Thursday, November 29, 2012

#280 Tim Raines

Card thoughts:  Raines in all of his Jeri-curl glory, apparently with both an elbow injury and an "owie" on his left forearm. Seeing this card reminds me of the weird “Rock Raines” card that appeared in 1989 Topps packs. Why would you call a guy Tim on every other card, and call him “Rock” on this one? I thought he was Tim Raines’ brother!

The player: For many years, Raines was the National League equivalent of Rickey Henderson. A short man (like Henderson), he could run, hit for power, was patient, and was the best leadoff hitter in the National League for over a decade. Yet, Raines still gets shafted for the Hall of Fame, despite the fact that great leadoff hitters are rarer than great power hitters, and few teams even have a good consistent leadoff hitter.

Raines came up as part of a talented core of young Expo hitters in the early 80s that included Hall of Famers #170 Gary Carter and Andre Dawson, as well as forgotten mashers like Warren Cromartie and Tim Wallach. While Raines didn’t have the slugging prowess of those hitters, boy, could he run. After two small cups of coffee in 1979 (3 runs scored as a pinch runner, no at bats) and 1980 (1 for 20, 5 runs scored), he finally made the bigs for good in 1981, and likely would have stolen over 100 bases had the season not been interrupted by a strike. As it was, he stole 71 bases (leading the league), then a record for a rookie (since broken by #201 Vince Coleman). But that was also the year of  “Fernandomania,” so he was denied the Rookie of the Year award.

His career, however, almost was derailed by rampant cocaine abuse in 1982. He would use the drug constantly, reportedly spending over $40,000 (in today’s dollars: $95,000) on it for the season. In a somewhat legendary story, Raines would always slide head first in bases in order to not break a glass vial of coke he kept in his back pocket for use during games.

Raines would steal at least 70 bases until 1986, making the all-star team each year and leading the league in steals for 4 straight seasons. There were other aspects to his game as well during this period of dominance. He hit for a high average, but also consistently walked while minimizing his strikeouts. Despite mostly having doubles power (Raines led the league in that category in 1984), his OPS consistently topped .800, due to this penchant.

In his peak years (roughly: 1981-1987), Raines also led the league in runs twice (133 in 1983; 123 in 1987), and batting average and on-base percentage in 1986. With the arrival of Vince Coleman in 1985, the days of Raines being a steal champion were over, although he would steal at least 10 bases a year for another decade.

Despite Raines star status, he mysteriously was not signed when he became a free agent in 1986. Of course, it was later determined that the owners were engaged in collusion to keep salaries low in that off season. He was later forced to sign with the Expos a month into the 1987 season. Despite having had no spring training, he dominated his first game back going 4 for 5 a triple and a game winning grand slam. Another highlight of that season was winning the all-star game MVP when he hit a game-winning triple in the thirteenth inning.

Although Raines would remain a valuable leadoff hitter after 1987, he would never again be a major star, and that all-star game would be his last. In 1990, he was traded to the White Sox, with the main player going the other way being Ivan Calderon.  Raines scored over 100 runs in each of his first two seasons with the Sox, the first time he had done so since in three years. But all those years on the artificial surface in Montreal had done a number on his legs, and he struggled to stay on the field the next two seasons.  In 1995, Raines would play in over 130 games for the last time, and his .285/.374/.422 was pretty good, but he stole only 13 bases (however from 1993-1995 he had stolen 40 straight bases, a record at the time).

On to the Yankees next, Raines was their fourth outfielder the next three seasons. After a 58 game stint with the A’s in 1999 where he hit .215, it was thought his career was done when he contracted lupus. But after a year out of the majors, he came back in 2001 with the Expos. In a severely limited role, he managed an .862 OPS in 89 at bats. Near the end of the season, he was traded to the Orioles so he could play the outfield with his son, Tim Raines Jr., the second time in history that had occurred (the other being the Griffeys). After a year with the Marlins where he mainly was a pinch runner (despite stealing 0 bases) and occasional pinch hitter (.191 average), Raines retired.

For his career, statistics that just scream hall of fame include being fourth all time in stolen bases (808) despite only being caught about 15% of the time. He also had over 1,500 runs scored and over 2,600 hits. He is most comparable to Lou Brock. Despite this, Raines has still not gotten over 50% of the Hall of Fame votes. There are several more exhaustive cases for Raines being in the Hall of Fame (Bill James calls him the second best leadoff hitter ever).

Post retirement, Raines coached in the majors from 2004-2006, generally at first base, most memorably with the White Sox 2005 World Series Championship season. Since then, he has managed and coached in both affiliated and independent minor league ball.

Rear guard: Clyde Mashore had only 3 pinch hits in 1973, so it is pretty incredible that two of them were home runs on consecutive days. The first was a two run job off Giants pitcher Ron Bryant, which was in a losing cause. The next day's three-run home run, however, came in the top of the ninth and was the deciding factor in the Expos 7-6 win over the Padres. 

His son, Damon Mashore, was a reserve outfielder for the Angels and A's from 1996 to 1998.

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

#279 Al Pardo

Card thoughts: This is Pardo’s rookie, and last, Topps card. While Topps was pretty shy about issuing rookie cards in this set for those rookies that had potential, they loved issuing cards of obscure third-string catchers.

The player: Al Pardo is one of only four players in major league history born in Spain (the others: Brian Oelkers, Danny Rios, and Al Cabrera). After a five-year minor league apprenticeship that showed flashes of power (he slugged over .450 at Bluefield, Hagerstown, and Rochester), the switch-hitting Pardo was called up for almost the entire month of July while backup catcher Joe Nolan was out with a chronic knee injury. Nolan would never come back, having chose to retire. But Pardo did not acquit himself well auditioning to be the backup catcher, hitting only .133 in 78 plate appearances. The Orioles were instead forced to lean heavily on the back of aging catcher Rick Dempsey, and playing Floyd Rayford out of position.

Pardo started the next season at Rochester, but was called up to replace Rayford in June. The results were nearly identical, as he struggled at the plate again, hitting a mere .137. However, Pardo did hit his only major league home run that year.

He was back to the minors for most of the rest of his career, popping up for brief appearances as the ends of the 1988 and 1989 seasons. Pardo also played internationally, both in Japan and Mexico, during his professional career.

Rear guard: Pardo singled off Royals starter Mark Gubicza for hist first hit. He would later score on a fielders choice from Cal Ripken.  I think this is the first time a player's first RBI is mentioned on the backs of these cards.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

#278 Sixto Lezcano

Card thoughts: One of best names in the set, I remember this guy for the melodic way his name rolls off the tongue. As he looks up boyishly at the camera, Lezcano is celebrating the last of his 11 Topps cards.

The player: Lezcano hit out of an exaggerated crouch and had straight-away power. But injuries kept him from realizing his full potential. In the years he managed to get into over 130 games, he was really productive, including in the field where he routinely ranked in the top ten in assists in right field. Despite his power stroke, Lezcano was a patient hitter who rarely swung at bad pitches.

Signed by the Brewers, he spent four years in the minors, his best season being at Sacramento in 1974 when he hit 34 home runs, scored 100, and drove in 99. This brought him up to the bigs where from 1974-1979, he was the Brewers regular right fielder. He got in hot water as a rookie when he argued with a fan, but managed a respectable 11-43-.247 line. While a consistent hitter from that point forward, Lezcano would never top his 1979 season where he was one of the ten best position players in the American League. Lezcano hit 28 home runs, drove in 101, and had an extraordinary (for the time) OPS of .987 (and an OPS+ of 164). His offensive numbers finally got him recognized for his glove work, and he got his first, and only, gold glove that season.

In 1980, Lezcano slumped badly, although he started off the season with a record breaking second opening day grand slam. His average and on-base percentage dropped about 100 points, and only played in 112 games.

Traded to the Cardinals in a massive trade that included #237 Ted Simmons, #185 Rollie Fingers, and Pete Vukovich (to the Brewers), and David Green, Dave LaPoint, and Lary Sorensen (with him to the Cards), Lezcano was little more than a backup for the Cardinals, as they were well set with #190 George Hendrick in right field.

It only took a year for Lezcano to be part of another blockbuster trade, this one involving #90 Garry Templeton and Ozzie Smith. With the Padres, Lezcano had his last great season, as he was the 9th best National League position player on the strength of his top-10 placing in on-base percentage (.388); OPS (.860); adjusted OPS+ (145); and assists in right field (16-led the league).

Once again, however, a dismal season followed, with Lezcano only managing a .233 average as he lost his job to a young #10 Tony Gwynn. He was sent to the Phillies for the stretch run, and platooned with Joe Lefevre in the NLCS and World Series. Lezcano hit better in the former (.308 and a two-run home run off Rick Honeycutt in 13 at bats).

Another platoon year saw Lezcano get the bulk of the playing time against right handers, and he turned in his last season appearing in over 100 games. Despite only 71 hits, he hit 14 home runs and posted a respectable .480 slugging percentage.

Lezcano's final season with the Pirates was spent mainly on the bench as a pinch hitter, a role he was not good at, hitting only .207. He was part of a bunch of overpaid veterans (including Jason Thompson, Steve Kemp, and Bill Madlock) whose struggles made them impossible to move in trades, and who were holding back the young nucleus of the great Pirate teams of the late 80s.

Lezcano is the hitting coach for the Rookie League Danville Braves.

Rear guard: As can be seen by this card back, Lezcano had a real up and down career in the 80s.

Friday, November 23, 2012

#277 Jaime Cocanower

Card thoughts:  For years, I thought this guy’s first name was pronounced “Jay-me.” But seeing as how he was born in Puerto Rico (despite the non-Hispanic sounding last name), I guess it was always “Hi-may.” As for the picture, he seems concerned, which he should be, as this would be his second to last Topps card.

The player: Cocanower was raised Stateside and went to Baylor University. After a pitching well in the 1977 and 1978 College World Series, he signed with the Brewers, and was put on the major league squad but did not pitch.

For the 1980 season, Cocanower went 17-5 with a 2.18 ERA for the single-A Stockton Ports. For this effort, he was awarded the California League MVP award. It also encouraged the Brewers to fast track him to the majors. Unfortunately, skipping AA hardly helped Coconower, and he struggled for three seasons in AAA, always walking way more than he struck out, before being called up at the end of the 1983 season.

A 2-0 record and 1.80 ERA in 5 games (3 starts) fooled the Brewers once again that Coconower was a bonafide major league starter. But he had still not solved his wildness. Coconower went a terrible 8-16 in his only full major league season, 1984. The problem was a sub-1 strikeout to base on balls ratio.

Coconower continued to struggle with his control the season represented by this card (13 wild pitches, 73 walks in 116 1/3 innings), which led to him being bounced from the rotation. After only 44 or so innings in 1986, his major league career was finished. Coconower ended up with 201 walks as compared to 139 strikeouts. In no season, did he strikeout more than he walked (he was not much better in the minors . . . in his last pro season at AAA Albequerque, he walked 109 in 119 innings and struck out only 50).

Rear guard: Most of Cocanower's glory came at the tail end of the 1983 season. His first complete game came against #270 Jack Morris and the Tigers. In a 10-1 blowout, Cocanower struck out 1, walked none, and gave up only 6 hits.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

#276 Yankees Leaders

Card thoughts: Since the Yankees weren't really consistent division winners in this era in baseball history, I didn't really hate them like I (and I'm sure many of you) do now. They were more hapless. However, this season the Yankees won 97 games and finished 2nd to the Blue Jays, only 2 games back.

The player: If Ron Guidry had come up earlier in 1976, he'd be on the front of this card.

Rear guard: Despite the dominance of #180 Don Mattingly (the AL MVP) on the leader board, Rickey Henderson was the most valuable Yankee, according to WAR. The 211 hits, 146 runs, 48 doubles, 145 runs batted in, and 80 steals all led the league.

As for pitchers, Ron Guidry's 22 wins led the league. But look at that team leading strikeout total: 146 by Phil Neikro. It's really rare these days to see that.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

#275 Charlie Hough

Card thoughts: Why is the camera so far away from Hough? You can barely make him out against that Mondrian background.

The player: This post is appropriate as Hough, like today’s Cy Young Award winner R.A. Dickey, used the knuckleball as his out pitch. His greatest success came after the age of 34 when (like Dickey) he was converted to a starting pitcher by the Rangers.

The knuckleball was learned by Hough as a matter of necessity as he hurt his shoulder in the minors, but didn’t want to tell the Dodgers for fear they would release him. Tommy Lasorda taught him the pitch, and the first year he used it in AAA, he would have won the ERA title had he had enough innings. However, he had difficulty controlling it, while caused the team’s catchers to allow 52 passed balls when Hough pitched.

Hough finally learned to control the pitch when legendary pitcher Hoyt Wilhelm was signed, and taught him how to control the pitch while pitching beside him in the minors.

Hough spent almost a decade as a middle reliever/long man for the Dodgers, becoming the closer in 1976 (12-6, 18 saves) and 1977 (6-12, 22 saves). Unlike relievers today, Hough often pitched over 100 innings in relief, with the knuckleball, a pitch that does not contribute to much wear on the arm, allowing him to bounce back with more minimal rest than other pitchers.

After the 1977 season, Hough’s ERA climbed each season before a 5.57 mark to start 1980 convinced the Dodgers to sell him to the Rangers. After a slow start to his Rangers career, he was converted to a full-time starter in 1982, and immediately responded, going 16-13 and completing 12 games.

For the rest of his Rangers career, Hough would win, and lose, in double digits, his record generally being just above or below .500. What he did do was provide the Rangers with an innings eater on a staff that turned over a lot every year. His two best seasons with the Rangers would be 1984, when Hough would lead the league in games started and complete games while going 16-14, and 1987, when he would start a league leading 40 games, pitch a league high 285 1/3 innings, and win a career high 18 games.

At age 43, still a league average pitcher, Hough signed with the White Sox, where he found middling success as age began to catch up to him. At one point in 1991, he found himself pitching to another 43-year old, Carlton Fisk, behind the plate.

In the expansion draft in 1993, Hough was chosen by the Florida Marlins. He pitched the first inning in Marlins history, but the season was not a happy one for Hough as he went 9-16 with a 4.27 ERA. He finally retired at age 46 after 25 years in the bigs following the 1994 season.

Hough is the all-time Rangers leader in wins, losses, complete games, and strikeouts. Lots of “lasts”: He was the last player born in the 1940s to play in the majors and was the oldest in the league in 1993 and 1994. Hough has an even .500 record in his career, 218-218, and was the last pitcher to start 40 games and pitch 13 innings in a game. Hough is also the last pitcher to start over 400 and relieve over 400 games.

Two great quotes from Hough:

"A good knuckleball is one the catcher successfully blocks"
"I throw ninety percent knuckleballs. The other ten percent are prayers. I probably could throw other pitches. The only reason I don't is that I love pitching in the major leagues."

Since retirement, Hough has been the pitching coach for the Dodgers (1998-1999) and the Mets (2001-2002). He is currently working in the Dodgers front office as an adviser.

Rear guard: Here's Hough's rookie card. He was an old, young man. As for the other rookies on the card, Bob O'Brien pitched 14 games (4 starts) in 1971, his only season, and went 2-2 with a 3.00 ERA. Mike Strahler actually pitched 53 games over 4 seasons with the Dodgers and Tigers. His career record was 6-8.