The slowest player in baseball

39 Comments

You know that dream where you are running and running but are not actually getting anywhere. I know people have all sorts of theories about this dream and what it means. Some say it indicates that you have too many things going in your life and can’t quite keep up. Some say it’s the body reacting to being in a sleep state. Some say it doesn’t have any specific meaning at all, but it just an outlet for your brain.

I have come to believe that dream is simply about Kansas City designated hitter Billy Butler.

Billy Butler is slow. Spectacularly slow. It is in his nature. Butler came up when he was 21 years old, a bit of a prodigy when it came to hitting a baseball, and he promptly posted a 108 OPS+. He could hit right away — I predicted from Day 1 that he would win a batting title someday, and I still think he will. But he was spectacularly slow even then, even as a kid. In 2009, he hit .301 with 51 doubles. He was spectacularly slow. The next year he hit .318/.388/.469. He was spectacularly slow. Now, at age 27, he’s an established guy, an All-Star, a lifetime .298 hitter with more than 1,000 career hits an a lifetime 122 OPS+. He remains spectacularly slow.

I have long said that the slowest measurement known to man is a “Molina” and that all players can be measured against it. It’s sort of the opposite of the speed of light — the theory goes that nothing can go faster than the speed of light and so it can be a constant in formulas like the classic E=MC2. Well, I have long believed that nothing on earth moves slower than a Molina — Bengie, specifically, but none of the Molinas are exactly Usain Bolt — and so every player can be measured by Molinas. Jacoby Ellsbury, for instance, is 584,372 Molinas. Meanwhile, someone slow like Paul Konerko is closer to 1.21 Molinas.

One theory about the speed of light is that if anything COULD move faster, it would actually go backward in time. My scientific theory is that anything that moves slower than a Molina would actually stop time or, at least, hit into many double plays.

Billy Butler moves slower than a Molina. It’s part of his enormous charm. There are numbers that show his ultrasonic lead-footedness. He has hit one triple since Sept. 1, 2009. He has hit into more double plays than any player over the last five seasons. He has stolen five bases in his career. Among players with more than 4,000 plate appearances only nine players — among them the legendarily slow Gus Triandos, Cecil Fielder, Dick Stuart, Victor Martinez and, of course, Bengie Molina — have stolen fewer bases.

But more than the statistics, there is the extraordinary joy of watching Billy Butler play baseball. His running is only part of it. Butler is listed at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds and it’s possible that both numbers are exaggerated to the good (more on this in a minute). His uniform pant legs seem about four sizes too big, so that the bottoms bunch up around his shoes and it looks like he is wearing a hand me down from a much older brother. I remember when Billy came up to the big leagues, the other guys on the team gave him a pretty hard time because of his size and age and body type ad speed and because Billy is just a good-hearted lug who commands that sort of ribbing. Anyway, he was taking some pretty decent abuse when someone told him the only comeback he would ever need for such situations.

“Yeah,” Billy was told to say, “but I can hit.”

He can hit, boy. He has a wide stance and perfect balance and his batting swing is absolutely pure. He steps back with his left leg then steps in, utterly in sync, like a dance step, and his eyes lock in on the ball, and his bat rips through the zone, and it’s a thing of beauty. The best word for that swing is gorgeous. Only Robinson Cano has hit more doubles than Butler the last five seasons, and you know Billy ain’t legging any of those out. The man crunches line drives into gaps and smashes shots down the third base line and launches balls off the wall. For him they are doubles. For almost anyone else, some would be triples.

And he runs. You can feel the ground move. There has never really been any question about Butler’s effort. He doesn’t loaf like MannyBManny. He simply moves his legs and his body doesn’t go anywhere. It’s like some kind of magic trick. He will hit a ground ball to short and you will see him start running up the line. Then you will follow the ball to short, follow the throw to first and look back … and Billy’s in the same spot where your eyes left him.

The game has a marvelous history of impossibly slow players. Gus Triandos. Ernie Lombardi. They called Charlie Hickman “Piano Legs” and he was considered an especially slow runner — but he hit 91 triples and stole 72 bases in his career so that doesn’t seem to match up. Boog Powell, however, was famously slow as were other Orioles like Elrod Hendricks and Ken Singleton and Richie Dauer. Baltimore manager Earl Weaver didn’t really care about speed. Incidentally, Dauer does not not get enough credit for his slowness — he had 984 hits, only two were triples, and he was caught 13 of the 19 times he tried to steal a base.

Shanty Hogan was a huge, slow guy famous for eating all the time — it was said once, when ordered by John McGraw to lose weigh, Hogan decided instead to buy a suit way too big for him so that it would LOOK like he lost weight. It didn’t work. Hogan, like Billy Butler, was listed at, 6-foot-1, 240 pounds. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. I think 6-foot-1, 240 pounds is not an actual height and weight, it’s a code for something else. Call it the Da Shanty Code.

Players with 1,000-plus games in big leagues listed at 6-foot-1, 240 pounds:

— Shanty Hogan.

— Billy Butler

— Bob Hamelin

Willie Mays Aikens is one of the most amazing stories in baseball history. When he was born, the doctor named him after Willie Mays … and he actually made it to the big leagues and hit 20-plus homers three times. Think of the odds of that. And then, think of the odds of that someone being named Willie Mays and him probably being the slowest player in baseball. Willie Mays Aikens was like the opposite of Willie Mays Hayes. He was so slow that when he hit a triple in the 1980 World Series, the reaction in the Kansas City dugout was not joy as much as it was insane laughter.

Anyway, it’s a proud role, being the slowest guy in baseball, and I’ve long though that Billy Butler had that all wrapped up. Then, the other day, John Dewan over at Baseball Info Solutions said that in their research they have been timing runners to first base on ground balls that are potential double plays. He has promised to send over some more detailed information, which I will add to the post, but for now here are the five slowest:

1. Welington Castillo, Cubs, 4.84 seconds

2. Billy Butler, Royals, 4.81 seconds

3. Paul Konerko, White Sox, 4.77 seconds

4. Edwin Encarnacion, Blue Jays, 4.67 seconds

(Tie) Yorvit Torrealba, Rockies, 4.67 seconds

Hmm. I’ve got to see the Welington Castillo character run.

Addendum: Great add from BR Blair. He tweeted: “4.84 seconds over 90 feet … linear extrapolation says that’s a 6.45 forty.” Could you imagine looking up any prospect in the NFL and seeing something like, “Strong player and has a great attitude. One drawback is that he runs a 6.5 forty.”

Alan Trammell’s Hall of Fame election validates a child’s baseball memories

Getty Images
1 Comment

LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla — My great uncle Harry was a boat salesman in Detroit. He had some Tigers front office types as clients so he got a lot of free tickets to Tigers games. and he’d use them to take my brother and me to Tiger Stadium several times a year. We were always right behind home plate.

My parents tell me that I went to my first game in Tiger Stadium on the Fourth of July, 1978. I was too young to remember a thing about that one. The first one I do remember was June 17, 1979. A few years ago I tracked down the box score for that game on Baseball-Reference.com to get all of the details, but before I knew all of the specifics I remembered the important details: it was a day game against the California Angels and Alan Trammell hit a home run. He instantly became my favorite player. I was not quite six years old.

Like any other kid who has a favorite player, I obsessed over him. I collected every one of his baseball cards. I looked for his name in every box score. When I played Little League I begged the coach to let me play shortstop even though I had no business playing shortstop (the coach did let me wear number 3 at least). I made sure that, when a Tigers game was on TV, no one turned it off until Trammell had come to bat at least once.

On one occasion I even sort of stalked him.

My grandparents lived in Detroit and rumor had it that Trammell rented a house just down the street from them during the season. Once, when we were visiting my grandmother, my brother and I walked to the house and knocked on the door. A woman in her 20s answered it. We presumed it to be his wife or girlfriend. We asked if Alan Trammell was there. She said no and shut the door on us. At the time we assumed that, darn our luck, he had already left to go to the ballpark that day. In hindsight I realized that it probably wasn’t his house, and that the woman, while taciturn to the point of being misleading, was technically telling the truth. The point here is that back then I just liked to assume that Alan Trammell lived two doors down from my grandparents. A kid will believe a lot about his hero ballplayer in order to be closer to him.

My thing for Trammell continued for a good decade or so. By the end of that decade it seemed plain to me that was the greatest shortstop in the history of baseball and anyone else who didn’t recognize that was simply irrational. With nearly 40 years of hindsight, I now know that Trammell wasn’t the greatest shortstop in baseball history. Probably. He was damn good, though.

After I moved away from Michigan and Trammell’s career began to wind down, Greg Maddux became my favorite player. It was a different thing with him — I was too old for a baseball player to be my hero, exactly — but it’s the case that I thought less about Trammell than I had in the 80s. That probably would’ve happened naturally, but there were other factors which worked to make me think of Trammell less than I did when I was younger.

It’s easy to get jaded if you spend enough time writing about baseball. I’ve never stopped loving or enjoying the game, but if you focus most of your life on it, you end up seeing so many amazing things that you forget some of the other amazing stuff you’ve seen. In my case, I’ve pushed out a lot of the stuff I enjoyed when I was a kid. I didn’t do it on purpose. It just happened. There is only so much baseball you can hold in your head at once and I have a lot of baseball in my head.

Part of me pushing Trammell out of my head was defensive, though. He first made the Hall of Fame ballot in 2002. He didn’t get even 20% of the vote until his ninth year. He never got as much as 37% of the vote. It pained me to see the Hall of Fame voters — many of whom would eventually become my friends and colleagues — fail to recognize him year after year. I get why that happened. Trammell was a bit of an odd duck for his era. After decades of being used to heavy leather, light bat shortstops, Hall of Fame voters weren’t ready for a guy at that position who could play gold glove defense, hit for both average and power and take an occasional walk. At the very least they weren’t ready to process several of them at once. Cal Ripken and Robin Yount, understandably, filled up that space in their heads while Ozzie Smith impressed upon them that the traditional shortstop archetype remained strong. There just wasn’t room for Tram their minds.

But even if his being overlooked was somewhat understandable, it was still painful. It seemed like a rebuke of my childhood memories. I’m not a sentimental guy. I don’t believe in that whole fathers-and-sons-passing-baseball-down-from-generation-to-generation thing. But I did wonder why I’d bother taking my kids to the Hall of Fame if I could not go into the plaque room and see my Hall of Fame-worthy boyhood idol. Why should I care about the Hall of Fame if, as far as it was concerned, Alan Trammell was an invisible man? Alan Trammell happened. I saw it. I saw him do all of those great things and, because of the manner in which baseball history is chronicled and remembered, he was forgotten in some important way. It pissed me off.

I never thought Trammell would make the Hall of Fame. Not for a moment. I knew a couple of years in that the BBWAA wouldn’t vote him in and I had no confidence, until the moment I heard the news of his election last night, that the Veteran’s Committee would ever give him his due. But they did.

It was a shock and a surprise. When I heard he made it I stopped what I was doing and just sat back dumbfounded. Happy. Flooded with memories of watching Trammell play when I was a kid and he was my favorite player. Happy that, after years and years of almost wondering if I was the only person alive who watched him play, my childhood memories were validated. Validated in a way that I never thought was really necessary but, now that it has happened, makes me feel better than I did before. Better about baseball. Better about baseball history. Better about the memories I had that, for a while, I began to even question since no one else seemed to remember Trammell like I did.

This old man’s memories of Alan Trammell aren’t all that important. Baseball memories of old men have had more than their fair share of validation over the years to the point where baseball history is almost distorted as a result. But what of the baseball memories of younger generations?

The Baseball Hall of Fame and its voters have seen fit to shun the baseball greats of the 1990s and 2000s. A host of them — Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Sammy Sosa, Mark McGwire, Manny Ramirez and others — are now and likely forever will be kept out of the Hall of Fame. We certainly have not forgotten those players, but we’re not honoring them.

The Hall and its voters will eagerly explain to you why that is. It’s about ethics and morality and authenticity and all of that, they say. I’m not sure, however, why that would matter to a person who, when they were six-year-old, was amazed by their feats and exploits. I’m not sure how an entire generation of people who became baseball fans as a result of those players should be made to feel that their memories are somehow not worth memorializing. Why they should be expected to go to the Hall of Fame with their children if they can’t walk into the plaque room and say “there’s the greatest player I ever saw.”

Until last night I discounted that feeling. I don’t think I’ll discount it anymore.