Sunday, December 30, 2012

A long fondness for Dwight Evans

Dwight Evans fell off the Hall of Fame ballot in 1999 after three seasons. Only 3.6% of voters thought he was good enough for a vote. And yet, even the estimable Bill James thought Evans merited more consideration. I happen to agree. But then again, I am extremely biased as Dwight Evans was one of my favorite baseball players ever.

"But wait, William," you must be thinking, "weren't you always a Yankee fan?"

That is correct. And yet incorrect. After growing up in New Jersey, I went off to New Hampshire College in Manchester, New Hampshire in the fall of 1974. That January, I met and fell for the mother of my children. Except for a summer, I never went back to New Jersey. Married in 1977, we settled in her home town of Rochester, New Hampshire and lived there for several years and then moved one town over to Lebanon, Maine, where we lived until 1990.

Lebanon was in the sticks. It had gravel pits and not much else. And though cable television started making inroads in the 1970s, it would be years before it would be get out to rural wastelands like Lebanon. The only solution available until late into the 1980s was a television antenna. For years, the only stations we received were two network channels and Channels 38 and 56. Both of the latter were out of Boston and the former of those two carried the Red Sox games.

The period of 1976 through 1978 were great as a Yankee fan because there were three trips in a row to the World Series with two straight wins. But while they were thrilling, they were also exhausting with all the shenanigans of George Steinbrenner and Billy Martin. By 1981, it became intolerable after a strike and the Dave Winfield fiasco. That was the season Winfield went one for twenty-two in the World Series and became Mr. May. Steinbrenner's treatment of Winfield was a total turnoff and between the strike and everything, I was pretty disillusioned.

It was a period ripe for the Red Sox to steal my attention. They were the only team I could watch and players like Dwight Evans, Wade Boggs and Roger Clemens brought me over to the dark side. I liked the Red Sox in the 1980s. The Yankees had become a circus and were away from my vision. What could I do?

While Boggs and Clemens thrilled me with their amazing heroics, it was Dwight Evans that captured my imagination. It's funny how a fan's perception develops totally separate from reality. I did not know that Evans was from Santa Monica, California. In my mind, he became the every-man kind of hero. He was the guy who had to work hard at his craft to be a good player. For a baseball purist, it was obvious that he worked hard at the fundamentals of the game. He worked on positioning, footwork and arm angles with his play in right field and worked extra hard to become a good offensive player.

That was probably true of 99 percent of all baseball players, but somehow, you could tell it about Evans. I related to him somehow. I noticed him as far back as 1975. He was only 23 when the Red Sox played that famous World Series against the Big Red Machine. He had started in the big leagues in 1972 as a 20-year old and after his first year cup of coffee, he averaged a little over 400 plate appearances in 1973, 1974 and 1975 as the Red Sox used a rotation that at times included Evans, Tommy Harper and Rick Miller.

But by 1975, Fred Lynn and Jim Rice thundered onto the scene and Evans became more of a regular but split some time with Bernie Carbo. Anyway, the 1975 World Series is famous for the Carlton Fisk homer that we see in highlights every post season and will until eternity. And some even may know that in that game, Bernie Carbo pinch hit and hit a homer that was as big as what Fisk did. But there was another big play in that game that is forgotten.

With the game in extra innings, Ken Griffey was on first in the top of the eleventh and Joe Morgan hit a shot toward Pesky's Pole in right. If it fell in or went over that short porch, the Red Sox might have been done for. But despite the ball slicing away from him, Dwight Evans raced to the corner and made a fabulous catch and for good measure, threw out Griffey at first for the double play. Fisk would hit his famous homer an inning later.

Dwight Evans was a good offensive player from his debut in 1972 until 1980. And with his defense, was a valuable player. But with Lynn, Rice, Yaz, Fisk, etc., Evans usually batted in the lower third of the batting order.

During the 1980 season, Evans became a disciple of Walt Hriniak, who was a disciple of Charlie Lau, who famously helped George Brett become a Hall of Fame player. In actuality, at the time, Hriniak was still a bullpen coach and Johnny Pesky was the "official" batting coach. But several players turned to Hriniak, who would eventually become the batting coach when Pesky retired in the mid-1980s.

Perhaps under Hriniak, or perhaps just his maturation as a player, Evans became a star in 1981. And he exploded. His OPS was 1.054 in April, 1.025 in May and ten games into June went at a clip of 1.018. But then the strike of 1981 hit. Oh no! The strike cost Evans all that momentum or mojo or whatever you want to call it and by the time baseball had lost forty-plus games, Evans would not be the same in the second "half" when he finished those months with an .838 OPS.

But still, Evans led the American League that season in walks, runs created, wOBA, OPS and Total Bases and tied for the lead in homers. In one of the biggest bits of post season idiocy ever, Rollie Fingers won the Most Valuable Player Award despite pitching in only 35 games. The award should have gone to either Evans or Rickie Henderson with a good case to be made for either.

Though Evans had his best season shortened, he was a star offensive player for many years after 1981. Before 1981, Evans averaged a walk percentage a little over ten percent. But from 1981 on, he was frequently in the 15 to 16.9 percent range. He led the league in walks in 1985 and 1987--both seasons over 100. He finished with an OPS over .900 in 1982, 1984 and 1987.

Other than 1981, Evans had his best full offensive season in 1987, his sixteenth season in the majors. His triple slash line was, .305/.417/.569. He was fourth in the majors in wOBA that season. But by then, the Red Sox were having Evans play half his games at first base, so his overall value was diminished.

Evans would play nineteen seasons with the Red Sox and twenty seasons overall. Baseball-Reference.com gave him 62.8 rWAR and Fangraphs, 71.4 fWAR. According to Fangraphs, Evans was a better player than Dave Winfield. Jay Jaffe and his JAWS system has Evans as the fifteenth best right-fielder of all time. Everyone ahead of him except for Larry Walker and Shoeless Joe Jackson are in the Hall of Fame and those two should be. And there are quite a few Hall of Fame players behind him.

All that is great. But besides the numbers, Evans simply thrilled this Fan with his grace, his professionalism and his style. Dwight Evans did things the right way. Or at least, that is the way I choose to remember him.

4 comments:

Bill Miller said...

Jesus, man, my wife is from Rochester, NH, too. In fact, it's where her parents still live. Like you, I was a a fan of a New York team (Mets) stuck up in the wilds of Maine for many years. I kind of grew to appreciate the Sox, especially via radio.
Used to make the 40 minute trip from Gorham, ME to Rochester via RTE 202 two or three times a week back then. Small world, man.
I really enjoyed this post, as I do all your work.
Happy New Year, William
Bill Miller

Anonymous said...

I watched him play alot on TV and he was so good in his thirties! Very good player and very underrated!

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

Anon: Glad you got to enjoy his career. He was fun to watch.

Bill: Seriously!? Indeed a small world. I know that 202 road very well. I'm glad you enjoyed the piece and Happy New Year to you too.

Paula said...

Love this post. I, too, am a life long fan of Dewey. In 1975, I played right field and wore #24 for my softball high school team and had one heck of an arm. So, lo and behold, I came across Dewey and started following him and it turns out that we share the same bday, November 3 (he is slightly older :-). I have numerous signed balls, his baseball cards, etc. and will NEVER get rid of them. He will always be my #1 sports person til the day I die. LOVE Dewey !!