Friday, December 28, 2018

Remebering Stretch

A nice piece by Jay Jaffe at Fangraphs. Here is how it starts:

Unlike Willie Mays and Hank Aaron, who retired after the 1973 and -76 seasons, respectively, Willie McCovey was still playing in 1978, which means that I was old enough to see the tail end of his career, and to have more than an inkling of his significance. My father and grandfather, lifelong Dodgers fans, spoke with a mixture of awe and “ohhhh” regarding the towering slugger nicknamed “Stretch,” while my eight-year-old brain marveled at the back of his 1978 Topps card, which required a different, smaller font than the standard cards in order to contain every season, and every home run — 493 of them, 92 more than any other player in the set — of a career that stretched back to 1959. McCovey was power-hitting royalty, with a regal bearing and a uniform number (44) that linked him both to Aaron, whose home run heroics I’d already read about, and Reggie Jackson, whose exploits I’d seen on television.


The Giants honored McCovey by retiring his No. 44 and establishing the Willie Mac Award, given to the team’s most inspirational player as chosen by his teammates, and presented by McCovey during the season’s final homestand. The team kept him in the fold, first as a spring-training instructor, then as a special assistant to the general manager, and for the last 18 years of his life, as a senior advisor. Most of that latter period, alas, was spent in a wheelchair, the result of innumerable knee and back surgeries. A 2014 infection nearly killed him and led to the removal of all of the hardware in his knees. Through it all, he remained an upbeat presence, able to share in the joy of the Giants’ 2010, 2012, and 2014 championships and to serve as an ambassador for the team and the city.
With a couple leaguewide homer spikes now standing between McCovey’s retirement and the present, the former Giant is now tied for 20th on the all-time list, not only with Williams but also Frank Thomas. His total of 18 grand slams remains an NL record and is tied for fourth all-time. One can only wonder how many more home runs he might have hit while playing in a more hitter-friendly park than Candlestick (where his 236 homers were the most all-time), or in a more hitter-friendly era than the 1960s, or without Cepeda crowding his playing time, on two good knees. Six hundred homers doesn’t seem far-fetched.
Adjusted for park and league, he does still stand out, emphatically. Among players with at least 7,000 plate appearances, his 145 wRC+ is in a virtual tie for 39th with fellow Hall of Famers Elmer Flick, Willie Stargell, and Jim Thome. By our measure, his 67.4 WAR ranks 74th. Via Baseball-Reference’s version of WAR, he’s 14th among first basemen with 64.5 career WAR, 13th with a seven-year peak of 44.9, and 13th in JAWS at 54.7, matching the average for enshrined first basemen. He received 81.4% on his first appearance on the ballot in 1986, the sole player elected by the writers that year.
While the numbers testify to his greatness and his ferocious power, they only hint at the extent to which the gentle Giant was beloved by fans throughout the baseball world. This one will never forget having seen his swing, or crossed his path.


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