Well-Rounded Players Meet Square Hole

Andy Van Slyke, now a Mariners coach, was for a time one of baseball's best outfielders. (via Eric Enfermero)

Andy Van Slyke, now a Mariners coach, was for a time one of baseball’s best outfielders. (via Eric Enfermero)

I imagine there is a large body of work in academic journals about the human tendency towards order versus chaos — that is, the tendency to find patterns or classification systems as a means of making sense of things. I tend to think we, as observers of baseball, like to put things into neat categories when we make attempts at comparison across time. Quite often, we use decades as our measure of order, perhaps because it’s simply easier.

Google “greatest MLB players of the” and you inevitably get comparisons of players who played in the 1960s, ’70s, ’80s, ’90s, etc. Who is going to search for the greatest players from 1974 to 1982? Not many, I’d bet. But practically speaking, the arrival of players (despite considerations of service time) lacks order — that is, the cumulative contribution of a player cares little for how he stacks up against his ’80s brethren. And when we make decade-by-decade comparisons, we inevitably leave out players who have had tremendous careers that awkwardly span the clean demarcation of a decade.

Bill Freehan’s knees probably agree. Outside of Detroit, there aren’t too many people who remember Freehan, who caught for the Tigers from 1963 to 1976. While he certainly got the respect of All-Star voters, appearing in 11 midsummer classics, he won’t appear on too many lists as one of the better backstops of the 1960s. But if you use a 1964-to-1974 lens, Freehan was the third-most valuable catcher, with 40.8 WAR. In fact, during that span, he compares pretty favorably to a better-known player:

Blind Catcher Comparison
Player 1 0.270 0.340 0.483 0.364 9.8% 14.0% 43.6
Freehan 0.264 0.344 0.416 0.343 9.3% 10.5% 40.8

It’s not an apples-apples comparison because Freehan has about a season’s worth of at-bats more than Player 1, but this is comparing Freehan against some kid named Johnny Bench. Of course, Bench went on to have a first-ballot Hall of Fame career, with 74.8 WAR, but at 44.8 WAR, Freehan was no slouch.

Freehan’s best season was in 1968 when he hit .263/.366/.454 with 25 home runs, 73 runs scored and 84 RBI. He struck out just 10.1 percent of the time and walked at a 10.2 percent clip, good for 7.0 WAR. And in 1968, 7.0 WAR put him in with some interesting characters. Among all position players, Freehan ranked fourth in WAR in 1968, behind the 7.1 WAR of Hank Aaron and Brooks Robinson and ahead of Willie McCovey, Willie Mays, Roberto Clemente, Felipe Alou, Ron Santo, Bert Campaneris and Pete Rose. Nice dinner party there.

Not quite the caliber of a Bill Freehan, but consider the case of Sixto Lezcano, who has one of the most entertaining baseball names ever. Lezcano had a brief cup in 1974 as a 20-year old, but he wasn’t a regular major leaguer until 1975, and he ultimately played until 1985. Lezcano was never an All-Star. He never led the league in any major offensive category nor in wins above replacement. You certainly won’t find arguments about why Lezcano should be in the Hall of Fame, and you won’t even find arguments about him being in the Milwaukee Brewers Hall of Fame.

But between 1976 and 1982, Lezcano was among baseball’s best hitters. During that span, Lezcano posted a .282/.367/.462 slash line with a modest strikeout rate of 15 percent and a robust walk rate at 12 percent. In 1979, Lezcano hit .321/.414/.573 with 28 home runs, 84 runs scored and 101 RBI, amassing 5.2 WAR despite playing substandard defense. Yet he finished 15th in MVP balloting, losing to Don Baylor and his 3.6 WAR. He even finished behind three pitchers. Between 1976-82, Lezcano’s wRC+ was 132, better than the likes of Bobby Grich and Dwight Evans and just a hair behind Dave Winfield, Dave Parker, Lonnie Smith, Fred Lynn and Jack Clark.

A classic example of a great player who spanned decades but never really dominated an individual decade is Doug DeCinces. DeCinces was a regular from 1976 through 1987, with his best years being 1977-84, during which time he amassed 32.5 WAR, good for fourth overall and placing him ahead of other third basemen named Ron Cey, Darrell Evans and Graig Nettles. During this span, DeCinces hit .268/.337/.465, played great defense, and swatted 160 home runs (by way of comparison, Darrell Evans hit 148 during this span, in about 80 more games played). But try to compare him against other third basemen in the 1980s, and DeCinces comes out 10th in total WAR and is pretty easy to ignore.

His best season was in 1982 where he hit .301/.369/.548 with 30 home runs, 94 runs scored and 97 runs batted in for the Angels when they were just in California and not “of” anything quite yet. He compiled 7.3 WAR that season but still missed his first All-Star nod as he played in the American League shadow of a guy named George Brett in Kansas City. Somewhat ironically, the only time DeCinces was named an All-Star was one in which he missed it due to injury. In 1983, DeCinces was batting .313/.363/.588 with 15 home runs and 46 RBI over just 60 games played when a rib injury derailed his season on June 24, and he’d watch the All-Star game from his recliner. DeCinces clearly was one of the best third basemen in the American League over an eight-season span, and he managed two votes in the Hall of Fame balloting in 1993.

Turning to the bump, a more recent example is Mark Langston. Langston was one of the league’s elite starters between 1984 and 1993, dominating for 10 years, just never neatly in one decade. During this time span, Langston pitched to a 3.70 ERA, with a 20.4 percent strikeout rate, amassing 39.7 WAR. Among other starters who threw at least 2,000 innings during that stretch, Langston’s WAR ranks just behind Frank Viola with 45 WAR and ahead of Jack Morris, Mike Moore, Bob Welch, Frank Tanana, Charlie Hough and Ron Darling. Just barely not making that innings cutoff are Bruce Hurst and Orel Hershiser, who threw more than 1,900 innings, and they too rank behind Langston in overall WAR.

Over this span, Langston threw 2,323 innings — yeah, that’s an average of 232 innings each year. In fact, he threw 250 innings or more four times during that stretch, highlighted (lowlighted?) by 272 in 1987 where he won a career-high 19 games for a pretty uninspiring Seattle Mariners team. That season was his best by way of WAR, with a total of 6.1. Langston registered an 8.67 K/9 that year with a 3.84 ERA (3.69 FIP), striking out 262 batters while holding them to a .234 batting average. His biggest nuisance was a career walk rate over 10 percent, which was a large contributor to his ERA rarely cracking 3.00 (it did, in fact, just once when he was traded to the Montreal Expos in 1989). Still, Langston struck out 200 or more batters five times in his career, ultimately winning 179 games, and was voted an All-Star three times.

Langston finished his career with 47.2 WAR. In 2005, he appeared on his first Hall of Fame ballot and received zero votes. Jim Abbott and his 21.6 WAR got 13 votes. Langston’s WAR total ranks higher than Hall of Fame members Catfish Hunter, Hoyt Wilhelm and Bob Lemon, among many others from long past decades. If you look at Langston by decade, he ranks 39th overall in the 1980s, and he’s 27th overall in the 1990s. But from 1986 to 1995, Langston ranks fourth, a hair behind Bret Saberhagen and ahead of David Cone. Probably not a Hall of Fame-worthy career, but Mark Langston was exceptionally good — and unfortunately largely forgotten.

From almost the same time period, Andy Van Slyke rarely graces any “best of” mash-ups. He rarely even turns up in pieces about the best players in Pittsburgh Pirates history. But from 1985 to 1992, Van Slyke was one of the best outfielders in baseball — hitting .280/.351/.465 during that stretch, amassing over 600 runs and RBI plus 129 home runs and 171 stolen bases, good for a total of 36 WAR. He also played pretty terrific defense. Comparing other outfielders with at least 4,000 plate appearances over those eight seasons, Van Slyke ranks fifth, just barely behind Tim Raines and Kirby Puckett, and ahead of Tony Gwynn, Darryl Strawberry, Brett Butler, Jesse Barfield and Jose Canseco.

Van Slyke had several great offensive seasons, but probably his finest was 1988 when he hit .288/.345/.506 with 25 home runs, 101 runs, 100 RBI and 30 steals, good for 6.4 WAR — ranking him fifth overall for outfielders across all teams. Van Slyke did register 6.5 WAR in 1992, but his counting stats weren’t quite as eye popping, although his .324/.381/.505 slash line clearly was the best of his career.

There are other examples of this, of course, but you probably get the point by now. Wins above replacement certainly helps us make more accurate comparisons across decades, and perhaps I’m just oversensitive to those unjustly eschewed by popular accounts of “best of.” But none of these players sniffed the Hall of Fame, and in fact none of these players even sniffed the Hall of Nearly Great. Despite that, there are many careers that deserve to be celebrated even though they don’t fit tidily within a traditional classification of a decade. As fans of the game of baseball, it’s incumbent upon us to occasionally share the limelight with the deserved.

Michael was born in Massachusetts and grew up in the Seattle area but had nothing to do with the Heathcliff Slocumb trade although Boston fans are welcome to thank him. You can find him on twitter at @michaelcbarr.
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9 years ago

Great article. Brought me way back – as a kid, Andy Van Slyke was my favorite player. I always told my friends that he was better than the bashers because it took 3 tools to hit a triple (like AVS did in spades): bat control, power, and speed.

I am also a Mariner fan so I was well aware of Mark Langston’s (relative) greatness to the team. I was crushed when he left for greener pastures. It’s kinda cool how AVS is now on the Mariners, too.

gary lester
9 years ago

Super article. It’s fun to sift thru the stats and see who emerges as a “wow, I never thought of THAT guy as being so productive for so long”. Decinces and Van Slyke were great examples. Reggie Smith might have received a little more notoriety than those two guys but still probably not what he deserved over a long and consistent career.