Saturday, January 24, 2015

Bye Bye Banks

Banks was a tremendous shortstop and Cubs icon (Huffington Post)
Cubs legend and Hall of Famer Ernie Banks passed away yesterday, eight days shy of his 84th birthday.

"Let's play two"was his mantra, and one he took to heart. Banks played at least 130 games in all but three of his 19 seasons, exceeding 150 a dozen times and leading the league in six of those years. The Cubs were often abysmal, but their constant losing never stifled his love for baseball. Perhaps no player ever seemed to get more unbridled joy from the game than Banks, who at one point played 717 consecutive games at shortstop.

It was therefore terribly unfair that he spent his entire career with one of baseball's losing-est franchises, never once getting a taste of the postseason. That Chicago collapsed down the stretch in 1969, at the end of Banks's last impactful season, was a particularly cruel twist of fate. He and the Cubs came so close, only to crash and burn in September.

By then Banks was at first base, the position he manned for most of the 1960s. But in the 1950s, Banks became baseball's first slugging shortstop, re-defining a position that had typically been reserved for speedy, slap-hitting guys like Luis Aparicio. Before a knee injury forced him to move across the diamond in 1962, Banks was on track to be the greatest offensive shortstop since Honus Wagner. In the half century since, only Alex Rodriguez has equaled the power numbers Banks put up during his heyday.

Groomed in the Negro Leagues, Banks seamlessly transitioned to the majors and became a star almost instantly. He excelled during his 1953 call-up and was runner-up in the following year's NL Rookie of the Year race before finishing third in the 1955 NL MVP vote.

1955--that was the year Banks became a star. He made his first All-Star team, batted .295/.345/.596 (144 OPS+), and was valued at 8.2 bWAR. More notably, he set the home run record for shortstops with 44 including five grand slams--a single season record that stood for 30 years. Two years later, Banks challenged his own record by slamming 43 out of the yard.

The late '50s were Banks's heyday, In 1958 and 1959, he became the first National Leaguer to win back-to-back MVP awards despite playing for second division teams (Chicago finished fifth out of eight both years with losing records). In '58 Banks played every game, batting .313/.366/.614 (155 OPS+) and leading the major leagues with 47 home runs, 129 RBI, 379 total bases, and 81 extra base hits. Those 47 big flies set a new major league record for shortstops, one that has since been surpassed by Rodriguez but still remains that NL record.

Banks's '59 season was just as good, if not better. He once again played every game, clubbed 45 home runs, knocked in an ML-best 143 runs, batted .304/.374/.566 (156 OPS+), and was worth an astounding 10.2 bWAR. In 1960 Banks had another MVP-caliber year worth 7.8 bWAR, pacing the majors with 41 home runs while winning his first and only Gold Glove.

That would be Banks's last elite season, capping a six-year run in which he was the most valuable position player in baseball not named Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle. He went on to become a steady, solid first baseman, but never came close to replicating his peak seasons due to age and declining levels of offense. The move helped Banks play past 40, allowing him to reach milestones such as 500 home runs, 1,600 RBI, and 2,500 hits.

An 11-time All-Star, Banks was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1977, his first year of eligibility. First-ballot induction is typically reserved for the game's true legends, the inner-circle Hall of Famers. I can think of few men more deserving of that honor than Mr. Cub.

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