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July 13, 2011

The Lineup Card

Cult Favorites: 18 Non-Star Ballplayers Who Should be Better Remembered

by Baseball Prospectus



1. Willie Randolph

Randolph was not completely overlooked during his playing career—he did make six All-Star teams, four as starter (he sat behind Bobby Grich early and Ryne Sandberg late). Despite this, he’s rarely mentioned among the most valuable players of his time. Even on defense, where he was a master of the double play pivot, he was never acknowledged with a Gold Glove; most of the awards from his peak period went to Frank White of the Royals. Randolph wasn’t as rangy as White, but in 18,675 innings at second base, Randolph turned 1547 double plays: third-most all time. White played 17,809.1 innings but turned 1382 double plays: ninth all time. Randolph doesn’t look quite as good as he might have on offense because he tended to get hurt and miss 25 or so games a year, even in seasons in which he didn’t go on the DL. As a result, there are few “100s” in his stats and too many 90s, specifically four seasons of between 91 and 99 runs. Despite his lack of gaudy counting stats, Randolph had a career WARP of 47.5, and therein lies the secret to both his greatness and his obscurity: he ranks ninth among all second basemen from 1950 to present but third behind contemporaries Lou Whitaker (56.5) and Grich (54.3)—underrated players themselves. If they haven’t received proper credit, what chance does Willie have? —Steven Goldman
 

2. Greg A. Harris
Nearly 20 years had passed since the last time I tore open a pack of Donruss '90 cards to find that I was the new owner of a mint condition Greg A. Harris. Perhaps it was fate, but for about a year, every time I bought a pack of cards, I got a Greg A. Harris (not to be confused with Greg W. Harris, whose career overlapped).

Anyway, I learned a little bit about this otherwise forgettable right-handed reliever, though he remained locked in my memory banks for one unique fact: Greg A. Harris wasn't merely a right-hander. He was ambidextrous, and a few years later, he would go on to throw both left-handed and right-handed in a single game.

It had been years since I thought of Greg A. Harris. But one day at the Rogers Centre recently, about an hour before the game was supposed to start, a colleague on the Yankees beat suggested we check out the baseball card machine behind home plate. It sold only old cards, including packs of Donruss '90. I had just finished telling my colleague my story when I ripped open my new pack to discover that not much had changed. The first card? A perfect, mint condition, Greg A. Harris. —Marc Carig
 

3. Jay Buhner
Jay Buhner was probably not an integral part of the Mariners' run in the 1990's–that designation would go to guys like Ken Griffey, Jr., Edgar Martinez, and, later in the decade, Alex Rodriguez. Instead, Buhner was the kind of player that made his teammates' lives easier in the late 90s, posting four straight years of 130 OPS+ or higher in right field and netting some down-ballot MVP love to go with an All-Star Game appearance. Those seasons were worth a couple of wins each year. Over the course of his 16 year career, which started slowly in the Pittsburgh and New York Yankees organization, he came into his own and managed to amass almost two dozen wins of value.

What made Buhner memorable, though, and the reason I'd say that he should be better remembered, were all of the little things he did on and off the field. Not in a value sense, but in the little ways that players show charisma and charm. From his batting stance relaxed in the back corner of the box that exploded forward to launch tremendous home runs, to his signature goatee, Buhner was always a joy to watch. —Ben Murphy
 

4. Gary Pettis
When I was a very small child, I was extremely pigeon-toed. It wasn't a huge deal, but my parents had some concern that I would need to wear a brace on my leg. Through a friend of a friend, my parents got me into the offices of an athletic trainer (of a pro football team, I'm told) who did some x-rays and told my relieved folks that I would not need a brace. He calmed them by saying that my feet would straighten out over time, but also warned them I would never be competing in Olympic sprinting competitions. He proved to be correct. I never wore a brace, the feet slowly pointed more and more forward and I was never anything close to a fast or smooth runner.

That might be why I always liked speed guys, and while he was a career .236/.332/.310 hitter over 11 seasons, Gary Pettis was my favorite burner when I was first getting into baseball on something more than a “go team” basis. Stolen bases are one thing (and Pettis swiped 354 in 11 seasons), but what attracted me to to Pettis was his center field play. Ken Griffey, Andy Van Slyke, and later Jim Edmonds were making the highlight reels with diving grabs, but those were balls that Pettis would effortlessly glide in and catch on his feet with ease. It wasn't exciting, but it was gorgeous. As I got older, I didn't necessarily envy those who were fast as much as I did those who were graceful. That's what Pettis was, one of the best defensive outfielders of his generation. —Kevin Goldstein
 

5. Gene Tenace
As I am fond of saying about Gene Tenace, he “had sabermetric street cred before sabermetrics was even a word.” Owner of a pedestrian .241 career batting average, Tenace produced for his teams, topping 100 walks in six different seasons and knocking 20 or more homers in five despite playing in ballparks that strongly favored pitchers. Tenace was a catcher in name but spent plenty of time at first base as well. Despite hitting .241/.388/.429 in more than 5,500 career plate appearances, he was named to just one All-Star team, in 1975 while playing for the defending World Champion A's. Among the many fun statistics Tenace compiled during his career is this: of all the men with a minimum of 3,000 big league plate appearances, only seven have a higher walk rate than Tenace: Ted Williams, Barry Bonds, Max Bishop, Babe Ruth, Ferris Fain, Eddie Stanky, and (barely) Roy Cullenbine.

On a more personal note, Tenace is one of the people responsible for my becoming a baseball fan. While playing for the Padres, he hit two home runs in the first game I ever attended, at San Diego Stadium in '77 or '78. I cannot be more precise with the date because my memories of childhood tend to be fuzzy (not unlike my memories of, say, last week), but I do remember a few things: 1) I was told to watch Dave Winfield, who did nothing to impress an 8- or 9-year old; 2) Tenace hit two homers and became an instant hero to yours truly; 3) The rest of the game took forever because if you don't know what's happening, that's what a game feels like (hence the lifelong desire to learn more); I asked my father, who was more of a football fan, what quarter it was. Alas, baseball had no clock, although thanks to lessons learned from Tenace and other characters of my youth, this has become its most charming feature. —Geoff Young
 

6. Tony Phillips
It might seem natural for a walk-drawing player to be considered under-appreciated at Baseball Prospectus, and nobody was surprised when the Oakland A's hired Tony Phillips to be a member of their player development staff. Through 1989, when he helped the A's get to the postseason (and win the World Series), Phillips was only a .251/.338/.350 career hitter. Of course, he was still helping the team even at that modest level of offensive production (though the A's had their doubts, releasing him in December, 1987 before picking him up again in March, 1998), as he played whatever position was asked of him–some well and others ably–and allowed his managers all sorts of flexibility.

Phillips credits Walt Hriniak with his growth as a hitter, and whatever the reasons were for his improvement, he turned into a player with impact-level plate discipline in the ensuing years. His 132 bases on balls in 1993 is a seasonal total reached only by the following players since: Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire, Jeff Bagwell, Gary Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Frank Thomas, and Brian Giles. That Phillips was able to work this many walks while homering just seven times is astonishing. In fact, from age 30 (1990) onward, Phillips hit a combined .273/.392/.409, still posting a good .244/.362/.433 batting line at age 40. Had he posted his .273 TAv over a full season that year (1999), it would have been the 11th-best rate among all second basemen. Unappreciated to the end, Phillips never made a hefty salary, nor was he considered a star. But he piled up 52.0 WARP in his 18-year career (to be contrasted, for example, with recent HOF-inductee Jim Rice's total of 43.4). —Rob McQuown
 

7. Pete Incaviglia
I was nine years old when I first saw “Inky” stroll to the plate, and I was hooked on his visual charm from the jump. As a natural showman, the former Oklahoma State legend would always give his hips a little waggle, launch a swing that could behead a man, and either crush the ball into the seats or go down on three and take one for himself. Peter J. Incaviglia was walking masculinity with a mustache made for cruisin’ with the top down in a decked out Trans Am and a body that was chiseled from a case of canned beer. Incaviglia always looked like a man who knew how to have a good time.

Originally drafted by the Montreal Expos in the first round of the 1985 draft, Inky wanted a direct path to the majors without the hassle of minor league baseball or the pressures associated with Jonah Keri’s admiration, so after a now forbidden trade to the Texas Rangers (Pete Ingaviglia Rule: A player can’t be traded until one year after he signs with a major league team) he was able to make his major league debut the following spring. His rookie season is when our paths first crossed as I was looking for a hero with a hit or sit approach, and Inky was more than willing to provide that service with 30 bombs and a spectacular 185 strikeouts. We were a perfect fit. Inky never stopped swinging for the thrill, and I never stopped appreciating his swagger. But history will paint him as one of the greatest college power hitters of all time and his major league success will make him the man behind a rule, rather than the man behind some serious power. It’s a shame, you know? Power and parade should never go out of style. —Jason Parks
 

8. Willy Montanez
He was listed at 6'0" and weighed just 170 lbs. He produced a rather ho-hum lifetime slash line of .275/.327/.402 over fourteen seasons with nine clubs. But when it came to entertainment value, Willie Montanez was the master. From his bat flip on the way to home plate to his snatch grabs in the field, Willie was smooth. Some called him a "hot dog," but the kids in my neighborhood were always glued to their TV sets when Montanez reached the batter's box and began rolling his neck as he loosened up. I was no different. I even remember my grandfather buying me a Willie Montanez model glove during the summer of 1978 when the first baseman appeared in 159 games for my beloved New York Mets. The Mets may have lost 96 games that year, but I didn't care. I got to watch Montanez play virtually every day, wondering what new trick "Slick Willie" would come up with next. I even mastered the snatch grab, much to the chagrin of my little league coach. I dropped more than my share of flyballs as an 8 year-old that year, but I did it with style...just like Willie Montanez. —Joe Hamrahi
 

9. Terry Mulholland
Terry Mulholland played professional baseball for 25 years at almost exactly the level necessary to keep playing professional baseball—and no better. He had a career ERA+ of 94. His stats sheet yawns downward, daring you to press the "Page Down" key, both because he played 20 seasons in the big leagues and because he played for so many different teams. Baseball-Reference, which lists the teams a player has played for in his career, has the following to say about Mulholland: "Phillies/Cubs/Twins/Giants/Braves/..." (ellipsis in original). At the end of his career, he had played for 11 different clubs.

Mulholland, who hailed from a sleepy, Appalachian Pennsylvania town, was as ordinary as he was ubiquitous. He played Division III baseball in college. He was left handed and threw junk. In the majors, he struck out about a batter every two innings and walked a batter about half that often. He pitched in both the AL and the NL, as a starter and a reliever, with a salt-and-pepper goatee. The most remarkable thing about Mulholland was his durability. Between Triple-A and the major leagues (where he really resided), Mulholland threw more than 3000 innings in his career. When he was cut from one team, he showed up at another team's camp. When he couldn't remove the ball from his glove to throw to first base, he threw the glove instead. —Tommy Bennett
 

10. Bill Madlock
I write this fully realizing that batting average is the most decried statistic besides pitching wins in the sabermetric community. Nevertheless, my cult favorite is Bill Madlock, who won four National League batting titles, two with the Cubs in 1975 and 1976 and two with the Pirates in 1981 and 1983. Despite its flaws, batting average still carries a lot of clout. It's found on every major-league scoreboard and every major-league telecast. And with all due respect to the fine sabermetricians here at Baseball Prospectus and elsewhere, you don't often hear a player referred to as a four-time True Average champion. The Mad Dog was a four-time batting champion but has largely been forgotten since finishing his career with the Tigers in 1987. Madlock had a .305 lifetime batting average in 7,372 plate appearances. Though it was 13 points higher than his .292 career TAv, it was a still a pretty good ratio of doing one of the most difficult things in sports–having a round bat meet a round ball and hitting it square. —John Perrotto
 

11. Joe Ferguson
In the eyes of an eight-year-old newcomer to baseball fandom, Joe Ferguson looked less like a ballplayer than a Hell's Angel who took a wrong turn and wound up on a diamond—beefy, but not exactly fat, with bushy sideburns and a thick mustache. He was an offense-first catcher who hit .240/.358/.409 (good for a .288 True Average) in parts of 14 seasons with a low batting average but strong walk and homer rates, a player in the mold of 1972 World Series MVP Gene Tenace; guys like Mickey Tettleton, Darren Daulton, Mike Stanley, and Mike Napoli fit the mold as well. Ferguson was chosen by the Dodgers in their bountiful 1968 draft, widely hailed as the greatest haul ever; the Dodgers converted him from the outfield in the minor leagues because he could hit and had a strong enough arm to work behind the plate. He didn't stick in the majors until age 26, then spent three and a half years (1973 to mid-1976) battling with light-hitting Steve Yeager for the lion’s share of the playing time, showing both power and plate discipline, throwing out around 40 percent of base thieves in a depressed offensive environment, and even spotting in the outfield as well.

On June 15, 1976, he was traded to the Cardinals for power-hitting Reggie Smith, a deal that's tough to begrudge. The Cards flipped him to the Astros that winter, but he came back to the Dodgers in mid-1978 when Yeager was struggling below the Mendoza Line. He helped them return to the World Series and stuck around until mid-1981 when Mike Scioscia's emergence made him expendable; he was gone from the major league scene by his 37th birthday. Had he not been blocked by Yeager—not quite the Jeff Mathis of his day, defensively outstanding but no threat with the stick unless you were Ron Guidry—he'd have enjoyed a more substantial career. Bill James ranked him 79th among backstops in his New Bill James Historical Abstract, still skeptical that the Dodgers made the right call. —Jay Jaffe
 

12. Mark Grace
Like everyone, my enjoyment of a thing is greatly contingent on the context in which I encounter it. Hand me a Lake Louie Milk Stout when I’ve been working outside on a hot summer day, and I’ll reach past you for a Leinie’s.  Take me to see The King’s Speech after continually telling me it's the best movie in the history of best movies, and I’m bound to wish I was watching The Madness of King George instead. Give me a home-grown Cubs player who is willing to take his walks and post a high OBP, and I’ll love him without reservation—even if he’s at the bottom of the defensive spectrum and has no speed and little power, like my beloved Mark Grace.  Why? Because the Cubs have been woefully incapable of producing and retaining players with that particular skill.  Since the bicentennial, by my count there have been 19 player-seasons in which a Cubs-developed player has posted even a mundane .350+ OBP.  Twelve of them belong to Grace, including the only eight seasons of .390+ OBP; no other player has done this more than once. Given this hacktastic context, watching Gracie take ball four or work a deep count before smacking his pitch into the gap always gave me a joy far beyond that which a punchless first baseman should rightfully provide. When you’re a Cubs fan, you take joy wherever you can find it, no questions asked. —Ken Funck
 

13. Joe Magrane
It would be unfair to call Magrane a scrub; he was anything but early in his major league career. Over Magrane’s first four big league seasons, he averaged 193 innings pitched, compiled a 3.07 earned run average, and racked up 10.6 wins above replacement level. Then overuse—perhaps to the point of abuse—led to injuries, which began to take their vicious toll on Magrane’s promising career. By the time he turned 26, he was no longer a worthwhile major leaguer. Magrane stuck around the game, though, and did some television work for the Rays for years. Eventually, his brand of wisecracking and tomfoolery—including branding Todd Kalas as the “Strapping Young Lad”—led to a gig with MLB Network.  Bonus points to Magrane for getting into a war of words with Curt Schilling, despite being retired for nearly a decade at that point. —R.J. Anderson
 

14. Matt Nokes
For one brilliant season, Matt Nokes was baseball's next great catcher.  Taking over behind the plate after Lance Parrish departed for free agency, Nokes put together one of the best rookie seasons for catchers in the Retrosheet era.  His 3.9 WARP in 1987 represents the sixth highest total for a rookie catcher, ahead of such luminaries as Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, and Joe Torre.  As an eight-year-old fan (who had just begun collecting baseball cards), Nokes was going to be my Johnny Bench.  Unfortunately, it didn't turn out that way.  Nokes had a respectable sophomore season, and then the injuries started.  Nokes suffered through an injury plagued 1989 and was traded to the Yankees early the next season.  As a young Yankee fan who remembered his performance in 1987, I was ecstatic.  The Yankees were coming off a bad season, and I remember thinking Nokes was the route to recovery.  Of course he wasn't, and the Yankees were even worse that season, leading to the Brien Taylor saga (but that's another story).

Nokes rebounded somewhat in 1991, putting up his second best season, but it was all downhill from there.  His last (fairly) full season vame in 1992;  he played out the remainder of his MLB career with a combination of injuries and general ineffectiveness.  After his major league career ended, Nokes hooked on with the Northern League and finished his career as the manager of the Schaumburg Flyers.  Once representing the promise of a new catching superstar (at least to this young fan), Nokes repeated the path of so many promising rookies.  His career didn't quite flame out, managing 11 WARP over a ten season career, but he didn't come close to reaching the heights I imagined. —Dan Turkenkopf
 

15. Terry Puhl
While all of my childhood friends were mimicking Jose Cruz’s goofy swing on the fields, I tried to become the right-handed version of Terry Puhl at the plate. I lived in Houston from late 1980 to 1988 and most of the offenses during those times were rather uninspiring for anyone that liked the home run. After all, Puhl led the Astros with 13 home runs in 1980, Jose Cruz did the same in the strike-shortened 1981 season, and Phil Garner led the team with 13 home runs in 1982. It was not until Dickie Thon hit 20 home runs in 1983 that I even knew what a home run hitter looked like in an Astros jersey.

Puhl came up through the minors as a guy that walked more than he struck out but had little power. His strength was his speed and what I perceived to be good defense at all three outfield spots. From 1978 to 1984, Puhl was an everyday player in the outfield for Houston who managed to hit double-digit home runs just that one season in 1983. During his stretch as an everyday player for the Astros, he had a slash line of .282/.346/.394 while playing half of his games in the extremely spacious Astrodome. He also stole 165 bases and drew 343 walks while striking out 335 times in 3,919 plate appearances. Even when not starting, Puhl did the little things well and was one of the better pinch hitters in baseball as he hit .283 with a .718 OPS in 250 plate appearances. He finished his career with a .281 TAv and was worth 26.5 wins above replacement, which includes three seasons of 3+ wins and a career high of 4.4 in 1980. Had he played in this day and age, there is no doubt he would have found his way onto the A’s or Red Sox roster as his skill set is more valued today than it was during his career. —Jason Collette
 

16. Marty Barrett
Certainly not the star of the lineup, Barrett was instrumental to the Red Sox during the mid-to-late 1980's and eventually to their first championship since 1918. Before becoming a mainstay in Boston's lineup, he scored the winning run in the longest professional baseball game ever recorded (33 innings) while playing for the Pawtucket Red Sox back in 1981. Barrett took over the full-time role of starting second baseman in 1984 and had his most productive year aside from his 1986. In 1986, Barrett took the Red Sox on his back with 24 hits in 14 postseason games and got them agonizingly close to their first World Series title since 1918. He was named the ALCS Most Valuable Player, but he will also be known as the one who struck out against Jesse Orosco to end the World Series. 

His greatest impact was not on the field at all, but rather off it and inside a courtroom. He never regained the magic of the 1986 season and his production suffered until 1989 when he sustained a career ending ACL injury, which would hardly be career ending today.  Originally diagnosed as a cartilage injury by team physician and part owner Dr. Arthur Pappas, Barrett missed only a month before coming back following the misdiagnosis and playing with a torn ACL. In 1995, he won a malpractice suit against Dr. Pappas and brought to light the conflict of interest that Dr. Pappas held. Once Dr. Pappas lost the suit, several other players started to voice their opinions–including Nomar Garciaparra's "our doctors are killing us" comment in 1999–before Dr. William Morgan took over the responsibility of the team's primary physician.  This led to Dr. Morgan's ground-breaking procedure involving Curt Schilling's ankle in 2004 and helped the Red Sox win their first championship in 86 years. All of this may not have been possible without Marty Barrett. —Corey Dawkins

17. John Tudor
On the September night in 1985 when Pete Rose became the all-time hits leader in Cincinnati, the two best pitchers in the world were squaring off in New York. One, Dwight Gooden, was in the midst of one of the greatest seasons by a pitcher in history, dazzling hitters with electric stuff at just 20 years old. The other, John Tudor, was a 31-year-old left-hander who no longer threw harder than 90 miles an hour because of injuries. Nevertheless, Tudor was putting together a remarkable run of his own, a four-month stretch during which he baffled the National League with pinpoint control, a nearly unhittable changeup, and a willingness to pitch inside to right-handers, a survival skill honed as a young lefty at Fenway Park.

With the Mets holding a one-game lead over the Cardinals in the NL East standings, the two aces traded zeros for nine innings that night. Mets manager Davey Johnson took a shot at winning the game in the bottom of the ninth and pinch-hit for Gooden, but Tudor retired the side in order. After reliever Jesse Orosco surrendered a home run to St. Louis’ Cesar Cedeno, Tudor returned to the mound for the bottom half of the 10th and closed out the game, one of 10 shutouts in his final 26 starts.

The magic continued into October, but after 303 1/3 innings, it ended unceremoniously in Game Seven of the ’85 World Series, when Tudor failed to get out of the second inning. As the Cardinals’ brilliant season dissolved in an ugly meltdown, the sometimes-surly Tudor punched an electric fan and an uneasy relationship with the press boiled over. Though he returned to the post-season in 1987 and 1988 with the Dodgers, Tudor never again reached the lofty heights of 1985. If his heavy workload and injury history didn’t tell us that he couldn’t possibly sustain such a high level of performance (1.93 ERA), his 4.16 SIERA might have—had SIERA been around then. But for four months in 1985, with Tudor relatively healthy and at his peak, watching him carve up hitters was a joy.—Jeff Euston
 

18. John Olerud
I might be stretching the definition of "non-star" slightly in Olerud's case—the first baseman made two All-Star teams, once finished third in the AL MVP voting, and picked up a trio of Gold Gloves before calling it a career at age 36—but "should be better remembered" fits him to a tee. Tellingly, Olerud might be best remembered as a supporting character in an apocryphal story about not being remembered, but he deserves a far better fate. Olerud's first manager, Cito Gaston, attempted to make him a power hitter (as Lou Piniella tried to do with Paul O'Neill around the same time), temporarily compromising his contact-oriented approach. Olerud's power mainly manifested itself in doubles—he topped out at 24 homers in 1993—which helps explain why he often flew under the radar. The southpaw didn't fit the mold of contemporary slugging first sackers like his Skydome successor, Carlos Delgado. Instead, his value came from patience and defense, two skills that have historically been undervalued.

That's not to say that Olerud wasn't a threat at the plate—in the inaugural Baseball Prospectus annual, we wrote, "He is, sometimes, a great hitter." That seems like faint praise, but when Olerud was great, he was really great. With the aid of a stereotypically sweet lefty swing (which I'd love to link to—unfortunately, since MLBAM has yet to declassify historical baseball highlights, this description is the best I can do), he flirted with .400 in '93 and hit .354 five years later, topping eight WARP and finishing as one of the majors' four most valuable players in each of those seasons. Olerud's early peak at the plate, coupled with his atypical skill set and Gaston’s mismanaging, conspired to keep his profile low, but he made an outsized impact as a player, as his 53.6 WARP total attests.

Olerud bypassed the minors, wore a batting helmet in the field, had John Kruk speed, and conducted himself with class that endeared him to teammates and outside observers alike, but his case for greater appreciation can rest comfortably on stats alone. Ten years after our first annual entry on Olerud, BP2006 asserted: "There are first basemen in the Hall of Fame with lesser credentials than Olerud's.” Unfortunately, instead of becoming the latest sabermetric Cooperstown cause célèbre, Olerud garnered only four votes in his first (and only) appearance on the ballot. —Ben Lindbergh

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