November 24, 2014

Eleven Standouts in the Career Sub-70 Home Run Ranks

December 20, 2012 by · Leave a Comment 

This set of 11 retired players who were active after the dead ball era ended is not exactly a sequel to my earlier list of players with under 400 career homers, but it works on the similar idea that less is more for some hitters. It enforces Mark McGwire’s 70-homer season in ’98 as the upper limit for candidacy. Eight of the players are in the Hall of Fame, a ninth is in for his playing and managing record, and a tenth probably should be in. And yet hardly any of them managed to ever have a double-digit homer season. Here’s the list, in descending order, with sketches of each player:

Lou Boudreau 68 In his historical abstract from the ’80s Bill James points to a type of player fairly common in the ’30s and ’40s: small, drew lots of walks, hit .300 or more, didn’t have home run power, typically played up the middle, and scored lots of runs. Some of those players, including Boudreau, are on this list. He averaged nearly 40 doubles annually, hit around .300, drew another 70 walks or so, and what’s more, Boudreau led A.L. shortstops in fielding percentage seven times. He only played nine full seasons, but he managed the Indians as well from the age of 24 onward. His managing career was finished after he turned 42, but Boudreau had already led the Indians to their last World Series title to date. Later, he became part of the Cubs broadcast team and the father-in-law of Denny McLain.

Earle Combs 58 Although Bill James calls him a no-power hitter in the Hall of Fame only because he was a starter for the ’27 Yankees, Combs posted a .462 slugging percentage (currently good for about 260th on the all-time list) that’s the best of any of these players, so he obviously did hit for power, just not home runs. I don’t know, maybe he still doesn’t belong in the Hall of Fame. After all, in his induction speech Combs said, “I thought the Hall of Fame was for superstars, not just average players like I was.” He did have a very, very good ’27 season, and Combs was the guy Ruth and Gehrig were driving in much of the time—often enough to get 1186 runs scored in his short career, and over .8 per game.

Stan Hack 57 The plain-named Hack manned third for the Cubs during their last four pennant-winning seasons, which in itself deserves acclaim. His numbers in those four World Series are quite good as well. He followed Pie Traynor as the best third baseman in the N.L. In six straight years he posted over a hundred runs scored and, for his career, had almost twice as many runs scored as RBIs. As an older player, Hack remained stateside during World War Two, and he put together an extremely good year in 1945.

Al Lopez 52 Lopez is better known for his managing than his playing, and rightly so. Still, he held the record for most games caught for several decades. Lopez’s anemic home run power extended to his doubles and triples totals. Lopez was rarely a truly poor offensive force though, and he managed to hit .307 with a .390 OBP in his best season, playing part-time for the Pirates as a 37-year-old in 1946.

Joe Sewell 49 Renowned for the difficulty pitchers had striking him out, Sewell, a reliably excellent hitter, peaked in 1923. That year with Cleveland, his .353 average, .479 slugging percentage, and .440 OBP placed him among the A.L. leaders. Sewell was good for close to 40 doubles, 100 runs, and 100 RBIs over a full season. It’s no surprise that his RBI to homer and walk to strikeout ratios are awfully high. Joe’s the leading figure in the four-member Sewell family of baseball players from Alabama.

Luke Appling 45 He’s most famous, at least among sub 40-year-olds, for hitting a homer as a 70-some-year-old at the Old-Timers Game in 1982 off Warren Spahn. But before that he racked up 2,749 hits and nearly .400 on-base and slugging percentages as the man at short for the White Sox in the ’30s and ’40s. Despite some frightening error totals-55 in ’33, 49 in ’37, 42 in ’41-Appling committed about as many errors per season over his career as many of his contemporaries at shortstop did.

Nellie Fox 35 Fox held the slightly dubious record for most seasons leading his league in singles, 8, before Ichiro led the A.L. in each season from 2001 to 2010. Another hitter whose ability to draw walks partly made up for a lack of power, Fox was also good for a decent number of triples and some doubles each year. He actually came up with the Philadelphia A’s to make his debut at 19 before becoming a beloved White Sox, and then went to first Colt Stadium and then the Astrodome for his last two seasons, with Houston. Fox’s five homers at home, compared to 30 on the road, show that some of his power was lost in his home parks.

Sam Rice 34 Rice consistently hit for B-level power playing for the Washington Senators in the ’20s and ’30s, with over 30 doubles and 10 triples per year, but he comes up short in the home runs category. Part of that was because Griffith Park had an exceedingly deep left field and quite deep center field. His 2,987 hits give Rice barely more than one homer per hundred hits. A decent base stealer (his 63 in 1920 was the most by anyone that decade) and the only 40-year-old with a 200-hit season in MLB history, Rice was effective for many years and helped the Senators to three World Series and one title. He started out as a two-way player in the mid-1910s, pitching an above-average 39 and a third innings in his first two seasons. Replacing his 7-game 1918 season (due to service in World War One) with his normal season gives Rice close to 3,200 hits lifetime, despite not playing a full season until he was 27. You should learn more about Sam Rice.

Richie Ashburn 29 Ashburn was a solid performer offensively, occasionally getting a hundred walks, reliably hitting .300, and hitting his share of triples. His peak offensive season of 1955 included just 42 RBIs set against 91 runs scored and on-base and slugging percentages of nearly .450. During the mid-’50s stretch when he was at his hitting peak, Ashburn had not a single homer at his home park, and had just four at home from 1950 through 1961. That’s including two seasons at Wrigley Field. Ashburn was Harry Kalas’s partner broadcasting Phillies games before dying from a heart attack on September 9, 1997.

Ozzie Smith 28 Like a lot of players on this list, Smith hit significantly more triples than homers. The extra offensive value Smith provided usually came from his walks and steals, although he peaked at 40 doubles in 1987. That year is one of the best test cases for the relative values people assign to defense and offense, because Ozzie, playing for a much better team, lost out to Andre Dawson in the MVP voting, 269 points to 193, and got 9 first place votes to Dawson’s 11. Putting his fielding statistics and Gold Gloves aside, has there ever been a more memorable shortstop in the field than Ozzie?

Maury Wills 20 Ashburn has his fame as perhaps the greatest defensive center fielder ever to offset his lack of power, and Wills has his two Gold Gloves and two spectacular base-stealing years, the first of which got him an MVP in 1962, to offset his even worse power numbers. Wills, though, also played for some great Dodgers teams, while Ashburn was in the World Series just once and wound up his career with maybe the worst team of the century: the 1962 Mets.

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