Johnny Pesky’s terrific big-league start

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Johnny Pesky didn’t finish his major league career with anything close to Hall of Fame numbers, but who knows what might have happened if he didn’t miss his age 23, 24 and 25 seasons to serve in World War II?

I’ll admit that I didn’t realize just how good Pesky was early on before checking out his stats today. The Needle led the American League in hits each of his first three seasons.  As a 22-year-old rookie in 1942, he managed to pull off the rare double of leading his league in both hits (205) and sacrifice bunts (22) on his way to a third-place finish in the MVP balloting. Back from the war in 1946, he had 208 hits and finished fourth in the MVP vote.  In 1947, he had 207 hits.

Here’s the all-time top 10 for hits in a player’s first three seasons:

678 – Lloyd Waner
662 – Ichiro Suzuki
640 – Paul Waner
635 – Al Simmons
620 – Johnny Pesky
615 – Joe Dimaggio
591 – Albert Pujols
588 – Earl Averill
587 – Kirby Puckett
583 – Pinky Whitney

Every player in the top nine besides Pesky is or will be a Hall of Famer. Not only that, but they were all outfielders (even Pujols was an outfielder then). Pesky was a shortstop and a pretty good one, though he did move to third base to make room for Vern Stephens in 1947.

Of course, Pesky was a singles-hitter helped out by batting high in some very good Red Sox lineups, aiding his raw hit totals. He did bat .330 over the three-year span, though. His overall .330/.390/.411 line matches up pretty well with Ichiro’s .328/.374/.440 line and rates a lot better than Puckett’s .304/.340/.424 line.

Pesky remained a fine regular for four more years after 1947. He never led the league in anything, but he had some remarkable strikeout-to-walk ratios (in 1949, he had 19 strikeouts and 100 walks in 712 plate appearances). In 1951, at age 31, he hit .313/.416/.398 in 131 games. And that was pretty much it for him. He fell all of the way off to .225/.372/.262 in 1952, had a modest rebound in 103 games with the Tigers in 1953 and then struggled through one final year in 1954.

It’s what happened after Pesky’s playing career that will cause him to be remembered so fondly by Red Sox Nation, but make no mistake: he was an excellent player, one of the AL’s best at his peak. He ended up with six .300 seasons, four seasons with at least a .400 OBP (plus two more over .390) and six seasons with at least 100 runs scored.

Astros vs. Dodgers is a match made in heaven

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A lot of people who work at the league office or who take paychecks from the Fox network probably wanted to see the Yankees and the Cubs in the World Series. They won’t admit it, of course, but I suspect that many did, as the ratings for a Cubs-Yankees Series might’ve broken modern records. If they are at all disappointed by the Astros and Dodgers winning the pennant, however, they should let that go because they’ve been gifted by a wonderful matchup from a purely baseball perspective. Indeed, it’s one of the best on-paper matchups we’ve had in the Fall Classic in many years.

Before the Dodgers went on their late-August, early-September swoon, this was the potential World Series pairing most folks who know a thing or two wanted to see. At least I did, and I don’t think I was alone. It was certainly the matchup which represented the teams with the two best regular season records and storylines at the time. While Cleveland ended up winning more games than Houston did, for the first time since 1970 we have a World Series pitting two 100-win teams against each other.

Like that Orioles-Reds series in 1970, which featured Johnny Bench, Pete Rose, Tony Perez, Jim Palmer, Brooks Robinson and a host of other All-Stars, the Dodgers-Astros provide us with an embarrassment of big names and future Hall of Famers. Dodgers starter Clayton Kershaw and Astros DH/OF Carlos Beltran are destined for induction already. Astros ace Justin Verlander may very well join them, especially if his late 2017 surge is evidence of a second career peak. Houston second baseman Jose Altuve‘s first seven years and Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen‘s first eight are the stuff upon which Cooperstown resumes are made as well. People will be arguing Dodgers second baseman Chase Utley‘s Hall of Fame case for years once he retires.

Youth is served as well in this matchup, with each club featuring a handful of the game’s best young players to accompany their big name veteran stars.

The Dodgers will bat their no-doubt N.L. Rookie of the Year first baseman Cody Bellinger second or third in the lineup every game. 2016 Rookie of the Year Corey Seager, who sat out the NLCS with a bad back, is expected to be activated for the Series where he’ll be the Dodgers shortstop. The Astros are actually an old team on paper — Verlander, catcher Brian McCann, starter Charlie Morton, first baseman Yuli Gurriel, outfielder Josh Reddick and DH Evan Gattis are all over 30 while Beltran is 40 — but young players are essential to their attack as well. Shortstop Carlos Correa just turned 23 and he’s one of the game’s brightest stars. Third baseman Alex Bregman, also 23, made the play that may very well have broken the Yankees’ back during Saturday night’s pennant clincher. Age aside, the Astros are the product of a major, multi-year rebuild and many of their players are making their first national splash this postseason.

Beyond just the names and resumes, though, the Dodgers and Astros represent a fantastic strategic matchup. The Dodgers attack this postseason has featured admirable plate discipline, with third baseman Justin Turner, right fielder Yasiel Puig and center fielder Chris Taylor all letting balls out of the zone pass them by while abusing pitches left out over the plate. Astros pitchers not named Justin Verlander, however, have lived by getting the opposition to chase bad balls. Game one starter Dallas Keuchel did this by relying on his very fast sinker. Lance McCullers pitched well starting Game 4 of the ALCS and pitched spectacularly closing out the final four innings of Game 7 mostly by virtue of his curveball, which Yankees pitchers could simply not lay off. Indeed, his final 24 pitches of Game 7 were all curves, many of them low and away. Who will give in first in this series?

On the side of things, Dodgers relievers have made a living by pumping in strikes. Particularly strikes high in the zone from Jansen and Brandon Morrow. There may be no better fastball hitter in all of baseball than Jose Altuve, however, and the team as a whole was one of the best in the bigs in dealing with gas in the zone. This was a big reason why the Astros struck out less than any team in baseball this year while simultaneously boasting the best offense in the game. The Dodgers throw strikes. The Astros make you pay when you throw them strikes. Again, something’s gotta give.

Maybe the suits in New York wanted the Yankees and Cubs. But everyone else is getting exactly what we want: a matchup of the two best teams in the game. A matchup of strength against strength. What is, from a purely baseball perspective, the best World Series we could’ve possibly hoped for.