Monday, August 13, 2007

I Had No Idea: The Hitters (Pt. 2)

Will Clark (1986-2000)
(303/384/497, 2,176 H, 284 HR, 6 All-Star Games; 1 Gold Glove)

Will "The Thrill" was not only a very good defensive first baseman but an underrated hitter who put together a very good 15-year career. Will may not be a Hall-of-Famer, but he was a superstar who never got the credit he deserved.
Will was drafted out of Mississippi State by the Giants as the #2 overall pick in the 1985 draft. Will made the majors the following year and hit a home run in his first at-bat. He hit 287/343/444 in 1986 and finished 5th in Rookie of the Year voting.
He took a big step forward in '87 (as did the whole league), hitting 308/371/580. The Giants won the division, but lost in the NLCS (Clark hit 360/429/560). Will finished 5th in the NL MVP voting (this was probably a bit much; I've got him about 9th in the league that year. He was the second-most valuable Clark in the NL that year behind Jack of the Cardinals).

Will had another good season in '88 before breaking through with a truly excellent 1989. Clark hit 333/407/546 as the Giants won the pennant. Considering that Clark was hitting in pitcher-friendly Candlestick Park, and his numbers look even better. He finished 2nd in the MVP voting to teammate Kevin Mitchell (291/388/635) whose power and RBIs were more appealing to the voters. Clark and Mitchell eased the team past the Cubs in the NLCS, and the Giants went to their first World Series since 1962. The Giants got their behinds handed to them by the A's (Clark hit a measly 250/294/313).

Will had a sub-par season in 1990 before bouncing back with a better 1991 (301/359/536) that got him a 4th-place finish in the NL MVP race despite the fact that the Giants finished 4th. He also took home the only Gold Glove of his career. Will had another good season in 1992, making his 5th straight All-Star appearance and hitting 300/384/476. Will didn't hit quite so well in '93 (283/367/432), but the addition of free agent Barry Bonds helped drive the Giants to 103 wins, just 1 game back of the Braves in the NL West.

The Giants had really turned things around after about 25 years of poor performance and poor attendance at Candlestick. Arguably the best franchise in the NL through 1962, the Giants fell apart in the late 60's and only made one postseason appearance (losing the 1971 NLCS) before Will came along.

The resurgence of the Giants in the late 80's and early 90's was due to some excellent homegrown talent and some surprisingly good luck with pitchers. The team had produced tons of talented players in the 60's and 70's but the problem was that many of them flamed out (John Montefusco, Jim Ray Hart, Mike McCormick) or that none of them stuck around (Gaylord Perry, Darrell Evans, Gary Matthews, Garry Maddox, George Foster, etc.).

But the 1993 Giants represented a very strong lineup. Their infield was made up entirely of homegrown 1st-round picks (Will Clark, Robby Thompson, Royce Clayton, Matt Williams), and their outfield was centered around free agent superstar Barry Bonds. They had a decent catcher in Kirt Manwaring and a good closer in Rod Beck. If they'd been able to build a starting rotation worth a darn, they'd have gone places. As it was, the 1993 team's starters were either one-year wonders (John Burkett, Trevor Wilson) or washed-up veterans (Bill Swift, Bud Black, Scott Sanderson).

It was something of a surprise, then, when Clark left the team to sign a big free agent contract with the Texas Rangers. The Rangers were looking to lure veteran hitters to their new, compact ballpark (The Ballpark at Arlington) and were, apparently, willing to pay more than the Giants. It's possible that San Francisco just wasn't ready to open up their pocketbooks so soon after doling out a historic amount to Bonds. Clark's departure certainly hurt the Giants, as it would be a few more years before they managed to replace him with J.T. Snow.
Clark's first year with the Rangers was brilliant; he hit 329/431/501. But it was also 1994, and when the strike hit, they were in 1st place and on their way to the first postseason appearance in franchise history. Granted, their record was 52-62, but they were in the 4-team AL West and somebody had to win the division

The Rangers were looking to surround homegrown sluggers Ivan Rodriguez, Juan Gonzalez, and Rusty Greer with some veteran support in their quest to make the postseason. A trade for Jose Canseco was somewhat successful, although the highlight of his tenure would be a home run ball that bounced off his noggin and over the fence.

The Rangers finally made it to the postseason in 1996, despite an off year by Clark (284/377/436). The Rangers added Mark McLemore, Dean Palmer, and Mickey Tettleton to their lineup to form an extremely potent order. Their pitching staff, on the other hand, was execrable, a problem which continues to plague them to this day. Apart from starter Ken Hill (3.63 ERA in 35 starts), no one in the starting rotation had a very good season at all. The problem was somewhat countered by a surprisingly good bullpen (Dennis Cook, Jeff Russel, Ed Vosberg), but it was not at all surprising when the Yankees knocked the out of the ALDS in 4 games. Clark hit an abysmal 125/263/125 in the series.

The Will Clark that had shown such a fantastic all-around offensive game was being replaced with a guy who survived on batting average an walks. Clark was still hitting quite well, but he wasn't up to his old standards, and he didn't respond as well as others to the friendly dimensions of the home Texas ballpark. When he hit 23 HR in 1998, it was considered a breakthrough (he hadn't hit as many since his 1991 season in San Francisco -- the last year that he was an MVP-caliber hitter).

Will was a free agent in the 1998-1999 offseason, and his resurgent 1998 (305/384/507) helped land him a pretty good contract with Baltimore. In 1999, at age 35, Clark continued to hit well (303/395/485) despite not meeting his previous standards; most of his big numbers were a product of the new run-scoring environment, and his best years were actually in pitcher-friendly Candlestick Park before the new offensive era began in 1993.
The Orioles missed the postseason in 1999 and were well on their way to another 4th-place finish in 2000, with Will still hitting well (301/413/473) despite a continued power drought. But the Cardinals were looking for a veteran bat to help them in the NL Central race, so the Orioles sent him to St. Louis for semi-prospect Jose Leon.

Clark played 51 games with the Cardinals and was positively brilliant, hitting 345/426/655 down the stretch and easing the Cardinals into an NL Central title with a 10-game lead over 2nd-place Cincinnati. Will continued to mash in the postseason, but the Cardinals dropped out in the NLCS, losing to the Mets in 5 games.

After his inspiring finish to 2000 could easily have landed a job as a free agent. Instead, Will "The Thrill" decided to retire while he was on top and left the game at age 34.

In the past, I've argued that will deserves a spot in Cooperstown. In the years since then, though, my enthusiasm has mellowed, and I've come to grips with the fact that his early retirement cost him a spot. Still, if you were to start talking to a friend about the great first basemen of the past 20 years, Will Clark's name probably wouldn't come up. But it should. Because if Mark Grace gets more support for the Hall than Will Clark, it's an absolute crime. At his best, "The Thrill" was excellent, and he helped make a lot of good teams even better than they already were.
Willie Randolph (1975-1992)
(276/373/351,; 2,210 H; 6 All-Star Games)

Another claim I made in my ignorant youth (say, 2005) was that Willie Randolph deserved consideration for the Hall of Fame. Well, he certainly deserves consideration, but really don't think he deserves induction. On the other hand, we need to make sure there's a spot in baseball history with Willie's name on it. Because while he may have been the least colorful member of the Bronx Zoo Yankees, he was also one of the best.

Willie wasn't a superstar coming up; he was drafted by the Pirates in the 7th round of the 1972 draft. Only 18 when drafted, Willie did very well in the low minors. He consistently hit for a high average while also taking walks, stealing bases and showing strong defense. He looked at this point like a budding leadoff man. In 1975, Willie opened the season with Class-A Charleston and hit an impressive 339/411*/479 (OBP info. is incomplete). This earned him a late-season call-up with Pittsburgh, but Willie (who had never played above Double-A) struggled, hitting just 164/246/180 in 30 games.

After the season, Willie was essentially a throw-in in a trade between the Pirates and Yankees. The Pirates wanted Yankee starter Doc Medich, a 23-year-old righty who had shown promise in three seasons in the Bronx. In return, though, the Pirates gave up Dock Ellis (who was older and more established than Medich), and Ken Brett (who still had some decent pitching left in him. Medich gave the Pirates one decent season before they included him (and Tony Armas, Doug Bair, Dave Giusti, Rick Langford and Mitchell Page!!) in a trade with Oakland that brought them Phil Garner and one good season of Tommy Helms. The Pirates would finish 2nd in each of the three seasons after they traded Randolph, with Rennie Stennett and Phil Garner manning 2nd base. Neither would be as good as Randolph, with 1978 providing an interesting comparison:

'78 Randolph: 279/381/357
'78 Stennett: 243/274/309

Stennett was a better glove man, but Randolph still has the clear edge here. The kicker? The Pirates finished 1.5 games out in '78

Never the less, the Pirates had lost an All-Star second baseman and the Yankees had gained one. Randolph took over second base in New York from Sandy Alomar, Sr., who wasn't exactly tearing up the league. The Yankees still hadn't recovered from the Horace Clarke years; Clarke manned second for the Yankees from 1967-1973 while hitting about as well as Mario Mendoza.

It would be too simple to say that the Yankees won the pennant in '76 because they got Randolph. Randolph gave them good defense and 37 steals, but he didn't hit especially well (267/356/328). He earned an All-Star berth regardless. The real difference was a big improvement from a lot of resident Yankees, giving the team a comfortable 10.5 game division win over the Orioles. The Yankees took the ALCS from the Royals in dramatic fashion, but got swept convincingly by the Big Red Machine in the World Series (Randolph hit 071/133/071).

For the next three years, Randolph gave the Yankees good production. He hit for a good average, drew some walks, stole some bases, and played fine defense. He took home a World Series ring with the Yankees in '77, but injuries prevented him from competing in the '78 Series (which the Yankees also won).

Randolph had perhaps the best year of his career in 1980, hitting 294/427/407, going 30/35 in steals, and playing sound defense for the division winners. He won his only silver slugger award that year, made the All-Star team, and finished 15th in the MVP voting. But despite great play from Randolph, the Yanks lost to the Royals in the ALCS.

Randolph slumped terribly in '81 (232/336/305), but made the All-Star team again anyway. The Yanks won the division again, and Randolph hit well in the postseason, but the Bombers lost the series to the Dodgers. It would be the team's last series appearance for 15 years.

From 1982-1985, Randolph was as reliable as they came. He didn't contend for any more MVPs, but he hit for a decent average, drew his walks, and played fine defense (his stolen base totals dwindled to 10-15 per year). But around him, the Yankees were fading. A pathological desire to sign and trade for expensive veterans at the expense of prospects made the Yankees an expensive team, just not a very successful one.

Willie had two top-notch years left in him: 1986 and 1987. In '86, Willie hit 276/393/346 with 94 walks, and in '87 he finished at 305/411/414, which looks a lot better, but is more a function of the Year of the Hitter.

Willie slumped badly in '88, hitting 230/322/300 in 110 games. At 33 years of age, it looked like Willie's best years might be behind him. In the offseason, the Yankees signed second baseman Steve Sax to a big free-agent deal, and the writing was on the wall for Willie. A few weeks later, he signed a two-year free agent deal with the Dodgers, replacing the departing Sax (who wouldn't fare too well in New York).

Randolph hit fairly well with L.A. in '89 (282/366/326), but with his base-stealing a thing of the past and his defense starting to decline, it was tougher to tolerate his hitting, which was a liability when his OBP dipped under .375.

Injuries limited Randolph' playing time in 1990, and he ended up going to the Oakland A's for the stretch run (the Dodgers got Stan Javier in return). Willie fared better than Mike Gallego in Oakland, but that wasn't hard (Gallego finished at 206/277/272 on the season). The A's won the division and were the favorites going into the postseason. They trampled the Red Sox in the ALCS but fell to the Reds in a shocking World Series sweep. Willie hit 267/313/267 in what proved to be his last postseason series.

The next season, Randolph signed a low-end free agent deal to fill in at second for the Milwaukee Brewers. As it turned out, Willie had one great season left in him, as he hit 327/424/374 in 124 games for the 4th-place Brewers. That performance earned him a better contract with the Mets for the 1992 season. It was a bittersweet return to New York, because the Mets were full of expensive players and unproductive veterans and failed to contend, suffering the wrath of the New York press in the process. 1992 would be his last season, as Willie retired after 18 big-league seasons.

Randolph went on to coach several years with the Yankees, his former team, and in 2005 was named manager of the New York Mets. Randolph earned a great deal of respect during his playing days as an intelligent player with poise on the field, and it got him a job managing in New York.

Randolph career numbers aren't so great as I thought they were when I first saw him. But he was a very capable second baseman for a number of years, and that's worth something.

Darrell Evans (1969-1989)
(248/361/431,; 2,223 H; 414 HR; 2 All-Star Games)

In his Historical Baseball Abstract, Bill James names Darrell Evans as the most underrated player in baseball history. He then goes on to define and discuss the different aspects of being underrated in Evans' entry.

As James points out, Evans meets pretty much all the criteria for being underrated. He did several things well, but was not great at any one thing; he spent his prime years on bad teams; his "secondary skills" (patience and power) were much stronger than his ability to hit for a high batting average; he played in an era and in ballparks that hid his skills; etc., etc. What Evans was was a very good source of offense for quite a long time, and it's disappointing that he's never even been considered a star, let alone a superstar.

I've tried to make sense of Evans' history in the amateur draft, and here's what I've got so far: The best I can figure is that the amateur draft, as we know it today, was infinitely more complicated in Evans' time. The Rule 4 draft (or the draft, as we know it today) was for high school players and college seniors who graduated in the summer. There was another draft, however, in January for high school and college players who graduated during the winter (thanks to wikipedia for this info). There was also, after both the June and January drafts, a "'secondary" phase of the draft for players who had been previously drafted but hadn't signed. From what I've read, all these permutations of the draft were concessions to those who opposed the idea of the draft in the first place. The January draft was dropped after 1986.

But when Evans was entering baseball -- he graduated high school in 1965 -- the draft was still a multi-headed creature. And Evans was involved in one or another at some point. Here's his draft record (according to

June 1965: Drafted by Cubs in 13th round, didn't sign.
January 1966 (secondary): Drafted by Yankees in 2nd round, didn't sign.
June 1966 (secondary): Drafted by Tigers in 5th round, didn't sign.
January 1967 (secondary): Drafted by Phillies in 3rd round, didn't sign.
June 1967 (secondary): Drafted by Athletics in 7th round, signed.

Darrell Evans went on a personal tour of the brand-new (at that time) baseball amateur draft system. I don't know what the specific issue was, but Evans took his sweet time deciding on a major league team to join. He wasn't done, either; he stayed in the Athletics' system for a year and a half and was lost to the Braves in the Rule 5 (minor league) draft in December 1968.

Evans was done pinballing around for the moment and made it to the majors with Atlanta in 1969 for 12 games. He hit very poorly and was left off the postseason roster (the Braves won the NL West but lost the NLCS to the Miracle Mets). It would be his last chance at the postseason for some time.

Evans got in another 12 games in 1970 and at least hit well this time (318/423/386). The Braves had a washed-up Clete Boyer playing third that season, but still they weren't ready to commit to Evans at third. In 1971 Evans played just 89 games (242/338/431, 12 HR), sharing third base duties with erstwhile (read: awful) catcher Earl Williams.

In 1972, however, there would be no denying Evans his spot as the Braves' starting third baseman. Evans hit 254/384/419 with 19 HR and 90 walks for a 4th-place Atlanta team. He was even better in 1973, as part of the Braves' power surge, hitting 281/403/556 with 41 HR, 124 walks, and sparkling defense at third. Hank Aaron and Davey Johnson (?) also hit 40 HR, as the Braves led the league in homers (206, the Giants were 2nd with 151) and runs scored (799, Cincinnati was 2nd with 741). . . but finished 5th because they also led the league in runs allowed (4.78/G). Such were the vagaries of Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium AKA "The Launching Pad."

The 1974 team actually surged up to 3rd place in the NL West at 88-74, but it was a distant 3rd behind the 102-60 Dodgers. Evans again hit well (240/381/419 with 25 HR, 126 BB, and more good defense), but that was as good as it got for the Braves; they didn't make it back to .500 until 1980.

The Braves of the late 1970's were a relatively popular team that made a lot of headlines, but it was rarely good in either case. Both were the result of eccentric owner Ted Turner, who broadcast the Braves throughout the south, turning them into a national sports powerhouse. The trouble is that Turner's broadcasting acumen did not extend to the baseball field (where, for one game in 1977, he ventured as manager). Turner, even moreso than George Steinbrenner, was the impetus for skyrocketing salaries in the era. But whereas Steinbrenner generally made sound investments with his many millions, Turner did not, and the difference showed on the field.

This meant that it was difficult for any Braves player not named Hank Aaron to be taken seriously. Hell, Phil Niekro had to wait four years to get into Cooperstown despite overwhelming credentials, just because no one really took him seriously as the dominant pitcher he was.

Evans continued to toil in obscurity for Atlanta. He had yet another good season in 1975 (243/361/406), but after a slow start in 1976 (173/320/194) the Braves traded him to San Francisco.

It's hard to say that the trade hurt Atlanta, in the standings at least. They weren't contenders again until 1982, by which time Evans probably would have been somewhere else anyways. But I also doubt that the Braves really appreciated what they had in Evans. Evans was a Moneyball player 20 years before his time. He hit for low batting averages even considering his era, but he had good power, very good defense at third, and drew walks like nobody's business. It took a 40-home run season to get him on the All-Star team (in 1973), and he wouldn't make it back again until he hit 30 (in 1983 with the Giants). And it's not as though the Braves had a clear replacement for Evans; Jerry Royster's 15 minutes of fame could wait. (The Braves did get a fine replacement by drafting Bob Horner in 1978, but it's also fair to say that the world would have been a better place with Horner playing somewhere other than third).

In return for Evans (and futility infielder Marty Perez), the Braves got Willie Montanez, Craig Robinson, Mike Eden, and Jake Brown from the Giants. Robinson was a young shortstop that couldn't hit water if he fell out of a boat. Eden was a 26-year-old second baseman with a hint of offense, and Brown was a former 1st-round pick (#2 overall in 1969) who never panned out. Suffice to say, the deal boiled down to Evans for Montanez.

Montanez was a year younger than Evans at the time of the deal (28) and was coming off some decent seasons as a first baseman/sometime outfielder with the Phillies. The Giants had gotten him in exchange for a 25-year-old Garry Maddox (well done there), and he had done a good job with them in the second half of '75.

But Montanez simply wasn't a replacement for Evans. Montanez did draw some walks (although his walk rate had been slowly dropping since his rookie year to just 49 in 156 games the year before), but his offense was entirely made up of batting average. Montanez did have back-to-back .300 seasons to his credit, and that's all well and good, but a batting line of 302/353/415 wasn't great for a first baseman even in '75.

And great is exactly what Evans was. Especially when you consider that Evans was a Gold Glove-quality third baseman (his defense would later slip, and he never actually won one), and all things being equal, you'd rather have that than a first baseman. The Braves did need a first baseman (Earl Williams had since gone kaput), but why gain a decent first baseman if it costs you a great third baseman? But then this is the Braves we're talking about . . .

In San Francisco, Evans' power took a hit, as would be expected going from hitter-friendly Fulton County Stadium to the wind tunnel known as Candlestick. Evans would spend seven and a half seasons with the Giants, and while he never contended for any MVPs, he was surprisingly consistent, keeping his offense in the range of 255/360/410. The big difference was that Evans' defense at third fell from excellent to merely adequate, and he began spending even more time at first (apart from an inexplicable experiment from 1982-1983 that saw him play 22 games at shortstop).

Evans turned 36 in his final season in San Francisco, and it may have looked like he was nearing the end. Amazingly, though, Evans found the fountain of youth in his late 30's and played what was likely his best season 1983: 277/378/516, with 30 HR and 84 BB. It was his highest HR total in ten years, and it earned him a spot on the All-Star team and a 14th-place MVP finish.

Evans' 1979 contract was up, and he picked a wonderful time to have a career year. The Tigers signed him to a 3-year deal to be a DH/1B/3B. The Tigers picked up Evans (232/353/384) and replaced 1B Enos Cabell (First Baseman Enos Cabell, a phrase that should never have been born) with Dave Bergman and won 104 games. It wasn't that simple, of course. The biggest move of the offseason was a trade with the Phillies that netted not only Bergman, but also relief specialist Willie Hernandez, who made the American League his bitch and won the Cy Young and MVP Awards in '84 as the Tigers romped to World Series victory.

It wouldn't be quite as good for Evans or the Tigers again. Evans actually improved on his poor '84 by posting back-to-back strong seasons in 1985 and 1986. Evans set a record in '85 by becoming the oldest player (38) to hit at least 40 HR (he hit 40 exactly).

In 1987, at age 40, Evans was still great, but the league-wide boom in offense made him look better. He hit 257/379/501 and finished 12th in the MVP voting as the Tigers won a close AL East race. Evans hit well in the postseason (.294 with 4 walks but no power) but the Tigers lost the ALCS to the Twins.

Few players are as good at age 40 as Evans was, and 1987 proved to be his last hurrah (Collusion kept him with the Tigers for two more years, 1987-1988, after entering free agency in '86). He played 144 games in 1988, but apart from his walks (84) his offense was gone (208/337/380).

Evans, now 42, re-signed with the Braves for a nostalgia run, but there's no DH in the senior circuit and, besides, his offense was gone (207/303/355). Evans retired after the season.

To understand Evans' value, you have to place it in its context. A career batting line of 248/361/431 may not look very impressive now, but for a career spent mostly in a pitcher's era (and in Candlestick, a pitcher's park), it's very impressive. Add in Evans' strong defense at third (especially early in his career), and you have someone with borderline Cooperstown credentials, as argued by James and others.

Evans will never get into Cooperstown, because no one saw him as a star when he was active and baseball writers are right up there with medeival geocentric astronomers when it comes to radically reevaluating their beliefs. And people will just never be able to get past that .248 career batting average (even in this day and age). But Darrell Evans was a good player -- and occasionally a great player -- for quite a long time, and attention should be paid.

Bobby Grich (1970-1986)
(266/371/424; 1,833 H; 224 HR; 6-Time All-Star; 4 Gold Gloves)

Another easy way to be underrated (according to Bill James) is to play in an era that obscures your contributions. This is why a lot of people on my lists are pitchers from high-offense eras or hitters from low-offense eras. Grich played in the one of the lowest offensive environments in modern times, and when you make that adjustment to his numbers and consider his defense, you end up with a pretty strong case for induction into the Hall of Fame.
A fine defensive shortstop and a good hitter, Grich was drafted in the 1st round (19th overall) by the Baltimore Orioles in the 1967 draft. Grich advanced steadily through the minors, earning a promotion to the big club in 1970 after pummeling the International League. Grich played at second, short, and third, but didn't hit well (211/279/284 in 3o games) and was left off the postseason roster (the O's won the World Series).
Grich killed the International League again in 1971, but the O's were pretty well set in the majors with defensive whiz Mark Belanger blocking Grich at shortstop. The club also had Davey Johnson at second and Brooks Robinson at third, so Grich had to bide his time in the minors for most of the season.
But Grich was 23 in 1972 and ready for the majors. Despite the fact that he was seriously blocked in the infield (Gold Glover Paul Blair was in center), the O's brought Grich up to the majors to stay. Manager Earl Weaver somehow got Grich into 133 games, and he hit 278/358/415 as a sort of rolling replacement for the second-third-short positions. Grich saw most of his playing time at shortstop, presumably as an offensive replacement for punchless Mark Belanger (186/236/246).
The O's removed a roadblock in the offseason by trading Davey Johnson, who would be 30 in 1973, to Atlanta as part of a deal for professional hitter Earl Williams. With Belanger's defense far superior even to Grich's, the club moved him to second base, where he was still a valuable defender and a fine replacement for Johnson. Grich's batting average (and thus slugging percentage) went down in '73 (251/373/387, 12 HR), but he drew plenty walks (107, 2nd in the AL) and played all 162 games. The Orioles won their division but lost the ALCS to the A's.
1974 was the best year of Grich's career to date. He hit 263/376/431, set a new career high with 19 HR and finished 9th in the MVP voting as the Orioles again won the division (and again lost the ALCS to the A's). The Orioles fell to second-place in 1975 and again in 1976, but Grich was still playing good defense and hitting as well as ever. He had become, after Rod Carew, the league's premiere second baseman.
Grich entered free agency in the 1976 offseason and received an offer he couldn't refuse from the California Angels. The Angels, thanks to owner Gene Autry, had leapt into the free agent market with relish, taking home Grich, Don Baylor, and Joe Rudi for starters. They added them into a lineup that already had solid second baseman Jerry Remy and left fielder Bobby Bonds and -- along with the 1-2 punch of Nolan Ryan and Frank Tanana in the rotation -- the Angels were considered favorites by many to win the AL West.
It didn't work out that way. Grich hit well enough (243/369/392), but injuries limited him to 52 games. Rudi played just 64, and Baylor was the only big free agent to stay healthy (he fared decently -- 251/334/433, but not good enough to satisfy the fans). The lineup was filled with non-stars Terry Humphrey, Danny Goodwin, Mario Guerrero and Gil Flores, and while Ryan and Tanana pitched well, the rest of the starting rotation was a big disappointment. The Angels finished 5th in the West, just another in a long line of disappointments for that team, but the first in the otherwise impressive career of Bobby Grich. The Angels improved to 87-75 and finished 2nd in 1978, but Grich had his worst season yet: 251/357/329.
In 1979, though, Grich rebounded with one of the best seasons of his career. He demolished his previous career highs by hitting 30 homers and knocking in 101 runs. He hit 294/365/537, made the All-Star team, and finished 8th in the MVP voting. More importantly, the Angels won the division and made their first-ever postseason appearance. But they lost the ALCS to Grich's former club, the Orioles.
Grich returned to form in 1980, with a fine 271/377/408 performance. Then in 1981, he broke through with what was easily the best season of his career. In the strike-shortened season, Grich hit 304/378/543, with 22 HR. But the Angels missed the postseason, so he finished 14th in the MVP voting. In my opinion, he was the 2nd-best player in the AL, behind only Rickey Henderson of Oakland.
Grich again had a fine year in 1982 (261/371/449), and the Angels returned to the postseason, winning the AL West. This time they won Games 1 and 2 of the ALCS against the Brewers, but the series returned to Milwaukee, and Harvey's Wallbangers won the next three games. The Angels had become baseball's resident chokers, and unfortunately, Grich's excellence was overshadowed by it. But the biggest choke was yet to come.
Grich posted two more fine seasons in 1983 and 1984, but in 1985 he finally showed signs of slowing down, at age 36 (242/355/372). He wasn't the only one, as the decrepit Angels (the oldest lineup in the AL by far) ended the season just one game back of the Royals.
Grich rebounded somewhat in 1986, hitting 268/354/412 in 98 games. For the third time in his Angels tenure, the team made the postseason, winning the AL West by 5 games over Texas. They took a 3 games-to-1 lead in the ALCS and were one out away from the World Series, but then Dave Henderson hit the home run and the Red Sox went on to come back and win the pennant.
It must have been demoralizing for Grich and all of the Angels who had come so close so many times. Despite still having some good baseball left in the tank, Grich didn't get a bite on the free agent market after 1986 (the owners were colluding). As a result, Grich left baseball at age 37, coming off a year where he hit better than every AL second baseman except Willie Randolph and Tony Bernazard.
Many have argued that Grich's excellence has earned him a spot in Cooperstown, and I'd like to add my name to that list. Grich didn't compile a lot of raw numbers; he played over 2,000 big-league games, but didn't compile a lot of hits. His 224 career homers were great for a second baseman, but he's since been passed by Ryne Sandberg, Jeff Kent, Craig Biggio, and my Aunt Edna. He drew 1,087 career walks and finished with a .371 career OBP in a pitcher's era. He was a good shortsop and a fine second baseman; he finished his career at 110 FRAA.
Here are Grich's career stats compared to other second basemen: (* indicates stats don't include 2007 season stats; "dt" means stats are Clay Davenport translations):
Win Shares: 329 (12th)
10. Lou Whitaker 351
11. Ryne Sandberg 346
12. Bobby Grich 329
13. Willie Randolph 312
WS/162G*: 26.54 (8th)
7. Charlie Gehringer 26.71
8. Bobby Grich 26.54
9. Larry Doyle 26.51
dtAVG*: .279 (not in top 20)
dtOBP*: .386 (T-8th)
6. Willie Randolph .394
7. Miller Huggins .391
8. Bobby Grich & Chuck Knoblauch .286
10. Cupid Childs .385
dtSLG*: .492 (12th)
9. Tony Lazzeri & Joe Morgan .495
11. Hardy Richardson .493
12. Bobby Grich .492
13. Larry Doyle .491
14. Ryne Sandberg .488
EQA*: .296 (7th)
5. Nap Lajoie .306
6. Rod Carew .303
7. Bobby Grich .296
8. Roberto Alomar .295
WARP3*: 122.0 (10th)
8. Lou Whitaker 123.9
9. Craig Biggio 123.5
10. Bobby Grich 122.0
11. Frankie Frisch 119.8
So Grich was about the 7th-best offensive second baseman of all time, quality-wise. While on one hand he didn't pad out his career numbers (thank you, Mr. Ueberroth), on the other hand, he was a good -- and sometimes great -- defensive player.
If that's not a Hall-of-Famer, I don't know what is.
Still to Come . . .
Cesar Cedeno, Ken Singleton, Bobby Murcer, Roy White, Vada Pinson, Johnny Callison, and many others . . .

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