Friday, November 27, 2020

Retired Number Quiz Series: The American League Central

Following the AL East (Quiz, Article) and NL East (Quiz, Article), we continue westward, today tackling the American League Central’s five teams. I personally think this is the hardest one of the batch, although maybe that’s just because the ALC has historically been the division I’ve followed the least closely (for whatever reason). Still, there is some logic to that too, I think: the two Central divisions are both four-fifths original-sixteen teams teams (every other division has at least two expansion teams), and their only newer teams were still some of the older ones at that (the Brewers and Royals both date back to 1969, the third wave of expansion). But even on top of that, I think the AL Central teams have generally felt just a little more thorough in their number retirements than other teams? However you’d quantify that.

If you’re ready, you can take the quiz HERE before reading on to learn more about the specific players involved. Remember that to make the quiz, players must have worn a uniform number on the team question for at least three questions (that actually came up a lot in this division, but more on that in the article…). And for those hunting bonus answers, your goal this time is four Minnesota Twins players (plus four more players who didn't reach the three-year minimum, spread across the Indians, White Sox, and Twins-Senators, although those answers are a little more difficult).

Good luck!


Chicago White Sox
#18 Red Faber (1914-1933, 64.0 WAR)
#28 Wilbur Wood (1967-1978, 50.1 WAR)
#23 Robin Ventura (1989-1998, 39.4 WAR)
#27 Thornton Lee (1937-1947, 30.2 WAR)
#49 Chris Sale (2010-2016, 30.0 WAR)
#10 Sherm Lollar (1952-1963, 25.7 WAR)

The White Sox have one of the more aggressive retired number policies in the league, and I really appreciate them for it, but it does make this exercise just a little more difficult. Red Faber seems like a shocking exclusion, as a Hall of Famer who spent his entire two decade career with the team, but he only barely made it past my "more than two years" rule, wearing #18 in his ages 42 and 44 seasons and #19 in between. Still, if they wanted to retire a number for him on those grounds or even just add his name to their retired number section with no number, other teams have done both.

Wood getting overlooked isn't surprising, given his bizarre career (plus the White Sox of his time being mostly mediocre). He was a knuckleballer who had to fight his way out of the bullpen, which he finally did at the age of 29 following four seasons of large workloads for a bullpen arm (topping out at 88 appearances and 159 innings in 1968). He continued those heavy workloads as a starter, peaking with 49 starts and 376.2 innings in 1972, and his 1973 season remains the last time any pitcher topped 350 innings in a season. Unfortunately, the one bit of weirdness you would actually expect from a knuckleball pitcher, a long career, didn't come to fruition, as a line drive off of his knee at the age of 34 robbed him of his effectiveness, and he retired two diminished seasons after that. Absent that, it's not hard to imagine him building a Hall of Fame case or earning a retired number, but he's probably too much of a "what if" right now, especially since he's not especially associated with a winning era in team history or anything.

Like many third basemen, Robin Ventura was underrated in his time. He was one of the better fielders at the position, which award voters generally seemed to recognize (he racked up 6 Gold Glove awards, tied for fifth all-time at the position and trailing only Brooks Robinson and Mike Schimdt when he retired), but it didn't result in a lot of award recognition. He even reached borderline-Hall of Fame value, with 56 career WAR, but given the lack of inductees at the position, he's behind a half-dozen or so other players in line, by my estimation. So he probably won't get a retired number that way, but then again, the White Sox have shown that's not a deal breaker. With both Ventura and Wood, their number getting retired wouldn't seem out of place, but it feels like there needs to be some reason for the team to decide to do it as well. Maybe if Ventura's managing stint had gone better?

I'm skipping to the next two on this list, since their cases are more interesting. Chris Sale, you probably already know. If he keeps up his Hall of Fame pace, I can see the White Sox retiring his number, especially if he winds up pitching there for as long as anywhere else. If he winds up with disproportionately more time in Boston, maybe that changes things, but that's still several years from happening and not a given (I’d be more inclined to say “not happening”, but I also thought there was no way the Red Sox would trade Mookie Betts, or Carl Crawford, or Adrian Gonzalez, or any other number of players, so I’m holding off on declaring its likeliness).

Sherm Lollar is not someone I had heard of, but he probably could have been the Paul Konerko of his day. His run with the team coincided with the team's success in the 1950s (peaking with their 4-2 loss in the 1959 World Series), and he picked up a lot of awards in that time, including nine All-Star selections, three Gold Glove awards at catcher, and two top-10 finishes in MVP voting. Honestly, my guess is that the biggest reason his number hasn't been retired is that he passed away in 1977 at the relatively young age of 53. The team had only just begun retiring numbers, and wouldn't pick up their current pace until the mid-'80s and on. Four decades on, it's hard to see a reason they'd retire his number when so many of the people they'd be celebrating wouldn't be around to appreciate it, so I'd put him below the previous four in likelihood.

Thornton Lee is probably less likely than everyone else on this list. He was fine pitcher, but his value is that high partially because he played in the 1930s and '40s, prior to free agency, and the White Sox held on to him for eleven of his sixteen seasons. Also, he had a weirdly good 1941 season, when he finished fourth in MVP voting and earned his only All-Star selection. That one season accounted for nearly a third of his value with the team. He was kind of average outside of that. Additionally, there's Willie Kamm, a third baseman for most of the 1920s White Sox; he finished a hair ahead of Lollar, but was kicked off the list because his last season with the team was also their first one wearing uniform numbers.

Cleveland Indians
#7 Kenny Lofton (1992-1996 & 1998-2001 & 2007, 48.6 WAR)
#48 Sam McDowell (1961-1971, 41.6 WAR)
#24 Early Wynn (1949-1957 & 1963, 39.8 WAR)
#14 Wes Ferrell (1927-1933, 35.8 WAR)
#25/#8 Ken Keltner (1937-1949, 33.1 WAR)
#7 Al Rosen (1947-1956, 32.3 WAR)

The Indians are the stingiest team in the division when it comes to retiring numbers, and it’s not really that competitive (Royals are the only ones even in the same category, and they’re new enough that you can maybe chalk it up to being an expansion team). Compared to most of the others, the Indians seem to be pretty insistent on the player making the Hall of Fame before retiring their number, which always seemed backwards to me.

Anyway, that seems like a massive problem for Kenny Lofton, who feels like the perfect candidate to get a retired number, but who was rudely dropped from the Hall of Fame voting early after only drawing 3.2% of the vote in 2013, the start of the Hall’s recent eight-year backlog apocalypse that only returned to somewhat normal this year. If my understanding of the Veterans Committee rules are correct, we’re still two winters away from Lofton even being eligible for consideration again. I’ve long been a proponent of his Hall case, and hope the VC corrects that mistake quickly, but who knows with that bunch. Of course, the Indians could also just retire his number before then…

We then see a run of three pitchers, which had me comparing them to the three pitchers whose numbers the Indians have already retired, Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, and Mel Harder. All three were career Indians, with the Bobs making the Hall of Fame and Mel Harder playing with the team for two decades before serving the next sixteen years as pitching coach (including overseeing Lemon, Feller, Wynn, and later McDowell’s time on the team, among others) before moving on to another franchise.

So if you’re wondering why Hall of Famer Early Wynn doesn’t have a retired number along with his two Hall of Fame rotation-mates, I guess it’s the thirteen other seasons he spent on the Senators and White Sox? Even though the Indians still represented the plurality of his career and the Senators no longer exist (the Twins don’t seem to acknowledge those players in their retired numbers, more on that later, and the Nationals have sent no indication they intend to do so either). Again, not really a fan of that, but not much I can do

You might recognize Wes Ferrell’s name if you read my Hall of Fame pieces; he’s notable for being a borderline-Hall of Fame arm who was also maybe the best-hitting pitcher in history, even serving regularly as a pinch hitter. Among Liveball-Era pitchers with 500 plate appearances, Ferrell’s OPS+ of 100 is a full 12 points ahead of the second place finisher (Schoolboy Rowe), and 39 points ahead of the active leader (Zack Greinke). Ferrell is basically the Babe Ruth of pitchers, except for, uh… actually, scratch that analogy.

The larger point is, that weirdness to his career has led to being ignored by Hall voters, and if a much more traditional Hall of Fame pitcher (his name is literally Wynn) is struggling to get a retired number as is, I can’t imagine Ferrell’s chances being much more likely without a change in team policy. And if those two are unlikely to gain traction here, I can’t imagine McDowell, who’s much further from being a Hall of Famer than either of them, is especially likely, either (although he did play a much larger percentage of his career in Cleveland, for what it’s worth).

Speaking of Cooperstown, Ken Keltner has an interesting place in Hall of Fame lore. He was pretty notable in his day (including seven All Star selections), and there was some push to see him elected that ultimately went nowhere. Reflecting on this, Bill James introduced a 15-question list that he named after Keltner in his 1994 book Whatever Happened to the Hall of Fame? It’s less of a statistic compared to some of his other creations and more of a framework for thinking, but it (like the rest of the book) is interesting. Anyway, Ken Keltner does not pass the Keltner List, advanced stats have been similarly unkind to his candidacy, and it’s hard at this point to list him above anyone else here.

Al Rosen, Keltner’s successor at third base in Cleveland, is in a similar boat. He had a brief run at the top of the game, including winning the 1953 AL MVP, but injuries forced him out of the game at the age of just 32. He only barely meets the ten-year minimum criteria for Hall consideration thanks to short, late-season call-ups in each of 1947, 1948, and 1949. Obviously, like everyone else here, his case is dependent on non-Hall of Famers getting consideration. I’d probably put him about equal with McDowell, though, and at the very least ahead of Keltner. He’s also 0.1 WAR ahead of Corey Kluber, who’s probably closer to Wynn and Ferrell in his chances, since a strong finish to his career might get him to the Hall. And, in bonus answer territory, it’s also worth mentioning George Uhle, who would have appeared on the list but only wore a uniform number in Cleveland for one 12.2-inning season towards the end of his career.

Detroit Tigers
#35 Justin Verlander (2005-2017, 55.6 WAR)
#25 Norm Cash (1960-1974, 51.7 WAR)
#24 Miguel Cabrera (2008-Present, 51.1 WAR)
#10 Tommy Bridges (1930-1946, 50.3 WAR)
#11 Dizzy Trout (1939-1952, 49.0 WAR)
#29 Mickey Lolich (1963-1975, 46.9 WAR)

The convenient thing is that we can split these six players pretty neatly into three pairs, based on their era. First is Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera, who feel like two of the more obvious future retired numbers. Both are Tigers icons at this point and on their way to Hall of Fame plaques with Olde English D's on their hats. Like I said last time, it's hard to think of more likely future retired numbers among modern players, at this point.

Then, we have the players from their success in the 1960s, Norm Cash and Mickey Lolich. You can probably include Bill Freehan here as well, who finished seventh place. If I had to rank these, I'd actually put Freehan first, as he has the best Veterans Committee case; his WAR suffers from the penalties that affect most catchers, but he actually rates higher against the rest of the position, as a result. This also comes through in All-Star selections, where Freehan has more than the other two combined (11, to Cash's 5 and Lolich's 3). Cash had the higher peak, with a monster 1961 season, but Lolich managed two top-3 finishes in the Hall voting and won the World Series MVP in 1968. Now that Alan Trammell, Lou Whitaker, and Jack Morris are all accounted for, Freehan's probably the most likely next retired number for the team until Verlander or Cabrera hang it up, with Lolich next and Cash third.

Then, there were the twelve or so years from the mid-1930s to the '40s, where the Tigers won four Pennants and two World Series. Tommy Bridges and Dizzy Trout were both from this era, although Bridges was from the earlier half and Trout the latter (Bridges held on until the second championship in 1945, but was a reliever at that point). While they hung around for a decade and a half or so each with the team and got some value in that span, neither was ever the star of those squads (and in fact, they had 0 Game 1 starts between them), which also boasted Hank Greenberg, Charlie Gehringer, and Hal Newhouser. It's difficult to imagine either of these players getting their numbers retired at this point, let alone ahead of Freehan or Lolich.

Kansas City Royals
#55 Kevin Appier (1989-1999 & 2003-2004, 47.0 WAR)
#26 Amos Otis (1970-1983, 44.8 WAR)
#6 Willie Wilson (1976-1990, 42.4 WAR)
#31/#18 Bret Saberhagen (1984-1991, 40.7 WAR)
#23 Mark Gubicza (1984-1996, 38.0 WAR)
#4 Alex Gordon (2007-2020, 34.9 WAR)

Even though they’re the lone expansion team in the division, there’s still a lot of ground to cover with the Royals. It’s difficult to believe after their extended run of futility prior to their mid-2010s success, but even with those 20-some years of frustration, the Royals are still one of the most successful expansion teams in the game. They’re one of four expansion teams with multiple World Series titles, and only the Mets have more than their four pennants. In spite of that, they’ve only retired three numbers, which feels like it’s behind the rest of the division (at least on a rate basis).

Even though he’s fourth here, I think Bret Saberhagen is the strongest of these candidates, but that’s largely because I think he also has the strongest Hall case for the Veterans Committee. I’ve written in the past about the Hall’s struggles at evaluating modern starting pitchers, and I think Saberhagen fits well within the Hall’s tradition of high-peak stars, although he was maybe underrated at the time (one of my favorite fun facts is that Saberhagen only made three All-Star Games, none of which came during his two Cy Young-winning seasons). He didn’t spend quite as much time in Kansas City as some other pitchers, but I think the dominance of that stretch (the 2 Cy’s, plus the 1985 World Series MVP) should count for something.

Appier is possibly even more overlooked, with only one All-Star selection and one third place finish in Cy Young voting. I don’t think he’s Hall of Fame level, but it is worth appreciating how solid he was over an extended period; for example, he’s one of fewer than 50 pitchers since 1900 to maintain a 121 ERA+ or better over 2500 innings or more. I don’t know if that alone puts him over the line, but it feels at least strong enough to be considered for a retired number.

Honestly, looking over the larger WAR leaders, I’m kind of wondering if the quantity of pitchers isn’t part of the problem here. Kevin Appier and Saberhagen lead the team in most advanced categories, but both were obviously traded away while still productive. So most of the counting stats leaderboards are instead filled with Gubicza, Paul Splittorff, and Dennis Leonard, who all more or less got to play their entire careers in Kansas City (technically, Gubicza pitched his last 4.2 innings with the Angels, but that’s it). I think Saberhagen has done enough to separate himself out (which is why I focused on him gaining attention as a potential VC selection), but I can see why they would avoid wading into separating out the others.

I also wonder if that kind of similarity has hurt Otis and Wilson. Obviously, their WAR totals are very close, both in KC and in total. Otis was marginally more recognized than Wilson in his career, probably due to his better offensive numbers while Wilson’s value came more from defense, but Wilson had the benefit of playing on the champion 1985 team after the team let Otis walk two years earlier, clearing center field for Wilson to take over. If they’re that close, both in numbers and time period, it can be awkward deciding to honor one and not the other without a good reason.

I do wonder how that affects Alex Gordon. Maybe playing so much later, in a different position, helps separate him out. It’s not hard to think of him (plus Salvador Perez) as the parts of the 2010s core that stuck around, giving them a sort of edge over their contemporaries. Not to mention the other narrative bits that probably work in his favor (like being the local kid drafted by his hometown team and playing his entire career there, or winning a greater number of Gold Glove awards, among other things).

Minnesota Twins
#2/#22 Sam Rice (1915-1933, 52.9 WAR)
#22 Brad Radke (1995-2006, 45.4 WAR)
#3/#5/#20 Goose Goslin (1921-1930 & 1933 & 1938, 43.0 WAR)
#1 Buddy Myer (1925-1927 & 1929-1941, 41.9 WAR)
#11 Chuck Knoblauch (1991-1997, 38.0 WAR)
#4 Joe Cronin (1928-1934, 36.7 WAR)

This list is dominated by players from the Washington Senators days, which the Twins seem to mostly ignore. Sam Rice, Goose Goslin, Buddy Myer, and Joe Cronin (plus Joe Judge, who missed on the “three or more years with a number” rule; Rice, Goslin, and Cronin are all in the Hall of Fame, and Myer and Judge aren’t too far off) represent what was really the only good era in Washington Senators baseball, from the early 1920s to the mid 1930s, which included all three of their pre-Minnesota pennants (their 1924 title, plus World Series losses in 1925 and 1933). You may note that end matches neatly with when most of them were leaving the team, too.

Maybe the Nationals could retire their numbers, since they seem to recognize the Senators as part of their history (fair enough, in my opinion), but even then, they’re rather dubious; the Senators only started wearing numbers in 1931. Goslin and Rice only made this list by the skin of their teeth, and Cronin spent the final 11 years of his career as Boston’s player-manager (plus another two as just manager), earning a retired number there. These cases all feel so tenuous.

So then we have the actual Twins players. Brad Radke stands out as the clear favorite, a Twins-lifer who spent over a decade on a perpetual division winner. If there are things hurting his case, it’s a) that short career, thanks in part due to injury; and b) that he played in a pretty high-offense era, masking his effectiveness (for example, his 4.22 ERA translates to a 113 ERA+). Maybe if the team had been a little more effective in October, it would have helped him, but then again, given Minnesota’s run of playoff struggles lately, maybe his 2002 and 2003 performance earns him some bonuses (including winning 2 games in the 2002 ALDS, still the team’s most recent playoff series win). I wouldn’t be shocked if it happens, given that the team loves recognizing its local legends, but I don’t know that anything is immanent.

Of course, his chances are substantially better than Chuck Knoblauch, who also retired after only twelve seasons due to arm problems (hey, the yips are technically arm problems!). Of course, demanding a trade after the first seven of those seasons probably didn’t win him any fans up north. I don’t know if they’d still boo him necessarily, like they did when he returned with the Yankees, but I still don’t think the fanbase has warmed up to him enough to move him on to retired number status. It is kind of impressive seeing how good he was before his sudden fall-off, though, since I’m prone to forgetting it.

And then, of course, we have our four replacement Twins to make up for all of the Senators stars: Camilo Pascual, Johan Santana, Jim Kaat, and Bob Allison. Technically, Pascual and Allison started with the Senators, and Pascual even only spent six of this thirteen seasons with the franchise actually in Minnesota (not even counting the further years spent with the second iteration of the Senators after the Twins traded him), but my rule on this is kind of loose. Obviously, Santana and Kaat are the favorites here, with Kaat’s long run of competence (and huge cache of Gold Glove awards) making him a perennial Vet Committee candidate, and Santana’s short span of dominance fitting well with what I argued about Saberhagen (or, once again, see here). Maybe that chance of Hall consideration makes them more likely than Radke, who will rely entirely on the goodwill of the team or fans? It’s hard to quantify exactly.

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