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June 24, 2009
You Could Look It Up
Bruised but Unbowed?
With Carlos Beltran joining the Mets' All-Star parade of injured athletes, I began a hunt for the most injured team ever to win anything, hoping to demonstrate the way that successful teams cope with the unexpected. There are some obvious candidates, such as the 1949 Yankees (a team already thoroughly explored in many books, including my own Forging Genius), but in the end this seemed something of a fool's errand. Surviving injuries is most often a reflection of organizational depth.
This seems obvious, but often commentators have missed the point. In 1925, the Yankees had the sole second-division finish of Babe Ruth's tenure, finishing seventh in an eight-team league. The blame for this generally goes to Ruth's absence, as the big man suffered from "the bellyache heard 'round the world," (more sordid diagnoses were rumored), was sidelined for over 50 games, and didn't play up to his own high standards when in the lineup, though that meant an EqA of .305 instead of .380 or .400. Ruth was only worth about four wins over replacement to the Yankees, when normally he would have given them something more like 12 or 13, but they could have survived this if they hadn't fallen so far short at other positions.
Ruth missed the first 41 games of the season, and the Yankees went 15-26 in those games. That shouldn't have been damning, as the American League was on the flat side that year, with only small variances separating the top teams, but they continued to lose after his return, going 54-59 post-gutburst. Ruth's substitutes also played well. Ben Paschal and Bobby Veach (the latter acquired on May 5 in one of those too-cozy trades with the Red Sox) got 30 starts between them and combined to hit .378/.390/.630 with six home runs in 127 at-bats. So it wasn't Ruth's replacements who were at fault; what truly sunk the Yankees was their inability to get above replacement-level production at second base (Aaron Ward, -1.0 WARP), shortstop (the immortal Pee-Wee Wanninger, -1.9), and first base until June 2, when Wally Pipp had his famous headache and rookie Lou Gehrig took his place in the lineup for the next 14 years. In 1925, the average AL hitter batted .292/.360/.408. The average left fielder hit .319/.381/.469; the Yankees got .298/.376/.531 from their left fielders. The average center fielder hit .336/.404/.481; rookie Earle Combs and pals hit .335/.400/.464. The average right fielder hit .323/.391/.470; Ruth and his stuntmen batted .309/.381/.534. The pitching was competitive, the outfield strong-a healthy Ruth would have helped, but the truth is that the Wanninger did it. The Yankees brought Mark Koenig along that September and, with a healthy Ruth and seemingly invulnerable Gehrig taking care of the big stuff, they no longer had to sweat the small stuff. Three straight pennants followed.
One club that did win despite injuries was the 1979 California Angels, winners by a slim margin of the American League West (the Orioles handily dispatched them in the playoffs). Unlike the Yankees, they had just enough versatility and depth to survive in a soft division, maintaining their league-leading offense through manager Jim Fregosi's desperate shuffling. The Opening Day lineup comprised:
C: Brian Downing 1B: Rod Carew 2B: Bobby Grich 3B: Carney Lansford SS: Rance Mulliniks LF: Joe Rudi CF: Rick Miller RF: Dan Ford DH: Don Baylor
The planned rotation was Frank Tanana, Nolan Ryan, Chris Knapp, Don Aase, and Dave Frost, in that order. None of this lasted, largely because of injuries-the last time this group played together was in the 19th game of the season, and they hadn't played much together before then, as Ford missed 12 of those games. The first departure was not for injury, but for performance, as Mulliniks, later a superb hitter as a platoon player for the Bobby Cox-era Blue Jays, batted .147/.192/.191, a small sample that looked like the final say on Mulliniks given that he had hit .185/.238/.252 in 130 plate appearances the year before. Trading punchless utility infielder Dave Chalk for the 37-year-old remains of Bert Campaneris proved to be a redundant gesture, and the club ultimately had to plug in 22-year-old Jim Anderson, who hit a still-weak .248/.298/.350, but that was more than the Angels would see from any other shortstop.
With Ford out, the Angels had been able to give their 1975 first-round pick Willie Mays Aikens a second chance at earning some playing time after he had bombed out in a 42-game audition two years earlier. Whatever his later foibles, and they were numerous and lasting, in 1979 Aikens batted .280/.376/.493 (.308 EqA), and was key to saving the Angels' season. Aikens slid in at DH, with Don Baylor moving over to right field-a lot of runners probably went first to third that week, as Baylor's lack of arm strength was legendary, but the offense was preserved. In June, Carew injured his thumb and went out for nearly seven weeks, Rudi broke his wrist, shelving him for six weeks, and Miller broke his hand, necessitating a five-week timeout for him. After trying Ford in center for a few days, general manager Buzzie Bavasi swapped a sort-of prospect, catcher-third baseman-unfitness guru Floyd Rayford, to the Orioles for outfielder Larry Harlow. Harlow wasn't any kind of hitter (don't they send you home when you hit .233/.354/.273 in the California League, as Harlow did as a 20-year-old in 1970?), but he could do a passable imitation of a defensive center fielder. Fregosi batted him seventh and eighth in the order; in a lineup saddled with Campaneris/Anderson at short and hitless reserve backstop Tom Donohue giving Brian Downing some chances to recoup at DH, there were days that Harlow really was the team's seventh-best hitter, as odd as it seems at first glance. Nevertheless, they held on. Aikens took over at first base, and Baylor subbed for Rudi in left. Defensive Efficiency suffered, but the runs kept on coming. Ford proved durable and productive once he returned from his early injury, and Carney Lansford put in 157 games at third base, supplying league-average offense.
The pitching side was not immune from the injury bug. Tanana's shoulder failed in June; over eight weeks would elapse before his return. Knapp also went down in June, sidelined by back and groin problems, and disappeared until August. In July, Ryan heard "something pop" in his elbow during a start at Yankee Stadium. Ryan didn't go on the Disabled List, but he missed 19 days; 12-7 with a 2.71 ERA at the time of the injury, he went 4-7 with a 5.47 ERA thereafter. Fortunately, the Angels had some depth in starters. Veteran Jim Barr had been ticketed for the bullpen, but was promoted to the rotation and was the quintessential "league-average innings eater." The rest of the shortfall was handled by spot-starters (mostly unsuccessful) and skipping the fifth starter whenever possible.
Through it all, the Angels had to contend with one of the worst bullpens ever to grace a division winner, with a team total WXRL of 2.64 (the Orioles led the majors at 11.28). Veteran closer Dave LaRoche, who had been one of the top five relievers in baseball in 1978, completely disintegrated, blowing five saves in 15 chances and yielding his job to rookie Mark Clear. Clear had an extraordinary swing-and-miss curve but never could control it; he averaged 6.2 walks per nine innings pitched in a career of just under 500 games. Clear blew seven saves in 21 chances, a rate that would normally get a closer defrocked. Aase, who would have some success as a closer later in his career, was briefly plugged into the bullpen, but he was equally miserable as the Angels' other options.
On August 29, after Baylor publicly criticized Bavasi for not spending on pitching help, the GM did trade a player to be named later (ultimately the shortstop, Anderson) to the Mariners in exchange for extreme journeyman righty John Montague. Montague's numbers aren't pretty, but he did save six of eight games he was asked to close, a better showing than LaRoche or Clear, and then he played a decisive role in the playoff loss to the Orioles, pitching twice and giving up a three-run homer in each appearance.
The Angels did have three tent-pole players stay (mostly) healthy and play at levels that were close to their career bests. Catcher Brian Downing played 148 games and batted .326/.418/.462 (.322 EqA) in a breakout season that saw him consciously adapt some of Carew's precision approach at the plate. Second baseman Bobby Grich hit .294/.365/.537 (.314 EqA) with 30 home runs, rare numbers for a second baseman in those days, and stayed in the lineup despite ongoing back problems. Finally, left fielder/right fielder/designated hitter Don Baylor played in all 162 games and hit .296/.371/.530 with 36 home runs (.316 EqA). Baylor might have deserved the MVP award for being a beacon of solidity in a damaged lineup (thus for once equating press-worshipped leadership capabilities with actual performance), but he also led the league in RBI (139), so looking for a rationale beyond the shiny number is probably pointless. As measured by Value Over Replacement, Baylor was only the ninth-best player in the league, but it is a hard, firm rule of MVP voting that RBI trump all other qualifications.
With a motto that was appropriated by our current Commander-in-Chief 29 years later, the Angels chanted "Yes we can!" as they struggled throughout the season to overcome these injuries and Whitey Herzog's Royals, who had won three consecutive division titles. Given a very even division not unlike this year's NL East, the Angels were able to dance in and out of first, never falling too far behind or getting too far ahead. After going 11-17 in August, they briefly dropped out of first place at the end of the month, but went back into first the next day. They were helped dramatically in September by the return of Tanana, who posted a 1.86 ERA in five starts. The best and most important of these appearances came on September 25. A week earlier, the Angels had been in Kansas City for four games. Entering up by three games, they split the series to hold the Royals at bay. Now the Royals were in town for three more, still trailing by three. Ryan threw a complete game to beat them on the 24th, a performance Tanana matched the next day with his own complete-game win to drop the Royals five out with four games to play. The Angels had earned their first post-season berth.
The current Mets lack both the Angels' surviving stars or an Aikens-level prospect (Aikens had hit .336/.429/.569 at Salt Lake City in 1977, then encored with a virtually identical season in 1978), though they've been lucky enough to receive solid performances from journeymen such as Omir Santos, Alex Cora, and Fernando Nieve. David Wright looks increasingly lonely in the lineup, as even Gary Sheffield has been sitting of late, nursing a bad knee. As Joel Pineiro's unlikely Tuesday night shutout shows, one is never enough. The Mets have less maneuverability than that '25 Yankees team, which was at least able to plug in Paschal and trade for Veach, and far less than the '79 Angels, who compared to these Mets almost weren't injured at all. Only the Phillies' own inadequacies can save them now.