Sunday, August 19, 2007

I Had No Idea: The Hitters (Pt. 3)

Brett Butler (1981-1997)
(Career 290/377/376, 2,375 H; 558 SB; 1-time All-Star)
Butler doesn't fit into the general timeline of player's that I'm working with right now, but that's just because I forgot about him. I know, it's ironic that I would forget about a player to put in my entry of forgotten players. Ha ha.
Actually, I've been reading a couple books lately. One is Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Blunders; actually I'm re-reading it, it's one of the best and most accessible baseball books of the past few years. The other book I'm working on is Baseball Prospectus' new tome, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, about the closest pennant races. In both books, Butler's name came up. In Neyer's book, he's mentioned as part of the dreadful trade that sent Len Barker to the Braves. In the BP book, he's mentioned as part of the Indians' abortive run at the postseason in 1984. I said to myself, "You know, nobody really talks about Brett Butler anymore." Then I finally put two and two together and included him in this series.

The Atlanta Braves drafted Butler in the 23rd round of the 1979 amateur draft. I can't find the specific reason that Butler fell all the way to the 23rd round; sometimes there are good reasons that good players fall so far, but I haven't been able to find out what Butler's were. He was a college player out of Southeastern Oklahoma State University, which may not be the hub of the baseball scouting community, but then Butler is the type of guy that scouts have always liked. He was both small (5'10") and skinny (BR lists his weight as 160). But he was a fantastic contact hitter who could bunt and get on base as well as anyone. He played a pretty good center field and stole bases efficiently. There may have been a good reason for Butler to fall so far in the draft, but I doubt it had anything to do with his raw skill.
Butler got started right away, tearing through the low minors with astronomical batting averages, great bat control, walks, steals, you name it. After tearing through the Rookie League and Class A, Butler jumped all the way to Triple-A Richmond in 1981. He opened the season there hitting 335/456/412 in 125 games. He drew 103 walks (against 63 strikeouts) and went 44/60 in steals. My guess is that the only reason Butler stayed in the minors so long is that he was blocked (and how) in the majors by Dale Murphy. But eventually, the Braves brought him up and he got in 40 games with the big club. Murphy and right fielder Claudell Washington were hitting well, but the Braves were getting very little production from the left field spot. So Butler made 25 of his 41 appearances in left.
Butler's big league batting line wasn't too bad (254/352/317), but without a high batting average, he wasn't much of an asset. But the Braves figured he was their best option in left field, and he won the starting job in 1982. Unfortunately, he was awful. By June 30, his batting line was 228/238/310, worse than the man he replaced (Rufino Linares). I don't know if he was suffering from injury or just suffering, but Butler went back down to Triple-A. He played 41 games there that season and hit like his old self: 363/442/471. Recalled to the big leagues for the stretch drive (the Braves were actually contenders), Butler's improvement was modest at best; he finished at 217/291/225. The Braves, though, won the NL West by a hair, finishing at 89-73. Butler played two games in the NLCS, going 0-for-1 at the plate. The Braves were swept by the Cardinals.
Expectations were higher for the Braves in 1983, as they sought to defend their NL West crown. Butler was installed as the full-time left fielder (either due to management's confidence or the absence of better candidates) and responded with a much better season: 281/344/393. It wasn't great, by any means, but was a far cry better than his previous work. Butler gave the Braves very good defense in left (14 FRAA). He also stole 39 bases, but was caught 23 times for a self-defeating 63% success rate. Despite a second straight MVP for Dale Murphy and a strong lineup consisting of Murphy, Bob Horner and Chris Chambliss, the Braves finished a close 2nd in the NL West at 88-74, just 3 games back of the Dodgers.
But the real "highlight" of the 1983 season for Atlanta was the acquisition of Len Barker from Cleveland. The Braves got Barker on August 28 for cash and players to be named later. Ted Turner thought he'd gotten himself a gen-u-ine ace. But so late in the season, Barker could only make 6 starts. He went 33 innings and posted an ERA of 3.82, a bit better than league average. That was actually much better than he'd done with Cleveland so far that year; as an Indian, he'd posted a 5.11 ERA (ERA+ of 83) in 24 starts. Unfortunately for the Braves, it was this Len Barker who would return in 1984.
Barker was just 27 years old, and he had thrown a perfect game earlier in his career. But Barker not only wasn't a superstar; he wasn't even a star. In only one full season of Barker's career had his ERA been better than the league average; that was 1982, when he posted a 3.90 ERA (ERA+ of 105) in 244.2 IP, striking out 187 batters and walking 88. Barker had some good stuff that could make him look like a star, but he'd never been able to sustain superstar performance, and as it turns out, he never would again. Injuries limited Barker to just 20 starts in 1984 (3.85 ERA, ERA+ of 100 -- exactly average), but in 1985 he was terrible, making 18 starts and throwing just 73.2 innings with a 6.35 ERA. He tried a comeback with Milwaukee in 1987, but his career was over.
The real problem with the Barker trade was not so much Barker's inability to pitch well and stay healthy; it was how much this cost the Braves. Not only did it cost them a top-tier salary, it would also cost them the aforementioned PTBNL.
As part of the deal, the Indians wouldn't receive the players to complete the Barker deal until after the season. Problem is, word got out that the two key parts the Braves would be giving up were third baseman Brook Jacoby and, yes, Brett Butler. The situation became quite awkward as the two men played out the string in '83, knowing that they would be heading to Cleveland after the season. There was actually some backlash in Atlanta to the deal, mainly because the hard-working Butler had become a fan favorite. Thoroughly embarassed over the whole ordeal, the Braves tried to substitute another player for Butler, but the Indians were adamant. And so, right after a pennant race that saw Butler and Jacoby both involved, the two players were sent (along with Rick Behenna) to Cleveland to complete the Barker trade. Butler must have felt some revenge as the expensive Barker helped drop the Braves out of contention, whereas he and Jacoby would help the Indians climb back to respectability at bargain prices.
To be fair, the Braves' move is somewhat understandable. Butler was blocked by Murphy and not hitting well enough to hold down left field. And Bob Horner's grip on the third base job was just as tight, blocking Jacoby. It's not so much that the Braves traded these players who may not have been the right fit for their roster, it's that they paid so much and got so little in return.
Butler's first season in Cleveland was similar to his last in Atlanta; good, but not excellent. He hit 269/361/355 as the team's full-time center fielder. Center field would be his position from now on; after one game as a DH in 1985, Butler never made an appearance at another position until 1997, when he split time in left field.
Butler's 86 walks and 52 steals may not seem like a lot, but he led Cleveland in steals by far (Tony Bernazard was 2nd with 20), and he and Andre Thornton were the only Indians with 55 walks (Thornton had 91). The team finished at 75-87, 6th place in the AL East and 29 games back of the Tigers.
At the overdue age of 28, Butler had his first great season in 1985. He hit 311/377/431 (the AL hit 261/327/406) with 14 triples, 63 walks, 47 stolen bases, and strong defense in center. It would be pretty moot, though, as the Tribe went 60-102 to finish dead last, their worst record since 1971.
Butler slumped a bit in '86 (278/356/375), but he played 161 games for a team that bounced all the way back to 84-78. Unfortunately, that was only good for 5th place, as the AL East was strong that year.
Butler's last year in Cleveland brought mixed blessings; the league-wide surge in offense helped him set a career high 9 home runs. Modest, yes, but he was never much of a slugger, and his 295/399/425 was just fine. The bad news was that Cleveland's 1986 surge was a mirage; they dropped back to last, this time finishing 61-101, only one game better than their record of two years ago. I can't say what kind of offer Butler got from Cleveland as a free agent that offseason, but even in the midst of collusion, Butler moved to a new team; the defending NL West champion San Francisco Giants.
Despite the switch in leagues, Butler hit well in '88, finishing at 287/393/398 and set a new career high with 97 walks. 1989 was a step down for Brett, whose 283/349/354 batting line is only somewhat ameliorated by Candlestick Park (not to mention his defense). No, the best news of '89 was that Brett was going back to the postseason; the Giants won the NL West, finishing 3 games ahead of the Padres. And this time, Brett would be a starter, not roster-filler like in '82.
Butler didn't hit well at all in the NLCS against Chicago (211/318/211), but the Giants still won in 5 games. In contrast, he hit well in the World Series (286/375/357), but the Giants were trounced by Oakland in a 4-game sweep.
The Giants finished 3rd in 1990, but it wasn't due to Butler, who was on the top of his game: 309/397/384. It was Butler's last year in San Francisco, and he used the positive finish to sign a nice 4-year contract with the Dodgers worth about $13 million (that was good money in those days).
Butler's first season in L.A. saw him selected to his only All-Star team, and for good reason; it was probably the best year of his career. He hit 296/401/343, setting career highs in OBP, walks (108), and runs (112) while laying in 161 games. He also stole 38 bases, but was caught 28 times for a %58 success rate. While Butler was always fast and stole a lot of bases, he wasn't a very good percentage stealer; he would finish his career as a 68% stealer (558-for-815), just barely breaking even.
The next three years in L.A. were all good ones for Butler. Brett was born to play a) for the Dodgers, and b) in Dodger Stadium. In an environment that made runs scarce, Brett's brand of small-ball was much more valuable. He got on base by any means necessary (he was one of the game's best bunters), stole a lot of bases (thought not at a good rate, as mentioned) and played good defense, covering L.A.'s wide outfield skillfully. His complete lack of power was surprising even for a slap hitter (his career SLG of .376 is poor even in context), but he did manage 131 career triples, so he was well equipped to take the extra base.
After an excellent 1994 season (314/411/446), Butler signed a one-year deal with the Mets, who were still trying to win by playing free agent Russian roulette. Brett got off to a good start in New York (311/381/392), but with his old team in the midst of a close division race, the Dodgers gave up two minor leaguers to get Butler back. Brett didn't hit as well in L.A., but he was part of the Dodgers as they won the NL West title for the first time in 7 years. Again, Brett struggled in October (267/267/267), as the Dodgers were swept out of the NLDS by the Reds.
Butler apparently had found something he liked, as he re-upped with L.A. in the offseason for a 1-year deal. But at 39 years old, Butler was no longer an everyday player. A mid-season battle with cancer (see below) left put a big dent in his productivity. He wasn't hitting his way into the lineup (267/313/290), and besides, the Dodgers had one former Rookie of the Year in the outfield (Raul Mondesi in RF) and one guy on his way to ROY honors (Todd Hollandsworth in LF). Roger Cedeno got most of the playing time in center (246/326/336), and while he was no great shakes, he was better than Butler. On the backs of 5 straight Rookies of the Year (Karros-Piazza-Mondesi-Nomo-Hollandsworth) and a good pitching staff, the Dodgers again made the postseason, this time as the Wild Card. Unfortunately, Butler didn't even play in the NLDS, but on the plus side, he didn't miss much; the Dodgers got swept by the Braves.
Now 40 years old, Butler made one more return to baseball with the Dodgers. He was actually fairly productive as a part-timer in 1997 (283/363/324), but his speed and defense no longer played in center, and he was once again fighting Roger Cedeno (273/362/392) for a job. The Dodgers were in the pennant race again in '97, but this time they missed October, finishing 2 games behind the Giants in the NL West. Butler hung up his spikes and took up coaching. Right now he's managing the Diamondbacks' High-A affiliate (Lancaster).
Butler is also active in a number of groups outside baseball, particularly as a cancer survivor. Years of smokeless tobacco use gave Butler a rare form of cancer of the tonsils known as Squamous cell carcinoma. As I said, it was in mid-1996 that Butler underwent surgery and treatment to remove the tumor. The very fact that he made it back to the major leagues was astonishing; Butler has since become an outspoken critic of smokeless tobacco. He has had some complications since the surgery (wikipedia reports a stroke suffered about a month ago), but appears to be sticking to his duties as a minor league manager.
Butler was a fine leadoff hitter, but as we've seen, he wasn't exactly a superstar. He had some seasons where he was among the best players in the league, but over his career, he wasn't good enough to merit Cooperstown discussion. He was around for a long time, you can say that for him, and he accomplished quite a lot. He was one of the best leadoff hitters of all time, and that's worth remembering, no question.
Ken Singleton (1970-1984)
(Career 282/388/436, 2,029 H; 246 HR; 1,263 BB; 3-time All-Star)
In case you're wondering, I'm listing these players in rough chronological order based loosely on where their careers were centered. Singleton retired two years before Cesar Cedeno, but because Cedeno's career was centered mainly in the 70's, with the 80's just a bare afterthought, his career is "centered" earlier than that of Singleton, whose career was up-and-down in a pretty straightforward manner.
Ken Singleton was one of the best hitters in baseball for about 10 years in the 70's and 80's. But the fact that he wasn't particularly memorable for any one thing, didn't compile any eye-popping career stats, and played in a context that hid his talents, he isn't often remembered among the era's great hitters. But that's precisely what he was. And even if he's not Hall-of-Fame material, he's well worth remembering among the other stars of that period.
Singleton was drafted by the New York Mets out of Hofstra University with the #3 overall pick in the 1967 draft. For a corner outfielder, Singleton didn't show a lot of power in the minors, but he progressed well none the less. At age 23, Singleton opened the 1970 season with Triple-A Tidewater and hit .388 with 17 HR in just 64 games. He was promoted to the big leagues, where he hit fairly well (263/361/379), but again without the power expected of a corner outfielder.
Singleton made the Mets' major league roster in 1971, but spent most of his time as a backup, compiling just 298 at-bats and hitting 245/374/393. Singleton again showed his strong plate discipline (61 BB), and while he showed more power than in '70 (13 HR but just 5 doubles), he still didn't look like a star. The Mets already had Cleon Jones established as their everyday left fielder, and there was an opening in right field, but the Mets apparently decided that Singleton wasn't the one to fill it. Instead, they used him as part of a trade to acquire a proven right fielder: Rusty Staub. The Mets sent Singleton, glove man Tim Foli, and bench player Mike Jorgensen to the Expos to acquire "Le Grande Orange," who was coming off an All-Star season where he hit 311/392/482 in 162 games.
It's hard to call the trade a mistake by the Mets. Singleton was valuable, but it's hard to argue (given what they knew at the time) that he was a safer bet than the more established Staub. Foli was a great glove at shortstop, but the Mets already had Bud Harrelson stuck there. And considering that Staub played very well for the Mets and helped them win the pennant in 1973, you really can't fault them at all for making the trade.
Foli never did learn to hit (although his glove would keep him around for another 14 seasons). Jorgensen never hit a lick, despite the fact that he was a first baseman/outfielder, so it's much harder to explain how he stuck around for 14 more seasons of his own (he finished with a career batting line of 243/347/373).
Singleton, on the other hand, salvaged what was otherwise a stinker of a deal for the Expos. He took a step forward in 1973, his first season in Montreal, hitting 274/363/410 with 14 HR and 70 walks (although it should be said that Jarry Park in Montreal was much more hitter-friendly than Shea Stadium). In 1973, on the other hand, Singleton finally broke through as an elite hitter. He played in 162 games and hit 302/425/479, setting new career highs in homers (23) and RBI (109). Despite the fact that the Expos were otherwise pretty unimpressive (their 79-83 record was just good enough for 4th place in the NL East), Singleton finished 9th in the MVP voting.
In 1974, however, Singleton took another step back, with only his plate discipline as a saving grace (276/385/376). Singleton dropped from 51 extra base hits in '73 to just 31 in '74 (hitting just 9 HR in 148 games). The Expos again finished 4th.
With Singleton struggling, the front office decided that he was expendable and included him in a trade to acquire veteran lefty Dave McNally from the Baltimore Orioles. If the deal had been Singleton-for-McNally straight up, it would almost make sense. The Expos' rotation was faltering, and McNally was indeed an established veteran with a good track record in Milwaukee. But while Singleton was 28 and had good promise, McNally was turning 32 and coming off a disappointing season with the Orioles that belied his 16 wins.
But the trouble is that the deal was not Singleton-for-McNally. The Expos also threw in Mike Torrez. Torrez was a right-hander, but he was also younger and (it proved) better than McNally. Torrez was just turning 28 and coming off three pretty good seasons in the Montreal starting rotation. He hadn't started pitching like an ace yet, but he was at least as good as McNally, reputations aside, not to mention much younger. So giving up Ken Singleton and Mike Torrez for McNally qualifies as a big mistake. The Orioles also sent along outfielder Rich Coggins, but after a couple good seasons in 1972 and 1973, Coggins had struggled through a terrible 1974 with Baltimore. After the trade to Montreal, he was even worse, and only played 101 more games in the majors.
McNally, for his part, made 12 bad starts with Montreal in '75 before injuries forced him into retirement. As if that weren't enough, McNally added his name to the Andy Messersmith grievance that ultimately led to free agency and the end of the reserve clause. As if the trade couldn't get worse . . .
Torrez blossomed in Baltimore in '75 and pitched a fine season, posting a 3.06 ERA in 270.2 IP. The Orioles then used him as part of a trade to bring over Reggie Jackson from the A's.
Singleton blossomed as well, enjoying the best years of his career with the O's. He found his old stroke right away in '75, hitting 300/415/454 and finishing 10th in the MVP voting. Singleton's power would never be much for a right fielder (he only topped 30 HR once), but he hit for a high average and drew as many walks as anyone around.
Singleton's first three seasons in Baltimore were tough; the Orioles played quite well, but finished 2nd each season from 1975-1977. They followed up with another 90-win season in 1978, but the bottleneck at the top of the AL East meant that they finished 4th.
'77 would prove to be the best season of Singleton's career. He hit 328/438/507, made his first All-Star team, and finished 3rd in the MVP race. Personally, I'd rank him a close second behind Rod Carew (388/449/570), who ended up taking home the award.
After just a decent season in 1978, Singleton (and the Orioles) rebounded in 1979. Singleton hit 295/405/533 with a career-high 35 HR as the Orioles finally won the AL East and took the ALCS from the Angels. They came just short in the World Series, though, losing in 7 games to the "We Are Family" Pirates.
This time Singleton finished 2nd in the MVP voting behind Angels DH Don Baylor. But Baylor's win was absurd, as Singleton was demonstrably better. I have him ranked 4th in the AL that year, with my personal MVP Award going to unsung hero Fred Lynn in Boston. Lynn led the league in AVG, OBP, and SLG, hitting 333/423/637 with good defense.
Singleton had another good year in 1980 (304/397/485), and the Orioles won 100 games. Unfortunately, the Yankees won 103, and the O's would have to settle once again for being a close second. The same was true in 1981, where the O's once again finished second to the Yankees, this time in the first half of the split season schedule. In the second half, they fell to 4th and missed the playoffs.
In 1982, Singleton's production dropped a good bit, to 251/349/381. He was 35 years old and was part of an Orioles team whose core was getting a bit older (they finished 2nd once again in '82). But the old players combined with some young studs like Cal Ripken and Eddie Murray, as well as a fine young pitching staff, to win the AL East in 1983, finishing at 98-64. Singleton, serving primarily as the team's DH, hit 276/393/436. The O's rolled over the White Sox in the ALCS (3-1) and stomped the Phillies to win the World Series in 5 games. Singleton hit well in the ALCS, but only got 1 at bat in the Series (he went 0-1 with a walk). Despite fielding what should rightly be referred to as a dynasty, it was the O's first World Series win in 13 years. It would also prove to be their last.
Singleton stuck around in 1984, but his hitting could no longer sustain him. Despite getting 363 at bats, he hit a bare 215/286/289, unacceptable for a full-time DH. Singleton wasn't the only one who slumped, as the O's fell to 5th place. Granted free agency after the season, Singleton retired.

Singleton's career numbers aren't amazing, and considering that he was a right fielder, he didn't display a lot of power. But he was a very good (and occasionally great) player who suffered from both a slow start to his career and an early end. Singleton didn't make the majors until he was 23 and didn't establish himself until he was 24. His last good season as a regular came just 12 seasons later, and he retired after just one more year.
This is why his career numbers are fairly unimpressive. But the other reason we don't remember him is that he just didn't stick out in his context. The importance of a high OBP (Singleton's career mark was .388) wasn't appreciated by a lot of baseball people, and his relative lack of power was striking for a career outfielder/DH. Singleton also played in an era where he was overshadowed by many other right fielders, many of whom weren't a whole lot better than he was. Still, he played at the same time as Reggie Jackson, Dwight Evans, Bobby Bonds, Rusty Staub, Gorman Thomas, Tony Armas, Kirk Gibson, Harold Baines, and many others. Of those listed, only Jackson had a significantly better career than Singleton. If you asked fans to rank these players and put Singleton in amongst them, he would probably be at the bottom. But Singleton was just as good over his career (if not better) than Thomas, Armas, Gibson, and perhaps even Baines and Evans. His lack of durability hurt him, but not so much as his lack of notoriety. There was nothing controversial or thrilling about Singleton (as opposed to Reggie and most of the players on the above list) and the perennial 2nd-place nature of the Orioles prevented him from being recognized as a "winner."

So our perception of Ken Singleton as a relatively unimportant player is a product of our ignorance and predispositions. It's high time that he got mentioned among the very good hitters of the 70's and early 80's.

Cesar Cedeno (1970-1986)
(285/347/443; 2,087 H; 550 SB; 4-Time All-Star; 5 Gold Gloves)
In baseball, we're constantly anointing young players the "next" superstar. If I had a nickel for how many times the "next Tom Glavine" turned out to be the "next Dave Fleming," I'd be a rich man. It's unfair for us to throw around these labels, because they inevitably raise our expectations of those players far beyond what they may be capable of. Instead of judging them on their own merits, we're expecting them to play like Hall-of-Famers, and we'll hold it against them if they just turn out to be All-Stars. It's no exaggeration to say that many of the players considered to be "disappointments" were not underachievers but rather those that did not live up to the arbitrary and unattainable standards set by baseball insiders.
Now, having said all of that, when Cesar Cedeno first came along, many people said he was the next Willie Mays.
And the craziest thing? He almost was.

Cedeno was signed out of the Dominican Republic as an amateur free agent by the Astros in 1967. Cedeno was an enormously talented five-tool player, whose all-around talent reminded a lot of people of Willie Mays. Cedeno showed off in the minor leagues, inspiring the Astros to move him all the way up to Triple-A for the 1970 season. He was 19. Even though he'd skipped Double-A, Cedeno hit well enough in Triple-A Oklahoma City to get a call-up to the big club. Still a teenager, Cedeno hit 310/340/451 in 90 games and finished 4th in the Rookie of the Year voting. Suffice to say, any teenager who can hit that well in the big leagues is on their way to a superstar career.
Cedeno's first full season, however, would have to be considered a big disappointment. Despite playing good defense and going 20/29 in steals, Cedeno hit a bare 264/293/398, hitting only 10 HR and striking out more than four times as often as he walked (102:25). To be fair, Cedeno's performance isn't as bad as it looks. The entire National League in 1971 hit 252/316/366, and Cedeno played in the AstroDome, which reduced offense by 3%. Still, it was a below-average season and a big sophomore setback for the budding star. In 1972, however, Cedeno broke out with an MVP-quality season. He made his first All-Star team and won his first Gold Glove, and he also hit 320/385/537 in the offense-damping AstroDome. He hit 22 HR, stole 55 bases, and his BB:K ratio was a much-improved 56:62. The Astros posted a winning record (84-69) in just their fourth season of existence, and although they tied for 2nd in the NL West, it was a distant 2nd (10.5 games) behind Cincinnati. Cedeno finished 6th in the MVP voting, but in my opinion, he was the 3rd-best player in the league, behind future Hall-of-Famers Steve Carlton and Joe Morgan. It was more of the same in 1973, as Cedeno hit 320/376/537, won a Gold Glove, and made the All-Star team. He finished 11th in MVP voting, but I would have put him 4th.
Cedeno suffered a setback in 1974, merely hitting like an All-Star rather than an MVP (269/338/461). He still managed to finish 16th in NL MVP voting. In 1975, his performance flipped; his home run production cut in half (from 26 to 13), but his strikeouts cut nearly in half, his batting average went up, and he drew nearly as many walks despite playing in fewer games (131, as compared to 160 the year before).
Which brings me to another aspect of Cedeno's career: injuries. Even in his prime, Cedeno was hampered by all sorts of injuries that cut into his playing time. He may very well have won an MVP award if he'd been able to stay in the lineup and stay productive. Even in his first two great seasons, 1972 and 1973, Cedeno only played 139 games. One of the reasons for this was Cedeno's overagressive style of play. For whatever reason, Cedeno (like Pete Reiser) felt the need to go all-out in ballgames, even if it meant running into a wall. This is the kind of 110% baseball everyone is taught to play, but at some point it hurts the team when your best player (which Cedeno was on the Astros after they traded Joe Morgan) makes one great catch but loses 10-15 games because of it.
At any rate, Cedeno kept coming back, and in 1976 he made the final All-Star game of his career, batting 297/357/454 in 150 games. The AstroDome was becoming more and more pitcher-friendly at this point, making Cedeno's numbers even better than they look. Cedeno had another good year in 1977, but injuries limited him to just 50 games in 1978. He came back for 132 games in 1979, but still wasn't the same (262/348/374).
Another uncomfortable aspect of Cedeno's career was the unfortunate shooting death of his girlfriend in a hotel room. The circumstances surrounding the death were never made perfectly clear, and Cedeno (who fired the gun) was never brought up on murder charges (that I'm aware of). But the incident was a great blot on his reputation and his accomplishments, and some have suggested that this great shock was one of the reasons his career started to deteriorate in his later years.
However, 1980 was a big comeback year not just for Cedeno, but the Astros as well. The Astros had become a respectable franchise very soon after their founding in 1961 (certainly compared the Mets), but they had never broken through from "respectable" to "dangerous," despite developing a wealth of talent in the late 60's and early 70's. Under manager Bill Virdon, though, things started to change. In 1979, the Astros were true contenders for the first time ever, finishing at 89-73 -- a bare 1.5 games out of 1st place to the Reds.
In 1980, though, the Astros finally made it; their 93-70 record put them a game ahead of the Dodgers, and they won the NL West for the first time ever. The club had re-acquired Joe Morgan who, along an outfield of Jose Cruz, Cedeno, and Terry Puhl, formed a surprisingly potent offense. But the Astros also had a potent starting rotation, made up of free agent signee Nolan Ryan, knuckleballer Joe Niekro, Ken Forsch, and Vern Ruhle. Niekro and Ryan actually weren't all that good, and the club suffered a major shock when ace starter J.R. Richard was felled by a career-ending stroke in mid-season. But they had some help from the bullpen, as ace closer Joe Sambito and Dave Smith provided excellent work. The Astros were new to the postseason and posed a serious threat to the NL East champion Phillies.
It was a threat indeed, and the 1980 NLCS is remembered as one of the most exciting ever. The Phillies took Game 1, with Steve Carlton and Tug McGraw shutting down the Houston offense. Game 2 was a 10-inning affair that saw the Astros prevail after putting up 4 runs in the 10th. Game 3 was a pitcher's duel that went scoreless into the 11th inning. Starters Joe Niekro and Larry Christenson gave way to relief aces Dave Smith and Tug McGraw. The Astros won in the bottom of the 11th when Danny Walling's sacrifice fly off of McGraw scored Rafael Landestoy with the winning run.
Game 4 was another extra-inning nailbiter. Vern Ruhle took a 2-0 lead into the 8th inning, and the Astros were just a few outs away from their first-ever pennant when the Phillies put a 3-spot on the board against Dave Smith and Joe Sambito. The Astros managed to tie it in the 9th and force it into extra innings, but Greg Luzinski hit a go-ahead double in the top of the 10th, and Tug McGraw close out the victory for the Phillies.
Game 5 went into extra innings as well, cementing this NLCS as one of the closest ever. With the game tied 2-2. the Astros scored three runs in the bottom of the 7th to take a 5-2 lead. But then the Phillies exploded for 5 runs off three Astro pitchers in the 8th to take a 7-5 lead. Amazingly, though, the Astros tied the game once again in the 8th, with Jose Cruz singling in the tying run. But the Astros' luck ran out in the 10th inning, when Garry Maddox hit an RBI double off of Frank LaCorte. Dick Ruthven shut out the Astros in the 10th, and the Phillies won the pennant.

It was perhaps the most exciting NLCS of all time. It was alsothe last hurrah for Cedeno, who I have ranked as the 6th-best player in the league that season. For a variety of reasons, including those discussed above, Cedeno's time as an elite player was over.

But for a second, let's consider what might have been. Before the 1981 season began, Cedeno was 30 years old. His best years may have been behind him, but there was no reason to think he wouldn't continue to play like an All-Star for several more years. And if he had, he almost certainly would have earned a spot in Cooperstown. Here's what Cedeno's career numbers looked like at age 30:

Cedeno (before '81): 1430 G, 290/353/458, 1,576 H, 158 HR, 475 SB
If a player is doing this well at age 30 (especially considering his context), he's almost certainly going to Cooperstown.
But for Cedeno, alas, the future wasn't so bright:

Cedeno ('81 and after): 576 G, 271/327/401, 511 H, 41 HR, 75 SB

Cedeno retired after the 1986 season -- where he got 78 at bats with the Dodgers -- at age 35.

There is one very notable postscript to Cedeno's later years. After a dismal 1981 season (271/321/382), the Astros traded Cedeno to the Reds for Ray Knight. He spent the next three and a half years with Cincinnati, struggling to hold on to a starting job.
In 1985, however, the St. Louis Cardinals came calling. The Cardinals were in a tight pennant race and were desperate to replace injured slugger Jack Clark. Cedeno didn't seem like the man for the job --he was hitting just 241/307/336 with the Reds that season -- but the Cards got him anyway, giving up a minor league pitcher in the trade.
What happened next became part of legend and was as unlikely as it was inspiring. Cedeno took over first base for the Cardinals and played in 28 games down the stretch -- hitting 434/463/750, with 6 HR. The Cardinals beat out the Mets for the NL East title by 3 games. Without Cedeno, it's quite possible the Cardinals wouldn't have made it. It was one of the most successful trade-deadline deals of all time.
This performance earned Cedeno a low-end free agent contract with the Dodgers. He played very poorly (231/294/282) and was released in June. He was picked up by the Cardinals a few weeks later, but didn't make it back to the majors. The career that had started out so promising, with Cedeno playing like an MVP at age 21, ended with a whimper at age 35.
It's clear that Cedeno was not the next Willie Mays, and over the years, it's been pointed out that giving him this title may have been part of what plagued him. We'll never know for sure what sent Cedeno's career down the tubes after age 30, but we can say without question that he was one of the NL's best players in the 1970s and was well on his way to at least Hall-of-Fame consideration before things fell apart.
So let's try to think about Cedeno's career not for what he wasn't -- Willie Mays -- but for what he was: an excellent player whose career met a premature end.

Gene Tenace (1969-1983)
(Career 241/388/429; 1,060 H; 201 HR; 1 All-Star berth)
Can we, in all good humor, really put Gene Tenace on the list of the top 50 catchers of all time? He wasn't considered to be anything of the sort during his career, due mainly to his low batting averages and his less-than-stellar defense. But Tenace was a very, very good hitter whose low averages disguised one of the best-hitting catchers of his time. He would later spend a lot of time at first base (and some third base and --gulp-- second base), but that just shows how good a hitter he was to be able to hold down these positions offensively. I'm not going to make a crazy claim that Tenace is a Hall-of-Famer, but I'd say that he's a lot closer than many people would think.
Tenace was drafted by the Kansas City Athletics in the 20th round of the draft 1965, just three years before they left for Oakland. Tenace was just one of many young players developed by the A's in the years just before they left town; it laid the foundation for the dynasty of the early-to-mid 70's.
Tenace was a pretty raw player coming out of high school; he made the majors only after three-and-a-half seasons spent in the minors. There don't seem to be any record of walks in the minors during Tenace's time there, so we're only left to ponder whether or not he was drawing them at the amazing rate he would show in the majors. But when you're hitting .211 with 1 HR in 91 games (as he did in High-A Leesburg in 1966), it takes a lot of walks to make a difference.
A strong 1968 season finally got Tenace promoted to Double-A in 1969. He hit .319 with 20 HR in 89 games before getting called up for a cup of coffee with the Oakland team. He did poorly in 16 games (158/200/237) and got sent back to the minors for 1970.
At age 23, Tenace finally reached Triple-A and hit like he belonged: .282 with 24 doubles and 16 HR in 93 games. He got another shot at the big club later in the season, and this time, he hit well enough to stay (305/430/562 in 38 games).
In 1971, Tenace shared time at catcher with another youngster, Dave Duncan. This despite the fact that Tenace (274/381/430) out-hit Duncan (253/307/419) by a mile. This could be attributed to defense, since Tenace wasn't any kind of Johnny Bench behind the plate, but the difference in offense is still enough for him to win the starting catcher's job. But manager Dick Williams insisted on sharing time between Tenace, Duncan, and erstwhile catcher (and no-while hitter) Curt Blefary. Tenace did have platoon problems in '71, suffering against righties. But Duncan was a right-handed hitter, just like Tenace, so there was no platoon there. The platoon was more likely an offense/defense platoon that played too heavy on the defense if Duncan got about twice as much playing time as Tenace (which he did).
But the issues at catcher didn't make a difference in the standings; the homegrown A's finished 101-60 and ran away with the AL West (Kansas City finished 2nd, 16 games out). It was the upstart A's against the established winners (Baltimore) in the ALCS, and the establishment prevailed, in a 3-0 sweep. But the A's would be back.
They'd be back in 1972, as a matter of fact. They fell to 93-62, but the West still wasn't much of a division, and Oakland's winning margin was 5.5 games, over the White Sox.
Again sharing time with the punchless Duncan (218/283/392; his best moments would come as a coach), Tenace's offense suffered; he hit just 225/307/339. To be fair, though, Tenace made barely 250 plate appearances despite being overqualified for the starting catcher's job. Anyone might be expexcted to regress.
The A's won a close ALCS against the Tigers in 5 games (Tenace was wretched: 059/200/059), setting themselves up for a 7-game showdown with the Big Red Machine. The A's took a 3-games-to-1 lead over Cincinnati and were on the verge of a major upset when the Reds rebounded for 2 straight wins to force a Game 7 at Riverfront Stadium. The A's sent out all their pitching aces (Blue Moon Odom, Catfish Hunter, Ken Holtzman, Rollie Fingers) to hold off the Reds for a 3-2 victory and their first World Series win since 1930. Tenace, who lit up the Reds to the tune of 348/400/913, with 4 HR, won the World Series MVP. Finally, he was starting to get noticed as one of the best-hitting catchers in the game.
Tenace's World Series heroics finally tipped the scales in his fight with Duncan; in 1973, Tenace was the starting catcher for Oakland, and he responded with a fine season: 259/387/443, with 101 walks and 24 homers.
The A's won their division again, and in the ALCS this time they faced their old foes, Earl Weaver's Orioles. It took 5 games, but the A's won and won their second straight AL pennant. In the World Series, they would face the Mets, who finished the season at 82-79, one of the worst teams ever to make the postseason. This time the A's were prohibitive favorites. But the Mets weren't pushovers; they'd won a tense NLCS over the Big Red Machine.
After splitting the first two games in Oakland, the Mets took 2 of 3 in New York to lead the Series 3 games-to-2. Much had been made of Oakland's excellent playoff rotation of Catfish Hunter, Vida Blue, and Ken Holtzman, but the Mets had them matched and thensome with Tom Seaver, Jerry Koosman, and Jon Matlack. It would be Seaver starting Game 6 with a chance to give the Mets the Series. But Catfish Hunter, starting for Oakland, got some run support early and held the Mets off, and the A's went on to win 3-1.
Game 7 would be Matlack .vs. Holtzman. The tension was broken, however, with a 4-run inning off Matlack by the A's. The A's held on to win 5-2 and become the first non-Yankee team to repeat as World Champions since . . . the Philadelphia A's of 1929-1930.
In reality, though, the 1973 World Series victory was just the latest chapter in the extraordinary tale of the 1973 A's. Books could be (and have been) written about the subject, but the short version is that the players hated each other, with clubhouse brawls a not-so-rare occasion. They also hated their manager, Dick Williams, whose amazingly strict style led to strained relations with many of the players. And everybody hated owner Charlie Finley, who spent most of the season fighting with Vida Blue over a contract when he wasn't threatening to move the team. The last straw came during the series, when Finley tried to put series goat Mike Andrews on the DL (Andrews wasn't sick with anything but error-itis). Commissioner Bowie Kuhn blocked the move, the latest in the ongoing battle between the staid commissioner and the maverick owner. Manager Williams, having seen enough, announced before the series was over that he'd be leaving the A's after the season.
And so with all of this in the background, the A's entered the 1974 season under Alvin Dark. The 1974 A's then went on to prove that good chemistry is not -- repeat not -- necessary to win ballgames. The mood had lifted somewhat, but this was still the A's; they hated each other.
The team returned most of their key players in '74, including Tenace (211/367/411), who proved once again to be one of the best-hitting backstops in the game. The A's had a closer race in the early months of the season, but were able to pull away from the pack and coast to a 5-game margin of victory. The postseason was also not nearly as interesting as the previous two; the A's won the ALCS from the Orioles in 4 games and topped the Dodgers in just 5 to become the only non-Yankee team to win three consecutive World Series titles.
But the great sense of accomplishment that should have come with this achievement just wasn't there. The players still weren't thrilled with Finley, and Finley was still livid that the team's attendance only increased moderately during their dynastic run (in '71, the A's drew 914,993 fans; in '75, after 3 straight World titles, they drew 1,075,518).
The loss of Catfish Hunter proved a sign of things to come. Finley stubbornly refused to honor a section of Hunter's contract that provided that the club would purchase the pitcher an annuity. Finley never purchased it and thus violated the contract. Much to everyone's horror, the independent arbitrator gave Finley more than a slap on the wrist (which had been the Commissioner's role for half a century); he declared Hunter a free agent. Finley, still in shock, watched as the Lords of Baseball literally came begging Hunter to join their team. Hunter signed a big-time deal with the Yankees, making tons more than Finley would ever have paid him. This was a sign that Finley could not compete financially with other clubs for top talent and, when the reserve clause was struck down shortly thereafter, it would prove the death knell for Finley's A's (thanks to Lords of the Realm).
In 1975, however, the only thing different was the absence of Catfish. The A's still dominated, though, going 98-64 and winning the AL West (for the 5th straight year) by 7 games over Kansas City. Tenace was at his best, hitting 255/395/464, with 29 HR and 106 BB. The A's got a rude awakening in the ALCS, though, when they were swept by the Red Sox.
In the 1975 offseason, the grievance brought by Andy Messersmith and Dave McNally was upheld by the independent arbitrator. The ruling declared the reserve clause, as it had been interpreted for decades, to be null and void; a player's "option year" was just that: an option year. Ignoring Charlie Finley's pleas to "make 'em all free agents, every year," thereby flooding the market and keeping prices down, the owners negotiated a system that would stagger the number of free agents per year, driving salaries up to the Catfish Hunter range and beyond.
Finley worked quickly; he took his cue from Connie Mack and started selling off his dynasty for parts. He traded Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman to Baltimore for a package that included Don Baylor and Mike Torrez. (Baylor spent one season in Oakland and left as a free agent; Torrez stuck around and went to the Yankees as part of a deal for Dock Ellis. About six weeks later, Finley sold Ellis to the Rangers).
This was just the first step in the self-destruction of Finley's club, but it showed in the standings. The 1976 club fell to 87-74 and finished a close 2nd to Kansas City. Still around was Gene Tenace (249/373/458), moved to first base to give catcher Larry Haney (226/280/237) a spot.
Tenace left the A's as a free agent. So did third baseman (and team leader) Sal Bando, ace closer Rollie Fingers, shortstop Bert Campeneris, outfielder Joe Rudi, and legendary first baseman Willie McCovey. Finley got rid of the rest of the team the old-fashioned way. Young outfielder Claudell Washington was traded to Texas for the dismal return of Jim Umbarger, Rodney Scott, and cash. Veteran Ron Fairly was sent to the expansion Blue Jays for a minor leaguer and cash. Second baseman Phil Garner went to the Pirates in a trade that, it must be said, netted the A's a truckload of useful players: Dave Giusti, Doc Medich, Doug Bair, Rick Langford, Tony Armas, and Mitchell Page. Third baseman Ken McMullen was sold to the Brewers.
Finley tried to arrange a bank-busting sale of ace pitcher Vida Blue, but the deal was blocked by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who felt that the sale of a player for pure cash was against the league's best interests in allowing the richer teams to buy up talent at will. This resulted in more profanity and name-calling from Finley. He wasn't able to trade Blue until after 1977, when he sent him to the Giants for a whole slew of nobodies (which Kuhn apparently preferred).
As for the free agents, it's doubtful that Finley offered them anything like what they got from other owners; not only was Finley ideologically opposed to free agency, he was also too damn cheap to pay the going price for a star.
After '76, all bets were off; Finley got rid of what was left. The '77 A's went 63-98 and finished dead last. Thus endeth a dynasty.
For Gene Tenace, however, 1977 was a chance to start over with a new team. He filled in as catcher and first baseman for the San Diego Padres. The Padres weren't in much better shape than the A's at this point; they'd gotten off to a slow start even by the standard of expansion teams, having sucked since 1969. What they did have was an owner, Ray Kroc, who was no averse to spending big money on free agents. The team Tenace joined wasn't considered any kind of contender, but it did have its bright spots: franchise player Dave Winfield, former #1 overall pick Bill Almon, useful outfielders George Hendrick and Gene Richards, slugger Dave Kingman (for a couple months, at least) and Tenace's former teammate Fingers. But on the whole, the lineup was spotty and the starting pitching was wretched. The Padres went 69-93 and finished 5th.
Tenace spent most of his time at first base in 1978, hitting 224/392/409. His batting average was deceptive; he drew 101 walks and hit 16 homers. The trouble is that hitting standards for first basemen are much higher than they are for catchers, and Tenace struggled to maintain the former.
The Padres as a whole, however, took a big step forward to 4th place with an 84-78 record. That may not sound like much, but it was the first winning record in franchise history. Key additions were shortstop Ozzie Smith (already a hitter but not yet a major league hitter), slugger Oscar Gamble, and 39-year-old Gaylord Perry. The Padres also got the last good season from overworked starter Randy Jones.
It was back to reality in 1979, though, as the team fell to 68-93. Flip-flopped back to catcher, Tenace responded with a great season, hitting 263/403/445, with 105 walks and 20 HR. But he and Winfield were the only remotely decent hitters in the batting order, and although the pitching was good, it wouldn't last.
Tenace spent his last year in San Diego (1980) mostly as a catcher. His batting average had fallen to near-Mendoza levels (.222), but he was still drawing enough walks to sport a good OBP (.399) and he added 17 HR as well. But it was still the Padres; they finished last and decided to capitalize (?) on that by getting rid of most of their good players. The Cardinals were looking for some help (and willing to take on some salary), so the Padres traded Tenace, Fingers, Bob Geren and Bob Shirley to St. Louis for Terry Kennedy and six relatively warm bodies. Kennedy would later replace Tenace as a good-hitting everyday catcher, but the Padres had given up a whole lot just to fill out the minor league roster. The year after the trade, the Padres finished last again (41-69) by a long shot, 26 games behind Cincinnati, who had the best overall record in the split season of 1981.
In St. Louis, Tenace represented the antithesis of "Whiteyball," Whitey Herzog's speed-and-defense style of play. Not only that, but he was well blocked at first base by Keith Hernandez and behind the plate by Herzog favorite Darrell Porter. Tenace still hit well (233/416/403), but he made less than 150 plate appearances. Nowadays, a Moneyball-style team would rescue Tenace from the bottom of Whitey's roster and at least use him as a DH. As it was, Tenace was hitting well, but toiling in obscurity. And at age 34, things weren't going to get better.
Tenace returned to the Cards in '82 and made about 150 plate appearances once again. This time, though, he was even better (258/436/500). He didn't even play in the NLCS against the Braves (which the Cards won), but he did get 6 at-bats in the World Series against Milwaukee. He went 0-for-6 (with a walk), but picked up another World Series ring (his 4th).
As a free agent, Tenace signed with the Pirates, even though he was blocked out of an everyday job there, too. This time he got less than 100 PAs and hit poorly (177/346/258). He returned to Spring Training camp with Pittsburgh in 1984, but was released right at the end of camp. His major league career was over.
When you consider his environment, Gene Tenace was an excellent hitter (career .309 EQA). As a catcher, that's even more brilliant. Reports on Tenace's defense are middling-to-poor, but I can add that a catcher's defense isn't considered as important as it once was, and Tenace scores well with FRAA (although that's a pretty dodgy measure for backstops). So is Gene Tenace a Hall-of-Famer?
No. He might have been good enough to make it, but he just didn't play enough. Yes, Tenace was around for 15 seasons, but he was only a regular for 8 of them (the only 8 seasons where he tops 100 games).
Is that his fault? I don't think so. I think that Tenace's reputation as a poor backstop and his low batting averages (plus the fact that his walks were underappreciated) just made it seem like he didn't deserve a full-time job. You could argue that Tenace had earned a starting job for two or three years at the start of his career, when he was inexplicably stuck behind Dave Duncan, and another year or two at the end, where he was stuck on a team that neither needed nor (likely) wanted him in a full-time role. Give him those four or five full seasons, and we're talking about several hundred more games, which could make a difference in our perception of his Hall-of-Fame credentials.
But Hall-of-Fame or not, Tenace just isn't appreciated as one of the top catchers of all time. But if I have anything to say about it, he will be someday.
Still to Come: Bobby Murcer, Roy White, Jim Fregosi, Frank Howard, Curt Flood, Earl Battey and others . . .

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