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Sunday, June 07, 2009

Ray Lankford

Eligible in 2010.

John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: June 07, 2009 at 09:54 PM | 18 comment(s) Login to Bookmark
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   1. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: June 08, 2009 at 02:01 AM (#3209794)
For OCF. :-)
   2. OCF Posted: June 08, 2009 at 03:53 AM (#3209848)
One of the Keltner list questions is "If he were the best player on a team could it win the pennant." Lankford was the best player on his team for several years - most of the space between Ozzie Smith being the best player to Mark McGwire - and the team didn't win pennants. Now of course, the question isn't really about his actual team but about some hypothetical team it could have been. But somehow the way we answer this seems to be as definitive a Hall of the Very Good answer as you can give. In my mind, Lankford defines HoVG. (Him or maybe Tim Salmon.)
   3. Ray (CTL) Posted: June 08, 2009 at 04:04 AM (#3209851)
122 OPS+ in 1701 games, 1139 of them in CF. Peak OPS+ seasons of:

159 (133 games)
143 (154 games)
143 (153 games)
129 (132 games)
123 (149 games)

I loved him as a player, but he's HOVG, and no more.
   4. OCF Posted: June 08, 2009 at 04:20 AM (#3209858)
Just how many strikeouts can a player have and still be very good? Lankford is one of the answers to that question. With all those strikeouts, he was never going to contend for a batting title. Of course, being good at everything except batting average is a very good way to be underrated by the MSM, as Lankford surely was.

It wasn't crazy to bat him leadoff and it wasn't crazy to bat him cleanup. But if you do some of each, it becomes very hard to make heads or tails out of his R and RBI.
   5. DCW3 Posted: June 08, 2009 at 04:37 AM (#3209860)
Of course, being good at everything except batting average is a very good way to be underrated by the MSM, as Lankford surely was.

The 1996 MVP vote provides a pretty good example--Lankford had a .366 OBP, .486 SLG, 21 home runs, 35 stolen bases and 100 runs scored. Teammate Brian Jordan had a .349 OBP, .483 SLG, 17 homers, 22 stolen bases and 82 runs. Lankford had 75 more plate appearances than Jordan, and played center field, while Jordan played right. But Lankford hit .275 with 86 RBIs, while Jordan hit .310 with 104 RBIs. So Jordan finished 8th in the MVP voting, while Lankford didn't appear on a single ballot. And it would have been just about impossible to convince most Cardinal fans at the time--including, sadly, myself--that Lankford was a more valuable player than Jordan.
   6. John (You Can Call Me Grandma) Murphy Posted: June 08, 2009 at 10:41 AM (#3209885)
I loved him as a player, but he's HOVG, and no more.

True, though I have loved him as a player since I first drafted him as a rookie for my Rotisserie team years ago.
   7. Alex meets the threshold for granular review Posted: June 08, 2009 at 12:25 PM (#3209905)
Lankford was sort of like a perfect storm of underratedness. He played for a great franchise - in a down era, bridging the gap between the Whiteyball WS teams and the McGwire Years/MV3. He played in the midst of the 90s offensive explosion, so that his triple crown numbers aren't nearly as impressive to the MSM/fans as they might have been in the 1970s or 1980s, where he could even have been a star at some point on the right teams. He played a key defensive position, but he did not play it spectacularly - so the fans were unlikely to credit him for his defensive value over, as in the example given above, Brian Jordan or another Cardinal LF/RF. He struck out a lot, at a time when strikeouts were still viewed as the absolute worst thing a player could do at the plate (when they never have been). His value was tied up in walks (which people still undervalue though they are much better about this today I'd say), non-HR extra-base hits (quick - name the single season records for doubles and triples), rarely grounding into GIDPs, positional value above average CFs, etc. He had his flaws - he was below 70% as a base stealer for his career, he had holes in his swing, he had durability issues, but even taking these things into account, he was a far better player than most fans, even Cardinal fans, realized. Not close to a Hall of Famer - but a player a team can take pride in.

From 1992-2001, a nice round 10-year span: 5445 PA, .277/.374/.495, 128 OPS+. Some other players over those same years:

Griffey: 5931 PA, .285/.383/.593, 150 OPS+ (obviously quite a bit better player to say the least)
Bernie: 5800 PA, .309/.393/.508 134 OPS+
Edmonds: 4202 PA, .293/.374/.519, 127 OPS+ (Edmonds only had a cup of coffee in '93 and had his own durability issues, hence the low PA total)
Lofton: 6134 PA, .303/.379/.428, 110 OPS+

Bernie has the Rings (and was a better player, but not substantially so), Edmonds was not yet EDMONDS for most of that run, Lofton...well he's underrated too, but probably more well known than Lankford, who was a better player.
   8. 6 - 4 - 3 Posted: June 08, 2009 at 03:56 PM (#3210064)
It's perhaps a small factoid, but the thing that stands out to me about Lankford is how bad a basestealer he was in his mid-20s. For someone who followed the Cards closely in the early 1990s, was the victim of a lot of failed hit-and-runs or was he just a terrible basestealer?

1991: 44 SB, 20 CS (69%)
1992: 42 SB, 24 CS (64%)
1993: 14 SB, 14 CS (50%)
1994: 11 SB, 10 CS (52%)

To be fair, he did improve in the remainder of his career. But the high strikeouts, caught-stealings, and mediocre defense in his last few years in CF leave the one with a superficial impression of a very flawed ballplayer.

FWIW, I don't know if I accept that Lankford was a better player than Lofton, even during 1992-2001. Sure, by OPS+ it's a no-brainer (122 vs. 107 for career). But Lofton was a better defender and a much better baserunner. Factor in durability and I'm pretty sure that I'd rather have Lofton from 1992-2001 and almost certainly for his career (where Lofton's OPS is a bit more OBP-heavy than Lankford's).
   9. Alex meets the threshold for granular review Posted: June 08, 2009 at 04:46 PM (#3210111)
True. Checking on Dan R's WARP, it's razor close, 45.7 to 45.1 in Lofton's favor - so they're as valuable as each other by at least one solid metric. Lofton has the full season of PA advantage, and while obviously that's a part of player evaluation and value, I don't think "better," in the sense that he contributed more wins per game than Lofton, is an inaccurate description of Lankford. Either way, it's more or less ultimately irrelevant to the point I was driving at which is that Lankford more than holds his own against the other big name CFs that aren't Ken Griffey Jr. of the 1990s. I couldn't think of any others off the top of my head to check up on, though.
   10. Ben V-L Posted: June 09, 2009 at 04:04 PM (#3211127)
I was the relatively lonely Cardinal fan who appreciated Lankford in his time. I was continually pointing out to my fellow Cardinal fans that he was more valuable than Brian Jordan. And so it warms my heart to read these descriptions above. Ray finally gets his kudos, at least in this one corner of the universe (now if we could just get Simba into the real HoF...)

What was particularly galling to witness in real time is how Ray's career wound down. He was aging, to be sure, and he had trouble recovering fully from knee surgery, and his BA dropped to the .250 range from about 2000 on. But he was still producing around the 120 OPS+ level, far more than Craig Paquette and Shawon Dunston, who were taking away ever increasing portions of his playing time. Ray's production was about on par with Eric Davis's at that time, and yet the perception of the two in the media and in La Russa's mind were completely the different: Davis played whenever he was healthy. Ray sat, first against lefties, then a lot. TLR was in his full stride of badmouthing players in the press, talking about how Ray had to learn how to hit with two strikes. Sure, it would have been nice to K less often, but he was still drawing the walks and hitting with power.

So basically, Ray had a very ungraceful, underappreciated end to his Cardinal career, primarily thanks to TLR (who managed to end Ozzie's career similarly). It's made even more galling when you compare it to the significant playing time Willie McGee was giving in his twilight, when he was really dragging down the team.
   11. OCF Posted: June 09, 2009 at 08:29 PM (#3211616)
I located a memo I wrote to a friend of mine during the 2001 season. From some distance away, I seem to have been reading the situation slightly differently than Ben V-L; I'd defer to his as the more accurate take. Also the comments about Santo, Boyer, Grich, et al. have been modified since I joined the HoM project.


Ray Lankford, batting .235 and apparently without a regular job, is “on leave” from the Cardinals, complaining about “lack of respect.” Apparently, the Cardinals are on the verge of completing a post-deadline waiver trade which would send Lankford to the Padres for starting pitcher Woody Williams.

Although he remains a fixture in the Angels’ starting lineup, the fact that it’s already August and Tim Salmon is batting about .210 for the year has the fans and the management worried.

What do I think about this?
1. Age is an implacable enemy. Lankford is 34 years old; Salmon will turn 33 in a few weeks. We all know of a few players who have performed brilliantly at ages 36, 38, 39 ... but one must remember that those players are the exceptions, and that many if not most players decline precipitously in their early 30’s. For Lankford, the signs of gradual decay have been evident for 2 or 3 years: he was once a superb defensive center fielder but now he’s a left fielder. He used to steal bases but he doesn’t any more. He gets hurt more often. Salmon was as good as ever in 2000 after missing part of 1999 to injury, so his decline is more of a surprise. One or both of them may bounce back with more good years - but neither will ever get all the way back to as good as they were at their best.
2. This is a rough, unsentimental business. The Cardinals have apparently decided that Albert Pujols is an outfielder - that gives them a starting outfield of Pujols, Edmonds, and Drew, with no room for Lankford. At this point in his career, Lankford could probably be useful in the “fourth outfielder” role (some defense, some pinch hitting, some games when someone needs a rest) for either the Cardinals or some other team, but it isn’t always easy for someone who has been a star to accept that role, and his long-term contract signed when he was a star is an awful lot of money for a part-time player. The Angels have not put that kind of squeeze on Salmon - but they would if they could. At the moment, the Angels basically have no first baseman and no DH; if they had another outfielder who could hit, he or Salmon would be the DH. That the Angels have no one pushing Salmon for a job is a weakness.
3. We were talking about the mythical “Hall of the Very Good.” Let me make a simple suggestion: if you can show that a player was the best player on a team for an extended period - 5 years or so - and that the team wasn’t a pathetic joke, then that player automatically belongs. This would certainly apply to both Lankford and Salmon. Lankford took over as best player on the Cardinals from Ozzie Smith and held it until Mark McGwire. Salmon became the best player on the Angels in about 1994 and held it until Troy Glaus took over quite recently.
4. Both players have spent their entire careers so far being seriously and systematically underrated. Their troubles in 2001 are real enough - I’m not claiming otherwise - but I’m less inclined to dump on them know because I know of the praise they deserve because of what they have done in years past.
How does a player get to be either underrated or overrated? There are various complications involving cities, press relations, personalities, and dumb luck, but there is a simple principle that covers most of it. Specialists get overrated. Players with broad skills, players for whom it is difficult to capture what they do in a single word or phrase, get underrated. Also: players who hit singles (a highly visible attribute, because of the emphasis on batting average) get overrated, while players who draw walks get underrated. Left and right fielders and first basemen get overrated because you can describe them entirely by offensive statistics. Shortstops can be overrated because their defense is so visible. Players at “in between” defensive positions like center field and third base get underrated.
How to build the perfect underrated player? He should be a third baseman with excellent defense. He should hit 25-30 home runs a year but never lead the league in home runs, he should draw 80-100 walks a year but a fairly low batting average. That player would be Ron Santo, or maybe Ken Boyer, and I think Santo is the single most deserving player who has not been elected to the Hall of Fame, with Boyer not far behind, and Darrell Evans and Bobby Grich near the front of the line.
Even though he may not have been appreciated enough as a defensive center fielder, Kirby Puckett was an overrated singles-hitting specialist.
Vince Coleman, a base-stealing specialist, was overrated.
Ichiro Suzuki, a singles-and-speed guy, is overrated.
Tony Gwynn - of course he has been very valuable, but as a batting average specialist, he’s overrated.
Dave Kingman, a home run specialist, was overrated. The same can be said of the vaguely similar Tony Armas and Bo Jackson.
Dwight Evans was underrated, especially in comparison to Jim Rice.
And both Ray Lankford and Tim Salmon have been underrated for most of their careers. I’ve heard Salmon called “the greatest active player never to appear in an All-Star Game.”

I finished with an extensive comparison of Lankford 1992 and Salmon 1997 to Kirby Puckett 1989, picking good years but not single best years for each.
   12. OCF Posted: June 09, 2009 at 08:42 PM (#3211635)
Ah - tools I didn't have when I wrote that in 2001. How about the BB-ref stat neutralizer? Lankford '92, Salmon '97, and Puckett '89 were all healthy years with between 680 and 700 PA (Salmon had the most).

Lankford '92: .317/.398/.519, XBH line 45-7-22, OPS+ 143
Salmon '97: .293/.392/.516, XBH line 28-1-33, OPS+ 134
Puckett '89: .336/.377/.463, XBH line 45-4-9, OPS+ 131

Lankford gains the most from his raw stats in the neutralization.
   13. AJMcCringleberry Posted: June 17, 2009 at 10:28 AM (#3221910)
quick - name the single season records for doubles and triples

67 and 36?

Checks b-ref...damn, I'm good.
   14. OCF Posted: June 29, 2009 at 04:15 AM (#3236342)
From El Hombre ... (Le Samorai) above:

Lankford was sort of like a perfect storm of underratedness. He played for a great franchise - in a down era, bridging the gap between ...

Would the Yankee version of this comment be Roy White?
   15. Paul Wendt Posted: June 29, 2009 at 01:30 PM (#3236469)
Yes, an excellent match, except with a happy ending. Roy White enjoyed two World Series championships.
   16. Jeff K. Posted: November 29, 2009 at 12:59 AM (#3398304)
OCF, Jimmy Wynn says hello and would like to know where this club meets.

For a random "Did You Know?" (man, I miss when Sportscenter used to be good) of the day:

Did you know that for some unknown reason, the Astros made Jimmy Wynn play shortstop in 1963? It's true! And after he committed 20 errors in 50 games at AA San Antonio, they called him on up to the big club for a whole bunch of games all over the diamond, but 21 of them at short for a total of 130 innings fielding the position. You can guess how that went, apparently. He got to nothing (comical RF numbers and somehow a shortstop in 130 innings on 'Turf only managed to field 53 balls, booting 4 of those, and turned only 81% of those balls into outs. These all blow my mind: he only managed to start *2* double plays, he only had 18 assists to first base, and I think this is the topper: he did not have a single FC in those 130 innings.

He put up an *un*adjusted -7.1 FRAA by Forman's calculations. That was good for 6th worst by all MLB shortstops. Except of the 5 ahead of him, 2 barely were and had 3x as many innings in the field, two were marginally ahead of him but in 7x and 9x the innings, and then you have Andre Rodgers.
   17. JoeD has the Imperial March Stuck in His Head Posted: November 30, 2009 at 04:56 PM (#3399150)
Hey Jeff - interesting story!

But shouldn't that go on the Jimmy Wynn thread?


One thing I always thought was weird, in terms of guys at strange positions (and I've commented here before on it) was Dave Kingman being considered such a horrible 3B. His RFs are actually outstanding, and until his next to last year there, he didn't make an insane number of errors either.
   18. JoeD has the Imperial March Stuck in His Head Posted: November 30, 2009 at 05:00 PM (#3399155)
Kingman ended up -4.7 runs at 3B in basically a full season's worth of PT. -2 of that was on DPs. He was actually +.6 on the road and -3.2 (not including DPs) at home, with all but 100 innings coming with the Giants. Did Candlestick have a rep for being a pretty tough infield?

Also outside of his horrid 159 innings there in 1974, he was basically league average.

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