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All Contents
© 1986-2004

Top 10 Seasons by an Angels DH (or, How the 2006 Angels Are Like the 1972 Dodgers, and Therefore Should Trade Chone Figgins): For previous installments in this series, start here and work your way backward, though yes, I realize my archives (and indeed much of this site right now) are FUBAR. Anyhoo, let's get to the 10 best seasons by Angel DHs, according to Win Shares:

1) Frank Robinson, 1973
147  534  85 142 30  97  1/1  82 .266 .372 .489 150 25.7      15
2) Brian Downing, 1987
155  567 110 154 29  77  5/5 106 .272 .400 .487 137 23.5
3) Don Baylor, 1978
158  591 103 151 34  99 22/9  56 .255 .332 .472 129 22.9       7
4) Tim Salmon, 1998
136  463  84 139 26  88  0/1  90 .300 .410 .533 143 21.5      14
5) Chili Davis, 1995
119  424  81 135 20  86  3/3  89 .318 .429 .514 145 20.4
6) Chili Davis, 1994
108  392  72 122 26  84  3/2  69 .311 .410 .561 147 20.4  X   22  
7) Chili Davis, 1996
145  530  73 155 28  95  5/2  86 .292 .387 .496 124 17.7
8) Brian Downing, 1989
142  544  59 154 14  59  0/2  56 .283 .354 .414 118 16.9
9) Frank Robinson, 1974
129  427  75 107 20  63  5/1  75 .251 .371 .461 146 16.4  X  
10) Chili Davis, 1993
153  573  74 139 27 112  4/1  71 .243 .327 .440 102 15.8

The winner is: The best player to ever wear an Angels uniform, and about the last guy in the world you'd think of as an Angel, Hall of Famer Frank Robinson. What the hell was Frank Robinson doing as an Angel? Therein lies an interesting story, one that has relevance to the Angels today.

Robinson was traded from the Dodgers to the Angels after the 1972 season. It was a huge, complicated trade -- the 36-year-old Robinson, coming off his worst season ever, along with 28-year-old former 20-game winner Bill Singer, 22-year-old budding phenom Bobby Valentine, 26-year-old infield flameout Billy Grabarkewitz, and mediocre 25-year-old reliever Mike Strahler ... for two Angels: 26-year-old former 20-game winner Andy Messersmith, and solid 30-year-old 3Bman Ken McMullen. I absolutely love trades like this, not just because of the paradox that the Angels won it big in 1973 -- Robinson had that monster year above and Singer won 20 and made the All-Star team, while McMullen's career fell off a cliff -- while losing it long-term (Messersmith blossomed into a superstar, while the rest of the Angels' catch wasn't much after '73); but also because the transaction accomplished something crucial from the Dodgers' point of view that too infrequently comes up when evaluating trades: It made elbow room for a historical crop of very good young players. You could argue, and not be completely high, that the Frank Robinson trade was a turning point in the creation of L.A.'s glorious run in the '70s and early '80s. And what makes it even more delicious to think about just right now is that the 1972 Dodgers share an uncanny resemblance to ... the 2006 Angels!

Think I'm crazy? You are correct, sir! But let's chew on the eerie similarities between the clubs:
* Both teams were successful disappointments; one finished with a .548 winning percentage, the other with a .549.
* Both teams had ballyhooed 23-year-old athletic, defense-first catching prospects (Steve Yeager and Jeff Mathis), backed by slightly older, less-ballyhooed thick-faced mashers (Joe Ferguson and Mike Napoli) who were actually more ready for prime time. Meanwhile, their places were kept warm by thirty-something defensive guys (Chris Cannizaro and Jose Molina) who hit .240.
* The best starters on both teams were 27-year-old right-handed strikeout pitchers with big curveballs who went to the World Series their rookie years.
* Both teams had (black) left-handed hitting outfielders in their early 30s who'd been All-Stars the year before, who had career OPS+s of 105, and who'd been criticized their whole careers for being lackadaisical. One hit .289/.317/.441 for the season in question, the other .280/.323/.433.
* Both had (white) popular 32-year-old line-drive-hitting Gold Glove 1B/OFs & former World Series heroes having possibly their last seasons for the only team they'd ever known.
* It was the last season too, for local-boy 30-year-old second basemen who'd held down the position for most of the past decade, both of whom had seen their offense dwindle, and were making way for a phenomenal youth movement at the position.
* What else do you want? Rookie second basemen with around 275 plate appearances, and OBPs one point away from .313? You bet! How about pitchers just turned 30 who'd been plucked by their teams from situations where they were shuttled from rotation to bullpen, only to experience late-career revivals when put in the rotation for good ... yet suffering from lack of run support in their 30 starts that year? Why not! Young left-handed starters doing well in late-season trials? Uh-huh. Former big-time All-Stars winding up their careers by hitting in the .100s? C'est vrai. Closers having phenomenal years, with ERA+s above 250? Surprise, surprise! Set-up men with excellent ERA+s of around 150? Encore! Guys who played six defensive positions? That's normal! Disappointing young third basemen starting to take some grounders at 1B? Cross that diamond!

Besides the weirdo individual mirror-images, there was the broader fundamental similarity -- both teams were expected to do well, in the midst of a half-decade-long stretch of doing pretty well (Angels better than the Dodgers), when all of a sudden both organizations vomited forth a phenomenal and bewildering bounty of young talent, which they tried to break in while contending for division titles. This is a historically awkward thing to do.

The Dodgers' crop, obviously, was one in a million. Here they are, listed by 1972 playing age:
27 -- Davey Lopes (though old, this was his first year, in which he had just 42 ABs). Don Sutton was also 27, with more than 100 victories already under his belt.
26 -- Grabarkewitz (an All-Star at 24, washed up with injuries by 25), Geoff Zahn (it wasn't obvious then, but he was a lesser version of Jamie Moyer, and would go on to win 111 games, mostly in his 30s).
25 -- Willie Crawford (made his Major League debut at seventeen; a platoon lefty who really could hit; career OBP+ of 115). Also, Joe Ferguson (who would hit 25 HRs the next year); OF/1B Tom Paciorek (who never played full-time until his 30s, then finished 2nd in the league in batting average at age 34), and Larry Hisle (who had almost worked his way back to the bigs, after being a regular outfielder at 22).
24 -- Ron Cey (just 39 career ABs to this point), Charlie Hough (just 24 innings into a career he would finish with 216 wins), second baseman Lee Lacy (who, like Paciorek, would not get a chance to play full-time until his 30s, yet was good enough to finish second in the league in hitting once given enough at bats to qualify), and another line-drive-hitting outfielder, Von Joshua (who would also break out with a top-10 batting average finish once he was belatedly allowed to start).
23 -- Steve Garvey (then an error-prone third baseman), Bill Russell, Steve Yeager and Doug Rau.
22 -- Bill Buckner (already a .300 hitter with good speed), and Bobby Valentine (the first pick in the Dodgers' historic 1968 draft).
21 -- Eddie Solomon (AAA pitcher with some promise; went on to a 10-year career); and Terry McDermott (21-year-old catcher who hit .343/.551 in AA and made his Major League debut, only to have injuries cut down a very promising career).
19 -- Rick Rhoden (already doing well in AAA), Ivan DeJesus (then playing A ball), and slap-hitting middle infielder Jerry Royster (who would go on to have a 16-year career).

I'm sure there are others I'm missing. If you go by The New Bill James Historical Abstract rankings, in that list above you've got the #31 all-time pitcher, the #78 and #79 catchers, the #31 and #66 first basemen, the #23 second baseman, the #69 and #100 shortstop, the #16 third baseman, the #102 center fielder, and the #123 right fielder. Plus at least two guys possibly headed for that list but felled by injury (Valentine, McDermott), and two guys who coulda been contenders had they not languished in the Dodgers' system when they should have been playing every day (Paciorek, Lacy). What do you do with such a haul, especially when you expect to contend year by year, and your division is dominated by a team (the Reds) swollen with Hall of Famers?

What the Dodgers did was scuffle and experiment for a good while, with a promiscuous use of defensive flexibility, until they could figure out which of their pieces would stick at which position. Players moved from the outfield to the middle infield (Russell and Lopes), from third base to first (Garvey), from catcher to the outfield (Ferguson), from outfield to first base and back (Buckner, Paciorek) or just all over the joint (Valentine, Grabarkewitz, Jimmy Lefebvre). There were only three guys on that 1972 team who played more than 100 games at their primary position.

As a result, three predictable things happened -- the Dodgers led the league in unearned runs, squandered away some premium talent (trading Hisle, who would hit 120 homers the next six years, for a stiff who never pitched in Dodger blue); yet groomed enough talent to develop a perennial winner. An absolutely crucial component to this -- of which the Frank Robinson trade was fundamental -- was clearing out space for the most promising youngsters to enter into their own, while also trading excess clutter (players who didn't win the competition at their positions) for legitimate stars, or players who filled yawning gaps.

The 1972 Dodgers may have had four future .300-hitting outfielders in their early 20s (five, if you count Lee Lacy), but their starting outfield averaged 34 years old -- Manny Mota (34), Willie Davis (32) and Frank Robinson (36). This was not surprising, given that they were still the three best hitters on the team (Mota hit .323/.375/.434 in an extreme pitcher's park during an extreme pitcher's year, for example). Still, you couldn't keep giving Willie Crawford 250 ABs a year as he entered his prime years and expect to develop or take advantage of his talent, and Bill Buckner seemed on the verge of stardom. The thing to do was to clear out room both at 1B (where starter Wes Parker retired) and whichever corner outfield spot would get you the most trade value (Frank Robinson, obviously). The gambit worked -- Crawford, finally given a starting job at age 26, hit .295/.386/.443 the next two years. Buckner became a starter, still shuttling between OF and 1B, and was earning MVP votes by 1974. The extra room in the outfield allowed for even more experimentation; Garvey played 10 games there in 1973 before finally settling down at 1B for good, and Ferguson would go out to right field against lefties. By trading away their second-best hitter, the Dodgers were able to develop their next generation of hitters.

The other crucial clearing-out-space aspect of the Robinson trade was getting rid of the temptation of Bobby Valentine. It's hard to do justice to the fact merely by looking at the old stats, Bobby was a true golden boy, a tremendously popular kid with a slick glove, infectious attitude and all the makings of a perennial All-Star. Except for the fact that he couldn't really hit -- .249/.287/.310 his rookie year, .274/.319/.335 in '72. They say he would have bloomed into a superstar if he hadn't broke his leg in May 1973, but I'm not so sure. If you look at the guys he compared to through his pre-legbreak season, you get one near-Hall of Famer (Tommy Leach), and a lot of guys like Glenn Hoffman. He showed zero signs of power or being able to draw a walk before or after the accident; if he was going to be an All-Star, he would have had to hit .320 every year.

Anyway, that's neither here nor there in the context of this conversation -- the important thing was that Bobby Valentine had to be taken away from Walter Alston, because when a manager is dipping heavy into the defensive-flexibility sauce, he inevitably lets the most flexible defender become an irregular regular, regardless of his inappropriateness at certain spots, and in the process mucks up the normal development of more promising players tethered to just one position. What I'm saying is, Bobby Valentine was to Walter Alston and the 1972 Dodgers what Chone Figgins is to Mike Scioscia and the 2006 Angels. Someone who should never ever be the Opening Day third baseman. Again. In 1971-72, Valentine played 70 games at 2B, 62 at 3B, 47 at SS, 12 in RF, 11 in CF, and 5 in LF. (Billy Grabarkewitz over those two years played 34 games at 3B, 32 at 2B.) The Dodgers had four guys play at least 10 games at 2B in 1971, and five in 1972. They couldn't seem to decide on the 2B of the future (Valentine? Grabarkewitz? Lee Lacy? Davey Lopes?), let alone 3B (Garvey? Valentine? Grabarkewitz again? Cey?). Also unsettled were SS, 1B, C and LF.

By unloading Valentine and Grabarkewitz, the Dodgers eliminated both the confusion and the temptation. By Opening Day 1973, they decided that Joe Ferguson would catch, Bill Buckner would play first, Bill Russell would play short, and Willie Crawford would play right field. Lee Lacy and the newly acquired Ken McMullen (who had been a good ballplayer for the Angels) started at 2B and 3B, respectively, but when they faltered there was only one real alternative at each position -- Davey Lopes and Ron Cey. By April 22, three-fourths of the famous Dodger infield was in place; Garvey finally pushed Buckner to the outfield for good in July. The team won 95 games, the most since Sandy Koufax retired, and made the World Series the next year.

A final note about the Dodgers' perspective in that 1972 trade. Not only were they trading numerical excess -- four players for two -- they also consciously sought after with their two return players a star (Andy Messersmith) and someone who filled a specific perceived need (Ken McMullen at third base, a position the Dodgers had had terrible luck with for the past quarter century). These two types of trade targets, along with a third -- high-upside projects -- strike me as what you ought to purchase with your surplus bottlenecked talent. And here is where we segue to the 2006 Angels.

First, let's mirror the exercise above, and have a look at the Angels' historic bounty of young talent, ranked downward from age 27 as of 2006:
27 -- John Lackey (already a top-10 starter in the league, with 60 career wins); Juan Rivera (.310/.362/.525 in essentially his first year with more than 400 ABs), and Jason Bulger (injury-prone strikeout reliever hovering in AAAA).
25 -- Dallas McPherson (injury-prone 3B slugger with stats that tracked those of Ryan Howard until two years ago); Maicer Izturis (SS-turned utility infielder who hit .293/.365/.412 last year), Joe Saunders (good looking lefty who went 17-7 split between AAA and the Angels last year), and Reggie Willits (lightning-fast CF and fan favorite who has a career OBP of almost .400 in the minors).
24 -- Francisco Rodriguez (already the best reliever in the American League, and the youngest pitcher ever with 100 career saves); Mike Napoli (rookie year was best offensive season for an Angels catcher, per at-bat, in 15 years); Terry Evans (career minor-league mediocrite OF who went berzerk in AA last year).
23 -- Ervin Santana (2nd in the AL in hits per nine innings in his second season); Jered Weaver (ERA+ better than the league-leader), Casey Kotchman (hugely touted 1B who hit .372 in AAA in 2004, .278/.352/.484 in the bigs in 2005, then got mono last year); Kendry Morales (Cuban defector 1Bman who played less than a full year of pro ball before making his big-league debut), and Jeff Mathis (highly touted athletic catcher who regressed offensively in 2006).
22 -- Howie Kendrick (2Bman and future batting champion by acclamation, with a career .361 mark in the minors); Erick Aybar (.300-hitting AAA shortstop with impossibly quick hands), and Jose Arredondo (highly regarded converted SS with a power arm and no great success above A ball).
21 -- Brandon Wood (led all of the minor leagues in home runs at age 20, led AA in extra-base hits at age 21, plays shortstop); and Sean Rodriguez (monster-hitting shortstop who tore up A and AA last year).
20 -- Nick Adenhart (best pitching prospect in the organization; will pitch AA next year).
18 -- Hank Conger (hugely regarded catcher who can hit).

Again, there are those who should be on this list but aren't (such as Michael Collins). Like the 1972 Dodgers, there are some positional pileups (SS and C especially), and like the '72 Dodgers the '06 Angels are using defensive flexibility as both an enabler and roadblock. Last year, for instance, Howie Kendrick was able to rack up his crucial first 267 major league ABs by playing 1B for the first time in his life, in place of the sickened Casey Kotchman and not-quite-ready-yet Kendry Morales. On the other hand, instead of sticking Dallas McPherson at 3B and letting him mash righties while working out his various kinks, Mike Scioscia started the season with Chone Figgins there, replaced him with the awful Edgardo Alfonzo once Figgy had to play center, and only after watching a cripple hit .100 for 10 games did one of the best prospects in the game get a chance to start in the big leagues (where, to this day, despite being perceived as an awful disappointment, he's hitting .263/.311/.498 against RHP). Then, after McPherson got injured, he couldn't win his job back from a slap-hitting, out-of-position Maicer Izturis.

Going forward, can the Angels pull off a Frank Robinson-for-Messersmith-type trade, and what should it entail? The bottlenecks, as I see them, are these:
1) The shortstop logjam. Brandon Wood, who may or may not be the next Cal Ripken (with more speed; he stole 19/22 bases in AA last year), needs to play AAA next year, and Sean Rodriguez needs to at the least start off in AA, which he was pulverizing at the end of 2006. Which means Erick Aybar needs to be in the big leagues. Which means, as currently constituted, the Angels would need to carry three shortstops -- Orlando Cabrera, Izturis and Aybar. Since carrying three shortstops is stupid, especially since there are many teams who would kill to have someone as good as Cabrera or Aybar, I think the team absolutely positively has to trade one of those two men. I would prefer Cabrera, because he's expensive, he just came off a career year, and will likely never be close to as good again; and also because we don't yet know how good Izturis might be. At any rate, if we DON'T trade one of those two, we will be stunting the development of guys who will be much better than them in the near future. And we'll be missing out on the opportunity to bring in something we truly need, like a dominant and injury-free 3Bman.
2) The catcher logjam. Jeff Mathis may not be ready, but he's ready enough to play great defense, learn on the big league level, and start against left-hand pitching. We'll need him in case Napoli tanks. Jose Molina is a known quantity, with a low ceiling that will go no higher, and should be used as either gravy in a big deal, or as bait for a high-upside prospect. Meanwhile, Michael Collins is vaulting through the system, with Hank Conger hot on his heels.
3) The 3B uncertainty. This is where the Valentine/Grabarkewitz angle finally comes home. The Angels need to decide on a 3B arrangement, once and for all, and get rid of any temptations to use stopgap solutions. A McPherson/Robb Quinlan platoon would be awesome, if and only if McPherson stays healthy, in which case his .500 career slugging vs. righties would be paired with Quinlan's outta-this-world .324/.365/.540 career line against lefties. That would be the best AL offensive production at 3B this side of A-Rod. But McPherson's health problems are centered in his back, which is always a bad sign. What's an even worse sign, though, is that Mike Scioscia seems to think that Chone Figgins is anything like a solution to the 3B problem. He's not; he just takes his 100 career OPS+ and forces us to never know how good Dallas could be. As long as Chone is around, he will be, like Bobby Valentine was to Walter Alston, a temptation to stick in the lineup every day, even though his ceiling is known & not high. Move him, and you'll have more clarity. You might even be able to land an All-Star 3Bman....
4) The future DH or 1B logjam. This currently isn't on many people's radar screens, because of Kotchman's mono from last year, but if Casey comes back to hit like everyone thinks he can, and Kendry Morales ripens into a prime-time hitter, then there is no place for the two of them, because DH is filled by either Rivera or Anderson, and both Vladimir Guerrero and G.A. are deteriorating rapidly, to the point where they'll need to DH more and more. This likely won't be a "problem" until late 2007 if that, and Angel fans would love to have it. But it's on the horizon.

What would General Manager Matt Welch do? Take Cabrera, Figgins, Jose Molina, Dallas McPherson and Nick Adenhart, and see what combination might land us A-Rod or Miguel Tejada. And if we can't land either of the two, then you still need to get Figgins, possibly Molina, and either Cabrera or Izturis the hell out of the way, for 2007, so that the right players can develop on schedule, and the team can field its best possible lineup next year.

It's an exciting time to be an Angels fan, even with the awful Gary Matthews signing. I don't know if our current crop will produce 11 of the best thousand or so players ever, but a few of them seem already on their way, and at any rate, it's always pretty to think so.
Conspicuous absence from the list: What list? Oh right, we were talking about the 10 best seasons by Angel DHs. Probably Brad Fullmer, whose .289/.357/.531 contribution was one of the most unsung acts of the magical 2002 season. Or Don Baylor's MVP year in 1979, which is frequently mis-described as the first DH MVP, when in fact Baylor played 97 games in the outfield that year.
The hell's HE doing here?: That would be Frank Robinson, and I think we went over it pretty good.
Other weirdnesses: Mike Scioscia (with an assist from GM Bill Stoneman) uses the DH position worse than any manager I've ever seen. Here's the BA/OBP/SLG, and league ranking in OPS, for Angel DHs in the Scioscia/Stoneman era:
2000: .276/.373/.461 (5)
2001: .204/.269/.280 (14)
2002: .278/.341/.502 (3)
2003: .258/.332/.421 (10)
2004: .240/.323/.401 (11)
2005: .256/.317/.382 (12)
2006: .295/.356/.492 (5)

And the numbers, dreadful as they are (take another gander at those 2001 beauties), don't tell the whole sick story. Not only does Scioscia get unforgivably lousy offensive production from the easiest position to fill, but he also frequently forces perfectly good defenders to start at DH while gimpy butchers massacre the field. Think that's too strong? Here's a partial list of sins:

* In 2000, Scioscia gave Mo Vaughn, one of the worst defensive first basemen in history, 147 starts at 1B, while two of the best defensive first basemen in baseball -- Darin Erstad and Scott Spiezio -- started SEVENTY FUCKING GAMES at DH.
* In 2004, Scioscia gave Adam Riggs (lifetime .216/.290/.346), Shane Halter (.246/.303/.385), Josh Paul (.253/.314/.357), Jose Molina (.239/.280/.346), Curtis Pride (.250/.327/.405) and a barely breathing Raul Mondesi a combined 12 starts at DH during a nail-biting pennant race.
* In 2006, Scioscia gave corner outfielder Juan Rivera 18 starts at DH -- 17 of which came with vastly inferior (and older, and more injured) defenders Garret Anderson and Vladimir Guerrero playing LF and RF.

In short, Stoneman rarely has a plan for the position, and Scioscia refuses to use it to hide a bad defender, if the bad defender has a fat contract. The irony, as last year's good numbers attest, is that Angel DH production is almost guaranteed to improve, since only a truly crazy man would continue to play Rivera there when your thirty-something corners have chronic problems with their knees and backs. But I think Scioscia's lineup mismanagement (including sitting Rivera 20 games for no good reason at all) was enough to cost the team the AL West last year. That can't be allowed to happen again.
Win Share seasons and totals: For Davis, Downing, Baylor, Robinson, Reggie Jackson, Salmon and Fullmer, only counting years they played the majority of their games at DH:
XX: 01/02/03/04/05
CD: 20/20/18/16/11 (85)
BD: 24/17/15/13 (69)
DB: 23/13/13 (49)
FR: 26/16 (42)
TS: 22/04/03 (29)
RJ: 14/10/04 (28)
BF: 13/08 (21)

Positional miscellania: OK, you asked for it -- the worst Angel offensive seasons by whatever stiff got the most starts at DH, ranked by OPS+, with their ages in parentheses:
1997: .219/.273/.319, 54, Eddie Murray (41)
1992: .216/.247/.337, 62, Hubie Brooks (35)
2001: .243/.319/.322, 66, Orlando Palmeiro (32)
1983: .194/.290/.340, 74, Reggie Jackson (37)
1991: .232/.279/.358, 76, Dave Parker (40)
1975: .239/.329/.312, 89, Tommy Harper (34)
1976: .265/.312/.329, 94, Tommy Davis (37)

Some pretty good players there, obviously.

OK! We're still not done with this exercise -- there's still the Top 10 seasons by hyphenated players (those splitting time between positions), plus starters, plus relievers.... Maybe I'll finish this after the Angels win the World Series next year.

12/02/2006 05:45 PM  |  Comment (2)

New L.A. Times Column From Me -- "Do We Need Another T.R.? If John McCain gets his way, you'll have your faith in the country restored ... or else!" This is an attempt to decode the man's actual governing/ideological philosophy, which has gone strangely unexamined in more than three decades of highly public life. Here's the basic thesis:

McCain, it turns out, wants to restore your faith in the U.S. government by any means necessary, even if that requires thousands of more military deaths, national service for civilians and federal micromanaging of innumerable private transactions. He'll kick down the doors of boardroom and bedroom, mixing Democrats' nanny-state regulations with the GOP's red-meat paternalism in a dangerous brew of government activism. And he's trying to accomplish this, in part, for reasons of self-realization.
The thumbnail brief: McCain's a clear (if unstated) believer in 12-step recovery notions, particularly the whole subsuming-the-selfishness-under-the-"higher-power" bit; his "higher power" is American patriotism, which requires having "faith" in the government. If that faith becomes damaged -- even for reasons that are bogus -- then we must do anything we can to restore it. And by "we" he means the federal government, and by "anything we can" he means everything from campaign finance reform to cracking down on ultimate fighting on Indian reservations. Voila.

11/26/2006 09:58 AM  |  Comment (1)

Hi! What are you doing down here?

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