A Total Baseball afternoon
added 3/24/2001 by Ray Kerby
On Friday night the family and I made our weekly foray into Barnes and Noble, looking for anything new and interesting to read. When I made my way over to the baseball books, there it was -- right in front of me. The roof cracked open, the clouds parted, people screamed, and a beam of light came down from the heavens, illuminating what would be the newest addition to my modest collection of baseball books: the seventh edition of Total Baseball. Well, actually, the heavenly light landed on the “Alex Rodriguez: Gunning for Greatness”, which was adjacent to the Total Baseball, but that was still close enough for me.
Anyone who is familiar with Total Baseball already knows about all of the historical and statistical goodies contained in this massive tome. In addition to the complete batting and pitching lines for each major-league player in history, there are extensive essays on many different baseball-related topics. A hard-cover copy lists for a hefty $60, but what do you expect for 2500 pages of baseball information?
Today has been a rainy day, affording me some time to peruse the latest changes to the Seventh Edition. The “glamour stat” for Total Baseball is its “Total Player Rating”, or TPR, which is an attempt to measure the value of a player, in wins, over an average player at his position. The number is adjusted for park and era, making it a fairly unbiased measure of performance. A TPR of zero equates to an average player, while a value of 3.0 indicates a player would hypothetically bring his team 3 additional wins over an average player. It is common for players have a negative TPR. After all, half of the players are below-average. Any TPR over 2.0 is a pretty good season, and a TPR over 5.0 would be a really great season. Attaining a 5.0 TPR has been done only 11 times in Astros history, so that should give you an indication of how uncommon it is.
Following the spirit of the book, I have compiled a few lists that should interest Astros fans.
Astros and ex-Astros among the Top 400 all-time position players
In the back of Total Baseball are many “all-time” lists, including one of the top 400 players, listed by their all-time career TPR. Topping the list are players like Babe Ruth and Willie Mays, but there are plenty of players of interest to Astros fans. I’ve listed 14 below, with their career TPR rating listed in parenthesis:
20. Joe Morgan (54.8)
A native of Bonham, Texas, Morgan is the 4th-highest rated second baseman in history, behind only Nap Lajoie (95.5), Rogers Hornsby (82.7), and Eddie Collins (73.3). In 1937, Hornsby was the last of those three to retire, making Morgan the greatest second-baseman since integration. Although most of his value came with the Reds, many Astros fans do not realize that he had some very good years in Houston. He will always be remembered as the biggest trade blunder ever made by the organization.
31. Jeff Bagwell (45.2)
Bagwell is currently rated as the 3rd-best first baseman in baseball history, behind only Lou Gehrig (68.9) and Jimmie Foxx (55.9). He’s well ahead of contemporaries like Mark McGwire (38.4) and another good year would get him to 50 career wins, which only 25 position players in history have reached. At only 32 years old, he is already a shoo-in for the Hall of Fame and will get to pad his career totals in the friendly confines of Enron Field.
66. Jim Wynn (35.9)
Wynn was one of the top 10 center-fielders of all time, but his offensive numbers suffered from playing most of his career in the Park Where Home Runs Go To Die. But once park-effects are considered, he is recognized for the great player that all Astros fans knew he was. A true, multi-talented player, Wynn was a good defensive centerfielder with an outstanding arm who also stole over 200 bases in his career.
Read the Jim Wynn Tribute.
70. Craig Biggio (35.6)
The ranking may surprise some people, but Biggio has proven himself to be one of the best second basemen since Morgan. Like all Astros, playing in the Astrodome has depressed his offensive statistics, but his TPR is just a shade behind that of Ryne Sandberg (36.6), whose stats reflect a career spent in hitter-friendly Wrigley Field.
92. Cesar Cedeno (31.3)
Another Astro great swallowed up by the Astrodome, Cedeno gets his due in Total Baseball, ranking as the 92nd best position player in baseball history despite most of his value coming by age 26. At age 21, Cedeno had the highest TPR of any position player in the majors and was labeled by Leo Durocher as “the next Willie Mays”.
107. Jose Cruz (28.5)
Cruz’s high ranking can be attributed to his consistency and longevity. Although Cruz never had a peak season worthy of MVP honors, he was an above-average player for all twelve of his seasons in Houston. In fact, the only time he was among the top 5 position players was in 1984, when he was fourth.
Read the Jose Cruz Tribute.
129. Rusty Staub (26.4)
The first “great one” that got away, Rusty Staub was promoted to the majors at age 18, and showed flashes of hitting brilliance interspersed with several mediocre seasons. At age 25, Staub finally had his breakthrough season and became a true star in the National League. Unfortunately for the Astros, this occurred in Staub’s first season with the Expos.
165. Kenny Lofton (22.8)
The first great player to get away from the team in the Nineties, Lofton had only a September callup with the team before being traded to Cleveland. At the time, Lofton was blocked by Steve Finley, a promising young hitter that already had established himself as a major-league hitter.
216. Ken Caminiti (18.9)
A real favorite among Astros fans, many felt stabbed in the back when Caminiti and Finley were traded to San Diego in a cost-cutting move. Even worse, both players immediately became stars, with Caminiti winning the MVP award for San Diego in 1996.
240. Luis Gonzalez (17.0)
Gonzalez originally fell into the category of players I call “sneaky good”. There is no single facet of their game that is great, but they have no weaknesses. Gonzo was a very good fielder, but not flashy enough to get attention. He had average, power, and speed, but hitting .280 with 15 homers and 15 stolen bases doesn’t get much attention. Even so, most of Gonzo’s career value came from his recent years in Arizona, where he found a decent hitting coach and started a weight-training regimen.
244. Steve Finley (16.8)
If the Astros had not shipped Finley and Caminiti to San Diego, then... oh, nevermind. The history of the franchise is full of these “ifs” and I believe that the team has had more than their share of trades gone bad. Losing Lofton would have been forgivable if the team had stuck with Finley. But they instead trading Finley, who was on the verge of greatness, simply to save some money and put Brian Hunter in centerfield.
346. Moises Alou (12.4)
Now this one is good for the Astros. Alou had some very good seasons with Montreal and Florida, but he saved his best performances for his arrival in Houston in 1998. Unfortunately, a ridiculous treadmill accident sidelined him for the entire 1999 season, so maybe the Baseball Gods are trying to tell us something.
369. Bob Watson (11.6)
Watson is another underrated Astro. Over an 11-year period starting in 1972, Bob Watson was a better hitter than Hall of Fame first baseman Tony Perez in every season except one. There was a seven-year stretch from 1972-78 where Watson was arguably the best-hitting first baseman in the league, and nobody outside of Houston knew about him.
391. Bob Abreu (11.0)
The most recent “big fish” to get away, Bob Abreu is making two teams regret their actions. First, the Astros, for not protecting him in the 1997 Expansion Draft. Secondly, the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, for immediately trading Abreu to Philadelphia after the draft for scrub shortstop Kevin Stocker.
The 12 best careers as Astros, ranked by TPR
1. Jeff Bagwell (45.2)
2. Craig Biggio (35.6)
3. Jose Cruz (29.9)
4. Cesar Cedeno (29.8)
5. Jim Wynn (28.9)
In my mind, these five players are the all-time greats in Astros history. No one else comes close to the long-term performances they gave the franchise. I think you could make at least a decent case of any of these players numbers to be retired by the team.
6. Joe Morgan (19.6)
7. Bob Watson (10.1)
8. Dickie Thon (9.2)
9. Luis Gonzalez (7.5)
10. Doug Rader (7.4)
11. Moises Alou (7.3)
12. Terry Puhl (6.4)
A mix of very good players that had shortened careers with the team, or good players who were able to hang around a long time. These are the “second-tier” greats in the franchise’s history.
The 10 best seasons in Astros history, ranked by TPR
8.0 Craig Biggio, 1997 (22 HR, 82 RBI, .415 OBP, .501 SLG, 47 SB)
The highest rating among all position players in 1997, and tied with Roger Clemens when pitchers are included. Yes, he should have won the MVP in 1997, but try to convince anyone outside of Houston about that.
7.6 Jeff Bagwell, 1994 (39 HR, 116 RBI, .451 OBP, .750 SLG, 15 SB)
The second-best season in Astros history only because of a players’ strike and a broken hand. On a per-game basis, Bagwell’s 1994 season is the second-best in modern major-league history (post-1892), behind only Babe Ruth’s 1923 season.
6.7 Jeff Bagwell, 1996 (31 HR, 120 RBI, .451 OBP, .570 SLG, 21 SB)
This was a great rebound season after Bagwell struggled with personal problems in 1995. It is often overlooked among his career because of the relatively low home-run total, but it was the first season that Bagwell started drawing a lot of walks from opposing pitchers.
6.4 Jim Wynn, 1969 (33 HR, 87 RBI, .436 OBP, .507 SLG, 23 SB)
The highest TPR in the National League that year, just ahead of the 6.3 TPR by MVP Willie McCovey. Wynn tied the NL mark for walks with 148, which was not broken until the late Nineties by Mark McGwire.
6.2 Dickie Thon, 1983 (20 HR, 79 RBI, .341 OBP, .457 SLG, 34 SB)
Thon’s TPR was second only to Mike Schmidt in 1983, but now his career is filed under the “what if” category. He only makes this list once because of a stray fastball from Mike Torrez.
6.1 Jim Wynn, 1965 (22 HR, 73 RBI, .371 OBP, .470 SLG, 43 SB)
At age 23, this was Wynn’s first full season in the majors. He stole 43 bases this season, but later gave up the running game because he felt that hitting homers was his ticket to staying in the majors.
6.0 Cesar Cedeno, 1972 (22 HR, 82 RBI, .385 OBP, .537 SLG, 55 SB)
Tied with the Yankees’ Bobby Murcer for the highest TPR in the majors, this was the season that earned that embarked our 21-year-old centerfielder on the road to stardom. His .537 slugging percentage would remain the team record for over 20 years.
5.7 Jeff Bagwell, 1997 (43 HR, 135 RBI, .425 OBP, .592 SLG, 31 SB)
The heyday of the “Killer Bees”, Bagwell’s incredible 1997 campaign ranked second-best to teammate Craig Biggio’s superhuman performance that same season.
5.4 Cesar Cedeno, 1973 (25 HR, 70 RBI, .376 OBP, .537 SLG, 56 SB)
A follow-up to his great 1972 campaign, Cedeno would never quite reach these heights again. Not exactly washed-up at age 22, Cedeno nevertheless became the poster-boy for unfulfilled expectations.
5.2 Jeff Bagwell, 1999 (42 HR, 126 RBI, .454 OBP, .591 SLG, 30 SB)
The best TPR in the league, Bagwell missed out on the MVP to Chipper Jones and his late-season heroics against the Mets. Ah well, Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa both hit at least 60 homers, so Bagwell didn’t really have a chance at the MVP anyway.
5.1 Jim Wynn, 1968 (26 HR, 67 RBI, .376 OBP, .474 SLG, 11 SB)
5.1 Craig Biggio, 1998 (20 HR, 88 RBI, .403 OBP, .503 SLG, 50 SB)
Tied for the tenth-best season in franchise history, these two seasons provide a perfect example of the “era” adjustments in the TPR ranking. Biggio has a better offensive statistics, but Wynn’s performance occurred during the “Year of the Pitcher” and are given greater weight.
The 8 best Astros that got away
Rusty Staub, 1969 (TPR 12.1 from 1969-1971)
A decent outfielder/first baseman for the team, Staub immediately became a superstar after his controversial trade to Montreal. He hit 78 homers in his three seasons with the Expos, batting .300 twice and ranking among the top 5 in TPR twice.
Joe Morgan, 1972 (TPR 29.6 from 1972-1976)
Morgan had some good seasons with the Astros, but no one could have predicted what he would do for the Reds. On his way to winning two MVP awards, Morgan became the best all-around player in the major leagues and the most important component of the “Big Red Machine”
John Mayberry, 1972 (TPR 9.6 from 1972-1975)
Mayberry was the “can’t miss” super-prospect we traded away to Kansas City once we had traded away Joe Morgan to acquire first baseman Lee May. Mayberry easily outhit May over the next few seasons and finished his career with over 250 home runs.
Jim Wynn, 1973 (TPR 6.9 from 1973-1974)
Wynn spent most of his career with the Astros, but that didn’t stop him from following the tradition of having a great year immediately after leaving Houston. His performance after the trade would have been greater, but his career was ended prematurely by an arm injury.
Kenny Lofton, 1992 (TPR 19.8 from 1992-1997)
Although Lofton is still a productive outfielder, his best years seem to be behind him now. Still, his All-Star years with Cleveland made it impossible for catcher Eddie Taubensee to avoid comparisons with Lofton.
Ken Caminiti, 1995 (TPR 16.1 from 1995-1997)
Probably the most painful of the Nineties blunders, Caminiti was a fan favorite who bled “Astro orange” and eventually came back to Houston at a discount. Unfortunately, San Diego fans were the benefactors of his best years, including his MVP campaign in 1996.
Steve Finley, 1995 (TPR 15.2 from 1995-2000)
Lost in the glitter of Caminiti’s seasons with the Padres, Steve Finley has put up the best seasons of his career since leaving Houston. A player who was considered by the Astros to be cast in the same mold as slap-hitter Brett Butler, Finley started hitting the weights in California and surprised everyone by hitting 30 homers in his second season with the Padres. Despite reaching his mid-thirties, Finley is still going strong with the Diamondbacks, hitting 69 homers in his last two seasons.
Bob Abreu, 1998 (TPR 11.8 from 1998-2000)
The most embarrassing loss of the Nineties, Bob Abreu was left unprotected in the Expansion Draft behind players like Derek Bell and Ramon Garcia. With three good seasons already under his belt, Abreu will remind us of a mistake that will probably haunt the team for the next 5-10 years.
I had originally planned to do an analysis comparing the team’s Spring performance against their performance in the regular season. At the time, the team was really struggling and I wanted to find a silver lining for the upcoming season. But two things happened: the team started winning its Spring games and my analysis showed only a weak, negative correlation between performance in the Spring and regular season. It didn’t really make a point and, once I stumbled into the local Barnes and Noble, I scrapped the idea. You still end up with a pointless column, but hopefully one that was more interesting.