about the next spring training as a breakout candidate and dark horse for the Cy Young Award. He certainly would not be third in the league in innings pitched at the age of 21. So if instead of running into the abattoir-with-a-mound that was pitcher workloads in his day (or rather, if he had been one of the rare ones who could take such punishment) what would he have been like?

Schneider’s best year happened at age 21, and despite his relatively modest achievements up to that point, his extreme youth produces an impressive list of comparables: Kid Nichols, Walter Johnson, and Bert Blyleven. Even his #4-10 comps are good, if dominated by pre-moderns (Adonis Terry, Mickey Welch, and Scott Stratton, to name just three).

This leads to a bit of a digression. If you’ve been following this blog you’re familiar with the High Cut, but the basic method applies best to hitters. Apart from the Deadball Era, hitting has stayed within fairly tight bounds for the entire history of baseball. Even prior to 1920, the numbers are not completely out of line; no-one would blink if you moved Tony Gwynn‘s or Ichiro‘s career back to the ‘teens. Hitters are roughly comparable, and so it doesn’t matter if the three you pick are spread from 1900 to 2010. But as we discussed at the top of this post, early pitching is weird. Anything prior to 1895 is more so. As a result, I think it’s wise to approach the High Cut slightly differently for pitchers who played prior to 1925—in other words, when the “Babe Ruth Revolution” had spread to all teams—either as the player being discussed or as one of the comps for any player.

Essentially it comes down to asking “Is Kid Nichols really a good comp for Pete Schneider?” He really isn’t: in his age 21 season, a generation earlier, Nichols pitched 425.1 innings. Having done almost exactly the same at age 20 too, he’d pitch over 400 a year for the next three seasons after that and not drop down to below Schneider’s peak for another six6. I think a lot of observers tend to miss how much pitching changed between 1880 and 1920, as the stats at both ends of the period are insane by modern standards. It’s just that the last two decades of the 19th century are much more insane.

Accordingly, when evaluating Schneider’s possibilities (and as I’ll do for any pitcher who played prior to 1925) I removed any top 3 comps whose career ended ten years before his starts. This takes out Nichols, skips over next in line (the aforementioned Welch, also a pre-modern) and replaces him with Schneider’s near-contemporary Chief Bender, with what I judge to be a resulting increase in actual comparability. Note that Blyleven stays in the group, though, as the differences between 1920 and 1970 are not nearly as large as those between 1920 and thirty years before. Running with these three comps gives us:

Pete Schneider (High)

Click for larger view

More wins than Tom Seaver, more innings pitched than Roger Clemens, the second most strikeouts in history (after Walter Johnson) until Bob Gibson passed him in 1974…these are astonishing numbers, to the point that I second-guessed them for a while. I know you’re doubtful about them, and you should be. But apart from the strikeout numbers, which are an artifact of having Johnson and a much later player in Blyleven as comps7, and his projected career ERA being too low what with the spike in offense coming in 1920, I think they hold water.

First, was he just lucky in drawing his comps? Pulling the Big Train from the deck is pretty nice after all, and might not be representative. But, if we advance the clock and take Schneider’s three comps post-age 22 (bearing in mind that this now includes his awful 1918) Blyleven and Bender are still in there but Johnson drops out…to be replaced with Christy Mathewson. If we run them from age 20, his comps are still Blyleven, Bender, and Matty. Nineteen, even? Bender, Dwight Gooden, and Smoky Joe Wood.

Secondly, his age-21 comps are signaling just how hard it would have been to do this: his third best is a guy, Bender, whose career was over by 338. So it’s not like he had three comps that were all well over his head. Chief balances Train, to an extent.

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Pete Schneider with Seattle as either a sixteen or eighteen-year old, before the majors, the dead arm, and prison. Public domain image.

For that matter, his full spread of ten most-comparable players is saying something important in the way they’re spread through time. Seven of them pitched well before his career, and only Blyleven came well after (Bender and Johnson were rough contemporaries, but older). Recall that the further back you go from Schneider’s career the more extreme the numbers get. To find players with numbers like his, you mostly have to go back into that extreme era, which intuitively suggests that an extreme High Cut for him is justified. And even if you arbitrarily knock it down 10%, or 20%, or even a full third, the results still look very good.

There doesn’t seem to be any way around it: for the first four years of his career, Pete Schneider put up raw numbers comparable to several pitchers who went on to become all-time greats. It just goes to show how few pitchers make it to the majors at 18 and can hold their own immediately. If you can do that, your numbers may not look that special, but you have a chance to be special in the long run…if your arm holds out.9

Peter Schneider’s Statistics on Baseball Reference

Sources

“Pete Schneider, ‘An Afternoon to Remember'”

The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James. Simon and Schuster, 2010.

Baseball Prodigies: Best Major League Seasons by Players Under 21, Charles F. Faber. McFarland, 2014.

Notes

    1. Though to paraphrase the saying about the dancing bear, the remarkable thing is not how well the 16-year old pitched, it’s that he pitched at all.
    2. Possibly because radar wasn’t even invented until 1934.
    3. The Tigers were the PCL’s second team in LA, after the Los Angeles Angels. They played in a community just south of downtown LA that was one of the few in the area that allowed the sale of alcohol in the early 20th century. The team was in financial trouble for the years Schneider was with them after the beginning of Prohibition in 1920. Their other claim to fame was that they were owned by luckless comic actor Fatty Arbuckle at the same time.
    4. Schneider had a .221/.230/.313 career line in the majors, good for an OPS+ of 65 in that offense-deficient era.
    5. He hit a double too. The PCL could put Colorado in the shade at times, mind you. The final score was 35-11.
    6. Nichols pitched 2134.1 innings in his first five seasons. This more than Jon Lester‘s entire career as of this writing, and Lester has been one of the Top 10 in the AL in innings six times.
    7. Incidentally, isn’t it cool that Walter Johnson and Bert Blyleven had exactly the same number of strikeouts from their age-22 seasons through to the end of their careers?
    8. Not counting the one inning he pitched at 41 in 1925. He was a coach with the team and it was a publicity stunt.
    9. And you keep your nose clean. Schneider was accused by Hal Chase of accepting bribes to throw a game in 1918, and in 1920 he was called before a grand jury in LA to testify about corruption in the PCL. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt on this one.

Chet Ross

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Chet Ross’ 1941 Goudey Gum card. Public Domain image via Wikimedia Commons.

So for Opening Day weekend I thought I’d celebrate by pulling out an extremely obscure player who was born on April 1st. If you know anything at all about this guy it’s as a side note to a minor historical anecdote about the 1946 Dodgers. The ’47 team gets all the attention because 1) Pennant and 2) Jackie Robinson, but the Dodgers actually had a better record the year before: 96-60 as compared to 94-60. They also had the misfortune of coming in second that year to the Cardinals, after tying them in the regular season only to lose the first tie-breaking series (a best of three, 2-0) in MLB history.

The 1946 version of the Dodgers signed a highly touted prospect by the name of Joe Tepsic on July 8th for $17,500, and brought him to the majors straight out of UPenn—Tepsic had been a Marine at Guadalcanal in 1943 (and was badly injured), so I’m guessing that Branch Rickey figured he had the mental toughness to play in the big leagues right away as well as the physical tools. Whatever the reason, the Mahatma made a tactical mistake when signing him. Though this was before the bonus baby rule that forced teams to keep high-priced youngsters on the major-league roster, the Dodgers willingly included a clause requiring that Tepsic stay with the club for the remainder of the season.

Manager Leo Durocher was not happy about this, and played Tepsic very sparingly (just 15 games and 6 plate appearances through year’s end). Though soon offered $1500 to accept a demotion to Montreal, Tepsic refused. This reportedly did not sit well with the team’s other players, who wanted his roster spot taken by a bench player who could help the team in the tight pennant race. The name bandied about as his potential replacement was, perhaps a little surprisingly, not Jackie Robinson, but Chet Ross.

Ross was born in Buffalo, New York, in 1917. and signed as a 20-year-old to the very bottom rung of the Boston Braves’ minor league ladder, the Class D Beaver Falls Bees1. The Braves must have seen something they liked, though, as the next season he jumped all the way to the A-level Eastern League, where he seems to have been overclassed and only hit .225 with a .391 SLG (his OBA is unknown due to the standards of record-keeping at the time). The next season he was down a level playing for Evansville, Indiana, but established himself as a proper prospect with a .306/.507 line (with the same deal on the OBA). This earned him a September call-up, where he hit an eye-catching .323/.364/.419 in 33 PA2.

He was installed as the Braves’ everyday left fielder the next spring, and he responded by continuing to hit. The high point was August 2nd, the Braves’ 90th game of the year, when his season line was almost the same as he’d done in Class B the season before, .317/.384/509. As late as September 1st he was hitting .300/.371/.496, but starting with a double-header the next day he was ice-cold for the rest of the season, putting up only .183/.255/.280 the rest of the way. Even so, his final numbers were quite nice for a 23-year old outfielder in 1940: .281/.352/.460 in 632 PA, good for 3.6 WAR and an OPS+ of 129. Of particular note were two numbers, one positive and one negative. On the downside, he led the league in strikeouts with 127, a sign he had trouble controlling the strike zone3. On the other hand he had 14 triples, which said he had speed—he only had four stolen bases, but nobody stole bases in 1940. His defense was raw, but promising, leading the league in putouts, assists, and errors in left. Things were looking good for the young Buffalonian. Ross was not a superstar in the making, but he someone worth having on your team.

His career hitting comparables after this season include one Hall of Famer (Billy Williams), and a surprisingly large number of players who hit well for a season or two when young and then tailed off: Bernie Carbo, Leon Durham, Jeremy Hermida, and so on. Bearing in mind that these comparables are only calculated for all these players before they hit their quick downsides, it suggests that there’s something about this particular profile of stats that makes them prone to fall apart: decent average but not great, some walks, some power, and a lot of strikeouts. If I had to guess, it’s that because they don’t stand out in any one way, they need all their skills ticking over nicely to stay on top. As soon as any one goes, watch out.

But this blog isn’t about what did happen so much as what might have, so suppose Chet Ross did as well as his most successful comps did? These are the aforementioned Williams and Durham, as well as Expos and Tigers stalwart Rondell White. Taking what they did from age 24 onwards and tacking it on to Ross’ career through 23 produces this:

Chet Ross (High)

So definitely not a superstar, but I’d wager he’d have been someone’s favorite player in the late 40s, probably some poor kid who was a Braves fan4. With 1735 hits, 253 homers, and a 124+ OPS he would have basically been Jermaine Dye with some more walks. If you remember 80s Twins first baseman Kent Hrbek5, he’s a good match too once you get past the strikeouts.

If you didn’t notice it, though, look at his actual remaining career. Not only did he collapse, he fell off a cliff. Three years left in his career, just over a full season’s worth of plate appearances, and below replacement value for the lot of it. What happened?

In a word? Injuries. In the Braves’ first spring training game of 1941 he broke his left ankle sliding into second base. He wouldn’t return to the field until May 25th, when he went 1 for 1 as a pinch hitter in a loss to the Giants. This was arguably the highlight of his season, as his only multi-hit game was a 2 for 3 on July 18th in Pittsburgh—and that game is excluded from the prize because he slid into second base in the top of the ninth only to tear his ankle ligaments and break his fibula. Close curtain on 1941 for Chester James Ross with an ugly .120/.254/.140 batting line.

The injuries kept him from being called up post-Pearl Harbor6, but he continued to play abysmally even despite the attenuated talent of the wartime major leagues. Never a regular again, his hitting did slowly get better as time passed, but he topped out at .227/.287./.409 for a 91 OPS+ in 1944. Traded to Indianapolis in the minors mid-season that year, he didn’t report, and was drafted by the Navy for duty in 19457.

Returning Stateside in 1946 (along with every other Tom, Dick, and Harry) he was traded from Indianapolis to Montreal, where he played with Jackie Robinson and our story has come full circle. Quite why he was the player supposedly taking over Joe Tepsic’s place on the Dodgers is a question, though. He was years away from hitting well as a major leaguer, and his numbers over 41 games north of the border were an uninspiring .243/.373/.4918. As Rob Neyer points out, he wasn’t even called up in September when the rosters opened up, and a similar veteran, Lew Riggs, hit better for the Royals and did get an end-of-season nod. According to his obituary in the Buffalo News “a knee injury cost him a chance to return to the majors”, but as badly as he’d played during the war years this seems questionable.

Transferred to Brooklyn’s other AAA team, Milwaukee (ironically) n 1948, he came off the bench for part of the season before being traded again, this time to the Cleveland organization. He filled the same role for them with the then-AAA Baltimore Orioles. With that his professional baseball career was over, at age 30.

Chet Ross’ Stats on Baseball Reference

A posed picture of Chet Ross swinging a bat, taken by Charles M. Conlon

Sources

Baseball in Wartime – Chet Ross

“Inside Baseball Training Camps”. St. Petersburg Times, March 18, 1944.

Dixie Walker: A Life in Baseball, Lyle Spatz. Mcfarland & Co, 2011.

Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Legends, Rob Neyer. Simon & Schuster, 2008.

“Chester J. Ross, Baseball Major Leaguer”. Buffalo News, February 21, 1989.

Notes

    1. Starting the same year through was also the short time period when the Braves were called the Bees as well, as they tried to wash the bad taste of Babe Ruth’s painful last season and the second-worst record in history just two years earlier).
    2. The eye he was catching being Casey Stengel, who was early in his career as a manager, long before the Yankees made him famous. To that point he had a 348-414 won-loss record.
    3. 127 doesn’t look all that bad to 2017 eyes, but this was unconscionably high for 1940. The next highest number in the NL that year was Joe Orengo‘s 90, and he was out of the league pretty quick too.
    4. The Braves left for Milwaukee and the Red Sox stayed for a reason. The Braves and the Bees (ask your parents to tell you about them) finished last or next to last in the NL seven times from 1939 to 1952, and third or higher just twice. They did get to the World Series in 1948, losing to the Indians.
    5. Herbiieeeeeeeeeeeeee!
    6. I presume. I can’t find any statement about it one way or another, but there weren’t a lot of healthy men missing out on the US Armed Forces in 1942 and ’43.
    7. Rob Neyer speculates that, as Ross had already been drafted and knew he was going to be called up eventually, he basically decided to make the trade the end of his pre-war career.
    8. Robinson, in contrast, hit .359/.468/.462.

Ellis Valentine

valentine-ellis1980b-protector

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.

ellis-valentine-high

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

Notes

    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.