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May 5, 2005

You Could Look It Up

Infinity Edition #3

by Steven Goldman

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In the Saturday morning cartoon version of Baseball Prospectus, Chris Kahrl, Joe Sheehan, and a network-mandated female character named Debbie follow their troublemaking dog Snickers into a time machine and are stranded in the past. Naturally, the four of them eschew being chased by dinosaurs in favor of hunkering down in a cave and producing BP player comments for players who predated the first Baseball Prospectus book in 1996. These are those comments. This installment selects players from the K through O section of the alphabet. The teams and years listed represent the time and place of the player's primary achievements.

JEFF KING
3B/1B PITTSBURGH PIRATES 1989-1996, KANSAS CITY ROYALS 1997-1999

Through no fault of his own, Jeff King began his career as one of the most famous blown draft selections after the Pirates made him the #1 overall pick in the 1986 amateur draft. The five names called immediately after King's were Greg Swindell, Matt Williams, Kevin Brown, Kent Mercker, and Gary Sheffield. Proving that general manager Syd Thrift had left his karma in his other suit, the Pirates took University of Houston right-hander Michael Walker with their second pick, leaving Arizona junior college righty Curt Schilling on the board.

King made it to the majors in 1989, and while he showed a good glove from the start (+14 RAA career at third, a very strong +22 RAA at first in 1997), he displayed little pop at the plate for a cornerman, hitting .254 with a .387 slugging percentage and .308 on-base percentage through 1994. There was momentary hope that his bat had arrived in 1990, when he hit 11 homers during the second half of the season, but a lower back injury erased whatever progress he had made. Coincident with the post-strike increase in offense, King's bat finally reached levels of adequacy in 1996 when he was 31, but by this time the injuries had forced a move to first base where, ironically, production that would have been strong for third was weak for the opposite side of the diamond.

DON LARSEN
RHP NEW YORK YANKEES 1955-1959

When good things happen to bad pitchers: Through 1954, Don Larsen was 10-33 with a 4.26 ERA (-18 PRAA, or pitcher runs above average) as a member of the Baltimore Orioles. That winter he was included in an 18-player trade with the Yankees and due to the better offense and defensive support his new club provided him he shaved three quarters of a run from his ERA, became a .650 pitcher (45-24, 3.50, -23 PRAA), and pitched the greatest game in the history of the World Series when he threw a perfect game at the Brooklyn Dodgers on October 8, 1956.

That spring training, Larsen, a man whom his manager, Casey Stengel, said "liked to drink beer," had driven his car into a St. Petersburg, Florida telephone pole at five o'clock in the morning. Stengel downplayed the incident. "Fine him? He oughta get an award, finding something to do in this town after midnight." Larsen, Stengel added, had gone out to mail a letter.

At an old-timer's event in 1999, Larsen was asked to say a few words about Stengel. "Hasn't enough been written about Casey Stengel?" he asked, and said no more.

[Accounts of Larsen's 1956 accident and Stengel's reaction can be found in Dynasty by Peter Golenbock, The Era by Roger Kahn, and Casey by Joe Durso, among numerous other works.]

KEVIN MITCHELL
LF SAN FRANCISCO GIANTS 1987-1991

Kevin Mitchell, a power-hitting left fielder, changed teams eight times, largely due to his sunny personality, injury history, and off-field acquaintances, all of which had a way of making management nervous. A career .520 slugging percentage attests to his great power, but he only had one season in which he stayed in the lineup and lived up to his ability. That was 1989, when he hit a then-astounding 47 home runs to lead the National League, also topping the circuit in RBI and slugging percentage. There was also a memorable catch that year in which he overran a fly to left but reached up barehanded and caught it over his shoulder, football style. Mitchell was voted the National League's Most Valuable Player.

Mitchell never found a home after the Giants dealt him away, though there must have been something about playing for Marge Schott that stimulated him: a career .284 hitter, Mitchell batted .332/.414/.631 in 874 Reds plate appearances.

Signed as a non-drafted free agent by the New York Mets in 1980, Mitchell pinch-hit with two outs in the bottom of the famous (or infamous) tenth inning of Game Six of the 1986 World Series, singled, and scored the tying run. Believing the game to have already been lost, Mitchell was in the clubhouse dressing to go home when manager Davey Johnson called his number. In his haste to get back on the field, Mitchell left his jock in the clubhouse. Thus, when Mitchell batted and ran the bases, the Mets' season was not the only thing at risk.

Just 5'10", Mitchell began life as an infielder, playing mostly third base prior to coming to the Giants. Davey Johnson, who often chose to sacrifice inner defense when he had a flyball pitcher on the mound, got Mitchell 24 games at shortstop in 1986. It's hard to imagine that a player who was a terrible left fielder (-20 RAA career) could function at shortstop, but Mitchell did.

GRAIG NETTLES
3B CLEVELAND INDIANS 1970-1972, NEW YORK YANKEES 1973-1983

One of the best fielders ever to man the hot corner, as well as one of the best power bats at the position, three factors have kept Graig Nettles out of the Hall of Fame:

  1. His career batting average was only .248, which bothers people who believe in batting average. His career EqA was .275, which gives a better picture of his skills.
  2. His personality. "Graig Nettles" is a complete sentence. His teammates called him "Puff" because he would stir up trouble by cracking wise, then disappear when the fists started flying. Apparently sportswriters did not find him as funny as he found himself.
  3. Bad timing. Offensively and defensively Nettles was at worst the equal of Brooks Robinson, but that was his problem: there already was a Brooks Robinson.

Nettles vs. Robinson


          Peak EqA   Career EqA   Peak FRAA  Career FRAA
Nettles     .297        .275        +37        +109
Robinson    .308        .267        +32        +177

By the time Nettles appeared on the scene, the man called Hoover had already been anointed as the best fielding third baseman ever, and nothing Nettles could have done would have changed that. The competition only got worse for Nettles. After decades of being the position reserved for players who couldn't do much of anything, the 1970s brought great third basemen of every flavor. After his career, Nettles, who excelled at power production but struggled to hit .250 in many seasons, got lost in the shuffle:

The Competition: Third Basemen of the 1970s


NAME               CAREER   PEAK  G  AB  H   2B  3B  HR  BB   AVG   OBP  SLG  VORP
Sal Bando         1966-1981 1969 162 609 171 25  3   31  111  .281  .401 .484 59.1
Graig Nettles     1967-1988 1978 159 587 162 23  2   27  59   .276  .343 .460 44.8
Doug Rader        1967-1977 1970 156 576 145 25  3   25  57   .252  .323 .436 17.4
Aurelio Rodriguez 1967-1983 1975 151 507 124 20  6   13  30   .245  .286 .385 7.7
Bill Melton       1968-1977 1971 150 543 146 18  2   33  61   .269  .354 .492 36.1
Toby Harrah       1969-1986 1982 162 602 183 29  4   25  84   .304  .400 .490 68.9
Darrell Evans     1969-1989 1973 161 595 167 25  8   41  124  .281  .407 .556 71.0
Ron Cey           1971-1987 1975 158 566 160 29  2   25  78   .283  .376 .473 55.3
Buddy Bell        1972-1989 1984 148 553 174 36  5   11  63   .315  .382 .458 55.7
Mike Schmidt      1972-1989 1980 150 548 157 25  8   48  89   .286  .388 .624 76.8
George Brett      1973-1993 1980 117 449 175 33  9   24  58   .390  .461 .664 98.8
D. DeCinces       1973-1987 1982 153 575 173 42  5   30  66   .301  .374 .548 4.8
Bill Madlock      1973-1987 1975 130 514 182 29  7    7  42   .354  .406 .479 55.9

You could throw Pete Rose in here too… Despite the company in which he played, Nettles remains the single-season leader in assists (412 in 1971) and double plays (54, also 1971) by a third baseman

ORVAL OVERALL
RHP CHICAGO CUBS 1906-1910

Owner of one of the classic baseball names, Orval Overall was a good but under-supported pitcher with the Reds. The Cubs picked him up for Bob Wicker and $2000, swapping a mediocre pitcher who had peaked for one on the rise. Overall blossomed upon coming to Frank Chance's Cubs, posting two 20-win seasons and four ERAs below 2.00 (+50 PRAA from 1906-1910). Overall was probably the MVP of the 1908 World Series against Ty Cobb and the Detroit Tigers, winning two games, including a three-hit shutout in the Series clincher.

Looking at Overall is a good way of realizing how dominant his rotation-mate Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown was. From 1906-1910, Overall went 86-44 (.662) with an ERA over half a run below the league average (1.91 vs. 2.61). During the same period, Brown was 127-43 (.747) with an ERA of 1.42.

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:  1986,  The Who,  Kevin Mitchell

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