Dave Parker’s remarkable 26 assists in 1977…and Roberto Clemente’s 27 in 1961

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn gave Dave Parker the All-Star Game MVP award in 1979 on the basis if two great throws.

Commissioner Bowie Kuhn gave Dave Parker the All-Star Game MVP award in 1979 on the basis of two great throws.

In doing some research on Dave Parker, I realized he had an outstanding accomplishment in 1977 that has been pretty much ignored or forgotten. Playing right field for the Pirates that year, Parker had 26 assists — no major league outfielder has had that many in the almost 40 seasons since, and the last who had more was Parker’s Pittsburgh predecessor Roberto Clemente, who had 27 in 1961. (Clemente, in turn, had the most of anyone since Washington’s Stan Spence had 29 in 1944.) Dave Winfield, who finished second in the National League in assists in ’77, had “only” 15. Parker also took part in nine double plays in 1977; the only outfielder who has been involved in more since 1929 (!) was Del Unser, who was part of 10 double plays as a rookie with the Senators in 1968.

Parker had a well-earned reputation for having a superb arm, and while he never had anywhere near 26 assists or led the league in any other season (perhaps because his reputation made runners cautious), he ranked among the top three NL right fielders in assists for five straight years (1976-80) and burned his way into the national consciousness with two incredible throws in the 1979 All-Star Game at Seattle’s Kingdome that earned him the game’s Most Valuable Player honor.

Click the image below for a longer look at the throw to the plate he made…he threw it from deep right field, without a cutoff man, and Gary Carter caught it shoulder-high.

Using Retrosheet’s play-by-play and Baseball-Reference.com’s defensive game logs, I looked for the details of all 26 of Parker’s 1977 assists. Here’s some of what I found.

First a little context…outfield assists were notably more common in 1977 than they are today, perhaps because the increased use of statistical analysis has made teams more risk-averse on the bases. Even though there were only 26 teams in 1977, compared to 30 in 2014, there were 13.5% more outfield assists in 1977. On a per-inning basis, there were 32.5% more assists in 1977.

Dave Parker on the cover of The Sporting News, June 11, 1977

Dave Parker on the cover of The Sporting News, June 11, 1977

One of Parker’s 26 assists in 1977 was on a force out. I have no idea exactly how many outfielder-assisted force outs there are, but there can’t be many. Here’s how it happened for Dave. On April 23 at Shea Stadium, the Pirates took a one-run lead into the bottom of the ninth. Ed Kranepool led off with a single, to put the tying run on base, and Felix Millan ran for him. Paul L. Montgomery explained what happened after that in the next day’s New York Times: “John Stearns, the next batter, dropped a ball into right field in front of Parker but Millan, thinking the ball was catchable, held up and was forced at second by Parker’s strong throw.”

That was one of only three of Parker’s 26 assists that came while the Pirates were leading. I don’t know if that ratio would be similar to that for all outfield assists, but it leads me to think that baserunners were considerably less willing to take risks when behind, at least against someone like Parker.

Including the force out, Parker had 15 assists in which his was the only throw that led to the out. Those assists were remarkably well distributed around the bases: three at first base, four at second, four at third and four at the plate. Aside from the force out, the outs came when Parker:

  • doubled a runner off first after a fly out (3)
  • threw out a runner at second trying to stretch a single (3)
  • threw out a runner trying to advance from second to third on a fly out (2, both of them Montreal’s Chris Speier, on successive days, June 25 and 26)
  • threw out a runner trying to go from first to third on a single (2)
  • threw out a runner trying to score from third on a fly out (3)
  • threw out a runner trying to score from second on a single (1)

Eight of Parker’s nine double plays are included above. The ninth came in a game on August 20 against the Giants; the Retrosheet play-by-play wasn’t clear about what happened and actually contained an error when I found it, but I was able to get the full story from the Pittsburgh Press. With one out and the bases loaded in the top of the sixth, Willie McCovey hit a line drive to right field that Parker caught for an out. Parker then threw home, but Derrell Thomas — who had been thrown out by Parker while trying to score from second on a single in the second inning — held at third. However, catcher Duffy Dyer threw to second and doubled off Rob Andrews, who had not returned to the bag after Parker’s catch. Thus Parker was credited with an assist in the double play, but his throw did not lead directly to the second out.

Parker had 10 other assists in which his throw did not lead directly to the out, with either a relay or cutoff man involved. Here’s how they happened:

  • three times Parker tried to get a runner going from first to third on a single; the runner at third was safe, but the third baseman threw to retire the batter trying to advance to second (one was scored 9-5-6 and the other two went 9-5-4)
  • twice a cutoff man was involved in retiring a runner trying to go from first to third on a single (one was 9-3-5 when the throw was apparently going home and the other was 9-6-1; yeah, that scoring looks weird, but I can’t find the details) (ADDED 1/1/16: I found an explanation of the 9-6-1 play in a story by Walter Bingham in the May 30, 1977 issue of Sports Illustrated: “Pitcher Pedro Borbon of Cincinnati, a foreigner to the base paths, made a routine turn at second on a single to right, only to find the ball waiting for him on his return to the bag. Parker had made the unorthodox — but on this occasion correct — play of throwing to second, not to third.” How exactly the Pirates pitcher got the putout is not explained.)
  • Parker tried to get a runner attempting to score from second on a single but the throw was cut off and the batter was retired trying to advance to second (9-3-6-3)
  • a relay man was involved in retiring a batter at third base trying to stretch a double (9-4-5)
  • Parker’s throw home on a bases-loaded single was cut off; eventually the runner who started on second was retired (9-3-6-2-5, haven’t been able to find more details)
  • Parker’s throw to third apparently beat a batter trying to stretch a double, the batter was retired when the third baseman threw back to second (9-5-6)
  • Parker’s throw home apparently beat a runner trying to score from second on a single, but the runner was retired in a rundown (9-2-5-1)

Only four of Parker’s assists accounted for the first out of the inning. Ten were the second out and 12 ended the inning. By inning, the most assists came in the first, 6 of them. Other assists by inning: second (4), third (1), fourth (5), sixth (4), seventh (2), eighth (2), ninth (1, the force out) and tenth (1. retiring the batter trying to stretch the single that had just scored the go-ahead run). Parker had no assists in the fifth inning.

My question is, how much good did Parker’s assists do for the Pirates? In the 24 games in which he had an assist (including two games in which he had two), the Pirates went 10-14 for a .417 winning percentage (and they lost both the games in which he had two assists). In their other games in 1977 the Pirates went 86-52 for a .623 percentage. Granted most of Parker’s assists came when the Pirates were already behind. But in the five games in which Parker had an assist with the score tied, they went 3-2, pretty much exactly what their winning percentage was in other games. And in the three games in which the Pirates were leading when Parker recorded an assist, they went on to lose one of them.

The Pirates did rally to win five games they were trailing when Parker got an assist, and surely the outs he contributed played a role in that.

ADDED 8/10/15: Let’s take the same close look at Roberto Clemente’s 27 assists in 1961, the most for any major league outfielder in (as this was written) 71 years. Clemente did this in the last season with a 154-game schedule, as the National League still had just eight teams, and he played the field in only 145 of them. (By the way, outfield assists per inning were almost 4% more common in 1961 than in 1977.) Clemente had assists in four straight games (June 1-4), six assists in an eight-game stretch (May 30-June 6) and two assists in a single inning (the third inning on Sept. 4)!

As was the case with Parker in 1977, Clemente had one assist on a force out in ’61. It happened May 13, in the top of the second, after Cincinnati’s Gordy Coleman led off the inning with a walk. “Coleman held up at first on Bob Schmidt’s drive to short right,” according to the next day’s Pittsburgh Press, “and Clemente’s throw to Dick Groat forced Gordie.” (See photo cutline below.)

Clemente forceClemente also had two assists that didn’t result in an out because of an error. The first came on June 6. In the bottom of the seventh, the Dodgers’ Tommy Davis singled and Wally Moon advanced from first to third; Clemente threw to first base, after Davis had rounded the bag (Roberto was fond of throwing behind runners to catch them by surprise, as we’ll see), but first baseman Dick Stuart dropped the ball when trying to tag Davis. The second came on July 9 at Milwaukee. In the bottom of the first, with Frank Bolling on first, Eddie Mathews singled; Clemente threw to second base, and when he did, Bolling was sent home. Dick Groat took Clemente’s throw and threw to the plate in time to retire Bolling, but catcher Smoky Burgess dropped the ball. (Groat’s assist doesn’t appear in the Retrosheet play-by-play but is part of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette game story.)

Roberto Clemente's 1961 Topps card ("Roberto" was just a little too exotic for America then, I guess)

Roberto Clemente’s 1961 Topps card (“Roberto” was just a little too exotic for America then, I guess)

Including the assist on June 6, Clemente had 17 throws that led directly to retiring the runner (or should have), without another throw involved. His assists weren’t as evenly distributed on the bases as Parker’s were, with six at first base, six and second, two at third and three at home. Aside from the force out at second base, here are the other 16:

  • threw behind the runner at first base to retire him after a single (4, including the error)
  • doubled runner off first after a fly out (2)
  • retired runner at second trying to stretch a single (5)
  • retired runner trying to go from first to third on a single (2, on consecutive days Sept. 3-4)
  • retired runner trying to score from second on a single (2)
  • retired runner trying to score on a fly ball (1, which came during Clemente’s only appearance in center field and came in the ninth inning of a game in which the Pirates were trailing 10-0)

Clemente had 10 other assists in which another throw retired the runner. One of them was the dropped ball at home against Milwaukee. Here are the other nine:

  • on a fly out to right with runners on first and second, Clemente’s throw to third did not catch the runner advancing, but the third baseman threw to retire the runner trying to advance from first (9-5-4)
  • Clemente’s throw to second was too late to retire a batter who had hit a double with a man on first, but the shortstop threw to third base to catch the runner who had gone too far around third and tried to get back (9-6-5)
  • on a sacrifice fly with runners on first and third, the runner on first was retired trying to advance to second (9-3-6, I can’t find an account that tells me whether the first baseman took the throw on the bag or if he cut off a throw going home)
  • the relay man threw out a runner trying to score from first on a double (9-4-2)
  • Clemente’s throw home was too late to retire a runner who scored from second, but the catcher then threw to retire the batter who had rounded first (9-2-6-3)
  • on a single with men on first and second, Clemente’s throw home was cut off and the batter was retired in a rundown between first and second (9-3-6-4-3)
  • Clemente threw to first base after a single and the first baseman threw to retire the batter trying for second (9-3-6)
  • Clemente threw to second base after a single and the batter, who had rounded first thinking the throw was going to third, was caught trying to get back to first (9-4-3)
  • on a single with a man on first, Clemente’s throw to third was too late to retire the runner, but the batter was retired trying to take second (9-5-3-4)

Nine of Clemente’s 27 assists made the first out of the inning, 11 made the second and 7 made the third. (I included the would-have-been outs for the dropped throws.) He had the most assists in the fifth inning, 7 of them; others came in the first (4), second (3), third (3), fourth (4), sixth (2), seventh (1), eighth (2) and ninth (1), 21 of the 27 assists came in the first five innings.

Nine of Clemente’s assists came with one team leading by four runs or more. That was also true for seven of Dave Parker’s assists. I wouldn’t have guessed there would be that many in relatively one-sided games.

It doesn’t appear that, as a whole, Clemente’s assists did any more to help his team than Parker’s did. In the 23 games in which he had at least one assist that resulted in an out (he had two assists in two games), the Pirates were 9-14 (and lost both games in which he had two assists), while they had a winning record (66-65) in other games. Only twice did the Pirates win a game they were trailing when Clemente got an assist. They won all five games in which they were leading when Clemente got an assist, but in four of those games they were already ahead by at least three runs. It’s true that Clemente’s assist was crucial in the other win, in the second game of a doubleheader on August 8. Clemente threw out Tony Gonzalez trying to score from second on a single for the third out of the sixth inning; had Gonzalez scored, the game would have been tied and the Phillies would have had two men on base. The Pirates went on to win by just one run.

The 1961 Pirates had a 2-6 record in games that were tied when Clemente got an assist (one of those wins being the game in which he got a force out), considerably worse than their overall record, although again he may have played a key role in one of those wins. He threw out Daryl Spencer trying to score (with a relay from Dick Groat) in the second inning of a game on May 17 the Pirates went on to win by one run.

Small sample sizes abound here, so I should be loath to draw any Big Conclusions, but I was surprised to find out how many of these assists came in games in which the team on the bases was already ahead, and I really wasn’t aware how much less common outfield assists are in the modern day.

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