Sunday, February 23, 2014

#399 Bill Swift

Card thoughts: Billy Swift: Boy hero! Swift was one of the guys who got an Olympic card in 1985, one of the few times Topps beat Fleer and Donruss to the rookie card of a player.

The player: Swift was called up to the majors much too soon. After just 9 starrts at AA, he was promoted to the majors where, despite a devastating sinker,  he went just 6-10 with a 4.77 ERA. Part of the problem is that a sinker ball pitcher whose home field is on artificial turf better make sure he gives up a lot of weakly hit balls. But Swift did not such thing. After another season with a ballooning ERA (5.46), the Mariners determined he was rushed to fast to the majors, and he was sent back down to right the ship.

An injury forced him out of baseball for the entire 1987 season, and when he came back in 1988, he pitched well in May and June (at one point pitching 4 straight complete games), but lost his job as a starter in August. The same pattern held true in 1989, where he was even worse as a starter (5.17 ERA in 16 starts), but well in relief (3.02 ERA in 44 2/3 innings).

So Swift’s fate was clear. Moved into the bullpen in 1990, he pitched well (6 saves, 2.39 ERA), and even better in 1991 (17 saves, 1.99 ERA). The Mariners were finally getting some value out of their former #1 pick. So they promptly traded him to the Giants for Kevin Mitchell.

Swift would then go on to have an improbable two-year run (mostly) as a starter. Pitching the bare minimum of innings to qualify for the ERA title, Swift led the National League with a 2.08 ERA. He was equally effective in relief (8 games) and as a starter (22 games). An even more improbable year followed, where Swift would go 21-8 and finish second in Cy Young Award voting.

But Swift’s arm was still fragile, and beset by various injuries, he could not repeat those performances, barely pitching above 100 innings in both 1994 and 1995. By now he was with the Rockies, which is murderous on a pitcher’s arm. A mere 18 innings pitched in 1996 and a 6.34 ERA in 1997 showed the end was near for Swift. He did have one more chance to prove himself in 1998, but despite an 11-9 record, his ERA was well above 5.

Rear guard: Note the "First 8-inning stint" is because Swift didn't complete a game in 1985 (unusual for a regular starter in those days).

#371 Bill Stein is discussed at great length earlier in this blog. It is easy to hit doubles at Fenway. However, I don't know when those doubles were hit because the date is wrong. Here's Stein's 1980 card.

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

#398 Earnie Riles

Card thoughts: Say this for Topps: when they mistakenly spell a player’s name (“Earnie” instead of “Ernie”) they don’t let the mistake get to them. No, they just keep on perpetuating the mistake. Riles’ name didn’t get corrected until he was traded to the Giants in 1988.

The player: Riles was supposed to be a star. After all, he hit .349 in AA, and was a good fielding shortstop to boot. But the Brewers farm top farm clubs in the 80s (El Paso, Vancouver, and later, Denver) really skewed to offense numbers of its players as they played in notorious hitters parks/leagues. Such was the case of Riles.

Born in Cairo, Georgia (also the birthplace of Jackie Robinson), Riles hit well everywhere in the minors, his standout season being at El Paso in 1983 when he had a .957 OPS (of course that team scored on average over 7 runs per game!). Making it to the majors early in the 1985 season, he displaced the light hitting #317 Ed Romero as the starting shortstop. He acquitted himself well, coming in third in the Rookie of the Year voting, driving 45 runs while hitting .286.

He didn’t slack off in his sophomore year, upping his power numbers (24 doubles, 9 home runs) while playing a career high 145 games. However, Riles would be bitten by the injury bug in 1987. A finger injury curtailed his season in 1986 to a mere 83 games, and when he came back, he had lost his starting shortstop job, instead he ended up starting at third as rookie Dale Sveum took over the job.

As a third baseman, Riles’ bat was no longer so valuable. By 1988, Paul Molitor was back at starting at third, and Riles was a man without a position. He was dealt to the Giants midseason for disgruntled outfielder Jeffrey Leonard. With the Giants, he became more of a utility player, playing all over the field. But he did end up starting the majority of games at third in 1989, when rookie Matt Williams proved to be ineffective there. However, Williams started at third in the World Series and NLCS, forcing Riles into the designated hitter role in the former, where he was hitless in 8 at bats.

Riles once again found himself as a fill-in starter at third, when he was shipped to his opponent in the 1989 World Series, Oakland. But he hit poorly (.214 average, .614 OPS), which doomed him to a utility role the rest of his career, which lasted two more seasons, one with the Astros (1992) and one with the Red Sox (1993).

Ernie Riles daughter, Kelli, plays college basketball for UNC Asheville.

Rear guard: Roberto Pena was a journeyman infielder with little power. He ended up being the Brewers' starting shortstop by default in 1970. For his career, he hit just 13 home runs in over 1900 at bats. Here's his 1971 card.  

Saturday, February 15, 2014

#397 Steve Buechele

Card thoughts: I always thought Buechele had a weird body. Perhaps it was his oval like head combined with a lack of shoulder breadth that made me think of Beaker. Oh, and for a time he also sported the dreaded flowing curly-haired mullet, the most offensive of all mullets.

The player: Buechele was a third baseman known more for his solid defense than his offense. Despite playing the majority of his career in hitter friendly ball parks, he never slugged better than .450, a low average for what should be a power position.

A college roommate of John Elway at Stanford, Buechele was drafted in the 5th round by the Rangers and immediately assigned to AA Tulsa where he hit .296 in 60 games. Mainly a second baseman in the minors, Buechele was shifted to third in 1985 to get him to the majors quicker (veteran Toby Harrah was manning second, and #285 Buddy Bell was about to be traded to the Reds).

Once Bell was traded on July 19th, Buchele had the unenviable task of replacing one of the all time greatest fielding third basemen. While Buechele held his own at third (he certainly was fielding better than the aging Bell), his average of .219 no doubt fueled many a fans lament at the loss of the popular Bell.

Luckily, Buechele began to hit better the following season. Although his average remained consistently low (he never hit above .250 in any of his full seasons with the Rangers), his fielding at third generally made up for his offensive short comings. Before he left the Rangers in 1991, Buechele would lead the league in range factor twice, and fielding percentage one. In fact, his .991 fielding percentage in 1991 at third base is a record at the position.

But in a midst of a career year in 1991 (18 home runs, 66 RBIs. .783 OPS), the Rangers decided it was best to shop him at the top of his game. So he was sent to the Pirates in a deadline move for former #1 draft pick Kurt Miller (the #24 prospect in baseball). While he was an improvement over the yearlong revolving door at third (John Wehner, Jeff King, and Bobby Bonilla all started a lot of games there), he hit just .246 the rest of the season, and .249 the first part of the next one.

With Buechele’s range and fielding affected by the faster artificial turf, he just wasn’t the same player as he was with Texas. Finally, with the Pirates deciding to go with Jeff King full time at third, Buechele was dealt to the Cubs for free agent bust Danny Jackson. I was excited with the arrival of Buechele, as the Cubs finally had a legit third baseman that they had lacked since the departure of Ron Cey.

But Buechele was the wrong side of thirty, and while he didn’t embarrass himself in his four seasons with the team, his 31 home runs in 1144 Cub at bats are pretty poor for a team that plays 81 games a year in a hitter friendly park. Eventually, with Buechele hitting just .189 by July 4th in 1995, he was released, catching on for a few last games with the Rangers a few days later.

Buechele currently manages the Rangers' AAA franchise in Round Rock, Texas.

Rear guard: Jim Bibby is better known as a Pirate. At age 28, 1973 was his first full year in the majors. After starting the year with the Cardinals, he was dealt to the Rangers on June 6. He later came within one hit of pitching a perfect game against the Braves in 1981 (the only hit came from the leadoff hitter, Terry Harper. Bibby retired the next 27 batters in succession). Here's his 1974 card.

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

#396 Red Sox Leaders

Card thoughts: The Red Sox were one year away from winning the pennant, and many of the same players played for them in 1985—just not as well. In 1985, the Red Sox went 81-81 to finish fifth in the AL East. The improvement in their pitching was the reason they got better so quickly (especially Roger Clemens, a non-factor in ’85).

The player: Dewey is discussed at great length in this post.

Rear guard: The Red Sox had a well rounded offense. Note that Jim Rice does not appear on the leader board anywhere, although he still had a solid season. Also note that Bill Buckner, despite playing on two bad ankles, led the team in steals (18 steals in the lowest number of steals leading a team in 1985).

On the pitching side, Dennis “Oil Can” Boyd was the ace, as both Bruce Hurst and Roger Clemens had yet to come into their own.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

#395 Scott Garrelts

Card thoughts: Garrelts in generally stone-faced and pensive looking on his cards, so it is nice to see him in action for once. Obscure reference: He grew up in tiny Buckley, Illinois, which was indicated by a sign on I-57 “Buckley Roberts.” My roomates in college had a band called “Buckley Roberts.”

The player: A number one draft pick by the Giants, Garrelts had a brief, but memorable career both in the bullpen and as a starter.

Fairly ineffective as a starter in the minors, he was tried in that role briefly in 1984, but he wasn’t much good. Converted into a reliever in 1985, Garrelts pitched often (74 games, third in the league) and effectively (2.30 ERA, 13 saves). On a terrible Giants team, he was their lone representative in the all star game.

In 1986, he pitched in both starting and relieving roles, amassing enough innings to qualify for the ERA title (in a high offense year, his 3.11 ERA was ninth in the league). A true swingman, he was involved in 22 decisions, going 13-9 with 10 saves. 1987 and 1988 saw him pitching solely out of the bullpen, mostly in the closer role.

In a surprise move, Garrelts was moved full time into the starting rotation in 1989 in a desperation move. But by the end of the season, he was the Giants undisputed ace. Mixing in more off-speed stuff (and a split finger fastball—after all, #111 Roger Craig was his manager), he went 14-5—good for a league leading .737 winning percentage. He also won the ERA title with 2.28 ERA. Key to his success was not allowing base runners—he allowed just over 1 runner per inning, another league lead.

For his efforts, Garrelts was tapped to pitch both the first game of the NLCS and the World Series. He turned in a decent winning Game 1 performance in the NLCS, but got knocked around for 5 runs in the World Series opener.

Perhaps regularly starting for the first time wore out his arm, but Garrelts was never the same after that 1989 season. Although he came within 1 out of throwing a no-hitter in 1990, his ERA was almost 2 runs higher than the year before (4.15), and his 12-11 record was more befitting of a fifth starter than an ace.

Even worse, Garrelts blew out his elbow in July of 1991. Before the days of effective Tommy John surgeries, this could end your career—and with Garrelts it did. He was out of baseball by age 30.

Rear guard: Less than 5,000 people saw Garrelts first win against Atlanta. He pitched 8 innings walking 7 and striking out 6 for the win. 

I always think of Billy Pierce as a White Sock, rather than a Giant. Pierce would have 38 career shutouts, and the one he hurled in '62 was one of his last. Jack Sanford was the top Giant hurler in 1962, going 24-7. He got a late start in his career, due to time spent fighting in Korea, so he wouldn't be effective for long after that season (his seventh). For his career, Sanford had just 14 shutouts. Here are Pierce's and Sanford's cards from that season.

#394 Checklist

Lost it

Thursday, February 6, 2014

#393 Chris Pittaro

Card thoughts: So many Tigers in this set are shivering in the dugout. Quite a contrast to the sunny Florida photos so prevalent in this set. Also, Pittaro’s position should be solely third base.

The player: Sparky Anderson was a great manager, but a terrible evaluator of young talent. He deemed Pittaro the “best rookie he’d seen in 15 years”—but he lasted only 28 games with the Tigers.

The son of a former minor leaguer with the Twins, Pittaro played ball at the University of North Carolina. Drafted in the sixth round, he played second base in the minors, but that was a problem because the Tigers had #20 Lou Whitaker starting there. Anderson liked Pittaro so much, Whitaker was asked to move to third (which he rightly refused).

Instead, Pittaro was the one moving to third, as he was the Opening Day starter there in 1985. It was intended that he would platoon with veteran Tom Brookens. But after two months, he had an OPS of just .621, and he was sent down to AAA, never to return to the Tigers.

A trade with the Twins after the season (for #43 Dave Engle) gave him another opportunity, as he once again broke camp with a major league club. But a .095 average in 11 games sent him right back down to the minors again. After a few more games at the major league level in ’97, and 73 games at AAA in ’88, Pittaro retired.

He has had much more of an impact on baseball in retirement. A former minor league roommate of Billy Beane, he is considered one of the architects of the A’s “Moneyball” system as a scout, and later scouting director.

Rear guard: Pittaro had three hits opening day, and stole a base. His first hit came off Bert Blyleven and was a single.

Schoolboy Rowe was an excellent hitting pitcher. In his 15 year career he hit .263 including 18 home runs. That grand slam was his only home run in 1939. 

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

#392 John Russell

Card thoughts: This is a classic Topps pose for a hitter. Before the card companies figured out how to take good action shots, you’d find pretty much all hitters posed in this way (when they weren’t fake fielding a ball in foul territory).

The player: John Russell is the unusual player who switched from outfielder/first baseman to catcher later in his career, rather than the other way around.

A first round draft pick of the Phillies in 1982, Russell spent three years honing his craft at AAA Portland before being called up for good in 1985. Although his .218 batting average wasn’t too impressive, he had a decent power stroke. Pressed into service at catcher when #263 Darren Daulton was out for most of 1986, Russell had a surprisingly good season, hitting 13 home runs and driving 60 while slugging .444—great numbers for a catcher, especially one with not much experience at the position. Of course, there was a reason Russell was not used much at catcher. He only caught 24% of would be base stealers; he led the league in passed balls (12); and he was well below average in total fielding runs (-16).

With the return of Daulton in ’87, Russell’s playing time was drastically cut. He batted just .145 as the backup leftfielder, and spent most of that and the next season at AAA Maine. So, like a piece of chattel, he was sold to the Braves at the end of spring training in 1989. Staying in the majors all year, he saw time at six different positions (including pitcher). Despite having a reputation as a poor catcher, he actually ranked in the top ten in caught stealing that season. But with an improvement in defense, came a regression at the plate as his .185 batting average was accompanied with little power (just 4 extra base hits and 9 RBIs in 159 at bats).

Moving to the Rangers in 1990, Russell would spend the rest of his career in the organization. His best season as a backup would occur in that first season (most of the rest, he was the “third catcher” kept in reserve in the minors).  In 1990, he had a .273 average and .682 OPS, the highest in his career.

Russell is better known today as the former manager of the Pirates (during a few of their “lost” seasons). Long a top managerial prospect (he managed at: Elizabethton, Fort Myers, New Britain, and Edmonton), he joined Lloyd McClendon’s staff as the third base coach for the Pirates from 2003-2005. This was a job he wasn’t really good at (he had a habit of waving runners home to their certain doom at the plate), which made it surprising that he was brought back as a manager in 2008. In his second go round with the Pirates, they were still hapless and Russell had a 186-299 record in 2 ½ seasons. His .384 winning percentage was the worst of any manager who managed during the Pirates 20 year losing streak and the worst since Fred Haney’s .353 winning percentage from 1953-1955.

However, Russell landed on his feet, becoming the Orioles third base coach in 2011. But years of catching had ruined Russell’s knees, and he had to switch places with Willie Randolph for the 2012 season, when he became the bench coach. 

Rear guard: Yes, the spitball was legal until Ray Chapman was killed by a spitball in a poorly lit game in 1920 (the spit was often mixed with tobacco juice, darkening the ball). The ban wasn't absolute at first--each team could designate two spitballers who were still allowed to throw the pitch. Finally, just 17 pitchers who used the pitch as their primary out pitch kept the exemption. 

Mitchell pitched until 1932 (with the Giants). He was a terrible pitcher (his career high in wins was 13 at age 40, this at a time pitchers figured in more decisions). The last pitcher in baseball to legally throw the spitter was Jack Quinn in 1933.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

#391 Julio Franco

Card thoughts: Julio Franco: ageless wonder. This is the last player from this set to retire . . . and it isn’t even his rookie card.

The player: Franco, who was signed in 1978 by the Phillies, did not retire until 2007 when he was 49.  The man had three careers, essentially. As a young man, he was one of the top hitting shortstops in the game; he spent five separate seasons abroad in his mid to late 30s, in Japan, South Korea, and Mexico; and then, he came back improbably as a 40 year old and spent about a decade as one of the game’s top pinch hitters and bench players.

Franco pretty much flat out hit as soon as he was signed, swatting over .300 ever year he spent in the minors. He was yet another great Phillies prospect in the early eighties who they sent away. Franco was traded to the Indians in 1982 with four other players for Von Hayes (who, to be fair, turned out to be a really good player for the Phillies).

Very quickly, Franco became a really good hitter, with a knack for driving in runs, despite not having much power. His rookie year, he drove in 80 runs, despite slugging just .388 (he came in second in Rookie of the Year voting to Ron Kittle). Franco 
wasn't the prototypical cleanup hitter, however, as he also had great speed, reaching double digits in steals in each of his first nine seasons. The one aspect of his game that was lacking, however, was his play at shortstop where he routinely led the league in errors. Franco was also prone to hitting into double plays, as he used the heaviest allowable bat, which led to a lot of hard hit balls at infielders.

It is hard to pick a standout year for Franco when he was with the Indians, because he was so remarkably consistent.  Between 1984 and 1988 he generally scored around 86 runs; had about 180 hits; drove in about 70 runs; and hit about .299. Despite this, Franco never made an all star team, overshadowed by Tony Fernandez. His big break came when he moved to second for the 1988 season, just before being part of a large trade with the Rangers. The Indians sent him to the Rangers for #328 Pete O’Brien  and youngsters Jerry Browne and Oddibe McDowell.

With the Rangers, Franco made the all star team three straight years (1989-1991), starting at second in the 1989 game. In a better hitters’ park, Franco began to hit for more power, hitting 39 home runs during that three year span. His best season of his career came in 1991, when reached career highs in runs (108), hits (201), steals (36), and batting average (a league leading .341).

However, in 1992 he was injured most of the year, the only significant time he ever spent on the disabled list. The injury ended his career at second. From now on, Franco would either play first or DH. He spent one last season with the Rangers, where he returned to form, hitting 14 home runs and driving in 84, before signing with the White Sox. Mainly used as a designated hitter, Franco’s 20 home runs and 98 runs batted in were both career highs (and this was a strike shortened season).

Franco signed with the Chiba Lotte Japanese League team for the 1995 season, and he earned the fielding award for his play at first, showing that he could still play the field. 1996 found him again back with the Indians, where he started at first and hit .322. But Franco was now 37, and the Indians felt he was too old. Midway through the 1997 season, he was released, and ended the year with Brewers, who also released him.

For most players that would be it. An out of work 38 year old with declining fielding skills, Franco was not in much demand. But he refused to stop playing. From 1998-2001, he was on a worldwide odyssey, playing again in Japan (hitting .290 for Chiba Lotte), in South Korea, and Mexico (.437 for the Mexico City Reds in 2001). The Braves recruited him for the stretch drive that season, and the 43 year old hit .300 off the bench.

But even more amazingly, in each of the next four seasons, Franco appeared in over 100 games, even becoming the starting first baseman in 2002. Later on, he served as a well-used backup for youngsters Robert Fick and Andy LaRoche.

After becoming the oldest position player in major league history in 2004, the Braves finally cut ties with the ageless wonder in 2005, but he was quickly snatched up by the Mets, with who he hit .256 in a season and a half. Franco finally hung it up in the majors in 2007 at age 48. Of course, Franco would play one more season in Mexico at age 49 after his major league career had finished.

Franco retires with a lot of age-related records, including oldest player to hit a grand slam and oldest to hit a home run. He was also the last player eligible to wear a batting helmet with no ear flaps, having been around before that was standard. For his career, he played 25 years, amassed 2,586 hits, and hit .298.

Rear guard: Lou Boudreau was the rare all-around shortstop in his era. He made the hall of fame primarily because of his hitting, yet he led shortops in fielding 8 out of 9 years. He is 19th all time in double plays turned by a shortstop. Ray Mack was his primary double play partner from 1940-1943, not in 1945 (when I assume he was in the war). I believe 1943 is the year Topps is referring to (yet another Talkin' Baseball error!).