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January 17, 2012
A Haphazard History of Halos at the Hot Corner
Quick: Name 10 men who played third base for the Angels in their first 51 seasons. Troy Glaus is easy. He is the franchise leader in games played at the position and was played there fairly recently. Doug DeCinces logged almost as many games, although you might remember him more as a member of Earl Weaver's Orioles. Jack Howell, who followed DeCinces, ranks third with an even 600 games. Chone Figgins? Sure, he's another recent guy who ranks fourth in games played at the hot corner. Rounding out the top five is Paul Schaal, whose greatest claims to fame are:
So that's five. How about five more? You're forgiven for forgetting that Aurelio Rodriguez's career started in Anaheim, or that Kelly Gruber's ended there.
I always think of Rodriguez as a member of the Detroit Tigers, but he logged more than 1,000 plate appearances for the Angels. As reader dianagram pointed out to me via Twitter some time ago, he’s also the shared record-holder for most different vowels in a first name by a big-league player.
Gruber? I don't think of him at all, which is a shame because he had a decent career. The 10th player selected in 1980 June draft was the second-best pick (behind only Darryl Strawberry, taken first overall), and received AL MVP consideration a decade later. Heck, Gruber is listed in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract as the 103rd-best third baseman ever to play the game. By the time he reached Anaheim in 1993, Gruber had very little left; he appeared in just 18 games for the Angels, then retired at age 31 with 117 career home runs to his credit.
We're up to seven now. If you're like me and grew up in Southern California during the '70s and '80s, you might remember Carney Lansford before he became a minor star in Boston. I'm pretty sure Lansford played third base at the first Angels game I attended, although my only remaining memory from that day is of my uncle and me getting player autographs after the game. And to be completely honest, the memory is of Rod Carew's cologne, which I can still smell some 30 years later.
We need two more. How about Figgins' successor, the eminently hyped and even more disappointing Brandon Wood? That's nine. And let's go with last year's third baseman, Alberto Callaspo, for 10.
That was exhausting. Why don't we talk about something else for a moment while I recover?
We would all agree that Evan Longoria is a brilliant young player. That he was the best third baseman in baseball in 2011 as measured by WARP should come as no surprise. Nor should the fact that the always solid and occasionally brilliant Adrian Beltre, and the always rotund and occasionally brilliant Pablo Sandoval, followed him.
The anemic slugging percentage masks a terrific season. Callaspo ranked second (behind Hannahan, the other sub-.400 slugger on this list) among MLB third baseman with a 14.7 FRAA in 2011. His OBP is nice, too, if uncharacteristic of his larger oeuvre. Callaspo's career OBP was .327 entering last season, although he ratcheted that up to .358 over a year and half of regular playing time with the Royals in 2008 and 2009.
Callaspo, who filed for arbitration on Friday and figures to get a hefty raise in 2012, was well regarded as a prospect... at times. Baseball America ranked him 71st before the 2004 season on the strength of a .327/.377/.428 showing as a 20-year-old second baseman in the Midwest League a year earlier. After disappearing from BA's top 100 the next two seasons, he resurfaced at number 82 prior to 2007 thanks to a .337/.404/.478 campaign at Triple-A Tucson. Yes, everyone hits there (the Sidewinders batted .289/.364/.457 as a team in 2006 and averaged a PCL-best 5.86 runs per game), but Callaspo led all Triple-A hitters in WARP.
That fact notwithstanding, our discussion of him in the Baseball Prospectus 2007 was subdued:
The hardest major league player to strike out in 2006 was Juan Pierre, who had .051 strikeouts per plate appearance. In the Pacific Coast League, Callaspo was even tougher, with just .049 strikeouts per PA at Tucson. As Pierre has proved repeatedly, not striking out does not guarantee that a player is a productive hitter. Still, Callaspo should be a passable regular for a middle infielder. He's looking at a year of being a utility infielder unless the D'backs do something with Orlando Hudson. He doesn't figure to get much better than this, so his future starts now.
Callaspo tanked as an Alberto-of-all-Trades in 2007; he hit .206/.257/.254 for the Snakes through mid-June before he was shipped back to Tucson, where he returned to the business of destroying PCL pitching (.341/.406/.491). For this, he was rewarded with a September callup and December trade to Kansas City.
Ah, yes, the trades. Callaspo—whose build, game, and nationality are eerily similar to those of teammate Maicer Izturis—has been even less appreciated by his employers. Since February 2006, Callaspo has been traded three times, netting his sellers the grand total of Jason Bulger, Billy Buckner, Will Smith, and Sean O'Sullivan. Only Bulger has provided value for his new team—amusingly enough, the Angels, who acquired him from Arizona in that first deal.
Returning, as promised, to Angels third basemen, would it surprise you to learn that Callaspo's 2011 campaign ranks among the best in club history at the position? Or that three of the top nine have come since the departure of Glaus? It surprised me:
We've already touched on DeCinces, Glaus, and Figgins, but the others are worth mentioning as well.
Phillips was a fine ballplayer for a long time; he hit .266/.374/.389 and collected more than 2,000 hits before retiring in 1999 at age 40. And when I say he retired, I'm not including the 24 games he played last season for the Yuma Scorpions, where he hit .269/.367/.385, which bears suspicious resemblance to what he did in the big leagues. I won't be 52 for another decade, and my knees hurt just thinking about Phillips' exploits in Arizona. But then, he is an unusual dude. As our own Jim Baker said back in 2004 (when Phillips was still a 45-year-young whippersnapper):
I've never smoked crack, but something tells me it's got to be pretty hard to play at the major league level after having done so. If there were a Hall of Fame for players who performed well in spite of self-inflicted handicaps, Phillips would be in it.
Chalk, like Gruber, was taken with the 10th overall pick. Drafted out of the University of Texas in 1972, Chalk made a couple of All-Star teams at the beginning of his career before morphing into a Nick Punto-esque utilityman. As sometimes happens with players of that caliber, Chalk was effectively done by his mid-20s, although he kicked around for a few more years before retiring.
Angels fans, meanwhile, are left wondering what might have been had the team picked local product Scott McGregor (taken by the Yankees four picks after Chalk) in the draft. McGregor, you may recall, spun a six-hit shutout for the Orioles at Anaheim in Game Four of the 1979 ALCS. Would he have pitched as well for the home team? Hey, you change one variable in 1972 and who knows what madness occurs seven years later. Maybe Ambrosia's “How Much I Feel” tops the charts instead of The Knack's “My Sharona.” Crazy stuff.
McMullen, a career .248/.316/.383 hitter who ranks as the 72nd-best third baseman in history according to TNBJHBA, called Anaheim home from 1970 to 1972. He came to the Angels in a trade that sent Rick Reichardt and Aurelio Rodriguez to the Senators.
During McMullen's final season in Anaheim, while his U.K.-based namesake was busy directing Joseph Beuys at the Tate and Whitechapel, our hero from Oxnard received an AL MVP vote for reasons that remain as incomprehensible as Beuys in the aforementioned film. In November 1972, the baseball-playing McMullen was traded across town with Andy Messersmith for five players, including Hall of Famer Frank Robinson and current Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine.
How about the flip side? Here are the worst third basemen in club history according to WARP:
Aside from the aforementioned Wood (who shows up three times) and Schaal, we also see such luminaries as Quinlan, Halter, Owen, and Satriano. Glaus was a few months removed from UCLA when he posted those numbers. Alfonso had been a terrific player whose career ended prematurely due to injuries, while Easley later enjoyed a few nice seasons in Detroit.
Easley also is the only player on this list to have amassed as many as 300 plate appearances, which brings us to yet another table. This is another list of bottom feeders, but limited to players who met or exceeded that threshold:
We've touched on polar opposites Rodriguez (ranked 91st in TNBJHBA and singled out by James for his defensive prowess) and Lansford (ranked 39th and also singled out for his defense: “He was a good hitter, but he was an awful third baseman”).
Thomas, who was really an outfielder, came to Los Angeles (when the team actually played there, rather than just commandeered the name for marketing purposes) from Detroit in June of the Angels' inaugural 1961 campaign and split time with Eddie Yost, Gene Leek, and Satriano. A less futile arrangement is difficult to imagine, as the team saw its third basemen hit .221/.311/.329 that year.
Howell hit exactly 100 home runs in his Angels career, good enough for 15th in franchise history (behind Darin Erstad, ahead of Mike Napoli). Howell's main limitations as a player were an inability to make consistent contact (he wasn't in Rob Deer/Bo Jackson territory; more like Glenallen Hill/John Jaha) or hit southpaws (.180/.250/.294 in a season's worth of plate appearances).
Gonzales wore 88 on his back before it became fashionable for players other than spring training non-roster invitees to don such numbers. As Schaal was to Blyleven, so was Gonzales to Randy Johnson; he went 8-for-16 with five walks, two doubles, and a homer.
Gaetti is best known for his work with the Twins, for whom he hit 201 home runs over 10 seasons, including a career-low five in 1984, when I paid about $20 for him in my first year of Rotisserie League Baseball (not that I'm bitter or anything). TNBJHBA places him 34th all-time at the hot corner.
The Giants took Gallagher with the 14th pick overall in the first-ever draft, in 1965. They got almost nothing out of that class; only Gallagher and 22nd-round pick Ron Bryant had quasi-substantial careers. After Ed Goodson took his job in San Francisco, the 27-year-old Gallagher came to the Angels in April 1973 for what would be a very quiet final season.
Jackson spent 10 years in the big leagues and enjoyed moderate success. The best thing he ever did for the Angels was to get traded to Minnesota for Dan Ford in December 1978. Ford, who employed a closed stance the likes of which hasn't been seen since, thrived as the Angels' right fielder from 1979 to 1981. I did not get his autograph, so I cannot report on his cologne status.
The Angels acquired Hobson and Rick Burleson in December 1980 from Boston for Lansford, Mark Clear, and Rick Miller. In his 1982 Baseball Abstract, Bill James ranked Hobson 21st among 26 third basemen, and dedicated almost as much space to criticizing his game as to discussing the other 25 combined. Lansford, if you're wondering, checked in at number five.
Finally, here are five guys you probably didn't realize played third base for the Angels at some point:
Since I'm on an honesty kick, in a Carew's cologne (“Carew's Cologne” would make a lousy name for a band, although not as bad as “Carew's Colon”) kind of way, I'll come clean with my original motivation for this article. My question was this: “How bad have Angels third basemen been since Glaus left?”
I had guys like Wood and Dallas McPherson in mind (Quinlan would have been there, too, had I remembered him). I expected to mock the team for sticking Callaspo, who had been discarded by some bad teams for some bad players in the past, out there every day last year. But he ruined that by having a better season than I'd realized, which is the point of researching stuff... especially stuff you think you already know.
In the process of destroying my hypothesis, Callaspo and Figgins propelled me to examine the careers of Dave Chalk, Kelly Gruber, and Ken McMullen, among many others (including Joe Redfield, who played all of one game for the club), more closely. And if seeking to learn more about those that came before us isn't a noble pursuit, then I'd just as soon remain ignoble, although some people assure me that this wouldn't be a problem either way.