Willie McCovey 1938-2018

Willie McCovey died late last month at the age of 80. In a career spanning four decades, McCovey established himself as one of the most feared sluggers of his era. And what an era it was, with almost half (9 of 20) of the 100 Batting WAR club among his contemporaries. More on McCovey after the jump.

McCovey made one of the more spectacular debuts in the history of the majors, recording 3.1 WAR and 2.3 WAA in only 219 PA in a 1959 season that included a monster .354/.429/.656 slash, totals good enough to make him the unanimous NL RoY selection (interestingly, a 3 WAR/2 WAA season of fewer than 250 PA has been accomplished only four times since 1901, all of them by rookies including, most recently, Gary Sanchez). For San Francisco, it was an embarrassment of riches as the Giant roster also included first baseman Orlando Cepeda, himself a unanimous RoY pick just one season before.

The logjam at first base would break mostly in Cepeda’s favor over the next three seasons. a decision made easier for the Giants by McCovey’s poor showing in a sophomore campaign that earned him a short demotion to the minors after slashing just .182/.280/.261 over 34 games heading into the All-Star break. Particularly troubling was his .129 BA against left-handers that season, a deficiency that would limit McCovey to fewer than 150 PA against southpaws over the 1960-62 seasons (his .171 BA against LHP was lowest, and his .240 SLG and .504 OPS second lowest, among 53 LH batters with 900 PA over those seasons). Still, the big man showed enough (134 OPS+ for those three years, including HR in 6% of AB, totals matched only by Willie Mays among his teammates) for the Giants to try to keep him in the lineup.

The Giants faced the perennial AL champion Yankees in the 1962 World Series and, true to form, McCovey rode the bench in the three games started by New York’s ace southpaw Whitey Ford, But, McCovey played in the other games, homering off Ralph Terry in a game 2 win, and tripling off him (but left stranded) in the deciding 7th game. With the series tying and winning runs in scoring position, McCovey faced Terry again in the 9th inning and delivered a screaming line drive that second baseman Bobby Richardson snared to preserve the Yankees’ 1-0 win.

McCovey’s big chance came in the 1963 season, with San Francisco moving him to LF to allow him to play everyday. He responded with a league-leading 44 HR and added 102 RBI for the defending NL champions. He still struggled against left-handers, with a .228 BA and strikeouts in more than 25% of his AB, but that home run bat could no longer be kept on the bench. McCovey’s outfield play would not win any awards (one writer opined that the best thing about McCovey’s defense was that he played next to Mays), but he was judged no worse than Cepeda and, unlike the temperamental Puerto Rican, didn’t complain about how much or where he played.

The 1964 season was a different story, with McCovey developing mysterious troubles with his left foot that hurt his play and playing time (a situation not helped by the skepticism of his old school manager Alvin Dark who thought McCovey a malingerer). But, when customized shoe inserts were developed for McCovey in 1965, he regained his prior form and, with Cepeda hobbled by knee trouble, was finally established as the Giants’ everyday first baseman (Cepeda, never a favorite of Dark, would be traded to St. Louis early in the 1966 season). Thus began a six year reign of terror for McCovey, leading the majors from 1965 to 1970 in HR (tied with Hank Aaron), RBI, OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, oWAR and, tellingly, IBB (for the last three of those seasons, McCovey totaled 105 IBB; no other player had more than 60). McCovey posted career best marks in 1969 for all of those categories plus TB, BA, WAR and WAA to edge out Tom Seaver for NL MVP honors.

After six straight 30 home run seasons, a total he would not reach again. various physical ailments began taking their toll, with the 33 year-old McCovey managing just 105 games in 1971 as San Francisco claimed the NL West crown. But the writing was on the wall for the Giants (they would not reach the post-season again until 1987) who began a major rebuilding that would see the departure of all of the regulars from the perennial contending teams of the mid to late 1960s. McCovey and Juan Marichal, both dealt after the 1973 season, would be the last to go, though McCovey, with 29 HR and .966 OPS in 1973, showed he could still rake when healthy. McCovey spent the next three seasons in San Diego (and, very briefly, in Oakland), reaching 20 home runs in two of those campaigns, before returning to San Francisco as a free agent. McCovey’s 1977 season at age 39 was the only qualified season of his last ten, and provided glimpses of his old self with 28 HR and 86 RBI, easily the best totals on a Giant team that managed only 673 runs, third lowest in the NL. His last three seasons would see declining playing time and effectiveness, with just two home runs over the final 100 games of his career.

McCovey finished his career in 1980 with 521 home runs, tied with Ted Williams and then ranked 8th on the all-time list. That total was then the 3rd highest NL career mark, and remains 6th best in the senior circuit today. For the years that he was active, McCovey ranked 3rd in HR, 4th in RBI and BB, and 1st in IBB. McCovey played against Enos Slaughter (active in 1938) and Ozzie Smith (active in 1996) and his home run victims ranged from Warren Spahn (active in 1942) to Scott Sanderson (active in 1996). He famously terrorized Don Drysdale with a .336/.437/.680 slash over 151 PA, including 12 homers. But Drysdale had good company among HoFers, as Stretch launched 8 blasts against Phil Niekro and Don Sutton, 7 off of Bob Gibson. and a half dozen against Jim Bunning and Tom Seaver. Heck, he even got three off the dominant lefty of his era, Steve Carlton. RIP Willie!

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24 Comments on "Willie McCovey 1938-2018"

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Dr. Doom
Guest
Great post, Doug. (I did giggle at the opening sentence to the last paragraph, though: “McCovey finished his career in 1980 with 521 home runs, then tied with Ted Williams.” Oh, I thought, has someone broken the tie between them? It was my smartaleck thought of the day. I’ve always thought of that 1968-1970 stretch (Stretch?) as one of the most dominant by any hitter. A 188 OPS+ in a three-year span is not unheard of, but it’s VERY rare. It’s always stood out to me as a particularly impressive run. Most interesting about it is that, given the raw… Read more »
Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
Before following you along your new subject line, Doom, I too want to acknowledge that Doug has put together a nice summary of McCovey’s career. It’s full of interest and serves as a good tribute as well. On Seaver’s MVP and CYA standing in ’69, I think what you have to bear in mind is that the voters wold have just finished observing the most unlikely pennant outcome of their lives. You know the story: the Mets had never finished above 9th; in ’69 they didn’t crawl above .500 till June; in mid-August they were amazing everyone just by being… Read more »
no statistician but
Guest
The thing about McCovey that counts against him most in terms of eliciting comments here is that he was basically one-dimensional. What is there to say about a slugger who was a great HR threat but not much else. He struggled in the field. On the base paths he was even worse than contemporary Harmon Killebrew as a threat to advance, averaging only 44 runs per season minus those generated by dingers (Harmon? 47) A great rookie half season. Then six years of ups and downs fighting injuries in Cepeda’s shadow, followed by the six year Stretch. One thing Doug… Read more »
CursedClevelander
Guest

Need to go O/T for a moment:

My fellow HHS commenters, if you are interested, please mark your calendars – my appearance on Jeopardy! will air on Friday, January 25th. I can’t divulge how the game went except to say that it was a fantastic experience.

Richard Chester
Guest

Would you be able to post your real name here so we’ll know who to root for?

Mike L
Guest

“Cursed Clevelander” might really be his name…

CursedClevelander
Guest

My name is Steven. I will be on the far right podium.

Bob Eno (epm)
Guest

Good to know you Steven. My name is pluribus. I’ll be watching and rooting on new year’s 25th.

Mike L
Guest

OK, marked down. Here’s hoping the Final Jeopardy question includes some advanced baseball metrics.

bells
Guest

That, pardon the language, is goddamn exciting! I will certainly watch and cheer you on that day.

Paul E
Guest

F W I W, I figured I’d spend more time typing this ‘data’ in than actually researching this info on McCovey’s left-handed hitting contemporaries:
versus RHP:
.277/.387/.539 McCovey
.293/.376/.558 Stargell
.299/.398/.492 Yaz
.290/.366/.505 Billy Williams
.269/.374/.509 Jackson
.284/.392/.518 Cash
.275/.374/.485 Powell

versus LHP
.248/.336/.440 McCovey
.250/.318/.447 Stargell
.244/.321/.371 Yaz
.290/.351/.462 Billy Williams
.249/.321/.455 Jackson
.227/.307/.384 Cash
.238/.320/.393 Powell

Pretty surprising the degree of “platoon” shift….Billy Williams looks like the only one without a drastic difference – and to think 5 of these guys are Hall of Famers?

Mike L
Guest

Thanks, Paul. One very strange stat about McCovey. In the 5th inning, his splits were .304/.420/.618

Paul E
Guest

Mike L
One could certainly make an argument that despite their struggles against LH pitching, Yaz was the best player in the AL from 1967-1970; McCovey the best hitter in the NL from 1968-1970; and Stargell the best hitter in the NL from 1971-1973.

Doug
Guest

McCovey’s slashes against LHP, broken down by career segments.
1959-64 – .211/.298/.378
1965-70 – .254/.345/.490
1971-76 – .250/.348/.419
1977-80 – .270/.340/.434

Like riding a bike, I guess. Once you learn how, you don’t forget it.

mosc
Guest
It’s interesting to me because 1965 and on McCovey could certainly have played in any era but you wonder how quickly he would have raced up the charts in the era of extreme shifts against left handed hitters and a reluctance to embrace defensively “inflexible” bat-first prospects. In my mind, I imagine the shift removing platoon advantage for lefties especially. I’m not sure how factually correct that is. I’m not criticizing McCovey really but instead wondering if he would have been more specifically challenged than his right handed peers as a young man. It makes me look at other lefty… Read more »
Richard Chester
Guest
Off topic here but I just wanted to mention that baseball-prospectus has unveiled a new stat, DRC+, Deserved Runs Created, park adjusted. It covers the period 1921 to date. It shows Mark McGwire in 4th place behind only Ted Williams, Barry Bonds and Lou Gehrig. I have not delved deeply as to how it is calculated but to have McGwire ahead of players such as DiMaggio, Mantle , Mays, Musial, Foxx, Greenberg, Aaron and Pujols makes me suspicious. Ruth came in 5th but his rating is lowered to not counting his seasons prior to 1921. For the record McCovey’s rating… Read more »
no statistician but
Guest

I’d suggest that McGwire’s high ranking results from the fact that, despite his relatively low performance in many categories he hit an average of 50 HRs per 162 games, far more than any other player. Ruth’s average was 46 in this regard. A home run is an automatic “Deserved Run Created” in this reckoning, I would guess.

Paul E
Guest

Definitely weighted more towards On-Base Percentage as opposed to emphasizing slugging…. There are some guys with similar OPS+ numbers for their careers who are separated on the DRC+ chart by BB frequency. So, I guess it’s pretty similar to weighted runs created or RC+ ?

Dr. Doom
Guest
I’m a little skeptical of this ranking, for a couple of reasons. First, I’m skeptical because these rankings are substantially different than what we see at baseball-reference AND Fangraphs. This does not inspire confidence. B-P says it’s an improvement… but even their “explainer” articles don’t really do much explaining. I think we’re just expected to buy it, and I’m having some trouble with that. I also notice that the guys at the top of the leaderboard have two things in common: high TTO rates. This is great; as I’ve said before, the game is biased toward high-TTO players. However, my… Read more »
Bob Eno (epm)
Guest
Richard, I may just be very slow (in fact, the evidence is piling up), but although I’m finding a slew of articles on the Baseball Prospectus site that extol the superiority of DRC+, explain in painful detail its philosophy, compare it to wRC and OPS+, etc., etc., I can’t seem to find anyplace that sets out what DRC+ is: its formula. It looks to me as though DRC+ is very close to wRC+, but the site compares the two stats and presents data to show that DRC+ is superior in “reliability, predictiveness, and descriptiveness.” But as to what DRC+ is,… Read more »
Richard Chester
Guest

The creator of DRC+, Jonathan Judge, responded to a comment and stated that the info on the calculation of DRA+ would be forthcoming next week on baseball prospectus.

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