Tuesday, October 4, 2011

They Were a Big Hit ... and then they didn't hit

This article is about the best starts and biggest disappointments in baseball history – among position players, not pitchers - see my previous blog posting for them.

Bill James created “the Clint Hartung Award” for amazing rookie flops. There is a good reason for that. The “Hondo Hurricane” was signed for big money by the New York Giants and was a spring training phenom in 1947, promoted as having superstar ability either as a pitcher or a hitter. Playing on military teams from 1942 to '45 he was 25-0 and hit .567. Respected sportswriter Tom Meany said of him, "Rather than stop at the Polo Grounds they should have taken him straight to Cooperstown."

In his first season he managed a 9–7 pitching record and hit .306. In 1948 his stats declined to 8-8 and .179; and in '49 he was 9 – 11 and hit just .190. His career (4 years) E.R.A. was 5.02, his fielding was never good, and reportedly he was unable to hit curveballs. Other than that he was terrific.

Walt Dropo of the Red Sox was the 1950 Rookie of the Year. He batted .322, hit 34 dingers, and drove in 144 runs. The next two years were less spectacular – 11, 57, .239 and 6, 27, .265.

Tom Tresh was destined to be the successor of Joe Dimaggio and Mickey Mantle in center field for the Yankees. Through age 27, the friendly, good-looking Tresh had won the Rookie of the Year Award (1962) and a Gold Glove, earned a top-ten MVP finish, and was on two All-Star teams. His OPS+ that year was 134. Following that, it was 122, then 103, then 89, then 79 and out. And it would be a long wait until Ron Blomberg.

Curt Blefary was the A.L. Rookie of the Year at age 21. He was 6th in the league in OPS+ in both his first and second seasons. From ages 22 through 24, his OPS+ went from 142 to 122 to 89. By the age of 26 he was no longer a regular and was traded four times in a three-and-a-half-year period, bowing out at the age of 29.

Lee Thomas hit 24 home runs in his rookie season. The next year, 1962, he hit 26 dingers, drove in 104 runs and hit..290. He was voted to the All-Star team. In 1963 though, he hit only 9 home runs, and the next year managed just 2. Thomas was traded to the Red Sox, where he rebounded somewhat, hitting 13 homers and then 22. And then he fell flat yet again, managing just ten home runs over his last four exasperating seasons.

It would be hard to fall faster than Cleveland's Joe Charbonneau. He was one of the all-time classic flops, going from media-darling Rookie of the Year to futility and minor league obscurity in just two years. His numbers from 1981 to 1983 were 23, 87, .284; 4, 18, .210; and finally 2, 9, .214. Ouch.

Merv Rettenmund played his way his way into a talent-laden Baltimore outfield (Frank Robinson, Paul Blair, Don Buford) with great performances in 1970 and 1971 (18 homers and .322 and then 11 homers and .318). But he collapsed (6 HRs and a .233 average) and was a mediocre utility man the rest of his career.

Earl Williams started big with 33 home runs for the Braves in '71 and then slowly faded away with totals of 28, 22, 14. 11, 9, and 8. He never knocked in as many as the 97 runs he did his first and second seasons and wound up with a .247 lifetime average.

The NL rookie of the Year in 1989 was Cubbie Jerome Walton. He hit .293 with 23 doubles. Then he hit .263, then .219, then .127. No wonder he spent his last six years with five different teams.

The 2004 AL Rookie of the Year was Bobby Crosby. Remember him and his 22 home runs – and his 145 strikeouts? He mostly just struck out after that – his best home run total after 2004 was 9.

In doing my research for this blog I came across something extraordinary – a season that featured a plethora of talented rookies. I used them to put together a lineup that I think would fare well against the rookies of any other season. The year was 1964 and here are its top rookies:

C - Jerry Grote 1B - Richie Allen 2B – Dick Green 3B – Jim Ray Hart SS – Bert Campaneris

OF - Tony Conigliaro OF - Alex Johnson OF - Tony Oliva OF – Jesus Alou DH – Don Buford

Pitching Staff - Luis Tiant, Mel Stottlemyre, Tommy John, Denny McLain, Mike Cuellar, Rick Wise.

Not too shabby.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

Wow! 1964 certainly was a good year! I remember Tom Tresh. I always pretended I was him playing the outfield when I was a kid. I guess I latched onto him as a hero during one of his really good years. After that, it was Rocky Colavito when my dad bought me a Colavito glove for my birthday. Thanks for the memories, Will!