1990 Record Breaker Bobby Thigpen 1991 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for November 4, 2017

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In many ways, the save stat is a first draft at solving a problem. For years, relief pitchers had been marginalized as failed starters. Their value was unclear in terms of measuring their metrics.

Wins were coveted as starters and relievers often didn’t get wins. Many times they didn’t even pitch when their team had a lead.

Relievers tended to get wins when they let up the lead but then the team scored later. Those were “vulture wins.”

A few attempts were made to award saves but writer Jerome Holtzman came up with the first draft. Pitchers were awarded saves if they finished the game and protected a tight lead.

It became an official stat in 1969 and suddenly a measurement came about to compare relievers.

Pitchers had to protect either a 3 run lead with 3 outs to go, protect a lead where the tying run is on the on deck circle or protect a lead by pitching the final 3 innings of the game, regardless the score.

Not bad. A reliever didn’t have to worry about picking up wins to get anyone’s attention. At first it didn’t seem to affect how managers used their bullpen. They went with the best pitchers available, regardless of their save total.

Five different pitchers recorded saves in the 1973 World Series between the A’s and Mets.

The star relief pitcher emerged from this new stat. Rollie Fingers, Sparky Lyle and Bruce Sutter all earned Cy Young Awards between 1977 and 1981. So would Willie Hernandez, Steve Bedrosian and eventually Dennis Eckersley and Eric Gagne. Fingers, Hernandez and Eckersley would win the MVP as well, an unheard of possibility before the gaudy save totals impressed voters.

Between 1969 and 1988, a 20 or 30 save total was considered elite. Pitchers tended to go more than one inning for the save and they were considered to be “Firemen” more than “Closers.” They had to snuff out rallies instead of simply slam the door in the 9th.

Dave Righetti of the Yankees saved 46 games, averaging more than 4 outs per save, setting the single season record in 1986.

Then in 1988, manager Tony LaRussa figured something out. If he took his best relievers and gave them defined roles, he could get more games out of them, if not more innings. He would use Dennis Eckersley just for the 9th, Rick Honeycutt just for the 8th and Gene Nelson just for the 7th.

This made sense for the A’s, who turned their factory style bullpen into a well oiled machine.

What that also did was make the save a much less reliable metric. If a good solid pitcher pitches the 9th with a 3 run lead and DOESN’T let up 3 runs, then guess what? They get the save.

With the one inning and out save now the norm, all Save totals exploded. The top 20 All Time save leaders have some Hall of Famers like Eckersley and Fingers in there. There are also pitchers like Todd Jones, Jose Mesa, Troy Percival and Francisco Cordero on there. Nothing against them, but they basically compiled saves and would never be Hall of Fame candidates.

Top 20 all time in any positive category should at least get some consideration for the Hall. Will Francisco Rodriguez, who currently is 4th all time on the list, even get on a second ballot? His 62 saves in 2008 remain the highest all time mark. This impressed the Angels so much that they let him walk in the off season.

Of the 50 highest single season save totals, only Righetti’s 46 in 1986 took place before 1988.

Bobby Thigpen’s 57 saves was a classic save compiling from a fine pitcher who never came close to that total before or afterwards.

The Mississippi State grad would get his 30 some odd saves with a mid 3 ERA every year between 1988 and 1991 with the exception of 1990. That year he averaged roughly 3 outs per appearance and finished the game 73 of his 77 appearances. He kept his ERA down to 1.83 and piled up the 57 saves. He made the All Star team and the White Sox were surprise contenders for much of the season.

Despite the saves, Dennis Eckersley was still considered to be the best closer in the game. Thigpen finished 4th in the AL Cy Young vote.

After 1990, he went back to 30 save seasons with ERAs in the 3’s. By 1993, he was on the Phillies. When Mitch Williams, the save compiler for the team, was scuffling in the post season, the idea of calling on the single season saves champion to take over did not seem to even cross anyone’s mind.

His career was over by 1994.

The save rule needs to be altered to make it tougher to record one. Perhaps make it so the pitcher has to face the tying run. Or maybe some a sliding scale of difficulty in what a save is worth.

I don’t know. It is worth figuring out. The save was a good first draft. But it needs revisions.

Jim Fregosi 1988 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for October 15, 2017

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The late Jim Fregosi was a baseball lifer who made his way from organization to organization, earning respect wherever he went. The eulogies for him when he passed away in 2014 were over flowing with affection.

An All Star and MVP candidate as a player is a career that spanned 18 seasons, he managed a pair of teams to the post season. One was the first ever Division Title for one franchise. The other was one of the most unlikely pennants in baseball history.

And yet for all of his achievements, he is best remembered for two negative things. He was on the wrong end of one of the worst trades in the history of baseball when he was a player. And as a manager, he made a decision with the season on the line that everyone on the planet Earth knew was going to backfire, and it did.

And frankly that is a shame that those two things overshadow his legacy. But look at what I am doing with this blog post. I can not write about him without bringing it up.

One of many stars to come out of Serra High School in San Mateo, Fregosi played ball at the University of New Mexico when the Red Sox signed him in 1960.

As a farm hand in Boston, he was left unprotected in the first ever expansion draft. The new Los Angeles Angels (not of Anaheim) selected him before their first season in 1961. A 19 year old Fregosi made his big league debut that year.

By 1963, he was a regular. By 1964, the 22 year old Fregosi was an All Star. He hit for a good average as a shortstop and knocked 12 triples along the way. In 1964, he was the first player in Angels history to hit for the cycle.

He would develop into a Gold Glove winning shortstop and lead the AL with 13 triples in 1968, which was one of his six All Star appearances with the Los Angeles and now California Angels.

Fregosi had foot issues in 1971. There was a tumor in his foot that hampered his productivity and one would assume his trade value. That would be a bad assumption. The Angels, hoping to get SOMETHING in return for their injured former All Star shortstop, shopped him around.

They found a willing trade partner with the New York Mets. They sent Fregosi… alone… nobody else… no prospects or anything… to the Mets. The Mets sent four players back. Right there, pat new GM Harry Dalton on the back. Flipping an injured shortstop for 4 players is a nice pick up.

Ohhh… it gets worse Met fans. Three of the players were Frank Estrada, Don Rose and LeRoy Stanton.

The other player was Nolan Ryan.

The Mets gave up on the man who would pitch from the 1960’s to the 1990’s, strikeout more batters than anyone in history and throw more no hitters than anyone in history.

Ryan had barely scratched the surface in his time in New York, which included a pair of critical relief performances in the 1969 post season and World Series victory.

Now the Mets would no long have Ryan and they would watch him rewrite all the strikeout records in the book. Fregosi would struggle through an injury plagued 1972. In 1973, the Rangers purchased him contract from the Mets. A little bit of money was all the Mets had left for Nolan Ryan.

He never played 80 games in a season again as he struggled the rest of the 1970’s with Texas and later the Pittsburgh Pirates.

In 1978, while being a utility infielder for the Pirates, Fregosi was coveted again by the Angels, the team where he starred. They wanted him to be the manager of the team. The Pirates released him and he took the job.

In 1979, partially because of the splendid pitching of Nolan Ryan, he managed the Angels to their first ever post season appearance. In the ALCS, California took on a powerful Orioles team. They held their own, losing an extra inning game 1 and a one run affair in game 2. They held back elimination with a 4-3 walk off win in Game 4 before losing the final game.

The goodwill in Anaheim was shortlived. In fact it left with Ryan’s departure to Houston. The Angels pitching fell apart without Ryan and in 1981, they lost Frank Tanana was well. Fregosi was fired midway through the 1981 season.

After success managing for Triple A Louisville, Fregosi resurfaced with the White Sox in 1986. The team was floundering after the dismissal of Tony LaRussa. The rebuilding team had some solid veterans like Harold Baines and Carlton Fisk along with rising young players like Jack McDowell, Ozzie Guillen and Bobby Thigpen. But they could not put together a winning season with those curly C hats and he was let go after the 1988 season.

Many of the players he helped develop were on the 1993 AL West Champions. But by 1993, he was on another team’s payroll.

The 1993 Phillies are truly an odd fluke in baseball history. They won the NL East based upon a talent vacuum. The Pirates won the East the previous three seasons but they had lost all of their stars. The Mets were a mess, the Cardinals and Cubs were in transition and the Marlins were an expansion team. The talented Expos team offered the greatest challenge to the Phillies, who won the Division with 97 wins.

They were a strange potpourri of veterans who were OK and a few solid pitchers with post season experience. Everything clicked for that one year as the sloppy, tobacco chewing Phillies went to the NLCS against the 104 win Braves.

Atlanta had just finished their division race with the Giants on the last day of the season. San Francisco had won 103 games and missed the post season. Atlanta, who lost dramatic World Series in 1991 and 1992, brought in Greg Maddux and Fred McGriff to close the deal.

Playing the Phillies in the NLCS was a mere formality before the inevitable World Series rematch with Toronto.

The Braves outhit the Phillies in terms of team batting average, .274 to .227. They out pitched Philadelphia with a team ERA of 3.15 to 4.75. By all metrics, the Braves outplayed the Phillies.

Yet the Phillies pulled of the stunning upset. And they did so in 6 games. Each game Philadelphia won was razor thin. Each game Atlanta won was a blowout. But in the end, the title goes to the team that won 4 games, which is what the Phillies did.

They did so despite closer Mitch Williams blowing two Curt Schilling leads. Schilling was the NLCS MVP despite not getting a decision. They won despite three relievers other than Williams posting ERAs above 9.00.

In the World Series, they took on the defending champion Blue Jays. After three games, Toronto was up 2-1. Game 3 was a surreal affair with the score 4-3 after one inning. The Phillies bats kept scoring inning after inning while the Blue Jays would score in bursts.

Philadelphia led 14-9 with one out in the 8th. A Phillies victory would put Curt Schilling on the hill for Game 5 and a chance to be up 3-2 heading back home. But the Blue Jays rallied off of reliever Larry Anderson.

Fregosi turned to Williams again. The Blue Jays bats torched Williams, the final blow being a 2 run triple by Devon White to take a 15-14 lead.

The Braves had solved Williams and it was clear the Blue Jays were not being fooled by him. It wasn’t like they had Rollie Fingers or Goose Gossage in their prime sitting in their pen to replace him. But the time had come to realize loyalty was not as important as recognizing a pitcher was not being effective.

Bobby Thigpen, who had been a closer with Fregosi’s White Sox and a few years prior had set a big league record for saves in a season was in the pen.

The Phillies didn’t need a reliever for a whole season. Just for 3 more wins. Schilling kept his end of the bargain up by going the distance in a Game 5 win.

In Game 6, the Phillies fell behind 5-1 in the 7th and elimination was inevitable. But Lenny Dykstra hit a 3 run homer off of Dave Stewart. Then Dave Hollins got an RBI single to tie the game. A sacrifice fly by Pete Incaviglia gave the Phillies the lead.

They needed 9 outs to force a Game 7 where anything was possible. Roger Mason, who threw a shutout 6th, kept the Blue Jays off the board in the 7th and he got the first out in the 8th.

David West and Larry Andersen wiggled out of trouble in the 8th. Now the Phillies were 3 outs away from Game 7.

Fregosi turned to Williams for the 9th. Williams who had blown save after save was on the mound. Everyone on the planet Earth knew he was going to blow the lead. Rickey Henderson evidently was giddy when he took the mound, knowing at least one run was inevitable.

Henderson walked to lead off the inning. With one out Molitor singled. And then Joe Carter came up.

There was no second guessing. Williams was not the man for the job anymore and the point was moot after Carter’s homer. A crushed Fregosi after the game deflected any notion of not using Williams in that inning by saying “he got us here.”

That’s right. But maybe give the ball to someone else for those three outs.

Either way, he managed a remarkable pennant for a Phillies team that is still beloved by their fans.

He was let go after the 1996 season, criticized for his handling of players. After a stint with, ironically, the Blue Jays in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s, his career was over.

While participating in an MLB alumni cruise, he suffered a series of strokes in 2014 and died in a hospital in Miami.

Sadly he is best remembered for the Ryan trade and the 1993 World Series. But his was a baseball life that spanned 5 decades, saw great success and great frustration.

Perhaps that is one of things that made Fregosi so beloved. He wasn’t superhuman. He seemed like one of us.

Either way, he had a career worth celebrating.

 

Bo Jackson 1992 Topps – Sully Baseball Card of the Day for September 30, 2017

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It is amazing that Bo Jackson was able to be the sort of media star that he was before the age of the internet and YouTube. He almost seemed like a YouTube star decades before anyone knew what the internet was.

Bo Jackson was a human highlight reel. And his borderline surreal and seemingly superhuman feats were the sort of thing that allowed shows like SportsCenter to become part of the the sport viewers daily routine.

Of course Vincent Edward Jackson was the best football prospects the country had ever seen. He was a Heisman Trophy winner at Auburn and expected to be the top pick in the NFL draft.

The Tampa Bay Buccaneers wanted him with that top pick and paid a visit to Bo while he was still in Auburn. This visit made him ineligible for his senior year of baseball, which was probably their plan anyway.

Bo was angry at the Buccaneers who told him that their visit was within NCAA regulations when in fact it wasn’t. The Buccaneers drafted him in the 1986 draft with the first pick overall. The Royals, coming off the 1985 World Series title, picked him in the fourth round.

Jackson stunned everyone by snubbing Tampa Bay and signing with Kansas City. Some saw it like a John Elway signing with the Yankees stunt to get him traded to a better situation.

Nope. He was serious about baseball. By the end of the 1986 season, Jackson was added to the big league roster. On September 2, 1986, he made his big league debut, getting a single in a 3-0 loss to the White Sox. On September 14th, he hit his first big league homer off of Seattle’s Mike Moore.

In 1987, he made the team out of spring training and wound up hitting 22 homers along the way. After the 1987 season, with his rights to Tampa Bay expired, the Los Angeles Raiders drafted him. Once again, he surprised everyone by signing with them.

He would join the Raiders at Week 8 of the season. Some of the players in the NFL bristled that he wasn’t taking football seriously, even calling it his “hobby” at one point.

Brian Bosworth, another highly touted football prospect, talked smack about stopping Jackson when the Raiders would face off against the Seahawks. Jackson made a mockery of the situation, running past Bosworth in a 91 yard run on Monday Night Football. Bosworth never saved face. Jackson, in front of the whole country showed he could do both.

He returned to the Royals and had a better 1988 than his 1987. He added stolen bases to his arsenal. And when the Royals were eliminated, he went back to the Raiders where again, he shone.

In 1989, he made the All Star team and led off the All Star Game in Anaheim with a towering home run to centerfield. Again, with the national spotlight on him, he excelled. He was named the All Star Game MVP. He clubbed 32 homers, drove in 105 runs and stole 26 bases.

But it was more than the stats for Bo. His homers seemed to be towering upper deck shots. He made amazing catches and gunned runners out at the plate with his dazzling throwing arm. Even his strikeouts were memorable, as he did on June 21, 1989. After a swing and a miss, he broke his bat over his head in frustration.

As ESPN’s influence on the sports landscape grew in the late 1980’s, the super highlights became one of their biggest draws on SportsCenter. And Bo Jackson seemed to give viewers a never ending supply of “Did you see that?” moments.

None was more spectacular than a running catch against the Orioles on July 11, 1990. Running to the wall in Memorial Stadium, he caught a line drive but his momentum would not let him stop. Instead of crashing into the wall, he jumped up and ran along the wall like he was Spider-Man and landed on his feet as if he had planned it.

The Baltimore fans gave him an ovation even though he was helping beat their team.

Fans would see the highlights and they seemed like the exaggerations of an old man, telling stories of a guy who could play baseball and football at an elite level. But these weren’t tall tales. They were on tape. We all saw them.

And we saw the hilarious “Bo Knows” commercials which played off of one simple notion: You can do anything you want if you put in the work.

He made the NFL All Pro team in 1990, being the first player to make the All Star status in baseball and football.

But a tackle caused a hip injury that ended his football career and looked like it would derail any hopes for him in baseball.

The Royals didn’t bring him back as he nursed his injuries. The White Sox took a flier on him and he played 23 games in September for them. His highlight came on September when he hit a 2 out 2 run pinch hit homer in the bottom of the 9th against Mark Langston to tie the game. The White Sox would win it in 11.

1992 was a lost year. After having Bo for baseball and football season, suddenly there was nothing. He had hip surgery based on his football injuries. He was getting an artificial hip. Everyone knew that WALKING with an artificial hip would be hard enough. Forget playing a sport.

But in 1993, Bo attempted a comeback with the White Sox. In his first at bat of the season with an artificial hip, what do you think he did?

He homered of course. That’s what Bo did.

Bo hit 16 homers altogether and helped the White Sox win the AL West. But he was hitless in 13 plate appearances, walking 3 times and scoring once in the ALCS against Toronto. The Blue Jays won in 6 and Bo never got another chance to go to the post season.

He played 1994 with the California Angels and actually had a decent OPS of .851 in 75 games. But the strike ended his season and he did not comeback.

Few athletes I have ever seen captured the public’s imagination like Bo Jackson. For about 2 or 3 years, everything seemed possible. He played baseball and football at the highest level and with a flair for the dramatic. Me made us all run to the TV screens to see what amazing feat he did the night before and we all talked about it afterwards.

Bo has said he wished he didn’t play football because it would have prolonged his baseball career. Sure, it would have been great to have more years of Bo the baseball player. But his injuries only added to his legend.

What could have been if he didn’t hurt his hip?

It is an agonizing what if but I choose not to be greedy. Sure we could have had more Bo… but think of how lucky we all are that we had him at all.

Now enjoy this clip, my favorite one, the wall catch.