November 18, 2010

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #31 Butch Wynegar

Harold Delano Wynegar Jr. | C | 1976-1982 | Career Stats

Butch Wynegar was Joe Mauer before there was a Joe Mauer. A switch-hitting high-school catcher from Pennsylvania, the Twins selected Wynegar in the second round of the 1974 draft. He tore through the minor leagues, leading the rookie-level Appalachian League with a .346 batting average in 60 games after signing and hitting .314 with 19 homers, 112 RBIs, and 106 runs scored in 139 games at Single-A in 1975.

That was enough for the Twins to bench Glenn Borgmann, skip their stud prospect past both Double-A and Triple-A, and enter 1976 with Wynegar as the starting catcher despite the fact that he celebrated his 20th birthday at spring training. Wynegar was an immediate success, starting 137 games behind the plate and another dozen as the designated hitter while batting .260/.356/.363 with 10 homers, 21 doubles, 79 walks, and 69 RBIs.

Wynegar began the year batting sixth in the lineup, spent some time hitting fifth, and ended up in the cleanup spot for much of the season. His raw numbers may not look like much, but for a 20-year-old catcher in 1976 they were amazing. In fact, if you adjust Wynegar's numbers from 1976 to today's offensive environment his rookie season looks an awful lot like Mauer's first full season in 2005:

            YEAR       G      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG     OPS+
Wynegar     1976     149     622     .275     .375     .435     109
Mauer       2005     131     554     .294     .372     .411     107

Mauer finished third among catchers in Value Over Replacement Player behind Victor Martinez and Jason Varitek, while Wynegar ranked fourth in VORP behind Thurman Munson, Johnny Bench, and Ted Simmons. Add in the fact that Wynegar was actually two years younger than Mauer was in 2005--and possessed a similarly outstanding throwing arm--and it's easy to see why he was considered an extremely special player.

Wynegar missed out on winning the Rookie of the Year award because Mark Fidrych turned in one of the greatest rookie seasons in baseball history, but did manage to receive the only two first-place votes that Fidrych missed. He also became the youngest player ever to be selected to the All-Star team, serving as the AL's third catcher behind Carlton Fisk and Munson, and even found himself on one voter's MVP ballot.

Wynegar turned in a nearly identical sophomore season, making his second All-Star team by throwing out 44 percent of stole base attempts while hitting .261/.344/.370 with 10 homers, 22 doubles, 68 walks, and 79 RBIs. A switch-hitting catcher who played great defense, could hit, and made two All-Star teams by the age of 21? It doesn't get a whole lot better than that, and many observers around baseball saw great things in Wynegar's future.

An article in the Los Angeles Times on June 8, 1976 called Wynegar "this year's Fred Lynn" and also quoted Twins owner Calvin Griffith as saying that Wynegar was "going to be so good it's fantastic." Within the same article, Oakland manager Chuck Tanner said Wynegar had "one of the best swings for a young kid that I've ever seen." And here's an excerpt from an article that appeared in the Washington Post on June 5, 1977, midway through Wynegar's second season:

"He's the most complete catcher in the American League," said Houston scout Harry Craft. "He doesn't hit yet like Thurman Munson or maybe Carlton Fisk, but considering everything, he's the best of the three."

Unfortunately, by his 22nd birthday Wynegar's best days were already behind him. He threw out 45 percent of steal attempts in 1978, but hit just .229/.307/.308 with four homers in 135 games to rank 39th among major-league catchers in VORP during his third season. And while Wynegar's apparent bounceback .270/.363/.351 line in 1979 looks close to the numbers that he put up in 1976 and 1977, the levels of offense in the AL had risen quite a bit since then.

Wynegar dropped off again in 1980, hitting just .255/.339/.335 with five homers in 146 games, but managed to start 130-plus times behind the plate for the fifth straight year and gunned down 45 percent of steal attempts to keep his defensive contributions very strong. Despite looking so promising offensively early on, he had essentially become your typical good-glove, no-hit backstop.

Wynegar's durability left in 1981 too, as he hit .247/.322/.280 and played  just 47 games. The Next Big Thing at 21, he was suddenly 26 and hadn't improved a bit. His swing never produced the big batting averages people expected and his power declined at a time when the rest of baseball's soared. After hitting .209 in 24 games to start 1982 the Twins dealt Wynegar to the Yankees along with Roger Erickson for John Pacella, Larry Milbourne, and Pete Filson.

They'd traded Roy Smalley to the Yankees in April and dumping another high-priced veteran wasn't a popular move. Ron Davis, who arrived in the Smalley deal, told the Washington Post: "If anybody should be traded, it's the owner. All he's worried about is money. There ain't no future for this team." Griffith's response was to call Davis "a New York counterfeit," which likely stung quite a bit considering he had just blown a game against the Red Sox the day before.

Filson is the only player from the deal to provide any sort of value to the Twins, while Wynegar stepped in for an injured Rick Cerone in New York and hit .293/.413/.393 in 63 games for the Yankees. Not only was Wynegar better than ever for the Yankees after the trade in 1982, he batted .296/.399/.429 for New York in 1983--catching Dave Righetti's no-hitter on the Fourth of July--and .267/.360/.342 in 1984.

He spent a total of six seasons with the Yankees, and ended his career with two seasons as a backup catcher after being traded to the Angels in December of 1986. Wynegar's career was an odd one and there are certainly plenty of interesting lessons that can be learned from it, with one being that young superstars in the making--and especially young catchers who log over a thousand innings per year behind the plate right away--don't always turn out that way.

It's not that Wynergar was bad--The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract ranks him as the 65th-best catcher in baseball history--but rather that he peaked early and then suffered from not living up to the substantial hype. Had his career been shaped differently, with the poor seasons at 20 and 21 and peak years at a more typical age, he'd be viewed in a different light. Instead, he'll have to settle for being one of those "what could have been" players.

Walks                 358    15th
Plate Appearances    3188    23rd
Times On Base        1070    23rd
  • Dave T

    I would flip-flop Wynegar and Worthington. Al was one of the best relief pitchers I ever saw, and the author of one of my favorite quotes: “Hitters are STUPID”. This guy missed bats with his brain and his location, not his (nonexistent) fastball. Butch was a two-year wonder.

  • tborg

    “Love that kid!”

  • I would argue that through age 27 (Mauer’s current age), the greatest catcher ratings are as follows:
    Bench, Mauer, Pudge, Simmons, Piazza, Berra, Carter, Torre, Cochrane, Dickey, Freehan, Parrish, McCann (only 26!), Darrel Porter, Buck Ewing, Munson, Kendall, McCarver, Wynegar.
    Wynegar and Kendall actually had similar starts, but while Kendall might not have maintained the same offensive numbers over the course of his career, at least he’s been a full-time catcher for 15 seasons, an underrated and incredible accomplishment. Wynegar never got close to that. Let’s hope Joe is still getting 500+ PAs a year at age 36, whether at catcher or some other position…

  • bonus wagner

    Nobody grounded out to the first baseman more in baseball history.

  • ganderson

    Tborg references (I think) the commercial with Harold- ( I quote from memory:

    Announcer: ” Butch loves the game so much he says he’d play for free”

    Cut to Calvin: “I really like that kid!”

  • tborg

    Yeah. I guess my memory has him saying “love” instead of “really like”. Ah, the days of Calvin in commercials. I also fondly recall one where he tells Craig “Mongo” Kusik to “quit hitting so many balls out of park. They’re expensive!”

  • Jodes

    The only time I ever skipped a day of high school was to see Butch at a Twins luncheon…still have a personal letter he wrote me…saw Herbeck on the lake the other day & asked about Butch…wonder how he’s doing these days