Saturday, April 21, 2012

Tony Oliva

On Monday, April 16th, the White Sox were playing the Orioles, and during the game, Sox play-by-play announcer Ken "Hawk" Harrelson stated that Tony Oliva was the best hitter not in the Hall of Fame. Hawk is noted for his frequent musings on who the "best" was at a given situation "He was the best curve ball hitter," "the best hitter at night, "the best second-game-of-a-double-header hitter," etc., and this one had the germ of truth to it, making it unusual in that regard alone. To investigate this, we need to know a bit about Oliva.

Tony Oliva played for the Twins between 1962-1976, was voted as the AL Rookie of the Year in 1964, played in a total of eight All-Star Games (1964-1971) and received MVP votes in those same years, finishing in the top 10 five years. In 1972, he injured his leg and only played in ten games. Fortunately for him, the American League adopted the DH rule in 1973, allowing him to finish out his career as a DH--from 1973 on, he played not ONE SINGLE INNING in the field. For an in-depth review of Oliva's career, check out the bio at SABR. The chart below are his career numbers, including his WAR numbers:

Numbers in yellow are instances where he was in the top 10 in the American League, numbers in red are league leaders, and numbers in blue are BOTTOM 10 in the AL. Overall, a very solid career, one that didn't really get going until his third year and changed significantly after his leg injury. The question becomes, what MIGHT have happened if Oliva had stayed healthy? Using WAR numbers, we can make some educated guesses. Oliva's career WAR of 42.4 is very respectable, and serious discussions for Hall of Fame consideration begin when players reach the 50 level, which would indicate 8-10 seasons of All-Star performance or higher. Oliva was well on his way, when he was injured. To make our comparison, we'll look at all players in baseball history between their 3rd and 10th years and see how they performed. The following chart will show the top 100 in terms of their WAR during that time period:

Yeah, get out the magnifying glass, but it's always better to have more information than less. There are a couple of additional columns--All-Star Games (there were two games each year from 1959-1962, which will explain some of the odd numbers), and a WAR/1KPA or WAR per 1,000 plate appearances, which I use as a normalizing statistic. In this case, it's not as necessary. It's pretty evident that Oliva's seasons 3-10 rank right up there with the best players in baseball history. The Hall of Fame column shows how many of these players are in, and numerous of these players aren't yet eligible (Frank Thomas, Craig Biggio, etc.) or are ineligible (Joe Jackson and Pete Rose) or have tainted images (you can determine those for yourself).

Of course, Oliva's problem was that after his injury, he couldn't keep up his production, which would have begun to decline anyway due to age. He was unable to pad his numbers with the extra four or five years he might have been able to add at the end of his career because he was simply incapable of playing anymore. In the Bill James New Historical Abstract (2001), Rod Carew relates the following story, included originally in his book "Carew":

I roomed with a guy with bad knees for years and used to listen to him cry like a baby at night. I'd be asleep and sometimes I'd hear Tony moaning and groaning...He'd get up during the night and go down to get ice, wandering all over the hotel trying to find ice to put on his knee."

It's a darn shame, but Harrelson's observation on Oliva isn't far from the mark. Oliva would have had a rough time of it, given that he wasn't a full-time player until the age of 25, but he would have had a shot. After his leg injuries, he had enough problems playing, let alone putting up productive numbers. Just for fun, here's the list of players who were within roughly 300 PA of Oliva for their career:

There are exceptions, but for the most part, players in this range of PA had their careers ended because they couldn't produce anymore. Granted, those on the younger side (Brunansky and DeShields, for example) probably had some element of injury, but players who make it this far in their careers (and this number of PA will put them right at the top 400 in major league history) have usually established themselves enough that they'll play until they have nothing left. For most of these players, it wasn't injury that slowed them down--for Oliva, it most definitely was.

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