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May 22, 2010

You Can Blog It Up

DPOTD: Worst Hitting with John Gochnaur vs. Julio Borbon, plus Minors Players as Majors Managers

by Steven Goldman

Dead Player of the Day #23 (John Gochnaur Edition)

John Gochnaur SS 1901-1903 (1875-1929)

I was thrilled to open the Encyclopedia at random to Gochnaur (not Gochnauer, as we have it spelled here at BP), one of the worst players ever, because “worst-ever” players have been on my mind since I read somewhere recently that Julio Borbon’s miserable start to the season threatened to descend to the level of historically bad. A sophomore, Borbon hit .312/.376/.414 in 46 games with the Rangers last year and was lined up for their center field job this year. Fast-forward to May, 2010, and Borbon has lost his plate judgment, lost his power, and lost his job, having hit .227/.246/.269 in 37 games. This works out to a 39 OPS+ (as per Baseball-Reference) or a .196 TAv.

Given that Borbon was a .310 hitter in the minors, people actually had expectations of him. I don’t know that anyone had any expectations of Gochnaur. In truth, I don’t know a whole lot about Gochnaur. He lived, loved, made outs, and died nearly 100 years ago, and not much has been written about him. Gochnaur came of age in baseball’s original expansion era, when the American League was born. He came up at 25 with the Dodgers in 1901 but wasn’t going to displace shortstop Bad Bill Dahlen, who was a Hall of Famer in every sense except that he’s not currently in the Hall of Fame. He jumped to Cleveland, where he became the double-play partner for second baseman Nap Lajoie. He was in many senses Lajoie’s dark twin. When Lajoie hit .379/.421/.569 and fielded .974 in 1902, Gochnaur hit .185/.247/.237 in 506 plate appearances and fielded .933, making 48 errors. In 1903, when Lajoie hit .344/.379/.518 and fielded .955, Gochnaur hit .185/.265/.240 in 512 PAs and fielded .869, making 98 errors. This total stands as the modern high. He was only the second, and to date the last, player from 1901 on to make more than 81 errors in a season. In 1904, when Lajoie was winning his fourth AL batting title by hitting .376/.413/.546, Gochnaur was in the Pacific Coast League hitting .161. Gachnaur’s career TAv was .196, his career WARP -4.8. Perhaps the most incredible aspect of Gochnaur's career was he got a second season as a starter after performing so miserably in his first.

In short, don’t sweat it, Julio Borbon. You still have a long, long way to fall before you’re the worst ever anything. John Gochnaur got there ahead of you—although like him, the Pacific Coast League probably awaits.  

Dead Manager of the Day (Joe McCarthy Edition)

I’m not really starting a regular Dead Manager feature, but we’ve had two incidents recently that hinged on whether or not career minor leaguers were able to manage in the major leagues that have been on my mind. When the Royals fired Trey Hillman, Joe Posnanski wrote of his failings, singling out his lack of big-league experience:

He had never played in the big leagues, never managed in the big leagues, never coached in the big leagues. The only time he had been around a big league clubhouse was as a clubbie for the Texas Rangers when he was a kid. He simply did not know about life in a big league clubhouse. He thought he knew. But he did not.

[snip]

Hillman did not understand the politics of a big league clubhouse. He did not understand that his success in Japan did not impress Major League baseball players. He did not understand that nobody was going to just give him respect. Sparky Anderson was known by his players as a “Minor League M——-,” and he came to earn respect with his intensity and his loyalty and by being right an awful lot. By the end of the year, the players were rather openly comparing Trey Hillman to Michael from “The Office.”

[snip]

One of the first things Trey Hillman did as new manager of the Kansas City Royals was call together a team meeting at home plate after a spring training game. He then yelled at his players in full view of the public — while people were filing out of the stadium — for some base running blunders they had made. Now, some people LOVED that… And that’s fine but … many of the players lost respect for him. They thought he was showboating — he certainly could have yelled at them behind closed doors. They thought he was compensating — he was ACTING the way he imagined a big league manager acts rather than BEING a big league manager.

Second, when the Hanley Ramirez/Fredi Gonzalez incident took place last week, Ramirez’s response was to say that Gonzalez “doesn’t understand” how wrong he was to pull his shortstop from the game because “he never played in the big leagues.” As Posnanski wrote, Gonzalez had the perfect response: “He’s right. But I know how to play the game. I played six years in the minor leagues, and I know what it takes to play this game, and I know the effort it takes to play this game, and I know it’s hard to play the game. That’s it.”

And maybe that’s the whole difference. The thing that allows a career minor leaguer like Gonzalez to manage in the majors even though the same lack of experience handicapped a Hillman: communication. Enforcing discipline but doing it with respect for the players and the game, so they understand your purpose isn’t the arbitrary exercise of authority, but rather the creation of standards that will further team goals.

Gonzalez’s response brings to mind an incident in the career of Joe McCarthy. McCarthy, who won nine pennants and seven World Series with the Cubs and Yankees, was a career minor league player, a second baseman of limited offensive ability who spent most of his career in the American Association. As a manager, he put a great emphasis on preparation and professionalism, but the approach was nuanced. In his first year in the majors, managing the Cubs in 1926, he suspended then traded the great but undisciplined inebriate Grover Cleveland Alexander, but worked delicately with the perhaps even more self-destructive alcoholic Hack Wilson. Alexander was clearly sick, but also an unrepentant rule-breaker who, at least at that late stage of his career, could not drink and still execute on the field, whereas the younger Wilson largely could.

This explains McCarthy’s disparate reactions to his two substance abusers in 1926. Of Alexander he said, “Any player may drink and get away with it if he is winning… but no player can get away with it if he isn’t winning. I refuse to stand for it any longer.” Of Wilson, he said, years later, “What could a manager say to such a loyal player with a weakness he could not handle?”  (Quotes are from Alan H. Levy’s Joe McCarthy: Architect of the Yankee Dynasty.) Players could see a flexibility at work there—McCarthy was not just a minor league martinet but was trying to establish boundaries. (These boundaries sound insane to us, but baseball has had a historic tolerance towards alcoholism as long as you could run in a straight line on the field.) In short, it was all calculated.

McCarthy actually showed his cards to Tony Lazzeri when he went to the Yankees in 1931. As reported in Frank Graham’s The New York Yankees, on a road trip to Washington that first year, a player who had previously shown McCarthy hostility reported an hour late to the game. Lazzeri had come into the clubhouse for a new bat and watched as McCarthy tore into the latecomer with incredible vehemence. The usually laconic Lazzeri was shocked and offended to the point that he felt obligated to tell off McCarthy for the way he was dressing down the errant player. Before he could, McCarthy said:

I’m glad you were here, Tony. I’m glad you heard what I had to say to him. Now, I want you to understand why I said it. I know that boy doesn’t like me. I’m not interested in whether he does or not. But I am interested in him as a ballplayer. He could be one of the best ballplayers in this league, but he isn’t because of his attitude. He thinks he’s been getting away with something around here, just to spite me. But he hasn’t. I took this opportunity to tell him so because I hope that by scaring him… I can wake him up. I didn’t like to do it that way. But I had made up my mind it was the only way. I wasn’t in here by accident when he came in an hour late. I was waiting for him. Do you understand now what it was all about?

Graham wrote, “Tony not only was on McCarthy’s side from then on, but let the other players know about it.”

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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