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February 12, 2013

Western Front

Three Former Astros

by Geoff Young

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While researching a recent article about players who received zero or one career Hall of Fame vote, I stumbled across a personal favorite: Jimmy Wynn. Despite being small enough to earn the nickname “Toy Cannon,” he posted ridiculous numbers for the Astros in a venue that depressed offense.

Wynn retired just as I became aware of baseball, but he's one of those players who stand out when you start to study Bill James. Sure, he hit .250, but look at the walks. He broke triple digits six times and ranks 52nd in history for his career. That counts for something.

Then I got to thinking about other Astros greats. Craig Biggio is on folks' minds right now because he just missed getting into Cooperstown on his first try. (This still strikes me as less about PEDs than about uncertainty over his status; compare with Roberto Alomar's Hall of Fame path.)

Jeff Bagwell? Well, if you're thinking about Biggio, you're thinking about Bagwell as well. And by extension, maybe Larry Andersen.

But what about José Cruz? Or César Cedeño? Those two, along with Wynn, could play a little.

Jose Cruz
My personal memories of Cruz involve his hair and the high leg kick he used as a timing mechanism while batting, but beyond that, he was just plain good at baseball. After receiving sporadic playing time with the Cardinals from 1970 to 1974, he was “purchased” by the Astros and became one of the franchise's all-time greats.

Cruz was consistently in the 3-5 WARP range throughout his 13-year stay in Houston. The only times he strayed outside that range were 1984 (6.9) and his final season of 1987 (1.8).

There are things he didn't do well. Cruz didn't hit for much power. He averaged 11 homers a year and topped out at 17 in 1977. His career ISO of .136 is the same as that of Dave Valle, Charlie Hayes, and Gregg Zaun.

But then, 41 percent of Cruz's career plate appearances came at the Astrodome, where he managed to hit .297/.371/.423. One wonders what he might have done had he spent the bulk of his career playing half his games in, say, Riverfront Stadium (878 OPS) or Wrigley Field (827).

Context? Here's how Cruz fared at home with the Astros compared to how his teammates fared:

1975-1987 Astros















This is called carrying more than one's share of the burden. From 1977 to 1980, the gap was even wider: Cruz hit .322/.398/.478 at the Astrodome, while his teammates hit .253/.315/.348.

But he couldn't always overcome his home park. In Cruz's monster 1984, for example, all 12 of his homers came on the road, where he hit .344/.394/.545.

He is ranked 29th all-time among left fielders in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract, just behind Hall of Famers Joe Kelley and Jim Rice. In James' opinion, “Cruz would have won multiple National League batting titles” had he called any venue other than the Astrodome home. James estimates that it cost him 47 career homers and at least 10 points of batting average.

Here are James' rankings of Cruz in the Abstracts that I own (1982-1988):

  • 1982: 10 of 26 in MLB
  • 1983: 15 of 26 (“Getting near replacement age”)
  • 1984: 4 of 26 (“Had a remarkable comeback season”)
  • 1985: 1 of 12 in NL
  • 1986: 3 of 12 in NL
  • 1987: 3 of 12 in NL (this is in reference to his age-38 season)
  • 1988: n/a

In the 1985 edition, James devotes nine lengthy paragraphs to Cruz and how his home park has made his career appear much less impressive than it actually was. The key points are this:

When I say that this man is a great hitter, I mean that he is in the general class of George Brett, Jim Rice, Dale Murphy, Mike Schmidt, Eddie Murray and Roberto Clemente.

And this:

His statistics have defrauded him. They have not told his story true and fair, but through an unfriendly interpreter known as the Dome.

And this:

He has been hurt, as well, by the team that he has played for. Houston is a huge city but not a major media capital; more has been written about Darryl Strawberry's love life than about Jose Cruz's hitting.

James also presented four seasons worth of road numbers for Cruz and Rice. Here's what they look like over an entire career:



















To which I add, “Huh.”

Cesar Cedeno
Cedeño's average season from ages 21 to 26 looks like this: .295/.362/.481, 20 HR, 56 SB. But again, by the time I got serious about baseball, his career was in serious decline. Plus he drove in what proved to be the winning run in a game that broke my heart as a kid, Game 163 between the Astros and Dodgers in 1980.

I don't blame Cedeño for that, though. I blame Dave Goltz.

Anyway, Cedeño was sort of the antecedent to Andruw Jones, another who came up at age 19, produced for a while, and then sputtered. Compare Cedeño's 20s with his 30s:































What do we call this? A reverse Steve Finley?

Here's that same table for Jones:































Kinda freaky, ain't it?

TNBJHBA ranks Cedeño 21st among center fielders, behind Hall of Famers Hugh Duffy and Hack Wilson. Cedeño appears in two of the Abstracts that I own and isn't rated favorably in either one.

I could go on at length, and probably will in some future article, but deadlines loom and we haven't even gotten to the headliner yet. So with apologies to Cedeño and his fans, we will leave his story with the comparison to Jones and move forward.

Jimmy Wynn
Considering that Wynn is the guy who inspired this article by receiving fewer Hall of Fame votes than Jim Deshaies, I should say a few words about him. TNBJHBA ranks Wynn 10th among center fielders, between Hall of Famers Billy Hamilton and Larry Doby.

Wynn never made it into a Baseball Abstract or a Baseball Prospectus. Let's fix that. Here's what his comments might have looked like had we published Annuals during his career:

Wynn is a short kid who can hit. He posted eye-popping numbers (.288/.352/.570) at Double-A San Antonio last year before joining the big club after the All-Star break and holding his own. His on-base skills weren't great, although he drew 113 walks in 1962 at Class-D Tampa, so there is hope. Don't let last season's 66-96 record fool you: Wynn, along with fellow youngsters Rusty Staub and Joe Morgan, could put the Colt .45s in position to contend for a long time.

After a promising rookie campaign, Wynn made the big club out of spring training and homered in his third at-bat of the season. Through May 11, he had an 802 OPS. Then pitchers adjusted and he hit just .197/.260/.225 in 78 PA before being shipped back to the minors mid-June. A September recall wasn't much better, although Wynn ended on a high note, homering off the Dodgers' John Purdin in the season finale. Plate discipline remains an issue (2.4 K/BB), but he turns 23 in March, so there's time to fix that.

We've been waiting for Wynn's coming-out party and there it was. If it seems like he's been around forever, that's because he reached the big leagues so early. Last year, he hit for power, drew walks, and stole 43 bases at a 91 percent success rate. Defensive metrics are split on his abilities in center field, but when you hit like that, who cares? Wynn ranked second in WARP at 8.9, behind some guy named Willie Mays and ahead of Hank Aaron. And did we mention that Wynn is only 24?

So the encore didn't go as well as hoped. Only in the context of Wynn's monster 1965 could last season be viewed as a disappointment. Call us crazy, but we'll take a center fielder who hit 18 homers at age 24 despite playing half his games at the Astrodome and missing the season's final two months thanks to a nasty collision with the fence in Philly that caused serious injuries to his left elbow and wrist. Assuming no lingering effects—and this is a large assumption—we remain bullish on his future.

The 37 home runs Wynn hit last year suggest that last August's injuries didn't bother him. Sure, he led the NL in strikeouts, but that's a fair tradeoff for the homers and walks (he ranked sixth with 74). Wynn faded as the season progressed. After knocking two home runs against the Mets on July 30, his OPS stood at 901; Wynn closed with a .211/.291/.404 line over his final 56 games, removing some of the luster from an otherwise excellent campaign. He remains singularly unaffected by the Astrodome, having hit 15 of his team's 31 homers there last year, well ahead of Staub's second-place total of four.

Wynn is a great talent. He has ranked among the top 10 in WARP in all of baseball three of the last four years (second in 1965, ninth in 1967, and seventh in 1968). The lone exception came in 1966, when he was hurt, and even then he ranked 56th. As we've mentioned in previous Annuals, Wynn's home park obscures his value. The fact that he plays in a market ignored by much of the country doesn't help either, nor does the fact that he fares poorly in the popular but limited metric of batting average. Never mind all that. Wynn provides outstanding production at a premium position and is just entering his prime.

The Toy Cannon keeps crushing baseballs. Ho-hum. Despite his stature (his listed height of 5-foot-9 might be an exaggeration) and his home park, Wynn ranks among baseball's elite power hitters. Ask him how he does it, and he is coy: “I just swing the bat, and I let the wood meet rawhide.” Oh, is that all? Well, no; there's also the matter of how he deals with the Astrodome: “When I come up the wind always blows out. There is wind in the Dome, you know. It's exactly one mph.” Honestly, he might as well just say he drinks a lot of milk.

Controlling the strike zone used to be one of the few areas in which Wynn did not excel, but for the second straight season, he had more walks than strikeouts. Power? Check. Speed? Check? Defense? Check. The only thing that has kept him from being the standard of excellence in center field over the past six years is Willie Mays, and there's no shame in finishing second to Mays:


























Heck, if not for the wall at Connie Mack Stadium, Mays might be looking up at Wynn.

How does a guy who hit like Larry Doby for four straight years suddenly, at age 29, turn into Billy Maloney? Call it the Baseball Prospectus jinx. Last year's Annual compared Wynn to future Hall of Famer Willie Mays. Wynn promptly saw his OPS plummet nearly 300 points to depths lower than the likes of Bud Harrelson and Dave Campbell, two men who—no disrespect intended—will never be confused for Mays. In fairness, Wynn was stabbed in an off-season altercation that required abdominal surgery, which is a curse far worse than anything our typewriters could levy. He should probably lay off the steak for a while, though.

Wynn put the disaster of '71 behind him in fine fashion. Thanks to the presence of young phenom Cedeño in center, Wynn is now primarily a right fielder. As Cedeño led all big-leaguers in WARP at his position, so did Wynn at his. It's a tad premature to start talking about Cooperstown, as one never knows how careers will unfold, but through age 30, he is ahead of current Hall of Famers Edd Roush, Max Carey, Earle Combs, and Lloyd Waner. And although that is no guarantee of anything, it also is not a bad place to be.

On May 1, Wynn took Steve Carlton deep at Philadelphia. Wynn was hitting .260/.360/.573 after that game and had knocked eight homers in 25 games, as the Astros jumped out to a 15-10 start. From that point forward, he hit .210/.343/.351 with 12 homers in 114 games. Wynn still drew enough walks to be marginally useful, but it's hard for a team to compete when one of its stars disappears for the season's final four months. Not that he was entirely to blame, but in December, Wynn was traded to the Dodgers for veteran left-hander Claude Osteen and minor-league reliever Dave Culpepper.

If someone ever wrote a song called “I Love L.A.,” Wynn would be singing it. His first season with the Dodgers after coming over in a December trade couldn't have gone much better. Back in center field, he ranked among NL leaders in OBP, SLG, and several other categories. Wynn tied with former teammate Joe Morgan for second in WARP among all big-leaguers, behind only the Phillies' Mike Schmidt. Escaping the media black hole that is Houston, Wynn and his 8.6 WARP even garnered a few MVP votes. He finished well behind the winner, teammate Steve Garvey, who notched 3.9 WARP.

Wynn's encore with the Dodgers was less impressive, but he still put up big numbers. His OBP topped .400 for the first time since 1969. The home runs were down, and he is no longer a threat on the bases (66 steals over the past five years, at a poor 62 percent clip). After being named to his second straight All-Star squad, Wynn slumped in the second half, shedding 245 OPS points. He's 34 now, so this could be the beginning of the end. Then again, he still draws walks and rebounded somewhat in September. Either way, Wynn will be doing it in Atlanta, which acquired him last November as part of a trade that saw the younger Dusty Baker head to SoCal.

The good news: Wynn led the NL in walks with 127. The bad news: Everything else. The miserable second-half showing in '75 carried over to last year, his first with the Braves. That strong September was an illusion. It was as though a dead cat had bounced after falling from a great height. Curious analogies aside (watch, one day it will become widespread in the area of finance or some such), Wynn appears to have little left at this point. Yes, he managed to check in at 3.4 WARP, but the decline in every phase of his game other than reaching base suggests that he is ready to check out.

As we surmised last year, Wynn was done. He played 30 games with the Yankees, didn't hit, and got released at the All-Star break. Two weeks later, the Brewers signed him and he still didn't hit. As recently as two years ago, Wynn appeared to be at least within range of a Hall of Fame trajectory, but it will be hard to convince voters that a guy who had his last good season at age 33 is worthy of enshrinement. He'll get a few nods from progressive scribes who recognize the value of secondary skills and the difficulty of hitting in the ballparks he called home, but that's about it. Still, he had a damn fine career.

* * *

Of course, these are easier to write when one has access to future events. But unlike some genres, knowing the ending doesn't spoil anything here. Rather, it makes the story richer.


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