Does fear matter in baseball? Every now and again, a personality comes along who transcends the standard emotions of the game. They stand out. People struggle for precise words to describe these players; they usually come up with imprecise and unsatisfying descriptions like “gamer” or “bulldog” or “all-heart” or “feared.” You probably see any of those those words, and immediately a matching player comes to mind.
Well, it makes sense. Baseball, more than any other sport, is a daily game crowded with relatively bland daily emotions. A bit of happiness. a bit of sadness. A bit of excitement. A bit of boredom. The sameness of every day –s bus ride, work outs, batting practice, side sessions, watch video, check the lineup card, laugh at the same jokes, visualize the game, take off the cap, sing the he National Anthem, — stifles and motivates. You know where to be. There’s no place else to be. Also, there’s no place else to go.
Then, into this world, someone comes along who is just a little bit different. Bob Feller was different. Hitters felt a slightly different emotion facing him — he threw 100 mph and wasn’t entirely sure where it was going. Ted Williams was different — he never swung at a bad pitch and if you gave him anything too good he would turn and crush it.
Willie MacCovey was different too.
Does fear matter in baseball? On a basic level, you’d have to say no. A fear-based home run is not worth any more than a regular old old home run. A strikeout earned through intimidation is no different from a strikeout earned through misdirection. A few years ago, during the Jim Rice Hall of Fame debate, some of his fans believed he deserved extra credit for being (as the narrative goes) the most feared hitter of his time. Right now, during the Jack Morris Hall of Fame debate, many of his fans believe he deserves extra credit for being (as the narrative goes) the big-game pitcher nobody wanted to face when it mattered most.
Even if these things are true, the question remains: What difference does it make? Rice’s career was Rice’s career, Morris’ career was Morris’ career. We see their numbers, we remember their habits, we can compare their production to other great players. Whatever fear they might have inspired doesn’t change what they did for better or worse.
But … maybe there’s another way to look at it. Consider Willie McCovey. He was probably the most feared hitter of his time (Dick Allen, Frank Howard, Willie Stargell, Orlando Cepeda intimidated too, but I’d argue for McCovey). He was one of the more feared hitters of all time. It was a fear you could quantify — with intentional walks, and unintentional intentional walks and the quotes of the time.
Does this fear add to his career home run total? No. Does it change the fact that he was cursed with as much bad timing as any player? No. Does it fix the body that break down too often? No.
So … what then?
Willie McCovey was born in Alabama in 1938. As an aside, think about Alabama for a moment. Willie Mays was born in Westfield, Alabama in 1932. Henry Aaron was born in Mobile. Alabama in 1934. Two-time All-Star pitcher Bob Veale was born in Birmingham in 1935. In 1938, McCovey was born in Mobile, Billy Williams was born in Whistler and two-time All-Star Don Mincher was born in Huntsville. Tommie Agee was born in Magnolia in 1942 and Lee May was born in Birmingham in 1943.
Four Hall of Famers (including two of the best players ever) and four more All-Stars in a decade or so is pretty solid work for a single state, especially one with barely 2.5 million people at the time. The best player born in California over the same stretch of time was probably Graig Nettles. Florida: Boog Powell. New York had Yaz and Joe Torre, Ohio had Pete Rose, Texas had some excellent players including Frank Robinson and Joe Morgan. But that stretch of players from Alabama is otherworldly.
McCovey was the seventh of 10 children. He dropped out of school to help support his family. At 17, he attended a New York Giants tryout camp. In a twist of fate that would affect both men’s lives, McCovey ended up at the same tryout camp as another future Hall of Famer, Orlando Cepeda. The two young men — both huge first baseman with immense power and born just four months apart in age — would find themselves banging heads for the next 10 years.
At the time, McCovey was tall and gangly, but he already had towering natural power. The Giants sent him to the Georgia State league where he mashed 19 home runs and slugged .507. He was moved up to Danville in the Carolina League, and there he hit 29 home runs and slugged closer to .600. There was something remarkable and a little bit illogical about McCovey — he had this massive, slow-looking swing that was obviously powerful but also should have missed a lot. It didn’t. The comparison that comes to mind is George Foreman in his prime throwing what looked like heavy, plodding punches and seemed fairly easy to elude. They were not. Foreman was laser accurate. And so was McCovey. As McCovey grew into his body, he would walk much more than he struck out.
Unfortunately for McCovey, Cepeda was, if anything, slightly more advanced. He hit .393 in the Mississippi-Ohio Valley League — which you will be happy to know did not have a single team from Mississippi or Ohio — and later hit .300 and slugged .500 in Class AA Minneapolis. Cepeda made it to the big leagues first. He played the whole season in 1958, he hit .312, slugged .512 and led the league in the doubles. He was named Rookie of the Year.
McCovey made his move the next year. The Giants may not have been eager to move him up but he so obliterated Class AAA Tacoma pitching — hitting .372 and slugging .759 with 29 homers in just 95 games — that the Giants had no choice. They called up McCovey and switched Cepeda’s position to make room at first base. They tried Cepeda at third base for four games. Cepeda was beyond disastrous. So they moved him to left field where he was only moderately more successful.
But what could they do? McCovey was unreal. In 52 games, he hit .354. smacked 13 home runs and drove in 38 runs. He hit the ball with so much force and fury that he was unanimously named Rookie of the Year, even though he only had 192 big league at-bats. It remains the fewest at-bats ever for a non-pitcher Rookie of the Year. That’s the kind of impression he made.
So … what next? That Giants clearly had no idea. They had two amazing hitters, both barely adequate first basemen, and they were stuck. They apparently did not want to deal either one — and who could blame them? — so they tried Cepeda in left field and right field but neither one took. They tried the heavy-footed McCovey in left field and right field and that was even worse. They rode a hot bat and then would flip to the other guy. Mostly, McCovey suffered in the exchange especially because he also had painful feet and bad knees. From 1959 through 1964, McCovey only once got even 375 plate appearances in a season. That was 1963, and he hit .280/.350/.566 and led the National League with 44 home runs.
Timing. It’s such an underrated part of baseball. McCovey’s early years were blocked by Cepeda. His prime years happened to come at the worst time for hitters since Deadball. High mounds. Vast strike zones. Amazing power pitchers. McCovey faced only six pitchers more than 100 times in his career. The six include Hall of Famer Don Drysdale, Hall of Famer Bob Gibson, Hall of Famer Don Sutton, Hall of Famer Phil Niekro and Hall of Famer Jim Bunning. Yeah. The sixth was the excellent Larry Jackson, whom he pummeled relentlessly.
Actually, McCovey pummeled a lot of good pitchers. He slugged .680 against Drysdale, .584 against Tom Seaver, .552 against Niekro, he even slugged .500 against lefty-killer Steve Carlton. But that doesn’t diminish the difficulty of hitting in his time. Koufax tied him up in knots. Spahn too. In 1968, he was the only hitter in the league to drive in 100 runs. From 1967 to 1972, National League teams averaged fewer than four runs a game — the lowest extended stretch of scoring since the spitball was outlawed. McCovey was he best power hitter of the time with the highest OPS (.957) for any player in baseball. But runs were hard to score.
So you take it all in total: McCovey was shorted a bunch of at-bats because he came along at the same time as Cepeda. He lost a lot of at-bats because his body would break down. He played in a truly miserable time for hitters. With that, it’s absolutely amazing that he hit 521 homers in his career, knocked in more than 1,500 RBIs, and created more than 1,600 runs. At the time of his retirement, he was 26th on the all-time list of runs created.
In another time, with better time, as Bill James has written, he might have hit 800 homers.
But how do you tell his story? Maybe you do talk about fear. McCovey was utterly feared — enough to subtly change the game. Before McCovey, as far as the records go back (to 1937 on the incomparable Retrosheet), only one player had been intentionally walked 30-plus times in a season. That was Ted Williams in 1957. He was intentionally walked 33 times — that year he hit .388 and slugged .731 for a team that usually had a 39-year-old Mickey Vernon or Dick Gernert hitting behind him.
The intentional walk, except in rare cases, just wasn’t used as an evasive strategy. It was used mostly to set up the double play. Sure, managers would walk a good hitter if first base was open sometimes, but not often. In 1956, he year Mickey Mantle hit for the Triple Crown, he was intentionally walked six times. Hank Aaron, even long after he was known to be lethal, was never intentionally walked 25 times in a season, and Willie Mays topped out at 20.
And then came McCovey. After the Giants traded Cepeda, McCovey was left alone as the everyday first baseman. He became otherworldly. From 1968-1970, he led the league in slugging, OPS and OPS+ each year. He walked 100 times more than he struck out. He averaged 40 homers a year. And what homers. “When he belts a home run,” Dodgers manager Walter Alston said, “he does it with such authority it seems like an act of God.”
So teams started walking him. And walking him. And walking him. He walked 121 times in 1969, 137 times in 1970. “If you pitch to him, he’ll ruin baseball,” Reds manager Sparky Anderson said. Anderson was manager of the Reds from 1970 to 1978 and, sure enough, the Reds intentionally walked McCovey 22 times in that time. Sparky’s Reds even intentionally walked McCovey twice in 1978, when Stretch was 40 years old. That’s the kind of admiration and fear we’re talking about here.
In 1968, when McCovey led the league with 36 homers and 105 RBIs, he was intentionally walked 20 times. The next year, it was 45 — that record would last for 30 years and not be broken until Barry Bonds bulked up and became Superman
The year after that, McCovey was intentionally walked 40 times, the second-highest total before Bonds. He led the league in intentional walks in 1971 and 1973. He was so feared that, in a weird way, he sort of broke the game. They walked him. They tried crazy shifts against him. Teams, many of them, more or less gave up the idea of pitching to him when the game was on the line. Anderson said if teams pitched to him, he’d hit 80 home runs.
Fielders inched back. Pitchers sweated a touch more. Even Don Drysdale, who made a living out of intimidating hitters, felt trepidation. “I think McCovey is the only player he was afraid of,” Don Sutton said of Drysdale. McCovey hit balls with such violence you could almost see exclamation points flying off of them at contact.
Does fear matter in baseball? It depends how you ask the question. Fear doesn’t change the player. McCovey still was a phenomenal power hitter. McCovey still only had six seasons with 600 plate appearances. He was still a subpar defender and a sluggish runner. But if you saw Willie McCovey hit, you could not forget him. And that matters.