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Ground Chuck
2003-05-23 01:24
by Mike Carminati

You might have missed it but Chuck Knoblauch retired the other day. I only know because I caught a blurb in Lee Sinins' ATM Reports about it. I don't think the major news outlets even noticed it.

I'm not surprised by the news: Koblauch was lucky to catch on with the Royals last year and played poorly in Kansas City. He was trying to work his way back to the majors this year through the independent leagues. When that did not bear fruit, I guess, he decided it was time to hang 'em up. There is another former Yankees left fielder who is trying a similar comeback via the independent Newark Bears. But no matter what happens to him, Rickey Henderson is assured immortality in the form of a plaque in Cooperstown five years after he finally retires.

The funny thing is that when Knoblauch came to New York, I was sure that he would someday receiving his plaque in the Hall. He played well at times and won championships with the Yankees, but Knoblauch was never the same type of player as he was in Minnesota. And now I would be surprised if he survives the first year of eligibility on the Hall of Fame ballot.

So what happened? Was Knoblauch on a Hall of Fame trajectory but just got diverted along the way or was I out of my mind (or both)?

Looking at Koblauch's career, it seems that 1996 was the turning point. Knoblauch had been a Rookie of the Year in 1991 with the World Series champions, the Twins, and still seemed to improve almost every year after that. In 1996, he had 45 stolen bases, batted .341, had a .448 on-base percentage, and slugged .517. His OPS was 42% better than the park-adjusted league average. He scored 140 runs, drive in 72 runs, hit 13 home runs, and led the AL in triples with 14 (the only major statistic he ever led the league in).

He had one more year in Minnesota, but the team was falling apart. Knoblauch had an off year by his standard (.281 batting average and an Ops only 9% better than average but 62 stolen bases and his only Gold Glove). Knoblauch ended up demanding a trade at the end of 1997 and the major contenders of the day (the Yankees, Braves, and Indians) were all interested. The Yankees acquired Koblauch for two men who became major pieces in the Twins rebuilding process (Eric Milton and Christian Guzman).

With the Yankees Knoblauch enjoyed a few championships, but started to pull the ball more for power (17 home runs in '98 and 18 in '99) and never again batted over .300 nor got on base over 40% of the time. His famous "Blauch Head" play that allowed the go-ahead run score in a playoff series with the Indians in 1997 (though the Yanks still won the Series). Eventually, he was moved to left field because he no longer could make the simple throws to first, which was again highly scrutinized by the press.

It seemed that when he joined the Yankees at age of 29, every facet of his game started to deteriorate. What was left was not pretty. Knoblauch's had a .210 average in 300 at-bats in 2002 and had an OPS (.584) that was 54% below average.

OK, it's clear that Knoblauch's career took a bad turn after being traded to the Yankees, but was he truly on a Hall-of-Fame pace before that?

Well, he's a comparison of all of the Hall-of-Fame second baseman and Knoblauch through the age of 27. I added in Sandberg and Alomar since it appears likely that they both will be enshrined. Also, Jackie Robinson does not appear because his major-league career did not begin until he was 28:

Bid McPhee665265956570618340135 .266.320.361.680
Bill Mazeroski128246445011228935151412.264.303.384.688
Billy Herman890369159711762439440 .319.371.428.799
Bobby Doerr1034389357211341036233646.291.358.449.807
Charlie Gehringer7322845560906403888850.318.385.475.860
Eddie Collins1145389074312871549037431.331.412.430.842
Frankie Frisch1000405370113035452422474.321.367.444.811
Joe Morgan89132685318606127819558.263.375.396.771
Johnny Evers95933464729015301230 .269.333.334.666
Nap Lajoie7102987647108653648134 .364.396.548.944
Nellie Fox99038635611136153234845.294.350.375.725
Red Schoendienst85335205219721828256 .276.319.358.677
Roberto Alomar1151446069713297749929676.298.365.423.788
Rod Carew87633164651048293389956.316.367.416.783
Rogers Hornsby11194231730148611672110449.351.413.545.958
Ryne Sandberg922366957510569040421054.288.342.432.774
Tony Lazzeri8493163510967816088449.306.381.483.864
Chuck Knoblauch857332859610193433321467.306.391.417.808

Note that Knoblauch is on par or ahead of average in most of the stats. He trails in home runs, slugging, and sacrifice bunts (average of 77, Knoblauch had 7; not shown).

Now let's look at the same players after the age of 28 on (i.e., starting with the season that they were 28 for the majority of the year). Note that Jackie Robinson now appears:

Bid McPhee147056321113154435727433 .274.370.378.748
Bill Mazeroski8813111268788453381311.253.294.342.635
Billy Herman1032401656611692344527 .291.364.387.751
Bobby Doerr83132005229081206241818.284.366.476.841
Charlie Gehringer159160151214193314410399339.321.412.483.895
Eddie Collins181363331119209432826374143.331.427.423.849
Frankie Frisch13115059831157751720195 .312.370.423.792
Jackie Robinson13824877947151813773419730.311.409.474.883
Joe Morgan1846619611341693209865494104.273.397.439.836
Johnny Evers82527914477587237948.272.382.335.717
Nap Lajoie1770660285721562995124621.327.373.429.803
Nellie Fox137753697181527204672835.284.346.354.699
Red Schoendienst136349597021477664913327.298.349.408.758
Roberto Alomar10323926717121712457216634.310.385.480.865
Rod Carew15935999959200563677254131.334.407.437.843
Rogers Hornsby1140394284914441858633115.366.455.6111.065
Ryne Sandberg12424716743133019265713453.282.345.467.812
Tony Lazzeri8913134476873975836430.279.379.450.829
Chuck Knoblauch77530385368206428219350.270.363.394.757

There's no comparison. Whereas the Hall-of-Fame second basemen improved after 27, Knoblauch deteriorated.

I think that Knoblauch's career now more closely mirrors nice but not great career second basemen like Larry Doyle, Woody English, and Heine Groh (of the great "present arms" batting stance, as Leo Durocher put it), all of whose careers quickly faded after their late twenties. But at least I don't think I was crazy for thinking that he would be a Hall of Famer back in the late Nineties.

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