By In Stuff

The Museum of Nice Players

OK, it has been a little while since I’ve done kind of a weird baseball post, so let’s try one here. I woke up the other morning with the number 19 on my mind, no idea why. Maybe it was an homage to Bernie Kosar or Bob Feller or the Paul Hardcastle song or magic hexagons. Whatever, I started thinking: “I wonder who the 19th best player at every position.”

I do realize, yes, that every time I write what I’m thinking I reveal myself as more of a loon.

But that was my thought: Who is the 19th best third baseman? The 19th best right fielder? And so on. Bill James in his New Historical Abstract ranked the Top 100 players at every position but, believe it or not, he wrote that 15 years ago. Still he was my starting point. It was while flipping through That realized that I’m not actually interested in the 19th ranked player at every position. What I want to find is the best player at every position who is unanimously* NOT considered a Hall of Famer.

*More or less — nothing is really unanimous. Heck, you would think we would all unanimously agree to never, ever intentionally walk Ryan Howard. But Washington’s Matt Williams did it anyway.

We all know about the Hall of Very Good. I’m looking for something that feeds off that, something I call the “Museum of the Nice Player.”

Does that make sense? What is a Nice Player? Well, let’s start with the shortstop spot. Bill James had Maury Wills as the 19th best shortstop. Wills is not in the Hall of Fame. That would seem to be the kind of player I’m talking about … but it isn’t. Many, many people think Wills belongs in the Hall of Fame; columnist after columnist has written the angry “How can Maury Wills not be in the Hall?” column. So he isn’t exactly what I’m looking for here.

Bill had Johnny Pesky at No. 20; Pesky is also not in the Hall of Fame but he too has a pretty vocal Hall of Fame lobby. Bill Dahlen is No. 21; there are some who consider him the best player from his era not in the Hall of Fame. So I have to keep going.

You will notice that all my Museum of the Nice Player inductees are from the last 40 years or so. I think this is because before 1960, many of the Nice Player candidates have been elected to the real Hall of Fame. Bill Mazeroski would have been a good choice, but he’s in Cooperstown (and, to be fair, he probably had too much Hall of Fame support from fans anyway).

Anyway, here we go:

Catcher: Darrell Porter

Darrell Porter was one of those remarkable athletes who could do everything spectacularly well. He was a three-sport star in high school, and he signed a letter-of-intent to play quarterback at Oklahoma. He only changed his mind when Milwaukee drafted him fourth in the 1979 amateur draft and offered him what they called “an undisclosed but substantial bonus.” Porter hit a home run the first time he swung the bat in the minor leagues.

He hit 16 homers as a rookie in the big leagues, and he was an all-star his second year, but his early seasons largely were disappointments. Rumors quickly spread about late nights and drunken stupors and drug episodes. The Brewers traded him to Kansas City before the 1977 season, much to Porter’s fury. He angrily blamed manager Alex Grammas for giving up on him, and he called Milwaukee a loser organization. Grammas responded: “It’s just pitiful. It’s not only he was so bad hitting, but defensively he hurt us worse.” Several Brewers also ripped Porter after he was traded; pitcher Bill Travers said Porter would sometimes not even pay attention during games.

Maybe the change of scenery theme we talk about so often in sports is largely a myth … but no one could argue that everything changed for Darrell Porter as a player after he got to Kansas City.  While he and Grammas were at each other’s throats, Porter found a father figure in Kansas City manager Whitey Herzog. While in Milwaukee his effort and commitment were constantly question. In Kansas City, his teammate George Brett would say, he played every game “like it was the seventh game of the World Series.”

In four years with the Royals, Porter hit .271/.375/.435, played solid catcher and was one of the key players in the Royals’ ascension. The team made the playoffs three of those four years and went to the World Series in 1980. In 1979, Porter had one of the great seasons ever for a catcher, hitting .291/.421/.484, scoring and driving in 100 runs, leading the league with 121 walks and playing superb defense. On the surface, all seemed to be coming together for an All-American boy.

But it wasn’t like that at all. By 1979, Porter was a full-fledged drug addict, barely able to function in social situations. He would write in his book “Snap Me Perfect” that he treated people terribly, was unreliable in every way and once beat up a man for no reason he could remember. That winter he sat at home with a shotgun in case commissioner Bowie Kuhn burst into his home. He would write that he felt utterly dead inside, unable to feel joy or sorrow or anything else other than a hopeless fear. The brilliant talent he had for playing baseball was the only thing keeping him going.

In 1980, he checked into a rehab center and soon said that he had been born again. At the end of that year, he became a free agent. Few teams wanted him; those rumors about alcohol and drug abuse were again raging.  But there was one man who never stopped believing in Porter, and Whitey Herzog had gone to manage the Cardinals. “I think Darrell Porter is one of the best people I’ve ever known,” he told reporters. “I’m not the least bit worried about him. He’s one of the greatest catchers around and certainly one of the finest human beings I’ve ever known.”

At first, nobody really understood why Herzog would want Porter. The Cardinals had an overload of catchers then. They had Ted Simmons – who is not on this Nice Player list only because many consider him a Hall of Famer – and they had the young Terry Kennedy (who would become a Nice Player himself). The signing seemed loopy. But Whitey Herzog had his own plan. In his mind, Simmons’ defense had disintegrated to the point where he could no longer be the team’s catcher. When Simmons made it clear he wasn’t playing first base (and the Cardinals already had a first baseman named Keith Hernandez), Simmons was traded to Milwaukee. As for Terry Kennedy, yes, he showed showed promise, but Herzog wasn’t interested in promise. Herzog was interested in winning right away. Kennedy (and another catcher, Steve Swisher) was traded to San Diego. Darrell Porter was left standing.

Porter wasn’t as good in St. Louis as he had been in Kansas City, but he was good enough to start and hit in the middle of the lineup for a 1982 Cardinals that won the World Series. He turned on in the playoffs that year, winning the NLCS and World Series MVP Awards. He then had his best St. Louis season in 1983, when he hit 15 homers and had a 119 OPS+. After that he declined quickly as catchers often do.

In all, Porter had eight or nine good seasons and one MVP-type year. Hall of Fame? No. But there are not many catchers who have had that kind of career. The story ended sadly for Darrell Porter. He did try to kick his addictions. He was very involved in the Fellowship of Christian Athletes, and he would speak about the difficulties of overcoming drugs. Tragically, he did not overcome. He died at age 50 of the toxic effects of cocaine.

* * *

First base: Mark Grace

I originally had John Olerud in this spot because, believe it or not, Grace got significantly more Hall of Fame support than Olerud did. Grace got 22 votes — he almost got the necessary 5% to stay on the ballot.  Olerud, meanwhile, got just four votes. But, I have determined that as time goes on some people WILL make the Hall of Fame case for Olerud. He really did have a borderline Hall of Fame career. Grace did not. Grace is, I believe, the epitome of the Nice Player.

My favorite Mark Grace story actually does not have Mark Grace as the central character.  In 1990, I was the junior beat writer for the Charlotte Knights, then the Class AA minor league team for the Chicago Cubs. You will ask: What is a “junior beat writer” for a minor league team? Answer: It’s exactly what it sounds like.

Anyway, I had many great moments as the team’s junior beat writer. I once had Billy Williams teach me the difference between a slider and a curveball. I once unintentionally insulted former N.C. State basketball star and current superb announcer Terry Gannon. And, after they built a new baseball stadium in Fort Mill, I went out for the big ceremony where the team’s owner George Shinn, the town’s mayor, various politicians all put on hard hats and pretended to be construction workers as the first seats were installed. My paragraph on the subject is still remembered as a classic of journalism. It is, I suspect, taught in classrooms across America.

And this was a chance for Knights people —
all wearing hard hats, of course —
to boast about what they say will be
one of the finest minor-league facilities
in the country. It was also a chance for
Shinn, among others, to ceremoniously
screw in the first two seats of the stadium.

Um .. yeah. The line break was just like that too, like putting “ceremoniously” and “screw” together was not enough comedy. It really is a mystery why an editor, after that happened, did not just state the obvious and say that journalism was probably not for me. But I digress.

One night we were up in the press box and Jimmy Piersall of “Fear Strikes Out” fame was there too; he was some sort of roving instructor for the Cubs. I actually saw Piersall quite a bit in those days. He was, to put it mildly, kind of excitable.

Anyway, the senior beat writer, Stan Olson, and I were talking about Mark Grace – I can’t remember if I had Grace on my fantasy team or stan did, but I believe that was the point of our conversation. At the time, Grace was hitting pretty lousy and, more importantly, he had hit one home run all year. Stan, who called his fantasy team “The Olyboppers” and listed the home run as one of the five greatest things in life, had no use for this power outage.

So Stan says, “Hey, let’s ask Piersall.” And Stan does. He says, “Jimmy, what’s wrong with Mark Grace?”

You’ve heard the “What do I think of Kingman’s performance?” rant from Tommy Lasorda, right? OK, put that rant in your mind. Now double it. Piersall went on a fantastic tirade about sportswriters and incompetence and never-playing-the-game and how Mark Grace had hit THREE BLEEPING FOURTEEN LAST YEAR … THREE BLEEPING FOURTEEN … WHAT DO YOU BLEEPING BLEEP BLEEPERS THINK YOU WOULD HIT IF YOU WERE IN THE MAJOR LEAGUES?

At which point, the official scorer – a fantastic guy and local high school coaching legend named Ed Walton – piped up and said: “Oh about .350.”

Vesuvias knew not the rage of Piersall.

* * *

Second base: Chuck Knoblauch

He will be remembered, if at all, for the throwing horrors that haunted him, the generally unhappy role he played as the least-favorite Beatle of those great New York Yankees team and the sad turns his life have taken since retirement.

But for a four- or five-year period there, he was essentially as good as Craig Biggio or Robbie Alomar at their best. He led the American League in doubles in 1994 and in triples in 1996. For a four year stretch, 1994-1997, Biggio hit .319, slugged .468, and averaged 112 runs and 47 stolen bases per season. He was only a slightly lesser player in the three or four years surrounding those, making him a superb, Hall of Fame caliber second baseman from 1991 (when he won the Rookie of the Year award) to around 1999 (his second year with the Yankees).

Knoblauch’s life went off the rails after that. He had those terrible throwing problems. He was specifically named in the Mitchell Report. In retirement, he has had numerous legal problems, including horrific charges of domestic abuse. He has given little reason to remember him fondly. But it is still true that for a time there, he was not only a terrific baseball player but was in his own way an admirable baseball player, one of the rare players who hustles and thinks and does everything well. Baseball, though, isn’t life.

* * *

Shortstop: Jim Fregosi

Funny thing: I have no memory of Jim Fregosi as a player, only as a manager. I mean NO memory. This is odd because he did play throughout my childhood, yet I never remember getting a Jim Fregosi baseball card, never remember reading about him, never recall seeing him play. After he became manager of the Angels in 1978, I do remember thinking:

1. Who is that guy?

2. His last name is fun to say! Fregosi!

Well, Fregosi was one helluva player from 1963 to 1970. That was a bit before my time, but I still should have heard about him. Fregosi played at an MVP level in 1964, 1965 and 1970. He was a good defensive shortstop who hit with some power. A lot of this is obscured by the time when he played (the 1960s, the great pitching decade) and the ballparks where he played (he played his early years at Dodger Stadium when it was a hitting wasteland, then moved to Anaheim, which wasn’t much better).

In 1964, for instance, he hit .277 with 18 homers, 86 runs and 72 RBIs. Nice. Not thrilling. But nice.

Neutralized? Those number are suddenly .302/.397/.504 with 20 homers, 10 triples, 87 RBIs, 103 runs scored. That’s a great year.

In 1967, he hit a career high .290. Neutralized that jumps up to .320. The next year, he led the league with 13 triples and scored 77 runs. Neutralized, that’s 16 triples and 105 runs.

One of the quirks of baseball is that the game ebbs and flows – pitching dominates, then hitting dominates, then pitching dominates, then speed dominates, then power dominates on and on – but the statistical benchmarks we use to quantify players generally stays the same. So players are regularly overrated or underrated based entirely on their circumstances. It’s likely that Jim Fregosi himself didn’t fully appreciate just how good a player he was in his time.

* * *

 Third base: Buddy Bell

A few weeks ago, while working on an upcoming story on Felix Hernandez, I got to spend 20 or 30 minutes with Seattle’s pitching coach Rick Waits, an old hero of mine from my childhood Cleveland Indians. I would say Waits was probably the seventh player from my childhood Cleveland teams that I have interviewed at some length:

They are:

1. Duane Kuiper, of course.
2. Rick Waits.
3. Rick Manning
4. Andre Thornton
5. Wayne Garland
6. Mike Hargrove
7. Buddy Bell

Here’s the point: Every single one of those guys was delightful. They were not just superficially friendly or pleasant; they were all terrific beyond the normal boundaries of interviewer-subject. They all gave me much more time than I asked for and they all were open with their thoughts and memories, all very kind. Those 1970s Cleveland teams were pretty bad. But I remain more convinced than ever that I was lucky to grow up with them.

Buddy Bell was essentially the iPad mini version of Brooks Robinson. They were both 6-foot-1, 180 pounds, right-handed third baseman who were magicians with the glove, solid with the bat and class acts on and off the field.

— Robinson was the best defensive third baseman in baseball history; Bell was one of the 10 best.

— Robinson won the MVP award in 1964 when he hit .317 with 28 homers and 118 RBIs. In Bell’s best year, he hit .299 with 18 homers and 101 RBIs and he finished 10th in the MVP voting.

— Bell’s offensive rate numbers over the career are actually better than Robinson’s (higher batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage) but Robinson’s career length means he has a three hundred or so more hits, a couple hundred more RBIs and so on.

— Robinson was a 15-time All-Star (not counting the years where there were two All-Star Games) and he got almost 12,000 plate appearances in his long career. Bell was a 5-time All-Star who got just a touch more than 10,000 plate appearances.

Brooks Robinson was elected to the Hall of Fame in his first year with 92 percent of the vote. Buddy Bell fell off the ballot after receiving just eight votes his one year on the ballot. I guess that’s how it should be, but it just shows you how small the difference can be between an all-time legend and a Nice Player.


 Left field: Brian Downing

There have been few baseball success stories quite like Brian Downing’s. We are talking about a player who was cut from his high school team and then cut from Cypress College. He obviously wasn’t drafted. He just showed up at a Chicago White Sox tryout and played well enough to convince the Sox to give him a few bucks and send him to Sarasota. He went to the rookie ball and hit a whopping .219 with no home runs in 34 games. The next year, he went to Appleton and hit .246 with three homers.

But there was something about Downing that was irresistible. The guy was relentless and willing to do anything to play ball. Anything. He’d play catcher, outfield, third base, wherever they wanted. He showed discipline at the plate, ran out everything, and in Class AA he had a nice year, hitting .278 with seven triples and 15 homers. The next year, he made his big league debut. That, alone, was something of a miracle.

And the result of this miracle? On the very first play of his major league career, Dick McAuliffe hit a foul popup down the third base line. Downing chased it down, made a sliding catch, slid into the dugout, tore up his knee and did not play again two and a half months.

Setbacks? Yeah. There were setbacks. Downing’s first full year was 1975, and he was a pretty useful catcher. He only hit .240, but he did a few other things well. He walked a bunch, stole a few bases, played pretty good defense as a catcher. But he did hit just .240 and that was more or less what mattered then; the fans apparently gave him a pretty hard time. In late 1977, he was traded to California, where he hit just .255 with no power. He was 28 year old at the end of that season. The career seemed to be winding to an end.

And then … Brian Downing had one of the most remarkable transformations in baseball history. He began to work out intensely — he completely reshaped his body long before the 1990s workout and supplement rage — and he completely changed his batting stance. It was a wild batting stance, remember? That stance was so open, he looked like he was preparing to bow before the queen.

Well, he had a fantastic year. He hit .326/.418/.462, scored 87 runs in 130 games. The Angels won the division that year and his teammate Don Baylor won the MVP award. Realistically, the award probably should have gone to Fred Lynn, who hit .333/.423/..637, but if they were going to give it to someone on the Angels, Downing was probably as good a candidate as Baylor or Bobby Grich or anyone else on the team.

He dealt with injury problems in 1980 and the strike in 1981, but starting in 1982 Downing became a consistent run producer who posted a 115 OPS+ or better for 11 straight years. He never hit 30 homers in a season, but he hit 19 or more seven times. He never drove in 100 RBIs, but he did have 90-plus twice and 80-plus two other times. His biggest offensive year was probably 1982, when he had 300 total bases, but he was always productive and by the end he had 2,000 hits, 1,000 RBIs, almost 1,200 runs and more walks than strikeouts.

It was a marvelous career for a man who was cut from his college baseball team, and though he’s not a Hall of Famer it’s unlikely that anyone in the Hall of Fame came closer to maximizing the baseball gifts they were given.

* * *

Center field: Cesar Cedeno

Brian Downing’s story is one of overachieving, Cesar Cedeno’s story is very different. By the time Cedeno turned 19, people regularly were comparing him to Willie Mays. When he was 22, Leo Durocher — who had been there when Mays began — said Cedeno was BETTER than Mays at the same age. Shortly before Roberto Clemente died, the columnist Milton Richman asked him if there was any player in baseball who reminded him of himself. Clemente, without hesitation, said one word: “Cedeno.”

Cedeno led the league in doubles at age 20. At 21, he had a near miraculous season – he hit .320/.384/.537 with 39 doubles (again he led the league) and 22 homers, he stole 55 bases, he scored 103 runs, and he won the Gold Glove. What made this nearly miraculous was that he played half his games in the cavernous and dim Astrodome; on the road he hit .329 and slugged .560.

In 1973, if you simply doubled his road numbers, he would have hit .346/.391/.618 with 32 homers and 46 stolen bases. The Astrodome dampened his stats so that they looked almost identical to the numbers he put up the year before. That’s still a fantastic season.

But late that fall, Cedeno was involved in a tragic and confusing incident. He checked into a hotel in the Dominican Republic with a 19-year-old girl. Details were pretty sketchy. The two definitely were drinking and there was a gun. Police would conclude that the two were wrestling for the gun – perhaps just as some sort of a game – and it went off. The woman was shot and killed. Cedeno called the police, turned himself in and was eventually charged with involuntary manslaughter.

From a legal perspective, he was immediately cleared to play baseball — he spent just 20 days in jail. And Cedeno did play for another 13 seasons. But he was never again the same player.

Oh, he was still a very good player for a while. In 1974, he had career highs in homers (26), RBIs (102) and he stole 57 bases … but his rate stats plummeted. He had injuries in 1975, won his last Gold Glove in 1976 and played 140 games in a season for the last time in 1977. He was just 26 years old and the rest of his career was spent bouncing around just trying to stay healthy and get in the lineup.

He was a sensitive man even before the gun went off in the hotel room that night. “So much, so soon,” he sad sadly to Richman in an interview as a rookie. After the incident, the taunting from the crowd was often merciless and he could not handle it. In 1981 he went into the crowd after a fan. By then his sure Hall of Fame career had disintegrated and the Astros traded him to Cincinnati.

Cedeno did have one last flash of genius. In late 1985, the St. Louis Cardinals were trying desperately to hold off a suddenly powerful New York Mets team. They sent a minor leaguer to Cincinnati for a shot Cedeno; it was one of those desperation moves that contending teams sometimes do. Cedeno was hitting .241 with no power at the time.

Well, Cedeno homered in his first game.  He doubled in his second. On September 5th, he went 3 for 4, and the next day he hit a grand slam. And he just kept on hitting. On September 15, he went 5 for 5 with another homer. From September 11-24, the Cardinals went 12-2 and Cedeno hit better than  .500 and slugged .800.

In all Cedeno hit .434 for the Cardinals and they won the pennant. And that’s where the glory ended. Cedeno did not hit at all in the postseason, the Cardinals did not bring him back, and he signed with the Dodgers. In  his last big-league game,  Cedeno drew a walk, stole a base, took third on the throw and scored on a single. In his last at-bat, he grounded out to second … two innings later he was lifted for a pinch-hitter.

* * *

Right field: Jesse Barfield

Wow was Jesse Barfield a good player in 1985 and 1986. He did more or less everything in those years. In 1985,  he had 70 extra base hits, stole 22 bases, won a Gold Glove and threw out 22 base runners even though by then everyone knew that he had the most glorious arm. The next year, he was even better – he hit 40 homers, drove in 108 RBIs, scored 107 runs, had 20 more base runner kills.

He was a good player in the years around those, but for those two years he was spectacular.

* * *

Pitcher: Mark Langston

How exactly does a pitcher start winning Gold Glove awards? Between 1987 and 1995, Mark Langston won eight Gold Gloves. The only defensive statistic anyone looked at in those days was fielding percentage, and Langston did not have an exceptional fielding percentage. He made about as many errors as the average pitcher, maybe even a couple more. His range factor, if anyone bothered to look, was generally around or even below average – in his later years, it picked up.

I suspect Langston kept winning Gold Gloves because he WAS a good fielder and, more to the point, he had a wonderful grace about him. He came up as a fireballing lefty who led the league in strikeouts three of his first four years. He maintained the juice in his fastball for a good while – at age 32 he still struck out 196.

Like many power pitchers, he was hard to hit, a bit wild and home run prone. But there was nothing jerky or awkward about his power; he was smooth and easy and beautiful to watch. His pickoff move was gorgeous, a perfect little thing that just froze base runners. Langston picked off 91 base runners, fourth all-time. His game was power but his style was light and graceful.

Langston never won 20 in a season, but his teams won 20 of his starts in four different seasons – if you can unravel that sentence you can understand the mysteries of pitching statistics. Langston played for mostly lousy teams, and he did not get to pitch in the postseason until he was 37. He never started a postseason game.

That was just his fate. In 1990, Langston, Jim Abbott and Chuck Finley formed a pretty remarkable trio of lefty starters – Abbott and Finley both got Cy Young votes. But those Angels couldn’t score runs and so they went 81-81.

89 Responses to The Museum of Nice Players

  1. Jason says:

    Really enjoyed this, Joe. Would love to see more.

  2. rst1959 says:

    Joe — I think I got your share of the Jim Fregosi baseball cards.

  3. Nice article. Coming from KC I have followed your writing for years and do enjoy it immensely.

  4. Tony Hill says:

    I loved the article. Maybe I am just unaware of his HOF support, but I would put Gene Tenace ahead of Porter at C. I admit to an A’s bias and have not compared stats of the two recently. But I thought Geno was way under-appreciated.

  5. Dr. Doom says:

    Great article, Joe. I do have two quibbles: those are Buddy Bell (and to a lesser extent) Cesar Cedeno. I have read quite a few people in the “advanced stats community” who advocate for either one, or for both. I think your other choices are very good… but those two were, I think, just a little TOO good for this exercise.

    • Joe referred to Buddy Bell’s defense at 3rd as “Top 10”. I think advance stats have him as 2 or 3, if I’m not mistaken. I’m a little too lazy right now to look it up. So in that his hitting was comparable to Brooks, as was his fielding (to the extent that anyone can be compared to Brooks), he should be a HOF candidate.

      • Iram says:

        A big difference (the real difference?) is that Bell played for really bad Indians and Rangers teams. I followed the Rangers then and, for a long time Buddy Bell was not only their best player but it seemed like he was their only good player.

      • maxmckay says:

        Total Zone on Fangraphs has Robinson by a huge landslide as #1, then Bell at #2 just ahead of Robin Ventura and Scott Rolen. Total Zone is however a rate stat. There are some historical greats with shorter careers that may have a case – Willie Kamm and Ken Keltner come to mind. But yeah, Bell’s probably Top 5 more than Top 10.

  6. tarhoosier says:

    Jim Fregosi was manager of the Louisville Redbirds, the Cardinals AAA team in the early 80’s. The owner was a local car dealer and had some dream of landing a MLB team. He threw lots of money and advertising into the team which doubled as his auto advertising. Nice ballpark. He sold out each season as I recall. The Cardinals had lots of fine talent coming through. He paid Fregosi very well, close to what a MLB staffer would make, gave him a new car, membership to his country club and passes to Churchill Downs. The team was winning and the seats were filled.It was a charmed time for everyone. I recall Fregosi saying that if a MLB team came to him with an offer he would have to truly think about it compared to where he was, things were that good.

  7. likedoohan says:

    Bill Freehan was an 11 time All Star with 5 Gold Gloves, and was clearly the best player at his position in the AL for a decade. He was much better than Porter.

    • jposnanski says:

      Exactly. Freehan too good for Museum of Nice Players.

      • Bill says:

        I immediately thought of Freehan as I started this article, went to BBRef to look at Porter’s page and Freehan is his #1 comparable nearly at every age.

        • Andrew says:

          What about replacing Bill Freehan with another Tiger? Lance Parrish was a way better-than-average catcher who stood out in the two great catcher virtues — power and throwing — but never got a sniff of HOF consideration.

      • MCD says:

        Of course this all subjective, but I would argue that if Freehan was “too good” for this list, then Buddy Bell was also. Bell’s WAR is significantly better than Freehan’s, whether you go by career (66.1 to 44.7) or 7-year peak (40.1 to 33.7). Their HOF standard scores are very comparable (Bell = 30, Freehan = 28) and baseball reference ranks Bell as the 15th best 3B and Freehan as the 14th best C. Also by baseball reference: Bell’s most closes comparable player is Brooks Robinson, while Freehan’s is (surprise) Darrell Porter.

  8. AndyL says:

    I immediately thought of Boog Powell or Frank Howard at first.

  9. AndyL says:

    I think two additional factors have hurt Fregosi’s reputation: (1) he was traded for Nolan Ryan and didn’t produce at all for the Mets; and (2) he had a long downside, hanging on for about 8 mediocre or poor years after his best years as an Angel.

    • Well, and the Angels weren’t exactly Top of mind in those days. They almost never appeared on Game of the Week, so unless you were attending games regularly, you probably never saw him play. But, make no mistake, to an Angels fan, he was the man. The face of the franchise for many years. He was a six time All Star during a time when the team was woeful. I mean this was a time when the Angels pitchers were guys named George Brunet and Tom Murphy. There were a lot of players on the Angels that could not have made any other team in the league. I also like the trivia that he’s one of two significant players ever to come from my High School, El Modena, in California. Freddie Freeman is the other.

      • EnzoHernandez11 says:

        That’s exactly right about Fregosi. He was a huge star in Anaheim during the 1960s. Younger readers would be shocked to know just how remote the west coast was, sports-wise, in the 60s and 70s. East of the Mississippi, games in the Pacific time zone finished after the 11:00 news and too late for the morning newspaper’s deadlines. Teams that didn’t make the playoffs (the Angels, Padres, and, to a lesser extent, the Giants) rarely appeared on national television of any kind. In some sense, they simply didn’t exist.* When I was visiting my relatives in New England in 1977, I watched that year’s all star game with my cousins. Not a single one had any idea who Dave Winfield was.**

        * The Dodgers are the exception, of course, both because they regularly appeared in post-season and because they were Hollywood’s team.

        ** I just remembered something from Bill James’ Historical Abstract. James says that when someone asked the Minnesota-born Winfield his reaction to being drafted #1 by the Padres in 1973, he responded, “To be honest, I had never heard of them.”

        • Yep. Game of the week was on Saturday morning and was the ONLY national game on TV all week. Bad teams were just never on it. I imagine that’s hard for a Millenial to comprehend. Hell, it’s hard for me to comprehend. We’ve reached the point where it doesn’t matter where LeBron plays. He can be successful and the man in Cleveland. Not really possible 30 years ago.

  10. Leo Kearns says:

    Great article. I thought we might see Eric Davis at CF, and I popped for the “History of the World Part I” reference in the Fregosi write-up.

    • dfj79 says:

      Eric Davis, for me, is more of a “Hall of What-if” guy–as in, a guy who was clearly a Hall-of-Fame type talent but just couldn’t stay healthy. I think of a Nice Player not only as a guy who never got Hall of Fame consideration, but as a guy who never really felt like a Hall of Fame talent, either–a player who was just consistently very good, but rarely or never elite. Guys like Davis and Dwight Gooden are something else.

      Nomar Garciaparra is another one who’s more of a What-If than a Nice Player to me–a Hall of Fame talent who was an MVP candidate whenever he played a full season, but whose career just got derailed by injuries.

  11. AndyL says:

    Seems like there were a lot of possibilities for the pitcher’s slot: I thought of Vida Blue, Jimmie Key, Milt Pappas, Steve Rogers, Kevin Appier, Frank Viola, Jerry Koosman, Mike Cuellar. All very good solid pitchers but none who received a lot of HOF votes or generated much HOF support among fans.

    • FEmond says:

      Steve Rogers! The ace of those marvelous, talented, underachieving Expos teams I followed as a youth… It seems Rogers was pitching against Steve Carlton every time the Phillies showed up in town, and he more than held his own against Lefty. Looking back, his stats do seem underwhelming (so few Ks!), but this was another era…

  12. HarryDangler says:

    Brian Downing was the first MLB player to set off my Roid-ar. I lived in a Big-8 town at the time and had joined the local gym, where I learned that these ‘new supplements’ were creating giant college football lineman. I didn’t try it myself but wondered why baseball players didn’t do it. In the 1982 ALCS I noticed that Brian Downing of the Angels had a similar build to the guys I was seeing at the gym. It was only three or four years later that Canseco came along, and he was suspected of steroid use almost immediately. Two other guys – Lance Parrish and Carlton Fisk – also acquired that build, and, to me, stood out from the leaner baseball players of that era.

    • flcounselor says:

      Bingo. I have always assumed that Brian Downing transformed himself with steroids and hard work.

      Steroids were common as candy in the late 70’s (as were most other drugs). Friends would even bring them to share at our marathon games of Dungeons and Dragons.

      If you were a football player you used them, or you sat the bench.

      BTW, I also lived in a Big 8 city at the time. Not to give anything away, but the school switched conferences a few years back and fired its football coach this past year.

    • Yessir. At the time, it was just an incredible story. A light hitting catcher goes to the gym over the winter and comes back as “The Incredible Hulk”, which was his nickname. We didn’t have any context at the time, so although one had to wonder how he got that big in just one off season, we accepted it. Later, really after his career had ended, we looked back and said “hey! wait a minute!”. It’s pretty typical of Joe, however, to not mention the steroids angle.

      • So, to add some context. Downing never hit more than 12 HRs until age 30 in 1982. He then reeled off 28, 19, 23,20, 20, 29, 25, 14,14, 17 and 10… retiring at age 41. Kind of a low end “Bonds career trajectory”.

    • Andrew says:

      Parrish always had muscles, going back to high school football. As a Californian he was allowed to get into weightlifting before it became acceptable in MLB.

  13. Larry says:

    Fellow 70’s baseball card collector. Couldn’t ever get my favorite player: Mickey Stanley. Must have had 100 Jim Fregosi cards (and Mike Kilkenney). Go figure.

  14. Mr Punch says:

    Reggie Smith was a better player than … well, at least one of your outfielders, and has never had noticeable HOF support. As for catcher, I think Freehan actually was a “nice player” at a time when there weren’t any other decent players at his position in his league – take a look at his All-Star backups.

  15. yazmon says:

    Really, there are too many possibilities to quibble about Joe’s selections here. It’s not like the limited choices that a top 5 list would allow. That being said, I believe Frank Malzone as a third baseman would make a fine selection here. Probably a tad before Joe’s time, he was a brief teammate of the youngish Fregosi in Anahiem after his nice career in Boston was over.

  16. I’ve always thought that David Justice had as good a career as a player could have without being good enough to possibly be a HOFer or so good that that someone might consider him worthy of the Hall. That is, a HOF voter is justified in not closely examining Justice’s case (or the case of a player who was Justice’s inferior), but anyone better than him needs to be considered. I see that he got a single vote for the Hall when he was eligible, but I don’t think that should disqualify him from being eligible for the “more or less” unanimously considered not a HOFer category.

    With that in mind, I think that his career was much better over the long run than Barfield’s, even if Barfield was the better fielder.

  17. EnzoHernandez11 says:

    Going through the career leaders in rWAR, who are the very best players who have never really been part of any HoF conversation? YMMV, of course, and I ignored the ancients, but this is what I came up with (by rank, not by position):

    98 Rick Reuschel
    113 Kenny Lofton
    115 Graig Nettles
    130 Buddy Bell
    137 Reggie Smith
    155 David Cone
    166 Sal Bando
    172 Willie Davis
    195 Chuck Finley

    I may have missed some chatter on behalf of a few of these guys (in the back of my mind, I seem to recall that cases have been made for Lofton and Smith). And third basemen and pitchers do seem to be overlooked more than most other positions, at least in terms of HoF voting. So that might leave Willie Davis as the King of the Nice Players.

    • invitro says:

      That’s a good list. Lofton and Smith have gotten lots of support, as has Nettles. Reuschel, Bell, and Cone have gotten quite a bit, and Davis and Finley have gotten some. So I’d go with Bando among those. I can’t recall anyone making a case for him. But I may be misremembering.

      But… I see that he finished in the top 4 MVP votes three times, wow. I didn’t know that. Willie Davis maxed out at #16, and was All-Star only twice. Anyway.

      • I agree. 3B is a very under represented position. It’s interesting to look at the careers of Sal Bando, Ron Cey, Gary Gaetti, Ken Boyer and Nettles, among others. Their numbers are almost shocking to see. Bando is probably the right one to pull though, because though he was the cleanup hitter for the A’s dynasty, his peak was pretty short & nobody ended up thinking of him as a HOFer. I do like Ron Cey’s career though. I’d put it up against Bando very favorably, and nobody thinks he’s a HOFer either.

  18. In the Historical Abstract, Bill James says Cesar Cedeno was the reason teams started cracking down on drinking and violent behavior in the stands. When Cedeno went into the stands after the fan, it came out that the fan had spent three days drunk and screaming racial epithets at Cedeno.

  19. AndyL says:

    Not trying to quibble with Joe’s choices; just throwing out more some names for further discussion. For the OF, i thought of Amos Otis, Ken Singleton, Brett Butler, Steve Finley, George Foster. And how about Robin Ventura at 3B? All “nice” players but not HOFers.

  20. Jim says:

    Willie Randolph? Rico Petrocelli?

  21. Gavin says:

    Seriosly.Period. Barfield gets three lines. This is Canada, not Mongolia in -1985, ya’ll have TV right?

  22. Jay says:

    The reason you have no memory of Jim Fregosi is because you did not grow up a Mets fan and had to read about Nolan Ryan’s exploits for 20 years after Fregosi retired.

  23. Nathan says:

    Joe, do you see Alex Gordon competing for a spot on this team one day?

  24. Frank says:

    Was this article longer than Jordan Spieth’s round description. Did you break the Spieth line? You had to be close to Spiething it.

  25. jalabar says:

    It’s funny. Bell was a superb defensive third baseman. Mike Schmidt was an amazing fielder. Craig Nettles was a human vacuum at third. Adrian Beltre has been a magician and Manny Machado seems like he has that capability. And yet…

    “Robinson was the best defensive third baseman in baseball history…”

    I have heard a few half-hearted arguments why this third baseman or that third baseman was better, but no one really tries to dispute this fact with conviction. Let’s take it a step further, though. Brooks Robinson may have been the best defensive player to ever play baseball, regardless of position.

    • john4psu says:

      That may certainly be the case but Clemente and Mazeroski belong in the conversation of best defensive player regardless of position. .

      • Jovins says:

        And then how do you even compare catcher defense to other positions? The best catchers undeniably have more of a defensive impact than other positions, but it’s not as impressive or easy to measure. And then by comparing across positions you get weird situations where players look better because they’re playing an easier positions – Brooks Robinson is undeniably the greatest defensive third baseman ever. But how would great shortstops have looked playing third base? Defensive systems have been struggling with this for years, when guys like Brett Gardner look amazing playing left field because the bar is so much lower.

        The best defender ever at any position probably played shortstop or catcher (maybe center field).

      • wjones58 says:

        And Ozzie Smith.

      • Actually defensive metrics have Ozzie first, Brooks second, Mark Belanger third.

  26. John Leavy says:

    Where’s Thurman Munson?

    Bernie Williams will probably find a spot on this list soon, too.

    • kehnn13 says:

      If Munson had played a full career, I think it is likely he’d have made the Hall. He was better than a nice player.

      • Well, it’s hardly a sure thing. Munson, in the season he died, played 97 games and hit only 3 HRs. The year before, he hit 6 HRs. He was hitting for a decent average and playing good defense…. and piling up some WAR. But he only had 113 career HRs by age 32. His career lines were .292/.346/.410. Pretty decent at getting on base, with no power. You never know, but at 32, as a catcher it’s likely he was on the decline & maybe only had 2-3 years left. Yeah, I know, he’s a gritty player. A gamer. The HOF loves those guys.

  27. MikeN says:

    The pitcher should be Tim Wakefield

  28. Tom Meyers says:

    Would love to read about the 1970’s Cleveland Indians interviews.
    So much talent passed through the ranks starting in 1975… Eckersley, Manning, George Hendricks,
    Jim Kern, Rico Carty, Blyleven, Sutcliffe, John Denny. Of course, some of it was traded to acquire another listed player. The Indians were handcuffed considerably financially, but talented nevertheless. Always thought they had the potential to break through to some degree, just not catch the moneybags Yankees.

  29. morggy says:

    Great writing mi amigo! Am a KC Royals fan who as you do not live in KC anymore. I feel like so much money was invested in watching poor teams, they should send me a check for my Direct T.V. bill.

    D. Porter, oh my what a sad story. Again as you, remember so many positive interviews and him volunteering still did not believe it was he who they found at the park. Cedeno, oh my what a talent. Downing, with the hair style, and of course Mark Grace. Grace was not my favorite, due to el wifo having crush on him.

  30. Hess says:

    Concepcion. Of course, I think he should be in The Hall.

  31. I think in the outfield, Andruw Jones should get some love. Nobody thinks of him as a HOFer, but he was the best defensive CFer in baseball for almost a decade….. 24 career dWAR, and hit 434 career HRs. Obviously he got fat and was terrible from age 30 on… and hung on for a few terrible years that tarnished his reputation. But since he started at 19, he ended up having 10 good to excellent seasons.

    • Patrick Bohn says:

      I think Jones is going to get a decent amount of Hall love, but it is amazing to think about his career. After his age 29 season, he had 342 HRs and 1,556 hits. I remember thinking he had a good shot a 500 and 3,000. And he didn’t come close to either

      • I was stunned when the Dodgers signed him to a big contract. He had been terrible with the Braves for about a year and a half. The Braves didn’t want to sign him, but he was popular and they didn’t want to have a fan debacle to deal with. So, the Dodgers, by offering Andruw silly money took the bat out of the Braves hands. Nobody in Atlanta thought they should pay Andruw that kind of money. It reminded me of when the Tigers signed Dontrelle Willis, who had been terrible for 2-3 years already with the Marlins & gave him front line starter money. When the Braves signed BJ Upton, I think his stat decline should have also raised red flags in regard to a long term deal. But these teams often don’t seem to do their homework. It’s crazy. As a GM, I could at least say that I wouldn’t have done any of those deals. At the time, none of them made sense. I could see someone seeing value in BJ Upton at the time… but a 5 year deal? No way. The signs of early decline were there.

  32. […] The Museum of Nice Players: Joe Posnanski writes about players who aren’t Hall of Fame worthy, and also don’t quite make the Hall of Very Good. […]

  33. […] – I would go to the museum of nice players. […]

  34. Mannowar says:

    Devon White, as another Nice center fielder maybe?

    • .263/.319/.419 with an OPS+ of 98 gets you into the Hall of Mediocre. He doesn’t resonate with me as being on any other list.

      • Mannowar says:

        Fair enough…however, I would add that he was quite marvelous defensively (although we can certainly discount some of them, he did win quite a number of Gold gloves in 90s….), and–like so many of those players who stand out for one reason or another in our memories–he was quite a different machine offensively in the postseason….

        I suggested him simply as a counterpoint to those already listed who have received (or will likely be more likely to receive) at least SOME Hall of Fame support. (Andruw Jones, for example, will at least inspire some arguments before (likely) failing to gain entry.)

  35. Wilbur says:

    A number of Brooks’ contemporaries thought Clete Boyer was at least as good if not better with the glove.

    • Using defensive metrics, he’s more at Buddy Bell’s level, which is really good. Except that Brooks is on his own planet defensively. His dWAR is almost double Boyer’s. Boyer was in no way better. But that doesn’t mean he wasn’t a really great defensive player. At shortstop, you have Ozzie and Belanger, then everyone else. Maybe Andrelton Simmons will be on that short list in 15 years, but he’s got to do it for many more years to be “that guy”.

  36. Brent says:

    I echo the sadness of the Darrell Porter tale. For me, there is really nothing sadder than a person who has personal demons who they just can never be rid of.

    And Cedeno might not have hit in the 85 Series, but his walks in the ninth inning of Game 2 and the 8th inning of Game 6 were integral to the Cardinals winning Game 2 and scoring their only run in Game 6 (the one that looked like it would win the Series). The first one was, of course, intentional (and a stupid intentional walk at that, 2 out, runners on second and third and the Quiz up in the bullpen. Why have a gassed Leibrandt walk the right handed batter to pitch to the switch hitter instead of Quiz either against the righty or a pinch hitter?)

  37. Al says:

    I think Cecil Cooper was a much better first baseman than Grace but he never got any love from the voters. In fact, he’s almost equal to Mattingly who lasted on the ballot for 15 years!

  38. Brent says:

    The thing about the Hall of Nice Players is that you can probably make a team for every MLB team of Nice Players. As a Royals fan if I eliminate Brett, White, Appier, Quiz and Sabes (as the HOFer or the guys who qualify for the Hall of the Very Good), I could still have C: Porter, 1B: Sweeney, 2B: ?? 3B: Seitzer, SS: Gagne or Patek, OF: Otis, Wilson and Piniella, DH: McRae, SP: Leibrandt, Leonard Closer: Montgomery

  39. Brian says:

    I’ve heard many people make the HOF case for Mark Grace. So has Rob Neyer. As he wrote several years ago:

    “You might find this hard to believe, but there are people who think that Mark Grace should be elected to the Hall of Fame. And there are a fair number of these people, as I find every winter when I write about the Hall of Fame. Their argument boils down to this: ‘Nobody got more hits in the 1990s than Mark Grace!’”

    Then again, 96% of writers didn’t vote for him when he was eligible for the Hall, so maybe he fits Joe’s qualifications as a near-unanimous non-Hall of Famer.

  40. Wonderduck says:

    Instead of Buddy Bell, I would nominate Tim Wallach for the Third Base “Nice Player” position, but that’s likely because I saw him play, and Bell’s best years were just before my time. But when Bill James calls you “a poor man’s Brooks Robinson,” you’re a nice player.

    He received a grand total of one vote for the HoF.

    One of my favorite players, though.

  41. John Leavy says:

    Actually, the Yankee dynasty of 1947-1964 was built on “nice” players, though we tend to remember their few superstars more. Apart from Whitey Ford, they had no truly dominant pitchers- just a lot of “nice” pitchers like Allie Reynolds, Eddie Lopat and Vic Raschi. Moose Skowron was a “nice” first baseman. Bobby Richardson was a “nice” second baseman. Tommy Henrich, Charlie Keller, Gene Woodling and Hank Bauer were “nice” outfielders. Tony Kubek was a “nice” shortstop. Bobby Brown, Gil Macdougald and Clete Boyer were “nice” third basemen. Elston Howard was a “nice” catcher.

  42. Paul says:

    Great article Joe. You are at your best when writing pieces – short or long – on baseball players. You seem to be able to pick out the most interesting details, while being both soulful and analytically savvy at the same time, which seems incredibly difficult. Lists, rankings, debates, etc. are always a treat to read on here.

  43. […] the weekend the great Joe Posnanski posted a really cool piece called The Museum of Nice Players. In the post, basically, he wanted to pick the one player from the last forty years at every […]

  44. Squawks McGrew says:

    The fun for me in articles like this are the trips down memory lane. Remembering the media arguments if Ron Santo or Bill Melton were the league’s best third basemen. And then making a case for Buddy Bell.

    And I recall Cedeno coming across like a shooting star. So magnificent and then – poof – what happened to him.

  45. Just Bob says:

    I can’t really disagree with most of Joe’s picks,though I’m one of those that’s more likely to leave Downing off this list, for obvious reasons.
    How about Frank White at second base? Eight Gold Gloves (should have been 9, but for some reason, the voters gave the 1988 award to Harold Reynolds, even though he’d had 18 errors to White’s 4.), Five time All-Star, only the 2nd second baseman to hit cleanup in the World Series (Jackie Robinson was the first), 1980 ALCS MVP, 1986 AL Silver Slugger, his number is one of only three retired by the Royals. Number 1 comp? The afore-mentioned Bill Mazeroski. Only 18 HoF votes in his one year on the ballot. Sounds like a nicer player than Knoblauch.

  46. Jeff Schnakenberg says:

    Dennis Martinez

  47. TC says:

    Though your list tends to be more recent, I want to get in a few words about my Dad’s favorite childhood player and a prime candidate for the Hall of Nice players: Johnny Callison of the Phillies in the 1950s and 60s. Dad said he was “our Mickey Mantle”, which is a fair comment with respect to his skillset, scaled for the quality of the Phils v that of the contemporaneous Yankees. Right fielder with a bit of pop and a bit of speed and a bit of glove, with a solid but brief peak. Dad adored him, and I consequently think about him more than any player I’ve both never seen nor heard discussed at any length.

  48. Herby Smith says:

    Great article. Odd that you mention Chuck Finley…HE, more than Langston, epitomizes the Nice Player. Plus, he had a better career than Langston (58.5 WAR to 50 for Langston).

    FWIW, Finley’s #1 historical comp?

  49. wordyduke says:

    This contribution is very late to the party. It is a question from page 750 of Bill James’s 2001 Historical Baseball Abstract. Question: Just how good would a team be that was made up of these players? Would it win their league in a typical year, with typical luck? (Some players would have their career year, others their poorest full season.)

    James contends that a team of the 10th best player at every position would win nearly year: Ted Simmons, HOF Frank Thomas, Robbie Alomar, etc. Of the 70th best player, quite unlikely but possible. The 40th best player (Deacon McGuire, Kent Hrbek, Tommie Herr, etc.): “they’re going to win most pennant races most seasons.”

    This is how James rates the players Joe has selected. Porter, 18th best catcher; Grace, 32; Knoblach, 21; Fregosi, 15; Bell, 19; Downing, 38; Cedeno, 21; Barfield, 67. These placements are all up for debate, and rankings drop a little because it’s 2015 now, not 2001. But the interesting thing is that the average positional ranking (29th, or slightly lower) puts the group clearly into the pennant winner category. Of course you need a decent pitching staff, starting with Langston, who doesn’t make James’s rankings. By this analysis, Joe’s “Nice players” finish first.

    By career win shares, including Langston, these nine players average 249. 300 is a good number for a Hall of Fame presumption for either pitcher or catcher, with a higher career total needed to give you a prime facie case if you play an “easier” position.

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