Adiós, El Caballo

Last Thursday, on his 37th birthday, Carlos Lee announced his retirement. Reportedly, Mariano Rivera and Bruce Chen’s fellow Panamanian wanted to keep playing if he could get a two-year deal, but no such contract was forthcoming. That was hardly surprising given Lee’s recent offensive production; .261/.321/.410 (99 wRC+) was just not all that exciting for a first baseman, especially one in his late 30s.

While in recent years Lee may have stood out as a prime example of a bad contract for a team that should have been more serious about rebuilding at the time, Lee was a good player. I doubt anyone is going to be nominating him for the Hall of Very Good, and his defense, especially in his later years, was, shall we say, not great. But Lee was a productive hitter for most of the 2000s. He was a three-time All-Star, and, as Aaron Gleeman pointed out, despite being an consistently good power hitter in his prime, he never struck out all that much, and in the first half of his career stole a surprising number of bases. Lee also stood out from among most of his contemporaries by having a legitimately cool nickname.

Lee’s career numbers are easy enough to look up, so as we often do, let’s remember him by taking a look at his three biggest hits according to Win Probability Added (WPA).

Lee was traded three times and played for five different teams, including the Brewers, Rangers, Astros, and Marlins during his 14 seasons in the big leagues. Although he spent less than half of his career in Chicago, I suspect I am not the only person who will always think of Lee as one of the Chicago White Sox. The White Sox signed Lee as an 18-year-old international free agent out of Panama in 1994, and he debuted in 1999. He and Maggio Ordonez were the “classic” early 00s White Sox corner outfielders.

However, both left after 2004, and thus neither were part of the White Sox’ 2005 World Championship team. Ordonez left as a free agent, but Lee was traded to Milwaukee for Scott Podsednik, Luis Vizcaino, and (later) Travis Hinton. Midway through 2006, Lee was traded again, this time to the Rangers for a mostly spare parts, with the Brewers also throwing in Nelson Cruz, who has his own interesting story. Lee was a free agent at the end of the season, and signed with the Astros.

Despite the association with the White Sox (the team with which Lee had the most plate appearances), all three of Lee’s biggest hits according to WPA were with the Astros. Sorry, White Sox fans. This was true even when I looked at the top five.

3. May 6, 2008. The 2008 Astros should have been a mediocre afterthought. The 2007 team, featuring Big Free Agent Signing Carlos Lee, won only 73 games. The 2008 team actually had a negative run differential, and “should” have only won 77 games. Yet they finished the season with 86 wins. One wonders whether the winning 2008 record kept the team from pulling the trigger on a rebuild longer than it should have. Although Lee only played in 115 games, he probably had the best season of his career in terms of hitting, putting up a .314/.368/.569 (142 wRC+) line.

This game was part of a five-game winning streak that put Houston over .500 early in the season. The Astros were facing the Nationals, and Houston sent Shawn Chacon to the mound. Chacon was in the midst of what would turn out to be the last season of his major-league career, a season in which he did pitch quite poorly, but on his day he did not really choke (ahem). He gave up four runs, but also struck out eight over seven innings. Lance Berkman also had five hits for the Astros during the game.

Despite those efforts, going into the bottom of the eighth, the Astros were down 5-4. Michael Bourn and Kaz Matsui made two outs for the Astros against Luis Ayala, but then Miguel Tejada and Berkman managed consecutive singles, putting runners on the corners with two outs. Lee, who already had two hits in the game, hit a double to drive in both Tejada and Fat Elvis, putting the Astros on top for good, 6-5 (.545 WPA).

2. August 13, 2010. By 2010, it was pretty obvious that the Astros needed to blow things up, but Lee was going to be hard to move, as he was in the midst of probably the worst season of his career, hitting .246/.291/417 (90 wRC+) while obviously being unable to play the outfield anymore.

Lee still had his moments, as on this Friday night against the Pirates in Houston. Most of the game was a pitching duel between Pittsburgh’s Ross Ohlendorf and Houston’s Brett Myers. By the bottom of the eighth, the Pirates had a 1-0 lead. The Astros managed to get Angel Sanchez and Hunter Pence on base with one out when Lee came to the plate and smacked a three-run, game-winning homer run off of Evan Meek (.564 WPA). The Astros would score again later in the inning, but Lee’s big hit was all they needed.

1. June 28, 2007. When Lee first came to the Astros in 2007, they were coming to the end of an era. Brad Ausmus and Adam Everett were still around, but near the end of their time in Houston. Craig Biggio was in his last season, although it would be hard to say he went out gracefully (playing in 141 games despite hitting .251/.285/.381 with a 70 wRC+).

On this June game against a Rockies team that would reach the World Series, though, Zombie Biggio managed five hits for the second time in his career. Despite Biggio channeling his younger self, in the bottom of the eighth inning, the Astros were down 4-1. However, Big Puma smacked a solo home run, followed later in the inning by a two-run shot by Mike Lamb, both off of LaTroy Hawkins. Neither team scored in the ninth, sending the game into extra innings.

Things were pretty quiet until the 11th, when Houston sent Brian Moehler, whom Carson Cistulli once described to me as the most boring player in baseball, to the mound. The first batter he faced, a rookie named Troy Tulowitzki, hit a solo home run to put the Rockies up 5-4. The Rockies did not do anything else, but with Proven Closer Brian Fuentes coming into the game, they had nothing to fear, right?

Fuentes managed to get two outs, but then allowed a single to Biggio, who managed to retain all of his limbs while running out a grounder to short. No big deal. Then Fuentes gave up a double to rookie Hunter Pence, putting runners on second and third. Up to the plate strode Lance Berkman. Berkman was still very dangerous, but Fuentes was a lefty, against whom Berkman was less effective. Fuentes managed to avoid losing the game to Berkman, hitting him with a pitch to load the bases.

Given the nature of this post, you can pretty much guess what happened next. El Caballo took Fuentes’ first pitch to left field for a grand slam. Of course, a two-run double would have accomplished the same thing (.731 WPA) given the game state, but this way makes for a more dramatic ending for this post.

Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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10 years ago

I was always a big El Caballo fan. Besides being a good ballplayer, he almost always had fun playing the game.

To wit: