One Great Year Archive – IV
This feature discusses a season in which a team finished much higher than they did in the immediate past or future or a player far surpassed any other year of his career.

Johnny Kucks

Bob Grim
One Great Year: Johnny Kucks 1956
Johnny Kucks won 42 games for the Yankees from 1955-59. 43% of those victories came in 1956.
  • Born in Hoboken NJ, Kucks grew up in Jersey City, just across the Hudson River from New York City.
  • After compiling a 19-6 record at Norfolk of the Piedmont League in 1952, the 19-year-old hurler spent the next two seasons in the military.
  • After a stint at the Yankees' instructional school, Kucks joined the Yankees for spring training in 1955. He threw a fast ball and sinker with professional control.
  • Johnny's roommate was P Bob Grim, the AL Rookie of the Year in 1954 after two years of military service.
  • Amazingly, Kucks made the Yankee roster and went 8-7 in 29 games, including 13 starts. He pitched three innings in the World Series, which the Dodgers won in seven.

Those statistics did not prepare the American League for what Kucks did in 1956.

  • Peter Golenbock: In the spring of 1956 Kucks continued to be outstanding, throwing with a loose-jointed, easy three-quarter motion, imparting a heavy over-spin on the ball that caused batters to break their bats and sting their hands if they didn't meet the ball just right. The fielders enjoyed playing behind Kucks because he pitched quickly.
  • Part of the starting rotation from the beginning of the season, Kucks won 18 and lost only 9. He twirled 12 complete games and finished with a 3.56 ERA. Only Whitey Ford (19-6) tallied more victories.
  • The Yankees won the pennant by 9 games over Cleveland.

The 1956 World Series is remembered for Don Larsen's perfect game, but Kucks was also a hero.

  • Johnny appeared in relief in the first two games at Ebbets Field, both Brooklyn victories.
  • For the third straight time, a Dodger-Yankee Series went to the seventh game.
  • Casey Stengel chose Kucks, who responded with a three-hit shutout as the Yanks romped 9-0. His sinker working, Johnny allowed only two fly balls all afternoon.

The momentum from the Series finale didn't carry over to 1957 for Kucks.

  • He started 23 games but finished only 10. His final tally showed only 8 wins against 10 losses.
  • Ironically, his ERA actually dropped to 3.56.
  • He pitched only 2/3 of an inning in the '57 Fall Classic.

Kucks stayed stuck on eight for the rest of his career.

  • He won only 8 again in '58, leading to his trade to the Kansas City Athletics early in the '59 campaign.
  • He contributed eight victories to the A's in '59 but dropped to just 4-10 with a 6.00 ERA in '60.
  • After three years in the minors with no call back to the majors, Johnny retired after the '63 season.
Reference: "Dynasty: The New York Yankees 1949-1964, Peter Golenbock (1975)
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Norm Cash

 

 


Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle


Jim Gentile

One Great Year: Norm Cash 1961
Norm Cash began his major league career with the Chicago White Sox in 1958 at age 23.
  • His minor league stats were good. He hit .290 and .334 in the Class B Three-I League.
  • After serving in the military in 1957, he hit .247 in 81 at-bats at the AAA level.
  • After appearing in 13 games as an outfielder with the White Sox in 1958, he saw action in 58 contests in '59, playing mostly at first base in the latter year.
  • In the two seasons, he got 27 hits in 112 at-bats for an uninspiring .241 average.
  • On December 6, 1959, Chicago GM "Trader Frank" Lane sent Cash along with Bubba Phillips and John Romano to the Cleveland Indians for Dick Brown, Don Ferrarese, Minnie Minoso, and Jake Striker. (In this instance, the words that are often used - "traded for two players and Cash" - have a different meaning.)
  • The fact that you may not recognize any of the names in the transaction except Minnie Minoso (who was 34 at the time) shows that this wasn't a blockbuster trade by any means.
  • But before Cash could play a regular season game for the Indians, he was traded to the Detroit Tigers on April 12, 1960, for 3B Steve Demeter, a seven-year minor leaguer.
  • Installed at first base, Cash had a solid 1960 season in his first year in the Motor City:
    Games - 121, Avg. - .286, RBI - 63, HR - 18, Runs - 64, Slg. % - .501.

Nothing Norm had done before prepared anyone for what he did in 1961 at age 26.

  • He went 1-for-4 in his first two games. His .250 average at that point would be his lowest of the entire season
  • With averages fluctuating wildly at the beginning of the season before players built up a large number of at-bats, he didn't fall below .300 after April 24.
  • Here are his month-by-month averages:
    April - .333
    May - .333
    June - .416
    July - .361
    August - .365
    September - .340
  • In the middle of August, Norm went three games in a row without a hit for the only time all season to drop his average to .351. But he got out of that little slump fast, going 20-for-34 to raise his average to .370.
  • As you'd expect from a left-handed hitter, he had a much better average against righties.
    Vs righthanders - .392
    Vs lefthanders - .269
  • His final numbers are mind-boggling. The bold numbers signify league-leading stats.
    Games - 159, Hits - 193, Runs - 119, RBI - 132, HR - 41, BA - .361 (tops in both leagues), OBP - .487, SLG - .662, OPS - 1.148
  • Norm finished 4th in the AL MVP voting. It was his bad luck that Roger Maris clouted 61 roundtrippers that season to break Ruth's record and Mickey Mantle smashed 54. The two Yankee sluggers finished 1-2 in the MVP race, and Jim Gentile of Baltimore came in 3rd, six points ahead of Cash.
  • The '61 Tigers finished 2nd behind the Yankees for the franchise's best finish since 1950.

How did a journeyman ballplayer suddenly produce one of the best seasons any hitter ever had?

  • One factor in his super year might have been his corked bat. In a Sporting News article in the mid-1970s, Cash explained how he made corked bats in his home woodshop. However, no evidence has been amassed to show that a corked bat provides a physical edge to a hitter. You gain in bat speed but lose bat mass.
  • Years later, Cash gave this explanation. Even at the time, I knew that (1961) season was a freak. Everything I hit seemed to drop in, even when I didn't make good contact. I never thought I'd do it again.
While Stormin' Norman, as Tiger radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell branded him, had some more good seasons, he never came close to matching his '61 success.
  • Here's Cash's numbers the rest of the career.

    Year Hits Bat.Avg. R RBI HR OBP SLG
    1961 193 .361 119 132 41 .487 .662
    1962 123 .243 94 89 39 .382 .513
    1963 133 .270 66 79 26 .386 .471
    1964 123 .257 63 83 23 .351 .453
    1965 124 .266 79 83 30 .371 .512
    1966 168 .279 98 93 32 .351 .478
    1967 118 .242 64 72 22 .352 .430
    1968 108 .263 50 63 25 .329 .487
    1969 135 .280 81 74 22 .368 .464
    1970 96 .259 58 53 15 .383 .441
    1971 128 .283 72 91 32 .372 .531
    1972 114 .259 51 61 22 .338 .445
    1973 95 .262 51 40 19 .357 .471
  • As you can see, he never hit above .300 again, never score or drove in 100+ runs, and never hit more than 40 HRs. The 118 points his average dropped from '61 to '62 is a major league record.
  • His 1962 season was not bad. Despite having just a .243 batting average, he scored 94 runs and drove in 89 with 39 HR.
  • In addition to 1961, when he made both All-Star games during the brief period when baseball had two Summer Classics each season, he made the AL roster in 1966, 1971, and 1972.
  • Norm's 373 HRs remains second only to Hall of Famer Al Kaline in franchise history although Miguel Cabrera will probably pass him in the next year or two.
  • Cash tragically drowned at the early age of 52.

Steve Treder, writing for hardballtimes.com, offers Norm Cash's 1961 season as a prime example of a fluke.

You look up “fluke” in the dictionary, and all they need to show is a picture of his 1961 baseball card. Norm Cash wasn’t really a hitter comparable to Mickey Mantle or Stan Musial or Ted Williams or Babe Ruth or Barry Bonds.
But Norm Cash really did compile a season in which he hit like those guys, not just sort of like them, but very comparable to their very best years. Cash actually did perform, for a single season, at a level quite consistent with the very best hitters in the history of baseball. It actually happened.

One Great Year: 1980 Oakland A's Starters
Four starters for the 1980 Athletics recorded the highest number of victories in their careers before or after that season.
  • This was no coincidence but rather a result of manager Billy Martin's phi­losophy.
  • Billy adopted the old school approach - he expected his pitchers to finish what they started.
  • As Ben Bolch wrote in 2011, "Slipping on an Oakland A's jersey as a start­ing pitcher 30 years ago meant being dressed for the nines. Come hell or high-water pants with socks pulled to the knees, Manager Billy Martin ex­pected his starters to throw a complete game - pitch counts be damned."

Here's the relevant statistics for the 1980 Athletics' top four starters, all right handers.

Pitcher Age W L ERA GS CG
Rick Langford 28 19 12 3.26 33 28
Mike Norris 25 22 9 2.53 33 24
Matt Keough 24 16 13 2.92 32 20
Steve McCatty 26 14 14 3.86 31 11

Oakland easily led the majors in complete games.

  • The A's 94 complete games topped second place Baltimore by a whopping 52!
  • The NL leader, St. Louis, had only 34 complete games.
  • Langford, Norris, and Keough ranked 1-2-3 in the majors in complete games. The NL leader, Steve Rogers, finished a paltry 14 starts.
  • Langford and Norris also stood atop the league in innings pitched with 290 and 284 respectively. However, Steve Carlton of the Phillies led the majors with 304 IP.
  • Langford twirled 22 consecutive complete games from May 23 to the end of the 1980 season.
  • Keough won AL Comeback Player of the Year after a 2-17 nightmare in 1979.

Martin claimed he wanted his starters to go the distance because he believed he had the best rotation ever assembled.

  • But, as you might suspect, the real reason was The Brat's distrust of his bullpen.
  • "Let's face it," Norris said. "We didn't have any Dennis Eckersleys out there."

Pitch counts were kept in those days but rarely used to determine when a starter should be pulled.

  • Langford averaged 110 pitches per nine innings. McCatty usually threw 130-140 pitches when he went the distance.
  • Each of the four pitched a 14-inning complete game during the 1980 sea­son. Norris needed 152 pitches to get through his marathon.
  • But that was nothing compared to McCatty, who fired an astronomical 207 pitches in his 14-inning stint. When Martin came out in the 11th to find out how his pitcher was holding up, McCatty told him, "I'm staying out here one way or another. I'm getting a win or a loss." It was a loss, 2-1 to the Mariners on Dan Meyer's HR.
  • The hurlers knew Martin was only going through the motions when he checked on them late in the game. "If you told him you were tired, he would look at you like you were less of a man," recalled Norris. "So I told him to get the hell out of there. Of course you're tired. But it's a gut-check. It's a matter of intestinal fortitude at that point."
  • Peer pressure built up also. One time, McCatty was shelled and lasted only 1 2/3 innings. So he came back the next day and lasted 8 1/3 in a victory over Seattle. CF Dwayne Murphy teased him, "What, you can't go nine?"

When Martin arrived in 1980, Oakland had fallen on hard times after winning the World Series three years in a row (1972-73-74).

  • 1975 - won the AL West but were swept by the Red Sox in the ALCS.
  • 1976 - 2nd in the West
  • 1977 - 7th, 38.5 GB
  • 1978 - 6th, 23 GB
  • 1979 - 7th, 34 GB with 108 losses

As he did every place he managed, Martin put a charge into the A's in 1980.

  • They went from 52 victories in '79 to 83, good enough for 2nd place in the AL West.
  • In 1981, the strike-shortened season, Oakland won the 1st half (pre­strike) West title by 3.5 games. Then they finished 2nd to Kansas City when play resumed but swept the Royals in the three-game playoff for the West crown. Then the Yankees swept them to take the AL pennant.

All that work took its toll on "the best rotation ever."

  • Langford never came close to 19 wins again, his highest being 12 in the abbreviated '81 campaign and 11 the following season. When he deve­loped elbow trouble in '83 after leading the club in innings for the fourth straight year, Rick didn't join the chorus of those blaming Martin for his plight. He completed only four years of a six-year contract before bottom­ing out at 1-10 in 1986.
  • Norris, the most promising of the four iron men, also won 12 in '81 but fell to 7, then 4, and was finished at age 29, in part because of drug use.
  • Keough continued with double-digit victory totals in '81 (10) and '82 (11, although with a league-high 18 losses) before dropping off to 5 in '83. Midway through that seaon, the Yankees traded for him but got only three wins for their trouble.
  • The story was essentially the same for McCatty. After topping the AL with 14 victories in '81, he won only 24 more over the next four years. Steve is currently the pitching coach for the Washington Nationals. (Does he pay attention to pitch counts?)

Billy Martin did baseball a favor in 1980-81 by showing that pitch counts are important and overworking your hurlers can considerably shorten their careers.

Reference: "Thirty years ago, Oakland A's pitchers generally finished what they started,"
Ben Bolch, Los Angeles Times, 7/18/2011
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Billy Martin




Rick Langford

 


Mike Norris

 


Matt Keough

 


Steve McCatty