April 13, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #20 Camilo Pascual

Camilo Alberto Pascual | SP | 1961-1966 | Career Stats

Signed by Washington as an 18-year-old out of Havana, Cuba in 1952, Camilo Pascual made his debut two years later. He struggled to throw strikes in his first two seasons, going 6-19 with a 5.23 ERA and 142-to-131 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 248 innings primarily spent as a long reliever. Pascual moved into the Senators' rotation in 1956 and began to rack up strikeouts with his world-class curveball, but went 14-35 with a 5.01 ERA over the next two seasons.

Pascual's first good season came as a 24-year-old in 1958, when he posted a 3.15 ERA and 146/60 K/BB ratio in 177 innings, leading the league in strikeout rate and finishing second in strikeout-to-walk ratio. Unfortunately, the Senators were an awful team, finishing dead last in the AL with a 61-93 record, and Pascual went just 8-12. Washington finished dead last again in 1959, but this time Pascual at least managed to win when he was on the mound.

He led the league with six shutouts and 17 complete games on the way to going 17-10 with a 2.64 ERA and 185/69 K/BB ratio in 239 innings. Pascual made his first All-Star team and ranked among the league's top five in ERA, wins, innings, and strikeouts. He was great again in 1960, making his second All-Star team while posting a 3.03 ERA and boasting the AL's top strikeout rate by a wide margin, but injuries limited Pascual to just 152 innings.

Tagged with the nickname "Little Potato" after his older brother, Carlos "Big Potato" Pascual, Camilo came to Minnesota along with the rest of the Senators when they became the Twins in 1961. He shook off prior arm problems to complete 15 of 33 starts while tossing 252 innings with a 3.46 ERA and AL-high 221 strikeouts. Unfortunately the Twins continued the Senators' tradition of awful play and Pascual went 15-16 despite leading the league with eight shutouts.

With a young core of 27-and-under players that included Harmon Killebrew, Bob Allison, Jim Kaat, Earl Battey, and Zoilo Versalles the Twins emerged as a surprise contender in 1962 and finished second to the Yankees with a 91-71 record. Pascual was 28 by then, making him an elder-statesman among the team's big contributors, but led the charge by going 20-11 with a 3.32 ERA in 258 innings while pacing the AL in strikeouts, complete games, and shutouts.

As great as that performance was, Pascual was even better in 1963, going 21-9 with a 2.46 ERA in 248 innings while again leading the league in strikeouts and complete games. Thanks in large part to Pascual's second straight 20-win season--along with an MLB-best 225 homers from a scary lineup that had Killebrew, Allison, Battey, and Jimmie Hall all going deep 25-plus times--the Twins won 91 games for the second year in a row, this time finishing third in the AL.

Pascual and the Twins both declined in 1964, as the 30-year-old right-hander went 15-12 with a 3.30 ERA in 267 innings for a 79-83 team. The Twins came back stronger than ever in 1965, going 102-60 to capture the AL pennant, but Pascual wasn't as fortunate. After going 8-2 with a 3.06 ERA in a great first half injuries limited Pascual to nine relatively ineffective second-half starts and he lost his World Series matchup with Claude Osteen in Game 3.

A decade of buckling hitters' knees with his sweeping curveball had taken a toll on Pascual's right shoulder. He made 17 first-half starts in 1966, but posted a 5.07 ERA and then managed just 16 innings after the All-Star break. That winter the Twins sent Pascual and once-promising second baseman Bernie Allen to the new Senators for 35-year-old relief pitcher Ron Kline, who spent just one season in Minnesota.

Pascual was no longer a durable, top-of-the-rotation workhorse able to rack up strikeouts, but he still had a little gas left in the tank for his return to Washington. He went 25-22 in 58 starts over the next two seasons, before getting off to a brutal start in 1969. Washington sent him to Cincinnati, where he gave up seven runs in seven innings before being released. Pascual bounced around after that, with brief stints as a reliever in Los Angeles and Cleveland.

His career fittingly ended with a strikeout, as Pascual got strike three past Earl Kirkpatrick in a scoreless ninth inning on May 5, 1971. That strikeout was the 2,167th of an 18-year career that saw him lead the league three times and finish second twice. Pascual possessed a good fastball, particularly in his prime, but it was his curveball that accounted for most of the whiffs. Tony Kubek, who struck out more against Pascual than any other pitcher, recalled facing him:

He'd come straight over the top with it and it would just dive off the table. The spin was so tight, you couldn't identify the pitch until it was too late. It didn't flutter, it didn't hang, it just kept biting. When Pascual was right, nobody had a chance. That curve was unhittable.

Of course, when the curveball hung it also accounted for lots of homers. He ranks 82nd all time with 256 homers allowed, which is a huge total for someone who pitched most of his career in the pitcher-friendly 1960s, and he was among the AL's top 10 in homers allowed four times. Mickey Mantle once said Pascual and teammate Pedro Ramos "would laugh and rag each other about which gave up the longest home runs to me." Mantle went on:

I hit two home runs into the tree beyond center field in old Griffith Stadium off Pascual, and Ramos is up waving a towel at Pascual while I'm rounding the bases. Later that year I hit one off the facade in Yankee Stadium off Ramos, and as I'm rounding third I see Pascual waving the towel at Ramos.

Although Pascual is often wrongly credited with being on the mound for it, Ramos served up what's generally considered one of the longest homers in baseball history against Mantle in 1956, the aforementioned shot that nearly exited Yankee Stadium. Mantle also smacked plenty of long bombs off Pascual, whom he took deep 11 times in total, but he viewed those homers differently: "I hit those off Camilo Pascual, one hell of a pitcher."

Pascual's career numbers are a mixed bag, with a 174-170 record and 3.63 ERA that was just slightly better than average in a pitcher-friendly era. However, he absorbed some beatings by debuting before he was likely ready, spent his first seven years pitching for horrible Senators teams, and then wound down his career away from Minnesota. In other words, his Twins-only career--which is what these rankings are all about--is far more impressive.

Pascual arrived in Minnesota with one of the greatest four-year runs in team history, winning 15, 20, 21, and 15 games while leading the league in strikeouts in the first three years and finishing second in the fourth. In six seasons with the Twins he made three All-Star teams, won 20 games twice, posted a 3.31 ERA in 1,284 innings, and went 88-57 for a .607 winning percentage that ranked as the best in team history until Johan Santana came around.

Shutouts               18     3rd
Complete Games         72     4th
Batters Faced        5362     7th
Strikeouts            994     7th
Opponents' OBP       .297     7th
Starts                179     8th
Innings              1285     8th
Wins                   88     8th
Opponents' OPS       .656     8th
Quality Starts        101     8th
Opponents' AVG       .233    10th
WHIP                 1.21    11th
ERA                  3.31    12th
Opponents' SLG       .358    12th
Adjusted ERA+         116    13th
Strikeout Rate       6.96    19th
K/BB Ratio           2.31    19th

April 5, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #21 Gary Gaetti

Gary Joseph Gaetti | 3B | 1981-1990 | Career Stats

Selected by the Twins out of Northwest Missouri State University with the 11th overall pick in the 1979 draft, Gary Gaetti hit .257/.377/.522 with 14 homers in 66 games of rookie-ball after signing and then batted .266/.357/.463 with 22 homers and 24 steals after moving to Single-A in 1980. Gaetti made the leap to Double-A in 1981, hitting .277/.357/.505 with 30 homers in 137 games before the Twins called him up in late September.

Starting at third base and batting seventh against the Rangers on September 20, 1981, Gaetti blasted a homer off knuckleballer Charlie Hough in his first major-league at-bat. He collected just four hits in his final 25 at-bats, but emerged from spring training as the Opening Day third baseman on a 1982 team that also had a rookie at first base in Kent Hrbek and later included rookies Frank Viola, Tom Brunansky, and Tim Laudner in big roles.

The Metrodome opened on April 6, 1982 and "The Rat" christened it in style, going 4-for-4 with two homers and narrowly missing a third long ball off Mariners starter Floyd Bannister when he was thrown out at the plate trying to stretch a triple. Gaetti never looked back after that, beginning his rookie year 10-for-17 with six extra-base hits while starting the first 13 games at third base, with former Rookie of the Year winner John Castino sliding over to second base.

Despite the fast start Gaetti hit just .230 with sub par plate discipline in 145 total games as a rookie, leading to a ghastly .280 on-base percentage. However, he quickly established himself as an excellent defensive third baseman and his 25 homers immediately became the most ever by a Twins third baseman not named Harmon Killebrew. He put together a similar sophomore campaign, hitting .245 with a .309 OBP while smacking 21 homers, but fell off a cliff as a junior.

After more than 100 strikeouts in both of his first two seasons Gaetti focused on making more contact at the plate in 1984. And he succeeded, whiffing just 81 times while upping his batting average to .262, but still posted a measly .312 OBP thanks to only 44 walks and saw his pop completely disappear. Despite playing all 162 games after hitting 46 homers over the previous two years Gaetti went deep just five times in 588 at-bats for a lowly .350 slugging percentage.

At the time it would've been troubling to see a 25-year-old slugger's power vanish, but 1984 simply sticks out like a sore thumb in the context of his now-completed career. In fact, his 1985 season was nearly identical to his first two campaigns, as he hit .246 with a .301 OBP and 20 homers. At that point Gaetti was a 26-year-old with four seasons under his belt, three of them similar in their low-OBP, high-power mediocrity and one unique in its low-everything putridity.

What happened next is amazing, as seemingly out of nowhere he put together a three-year run that saw Gaetti become one of the best all-around third basemen in baseball. It started in 1986, with Gaetti batting .287/.347/.518 with 34 homers and 108 RBIs while winning his first of four straight Gold Gloves at third base. He followed that up by hitting .257/.303/.485 with 31 homers for a 1987 team that shocked the baseball world by winning the World Series.

Not only did his 109 RBIs lead the team during the regular season, he homered in his first two playoff at-bats on the way to hitting .300/.348/.650 against Detroit to win the ALCS MVP. He then hit .259/.333/.519 versus St. Louis in the World Series, homering in Game 2. He missed significant action in 1988 for the first time in his career, sitting out much of August with a knee injury, but batted .301/.353/.551 with 28 homers in 133 games for his best season.

Sadly, like Cinderella's ride turning back into a pumpkin at midnight Gaetti quickly ceased being an offensive force in 1989 and turned right back into the out-machine he'd been prior to 1986. In fact, his OBP became worse than ever because his plate discipline mysteriously went from bad to awful while he was trying on glass slippers. He batted just .251/.286/.404 in 1989 and .229/.274/.376 in 1990, before signing a four-year deal with the Angels as a free agent.

Mike Pagliarulo and rookie Scott Leius replaced Gaetti at third base as a platoon, batting a combined .282/.342/.395 in 628 plate appearances while Gaetti hit just .246/.293/.379 in 634 trips to the plate for his new team. Along with the 50-point boost in OBP, the Pagliarulo-Leius duo cost less than a million bucks, compared to $2.7 million for Gaetti, giving the Twins money to sign free agents Chili Davis and Jack Morris on the way to their second World Series title.

Gaetti was a bust for the Angels, who released him in mid-1993 with a year-plus left on his big contract. After latching on with the Royals he resurrected his career when it appeared all but over, hitting .267/.323/.491 over parts of three years, including .261/.329/.518 with 35 homers and 96 RBIs in the strike-shortened 1995 season. That earned him a multi-year deal from the Cardinals and he continued his resurgence by hitting .274/.326/.473 with 23 homers in 1996.

He dropped off to .251/.305/.404 in 1997, but then pulled his career out of the dumpster yet again by hitting .281/.356/.495 with 19 homers and 70 RBIs in 1998, helping push the Sammy Sosa-led Cubs to the playoffs after being acquired in August. Chicago handed Gaetti a starting job in 1999, but at age 40 the magic was finally gone. He hit .204/.260/.339 in 113 games, was 0-for-10 in an ugly stint with the Red Sox in 2000, and called it a career after 20 seasons.

Bill James wrote in The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract that Gaetti is one of the few players in baseball history to avoid the traditional effects of aging, which tend to include a loss of speed, batting average, and defensive range, and an increase in plate discipline. In ranking Gaetti the 34th-best third baseman ever James noted how he bucked that trend completely, making up ground on superior third basemen who "all aged at a normal rate." He also wrote:

Gaetti is odd in two respects ... his walk rate never improved at all, even an inch. [D]espite that, he aged at an exceptionally slow rate of speed. ... There is no reason for a player like Gaetti to last until he is 40 years old, and not much precedent for it.

In other words, Gaetti was far from a Hall of Famer, but he's unique in that he never really got worse. Actually, that's not quite accurate. Gaetti did get worse, but always got better again eventually. After two mediocre years to begin his career, he fell of a cliff and then inexplicably pumped out a great three-year stretch. Then he went back to being mediocre, falling into sub par territory while being released by the Angels, and again bounced back with the Cardinals.

Even within his three-season stay in St. Louis there's a good year, followed by an awful year, followed by a good year. His second season with the Cardinals saw a 38-year-old struggle to crack a .700 OPS, yet he bounced back with one of the finest seasons of his career in 1998. Taken as a whole Gaetti's career isn't especially intriguing. He hit for a low batting average and didn't walk much, played good defense while staying very healthy, and hit a ton of bombs.

What makes Gaetti's career so atypical and perhaps even downright fascinating is that there's seemingly no rhyme or reason to how the seasons were arranged. It's as if someone took 20 seasons, mixed them all together, randomly pulled them out one at a time, and arranged the new order into "Gary Gaetti." And if you don't believe me, look no further than the following graph, which shows the incredible year-to-year fluctuation in Gaetti's adjusted OPS+ totals:

That graph and James' ranking take into account what Gaetti did in 10 seasons after leaving Minnesota, whereas all that matters here is what he did with the Twins. While the homers and playoff heroics are memorable his all-around production was mediocre save for 1986-1988. In those years he was elite, but in the six surrounding years he was a replacement-level hitter, albeit one who rarely missed a game and played fantastic defense at third base.

When everything is taken into account, I suspect Gaetti's place in Twins history is somewhat overrated, although it's tough to say for sure given his unique career. Because of his defense, power, and durability he was a valuable player for a long time, but his inability to avoid making outs in bunches kept him from being a truly great player in more than a fraction of those years. On the other hand, he probably deserves some bonus points for that mustache.

RBIs                  758     5th
Extra-Base Hits       478     5th
Games                1361     6th
Plate Appearances    5459     6th
Hits                 1276     6th
Homers                201     6th
Doubles               252     6th
Total Bases          2181     6th
Times On Base        1672     7th
Runs                  646     9th
Runs Created          643     9th
Isolated Power       .181    12th
Walks                 358    15th
Steals                 74    15th
Triples                25    18th

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 AG.com 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

March 25, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #23 Cesar Tovar

Cesar Leonardo Tovar | CF/LF/RF/2B/3B/SS | 1965-1972 | Career Stats

Cesar Tovar signed with the Reds out of Caracas, Venezuela as an 18-year-old in the winter of 1959 and batted .304, .338, and .328 in his first three pro seasons. He moved up to Triple-A in 1963 and hit .297 with 115 runs while showing good speed and excellent gap power, but was blocked in Cincinnati by the likes of Pete Rose and Vada Pinson. He 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 innings split between the rotation and bullpen.

With incumbent second baseman Bernie Allen struggling to bounce back 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.

Tovar didn't see any postseason action as the Twins won the AL pennant with a 102-60 record before falling to the Dodgers in the World Series. In fact, hours after Sandy Koufax struck out Bob Allison to end the 1965 season the New York Times reported that Twins president Calvin Griffith was "not satisfied with their top second base candidates" and "would be active in the trading market ... seeking a second baseman."

Talking 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 two weeks later suggested that the position was a three-way battle for Allen, Frank Quilici, and Jerry Kindall. Meanwhile, Tovar was seeing some work at second base, but also played the other infield spots and 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 issues 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 steals in 527 trips to the plate. When the Twins traded Hall to the Angels that winter Tovar was needed more as a center fielder in 1967, starting 60 times there, but also started 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 or Nick Punto who's a capable backup at multiple spots, Tovar was more like an everyday player who just 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 stars like Tony Oliva and Frank Robinson, 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. 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 offense insanely low in 1968 before the mound was lowered the next year, Tovar batted .272/.326/.372 while ranking among the AL's top five in hits, runs, steals, and doubles. He also made his mark as the second player in MLB history to play an inning at all nine positions in one game. Tovar was the starting pitcher in a 2-1 win over the A's on September 22, striking out Reggie Jackson and moving around the diamond for this boxscore line/scoring nightmare:

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

He was even better in 1969, hitting .288 with 45 steals--including back-to-back steals of home with Rod Carew on May 18--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 raw stats from the 1960s and 1970s context is key. Not only did he lead the league in doubles while ranking among the top 10 in runs, hits, and total bases, Tovar did so in a horrible hitting environment.

In other words, not all .300/.356/.442 lines are created equal. Tovar played for the Twins from 1965 to 1972 and during that time the AL as a whole batted .255/.327/.382. Had he instead played for the Twins from, say, 1995 to 2002, the AL as a whole would have hit .271/.341/.432 for a difference in overall production of about 10 percent. If you adjust his 1965-1972 numbers to the 1995-2002 offensive levels, here's what you get instead:

YEAR      AVG      OBP      SLG      OPS     OPS+
1966     .280     .342     .373     .715      85
1967     .291     .343     .423     .766      98
1968     .308     .353     .452     .805     106
1969     .309     .347     .469     .816     108
1970     .330     .375     .510     .885     117
1971     .331     .365     .419     .784     104
1972     .289     .346     .401     .747      94
TOTAL    .310     .357     .442     .799     102

Suddenly that 1970 campaign is a monster season and Tovar is a perennial .300 hitter whose career numbers with the Twins jump all the way from .281/.337/.377 to .310/.357/.442, which is certainly much more easily recognized as impressive. His era-adjusted numbers also show a textbook aging curve in that he started slowly at age 25, peaked from 27 to 29, and gradually declined into his early 30s.

Interestingly, as Tovar improved offensively he also stopped moving around the diamond so much defensively. Tovar was primarily an outfielder by 1970, 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 season 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 in November of 1972. Just as 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 hit .268/.335/.357 in Philadelphia, splitting time at third base with a struggling 23-year-old rookie named Mike Schmidt.

He had a brief resurgence after joining the Rangers in 1974, starting 136 of 162 games and hitting .292/.357/.377 as the primary leadoff man for Billy Martin, who'd managed the Twins in 1969 when Tovar hit hit .288/.342/.415 with 45 steals as a 28-year-old. He remained a regular for Texas in 1975, but declined to .258/.306/.316 before being let go in August, finishing the season in Oakland. He played for the A's and Yankees in 1976, hitting .167 in his final season.

Steals                186     3rd
Triples                45     7th
Hits                 1164     9th
Runs                  646     9th
Plate Appearances    4595    10th
Times On Base        1531    11th
Games                1090    12th
Doubles               193    12th
Runs Created          549    13th
Total Bases          1561    15th
Extra-Base Hits       276    19th
Batting Average      .281    21st
Walks                 299    22nd

March 9, 2011

Top 40 Minnesota Twins: #24 Shane Mack

Shane Lee Mack | LF/CF/RF | 1990-1994 | Career Stats

When asked about a college freshman named Shane Mack by a Los Angeles Times reporter in 1982, UCLA coach Gary Adams looked right into his crystal ball and didn't pull any punches:

I really believe that Shane Mack is going to be one of the greatest UCLA players of all time. He reminds me so much of Jackie Robinson, but his fire is inside, not outside like Jackie. He's not flashy like Jackie was. He just does the job and produces.

I've never had such a quick learner. He realize his shortcomings and that's why they don't last very long. You make the most of what you have, and he does. He has everything, all the tools. I'll tell you something, Shane isn't going to be just a major leaguer, but a super major leaguer.

Adams was right. After hitting .306 as a freshman Mack emerged as one of the elite players in all of college baseball, hitting a conference-best .419 as a sophomore and then batting .352 as a junior. Mack was a first-team All-American in both seasons, and leading up to the 1984 draft there was heavy debate over whether Mack or USC slugger Mark McGwire should be the first player chosen.

An article in the Los Angeles Times on June 4, 1984 had the headline "Mack or McGwire Could Be Chosen No. 1" and quoted Dodgers scouting director Ben Wade as saying: "You've got two of the best in the country over at USC and UCLA." The next day the newspaper described Mack as "the finest all-around player in college baseball" and "at or near the top of virtually every major-league club's scouting list."

On draft day the Mets surprised everyone by taking high school outfielder Shawn Abner with the first selection, which turned out horribly. McGwire dropped to the A's with the 10th pick, while the Padres were thrilled when Mack fell into their laps 11th overall. After playing for the United States' silver medal-winning team in the 1984 summer Olympics, Mack bypassed his final year of eligibility and began his pro career in 1985.

Mack spent the bulk of his first two years at Double-A, hitting .260/.325/.370 in 1985 and then .281/.318/.451 while repeating the level in 1986. He moved up to Triple-A to finish the 1986 season, hitting .362 in 19 games at hitter-friendly Las Vegas. Mack stayed there in 1987 and hit .333 with five homers while going 13-for-13 stealing bases in 39 games when a torn biceps tendon forced Steve Garvey to the disabled list in late May and San Diego called Mack up.

Debuting on May 25, 1987, he was 0-for-2 with two walks starting in right field. He stayed with the Padres all season and received regular playing time against left-handed pitching, hitting just .239/.299/.361 in 105 games. Interestingly after debuting in right field Mack played almost exclusively center field, as it quickly became apparent that he had better range there than incumbent Stan Jefferson.

Mack began 1988 back at Triple-A and spent the year shuttling between San Diego and Las Vegas. He hit just .244/.336/.269 in 56 games with the Padres, but tore up the Pacific Coast League with a .347 average and 10 homers in 55 games. Mack was back at Triple-A again in 1989 when an elbow injury ended his season after 24 games. That winter the Padres left the 26-year-old Mack off their 40-man roster and the Twins snatched him up in the Rule 5 draft.

Mack made the Opening Day roster in 1990, but played sparingly early on with a grand total of just 90 at-bats through three months. In mid-July, with Mack hitting over .300 and the Twins playing under .500, manager Tom Kelly finally gave him a shot as an everyday player. Splitting time between all three outfield spots, Mack responded by hitting .306 in July before slumping in August, and then finished the year by batting .432 with 17 RBIs and six steals in September.

Overall he hit .326/.392/.460 with eight homers, 13 steals, 44 RBIs, and 50 runs in 353 plate appearances after entering the year as a career .241/.312/.331 hitter. Kelly was still hesitant to make Mack an everyday player in 1991, but he started 61 times alongside Kirby Puckett in right field while also getting 16 starts subbing for Puckett in center field and 38 starts playing left field in place of Dan Gladden.

Mack had a huge year, hitting .310/.363/.529 in 143 games to rank among the AL's top 10 in slugging percentage and OPS. Thanks in large part to Mack the Twins went from worst to first, winning the AL West with a 95-67 record after finishing dead last at 74-88 the previous year. Mack hit .333 with three RBIs and four runs in the five-game ALCS win over Toronto, but then went 0-for-15 with seven strikeouts in the first four games of the World Series against Atlanta.

After pulling Mack in a Game 3 double-switch--leading to closer Rick Aguilera pinch-hitting in the 12th inning--Kelly gave designated hitter Chili Davis the Game 5 start in right field despite Davis seeing a total of three innings defensively during the season. Back at home and playing under AL rules, Mack returned to the lineup for Game 6 and went 2-for-4 with a first-inning RBI single. He went 1-for-4 in the Twins' dramatic Game 7 win.

For the first time in his career Mack was given a chance to be a true everyday player in 1992. Starting 150 games and playing primarily left field, Mack hit .315/.394/.467 with 16 homers and 26 steals to rank among the AL's top 10 in batting average, on-base percentage, and runs. He fell to .276/.335/.412 in 1993 and missed the first month of 1994 with shoulder problems, but bounced back to hit .333/.402/.564 to rank among the AL leaders in average and slugging.

An impending free agent when the players' strike ended the 1994 season early and canceled the World Series, Mack decided to take a guaranteed payday in Japan once the work stoppage dragged on well into the offseason. In January of 1995 he signed what was then "the biggest contract in the history of Japanese baseball" by inking a two-year deal with the Yomiuri Giants worth $8.1 million.

In retrospect it's natural to question his decision, but Mack was already 31 years old when he became a free agent for the first time, the strike continued into 1995, and that was incredible money for a non-superstar back then. Only eight AL players made more than $5 million in 1994 and baseball's highest-paid player was Bobby Bonilla at $6.3 million. Mack hit .284/.356/.463 during two seasons in Japan and then returned to MLB with the Red Sox in 1997.

He hit .313/.368/.438 in 60 games for Boston and moved to Oakland in 1998, but was traded to Kansas City for Mike Macfarlane in early April and then hit .280/.345/.449 over 66 games in what was his final year. It's easy for Mack to get lost in the long shadows of Puckett, Aguilera, Kent Hrbek, Jack Morris, Chuck Knoblauch, and the rest of the 1991 championship team, but for five years he was one of the best, most underrated players in baseball.

A tremendous athlete who covered tons of ground wherever the Twins put him in the outfield, Mack hit for big batting averages with great speed and had overlooked power. Among all MLB outfielders to play at least 600 games from 1990 to 1994, only Barry Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Rickey Henderson, and David Justice had a better OPS. Among all hitters with 600 games in a Twins uniform only Harmon Killebrew, Joe Mauer, and Justin Morneau top his .854 mark.

OPS                  .854     4th
Adjusted OPS+         130     5th
Batting Average      .309     6th
On-Base Percentage   .375     7th
Slugging Percentage  .479     7th
Steals                 71    16th
Isolated Power       .170    19th
Triples                24    20th
Runs Created          391    24th
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