December 28, 2010

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #27 Larry Hisle

Larry Eugene Hisle | LF/CF/RF/DH | 1973-1977 | Career Stats

Philadelphia selected Larry Hisle in the second round of the 1965 draft out of an Ohio high school. He batted .433 at low Single-A in 1966 and .302 at high Single-A in 1967, and after an impressive spring in 1968 made the Opening Day roster at age 20. Hisle made his big-league debut on April 10, 1968 and went 2-for-3 in each of his first two games, but received just one more start and was sent down to Triple-A in late April.

Hisle hit .303/.359/.446 in 69 games at Triple-A, but his season was cut short in mid-July when doctors diagnosed him with hepatitis. According to a July 13, 1968 article from the Washington Post: "Doctors sent Hisle to his home in Portsmouth, Ohio, ordered him to follow a strict protein diet and get plenty of rest." After taking nearly a year off Hisle had another impressive spring training in 1969 and was the Phillies' center fielder and leadoff man on Opening Day.

He batted just .159 in April, but the Phillies stuck with him and watched as Hisle put together a fantastic rookie campaign, hitting .266/.338/.459 with 20 homers and 18 stolen bases to finish fourth in the NL Rookie of the Year balloting despite missing the end of the year with a broken thumb. Hisle fell off a cliff in his second year, hitting just .205/.299/.353, and when he got off to another slow start in 1971 the Phillies demoted him to Triple-A.

Hisle hit .328 with a .597 slugging percentage in 62 games there, but struggled again when the Phillies called him up near the end of 1971. Philadelphia traded him to Los Angeles for Tom Hutton during the offseason and Hisle spent all of 1972 at Triple-A, hitting .325/.410/.561 in 131 games. He was traded to St. Louis that winter, and after spending less than a month as property of the Cardinals they shipped him to the Twins for Wayne Granger.

In two years Hisle had gone from being one of the most promising young players in baseball to being a minor leaguer suddenly with his fourth club, but landing in Minnesota turned his career around. Rather than spend yet another season at Triple-A, the Twins handed Hisle the starting job in center field. He went 4-for-5 as the Opening Day leadoff man, hit .304/.360/.609 overall in April, and finished his comeback season at .272/.351/.422 with 15 homers in 143 games.

Hisle was even better in 1974, hitting .286/.353/.465 with 19 homers while splitting time at all three outfield spots. Those numbers may not look particularly great, but it was a low-offense era and Hisle's seemingly modest .465 slugging percentage actually ranked ninth in the AL. Hisle was on track for the best season of his career in 1975, batting .314/.361/.518 with 17 steals through 57 games when a bone spur in his elbow forced him to the disabled list.

To make room on the roster for his return from the DL three weeks later the Twins sent down first baseman Tom Kelly, who hit just .181 in 49 games during what would be his only season in the big leagues. After just one start and a few pinch-hitting appearances Hisle was sidelined again. This time he missed nearly two months, returning to play 15 games in September, and finished the year at .314/.376/.494 with 11 homers and 17 steals in 80 games.

Hisle bounced back to play 155 games in 1976, and while his .272/.335/.394 mark isn't overly impressive even considering the era, he did hit 14 homers while driving in 96 runs and stealing 31 bases. Then in 1977, with free agency just around the corner, Hisle had the best year of his career. He hit .302/.369/.533 with 28 homers and a league-leading 119 RBIs to make his first All-Star team and finish 12th in the MVP balloting (Rod Carew hit .388 to take the award).

The timing was perfect for Hisle, who received several big offers when he hit the free agent market that winter. Hisle said at the time that he was interested in staying with the Twins, but talks reportedly broke down over some complicated contract details that included a loan and bonus money. Hisle eventually decided to sign with the Brewers, inking a six-year deal worth a then-massive $3.1 million. According to a November 19, 1977 article in the New York Times:

[The deal] put the 30-year-old outfielder in a financial league with Catfish Hunter of the Yankees (five years, $3.5 million), Mike Schmidt of Philadelphia (six years, $3,360,000) and Reggie Jackson of the Yankees (five years, $2.9 million).

In the same article, Hisle described his decision to leave Minnesota:

I had enjoyed my five years in Minnesota and it wasn't going to be easy for me to pack up and leave everyone. The Twins mentioned the fact that they really wanted me and they made me an offer, but I had decided 100 percent that Milwaukee would be the place to play.

Hisle was well worth the money in his first year with the Brewers, hitting .290/.374/.533 with 34 homers and 115 RBIs to finish third in the MVP balloting behind Jim Rice and Ron Guidry. He was on his way to a similarly outstanding season in 1979 when disaster struck on April 20:

On a chilly night in Baltimore, Milwaukee Brewers' left fielder Larry Hisle made the throw that changed his life. Mike Caldwell was on the mound for the Brewers, and Hisle didn't expect to see many balls hit his way because Caldwell, a sinker-ball pitcher, usually induced a lot of groundouts.

On this night, however, Caldwell didn't have his best stuff and the Orioles were ripping line drives into the gaps. On one hit to left, Hisle came up throwing and felt searing pain knife through his right shoulder.

"That," he said, "was basically the end of my career."

He had suffered a torn rotator cuff.

Hisle stayed in the lineup for a couple weeks as a designated hitter, but the injury soon ended his season and, as Hisle said, eventually his career. Hisle came back as a DH in 1980 and was hitting .283/.421/.583 through 17 games, but aggravated the shoulder injury while sliding into a base on May 19. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel:

A year of painful rehabilitation failed to strengthen the shoulder sufficiently, so he underwent surgery. In 1981, he had another operation.

By 1982, the year the Brewers went to the World Series, the pain was unrelenting. Hisle couldn't raise his right arm to shave, so he grew a beard. He ate left-handed. He slept with his right arm tied to his side, because re-occurring dreams about playing baseball made him thrash about.

"I remember my wife being awakened many, many nights by me getting up and going downstairs," he said. "Once it starts to hurt, even the medication doesn't help enough to allow you to sleep."

After suffering the initial injury in 1979 he played just 67 more games over four seasons before finally giving in to the pain. Hisle retired following the 1982 season as a two-time All-Star with 166 career homers despite bouncing around in the minors during his early 20s and having his last full season at age 31. Hisle's career with the Twins was short and sweet, with 662 games spread over five seasons, yet he's all over the team leaderboard.

Hisle ranks among the top 20 in batting average, slugging percentage, on-base percentage, homers, steals, and RBIs, with a top-10 mark in adjusted OPS+, and his 1977 is one of the top years by any outfielder in Twins history. And all that came in low-offense eras. If you adjust his Twins totals to today's offensive levels they'd look something like .295/.360/.510, which along with good speed and the ability to patrol center field on a regular basis is pretty damn good.

Steals                 92     9th
Adjusted OPS+         127     9th
Batting Average      .286    14th
OPS                  .811    14th
RBIs                  409    16th
Slugging Percentage  .457    16th
Homers                 87    18th
Isolated Power       .171    18th
On-Base Percentage   .354    19th
Triples                23    21st
Runs Created          399    22nd
Runs                  369    24th
Total Bases          1113    25th
Extra-Base Hits       219    25th