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Neyer vs. Flanagan

by Rob Neyer

On June 14, the Kansas City Star’s Jeffrey Flanagan devoted a fair percentage of his column to my book, for which I’m exceptionally grateful. Flanagan did take me to task over a couple of my selections on the Royals’ all-time team, however, and since he’s not the first, I thought I’d address his critique (most of the column was critical, or at least questioning, which is fine because that’s sort of the point). Herewith…

Now, there is one pick that clearly needs to be changed. There is no way that Tartabull is a better choice than Al Cowens, who was by far a better all-round player.

Granted, Tartabull is in the top 10 in several offensive categories including homers and RBIs for the Royals. But, Tartabull never had a meaningful hit in a Royals uniform. Cowens contributed to great teams.

Perhaps Neyer simply was trying to insert someone more recent to add some variety to the team.

If that’s the case, one could make a case for Mike Sweeney over Mayberry. True, Mayberry was far better defensively, but he wasn’t the offensive weapon Sweeney is.

Well, before I write something of substance, does anybody else detect a certain inconsistency here? If I’m to disqualify Tartabull because he never had a meaningful hit in a Royals uniform, then what am I to do with Sweeney? It’s not like he’s exactly played a big part in a pennant race lately.

Leaving that aside for a moment, let’s look at Cowens and Tartabull . . .

I fell in love with the Royals in the 1970s when, beginning in 1976, they won three straight division titles. The right fielder for all three of those first-place teams was Al Cowens, who took over in ’76 and remained the regular through 1979. Four seasons, three division titles. And in 1977, Cowens played brilliantly — .312-23-112 — winning a Gold Glove and finishing second (to Rod Carew) in the MVP balloting. Cowens really wasn’t that good — Ken Singleton was pretty obviously the second-best player (or even the best player) in the league. But still, it was one hell of a season.

The problem is that 1977 was Al Cowens’ only good season. Look at his four seasons as an everyday player:

       Avg  HR  RBI   OBP  Slug
1976  .265   3   59  .300  .341
1977  .312  23  112  .363  .525
1978  .274   5   65  .326  .388
1979  .295   9   73  .349  .409

Basically, Cowens was a .270 hitter with little plate discipline and little power. . . not exactly what you’re looking for in a right fielder. But for that one season, he did show good power (and would do the same in the 1980s, by which time he was playing for the Mariners). And that one season is the season we remember.

But the other seasons count, too. Including 1974 and ’75 (when Cowens was a part-timer), here’s how he compares to Danny Tartabull, in Win Shares:

Cowens  T'bull
   4      24
  10      22
  12      13
  27      10
  15      28
  14

In six seasons, Cowens totaled 82 Win Shares. In five seasons, Tartabull totaled 97 Win Shares.

Yes, I understand that 1) Tartabull was a terrible defensive player, and 2) Cowens was a good one. But Win Shares takes those things into consideration, and Tartabull still comes out way ahead. Simply put, he was an excellent hitter, while Cowens was, except for 1977, adequate at best. And in fact, the Royals’ one serious weakness in the late 1970s was their lack of production in the corner outfield spots (and at first base, too). And they knew it. In 1978, Willie Wilson took over in left field. And in 1980, Clint Hurdle took over in right field…from Al Cowens.

Now, Mayberry and Sweeney:

John  Mike
 27     4
 31     5
 14     8
 33    16
 15    26
 14    18

In six seasons, Mayberry totaled 124 Win Shares, or roughly 20 per season. In six seasons (through 2002), Sweeney totaled 77 Win Shares, or roughly 13 per season.

Which is to say, it’s not even close, and it still won’t be close even if Sweeney winds up having the monster 2003 season that he seems to be heading for.

When comparing players of the 1970s to the players of the 2000s, it’s very important to remember that in 1975, Mayberry’s biggest season, hitting 34 home runs as a Kansas City Royal was a great accomplishment. It’s also important to remember that Mayberry twice led the American League in walks.

He wasn’t a great player for long: four years, basically, and in one of those years he was actually pretty awful. But John Mayberry was a great player. And until Mike Sweeney has two more great years, he won’t be Mayberry’s equal.