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…