Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Back to the future with Dwight Evans

Today we are doing some true Back to the Future stuff. Today we are heading way back to 1972. Back to stop Biff from kissing X Mom at the Enchantment Under the Sea Dance so that she'll still go to Stonehill and marry X Dad. Then once we take care of that, we'll look at one of X Mom's favorite Red Sox players and her current neighbor. It's time to jump back into the Delorean, evade the Libyan terrorists, crank it to 88 and go to the year of the Watergate scandal, the premier of The Godfather and Don Mclean's release my least favorite song of all time (American Pie). Today we look back fondly on Dwight "Dewey" Evans...

Dwight Evans was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 5th round of the 1969 draft out of Chatsworth (CA) High School at just 17 years old. He would spend the next three years holding his own in the minor leagues, especially for his age. After posting an .891 On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) with a clean .300 average and 17 HR as a 20 year old in his first taste of AAA, Dewey earned a September call up to the Red Sox in 1972. After 2 pinch hit appearances, he took over left field for the rest of the season, shifting some guy named Carl Yastrzemski to first base to take over for the ineffective Danny Cater. Cater was acquired in a Spring Training trade with the Yankees for Sparky Lyle (maybe that’s why we don’t trade with the Yankees anymore, they kept kicking our asses in the deals).

1972 was significant for more than just launching the career of the best Right Fielder in Red Sox history. This marked the year of the first strike in professional sports history. The results and ramifications of this first strike are another discussion for another day, but the biggest short term effect was pushing the start of the season back until April 13. This caused uneven scheduling for teams across baseball where some teams lost as many as 9 games, while others lost as few as 6. The Detroit Tigers were one of the teams that lost 6. The Red Sox lost 7. So in the same poetic fashion that plagued Boston for 86 years between titles, the Sox and Tigers squared off on October 2nd for a three game series with the Red Sox standing at 84-68 and the Tigers at 84-69. Whichever team won two games would win the AL East. Of course the Tigers won the first two of the series and the Sox won the final, meaningless game of the season to finish the year at 85-70, a half game behind the 86-70 Tigers. Ah, the joys of labor strife.

Despite the unfortunate end to the 1972 season, things were really looking up for the Red Sox in the beginning part of the 70’s. Carlton Fisk had debuted the prior year and was an instant star, capturing the Rookie of the Year in ’72 and finishing 4th in the MVP voting. 22 year old future first baseman Cecil Cooper also made his debut in ’72. Bill “Spaceman” Lee was starting to come into his own as a top starting pitcher and elite personality. The 1974 season marked the debut of a trio of talented youngsters that included SS Rick “Burly” Burleson, LF Jim “Ed” Rice, and CF Fred “Freddy” Lynn. And caught in the middle of it all was the maturation of Dwight Evans into an above average (and later superior) major league hitter and elite defender.

The development of all this young talent (especially Lynn’s MVP and ROY season) coupled with the continued excellence of veterans like Yaz, Luis Tiant, Bernie Carbo and Rick Wise came to a head in 1975 when the Sox won the AL East, defeated the dynastic Oakland A’s in the League Championship Series and squared off with the Big Red Machine Cincinnati Reds in the World Series. As us Red Sox fans were still hearing “1918” chants up until 2004, we know that the Sox did not win this series. Despite Fisk’s heroics in Game 6 that Robin Williams missed to go see about a girl, the team could not keep the good times rolling and lost in the 7th game. Evans had a strong series posting a triple slash line of .292/.393/.542 with 1 HR and 5 RBI but the Reds were just too strong for the young Red Sox.

The Red Sox would go on to miss the playoffs every year from 1976 to 1985, including the painful one game playoff loss to the Yankees in 1978 at the hands of Bucky F. Dent, but it wouldn’t be for lack of trying on Dewey’s part. In that time, Dewey never posted an OPS that was below league average. He made 2 All Star games and finished in the top 11 for MVP voting 3 times. He led the league in walks twice, runs and OBP once and in 1981 he led the league in HR, OPS. For this he finished 3rd in the MVP voting behind the not deserving winner Rollie Fingers and the probably slightly more deserving Rickey Henderson. It was in this stretch also where Dewey’s reputation as a great fielder caught up with his actual abilities as he won all 8 of his Gold Gloves in that time (his 8 are the fourth most all time for a right fielder behind Roberto Clemente’s 12, Al Kaline’s 10 and Ichiro Suzuki's 9).

By the time 1986 rolled around and the Red Sox returned to the World Series, most of the 34 year old Evans’ partners in crime from the 70s were gone (Fisk, Lynn, Yaz, Tiant, Lee, Burleson). The only major player still with Evans on this club was Jim Rice in his final season as an elite player. We all know how that 1986 season ended so no need to rehash here, but it is a good time to start looking at the comparison between Evans and Rice, two players joined at the hip in Red Sox baseball history.

Jim Rice was a really great hitter for the Red Sox for a handful of years. He had his signature 1978 season when he became known as the “Most Feared Hitter” in baseball (even though for his 16 year career he only garnered 77 intentional walks, which ranks 183rd all time). He parlayed this moniker into acceptance into baseball’s Hall of Fame in 2009 (though it took him all 15 tries to get in). From 1975 to 1979 he was undoubtedly one of the best hitters in baseball and over the next 7 years he had another few strong campaigns. But Jim Rice did not have as good a career as Dwight Evans and their standings with the Hall of Fame should be reversed.

Jim Ed finished his 16 year career with an OPS 28% above the league average for those years. Dewey finished 27% above league average (essentially the same), but played 4 years more. Jim Ed had more power than Dewey but finished with fewer career home runs (385-382). Dewey had waaaaay more walks than Jim Ed (finishing 28th all time to Rice’s 366th all time) and was consistently an on-base machine before Billy Beane decided it was cool to walk last decade. Jim Ed had a more clearly defined peak, but Dewey’s best 6 seasons are just as good if not better than Jim Ed’s. 

Even if you want to say they had equal value at the plate (I wouldn’t, I’d say Dewey was better), there’s that little matter of fielding the ball that should be taken into account. I’ve already mentioned that Evans was a great fielder. He covered the cavernous Red Sox right field and had an absolute cannon for an arm, possibly the best right field arm not attached to Roberto Clemente’s body. Jim Ed on the other hand played in the cozy confines of Fenway’s left field and was nothing special. So again, even if you say their hitting was equal, Dewey gets propelled forward like a midget out of a cannon in overall value. And yet, Dewey lasted 3 years on the Hall of Fame ballot before falling off while Jim Ed gave his acceptance speech two years ago.

Dwight Evans was the best right fielder in Red Sox history and one of the best right fielders of all time. He was criminally underappreciated while he played and in the first few years after he retired. Whenever he gets onto the Veteran’s Committee ballot for the Hall of Fame, they better do the right thing and vote him in. His cannon arm, sweet mustache and steady hitting wowed the Fenway Faithful for 19 glorious years. Dewey played for some of the most snake bitten teams in Red Sox history but always did it with class and effort. I’m sad that I was too young to fully appreciate his awesomeness, but he found a spot in X Mom’s heart. Hopefully if she ever needs a cup of sugar from her neighbor, he’ll deliver it with the speed and accuracy of one of his patented bullets to third base.

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