June 18, 2012

HOVG Heroes: Dwight Evans


MIKE LYNCH on DWIGHT EVANS

It happened on September 27, 1986 but I remember it like it was yesterday.  Toronto Blue Jays veteran righty Jim Clancy had set down the first 14 Red Sox batters he'd faced at Fenway Park when up stepped Dwight "Dewey" Evans with two outs and no one on in the bottom of the fifth.  Evans worked the count in his favor, as he so often did, all but forcing Clancy to come at him with fastballs.

He blew one by Evans, who took a lusty rip at an inside heater but failed to connect.  Legendary broadcaster Vin Scully was calling the game that day—"That was called challenging," Scully told the television audience, "here's my best fastball, see what you can do with it."  Clancy then made the mistake of throwing the same exact pitch in the same exact location.  Evans hammered it farther than I've ever seen a baseball hammered; in fact, it probably still hasn't landed.  Thanks to Evans, and the shutout pitching of southpaw Bruce Hurst, the Sox clinched at least a tie for the American League East division title that day.

Of course, one home run does not a Hall of Famer make, but it's an image I'll take to my grave, along with his otherworldly circus-like catch in the 11th inning of Game 6 of the 1975 World Series that resulted in a double play and kept the Reds from breaking open a contest that was eventually won by Carlton Fisk's blast off the left field foul pole in the bottom of the 12th.

What does make Evans a Hall of Famer is his overall body of work, constructed over a 20-year career that unfolded in a way that has voters obviously and unfortunately stymied.  In a way, he's to regulars what Dazzy Vance was to pitchers—a guy who excelled in his thirties more so than in his twenties.  The difference, though, is that Vance had virtually no Major League career in his twenties—he appeared in only 11 games prior to his 30th birthday—whereas Evans had had a good career before turning 29, when he became great.

From 1972-1980, Dewey posted a 114 OPS+.  He finished a season below 100 only once, and won three Gold Glove awards, establishing himself as one of the game's best outfielders.  But he batted only .262, hit more than 20 homers in a season only twice and never drove in more than 70 or scored more than 75 runs.  In fact, he averaged only 14 homers, 49 RBIs and 54 runs per season.  His 162-game averages don't really jump off the page, either—20 HRs, 68 RBIs and 74 R.  But he was an excellent defensive player who had a cannon for a right arm and who gave the Red Sox some offensive production toward the bottom of the batting order.  

At age 29 things finally clicked for him at the plate, thanks in part to his work with hitting instructor Walt Hriniak, and Evans became one of the game's best hitters.  Over the last 11 years of his career, he posted an OPS+ of 135, batted .278 and averaged a more impressive 23 home runs, 86 runs batted in and 90 runs scored per season.  From 1981-1989, Dewey averaged 30 homers, 104 RBIs, 109 runs and 106 walks per 162 games. 

He won five more Gold Gloves over his final 11 campaigns, and finally started to add some black ink to his ledger, leading the league in games, plate appearances, runs, homers, walks, on-base percentage, OPS and total bases at least once from 1981-1987.

I'm guessing when most baseball fans think of the 1980's, players like Mike Schmidt, George Brett, Robin Yount, Rickey Henderson, Dale Murphy and a handful of others immediately come to mind.  Yet no one had more extra-base hits during the decade than Evans, and only Henderson topped him in the number of times reaching base, runs created and walks.  Dewey ranked third in doubles and runs, fourth in homers and RBIs, fifth in total bases and eighth in slugging.

Using more modern metrics, he ranks fifth in Wins Above Replacement (WAR) among all outfielders from 1980-1989, and only Henderson, Tim Raines and Dale Murphy had more Win Shares.  Among all non-pitchers, he ranks ninth in Win Shares during the decade and 16th in WAR.  Among all right fielders of the modern era, Evans ranks 13th in WAR and 15th in Win Shares.  He's also one of only 13 outfielders to win as many as eight Gold Gloves, and at the time of his retirement was one of only seven.

From 1974-1982, he recorded more defensive WAR than any other right fielder five times, was among the top two six times and among the top three seven times.  He also finished second to Tom Brunansky in 1984.  It wasn't until Jesse Barfield began dominating the position in the mid-80's that Evans finally fell back to the pack.   

The problem with Evans' Hall of Fame case, is that he didn't dominate the triple crown categories at a time when most of us were still measuring success by those categories.  His best batting average was .305, the only time he hit .300 in his career; he won a home run crown in 1981, but was tied with three others at the end of that strike-shortened campaign; and the closest he ever came to leading the league in RBIs was in 1987 when he finished second to George Bell.

But he got on base, scored runs, had very good power, excellent plate discipline and a fantastic glove.  As Bill James so succinctly put it, though, "a player who does several things well will always be underrated compared to a specialist, just because of the way the human mind works."

Indeed.

At the risk of beating a dead horse, Evans' long-time teammate Jim Rice was inducted into the Hall of Fame after receiving 76.4% of the vote in 2009.  Rice was one of my favorite players when I was a kid and I was mesmerized by his power and overall hitting ability.  He had a three-year stretch from 1977-1979 that ranks up there with any three-year stretch in baseball history—a .320 batting average over 481 games, and an average of 41 homers, 128 RBIs, 114 runs and 386 total bases per annum.  The man was a hitting machine. 

But despite his impressive ability to play the ball off Fenway Park's "Green Monster," Rice wasn't a good outfielder, he wasn't a great base runner and he didn't have good plate discipline.  His career high in walks was only 62, and he averaged only 42 per season.  Meanwhile he struck out more than 100 times in six different seasons, and fanned over 120 times every year from 1975-1978.  To be fair, Evans fanned more than 100 times five times in his career and came close a couple more times, but in those seasons he also walked 112, 96, 114, 97 and 106 times. 

And, oh by the way, the fearsome slugger formerly known as Jim Rice posted a career OPS+ of 128 in 16 seasons, only one point better than Dwight Evans' 127.  How a player with Rice's limited skill set could be inducted into the Hall of Fame while a player who was just as good, if not better, offensively and far better defensively was only on the ballot for three years before being booted off for a lack of support is beyond me. 

In fact, it's a crime. 

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Mike Lynch is a two-time author and founder of the popular and well-respected website Seamheads.com, which celebrates all things baseball. His book, Harry Frazee, Ban Johnson and the Feud That Nearly Destroyed the American League was published in 2008 and named a finalist for the 2009 Ritter Award. His second book, It Ain't So: A Might Have Been History of the White Sox in 1919 and Beyond was published in 2009.  His article, "A Question of Ownership" appears in the recently released book, Opening Fenway Park in Style: the 1912 Boston Red Sox.

Lynch is also the executive producer of the Seamheads National Podcasting Network on Blog Talk Radio, and a founding member of Leatherheads of the Gridiron, Seamheads.com's sister football site.

His work has appeared on several websites, including The Sporting News, and in The Oregonian newspaper, and he's been interviewed on numerous podcasts and radio stations.

One of Lunch’s proudest moments came when the Seamheads Negro Leagues Database won a 2011 SABR Baseball Research Award.

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