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January 18, 2008

Prospectus Matchups

The Random Baedeker

by Jim Baker

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What was life like before Baseball-Reference-com? Not quite as sweet. Of course, we didn't know any better. We thought the Baseball Encyclopedia was the pinnacle of human achievement. One thing that was cool about it, though, was how well it lent itself to flipping around. Knowledge could be come by in a patternless meander through the pages. B-R has the next-best thing: a random page finder. Click it and you never know what's going to come up. Today, because it's a cold day in January and it's the perfect time of year for this sort of thing, I'm going to use that device and write about whatever or whoever comes up on it. I guarantee you that I will not skip anybody or anything that the finder generates, no matter how obscure they may be. I will slavishly riff on whatever pops up on the screen. Here goes:

INF Jay Canizaro (1996-2002; Minnesota and San Francisco)

Seeing Canizaro's name pop up got me to thinking about Chris Cannizzaro, the catcher for both the '62 Mets and the '69 Padres. Surely this must be one of those cases where the clerks at Ellis Island got one or both of their ancestor's names wrong, right? A year ago I would have assumed that, except now that I've actually been to Ellis Island, I'm not so sure-it was a very well-run place. This article by Dick Eastman at Ancestry.com says the concept that names were changed on the fly there is nothing but a myth. Eastman does point out that many people changed their names later either for purposes of simplification of assimilation, but the heavily bureaucratized nature of the Ellis Island procedures would not have allowed for such randomness.

OF Stan Jefferson, 1986-1991; Mets, Padres, Yankees, Orioles, Indians, and Reds)

Jefferson was born the same year and the same city-New York in 1962-as his eventual first team was founded. I'm guessing this is pretty rare. In fact, that's today's Chiquita Challenge (please note that sponsorship of this concept by Chiquita Banana wholly fictional in nature): find other players who were born in the same year and same city as the birth year of a team they eventually played for at any point in their careers. For instance, Seattle in 1977, Kansas City in 1969, Detroit in 1901, etc. It doesn't have to be the team that drafted them and first brought them to the majors the way the Mets did with Jefferson. Speaking of the '62 Mets, Jefferson's number one career comp at Baseball-Reference is Jim Hickman-except that it's the Jim Hickman who played for the Brooklyn Robins in the teens, not the outfielder who was breaking in with the Mets when Jefferson was gestating away the summer of '62. Jefferson was a part of the famous December 11, 1986 trade that sent Kevin McReynolds to the Mets and Kevin Mitchell to the Padres. This trade had more Kevins in it than perhaps any other trade in history (Kevins Brown, Armstrong, and Mitchell heading to San Diego, with McReynolds coming the other way.) It also featured New York's first-round picks from both 1983 (Jefferson) and 1984 (Shawn Abner). Neither panned out any better for San Diego. In fact, Abner is Jefferson's number seven career comp at B-R.

PR Ralph Shafer (1914; Pirates)

Shafer is one of those players that barely left a footprint in the majors, appearing in just one game (July 25, 1914, a 4-2 loss to the Giants at the Polo Grounds) in which he pinch-ran for Ham Hyatt and did not score. His passing in 1951 was not noted in the annual guide, further confirming his obscurity. Only 20 at the time of his debut, one can't help but wonder if Shafer wouldn't have even gotten that small chance if not for the addition of the Federal League that year.

INF Danny Thompson (1970-1976; Twins and Rangers)

Here's today's Quizno's Query (again, sponsorship of this concept by Quizno's subs wholly fictional in nature): name the worst player ever mentioned on an MVP ballot. It's definitely not Danny Thompson. He received some small attention in 1972, finishing 23rd in the American League voting. To his credit, he had the 13th-highest VORP among position players. The amazing thing about the '72 MVP voting is that Eddie Brinkman finished ninth that year with an OPS of 538, and a .207 EqA. His fielding was very good (43/11 FRAR/FRAA), but not so much so to offset that. In fact, he was ranked 313th (out of 429 players) in VORP in the AL that year. You'd pretty much have to play two positions simultaneously-and play them well-to compensate for that. Thompson was later stricken with leukemia and died before he was 30. There is a memorial golf tournament in his name every year that raises money to help fight the disease that killed him.

1968 Houston Astros (72-90, 10th place)

To their credit, the '68 Astros were one of the better last-place teams of pre-divisional baseball. These are the best of the 1901-1968 period:


Year Team (League)     W-L   Pct. GB
1915 New York (N)     69-83 .454  21
1958 Philadelphia (N) 69-85 .448  23
1968 Houston (N)      72-90 .444  25
1925 Brooklyn (N)     68-85 .444  27
1925 Philadelphia (N) 68-85 .444  27
1925 Chicago (N)      68-86 .442  27.5
1966 New York (A)     70-89 .440  26.5

Man, that battle for last place in 1925 must have been something! The '68 'stros lost Joe Morgan for the year, but Dennis Menke did a decent job filling in, finishing 21st in the league in VORP. What kind of year was it for hitters? Consider that Rusty Staub hit six home runs as a first baseman and still managed the 13th-best VORP in the National League. This team is famous for winning the longest 1-0 game in history: on April 15, they pushed across a run against the Mets in the bottom of the 24th on a bases-loaded error by shortstop Al Weis. The game took just over six hours to play, which is about what you would expect, in that a 1-0 game should last about two hours and this was the rough equivalent of three of them.

OF/1B Claude Cooper (of-1b, 1913-1917; Giants, Brooklyn Tip-Tops (Federal League), and Phillies)

Being from Texas, Cooper was hailed as "another Speaker" when he tore up the Texas League and caught the attention of John McGraw's Giants, with whom he had a cup of coffee in 1913. According to The Ballplayers, "He was voted a full World Series share and showed perverse appreciation by jumping to the outlaw Federal League." He signed with the Brooklyn entry, but a broken leg took him off his game in 1914. The next year, Cooper teamed with Benny Kauff to form a formidable duo in the Tip-Tops' outfield. In fact, Cooper and Kauff had two of the three best WARP3s of any position players in the Federal League. These were the league leaders in WARP3 during the F-Loop's second year:

8.9: Eddie Plank, pitcher; St. Louis Terriers
8.6: Dave Davenport, pitcher; St. Louis Terriers
8.5: Benny Kauff, outfielder; Brooklyn Tip-Tops
8.2: Bill Rariden, catcher; Newark Pepper
7.8: Doc Crandall, pitcher; St. Louis Terriers
6.2: Claude Cooper, outfielder; Brooklyn Tip-Tops
6.1: Nick Cullop, pitcher; Kansas City Packers
5.7: Fred Anderson, pitcher; Buffalo Blues

Whether the Feds played at major league-level baseball or not-and they have their detractors on this front-the future must have seemed bright for Cooper after his 1915 showing. Even if the Feds were no more than an elevated minor league, he was only 23 and had given a good accounting of himself. Subsequent trials with the Phillies producing nothing like satisfactory results, however, and his big-league career was over at 25.

P Jim Britt (1872-1873; Brooklyn (National Association))

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that Britt has the most experience of any player whose career was over before his eighteenth birthday. He pitched in 91 games for the Atlantics over the course of two seasons. As was custom at the time, he did a vast majority of the pitching. Manager Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson (never pass up an opportunity to nickname-drop Ferguson in everyday conversation) started once and relieved three times in 1873, otherwise, it was all Britt. Something that has always interested me about baseball's early days is this: How much baseball did someone like Britt actually see before playing at the game's highest levels? Modern ballplayers can watch hundreds of games on television by the time they get to the big leagues, but 135 years ago, players were basically making it up as they went along, cutting the game from whole cloth as they went.

P Jake Volz (1901-1908; Red Sox, Braves, and Reds)

Volz's debut was a stunning indictment of the concept of pitcher wins and losses. Having come up from the minors to start the last game of the season for the first-year Bostons, he walked nine and gave up a like number of runs (in seven innings, mind you), but still got the win because his mates plated 10. He had a horrific two-game stint with the other Boston team four years later. According to David King, he had pitched for San Antonio in 1898 and 1899 and returned there later in his career; he was with Waco as late as 1910. Volz was just the fourth Texas-born player to make it to the major leagues. There's something that's definitely changed: Texas has long since become a talent hotbed for the game.

Thanks to Rob Neyer for helping with researching this article.

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