Athlete Retrospective — or, Being Bill Buckner

by Coltrane

This is the first in what I expect to be a series of posts, featuring former athletes that for one reason or another captured my attention and never really went away.

Bill Buckner is a player who always gets talked about when the Red Sox are in town. He’s well-known, but it occurred to me that I didn’t really know how valuable he was over the course of his career. I decided it would be fun to do a little digging…

Exhibit One–

Bill Buckner played four decades in the major leagues, from 1969 (one AB) up through his age 40 season in 1990. When he was young he played for the Dodgers, in mid-career the Cubs, and in the twilight of his career he played for the Red Sox (and the Royals and the Angels.)  He played 22 years in total, mixing some big seasons in with years that were less than great.

Buckner totalled 24.6 career WAR, good for 735th all-time among position players. As the chart illustrates, he would have had a great career, rather than a really good one — had his production just resembled a bell curve a little more than it did.

Exhibit Two– Hitters that rank just ahead of Buckner on the Career WAR list:

Mike Bordick

The future was wide open..

Irish Meusel
Sammy Strang
Johnny Kling
Charlie Hollocher
Gus Suhr
Joe Cunningham
Ed Charles
Jeff Conine
Bill Buckner

Bordick, Conine, and Buckner were all “good” players for a long time. Catcher Johnny Kling had a more sustained peak but shorter career. Kling played from 1900 to 1913, his good years coming with the Cubs.

Exhibit Three– The 10 most similar hitters to Buckner (using career totals) from Baseball-Reference.com:

The sky was the limit..
1. Mickey Vernon (876)
2. Al Oliver (866)
3. Steve Garvey (855)
4. Mark Grace (853)
5. Willie Davis (850)
6. B.J. Surhoff (839)
7. Buddy Bell (838)
8. Vada Pinson (833)
9. Jose Cruz (828)
10. Julio Franco (826)

This one is fun. I had guessed Steve Garvey and Mark Grace would be comps — they shared many traits with Buckner: marginal speed, middling power, and no patience at the plate.  Buckner’s career highs were 18 HRs and 39 walks. He’d usually hit around .300, finishing his career with a .289/.329/.408 slash line, 174 career HR. Buckner could run when he was young, topping out at 32 stolen bases. As he got older his legs abandoned him.

Interestingly, Buckner and Garvey both had their fist cup of coffee with the Dodgers in 1969.  They remained teammates through the 1976 season.  Buckner was traded to the Cubs in the winter of 1977, along with Jeff Albert and Ivan De Jesus.  In return the Cubs sent back  Mike Garman and Rick Monday.

Exhibit Four– Hall of Fame Voting:

Buckner became eligible for the Hall of Fame in 1996. In order to remain on the ballot a player must receive at least 5% of the vote. The results:

Finish Name Year on Ballot Votes Percent
22 Fred Lynn 1st 26 5.50%
23 Bobby Bonds 10th 24 5.10%
24 Rusty Staub 6th 24 5.10%
25 Keith Hernandez 1st 24 5.10%
26 Frank White 1st 18 3.80%
27 Dan Quisenberry 1st 18 3.80%
28 Bill Buckner 1st 10 2.10%
29 Jerry Reuss 1st 2 0.40%
30 John Tudor 1st 2 0.40%
31 Chet Lemon 1st 1 0.20%
32 Jeffrey Leonard 1st 0 0.00%
33 Johnny Ray 1st 0 0.00%
34 Claudell Washington 1st 0 0.00%
35 Bob Knepper 1st 0 0.00%

There’s a first baseman who was a contemporary of Buckner’s on the list — “I’m Keith Hernandez“. (Link is to the Youtube “JFK” Seinfeld episode.) It’s an interesting peer group.  Seattle Mariners fans will remember the revolving door in LF, starring such players as Jeffrey Leonard. 

Frank White really got the shaft in the voting that year.

Other Bill Buckner facts:

Buckner won the batting championship while playing for the Cubs in 1981. He led the league in doubles twice.

Buckner retired with 2715 hits. He had nearly as many career walks (450), as strikeouts (453.) These are both incredibly low totals for a 22-year career.

He was once traded for Mike Brumley and Dennis Eckersley.

He made one All-Star team.

In April 2008 Buckner threw out the first pitch in Fenway park.

Mookie Wilson and Bill Buckner, 2006

I believe the picture above was taken at a sports memorabilia show — Buckner and Mookie Wilson were signing pictures together at the event.   Beats working I guess.

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