Don’t trust your eyes, part 86:

When browsing earlier, I noticed that it was this date in 1980 that the Yankees made Dave Winfield the highest paid professional athlete in history.

I remember Winfield (as you probably do) as an extremely athletic and hard-nosed player for the Yankees who despite being very productive in pinstripes, never got the credit he deserved. Maybe it was the Steinbrenner/Spira saga, maybe it was being teammates with prime Donnie and Rickey (which would make just about anyone the third best player on the team), or maybe it was choosing a week at the end of October of ’82 to have the worst week of his career. Whatever the case, he was one of my favorite players growing up and I always thought he was underrated.

So I opened up a few tabs on Baseball Reference and Fangraphs to support my theory and what I learned is…I’m wrong…? He actually wasn’t that good (…?)

Don’t get me wrong, averaging 3.4 WAR per season as he did as a Yankee from ’81 through ’88 is good. That’s a player you want in your lineup 140 or 150 games per season – but that’s not All-Star level production. Over that same stretch, Dwight Evans, Jesse Barfield and Chet Lemon produced more WAR.

And a 135 OPS+ over that same stretch is also very good but compared to other corner outfielders it was lower than Daryl Strawberry’s, Evans’, and Danny Tartabull’s.  

This got me looking at his career overall – here’s the short version: Winfield had a monster season in ’79, producing 8.3 WAR, a 166 OPS+, and finishing 3rd in the MVP voting*. He had 5 win seasons in ’76 and ’77 with San Diego and ’84 and ’88 in pinstripes, but never had a better than 5 WAR season in any of his 17 other seasons. (5 WAR is more or less what we would consider All-Star production.)

Among right fielders, his career WAR is lower than that of Evans and Reggie Smith and the average of his career and peak WAR is lower than that of Bobby Bonds. (You read that correctly – Bobby Bonds.) This despite playing in the equivalent of about two full seasons more than Evans and about six full seasons more than both Smith and Bonds. His career counting stat totals, specifically 3,000 plus hits and 400 plus home runs, although impressive, probably wouldn’t have been reached without the benefit of almost 400 PA as a DH from age 39 on.

Don’t misunderstand – my point is not to disparage Winfield’s career. He played a very long time, was a very good hitter for a good stretch of it, and reached milestones that justify a Cooperstown plaque – to say nothing of the fact he was a hell of a lot of fun to watch play.

My point is don’t trust your eyes. Be skeptical of anyone who goes solely by the “eye test” or justifies anything with “Well, I saw him play” when judging players. Because although not to be disregarded, those tools of evaluation are flawed, to say the least.

What we saw with Winfield was a right fielder with a gun of an arm and the athleticism to make highlight reel plays. The reality is that he didn’t get good reads or good jumps which turned some playable balls into Sports Center highlights and other playable balls into hits. This lack of jump and read also allowed base runners to advance two bases on singles pretty often, despite the cannon arm. He was basically Bryce Harper in right field, which is not a compliment.

We saw a great line drive hitter, who because of his power, managed to be a big time producer of home runs and RBIs. That was true to an extent, but not nearly to the extent we thought it was.

Again, my eyes are pretty good and they’re prone to being wrong. Don’t trust yours. And definitely don’t trust the eyes of the irascible coot baseball writers who still somehow receive paychecks for being consistently wrong. Speaking of which…

*The 1979 NL MVP balloting was one of the (unintentionally) funniest ever. Keith Hernandez and Willie Stargell finished tied in the voting and both received MVPs. Here were the WAR leaders in the NL during 1979:

  1. Winfield 8.3
  2. Schmidt 7.9
  3. Niekro 7.7
  4. Hernandez 7.6
  5. Parker 6.7
  6. Carter 6.0
  7. Bench 5.6
  8. JR Richard 5.4

17. Joe Sambito 3.5

20. Kent Tekulve 3.2

24. Omar Moreno 2.9

25. Stargell 2.5

Did I miss something? Let me know.

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