Wednesday, May 29, 2013

#335 Don Sutton

Card thoughts: A night shot! This is the first in the set, and I can’t recall any others off the top of my head. No doubt, this was because Topps had a West Coast photographer who was able to capture Sutton in an Angels uniform despite the fact that he only pitched 5 late season games for the team. This game was either against Texas or the White Sox.

The player: If you look at Sutton’s Hall of Fame career, there aren’t many seasons that stand out. In an era when the no decision was rare, Sutton racked up lots of seasons where he hit double digits in victories, but also losses. Relying more on guile than over powering batters, Sutton was able to be a consistently effective pitcher into his early 40s. Of course, there were rumors that in his later years, Sutton was scuffing the ball.

As so many of his seasons were similar, I’ll break Sutton’s career down into five year chunks:

(1966-1970): In his formative years with the Dodgers, he was the team’s fourth starter. In each of these seasons, he had more than 10 wins and losses, but only in 1970 did his winning percentage go above .500 (15-13). For this period, Sutton went 66-73 with a 3.45 ERA, below average for the era. One thing he had going for him was his stinginess giving up the long ball. Sutton only gave up 0.8 home runs per nine innings, and led the league with 0.3 in 1968 (6 home runs given up in 208 innings). This did not prevent him from leading the league in earned runs allowed in 1970.

(1971-1975): This is when Sutton became a star pitcher. He successively won 17, 19, 18, 19, and 16 games, while losing much less. Sutton’s overall record for these five years was 89-53, and his ERA was an impressive 2.63. The secret was an improvement in keeping runners off base. Sutton led the league in WHIP in 1972 and 1975, and he also led in strikeout to walk ratio the latter year. As a reward for his consistent pitching, Sutton was named to the 1972, 1973, and 1975 All Star teams. He was able to pitch in the post season for the first time as well (1974) and he didn’t disappoint. Sutton was perfect in the NLCS, giving up just 1 run in 2 winning starts. In the World Series, he had a 2.77 ERA in a losing cause.

(1976-1980): Sutton’s ERAs began to rise a bit in this period, but the Dodgers were a much better team than they were in Sutton’s early years. He was able to go 75-49, despite his ERA going up by a half a run. Sutton’s record was buoyed by his first 20 win season (1976) when he went 21-10 and had his highest showing on the Cy Young ballot. Sutton also led in ERA in 1980 (2.02). Another feature of these years is that Sutton’s strikeout rate began to drop dramatically. For a guy who used to strike out 6-7 guys in nine innings, he was down to about 5. Sutton pitched twice in the post season during this time: He was good in 1977 and really bad in 1978.

(1981-1985): The twilight of Sutton’s career. He signed a three year contract with the Astros in 1981, despite being over 35 years old. He pitched well for them (11-9 in 1981; 13-8 in 1982), but Sutton did like pitching for the team, and constantly bemoaned not playing for the Dodgers anymore. Which led the then GM Al Rosen to state “We’re not trading Sutton to anyone” in 1982. Of course, Sutton was eventually sent at the end of that season to the Brewers in exchange for Kevin Bass (one of the star Astro hitters of the 1980s), #26 Frank DiPino and Mike Madden. He went 4-1 during the stretch drive, but had a 7.84 ERA in the World Series. He hung around to play out the remainder of his four year deal with the Brewers (8-13 in 1983;  14-12 in 1984), but he was now a 6-7 inning pitcher. He was traded again in 1984 to the A’s for pretty much nothing (#106 Ray Burris was the only major leaguer), and after going 13-8, he was involved in another stretch drive trade, this time to the Angels. For the entire five-year period, Sutton went 65-53 with a 3.52 ERA.

(1986-1988): The end. One more year of glory (at age 42, he gave the Angels a steady veteran presence in their rotation), when he went 15-11 during the regular season, and had a 1.86 ERA in the ALCS. Then, a swan song with his alma mater, the Dodgers. The last of Sutton’s 324 wins came against the Phillies on May 14th. He pitched just over 5 innings, giving up 1 earned run.

Sutton holds the record for most career at bats without a home run (1354), and the man was an abysmal hitter (.144 career average). He was a great fielder however, and Sutton is in the top 50 in wins (14th); strikeouts (7th); and shutouts (10th). There was some debate on whether Sutton was a worthy hall of famer because his high numbers of losses, but he was elected with 81% of the vote his fifth year on the ballot.

In retirement, Sutton has been a color man for the Braves and the Nationals.

Rear guard: I really think Topps owed Sutton a card ending in "0." He was still an effective pitcher when this card was issued, and he had won 295 games.

Monday, May 27, 2013

#334 Ken Oberkfell

Card thoughts: Another card that gives me nightmares of listening to the steady drone of Skip Caray announcing Braves games on TBS with a bunch of over the hill veterans playing home games in an empty park. Must . . . stay . . . awake.

But note the beard. Oberkfell was part of a trio of “Bearded Braves” (Bruce Sutter and Glen Hubbard were the other two) in a time where the preferred facial hair was the mustache.

The player: Oberkfell had a second baseman’s bat (the position he primarily played when he first came up), who moved over to third, where his line drive stroke led to a lot of hits, but little power, and no clutch hitting ability.  He was a consistent fielder at the hot corner, however. This is not the kind of hitter you look for in a third baseman.

Oberkfell was not even drafted when he signed with the Cardinals in 1975. The other teams must have missed something, as he climbed fairly rapidly through the Cardinals system on the strength of an excellent batting eye, and good batting average.

After two cups of coffee, Oberkfell became the starting second baseman while still technically a rookie in 1979. (Note: My great aunt game me some old “Bananas” magazines from the 70s, and in one there was an uncut sheet of Topps Cards. The Oberkfell rookie was the one I remember). Anyhow, his rookie season resembled his minor league ones, as he hit for a high average, got on base a lot, but didn’t reach the fences too much (19 2B, 5 3B, 1 HR, and a .388 slugging percentage).

As a starting second baseman who generally hit 2nd or 8th in the order, these numbers were good. However, once Ken Reitz was traded (for future Bearded Brave Bruce Sutter) to the Cubs in 1981, Oberkfell was switched to third, where his numbers in comparison to other third basemen in the league, were not good. However, he was valuable in the 2nd spot, where he batted .292 in the 1982 World Series to help the Cardinals win the World Series.

In 1983, Oberkfell had perhaps his finest season. Due mostly to his superior defense, his WAR was 3.2 that season, but he also had a career high 143 hits, to go along with a .293 batting average. He was hitting about the same in 1984 when he was traded to the Braves midseason for veteran bench presence Mike Jorgensen and lefty reliever Ken Dayley. The Cardinals, who were going through a stretch when they had few legitimate power hitters, liked the power potential of young Terry Pendleton more than Oberkfell’s line drive bat.

Despite leaving a home park where the home run was rare, and going to a home park nicknamed “The Launching Pad,” Oberkfell remained the steady line drive hitter he’d always been. He was very consistent while he started at third with Atlanta. Oberkfell generally hit about .275 and drove in about 40 runs. His defense remained a plus asset. By 1988, however, the Braves were going nowhere, and wanted to try rookie Ron Gant at third. So Oberkfell was sent to the contending Pirates for reliever Tommy Gregg.

The Pirates didn’t win the NL East, and Oberkfell settled in as a useful bench player. Not useful enough for the Pirates, however, as he was shipped off after only 19 games to the Giants for yet another middle reliever. This rejuvenated the bearded one.  After hitting just .125 for the Pirates, he hit .319 as a pinch hitter and backup third and first baseman for the division winner. After going hitless in the NLCS he had an .889 OPS in the World Series.

From 1990-1992, Oberkfell reprised his bench role with the Astros (1990-1991) and Angels (1992). After retirement, he began a long career as a minor league manager, most notably in the Mets system. Oberkfell served as the Mets bench coach in 2011.

Rear guard: Oberfell's rookie card was discussed earlier. As Oberkfell only hit 29 career home runs, no doubt his first (the only one he hit in 1979) was pretty memorable. It came against the Braves off of Hall of Fame pitcher Phil Niekro. It also drove in starting pitcher Pete Vukovich, who got on base via a fielder's choice.

Monday, May 20, 2013

#333 Tom Henke

Card thoughts: This picture was obviously taken on the same day as #312 Tom Filer’s earlier in the set. This is his first Topps card.

The player: Henke was nicknamed “The Terminator” for his ability to close games. Throwing a splitter, slider, forkball and fastball, he was drafted by the Rangers in 1980. Although impressive in the minors, the team felt his lack of control made him suspect in the bullpen.  Henke was chosen from the Rangers as a free agent compensation pick in 1985.  After spending the beginning of the season dominating the International League (0.88 ERA and 17 saves in 39 games), he was up for good with the Blue Jays, where he shared closing duties with veteran Bill Caudill and Jim Acker. Due to his youth, Henke was generally put in non-save situations in the ALCS, but he won 2 games in relief after the Blue Jays came back to beat the Royals in the late innings in Games 2 and 4.

Acker and Caudill were mediocre in 1986, so Henke became the primary closer, a position he would hold until retired. He was so remarkably consistent over the years, that it is hard to pinpoint a standout season. However, 1987 would be a good candidate. That season, Henke led the league in games finished (62) and saves (34) while making his first All Star game. He pitched 2 2/3 innings in the game and gave up 2 hits. However, Henke collapsed at the end of the season, blowing 4 saves, and his agent accused manager Jimy Williams of purposely allowing him to get roughed up against the Brewers.

To illustrate Henke’s skill, here’s his Mariano Rivera-like ERAs over his 7 year peak (1987-1993): 2.49, 2.91, 1.92, 2.17, 2.32, 2.26, 2.91. He also saved over 30 games four different times, and 40 and over for one year (1993). Henke was a big part of the Blue Jays 1992 World Series win. Sharing closing duties with Duane Ward, he saved 3 ALCS games, and 2 World Series games.

Despite being at the time the greatest reliever in Blue Jays history, the team felt that cheaper option Ward could ably fill Henke’s shoes. Signing with the Rangers, he saved 40 his first year with the team, but pitched poorly for the first time in a decade, as he battled back problems and blew nearly 30% of his save opportunities in 1994.  Allowed to leave as a free agent, he signed with the Cardinals. In what was his best year since 1987, Henke saved 40, and had a 1.82 ERA. He was honored by being named to his second all star team, where he struck out Mo Vaughn, and induced Paul O’Neill to fly out to center.  That season, Henke also became the 7thth player to reach the 300 save mark, a number that should be a standard hall of fame threshold for relievers.

Henke had already decided that 1995 would be last season (in fact, he signed with the Cardinals because his home was only a few hours away). So despite the impressive numbers, that would be it for Henke.

Rear guard: I really think there must have been a better stat to cite than "First Save for the Blue Jays" (although, in light of Henke's 200 or so future saves with the Blue Jays, maybe quite prophetic).

Doug Rader, I always got confused with Dave Rader (although they are no relation). Rader was playing his last season while with the Blue Jays, which is pretty surprising because he was just 32, and had an above average OPS. Rader smashed 245 doubles in his career, and 18 with the Blue Jays in 1977. Here's his card from that year.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

#332 Darryl Motley

Card thoughts: This is the name of a Hanna-Barbera villain.

The player: Motley was drafted by the Royals in the 2nd round in 1978, but didn’t hit for much power for a corner outfielder. After an solid but unspectacular climb through the Royals minor league system, he became the big club’s regular right fielder after the strike, since opening day starter Clint Hurdle had been injured in June, just before the work stoppage. But Motley wasn’t seasoned enough, and his pedestrian .588 OPS earned him another full season at Omaha in 1982.

When Amos Otis, the long-time outfielder for the Royals, left as a free agent, Motley earned the starting role in right in 1984. Playing a career high 146 games, he had an above average OPS on the strength of 25 doubles, 6 triples, and 14 home runs. Despite these numbers, Motley found himself in a platoon with Pat Sheridan in ’85, and his numbers suffered. Overall, he did slug 17 home runs, but his average plummeted to .222. Although as a right handed hitter he mainly played against lefties, he hit only .198 against them.

In a memorable post-season moment, Motley crushed a home run off John Tudor in Game 7 of the World Series, after breaking his bat by slamming it on the plate after hitting a long foul in the same area. In those days, bats broke less often, so he didn’t have another of his bats available, and instead picked a random black bat, with which he hit the homer.

Despite hitting .364 in the World Series, that success did not translate to the next season, where Motley’s .203 average led the revolving door in right with Mike Kingery, Rudy Law, and Bo Jackson all putting in significant time at the position.

Soon Motley was out to door, banished to the minors league system. He soon left the country, and played for several foreign teams in Mexico and Japan. Finally back in the states, he played for seven years in independent ball finally retiring at age 42.

Rear guard: Motley's first home run was a solo job off Tigers pitcher #270 Jack Morris

The two guys picked after Nelson (Don Mincher and Tommy Harper by the Seattle Pilots) were way better players than he was. Nelson was a bullpen guy who was fairly unremarkable. However, he found some spotty success with the Royals, going 7-13 with a fine 3.31 ERA in their inaugural season. After a few years battling injury, his 2.08 ERA in 1972 was good enough for eighth in the league in 1972. 

Here's Nelson's card for 1969, his first for the Royals (although he's actually in an Orioles uniform . . . the hat is blacked out.)

Saturday, May 11, 2013

#331 Alan Ashby

Card thoughts: Alan Ashby is a perfect symbol of the commodification of punk into a simple rebellious pose, devoid of politics or authentic angst. With his band of tatted up models (I mean musicians) in Of Mice and Men, Ashby plays dull scream-o that 1,000 Warped Tour bands have polluted  today’s youth with over the past several years. Hey, angry youth: Why not some Youth of Today, Masshysteri, or perhaps original, authentically angry scream-o bands Shotmaker, New Day Rising, and Poison the Well . . .

What? It’s not that Alan Ashby? Oh, this Ashby sports non-ironic mustaches (he played in the 70s) and has no interest in going to see Paramore at the House of Blues? Well, okay then!

Although these kinds of cards are kind of dull, in some cases, they seem almost poetic. Ashby is relaxing on a sunny morning on an empty baseball field (although this field is the decidedly unpoetic Candlestick Park).

The player:  Ashby started his career with the Indians where, after two seasons where he only appeared in a handful of games, he shared starting duties with John Ellis in 1975 and Ray Fosse in 1976. Ashby didn’t hit much, however, and was traded to the Blue Jays after the latter season, in the first ever trade by that club.

No longer sharing catching duties, Ashby caught a career high 124 games for the expansion Blue Jays, but still only hit .210. His defense, while decent, was not extraordinary enough to carry that low average. Ashby once again platooned in 1978 (this time with Rick Cerone), and he finally started to hit, belting 9 home runs and hitting .261 in 264 at bats.

In a fortunate turn of events, Ashby was traded to Astros in the off season for Joe Cannon (regular backup outfielder for one Blue Jay season), Pedro Hernandez (no major league impact), and Mark Lemongello (1-9, 6.29 ERA in his only Blue Jay season). In contrast to the people he was traded for, Ashby became a decade long fixture behind the plate in Houston in the next decade.  The first three seasons with the Astros, he was a starter. 1982 was the best of these seasons, as Ashby hit 12 home runs, drove in 49, and had a .257/.311/.416 triple slash line.

But by 1983, Ashby’s hitting had declined once again, and he lost the starting job to Mark Bailey for the 1984 and 1985 seasons. But with Bailey struggling for much of 1986, Ashby regained his starting job where he hit .257. The following season was perhaps his best, as he posted career highs in every major offensive category. Despite this, the Astros had a young up and coming catcher named Craig Biggio they wanted to try behind the plate, so Ashby saw his playing time decline in the next two years until he was released in May of 1989 after only 22 games.

In retirement, Ashby has coached and managed in the Astros’ minor league system. For years, he was also to milquetoast color man on Astros radio with Milo Hamilton. After color TV analyst Jim Deshaies left for the Cubs job, Ashby joined the Astros TV  broadcasting team for the 2013 season. He almost immediately got in hot water by implying that Rangers pitcher Yu Darvish was some American-hating immigrant who didn’t want to learn the language.

To my surprise, there is no relation between Andy Ashby, former major league pitcher, and Alan.

Rear guard: Nowadays, once a catcher becomes a backup, he generally stays in that role. For most of baseball history, almost all non-star catchers moved between the two roles, often with the same team.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

#330 Rick Sutcliffe

Card thoughts: Nice 80s style white-boy afro, Sutcliffe! His red hair (looks brown in this picture) earned him the nickname “The Red Baron.”

The player: The most consistent starter on the Cubs before (and at the beginning of) the Greg Maddux era, Sutcliffe was considered a malcontent with both the Dodgers and Indians, which got him moved around a bunch, despite showing great talent. It was only when he reached the Cubs, did Sutcliffe become the pitcher hinted at as a young Dodger. One of the things that always annoyed me about Sutcliffe was his deliberation on the mound, and penchant for the fake to third, throw to first move that never worked.

At 6’7”, Sutcliffe was unusually tall for the time. Appearing in a handful of games from 1976-1978, he was finally given a chance to start regularly, and went 17-10 in 1979, winning the Rookie of the Year award. But the next two years were a disaster, as he and #291 Tommy Lasorda feuded as his Era kept rising, and he was bounced from the rotation.

The Dodgers had had enough of Sutcliffe and his surly ways, and he was exiled to Cleveland for journeyman utility man Jorge Orta. The change of scenery did wonders, and Sutcliffe went 14-8 with a league leading 2.96 ERA. He also gave up the least hits per 9 innings, although he did have a propensity to issue walks that persisted throughout his career (he was in the top ten in walks five times).

Although his ERA rose almost two points, the Indians of 1983 were a solid offensive team, and he got good run support which upped his win total by three to 17. Sutcliffe also made his first all star team (although he did not pitch).

 But his inconsistency plagued him again, and he started 1984 by going 4-5 with an ERA above 5 in his first 15 starts. The Cubs were seriously contending for the first time since the early 70s, but they didn’t have a big game pitcher in their rotation. By giving up much of their future (Pat Tabler, Mel Hall, and especially Joe Carter would be core hitters for the Indians for years to come), they landed Sutcliffe. And what a deal it was. He only had one of the most remarkable starting runs ever, going 16-1 in 20 starts, and winning another game in the NLCS, hitting a home run in Game 1 as well. Sutcliffe easily won the Cy Young Award, getting 100% of the first place votes on the ballot.

By the time this card was issued, Sutcliffe, along with the rest of the Cubs starters, were coming off a year marred by injuries. He only started 20 games and won 8 while battling a pulled hamstring. Healthy the following season, he suffered through his worst campaign, going 4-15 for a terrible Cubs squad.

But in 1987, he righted the ship again, leading the league in wins (18), earning him his second all star appearances (and winning the Comeback Player of the Year award). This time he got into the game, and pitched a scoreless third and fourth inning in relief of #268 Mike Scott. A mediocre 1988 season was followed in 1989 by a 16-11 record, as Sutcliffe once again had a chance to pitch in the post-season. He had a no-decision in his only NLCS start, giving up three runs in six innings.

The injury bug pretty much destroyed his 1990 season. Sutcliffe had shoulder surgery in May, and probably should have sat out the year. In his five starts in August and September, he got progressively worth, going from effective to terrible by his final start, when he only got two outs while giving up four runs.

The shoulder still hadn’t fully healed the next year, and by the end of May, Sutcliffe had been bounced from the rotation, as he had trouble going more than five innings.  With the Cubs going nowhere, Sutcliffe sat out June and July, trying to rest his shoulder. He was so discouraged by his poor minor league rehab starts, he considered quitting. But he finished a lot stronger than he started, and his ERA dropped in each of his 10 comeback starts to rest at a semi-respectable 4.10.

The Cubs, believing they could no longer rely on Sutcliffe’s health, allowed him to leave as a free agent. Signing with the Orioles, Sutcliffe amazingly led the league with 36 starts, and had a respectable 16-15 record, despite a high ERA. For this surprising return to durability, he won his second Comeback Player of the Year award. The return to form was short lived and high ERAs (5.75 in 1992, and 6.52 in 1993) eventually led to his retirement.

Sutcliffe has had a long career as a TV color man, starting with the Padres and now with ESPN. In an infamous incident, Sutcliffe was getting drunk with actor Bill Murray at a Padres game when he was invited into the broadcasting booth. He proceeded to sound remarkably like Will Ferrell’s Harry Caray impression, as he rambled on about George Clooney, African relief missions, and gushing admiration of his successor, Mudcat Grant. 

Rear guard: For his first shutout, Sutcliffe bested Bill Bonham of the Reds 2-0. He struck out one and walked four.