Monday, February 14, 2011

Chuck Knoblauch

I happened to come across Chuck Knoblauch's career stats the other day, and I was shocked at how good he was at his peak. To an older, lifelong Twins fan, that may seem ridiculous, but I would guess even those fans have forgotten just how good 'Knobby' was, particularly in 1996.

Most people remember Brady Anderson's 50 home run season, mostly because it was such an outlier compared to the rest of his career it's kind of the punch line for the Steroid Era. That was 1996, but as great of a year as Brady Anderson had, four everyday players in the American League had better years. According to Wins Above Replacement (WAR), which is literally what it sounds like*, Anderson ranked fifth. The top two are no surprise: Ken Griffey Jr (9.7) and Alex Rodriguez (9.4). Chuck Knoblauch, though, came in third with an 8.8 WAR. Jim Thome was 4th at 7.1, and the previously mentioned Brady Anderson put up a 6.6.

*Still confused about WAR? Basically if you replaced Griffey's 1996 season with a league average player both offensively and defensively, the Mariners would have lost close to 10 more games. The Twins finished 78-84, but had they replaced Knoblauch with an exactly league average player they likely would have won just 69 or 70 games.

Knoblauch hit .341/.448/.517 and stole 45 bases. To put that line into perspective, it's important to note that Kirby Puckett's best season fell 63 points short of Knoblauch's '96 season, at least as far as OPS is concerned. Yes, the offensive eras were much different during Puckett's career, but even using OPS+, which adjusts for stadiums and eras, Knoblauch's '96 season is only eclipsed by Puckett's '88 season. In '96, Knoblauch finished just 16th in the MVP voting, though, because the Twins finished in 4th place in their division and likely because Knoblauch hit just 13 home runs.

Knoblauch's career is one of the more interesting careers in a lot of ways. As a rookie, he was on top of the world. He hit just .281/.351/.350, but he stole 25 bases and the Twins won their division so Knoblauch was voted Rookie of the Year. Then the Twins won the World Series, capping off Knoblauch's rookie year as well as he could have planned. In his 2nd year, the team won 90 games but finished second in their division and failed to make the playoffs. That would be the final winning season Knoblauch had as a member of the Twins.

In Knoblauch's 7 years in Minnesota, he hit .304/.391/.416 and stole 276 bases at a 78% success rate. The Twins then traded him to the New York Yankees, getting Eric Milton, Cristian Guzman, Brian Buchanan and Danny Mota. The team then used Milton to acquire Carlos Silva and Nick Punto a few years later, and traded Buchanan for Jason Bartlett, who was packaged with Matt Garza for Delmon Young. That Knoblauch trade helped the Twins contend over the last decade, and if Delmon Young can continue to improve, it has a chance to help the team contend for yet another decade.

When Knoblauch demanded to be traded following the '96 season, Twins fans were outraged. Kirby Puckett had been forced into early retirement, and now Knoblauch wanted out too? The fans had every right to be upset, but the fact was the team hadn't even been competitive since 1992, and there were no real signs that the team would contend in the near future. Demanding a trade to a contender when you've been one of the best players in baseball over your first seven years is hardly shocking.

When Knoblauch returned to Minnesota, many fans threw batteries and other objects at him while he was playing left field. This forced Twins manager Tom Kelly to ask the fans to stop or the team would have to forfeit the game. Looking back, it's unfortunate it happened, and the real anger should have been directed towards the Twins front-office. At that point in time the team had failed miserably at trying to rebuild, which is why the team was so terrible from 1993-2000.

Knoblauch's career in Minnesota ended on a sour note, but he won three straight world championships in New York while the Twins acquired players that would help the team return to prominence and no longer be a national punch-line. I think it's time 'Knobby' gets remembered for the great play he provided us with on the field, rather than the unfortunate trade requests most fans remember him for. He was a great player.



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