March 30, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #22 Zoilo Versalles

Zoilo Casanova Versalles | SS | 1961-1967 | Career Stats

Washington signed 18-year-old Zoilo Versalles out of Havana, Cuba in 1958 and rushed him to the big leagues nearly five months before his 20th birthday. Versalles debuted on August 1, 1959, starting at shortstop against the White Sox and going 0-for-4 with three strikeouts and an error as the Senators' leadoff man. He saw limited action down the stretch in 1958, hitting .153 in 59 at-bats spread over 29 games, and then batted .133 in 45 at-bats the next season.

Versalles arrived in Minnesota along with the rest of the team when the Senators became the Twins in 1961 and immediately stepped in as the starting shortstop, notching two hits and two steals in a 6-0 win over the Yankees on Opening Day. Despite being a 21-year-old rookie with 104 career at-bats he started each of the first 15 games and went on to hit .280/.314/.390 in 129 games for a Twins team that finished near the bottom of the league with a 70-90 record.

At first glance a .704 OPS doesn't look like much, but as a whole MLB shortstops combined to hit just .257/.324/.358 in 1961, meaning Versalles' bat was above average for his position as a 21-year-old rookie. And much like his first full season Versalles' entire career can be better appreciated by placing his raw numbers in the context of both the era in which he played and the position he manned.

Rarely did Versalles post raw numbers that would turn heads today, but for a shortstop in the pitcher-friendly 1960s he was an excellent hitter. He never topped the .280 batting average from 1961 and hit above .260 just twice more, but made up for it by adding significant power. After going deep just seven times in 510 at-bats as a rookie, he homered 17 times in 1962 to kick off a four-year stretch with double-digit long balls.

In fact, from 1961 to 1965 he led all major-league shortstops with 73 homers. Contrary to the past two decades or so, shortstop back then was simply not played by guys capable of hitting the ball out of the park. All of which is what made the two-year run Versalles put together starting in 1964 so impressive. Playing in 320 of 324 games the man they called "Zorro" batted .266/.315/.447 with 39 homers, 22 triples, 78 doubles, 41 steals, 141 RBIs, and 220 runs.

During that two-year span Versalles ranked second among all MLB hitters in doubles and runs, eighth in extra-base hits, and 10th in steals and total bases. That kind of offensive production was largely unheard of from a shortstop at that time and the position as a whole hit a measly .248/.312/.348 between 1964 and 1965. To put that in more recent context, consider that four decades later MLB shortstops combined to hit .271/.324/.401 between 2004 and 2005.

If you adjust Versalles' raw 1964/1965 totals to fit the 2004/2005 environment he comes out batting .290 with a .515 slugging percentage, which is Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki territory these days. The second of those two seasons was Versalles' finest and one of the most memorable years in Twins history. After finishing 79-83 in 1964 the Twins blitzed through the AL in 1965, posting a 102-60 record that still stands as the team's all-time best.

Versalles was the shortstop and leadoff man in 155 of the 162 games, hitting .273/.319/.462 with 19 homers and 27 steals while winning a Gold Glove and leading the AL in runs, doubles, extra-base hits, and total bases. He was particularly outstanding in the second half, batting .303/.349/.500 after the All-Star break, including .353 in August and .337 in September as the Twins put away the White Sox and Orioles to take the AL pennant.

And while most of the Twins' hitters flailed away at Sandy Koufax and the Dodgers in a World Series loss Versalles put the finishing touches on his great season by batting .283/.333/.500 with three extra-base hits, three runs, and four RBIs in seven games. Versalles blew away the competition in the AL MVP voting by receiving 19 of 20 first-place votes, with the lone dissenter casting a ballot for teammate Tony Oliva, who finished a distant second.

Decades later it became popular to use his MVP win as a way to identify and attack perceived flaws within sabermetrics, the thinking seemingly being that because his raw numbers weren't particularly impressive in 1965 most "stat-heads" probably think Versalles receiving the award was some sort of travesty brought about by the unenlightened. For instance, friend of and Twins blogger Seth Stohs once opined:

Zoilo Versalles won the 1965 American League MVP award. He had a really great season. Believe me, if it happened now, SABRmetricians would probably take issue with that decision.

Taking it several steps further Jim Thielman, the author of a book about the 1965 Twins called Cool of the Evening, wrote:

Statistically, 1965 was a mixed bag for Versalles, and in recent years those who scrutinize numbers have suggested he did not deserve to win the 1965 Most Valuable Player award. ... Researching an era or epoch to see how it was, reading what people of the era did and said at the time, rather than cast a revisionist layer over it all, is actually an approach to studying history that was introduced around 1800. Applying this research to baseball is preferable to creating designer metrics with a computer in an attempt to ascertain how it was.

It is not difficult to find those who have done that in regard to Versalles, and printed their conclusions in books and on various Web sites, stating Versalles was undeserving. Facts suggest otherwise. A thorough review of Versalles' season--what he actually did during games, what managers and other players said at the time, not years later, shows that becoming an MVP is more than just piling numbers high.

If you're a Twins fan harboring resentment toward stats-based analysis it's tempting to set up that argument. "Versalles was great in 1965, but those dorks with their calculators don't think so!" Unfortunately, that's inaccurate and ultimately nothing more than attacking a strawman. The premise that those who "scrutinize numbers" don't view Versalles' season as special is flawed because of a failure to realize that any stat-head worth a damn looks past raw stats.

Versalles' stats aren't eye-popping at first glance, but one of the main goals of sabermetrics is placing stats like that in proper context. Depending on the circumstances, that means looking beyond oft-quoted numbers like batting averages and RBIs, adjusting for era and offensive environment, and making additional positional adjustments. In all cases it means doing things that Versalles' supporters would surely agree with, which makes the entire "argument" silly.

Plus, in an ironic twist the so-called "designer metrics [created] with a computer" that Thielman rails against so strongly actually show Versalles' MVP-winning 1965 season in an extremely favorable light. For instance, here is the American League leaderboard in 1965 for a prominent numbers-driven metric called Value Over Replacement Player (VORP), which compares a hitter's production to others at the same position:

Jim Fregosi           45.1
Carl Yastrzemski      44.1
Tony Oliva            42.3
Leon Wagner           38.9

VORP represents only offensive contributions, yet Versalles still comes out on top of the heap by a relatively wide margin despite the presence of sluggers like Olivo and Carl Yastrzemski. Considering that Versalles was also a Gold Glove-winning shortstop in 1965 it's not difficult to understand why he also does exceptionally well in a metric such as Wins Above Replacement (WAR) that incorporates both offensive and defensive contributions:

Don Buford            7.2
Jim Fregosi           6.3
Brooks Robinson       6.1
Tony Oliva            5.9

Thielman uses all kinds of strong language to protest the unattributed idea that Versalles was an undeserving MVP, saying "facts suggest otherwise" while taking unnamed masses to task for their apparent decision to "cast a revisionist layer over it all." In reality, the same "designer metrics" he scoffs at are in agreement with the "facts" he's chosen to trust, with both "sides" showing that "becoming an MVP is more than just piling numbers high."

Those nasty stat-heads with their calculators and spreadsheets aren't so bad after all and in fact sometimes those designer metrics their computers spit out can actually serve to illuminate a subject, like showing that a .273/.319/.462 hitter can be perfectly worthy of an MVP award. Deserving or not Versalles followed his MVP season with two ugly years, hitting .249/.307/.346 in 1966 and .200/.249/.282 in 1967 as back problems plagued him.

No amount of contextual adjustments make those hitting lines pretty and in November of 1967 the Twins sent Versalles and Mudcat Grant to the Dodgers for Johnny Roseboro, Bob Miller, and Ron Perranoski. Grant still had some strong years left in his arm, but Versalles was done as an effective player. He batted .196 in 122 games as the Dodgers' starting shortstop in 1968 and was left unprotected in the expansion draft that winter, going to the upstart Padres.

Traded to the Indians a month later, Versalles batted .226 in 72 games as a utility man before being let go and ended the season with a stint in Washington. He spent 1970 in the Mexican League before signing with the Braves in 1971, batting .191 in his final season. Versalles went from a 25-year-old MVP to losing a fight against the Mendoza Line within two years and never recovered, which perhaps fuels some of the perception that he wasn't a deserving MVP.

His career was among the worst ever for an MVP winner and both his on- and off-field declines were sudden and sad, but none of that takes away from the quality of a brief peak that ended in 1965 with one of the greatest years in Twins history, for one of the greatest teams in Twins history. Along with Harmon Killebrew, Rod Carew, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau he's one of five Twins to win an MVP and Versalles joins Carew and Mauer in also pacing the AL in WAR.

Triples                56     4th
Hits                 1146    10th
Runs                  564    11th
Total Bases          1604    11th
Plate Appearances    4500    12th
Steals                 84    12th
Extra-Base Hits       330    12th
Games                1065    13th
Doubles               188    14th
Times On Base        1333    15th
RBIs                  401    18th
Runs Created          481    18th
Homers                 86    19th
  • frightwig

    Bill James’ Win Shares book rates Oliva as the best AL player in 1965, but it’s close. James credits Tony O with 33 WS and Zoilo with 32. (Buford is 3rd with 30 WS.) So even if James’ system doesn’t neatly agree with those other metrics, it’s still highly complimentary of Zoilo’s season.

  • DavidRF

    Bob Allison led the AL in WAR in 1963 so he can be added to the list of Twins WAR Champions.

  • Dave T

    Versalles was always a mystery to me. Two good years and then bam. When he was good, he was really really good.

  • Zach Morris

    Versalles is one of the most interesting Twins in team history. I always love when something comes up about him because I never saw him play and his career is such a mystery. I really wish I could have seen that 1965 team play. Whenever the Twins are on a hot streak I think they have a shot at 102, but they really have not gotten overly close.

    Thanks for the insight, Aaron.

  • The Man

    Does anybody know what Zoilo doing these days?

  • KenBuddha

    Zoilo passed away in 1995. His daughters (as I recall, he didn’t have any sons) still live in the Twin Cities area. My son played ball with Zoilo’s grandson.

  • The Hootie

    One of his daughters, Maria, has sung the national anthem at a number of games- she is wonderfully talented. Last year, she was accompanied by Tony Oliva’s son Rick on the guitar. I think that was before game one of the ALDS.

  • Duane

    Loved watching Rick Oliva and Zoilo’s daughter, Maria sing the national anthem. You had to watch Zoilo play in 1965 to appreciate why he won the MVP and not just look at his stats. He had the best range of any shortstop, I felt, in his generation. Plus, what he did in August and September was the clincher. He put the Twins within one out of beating one of the best teams of the 1960s in the World Series. Looking at his all-time ranks with the Twins, I’m kinda surprised he rated #22 from AG.

  • Thielman=putz. Like John Castino and Tony Oliva, I have often wondered how he would have done if he had stayed healthy. Unlike those two, he was a legitimate MVP on a team that nearly won it all.

  • Peter S

    Probably the best piece I’ve ever read here and one of the best baseball articles in recent memory. Well done.