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February 8, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

I Saw 'em When, Part 2

by Jay Jaffe

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Today we pick up where I left off last week in covering some of my favorite minor leaguers I saw in Salt Lake City, Utah (where I grew up) and Walla Walla, Washington (where my grandparents lived) during the late '70s and '80s. Some went on to have notable major-league careers, and one even reached Cooperstown. Others would earn less distinction, though they retain my considerable affection.

Shortstop: Dickie Thon, Salt Lake City, 1977-1980 (majors 1979-1993)
Oh, what might have been. For an all-too-brief moment, Thon ranked among the game's brightest young stars. Alas, a crueler fate awaited him.

Born in South Bend, Indiana, but raised in Puerto Rico, Thon hailed from a baseball family. His grandfather Fred Thon, Sr. pitched and played the outfield briefly in the Dodgers' chain, and went on to play winter league ball with Satchel Paige and Monte Irvin, later managing in Puerto Rico as well. His father, Fred Thon, Jr., played semi-professionally and signed a major-league contract, but hurt his arm before his pro career could get started. He went on to coach his son through his Little League and teenage years. Younger brother Frankie Thon would spend a few years in the Giants chain, and went on to become a major-league scout. Nephew Freddie Thon spent five years in the Rangers and White Sox chains, and has knocked around independent leagues for the past two seasons. Son Dickie Joe Thon was a fifth-round draft pick by the Blue Jays last summer; a toolsy shortstop who signed for a $1.5 million dollar bonus, he ranked 13th on the team's recent top prospect list.

As a non-drafted free agent signed by the Angels for a $20,000 bonus in 1975, Dickie Thon clawed his way up the ladder quickly, bypassing Double-A to reach Salt Lake City as a 19-year-old in 1977. While he spent parts of four seasons in SLC, only once did he stick around to play more than 100 games. That was in 1978, when he hit .257/.341/.317 in 508 plate appearances and split time between second base and shortstop due to the occasional presence of Rance Mulliniks, who himself would go on to a substantial major-league career. After bouncing between Triple-A and the majors in 1979, Thon spent most of 1980 with the Angels, earning starts at second, short, and third.

Traded to the Astros straight up for Ken Forsch on April 1, 1981, Thon emerged as a starter in 1982, hitting .276/.327/.397 with a league-high 10 triples as well as 37 stolen bases in 45 attempts. Playing half his games in the barren offensive environment of the Astrodome, those numbers boiled down to a .282 True Average, and with strong defense (+13 FRAA), he racked up 6.0 WARP. To his own surprise, Bill James ranked him third among shortstops in the 1983 Baseball Abstract, calling him the league's best-hitting shortstop and second-best leadoff man (after TimRaines): "You never know, but I believe he will be the best shortstop in the National League in the 1980s." James' case only got stronger with Thon's performance the following year, as Thon hit .286/.341/.457 with 20 homers (up from three the year before, but 16 of them came on the road), earned All-Star honors, and tallied an NL-high 9.9 WARP, again in part thanks to outstanding defense (+25 FRAA) which drew praise from Ozzie Smith himself. James ranked Thon second among shortstops in the 1984 Abstract, behind Robin Yount but ahead of Cal Ripken, AlanTrammell, and Smith, three Hall of Famers plus one who should be in as well.

Sadly, Thon's shot at further stardom was dashed when he was hit in the face by a Mike Torrez fastball the following April, fracturing his orbital bone, ending his season, and leaving him with 20/150 vision in his left eye. That would later improve to 20/40, but Thon's depth perception was permanently affected due to swelling behind the eye. Upon coming back, he was reduced to sharing the Astros' shortstop duties with Craig Reynolds; Thon played in just 222 games over the next three seasons, hitting just .245/.316/.336, battling eye fatigue, and altering his stance to compensate for his damaged eyesight. He left the Astros in July 1987 and was prepared to retire, but he discovered his condition improved with rest. He returned and spent 1988 with the Padres, then enjoyed something of a renaissance with the Phillies the following year, hitting 15 homers (his only other season with a double-digits total) with a .271/.321/.434 line. That bought him a $1.1 million contract, and ultimately two more years as the Phillies' starting shortstop, albeit with diminishing returns, followed by similarly mediocre stops in Texas and Milwaukee.

In the New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, James ranked Thon 57th among shortstops, and proclaimed his beaning to be among the four most famous in baseball history, after those of Ray Chapman, Mickey Cochrane, and Tony Conigliaro. He felt the injury had deprived him of a shot at Cooperstown:

Would Dickie Thon be headed for the Hall of Fame, had he not been beaned by Torrez? I think he probably would, yes, at least a 51 percent shot. Thon, only 25 years old, was one of the five best players in the National League in 1983. He had been really good in 1982. He didn't need to get better than he was to make the Hall of Fame; he just needed to stay at a comparable level for six to eight years. In view of the courage and determination that Thon showed in fighting his way back to become a pretty good player years later, it seems likely he would have done so.

I'm somewhat less convinced. Thon was 24 when he became a regular, and he had just two strong seasons under his belt before the injury. He had compiled a .279/.329/.404 line, albeit in a fairly arid offensive environment. The problem, in part, is that the aforementioned Cooperstown contemporaries against whom Thon would be judged. Yount had reached the majors at age 18, and through his age-25 season, and though he'd hit a less-than-stellar .274/.311/.391, he had compiled 1,153 hits. Smith had three full seasons under his belt through his age-25 season, and while he was very light with the bat (.233/.296/.283), he'd already earned his first Gold Glove. Ripken had a Rookie of the Year award, an MVP award, had made four All-Star appearances, and accumulated 927 hits and 133 homers through his age-25 season. Trammell had hit .280/.350/.383 with 811 hits while winning three Gold Gloves to that point, and even with four more, a World Series ring, and a season that should have netted an MVP, he's on the outside of the Hall looking in. Thon would have had his work cut out to compete in that class, though of course, the world would have been a better place had he been able to instead of having the question answered for him by an errant fastball.

Left field: John Kruk, Walla Walla, 1981 (majors 1986-1995)
During every summer that I can recall from the late '70s until maybe 1983, my brother and I spent a couple weeks in the care of my grandparents, in Walla Walla, Washington. We were virtually in baseball immersion camp when we were there. My grandfather, Bernard Jaffe, was a Brooklyn native who had played baseball at the University of Maryland, and was said to have been offered a professional contract by the Washington Senators; he turned it down in favor of what turned out to be an arduous, even perilous journey to become a doctor. Our days in his care would begin with a walk to pick up The Oregonian and read the previous night's box scores, followed by a trip to the nearby park to hit balls against and over a backstop in a stickball-derived game, games of catch in an expansive backyard, and baseball on TV in the evening on their newfangled cable system. Occasionally Pop would take us to see the Walla Walla Padres of the Low-A Northwest League play, particularly during the summer of 1981, when the players' strike wiped out two months' worth of major-league games.

The 1981 Walla Walla Padres featured a couple of budding stars at the start of their professional careers. One was a stocky outfielder who was listed at 5-foot-10, 170 pounds, but was already a little lumpy. He had been a third-round pick from the secondary phase of the June 1981 draft out of Allegany Community College. Kruk signed for a bonus of just $2,500 and reported to Walla Walla. Blessed with a keen batting eye even at 20 years old, Kruk finished fifth in the league in walks, drawing 56 in just 63 games, but contact woes and a lack of power limited him to a .242/.444/.325 line, with one homer in 216 plate appearances.

Kruk would adapt. In each of the next four seasons, hitting in some admittedly favorable environments, he would finish with a batting average above .300, an on-base percentage above .400, and more walks than strikeouts. He didn't have a ton of power, topping out at just 11 homers at Triple-A Las Vegas in 1984. He hit .326/.403/.532 that year, his age-23 season, but it wasn't enough to earn him a cup of coffee on the surprise National League champions, or to unseat incumbent left fielder Carmelo Martinez. Kruk returned to Vegas and hit .351/.438/.488, with the highest batting average of any Pacific Coast League player with at least 340 plate appearances. That got him over the top; Kruk made the Padres the next season, hit a slappy .309/.403/.424, and wrested the left-field job away from Martinez in the season's second half. When Steve Garvey got hurt the following year, Kruk took over first base and tapped into some new-found power, hitting 20 homers en route to a .313/.406/.488 line, good enough to rank fourth in batting average and sixth in OBP. After a down 1988 season that Kruk attributed to fear of retribution on the part of a friend and housemate who had been moonlighting as a serial bank robber (really), Kruk was traded to the Phillies in mid-1989.

Kruk eventually blossomed in Philadelphia—blossomed like a slovenly, overweight flower with a scraggly beard and a mullet, at least. Spending more time at first base than the outfield, he earned All-Star honors in three straight seasons (1991-1993) while batting a combined .311/.407/.472 and averaging 15 homers and 5.0 WARP year. His penchant for getting on base helped him rank third in the league with a .329 True Average in 1992, behind only Barry Bonds and Gary Sheffield, and second only to Bonds the following year. Unkempt but effective, living up to the credo which gave his quickie autobiography its title, I Ain't an Athlete, Lady, Kruk was the corpulent embodiment of those 1993 Phillies, whom he helped win the pennant.

The following spring, after an errant Mitch Williams pickoff throw hit him in the groin and broke his protective cup (ouch!), Kruk was diagnosed with testicular cancer. He underwent treatment and, despite spending time on the disabled list for a knee injury as well, hit .302/.395/.427 in the strike-shortened season. Departing Philadelphia as a free agent, he signed with the White Sox. Even after battling injuries, he was typically effective, but he'd lost the spark, and he left the team on July 30 after singling against the Orioles' Scott Erickson. He would go on to manage in the minors and work as a studio analyst for Fox and ESPN, joining Harold Reynolds to become the bane of my existence for at least one night.

Center Field: Phil Bradley, Salt Lake City 1983, majors 1983-1990
By the time Bradley was chosen in the third round of the 1981 draft by the Mariners—five picks ahead of the next player up for discussion, 20 picks ahead of Sid Fernandez, and 21 picks ahead of David Cone—he had already achieved a measure of fame. As the quarterback for the University of Missouri Tigers from 1977-80, Bradley led his teams to three bowl games, won Big Eight Offensive Player of the Year honors three times, and set the conference total offense record at 6,459 yards (5,352 of them passing, then a school record). Alas, NFL teams' longstanding prejudice against scrambling African-American quarterbacks left him overlooked as far as a potential professional career was concerned, but Bradley had starred on the Mizzou baseball team as well.

I first got a glimpse of Bradley in the Northwest League in 1981, when the Bellingham Mariners visited Walla Walla. Bradley hit .301/.413/.430, albeit with only one homer, though he was 20-for-21 on the basepaths in just 53 games. After a year in the California League where he swiped 58 bags, ranked fourth in batting average (.331) and led in OBP (.452), Bradley skipped over Double-A and wound up in Salt Lake City, where he led off, played center field, and hit .323/.423/.384. That earned him a September look from the Mariners, who were en route to 102 losses. Bradley won a spot on the major-league roster the following spring, and spent the year as the team's fourth outfielder; he mostly played center, with a bitoof time spent at each corner, and while he didn't show much power, he continued to exhibit strong on-base skills, hitting .301/.373/.363 and stealing 21 bases.

Bradley didn't homer once in 370 plate appearances during that rookie season, so it came as no small surprise when he bopped 26 homers as the team's regular left fielder the following season, earning All-Star honors, hitting .300/.365/.498, and totaling 4.1 WARP. In the 1986 Baseball Abstract, James ranked him second among AL left fielders behind only George Bell, and cited research showing that just 12 players had increased their homer totals by at least 26 following a season of at least 300 at-bats, none of whom had increased from zero.

Alas, Bradley never came close to matching that homer total again. He totaled 26 over the following two seasons, though with his combined .303/.395/.454 line and 61 steals, he was still plenty useful; his .405 OBP ranked second in the AL to Wade Boggs in 1986. In fact, his True Averages for that three-season span went .296, .296, .290, though when accompanied by lousy defense (-26 FRAA over that span), he averaged just 3.0 WARP per year. James ranked him fourth among left fielders following the 1986 season, writing, "He has some power, can steal a base, is a graceful outfielder with a decent arm who made only one error last year. He's going to be slow to draw attention because he plays in Seattle and he doesn't have any one central skill that you can point to and explain his value, but he's a real good one."

The Mariners traded Bradley to the Phillies at the 1988 winter meetings in a five-player deal which brought back reliever Mike Jackson and right fielder Glenn Wilson. Phillies GM Woody Woodward lauded Bradley's speed, but wound up getting very little of it, as Bradley slumped from 40 steals in 50 attempts to 11-for-20, and hit a thin .264/.341/.392 besides. The Phillies flipped him to the Orioles, and while he rebounded somewhat, he was on the go again midway through the following year, this time to the White Sox for Ron Kittle, who himself was near the end of the line. After a .256/.349/.327 combined line split between the two teams, Bradley spent the 1991 season with the Yomiuri Giants of the Japanese Central League, then returned stateside, briefly passing time with the Angels' and Cubs' Triple-A affiliates but not earning another shot at the majors. After spending time coaching at Division III Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, he now works for the Major League Baseball Players Association.

Right Field: Tony Gwynn, Walla Walla, 1981 (major leagues 1982-2001)
By the time the Padres' third-round pick from the 1981 draft began his professional career, Gwynn was already a familiar face to me. As the starting point guard for the San Diego State Aztecs, he'd come through town several times to face the hometown University of Utah as part of the annual Western Athletic Conference schedule. Though generously listed at 5-foot-11, Gwynn was no slouch on the court, setting school records for assists that still stand, and earning all-WAC honors twice. Though he was a late-round pick by the NBA's Clippers, by that point it was clear that baseball was Gwynn's ticket to professional stardom. The Padres sent him to Walla Walla to start his pro career, but he wasn't long for the Northwest League, sticking around just long enough for us to see him play. He hit .331/.406/.612 with 12 homers and 17 steals in just 42 games—good enough to win league MVP honors—before being promoted to Double-A Amarillo, where he blew up the Texas League: .462/.490/.725 in 99 plate appearances. By the end of the next season, he was a San Diego Padre, and he was still a Padre 3,141 hits later when he retired in 2001.

As I wrote when covering Gwynn's JAWS case, we're not much for marveling at batting average around these parts, but his record is still something to behold. From 1983 through the end of his career, he reeled off a record-setting string of 19 consecutive seasons hitting .300 or better. He finished above .350 a jaw-dropping seven times, including five in a row from 1993-1997, topped by .394 in the strike-shortened 1994 season. He won eight batting titles, tied with Honus Wagner for the most in NL history (Ty Cobb won 12 AL Crowns).

As cool as seeing Gwynn at the early stages of his career was, I can claim an even more personal connection to him. In the summer of 2006, in anticipation of his induction to the Hall of Fame the following year, an employee of the Northwest League's Everett AquaSox contacted me about a plan to commemorate Gwynn's career with a bobblehead doll. Gwynn never actually played for Everett, but that franchise is the transplanted successor to the Walla Walla club, which sadly left town following the 1983 season. The AquaSox employee had discovered via Google that I'd written about seeing Gwynn, and wrote to ask whether I had any pictures that they could use to find out his uniform number and other details. Though lacking a picture of Gwynn, or any color photos at all, I dug up his number (#3) off an old roster. Via a bit of supersleuthing though a couple of old programs and a copy of Mark Okkkonen's Baseball Uniforms of the 20th Century (a database of which is now online) I discovered that the 1981 Walla Walla team wore the 1979 big club's uniforms. Handing down uniforms to the low minors clubs was still common in those days, and the position of the numbers on the front of the uniform and the piping around "Padres" enabled me to deduce the uniform in question. I relayed the information, and was eventually rewarded with a pair of the bobbleheads, one for me and one for my brother.

As for the finished result of the Gwynn doll, the browns are a bit more reddish than I would have liked to see, but for a run of 1,000 that was apparently hand-detailed, it's not too shabby. The Gwynn doll proudly stands next to the Tommy John Bobble-Arm in my display case. It's no Jason Tyner bobblehead, but it will do.

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

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