Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
July 12, 2012
BASEBALL: 1968: Year of the Injured Hitter?
Why was 1968 the Year of the Pitcher? Let me present to you an unorthodox theory that has been percolating in my brain since I noticed a pattern leafing through the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract a quarter century ago: the dominance of pitching that season was exacerbated by an unusual run of injuries to a number of the game's best hitters, combined to some extent with an unusual run of good health by the game's best pitchers.
Lest we get too carried away with the theory, let me step back a bit. The offensive/defensive conditions of the game change every year, sometimes due to years-long structural factors, sometimes due to weather, chance or other one-year factors. Scoring dropped throughout the 1960s due to a number of the former: a bigger strike zone, more pitcher-friendly parks, higher mounds, more night games, a reduction in the stigma against strikeouts without a corresponding emphasis on plate patience. Those factors affected the game from 1963-68, and some of them continued to linger into the late 1970s. 1968 was simply the most extreme example of its era. Scoring was down from 3.77 runs per team per game to 3.42 (a drop of almost 10%), rising back in 1969 to 4.07.
But I have wondered for years if there was something specific at work that made 1968 stand out from the years around it, and if you look one by one at the injuries to major offensive stars that season, a pattern suggests itself. I do not promise a systematic comparison of 1968 to other seasons in this regard, but take a look at the anecdotal evidence with me and see if you agree.
The Walking Wounded
Let's start with the core group of players, most of them major offensive stars, who were hampered by injury in 1968. I'll list each player's age as of 1968 in parentheses, and a chart showing each player's plate appearances and Offensive Wins Above Replacement (OWAR) for the 1967-1968-1969 seasons (source: baseball-reference.com).
Joe Morgan (24)
Morgan wasn't the biggest star KO'd by injury in 1968, but he was the most total loss. While he wasn't recognized as a major star until he escaped the Astrodome in 1972, Morgan had been second in the Rookie of the Year voting in 1965, an All-Star in 1966, batted .276/.385/.408 and averaged 20 steals a year from 1965-67, and .253/.366/.392 with 44 steals a year from 1969-71, plus another All-Star appearance in 1970. But 10 games into the 1968 season, with Morgan's OBP at .444, he tore up his knee when Tommie Agee ran into him at second base, ending his season.
Harmon Killebrew (32)
The biggest home run threat of the 1960s, Killebrew hit .266/.379/.546 from 1959-67, including 44 homers, 131 walks and a second-place MVP finish in 1967. He hit .267/.409/.534 from 1969-71, including 49 homers, 145 walks, 140 RBI and an MVP Award in 1969. In 1968, Killebrew was off his game but still productive (.210/.361/.420, OPS+ of 131); he was batting .204/.347/.392 when he tore a hamstring stretching for a throw in the All-Star Game, and didn't return until September, when he batted .257/.458/.629 but started only 10 games and managed just 48 plate appearances.
Roberto Clemente (33)
Clemente won the 1966 NL MVP and won his third batting title in four years in 1967, batting .357/.400/.554 and driving in 110 runs. Overall, he batted .332/.375/.503 from 1961-67, and .346/.395/.532 from 1969-71. But in 1968, Clemente was hampered by a nasty shoulder injury he suffered in the offseason at his home in Puerto Rico when a steel railing he was climbing on collapsed on his patio, sending him hurtling down a hill. Clemente tried to play through it, but later admitted that he should have at least skipped spring training; he hit .211/.237/.368 through May 24 before returning to something like his usual form, ending the season at .291/.355/.482.
Frank Robinson (32)
Robinson, the 1966 Triple Crown winner, was slowed slightly in 1967 by vision problems from a violent collision, which may have lingered the following year; in 1968 he added mumps and a sore arm. He batted .314/.407/.609 in 1966-67 and .299/.400/.524 in 1969-71, but missed 32 games and hit .268/.390/.444 in 1968.
Al Kaline (33)
Kaline batted .307/.385/.509 from 1955-67, and had arguably his best season as a hitter in 1967, batting .308/.411/.541 (OPS+ of 176). He was still a productive hitter in 1968, batting .287/.392/.428 (OPS+ of 146), and despite an off year in 1969, his batting line from 1969-72 was a robust .286/.378/.456. But Kaline missed six weeks in 1968 after his arm was broken when he was hit by a pitch from Lew Krausse on May 25.
Willie Stargell (28)
Stargell battled injuries in both 1967 and 1968 before getting healthy and returning to form in 1969:
Willie's production fell off in 1967. With Mota continuing to hit .300, Stargell found himself often benched against lefthanders. He suffered through injuries as well that year, crashing into the wall twice in a span of three days and experienced tendonitis in his shoulder. His weight remained and issue and inactivity did not help it. In 1968, Stargell first injured a knee and later suffered a concussion and face lacerations making a spectacular catch while crashing into the Forbes Field scoreboard and ended up hitting .237, the lowest of his career as a regular player as he battled headaches for the rest of the season.
On the whole, Stargell declined from .315/.381/.581 with 102 RBI in 1966 (his second straight 100 RBI year and third straight slugging .500) to .271/.365/.465 with 73 RBI in 1967 and .237/.315/.441 with 67 RBI in just 128 games in 1968. Stargell would bat .307/.382 /556 in 1969 and .289/.375/.555 from 1969-79.
Joe Torre (27)
If you're keeping score at home, that's six Hall of Fame hitters between the ages of 24 and 33. Torre might be a seventh, although he's likely to be inducted as a manager. Torre batted .301/.364/.487 from 1963-67 and .326/.394/.501 from 1969-71, but in 1968 he missed 47 games with injuries including a fractured cheekbone that caused him to miss a month after being beaned on April 18 by Chuck Hartenstein and a fractured hand in September, batting .271/.332/.377 on the season. As Torre describes the beaning these days:
Hank Aaron was on first base, trying to steal, and as Torre tried to sneak a peak back at the catcher and didn't pick up the pitch in time before it hit him. The pitch broke his palate, and Torre said the toughest part was staying in bed for a long period of time.
Tony Conigliaro (23)
I retold Tony C's familar and sad story recently; he was one of baseball's major rising star sluggers when he suffered a horrific beaning in August 1967, and missed the entire 1968 season.
Rico Carty (28)
A devastating hitter when healthy, Rico Carty batted .330/.388/.554 as a rookie in 1964, .324/.382/.505 from 1964-66 before struggling to hit .255/.329/.401 in 1967 while playing with a separated shoulder. Carty then missed the entire 1968 season with tuberculosis. He would return to bat .357/.434/.570 in 1969-70 before his next big injury, to his knee.
Rico Petrocelli (25)
Like a few others listed above, Petrocelli had injury problems in 1967 that worsened in 1968 before bouncing back healthy in 1969. In Petrocelli's case, it was a bad elbow that cost him 39 games. He had batted .259/.330/.420 as a 24 year old in 1967 (OPS+ of 113) and would enjoy a monster breakout 40-homer .297/.403/.589 season in 1969, hitting .269/.363/.506 from 1969-71 (OPS+ of 134). But hampered by the elbow injury, Petrocelli hit just .234/.292/.374 (OPS+ of 92) in 1968.
Don Mincher (30)
Yet another beaning victim. Mincher, a productive if unspectacular slugger, batted .255/.348/.488 (OPS+ 134) from 1962-67, including .273/.367/.487 (OPS+ 156) in 1967. He would go on to bat .257/.359/.448 (OPS+ 129) from 1969-71. But 1968 was a significant off year, as he batted .236/.312/.368 (OPS+ 111) and missed 42 games, including 10 games in April and the last 20 games of the season. The main cause was a horrific April 11 beaning by a 90+ mph Sam McDowell fastball to the jaw, which knocked out teeth and caused Mincher permanent hearing loss in one ear and "gave me equilibrium problems."
Tommie Agee (25)
The April collision with Morgan wasn't Agee's first bruising of 1968; he was hospitalized after being beaned by Bob Gibson on the first pitch of spring training, and things didn't get better from there: the 1966 AL Rookie of the Year had batted .256/.315/.412 (OPS+ 117) in 1966-67 and would bat .280/.348/.456 (OPS+ 121) from 1969-71, but in 1968 he was helpless, batting .217/.255/.307 (OPS+ 69) and doing even that well only with a strong September; Agee was hitting .109 in mid-May, .165 in mid-July and .181/.222/.265 on August 26 before regaining his bearings to hit .371/.397/.486 in his last 25 games.
Tony Oliva (29)
Another outstanding talent (he was feared enough to lead the AL in intentional walks in 1968) whose career was degraded by injuries, the 1964 Rookie of the Year and 1965 Al MVP runner-up batted .317/.363/.518 from 1964-66 (OPS+ 143), .322/.362/.517 (OPS+ 140) from 1969-71. He had had a mild off year (.289/.347/.463, OPS+ 129) in 1967, and in that context his 1968 season (.289/.357/.477, OPS+ 145) looks like the same old Oliva, just hitting under more difficult conditions. But Oliva averaged 664 plate appearances a year from 1964-67 and 683 a year in 1969-70, whereas he missed 34 games in 1968 including the entire month of September with a separated shoulder, and finished the season with just 68 RBI.
Dick Allen (26)
Allen, a better hitter than a good many Hall of Fame sluggers, was still a dangerous hitter in 1968 and had injury problems that season that were not unusual for him, but he may still deserve mention here; he suffered a groin injury and may have been suffering some aftereffects from the injury that ended his 1967 season (he tore up his hand pushing it through a car headlight on August 24); Allen started slowly, batting .257/.330/.396 through May 17, and while he caught fire after missing 8 games in early June, he ended up tailing off, batting .240/.334/.498 in the season's second half (this being Dick Allen, that could also have been the results of a bruised ego, as he was feuding with his manager at the time). On the whole, Allen hit .312/.400/.601 in 1966-67 (OPS +178) - only Frank Robinson was better over that period - and .297/.390/.557 from 1969-74 (OPS+ 166). In that context, 1968 counts as a mild off year for Allen, .263/.352/.520 (OPS+ 160) with a career-high 161 strikeouts.
Adding Up The Damage
I don't want to overstate the effect of this rash of injuries to productive hitters, but the numbers do suggest that injuries to these 14 hitters alone were enough to have some effect at the margins. Combined, they accounted for 6.4% of all Major League plate appearances in 1967, 4.3% in 1968, and - with expansion - 5.6% in 1969. But not just any plate appearances - almost all of these guys were stationed at the top or middle of their teams' batting orders, and the combined loss of 30-35 offensive WAR in a 24-team league is a lot of holes to fill.
In doing any sort of comparison, of course, we also have to consider that the 1969 bounce-back is inflated by expansion, which not only dilutes talent levels but tends to dilute them asymmetrically in favor of more scoring (marginal pitchers trapped in the minors are mostly there because they can't pitch, whereas many marginal non-pitchers are trapped in the minors because they can hit but can't field; adding more bad pitchers and a mix of bad hitters with good hitters who can't field will, on balance, bring more scoring).
More Off Years
Of course, those 14 hitters were not the only ones to have a tough time in 1968, even relative to the league. To complete the picture, I'll run here through a number of other players who had off years, some of them obviously not injury-related and others perhaps caused by unknown or minor injuries. But absent some reason to classify some of them as injury problems, I would not consider them as part of the analysis.
Carl Yastrzemski (28)
Yaz was healthy and one of the three best hitters in baseball in 1968, but his 1967 Triple Crown season was not something he could repeat. Nobody had a year like it in 1968.
Orlando Cepeda (30)
The unanimous 1967 NL MVP had back-to-back off years in 1968-69 (dropping from .314/.381/.500, OPS+ 148 to .252/.316/.402 OPS+ 108) before a big bounce back in 1970 (.305/.365/.543, OPS+ 136). I suspect his chronically bad knees may have had something to do with that, but that's just guesswork.
Tim McCarver (26)
Injuries for catchers can just accumulate. McCarver's reduced playing time and production suggest he was banged up.
Paul Blair (24)
I don't know of any injuries - Blair's famous beaning by Ken Tatum came in 1970 - but 1968 was a total loss for him with the bat, .211/.277/.318 (OPS+ 81), compared to .288/.338/.435 (OPS+ 126) in 1966-67 and .277/.335/.460 (OPS+ 119) in 1969-70.
Tommy Davis (29)
Again, I don't know of specific injuries, but Davis had many knee problems in his career and fell off dramatically relative to the league in 1968.
George Scott (24)
The Boomer had his usual spats with management over his weight, but seems to have just lost his batting eye in 1968, dropping from .303/.373/.465 to .171/.236/.237; he would go on to a long, productive career as a slugger.
Curt Blefary (24)
I'm not aware of any injury problems; the 1965 AL Rookie of the Year, who batted .252/.361/.447 (OPS+ 133) just fell apart, .200/.301/.322 (OPS+ 89) despite improving his K/BB ratio significantly. He would hit .253/.347/.393 (OPS+ 109) in the Astrodome the following year, his last as a productive hitter.
Rod Carew (22)
Carew was healthy and still just a young hitter coming into his own; his playing time was held back by his military commitments, which included 19 games away from the team in June 1968 to attend a summer training camp.
Tony Gonzalez (31)
Gonzalez, a good hitter earlier in the decade, had a fluke year in 1967, hitting .339/.396/.472, but was never really a major offensive threat after that.
Wes Parker (28)
Parker missed 3 weeks in August, but this doesn't seem all that unusual for him, and he was ordinarily not a major offensive star. But he did drop off from .250/.355/.367 (OPS+ 112) in 1966-67 and .301/.375/.444 (OPS+ 129) in 1969-70 to .239/.312/.314 (OPS+ 96) in 1968.
Jim Ray Hart (26)
A dangerous hitter from 1964-67 (.290/.352/.501, OPS+ 136) Hart's career was ended prematurely by injuries including shoulder problems, supposedly stemming from being hit in the shoulder by Bob Gibson. He batted .258/.323/.444 (OPS+128) in 1968 and missed 26 games, including a week in May and another in August, compared to the 664 plate appearances he averaged the prior four years, and never played a full season again. It appears that he was never hit by Gibson in a regular season game, so unless Gibson's just making up the story, it may have happened in a spring game, like Gibson's beaning of Agee, but the year would be unclear.
Ron Santo (28)
Yeah, I didn't realize Santo and Yaz were the same age, either, which is the main reason I bothered listing him here. He, too, was coming off a big 1967, and was healthy as a horse.
If you just include Parker, who was definitely injured, and Carew, who was definitely unavailable for reasons unrelated to the offensive conditions, the chart I ran above now looks like this:
If you then add in Cepeda, McCarver and Tommy Davis, you get this:
Without running the full numbers, there were a few other players who busted out of 2-3 year funks in 1969: Boog Powell (who'd been injured in 1966-67 but was healthy in 1968), Ron Fairly, Willie Davis (Bill James in the 1988 Abstract identified Davis as a guy who lost a lot to the expanded strike zone of 1963-68; he had no injury issues). Hank Aaron's OWAR for 1967-69 read 8.1-5.2-7.1, but he was healthy. 1968 also saw a couple of long-productive sluggers hit the wall with age: Bob Allison, Leon Wagner. Mickey Mantle was at the end, but was more productive than his numbers looked at first glance, and Mickey had been in gradual decline for a few years.
1969 also saw a bunch of guys bust out big compared to their 1967-68 OWAR. Some were productive hitters in 1968 who blossomed even further with expansion, better hitting conditions and marginally better health: Willie McCovey (who missed 14 games in 1968), Pete Rose (who uncharacteristically missed 2 weeks in July 1968 but still managed 692 plate appearances), Frank Howard, Jimmie Wynn, Reggie Smith, Rusty Staub, Cleon Jones, Tony Perez. There were also a crop of young players who established themselves offensive stars for the first time in 1969, in many cases 1968 rookies or guys who got their first full seasons in 1969: Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Sal Bando, Bobby Bonds, Bobby Tolan, Alex Johnson, Mike Epstein. A passel of young talent can contribute to changing the balance of power between hitters and pitchers, but then 1968's crop of rookie pitchers included guys like Jerry Koosman and Stan Bahnsen who enjoyed immediate success; it's probably an effect rather than a cause of the offensive environment that many of the rookie hitters that season needed more time to adjust.
Finally, despite the offensive conditions or in some cases perhaps because of them, there were a handful of major hitters who had better years (measured by OWAR) in 1968 than in 1967 or 1969. Some just had career years (Willie Horton, Ken Harrelson) or at least happened to be right at their peak (Bill Freehan) or enjoying an up year in a series of ups and downs (Felipe Alou, Matty Alou, Roy White). Others just gave up less ground than the rest of the league (Willie Mays, Billy Williams, Lou Brock, Brooks Robinson, Ernie Banks).
I have thus far addressed the hitters and their problems. But there's a dog that didn't bark much in 1968: pitching injuries, normally the bane of every baseball team. For example, contrasted to the number of injured, in-their-prime Hall of Fame hitters in 1968, there were 14 Hall of Fame pitchers active that season. Two were relievers: Hoyt Wilhelm made 72 appearances, Rollie Fingers was 21 and made his Major League debut on September 15. Of the 12 starters, 9 started at least 31 games and threw at least 232 innings, plus Don Sutton, who started 27 games and threw 207 innings, plus 21 year old rookie Nolan Ryan, who started 18 games. And that includes a number of guys who were right at the top of their game - Gibson, Marichal, Seaver, Drysdale, Jenkins. Only Jim Bunning was hurt: Bunning was perhaps the best pitcher in baseball in 1967, but he was 36 and broke down in 1968, starting 26 games and throwing 160 innings on the way to a 4-14 season. Of course, there were two other major injuries: Jim Palmer started only 9 games in 1967 and missed all of 1968 at age 22, and Sandy Koufax, still just 32, had retired after 1966 (Whitey Ford's career was also ended by injury in early 1967). The Hall of Famers hit 1968 like a bullseye: Bob Gibson, who had the great 1.12 ERA, had missed two months with a broken leg the year before, while Don Drysdale, who set the scoreless innings record that would stand for two decades, blew his arm out the next year. 1968 AL ERA champ Luis Tiant (1.60 ERA) would struggle in 1969 before missing large chunks of 1970-71 with arm woes, and 31 game winner Denny McLain would be effectively finished as a star by arm trouble in 1970, as would longtime AL star Dean Chance in 1969.
Looking more broadly around the league, there were a few other pitching injuries. Tommy John and of course Gary Nolan missed about 10 starts each. Jim Perry pitched well with a reduced workload, but it's not clear if he had arm trouble or was just in a 2-year state of exile as a swing man. Overall, 67 pitchers started 27 or more games, an average of 2.8 per team - not bad for a league that mostly used four-man rotations. 56 pitchers cleared 200 innings. These were not especially shocking figures for the era, but they do support the view that there were a lot of healthy arms around.
In short, there were a lot of reasons why 1968 became the Year of the Pitcher - but the fact that a lot of the game's elite hitters were hampered by significant injuries, while most of the game's best pitchers were healthy, surely had at least some role at the margins in tipping the scales towards the men on the mound.
Posted by Baseball Crank at 2:00 PM | Baseball 2012-13 | Baseball Studies | Comments (5) | TrackBack (0)