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.

Nick Markakis: ‘I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?’

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Earlier today, the Braves inked veteran outfielder Nick Markakis to a one-year deal worth $4 million with a club option for the 2020 season worth $6 million with a $2 million buyout. Though Markakis is 35 years old, he’s coming off of a terrific season in which he played in all 162 games and hit .297/.366/.440 with 14 home runs and 93 RBI in 705 trips to the plate. Markakis had just completed a four-year, $44 million contract, so he took a substantial pay cut.

Per David O’Brien of The Athletic, Markakis asked his kids where they wanted him to play and they said Atlanta. O’Brien also asked Markakis about the pay cut. The outfielder said, “I’m not mad at all. I play a kids’ game and get paid a lot of money. How can I be disappointed with that?”

This seemingly innocuous comment by Markakis is actually damaging for his peers and for the union. Baseball as a game is indeed a “kids’ game,” but Major League Baseball is a billion-dollar business that has been setting revenue records year over year. The players have seen a smaller and smaller percentage of the money MLB makes since the beginning of the 2000’s. Furthermore, Markakis only gets paid “a lot of money” relative to, say, a first-year teacher or a clerk at a convenience store. Relative to the value of Liberty Media, which owns the Braves, and relative to the value of Major League Baseball itself, Markakis’s salary is a drop in the ocean.

That Markakis is happy to take a pay cut is totally fine, but it’s harmful for him to publicly justify that because it creates the expectation that his peers should feel the same way and creates leverage for ownership. His comments mirror those who sympathize first and foremost with billionaire team owners. They are common arguments used to justify paying players less, giving them a smaller and smaller cut of the pie. Because Markakis not only took a pay cut but defended it, front office members of the Braves as well as the 29 other teams can point to him and guilt or shame other players for asking for more money.

“Look at Nick, he’s a team player,” I envision a GM saying to younger Braves player who is seeking a contract extension, or a free agent looking to finally find a home before spring training. “Nick’s stats are as good as yours, so why should you make more money than him?”

Contrast Markakis’s approach with Yasmani Grandal‘s. Grandal reportedly turned down a four-year, $60 million contract offer from the Mets early in the offseason and settled for a one-year, $18.25 million contract with the Brewers. Per Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic, Grandal said on MLB Network, “I felt like part of my responsibility as a player was to respect the guys that went through this process before I did. Guys like Brian McCann, Russell Martin, Yadier Molina, These are guys who established markets and pay levels for upper-tier catchers like me. I felt like I was doing a disservice if I were to take some of the deals that were being thrown around. I wanted to keep the line moving especially for some of the younger guys that are coming up … to let them know, if you’re worthy, then you should get paid what you’re worth. That’s where I was coming from.”

Grandal’s comments are exactly what a member of a union should be saying, unapologetically. The MLBPA needs to get all of its members on the same page when it comes to discussing contracts or labor situations in general publicly. What Markakis said seems selfless and innocent — and I have no doubt he is being genuine without malice — but it could reduce the bargaining power players have across the table from ownership, which means less money. They are already being bamboozled, at least until the next collective bargaining agreement. They don’t need to be bamboozled any more.