Monday, June 19, 2017

Nashville-Born Ballplayers

Junior Gilliam has a street named after him in Nashville (90 Feet of Perfection)
While walking around Nashville last weekend during CMA Fest, I noticed there was a street running through the heart of the city named "Junior Gilliam Way," not far from Rosa Parks Boulevard. That made me wonder what other players hail/hailed from Smashville, and if Gilliam was truly the best (and thus worthy of the distinction as the city's only ballplayer with a street named in his honor). Turns out there were quite a few players born in Nashville -- 39 and counting according to Baseball-Reference. While none are Hall of Famers (yet), there were a few who came close, as well as one who will likely go into Cooperstown one day wearing the cap of my beloved Boston Red Sox.

Best Players:

Ben Chapman (41.3 bWAR)
Chapman barely edges out Gilliam in terms of career value, but he was never going to have a street named after him following his shameful treatment of Jackie Robinson while managing the Phillies in 1947. While he was clearly a despicable human being, Chapman was also a pretty good ballplayer, leading the Major Leagues in steals four times (but also caught-stealing four times) and batting .302/.383/.440 (114 OPS+) for his career. His most memorable highlight as a player, however, was being told by Ted Williams, "I'll be back, and I'll make more money in this bleeping game than all three of you (Boston's outfield) combined!" after being sent down from Spring Training in 1938. With Chapman playing for Cleveland the following year, Williams arrived for good and set about delivering on that promise.

Jim Gilliam (40.7 bWAR)
Gilliam, more popularly known as "Junior," spent his entire 14-year career with the Dodgers. Despite spending most of those seasons on the trading block, he was only Boy of Summer from the '50s who was still a meaningful contributor during the Sandy Koufax-Don Drysdale era. The speedy switch-hitter proved to be a lesser version of Robinson -- his predecessor at second base -- with his baserunning, defensive versatility, and table-setting skills. A two-time All-Star, Gilliam won NL Rookie of the Year honors in 1953 and drew MVP votes four times, finishing in the top-six twice. He also played in seven World Series, winning four. Had he not begun his career in the Negro Leagues, he might have made it to the Hall of Fame.

Roy Cullenbine (31.4 bWAR)
Cullenbine was similar to Gilliam, as both were patient switch-hitters who made two All-Star teams, received MVP consideration four times, and led their league in walks once while playing the outfield a lot. A journeyman outfielder from 1938 to 1947, Cullenbine possessed one of the sharpest batting eyes in baseball history. He posted a career 17.8 percent walk rate and set a record by drawing a walk in 22 consecutive games, finishing with a career .408 OBP. He also developed power later in his career, slugging 73 of his 110 home runs over his final four seasons. Cullenbine played for a pair of pennant winners despite switching teams seven times in his career, helping Detroit win it all in 1945. With his solid pop, strong throwing arm and elite ability to get on base, he would have had a much longer and more stable career had he been born half a century later.

Best Names:

So many good ones. Here's a smattering: Tiny Graham, Noodles Hahn (think he had a weak arm, or just really liked spaghetti?), Ray Hamrick, Foster Castleman, Mickey Kreitner, Bubber Jonnard (brother of Claude Jonnard), Ike Fisher (brother of Bob Fisher), Clyde McCullough (say that one ten times fast). There were also a pair of "Lefty"s -- Lefty Davis and Lefty Sullivan. Now I'm wondering if a team has ever had two "Lefty"s at the same time...

Greatest What-if?

Johnny Beazley (4.6 bWAR)
Beazley burned bright and fast like a comet, going 21-6 with a 2.13 ERA and a 1.18 WHIP at age 24 to help his St. Louis Cardinals upset Joe DiMaggio's New York Yankees in the 1942 Fall Classic (the only World Series that DiMaggio would ever lose). Then he went into the service, and when he returned three years later he wasn't the same. Who knows how his career would've played out had he come up after the war instead of before.

Current Stars:

Mookie Betts (21.1 bWAR)
Just four seasons into his career, Betts has already accumulated more than half the WAR of any other Nashville-born player. A tremendous defensive outfielder with elite power, speed, and contact skills, he's arguably the American League's best all-around player not named Mike Trout. And the best part is -- he's only 24.

R.A. Dickey (20.8 bWAR)
Okay, maybe not a current star given how awful he's been this year, but he enjoyed a brief run as one of the game's top pitchers. In 2012, he prevented Clayton Kershaw from joining Greg Maddux and Randy Johnson as the only hurlers to win four straight Cy Young awards (Kershaw won in 2011, then again in 2014 and '15). The Mets, knowing how fickle knuckle-ballers can be, wisely traded the then-38-year-old for a package of prospects that included Noah Syndergaard. Dickey's reverted into a Tim Wakefield-esque innings-eater since then, but 15 years and nearly 2,000 innings in the Majors are nothing to sneeze at.

Sonny Gray (10.1 bWAR)
Gray's career got off to a promising start with Oakland, as he went 33-20 with a 2.88 ERA over his first three seasons and finished third in the 2015 AL Cy Young vote. He struggled during an injury-plagued 2016 and is still trying to get back on track this year. He's only 27, though, so hope remains that he will once again be a quality starter.

While not stars, this is where I give shout-outs to Andrew Triggs and Caleb Joseph.

Not bad, Nashville. While not as prolific as pumping out ballplayers as you are at country music stars, you can still lay claim to a National League Rookie of the Year and Cy Young winner, a likely future Hall of Famer, and a Hollywood villan.

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