Friday, June 6, 2008

A Closer Look: Wade Boggs

A Closer Look: Wade Boggs

Most Hall of Fame players have such obviously superior talents that their path to the major leagues is swift. In fact, you can put together a terrific lineup of Hall of Famers who played regularly in the major leagues while still teenagers:

C: Johnny Bench
1B: Jimmie Foxx
2B: Bill Mazeroski
SS: Robin Yount
3B: Brooks Robinson
OF: Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, Mel Ott, Al Kaline
P: Walter Johnson, Bob Feller, Sandy Koufax, Amos Rusie

Then there is Wade Boggs, who was drafted out of high school by the Red Sox and spent six years in the minor leagues before reaching the majors at age 24. Despite hitting over .300 five straight seasons in the minors and winning two batting titles, Boggs spent much of that time uncertain that he’d even get a chance in the majors. Why?

One factor was scouts’ doubts about his defense. Primarily a third baseman, he played all over the infield and committed 27 errors in his first full season. After that he had to fight a reputation as a shaky fielder. “I don’t know how that started,” said Joe Morgan, his manager at Pawtucket in 1980-81. “He played first and third for me and did the job.” Boggs worked as hard on his fielding as he did on his hitting, and he wound up as a solid major-league third baseman, good enough to win two Gold Gloves.

A bigger obstacle was his notable lack of power. In his first five seasons in the minors, 86% of his hits were singles, and only four of his hits were home runs. “There are a lot of power hitters,” he told a reporter in Bristol, Connecticut in 1979 (where he hit .325 with no home runs), “but I think if I continue to hit for a high average, I’ll get a fairly good shot at the majors.” He added that “I’ve talked to several Red Sox scouts, and they tell me if I continue to hit, the home runs won’t really matter.”

He had only to look at his batting role model, Pete Rose, to have faith in his swing. “I used to watch Rose on TV,” he told a Detroit reporter in 1983, “and just tried to emulate him. It worked pretty well and I stuck with it.” Ted Williams praised his patience and advised him not to change his swing.
Like Rose, Boggs preferred hitting to the opposite field, an approach designed to succeed in Fenway Park, the home of the Red Sox. All he had to do was get there.

That wasn’t so easy. In 1980, he reached AAA ball, playing for Pawtucket. He finished second in the International League batting race with a .306 average, but hit only one home run and had a not-so-special .364 slugging percentage. In 1980, the average major-league third baseman hit 14 home runs – against major-league pitching. There was hope for Boggs because even though several third basemen hit a lot of home runs (Mike Schmidt 48, Bob Horner 35, Ron Cey 28, and George Brett 24), there were also a lot of regulars at that position with modest (single-digit) power totals. In Boston, for instance, after Butch Hobson (28 HR in 1979) was injured, Glenn Hoffman played 110 games at third base for the Red Sox in 1980 and hit just four home runs.

Rather than give Boggs a shot, the Red Sox traded Hobson to the Angels for Carney Lansford, who led the American League in batting in 1981 with a .336 average while Boggs hit .335 and won the International League batting title. Reports from Pawtucket indicated that Boggs had realized that a total lack of power might cost him his shot at the majors. When he belted home runs in consecutive games, it was a big deal. He managed to get his home run total up to five in 1981 (ironically, Lansford hit only four in the strike-shortened season), but more importantly doubled his doubles from 21 to 41 and raised his slugging percentage to a respectable .460. Nearly 30% of his hits went for extra bases, a rate he exceeded only once in the majors.

Even though Boggs appeared ready to tackle major-league pitching, there was still the problem of finding a position for him in Boston. Lansford, the defending batting champion, owned third base. Boggs’ other strong position was first base, which had been populated in Boston for the past dozen years by sluggers like Carl Yastrzemski, George Scott, and Cecil Cooper. In 1980, they had imported another future Hall of Famer, Tony Perez, to play first base. In 1981, Perez and Yastrzemski had split the duties there. After that season, Boggs played winter ball in Puerto Rico, and by facing a ton of left-handed pitching there he learned to handle it much better and strengthen his credentials as a bona fide hitter.

Starting 1982, Perez had left and Yaz would be the full-time designated hitter, so did the spot magically open up for Boggs after he hit well during spring training? No. The first base job was handed to Dave Stapleton, who had hit 10 home runs in 1981 as an all-purpose infielder. Boggs took things philosophically, saying later that “I knew my job was going to be on the bench to back up Lansford and Stapleton. . .But it was the place I wanted to be. I had made the big leagues. It would be great to play every day, but as long as I’m in the big leagues, it makes it all worthwhile.” He noted that “I spent my time studying pitchers and opposing players and it more than paid off when my chance came.”

Boggs seldom left the bench during his first two months in the majors. By June 25, he had only 33 at-bats, a .242 average, and two runs batted in. On that date, Lansford sprained his ankle, and Boggs found himself in the lineup. He didn’t leave it until 1999. In his first week as a regular, he went 13-for-28, and he hit .387 for the month of July. Lansford returned, but Stapleton was slumping, and Boggs moved over to first base. “It’s pretty obvious I’ve got to keep him in there,” said Red Sox manager Ralph Houk. “What else can you do when a kid is hitting like that? You’ve got to keep him.” Boggs stayed hot, with a .386 average in August and a 14-game hitting streak in September, finishing the season at .349 in 104 games. He finished third in the balloting for American League Rookie of the Year, behind Cal Ripken and Kent Hrbek.

That winter, Boggs launched a weight-lifting program designed to make him a more powerful hitter. “I want to hit more home runs, knock in more runs, get more doubles, score more runs, and improve in the field,” he told The Sporting News. “I’m not thinking of 20 or 25 [home runs], but I would like to get into double figures. I won’t try to hit them; that would be a mistake. I subscribe to the Charlie Lau theory that if you can hit, the home runs will come. But I want to be a little stronger next year.”

Despite his adherence to the Lau principles, the home runs did not come in 1983. In fact, he didn’t hit one out until July 14, but by that time he had 26 doubles and a .373 average. With Lansford traded to make room for him, he played third base full-time and established himself as one of the best hitters in the league. “Can that guy hit ropes,” marveled Detroit manager Sparky Anderson in September. “He’s one of the best-looking young hitters I’ve ever seen.” Milwaukee manager Harvey Kuenn observed that “He has such good bat control that he knows he can always get a good piece of a pitch. It’s amazing, really. In 10 times at bat, he’ll get good wood on the ball eight or nine times. Some guys are lucky to get good wood three out of 10.”

Consistency was his hallmark; starting in 1983, he had over 200 hits and 100 runs scored seven consecutive seasons. He had over 40 doubles eight of the next nine years, averaged about 70 RBI a year while hitting leadoff much of the time, and walked twice as often as he struck out.

Most significantly, he won five batting titles from 1983 to 1988, with averages of .361 (in that first full year of 1983), .368, .357, .363, and .366. You can’t be more consistent than that. He led the league in on-base percentage six times, played in a dozen straight All-Star games, and won two Gold Gloves after moving to the Yankees in 1993.

In 1985, Boston’s hitting coach (and Lau disciple) Walt Hriniak described what made Boggs so good. “Three things. He’s got a balanced, workable stance. He’s got great discipline for the strike zone. And he lowers his head on the baseball better than anyone else in baseball. He’s not a good hitter, he’s a great hitter. Exceptional. When it’s all done and over with, you’ll see some of the greatest stats of any hitter in the last 30 years.”

When it was done and over with, after the 1999 season, Boggs had a .328 lifetime average (currently 34th all-time), 3,010 hits (23rd), 578 doubles (15th), 4,445 times on base (18th), and a .415 on-base percentage (26th). The totals are remarkable for a player who didn’t get a job in the majors until he was 24 years old – and just right for a first-ballot Hall of Famer.

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