Saturday, December 4, 2010

Ron Santo, 1940-2010

Here in the New York Tri-State Area, we had a man named Phil Rizzuto. He was once a great star player for one of our baseball teams, the New York Yankees. Then he spent decades as a beloved broadcaster. For years, he waited to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Finally, at age 76, he was. He lived another 13 years.

Nearby, in the Delaware Valley, they had a man named Rich Ashburn. He was once a great star player for their baseball teams, the Philadelphia Phillies. Then he spent decades as a beloved broadcaster. For years, he waited to be elected to the Hall of Fame. Finally, at age 68, he was. He lived another 2 years.

In Chicago -- or "Chicagoland," as the metropolitan area is sometimes known -- they had a man named Ron Santo. He was once a great star player for one of their baseball teams, the Chicago Cubs. Then he spent decades as a beloved broadcaster. For years, he waited to be elected to the Hall of Fame.

That did not happen in his lifetime. He died this week, at age 70. He still isn't in. You blew it, Hall of Fame.

Does Santo really deserve to be in the Hall of Fame? I'm not going to cite his broadcasting, because that's hard to measure. But by looking at his playing statistics, we can see some things and make some conclusions.

Ronald Edward Santo was born on February 25, 1940 in Seattle, Washington. He graduated from Franklin High School in Seattle, Class of 1958, and was signed by the Cubs as an amateur free agent in 1959. He made his major league debut with the Cubs on June 26, 1960 -- meaning he was a part of Cub fans' lives for half a century. He remained with the Cubs until 1973, and spent his last season across town with the White Sox, playing his finale on September 29, 1974. He was 6 feet even, and during his playing days was 190 pounds. He batted and threw righthanded, and while he also played a few games at 1st base, 2nd base, shortstop and left field, he played most of his games at third base.

His lifetime batting average was .277. Nothing to write home about. But he did have 4 seasons batting .300 or higher, peaking with .313 in 1964. His career OPS+ -- that's on-base percentage plus slugging percentage, in comparison to the rest of the league -- was 125, meaning it was 25 percent better than the average player in MLB at the time.

He collected 2,254 hits in 15 seasons. He hit 342 home runs, and before you remind me that the wind blows out at Wrigley Field and the power alleys are very close, 368 feet from home plate, let me remind you that, half the time, the wind blows in, and the foul poles are 355 (left) and 353 (right) feet from home plate, making it a pitcher's park every bit as often as it's a hitter's park. He peaked with 33 home runs in 1965. In 4 seasons, he had at least 100 RBIs -- and in 3 others, he had at least 98, peaking at 123 in 1969.

He led the NL in on-base percentage twice, walks 4 times, sacrifice flies 3 times and triples once. He was named to the All-Star Game in 9 seasons, and 5 times was awarded a Gold Glove -- not easy at the beginning of his career, because Ken Boyer of the St. Louis Cardinals was winning them.

Santo did all of this despite having diabetes. He became the first active player to reveal he had the disease, presaging such sports stars as Jim "Catfish" Hunter and Bobby Clarke. By a macabre coincidence, the aforementioned Richie Ashburn also had diabetes, although it was not diagnosed until well after he retired as a player, and he likely did not have it at the time.

It was cancer, along with the diabetes having weakened him, that killed Santo; Ashburn's heart was weakened by diabetes and he suffered a heart attack; Rizzuto, despite being notoriously accident-prone after his playing days, became increasingly frail in his 80s and, while his mind was clear -- those of you who remember his last few years as a broadcaster, save your jokes -- until the end, he spent his last 3 years in a hospice due to organ failure. Essentially, the Scooter died of old age.

Baseball-Reference.com, on its "Hall of Fame Monitor," where a "Likely HOFer" is at 100, has Santo at 88. On its "Hall of Fame Standards," where the "Average HOFer" is at 50, Santo is at 41. In both cases, he falls short.

On their top 10 "Most Similar Batters," none are in the Hall, although some fall just a little short: Dale Murphy, the aforementioned Ken Boyer, Gary Gaetti, Ruben Sierra, Chili Davis, Bobby Bonilla, Brian Downing, Graig Nettles, Ron Cey and Robin Ventura.

There are currently 13 3rd basemen in the Hall of Fame. Three of these are Negro Leaguers, for whom the statistics are woefully incomplete: Jud Wilson, Judy Johnson and Ray Dandridge. The other 10 are, in chronological order:

* Jimmy Collins, 1890s Boston Beaneaters (Braves) and 1900s Boston Pilgrims (Red Sox).
* Frank "Home Run" Baker, 1910s Philadelphia Athletics.
* Harold "Pie" Traynor, 1920s and '30s Pittsburgh Pirates.
* Fred Lindstrom, 1920s and '30s New York Giants.
* George Kell, 1940s and '50s Detroit Tigers.
* Eddie Mathews, 1950s and '60s Milwaukee Braves.
* Brooks Robinson, 1960s and '70s Baltimore Orioles.
* Mike Schmidt, 1970s and '80s Philadelphia Phillies.
* George Brett, 1970s and '80s Kansas City Royals.
* Wade Boggs, 1980s Boston Red Sox and 1990s New York Yankees.

Lindstrom -- often called one of the "Frisch Five" that former teammate Frankie Frisch pushed on his fellow members of the Hall's Veterans Committee in spite of not being worthy enough -- and Kell are borderline candidates, but I wouldn't throw either of them out. Collins (completely) and Baker (almost completely) played in the pre-1920 Dead Ball Era, so their hitting statistics can't really be compared, although Collins was said to be a superb fielder.

But let's judge these guys based on what we do have available, to see where Santo ranks against the 3rd basemen who actually have made the Hall out of MLB.

I'm also going to add 4 players currently active who are now best known as 3rd basemen and, statistically at least, seem headed for the Hall:

* Matt Williams, 1990s San Francisco Giants.
* Larry Wayne "Chipper" Jones Jr., 1990s and 2000s Atlanta Braves.
* Alex Rodriguez, 1990s Seattle Mariners and 2000s New York Yankees.
* Scott Rolen, 1990s Philadelphia Phillies and 2000s St. Louis Cardinals.

I will not, however, add the following players, all of whom were, at least for a time, 3rd basemen: Harmon Killebrew, Dick Allen and Jim Thome are counted as 1st basemen, Pete Rose as a left fielder, Gary Sheffield as a right fielder, and Paul Molitor as a designated hitter.

So, counting those, plus Santo, we're talking about 15 players.

Here's how those 15 rank:

All-Star Game appearances -- excepting Collins and Baker, who preceded its 1933 establishment, and Traynor and Lindstrom, who barely overlapped its start: Santo ranks 8th of 11, ahead of only Chipper, Williams and Rolen. Counting those seasons, 1959 to '62, when there were 2 ASGs a season as only 1: Robinson made 15, Brett and A-Rod (so far) 13, Schmidt and Boggs 12, Kell 10, Matthews and Santo 9, Chipper (so far) 6, Williams and Rolen (so far) 5, Traynor 2.

Postseason appearances -- keeping in mind that this is weighted in favor of those who played in the post-1969 Divisional Play Era and especially in the post-1995 Wild Card Era: Santo is tied for last with Kell, the only 2 who never made it. Chipper has made it 12 times (3 Pennants, 1 World Series win), A-Rod 9 (1 P & WS), Brett 7 (2 P, 1 WS), Williams 7 (2 P, 1 WS), Schmidt 6 (2 P, 1 WS), Boggs 6 (2 P, 1 WS), Baker 6 (6 P, 3 WS), Robinson 6 (4 P, 2 WS), Collins 4 (4 P, 1 WS and that doesn't count 1897 & '98 with the Beaneaters and 1904 with the Red Sox when there was no WS), Mathews 3 (2 P, 1 WS -- plus 1959 when the Braves & Dodgers tied for the P and the Dodgers won a Playoff), Rolen 3 (including this year with the Reds, 1 Pennant & WS), Traynor 2 (2 P), and Lindstrom 2 (2 P, 1 WS).

Seasons in the top 10 in Most Valuable Player voting -- keeping in mind that, when Collins played, there was no MVP of any kind, whereas Baker, Traynor and Lindstrom did have one available to them although it wasn't the current MVP award that started in 1931: Santo ranks in a tie for 6th out of 14. A-Rod 10 (won 3), Schmidt 7 (won 3), Robinson 7 (won 1), Jones 6 (won 1), Traynor 6, Brett 4 (won 1), Mathews, Santo, Boggs and Williams 4 each, Baker and Kell 3 each, Lindstrom 2 and Rolen 1.

OPS+, essentially measuring the player's run-producing ability -- keeping in mind that Collins and Baker (in spite of his "Home Run" nickanme) played in the pre-1920 Dead Ball Era: Santo ranks 8th of 15, higher than already-HOFers Collins, Kell, Lindstrom, Traynor and Robinson, and ahead of possibles Rolen and Williams.

Power-Speed Number -- and, no, I have no idea how it's computed, but, again, keep in mind that Collins and Baker were Dead Ball Era players: Santo ranks 12th of 15, ahead of Kell, Robinson and Boggs.

Gold Gloves -- keeping in mind the award didn't start until 1957: Santo ranks 4th of 15, but only 4th of 10 among players who were, essentially eligible, and 4th of 9 once you consider that A-Rod has still spent the majority of his career at shortstop. Counting only those Gold Gloves won at 3rd: Robinson 16, Schmidt 10, Rolen 8, Santo 5, Williams 4, Boggs and A-Rod 2 each, Brett 1. But the Gold Glove is a lot like the Grammy: The only people who believe in it are the people whose favorite candidate actually won. So let's move on to...

Fielding Percentage -- keeping mind that pre-World War II players had much smaller gloves, so this is weighted toward modern players: Santo ranks 10th of 15. Among the post-World War II (1946-present) 3rd basemen on this list, he is ahead of only Chipper and Brett. Granted, sabermetricians and/or statheads will tell you that fielding percentage is a lousy indicator of fielding ability, so let's move on to...

Fielding Range -- another one where I have no idea how it's computed. Santo ranks 5th of 15, trailing only Collins, Baker, Traynor and Robinson.

And finally, not to be confused with VORP, Value Over Replacement Player -- and, like the great broadcaster Jon Miller, who said so on Ken Burns' Baseball: The Tenth Inning, I have no idea how it's computed...

WAR, Wins Above Replacement, yet another stat where I don't know how it's computed. Santo ranks 8th out of these 15, behind Schmidt, A-Rod, Mathews, Boggs, Brett, Chipper and Robinson, but ahead of Rolen, Baker, Collins, Williams, Traynor, Kell and Lindstrom.

*

Does this make Santo sound qualified for the Hall of Fame? Maybe not.

Consider this: There are only 2 3rd basemen in the Hall who were, essentially, his contemporaries, whose careers were centered on the 1960s: Mathews (and I'm being generous here, as he played from 1952 to '68) and Robinson.

Contrast that with other positions in that era:

1st Base, 4: Harmon Killebrew, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey and Willie Stargell. Pops is listed in the Hall's records as a left fielder, but I remember him mainly as a first baseman.

Right Field, 4: Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente, Frank Robinson and Al Kaline.

Left Field, 3: Santo's teammate Billy Williams, Carl Yastrzemski and Lou Brock.

2nd Base, 2: Bill Mazeroski and Joe Morgan.

Shortstop, 2: Luis Aparicio and Ernie Banks, the 2 Chicago players, the latter Santo's teammate.

Center Field, 2: Mickey Mantle and Willie Mays.

Catcher, essentially none: A little overlap at the beginning with Yogi Berra and at the end with Johnny Bench and Carlton Fisk, and when Joe Torre goes in he might be remembered as a manager first and a catcher second, but he'll go in as a manager, not as a player.

Pitchers, 11: Whitey Ford, Hoyt Wilhelm, Sandy Koufax, Don Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Jim Bunning, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Jim "Catfish" Hunter and Santo's teammate Ferguson "Fergie" Jenkins. Now, 11 seems like a lot, but with the 4-man rotations in place then, divided 11 by 4 and you've got 2.75.

So would it be all that unfair to elect a 3rd 3rd baseman from that era? Especially since, considering when Mathews started, Santo might really be only the 2nd?

*

Ron Santo may be best remembered for jumping up and "clicking his heels" after Cub victories in 1969, when they led the National League Eastern Division (in that first year of divisional play) for most of the season. A sad footnote was that his diabetes led to the amputations of both his legs below the knee, meaning that, while he was able to walk with prostheses, he no longer had heels to click.

Of course, the Cubs did win the NL East in 1969, falling apart in their infamous "September Swoon" and losing to the Mets, symbolized by a series at Shea Stadium where a black cat ran onto the field and around Santo on the on-deck circle. This gave rise to the idea that the Cubs are "cursed," often attributed to a bar owner named William "Billy Goat" Sianis: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Curse_of_the_Billy_Goat

From that 1969 Cubs team, Ernie Banks, Billy Williams and Ferguson Jenkins have been elected to the Hall of Fame. (As has their manager, Leo Durocher, although that was for things he did well before he got there.) If they had won even the Pennant, it might have been different, and Santo might have gotten in.

But Santo did not get in while he was still alive. According to the rules of the Veterans Committee, he will not be eligible on the ballot this coming week, but will next be eligible in the Veterans Committee election of 2012.

Meanwhile, the Boston Red Sox, who hadn't won the World Series since 1918, have done so twice (albeit fraudulently), in 2004 and 2007. The Chicago White Sox, Chicago's "other team," hadn't won one since 1917, and won it in 2005 (and still get outdrawn by the Cubs). The San Francisco Giants, who hadn't won one since 1954 (as the New York Giants), won this year. The Cubs still haven't won a World Series since 1908. Since Roosevelt was President. Theodore Roosevelt.

The Texas Rangers, who had never won a Pennant, won one this year. The Cubs still haven't won one since 1945.

Maybe the Cubs really are cursed. Maybe the idea of the Cubs being cursed isn't all that funny anymore.

P.S.: Keith did a great job last night on Countdown with Keith Olbermann, taking his (not really) Worst Person in the World segment to the Hall voters.

Face it, when you beat out an oil company (Hess, who fired a man who chased down the bastard who robbed the station and got him arrested, for leaving his post?!?) and a Republican Senator (Scott Brown, who said he wanted to help the unemployed, then voted against extending unemployment benefits, then went off to host a $100-a-plate Christmas party), you've really scraped the bottom of the barrel:

http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/3036677/ns/msnbc_tv-countdown_with_keith_olbermann/#40500471

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