Underappreciated in His Time, Dwight Evans Deserves Hall of Fame Consideration

This post is part of a series concerning the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, covering executives and long-retired players whose candidacies will be voted upon at the Winter Meetings in San Diego on December 8. For an introduction to JAWS, see here. Several profiles in this series are adapted from work previously published at SI.com, Baseball Prospectus, and Futility Infielder. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2020 Modern Baseball Candidate: Dwight Evans
Player Career WAR Peak WAR JAWS
Dwight Evans 67.1 37.3 52.2
Avg. HOF RF 71.5 42.1 56.8
H HR AVG/OBP/SLG OPS+
2,446 385 .272/.370/.470 127
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

An underappreciated cornerstone of Boston’s 1970s and 80s contenders, Dwight Evans reached the majors two years ahead of outfield mates Fred Lynn and Jim Rice, both of whom would win MVP awards and spend far more time in the limelight. Durable and defensively adept — traits that pair could rarely combine — Evans outlasted both, spending the first 19 of his 20 seasons (1972-91) with the Red Sox while helping the team to four division titles and two pennants. Though merely an above-average hitter in the first half of his career, “Dewey” developed into a dependable slugger with a keen batting eye, totaling 11 seasons with at least 20 homers and six seasons with at least 90 walks, three of which led the league. An outstanding defender as well, he combined excellent range with a cannon-like arm while playing Fenway Park’s difficult, oddly configured right field.

While Evans won eight Gold Gloves, further recognition was harder to come by. He made just three All-Star teams and never got a first-place vote for MVP, let alone win one (he did have third- and fourth-place finishes). Bill James rated him as the game’s top right fielder in his 1982 and ’83 Baseball Abstracts, but had advanced statistics been more pervasive, Evans’ high on-base percentages and defensive value would have generated greater appreciation. Eight times he was worth at least 4.0 WAR, and at his best in 1981-82, he was one of the game’s five most valuable players. Yet when he became eligible for election to the Hall of Fame, he lasted just three years on the BBWAA ballot, topping 10% only in 1998, his second year of eligibility. Bypassed for both the 2014 Expansion Era Committee ballot and the ’18 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot, he’s finally getting another chance in front of the voters.

Though born in 1951 in Santa Monica, California, Evans spent his early years living in Hawaii, and he didn’t play baseball until his family returned stateside, to the Los Angeles suburb of Northridge, when he was nine. While he starred in Little League, he didn’t make his high school’s junior varsity team, but he persisted and not only made the varsity in his junior year but the San Fernando Valley League’s All-Valley team as well; he won league MVP honors as a senior. On the recommendation of Red Sox scout Joe Stephenson, he was chosen in the fifth round of the 1969 amateur draft.

Evans made solid progress up the Red Sox chain, most notably winning International League MVP honors for a .300/.409/.482 performance with 17 homers and 95 RBI as a 20-year-old in 1972. He joined the big club that September, playing mainly left field while Carl Yastrzemski shifted to first base. His lone appearance in right field came in his debut on September 16, when he pinch-ran for Reggie Smith and took his first plate appearance while batting out of turn; in what was at that point a 9-0 rout over the Indians, Red Sox manager Eddie Kasco had replaced the lineup’s top five batters within the span of half an inning, hence some confusion. Evans started the Red Sox’s last 16 games and hit for a 117 OPS+, but the team’s 85-70 record fell half a game short of the Tigers’ 86-70 in an AL East race marred by a failure to reschedule games wiped out by the players’ strike in April, which left teams with unequal numbers of games.

The Red Sox opened up right field for Evans by keeping Yastrzemski at first base, shifting Smith to center field (where he’d started from 1967-71) and Tommy Harper from center to left field. He struggled as a rookie (.223/.320/.383, 10 HR, 0.9 WAR) but improved significantly in 1974 (.281/.335/.421), emerging as a standout defender; Total Zone estimates his defensive work at 23 runs above average, pushing his total contribution to 4.5 WAR. Rice, the team’s first-round pick in 1971, and Lynn, their second-round pick in ’73, both arrived in late ’74 and took over full-time jobs the following spring. The trio, all 22 or 23 years old, combined for 15.5 WAR while helping the Red Sox to 95 wins and their first AL East title. Lynn, the AL Rookie of the Year and MVP, led the team with 7.4 WAR; Evans, who hit .274/.353/.456 with 10 homers, a 120 OPS+, and +24 defense, was second with 5.1 despite being limited to 128 games.

Despite losing Rice to a broken left hand in late September, the Red Sox bumped off the three-time defending champion A’s in the ALCS but lost a classic seven-game World Series to the Reds. Evans hit .292/.393/.542, highlighted by a game-tying two-run homer off Rawly Eastwick in the top of the ninth inning of Game 3 (though the Sox lost in 10) and a game-tying two-run triple off Fred Norman in Game 4, keying a five-run rally in Boston’s win. His most memorable moment was his spectacular running, leaping catch to rob Joe Morgan of a potential two-run home run in the 11th inning of Game 6, after which he threw (wildly, but chased down) to double Ken Griffey off first base. Carlton Fisk’s famous home run off the left field foul pole won it for the Red Sox in the 12th.

Evans led off the eighth inning of Game 7, which was tied 3-3, with a walk but was erased when Rick Burleson grounded into a double play. He would be the last baserunner of Boston’s season; Morgan’s RBI single broke the tie in the top of the ninth, and the Red Sox went down in order.

From 1976-80, Evans hit a combined .260/.347/.462 for a 116 OPS+, averaging 19 homers and 3.1 WAR. He won his first Gold Glove in 1976 while leading AL right fielders with 15 assists for the second straight season, but he dipped to a 109 OPS+, his lowest mark since ’73. Though he hit for a 128 OPS+ in 1977, a torn MCL in his right knee limited him to 73 games and required season-ending surgery.

In 1978, he hit a career-high 24 home runs and made his first All-Star team on the strength of a strong first half (.286/.386/.523, 16 HR), but a prolonged second-half slump (.203/.275/.364, 8 HR), exacerbated by an August 28 beaning by the Mariners’ Mike Parrott, depressed his final numbers and played a part in the Red Sox blowing a 14-game lead over the Yankees. One week after the beaning, which concussed him, Evans made two errors on fly balls in a loss to the Orioles. As The Athetic’s Peter Gammons recalled, “After the game, I asked him if he was still having headache or vision issues from the beanings. ‘I don’t know why you’re going there,’ he responded, clearly annoyed by my question. He denied. That’s just the way it was back then.”

In mid-1980, after a wretched first half (.194/.278/.335) that found him confined to platoon duty, the 28-year-old Evans — who since the beaning had been prone to stepping in the bucket and by his own account had “about 300” batting stances — shored up his swing with the help of Red Sox hitting coach Walt Hriniak, who taught him to keep his weight back and think about driving the ball up the middle instead of trying to pull it. This was the turning point of his career. “You’ll remember this day the rest of your life,” said Yastrzemski, who had observed the proceedings with Gammons despite the 101-degree heat.

Evans hit .316/.413/.588 with 13 homers the rest of the way and his career took off. During the strike-shortened 1981 season, he share the AL lead with 22 homers; his 85 walks and 6.7 WAR both led the circuit, while his .415 on-base percentage and 163 OPS+ both ranked second, his .522 slugging percentage third — a performance that garnered him a third-place finish in the AL MVP voting behind Rollie Fingers and Rickey Henderson. He followed that up with another exceptional season in which his .402 on-base percentage led the league, his 112 walks ranked second, his 149 OPS+ third, his 6.4 WAR and 32 homers both fifth, and his .534 slugging percentage sixth.

Evans’ 13.1 WAR from 1981-82 trailed only Robin Yount (15.4), Andre Dawson (15.3), Mike Schmidt (15.1) and Henderson (13.4). Somehow though, he missed the All-Star team in the latter year and wouldn’t make one again until 1987 despite hitting a combined .266/.372/.477 (128 OPS+) while averaging 27 homers and 3.8 WAR and winning Gold Gloves annually from 1981-85. Though his 1983 season was something of a dud (106 OPS+, 1.2 WAR) due to a groin strain and a prolonged slump, he rebounded strongly in 1984; his 147 OPS+ ranked fourth in the league, the first of two times in this stretch that he would crack the top five.

In 1986, a typically strong season (26 homers, 131 OPS+, 4.4 WAR), Evans helped the Red Sox reach the World Series for the first time since ’75. He went just 6-for-28 in the ALCS against the Angels, with a home run after the Red Sox had already taken a 7-0 lead in Game 7, but was much better in the World Series against the Mets (.308/.400/.615 with a series-high nine RBI). He homered off Dwight Gooden in the team’s Game 2 victory and hit an RBI single off him in Game 5 as well. He had two RBI in a losing cause in Game 6 (the Bill Buckner game), and three in Game 7, via a second-inning solo homer off Ron Darling for the game’s first run, and then a two-run double off Roger McDowell in the eighth inning that trimmed the lead to 6-5 — the last runs the Sox would score, alas, as they went down in defeat.

Though Evans’ defense in 1986 was estimated to be eight runs above average, the reality is that his work in the outfield was in decline (-8 runs from 1983-86). With the arrivals of Mike Greenwell (who actually debuted in ’85) and Todd Benzinger, he spent most of the second half of ’87 playing first base, that after making just his third All-Star team. Indeed, he set across-the-board career bests with a .305/.417/.569 line, 34 homers, and 123 RBI, en route to a solid 4.8 WAR, his best showing since 1983. The first base experiment continued into mid-1988, but Evans never took to the position; Total Zone says he was a whopping 15 runs below average in just 143 games there across the two seasons, compared to -3 in 161 games in right field.

His bat remained potent; Evans managed a 136 OPS+ in both 1988 and ’89 with a combined 41 homers, 211 RBI, and 7.0 WAR; the Sox won the AL East in the former season but bowed to the A’s in the ALCS. Back problems limited him to DH duty in 1990, his age-38 campaign, and while he was part of one more AL East champion squad, his performance deteriorated. He parted ways with the Red Sox following the year and was quickly picked up by the Orioles, with whom he spent one more year plus a spring; he retired upon being released in March 1992.

***

When Evans retired in 1991, he ranked 29th all-time in home runs, one notch ahead of Rice, whose career ended two years earlier. Similarly, he ranked 38th in hits, one notch below Rice (2,452). To be fair, the latter had 1,511 fewer plate appearances, but the larger point is that those career totals stood out at least somewhat, and that was still the case when Evans hit the 1997 ballot alongside Dave Parker, who had more hits (2,712) but fewer homers (339) than Evans but had won two batting titles, two World Series, and an MVP award. On a ballot dominated by holdovers, fifth-year candidate Phil Niekro was elected and fourth-year candidate Don Sutton came close; Parker got just 17.5%, and Evans barely made the cutoff with just 5.9%. He improved to 10.4% the following year but fell off after getting just 3.6% in 1999.

This is not that surprising in retrospect given how unheralded Evans was. His 70 on the Hall of Fame Monitor — which measures how likely (but not how deserving) a player is to be elected by awarding points for various honors, league leads, postseason performance, and other things that tend to catch voters’ eyes — is well below “a good possibility.” Even his big offensive seasons in terms of triple-crown numbers tended to go unrewarded in the All-Star process, and his six top-10 finishes in on-base percentage were obscured by his hitting .300 or better just once.

Evans was a late bloomer offensively, hitting a modest .262/.344/.448 (114 OPS+) through 1980, his age-28 season, but .278/.385/.484 (135 OPS+) thereafter, decline phase and all. Over that latter stretch, only eight players had a higher OPS+ in at least 4,000 PA, while numerous Hall of Famers — Dave Winfield, Tim Raines, Yount, Tony Gwynn (!), Dawson, Paul Molitor, Harold Baines (cough), Kirby Puckett, and Rice — were lower. Even taking full careers into account, Evans’ 127 OPS+ is one point below Rice, equal to Henderson, and ahead of Puckett (124), Raines (123), Molitor (122), Baines (121), Dawson (117), Fisk (117), Gary Carter (115), Ryne Sandberg (114), Alan Trammell (110), and Ozzie Smith (87), the enshrined contemporaries with whom his career overlapped significantly.

Yes, some of those players played more difficult positions, but that’s the point of turning to advanced stats. Even with his defensive decline, Evans finished was 66 runs above average according to Total Zone, a total that ranks 17th among players who spent the majority of their careers in right field. His 67.1 career WAR is tied with Dawson for 25th among players in the 1961-92 period, between the first wave of expansion and the rapidly changing landscape of the mid-90s; he’s fourth among non-Hall of Famers from that stretch behind the banned-for-life Pete Rose (79.7), Bobby Grich (71.1), and Graig Nettles (68.0), and 0.1 ahead of Lou Whitaker. Oh, and he’s a country mile ahead of Rice (47.7), who was elected in 2009, his final year of eligibility.

Among right fielders, Evans ranks 14th in career WAR, 4.4 wins below the standard and 2.1 below Gwynn but still ahead of 15 of the 26 Hall of Famers, including BBWAA honorees Winfield (64.2) and Vladimir Guerrero (59.4) as well as current BBWAA candidates Gary Sheffield (60.5), Bobby Abreu (60.0) and Sammy Sosa (58.6), and fellow Modern Baseball candidate Parker (40.1). That’s pretty impressive, much more so than his number 29 ranking in peak, 4.8 WAR below the standard, behind all of the players in that last sentence, and ahead of just 11 Hall of Famers. For all of his prowess on both sides of the ball, he had just two seasons among the AL’s top 10 in WAR and four above 5.0 WAR, mainly because by the time he became outstanding hitter, his defense had regressed; from 1972-80, he was 67 runs above average with the bat and 90 above average with the glove, while from ’81 onward, he was 286 above average offensively but 24 below average defensively.

One thing worth considering given the contours of Evans’ career was that he played a good portion of it while quietly dealing with trying, even heartbreaking conditions off the field. His oldest son Tim, born in 1973, was diagnosed with neurofibromatosis (“Elephant Man’s Disease”), a genetic disorder often characterized by benign but painful tumors on or under the skin, at age 2. From 1975-78, he endured 10 surgeries, a number that grew to 16 by the time he turned 16; the disease cost him the sight in his left eye, and he sustained significant emotional damage from being teased by other children. Evans’ youngest child, Justin, who was born in 1976, was diagnosed with the disease in ’82, via a tumor at the base of his brain that required radiation treatment, and by age 10 had developed another one around his spine, which was removed via a 12-hour surgery in 1989. Their problems, which Evans kept from public view until the mid-1980s, took their toll from a relatively early point in his career, as he shuttled from hospital to ballpark.

“We talked some about his kids,” Yastrzemski told Sports Illustrated in 1985, “but there was nothing you could do. He used to tell me that he knew that to play this game you had to be 100% mentally at the ball park. But how do you do that when your kid is in the hospital?”

Overall, Evans is 15th in JAWS, 4.6 points below the standard but ahead of 14 of 26 Hall of Famers, again including Winfield and Guerrero. Without a significant amount of “what if?” — what if he wasn’t burdened by his children’s health problems, didn’t battle concussion woes, played on a World Series winner, or simply had his best offensive and defensive years align — I’m not thoroughly convinced he’s a Hall of Famer, but then again, I’m not convinced he isn’t. I do know that on a Modern Baseball ballot where two of my four slots would go to Whitaker and Ted Simmons, and where I’m in favor of Thurman Munson as well, I’m running out of room. The question still remains as to how to handle the candidacy of Marvin Miller, the lone candidate remaining in my series and one who damn well should be in the Hall… except that his family is dead-set against his being honored posthumously. That’s a topic for another day. For now, I’d call Evans a possible yes, with hope that he remains in circulation.

We hoped you liked reading Underappreciated in His Time, Dwight Evans Deserves Hall of Fame Consideration by Jay Jaffe!

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Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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emh1969
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emh1969

Easily one of the most underappreciated players of his generation. Partially because his skills (OBP and defense) were underappreciated. Partially because he didn’t hit for a high batting average when that was a (over)valued skill. Partially because he was overshadowed by teammates such as Rice, Yaz, and Lynn. Partially because his best season was wiped out by the strike (6.7 WAR in 108 games).

I would vote him in but I understand if others disagree and that there may not be space on the ballot.

(btw, never knew about his kids. thanks for sharing that part!)