Any player/Any era: Matt Nokes

What he did: Playing for the 1987 Detroit Tigers, Matt Nokes batted .289, hit 32 home runs and made the All-Star team en route to finishing third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting. His career lasted through the 1995 season, but he would never again enjoy the kind of productivity he experienced as a rookie. He finished his career with a slash line of .254/.308/.441 and 136 HR in just under 3000 plate appearances. The 3.1 WAR he earned in 1987 were nearly 40 percent of his career total.

Era he would thrive in: When reading “Any Player/Any Era” postings on this website, I often think, maybe this player was particularly well suited to his era; transporting him to another time and place might only harm his legacy. Nokes is one such player; perhaps 1987 and Detroit were the perfect time and place.

Why: Nokes was just about an average ball player. More than a decade and a half after his retirement, it’s easy to look back and come away with the impression that Nokes’ rookie season was a fluke. But another way of viewing it is that Nokes’ uncharacteristic first-year productivity might have given him opportunities that would not have come his way otherwise. If he had played in another time and place and made less of a splash as a rookie, he most likely would have had a shorter, less noteworthy career.

The Rookie of the Year award recognizes the accomplishments of first-year players. It is not intended to predict future success. With the benefit of hindsight, a look at the careers of the American Leaguers who received ROY votes in 1987 is something of a Sesame Street experience (One of these things is not like the others). Mark McGwire (63.1 career WAR) won the award, followed by Kevin Seitzer (26.0), Nokes (8.1), Mike Greenwell (23.5) and Devon White (41.3).

Nokes was the only one of these five players whose career did not live up to the promise of his rookie season. It’s not that 1987 was Nokes’ only productive year; 1988 and 1991 were pretty good, too. But in the end Nokes’ flat years outnumbered his good ones.

At least three factors combined to make the 1987 Tigers uniquely suited to Nokes’ skillset.

First is the manager, Sparky Anderson. Catcher is a difficult position for a rookie. In addition to the typical worries about his bat and his glove, a catcher has the responsibility of shepherding the team’s pitching staff. A rookie catcher in the major leagues easily can find himself overwhelmed. Understandably, most managers will give a young catcher a year or two of part-time service before turning him loose as the team’s everyday starter.

Anderson struck a delicate balance between overplaying his rookie catcher and holding him back. He took advantage of the opportunities that came with having a pair of backstops who swung from opposite sides of the plate, Nokes from the left side and Mike Heath from the right. Anderson knew he needed to ease Nokes into the starting role, but Detroit was trying to win the division title, so he also wanted to keep his rookie’s productive bat in the lineup, especially against right-handed pitching. Nokes started 94 games at catcher and another 22 at DH and in the outfield. Heath started most games that the Tigers faced left-handers.

I can easily imagine another manager starting Nokes at catcher in 130 or more games, pushing the rookie to the point of exhaustion.

Second among the factors making the 1987 Tigers the perfect landing place for Nokes was Detroit’s veteran pitching staff. Experienced pitchers require less guidance from their catcher, and Detroit had three such veteran starters: staff ace Jack Morris, in his ninth year as a regular in the rotation; Dan Petry, another ninth-year starter who could well be thought of as co-ace with Morris; and 15-year starter Frank Tanana. Detroit’s other starters at the beginning of the 1987 season were Walt Terrell, in his fifth year as a starter, and rookie Jeff Robinson. The starting rotation grew even more experienced in mid-August when Doyle Alexander arrived from Atlanta in the now-famous trade for John Smoltz. Interestingly, while Nokes likely benefited from being paired with so many experienced pitchers, Anderson had no obvious aversion to using an all-rookie battery; Nokes was not routinely rested on days when Robinson started.

The third and most important component of the perfect storm of Matt Nokes’ rookie season was an interesting accident of history. Nokes arrived in the big leagues at just the right time. In 1987 there was a mysterious increase in home run productivity. Irrespective of why so many home runs were hit that year– the “juiced” ball is a prominent theory–Nokes’ rookie season was one unusually suited to the long ball. Both leagues saw HR numbers that spiked by more than 25 percent compared to the previous five years and the following five years.

League Year(s) HR/year PA/year HR/PA
American

1982-1986

2086

86772

0.024

1987

2634

87401

0.030

1988-1992

1829

86569

0.021

National

1982-1986

1384

73920

0.019

1987

1824

74521

0.024

1988-1992

1371

73635

0.019

Notably, the one eye-catching number on Nokes’ resume is 32, the number of home runs he hit in his rookie season. Nokes was a left-handed pull hitter playing in Tiger Stadium with its storied short porch in right field. It was the perfect recipe for Nokes to make a lasting first impression with his bat. If Nokes had broken in a year earlier or later, his rookie home run total would have been considerably lower.

Playing for the Yankees in 1991, Nokes had the second-highest home run total of his career, 24, or about the number he might have hit in 1987 if it had been a normal year for home runs. However, by this stage of his career, good numbers were the exception, not the rule.

By 1992, the 28 year-old Nokes was a replacement level player, yet he continued to receive opportunities to play. I can’t help but think that as Nokes’ career progressed, his 1987 performance was a compelling factor in his ability to continue to earn starts behind the plate. After all, it’s hard to bench a player who has shown the potential to hit 30 home runs.

Any player/Any era is a Thursday feature (generally) here that looks at how a player might have done in an era besides his own.

Others in this series: Al Kaline, Al RosenAl SimmonsAlbert Pujols, Artie WilsonBabe RuthBad News RockiesBarry BondsBilly BeaneBilly MartinBob CaruthersBob FellerBob WatsonBobby VeachCarl MaysCesar CedenoCharles Victory FaustChris von der AheDenny McLainDom DiMaggioDon DrysdaleDoug Glanville, Ed WalshEddie LopatElmer FlickEric Davis, Frank HowardFritz MaiselGary CarterGavvy CravathGene TenaceGeorge W. Bush (as commissioner)George CaseGeorge WeissHarmon KillebrewHarry WalkerHome Run BakerHonus WagnerHugh CaseyIchiro Suzuki, Jack Clark, Jack MorrisJackie Robinson, Jim AbbottJimmy WynnJoe DiMaggioJoe PosnanskiJohnny AntonelliJohnny FrederickJosh GibsonJosh HamiltonKen Griffey Jr.Lefty GroveLefty O’DoulMajor League (1989 film),Mark FidrychMatty AlouMichael JordanMonte IrvinNate ColbertOllie CarnegiePaul DerringerPedro GuerreroPedro MartinezPee Wee ReesePete RosePrince FielderRalph KinerRick AnkielRickey HendersonRoberto ClementeRogers HornsbySam CrawfordSam ThompsonSandy Koufax Satchel Paige, Shoeless Joe JacksonSpud ChandlerStan MusialTed WilliamsThe Meusel BrothersTony PhillipsTy CobbVada PinsonWally BunkerWes FerrellWill ClarkWillie Mays

0 thoughts on “Any player/Any era: Matt Nokes”

  1. Take a quick check and see if he might not have done just as well with the 98 or 99 Mariners?
    I’d also thought that the 96 O’s would have been a good fit, but he wouldn’t have gotten the playing time.

  2. Vinnie,
    Thank you for the thought-provoking comment. If I had to choose one of the three teams you mention as the place to transport Matt Nokes, it would be the ’98 Mariners, but really I do not see any of the teams you suggest as offering an upgrade to the situation that Nokes experienced with the ’87 Tigers. Using the same dimensions I used to analyze Nokes’ rookie season with Detroit, I’ll try to comment on the teams you mention.
    1) Manager: Lou Piniella managed the Mariners in ’98 and ’99; Davey Johnson led the Orioles in ’96. While I would not consider either man to be the equal of Sparky Anderson as a manager, both are competent leaders who would not have overplayed or otherwise overwhelmed a rookie catcher like Nokes.
    2) Starting rotations: The ’98 Mariners had a starting rotation that had a similar level of experience as the ’87 Tigers. Jamie Moyer, Jeff Fassero, Randy Johnson, and Bill Swift were verterans, and Ken Cloude was in his second year. By ’99, Seattle’s rotation was much younger. Moyer and Fassero were still in place, but the other starters (Freddy Garcia, John Halama, and Gil Meche) were youngsters. The ’96 Orioles had three veteran starters (Mike Mussina, David Wells, and Scott Erickson), a rookie (Rocky Coppinger) and a fifth spot in the order that was shared by two youngsters (Jimmy Haynes and Rick Krivda) and a vet (Kent Mercker).
    3) Home run production: The three years in question are all from the hitter-friendly ‘90s, and as such, they each had HR/PA numbers similar to ‘87 (.031 in ’96, .028 in ’98, and .030 in ’99). However, what set ’87 apart is not that that it was part of an historic hitter’s era, but that it was a hitter’s island in the offense-neutral sea that was the ‘80s. That Nokes, a guy with a little pop, came along during a year when the ball was suddenly flying out of the park, made him appear to be something he really was not, a rare power-hitting catcher. In ’87, Nokes nearly led his team in HR (he trailed Darrell Evans by only two). In contrast, if Nokes had hit 32 homers with the 1996 O’s, he would have been a distant third behind Brady Anderson (50) and Rafael Palmeiro (39). On the M’s teams, he would also have been third, well behind Griffey and A-Rod.

    1. You’ve given a lot of thought and perhaps I was caught up in thinking how much extra offense he would have added, especially as an upgrade over Dan Wilson, maybe even out performing what he actually did, playing in the old bandbox that was the Kingdome.
      With Balt in 96, he might have been forced to platoon with Hoiles, but would have added extra power to that record setting home run hitting club.
      With all the things you’ve taken into account, you’ve made an excellent case that some times, it doesn’t get any better.

  3. Vinnie,
    I did not attempt to factor in park effects (my vague reference to the “short porch” doesn’t really count). A strong park effect could well make the M’s or the O’s a better setting for Nokes’ rookie year, but here are the one-year batting park effect numbers from bbref (>100 favors batters):
    ’87 Tiger Stadium: 98
    ’96 Camden Yards: 95
    ’98 Kingdome: 98
    ’99 Kingdome: 102
    As I see it, there’s not much there to tip the balance.
    Again, thanks for your interest and comments.

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