FanPost

Notes on a Cycle

I've been tinkering with an essay asking the question why people are going so ga-ga over Carlos Gomez. Then Gomez hit for the cycle in Wednesday night's game against the White Sox. This is therefore not that essay.

I still think that essay needs to be written, though. Howard Sinker is one of my favorite Twins writers, but he wrote something that's almost entirely indefensible based on what sabermetrics has taught us about how players usually develop:

As Gogomez continues to harness his extraordinary gifts, I suspect we’re going to be spectators to something special.

There are all kinds of problems I have with this statement, not the least of which is that it smacks of going shopping on an empty stomach, or thinking about a relationship while you're floating in that first post-coital glow -- they're situations where your rational thought process is far too easily short-circuited, and you end up making decisions that you very quickly regret.

At the same time, though, it's not necessarily an improvement to be that guy who, the morning after that post-coital glow, calmly describes how fat his partner looks in her underwear. So this isn't that essay -- not yet, anyway.

Instead, I thought I'd take a gander at cycles, particularly cycles by young players, and see if it told us anything about what they might become -- a much more specific and limited response to Howard's comment. Interesting things I found:

- Gomez is the fourth-youngest major-league player since 1956 (where baseball-reference's data begins) to hit for the cycle. Each of the three younger players is interesting in his own way.

Alex Rodriguez (age 21 years, 313 days) - Since nobody expects Gomez to develop into another Rodriguez, there's not much point in belaboring this point (but see below).

Jim Fregosi (age 22 years, 115 days) - Forty days younger than Gomez.

I suspect most people will remember Fregosi as a manager, not as a player. Twins Geek will likely remember Fregosi as the manager of the 1993 NL Champion Phillies. Others may remember Fregosi's uneventful three-year run with the White Sox, or his first managing gig for the Angels before being replaced with Gene Mauch during the strike-shortened 1981 season.

Those who do remember Fregosi as a player are probably most likely to remember him as the centerpiece of a trade that makes the A.J. Pierzynski trade look like small change: Fregosi, by himself, was traded to the New York Mets in exchange for Nolan Ryan plus three other players. Two points:

1. Ryan had just turned 25 and wasn't even a full-time starter yet, and

2. Fregosi was actually really good before the trade.

In 1964, when Fregosi hit his cycle, he hit .277, had a .369 on-base percentage, had a .463 slugging percentage (for an OPS of .832), and batted third in the order in 115 games for the Angels. As a shortstop. (If you don't think a .277/832 is all that impressive a batting line, remember it was 1964 -- Fregosi's OPS+ for that season was 141. As a shortstop!)

Fregosi made his first All-Star team that year and finished 13th in the MVP vote. He would make five more All-Star appearences before being traded, and his 13th place finish in the MVP vote in 1964 was not his best finish -- he'd finish 12th in 1970 and 7th in 1967. He'd never have an OPS+ of 141 again, but during his All-Star/MVP-vote run he'd have an OPS+ of between 108 and 125 pretty much every year, usually finishing around 114. As a shortstop. During the 1960s.

He wasn't perceived as a great fielder, winning only one Gold Glove during that span, but his range factor at short was consistently above average, his fielding percentage was almost always league average or better, and he was a far better hitter, and a consistently better hitter, than the Gold Glove shortstops of his era -- Luis Aparicio, Zoilo Versailles, and Mark Belanger.

Like Gomez, Fregosi was beloved in Southern California for his attitude as well as his baseball skills; one account refers to Fregosi as a 'cheerleader'. Unlike Gomez, Fregosi was expected to become a manager eventually, and in fact was hired away from the Pittburgh Pirates in 1978, for whom he'd played 20 games, mostly as a pinch-hitter, to take over for fired Angel manager Dave Garcia.

There's no real Hall of Fame argument for Fregosi -- two of his best comps are Shawon Dunston and Roy Smalley, and none of his comps is a Hall of Famer or likely to become one -- but for a number of years he was a heck of a player and is likely still fondly remembered by Angel fans.

Cesar Cedeno (age 21 years, 159 days)

The youngest player to hit for the cycle since 1956, Cedeno actually makes a more interesting comparison to Gomez than the other two players on this list.

Cedeno came up to the big leagues in 1970 as a 19-year old outfielder and hit .310 in a half-season, good enough to finish fourth in the Rookie of the Year vote. A regular in his next season at age 20 (Fregosi also was a regular at a young age, starting consistently at age 21), Cedeno exploded onto the scene in 1971 and 1972 with two surprisingly similar seasons -- he played 139 games in each, hit .320 in each, slugged .537 in each, stole 55 bases one year, 56 the next. Cedeno was an All-Star both years, finished 6th in the MVP vote in 1971 and 11th in 1972, and was doing all of this in one of the most extreme pitcher's parks in baseball history, the Astrodome (though the single-season park factor for 1972 suggests that something happened that year to actually make the Astrodome a friendly place for hitters, at least for that one season).

He played in four All-Star games, starting once, and won five consecutive Gold Gloves in center field during the same span of time. As with most players of his era (and before), his best seasons were behind him by the time he turned 30, but he still had a little play left in him -- released by the Reds in 1985 at the age of 35, he was signed as a free agent by the Cardinals at the start of September as a replacement for injured slugger Jack Clark and proceeded to have one of the best stretch runs in major league history, hitting .434/1213 with six home runs and 19 RBI to help the Cardinals to the division title.

Like Fregosi, Cedeno isn't many people's idea of a Hall of Fame candidate -- his comps include Amos Otis, Devon White, and Marquis Grissom -- but he was an excellent all-around player and if Gomez ends up anything like him, I think most Twins fans will accept that gladly.

How likely is it that Gomez will turn out like Cedeno, based solely on his 22-year old cycle? About as likely as the odds that Eric Milton's 24-year old no-hitter suggested he'd have a career like Vida Blue, which is to say, not at all.

There have been 131 cycles hit in MLB since 1958 (at least by baseball-reference.com's count), by 122 different players. By Bert Blyleven's California public-school math, that means that 113 of those players hit for the cycle once in their careers, period. Of the nine players who hit for the cycle more than once, none hit more than two cycles in their careers -- though interestingly, both Fregosi and Cedeno are on that list, which also includes George Brett, Frank White, Bob Watson, Brad Wilkerson, Chris Speier (!), John Olerud, and Ken Boyer. Great hitters like Mickey Mantle, Carl Yastrzemski, Willie Stargell, and Andre Dawson have hit for the cycle, but so have not-so-great hitters like Oddibe McDowell, Freddie Patek, Greg Colbrunn, and Neifi Perez (!!). Some great hitters -- even Hall of Famers -- never hit for the cycle, such as Wade Boggs and Tony Gwynn. Barry Bonds, even in his pre-steroid days, never hit for the cycle.

Like the no-hitter for pitchers, hitting for the cycle is an impressive achievement that doesn't require you to be an impressive player to accomplish.

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