Saturday, August 16, 2014

#425 Larry McWilliams

Card thoughts: Topps did a good job capturing what made McWilliams effective: A deceptive delivery.

The player: McWilliams was the Braves’ #1 draft pick in 1974 (in January—there used to be two drafts a year). Most of the guys in that draft didn't make it to the majors, and Roy Smalley was the only player better than McWilliams that was chosen.

A starter for the first part of his career, McWilliams 9-3 record as a rookie (with a 2.82 ERA) showed promise. In addition, he was one of the pitchers that stopped Pete Rose's 44 game hitting streak that year. But he would struggle as a starter as he made just 13 starts in 1979 while getting injured, and when healthy in 1980, went 9-14. Seemingly in desperation, he went to a quick no wind-up, pitching motion that served to make hitters uncomfortable at the plate. This made McWilliams’ forkball even more devastating, although it wasn't until a trade to the Pirates that it began to show.

After year in 1981 that he spent almost entirely at AAA (he made just 5 starts), McWilliams began the year with the Braves, but as a reliever, rather than a starter. His 6.21 ERA was the highest in his career, so the Braves gave up on him, shipping him to the Pirates for Pascual Perez.

With the Pirates, McWilliams had a great season as a starter, going 6-5 with a 3.11 ERA. The next year, his 15 wins were sixth in the league, and that year he was in the top ten in many other pitching categories as well. McWilliams last year as a full time starter was 1984, where his numbers slipped to 12-11, more because of the poor play of the Pirates.

By the time this picture was taken, McWilliams was a swingman, starting only 2/3 of the games he pitched. He was less effective in this role, and his 3-11 record in 1986 (1-8 as a starter), told that tale. In 1987 he pitched so badly, he was a briefly out of baseball. But the Cardinals took a chance on him the following year, and he was a durable, if not spectacular, spot starter and long reliever for them. Another year followed with another abysmal winning percentage, this time for the Phillies (.154). McWilliams would end his career with the Royals in 1990 on May 12. He threw just one pitch in that game, and it was stroked for a RBI double by Lance Johnson.

Rear guard: McWilliams' first win came against the Mets in his major league debut. He gave up no runs, and five hits in 7 innings, walking 2 and striking out 2.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

#424 Rick Miller

Card thoughts: Rick Miller is not a pitcher, although he looks like he’s warming up one in the bullpen before a game.

The player: Rick Miller was on a team for one reason: His defense. Although he hit righthanders well enough to be platooned occasionally, his real value was as fourth outfielder who you could count on not to blow the big play.

Miller won a basketball scholarship to Michigan State, but when he injured his ankle, he turned to baseball, where he was converted from a pitcher into an outfielder. After winning the Big Ten batting title, Miller was drafted by the Red Sox. In the minors, he showed good defense, but his tendency to try for home runs, despite his small size, led to mediocre batting averages. Despite this, he was called up to the Red Sox at the end of the 1972 season as a defensive replacement for their lumbering outfield. In 15 games, Miller hit .333, including a double in his first at bat.

Playing more in 1973, usually backing up Tommy Harper in center, he hit just .214. Slated for the same role in 1974, injuries to Reggie Smith, and lackluster play by #60 Dwight Evans, allowed Miller to get into 143 games (a career high) and steal 12 bases. Miller also married #290 CarltonFisk’s sister after the season.

The next 3 seasons saw Miller’s playing time decline, as youngsters Jim Rice and Fred Lynn needed less defensive backup than their forbears. In addition, they rarely came out of the lineup, meaning Miller had to be content in a pinch hitting role. The low point in his career was in 1975, when he hit just .194. While his number rebounded some the following seasons, it looked like his days as a regular player were over.

But then came free agency, and the owners didn’t really know how to lavish their money in those days. For some reason, the Angels chose to sign Rick Miller, a 30 year old reserve outfielder as their starting centerfielder after the 1977 season. As the team’s leadoff hitter, he hit .263, with an on base percentage of .341. On the other hand he was caught stealing 13 times, while stealing just 3 bases. But in the field, he was as good as ever, winning the Gold Glove.

1979 was Miller’s best year, as he hit .291 in the regular season, and .250 in the ALCS. After another year with the Angels, Miller came back to the Red Sox, this time as their starting center fielder. But as he was always a stopgap solution, Miller was perpetually in danger of losing his job when someone better came around. This time, it was #255 Tony Armas in 1984.

The rest of his career was uneventful on the field, as he mostly pinch hit. But in his last season, Miller ended up going after some fans in the stands in Anaheim after they spent the game heckling his family.

Rear guard: Miller's 1,000th hit came off the Angels' Ken Forsch, and was a pinch hit double (Miller was pinch hitting for #35 Glenn Hoffman). Furthermore, the hit score the first run of the game in the eighth inning. Unfortunately, Miller was thrown out at the plate by Gary Pettis while attempting to score on a single to center by Jerry Remy. The Red Sox could have used that run as Bob Stanley couldn't hold the lead in the ninth,

Saturday, August 2, 2014

#423 Dan Spillner

Card thoughts: It was a cold day at Tiger Stadium when this photo was taken. And Spillner is in the twilight of his career, as his gray hair attests.

The player: Spillner was a hard thrower who initially must relied on his fastball to get people out. This wasn't conducive to starting, and in each of his first three seasons starting for the Padres, he last more than 10 games. Spillner did, however, toss a one-hitter in 1974, his rookie year.

Figuring a flamethrower was better suited in the bullpen, Spillner was moved there in 1977. The 76 games he threw were second in the league, and he saved 6 games.

A mid-season trade to the Indians in 1978 (for Dennis Kinney) would lead to his greatest successes. He was put back into the rotation for good in early August the following season, and he won 4 out of 7 starts. The next year, he had a career year, going 16-11 while starting 30 games. But he came down with a bad back the next year, and he was put back into the bullpen, where he would stay the rest of his career.

After recording 21 saves (with 12 wins) in 1982, the Indians thought they had stumbled upon a reliable bullpen arm. But a 5.07 ERA the next year disabused them of that notion, and he was shipped off to the White Sox midway through the 1984 season.

Despite a good year represented by this card (4-3, 1 save, 3.44 ERA), when Spillner became a free agent after the season, the owners were colluding against signing players, and he couldn't find a job. Forced into retirement, he later won $486,000 in a judgment against the owners.

Spillner now works in construction in the Seattle area. Maybe he’ll build your house if you live out there.

Rear guard: Those are Spillner's career numbers.