Bid McPhee and Other Exceptional Defensive Performances, Part II

Another unremembered star who had an exceptional defensive season was 3Bman Harlond “Darkie” Clift for the 1937 St. Louis Browns.  That year, Clift set what were then all-time major league records for 3Bmen, 405 assists and 50 double plays.  Clift also led the AL that year in errors with 34, but you can’t have everything.

Clift wasn’t just a glove man.  That season he hit .306 with a .960 OPS and drove in 118 runs.

1937 wasn’t a fluke performance from Clift.  In 1938, he again drove in 118 runs, raised his OPS to .977, led the AL 3Bmen in putouts and fielding percentage, and his 31 double plays turned was only one shy of the league lead.

Even with these exceptional performances from Clift, the St. Louis Browns were hopeless, finishing 46-108 in 1937 and 55-97 in 1938.  Clift probably should have been included in my list of greatest seasons for terrible teams for his 1937 season, but the competition was fierce.

1937 and 1938 were the peak years of Harlond’s career, but for a nine year period from 1934 through 1942, Clift averaged 108 runs scored and 83 RBIs per year, while playing well above average defense at third.

The player who broke Clift’s third base assists and double plays records was Graig Nettles, in his 1971 campaign for the Cleveland Indians, when he recorded 412 assists and 54 double plays, records which still stand.  Nettles made only 16 errors that year.

Like Clift, Nettles was no slouch at the plate in ’71.  Although he hit only .261, Nettles hit 28 HRs (one fewer than Clift in ’37) and drew more than 80 walks.

In fact, Clift’s 1937 and Nettles’ 1971 are extremely comparable.  Even taking into account that the AL in 1937 was a much better league for hitters than it was in 1971, Clift’s offensive numbers are slightly, but clearly, better.  On the other hand, Nettles’ defensive numbers are slightly, but clearly, better than Clift’s.

Unfortunately, the 1971 Indians didn’t do much better than the 1937 Browns, finishing 60-102.  One player, no matter how well he plays, just doesn’t make that much of a difference by himself.

A few more exceptional defensive performances:

The Padres’ Ozzie “The Wizard of Oz” Smith in 1980 (621) and the Pirates’ Glenn “Buckshot” Wright in 1924 (601) are the only two shortstops ever to record 600 or more assists in a season.

Ryan Sandberg‘s 571 assists for the 1983 Cubs are the most by a major league 2Bman since 1930. Except for Sandberg and Aaron Hill‘s 560 assists for the 2007 Blue Jays, all the seasons in the top ten were between 1922 and 1936.  I have no idea why so many ground balls to second were apparently hit in the first 20 years of the lively ball era.

Gary Carter‘s 108 assists for the 1980 Montreal Expos are the most by a catcher since 1928.

The most assists by a right fielder in the modern era (since 1920) is Chuck Klein‘s 44 for the 1930 Philadelphia Phillies.  The story behind Klein’s record-setting season is the incredibly short right-field wall at Philadelphia’s Baker Bowl.  A right fielder with a strong, or at least accurate, arm who could also play the caroms off the wall had a lot of opportunities to throw out base runners thinking double out of the box.

It’s worth noting, however, that while Phillies’ right fielders generally put up impressive assist totals at the Baker Bowl, Gavvy “Cactus” Cravath (34 assists in 1914) is the only Phillies’ right fielder who came with ten of Klein’s 1930 total between 1900 and 1938, the year the Baker Bowl closed.

The post-World War II record for right fielder assists is 26, set by the Pirates’ Roberto Clemente in 1961 and matched by fellow Pirate Dave Parker in 1977.  The post-World War II record for center field and left field assists are CF Willie Mays‘ 22 in 1955 and LF Gary Ward‘s 24 in 1983.

Mike Boddicker‘s 49 putouts for the 1984 Orioles is fifth most for a pitcher all-time and the most since 1886.  The only other pitchers to record at least 40 putouts since 1912 are Oil Can Boyd (42 in 1985) and Kevin Brown twice (41 in 1999 and 40 in 1995).

Jody Davis‘ 89 base runners caught stealing for the 1986 Cubs is the most by any catcher since 1920, the first year of the lively ball era.  Mike Piazza‘s 155 stolen bases allowed in 1996 is the most allowed by any catcher since 1917.  Piazza actually led the NL with 59 base runners caught stealing in his rookie year of 1993, but his ability to catch base stealers went straight down from there.

Geno Petralli‘s 35 passed balls for the 1987 Texas Rangers is the most by a catcher in any year since 1898.  He accomplished this dubious distinction in only 63 games played behind the dish that season.

Petralli’s exceptional season was entirely the result of whom he was catching.  Knuckleballer Charlie Hough was the Rangers’ staff ace that year, and his knuckler was a dancing butterfly that year.  Rangers catchers were charged with 73 passed balls in 1987, the vast majority when Hough was pitching.

It didn’t really matter who was catching Hough — it was not uncommon for four, five or even six passed balls to be charged in one of his starts.  However, official scorers clearly placed the blame on Hough’s catchers for the failure to stop his pitches — Hough was charged with only 12 wild pitches that year, even though he also led the AL that year with 19 hit batters.

Of the Rangers’ three catchers that season, Petralli ended up being charged with the most passed balls simply because he caught Hough most often — Petralli caught all or part of 24 of Hough’s 40 starts that year. At least opposing hitters had nearly as much trouble hitting Hough’s offerings as his catchers had catching them.  The Rangers went 22-18 in his starts, as opposed to 53-69 when someone else started, in spite of all the passed balls.

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Explore posts in the same categories: Baltimore Orioles, Baseball History, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Dodgers, Minnesota Twins, Philadelphia Phillies, Pittsburg Pirates, San Diego Padres, San Francisco Giants, Texas Rangers, Toronto Blue Jays, Washington Nationals

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