An interview with Jimmy Wynn

This post comes special from Houston, where I’m attending the 44th conference of the Society for American Baseball Research. A little while ago, I heard Houston Astros great Jimmy Wynn speak on a panel about the first iteration of the team, the Colt .45s.

Historically, Wynn is an interesting player, part of an underrated class of hitters unlucky enough to play during the 1960s when pitching ruled the game. Wynn hit 291 homers for his career. In a better era, in a more favorable home park than the cavernous Astrodome, he might have hit 100 more bombs. His batting average would’ve been substantially higher than .250 lifetime, as well. His 145 OPS+ from 1965 to 1970 hints at what could’ve been.

I sat with Wynn for a few minutes after the panel. Highlights of our exchange follow below:

Me: One of the reasons I wanted to talk to you is I run an annual project on the 50 best players not in the Hall of Fame. I have my readers, other researchers and fans vote, and you’ve come up at least once or twice in the project where you’ve made the top 50. Do you have any thoughts on your Hall of Fame candidacy?

Wynn: Once or twice? I should’ve been in there about 10 or 12 times… It would be a great honor for me to be in the Hall of Fame. I’m glad that people like yourself and your friends are beginning to realize the things that I did that’s Hall of Fame bound. It just makes me feel great. I’m honored that people think of me that way and think of me as being in the Hall of Fame.

I remember you as one of the great power hitters of the ’60s, and I would think that would be on your Hall of Fame plaque first. Would that be the first thing that you would think would get you in?

I would just hope so. A lot of things probably could help me get in: playing a whole lot of ballgames, playing in the Astrodome for number one, and just being the type of ballplayer that I am. I just love the game.

The Astrodome, was it a difficult park to hit in? I’ve always thought of it as a pitchers park.

It was a pitcher’s park, a defensive park. I assume [that’s] why it was built that way. The Astros at that particular time, the early ’60s and ’70s, didn’t have many home run hitters except myself. There were some other ballparks where when you had home run hitters come in to take batting practice, they always come to me and they ask me, ‘Jimmy, how do you hit a ball out of the ballpark and I can’t do it?’ And I would say, ‘If I knew, I would bottle it and sell it to you.’ It was just one of those things, just a lot of practice and a lot of confidence in yourself.

Were most of your home runs there, were they mostly pull home runs or were you able to go opposite field?

I went the opposite field, left center, center field and left field. I hit a couple in right field, but just I’m strictly a pull hitter.

So 1967, you and Hank Aaron were in the home run race against each other that year, right? What do you remember about that race?

It was one heck of a race. I didn’t think anything of it until Hank called me the last game of the season. He called me and told me, says, ‘Jimmy, I wanted you to be the home run leader because you played in a domed stadium. I played in a ballpark where all I had to do was just get it up in the air and the ball would go. And I’m not playing. You and I will be co-home run leaders.’ I said, ‘I would love that.’ However, the commissioner found out about it and he ordered him to play the last game of the season. I think it was in Atlanta, I’m not sure, but Hank wound up hitting two home runs and beating me by two. (Editor’s note: Wynn may have misremembered some details. Aaron hit his final two home runs of 1967 in the 146th and 157th games.)

Do you think if you’d played in Atlanta that year, you’d have hit more home runs?

I think if I’d played in a ballpark that was conducive for players like myself to hit home runs, yes. And if I’d have played here in Minute Maid Park, oh my God, there’s no telling how many home runs I would hit here. But playing in the Astrodome, playing in the years that I played, I love it because I played against nothing but Hall of Fame pitchers, outfielders and infielders.

Of the people that you played with on the Astros, who were some of the favorite guys that you played with?

I would say my roommate for seven years, Joe Morgan. Johnny Weekly was my first roommate, he passed away. I would say those two for real, because they helped me along.

Joe Morgan, has he pled your case at all with the Veterans Committee? Do you know if he’s brought you up?

I called him a couple of times and he gave me his word that he would do it, but I don’t know. I’m hoping he will.

If you played today, in a hitters park, how many home runs do you think you’d hit?

Well, I’m 72 now, so I don’t know how many home runs I’d hit… A lot of people said I would probably hit well over 50 home runs if I was playing in Minute Maid Park right now.

Definitely. It’s an honor to get to sit with you. Is there anything more you’d like to say?

Well, thank you very much for the interview and tell your fans that thank you for mentioning my name again for the Hall of Fame and go out and vote for me.

For the last time: Writers are not inducted into the Hall of Fame

My pet peeve: On the surface, the following is a wonderful tweet, noting the correction of a longtime injustice. I may wind up favoriting this tweet, even though on a different level, it irritates me greatly. That it came from as fine a publication as The New Yorker boggles my mind:

Every year, I see major news organizations making note of writers being inducted into the  Hall of Fame. Sometimes the stories mention the presence of a writers wing.

There’s just one thing…

What really happens: Writers are not inducted into the Hall of Fame. There is not a writers wing at Cooperstown. What exists is a “Scribes & Mikemen” exhibit in the Hall of Fame comprised of writers who win the J.G. Taylor Spink Award and broadcasters who win the Ford C. Frick Award. Angell and longtime Texas Rangers broadcaster Eric Nadel are the latest award winners to be added to the exhibit.

Somehow, the myth of a writers wing at the Hall of Fame gets repeated year-in, year-out. I think it represents the wishful thinking some media members seem to have that they’re comparably as important as the people they write about. I met a writer or two like this in my time covering the San Francisco 49ers. They were kind of unpleasant.

So we’re clear, I love the media exhibit at the Hall of Fame. I’m familiar with maybe half the writers in it, even some of the ones from the early 20th century (such as Charley Dryden, who was a 19th century hobo on the San Francisco docks before becoming a sportswriter.) I’m glad that Roger Angell is finally in the media exhibit. He’s long overdue.

____________

“For the last time” is a new column here looking to retire baseball myths that seemingly won’t die, no matter how hard reasonable people try. Let us try harder. Please feel free to email suggestions for future columns to thewomack@gmail.com.

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Why Hall of Fame voting isn't changing much

It’s one of the most star-packed Hall of Fame induction weekends ever. Tomorrow, three of the greatest players of this era as well as its three finest managers will be inducted. Record crowds, maybe 100,000 people, are expected in Cooperstown. It’s the kind of magical weekend that seemed so far away just a year ago when barely 10,000 people attended Hall of Fame weekend after the Baseball Writers Association of America refused to induct anyone off its ballot.

It seemed after last year’s vote that the process was broken, that the Hall of Fame ballot would remain forever glutted with players from the Steroid Era and that even top stars might not be able to secure first ballot induction. Personally, I’ve wanted drastic changes to the voting process, such as the establishment of a committee to handle Steroid Era candidates and an end to the rule that allows voters to select a maximum of 10 players even in years where more worthy candidates might be on the ballot. Those changes may still occur, but it won’t be anytime soon. Today, the Hall of Fame announced its first changes to voting since 1991: shortening a recently-retired player’s eligibility with the BBWAA from 15 years to 10 and having BBWAA members sign a registration form and code of conduct.

Disaster may be the greatest catalyst for change in life, and in a sense, I wanted that with Hall of Fame voting this year. I wanted the voting results to be such a quagmire that the BBWAA or Cooperstown would be forced to take immediate substantial action. But then, Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and Frank Thomas were all voted in first ballot, and it became clear that top Hall of Fame candidates could make it through quickly, even with the current voting system. Several more of these inductees will follow in the next few years including Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, and Ken Griffey Jr.

Baseball has one of if not the most talked about Halls of Fames in sports. The reason for this is its exclusivity, with roughly 300 members and only 72 living ones after tomorrow. This weekend, the Hall of Fame is looking to preserving this. The announced changes in voting will make it harder for the likes of Tim Raines, Mike Mussina, Edgar Martinez, and other arguably lesser greats to win induction, at least through the BBWAA, since six honorees have needed 11-15 years on the ballot to reach the needed 75 percent of votes. Tomorrow, a few irreproachable candidates will receive their plaques in front of a record crowd. We can expect more of the same in the immediate years to come.

For anyone who likes the Hall of Fame small, reserved for only the best of the best, this weekend is sweet vindication. For people like myself who would like to see Raines, Mussina, and Martinez receive their due now rather than 20 or 30 years on, today offers more of the same frustration of the past few years.

Players of the decade: Subjective opinion versus WAR

I missed my exit on my way to see my girlfriend yesterday. The reason? I got wrapped up thinking about the best player in each decade of baseball history. Specifically, I was curious how my subjective opinion might compare to the leader from each decade for Wins Above Replacement.

With the help of Baseball-Reference.com’s Play Index, my favorite baseball research tool, I hashed this out for position players. The results are as follows:

Subjective opinion
1871-79: Cap Anson
1880-89: King Kelly
1890-99: Ed Delahanty*
1900-09: Honus Wagner
1910-19: Ty Cobb
1920-29: Babe Ruth
1930-39: Lou Gehrig
1940-49: Stan Musial
1950-59: Willie Mays
1960-69: Hank Aaron
1970-79: Reggie Jackson
1980-89: Rickey Henderson
1990-99: Barry Bonds
2000-09: Albert Pujols
2010-now: Miguel Cabrera
*= I strictly looked at position players for this exercise. Were I to expand it to pitchers, the 1890s are the only decade I might select one for. I think Cy Young may have been the best player in baseball then.

WAR leader
1871-79: Ross Barnes, 26.6 (Anson fifth at 19.2)
1880-89: Cap Anson, 51.9 (Kelly tied for sixth at 35.2)
1890-99: Billy “The one from the 1800s” Hamilton, 53.5 (Delahanty second at 51.8)
1900-09: Wagner, 85.8
1910-19: Cobb, 84.3
1920-29: Ruth, 102.3 (seems unfair not to mention Rogers Hornsby, second at 93.1)
1930-39: Gehrig, 73.1
1940-49: Ted Williams, 65.8 (Musial third at 57.5)
1950-59: Mickey Mantle, 67.5 (Mays third at 58.7)
1960-69: Mays, 84.2 (Aaron second at 80.7)
1970-79: Joe Morgan, 66.9 (Jackson fifth at 51.2)
1980-89: Henderson, 70.8
1990-99: Bonds, 79.9
2000-09: Alex Rodriguez, 77.6 (Pujols second at 73.6; Bonds third at 59.1)
2010-now: Robinson Cano, 33.6 (Cabrera second at 31.5)

One and done: 10 players with one-season careers

A few years ago, I wrote about players with one-game careers. To expand on this, I looked for players who lasted a season, played regularly, and maybe did a thing or two well before vanishing from the majors.

Here are 10 of the most memorable players with one season in the majors:

1. Buzz Arlett, 1931: Bill James and others have referred to Arlett as the Babe Ruth of the minors, a tribute to his .336 batting average and 367 homers through 17 seasons there. Arlett spent the majority of his career in the Pacific Coast League, where a number of All Star-caliber hitters from that era who couldn’t field much wound up. That may explain why the Philadelphia Phillies waived Arlett after he hit .313 for them with a 138 OPS+ and 18 home runs. (That OPS+ is by far the best a modern player has managed in a career consisting of one season of regular work.) Arlett averaged 47 homers over his next three seasons in the minors.

2. Jocko Flynn*, 1886: Technically, Flynn played two seasons by virtue of appearing in one game as a position player in May 1887. He pitched just one season though, 1886, a sensational rookie campaign for the Chicago White Stockings. I list Flynn here as he is one of the few players in baseball history to win 20 games his lone season pitching in the majors, going 23-6 with a 2.24 ERA, 157 ERA+ and 4.8 Wins Above Replacement. (Another one-year man, Henry Schmidt went 22-13 for Brooklyn in 1903 albeit with far less impressive peripherals: 84 ERA+ and 1.6 WAR.) Flynn’s SABR bio suggests alcohol problems and arm trouble contributed to his truncated career.

3. Harry Moore, 1884: Bill James notes in his Historical Abstract that Moore led the Union Association in games played with 111 while finishing third in batting average at .336 and third in hits at 155. James also notes that Moore, like a quarter of other UA regulars, never played a game in another major league. It’s part of the reason UA greats like Jack Glasscock still aren’t recognized by Cooperstown. The quality of competition just isn’t considered to have been as strong as the other two major leagues in existence at its time, the National League and American Assocation.

4. Irv Waldron, 1901: Waldron hit .322 for the Washington Senators in the American League’s debut season and holds the record for most hits by a one-season player with 186. He played in the minors as late as 1911, compiling 2,100 hits over 15 seasons total.

5. Erv Lange, 1914: A 26-year-old former semi-pro pitcher, Lange went 12-11 with a 2.23 ERA for the Chicago Whales during the inaugural campaign of the Federal League. Like a few of his contemporaries, Lange was unable to jump to the majors when the upstart circuit folded.

6. Johnny Sturm, 1941: Part of the parade of ineffectual first basemen the New York Yankees used after Lou Gehrig, Sturm offered an abysmal slash line of .239/.293/.300 his only season. Baseball Reference notes Sturm as the last of six players to play just one season and have at least 500 at-bats. Sturm followed his 1941 campaign with four years of military service and then spent four more years in the minors. His most notable achievement? He’s credited with discovering Mickey Mantle, giving him a tryout while he was player-manager of Class C Joplin and encouraging the Yankees to sign him.

7. Jim Baxes, 1959: Many short-time major leaguers I came across in my research for this piece didn’t have much power to speak of. Baxes’ .225 ISO was 17th-best among players with at least 300 plate appearances his lone season in the majors. Baxes had 15 homers with Cleveland and two more after joining the Dodgers for their pennant drive. A second and third baseman, Baxes totaled another 228 homers over 12 seasons in the minors.

8. Curt Raydon, 1958: A promising young pitcher who blew out his arm after going 8-4 with a 3.62 ERA, Raydon didn’t fare as well at the plate. With just one hit in 38 lifetime at-bats, he finished with a .026 batting average and, interestingly, generally went down swinging. Raydon finished with just four sacrifice bunts and 25 strikeouts, which project to 395 over a 600 at-bat season.

9. Ken Hunt, 1961: Not to be confused with the Ken Hunt who hit .226 over six seasons and was an outfielder for the Los Angeles Angels their ’61 expansion season; the Ken Hunt we speak of here went 9-10 with a 3.96 ERA (102 ERA+) for the Cincinnati Reds, a member of their starting rotation as they won the pennant. Though he was selected Sporting News Rookie of the Year, Hunt returned to the minors for good after the season ended, spending seven more years in the bushes. His 2008 obituary notes that Hunt later taught for 30 years.

10. Pete Gray, 1945: An untold number of players who might never have made the majors were pressed into service during World War II. Gray was perhaps the most memorable and historically significant of the bunch. A one-armed outfielder for the St. Louis Browns, Gray managed a .379 OPS over the final half of the season after word got out he couldn’t hit breaking pitches. That he hit .218 for the duration of the season and was Most Valuable Player of the Southern Association in 1944 seems miraculous enough.

Years later, Gray told sportswriter Ira Berkow:

I packed ’em in all over. There were 65,000 in Cleveland the first time I played, and I hit a triple my first time up. When we played the Yankees the first time in New York, our team was introduced before the game. Luke Sewell was our manager. He said, ‘Pete, you stay here, be the last one to come out on the field.’ I got a standing ovation– just to make an appearance! But I done a pretty good job, too.

Not enough for another contract

When a player is cut loose in baseball, generally the writing is on the wall and their production has suffered. Occasionally, though, players have decent, even good years and still are out of a contract.

Here are 10 players who excelled in one way or another but had to move on when the season was over:

1. Barry Bonds, 2007: Barry Bonds was by no means a bad player his final two seasons. His numbers just weren’t anywhere close to his 2001-04 run– an unfair standard, really, since it’ll be a long time before any hitter is so far and away better than all others as Bonds was those seasons. Imagine if those years never happened as they did. Imagine no cumulative 256 OPS+, no 209 homers, no 43.4 WAR. Bonds’ notorious attitude problems aside, I’m guessing his 28 homers and 169 OPS+ in 2007 would’ve been enough for another contract.

2. Babe Ruth, 1934: Seven decades before Bonds’ coda, the Sultan of Swat more or less faced the same problem. His numbers were good for an aging slugger, just seemingly nothing close to what he’d done before. Most any baseball history fan knows what came next for Ruth after 1934, with the Yankees dumping him and the Bambino showing up out of shape the following season for a humiliatingly poor, abortive run with the Boston Braves. Ruth’s 160 OPS+ in 1934, though, suggests to me he had more to give. I assume if he’d stayed with the Yankees or gone to a better team in 1935 (the Braves went 38-115), retirement may have come more smoothly.

3. Rogers Hornsby, 1926-28: Rajah must’ve been some kind of prick, as each of these seasons ended with him being sent to a new team. He hit .354 cumulatively over this stretch, though and might’ve hit .400 in 1927 had he not been with the Braves; Hornsby hit .371 at Braves Field that season, batting .401 on the road. (Lots of players, perhaps the majority it should be noted, hit better at home than on the road.)

4. Ned Garvin, 1904: I researched this post, in part, by looking for stats players excelled in that were undervalued or didn’t exist during their careers. For Ned Garvin, that stat is ERA+. A hard-luck pitcher– Bill James called Garvin the hard-luck pitcher of all-time– Garvin last appeared in the majors in 1904, going 5-16 with a 1.72 ERA, finishing out the year with the New York Highlanders after the Brooklyn Superbas waived him in September. While Garvin’s 160 ERA+ was tied for third-best in baseball, he never pitched again in the majors and died of consumption four years later.

5. Roy Cullenbine, 1947: For Cullenbine, his undervalued asset was on-base ability. He had an astonishing 137 walks on a .224 batting average in 1947, weirder still given that he’d hit .335 the year before. I’m guessing the walks went unrewarded. In fact, Bill James notes that one general manager said he unloaded Cullenbine mid-career because he “was a lazy player, always trying to get on-base with a walk.” As it stands, Cullenbine is one of five players in baseball history to top 100 walks his final season. The others: Bonds, Hank Greenberg in 1947, Mickey Mantle in 1968 and Jim McTamany in 1891.

6. Johnny Dickshot, 1945: His legacy of having the greatest surname in baseball history complete, Johnny Dickshot, like so many other players, lost his spot in the majors at the end of World War II. It wasn’t a bad swan song for Dickshot, with the 35-year-old hitting .302 with a 127 OPS+ and 10 triples.

7. Larry Jackson, 1968: Jackson is one of a handful of pitchers to compile a sub-3.00 FIP his final season. Granted, 1968 was the Year of the Pitcher and Jackson’s 2.61 FIP was nowhere near the best in baseball. The Philadelphia Phillies left the aging hurler unprotected for the 1969 Expansion Draft, and Jackson opted to retire over playing for the Montreal Expos.

8. Mike Marshall, 1981: In a follow-up to Ball Four released prior to the 1981 strike, former teammate Jim Bouton suggested Marshall couldn’t find a pitching job because owners didn’t want him in the player’s union. Marshall finally caught on with the New York Mets after play resumed. The 38-year-old went 3-2 with a 2.61 ERA for the duration of the season, but that was it for him in the majors. He pitched just one more game in organized baseball, a disastrous appearance in Triple-A in 1983 where he surrendered nine runs in 1.1 innings.

9. Jack Morris, 1996*: Technically, Morris didn’t pitch in the majors after posting a 5.60 ERA for the Cleveland Indians in 1994. He attempted a comeback with St. Paul of the Northern League in 1996, though, going 5-1 with a 2.61 ERA in 10 starts. In his SABR bio, Morris said he hoped to pitch that year for the Minnesota Twins, who spurned him and passed on a chance to sign with the Yankees.

10. Dave Kingman, 1986: This may be a stretch. Kingman, after all, was at the end of the line with Oakland in 1986, hitting .210 with a garish .255 on-base percentage for a team that prized the stat. Regular readers of this site may also know I contributed to a digital magazine from the San Francisco Chronicle; my first editor on the magazine, Susan Fornoff, had an infamous run-in with Kingman that ’86 season. Fornoff was one of the first female sportswriters granted locker room access and Kingman, ever the feminist at heart, sent Fornoff a rat in the press box. Fornoff assumes it got Kingman blackballed from the majors. All this being said, it’s worth noting Kingman had 35 homers that ’86 season and was just 37. Kingman’s ISO of .221 is third-best of any player with at least 500 plate appearances in his final season besides Greenberg in ’47 and Will Clark in 2000.

LeBron James and shifting landscapes

Just a quick post, amidst the news this morning LeBron James will be returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers…

A thought occurred to me over the past couple weeks, during the prolonged wait to see where James would go. I realized James’ choice directly determined where several other players would go. Off the top of my head, I count eight: Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh, Chandler Parsons, Kevin Love, Ray Allen, Mike Miller, Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik.

It’s rare, if unprecedented, that one player can shift the landscape this much in baseball.

Babe Ruth’s sale from the Red Sox to Yankees in 1920 didn’t do it, as Boston had been shunting players off to the Bronx for several years prior. I can’t think of any major moves since the advent of free agency (not Barry Bonds, not Alex Rodriguez, not Albert Pujols) that have had near the affect on where other players would go as today’s signing.

Thoughts?