Saturday, February 8, 2014

The moral of Ralph Kiner

Ralph Kiner accompanies Elizabeth Taylor
to a movie premiere in December 1949. Kiner
had just led the National League in homers
for the fourth straight season.
Ralph Kiner, Hall of Fame slugger and 53-year broadcaster, died Thursday.

It took Kiner twice as long to get into the Hall of Fame (20 years) as he actually played (10 seasons). When he was elected, it was without a vote to spare on his 15th and final time on the writers' ballot.

The brevity of his playing career for a hitter of his quality (he led the National League in home runs seven straight seasons) is at the least unusual, and may have had something to do with how long it took him to gain admittance to Cooperstown.

But a bigger factor might have been the flaws in his skill set -- Kiner couldn't run, field or throw -- and the criticism/abuse he took as a result.

Branch Rickey took over as Pirates general manager after Kiner had established himself as a slugging star on a bad team. Rickey, probably the shrewdest judge of baseball talent ever, quickly decided he wanted -- no, needed -- to trade Kiner. The Pirates' owner, however, saw Kiner as a necessary gate attraction.

And Rickey began to tear down Kiner's reputation. "A team with eight Ralph Kiners," the Mahatma declared, "would finish last in the American Association."

And it might. A team with Ralph Kiner at shortstop -- well, you might as well play my beagle there. My dog can't throw at all, and has little interest in chasing a ball to begin with. Ditto Kiner.

Bill James has suggested that Rickey was pressuring the owner to allow him to deal Kiner for a big block of young talent. (By the time the owner relented, Rickey's downgrading of Kiner had largely wrecked his trade value) Joe Posnanski figures the always penurious Rickey was angered by Kiner's salary demands (it was Kiner who uttered the famous phrase, "Home run hitters drive Cadillacs, singles hitters drive Fords.").

Both make good points. But there's also this: You look at the previous teams Rickey constructed and operated -- the powerhouses in St. Louis and Brooklyn -- and you won't find a Kiner type in the outfield. Rickey's outfielders could run and throw. Kiner couldn't. Rickey's rosters frequently had outfielders who were the exact opposite of Kiner, guys like Taylor Douthit and Terry Moore, who were brilliant defensive players and subpar hitters.

Rickey was gone by the time his work in Pittsburgh resulted in the 1960 World Series winner, but that Pirates outfield (Bob Skinner, Bill Virdon and Roberto Clemente) had no Kiner types. Virdon, the centerfielder, was a defensive whiz who just hit enough to play; Skinner's offense was largely built around batting average; and Clemente was Clemente, a multi-skilled superstar.

Rickey's tryout camps opened with a 60-yard dash; players who didn't meet a specific time didn't even get a chance to hit. Rickey wouldn't have signed a Ralph Kiner.

Kiner was the highest level of an outfield type that was prevalent in the 1950s: Lumbering power guys. They were to be found in the lineup of almost every team -- except the really good ones. Stengel's Yankees didn't have them. Durocher got rid of them when he took over the Giants. The Dodgers, running on the system Rickey built, didn't have them.

Kiner played on just two winning teams in his career: 1948, when the Pirates went 78-76, and 1955, his one season with the Cleveland Indians, when the Tribe won 93 games -- which was a drop off of 23 wins from the previous season.

Rickey, again, on Kiner: "We finished last with you, we can finish last without you." Blaming Kiner for his teams' poor performances isn't completely accurate. But neither is absolving him of the blame.

The Kiner Kontroversy is echoed today. Adam Dunn, for example, although left-handed, is very much in Kiner's mold. Dunn draws lots of walks, hits home runs, is useless in the field. (Kiner had some .300 batting averages, and Dunn never will,) There are sabermetric types who will tell you that Dunn has been a great hitter and a valuable player. But he's played for three organizations, and none of them won anything.

And the Twins have a Kiner type in left field, Josh Willingham. Willingham isn't up to Kiner's level, of course, but it's the same basic skill set. Willingham has never been on a team with a winning record.

This is not to say that players of this ilk automatically doom a team. But all the gaudy power numbers mean a bit less, sometimes a great deal less, with all the other flaws.

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