Friday, May 27, 2005

And Then There Were Two

There's a popular but inaccurate bit of baseball trivia flying around these days. This misnomer (the Red Sox sure do) involves major league players who never spent a day in the minor leagues. While it's not true that there have been only three such players in history prior to this week, it is true that since the amateur draft began in 1965, 17 players went straight from the draft to the majors, without riding the bus to Altoona. Further, three of these 17 players never played a day in the minors. Until this week that is. Dave Winfield is still on that list. Bob Horner is still on that list. But John Olerud makes that list no more.

Olerud played three games this week with the Pawtucket Red Sox before being called up just prior to the start of the latest Yankee-Red Sox brouhaha, starting Friday night in the Bronx. Last year Olerud was on the Yankee side of this fracas, but wasn't on the field for most of the excitement after hurting his foot in Game 3 of the ALCS in a freakish bat-into-foot accident.

When you think about that list of three players, does Olerud's name stand out? Is it surprising that Olerud joins those other hitters?

Winfield became a Hall of Famer, and was such an amazing athlete, that he was also drafted by teams in the NBA (Atlanta Hawks), ABA (Utah Stars) and the NFL (Minnesota Vikings, despite not having played college football). He went straight from the University of Minnesota, where he was MVP of the 1973 College World Series, to the San Diego Padres. So his inclusion on this list, and uninterrupted major league stay makes sense.

Horner was the College Player of the Year when he was drafted out of Arizona State in June, 1978. Eight days later he joined the Atlanta Braves and hit a home run in his first game, on his way to 23 that year and the Rookie of the Year award. By the end of the 1980 season, just past his 22nd birthday, Horner had 91 home runs. That matched Ted Williams for sixth most at that age, despite having almost 600 fewer plate appearances than Williams in that span. But wrist injuries and weight problems plagued Horner's career, and he finished in 1988 with 218 home runs (four of which came in one game). Though his wrist and weight problems never led him to the minors, he did play one season in Japan for the Yakult Swallows, fittingly.

Olerud, the only lefty in the group, wasn't a first round pick like Winfield and Horner; he was taken by the Toronto Blue Jays in the third round out of Washington State in 1989 after a stellar college career (note that all three were college stars long before Billy Beane made college players a draft focus: kids, stay in school). He set school single season records with a .462 average and 23 home runs, went 15-0 as a pitcher and was the NCAA Player of the Year in 1987 and 1988.

So how could he not have been drafted in the first round? In his senior season, Olerud suffered a brain aneurysm. He recovered and still hit .359 with 30 RBIs in 27 games, and has since always worn a batting helmet in the field to protect his head.

Olerud, with one of the sweetest swings (and dispositions) in baseball, went on to have an excellent, often overshadowed career. He chased .400 in 1993, finishing at .363, and was only the 20th player to have 200+ hits and 100+ walks in a season. He won back-to-back World Series with Toronto ('92-'93) before being traded to the Mets after the 1996 season. In 1999 he set the Mets' single season batting record, with a .354 average, and had on base percentages of .400, .447 and .427 in his three seasons in New York. He then spent four and a half seasons with his hometown Seattle Mariners, where he won three gold gloves as a sure handed first baseman.

Olerud, with the funny helmet and the unassuming manner, may not garner the same attention that the first baseman of his era did (at least one of whom was a performance enhanced behemoth). But he quietly put together a consistently excellent career. He had an on base percentage better than .370 for 11 years in a row. His .399 career OBP ranks him 14th amongst active players behind a pretty impressive list entering this season:

Barry Bonds, Todd Helton, Frank Thomas, Lance Berkman, Bobby Abreu, Brian Giles, Jason Giambi, Manny Ramirez, Jim Thome, Jeff Bagwell, Larry Walker, Chipper Jones and Gary Sheffield.

That's decent company (actually there are a bunch of surly guys on that list who wouldn't make great company, but this isn't a tea party).

He's also:
  • Fourth in active doubles hitters, behind only Rafael Palmeiro, Craig Biggio and Bonds.
  • Fifth in walks, behind Bonds, Thomas, Bagwell and Palmeiro.
  • Fifth in intentional walks (respect), behind Bonds, Ken Griffey Jr., Palmeiro and Thomas.
  • Seventh in sacrifice flies, behind Ruben Sierra, Palmeiro, Thomas, B.J. Surhoff, Bagwell and Sheffield.
  • Eighth in games.
  • Tenth in hits.
  • Tenth in runs created (don't ask).
There's also the one not so good category: he's grounded into the second most double plays amongst active players, with 226, behind Julio Franco. That list is mostly filled with players who hit hard and run slowly. And for a slow guy with only 13 career triples (12 at the time he did it), he amazingly hit for the cycle twice, easily the fewest triples for a guy with more than one cycle.

So while he won't get into the Hall of Fame without a ticket (or a museum membership card), the game has been bettered by his presence. His quiet professionalism in an age of yakkers (please stop talking, Schilling), his grace with bat and glove, and his consistent excellence (or at least really goodness) are what baseball should be about.


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