Monday, July 7, 2014

Reality Check: Ray Fosse

I listened to most of yesterday's Blue Jays-A's game while on a long drive in order to hear the Oakland debut of Jeff Samardzija, acquired in a July 4 trade with the Cubs. (He did pretty well: One run and five baserunners in seven innings.) Going from the Cubs, the worst team in the NL Central, the A's, with the best record in baseball, is a huge upgrade for Samardzija. The color man on the A's broadcast, former major league catcher Ray Fosse, talked about what that's like. 

Fosse is best remembered as the catcher whom Pete Rose flattened while scoring the winning run in the 1970 All-Star Game, one of the most memorable plays in All-Star history. Fosse suffered a separated shoulder and, it was said, was never the same again. That claim may be a little hyperbolic. It's true that Fosse never approached the .312/.366/.527 slash line that he'd compiled at the 1970 All-Star Break, but a lot of players put together a great half-season. And it's not like he became worthless. He was an All-Star the following season and won a Gold Glove. He was a regular only three more seasons, though, and, worn down by a succession of injuries, he retired at age 30.

In March 1973 season, Fosse was traded from the Indians to the A's. Like Samardzija, he went from a poor team (the 1972 Indians were fifth in the six-team AL East) to a good one (the 1972 A's won the World Series). On the broadcast, he talked about how exciting it is for a player to go from an also-ran to a championship-quality team, even though it means you're no longer a big fish in a small pond. Fosse noted (I'm paraphrasing here) that he went from batting fourth to batting eighth. 

Is that true? Did he really go from being a cleanup hitter to a No. 8 hitter? Doesn't that sound overly dramatic?

It turns out Fosse's memory is correct. In 1970, the year of the collision with Rose, he had 498 plate appearances, the majority (59%) batting fourth. That made sense, as led the Indians in batting average and slugging percentage. In 1971, he led the team in batting again but his power slipped, and he was more often the No. 3 hitter (33% of plate appearances) than No. 4 (30%). In 1972, his last year in Cleveland, he batted just .241/.312/.354, but his .666 OPS was about league-average--this was a pitching-dominated year, and the American League adopted the designated hitter the next season in an attempt to revive offenses. Fosse had 508 plate appearances, with a narrow plurality in the No. 4 position (33%) followed by No. 6 (32%). He was a pretty bad cleanup hitter, batting .216 with a .327 slugging percentage, but his recollection is correct: he batted fourth more than in any other lineup position for the 1972 Indians.

For the 1973 A's, he's absolutely correct: 80% of his plate appearances were from the eighth position in the lineup.

Fosse's point wasn't that it was a bummer going from batting fourth to batting eighth; it was that going from Cleveland to Oakland was invigorating because it gave him a chance to play for a winning club. And he did: The A's won the World Series in 1973 and 1974 with Ray Fosse as their catcher.

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