Thursday, October 8, 2009

Best Left Fielders By Season, 1954-2008

It's probably the only position where you could play either a weak-armed speedster or a slow-footed slugger. It's left field! Who tops each league each season?

Well, we unsurprisingly see some Hall of Famers here: Monte Irvin, Ted Williams, Frank Robinson, Orlando Cepeda, Willie McCovey, Carl Yastrzemski, Lou Brock, Willie Stargell, Jim Rice and Rickey Henderson. Barry Bonds on pure production alone deserves to join their ranks someday, but it remains to be seen whether the voters will deem him worthy. Manny Ramirez, despite being less publicly hated than Bonds (though not by me), may face the same dilemma. Pete Rose is here too, but we all know he's a special case.

There are a significant number of guys here who are considered deserving outsiders or just on the borderline too: Del Ennis, Minnie Minoso, Rocky Colavito, Frank Howard, Tim Raines and Albert Belle. Matt Holliday, Jason Bay and Carl Crawford are still wait-and-sees. Not much to say about the aforementioned guys except that we know they are/were great. It's the rest of the list that's interesting.

Bob Cerv was essentially a one-hit wonder, but what a season it was: .305/.371/.592 batting line, 38 homers and a 159 OPS+. He never produced like that over a full season again. Carlos Quentin's 2008 was great, but after an injury-plagued 2009 he may end up just like Cerv. Mitchell Page's rookie season was outstanding and his second was very good, but he fizzled out after that. These guys are the ones who look unusual here based on name recognition. Tommy Davis was only great for about two years, but his profile is considerably higher because he played for the Dodgers and had such a long career.

One underrated Dodger though, is Wally Moon. Would you believe he was the National League's best left fielder twice in a three-year span and was second-best the year he wasn't? The 1960 AL tie is an oddity, as neither man shows up anywhere else. One was a mediocre player in the middle of a career-best three-year stretch (Tito Francona) and the other was an aging star who'd been overshadowed by better players throughout his career (Gene Woodling).

Bob Allison, Boog Powell and Tony Gonzalez were consistently good offensive players throughout their careers, but none was an all-time great. The 1969 Miracle Mets owe a lot of their success to Cleon Jones having a well-timed peak, as he was the best NL left fielder that year.

When Yankee fans tell you how great one of their old players was it's usually safe to brush it off as a combination of buying into one's own hype and the halo effect. Sometimes though, a Yankee does manage to be better than his national reputation. Case in point: Roy White. Between 1970 and 1976 he was the best American League left fielder three times. I remember watching old Yankee games from the "Bronx Zoo" era on Classic Sports Network as a kid and wondering who this Roy White guy I'd never heard of was. It turns out he was a longtime Yankee stalwart enjoying some championships at the end of his career. Who knew?

Rico Carty only tops the league once, but he comes in second a few times, which makes him underrated in my book. Joe Rudi topped the sevens for two of the three Athletic three-peat seasons, and Tommy Harper shows up at his second position, previously topping the AL at third base in 1970. 1975 was a good year for completely un-noteworthy left fielders. Nothing against Gary Matthews, Claudell Washington and Richie Zisk, but there's not much to say about them. None of them ever topped the league again, and I'd hardly consider any of them Hall of Very Gooders. Hall of Above Averagers, maybe. I dunno. George Foster was the NL's best three times in four years, interrupted only by Greg Luzinski in 1978. It's no wonder Foster was considered a possible future Hall of Famer at one point.

Willie Wilson's defense, baserunning and average made him the best in the AL just before Rickey Henderson's emergence. He might've given Henderson a run for his money if he'd had the overall on-base skills. Lonnie Smith and Jose Cruz aren't considered all-time greats by many people, but they were both two-time league toppers in the '80s. Kirk Gibson topped the AL in 1987, then went to the NL in 1988 where topped that league, won the MVP and delivered one of the most dramatic homers in World Series history. All-in-all, not a bad two-year run.

Rickey Henderson's last year as a topper was 1992, and his immediate successors were a Juan Gonzalez/Greg Vaughn tie. Albert Belle emerged soon after that, but Rusty Greer outdid him twice in the middle of his peak, as did B.J. Surhoff in 1997, Belle's disappointing first year in Chicago. Luis Gonzalez can hold his head up high knowing he was the only man to better Barry Bonds as best NL left fielder between 1990 and 2004.

Was left field a dead zone in the American League between 1999 and 2002 or what? Johnny Damon, Darin Erstad, Bobby Higginson and Jacque Jones come out as the leaders in those years. I remember Damon's hot streak in 1999 and Erstad's monster 2000, but I never would've expected Higginson or Jones to pop up here. Amazing. Cub fans wish Alfonso Soriano could repeat his performance from 2006, since they're stuck with him for five more years, and Coco Crisp parlayed his great 2005 into a stint with the Red Sox. What a group.

The NL team with the most toppers is the Giants, with five. Right behind them are the archrival Dodgers and the Pirates with four. The Red Sox and their left field legacy lead the AL with six, but the Athletics are a close second with five.

Next time we'll get to the last "up-the-middle" position, and one where the Yankees have traditionally been very strong: center field. Will the Yankees' be mentioned at the bottom of the post like the Red Sox were in this one? We shall see!

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