Monday, March 4, 2013

The Best Hitters You've Never Heard Of

Les Fleming

At Let's Go Tribe I've been doing a series on the best hitters in Indians history out of each spot in the batting order. In a recent installment I was looking at #5 hitters (a list topped by Jim Thome) and in 7th place I chose a player named Les Fleming, whom I'd never heard of before researching that post. Fleming batted fifth for most of the 1942 season, which was his only full season in the Majors. He was one of the ten or so best hitters in baseball that year, on par with Joe DiMaggio.

Despite being such a potent hitter, Fleming played in only 434 career games, getting to the plate for 1,572 plate appearances. His career OPS+ was 130 (meaning he was 30% better than average for his career). That's the level All-Star Carlos Gonzalez has been at over the last three years, right around the level of Joe Mauer and Troy Tulowitzki. I found myself wondering two things: Why didn't Fleming play longer and how many other hitters have been that good but had such short careers?

A colleague at LGT was good enough to provide an answer to the first question (a big thank you to YoDaddyWags for that info), which I'll get to below. I then used Baseball-Reference's Play Index to answer the second question: There have been just seven players in modern baseball history with at least 500 plate appearances (basically one full season), but fewer than 2,000, whose OPS+ was 130 or better. Why did those other six players not have longer Major League careers? I couldn't find concrete answers for all of them, but I did find good stuff on most. The SABR Baseball Biography Project was especially helpful in putting together this post.

Here are those seven players, some of the very best hitters you've probably never heard of:

7) Les Fleming (130 OPS+) - Fleming was a Tigers' farmhand, but with Hank Greenberg at 1B and strong outfielders on the team, Fleming was blocked. Fleming played for Nashville of the Southern Association (a high caliber minor league at the time) and hit .414 in 1941, leading to a bidding war over his contract, eventually won by the Indians. In 1942 he was Cleveland's best hitter but he then left baseball to work in the war industries and didn't return until August of 1945. He platooned with Eddie Robinson for much of the next couple years, which kept him from starting in half the team's games, but he hit well when he did play.

Fleming was one of the few Indians unwelcoming of new teammate Larry Doby, who became the first African-American in American League history in 1947. Cleveland's owner, Bill Veeck traded Fleming to Pittsburgh at season's end, who then sent him to Indianapolis (the Pirates' top minor league affiliate), where he was the best hitter in the American Association. He was only ever called up to the Majors for 38 plate appearances though. He continued playing in the minors until 1956, usually with an OBP better than .400, but never played in the Majors after 1949. Since he seems to have been a bigot, I don't feel too bad for him not having gotten more opportunities.

6) Phil Weintraub (132 OPS+) - Born in Chicago to Jewish Russian immigrants, Weintraub loved baseball. He played in the Mississippi Valley League in 1926 (one year after my great-great-uncle Lawrence Lukehart played there), but the following season he had to give up playing in order to run the family business after his father passed away. He didn't play again until 1931. In September of 1933 he was brought up by the New York Giants. He played for them again for parts of 1934 and 1935, but was then traded to St. Louis. The Cardinals sent him to the minors, where he hit .369 in 1935 (with good power), but was never called up to the Majors. Weintraub bounced to the Reds, then back to the Giants, and eventually to the Phillies.

In 1938 Philadelphia gave him his first serious Major League playing time. Appearing in 100 games, Weintraub hit .311, with an OPS+ of 133, but the Phillies then sold him to Boston, who sent him back to the minors. Weintraub spent the next five years there, despite hitting well every season. It's baffling. Finally, in 1944, with many players away at war, the Giants brought him back. He posted the fourth best OPS in the National League that season and on April 30 he drove in eleven runs (still the third-highest single game total in MLB history). As the war ended, Weintraub was pushed back out of regular playing time and retired.

5) Ray Grimes (133 OPS+) - Grimes played his first Major League game in September of 1920, with the Red Sox, at the age of 27. Of note, he had already spent multiple season as a player/manager in the minors, beginning when he was just 24. His joined the Cubs in 1921 and was one of the very best players in baseball the next two seasons. In 1922, he was the second best hitter in the National League (.354/.442/.572), behind only the legendary Rogers Hornsby. Grimes badly aggravated an old back injury in 1923 and missed much of the season. He had a solid line of .299/.401/.475 in July of 1924, but the Cubs decided they didn't need him, and sold him to the Los Angeles Angels of the Pacific Coast League.

In 1926 he popped back in the Majors with the Phillies, but played in just 32 games, batting .297, and was released in August. He spent the next four seasons playing in the minors, batting better than .300 in each of them (and .329 or better in three), but was never given another shot in the big leagues. In 1930, and eye injury led to Grimes' retirement. Of the 122 players in history with at least 1500 plate appearances with the Cubs, Grimes' .418 on-base percentage is the absolute best. His .907 OPS ranks third behind only Hack Wilson and Sammy Sosa. It is unclear why, in all their brilliance, they gave up on Grimes so quickly.

4) Dutch Zwilling (134 OPS+) - Zwilling (the very last name in an alphabetical list of every Major League player in history) was born and grew up in Missouri. After spending a few weeks with the White Sox at the end of 1910, Zwilling returned to his home state to play for the St. Joseph Drummers in the Western League, a team and league that had just recently formed. He spent three seasons there, batting over .300 in each of them. In 1914 Zwilling returned to Chicago to play for the Whales of the newly formed Federal League (a third "major" league that played just two seasons). Zwilling was among the league's best hitters each of the next two seasons and his 29 home runs were the most in the league's brief history.

In 1916 Zwilling played for the Cubs, making him one of just two players (Rollie Zeider being the other) to play for the Cubs, White Sox, and Whales. However, his production fell off a cliff as he collected only six hits in 53 at bats (a .113 average) before being sent to the minors. He played for Indianapolis of the American Association for four middling seasons, then moved on to Kansas City (of the same league) for three seasons, where he was more successful (I guess Missouri just suited him), but he never made it back to the big leagues. He later managed the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League, where in 1938, at the age of 49, he inserted himself in one game and managed to collect a hit.

3) Joe Connolly (137 OPS+) - Connolly began playing semi-professionally in 1906 and was a successful pitcher in those days. In 1908 he played for Little Rock of the Southern Association, where one of his teammates was Tris Speaker. Connolly hit the ball very well in Little Rock and in 1909 he began playing in the outfield occasionally in games he wasn't pitching. He also began having arm problems and in 1911 he insisted on playing in the outfield full time. He split his time that season between Zanesville, Ohio and Terre Haute, Indiana (both of the Central League) and hit .355. He played in Montreal during 1912, playing in one of the better minor league, hitting .312. The Boston Braves signed him for the 1913 season.

Connolly spent the next four years with Boston and his .805 OPS over those four years was 3rd-best in the National League (though he often sat against left-handed starters). Connolly best season was 1914, when he put up a line of .306/.393/.494, putting him among the top ten in all three categories. He was also 5th in home runs and his 159 OPS+ was second-best in the National League that year and the Braves went on to win the World Series. In 1916, Connolly's production dropped. He also married at the end of the season. Realizing he could spend more time with his new bride and earn more money farming and playing semi-pro ball, Connolly retired from professional baseball.

2) Ron Blomberg (140 OPS+) - Blomberg lettered in four sports during his high school years just outside Atlanta. Just days after Blomberg graduated from high school, the Yankees made him the #1 overall pick of the 1967 MLB draft. He steadily worked his way up through their minor league system, playing in four games with the big league club in September of 1969, still just 20 years old, before making his permanent move to the Major Leagues in the middle of the 1971 season. He hit .322 over the rest of the year, with an OPS+ of 143. Blomberg platooned, playing almost exclusively against right-handed pitchers.

His production continued to be strong from 1972 to 1974. The platooning kept him from ever playing a full season's worth of games, but he killed right-handed pitching when he did play. His BA, OBP, and SLG were all among the top twenty in MLB over those three seasons, among players who averaged at least half a season of playing time. His overall OPS+ of 152 in those years was tied for 5th-best (with Hank Aaron) in MLB for those years. On April 6, 1973, Blomberg also became the player ever to bat as a designated hitter. Shoulder and knee injuries limited Blomberg to 35 games over the next three seasons. He attempted a comeback with the White Sox in 1978, but was unable to recapture his former glory. In 2004 Blomberg was inducted into the National Jewish Sports Hall of Fame.

William "Duke" Kenworthy
1) Duke Kenworthy (142 OPS+) - Kenworthy was born in Ohio and played minor league ball there from 1907 to 1910 (he was teammates with Joe Connolly in Zanesville from 1908 to 1910). He didn't hit much there, but in 1911 he moved on to Denver of the Western League and his bat came to life. His contract was purchased by the Washington Sentators before the end of the 1912 season, but he wound up back in the minors in 1913, playing all the way out in Sacramento of the Pacific Coast League.

In 1914 the Federal League was formed, and Kenworthy joined up with the Kansas City franchise, the Packers. In 1914 he led the Federal League in extra-base hits and also finished among the top five in home runs, runs scored, RBI, and slugging percentage. he was very good in 1915 too and his OPS+ for those two season was 147, sixth-best in the league. He was also in the top ten for doubles, triples, home runs, RBI, batting average, and slugging percentage. Something else very notable happened in Kenworthy's life in 1915, something which perhaps explains why played just five more games in the Major Leagues after that season.

In late August, Kenworthy inherited $1,000,000 from an uncle in England. Kenworthy, coming off two great seasons, would surely have been an appealing option to many other Major League teams, but instead he went to the West, signing with the Oakland Oaks of the Pacific Coast League (it should be mentioned that the quality of play in the PCL was very high, nearly equal to the Majors at times, before MLB had reached the West Coast). I have no evidence that the newly found fortune (the equivalent of more than $20,000,000 in today's market) led to any specific decision, but given that he played another nine seasons, almost all of it in the PCL (all but fives games with the St. Louis Browns in 1917 and the 1923 season with the Columbus Senators of the American Association), it seems he may just have preferred life out west. In any event, his OPS+ of 142 is the greatest of any player with limited Major League playing time in baseball history.

3 comments:

  1. Superb! Thanks for sharing this.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for the kind words, I'm glad you enjoyed it. It's hard to imagine someone hitting this well but playing so little anymore, though I suppose injuries could always lead to someone else joining this list.

      Delete
  2. Great research! Very Informative and incredibly interesting!

    ReplyDelete