October 31, 2006

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #23 Cesar Tovar


1090 4595 .281 .337 .377 103 32.2 142

Signed by Cincinnati as an 18-year-old out of Venezuela in the winter of 1959, Cesar Tovar batted .304, .338, and .328 in his first three pro seasons. After moving up to the Triple-A in 1963, Tovar hit .297 with 115 runs scored while showing tons of speed and gap power. Blocked at the major-league level by the likes of Pete Rose and Vada Pinson, Tovar remained at Triple-A in 1964 and slumped, hitting .275 with a .379 slugging percentage.

In December of 1964, with a young nucleus of hitters already in place from a 92-win season, Cincinnati shipped Tovar to Minnesota in exchange for 23-year-old left-hander Gerry Arrigo. It was a controversial deal at the time, because parting with young southpaws has never been viewed in a positive light and Arrigo was coming off a rookie season that saw him go 7-4 with a 3.84 ERA and 96 strikeouts in 105.1 innings split between the starting rotation and bullpen.

With incumbent second baseman Bernie Allen struggling to get healthy after knee problems ended his 1964 season, Tovar was given a long look in spring training and headed north with the team, making the Opening Day roster as a reserve. Tovar saw just 13 at-bats in a month with the Twins and was sent back down to Triple-A in mid-May, where he batted .328 with a .523 slugging percentage in 102 games before returning to the big leagues in September.

The Twins won 102 games and the AL pennant before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series, but Tovar didn't see any postseason action. In fact, mere hours after Sandy Koufax struck out Bob Allison to end the season, the New York Times reported that team president Calvin Griffith was "not satisfied with their top second base candidates" and "would be active in the trading market ... seeking a second baseman."

Speaking to the Los Angeles Times early that spring, manager Sam Mele called second base "my only infield problem" and an article in the Chicago Tribune suggested two weeks later that the position was a three-way battle between Allen, Frank Quilici, and Jerry Kindall. Meanwhile, Tovar was seeing some work at second base, but also played the other infield positions and spent much of his time in center field, where he was viewed as a potential platoon partner for the lefty-hitting Jimmie Hall.

Sure enough, Allen began the 1966 season as the starting second baseman and Tovar didn't find his way into the lineup anywhere for three weeks, finally starting both games of a Sunday doubleheader in center field on May 1. Allen's poor play and health problems eventually opened the door for Tovar to see significant action at second base and he ended up starting 73 games there despite not getting his first chance at the position until late June.

In addition to starting 73 times at second base, Tovar also saw 27 starts at shortstop and 16 starts in center field, combining to hit a modest .260/.325/.335 with 16 stolen bases in 527 plate appearances. With Hall traded to the Angels that winter, Tovar was needed more as a center fielder in 1967, starting 60 times there, but also started at 56 times at third base and 31 times at second base while seeing occasional action at shortstop and in the outfield corners.

While most fans have come to think of a "utility man" as someone like Denny Hocking who's a capable backup at multiple positions, Tovar was more like an everyday player who simply didn't know where he was going to play on a given day. Tovar batted just .267/.325/.365 in 1967, but ranked among the AL's top five in at-bats (649), runs (98), hits (173), doubles (32), and triples (7) while grabbing headlines for his finish in the MVP voting.

Tovar finished a surprising seventh in the balloting, ahead of guys like Frank Robinson and Tony Oliva, but more importantly received the lone first-place vote to elude Triple Crown winner Carl Yastrzemski. After initially remaining anonymous despite media scrutiny, Max Nichols of the Minneapolis Star was revealed as the guilty party, proving that beat writers making selections for season-ending awards that are equal parts horrible and biased is nothing new.

Not only wasn't Tovar even in the same ballpark as Yastrzemski in 1967, in hindsight it ended up being one of his worst seasons. With offensive levels insanely low in 1968 (the mound was lowered the next year), Tovar batted .272/.326/.372 while ranking among the AL's top five in hits, runs, stolen bases, and doubles. He also made his mark by becoming the second player in big-league history to play an inning at all nine positions in a single game (although several players have since done it).

Tovar was the starting pitcher in a 2-1 win over the A's on September 22, striking out Reggie Jackson during a scoreless first inning and moving around the diamond on the way to producing the following boxscore line (and scoring nightmare):

Tovar p, c, 1b, 2b, ss, 3b, lf, cf, rf

Tovar was even better in 1969, batting .288 with 45 steals, and then hit .300/.356/.442 with 120 runs in 1970. Even those career-best numbers seem unspectacular by today's standards, but like other stars from the 1960s and 1970s it's important to evaluate his performance in proper context. Not only did he lead the league in doubles and triples while ranking among the top 10 in runs, hits, total bases, steals, and extra-base hits, Tovar did so in an environment that drastically suppressed hitting.

Not all .300/.356/.442 hitting lines are created equal. The AL as a whole batted .250/.322/.379 in 1970, compared to .275/.339/.437 in 2006. That means overall offense today is up approximately 15 percent from the overall level of offense in 1970, which skews raw numbers dramatically. If adjustments are made for that difference, converting Tovar's 1970 numbers to fit into today's environment, here's what you get instead:

                     AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS
Tovar in 1970 .300 .356 .442 .798
Tovar in 2006 .330 .375 .510 .885

In today's terms, Tovar's 1970 season equals something like .330/.375/.510, which certainly registers as impressive a lot easier than his actual numbers do. Applying the same fit-to-2006 adjustments for each of Tovar's seasons in Minnesota paints a much clearer picture of his value as a hitter:

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
1966 .280 .342 .373 .715 86
1967 .291 .343 .423 .766 98
1968 .308 .353 .452 .805 107
1969 .309 .347 .469 .816 110
1970 .330 .375 .510 .885 118
1971 .331 .365 .419 .784 104
1972 .289 .346 .401 .747 94

TOTAL .310 .357 .442 .799 103

In today's terms, Tovar is a perennial .300 hitter whose career numbers with the Twins jump all the way from .281/.337/.377 to .310/.357/.442 once they're put in context. His smoothed-out numbers also show a textbook aging curve in that he started slow, peaked from age 27-29, and gradually declined into his early 30s. Interestingly, as Tovar improved offensively he also stopped moving around the diamond so much defensively.

By 1970 Tovar was primarily an outfielder, starting 125 games in center field and another 21 in left field compared to a total of just 10 starts as an infielder. He saw 145 of his 150 starts in the outfield in 1971 and was exclusively an outfielder in 1972, his final year in Minnesota. After hitting poorly as the primary right fielder on a 77-win team, the Twins traded Tovar to the Phillies for Joe Lis, Ken Sanders, and Ken Reynolds.

Much like Arrigo never amounted to much after going to Cincinnati in exchange for Tovar back in 1964, none of those three provided much value to the Twins. Tovar batted .268/.335/.357 as a part-time player in Philadelphia, splitting time at third base with a struggling 23-year-old rookie named Mike Schmidt. He had a brief resurgence after joining Texas, hitting .292/.354/.377 as an everyday player in 1974, but was done as a big leaguer within two years.


Steals 186 3rd
Triples 45 7th
Hits 1164 8th
Runs 646 8th
Doubles 193 9th
Total Bases 1561 13th
XBH 276 16th
AVG .281 17th
Walks 299 18th
RBI 319 25th

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