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!