Larry Whisenton (by sansho1)

A mass psychosis infected major league baseball in the 1970s, and it cost Larry Whisenton a major league career.

The installation of artificial turf in several ballparks in the ‘70s (with the attendant assumption that turf emphasized the value of speed), along with Lou Brock’s high-profile pursuit of both the single-season and career stolen base records (he achieved the former in ’74, the latter in ’77) sent the game into full-blown stolen base mania. Some teams attempted to install speedy players throughout the lineup, and many of those who didn’t ran anyway (true fact – the Indians attempted 1017 SBs from ’72-’78, and were caught 497 times, for a whopping 51% team success rate). Certainly some teams bought in more completely than others, but even teams who didn’t go full Charley O. found a way to capitalize on the trend. They could develop their very own Stolen Base Hero.

Larry Whisenton, the team’s 2nd round pick in the 1975 draft, was alas not a Stolen Base Hero. He was fast enough – his minor league season seasonal totals in his formative years averaged out to 21-for-31 in SB attempts, and he would occasionally run a double into a triple – but he was not a blazer in the Brock mold. In fact, the Braves were late to this particular party. An Albert Ryan swiped 50 in single-A in 1975, but topped out in AA. Gary Cooper auditioned, but also proved to be miscast. For lack of a Brock (or a LeFlore, or even, and careful what you wish for, a Moreno), the organization promoted Whisenton up the ladder, including a September cup of coffee in ‘77. He wasn’t setting the world on fire, but the young outfielder displayed a broad base of skills, including an above average ability to reach base.

Then, on December 8, 1977, thunder struck in the form of a blockbuster 4-team trade. The Braves, Mets, Pirates, and Rangers concocted a deal that included Bert Blyleven, Al Oliver, Jon Matlack, and several other proven major league ballplayers – 214.7 cumulative WAR among them. The Braves’ role in the trade was relatively minor – they dealt a disappointing and discontented Willie Montanez to Texas in exchange for prodigal son Adrian Devine, Tommy “The Pride of Poughkeepsie” Boggs….and, best of all, minor league speedster Eddie Miller. At long last, the Braves had their Stolen Base Hero.

Miller, like Whisenton, was a 2nd round pick in 1975, and he hit the ground running in pro ball. He stole 30 bases in 51 rookie league games that year while posting a .428 OBP, and followed up in ’76 and ’77 with more of the same at A and AA (.264/.390/.316, 65 SBs and .294/.394/.380, 80 SBs, respectively). The Rangers’ minor league affiliates played in some gaudy run environments, a factor often ignored at the time in judging prospects, but there’s no arguing that Miller was performing as advertised.

Miller and Whisenton, both 21 years old, reported to Richmond in 1978 and were everyday outfielders for the AAA team for much of the next three seasons, Miller in CF, Whisenton a corner OF (the record doesn’t show whether he was primarily in LF or RF – he would later play both in the majors). On the surface it appeared they were getting the same shot, but look a little closer and you can discern which of the two was more intriguing to the Braves. They received September callups in ’78, but Miller (.249/.335/.316, 2 HRs, 36 SBs in AAA) got the first playing time over Whisenton (.241/.348/.381, 10 HRs, 14 SBs) – Miller debuted on 9/20 and received 24 total September PAs, while Whisenton got into his first game three days later, tallying 17 total PAs.

1979 played out in similar fashion – Whisenton (.269/.354/.384, 6 HRs) again outhit Miller (.234/.311/.340, 5 HRs), but Miller finally donned his Stolen Base Hero cape as a Brave prospect, swiping 76 bases in 99 attempts, as was the style at the time. I can report that his exploits began to filter into Ernie, Skip, and Pete’s radio broadcasts that summer, and if he wasn’t the most promising Braves prospect since Murph he was certainly one of the most hyped. Again the treatment they received upon being called up in September hinted at their respective status – Miller was installed as the Braves starting CF upon arrival on 9/1, and played every inning of the remainder of the season. He made the most of the opportunity, hitting .310 and flashing his speed to the tune of 15/17 SBs. Whisenton, meanwhile, finally got into a game on 9/11, and received 41 September PAs (.243/.300/.351).

In 1980 Miller broke camp with the big club as their starting CF and leadoff hitter, and the team traveled to Cincinnati for a season-opening 4-game series against the Reds, who featured a Stolen Base Hero of their own in CF Dave Collins (whose 79 steals that year represented over half the team total). The series was an utter rout – the Reds swept all four games, winning three by shutout. Collins played the catalyst role to perfection, reaching base 11 times, stealing three bases and scoring five runs. Miller, meanwhile, scratched out just three hits and scored only once. While four games seems awfully quick to pull the plug on an experiment, perhaps the contrast between one SBH who his team hoped could hit and another who actually could was too stark to ignore, and Bobby Cox benched Miller in favor of Brian Asselstine. Miller was quickly lost on a roster that also included Murph, Gary Matthews, and Jeff Burroughs, and a couple of weeks later resumed his accustomed role alongside Whisenton in Richmond.

At this point, their performance diverged even more greatly – Miller bombed upon his demotion, hitting a paltry .209/.281/.241, his 60 SBs cold comfort to an organization still hoping he could be “taught to hit” (a phrase often used in those days, and a hill many SBHs died upon). Whisenton kept plugging along, with slash stats of .252/.335/.389. Not showing off, not falling behind. A regular Steven Koren. September arrived, but the team, perhaps fearful of giving Whisenton the impression he’d moved up in the pecking order, passed on both players’ services, opting instead to take their first look at Terry Harper (by then in his eighth year as a Braves farmhand, so don’t feel too bad on Larry’s account).

At this point I should address the glaring non-stolen base related issue in comparing Miller and Whisenton – the point can be made that, with Miller being a CF and Whisenton a corner OF, they weren’t actually in direct competition, and Whisenton’s advantage as a hitter is negated by the greater offensive demands of the positions he played. While true as far as it goes, this may have had more to do with the organization’s decision of where to slot them (as aligned with the prevalent prejudices of the era) than it was a comment on their relative defensive abilities. The sample sizes are small, but Whisenton’s RF/9s in LF and RF compare favorably to Miller’s at those positions, and he has the edge in assist rate as well. We know he was fast, so there’s nothing to show he could not have filled in at CF as needed. That he wasn’t afforded the opportunity could well have cost him in his career.

In the strike year of 1981, the familiar pattern emerges once again. Miller, borderline inexpicably, made the club out of spring training, Whisenton went back to Richmond. Whisenton, now 24, added some power to his arsenal, upping his slash stats to .271/.391/.430, and featuring a career-best 17 HRs. September saw him summoned to Atlanta once again, this time for a cursory 7 PAs in 9 games. Miller spent the season in an Atlanta uni, but to not much effect – his 23 SBs helped a bit, but he was no longer hitting the ball with any authority, to the tune of .231/.285/.269. This was pretty clearly the true level of his ability, and after the season he was traded to Detroit for RHP Roger Weaver, who never pitched for the Braves. Miller kicked around for a few more years, and ended up playing several years of Mexican League ball.

So, at long last in 1982 the final OF spot was available to be claimed, and Whisenton claimed it. His contributions to the team that year were modest but real, his .239/.339/.399 line was good for a 103 OPS+, and he was particularly effective as a starter (.271/.366/.438). Personal highlights included a 4-2-4-2 game against the Mets on May 25, a pinch-hit RBI triple and run scored in a 9th inning comeback win on June 21, and driving in runs in five consecutive starts in July. He went 0-2 in the NLCS.

And then… well, that was it for Whisenton’s major league career. The team was seemingly on the upswing, Murph and Claudell Washington had hammerlocks on two of the three OF positions going into 1983, and while Harper solidified his roster spot, his starting role was usurped by scrappy phenom Brett Butler, baseball’s first Caught Stealing Hero. A veteran bench was imported in a vain effort to push the team over the top, leaving no room for Whisenton. Worst of all, his customary September bench slot was taken by a strapping can’t-miss kid with a wicked uppercut, the team again favoring a singular tool over a well-rounded ballplayer. Whisenton played through 1985 in the Braves system, regularly getting on base 40% of the time, spreading his extra base hits evenly across doubles, triples, and HRs, and stealing bases now and then. He was released after 11 years in the organization, and never played for another.

It would be foolish to say Whisenton could have been a star – he wasn’t that good. His modest batting averages probably stuck out more then than they would now, and they masked a broad base of decent skills. In another time, or in a different organization, he might have had a nice run as a fourth outfielder. And maybe he’d have caught a break and had Gregor Blanco’s career. Larry Whisenton made around $100,000 playing baseball for a living. Blanco is at $9 million and counting…

64 thoughts on “Larry Whisenton (by sansho1)”

  1. Excellent post. I often wonder, in many sports, about the myriad forks in the road that give one guy a career and deny another. There are some people so good that their talent will find its way onto a roster somehow, but I remain convinced that there are hundreds of marginal decisions made at formative periods on the replacement-level boundaries that change lives and, just maybe, cost wins. The boundary between “might be” and “doesn’t look like” is tiny….

  2. from previous thread..

    Riley Pint.
    sounds easy.
    But according to RhymeZone there is no word in the English Language that rhymes with Pint.

    Challenge?

  3. Not positive about the pronunciation, but I’ve been under the impression that his last name rhymes with “flint.”

  4. Is it possible for the Braves to have 2 of the top 10 shortstops according to MLB Pipeline? We have 2 LHPs, a 3B, and hopefully 2 SSs. I doubt we have any outfielders, which is the only other list that hasn’t come out yet.

  5. Nice work.

    It’s true — the level of enthusiasm that the TBS crew showed Eddie Miller was pretty noticeable. Also, throughout the ’70s, every team seemed to have its own Eddie Miller or Larry Lintz — speed merchants who couldn’t hit enough to stay in the lineup (or The Show).

    I do recall that one game when Miller tagged up & scored on a relatively short foul-out to a third-baseman — it was near the stands, but not terribly far beyond the coaching box, IIRC. Wish I could recall the game, team & circumstances, but I’m pretty sure I’ve never seen anyone do that since. Miller, as they often said, could really fly.

  6. @5, Put on your best brogue, and by the time you get to your nint’ pint you’re having one hell of a night.

  7. This is fun for Nats fans: http://scores.espn.go.com/blog/washington-nationals/post/_/id/558/nationals-have-to-wonder-does-anyone-want-to-play-in-d-c

    Money quote: “Maybe it’s a perception that, in recent years, the Nationals’ front office is becoming more and more Steinbrenneresque, simply acquiring pieces here and there without any real concern for whether those parts will mesh into a cohesive unit (see: Papelbon).”

    In further hilarity, Nats just signed Bronson Arroyo to a minor league deal.

  8. This actually seems neat: http://m.braves.mlb.com/promo/fanfest

    FanFest Appearances*
    Players: Ozzie Albies, Brandon Barker, Zack Bird, Danny Burawa, Braxton Davidson, Chris Ellis, Brady Feigl, Tyler Flowers, Mike Foltynewicz, Freddie Freeman, Max Fried, John Gant, Tyrell Jenkins, Kelly Johnson, Casey Kelly, Ian Krol, Connor Lien, Matt Marksberry, Andrew McKirahan, Sean Newcomb, Hector Olivera, Dustin Peterson, Jace Peterson, Evan Phillips, AJ Pierzynski, Max Povse, Bradley Roney, Rio Ruiz, Evan Rutckyj, Shea Simmons, Lucas Sims, Mallex Smith, Dansby Swanson, Nick Swisher, Andrew Thurman, Touki Toussaint, Ryan Weber, Dan Winkler, Matt Wisler, and Chris Withrow

    Alumni: Tom Glavine, Andruw Jones, Mark Lemke, Fred McGriff, Denny Neagle, Phil Niekro and Mark Wohlers

  9. @10

    I think a lot of organizations can be accused of being Steinbrenner-esque. The Dodgers can certainly be accused of that. Same thing with the Tigers. They seem to have this collect, collect, collect mentality and roster construction/chemistry be damned. This is, of course, a rebuttal of following WAR to closely. Sometimes the whole is not the sum of its parts.

  10. It takes more than a willingness to spend stupid money to turn into the Steinbrenner Yankees. You also have to be thin-skinned, petty, and obsessed with the idea that anyone who celebrates anything less than a championship has basically betrayed you.

  11. The interesting part of the article is pointing out that numerous high profile FAs were pursued by Rizzo and yet took less lucrative deals to sign elsewhere. What was it that Auric Goldfinger said?

    The stink of failure and disarray is clearly driving players away from the WS Champion Nationals.

  12. Crap. Now I have to figure out what Goldfinger quote pertains to that discussion. Night. Ruined.

  13. BPro’s top 101 prospects list was released/leaked. Swanson, Newcomb, Blair, Albies, Riley, and Allard for Braves representatives, plus Peraza. The writeups are the fairly insubstantial puff I’ve come to expect from modern BPro.

  14. If these are the ceilings for those players, which one is most likely to not reach their ceiling:

    Swanson – All-Star shortstop
    Newcomb – #2 starter
    Blair – #3-4 starter
    Albies – Above average shortstop, not an All-Star
    Riley – Above average third baseman
    Allard – #2 starter

    I say Allard but it’s really just because he’s so young and has so far to go. If I said Allard had a #3 starter ceiling, I would say Newcomb.

  15. Allard is far away and a pitcher and has already experienced health problems. I’m glad we have him but he is far and away the longest shot of the six.

  16. @20 to turn it around, the one on that list I have the most confidence in is Blair. From all I’ve seen and heard, the guy knows how to pitch and has a very repeatable delivery. He may not become a number 2 starter but I think he has a chance to have a better career than at least 4 of our current starters. Of course, that’s not saying a whole lot.

  17. Albies could be an All Star if he continues to hit and moves to second.

    Riley and Allard are the two most difficult to determine.

    If we have 3-7 guys that could be #2-3 starters, then the all but two of them are going to fail, unless they are traded.

  18. Hosmer posted a 118 OPS+ as a 21 year old and has been pretty good ever since, but it did take Gordon and Moustakas a while to get going.

    Along the vein of Smitty, not only do you have the recognized star prospects, we also have some guys that very well could turn into Brandon Beachy/Kris Medlen type players like Gant, Jenkins, Sims, Weber, Hursch, and Bird. I would bet that group is likely to produce as much WAR in 2016/2017 as Newcomb/Blair.

  19. Long time, no post. Obviously the excitement is killing people.

    We should have been in on the Rockies. Dickerson and a good upper minors 3B for a lefthanded reliever and a mediocre right handed reliever.

  20. @29, I don’t offer Cakes for something we want; I wait until somebody wants Cakes and then explore.

  21. “February is merely as long as is needed to pass the time until March.” Or until pitchers and catchers report.

  22. @20 Blair, then Albies, then longer odds.

    Two fangraph’s guys (one now working for the Braves) have Albies as a top-15 guy. I think the excitement surrounding a great trade has brought Swanson’s grade up.

  23. http://www.billjamesonline.com/hey_bill/

    Bill James is posting reader accounts of the many variations of sandlot/street baseball played by kids way back when. My childhood was full of unstructured play, and I feel sorry for kids whose every recreation is scheduled, structured, and supervised. A big reason I was never a prospect hawk.

  24. Swanson, Newcomb, Albies, Blair, and Allard on MLB Pipeline’s Top 100. Riley left off. They also seem to rate the top three slightly more aggressively than other outlets I’ve seen, placing them in the Top 30 overall (Swanson #8, Newcomb #21, Albies #29… by comparison, BPro’s list has Swanson at #27). Of course, prospect rankings are largely arbitrary except in the general sense…

  25. @35

    I was getting the feeling after we didn’t trade Teheran and Freeman that we were done trading MLB-ready talent, unless we got very close to MLB-ready talent back. As a result, I didn’t think we would be interested in trading relievers like Vizcaino and Simmons. There comes a point where you can only take the “relievers are fungible” idea so far. I could see us trading Johnson, Carpenter, or Grilli since they’ll be at the end of their deals, but I seem to think that guys like Vizcaino, Simmons, Folty (most likely), and Withrow would be guys we want to build the bullpen around, especially since they’re so cheap and have such a high upside.

    @34

    I think Markakis is worth more to us than another team because of what Tanto said. If his power rebounds, sure, he has more value, but if his power rebounds, we’re going to want to keep him.

    But really though, did his power go away? His career SLG is .429, and last year was .386. But he also increased his OBP by 28 points from the previous year, so he might have simply changed his approach and we won’t see much of a change in overall production. I’d love to see more balls leave the yard, but he had 38 doubles, his highest total since his age-26 season, and he had his third highest walk total for his career. At the end of the day, he’s a career 112 OPS+ hitter who had a 110 OPS+ last year. He’s a really solid player, provides some sort of value in leadership, and is signed to a fair deal, so he’s really not someone I’d be in a hurry to get rid of.

  26. Andruw is officially retiring.

    I think he’s got a decent HoF case, but he won’t make it because he was finished so early and never really lived up to the generational player expectations people had for him when he first came into the league. I wonder if the Braves will retire his number.

  27. Interesting that he’ll be on the ballot in 2018. Maybe you don’t fall out of people’s minds when you hang around in Japan.

    Andruw Jones Keltner!

  28. 1997-2006, 60.9 fWAR (3rd behind Bonds and Rodriguez).

    I think he picked a bad era to have weight gain and a power spike.

  29. @39

    Braves Hall of Fame? Yes. Retired number? Maybe (given Dale Murphy’s is retired, I might actually upgrade that to “probably”.) Baseball Hall of Fame? No.

    That’s my opinion, anyway.

  30. Andruw was the greatest defensive center fielder who ever lived, and in his prime he was a serious hitter. His career was short, but exceptionally valuable. B-R has him only 4 WAR behind Glavine in a Braves uniform. Like I said, I doubt he’ll get much traction (if Jim Edmonds was one-and-done, Andruw almost certainly will be as well), but he deserves consideration.

    In other news, DOB is reporting that Jace Peterson played through “most of” the 2015 season with an 80% tear in his right thumb tendon. To which I ask: WHY!? It’s not like the team was going anywhere, and he was completely useless in the second half anyway. Why not shut him down?

  31. @43

    Yeah, those “playing through injury” revelations seem to be meant to make people optimistic, but the inevitable question is why they played through it in the first place. In Peterson’s case, if he didn’t, he may not have had a job when he came back from injury. Now he’s healthy and still the starting second baseman.

  32. I think Andruw will get the Dale Murphy treatment for the HoF voting. It’s all Andruw’s fault…as always.

  33. @46 Good one.

    My favorite Andruw moment has been captured. Paste this into the YouTube address bar to see it.

    Then, if you check Greatest Catches on Tal’s Hill, Andruw is first. Most other catches bring smiles of astonishment from both fielders and pitchers. For Andruw, it was a day at the office. Feel lucky to have seen him play.

  34. I’m partial to any lateral diving catch. The baseball equivalent of the movie side-tackle, which I also always enjoy.

  35. That one where he robs Marlon Anderson (I think) on the bases-loaded shot to the right-center field gap is one for the ages.

    Could you imagine how Andruw would be perceived if he played in the social media/YouTube era? Simba’s defensive reputation, IMO, is helped by people’s uninhibited access to all of his plays, and I can still barely see all of Andruw’s acts of heroism.

  36. I think I liked all the routine flies he’d grab at hip level better than the highlight grabs. What beautiful insouciance!

  37. So, who hangs up first if this is the call?

    Braves get: Nolan Arenado

    Rockies get: Julio Teheran, Mike Foltynewicz or Manny Banuelos, and Austin Riley.

  38. @54

    Nolan Arenado
    in what was clearly a fit of bravado
    said play me or trade me
    but for that gang you’ve quite clearly betrayed me.

  39. @54, wow. That seems oddly fair. Arenado is the 2nd best 3B in baseball if you don’t factor in age, and that haul is enough to make the Rockies ponder.

  40. The Rockies hang up first, and quickly. Arenado is one of the most valuable commodities in the game. You wouldn’t say that about any of the guys we’d send, espeicially after the year Teheran just had. But more generally, the Rockies would be insane to give up Arenado. They just traded Tulowitzki and basically announced they were building the team around him.

  41. @57

    I agree with you Alex, I don’t think the Rockies will trade Nolan. But if they think about it, if I’m Coppy, I’d let them know to check with me first before pulling the trigger on any trade.

  42. …if you’ve never watched the 7-a-side version of Rugby treat yourself to it at the international level from New Zealand at 2 Eastern this afternoon on NBC SN…

    you likely will not have seen a game where the emphasis on pure speed is so marked…and where 1 0n 1 tackling in defense so crucial.

  43. The Spider-Man catch is my favorite, but there’s an underrated one where he robbed a home run in Baltimore and had his entire lower arm over the wall to bring it back. That might be my second favorite. Either that or the one to end the game in Montreal.

  44. @ 60 – Thanks for sharing this. Sounds like Swanson will be one of those guys that is extremely easy to pull for. He appears to have things in perspective. It is definitely refreshing to see.

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