May 26, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #17 Earl Battey

Earl Jesse Battey Jr. | C | 1961-1967 | Career Stats

Signed by the White Sox in 1953 out of a Los Angeles high school, Earl Battey made his MLB debut in 1955 at age 20. He collected a pair of hits in a five-game cup of coffee, but didn't see his first extended action in the majors until 1957. Battey then spent the next three seasons serving as Sherm Lollar's backup in Chicago, playing sparingly behind the seven-time All-Star while batting just .209/.301/.377 in 413 total plate appearances.

In the last of those three seasons backing up Lollar a 24-year-old Battey lost playing time to another 24-year-old catcher, rookie Johnny Romano. Romano hit .294/.407/.468 in 53 games to overtake Battey for the second spot on the depth chart during Chicago's run to the World Series. Meanwhile, the 34-year-old Lollar was showing no signs of slowing down, turning in his second straight 20-homer, 80-RBI season while batting .265/.345/.451 in 140 games.

Lollar had been one of the AL's best catchers for a decade, so the White Sox decided to stick with him. That offseason owner Bill Veeck dealt Romano and 24-year-old first baseman Norm Cash to the Indians for a four-player package that included Minnie Minoso. Then two weeks before Opening Day the White Sox sent Battey, 22-year-old first baseman Don Mincher, and $150,000 to the Senators for Roy Sievers.

The trades paid immediate dividends, as both the 33-year-old Minoso and 34-year-old Sievers gave Chicago two strong seasons before leaving, but the moves were long-term disasters. Cash batted .361 with 41 homers and 132 RBIs for Detroit in 1961 and went on to make five All-Star teams. While not quite the hitter that Cash became, Mincher made two All-Star teams and hit .249/.348/.450 with 200 homers.

Romano, who went on to make a pair of All-Star teams while batting .255/.354/.443 during his 10-year career, immediately took over as the Indians' starting catcher, hitting .272/.349/.475 in 1960 while the 35-year-old Lollar hit just .252/.326/.356 for the White Sox. Similarly, 1960 also saw Battey become an instant starter for the Senators, winning the AL Gold Glove award while batting .270/.346/.406 with 15 homers during the team's final season in Washington.

They moved to Minnesota and became the Twins in 1961 and Harmon Killebrew starred by hitting .288/.405/.606 with 46 homers and 122 RBIs. While he was putting together the first of what would be seven 40-homer seasons, Battey was quickly establishing himself as one of the premier all-around catchers. Battey, now 26, won his second straight Gold Glove award and hit .302/.377/.470 with 17 homers while starting 127 games and catching over 1,100 innings.

Battey declined in 1962, hitting .280/.348/.393, but won his third straight Gold Glove and made the first of four All-Star teams. He bounced back to have the best season of his career in 1963, hitting .285/.369/.476 with 26 homers while catching an AL-leading 1,237 innings in an AL-high 142 starts and finishing seventh in the MVP voting. Yankees catcher Elston Howard won the MVP, but Battey produced similar numbers while batting 55 more times in 12 more games:

            G      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     HR     RBI
Howard    135     531     .287     .342     .528     .870     28      85
Battey    147     586     .285     .369     .476     .845     26      84

Battey declined in 1964, hitting a still-solid .272/.348/.407, but bounced back in 1965 to finish 10th in the MVP voting. Twins teammates Zoilo Versalles and Tony Oliva finished one-two in the balloting and Mudcat Grant placed sixth, with Battey hitting .297/.375/.409 as the team won 102 games and the AL crown before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series. He caught all seven games despite running neck-first into a railing chasing a foul ball in Game 3.

Despite being just 30 years old 1965 proved to be his final great season as weight problems, injuries, and big workloads caught up to Battey. He hit .255/.337/.327 in 1966, but split time with Russ Nixon and Jerry Zimmerman in 1966, batting .165. After retiring he worked with inner-city kids in New York before going to college at age 45, graduating Summa Cum Laude. He then became a high-school teacher and coach in Florida before dying from cancer in 2003.

Battey's relatively brief career ended shortly after his 30th birthday and one of his best years came in Washington for the Senators, yet for four decades he ranked as the best catcher in Twins history. His raw offensive numbers during seven seasons in Minnesota (.278/.356/.409 with 76 homers) look solid and the multiple Gold Gloves awards tell the story of his defensive reputation, but without a closer look at Battey's career it's easy to undersell his impact.

His entire career was spent in one of the lowest-scoring eras ever and he played a position that was the most physically demanding and often home to no-hit defensive specialists. Battey was a stud on both sides of the ball, logging a huge number of innings, frequently catching one of the league's best pitching staffs, throwing out a high percentage of steal attempts, and putting up numbers offensively that were far more impressive than they initially appear.

For instance, when Battey hit .285/.369/.476 with 26 homers in 1963 the AL as a whole hit just .247/.312/.380. Go forward 40 years to 2003 and the AL hit .267/.333/.428, which means Battey's line in 1963 was the equivalent of batting .315/.400/.530 in 2003 and he would have cleared 30 homers with ease. As it stands, he ranked among the AL's top five catchers in Value Over Replacement Player (VORP) in each of his six full seasons with the Twins:

1961              VORP     1962              VORP     1963              VORP
Elston Howard     52.6     Johnny Romano     33.8     Elston Howard     44.0
Johnny Romano     41.5     Elston Howard     26.1     EARL BATTEY       41.1
Johnny Blanchard  32.6     EARL BATTEY       17.2     John Orsino       28.0
EARL BATTEY       32.0     Jim Pagliaroni    13.4     Joe Azcue         17.6
Earl Averill      21.6     Ken Retzer        11.9     Yogi Berra        14.0

1964              VORP     1965              VORP     1966              VORP
Elston Howard     43.1     EARL BATTEY       29.8     Johnny Romano     16.7
Bill Freehan      37.0     Johnny Romano     24.1     Joe Azcue         10.4
Bob Tillman       24.7     Billy Bryan       18.4     Elston Howard      7.9
Johnny Romano     21.1     Charlie Lau       10.4     Paul Casanova      7.8
EARL BATTEY       19.0     John Orsino        9.7     EARL BATTEY        5.8

No other catcher cracked the top five in each of those six seasons and the only guys to make it five times were Howard and Battey's old competition, Romano (see what I mean about those trades not working out especially well for the White Sox long term?). And VORP only accounts for hitting. As outstanding as Battey was offensively, it's his defense--and specifically his great arm behind the plate--that actually may have been the strongest part of his game.

Battey was never especially mobile to begin with and became perhaps MLB's slowest player once age, the rigors of five straight 1,000-inning seasons defensively, and excess weight from a goiter problem sapped him of whatever limited quickness he once had. Despite that, Battey never lost his amazing arm and remained the league's best-throwing catcher throughout his career. Battey allowed just 226 stolen bases in over 6,700 innings at catcher for the Twins.

Allowing one steal for every 30 innings during the run-heavy 1960s is amazing enough, but he also gunned down nearly 40 percent of steal attempts. Teams rarely tested him despite the huge steal totals being posted throughout baseball, yet Battey still managed a league-leading caught-stealing total three times. He also led the AL in pickoffs four times, including 15 in 1962. That season Battey allowed 34 steals and picked off or threw out 42 runners.

On-Base Percentage   .356    18th
Walks                 328    19th
Adjusted OPS+         109    21st
Games                 853    22nd
Hits                  768    22nd
Times On Base        1113    22nd
Runs Created          399    22nd
Plate Appearances    3161    24th
Homers                 76    24th
Total Bases          1131    24th
Batting Average      .278    25th
RBIs                  350    25th
  • Longtimefan

    Great job unearthing the tangibles of the great Earl Battey. He was solid behind the plate. Thanks for bringing back the memories of Earl. I remember how disappointing it was when we lost him as an everyday catcher.

  • mike wants WINS

    Great writeup Aaron.

  • curt

    When someone complained to Harmon about his lack of speed, he said, “there are other guys on this team who are no gazelles.”

  • Lenny Green

    When Battey was ill in the early 90’s it was the only time that I ever wrote to a player to wish him well. He was a terrific catcher, but really slow. Two fond memories: 1) Battey being thrown out at first from right field. As a young kid the concept had never dawned on me. 2) The only all Twins double play in an all-star game in the 1960’s: Pascual throws strike three to Battey, who throws to Rollins at third base to pick off the runner. Good stuff!

  • Joe

    Wow! 15 pick-offs in 1962! That’s amazing. According to Baseball Reference, Joe Mauer has 1–in his career.

  • Dave T

    It’s the pickoffs that I remember. Today’s catchers sometimes throw behind the runner at first, with almost no success. Battey had a cannon for an arm, and runners took a big lead at their peril.

  • Breaker

    One thing this god-awful Twins season has going for it: Aaron can continue with his Top 40 Twins list. There’s obviously nothing happening on the field that is worth writing about.

    Keep it up, Aaron. I love me some Twins history, especially with your intellectual slant to the analysis.

  • Will

    This guys was nasty! I’m loving this top 40 countdown – don’t know nearly enough about these older Twins.

  • BR

    Super write-up about an underappreciated player. Thanks AG…

  • ganderson

    What Breaker said…. I remember a game when I was a kid- Battey doubled, and the guy behind me stood up and yelled “hey Earl, your legs are movin’ but you’re just not going anywhere!”

  • As a fifth-grade catcher in a small prairie town, it was a big thrill for me to have Battey eat at our dinner table. This piece reminds me to have a look at the home movies of the visit.

    While the team still does caravans, the players were even more accessible in those days. On one of their trips to our town, a friend of mine knocked on the door of the room of Tony Oliva and Sandy Valdespino and they welcomed him in.

    To the comments above, perhaps one of the reasons that I had an affinity for Battey was that someone said of me when I was delivering papers, “If you line him up with the telephone pole, you can see that he’s moving.”

  • Smitty

    In about 1985 or 86, I visited my sister in Lafayette LA over the Christmas holiday. There was a Christmas-time holiday High School basketball tournament going on, and my parents took me to spectate. The program listed one of the assistant coaches from a Florida team as Earl Battey. My Dad and I approached the man between games to confirm if he was “the real” Earl Battey, of Twins fame. Indeed he was, and he was tremendously gracious and obliging. I am sure he made a great, positive impact on the lives of those kids that he coached in his sunset years.