An Ode to Spuds Mackenzie

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The news that Todd Frazier won the fan vote—thanks to a late rush of voting by Reds fans, and thus will start for the National League at third base in next week’s All-Star Game—was welcome, indeed. Not only are Frazier’s numbers worthy of the game’s title—after all, he’s been the best hitting third baseman in either league up to this point—but it will be nice to have one of our guys starting, with the game being played in Cincinnati. Just gives you the warm-’n-fuzzies all over, doesn’t it?

The last time a Cincinnati player was elected as a starter to the All-Star Game was all the way back in 2013—can you remember that far back?—when Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips were both picked. The last time a Cincinnati third baseman was voted in by the fans*, however, was almost a quarter of a century ago.

*The last time a Reds third-sacker actually started the All-Star Game was Scott Rolen in 2011. But Placido Polanco was elected by the fans to start, for some reason. Rolen replaced him in the lineup due to injury. Yes, you read that right. Rolen was actually the healthy player in this scenario, if you can believe it.

Let’s drift back to 1991, shall we? The Reds were the defending World Champions. At the All-Star break, the club was in second place in the NL West (five games behind the Dodgers), with a record of 44-36.

Cincinnati was well-represented in the Midsummer Classic, with five Reds picked for the National League squad: Barry Larkin, Paul O’Neill, Tom Browning, Rob Dibble, and Chris Sabo.* But only Sabo was elected to start the game. He hit seventh in the NL lineup and went 0-2 (groundout to the pitcher, flyball to left) before being replaced in the lineup by New York’s Howard Johnson.

*A number of future Reds were on the All-Star rosters, too; seven, by my count: Benito Santiago, Pete Harnisch, John Smiley, Lee Smith, Frank Viola, Ken Griffey Jr., Ruben Sierra, and Jeff Reardon.

That was Sabo’s third All-Star appearance in the first four years of his career. It was also the final time he would appear on an All-Star roster.

There are certain parallels between Sabo and Frazier. Each were voted in by the fans during their age-29 season. Both were relatively late in coming to the big leagues; Sabo was 26 when he was the NL’s top rookie in 1988, and Frazier was 25 when he played 41 games in the majors in 2011. Sabo was (and remains) a fan favorite, and Frazier is rapidly becoming one.

There’s one way I hope they differ, however: 1991 was Sabo’s last season as an above-average major league player. Let’s hope Frazier continues to be productive long past this season.

Obviously, there’s a bit of a myth surrounding Sabo in Cincinnati, thanks to the goggles and the crazy hustle and the Spuds Mackenzie and his awesome speech at the World Series championship parade in 1990. What’s forgotten a little bit is that, before his steep decline (thanks largely to injuries), Sabo was a pretty good player early in his career.

Over his first four years, Sabo had two seasons of 5+ WAR and another year at 4.2. (The only season he was below 4 WAR was 1989, Sabo’s second year, when injuries limited him to 82 games with a 99 OPS+). In 1990 and 1991, Sabo hit .285/.349/.491, had an OPS+ of 127, and averaged 26 homers and 80 RBI. In those two seasons, among big league third basemen, only Seattle’s Edgar Martinez—who would be a Hall of Famer, if they’d just give me a vote—was clearly better than Sabo. San Francisco’s Matt Williams has an argument, I suppose, but that’s missing the point. Sabo was an elite third baseman during those years, even (arguably) better than Wade Boggs for two seasons. Perhaps it was a short visit to the top of the summit, but Spuds was there for a moment, at least.

In 1991, in particular, Sabo hit .301/.354/.505 with a 136 OPS+, .380 wOBA, and 139 wRC+. For comparison’s sake, Frazier is currently hitting .285/.344/.602, 155 OPS+ and, at press time (I’ve always wanted to write that), a .400 wOBA and 156 wRC+. Yep, that’s better than Sabo’s season, but that’s not a criticism. Frazier has been the best 3B in baseball this year, for my money.

Unfortunately, after 1991, Sabo began to decline. Over the next two seasons, he was roughly a league-average hitter and the Reds didn’t re-sign him after the 1993 season. Sabo signed a free agent contract with the Orioles in 1994. The season was injury-plagued, and Sabo only hit .256/.320/.465…but it wasn’t a total loss. After all, I happened to be living in Washington, D.C. that year, so I was able to drive up to Baltimore, sit in the cheap seats, and watch Sabo play a couple of times, in addition to watching him on local television. Hooray for me, right?

Sabo’s career was pretty much over at that point. He played twenty games with the White Sox, then endured a regrettable five-game stretch with the stupid Cardinals before signing one last free agent contract with the Redlegs prior to the 1996 season. Spuds played 54 games, hit .256/.354/.400 with three homers and 16 RBI, and just like that, at age 34, Sabo was finished.

Yes, it was a short peak, but it was a good one. Only one player who played more than 50% of his games at 3B for the Reds in his career has a higher WAR than Sabo’s 17.2 (that was Heinie Groh, who had 40.6 WAR). Okay, I will concede that I’m being a little unfair to Tony Perez here, who had 49.5 WAR as a third baseman for Cincinnati, but didn’t play more than 50% of his games at that position. Still…Sabo is better than most who have ever played the position for the Reds. That’s something, right?

And next on the list of Reds third basemen by WAR? Yep, Todd Frazier. By the end of this season, Frazier is likely to pass Sabo in career WAR while wearing a Cincinnati uniform. That tells you a few things: (a) Frazier has been very good so far in his career; (b) Sabo was pretty darn good, too, at least for a while; and (c) the Reds haven’t had a ton of great third basemen over the history of the franchise.

Just last night, I watched the 1990 World Series video with my son for the first time. (Well, first time for him, 1000th time for me.) Many—especially those of us who were teenagers and obsessed with the Reds—will never forget Game 3 of the Series, when Sabo converted a record 10 chances in the field and hit two homers on his way to a .563 average against Oakland.

Just for that, he’s a Reds legend in my eyes. Let’s celebrate Frazier this week, sure, but I’m going to take a moment to remember Sabo fondly, as well.

Chad Dotson is a Nuxhall Way contributor. He is also the founder of Redleg Nation and a contributor to ESPN’s SweetSpot blog. You can follow him on Twitter at @dotsonc.

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