1980 Baseball Forecast
Baseball's Most Feared Hitmen
Ability, consistency, and adaptability are the working credo of BASEBALL FORECAST'S Top Ten hardball hitters who are already limbering up in the sunshine for another assault on enemy pitchers in 1980.
By Steve Taub
Who are baseball's top hitters? Ah, now there's a question that is as easily answerable as; Why are some people evil? What is love? and Who will win the MVP award this season?
The only thing we can agree upon is that a good hitter is someone who hits the ball well. Besides that, we must discuss what constitutes a top hitter? Is is someone like Rod Carew, or Pete Rose or George Brett, who can single the opposition into submission? Or is it someone like Dave Kingman, Greg Luzinski or Reggie Jackson, whose overpowering swings exceed their value of a high batting average?
Of course, ideally a top hitter would be a Dave Parker or Jim Rice, whose batting average is directly proportional to their home run success.
So, here are the current hitters we feel are the game's very best. Start arguing.
JIM RICE: After five full seasons with Boston, this is what Rice has accomplished: .310 lifetime batting average; three consecutive 200 hits seasons (current); 172 home runs; voted league's MVP in 1978; in '78, became first American League to accumulate over 400 total bases (406) since Joe DiMaggio did in 1937; before last season signed a seven-year $5.4 million contract.
"Rice has teh same dedication toward hitting as Ted Williams," says Johnny Pesky, the only other Red Sox player ever to stroke 200 hits for three consecutive years. "He's always looking to improve. He is never satisfied."
"Jim is awesome and he's going to get better," proclaims teammate Dwight Evans, who is equally impressed with Rice's power. "It wouldn't surprise me if he hit 75 homers some year."
Rice is equally impressed with himself. "I'm better than anyone you put out there on the field right now," he says. "I'm better than anyone on any team."
And, when someone has the audacity to suggest that Fenway Park's short left field distance is responsible for his incredible statistics, Rice retorts, "People keep saying this ballpark was made for me, but I think I can hit in any ballpark."
But Rice, who just turned 27, still hopes to improve. "What I want to do is improve every year," he said after winning his MVP award. "I had a fantastic year but I'm not satisfied. My limits? I don't know. I don't think anyone else does."
ROD CAREW: When the California Angels signed Carew prior to the '79 season as a free agent for $4.5 million over five years, Angels G.M. Buzzie Bavasi exclaimed, "We obtained the best hitter in baseball." It's hard to dispute that. After 13 seasons, Carew has a .333 batting average, has hit over .300 the past 11 seasons, and has won the batting title seven times. Only two players in baseball history- Ty Cobb (12) and Honus Wagner (8)- have won more. Which is why Bavasi added, "You don't mind paying a Babe Ruth and you don't mind paying a Rod Carew because they draw people."
"There's nobody quite like him," says Gene Mauch, his former manager. "He's got everything- intelligence, strength, confidence, foot speed, and hand-eye coordination." Adds former Twins batting star Tony Oliva, "If anybody can hit .400 again, it's got to be him."
Carew concurs with his critics. "I wouldn't put myself second-best to anyone. I don't really know about the Cobbs and the Hornsbys. I don't know how they would do today. But there's not a hitter in the game today who can do the things with a bat that I can do. There are a lot of good hitters, but I guess handling the bat has become a knack with me. I do some things with the bat that even I'm amazed at," he explains.
"I think that if Carew was ever in the National League, you'd have another .400 hitter," says Pittsburgh's Dave Parker. "And, probably more than once. He'd benefit a great deal from the artificial turf. The man is a phenomenal hitter- probably the best natural hitter in the game."
GEORGE BRETT: One of the most under-rated hitters in the game is Brett. Second in the league in hitting last year with a .329 average, he has a lifetime .310 mark. He led the league in hits (212) and triples (20) and was second in runs scored (119) and doubles (42). In 1976 he led the league in hitting with .333. Only Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig had won titles, in hitting, total hits, total bases, doubles and tripled before Brett. "You don't play this game to make records," says Brett. "But records certainly are incentives. Anytime you can be named in the same breath with Ty Cobb and Lou Gehrig, that's something special.
"Really, about the only personal goal I have every year is to hit .300. That's more of an obsession than a goal," he adds. He's achieved that four times.
Although he hit 23 home runs last year, and three in one playoff game against the Yankees' Catfish Hunter in the 1978 A.L. Championship Series, he admits he doesn't try to unload one often. "I'm happy what I'm doing," he says. "Maybe I could hit more home runs, but I have too much pride in my average. If I tried to hit home runs, I might drop to .250. That's not for me."
FRED LYNN: In 1975, Lynn's first major leauge season, he won the A.L.'s Rookie-of-the-Year award, batted .331, and led the league in runs scored (103) and doubles (47). The following season, he hit .314, and his statistics suffered in virtually every offensive category as he missed numerous games with injuries. In 1977, he slipped to .260 and was on the disabled list for six weeks. However, playing healthy for the first time in several years in 1979, Lynn reaffirmed his status as one of baseball's premier hitters, leading the league last year with a .333 average and finishing second with 39 home runs. "When I came into this season totally healthy, I realistically expected to do as well as ever," he explained last Summer.
Lynn also attributes his renewed success to added strength, which he acquired while working with weights on his body strength last Winter. "I realized that strong men have a tremendous advantage in baseball. It's a game for strong men," he explains. Added to the fact he lowered his hands at bat and swung up at the ball, Lynn explains: "It took me four years to appreciate what a physical grind a major league season is. It takes that long to appreciate how difficult it is to stay strong over the grind. I'm not a home run hitter. But I know I'm capable of hitting them. And I wanted to play up to my capabilities for the whole season."
Says Pesky: "He can hit to all fields. He is more like Stan Musial than anybody else I can remember."
"Lynn's always been a good hitter," says coach Eddie Yost. "Now he's hitting it farther. There's no question: his physical appearance is much bigger."
DON BAYLOR: For several years, Baylor's had one obsession: to win the MVP award. In 1979, he finally won it, after batting .296, leading the league in runs batted in (139) and runs scored (120), and finishing third in home runs with 36.
"He a more disciplined hitter," says former teammate Nolan Ryan. "And he's not trying to win every game by himself."
"He's really strong," adds fellow Angel Carew, "and he doesn't get intimidated. He enjoys coming up with men on base."
"I'm still trying to find myself," admits Baylor. "If I walked into a clutch situation four or five years ago, I got so over anxious; I scared myself out of the situation.
"I put too much pressure on myself. Now I go out with the idea, 'If you do you do, if you don't you don't and the world is not going to end.'"
DAVE PARKER: At 28, Parker has won two batting titles, the 1978 MVP award, and has hit over .300 the past five years. "I don't think he's even reached his potential yet," says his manager Chuck Tanner. "There's no reason he can't win the triple crown." The 6'5" outfielder agrees. "I've never worried about my batting average. Now, I'm developing a home run swing. And the RBIs will be there, because I've got one of the best base-stealers in the league (Omar Moreno) hitting ahead of me."
And, although he signed a contract last season that brings him an excess of $775,000 per year, he hasn't stopped hustling. "You definitely have to admire him, that he makes all that money, that he has all that security and he still goes out and busts his butt," says Montreal's top-notch backstop Gary Carter. "He goes out there and works and hustles. He has personal pride and wants to go out and do well."
"Dave doesn't have to prove anything to anybody in baseball," says Tanner. "Anybody who watches Parker knows that they are seeing a super athlete."
GEORGE FOSTER: When former Phillies manager Danny Ozark accused Foster of using a bat with a cork-loaded barrel after blasting a monstrous homer, Reds catcher Johnny Bench quipped, "George has cork in his arms, not his bat." He could be right. At 31, he has 201 home runs, 151 in the past four years. In that span, he has also driven in 488 runs. In 1977, he own the N.L.'s MVP award when he batted .320, with 52 homers, 149 RBIs, and 124 runs scored. "He's got ungodly power," says Dan Driessen. "He makes it look so easy (that) he makes the rest of us look bad."
Says pitching coach Bill Fisher, "I watch Foster swing and I wonder how I would have pitched him. I have come to the conclusion that I'd either have pitched around him or thrown the ball under the plate.
Foster attributes much of his hitting success to concentration when at home plate. "If you go up there as if it's just another turn to hit," he explains, "you'll be just another out." Foster also doesn't smoke, drink, chew tobacco or drink coffee. He just dedicates himself to good body conditioning. "The way he takes care of his body, there's no telling how long he'll be able to play this game," says his former Reds' manager Sparky Anderson.
KEITH HERNANDEZ: When the sportswriters' MVP vote finished in a tie between Pittsburgh's Willie Stargell and Hernandez last Autumn, most people were shocked and angry that Stargell had to share the award. However, late in the season, Pete Rose told Hernandez, who was about to win the batting title with a .344 average, "I picked you. You gotta get it." But remembering that he never hit over .300 in the big leagues, Hernandez said "Stargell wins it." Hernandez attributes maturation and help from Lou Brock with his improved hitting. "He showed me how to handle the peaks and valleys. Just knowing that they're going to get you some days and you're going to get them some days."
Although he batted in 105 runs, he realizes he needs help from his teammates. In August he said, "If Temp (Garry Templeton), Lou (Brock) and Jerry (Mumphrey) keep getting on base, I'll get my 100 RBIs."
PETE ROSE: What more can be said about a man who has won three batting titles, tied or led the league in hits six times, led in doubles four times, holds the N.L. record for career singles, the major league record with ten 200-hit seasons and holds N.L. record with a 44-game hitting streak, and yet never hit more than 16 homers in a season? "He's the most dominant player of his time because he wasn't gifted," says Phillies' Larry Bowa. "He took what he had and polished it into a great baseball player. He made himself."
"He's a different individual," says Sparky Anderson. "He just enjoys the game so much. I mean, the other guys, the Mayses, the DiMaggios, Musials, had the talent. Pete never had the talent. This man had to work hard for everything he's done." Which is why he's called Charley Hustle.
"I am proud. I think the difference between a great ball player- I don't think I'm great but I'm not bad- and a mediocre player is his amount of pride. Day in and day out to have pride enough not to be shown up," says Rose, who at 38, is on his second year of a four-year, $3.2 million contract. And, with 3,372 lifetime hits, he hopes to break Ty Cobb's all-time record of 4,191. "That's why I don't smoke or drink. To me, to play three years extra is worth maybe 500 hits," he says. Rose, who is usually in the league's top 10 hitters list, says "I love to get my hits. I don't want to be one of those guys who has to wait for the Sunday papers to find out what his batting average is. I want to be able to see it every day."
STEVE GARVEY: Because the Dodgers struggled most of last yeasr and finally finished in third place, Garvey didn't receive as much notoriety as in previous, pennant-winning years. But, he did finish fourth in hits (204) and RBIs (110). He has had a .304 lifetime average, won the MVP award in 1974 and had a career high 33 home runs and 115 RBIs in 1977. But he has one regret. "We play a team sport and, with all the honors, the ultimate is still being on a world champion. It has become the primary goal."
He also doesn't get bored. "Never," he stresses, "because the game is always changing and I set different goals. Concentrate on doubles. Hitting to right or going for the long ball."
As mentioned at the outset, skill diversity and level of consistency would be the main criteria for analyzing the game's best hitters. There is, however, at least one more critical aspect which must be considered when selecting a grouping of this nature and that is peer approval. This severest test - which is given in equal measures by teammates and opponents alike - has also been passed by our Top Ten group as evidenced by the respect afforded them by their contemporaries. And, in the final analysis, that, along with personal pride, is the highest form of praise for accomplishment that provides the motivation to maintain a high level of excellence in any endeavor - including baseball.