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Jose Cruz

July 29, 2009

Jose Cruz 75

I have decided that I will not rest until every single transaction in baseball from 1974 through 1981 is considered, evaluated, and mined for possible answers to the enigma of human existence. OK, I will rest. I’ll rest a lot. I’ll rest at night, naturally, and I’ll probably nod off on the bus if I’m trying to read something sort of difficult, and whenever possible I’ll fall asleep on the couch with a half-open can of beer in my hand, but then I’ll wake up, eventually, and wrestle through the groggy aftershock of awakening and then, by god, if I have nothing better to do with myself, I’ll maybe look at a baseball card and if it alludes to a transaction that seems of interest I will investigate it until I get tired again or feel like watching TV. That is my solemn vow.

This card may seem like an odd place to begin following through on my solemn vow, as it has no textual allusion to any transactions. The backs of the 1975 cards are among my favorite card backs of the Cardboard God era, 1975–1980, mainly because they are the only ones to include a middle name and because they had cartoon-illustrated trivia questions, the cartoon appearing above the upside down answer (This Jose Cruz card’s trivia question goes as follows: Q: “What is a ‘sinker’?”; A: A PITCH THAT SUDDENLY DIPS DOWN.” [The cartoon shows two fish looking surprised at a baseball that has just dropped down into the water in front of them.]), but they did not, unlike later cards, include “signed” and “acquired” entries. So the only piece of evidence that a transaction has occurred is the difference in team name on the front of the card from the team name in the stats on the back. The giant garish blurry H on the cap of the player, a clear instance of card doctoring, suggests that the transaction occurred shortly before the card was shipped to stores.

In fact, it had happened at the end of the 1974 season. Here’s the description of the transaction from Jose Cruz’s page on baseball-reference.com: “October 24, 1974: Purchased by the Houston Astros from the St. Louis Cardinals.” Transactions such as that, unless they involve Babe Ruth, seem to fail to capture the popular imagination, but unless Houston had to fork over NASA to get him, their acquisition of Jose Cruz has to rank as one of the steals of the decade.

Consider Jim Rice. (Rice got his number retired at Fenway last night in a ceremony that revealed Rice to be something of a softy when it comes to his teammates, which made me regret questioning, in a post on this site on Monday, his neglecting to mention said teammates in his induction speech on Sunday; the great regard his teammates seem to hold for Rice, and the joy they showed over his induction, seems also to offer an answer to those up in arms over his induction: if his teammates hold him on such a pedestal, it can’t be an entirely illusory pedestal.) From 1975 to 1986, the years of the productive but relatively short prime that got Jim Rice into Cooperstown, Rice had an average OPS+ of 132. (OPS+ is a hitting statistic that adjusts for park and league factors. A mark of 100 is considered decent, and 132 is very good, though not in the otherworldly realm of, say Albert Pujols, whose lifetime OPS+ is 172 and rising.) For those same years, 1975 through 1986, the player that the Astros got for some cash from the Cardinals was 126. The difference in the general historical reputation between the two players, Cruz and Rice, is far greater than the difference between an OPS+ of 132 and an OPS+ of 126, especially considering that Cruz was an excellent outfielder and baserunner (24 steals per year in that time), while Rice was average in both regards when he was young and below average as he aged. Cruz, who played all those years in the Astrodome, among the very worst hitter’s park in baseball history, rarely showed up on any leader’s lists in the newspaper; by contrast, Rice played in Fenway Park, basically the polar opposite of the Astrodome, and in part because of that he was a mainstay in the batting average, home runs, and RBI top ten lists that are the steppingstones to baseball immortality.

I’m not saying the players are equal—though I have a feeling others without my sentimental attachment to Jim Rice might say just that, agreeing with Bill James, who ranks Rice and Cruz as the 27th and 29th best leftfielders of all time, respectively—but they aren’t so far off that you can’t help but wonder if the Cardinals would be in a kind of transactions Hall of Shame had they sold a young Jim Rice to the Red Sox instead of quietly peddling the stern young man shown here to the Houston Astros for what had to have been a modest sum.

19 comments

  1. I think I’ve read more good arguments against Rice being the Hall of Fame in the past week than I did in the fifteen years he was on the ballot. Certainly, any comparison to Jose Cruz is devastating. Cruz was considered a spare part and Jim Rice was being mentioned by Hank Aaron as a threat to his home run record. Could baseball analysis have been so wrong 30 years ago to not see they were roughly equivalent players? I’m futilely and desperately trying to think of a reason Bill James could be wrong to place Rice and Cruz almost next to each other, historically speaking, because a world where Jim Rice and Jose Cruz are equal is a jarring, even frightening, place. That’s like thinking the world is flat in 1979 and landing on the moon in 2009.


  2. Jose Cruz is painfully underrated. He’s a 120 OPS+ for his career. He’s one of only 56 outfielders with a 120 or higher & 8000+ PA’s, since 1970…


  3. I always liked ol’ Jose Cruz, and though I have some of the same surprise as my fellow Bosox fan sb1902 that he seems by some estimations to be almost as good a player as Jim Rice, I’m not totally ambushed by that idea, and I think it might be because I used his early 1980s cards a lot in Strat-o-Matic. He and Terry Puhl always did some damage with the dice.


  4. Josh, I was an APBA guy (in fact, I had Cruz on my team in 1979). I used to look at Cruz’s bland counting stats and dismiss him as another run-of-the-mill outfielder, being ignorant as I was of park effects (though even a 10 year old could figure out the Astrodome was a giant place).


  5. Good Article Josh.

    I remember this card!! Seriously this has to be one of the worst air-brush jobs Topps ever did. I remember as a kid thinking Cruz was wearing one of those cheap replica hats the ballparks used to sell.

    I didn’t realize St. Louis just sold him for cash, what a horrible deal.

    I always felt sorry for Cruz having to hit in the astrodome. To me it was like a really good trumpet player having to play a cracked horn his entire career. He has to be one of the 10 most underrated players of my lifetime.

    If Cruz stayed in St. Louis he would have had a .300 lifetime average about 2500-2700 lifetime hits no question and would be thought of in entirely different light. And like you said Josh, He was a good fielder and could steal bases. As far as the comparison to Rice who was a best an average fielder and grounded into the 6th most Double Plays in baseball history, he’s ranked 250th on the alltime WAR list and Cruz is ranked 150th.

    http://www.baseballprojection.com/war/top500.htm

    I think baseball prospectus’ “warp” has them ranked about the same.


  6. I thought it would be fun to see who were the leaders in ops+ at all the different positions from 1975-1986. I limited it to players with at least 6000 P.A. although I had to make a few exceptions.

    This is obviously just hitting, some players are even better when you consider their defense. Obviously a high ops+ at the skill positions mean more:

    National League:

    C: Gary Carter-123
    1B: Keith Hernanez-132
    2b: Joe Morgan: 134*
    SS: Dave Concepcion: 91
    3B: Mike Schmidt: 154
    LF: George Foster: 131
    CF: Andre Dawson: 122
    RF: Dave Parker: 130

    American League:

    C-Carlton Fisk-114*
    1B-E. Murray-143
    2B-Bobby Grich-126
    SS-Robin Yount-115
    3B-George Brett-147
    LF-Jim Rice-133
    CF-Fred Lynn-134
    RF-Ken Singleton-135
    DH-H. McRae-123

    ’75-86 was not very good for second basemen in the National League unless your name was Joe Morgan. Morgan only had about 5000 P.A. in the National league during that time period but no national league secondbasemen had 6000 P.A. Manny Trillo had 5600 and only had an ops+ of 81.

    Fisk had 5992 P.A.

    Two very underrated players: Grich, and Singleton. Grich who should be in the HOF and Singleton who should be a boderline player.

    It’s interesting that Lynn was actually a better hitter than Rice during this time period. Put that together with his ability to play a more difficult position and Lynn was the better player.

    It’s interesting how Foster was basically Rice’s counterpart in the N.L. yet Foster’s HOF case is seen as laughable and Rice was selected.

    It’s also interesting to see so many excellent fielders on this list: Hernandez, Grich, Murray, Carter, Schmidt, Morgan. And some very good ones: Lynn, Concepcion, Dawson, Parker.

    Dave Winfield had the highest ops+ (136)among outfielders but he split his time between the A.L. and N.L. so I couldn’t put him on the list.


  7. johnq11
    Thanks for compiling and sharing that list. Very interesting.

    As for Rice v. Lynn: The one vitally important thing Rice had over Lynn during that timespan was games played.


  8. Another Astro from a slightly earlier period who was criminally underrated was Jim Wynn. I got into a long argument on a baseball newsgroup a couple of years ago arguing that considering he played CF pretty well and had an identical lifetime OPS+, Wynn was actually a better HOF candidate than Rice.


  9. perry534

    Excellent point on Jimmy Wynn.

    Actually the Wynn vs. Rice comparison isn’t even close Wynn was the much better player.

    Wynn is one of the most underrated players in baseball history and should be a HOF.

    He basically had 3 things go against him:

    1: He played during the 60’s, where the rules and the environment favored the pitchers quite a bit.

    2: He played in the astrodome. So Wynn played in the worst hitter’s park during the worst hitter’s era.

    3: He played in a another pitcher’s park

    4: He should have won the 1974 MVP.

    5: He was a centerfielder and centerfielders are among the most underrated players in baseball. There often expected to hit like a corner outfielder yet their required to play the more difficult position.


  10. my mistake, I should have said 5 things.


  11. Not only the bad hat doctoring, but the Cardinals’ doubleknits he’s wearing give it away.

    Great post about a very underrated player. Not sure why the Cards dumped him for next to nothing, although he was the odd man out with Brock, Reggie Smith and 1974 NL RoY Bake McBride in the outfield.


  12. I remember when the Yankees acquired Jimmy Wynn. On opening day of the 1977 season he hit a HR to dead center field in Yankee Stadium. That was the only HR he hit that year. The Yankees released him in July and he was picked up by The Brewers.


  13. Of course the rarely mentioned flipped side of all those NL hitters from the ’60s being underrated is that the NL pitchers from the ’60s are overrated. Yeah, that means YOU, Bob Gibson! A 2.91 career ERA in the era in which he pitched (’59 to ’75) isn’t wildly great. Imagine what Pedro Martinez would have done then.


  14. Say what you will about Gibson, the man went 7-2, 1.89 with 8 CGs IN THE WORLD SERIES. I’ll take him.


  15. Sb1902, some valid points.

    Gibson was a great pitcher but the media members never put his 1968 into proper context.

    How many times have heard some writer or broadcaster say, Gibson had a 1.12 era!! how on earth did he lose 9 games?!

    We’ll what they fail to mention is that the ENTIRE National league averaged a 2.99 era in 1968.


  16. SB1902,

    The same goes for Koufax. He had 3 great seasons but remember that this was during a mini dead-ball era, where the rules and the ballparks favored the pitchers. And Koufax benefitted by pitching in one of the best pitcher’s parks in baseball.

    His career rarely gets put into proper context.


  17. The mounds were about ten feet high, too. I believe it was 1969 (not coincidentally) that the mound height became standardized throughout the game. Koufax was certainly great, but not nearly what the raw numbers would suggest. I think of Bob Gibson as his era’s Dave Stewart (or the other way around if you prefer), an excellent pitcher, but let’s not get too carried away. On Baseball-reference there is a function where you can standardize the numbers (that is, you can put Koufax’s numbers in the 1999 context, or send Barry Bonds back to 1968, etc.) and that’s pretty amazing feature with which to fiddle around. Ted Williams’s 1941 .406 average turns into .340 (or something like that). A pretty good way to waste two hours.

    I know the ERA+ (and OPS+) is supposed to standardize numbers, but I have the feeling it doesn’t quite capture everything. Josh wrote about just that in his Tom Seaver post a few months ago, about how the best ERA+ numbers are basically from the steroid era, and it would be quite unlikely for the all the best pitchers to randomly come along in a twenty year peroid. I suspect expansion and other environmental factors (like steroids) screw up the standard deviation and messes with the “+” numbers. I wish Rob Neyer would log on here and do some of his nerd magic and say if that’s so or if there’s a lot of other stuff, too.

    Tom Seaver post:

    http://cardboardgods.net/category/teams/cincinnati-reds/tom-seaver-cin/


  18. Let’s not get crazy comparing Gibson to Dave Stewart. Stewart was a good pitcher for about 4-5 years but he’s overrated. He benefited from pitching in a pitcher’s park on a very good team during a relatively low scoring time period.

    Bob Gibson had something like a 85.6 career WAR while Stewart had a career WAR of 23.7

    A modern day equivelant would be someone like Randy Johnson with a shorter career but a better peak.

    My point with Gibson in 68 is the media members never put his era into context. But I understand their point, How the heck did he lose 9 games that year? He was on a good team. There were basically five games that he lost that he really should have won or at minimum he should have won 3 of them:

    0-1
    0-1
    0-2
    2-3
    1-3


  19. Oddly enough, I was reading about the 1985 Baseball Abstract and saw this:

    Regarding the first two points, James creates stat lines for two mythical players, asking questions such as “Which one runs faster? Which one is stronger? Which one is older?” As to the third point, James unleashes a two-page, wonderfully thought out and written analysis on Jose Cruz, including home and road splits for the 1981-1984 seasons for the Astro outfielder as well as Jim Rice, Dale Murphy, and Bill Madlock. Cruz’ slugging percentage at home was .099 below Madlock’s, .126 below Rice’s, and .168 below Murphy’s, yet his SLG on the road was higher than all three.



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