Thursday, September 21, 2006

Some Better Bums

Major League Baseball coordinated with DHL to promote a sweepstakes contest called Hometown Heroes, in which you could not only vote for your favorite players on your favorite teams, but if your player got names, you could also win sweepstakes prizes. A decent cross-marketing combo, and one that also will produce some easy time-filling material for ESPN over the next few days.

In a spirit of fun, Jim Caple of ESPN's online Page 2 announced a counter-contest, with no prizes or cross-marketing, but one a lot of baseball fans would probably participate in anyway: Hometown Bums. Where you have heroes, you have goats, after all, and fans always relish the chance to vent about their least-favorite players (or even put together back-handed tribute blogs to them). It's a part of the game.

Caple (I'm assuming he had some help, though that help isn't named, so he gets full-bore blame for this one) nominated five players from each team for the Hometown Bums ballot. Curious, I headed over to see who he'd name from the Twins.

He made some good calls:

- Chuck Knoblauch

Knoblauch was Rookie of the Year when the Twins won the World Series in 1991, and was one of the best second-basemen in the American League during his tenure in the Metrodome. A dynamic player with pesky offense and highlight-reel defense, Knoblauch was one of the few bright spots on a team that sunk into the depths of deep rebuilding after his '91 rookie year. Either he or Rod Carew would count as the best second-baseman in Twins history. Following the 1997 season, however, Knoblauch and his agent forced a trade to the New York Yankees so that Knoblauch could take part in the budding Yankee dynasty of the late '90s.

The fans back home basically turned on him, considering him a big-headed player too high on his own press to stick it out with a poor club during rebuilding. The closest the Metrodome ever saw to a riot was a game where Knoblauch came back with the Yankees, by that time having been moved to left field, and fans pelted him with Dome dogs when he took the field. Knoblauch would certainly draw votes as a Hometown Bum, not because he was a bad player, but because of the manner in which he left the hometown.

- Ron Davis

Like Knoblauch, Davis was born in Houston and has connections to the hated Yankees, but in Davis's case the connection is almost opposite that of Knoblauch. Davis was one of the first players to perform extremely well in the so-called 'set-up' role, the role of pitching 'bridging' innings between a starting pitcher and a team's closer. Many thought that Davis was a good enough pitcher that he could be a closer for a different team, and just prior to the 1982 season, the Twins traded shortstop Roy Smalley to the Yankees to give Davis the chance to be their closer.

Most of Davis's numbers as a closer don't look all that bad - his ERA was better than league-average, he never allowed more hits than innings, and his strikeout-to-walk ratio hovered near 2-to-1. Unfortunately, Davis racked up a somewhat stunning amount of losses - 11 in 1984 alone when the Twins were hoping to win a seemingly weak division, and a total of 34 (versus just 17 wins) during his four full seasons as a Twins closer. It got so bad that some fans took to wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the motto "I Believe in RD". Struggling mightily for the first half of the 1986 season, Davis found himself shipped to the Chicago Cubs in August for a couple of low-upside pitchers. When the Twins acquired Jeff Reardon prior to the 1987 season and ended up winning the World Series, it simply served as the final nail in the coffin for many Twins' fans recollections of "RD".

- Carl Pohlad

Everybody loves to hate the Twins' skinflint owner, especially after a number of stadium blackmail attempts in the late '90s and early '00s that finally paid off last year. Whether people dislike Carl more now than folks disliked Cal Griffith back in the early '80s is debatable, though.

Two names stand out, though, as names sort of picked out of a statistician's hat - two guys that got chosen because they had bad-looking numbers on rather than any real hometown animus. Which is weird, given that Caple suggested that, for most teams anyway, there were far more good candidates than slots available to list them. The two names were one regular player and one pitcher, and I'm going to name then, then list some alternatives that I think most Twins fans would probably agree would make better choices on a 'Hometown Bums' ballot.

The Hitter: Rich Becker

Becker was a third-round draft pick of the Twins in the 1990 amateur draft, and though I do remember him being considered something of a prospect, it's hard to say why looking at his numbers - taken straight out of high school and dropped into the rookie leagues at 18, Becker hit just .289 with six home runs. He did have good speed (18 SBs) and a seemingly great command of the strike zone (53 walks vs 54 strikeouts), but the 'Moneyball revolution' was far off, and his walk rate probably wasn't what made him into a prospect, if anything did.

He worked his way slowly up the Twins minor league system, continuing to draw monstrous walk totals (280 in three years between A and AA), though he also struck out a lot, too (347 Ks during the same span). He picked up some power, hitting between 13 and 15 homers each year, and seemed ot use his speed better, too - in 1994 playing for Nashville, Becker stole 29 bases and had seven triples to go with his fifteen homers and .400 on-base percentage. Becker had a couple of cups of coffee with the big club before being called up to stay in 1995 as a fourth outfielder - much the same role that Lew Ford fills on the current club.

Then, in 1996, Kirby Puckett announced he had glaucoma and was retiring from baseball.

Becker took over much of the duties in center - he played over 100 games in center in 1996 - and for a 24-year old, was actually doing quite well. He finished the year with a .291 batting average, a .372 on-base percentage, and double-digits in homers. His defense in center, by the numbers, was amazing - his 2.92 range factor was comfortably ahead of the league average for the position (2.35), he committed only two errors, and had 18 outfield assists (or as Bill James likes to call them, Baserunner Kills). With 24-year-old Matt Lawton in right, and 26-year old Marty Cordova in left (who'd won the Rookie of the Year award in 1995), it looked like the Twins would have a solid outfield for some time to come.

In retrospect, Becker's failure seems easy to pin on two factors: the Twins' tendency, at that time, to agressively coach their young players in 'Twins baseball' (a trait that ultimately alienated David Ortiz and led to his departure for the Boston Red Sox), and the misfortune of trying to live up to Kirby Puckett's legacy in center. I can think of more than a few fans who were disappointed that Becker didn't turn out better than he did - he was traded to the Mets after the 1997 season, spent the next three years with five different ballclubs, and was out of baseball before his 29th birthday - but very few who'd consider him a Bum in the sense that I think Caple intends with this exercise.

Here are some guys I'd nominate for Becker's spot on the Bums ballot:

- Marty Cordova

Ironically, one good choice is Becker's 1996 and 1997 outfield teammate, Marty Cordova. Cordova had won the 1995 Rookie of the Year award with solid hitting numbers for a rookie (.277/839 with 24 homers), though it was not yet clear how much the offenseive landscape of baseball was changing - by current standards, Cordova's RoY numbers don't look all that impressive. Sadly, 1995 was possibly Cordova's best season, and if '95 wasn't, then '96 was, when Cordova followed up his RoY campaign by hitting .309/849 with 111 RBI. Over the next three seasons, Cordova would never come close to either his 1995 home run and stolen base totals, or his 1996 batting average and RBI totals, and the Twins gave him his outright release after the 1999 season.

Two interesting things to note about Cordova: first, the most comparable player to Cordova in baseball history according to the Bill James Similiarity Method as of the start of the 2006 season was Jacque Jones, another player many would put on a short list of potential Twins 'Hometown Bums'. Second, after being released by the Twins at the end of the 1999 season, the Boston Red Sox signed him, then released him before the end of spring training. What makes this second fact interesting is that this was three years before the Twins would release David Ortiz, whom the Red Sox would also sign, but hang onto.

- Tommie Herr

Herr only played one season as a Twin, but what a season...

When the Twins won the World Series in 1987, the folks upstairs realized that the team still had some significant weaknesses, and one of them was at second base. Though Steve Lombardozzi had played the position competently during the championship run, he was also a 27-year-old player who'd never come close to hitting .300 since being promoted to AAA back in 1984, and the Twins felt an upgrade was needed to remain competitive. So shortly after the start of the 1988 season, the Twins dealt popular rightfielder Tom Brunansky to the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for veteran second-baseman Herr. Herr had hit .305 as recently as 1985, and his defense was considered solid.

It's hard to say what went wrong for Herr. Perhaps Herr considered himself a Cardinal - he's been signed by the Cardinal organization as a amateur free agent back in 1974 and had never played for any other organization in his professional career. Given the general belief in the Cardinal organization (and among their fans) that the Cards had been beaten by an inferior opponent in '87, it's undertandable that, if Herr did consider himself a 'company man', that he'd be unhappy with a move to that club. Even though Herr's hitting numbers were, on the surface, nearly identical to those he'd put up with the Cardinals in '87 (.263/680 in '88 vs .263/677 in '87), there were widespread reports that Herr was not just unhappy, but dogging it. Hard-assed Tom Kelly could put up with some things in his early days as Twins manager (though less and less as he got older), but dogging it on the field was never something he could condone, and within days of the end of the '88 World Series, the Twins had shipped Herr back to the National League.

- Danny Thompson

It would be hard, perhaps, to argue Thompson's 'Bum' status given some of his biographical facts - specifically that he was the highest-hitting shortstop in the AL in 1972, then was diagnozed with leukemia prior to the 1973 season. He played anyway, being seen as a warrior battling a deadly illness, and he died while being treated at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester in 1976 at the age of 29. This guy should be a Hero, not a Bum, right?

Well...let's not forget a few other factors.

For starters, Thompson was the Twins #1 draft pick in 1968, and the eighteenth pick overall, and though that status didn't quite carry the same load it does these days (especially considering that Thompson was drafted in what proved to be the third draft that year), there should have been some pretty high expectations of the kid even then, you'd imagine. Drafted at 21 out of Oklahoma State University, he moved quickly through the Twins minor-league organization, arriving at the major leagues in 1970 and never looking back.

By the numbers, though, he was a poor fielder - he had a below-average fielding percentage and below-average range nearly every year - and though middle infielders at the time weren't expected to hit very well, his best year with the bat was '72, when he hit .276/674 and came within a few points of being league-average in OPS as well. His overall numbers after seven big-league seasons added up to .248/596, which even during that era should have been considered inexcusable for a below-average defensive player.

Except, of course, he had one thing in his favor - he'd married Cal Griffith's daughter. It's impossible to say how much that nepotism helped him, but it'd be difficult to imagine a player with Thompson's numbers, even adjusted for the modern era of inflated offense, lasting as much as seven full seasons in the major leagues on talent alone.

The Pitcher: Terry Felton

Terry Felton pitched only 138.3 innings in his professional career, almost all of those coming in his final season in 1982, when the Twins lost over 100 games. He finished with a career ERA of over five-and-a-half, which isn't great, but there are worse pitchers in Twins history on that count. He also started only six games in his entire cereer, which might be seen as another head-scratcher as to why he'd be included on a list of Hometown Bums.

The reason Felton is on the list is because he holds the major league record for most decisions in a career without a win. Felton was 0-13 for the 1982 Twins, and combined with his 0-3 mark in 1980 (when he made four of his six career starts), Felton got the losing decision sixteen times in his major league career without ever chalking up a win.

No Twins fan I know thinks Felton was a bum.

Out of his league? Maybe. But Felton wasn't even the worst pitcher, by peripheral numbers anyway, on his own staff. The '82 Twins finished 60-102 in their first season in the Metrodome, in the only year in which the park didn't have air conditioning. (The designers thought that, with much of the park below street level, air conditioning wouldn't be needed, as the earth would help keep the stadium cool.) Felton didn't have great control (47 walks vs 89 strikeouts in 106 innings - yes, 89 strikeouts in 106 innings), but then neither did starters Brad Havens (80 walks vs 129 strikeouts in 208.7 innings) and Frank Castillo (85 walks vs 123 strikeouts in 218.7 innings). Rookie Frank Viola had a higher ERA (5.21 vs Felton's 4.99). Fellow reliever/spot-starter John Pacella was worse nearly across-the-board:


Felton 117.3 99 4.99 47 89

Pacella 51.7 61 7.32 37 20

And of course, the aforementioned Ron Davis was still the closer back in those days.

In fact, nearly every Twins fan I know who's put together a fantasy team and remembers this season genearlly picks Felton as his eleventh pitcher - simply for the possibility of watching him earn his first big-league win. Twins fans know that Felton's 0-16 record is clearly undeserved, despite him not being a top-shelf pitcher.

Some better suggestions for the Bum ballot pitching slot, in my opinion, include the following:

- David West

When the Twins won the World Series in 1987, they hadn't yet developed a solid pitching staff. Veteran Bert Blyleven was seen as the ace, but his role was also, in part, to help polish lefty Frank Viola's development. In 1988, Viola developed, having a breakout 24-7 season and winning the Cy Young award that year. Then in 1989, Viola started grumbling - a New York kid at heart, Viola wasn't happy with the Twins lack of playoff competitiveness, nor with his own contract, and he and his agent forced a mid-season trade to the New York Mets. In return, the Twins would get a number of players who'd prove useful in their later 1991 World Series run, including Rich Aguilera and Kevin Tapani, but the guy who was supposed to be the catch of that trade was left-hander David West.

You have to remember, this was an era in which the Mets were seen as being an outstanding organization at developing pitching talent. Dwight Gooden, Sid Fernandez, Ron Darling (who'd been a contemporary and rival of Viola's in college). West wasn't necessarily supposed to be as good as Gooden was, as he'd spent a few years at A-ball working to get his great stuff under control, but by 1988 it looked as though West had done just that, racking up a 12-4 record with a 1.80 ERA and 143 strikeouts in 160 innings at AAA Tidewater. His walks were still higher than the Mets liked (97 vs those 143 Ks), but he was still just 23 and had a long time to go before he'd be eligible for a big payday. He seemed like a perfect acquisition for the budget-conscious Twins.

He got hit hard after arriving from New York (48 hits in 39 innings with an ERA of 6.41), but he clearly had dazzling stuff (31 Ks), so the club and its fans wrote it off as nerves and adjusting to a new league.

In 1989, West started 27 games, finishing with a pedestrian 7-9 record and an ERA of 5.10. In 1991, he got hurt, but even before then he'd improved only slightly, collecting a 4-4, 4.54 mark in twelve starts. In 1992, West spent far more time in AAA than with the big club, and wasn't doing anything even at Portland to suggest that he should be given another rotation chance, ending his AAA season with 65 walks versus 87 strikeouts in 101 minor-league innings, and a mark of 7-6 with a 4.43 ERA.

After the 1992 season, the Twins traded West, straight-up, to the Phillies for Mike Hartley, a former Cardinal farmhand who'd become a journeyman middle reliever. The Phillies got one decent year out of West by making him a set-up man before his lack of control failed him yet again, and West then bounced around the league before finally ending his big-league career at 33.

On the whole, Tapani and Aguilera certainly made the Viola trade worthwhile, but the Twins and their fans always hoped and expected more from West, and never really got it.

- Willie Banks

If you look at David West's top 10 similarity score comps, #10 is Willie Banks, which is astonishingly fitting.

Banks was the #3 overall pick of the Twins in the 1987 amateur draft, and he was talked up from day one as a potential star. Drafted out of high school, Banks was said to have amazing stuff, and showed it by striking out 71 in 65 innings in rookie ball that year. Control seemed to be a potential issue for Banks as well, until he had a minor league breakout year at Visalia in 1989, going 12-9 with a 2.59 ERA, and 173 strikeouts and just 122 hits allowed in 174 innings pitched. Still smarting from the loss of Viola, Twins fans who paid attention to the minors hoped that Banks, along with West, could lock down a refreshed Twins starting rotation for years to come.

Though Banks's control backslid somewhat in 1990 and 1991 (he actually walked more than he struck out in '91 at AAA Portland), the Twins promoted him anyway, and he got his first cup-of-coffee pitching in September for the eventual World Series Champs. Then in 1992, he started the year with a Francisco Liriano-like throttling of AAA, going 6-1 with a 1.92 ERA in eleven starts, and being called up to the big club to stay.

Over the rest of '92 and the whole of the '93 season, Banks threw 242 innings, allowed 266 hits, walked 115, and ammassed a record of 15-16 with a below-league-average ERA. Just as the Twins brass lost patience with West, they lost patience with Banks, and traded him after the 1993 season for catcher Matt Walbeck and young pitcher Dave Stevens, yet another 'young guy with control problems' that, for some reason, the Twins thought they could fix. (The greatest pitching successes of the Tom Kelly/Dick Such era generally occurred with pitchers like Aguilera and Tapani who had already proven to have good control.)

Banks then began bouncing around the league himself, with teams willing to take a flyer on the possibility that Banks could finally tame his wildness, and always coming up short.

I should also point out, for the sake of completeness, that if most current Twins bloggers were given the option, they'd probably add Luis Rivas to the player's list, and Kyle Lohse to the pitcher's list, though I'd disagree with both calls as each was one of my own favorite Twins during their respective tenures with the club. I've defended them both online often enough that I don't feel obligated to do so again here.

So those are my votes for 'better Bums' than the ones chosen by Caple for his ballot. Maybe I should go write them in.

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