Any player/Any era: Davey Lopes

What he did: If I were to make a list of the 25 or 50 most underrated players in baseball history, Davey Lopes might figure somewhere on there. I suppose it’s easy to forget a man who hit .263 lifetime, whose 557 stolen bases rank 26th on the all-time leader board behind such men as Juan Pierre, Otis Nixon and Willie Wilson. Lopes received two votes his only year on the writers ballot for the Hall of Fame in 1993, not a particularly strong Cooperstown ballot and I doubt many people cried foul.

Lopes’ lackluster defense (1.2 defensive WAR and one Gold Glove lifetime) and late start in the majors at 27 help limit his case for Cooperstown and there are dozens of players I’d enshrine before him. He’s not a Hall of Famer in my estimation. Thing is, upon deeper inspection, Lopes may belong in better company than his numbers would suggest. That’s how it goes for a lot of Hall of Very Good-esque players. And it’s especially true for guys from Lopes’ era of the 1970s and ’80s, no great time for hitters.

Lopes’ 107 OPS+ ties him with Kenny Lofton for 13th-best among modern players with at least 500 steals. Lopes is also one of just seven players with at least 150 home runs and 500 steals, joining Barry Bonds, Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Cesar Cedeno, Paul Molitor and Tim Raines (Lou Brock fell one home run short.)

Era he might have thrived in: Lopes played from 1972 to 1987 and spent much of his career in Dodger Stadium, a ballpark for pitchers in an era that mostly favored them. In a better hitter’s park and offensive era, say Fenway Park or Wrigley Field in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Lopes might’ve hit .300 lifetime, upped his steals totals and had a better shot at Cooperstown.

Why: Park and era define so how much of how a player will do. For instance, I was looking the other day at numbers for Lefty O’Doul, whose .349 career batting average ranks fourth all-time. Thing is, O’Doul did his best work in perhaps the greatest offensive age in baseball history, the late 1920s and early ’30s and he did much of it in hitter’s parks to boot. O’Doul hit .428 lifetime in 960 at-bats between the Baker Bowl and Sportsman Park and .316 elsewhere. Put O’Doul in Lopes’ place and he might struggle to crack .300.

I’d run conversions for Lopes on O’Doul’s 1930 Phillies, but steals weren’t a huge part of the game in those days and I’d like an era where Lopes’ speed and power would each be fully appreciated. He’d get this big-time on the 1999 Red Sox. Running Lopes’ numbers through the stat converter on Baseball-Reference.com, his 1979 season for the Dodgers where he hit .265 with 28 home runs and 44 stolen bases would boost to a .297 clip with 33 homers and 52 steals. Give Lopes the chance to make the majors sooner than 27 and consistently post comparable power numbers and I suspect he’d get a lot more than two Hall of Fame votes and be something more than a relatively forgotten player today.

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Any player/Any era is a column here that looks at how a baseball player might have done in an era besides the one he played in.

7 thoughts on “Any player/Any era: Davey Lopes

  1. It’s curious that Lopes’ chance in the big leagues didn’t come earlier. He was acquired by the Dodgers organization in January of 1968, before his 23rd birthday. Before Lopes was called up to the big league team in 1972, the Dodgers starting second basemen were Paul Popovich (’68), Ted Sizemore (’69 and ’70), Jim Lefebvre (’70-‘72), and Lee Lacy (’72), none of whom was a stand-out at the position, although you could make the argument that Sizemore was at least a solid performer. So, it’s not as though Lopes was held back because he had the misfortune of playing behind a perennial All-Star.

  2. Davey Lopes’ relatively late start in his MLB career is reminiscent of Maury Wills who had a similar experience with the LA Dodgers. Like Wills, once he joined the big league team, LA started winning NL Pennants. After Lopes arrived in LA the Dodgers won pennants in 1974, 77-78 and 1981. This is comparable to Wills who led the Blue Crew to NL Pennants beginning with his first year in 1959, and then continuing into 1963, 1965-66. Like Wills, Lopes was a very strong presence on the base paths (winning NL stolen base crowns in 1975-76) in helping to restore the Dodgers to being a perennial contender for post-season play.

    With regards to the players he had to compete against for the 2nd base slot: Ted Sizemore was awarded the NL Rookie of the Year in 1969 on the strength of a .271 batting average and a fielding percentage at 2nd base of .979. Jim Lefebvre was a major contributor to the Dodgers NL Pennant winning teams in 1965-66 as he was the NL Rookie of the Year in 1965 and then led the team with 24 home-runs in 1966 (and playing in the All-Star game that same summer). Paul Popovich and Lee Lacy were both initially promising but neither achieved at the level of either Sizemore or Lefebvre.

    Eventually, Lopes would surpass them all in etching his name into Dodger history.

  3. Nice summary of Lopes. Agreed about him being underrated. Regarding the Dodgers long time infield (Garvey-Lopes-Russell-Cey) a very good argument can be made that Lopes had the 2nd best career of the four, behind only Cey. I have often wondered (as well) about if Lopes had gotten an earlier start in the majors (although i haven’t looked at his minor league numbers to see if that is realistic). And my final comment is that while Lopes stole a lot of bases, he was not a “volume” stealer in that he had a very high success rate.

  4. Excellent article on Mr. Lopes – one of my favorite Dodgers from the 70’s. I remember he got his opportunity in 1973 primarily because Lee Lacy, who was handed the 2B job at the end of 1972, didn’t hit well in early 73′. Dave Lopes took over 2B sometime in May 73′ and didn’t look back. I remember being disappointed Lee Lacy (who went on to have a pretty decent career) didn’t pan out right away and I viewed Dave Lopes as most a less a stop gate player until a “Real” second baseman came along! I don’t know why he got such a late start in organized baseball. It appear he didn’t start in the minors until he was about 22. College?

  5. Games 1 & 2 of the 1978 World Series: Lopes hits a couple HRs and acts like he is SuperStone from the Flintstones…loved it when the Yankees took it to him!

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