by Cole Pepper
This one is mostly going to be for my Kansas City friends or for people who really like to look at old baseball statistics, you know, the nerds.
Take two players. Here’s player A:
162 games, 98 runs, 189 hits, 32 doubles, 14 triples, 23 homers, 112 RBI, 16 stolen bases and a .312 batting average. For some advanced numbers .885 OPS (on base percentage + slugging percentage).
Here’s Player B:
139 games, 105 runs, 176 hits, 32 doubles, 13 triples, 22 homers, 88 RBI, 14 stolen bases and .312 batting average. For some advanced numbers, .905 OPS.
Player A finished as the runner up in the American League MVP voting. Player B finished 13th in the voting. They played on the same team.
These were the statistics for the 1977 Royals teammates Al Cowens (player A) and George Brett (player B). At the time, Cowens was 25, Brett was 24. Brett batted leadoff most of the year, was the defending batting champ and for the second year in a row, was chosen as an All-Star.
Cowens lost out to Rod Carew in the MVP voting and at first glance you would be impressed that there were two of the top 13 MVP candidates from the same team. Until you realize that five Yankees finished in the top 11 (Graig Nettles, Sparky Lyle, Thurman Munson, Reggie Jackson and Mickey Rivers). Heck, the Red Sox had three in the top 10 (Jim Rice, Carlton Fisk and some guy named Bill Campbell, nicknamed Soup like every other guy name Campbell in history, who led the league with 31 saves that year while averaging two innings per outing).
What got my attention was how similar the numbers were for Cowens and Brett at about the same point in their careers. 1977 was Cowens’ breakthrough season. He had never hit .300 in his three previous big league seasons, had never driven in 100 and never had more than 155 hits, much less the 189 he collected that year. He also won the gold glove in right field in a year when he had 14 outfield assists (Cowens always had a good arm, hitting double digits in outfield assists in his first four seasons in the big leagues). Cowens did commit six errors, a lot for a right fielder.
From looking at the numbers, you would have thought that these two young hitters who could both run, had good gap power and emerging home run pop would both be in line for great careers.
Instead, Brett went on to the Hall of Fame, while Cowens never again hit .300 again, never drove in more than 78, and never collected more than 152 hits in a season. What happened? Was the 1977 season just a flash in the pan? Statistically, yes it was.
Cowens had been a long shot, drafted in the 75th round in 1969. Mike Piazza is the famous late round draft success story. Clearly, he had a better career than Cowens, but Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round as a favor.
Cowens had his jaw broken by a pitch in 1979 and I recall the jaw guard that Cowens had attached to his batting helmet. It would be easy to say that the broken jaw was the catalyst for his career tailing off. The Royals traded Cowens to the Angels for Willie Aikens and two utility infielders, Todd Cruz and Rance Mulliniks.
I suppose its a less in two things. First, just because a young hitter has a good year, it doesn’t mean they will keep having good years (it’s just statistically more likely to happen). Second, baseball favors outfield defense a whole lot less now than it did in 1977.