SweetSpot: Happy birthday

Today's birthdays include: Hall of Famers Lefty Grove and Willie Stargell, five-time All-Star Cookie Rojas, one-armed outfielder Pete Gray, catcher Bob Swift (remembered as the catcher when this happened) and Roberto Duran (the pitcher, not the boxer).

Lefty Grove: Born 1900

There's an argument to be made that Lefty Grove is the greatest pitcher of all time, although few people make that argument. His career record of 300-141 (a .680 winning percentage) says a lot, but his nine ERA titles say even more. For example, here is the list of most ERA titles:

Lefty Grove: 9
Roger Clemens: 7
Christy Mathewson: 5
Walter Johnson: 5
Sandy Koufax: 5
Pedro Martinez: 5

But that doesn't even tell the whole story, how much better Grove often was compared to the No. 2 or No. 3 guys. At his peak in 1930 and 1931 (he went 28-5 and 31-4 those two seasons) he towered over the league. His 2.54 ERA in 1930 was close to a run per game better than Wes Ferrell's 3.31. Grove's 2.06 ERA in 1931 far outpaced Lefty Gomez's 2.67 and Bump Hadley's 3.06. He won five ERA titles with the Philadelphia A's and then four more with the Red Sox.

If you don't like ERA, we can look at most times leading your league in WAR:

Lefty Grove: 8
Walter Johnson: 8
Roger Clemens: 7
Cy Young: 6
Pete Alexander: 6
Randy Johnson: 6

OK, maybe those two categories emphasize peak value over career value. Career WAR for pitchers:

Cy Young: 170.3
Walter Johnson: 152.3
Roger Clemens: 139.4
Pete Alexander: 117.0
Kid Nichols: 116.6
Lefty Grove: 109.9
Tom Seaver: 106.3
Greg Maddux: 104.6
Randy Johnson: 104.3
Phil Niekro: 97.4

Of the five guys ahead of Grove, four pitched in a different era of baseball, when home runs were non-existent and pitchers threw huge totals of innings, making it easier to rack up lots of WAR. Clemens is the only pitcher who rates higher who didn't get the advantage of pitching in the so-called dead-ball era.

Another thing to consider: Grove didn't reach the majors until he was 25 years old. He pitched five seasons for the Baltimore Orioles of the International League, going 108-36 before owner Jack Dunn finally sold him to the Athletics for $100,600 -- the Athletics outbidding the Cubs and Dodgers to make Grove the most expensive sale ever at the time. It's true that Grove may not have been a perfectly polished pitcher upon arriving in the majors -- he had a 4.75 ERA his first season. But he led the league in ERA his second season when he stopped overthrowing as much and threw his fastball with better command. Maybe he wouldn't have won 108 games in the majors if he'd spent those years in Philadelphia instead of Baltimore but he probably could have won another 75 to 80. Give him 375 wins instead of 300 and he'd be remembered more often on the level of Johnson or Clemens.

How hard did Grove throw? He often used just the one pitch during his days with the A's. "When planes take off from a ship, they say they catapult," Yankees shortstop Frankie Crosetti once said. "That's what his fastball did halfway to the plate. He threw just plain fastballs -- he didn’t need anything else." Teammate Doc Cramer said, "All he had was a fastball. Everybody knew what they were going to hit at, but they still couldn't hit him." Writer Bugs Baer famously once wrote that "Lefty Grove could throw a lamb chop past a wolf."

It's probably not much of an exaggeration to suggest Grove threw only fastballs early in his career. He definitely added a curveball later in his career and even a forkball, and Connie Mack, his manager with the A's, said Grove didn't really learn to pitch until he was traded to the Red Sox. (Grove suffered an arm injury in 1934, his first with Boston, and didn't throw as hard after that.) An article in Baseball Magazine from 1934 quotes his Philadelphia catcher Mickey Cochrane as saying, "I'll admit when Grove broke into the league he had little else except his fast ball. But he has learned a lot. He has a pretty fair change of pace and a very serviceable curve."

Grove was known for his fiery temper, directed at both teammates and opponents. "Did I get sore at my teammates? Did I yell at (Joe) Cronin? Yes sir. Guess I did. I was out there to win. That's the only way to play the game," he admitted in a 1961 AP story.

Karl Best: Born 1959

Unless you're a Mariners fan from the '80s, you're unlikely to remember Best, who had a short career as a reliever. I mention him because he graduated from Kent-Meridian High School in Kent, Wash., just outside of Seattle. He was a local kid who made good. I went to rival Kentridge and my mom worked with his mother for a time. Best was a big kid, threw hard, had trouble throwing strikes and moved slowly through the minors. For one brief period, however, it all came together for him. After major league trials in 1983 and 1984, he pitched well the first three months of the 1985 season. Appearing in 15 games and pitching 32.1 innings, he had a 1.95 ERA and four saves. For the first time in his career, he was throwing strikes: He had 32 strikeouts and just six walks. On June 20, he pitched three scoreless innings against the Rangers to get the save. He had become a fixture in the Seattle bullpen.

And that was it. He hurt his shoulder and had surgery and missed the rest of the season. He would pitch in 26 games the next season and a few more with the Twins in 1988, but he wasn't the same pitcher and didn't pitch again after 1988. Had he turned the corner in 1985? Who knows. It was just 32 innings but it was a dominant 32 innings. Maybe something had clicked, a delivery tweaked. My inclination is to believe that he would have remained a good pitcher if he hadn't gotten hurt. But, sadly, that's part of baseball, where fields are littered with pitchers who once threw 95.

(Here's a story from the Seattle Times in 2007. At the time, Best was still living in the Seattle area and owned a construction company. The story mentions his daughter Amanda, a high school basketball player. She went on to play four years at New Mexico, where she was an all-conference player and third-team Academic All-America majoring in biochemistry.)

Happy Birthday, Monte Irvin

February, 25, 2014
Another day with two Hall of Famers: Monte Irvin and Ron Santo. Plus a guy who looked like a sure bet for the Hall of Fame in his early 20s, a guy who kicked a water cooler or two and a guy who starred for the last Cubs team to play in a World Series.

Monte Irvin: Born 1919

Irvin was born in Haleburg, Alabama, in 1919, although he grew up in New Jersey, where he was a four-sport star in high school. Here's something that may blow you away: Irvin was born the same year as Jackie Robinson (Branch Rickey had wanted to sign Irvin along with Robinson when Irvin got out of the service in World War II but Irvin elected to play in the Negro Leagues before eventually signing a few years later with the New York Giants). This is the blow-you-away part: Irvin is still alive, 95 years old; Robinson, sadly, has been deceased 41 years.

How good was Irvin? He was 30 before he reached the major leagues, 31 in his first full season. From 1950 to 1953, when he was 31 to 34 years old, he hit .314/.403/.511 -- ranking eighth in the majors in OPS over that span. Considering he was probably already slightly past his peak, that tells you what kind of hitter he was before reaching the major leagues. He also mentored Willie Mays when Mays was called up in 1951. The Giants, of course, rallied to beat the Dodgers to win the pennant and Irvin led the league in RBIs and finished third in the MVP voting.

In 1973, Irvin became the fourth Negro Leagues player elected to Cooperstown, following Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard. Was he the fourth-greatest Negro Leagues player? No, he wasn't. Oscar Charleston was certainly the better all-around player, a center fielder many compared to Willie Mays (Buck O'Neil said Charleston was better). Pop Lloyd was a shortstop Connie Mack said was the equal of Honus Wagner. A few others. But Irvin was clearly highly regarded, although I'm guessing it helped that he played a few years in the majors for a prominent franchise and remained in the game (he was working for the commissioner's office when elected).

Here's a video clip with a few highlights of Irvin playing for the Giants.

Andy Pafko: Born 1921

Pafko just passed away last October at the age of 92, so maybe Feb. 25 is a good day to be born to live a long life. Pafko had a 17-year career and played in four World Series with three different franchises. He was a good player with two outstanding peak seasons in 1948 (6.2 WAR) and 1950 (6.6 WAR) and finished with 36.7 career WAR. His SABR bio points out that he played in the last World Series the Cubs reached in 1945, was in left field for the Dodgers when Bobby Thomson's home run soared into the stands over his head and returned to his home state of Wisconsin to play for the Braves when they moved from Boston (he was the right fielder before Henry Aaron). Known for his strong arm, Pafko hit as many as 36 home runs in a season and three times hit .300.

In many ways, Pafko was a symbol of his generation of Americans. His parents immigrated from Czechoslovakia (two older sibling were born there) to Wisconsin, where they owned a 200-acre diary farm. Pafko grew up milking cows ... and playing baseball. He started out playing in local amateur leagues before signing with Eau Claire of the Northern League in 1940 and eventually getting purchased by the Cubs. After nine years with the Cubs, fans were crushed when he was traded to the Dodgers.

Ron Santo: Born 1940

I'm sure you know the Santo story. Long a controversial Hall of Fame candidate -- arguably the best player not in the Hall of Fame for many years, until he was finally elected a year after he passed away in 2010. Here's what Nick Pietruszkiewicz wrote on the SweetSpot blog when Santo was finally elected.

Cesar Cedeno: Born 1951

Most Wins Above Replacement through age-23, position players: Ty Cobb, Ted Williams, Mel Ott, Ken Griffey Jr., Mickey Mantle, Alex Rodriguez, Al Kaline, Arky Vaughan, Rogers Hornsby, Andruw Jones, Eddie Mathews, Jimmie Foxx, Cesar Cedeno.

Paul O'Neill: Born 1956

A good player for the Reds, the Yankees got him for Roberto Kelly in what was essentially a challenge trade. With the Yankees, O'Neill quit trying to hit everything out of the park (Lou Piniella wanted him to hit home runs) and settled into being a line-drive hitter with 20-homer power. A .259 hitter with the Reds, O'Neill hit .300 his first six years with the Yankees, including a .359 mark in 1994 to win the batting title. Here's a trivia question: How many players set their career high in stolen bases in their final season? O'Neill stole 22 bases in 2001, when he was 38.

(I don't if anyone else did it. Where's ESPN Stats & Info when you need those guys?)

A pretty good pair of birthdays for Feb. 24, plus a 200-game winner (Wilbur Cooper), a four-time All-Star (Mike Lowell), a guy nicknamed "Suitcase" because he was traded so often (Bob Seeds) and guys named Steamboat, Bugs, Stubby, Bubba and Pinky.

Honus Wagner: Born 1874

In the first Hall of Fame election in 1936, Wagner received the same number of votes as Babe Ruth. The eligibility rules weren't well defined then (Ruth had played in 1935), but I suspect the vote totals tell how much the writers of the time respected Wagner. These days, Wagner is almost as famous for the rare T206 baseball card he appeared on -- one sold last year for $2.1 million -- as for being the greatest shortstop of all time.

How great was Wagner? Earlier today, I ran a list of Derek Jeter's annual rankings among all major league shortstops via WAR; Jeter ranked No. 1 in one season and in the top three in three other years. Cal Ripken, by way of comparison, ranked as the best shortstop in five seasons and in the top three in five other seasons. Wagner? Here are is annual rankings among all position players, not just shortstops, beginning with 1899, when he played for Louisville (he moved to the Pirates in 1900 when the Louisville franchise was folded):

1899: 5.8 WAR, 4th
1900: 6.5 WAR, 1st
1901: 7.1 WAR, 3rd
1902: 7.2 WAR, 1st
1903: 7.6 WAR, 2nd
1904: 8.2 WAR, 2nd
1905: 10.1 WAR, 1st
1906: 9.3 WAR, 3rd
1907: 8.9 WAR, 1st
1908: 11.5 WAR, 1st
1909: 9.1 WAR, 3rd
1910: 5.2 WAR, 8th
1911: 6.6 WAR, 3rd
1912: 8.1 WAR, 6th

Wagner fell out of the top 10 in 1913 and 1914 and ranked ninth in 1915 -- of course, he was 41 years old then. That's one of the most amazing things about Wagner's career; he was one of the greatest old players ever. In his first year in organized baseball in 1895 he was already 21 years old and played for five different teams in three different leagues. Ed Barrow, a former newspaper reporter, was part-owner of the Wheeling (W. Va.) franchise in the Interstate League that year, one of the leagues Wagner played in, and saw Wagner play. When Barrow and a partner bought the Paterson team of the Atlantic League for 1896, he signed Wagner and thus is often credited with "discovering" Wagner. Barrow would later gain fame for managing the Red Sox to the World Series title in 1918 and turning Ruth into a full-time position player. He left the Red Sox after 1920 and became the business manager of the Yankees (or the general manager as we would now label the position), helping build their dynasty of the 1920s and '30s and eventually get elected to Hall of Fame.

Anyway, Barrow would sell Wagner to the Louisville Colonels of the National League in 1897. Wagner looked awkward, with his heavily muscled upper torso and bowed legs, but he was a tremendous athlete. His first year big season with Louisville came when he was 25 and he didn't become a full-time shortstop until 1903, when he was 29. Nonetheless, in his 30s he averaged 8.0 WAR per season. Like Ty Cobb, he hit with hands split apart, a conventional style of the day. He led the NL eight times in batting average, four times in on-base percentage, six times in slugging percentage, five times in RBIs and five times in stolen bases. Imagine a player today who was the best hitter in the league, the best baserunner and played a good shortstop. I think Hans would make a pretty good living.

Wagner's best season was 1908, when he towered over the rest of the National League. In a season dominated by pitchers, he hit .354; only four others hit .300. He had a .542 slugging percentage; the No. 2 guy was .452 and only three others reached .400. He led with 109 RBIs; the No. 4 was already all the way down to 71. He led the league in hits, doubles, triples, total bases and stolen bases. It's on the short list of best seasons ever.

According to his SABR bio, Wagner had "retired" after the 1907 season, saying he had made enough money and was happy hunting, fishing, raising chickens and opening an automobile garage where he loved tinkering with the engines. But Wagner also hated spring training, often holding out or reporting late. Maybe it was just a ruse to get a larger salary; if so, it worked. (He signed for $10,000, becoming the highest-paid player in the game.)

Wagner's biggest moment probably was the 1909 World Series, when the Pirates faced the Tigers and their young star Cobb. Wagner hit .333, drove in six runs and stole six bases while Cobb hit .231 and stole only two bases. The Pirates won in seven games.

In the SABR bio of Wagner, Jan Finkel writes,
Honus Wagner was no angel or saint. Some opponents thought him a fine fellow off the diamond but overly rough on it. Most umpires thought he "kicked" too much. He affected to dislike formal affairs, but he really hated the next morning. Yet he also embodied the American dream as the son of immigrants who rose from humble roots to greatness. Frailties aside, he was one of baseball's first heroes, a basically gentle, hard-working man, a loyal friend and teammate who treated young players kindly.

I sometimes get asked, "Who would you like to see play that you didn't?" I'm not sure Wagner is No. 1 on my list but he'd be right up there.

Eddie Murray: Born 1956

My favorite fun Eddie Murray fact: He was a teammate at Locke High School in Los Angeles of Ozzie Smith. I'd say that was a pretty high school infield.

So my friend Victor doesn't think Murray is a Hall of Famer. His argument has always been, "Did you ever pay money to go see Murray play?" I try to tell him for a few years there Murray was one of the best -- and dare I say, feared -- hitters in the league. From 1980 to 1985, Murray finished sixth, fifth, second, second, fourth and fifth in the MVP voting with the Orioles. He also finished fifth in the 1990 NL vote while with the Dodgers (it's easy to forget those Dodgers years ... or those Mets years).

Was Murray a star? I thought I'd run the Jeter test on Murray as well, and see where he ranked among all major first basemen and the overall leader that year:

1977: 3.2 WAR, 8th (Rod Carew: 9.7)
1978: 4.3 WAR, 6th (Jason Thompson: 5.6)
1979: 4.9 WAR, 3rd (Keith Hernandez: 7.9)
1980: 4.4 WAR, 3rd (Cecil Cooper: 6.8)
1981: 3.8 WAR, 3rd (Hernandez and Cooper: 4.2)
1982: 5.2 WAR, 2nd (Cooper: 5.6)
1983: 6.6 WAR, 1st
1984: 7.0 WAR, 1st
1985: 5.6 WAR, 2nd (Don Mattingly: 6.4)
1986: 4.1 WAR, 6th (Mattingly: 7.2)
1987: 3.8 WAR, 9th (Jack Clark: 5.4)
1988: 3.2 WAR, 9th (Will Clark: 6.6)
1989: 2.0 WAR, 16th (Will Clark: 8.6)
1990: 5.1 WAR, 4th (Cecil Fielder: 6.6)

That was it for Murray as a top-10 first baseman. He did have one last big year in 1995 while DHing for the Indians, hitting .323. Still, that 1979-1985 run was a pretty solid peak.

Truth be told though, Murray was a bit of a compiler. His triple-slash line of .287/.359/.476 is basically the same, for example, as Kent Hrbek's .282/.367/.481. But Murray hung around long enough to get 3,000 hits and punch out 504 home runs and drive in over 1,900 runs. He was a plus with the glove and, like Jeter, remarkably durable, playing 150-plus in 15 of his first 17 seasons.

They called him "Steady Eddie" and that fit perfectly.

Happy Birthday, Ruben Amaro Jr.

February, 12, 2014
A fun day for birthdays. A quick rundown of some of the interesting names ...

Chick Hafey: Born 1903

Hafey was a big league regular for only six seasons -- in spite of which the Veterans Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame in a weak moment in 1971. Hafey wore big, thick glasses and probably played most of his career with something less than 20-20 vision. His SABR bio reports that he had sinus surgery after the 1926 season and his eyesight may have been affected as a result of that. Others have suggested an infected tooth caused his vision problems. Hafey himself said, "Sinus surgery helped, and so did glasses, but often I’d have double vision. Bright days bothered me. The cold climate, after coming up from Florida every spring, made the first month particularly tough and painful." He still hit .318 in his career (which isn't as impressive as it sounds for the era he played in) and won the batting title with the Cardinals in 1931. Here's a factoid that will win you a bar bet: Who hit cleanup for the National League in the first All-Star Game? Chick Hafey.

Dom DiMaggio: Born 1917
About two years younger than his Hall of Fame brother, Dom was a heck of a ballplayer as well even though he looked more like your high school math teacher than a Red Sox center fielder (his nickname was "The Little Professor"). He was a seven-time All-Star, a plus defender in center (many regarded him a better center fielder than Joe), hit .298 in his career and drew as many as 101 walks in a season, pushing his career on-base percentage to .383.

Pat Dobson: Born 1942
One of four members of the 1971 Orioles to win 20 games, along with Dave McNally, Jim Palmer and Mike Cuellar. The next year, Dobson lowered his ERA by 0.25 and led the league in losses. After winning 122 games in the majors, Dobson served as the pitching coach for the Brewers, Padres, Royals and Orioles and scouted for other teams. He passed away from leukemia in 2006.

Don Wilson: Born 1945
A hard-throwing right-hander for the Astros from 1966 to 1974, Wilson pitched two no-hitters and went 104-92 in his career, which came to a tragic end in January 1975 when he was found dead in his car with the engine running in the garage. His 5-year-old son also died. (You often hear Wilson's death reported as a suicide, but the official cause of death was ruled accidental.) Here's the obit of Wilson's death. The article points out that Wilson was born in Monroe, La., on the same as day as basketball great Bill Russell (although both graduated from high school in California, Wilson in Los Angeles, Russell in Oakland).

Enzo Hernandez: Born 1949
Part of the trade that brought Dobson to the Orioles from the Padres, Hernandez is famous for one of the most futile seasons at the plate in major league history: In 1971, he batted 618 times for the Padres and drove in 12 runs.

Lenny Randle: Born 1949
One of the great moments in Mariners history.

Don Stanhouse: Born 1951
Stanhouse hung around the big leagues for 10 seasons, gaining his most fame as the closer for the Orioles in 1978 and 1979. He was a fastball/slider guy, known for being maybe the slowest-working pitcher of his era, and also known for his two nicknames: "Stan the Man Unusual" and "Full Pack," a name given to him by Earl Weaver as Weaver joked he nervously smoked a complete pack of cigarettes when Stanhouse would close out a game. In looking at his statistics, you can see why Weaver was never exactly comfortable handing the ball to Stanhouse: Over those two seasons, he saved 45 games with a 2.87 ERA but walked 103 batters in 147.1 innings while striking out just 76. He made the All-Star team in '79 even though he had 34 walks and 20 strikeouts at the break. Yes, times have changed. Stanhouse signed a big five-year, $2.1 million contract (no sabermetric analysis back then!) as a free agent with the Dodgers, but hurt his shoulder. Here's a good bio of Stanhouse.

Chet Lemon: Born 1955
The center fielder on the 1984 World Series champion Tigers, Lemon was a very underrated player, a guy who hit as high as .318, hit as many as 24 home runs, drew as many as 71 walks and played a good center field. He never did all those in the same season; otherwise, he'd be in the Hall of Fame. But he was a valuable player for a lot of years. He recorded 509 putouts in center field in 1977 with the White Sox, a total Baseball-Reference lists as the third highest for a center fielder.

Ruben Amaro Jr.: Born 1965
Still the general manager of the Phillies.

Happy Birthday, Babe Ruth

February, 6, 2014
We've been in a daylong baseball planning meeting here at ESPN, so I'm short on time. But we can't ignore Babe Ruth's birthday. I figure you know about him, anyway. This is also the 100th anniversary of the start of his career. Ruth made his debut with the Red Sox on July 11, starting against the Indians. He allowed eight hits in seven innings and -- get this -- was removed for a pinch hitter in the bottom of the inning, picking up the win when the Red Sox scored to take the lead.

Ruth would appear in just four more games with the Red Sox that year (he was sent down to Providence in August), starting twice and making one pinch-hitting appearance. He was a regular in the rotation the next season, winning 18 games and helping the Red Sox win the World Series. That year, Ruth hit four home runs -- and allowed three. He repeated that feat again in 1916 and 1918, hitting more home runs than he allowed.

Ruth's legacy is simple: He played his first game 100 years ago and we still talk about him as the greatest player in the game's history. Doesn't that say it all?

Oh, and the second-greatest player born on Feb. 6? Probably former 1970s and '80s outfielder Richie Zisk or longtime catcher Smoky Burgess (who made nine All-Star teams). And then there's Dale Long, who shares the record of homering in eight consecutive games with Don Mattingly and Ken Griffey Jr.

Happy 80th birthday, Hank Aaron

February, 5, 2014
When I was in second grade, my teacher, Mr. Nichols, gave me an old, beat-up poster of Willie Mays. I think it had been run through a washing machine because it was all wrinkled and full of creases. I hung it on my wall anyway. At the same time, my grandmother gave me the first baseball book I remember reading, a biography of Mays.

I was a Willie Mays fan, if forced to choose between him and Hank Aaron. (Although, I'm not sure if that ever discussion ever came up much when I was a kid, considering both players were retired by the time I was in second grade.)

You get the impression that for kids of the '60s, it was Mays over Aaron, as well. That's part of the Aaron story: underrated, perhaps not fully appreciated until it was he, and not Mays, who broke Babe Ruth's home run record. Even then, he had to deal with the racism from people who didn't want a black man breaking Ruth's record. As Vin Scully described it at the time, "What a marvelous moment for the country and the world. A black man is getting a standing ovation in the Deep South for breaking a record of an all-time baseball idol. And it is a great moment for all of us."

The dignity and quiet strength Aaron displayed as he chased down Ruth is also a big part of his story, but even then nobody really said Aaron was better than Ruth, never mind that Ruth played in a segregated era. When Barry Bonds later passed Aaron, a new generation of fans learned about Aaron and his remarkable career, and we old-timers were reminded once again of one of the best ballplayers who ever played.

Aaron turns 80 today and I'm sure those who grew up in Milwaukee or Atlanta watching Aaron hit all those home runs and perform with consistent greatness year after year can't believe he's that old.

* * * *

It's almost too bad that the signature highlight of Aaron's career is the home run off Al Downing to pass Ruth. He was 40 then, a little thicker around the middle, no longer the lithe, young athletic right fielder. Our lasting image of Mays is his impossible catch in the 1954 World Series, racing back, back, back. For Aaron, it's a middle-aged man rounding the bases.

Because of that, it's easy to forget what a terrific all-around player Aaron was in his prime, hitting for power (he led the league four times in home runs), batting average (he twice led in average and hit above .320 eight times), stealing bases (he ranked as high as second in the NL in steals) and playing a great right field (he won three Gold Gloves and Baseball-Reference credits him with the sixth-most runs saved on defense among right fielders).

Several years ago, Aaron voiced the thought that he should have won more than one MVP Award, suggesting writers didn't vote for him because they didn't want a black player winning. Aaron won his MVP Award in 1957, when the Milwaukee Braves won the pennant and he hit .322 while leading the league with 44 home runs, 132 RBIs and 118 runs. Here's Aaron hitting the pennant-clinching home run that year.

Should he have won another one or two? He finished third in the voting five more times after that (plus 1956), but he wasn't necessarily robbed of any awards. First off, many black players were MVP Award winners in those days; from 1953 through 1969, 14 of the 19 NL MVP winners were black and two were Latin Americans (Roberto Clemente and Orlando Cepeda). Aaron didn't win, in part, because the Braves won just one more pennant (in 1958) and one division title (in 1969) during his career. You can argue that the Braves of the late '50s and early '60s -- with Aaron, Eddie Mathews, Warren Spahn, Joe Adcock and Joe Torre -- should have won more than two pennants, but they didn't.

Not that it was Aaron's fault. He was great every year. Baseball-Reference rates him as above 7.0 WAR every season except two between 1956 and 1969; he slipped all the way down to 6.8 in 1964 and 1968. B-R rates him as the best player in the NL just once, in 1961 (Frank Robinson won the MVP Award while Aaron finished eighth in the voting). It rates Aaron as the second-best player three times and third-best four times, usually behind Mays. The NL was loaded with talent in those days: Aaron, Mays, Robinson, Clemente, Mathews, Ernie Banks, Sandy Koufax, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal -- not just Hall of Famers, but top-tier Hall of Famers. It was hard for anyone to win multiple MVP Awards.

My favorite Aaron story is a famous one: As a kid, he used a cross-handed batting grip. The story goes that he kept hitting this way even while he played for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues before he signed with the Boston Braves in 1952 and was sent to Class C Eau Claire, where coaches finally corrected his hitting style.

I doubt the story is true. For one thing: Try hitting that way. I don't see how you could generate enough power, but Aaron did hit five home runs in his stay with the Clowns. Plus, I can't see any coach letting a player hit that way. In Howard Bryant's biography of Aaron, "The Last Hero: A Life of Henry Aaron," he writes of Aaron's time in Eau Claire, but makes no mention of Aaron changing a cross-handed grip. The story is a good one but unlikely to be true.

What is true, however, is that Mays and Aaron nearly played together. The New York Giants, who already had Mays, were also scouting Aaron, but the Braves reportedly offered $50 more a month, so Aaron signed with them. Think about that on Aaron's 80th birthday.
Is Jan. 31 the greatest birth date in major league history? We have Jackie Robinson, Ernie Banks and Nolan Ryan -- three all-timers, three legends. There are eight other dates with three Hall of Fame players -- and one with four -- but no other trio can match up with Jackie, Ernie and Nolan. You only need first names for those guys.

The trouble with calling Jan. 31 the greatest birth date ever is that there isn't much behind our three Hall of Famers. There are two other All-Stars, pitchers Josh Johnson and Hank Aguirre, a lefty who led the AL in ERA in 1962 and won 75 games. After that? George Burns was a first baseman with five different American League teams from 1914 to 1929. A good player (34.2 career WAR), and he even won the 1926 AL MVP Award. The rules were different then, as previous winners were ineligible, so no Babe Ruth. Burns hit .358 and drove in 115 runs although with just four home runs. The Indians finished three games behind the first-place Yankees so that helped him in the voting.

But you know who's fourth on the games played list for Jan. 31 birthday boys? Yuniesky Betancourt. After that is 1970s catcher Fred Kendall, father of Jason. Ryan is seventh, and he was a pitcher. There hasn't been even one middling outfielder born on this date. I'm not sure if you fielded teams for every calendar date that the Jan. 31 team would be near the top, but I haven't done the research to say that with any confidence. I do like the double-play combo, however.

Since you know all about Robinson, Banks and Ryan, let's write about the No. 6 guy in games played born on Jan. 31.

Bob "Death to Flying Things" Ferguson: Born 1845

Yes, that really was his nickname, one that certainly qualifies as one of the most creative in major league history. You'd think he was an outfielder, but he was primarily a third baseman (although he played many positions earlier in his career), so Death to Flying Things must have been pretty nifty at snaring line drives -- particularly impressive since it's believed he never used a glove.

Born in Brooklyn in 1845, Ferguson was 26 when the National Association, the first professional league, was formed in 1871. In "The New Bill James Historical Abstract," James writes that "Ferguson was one of the best players in the nation for many years before the major leagues were organized. James quotes an 1871 article in the New York Herald Tribune:
Ferguson, captain of the Atlantic nine, was formerly a quiet hard working member of the nine but since he has been crowned with a little brief authority, he lords over his men in an insultingly demonstrative way that cannot fail to wound the feelings of the nine, make them sulky and indifferent and act against the interest and success of the club.

I'm not sure about the date of that piece. Ferguson was the player-manager for the New York Mutuals in 1871 and then returned to the Brooklyn Atlantics in 1872, 1873 and 1874, so I'm not sure if the article is referring to Ferguson's time with the Mutuals or Atlantics. Anyway, he moved around: Hartford for two years (the Dark Blues were an inaugural member of the National League in 1876), Brooklyn in 1877 when the franchise moved, Chicago in 1878, Troy from 1879 to 1882, Philadelphia in 1883 and then Pittsburgh of the American Association in 1884. That ended his days as a player-manager and he would manage the New York Metropolitans of the AA in 1886 and 1887. Ferguson's teams never finished higher than third place and his career winning percentage was .447, so maybe his insultingly demonstrative ways did have a negative influence on his clubs.

Ferguson's biggest claim to fame is that he was apparently the first batter to switch-hit, or at least the first on record. He did this in 1870, in a famous game between the Cincinnati Red Stockings and the Atlantics in Brooklyn, before an estimated crowd of 20,000. The game went extra innings and Ferguson apparently switched to the left side so he could avoid hitting the ball to Cincinnati shortstop George Wright. Ferguson's grounder went under the first baseman's glove to tie the game and he came all the around to score the winning run when the Red Stockings threw the ball away. It was Cincinnati's first defeat since 1868 and Ferguson was the hero.

It's not known how often Ferguson would switch-hit; he would apparently use it as a strategic initiative rather than to get a platoon advantage. His statistical record in the National Association and then the National League suggests a good player, but not a great one. He had little power (one career home run), even for an era when nobody hit home runs, and was a .265 career hitter. He did hit .351 for Chicago in 1878 and Baseball-Reference rates Ferguson as the second-best position player in the National League that year.

Why did he move around so much? This quote from an article on 19th-century players perhaps sums it up: "It was his character and unquestioned honesty during a period when games were often decided by gamblers which made him different. His bad temper, stubbornness and honesty were traits that caused him to be disliked."

Indeed. From the excellent SABR bio of Ferguson:

Sam Crane wrote of Ferguson, “Turmoil was his middle name, and if he wasn’t mixed up prominently in a scrap of some kind nearly every day, he would imagine he had not been of any use to the baseball fraternity and the community in general.” The Sporting News put it this way: “Ferguson had few friends among the players. He was a man of too blunt ways to cultivate friendships of many and he courted the ill rather than the good will of his fellow men.” A striking example of this could be boldly seen on his very person. With Hartford, he wore a white belt with the words “I AM CAPTAIN” in capital letters just in case someone was unsure of who was in charge. The Brooklyn Eagle exclaimed, “Ferguson is the sternest manager in the country.” Naturally, this tended to alienate the other men on the field. The New York Clipper took it a step further: “He is a bully who most players are afraid of and consequently none respect.”

By the way, that article points out something very interesting. Ferguson was apparently shifting his defenses against pull hitters, at least more than other managers of the day. "Many years’ active service on the ball field has given Ferguson an excellent opportunity for studying batsmen, and he has not failed to profit by it," wrote the Louisville Courier-Journal. "No nine in the country last season excelled the Hartfords in fielding, and Ferguson was at the bottom of it all." Against some hitters, Ferguson would play his third baseman in the shortstop's position. Eat your heart out, Joe Maddon.

In his spare time, Ferguson umpired games and served as one of the initial directors of the National League. After his managing days, he continued to umpire for a few years. He collapsed in his Brooklyn home at the age of 49 in 1894 and died a few hours later. A lifelong bachelor, he was a smoker; the likely cause of death was a stroke, aneurysm or heart failure.

This is just a brief synopsis of one baseball's most prominent figures from the 19th century. I urge you to read Brian McKenna's in-depth essay for more details on one of baseball's pioneers.

Happy Birthday, Mark Wohlers

January, 23, 2014
Back to our birthday posts. We missed Jan. 21 (Rusty Greer, Mike Krukow, Lew Fonseca and Johnny Oates) and Jan. 22 (Chone Figgins, who just signed a minor league deal with the Dodgers). It seems we've run into a bad stretch of calendar dates. The only All-Stars born on Jan. 22 were Figgins, Carlos Riuz and Ubaldo Jimenez, each with just one appearance. Only former reliever Dave Smith (two appearances) and Krukow were Jan. 21 All-Stars. We get four All-Stars for today, Jan. 23: Chico Carrasquel (four), Frank Sullivan (two), Mark Wohlers (one) and Randy Gumpert (one). Maybe Jeff Samardzija will make it one day.

Kurt Bevacqua: Born 1947

If you're my age, you probably remember Bevacqua for three things. He won the 1975 bubble-gum blowing contest, which got him this card in the 1976 Topps set. He called Tommy Lasorda a "fat little Italian," which led to this infamous Lasorda rant (NSFW). After hitting .200 with one home run for the Padres in 1984, he hit .412 with two home runs and four RBIs in the World Series, although the Padres lost to the Tigers in five games.

Bevacqua had another curious baseball card. The Mariners had purchased his contract from the Brewers heading into their inaugural season in 1997. But Bevacqua lost out on the starting shortstop job to Craig Reynolds and the Mariners released him at the end of spring training. His 1977 Topps card, however, shows him in an airbrushed Mariners cap.

Bevacqua carved out a 15-year career as a utility infielder and pinch-hitter, only four times getting as many as 200 plate appearances. He was usually the 24th or 25th man on a roster; today, that spot belongs to a reliever so he'd have trouble hanging around as long as he did.

Mark Wohlers: Born 1970

One of the hardest-throwing relievers of the '90s (or any era), Wohlers got the final out of the 1995 World Series for the Braves, but his career is still prone to some what-ifs.

What if he had developed a little more quickly into the Braves' closer?

What if he hadn't thrown that hanger to Jim Leyritz?

What if he hadn't developed Steve Blass disease?

Wohlers first reached the majors in August of 1991, just 21 years old. He appeared in six postseason games and looked like the future closer with his 100-mph fastball. But he spent part of the next two seasons in the minors, still trying to master his control, although he was on Atlanta's postseason roster both years.

The Braves lost in the 1992 World Series to the Blue Jays, with one of the critical blows being a pinch-hit home run Ed Sprague hit off veteran closer Jeff Reardon to win Game 2. Reardon had come over late in the season to replace the injured Alejandro Pena. Bobby Cox didn't yet trust his younger relievers. In Game 3, Steve Avery allowed a leadoff single in the ninth inning of a tie game. Wohlers came on to face Joe Carter, but after Roberto Alomar stole second, was ordered to intentionally walk Carter. Candy Maldonado eventually hit the game-winning single off Reardon.

In 1993, Mike Stanton and Greg McMichael shared closer duties. The Phillies won the NLCS in six games -- the Braves losing twice in 10 innings, with Wohlers getting the loss in Game 5 when Lenny Dykstra homered in the top of the 10th.

In 1995, the Braves won the one championship during their run of 14 division titles in a row (depending on how you count 1994 when the Expos had hte better record when the strike hit).

The most memorable moment of Wohlers' career came in the 1996 World Series. The Braves had won the first two games against the Yankees and were up 2 games to 1 when Wohlers entered in the eighth inning of Game 4 with a 6-3 lead. Remember when closers would go more than one inning? Charlie Hayes reached on an infield single, Darryl Strawberry singled and after an out Jim Leyritz launched a three-run homer to left on a 2-2 hanging slider. The Yankees went on to win that game in the 10th inning (Avery got the loss) and then won the next two to take the series.

Same say Wohlers was never the same after that, like Mitch Williams after Carter's home run in 1993. That's not really true. Wohlers was pretty effective in 1997 with a 3.50 ERA and 33 saves, although his walk rate did spike up. It wasn't until 1998 that Wohlers suddenly lost the ability to throw strikes, walking 33 batters in 20 innings. Demoted to Triple-A, he walked 37 batters in just 13 innings.

In retrospect, it seems pretty clear that Wohlers was probably injured. Through May 2 he had a 1.93 ERA and 15 strikeouts and nine walks in 9.1 innings. He then three spent three weeks on the DL, returning on May 25. That's when he suddenly started walking everybody, including five in a one-inning appearance in July.

The Braves lost in the NLCS that year to the Padres -- a 10-inning loss in Game 1 set the tone. Wohlers was traded to the Reds in April of 1999. He was first placed on the DL with anxiety disorder but eventually underwent Tommy John surgery. He eventually returned to the majors and had a couple decent years in 2001 and 2002 but re-injured his elbow and called it career.

Wohlers had three good seasons closing for the Braves from 1995 to 1997. But ... what if ... what if ...

Not a great list of birthdays for Jan. 20. The best player born on this day is Brian Giles, who had a pretty amazing peak with the Pirates from 1999 to 2002, when he averaged .309/.426/.604 with 37 home runs and 108 walks. He was probably the most underrated player in the game at that time, mostly because the Pirates were awful so nobody cared much what Giles was doing. He remained an effective offensive player through age 37 due to his ability to get on base -- he finished with a career .400 OBP.

Anyway, two others born on this date ...

Ozzie Guillen: Born 1964

Would Ozzie have a career if he came up today? With his lack of power and his disgraceful on-base percentages (.287 career), front offices would be more aware of his offensive shortcomings than they were in the 1980s. Still, Ozzie -- while not as good as the other Ozzie -- was a pretty good defensive shortstop and I suspect he would have carved out a career as a starter for at least a few seasons, at least until his defense started to slip.

In fact, the defensive metrics we do have rate Guillen as a superb defender early in his career, until he tore up his knee in 1992 in a collision with Tim Raines (missing almost all of that season). From his rookie season in 1985 to 1991, Baseball-Reference rates him at +116 runs in the field; over the same span, Ozzie Smith (granted, he was older) rates at +117. Guillen won just one Gold Glove in 1990 as Tony Fernandez won four in a row from 1986 to 1989. There were some good defensive shortstops in the AL in those days: Alan Trammell was still playing well, Cal Ripken, Greg Gagne with the Twins, Omar Vizquel came up in 1989. Fernandez won the Gold Gloves -- he had a terrific arm -- but I suspect Guillen and Ripken were the two best in that period. Guillen's defense was good enough that he averaged 2.7 WAR those first seven seasons.

He was pretty useless after that, although he remained the White Sox's starting shortstop through 1997. He never walked, didn't run much after the knee injury and a new generation of power-hitting shortstops came along.

And Ozzie the manager? Hey, he won as many World Series as Bobby Cox. I suspect his managing days are probably over.

David Eckstein: Born 1975

Like Guillen (who was traded as a minor leaguer from the Padres to the White Sox), Eckstein was dumped by his initial organization. A 19th-round draft pick of the Red Sox out of the University of Florida in 1997, Eckstein was an on-base machine in the minors: .407 in the New-York Penn League, .428 at Sarasota, .440 in Double-A. Still, he was never much of a prospect -- he was too small at 5-foot-6 and his arm at second base was considered weak. When he struggled at Triple-A in 2000, hitting .246 with a .301 slugging percentage, the Red Sox placed him on waivers in August. The Angels picked him up.

Then the most remarkable thing happened. Eckstein not only became a starter in the majors at age 26, he became a starting shortstop. He had played just 17 games at shortstop in the minors, 16 of those in Class A ball in 1998. Considering his arm was questionable for second base, how did he end up as a shortstop -- and, eventually, a two-time World Series champion shortstop?

It wasn't really any genius on the part of Angels manager Mike Scioscia recognizing something the Red Sox never did. It was a series of fortunate events for Eckstein. He began the 2001 season as the starting second baseman only because Adam Kennedy began the year on the disabled list with a broken bone in his hand. Benji Gil was the starting shortstop. In early April, Eckstein started taking grounders at shortstop in practice, with the hope that maybe he could turn into a utility guy, but even then Scioscia said he'd probably need game action in the minors to see if he could handle the position.

Eckstein didn't go to the minors. Instead, the club sent down utility infielder Jose Nieves. Eckstein eventually got some starts at shortstop and played well enough to impress Scioscia. While Gil was hitting .361 at the end of April, he'd also committed six errors. If Gil played defense that month, who knows what would've happened? By early May, Eckstein was the regular starter. In the end, you credit Eckstein's work habits and ability, but you do have to credit Scioscia for looking past Eckstein's weak arm to realize he had enough range to handle the position. Most managers wouldn't have played a guy there who sometimes took a couple steps before throwing the ball.

In 2002, Eckstein had his best year, hitting .293/.363/.388, playing good defense, stealing some bases, getting hit by a league-leading 27 pitches and also leading the league in sacrifice bunts. He was worth 5.2 WAR and he finished 11th in the MVP voting. The Angels won the World Series and Eckstein hit .310 with six runs scored. In 2004, he hit .276/.339/.332. That offseason the Angels signed free agent Orlando Cabrera to play shortstop and let Eckstein go. He signed with the Cardinals, made it to two All-Star Games and won another World Series in 2006 -- winning MVP honors by hitting .364 with several key hits.

It's a cliché and has been said many times about him, but Eckstein got as much out of his talent and physical skills as any player in recent history. The whole scrappy/gritty thing got a little out of hand, but in his case it had an element of truth to it. He didn't reach the majors until he was 26, but still recorded over 1,400 hits, played in four postseasons and won two rings. That's a heck of a career for a weak-armed second baseman.

Happy birthday, Albert Pujols

January, 16, 2014
I'm going to try something new here. Maybe this will be a one-time post, maybe I'll do it on occasion or maybe I'll do it for two months and get tired of doing it. Anyway, the idea is to look at each day's list of birthdays and write a short blurb about some of the players. So let's give it a shot.

Today looks like a pretty good day for birthdays -- two Hall of Famers plus a future Hall of Famer.

Jimmy Collins: Born in 1870

Collins was a turn-of-the-century third baseman known for his slick fielding, one of the stars of the National League powerhouse Boston Beaneaters. He jumped ship to the Boston Americans to become player-manager when the American League was founded in 1901. Can you imagine the uproar that must have caused? It would be like Robinson Cano leaving the Yankees to become player-manager of the Mets. Collins received a big raise in salary and a percentage of the team's profits and accused National League owners of holding down salaries (he was right). Collins was the manager of the Americans when they won the first World Series in 1903.

Those Beaneaters teams were dominant for much of the decade. They won championships in 1891, '92 and '93, and with Collins, they won National League pennants in 1897 (Collins hit .346 and drove in 132 runs) and 1898 (Collins hit .328 and led the league in home runs and total bases). The 1897 team featured four Hall of Famers (Collins, outfielders Hugh Duffy and the original Billy Hamilton, and pitcher Kid Nichols) and went 93-39 while outscoring its opponents 1,025 runs to 665. That's 7.6 runs per game. And you thought offense was out of control in the steroids era. The 1898 club went 102-47 and added a fifth Hall of Famer in pitcher Vic Willis. Manager Frank Selee is also in Cooperstown. The Boston clubs were known for their speed, probably utilizing the hit-and-run and double steal with runners on first and third more than any team of their era.

After his major league career ended, Collins played and managed a couple years in the minors before returning to his hometown of Buffalo, where he lived well off real-estate investments until the Depression wiped him out. It seems odd he never got another chance to manage in the majors, as his Boston teams were generally successful, but maybe he'd had enough with baseball. As Bill James has written, Collins was largely considered the greatest third baseman of all time up to the mid-'50s, but he's a forgotten star now. The Old Timers Committee elected him to the Hall of Fame in 1945, two years after his death.

Dizzy Dean: Born 1910

You probably know the Dizzy Dean story; or maybe not. If not, you should, as he's one of the most colorful characters in major league history, an American original, the last National League pitcher to win 30 games in a season and later a national broadcaster for ABC and CBS. He was a country boy from Arkansas, an image he played up both as a player and broadcaster. ("The Good Lord was good to me. He gave me a strong right arm, a good body, and a weak mind.")

Dean won 30 games in 1934 and two more in the World Series, including a Game 7 shutout to beat the Tigers. He won the MVP Award that year and followed that up with MVP runner-up finishes in 1935 (28-12, 29 complete games) and 1936 (24-13, 28 complete games and 11 saves). He was pitching as well as ever when he started the 1937 All-Star Game. Earl Averill smoked a line drive back to the mound that broke Dean's toe and, as the story goes, Dean came back too soon from the injury, altered his delivery so he wouldn't land as hard on his foot and hurt his shoulder.

Does the story hold up? It seems to. The All-Star Game was on July 7. Dean had thrown a shutout in his last start before the game. He returned on July 21 and made a few more starts -- pitching OK, although his strikeouts were down. He started on Aug. 8, but not again until Aug. 22. On Aug. 26, he started but left after one batter. He tried one more start before shutting it down for the season. So there's little doubt he wasn't the same after the All-Star Game.

The following April, the Cardinals traded Dean to the Cubs at the end of spring training. The AP article doesn't mention anything about Dean's injury problems from the year before, although it quotes teammate Pepper Martin saying this about his spring performance: "Well, he's been sort of in and out so far. He hasn't been pitching his fast ball." Terry Moore, another teammate, said, "Don't worry about that. We'll have his fast ball all right when he gets to Chicago." The article quotes a Cubs scout saying, "I'm convinced Dizzy is just as good as he ever was."

Dean actually went 7-1 with a 1.83 ERA with the Cubs, but he made just 10 starts. Sure, it could have just been a result of all those innings -- he averaged 306 innings from 1932 to 1936, often pitching in relief between starts -- but everything did fall apart after the broken toe. A 1942 newspaper story tells of Dean attempting a comeback (he had pitched one game for the Cubs in 1941), and mentions he was now throwing sidearm and a lot of slow curveballs. Dean said his shoulder didn't hurt, just that he no longer had his fastball.

Here's a question: If Dean had his career today, would he be elected to the Hall of Fame? He won just 150 games and basically had a six-year career. Kind of where Clayton Kershaw is right now. If Mike Trout hits a line drive off Kershaw in the 2014 All-Star Game, breaking his toe, and Kershaw proceeds to hurt his shoulder and scuffle along for a few years, does he get elected to the Hall of Fame? Probably not. (Of course, if Kershaw had Dean's personality ...)

Jack McDowell: Born 1966

As a Mariners fan, I have two quick recollections of McDowell: Randy Johnson should have won that 1993 Cy Young Award (OK, maybe Kevin Appier should have won it); and, of course, this play. A fun pitcher to watch, competitive, injuries cut his career short.

Albert Pujols: Born 1980 (no snickering)

Is there a more difficult player to project for 2014 than Pujols? It still seems too soon to dismiss his greatness, especially considering the foot injury he tried to play through in 2013. On the other hand, there is the trend line in his batting averages and slugging percentages: .357, .327, .312, .299, .285, .258; and .653, .658, .596, .541, .516, .437. In 2008 and 2009, he was a 9-WAR player and deservedly won two MVP trophies. In 2013, he was down to 1.5 WAR.

The projection systems don't know exactly what do with Pujols. Steamer has him at .282/.357/.515 -- basically a mirror image of 2012, when he hit 50 doubles and 30 home runs. Oliver has him at .263/.330/.446.

Pujols is still just 34 and he was pretty good in 2012, even if he wasn't the ALBERT PUJOLS of his Cardinals days. So the Angels have to believe that Pujols can rebound to his 2012 level. If he does and plays 150 games, they should be happy at this point. I'm inclined to bet he rebounds a bit -- that .280/.350/.500 line sounds about right.

Mark Trumbo: Born 1986

Happy birthday, Mark. May you hit 40 long ones for the Diamondbacks.