Editor’s note: Please welcome another “Any player/Any era” from Albert Lang.
What He Did: You mean aside from being born Fury Gene Tenace?
Well, he finished his 15-year career with a .241/.388/.429 line with 201 HRs, playing primarily catcher and first base. He appeared in 846 games at catcher (.245/.396/.437) and 582 at first (.242/.382/.428).
His .388 career OBP is tied for the 33rd best by a right handed batter (min. 5,000 PA) in MLB history. He walked 984 times, the 41st most by a righty. He had six seasons of 100+ walks, the 20th most seasons of 100+ walks in baseball history. (The above from the SABR Baseball List & Record Book, 2007).
All of that and Tenace didn’t become a regular until he was 26 in 1973 (shades of Jorge Posada?). From 1969-1972 Tenace served primarily as Dave Duncan’s back-up (a no-hit, lead-the-staff kind of guy). However, with Duncan batting .163/.200/.302 in August of ‘72, Tenace was given the starting job down the stretch and throughout the play-offs.
While Tenace batted miserably in the ALCS, his one hit drove in the winning run in the deciding game. Then he hit .348/.400/.913 in the World Series, including homers in his first two World Series at bats (the first player to do so). He earned the MVP (and first of four World Series rings). Duncan was embroiled in a contract dispute during the following off-season and subsequently traded.
And that’s how you take over a starting catching job: brute force! Tenace did split time at catcher and first over the next few years, which would serve as his peak. From 1973-1980 (including four seasons in San Diego’s cavernous ballpark), Tenace averaged 147 games with a .241/.391/.434 line and 21 HRs per year. During that time, Tenace accumulated 39.9 WAR (Fangraphs), tied with Bobby Bonds for the 16th most among hitters during that stretch.
When it was all said and done, Tenace’s career looks somewhat similar to Adam Dunn. Dunn has 365 HRs (certainly more than Tenace) but a .243/.374/.503 line (surprisingly a worse OBP than Tenace). If you translate Dunn’s line to the 1975 Oakland Athletics, he would have 347 HRs and a .234/.362/.484 line. Tenace…just about Adam Dunn as a catcher.
In addition, Tenace’s 47.4 career WAR (Fangraphs) is 17th all time for a catcher (and that includes the likes of Brian Downing, Buck Ewing and others (who might not qualify at catcher) ahead of him). Certainly, his contemporaries, Ted Simmons and Johnny Bench, had better careers, but that shouldn’t take away from Tenace, much the same that Alan Trammell shouldn’t have been hurt by playing during the same era as Cal Ripken and Barry Larkin.
Era he might have thrived in: If ever there were a player from an older era that would have thrived in the “modern” game, it’s Tenace. For that reason, I’m putting him in the early part of the 2000s. If you place his numbers on the 2001 Oakland Athletics, his career line would be .270/.424/.475. His 1975 season, translated, would be a masterpiece: .269/.412/.486 with 31 HRs. Indeed, during his prime, he would have posted OBPs over .400 ever year but his translated 1974 season (his OBP on the 2001 A’s would have been a measly .398).
Why: The Oakland Athletics were perennial contenders from 2000-2006. However, they didn’t have a serviceable catcher until Ramon Hernandez blossomed in 2004. Tenace would have made Hernandez expendable (and trade-able) in a meaningful way.
Replacing Hernandez in 2001 (when Hernandez batted just .254/.316/.408) with Tenace would have improved an already lethal line-up. Could you imagine a team sending out: Johnny Damon/Gene Tenace/Jason Giambi/Eric Chavez/Miguel Tejada/Jermaine Dye/Jeremy Giambi/Terrence Long/Frank Menechino? That line-up would have no holes and include two players with .400+ OBPs.
Really, if you think about it, Tenace could have been the face of Moneyball.