How does a bad baseball player make the All-Star game?
Through pure happenstance, I stumbled upon the realization that Kevin Mitchell once won an MVP award. This was rather jarring to me. I had known the name of Kevin Mitchell and never associated him as that type of player, and to be fair, the MVP award was not real well-deserved. Will Clark and Lonnie Smith were both easily better, which is weird because Clark was on the same team as Mitchell, so I don’t really get that. Anyway, he had a vastly more fascinating career than I expected, and I would have wrote a whole post about that career had he ever donned a Cardinal uniform.
I bring him up, because I kind of like the idea of talking about a player whose career simply does not suggest whatever success they briefly got. For instance, Mitchell had 29.6 career fWAR over a 13-year career, and while that’s a good career, you don’t imagine MVP fits into that window. It’s not hard to imagine obviously, but that’s 2.2 WAR per year. But I want to go even further than that. What about fluke All-Star seasons? The Bryan LaHair season if you will. The amount of things that had to go right for LaHair to make an All-Star team were astronomical and they all lined up perfectly: bad team, hot start, nobody else stands out.
There’s a slight problem with my plan. The Cardinals never had a Bryan Lahair or at least they never were forced to send a bad player to the All-Star team like the Cubs with LaHair. The Cardinals have had 11 seasons where they sent just one player to the All-Star team. It’s a good list of players: Albert Pujols, Matt Morris, Mark McGwire, Ozzie Smith (2), Bruce Sutter, Ted Simmons, Bake McBride, Bob Gibson, Joe Medwick, and last year Paul DeJong. It’s very possibly that Bake McBride ends up being the only person not to make a Cardinals Hall and he had a 20+ WAR career!
But they’ve clearly sent bad All-Star players before. After all, anybody can have a hot first few months, get the nod, and then collapse into a pile of dust afterwords. So I scrolled through the career All-Stars in Cardinals history looking for players who stood out from the pack as seemingly not belonging with that pack. And I found a name, and I stopped looking afterwords, because I’d be hard-pressed to find a less-deserving All-Star than this guy.
“This guy” is Don Blasingame and he has a far more interesting story for why he made an All-Star team as a bad player than should be expected. At 19-years-old, Blasingame had made a bit of a name for himself as a high school baseball player in West Corinth, Mississippi and had a tryout with a Cardinals farm team, but he joined the army before the season began. Two years later, he signed with the Cardinals with his military service completed.
Now, the 1954 season, Blasingame made people turn their heads for the Cardinals AA team, the Houston Buffaloes. He was nicknamed Blazer for his speed and because he had “Jackie Robinson” style antics on the basepaths, distracting pitchers and being unusually entertaining as a baserunner. The Cardinals then sent the at this point shortstop to the Cuban Winter League to learn second base, which probably only helped with the comparison to Jackie Robinson.
Blazer played the 1955 season in AAA and was a September call-up at the end of the year, playing in five games and coming to the plate 23 times. He batted .375 with six walks, no strikeouts, a double and a stolen base (with one caught stealing). He had a starting job by next season, playing in 150 games. He split his time between short and second, with a below average bat and great defense helping his 2.4 fWAR. In 1957, he had what would end up being his second best season with the bat in his career, with an absolutely ridiculous boost from his fielding playing purely as a 2B. He was, evidently, considered a +19 fielder that year, although the way the rest of his career turned out, this seems rather unlikely. In any case, he was worth 4 fWAR that year.
But he didn’t make the All-Star team either year. I built up the beginning of his career, because well, it seems obvious how he became an All-Star in 1958. His career trajectory certainly has the makings of an All-Star appearance in his third full season. It’s an absolutely bizarre example of a player making the team because of their reputation, except he was in his third year and barely any players make it purely on reputation in their third year in the majors.
What exactly happened in 1958 that made him into a bad player, because those first two seasons certainly suggest a good one? Well, quite simply, the defensive numbers stopped being his friend. And they were never his friend again for the rest of his career. Well, that’s not exactly true. The problem was that he was an average at best defender at 2B who also happened to not be able to hit at all. That’s a deadly combination. Because his career high wRC+ as a hitter was 94, and since he was a 2B, he needed to be, well Kolten Wong, in order to make that work, and the stats do not really suggest he was.
Right, 1958. So, the final season numbers on Blazer are particularly brutal, but that’s not completely fair since they aren’t electing him based on his final season numbers, but his numbers leading up to the All-Star break. From the beginning of the year until July 6, Blasingame batted .276/.359/.380, which B-R uses sOPS+ and tOPS+ for splits which is annoying because I don’t actually know how good a .740 OPS was at the All-Star Break at the time. I know his .711 OPS the year before was a 90 OPS+, but that’s not real helpful either since 1958 is clearly a different offensive environment as you’ll soon see.
Whatever it was at the All-Star break, it dropped to an 83 OPS+ by the end of the year. By wRC+, it was a little more favorable thanks to the higher OBP, but an 86 wRC+ is still not good for an All-Star. If you’re wondering what his OPS was, it was .700. So the 1957 offensive environment is not useful in the slightest since a difference of 11 points will not mean that much of a difference in OPS+. If I had to give my best guess, it was between 90 and 100, probably around 95 at the All-Star break. For an average defending 2B, that simply isn’t close to All-Star caliber, but using the defense of the previous two years, it would be more than defensible. Not that they had access to these stats in 1958, but you know, his reputation was clearly a fast and athletic guy, ergo they probably thought he was good at defense.
So that’s how Don “Blazer” made the All-Star team in 1958 with 0.9 fWAR. Oh yeah I didn’t actually mention his wins above replacement did I? Yeah that’s why I stopped at him. There might be a worse player to make the All-Star game for the Cards, but it can’t be much worse than this guy. He bounced back with the bat in 1959, but was still below average (92 wRC+) so he was still a below average player.
He got traded for 31-year-old Daryl Spencer, a solid starting shortstop at that point, and 26-year-old outfielder Leon Wagner. Spencer had a 2.4 fWAR season in 1960 and was traded in the middle of 1961 while Wagner had a poor year on the bench before being traded at the end of 1960. Which is honestly pretty great value for a below average 2B, so I assume Blasingame’s reputation wasn’t too far removed from his All-Star appearance.
Blasingame had a horrible 1960 with the Giants as an essentially replacement level player over 136 games, and he got traded early in 1961’s season, and then had an even worse year for the Reds with -1.2 fWAR. His bat went from a Pete Kozma esque 54 wRC+ to 94 in 1962 and he managed a 2.4 fWAR season with the Reds. After a poor start in 1963, the Reds traded the 31-year-old to the Washington Senators and he managed to be a starter for a couple more years, but was barely above replacement level for the rest of his career. In 1967, he moved to Japan to continue his baseball career, where he remained as a player for three years, and then stayed there to coach for eight more seasons.
Other fun facts about Blazer. He married 1957 Miss Missouri Sara Cooper, who was the daughter of former Cardinals player Walker Cooper. He married her in 1960, but they were literally teammates in 1956 and 1957. If you’re anything like me, you’re wondering about the age difference when learning this, and she appeared to turn 21 in the middle of 1960 and he was 28. Yeah Walker was 41 and 42 in his last two years as a Cardinal. Blasingame returned to the United States after being let go after the 1982 season and was field coordinator for player development for the Philladelphia Phillies until he retired. So this man had a long, long baseball career.
So a 0.9 fWAR player makes the All-Star game and it made a lot more sense at the time than i would have expected. He was a well-regarded prospect before we made a big deal about those things, but we absolutely may have sent this guy into the Hall if the equivalent happened in 2020. Again, not the conclusion I was expecting.