Thursday, April 14, 2011


For those of you who have never heard of Sam Bowie, he was a University of Kentucky basketball player drafted in 1984 by the Portland Trail Blazers of the NBA. Their scouts felt he was the best player available. Bowie's claim to fame--or infamy if you will--was to be picked immediately before a North Carolina player named Michael Jordan. Other players picked after Bowie included Charles Barkley and John Stockton, both in the Hall of Fame. The unfortunate Mr. Bowie was plagued by injuries throughout his career and never lived up to his potential. Today he is a successful race horse owner in Lexington, Kentucky. _______________________________________________ Recently 60 Minutes ran a segment about St. Louis Cardinals star first baseman Albert Pujols who many consider to be the best player in baseball. A native of the Dominican Republic, Pujols came to the U.S. as a teen and went to high school in Kansas City. He starred in baseball in high school and at community college when he was entered in the 1999 major league amateur player draft. Although he was a local star, most major league scouts didn't rate him highly, and he was overlooked until the 13th Round when he was the 402nd player drafted, right after shortstop Alfred Amezaga (a .251 lifetime hitter). This rankled Pujols as well as costing him money, although he did get a $60,000 bonus to sign with the Cardinals. ___________________________________________________ Considering the scouts thought 401 amateur players were better than Jose Pujols, as he was known then, I decided to look up how those 401 players fared in their baseball careers. The 1999 draft went through 50 rounds, and 1474 players were drafted. As you can imagine, most of them never played in the big leagues, and the lower the round, the fewer players made it. In some rounds, none of the players went on to play in the majors. The first round featured the elite amateur players, and some of the names are recognizable star players today. Number 1 was Josh Hamilton, now a star outfielder with Texas and the 2010 Most Valuable Player in the American League. He recently came into his own after several seasons of injuries and substance abuse issues. Second was pitcher Josh Beckett, who is a fine pitcher today. Other significant names from the first round included pitcher Barry Zito a Cy Young Award winner, and also Ben Sheets, a solid starting pitcher. There were 51 players drafted in the opening round which included 21 supplemental picks. Of those 51, only 23 ever played in the majors. the Chicago White Sox drafted pitchers Jason Sturm and Matt Ginter 15th and 22nd. Ginter has pitched in the majors but has essentially been a marginal player. _________________________________________________ The Chicago Cubs drafted the infamous Ben Christiansen who was best known for intentionally hitting (and severely injuring) a batter in the on-deck circle with a pitch. (The victim, Anthony Molina, another potential draft choice, was partially blinded, ending his career. He sued and Christiansen reportedly paid a $400,000 settlement.) What goes around comes around. Christiansen suffered from frequent arm trouble. He also had problems with control and was released in 2005 without ever making it above Double A ball. _________________________________________________ The Cardinals, with the 30th overall pick went all in with Chance Cagle, a right handed pitcher. What, you've never heard of him! My favorite moment was when the KC Royals gobbled up left handed pitcher Jimmy Gobble with the 43rd pick. He pitched in the majors but didn't gobble up many innings, mostly working in short relief, facing one or two batters at a time. __________________________________________________ In the Second Round, 33 players were drafted, and 16 made it to the majors, if only for a short time. The significant names included 52nd pick Carl Crawford, now an All-Star outfielder, and journeyman second baseman Bobby Hill, drafted 66th. The Third Round saw 30 players drafted of which 12 made it to the bigs. Justin Morneau an MVP with the Twins went 89th, light-hitting Willie Bloomquist went 95th, and slugger Hank Blalock went 105th. Only 8 of 30 in the Fourth Round made it to the majors, including Kevin Mench and Angel Pagan. ___________________________________________________ The Fifth Round did better--11 made it, including two good left handed pitchers, Nate Robertson and Joe Saunders. Of the 30 drafted in the Sixth Round, pitchers J.J. Putz at 185, Eric Bedard at 187 and Aaron Harang at 195 have pitched well in the major leagues. Besides Putz, 20 others in that round were just putzes who didn't make it. But immediately before Harang went outfielder Shane Victorino who starred in the 2009 World Series with the Phillies. Notably in the Seventh Round, the Redbirds picked No. 222 Coco Crisp, a good player, but not Albert Pujols. The Eighth and Ninth Rounds produced a total of 10 big leaguers but none of consequence. In the Tenth Round, the No. 306 choice was outfielder Marlon Byrd who is now the Cubs' best hitter. The Eleventh and Twelfth Round produced a total of 7 big leaguers, but no stars. ________________________________________________ There were a few solid players drafted after Pujols, including No. 472, pitcher Jake Peavy, a Cy Young Award winner, pitcher Rich Harden at No. 1145, and infielder Adam LaRoche (.271 lifetime BA) at No. 1254. _______________________________________________ What all this shows is that baseball scouting is an inexact science. Nevertheless a few scouts were embarrassed, and some lost their jobs when they missed Pujols. For example, Tampa Bay Rays' scout Fernando Arango raved about Pujols, then a shortstop at Maple Woods Community College. He persuaded the Rays' management to bring him to Tampa for a tryout. Because Pujols was a big guy, they asked him to perform in catching equipment which he reluctantly agreed to do. They let him hit and he focused on line drives and didn't hit any out of the park. He had a bad day and the Rays passed on him. Arango was still high on him, and when the Cardinals drafted him, Arango submitted his resignation. He said, "I was a little frustrated....To me, it was very simple. If I can't get a guy like that, even in the 10th Round, maybe I should take a sabbatical from amateur scouting." _________________________________________________ The Colorado Rockies' scout Jay Darnell told his team that he thought Pujols would hit for power. His scouting report described Pujols as "heavy legged" and stated that his throws "often tail and sink as fingers are not on top of the ball." The Cincinnati Reds scouting department reported that Pujols had power but was undisciplined at the plate--a free swinger. Over his ten year major league career, Pujols seldom strikes out, unusual for a power hitter. ___________________________________________________The Kansas City Royals, his hometown team was especially upset about missing him. According to Herk Robinson, then the General Manager, "We had someone in our engineering department here at Kauffman Stadium who actually lived with Albert for about three months. You can't get much more in your backyard than that." Hey guys, he was STILL available in the 12th Round! The Rockies' scouting director Bill Gayton said that some teams were concerned that Pujols was actually somewhat older than he claimed (Latinos often don't have birth certificates). Well they could have done some due diligence! ___________________________________________________ These things happen in every draft because some players are late bloomers. Other star players were also drafted late, like perennial Cy Young Award candidate Roy Oswalt who went in the 23rd Round in 1986. He was picked at No. 684, and another good pitcher Ted Lilly went at No. 688 the same year. ___________________________________________________The prime example of this was catcher Mike Piazza, a Hall of Fame candidate who waited until the 62nd Round in 1988. His father Vince, a wealthy Pennsylvania car dealer was a boyhood friend of Dodger Manager Tom LaSorda. Vince Piazza recognized some potential in his then 12 year old son, Mike and hired the legendary Ted Williams to tutor him in hitting. (Williams told him not to change his swing.) Even so, nobody outside his family recognized the potential of the young first baseman at Miami Dade Junior College, and Vince asked LaSorda to draft his son as a personal favor. LaSorda probably rolled his eyes and groaned but drafted him, insisting on making him a catcher to have an easier path to the majors. Of the Dodgers 61 draft choices that year, only 11 actually made it to the majors. The only other one with a significant career was first baseman Eric Karros. So, for the rest of the story, Piazza, the 1390th player drafted (out of 1433), went on to become perhaps the best hitting catcher in baseball history (427 HR's and .308 lifetime BA) and made LaSorda look like a genius. ___________________________________________________ Now that I've embarrassed the major league scouting programs, I'll go one step further. Since the draft was instituted in 1965, 46 players have been drafted Number 1, and these guys should be surefire stars, right? Well 41 have played in the majors. the five who washed out included the 1966 top pick, catcher Steve Chilcott (Mets), 1991's left handed pitcher Brian Taylor (Yankees), 2004's shortstop Matt Bush (Padres) and 2008's shortstop Tim Beckham (Reds). Some did become big stars as expected, like Harold Baines (2830 hits), Darryl Strawberry (335 HR's), Ken Griffey Jr. (630 HR's), Chipper Jones (436 HR's and .306 BA), Alex Rodriguez (616 HR's), Adrian Gonzalez and Joe Mauer (.326 BA, 2 batting championships). ___________________________________________________ Others were average or slightly above average players like the Cubs' Shawon Dunston (.269 BA), Pat Burrell (288 HR's, .254 BA), Darin Erstad (.282 BA), Phil Nevin (208 HR's, .270 BA), B.J. Surhoff (.282 BA) , Ben McDonald (78-70, 3.91 ERA), Mike Moore (161-176, 4.39 ERA), Floyd Bannister (134-143, 4.06 ERA) and Bill Almon (.254 BA). In some cases players failed through no fault of their own. They suffered injuries that shortened or hampered their careers. The jury is still out on some recent Number Ones like pitchers Stephen Strasburg, David Price and Luke Hochevar, and outfielder Delman Young. ___________________________________________________One thing is certain, if a scout can come up with the NEXT Albert Pujols--seeing something the other teams have missed--he'll have fans buying him dinner and drinks for life. KENNETH SUSKIN 4/15/11


Friday, April 1, 2011


Baseball season is back, and we celebrate one of professional baseball's oldest records--the longest hitting streak in history. A beacon of consistency, Joe got at least one hit in an incredible 69 straight games. Yes, former Major Leaguer Joe Wilhoit (you thought DiMaggio?), playing for the Wichita Witches of the Western League in the 1919 season pulled off this amazing feat. By the way, the second longest hitting streak in the minor leagues was performed by the other Joe--DiMaggio, in 1933 when he batted safely in 61 games. DiMaggio, playing for the San Francisco Seals, was only 18 years old at the time. __________________________________________________ Thanks to research and articles by Bob Rives of the Baseball Biography Project, and by Bill Rabinowitz (Wilhoit, the Wichita Wonder), I'm able to bring you the details of this incredible feat. Joe Wilhoit was born in 1885 in Hiawatha, Kansas, just across the river from St. Joseph, Missouri, where well known baseball fan Jesse James had recently been killed before he had a chance to meet Sandra Bullock. But that's another story. Wilhoit went to college in Chicago where he became the first DePaul alumnus to play in the big leagues. His major league career consisted of just 4 seasons, mostly as a reserve outfielder. He was a respectable hitter, batting .285 in 1917 and .274 in 1918. It was a long road, but the high point came when he played in two games for the NY Giants in the 1917 World Series. The Giants lost the Series to the Chicago White Sox who didn't win it again until 2005, a span of 88 years. ___________________________________________________The next season was a war year and the big leagues were depleted of talent. Wilhoit, being married, was less likely to be drafted, and he won a semi regular position with the Giants, alternating with Jim Thorpe. You may remember Thorpe because he won several Olympic gold medals and Hollywood made a movie about him. They even named a town in Pennsylvania after him, (Mauch Chunk, PA became Jim Thorpe, PA.) but it wasn't because of his hitting. In 1919 when the regular players came back from World War I, Wilhoit was demoted to the minors--Seattle in the Pacific Coast League. __________________________________________________ Joe went into a batting slump there and was soon traded to Wichita in a lower minor league. At that point, deep in the bush leagues, most ballplayers would think about another line of work, but Joe was happy back in Kansas and was determined to stay the season. After 25 games with the Witches, management was ready to bring out the brooms. Joe's average was below the Mendoza Line, and Mario Mendoza wasn't even born yet. The unemployment line was looking like a distinct possibility. The only thing Joe had going was that the team carried only 14 players, and the only spare outfielder was hospitalized after being beaned by a fastball. ___________________________________________________ The team owner and manager, Frank Isbell was also a former big leaguer, a star with the 1906 Chicago White Sox World Champs. Isbell worked with Wilhoit on his hitting, switching him to a lighter bat. Apparently he pushed the right button because the outfielder began to hit. It started slowly, with an infield hit on June 14th against Oklahoma City. After that, Joe went bonkers! Over the next 12 games, he had multiple hits in each game. In a doubleheader against Des Moines, he collected 8 hits in 9 at-bats. During the course of the Streak, Wilhoit had 153 hits in 297 at-bats, an other-worldly .515 batting average. During that time, he hit 24 doubles, 9 triples and 4 homers. (For the whole season, he led the Minor Leagues in hitting with a .422 batting average.) News of the Streak spread like a prairie fire. Fans began pouring into the ballpark to cheer him on. The national press began covering Joe's games. __________________________________________________ Getting a hit every game is very difficult because there is an element of luck--good and bad. Line drives can be caught; sharply hit ground balls are often hit directly at fielders. In Game 62, Joe didn't get a hit until the 11th inning--it was a game winning homer. In Game 63, he went hitless his first three tries. In his fourth, he bunted the ball to Omaha third baseman, Bert Graham who was playing an unfamiliar position when the regular third sacker got hurt. Omaha had a big lead in the game, and although Graham probably could have thrown Joe out, he elected to hold the ball. The scorekeeper charitably credited Joe with a hit, extending the Streak. The crowd applauded Graham's "sportsmanship". Whether Graham helped him or not is open to question, but Joe was a fan favorite and one of the most popular players in the league. ___________________________________________________ In any event, the Streak continued until August 19th when he was stopped by Tulsa pitcher Elam Vanglider who later pitched for 11 years in the Majors. Joe struck out, grounded out sharply to the shortstop and flied out in his first three appearances. In his fourth try, facing relief pitcher Mutt Williams in the seventh inning, he drew a base on balls. In the bottom of the eighth inning, Wichita rallied to take the lead with two out. The pitcher, Paul Musser was due up, and Isbell elected not to use a pinch hitter. Musser made the last out with Joe in the on-deck circle. Musser retired the side in the ninth inning, and Joe never got another chance to hit. When the Streak ended, the fans passed the hat and collected $600 for Joe--a large sum considering his monthly pay was only about $200. ___________________________________________________ The Streak drew the attention of Major League clubs who got into a bidding auction with owner Isbell for Wilhoit's services. After the Streak, Isbell sold Joe's contract to the Boston Red Sox, and he wasn't in Kansas anymore. He finished the season with the Bosox, getting 6 hits in 18 at-bats. In the 1920 season, he found himself back in the minors where he finished his professional career in 1923 with Salt Lake City of the Pacific Coast League, batting .360 in his final season. He bought a luggage shop in Santa Barbara, California which he operated until his untimely death from cancer in 1930. ___________________________________________________ Today, the Streak is practically unknown because nobody has ever seriously threatened it. It was overshadowed by the great Joe DiMaggio, who set the more famous Major League hitting streak of 56 games back in 1941. DiMaggio, of course, was the premier center fielder of his generation and may have been even better known for marrying the premier sex siren of his generation Marilyn Monroe. No average Joes here.