Whitey Herzog stepped down as manager of the St. Louis Cardinals when I was one year old. I, um, don’t remember his tenure.
But I am extremely familiar with the idea of Whitey Herzog as Cardinals manager. The fundamental ethos of “Whiteyball” is a permanent fixture in any discussion of the Cardinals.
“Whiteyball”, for the uninitiated (I assume that not every St. Louis Bullpen reader was born and raised as a Cardinals fan), refers to the 1980s Cardinals teams managed by Whitey Herzog, teams which were defined by a style which was said to fit the AstroTurf days of Busch Memorial Stadium. Primarily, these teams were defined by speed.
When one thinks of “Whiteyball”, they think of Vince Coleman stealing 100+ bases in each of his first three seasons in Major League Baseball. They think of Willie McGee winning the 1985 National League Most Valuable Player award in a season which included 56 steals, 18 triples, and a Gold Glove. They think of Ozzie Smith, the greatest fielder in Major League Baseball history, overcoming an almost complete lack of power to be an extraordinarily valuable asset to the Cardinals–in 1987, despite zero home runs, Ozzie was worth 6.4 Wins Above Replacement and finished second in NL MVP voting.
They generally don’t think of Jack Clark, an outfielder by trade who was retro-fit to play first base for the Cardinals after David Green didn’t quite fill Keith Hernandez’s shoes. They generally don’t think of Tom Nieto, the Cardinals backup catcher who actually led the legendary 1985 team in plate appearances from the catcher position, who stole zero bases in his career.
Since this team is entirely made up out of thin air anyway, rather than trying to duplicate, say, the 1985 team with players who are for better or worse modern version of “Whiteyball”, if not necessarily the same literal players who comprised those teams. Sure, Andy Van Slyke was a fine fit with those teams, but finer fits are out there!
These are the players who best embodied the stereotypical “Whiteyball” style from 1991 (the first Cardinals season post-Herzog) through today. It is a time in baseball synonymous with power and with a decline in stolen bases. As a baseball analyst who believes that teams are becoming more efficient, I understand it, and if my team were the only one moving in that direction, I would wholeheartedly support it. But Whiteyball represented something fun and exciting which is missing in baseball today. I get why it’s gone, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it.
Catcher–Jason Kendall: Hey, did you know Jason Kendall is superior to Yadier Molina by several statistical measures? This comes up literally any time somebody brings up Yadier Molina’s Hall of Fame candidacy, and while this makes me want to dislike Kendall, he was a legitimately very good player for a decade and a half in Major League Baseball. He also had a very rare attribute in his game for a catcher–speed. He stole 189 career bases, which helped offset his relative lack of power (75 career home runs), and provided solid defense. No, he isn’t better than Yadier Molina. No, he isn’t a Hall of Famer. But Jason Kenedall was even more Whiteyball than Darrell Porter.
First Base–Paul Goldschmidt: First base is a power position, so finding a player totally lacking power is impossible, but the Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman has shown rare stolen base prowess throughout his career. He has 119 career steals as of the moment I wrote this sentence, and he is also a three-time Gold Glove winner. He will be forgiven for the sake of this list for leading the league in home runs one time.
Second Base–Luis Castillo: Best known for his time with the then-Florida Marlins, Castillo stole 370 bases in a career which began in 1996. This itself is notable–only five players stole more bases during this time–but what’s truly impressive is that Castillo hit 28 career home runs. That’s fewer than Dante Bichette hit in 1999 (he hit 34) when he was worth negative 2.4 WAR. I couldn’t seem to find any highlights of Luis Castillo stealing a base, unfortunately, but here’s one of him fouling off a pitch.
Shortstop–Omar Vizquel: Omar Vizquel is an almost-perfect analogue for Ozzie Smith (and according to some extremely wrong Cleveland Indians fans, Vizquel is the superior fielder). Like Ozzie, Vizquel was a terrific defensive shortstop (note: terrific does not equal “he was as good as Ozzie Smith”, because he most definitely was not) with incredible longevity who didn’t have much power (in the post-1991 time frame being examined with this lineup, Vizquel hit 77 home runs), but with 399 steals, he provided some offensive value (ignoring for a moment that Vizquel’s career OPS+ is lower than Ozzie Smith’s because, again, Ozzie Smith was in every way better than Omar Vizquel).
Third Base–David Wright: A solid-fielding third baseman in his prime, the New York Mets icon stole 196 bases in his possibly-now-over career. Wright isn’t necessarily thought of as a great base thief, but he leads all third basemen since Herzog in steals and is the only name near the top of the list that isn’t an all-time legendary home run hitter.
Left Field–Carl Crawford: He showed occasional power, hitting 136 dingers over his career, but it was his speed which defined his career and made him a, um, questionable candidate for a long-term free agent contract from the Boston Red Sox. But with 480 steals, the former Tampa Bay Ray and Los Angeles Dodger (in addition to his time on the Red Sox) felt like a man from a different era at his peak.
Center Field–Juan Pierre: No player since Whiteyball more embodies Whiteyball’s stereotype more relentlessly than Juan Pierre. He wasn’t a great hitter and had almost no power (in 8,280 plate appearances, he hit a grand total of 18 home runs), but he could fly. With 614 career steals, Pierre ranks 18th in history in stolen bases, and since 1991, Pierre ranks second behind only Kenny Lofton.
Right Field–Ichiro Suzuki: “Hm, John’s written nearly a thousand words and has, like, barely mentioned the Cardinals. The season is going on right now, why is John talking about a bunch of non-Cardinals pl…oh, yeah, Ichiro.”
On Thursday, the Seattle Mariners announced that Ichiro Suzuki, who made his MLB debut at 28 and still managed to make it to 3,000 career hits, was “transitioning” to the off-field role of Special Assistant to the Chairman. His playing career is probably over, after 117 home runs, 509 stolen bases, one career pitching appearance, and a career built upon a level of pure, unadulterated joy for the game which is extraordinarily rare. Ichiro Suzuki is the all-time leader in hits in major professional baseball (yes, this is only a thing that gets commonly mentioned because Pete Rose is an insufferable jerk; no, I don’t feel bad about this) and, despite playing in an era where everybody in baseball hates everybody, he was the rare, universally beloved player. He may not be the best player of his era, but he was a delight and I will miss him.
Oh, and what kind of pitcher should be on this team? I don’t know, one that doesn’t walk guys because nothing’s falling in for a hit against this defense? Greg Maddux? Sure, Greg Maddux.
This team would be good. This team would be fun. Whiteyball Forever.