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Thursday, March 27, 2003

Jimmy Wynn: An Appreciation

Peter looks back at the career of the Toy Cannon.

Jimmy Wynn recently celebrated his 61st birthday, which makes this as good a time as any to assess the career of the best unrecognized player in baseball history.



One of the surprises in Bill James’

New Historical Baseball Abstract was his high ranking of Wynn. James rated him 10th among centerfielders, higher than Earl Averill, Richie Ashburn, Max Carey and half a dozen other Hall of Famers. This was quite a rethinking: James didn’t even mention Wynn in his 1994 book The Politics of Glory

, which evaluated the Hall credentials of everyone from Ned Williamson to Vada Pinson. But a new nod from James wasn’t enough to spur a general reconsideration of Wynn’s place in baseball history.



Consider this list of players ranked ninth through 11th at their positions in the

NHBA

:



1B: Willie McCovey, Frank Thomas, Cap Anson

2B: Rod Carew, Roberto Alomar, Frankie Frisch

SS: Alan Trammell, Pee Wee Reese, Luke Appling

3B: Stan Hack, Darrell Evans, Sal Bando

LF: Willie Stargell, Minnie Minoso, Billy Williams

CF: Billy Hamilton, Jimmy Wynn, Larry Doby

RF: Paul Waner, Sam Crawford, Al Kaline

C: Gabby Hartnett, Ted Simmons, Joe Torre



Of these 24 players ranking right around the top 10 at their positions,  14 are already in the Hall of Fame. Two (Torre and Trammell) are widely considered strong candidates. Two (Alomar and Thomas) are actively building Hall-worthy careers. And four (Evans, Hack, Minoso and Simmons) are what we might call sabermetric favorites ? each has been the subject of at least some recent research evaluating them favorably as Hall candidates. They are at the table, at least.



That leaves two whom you hear absolutely nothing about when baseball sophisticates discuss the all-time greats: Sal Bando and Jimmy Wynn.  Now, it certainly seems to be worth asking whether the low-scoring environment of Bando’s era and park have kept us from fully valuing the A’s third baseman and co-captain. Especially when you consider that recent analysts, including James in the

NHBA

, have somewhat downgraded Catfish Hunter and Rollie Fingers. Who was helping Reggie win all those games and championships for Oakland? “Sal Bando” may well be a more significant answer than we commonly realize.



But at least Bando has three rings, and his team of mustachioed brawlers is indelibly inked in the popular imagination. Jim Wynn played for interesting but not great teams, and his statistics were even more massively distorted than Bando’s by the time and place in which he played. Result: no bandwagons for him.



Wynn hit .250 for his career, with 291 HR and 964 RBI. Hitters with numbers most similar to those raw totals were generally good but rarely great ? Tom Brunansky, Rick Monday, Larry Parrish, guys like that. But Wynn had far more of an impact on his teams’ games than any of his comparables:



Wynn’s career was centered in the late 1960s, when runs were harder to come by than Marines enlistees at Ivy League campuses. During the second half of that decade, National League teams scored an average of 631 runs a season, nearly one full run per game beneath today’s totals.


 

  • Wynn spent most of his career in the Astrodome, a phenomenally difficult place to hit for power. In 1967, Wynn homered 37 times for a Houston team that totaled only 93 HR; in 1968, he hit 26 of the Astros’  67 HR. That’s Wally Berger-land. For his career, Wynn’s park factor was .960, the lowest of any of the top 100 hitters ranked by Pete Palmer and John Thorn in Total Baseball

    .


  • Wynn’s defense and speed were outstanding. Looking at the six years that he played center field in 80% or more of his games (just to avoid using stats muddied together from different positions), he made an average of 2.43 plays a game, compared with a league range factor of 1.84. (This wasn’t a park or teammate effect: Wynn’s range in CF held steady when he moved from the Astros to the Dodgers) .  Wynn led his league in putouts twice (1965 and 1967), assists twice (1968 and 1976)  and double plays twice (1968 and 1971). His five assists in 53 games as a rookie helped earn him the nickname “The Toy Cannon,” and he averaged 12.2 assists per 162 OF games over his career.

  • Wynn also stole 225 bases, including as many as 43 bases in a season (1965). Sure, it’s a freak show stat, but he ranked in his league’s top 10 in power/speed number 10 times.



What kind of numbers would Wynn have compiled in a hitting environment more familiar to our eyes? We can get some idea by using a method similar to the one James developed in his comment on Willie Davis in the

NHBA

. The basic procedure is to calculate how many runs a player created in each season of his career, adjust it by an appropriate factor and then figure out how much each component of his hitting has to change in order to create the adjusted result.



In doing this for Jimmy Wynn, I have dispensed with park factors and simply looked at how many runs per game Wynn’s teams scored and allowed in each season he played for them, compared with runs scored and allowed by teams in recent years. For example, from 2000 to 2002, the average major league team scored 786 runs per season. That’s 23% more than the average of 640 runs that the Astros scored and allowed in 1965, so for the purposes of translating Wynn’s stats to a contemporary environment, I assumed that means one run in 1965 would be worth 1.23 runs today. I then took his 1965 line, and, while holding constant his outs and the ratios among his hits, doubles, triples and homers, I adjusted his hits, extra base hits and walks to increase his runs created per out by 23%. (For simplicity’s sake, I used the basic version of runs created.)



Jimmy Wynn’s career, translated to a 786-run environment:

Yr   Tm   AB   R   H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO AVG RC
1963 Hou   265 44 76 12 6   5 38 37 53 .286 43
1964 Hou   230 27 60 9 0   6 25 29 58 .260 30
1965 Hou   585 111 176 34 8 25 90 95 126 .301 120
1966 Hou   431 75 120 23 1 20 75 46 81 .278 71
1967 Hou   607 117 161 32 3 40 123 80 137 .265 112
1968 Hou   579 122 183 29 6 33 96 113 131 .316 137
1969 Hou   509 132 147 19 1 37 102 164 142 .289 128
1970 Hou   558 86 160 33 2 28 92 109 96 .287 113
1971 Hou   421 52 99 19 0   8 61 67 63 .235 49
1972 Hou   557 137 163 32 3 26 105 114 99 .293 116
1973 Hou   491 105 116 15 5 22 64 100 102 .236 76
1974 LA   549 120 159 19 4 35 125 118 104 .289 121
1975 LA   432 106 122 19 0 22 77 132 77 .283 93
1976 Atl   460 89 104 21 1 19 79 142 111 .226 75
1977 NY/Mil 196 19 36 5 2   1 14 34 47 .183 15


totals   6869 1340 1881 321 44 327 1166 1380 1427 .274 1293
per 550AB     107 151 26 4 26   93 110 114 .274 104

Even here, Wynn’s batting average is only .274 ? but then again, only 39% of his offensive value resided in his batting average. It’s easier to see the impact of Wynn’s huge power and walk totals in this kind of translation than by looking his raw numbers and mentally adjusting them.  (Check out some of those projected runs scored.)



Wynn’s career hit many high notes. Early on, he was the leading star on a new team playing in the baseball equivalent of a frontier town, and he then developed into one of the game’s most feared sluggers, so he made more than his share of headlines.



Born in Hamilton, Ohio, Wynn originally signed with his hometown Reds, but the Houston Colt .45s grabbed him in the 1962 winter draft. He played shortstop in high school, the minors and 21 games of his big-league debut season of 1963 before Houston moved him to centerfield. He had the game-winning hit, a 12th-inning single to score Rusty Staub, in the final game the team played at Colt Stadium before taking a new name and moving to the Astrodome in 1965.



The early Astros were awful, if a dozen games a year better than their expansion counterparts the Mets, but developed some amazing talent. The 1965 team featured Nellie Fox, Eddie Kasko, Robin Roberts and Gus Triandos, all about a decade too late. (They even got a start out of Don Larsen.) But Staub and Joe Morgan, both 21, were also on that team. And 23-year-old Jimmy Wynn was its breakout star, hitting 22 HR and stealing 43 bases.



In 1966, Wynn had 18 HR and 62 RBI by the end of July, but crashed into an outfield wall in Philadelphia on August 1, dislocating an elbow, breaking a wrist and ending his season. He rebounded in 1967, when he mashed a series of prodigious taters and raced Henry Aaron for the NL home-run title until the final days of the season. One blast on June 10 of that year cleared the left-center scoreboard in Cincinnati entirely and bounced into traffic, leading Astros announcer Loel Passe to exclaim, “That has got to be the longest ball I have ever seen hit in Crosley Field, or hit out of it.”



From 1968 to 1970, Wynn hit 86 HR and drew 344 walks ? his 148 free passes in ‘69 set an NL record (since broken by Mark McGwire and then Barry Bonds). He was a .270 hitter, but he was devastating, creating the modern-day equivalent of 125 runs a season. On April 12, 1970, he launched a homer into the upper deck of the Astrodome ? the first batter ever to do so ? leading Houston to mark the spot where the ball hit with a cannon. “I think everybody remembers that more than anything else,” Wynn said in 1999, when he returned to Houston for the last game played at the Astrodome. “It was a moment looking up there. Everybody reminisced about it.”



Wynn was indeed a “Toy Cannon” ? he stood just 5’9” and weighed at most 170 pounds. Like Pedro Martinez today, he was uniquely able to generate incredible power from a slight physique. As Bob Watson, a teammate from the early ‘70s, put it last year: “When I played you could count on one hand the guys that could hit a ball as far as [a tape-measure shot] ? McCovey, Stargell, Dick Allen, Jimmy Wynn and Kingman. Except for Wynn, all of those other guys were big men.” Wynn had a looping stroke, but he had outstanding plate discipline and incredible bat speed, and he was simply not long-limbed enough to have a hole in his swing.



Wynn was a popular, quotable player. He once described Sandy Koufax’s curveball as a “mystic waterfall.” When the Astros opened 1969, manager Harry “the Hat” Walker’s first full season, by going 4-20, then went on a hot streak to enter their first pennant race, Wynn said, “The truth is, we started playing better so Harry would shut up.” During off-seasons, Wynn worked as a radio sports broadcaster and a Schlitz beer distributor.



Just before Christmas, 1970, Wynn’s wife Ruth stabbed him in the stomach during a quarrel on their anniversary, injuring him seriously enough that he required emergency surgery. He was supposedly recovered by Opening Day, but hit just .203 in 1971. By that time, the Astros were turning from a team that had loads of potential into a team that kept trading young talent without ever getting over the hump. Beginning in 1969, the team won 81, 79, 79, 84 and 82 games in successive years while shipping Staub and Morgan away, leaving fans with bittersweet memories of promising players but frustrating results. After Wynn had another off year in 1973, Houston traded him, too.  From the Dodgers, they got Claude Osteen, who had 180 wins behind him but only 16 left in the tank. 



Wynn sparked the ‘74 Dodgers, who had finished second in three of the preceding four years, to 102 wins and their first pennant since the days of Koufax and Drysdale. Several NL players had historic seasons in 1974 ? Lou Brock stole 118 bases, Mike Marshall pitched in 106 games ? and Wynn was as viable MVP candidate as any of them. Batting third for L.A., he hit .306 with 14 HR in April and May as the Dodgers ran away with the division, and ended up with 32 HR, 104 runs, 108 RBI and 108 walks. Wynn’s teammate Steve Garvey, with a flashier batting average, won the MVP, though Wynn did earn Comeback Player of the Year honors. (Win Shares ranks Wynn fourth in the NL that year, behind Mike Schmidt, Morgan and Johnny Bench; Garvey is tied for eighth place.)



A shoulder injury hobbled Wynn late in 1974 ? he hit just .217 in September and .192 in the postseason. (His batting eye didn’t desert him, though: he drew nine walks in the NLCS and four in the World Series in a total of just 39 plate appearances, giving him a postseason OBP of .462.) He slumped at the plate and in the field the following year, after which the Dodgers dealt him to Atlanta for Dusty Baker. With the Braves in 1976, his batting average sank to .207, but it was still an extraordinarily loud .207 ? he hit 17 HR in 449 AB, led the NL in walks with 127 and stole 16 bases, for an eye-popping secondary average of .479. Shifted to left field, he also recovered enough arm strength to lead the league with 17 assists.

Wynn had one more shot at glory, as the Yankees purchased his rights and invited him to join the Bronx Zoo in ‘77. DHing, Wynn homered on Opening Day, but his accumulated injuries finally pushed his batting average below the Mendoza Line. He was finished at 35.



After his retirement, Wynn suffered from severe back pain. Eventually, he needed surgery, and received help from the Baseball Assistance Team, the group put together by Ralph Branca to provide financial support to former big leaguers. Happily, Wynn recovered, and went on to work as a hitting coach. Currently, he is secretary/treasurer for the Major League Baseball Players Alumni Association.



Oddly, neither sabermetricians nor traditionalists have paid much attention to Wynn as a Hall of Fame candidate. I say “oddly” because Wynn’s combination of power and walks ? look at his stat line for 1969 ? ought to have earned him more of a cult following among analysts by now.  Indeed, his low batting average should make him even more of a favorite for those of us who love to argue about whether Darrell or Dwight Evans is more underrated. But Wynn’s name rarely comes up in those discussions. Surely Wynn is worth a few of the endless keystrokes

pounded on behalf of (or against) Dick Allen.



At the same time, Wynn was a teammate, roommate and close friend of Joe Morgan’s on the Astros, and Morgan talks about Wynn at some length in his autobiography. But while Morgan has become a leader among ex-players

in Hall of Fame campaigning, he has stumped a lot more for his Big Red Machine cohorts than for anyone on the Astros. At the rate Morgan is going, he’ll get Cesar Geronimo in the Hall before Wynn.



My own opinion is that:



1) A Hall of Fame of 200 players, about 120 non-pitchers and 80 pitchers, is appropriate, which leaves room for about 15 players per position.



2) Among eligible center fielders, five are distinctly better than the rest ? Mays, Mantle, Cobb, DiMaggio and Speaker, in whatever order you like ? and a sixth, Duke Snider, is not as good as the top five but better than everyone else.



3) Wynn belongs in the next group of nine or 10 players. He is comparable to Larry Doby. To Hack Wilson, too, in different ways.



At the wonderful AstrosDaily.com site, Ray Kerby makes the following comparison:


            AB   R HR RBI AVG OBP SLG SB
Kirby Puckett 7244 1071 207 1085 .318 .363 .477 134
Jim Wynn     6653 1105 291 964 .250 .369 .436 225


Without making any adjustment for parks or era, Puckett had just 87 more R+RBI than Wynn in a season’s worth (591) of extra AB, and his 68-point advantage in batting average is completely wiped out by Wynn’s ability to get on base.



I’m not trying to make a conclusive case for Wynn as a Hall of Famer. He had seven great seasons, but he was an All-Star only three times (1967, 1974 and 1975) and finished in the top 10 of MVP voting only once (1974). In 1968, NL managers polled by

Sport Magazine

named him one of the top three center fielders in the league, along with Willie Mays and Curt Flood. On the other hand, Fergie Jenkins named Wynn to his all-time team, along with Dal Maxvill, Bob Allison and Phil Regan. (Really.) In other words, some evidence pulls one way, some pulls another and some means nothing at all. I’m more interested in opening a discussion here than closing one. I’d like to see what people think.



One thing I do know, though, and it’s a lesson reinforced by this year’s Hall balloting, is that it’s important to esteem players for their accomplishments while they are still around. And Jimmy Wynn had as interesting a collection of talents as the game has ever seen.

Peter Keating Posted: March 27, 2003 at 06:00 AM | 3 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. BP Posted: March 28, 2003 at 02:51 AM (#610050)
It should be noted that due to Puckett's ridiculously low walk rate, Wynn actually had 180 *more* plate appearances than Puckett.
   2. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: March 28, 2003 at 02:51 AM (#610052)
I would have voted for him on the Veterans ballot this year if the members of the committee hadn't been such morons and had included him with the rest.

Good work, Peter!
   3. Robert Dudek Posted: March 28, 2003 at 02:52 AM (#610062)
It was about 2 years ago that I made a post in which I stated that Jimmy Wynn might be the best player not in the Hall of Fame who is eligible (although I personally think it's Bobby Grich).

That generated a discussion.

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