More Awards to Hand Out: Historical Edition
Yesterday my buddy Bob Lazzari handed out a bunch of awards for the 2012 season, which motivated me to try to match his list with historical achievements. The following covers the period from 1900-2012 (sorry 19th century fans, but that era is not one of my strengths) and some of my choices are subjective, but thoughtful.
- The STAY AT FIRST Award: Among players with at least one stolen base in a season, this piece of hardware goes to Zebulon Alexander “Zeb” Terry who pilfered only one bag in 14 attempts in 1921 for a “success” rate of 7.1%. And to prove his inability to steal was no fluke, the Cubs second baseman went 2-for-13 in 1922 (15.4%), giving him a two-year rate of 11.1%. Among players with no stolen bases in a season, the winner is Pete Runnels who was hosed down on all 10 of his steal attempts in 1952. In fact Runnels began his career with three failed steal attempts in 1951, followed by his 0-for-10 in ’52, followed by three more failed attempts in 1953 before he finally broke through for his first career stolen base on June 30, 1953 in a game against the Philadelphia Athletics. What might be most amazing is that Runnels’ first successful steal came against Joe Astroth who threw out an incredible 72% of would-be base stealers that year.
- The TONY BENNETT/BEST YEARS BEHIND HIM Award: When Bob went with Jason Bay for the 2012 trophy, I started to put together a list of guys who did the same thing years before—you know, dominated for a time before dropping off the face of the planet—and the guy I have to go with here is another former Met, Howard Johnson. Why HoJo? Because in 1991 at the age of 30 he led the National League with 38 homers and 117 RBIs, and enjoyed his third 30-30 season, then hit only .223 with seven homers with 43 RBIs in 1992. He followed that up with a .238/7/26 season in 1993; a .211/10/40 season with the Colorado Rockies in 1994 and a .195/7/22 campaign with the Chicago Cubs in 1995. After averaging 31 homers and 95 RBIs from 1987-1991, Johnson averaged only 8 and 33 in his last four seasons.
- The LITTLE BUCKS/BIG NUMBERS Award: Because I don’t have a database that includes both salaries and stats this is just a guess/personal preference, but I’m going with Walter Johnson circa 1913. According to The Baseball Gauge, The Big Train was the only modern-day (post-19th century) player to record 14 Wins Above Replacement (WAR), and he did it twice—in 1912 when he finished with exactly 14 (12.9 from pitching), and in 1913 when he had 15.6 (14.3 from pitching) on the strength of a 36-7 record, 1.14 ERA, 11 shutouts and 243 strikeouts. Oh yeah, he also batted .261 with two homers and 14 RBIs and slugged .433. He definitely earned his money that year. He made only $7,000, which is approximately $162,000 in today’s climate, and that means Washington paid him about $450 per WAR. Not a bad investment.
- The BLACKSTONE/HOUDINI DISAPPEARING ACT Award: Again with no database to go by this is another personal preference, and one I remember well—Mark Davis. Davis began his career as a starter before pitching out of the bullpen (for the most part) in 1985—he still occasionally started from ’85-’87, but most of his work came as a reliever. The southpaw was solid in his first three years out of the pen, then had excellent back-to-back seasons in 1988 and ’89 for San Diego, posting a 1.93 ERA over 132 appearances, leading the league with 44 saves in ’89 and copping the Cy Young Award. He parlayed that into a four-year/$13 million contract with the Kansas City Royals, making him the highest paid player (annually) from that free agent class. So how did he repay the Royals? By going into the toilet. He was an abject disaster in his first season in KC, going 2-7 with only 6 saves and a 5.11 ERA in 53 appearances; saved one game in 1991; then pitched to a 7.18 ERA in 13 games in 1992 before being traded to the Atlanta Braves. In six seasons after signing his big free agent deal, Davis saved only 11 games and had a 5.37 ERA in 208 appearances.
- The PITIFULLY PUNCHLESS Award (for lack of offense): There are a few good choices for this one, but I’m going with the 1910 Chicago White Sox who made the 1906 “Hitless Wonders” look like “Murderers’ Row.” The 1910 squad batted .211, slugged .261 and scored only 2.9 runs per game. Even for a Deadball Era club, that’s pretty awful. Three of the White Sox’s regulars—Chick Gandil, Lena Blackburne and Shano Collins—batted under .200, but Gandil hit 29% of the team’s home runs, so maybe I should cut him some slack. On the other hand, 29% of 7 is only 2, so maybe not. The starting lineup was so pathetic that pitcher Frank Lange (.255) outhit all of them. If it wasn’t for a late-season acquisition of Harry Lord (.297) and Amby McConnell (.275), it would have been even worse.
- The ARSONIST OF THE YEAR Award: Ron Davis, 1986. Davis took the AL by storm in 1979 when the then 23-year-old went 14-2 with a 2.85 ERA in 44 relief appearances and led the league with a .875 winning percentage. He finished in a fourth-place tie in Rookie of the Year voting; enjoyed two more very good seasons with the Yankees (2.95 and 2.71); and up until the 1981 World Series was brilliant in the postseason, posting a 0.68 ERA in his first 13 1/3 innings of relief. But the Dodgers ate his lunch in the ’81 Fall Classic and in 1982 Davis was dispatched to Minnesota in a deal that netted the Yankees shortstop Roy Smalley. Although he wasn’t as good for the Twins as he’d been for the Yankees, he did a stand-up job and provided solid relief for Minnesota until he completely imploded in 1986 when he posted a 9.08 ERA in 36 games before being sent to the Cubs, for whom he wasn’t a hell of a lot better (7.65 ERA in 17 games). According to Lee Sinins’ Complete Baseball Encyclopedia, Davis has the worst single season ERA among pitchers who appeared in at least 50 games and tossed at least 50 innings.
- The BUM OF THE YEAR Award: Carl Mays, although it could be argued that he deserves the Lifetime Bum Achievement Award. Of Mays and Joe Bush, Hall of Fame skipper Miller Huggins once said, “If they were in the gutter, I’d kick them,” and it was said that Mays had the disposition of someone who “always had a toothache.” Despite being on three world champion squads in his first four years—1915, ’16 and ’18 Red Sox—Mays melted down in 1919, citing a lack of run support and the inconsistent play of shortstop Jack Barry, who always seemed to make errors when Mays was on the mound. Mays left the team in the middle of a game that he was actually pitching and insisted he’d never pitch for the Red Sox again. Sox owner Harry Frazee saw an opportunity and traded Mays to the Yankees for two pitchers and $40,000, infuriating AL President Ban Johnson who voided the deal and suspended Mays. The Yanks filed for an injunction against Johnson and a judge ruled in their favor. A year later, Mays threw the pitch that killed popular Indians shortstop Ray Chapman, prompting threats of a boycott by the rest of the league—some wanted Mays suspended for life, while Connie Mack suggested banishment to the National League. Mays was also alleged to have thrown the 1921 World Series, although it was never proved.
- The EARL WEAVER/FULL PACK Award (causing managers to smoke too much and/or develop ulcers): Steve Blass, who in 1973 completely lost his ability to find home plate and finished the season with a 9.85 ERA, 12 hit batters and a K/BB ratio of 0.32. He walked 84 batters in 88 2/3 innings, and fanned only 27. All that from a pitcher who had gone 95-59 with a 3.18 ERA in the seven previous seasons. He led the league with a .750 winning percentage in 1968 and pitched to a 2.12 ERA, then won a career-high 19 games in 1972 with an excellent 2.49 ERA. But everything went to hell in 1973. ”It was the worst experience of my baseball life,” Blass once said. “I don’t think I’ll ever forget it. I was embarrassed and disgusted. I was totally unnerved. You can’t imagine the feeling that you suddenly have no ‘idea’ what you’re doing out there, performing that way as a major league pitcher. It was kind of scary.” Blass had one major league appearance in 1974 and walked seven batters in five innings, then spent the rest of the season in the minors where he walked 103 in only 61 innings.
- The HIT OR MISS Award (soon to be renamed the FRANK SINATRA/”ALL OR NOTHING AT ALL” Award): Gorman Thomas, 1979. One of my favorite players as a kid (and one of the ugliest, I might add), Thomas blasted a league-leading 45 home runs for the ’79 Brewers, and also paced the circuit in strikeouts with 175, the fourth highest single-season mark at that time. He had only 29 doubles among his 136 hits, so when he wasn’t homering or whiffing, he was rapping out singles, although his 62 over the course of a season was about what Nellie Fox could produce in a six-week span.
- The MAYTAG/DEPENDABILITY Award: I almost skipped this one because it’s such a no-brainer—Cal Ripken Jr. and it’s not even close. Sure you can cite Lou Gehrig’s monstrous consecutive games played streak as a close second, but when you look at Ripken’s consecutive innings played streak, he blows everyone else out of the water. According to research done by Trent McCotter, Ripken played in 8,264 straight innings from June 5, 1982 to September 14, 1987, dwarfing runner-up George Pinkney’s streak of 5,152 from 1885-1890 by 60.4%. That’s pretty damn impressive.
- The GERITOL/AGE DOESN’T MATTER Award: This might be a cop out but I decided to call this a tie between Cy Young (1908), Jack Quinn (1931) and Ted Williams (1960). Young was a spry 41-year-old when he went 21-11 and established a new career best with a miniscule 1.26 ERA in 1908. He completed 30 of his 33 starts, walked only 37 batters in 299 innings and posted a career-best 0.893, and also tossed his third career no-hitter. Quinn was 47 years old in 1931 when he went 5-4 as a reliever with a 2.66 ERA, and led the league with 29 games finished and 15 saves, the second highest total in major league history to that point. Williams’ last season in 1960 gave the 41-year-old one final campaign to prove his greatness, and he didn’t disappoint, belting 29 homers in only 310 at-bats, including a memorable parting shot off Baltimore’s Jack Fisher in his final career plate appearance.
- The AVERSION TO WALKING Award: Art Fletcher, who in 1915 walked only SIX times in 599 plate appearances. It’s too bad he didn’t get up one more time because he would have become the first and only player with fewer than 10 walks in 600 plate appearances. As it is he has to share the feat with others, but no one with 500 or more plate appearances and fewer than 10 walks in a season has more plate appearances per walk than Fletcher’s 99.8. Oh, by the way, apparently pitchers preferred hitting Fletcher to walking him—he led the NL five times in being hit by a pitch and averaged 15 plunkings per season from 1911-1918, but only 19 walks over that same span.
- The RODNEY DANGERFIELD/LACK OF RESPECT Award: Again, whether this is the most egregious case of a lack of respect is debatable but it stands out to me, so I’m going with it—Bob Gibson in 1969. Gibson enjoyed one of the greatest seasons ever in 1968 when he posted a 1.12 ERA, tossed 13 shutouts, led the league in both categories as well as strikeouts, ERA+, WHIP and hits per 9 innings. His ERA is so otherworldly that it ranks fourth best all-time—the three pitchers ahead of him all set their marks before 1915—and no other post-Deadball Era hurler can even smell it. Needless to say he won the Cy Young AND MVP Awards that year, becoming only the second hurler to win both in the same season. Fast forward a year to 1969 when pitchers had to deal with a lowered mound to give hitters half a chance, and Gibson followed up with another excellent season—20-13, 2.18 ERA, 269 strikeouts and a league-leading 28 complete games. He finished among the league leaders in several categories and, thanks to current metrics, we know he led the league in WAR (11.2) and it wasn’t even close (the runner up had 8.3). But for all that, Gibson received only two points in MVP voting, tied for 30th with the likes of Dodgers rookie second baseman Ted Sizemore who hit .271 with four homers and 46 RBIs.
- Finally, the DOLLY THE SHEEP/REASON TO CLONE Award: There are so many different choices for this award and I have to admit that I struggled with it before settling on one of my all-time favorites—Jimmie Foxx. For sheer consistency, leadership and production I would have gone with Lou Gehrig who enjoyed nine straight seasons where he hit .300 with 30 homers and 100 RBIs from 1929 to 1937 while playing in every game. But Foxx put up 12 straight years of 30-homer/100-RBI production from 1929 to 1940 and batted .334 to boot. Not to mention he played seven positions during his 20-year career, including pitcher where he posted a 1.52 ERA in 10 appearances. Sure, Babe Ruth was a great pitcher in addition to being arguably the game’s greatest hitter, but that would be an obvious choice, so I’ll go with Foxx, a slightly less obvious one.