Friday, January 16, 2015

Reality Check: Steve Garvey

If you've read this blog, you probably know that I listen to SiriusXM's MLB Network Radio a lot. It's pretty much the only thing I have on in my car (though I like some programs less than others, and I have almost no patience with PED and Hall of Fame discussions, fan call-ins, and the insufferable ads they run for GEICO and DISH). You listen long enough, you get to know some of the radio hosts' traits. Former major league second baseman Steve Sax, for instance, really dislikes batters striking out. He often talks about how it's become accepted, and that's bad, because it's better to put the ball in play. He does think that the trend of more and more strikeouts, and batters viewing that as no problem, is changing, though. (That's an interesting observation, given that there were more strikeouts per game in 2014 than ever before in baseball history, and that record's been broken for seven straight years.)

Anyway, one of the guys he extolled as someone who didn't strike out a lot was his Dodgers teammate Steve Garvey. He noted that Garvey was good for 25 to 32 home runs a year, yet never struck out as much as 100 times. (By contrast, 117 players--yes, that's correct--struck out at least 100 times in 2014.)

Garvey's an interesting case. Sax is right; his high year for strikeouts was 1977, when he whiffed 90 times. However, he hit that 25-to-32 home run range only three times: 33 in 1977 (close enough to 32), 28 in 1979, and 26 in 1980. He was pretty well-regarded in his day, though: MVP in 1974, runner-up in 1978, sixth in the voting three times, ten-time All-Star, hit .300 or better seven times. But was he really that great?

Let's start with what I think was his best skill: The guy stayed in the lineup. He missed six games in 1974, two in 1975, and no more until he was traded to the Padres after the 1982 season. In San Diego, he missed one game in 1984, none in 1985, and seven in 1986. Staying in the lineup is a skill, and Garvey possessed it in abundance. He holds the National League record for consecutive games played with 1,207.

But beyond that, his offensive contribution gets overstated, I think. He was a regular from 1974 to 1986. During those years, there were 41 first basemen with seasons of 25 or more home runs. Garvey, as noted, had three. That ties him with a couple forgettable guys, Steve Balboni and Jason Thompson, who also had three seasons of 25+ homers during those 13 years. Eddie Murray did it seven times. And I totally cherry-picked the seasons, using only Garvey's years as a regular. If I cast a wider net by three years, going from 1971 to 1989, Glenn Davis, Kent Hrbek, Don Mattingly, John Mayberry, Mark McGwire, and Willie Stargell get added to the list; Davis had 25+ homers four times during those years, and the other guys all did it three timesAnd I'm counting only games played at first base, so that denies players like Cecil Cooper, who hit 32 homers in 1982 and 30 in 1983 but one of his 25 bombs in 1980 as a DH. Point is: Garvey's home run numbers were nothing special. Among first basemen since about 1938 (there aren't data before then, and some of the data in the earlier years are incomplete), Garvey ranks eighth in games played but 27th in home runs. 

But home runs don't tell the whole story. I've explained why on base percentage and slugging percentage are important indicators of a batter's abilities. Over Garvey's career, from 1970 to 1987 (I'm ignoring his three at bats in 1969), there were 31 players with 2,500 or more plate appearances as a first baseman. Not surprisingly, Garvey played the most: 2,052 games as a first baseman, 116 more than the runner-up, Chris Chambliss. Of those 45, Garvey ranks a middle-of-the-pack 15th in slugging percentage but 27th in on base percentage. His OPS--the measure that combines the two--of .783 is 21st overall, just behind George Scott at .786 and just ahead of Willie Upshaw at .781. As I noted above, Garvey finished in the top six in MVP voting five times. That's five times more than George Scott and Willie Upshaw combined, as you might imagine. Somebody's overrated or somebody's underrated.

But he was the best player on a run of successful teams, right? Garvey played for the 1974-82 Dodgers, which  won their division three times and finished second five times, and the 1983-86 Padres, which finished first in 1984. Well, here's a season-by-season list of the top three hitters on Garvey's teams, ranked 1-2-3 by park-adjusted OPS:

There you go. There was not a single season in his career in which Garvey was the best hitter on his team, other than 1983, when he played only 100 games for a .500 club. Yet he won the MVP award in 1974, was sixth in 1976 (Cey was 23rd), sixth in 1977 (Smith was fourth, Baker got no votes), second in 1978 (Smith was fourth), and sixth in 1980 (Baker was fourth, Smith got no votes). 


That's the thing about Garvey: He had an outsized halo as a player. He had outstanding durability, but he was only solidly good, not great--not at his position, not on his team.

Oh, and those strikeout totals? Let's go back to that list of 31 first basemen with 2,500 or more plate appearances during Garvey's career. Garvey struck out in 10.4% of his plate appearances. That's quite decent, but it's only 11th among the 31 first basemen. Over his entire career (including appearances other than as a first baseman), he struck out in 10.6% of his plate appearances, which again, is very good, but not sensational, as the major league average those years was 13.7%. That trails, by a lot, a teammate of Garvey's on the 1982 Dodgers. That would be MLB Network Radio host Steve Sax, who struck out in only 7.7% of his plate appearances over a 14-year career.

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