SweetSpot: Mark Littell

Happy birthday, Chili Davis

January, 17, 2014
Jan 17
1:17
PM ET
Today's birthdays include Trevor Bauer (is he ever going to live up to even half the hype?), Blake Beavan (still with the Mariners), Tanner Scheppers (will he close for the Rangers?) and the great Don Zimmer, who turns 83.

And three others:

Darrell Porter: Born 1952

Porter, a high school catcher from Oklahoma City, was the fourth pick in the 1970 draft by the Brewers. A year later he was in the majors. (Don't believe anyone when they say players are rushed to the majors these days.) In what would prove to be a terrible first round, Porter was one of only two first-round picks who even accumulated 10 career WAR. Porter would finish with 40.8, well ahead of Dan Ford's 11.8.

Porter became the Brewers' regular catcher in 1973 and hit .254 with 16 home runs and finished tied for third in the Rookie of the Year voting behind Al Bumbry and teammate Pedro Garcia. His Topps card that year had read "He is tabbed by observers as a coming superstar." He was an All-Star the next year. In 1975, he hit .232 but drew 89 walks and hit 18 home runs. He had an off year in 1976 -- I wonder if he played through an injury -- and hit .208 with just five home runs in 119 games. The Brewers, maybe disappointed that he hadn't turned into that superstar, traded him and Jim Colborn to the Royals for Jamie Quirk, Jim Wohlford and Bob McClure.

It would be a great trade for the Royals as Porter blossomed in Kansas City. He wore big glasses, which made him look more like a bank executive than a big league catcher, but he finished 10th in the 1978 MVP voting and was even better in 1979, when he hit .291 with 20 home runs, 112 RBIs and a league-leading 121 walks that helped him post a .421 OBP. It's one of the best seasons a catcher has ever had. In terms of WAR, Baseball-Reference ranks it as the sixth-best by a catcher since 1950, behind two years from Johnny Bench and one each from Mike Piazza, Gary Carter and Joe Mauer. Porter didn't play nearly as well in 1980 and had an awful World Series, hitting .143 and twice getting thrown out home, both times declining to charge into the catcher. The Royals let him leave as a free agent.

Whitey Herzog, who had managed him with the Royals, loved Porter and was happy to scoop him up for the Cardinals. Porter helped the Cardinals win the World Series in 1982 and won World Series MVP honors. Bill James has a great quote from Herzog about Porter in "The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract" -- "The basestealing we were known for wasn't really our foundation. That came in the form of a guy who couldn't get to first base any faster than I can, who wore big glasses, talked softer than a church mouse, missed the highlight reels and rarely made a dent in those glamour categories you read about in USA Today. But if you want to learn about winning, money-making baseball, look no further than the man I brought from Kansas City to squat behind the plate."

That's the baseball part of Porter's life. There was another side, however. In 1980, he checked himself into a rehab center during spring training. Amazingly, his 1979 season had come while he was abusing alcohol, cocaine, marijuana and Quaaludes. Porter cleaned up and became a born-again Christian, writing a book detailing his struggles with substance abuse. James wrote that Porter put on weight and lost his edge on the field.

Porter's life came to a tragic end in 2002. He left his house in Missouri to buy a newspaper and to stop by a local park to listen to music. He was later found dead at the park with traces of cocaine in his system.

Mark Littell: Born 1953

I first remember watching baseball in 1976 and thus one of my first -- and lasting -- memories is this home run to win the ALCS. Littell was the rookie reliever who served it up; he'd been very good that year and had allowed just one home run in 104 innings, but will be forever linked with Chris Chambliss. He was a fastball/slider guy, had one more good year with Kansas City and two with St. Louis before getting injured. Here's more on Littell's career.

Chili Davis: 1960

When I think of Chili Davis, I think of him DHing later in his career for the Yankees, or the Angels and Twins before that. So it's easy to forget that he came up with the Giants as a center fielder, a speedy switch-hitter born in Jamaica and drafted out of Dorsey High School in Los Angeles. Davis reached the majors in 1981 and was fourth in the 1982 Rookie of the Year voting. He was the last of a string of outstanding outfielders the Giants had produced over the previous decade:

1972: Garry Maddox (36.7 career WAR)
1973: Gary Matthews (30.2)
1976: Jack Clark (52.9)
1982: Davis (38.1)

And remember, Bobby Bonds had come up in 1968. Anyway, the Giants turned that into ... well, nothing. They always were screwing around too long with guys like Johnnie LeMaster or Larry Herndon or Enos Cabell. They won a division title in 1972 but not again until 1987. Maddox was traded in 1975 to the Phillies for Willie Montanez (although Montanez was then part of a trade that brought over Darrell Evans). Matthews signed as a free agent with the Braves in 1977. Clark was traded before the 1985 season for David Green, Dave LaPoint, Gary Rajsich and Jose Uribe. Davis signed with the Angels as a free agent after 1987.

Anyway, Chili's knees went bad, but he had a fine career as a DH. He had a big year with the Twins in 1991 when they signed him as a free agent and he hit .277 with 29 home runs and 93 walks and helped them to a World Series title. Davis had really learned how to work the count and draw some walks. He was, as they say, a professional hitter. When offense went up in the mid-'90s, so did Chili's, as he posted his career-best OPS numbers with the Angels in 1994 and 1995. He won two more rings with the Yankees in 1998 and 1999 and called it quits even though he was still reasonably productive.

Davis has received accolades as a hitting coach for the A's the past two seasons and could be a possible managerial candidate.

Hey, I made it two days with the birthday posts. There won't be any this weekend (Saturday's birthdays include Curt Flood, Brady Anderson and Brett Lawrie, while Sunday's include Black Sox ringleader Chick Gandil, Chris Sabo, Anthony Young, Phil Nevin and Jon Matlack), but maybe we'll do another one Monday.

As for this weekend ... Go Seahawks!

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