Sunday Notes: Dave Magadan Chased a Batting Title With the Mets

Dave Magadan nearly won a National League batting title in 1990. A first baseman for the New York Mets at the time, “Mags” finished with a .328 average, seven percentage points behind Willie McGee. A big final game of the season could have pushed him over the top — the math showed as much — although the odds were against him. So too was a cagey southpaw making his 547th, and final, big-league start.

“I think I needed to go 4 for 4,” recalled Magadan, who is now the hitting coach for the Colorado Rockies. Willie McGee had been traded to the American League around the end of August — he went to Oakland — so his batting average was frozen. Because of that, those of us who were chasing him had a number to shoot for.”

Magadan went into the Wednesday afternoon finale hitting .329 — Eddie Murray, then with the Los Angeles Dodgers, was at .328 — and the targeted 4 for 4 would indeed have allowed Magadan to match McGee’s mark… albeit only through rounding. Magadan would have finished at .3348 to McGee’s .3353, leaving the latter with the official title by the narrowest of margins.

No decimal points were needed. Magadan went 0 for 1, and then hit the showers with his lone plate appearance having served as a reminder that you can’t always believe what you’re told told. This is especially true when the words are spoken by the opposing pitcher.

“We were playing Pittsburgh, and Jerry Reuss was throwing against us,” explained Magadan, who would go on to finish the season with a 147 wRC+. “The indoor batting cage at old Three Rivers Stadium was adjacent to the Pirates locker room, and before the game I was milling around, waiting to take a few swings. Jerry saw me. He came over and said, ‘Hey, Mags, just wanted to let you know that I’m going right after you today. I’m not going to throw you any breaking balls, only fastballs. Do what you can, man.’ I was like, ‘Oh, all right.’

Magadan came to the plate in the first inning and promptly ran the count to 3-1. The count in his favor, he dug in and geared himself for a heater. No such luck. The fifth pitch of the at bat arrived with a wrinkle, Magadan popped harmlessly to left, and the statistical probability of catching McGee was now close to nil. The future hitting coach came out of the game, his season over.

Had he actually expected to get fastballs-only from Reuss?

“I kind of doubted he was going to do that,” Magadan told me, all these years later. “At the same time, I can’t say I wasn’t a little bit disappointed, because he’d thrown me four straight fastballs to that point. But no, it wasn’t a complete surprise that he threw me a little cutter-slider after he’d fallen behind in the count.”

Magadan admits that the batting race was on his mind in September, although it was by no means his top priority. The Mets had entered the month with a half-game lead over the Pittsburgh Pirates in the NL East, and at the midway point they were just a half a game out. It wasn’t to be. Much as Magadan couldn’t catch McGee, the Mets finished four games behind Pittsburgh in the standings.

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Reuss doesn’t remember his pregame exchange with Magadan, nor does he know what he might have thrown on the 3-1 count. Each is understandable. As the veteran of 22 seasons told me, “When you know it’s going to be your last major league start, there’s a lot going through your mind. There are probably a lot of things that happened that day that I don’t recall.”

Reuss’s best guess is that he threw Magadan a cutter — “it wouldn’t have been a slider” — as that particular pitch was an important part of his heater-heavy repertoire. As for the likelihood that he told the Mets first baseman to expect nothing but fastballs, he doesn’t doubt that he did. “I could have said just about anything,” Reuss told me. “Emotionally, I was going to be walking off a mound for the last time, and yeah, that sounds like something I’d say.”

Reuss was 41 years old at the time, and had signed with the Pirates in July after being released for the second tine that season. He’d made three relief appearances after being called up from Triple-A in September, and on the weekend prior to that last-ever start he’d been with the team in his hometown of St. Louis. Reuss told his family and friends that he’d be retiring. He then told manager Jim Leyland. This was on a Saturday. On Sunday, the Pirates clinched the division title.

On Monday, Reuss was in the bullpen getting in some throwing when the phone rang. It was Pittsburgh pitching coach Ray Miller. Leyland wanted to know if Reuss wanted to start in Wednesday’s season finale. Reuss’s response was, ‘Hell, yeah.’”

Come Tuesday, Leyland walked up to the lefty with a question: Was he going to be OK the following day? “I said that I was,” recalled Reuss. “Then I thanked him for the opportunity to say goodbye to the game that way.”

Reuss pitched admirably, allowing three runs over five-and-a-third innings in a non-decision. He finished his career with 220 wins — one of them a no-hitter with the Los Angeles Dodgers in 1980 — and a 3.64 ERA.

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RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS

Mickey Mantle went 6 for 11 against Satchel Paige.

Curtis Pride went 7 for 11 against Kevin Tapani.

Nanny Fernandez went 7 for 11 against Al Brazle.

Carson Bigbee went 8 for 12 against Bill Bailey.

Cookie Rojas went 8 for 13 against Ted Davidson.

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Andy Haines first met Christian Yelich in 2010 when the latter was 18 years old and just six games into his professional career. Haines was managing the Marlins’ South-Atlantic League affiliate at the time, and the opportunity to work with the 23rd-overall pick in that summer’s draft had come as a surprise.

“I remember the day,” said Haines, who is now the hitting coach for the Milwaukee Brewers. “I was managing Greensboro, and we were in Charleston, South Carolina. The farm director called me and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to send Yelich to you. He’ll be there next year, so we’ll give him these last few weeks to get acclimated.’ Christian had signed at the deadline and played in the Gulf Coast League for maybe two weeks to get his feet on the ground. I remember saying, ‘You’re sending him here? This guy is right out of high school, man.’”

Not only that, Yelich had primarily played first base as a prep, and the Marlins had earmarked him as an outfielder. As Haines soon learned, the subtleties of the position were largely a mystery to the Westlake (CA) High School product.

“Our first conversation was in left field, during batting practice,” recalled Haines, “I remember introducing myself and saying, ‘Hey, man, have fun; if you need me, come get me.’ I wanted to get a feel for what he knew, and what he didn’t know, so I asked him, ‘Hey, are you clear on positioning, and what our signs are on where to play?’ He said, ‘Nope.’ He was that humble. And a thing about Christian is that you only have to tell him something once. That’s when you know a guy is different.”

Yelich went on to win a Gold Glove in 2014, and one of the congratulatory texts he received was from his first full-season manager.

“It’s funny what players remember,” said Haines. “I let him know that I was proud of him, and he said, ‘Thanks. I’ve come a long way from not knowing where to stand.’”

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A quiz:

Who has the highest career wRC+ in Pittsburgh Pirates franchise history (minimum 3,000 plate appearances)?

The answer can be found below.

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NEWS NOTES

Adam Giardino has been named Baseball America’s Minor League Executive of the Year. Giardino established the Black Play-Play Broadcaster Grant and Scholarship Fund.

Broadcasting legend Bob Costas and Baseball Hall of Fame president Tim Mead will headline a virtual SABR Day program on January 30. Information can be found here.

Tommy Sandt, who played for the Oakland A’s in 1975-1976, died earlier this week at age 69. An infielder during his playing days, Sandt later coached for the Pirates, Marlins, and Rockies.

Longtime scout Lon Joyce died this week at age 72. A member of the Professional Baseball Scouts Hall of Fame, Joyce had worked in the Los Angeles Dodgers organization since 1992.

Retrosheet announced its Fall 2020 updates. David W. Smith shared the details here.

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The answer to the quiz is Brian Giles, who had a 156 wRC+ in 3,114 plate appearances with the Pirates from 1999-2003.

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FOREIGN AFFAIRS

Jamie Romak has been named the winner of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s 2020 Tip O’Neill Award, which goes to the Canadian player judged to have excelled in individual achievement and team contribution while adhering to baseball’s highest ideals. A native of London, Ontario, Romak hit .282, and swatted 32 home runs, for the KBO’s SK Wyverns.

Toronto Blue Jays broadcaster Dan Shulman has been named the winner of the Canadian Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum’s 2020 Jack Graney Award. The award is presented annually to a member of the media for his or her significant contributions to baseball in Canada.

Robbie Erlin has reportedly agreed to a one-year contract with NPB’s Nippon Ham Fighters. The 30-year-old left-hander appeared in seven games for the Atlanta Braves this season.

Nippon-Ham Fighters announced on Thursday that Haruki Nishikawa has been made available through NPB’s posting system. A 28-year-old left-handed-hitting outfielder, Nishikawa is coming off a season where he slashed .306/.430/.396, with 42 stolen bases in 49 attempts.

Detroit Tigers infielder Isaac Paredes is slashing .357/.434/.543 with Vanados de Mazatlán in the Mexican Winter League. Philadelphia Phillies prospect Darick Hall is slashing .324/.409/.595 with Caneros de Los Mochis.

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I was surprised by the results of a Twitter poll I ran recently. Not necessarily who came out on top, but rather the margin by with which he did. The question was:
Who was better, Rod Carew or Tony Gwynn?

Here are some of their numbers and accolades:

Carew: .328/.393/.429, 3,053 hits, 353 SB, 132 wRC+, 72.3 WAR.
Gwynn: .338/.388/.459, 3,141 hits, 319 SB, 132 wRC+, 65.0 WAR.

Carew: 18 All-Star berths, seven batting titles, one MVP award.
Gwynn: 15 All-Star berths, eight batting titles, five Gold Gloves.

Aware that recency bias could be a factor, I expected that Gwynn would get more than 50% of the vote, maybe even close to 60%. He did far better than that. Gwynn received an eye-popping 74.8%, while Carew garnered just 25.2%.

Was Gwynn truly better than Carew? I’m not convinced that he was. Either way, both were first-ballot Hall of Famers. Both were obviously great.

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LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

The Chicago Tribune’s Phil Rosenthal wrote about how Len Kasper’s decision to move from Cubs TV to White Sox radio was influenced by the late, great Ernie Harwell.

At The Japan Times, Jason Coskrey wrote about how the Pacific League is far ahead of the Central League, particularly in NPB’s arms race.

Koji Uehara shared some thoughts on NPB’s free agency system, and Jim Allen wrote about it at jballallen.com.

At Yahoo! Sports, Hannah Keyser paid homage to her recently-deceased grandfather, who grew up rooting for the Brooklyn Dodgers, then adopted the New York Mets when his first love left him for Los Angeles.

FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine wrote about former Florida Marlins backstop Charles Johnson, the last Black American player to be an everyday catcher in the majors.

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RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Aroldis Chapman has 276 saves and has issued three intentional walks. Kent Tekulve had 184 saves and issued 179 intentional walks.

Roberto Clemente and Honus Wagner co-hold the Pittsburgh Pirates franchise record for games played with 2,433 apiece.

Pete Rose is the all-time leader in outs made, with 10,328. Hank Aaron is second, with 9,136.

There have been 28 seasons in which a pitcher recorded 10 or more shutouts, and Bob Lemon’s 2.82 ERA in 1948 is the highest among those seasons. (Per Jeremy Frank and Jim Passon Jr.’s Hidden Ball Trick: The Baseball Stats You Never Thought To Look For From 1920-1969.

Frank McCormick was an All-Star in eight of the nine seasons he played in over 100 games. A first baseman, McCormick was voted National League MVP in 1940 while playing for the Cincinnati Reds. He struck out 189 times in 6,207 career plate appearances.

In 1942, Boston Bees right-hander Jim Tobin led National League pitchers in complete games (28), innings pitched (287.2) and losses (21). At the plate, he slugged six home runs and put up a 126 wRC+ over 131 plate appearances. Tobin was worth 1-7 WAR as a hitter, 1.4 as a pitcher.

Art Hoelskoetter saw action at all nine positions while appearing in 299 games for the St. Louis Cardinals from 1905-1908. He played at least 13 games at every position except left field and center field, seeing the most time at second base (78 games), third base (77 games), and catcher (49 games). Hoelskoetter made 15 pitching appearances, four of them as a starter.

On today’s date in 1976, the Milwaukee Brewers traded Bernie Carbo and George Scott to the Boston Red Sox in exchange for Cecil Cooper.

Wib Smith slashed .190/.190/.190 for the St Louis Browns in 1909.

Cuddles Marshall went 3-0 with three saves for the 1949 New York Yankees.





David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

Carew vs. Gwynn–it’s at least as much generational as recency bias. Carew’s last batting title was 1978. Gwynn’s last batting title was 1997. If you were a 10 year old kid in 1978 you would be 52 today, but you also would have seen Gwynn around age 30. If you were a 10 year old kid in 1997 you would have dismissed your crazy uncle’s rantings about Rod Carew alongside his rantings about Mark Fidrych and Nadia Comăneci. Your younger (at least relative to the people who saw Carew play) respondents are probably going to choose Gwynn in droves.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

FWIW, I pick Carew too. He had a peak in the 1970s that was unworldly.

MikeS
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MikeS

They are pretty much the same guy, offensively. Carew ranks second on Gwynn’s similarity list at Baseball Reference, and Gwynn is third on Carew’s list behind Wade Boggs and Sam Rice. Wheat and Rice both played 100 years ago.

fredsbank
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fredsbank

We’re also more aware than ever of the ever-increasing talent level of the league, so Gwynn faced better pitchers to post those numbers.

Philip Christy
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Philip Christy

By that logic of course, Richie Sexson was better than Babe Ruth.

fredsbank
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fredsbank

Are you seriously combatting my assertion that the talent level of the league has increased over time, in a nearly linear fashion? Look at fastball velocity, strikeout rate, home run totals, etc. Change in pitcher usage, integration, sports nutrition and weightlifting, etc? Even over the era we have reliable data for, 2002-present, we can see that pitchers *today* are better than their counterparts from two decades ago. Every single hitter is bigger, stronger, faster, and better coached than ever.

Gwynn playing from 82-01 faced superior competition than Carew did from 67-85, this isn’t a matter for debate.

I’m not going to dignify your reductio ad absurdum with a response other than to say, Mike Trout is better than Babe Ruth

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I don’t think Philip Christy is disagreeing with the idea that the talent level of the league has increased over time. I think he’s disagreeing with the idea that the way you are using it is relevant. At all.