IBI Power Poll: Best Indians' Outfielders of All Time (Pt 1)
By Jim Pete
February 4, 2013
The outfield position is an interesting one to tackle with regards to the Cleveland Indians, as there are many different ways to view the position when you are choosing to rank it. The obvious choice is to go position-by-position, as I’ve done with the infield, choosing the best at left, right and center. The other direction is to lump the entire Indians’ outfielders into one giant pool, and select the top three.
While it seems an easy choice, there are plusses and minuses to both. My preference was to go position-by-position, looking at each outfield spot one at a time. On the outside looking in, it looked like the best way to look at an All-Indians team. After compiling a master list of the top 50 Indians, and ranking them regardless of position, I realized the major flaw. My top four choices after my initial review were all centerfielders. While that has changed over time, I had a hard time excluding perhaps the best outfielders based on which part of the outfield they covered.
On the flip side of that, there are five outfielders in baseball’s Hall of Fame that are wearing Cleveland caps. It’s true that three of them are center fielders, but there are players listed at each position, which could make my job that much easier. Those outfielders (center fielders Tris Speaker, Earl Averill and Larry Doby, right fielder Elmer Flick and left fielder Jesse Burkett), while they aren’t my top five, are certainly worthy candidates to be starters on this team.
In looking at the outfield position as one pool to pick from, it brings certain advantages. In theory, it’s much easier than having to learn the major position of all the important outfielders in Cleveland history. Of course, it’s an irrelevant point, since I did that anyway. The fun part about these pieces is really less about the rankings, and more about either re-living a lot of the history that I knew about as a kid, or learning new information about a group of players that are playing or have played on a team that I have grown to love.
The “outfield pool” idea clearly allows the three “best” Indians’ outfielders to be a part of this team, and in a pinch, I doubt that my top three, nor the top three selected by the IBI readers would be a hindrance to any outfield, regardless of actual position.
With that said, before the end of this piece, you’ll know both my top three Indians’ outfielders, as well as the top three via their position, and you’ll get the chance to vote as well. Due to the severe length of this piece (over 9000 words total), this has been broken up into two pieces where today I list the players that did not make the final cut of 15 players, and then tomorrow we will list my Top 15 candidates and you will get a chance to vote.
Breaking it down
The outfield position for the Indians is certainly the most loaded crop of the bunch. Last week, the Indians’ shortstops brought us two Hall of Famers, and I was correct in assuming that it was a top-heavy vote. Lou Boudreau and Omar Vizquel were the obvious choices, and while I figured Joe Sewell for more votes than he eventually received, Boudreau and Vizquel were the clear “top-of-the-heap” in both the heart and minds of most of the Indians’ fan base.
There are five Cleveland Hall-of-Fame outfielders, and far more stars and great Indians’ players to talk about past those players based on the simple premise that there are three times more at the position. I was actually surprised at how “few” players made my final list, if you want to be honest. My first list consisted of 24 Indians’ players from the late 1800’s to the 2012 team, and while I didn’t exclude single season greatness, those players had to supersede the others in both ability and memorability. In other words, one big year had to leave a big enough imprint to swallow up a career. There really was only one player that fit that bill, and that player ultimately didn’t make my final list. There was (and in some ways, is) nobody bigger than Joe Charboneau during that 1980 season, but there are just so many good outfielders to talk about, I had to leave him off the overall rankings. I’ll still talk about Joe in a few paragraphs.
I cut my list down to 19 players from there, and that was not an easy proposition. Here are the guys that missed the first cut:
Rick Manning: Manning brings forth a lot of different emotion when you talk Indians’ baseball, as both a player and as an announcer, but for many years, he was a very, very good player. Manning was called up during the 1975 season, and played for the Tribe until 1983. Manning was a first round choice in 1972, and while he never lived up to that billing, he certainly was a productive player. At his best, Manning was a lot like Pete Rose in mentality. He was a full-on sorta player that had a lot of fans early in his career because of his style of play. He won a gold glove by his second year in 1976, and he really had the look of a player that just might hit .300, and steal 20-30 bases a year. In 1977, Manning hurt his back, missed six weeks with a fractured vertebrae, and was never the same player afterwards. Thanks to a contract mistake, Manning was able to renegotiate his contract, and became one of the highest paid players in baseball. This also soured many Indians’ fans. There was also the situation that sent his former buddy, Dennis Eckersley, to Boston in a trade, based partially on the fact that Manning was having an affair with his wife. In the end, Manning was many things, but a top 20 all-time Indians’ outfielder he is not.
Jack Graney: Graney played a bunch of games for the Indians, and had many interesting facts associated with him. He was one of the first players with a number on his jersey, was the first former player to become a broadcaster, and was the first player to face off against a fairly well-known future slugger named Babe Ruth. He joined the Indians in 1908 as a pitcher, but was reportedly sent down to the minors that year because of a wild fastball. He became an outfielder, and became one of the best defensive players, with good range and a strong arm. He was Ray Chapman’s roommate and best friend, and had to be carried out of the hospital after viewing his body. Overall, Graney played 14 seasons with the Indians, hitting .250, with 18 homers and 420 RBI, while stealing 148 bases.
Brett Butler: Many fans forget how good Brett Butler was as a leadoff hitter for the Indians, but he was very, very good. He came over to the Indians in 1983 in the Braves’ deal along with Brook Jacoby, for Len Barker. It turned into a tremendous deal for the Indians. He stayed with the Indians for four seasons before leaving via free agency in 1987. In his four seasons with the Tribe, he never hit below .269, or above .295, never had less than 154 hits, or more than 184, and never had an OBP less than .356, or above .399. In other words, he was consistently good. In the end, Butler was a solid defender who finished his career with the Tribe with a slash of .288/.373/.396, with 397 runs and 164 stolen bases in only 609 games. Had he played another three or four seasons, there is no doubt in my mind that he’d have made the top 16.
Al Smith: Smith was another Bill Veeck guy, and made his big league debut in 1953. His first full season came in 1954, when he beat out veteran Dale Mitchell for the left field slot. That season he hit .281 with 11 homers and 50 RBI. He scored 101 runs as the Indians’ lead-off hitter, and hit a first-pitch homer in game two of the series (one of only three players to do so). His best season came in 1955, when he led the league with 123 runs, hitting .306 with 22 homers and 77 RBI, and finished third in MVP voting. His offense declined from that point on, and he was traded to the White Sox in 1957 with Early Wynn for Fred Hatfield and Minnie Minoso. His final numbers with the Indians were solid though, with a .269/.373/.418 slash, along with 67 homers, 270 RBI and an amazing 432 runs in 669 games.
Leon Wagner: Wagner was traded to the Indians in 1963, and in his first season with the Tribe, hit 31 homers, drove in 100 runs, scored 94 and stole 14 bases. He followed that up by hitting 28 homers and driving in 79, while hitting .294, which was his career high in a full season. His numbers dropped consistently after that, and he was traded in 1968. Wagner was extremely popular in Cleveland, often predicting hyperbolic numbers (he once said that if Maris could hit 61 homers, he could hit 65 or 70), but in the end, his defense and dwindling offense did him in.
That got my list down to a more manageable top 19, but I then decided to cut down the list a few more, which again, wasn’t easy. I cut four more players, which brought me to a top 15. These players are my honorable mentions, in no particular order:
Joe Carter: Carter was known for his game-winning, World Series home run in Toronto, but his time in Cleveland was equally memorable to me. He was a five-tool player, and was as dynamic a player both offensively and defensively as I had ever seen. He never made an all-star team with the Indians, but he finished in the top 20 of MVP voting three different times during his tenure in the Forest City. In 1987, Carter became the first Indians’ player in the 30-30 club, and at the time, was the sixth player ever. He hit 32 homers that season, and stole 31 bases. It wasn’t even his best season. In 1986, he arguably had his best season in his entire career. Carter came close to the 30-30 club that season, hitting 29 homers and stealing 29 bases, while driving in 121 runs, which was tops in the league. He also scored 108 runs, had 200 hits and 36 doubles as well. He was an extremely durable player, and could make a case for being higher on this list than a few others, especially when you consider the fact that when he was traded away to the Padres in 1989, he brought the Indians Sandy Alomar and Carlos Baerga, which was the start of the core of their team of the 90’s. I was never sad that he was traded away because of what he brought back, but also never forgot the impact that he had on those teams in the 80’s.
Tito Francona: Francona is a guy that was often overlooked before his son came to the Indians this season as a manager. The fact is, Francona was a solid-to-spectacular player during his time with the Tribe, played multiple positions, but isn’t higher on this list because of that versatility. He played multiple outfield spots with the Tribe, and was even used as their primary first baseman in 1962. In 122 games in 1959, Francona hit .363, with 20 homers and 79 RBI. The following season, his averaged dropped to .292, but he led the league with 36 doubles, while scoring 84 runs, hitting 17 homers and had another 79 RBI. In 1961, his average rose over the .300 level again, to .301, with 16 homers, a career high 85 RBI and another 30 doubles and a career high 87 runs. His numbers diminished from there, but that really can’t take away from his brilliant career with the Indians. He finished with a .284/.353/.437 slash, with 85 homers, 378 RBI, 153 doubles and 413 runs in 835 games.
Grady Sizemore: Sizemore will likely get lost in the shuffle of all-time Cleveland Indians players because of his rather inauspicious finish to his Tribe-career, if it really is over. Fans remember Sizemore as an oft-injured, erratic player that cherry-picked $5 million from the Indians in 2012 to sit at home all season as a free agent bust. At his best, Sizemore was a durable, brilliant outfielder, who had the look of a future Hall-of-Famer. He was dealt to the Indians in one of the more famous trades of recent memory, when he was acquired with Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips for Bartolo Colon. Sizemore rolled through the minors and joined the Indians as a part-timer in 2004. He made the club in 2005, and became a starter after Juan Gonzalez tore up his hamstring that spring. He played in 382 straight games, and was considered one of the most durable players early in his career. He was arguably the best defender in baseball during those early years, finished in the top 12 of MVP voting three times, and top 25 four times, and was a three-time all-star. In other words, he was brilliant. After the 2008 season, Sizemore was an injury-prone mess. Overall, he had a .269/.357/.473 slash, for a rather impressive career .830 OPS. He hit 139 homers and drove in 458 runs, scored 601 runs, had 216 doubles, 43 triples and 134 stolen bases in 892 games. It’s hard not to ponder what might have been with Grady, but what was shouldn’t be hidden over the past three seasons.
Joe Charboneau: I could probably write a book on Super Joe Charboneau. I had favorite players prior to 1980, and many after, but during one fabulous season, Charboneau was something completely different than had ever, or will ever be seen in Indians’ history. In 1978, Super Joe hit 18 homers and drove in 116, while hitting .350 in Single A Visalia. He followed that up with 21 more homers, 78 more RBI and another .352 average in 1979. There was buzz about the kid coming into 1980, and he didn’t disappoint. Not only was he a good player, but he was a bit of a tall tale. He could bench press 1,000 pounds, and leap large buildings in a single bound. He was stabbed by a bic in spring training in Mexico, hit a home run in the first game after making the team when Andre Thornton went down, and never looked back. On opening day in Cleveland, he hit another homer, a two-run jack, which added to his growing legend. Super Joe wore his emotions on his sleeve, and finished the season with incredible numbers, hitting .289, with 23 homers and 87 RBI, with 76 runs. He had a song, and was in major magazines. He was MLB’s Rookie of the Year. Charboneau never again played a full season, and was out of the game by 1983.
Jim is currently the senior editor and Columnist, as well as the host of IBI's weekly online radio shows, Smoke Signals and Cleveland Sports Insiders. You can follow Jim on Twitter @Jim_IBI, or contact him via e-mail at email@example.com.
The outfield is going to be so hard. I feel for you Jim. Manny had the greatest swing I have ever seen and was just a great character. Then you have Rocky, Doby and Jackson. While everyone seems to think the players we actually watched will be favored I think the opposite will happen. Many people will be defensive or be out to prove something.
I think we should do it all time Indians team from 1995 until now. With the idea of not looking at the players whole career but if we could take their best year with the Indians and make a team that way. Basically assuming the player would give around the production of their best years with the Tribe. In fact I think I am going to do that. Sounds like alot of un.
when you take into account that there were five hall off fame outfielders...then roll out the 90's outfield as well, and there are eight guys right there that are ahead of Carter. They all played at least as long as Carter with the Tribe, and had better numbers.
One other player SHOULD be in the hall, since his lifetime average was .375, and most of that came with the Tribe. That's nine players...without really working up a sweat...
I haven't even mentioned Rocky Colavito, who had some mammoth years in Cleveland, and who's overall numbers with the Tribe dwarf Carters and you are sitting at ten.
Now...11-15 were a much more difficult nut to crack, since there were several players that had fantastic numbers that nobody really talks about, meshed with a couple of guys that I just like better because I saw them play.
That said, I've been trying to focus on the numbers, and the impact...so a player had to have massive impact to move them past players with better numbers. That happened on a few occasions, but in this poll, the numbers speak for themselves.
If it's any help...Carter was #16...and truth be told, you could make a case for him in that 11-15 area...and if I told you how long I stared at #11 through #19...you'd chuckle...there was a ton of movement.
My #1-10 were far easier, IMO, although there was one guy that could honestly be a top five guy who I dropped a bit because of questions.
As per "K-Luv," I think he's the most impactful 90's outfielder based on longevity, and the fact that you really could make a case that he was a top two or three lead-off hitter in baseball for his first 9 seasons with the Tribe...especially those first 5 years, from 92-96.
Combine that with the fact that there were Kenny's Kids before Omar Y Amigos, and you have a significant spot...IMO...