Monday, February 13, 2017

Red Sox Team of the Decade: 1950-1959

The 1950's were rough for the Red Sox.  They started off reasonably well and they finished third with a 94-60 record.  Helping them along was the fact that the Red Sox as a team hit .302.  But it was a steep dropoff after that.  A number of longtime stars left over the next couple of years and the team tried to strike gold with young stars.  Very few of the moves paid off.  The biggest problem was the fact that Boston waited until 1959 to bring up their first black player, years after the color line was broken.  This put them way behind other teams in talent.  By the end of the 1950's the team was mired in the second division.

Sammy White was the only real option at catcher as he was the regular catcher each year from 1952 through the end of the decade.  He was a decent enough hitter, but he was a far more valuable defensive catcher.  He was among the league leaders in most defensive categories every year, including leading the league in caught-stealing percentage twice.  White had an impressive rookie season in 1952 that led to him placing third in the Rookie of the Year vote when he hit .281 with 10 home runs.  He was an All Star for the only time in his career in 1953.  He had his best season in 1954 when he hit .282/.307/.426 with 14 home runs and 75 RBIs.  White's numbers declined after the 1955 season, particularly his power numbers, but he continued to be one of the best defensive catchers in the league.  

First base was a tougher position, but I ultimately went with a player who spent six seasons as the regular first-baseman.  Gernert was not the best player, but he had some power and hit 101 home runs with the Red Sox through the 1950's.  He had his best season in 1956 when he hit .291/.399/.484 with 16 home runs and 68 RBIs.  That was far and away his best batting average though, typically he hit around .260.  Boston started the 1950's with a huge season from Walt Dropo, who won the Rookie of the Year when he hit .322 with 34 home runs and 144 RBIs, which is the top season for a first-baseman in the 1950's, but he declined significantly after that.  They tried to replace Gernert with Harry Agganis and then Norm Zauchin who both had decent seasons, but Gernert ultimately played the most games at first and was fairly decent, with a .788 OPS with Boston. 

Goodman started out as a man without a true position.  He was primarily a first-baseman when he came up, played all over the place in 1950, which was his best season, and then eventually converted into the starting second-baseman for several seasons.  In 1950, Goodman led the league in batting average with a .354 mark, splitting time in the outfield and third while also spending time at several other positions.  Goodman finished second in the MVP race and finished the season at .354/.427/.455.  In his Red Sox career, Goodman hit .306/.386/.387 with 1,344 hits.  He did not have much power, but his hitting ability and his versatility were huge assets.  He played more career games at second than any other position and was a two-time All Star.  Pete Runnels was the runner-up with two great seasons in 1958 and 1959, but the best was yet to come for him.

Shortstop was tough.  A number of players came and went at the position, including future Hall of Famer Lou Boudreau.  But honestly, most of the players just were not very good.  So ultimately it came back to the 1940's pick for the position, Vern Stephens.  Stephens spent two full seasons at short for the team in the 1950's, but they were far and away better than anyone else who played the position.  Particularly his 1950 season when he tied for the league lead in RBIs with teammate Walt Dropo (144) and hit 30 home runs.  Those kinds of numbers were virtually unheard of for a shortstop.  He hit .295/.361/.511 that season.  The next year he hit .300/.364/.501 with 17 home runs and 78 RBIs.  He was traded the next season when his numbers declined significantly.  Don Buddin was considered, but his defense was so bad that it was not a difficult decision.

I have previously discussed why Frank Malzone should have been the Rookie of the Year in 1957.  He narrowly makes it as the third-baseman on the 1950's Team of the Decade.  Malzone was a terrific defensive third-baseman who won three Gold Gloves, all from 1957-1959.  He was an All Star six times in his career, including from 1957-1959.  If he had started his career at a younger age, he may even have been a borderline Hall of Fame candidate.  As it was, he had three good seasons toward the end of the 1950's, hitting between .280 and .295 and 15 to 19 home runs each season.  He drove in 103 runs in his 1957 season, which was a career high.  He would have several other good to great seasons into the mid 1960's and go down as one of the team's best third-basemen of all time.  Malzone beat out George Kell, who had one great season with the Red Sox and played parts of two others.  

Jackie Jensen won the 1958 AL MVP.  That's all I really have to say to explain why he made it.  It is very hard to pass up a player who won the league MVP award.  Jensen was a terrific all-around athlete who also played football in college.  He came up with the Yankees, who really did not have a place to play him and moved him to the Senators who later shipped him to the Red Sox.  It was with the Red Sox that Jensen really shined as he had several great seasons in a row.  He regularly drove in more than 100 runs, he was a great defensive player who won a Gold Glove, and he was a 20/20 man when such a thing was nearly unheard of.  Jensen was a two-time All Star with the Red Sox and won the MVP in 1958 when he hit .286/.396/.535 with 35 home runs and a league-leading 122 RBIs.  He followed that up with a terrific 1959 season when he again led the league in RBIs and had his second 20/20 season.  He then retired for a season due to his fear of flying before coming back in 1961.  He retired for good after that season.

In a move that made sense to almost no one, especially Piersall himself, the Red Sox decided to try to turn him into a shortstop his first full season.  Piersall had never played shortstop before, he had always been an outfielder, and took this to mean Boston did not want him around.  When he moved back to center field, he became the player he was expected to be.  Piersall was a gifted defensive outfielder who should have won a lot more than the two Gold Gloves he won.  He was also a pretty decent hitter.  He had his best season with the Red Sox in 1956 when he hit .293/.350/.449 with 14 home runs, 87 RBIs, and a league-leading 40 doubles.  Piersall of course suffered from some mental health issues that made him practically a household name, but it is often forgotten that he was a pretty good player.

The Splendid Splinter continued his quest to become the Greatest Hitter Who Ever Lived throughout the 1950's, despite the fact that he missed most of two seasons due to flying combat missions in the Korean War.  His power declined somewhat, due to a series of injuries, but he had one of the greatest batting eyes in the game.  He had an incredible season in 1957 when he was 38 years old when he nearly hit .400 for the second time in his career.  He hit .388/.526/.731, all of which led the league, with 38 home runs and 87 RBIs.  Yet he finished just second in the AL MVP vote.  The next season he became the oldest player to win a batting title with a .328 mark.  Williams was the biggest draw on the team for most of his career, but this was especially true in the 1950's when the rest of the team was mostly mediocre.  There is just no contest here.    

Parnell's best seasons were behind him by the time that the 1950's rolled around, but he had several more good seasons.  He was an 18 game winner in both 1950 and 1951 while continuing to put up decent numbers.  He had his last great season in 1953 when he was 21-8 with a 3.06 ERA and 136 strikeouts in 241 innings.  Unfortunately, arm injuries ruined his career from there and he won just 12 games over the next three seasons.  He pitched a no-hitter in his last season in 1956.  He was still one of the top starting pitchers on the team in the 1950's.  There is no telling what his career numbers may have looked like had he not broken down so young.

One of the hardest throwers in the game in the 1950's, the only problem with McDermott was that he never really knew where the ball was going.  He racked up a lot of strikeouts, but also walked far too many hitters, which is why it took so long before he really started to produce for the team.  He was used mostly in relief in 1950, but gradually became more of a starter.  He had a breakthrough season in 1953, going 18-10 with a 3.01 ERA and 92 strikeouts versus 109 walks.  For the Red Sox, he was 48-34 with a 3.80 ERA in 773.2 innings.  After his great 1953 season, he was traded to the Senators for Jensen.  He never had a season quite like his 1953 season and started to decline due to off-the-field reasons.

Sullivan is most likely the top starting pitcher for the Red Sox during the 1950's.  He came up in 1953 for a brief showing and was a 15-game winner the next season.  He had a breakout season in 1955, leading the league in wins with an 18-13 record and a 2.91 ERA.  He also led the league in games started and innings pitched and notched 129 strikeouts.  He was an All Star in 1955 and 1956.  He was 14-11 with a terrific 2.73 ERA in 1957.  Sullivan's record might have been even better had the Red Sox been a better team in his prime.  For the Red Sox, he was 90-80 with a 3.47 ERA in 1,732 innings and struck out 821 batters.  He declined toward the end of the decade and was traded after the 1960 season.

Tom Brewer spent his entire eight-season career with the Red Sox.  Like Sullivan above, Brewer's record might have been more impressive if Boston had been a better team during his career.  He had a great season in 1956 when he was 19-9 with a 3.50 ERA while striking out 127 and walking 112 in 244.1 innings.  It was his only All Star season and he also received some MVP votes.  For his career, Brewer was 91-82 with a 4.00 ERA.  He struck out 733 and walked 669 in 1,509.1 innings.  He was also a surprisingly good defensive pitcher who led the league in putouts twice, assists twice, and range factor twice.

After a couple of impressive seasons primarily as a starter, "Old Folks" was shifted into the bullpen in the early 1950's.  From 1951 through 1953, Kinder was one of the best relievers in the game.  He was 11-2 with a 2.55 ERA and led the league in games (63), and saves (16) in 1951.  He finished seventh in the MVP vote that season.  He finished 41 games while starting two and struck out 84 and walked 46 in 127 innings.  He was 5-6 the next season, but with a 2.58 ERA.  Then, in 1953, Kinder had a terrific season in the bullpen, pitching in 69 games, all in relief, with a 10-6 record, 1.85 ERA, and a ML-leading 27 saves.  He was a little more ordinary his last two seasons in Boston but still pretty decent.  He saved 93 games in his Red Sox career.

If not for seven games with the Orioles in the second half of the 1963 season, Delock would have been one of the more obscure players in my Loyalty and Longevity series.  Delock spent the rest of his career with the Red Sox, mostly as a starter, but with a couple of seasons as a reliever as well.  He was primarily a reliever in 1956 when he was 13-7 with a 4.21 ERA, 105 strikeouts and 80 walks in 128.1 innings.  He picked up nine saves.  Then from 1958 to 1959, he was one of the better starting pitchers on the team.  He was 11-6 with a 2.95 ERA in 1959.  For his Red Sox career, Delock was 83-72 with a 4.01 ERA.  He struck out 661 batters.

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