harmon killebrew 1975 topps

Harmon Killebrew through a 32-year-old’s eyes


Unfortunately, none of us 20- and 30-something bloggers at HardballTalk ever got to see Harmon Killebrew play.  I just remember his all-time name near the top of the all-time home run leaderboard.  Killebrew.

As an avid collector as a youngster in the late-80s, I recall being excited to get his 1975 Topps card.  That colorful set was my favorite of the old-time cards, and while I was in no position to buy the 50s and 60s cards of Hall of Famers, those 70s cards were usually within reason.   

I didn’t realize it at the time, but that was Killebrew’s last baseball card.  Although he played for the Royals in 1975 — the only one of his 22 seasons not spent with the Senators/Twins — Topps didn’t include him in the 1976 set.  I’m guessing he wouldn’t have looked right in the Kansas City uniform anyway.

I’d always imagined Killebrew as the original Mark McGwire: a right-handed-hitting first baseman with huge power and modest averages.  Killebrew led the AL in homers six times and in RBI three times.  He won the MVP award in 1969 for hitting .276 with 49 homers and 140 RBI.

Of course, their builds weren’t at all similar.  But Killebrew also shared another trait in common with McGwire: he walked a ton.  He led the AL four times and he was seventh on the all-time list with 1,559 walks when he retired.  Similar to how he’s fallen from fifth to 11th all-time in homers, he’s now 15th all-time in walks.

His batting average, apparently, was an issue.  Killebrew never hit higher than .288 in a season, and he finished his career at .256.  That, plus the fact that he was viewed as a subpar defender whereever the Twins stashed him, resulted in him waiting four ballots to be elected into the Hall of Fame in Cooperstown.

That fact seems bizarre now.  Killebrew wasn’t an all-or-nothing slugger: he finished in the top 10 in the AL in on-base percentage nine times.  He was incredibly consistent: from 1959-1972, he had an OPS+ of 130 or better every years.   He finished in the top five (but never first or second) in the AL in OPS+ 10 times in a 12-year span (he was right in that same range the other two years, but he was limited to 113 games in 1965 and 100 in 1968).

Killebrew was an 11-time All-Star.  He finished in the top five in MVP balloting six times.  In 1971, he was honored with the Lou Gehrig Memorial Award given to players for integrity on and off the field.

I just wish I had more to offer than the numbers.  By every account, Killebrew is one of the greats off the field as well.  It’s going to be a very sad day when he passes.

Concerns over Jon Lester’s throwing ability much ado about nothing

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20: Jon Lester #34 of the Chicago Cubs pitches against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images)
Josh Lefkowitz/Getty Images

Going into Thursday night’s NLCS Game 5, Dodgers manager Dave Roberts planned to have his team be annoying and distracting on the base paths for Cubs starter Jon Lester. Lester, you see, has a hard time making throws when he’s not pitching from the rubber, as seen here.

The Dodgers got an immediate opportunity to test their strategy, as Enrique Hernandez drew a four-pitch walk to start the game in the bottom of the first inning. Hernandez was taking leads between 15 and 25 feet, just taunting Lester to throw over to first base. Lester never did. And despite being given the luxury of such a large lead, Hernandez never attempted to steal second base.

It ended up costing the Dodgers a run. After Justin Turner struck out, Corey Seager lined a single to center field. Hernandez, large lead and all, should’ve been well on his way to third base, but he settled for staying at second base. Carlos Ruiz then flied out to right field on what should’ve been a sacrifice fly. Hernandez instead just advanced to third. Howie Kendrick grounded out to end the inning with the Dodgers having scored no runs.

In the bottom of the second inning with two outs, Joc Pederson dropped down a bunt, but Lester was able to field it and make a bounce-throw to Anthony Rizzo at first base to end the inning. Lester stared angrily into the Dodgers’ dugout as he walked off the field. If it were me, I’d have been glaring angrily not because the opposing team was attempting to exploit my weakness, but because the strategy is so poor.

The bunting would continue in the seventh inning as first baseman and noted power hitter Adrian Gonzalez tried to sneak a bunt past Lester on the right side of the infield. Second baseman Javier Baez was able to scoop it up and fire to first. Gonzalez was initially ruled safe, but the call was overturned upon replay review.

Lester countered the Dodgers’ bunting and greedy lead-taking by just pitching his game. He went seven innings, allowing just one run on five hits and a walk with six strikeouts on 108 pitches. The Cubs went on to win 8-4, taking a 3-2 lead in the NLCS. A worthy consideration for the National League Cy Young Award based on his regular season performance, Lester now has a 0.86 ERA in 21 innings spanning three starts this postseason. Turns out, the yips isn’t debilitating if you’re really good at your main job.

Cubs swat their way past the Dodgers 8-4 in NLCS Game 5

LOS ANGELES, CA - OCTOBER 20:  Addison Russell #27 of the Chicago Cubs hits a two-run home run in the sixth inning against the Los Angeles Dodgers in game five of the National League Division Series at Dodger Stadium on October 20, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
Harry How/Getty Images

During the regular season, the Cubs had the second-best offense in baseball behind the Rockies, averaging 4.99 runs per game. It was the best after debiting the Rockies for playing in Coors Field. There was no way, after getting shut out in NLCS Games 2 and 3, that the offense was going to stay dormant much longer. They broke out for 10 runs in a Game 4 victory on Wednesday night. They scored eight more to beat the Dodgers 8-4 in Game 5, taking a 3-2 NLCS lead.

The Cubs took an early 1-0 lead in the top of the first inning when leadoff batter Dexter Fowler greeted Kenta Maeda with a single to center field. He’d come around to score on a one-out double by Anthony Rizzo who, like teammate Addison Russell, hadn’t hit much until breaking out in Game 4.

Starter Jon Lester was able to silence the Dodgers’ offense despite their strategy of attempting bunts and taking big leads, knowing Lester has trouble throwing when it’s not from the pitching rubber. They managed just one run, coming around in the fourth inning to knot the game at 1-1 when Howie Kendrick doubled, stole third base, and scored on an Adrian Gonzalez ground out.

Ultimately, Lester lasted seven innings, holding the Dodgers to five hits and a walk with six strikeouts on 108 pitches. Addison Russell allowed him to leave with a lead, slugging a two-run home run off of reliever Joe Blanton in the sixth to break the 1-1 tie.

The Cubs tacked on plenty of insurance in the top of the eighth against reliever Pedro Baez, which proved to be rather necessary. Russell reached on an error by Baez, Willson Contreras singled, and Albert Almora, Jr. moved both runners up a base on a sacrifice bunt. Dexter Fowler then hit a single to first baseman Adrian Gonzalez, but Baez didn’t break to cover first base. Gonzalez wasn’t able to beat Fowler to the bag, allowing the Cubs’ fourth run to score. Kris Bryant hit a weak grounder to third base and he was able to beat that out as well, pushing across another run in the process. Anthony Rizzo lined out, but Baez prolonged the inning by walking Ben Zobrist. Ross Stripling relieved Baez, but he served up a bases-clearing double to Javier Baez, making it an 8-1 ballgame. Jason Heyward, as has often been the case, popped up feebly, mercifully ending the inning with the Cubs having hung up a five-spot.

Pedro Strop took over for Lester in the bottom of the eighth. He gave up a double to Andrew Toles, then hit Justin Turner to begin the inning. Though Strop was able to induce a ground ball double play from Corey Seager, Carlos Ruiz followed up with a double to left-center to push in a run. Howie Kendrick flied out to send the game to the ninth.

Closer Aroldis Chapman took over with a six-run lead in the bottom of the ninth. He issued a leadoff walk to Gonzalez, then served up a single to Yasiel Puig. Joc Pederson grounded out, but Josh Reddick knocked in Gonzalez and moved Puig to third with a single to center. Toles plated Puig with a sacrifice fly, making it 8-4. Turner grounded out to shortstop to end the game, finalizing the victory for the Cubs.

The two clubs will take Friday off to travel back to Chicago. Game 6 will take place at Wrigley Field at 8:00 PM EDT. Clayton Kershaw will start for the Dodgers opposite the Cubs’ Kyle Hendricks.