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May 17, 2011

You Can Blog It Up

Peace Be With You, Harmon Killebrew (Sadly Updated)

by Steven Goldman

UPDATED: I am sorry to say that Killebrew passed away this morning. In his honor, here is one fan's all-time Washington Senators/Minnesota Twins batting order. I have made no effort to normalize the stats, but you can easily imagine that if I had done so, Killebrew's 1960s and 1970s production would zoom past those of his predecessors, hence his placement here as cleanup hitter.

Lineup

Player

Pos

Years

Rates as Senator/Twin

1.

Rod Carew

2B

1967-78

.334/.393/.448

2.

Joe Mauer

C

2004-

.326/.406/.479

3.

Goose Goslin

LF

1921-1930, 1933

.323/.386/.502

4.

Harmon Killebrew

1B

1954-74

.258/.378/.514

5.

Tony Oliva

RF

1962-76

.304/.353/.476

6.

Ed Yost

3B

1944, 1946-58

.253/.389/.368

7.

Kirby Puckett

CF

1984-95

.318/.360/.477

8.

Cecil Travis

SS

1933-1941, 1945-47

.314/.370/.416

9.

Walter Johnson

P

1907-27

.235/.274/.342


I never saw Harmon Killebrew play. His last 40-homer season concluded about two months before I was born, and though he played until I was four years old, my awareness of baseball begins a couple of years after that, in 1977, when I started following the Yankees. I was well-aware of Rod Carew, and even had a Carew-branded pitch-back, but I didn’t know until later that Carew had played with a monster right-handed slugger called Killer.

I wish I had seen him, whether it was in the regular season or socking home runs in the 1965 or 1970 playoffs. He would have been my kind of player, and Baseball Prospectus’s kind too, the type of hitter we would have defended—throughout his career, Killebrew took some knocks for his .256 batting average, but the sabermetric community, had it existed, would have known to point out his .376 on-base percentage, .509 slugging percentage, and .252 isolated power. That last ranked 11th on the all-time list when he retired in 1975 (minimum 5000 plate appearances), and his 573 career home runs ranked fifth, trailing only Hank Aaron, Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Frank Robinson. He was an early Three True Outcomes hero.

On Friday, Killebrew announced that his struggle against esophageal cancer had reached its end, and that he was going to take hospice care, which is code for being gently ushered out of this world. All of our sympathies go to Killebrew, Killebrew’s family, and the baseball community as a whole, which will soon lose one of the greats of the game.

Killebrew was a bonus baby, one of those players forced to go directly to the majors because of the size of his contract. So many of those players’ careers were permanently retarded; imagine the Orioles having to carry Manny Machado on their bench for two years, without any minor-league training, the team not knowing if he is ready or not. That is what happened to the teenage Killebrew when he signed with the Senators; he spent 1954 and 1955 on the major league bench, getting just 104 plate appearances over the two seasons. It was only then that Killebrew was free to go to the minors and show what he could do.

It took three years for him to return full time, but when he did, at the age of 23, he immediately took the American League by storm, leading the league in home runs with 42 in what was for all practical purposes his rookie year. Despite playing most of his career in a low-scoring era, he hit over 40 home runs eight times, and led the AL six times. Though he never had a higher average than .288, his walks—he drew over 100 free passes eight times as well—and power made him a terrifically valuable batter. Perhaps the only long-term damage done by Killebrew's Bonus Baby years is that on defense he was never able to excel at any one position. His managers bounced him from third base to first base to left field depending on their needs, and if he was flexible and versatile enough to handle the moves and keep hitting, he also wasn't a great asset with the glove at any of those positions.

To give fair credit to the observers of the day, they did notice how good Killebrew was. He won the Most Valuable Player award in 1969, not only his best season but (no coincidence) a postseason year for the Minnesota Twins, and he had five other top-ten finishes in the voting. That ’69 season, in which he hit .276/.427/.584 with 49 home runs and 145 walks in a league that hit only .246/.321/.369, well… Let’s just say if you could have transported Killebrew and that season to the Metrodome of 1998, folks wouldn’t have been talking about Sosa and McGwire. It should also be noted that the Red Sox heavily scouted Killebrew prior to his signing with the Senators, but in one of perhaps a thousand spectacularly stupid decisions by Tom Yawkey's various mentally handicapped minions during that period, they failed to meet his bonus demands. Somewhere, there is a parallel universe where the Red Sox signed both Mays and Killebrew, watched them hit 1200 home runs between them, and ended their World Series drought about half a century before they actually did.

Let us stop here. There will be time for career assessments later. For now, let us only repeat our wish that his final days be as comfortable as possible, and that in these last hours the Hall of Famer knows that he will be remembered as long as there is baseball.

 

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

Related Content:  Rod Carew

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