Put another way: Because they played on poor teams, these players never received the attention they were due – despite sometimes prodigious production. – Brandon Isleib
Every once and again, you hear about players who have the most games played without making the playoffs or the World Series. It was a sort of big deal when Adam Dunn was on the playoff-bound A's in 2014. It was a big deal when Craig Biggio finally got to play in a World Series. Ernie Banks had decent chances of the playoffs in 1969 and 1970 but never got there. Luke Appling didn't even have that good a chance.
But all of them at least got to play for a team in the spotlight, even briefly. Of the four, Dunn had the worst of it; his 25 games in a 1.28 Spotlight for the A's was his only exposure over 1.10. Back when Dunn was on the Reds, I tended to think of Ryan Howard as a more popular Adam Dunn, as their skill sets were similar but one was in the spotlight. Dunn and Howard were born 10 days apart. Neither of them aged particularly well, and both gave back most of their value when they had to wear a glove. Howard has two World Series appearances and six top-ten MVP finishes; Dunn has neither. Put Adam Dunn on those successful Phillies teams, and I imagine he'd be remembered a bit like Ryan Howard from that era.
Who were the best players comparable to pre-2014 Dunn? Who played their entire careers outside the spotlight? I'll define "outside the spotlight" as never being on a team with at least 1.20 Spotlight. Appling was on a 1.25 once (the 1935 White Sox); Dunn was on a 1.28 once. We're looking for a 20-man team of retired players more in the dark than them. So here's the team with the highest WAR completely in the dark, with career WAR and highest Spotlight listed in parentheses:
Catchers - Jason Kendall (41.5, 1.15) and Fred Carroll (22.4, 1.13)
Kendall and Carroll are linked by similarity of surname, long tenures in Pittsburgh, and a good batting eye. Kendall had some fine offensive years but played forever due to defense; Carroll only played eight years, didn't stick behind the plate, and left the majors at age 27 when his offense disappeared. Kendall was on several low-Spotlight teams but made the playoffs three straight years with three different teams (A's, Cubs, and Brewers); Carroll's highest Spotlight was similar (for Columbus as a 19-year-old) but there were no playoffs to go to.
First base - Todd Helton (61.5, 1.10)
That 1.10 comes from the 2007 World Series. The rest of the time, Helton was putting up numbers made ridiculous by Coors Field but with an offensive profile that played anywhere. Helton is right around the career rank for his position that Kendall is for his. That aside, Helton has a reasonable Hall of Fame case, but his time in obscurity will not help.
Second base - Miller Huggins (35.4, 1.18)
Huggins is similar to Mike Hargrove, who qualified for the second-string version of this team, in that they were patient hitters on anonymous teams who made up for it in their managing careers. His rookie year with the 1904 Reds was his most visible.
Shortstop - Miguel Tejada (47.1, 1.18)
Momentum and Spotlight differ from award voting narratives because they emphasize opposite ends of the season. If you want to look at MVP voting under an SpWAR-style microscope, it's better to multiply by the team ranking at the end of the season rather than using Spotlight, which tracks it through a whole season (and therefore feels like it overemphasizes the beginning). As the A's had an unusual string of playoff appearances borne entirely from late runs, Tejada's Spotlight is low - that 1.18 is from the 2011 Giants - but his MVP support was good, including an MVP that came primarily for his role in the 2002 winning streak that brought the A's a division title. He's therefore an anomaly on this list, but his A's were an anomalous team, so what can I say?
Third base - Toby Harrah (51.2, 1.11)
His final year, with the 1986 Rangers, was his greatest Spotlight; his WAR in it was negative. He hit 20 homers in five seasons, stole 20 bases in five seasons, and walked more than he struck out for his career. These are all marks of a star, but playing for the '70s Rangers and '80s Indians was the AL's equivalent of a witness protection program.
Infield - Scott Fletcher (32.0, 1.11)
On more famous teams Fletcher would have been one of those players written about as the "glue" to the team, something written only about middle infielders and catchers with low power. He was on two very good teams, the 1983 White Sox and the 1992 Brewers, but they made late runs to the playoffs. His highest Spotlight comes from Harrah's 1986 Rangers. He hit .300 that year and got some downballot MVP voting, slightly ahead of Rookie of the Year Jose Canseco. It was his only year with an above-average OPS, but it presumably was one of many years in which he was a nicer man than Jose Canseco. He also had a presidential dog named after him.[i]
Left field - Carlos Lee (28.2, 1.17)
His highest Spotlight was the 2000 White Sox that scrubbed out in the ALDS. He was traded to the Brewers the year before the White Sox won the World Series and joined the Astros as they were about to decline. By raw numbers, his most similar batter is Orlando Cepeda. As they both posted positive defensive WAR in only two seasons, Cepeda might be Lee's most similar fielder as well.
Center field - Burt Shotton (23.6, 1.16)
Another high-walk (713, versus 228 extra-base hits) St. Louis player who became a famous manager in New York. His only year out of St. Louis as a player was 1918, when his Senators caught fire in the last half of the season but ran out of games due to World War I. Despite a decent year, he was waived, and Branch Rickey picked him up for the Cardinals after managing him with the Browns. He wasn't a build-around player by any means, but in his prime he was a premier table setter.
Right field - Jim Fogarty (15.2, 1.05)
Playing seven seasons for some 19th-century Philadelphia teams, Fogarty could take a walk and was fast enough to play center field regularly. In 1889, he led the NL with 99 steals - 31 ahead of King Kelly in second place. It was the largest gap between first and second place for 26 years, broken when Ty Cobb stole 45 more bases than Fritz Maisel (96 to 51) in 1915. Fogarty died at age 27; he was not much of a hitter, but he had several good seasons.
Outfield - Bobby Higginson (23.0, ----)
That's right - Bobby Higginson played his career completely in the dark, between the end of the Sparky Anderson Tigers and the 2006 World Series Tigers. He had three very good seasons and some okay ones, and my recollection of him is that he was considered the poster boy for an inept franchise. In addition to his lack of Spotlight, he made no All-Star teams and gained no votes in any awards while he played. He did get put on the 2011 Hall of Fame ballot, but he didn't even get a pity vote (joining Carlos Baerga, Lenny Harris, Charles Johnson, Raul Mondesi, and Kirk Rueter). Bobby Higginson's career was anonymity personified.
Pitcher - Ed Morris (42.5, 1.13)
Pitching for various Columbus and Pittsburgh teams in the 1880s, Cannonball Ed won a league-leading 41 games in 1886. Like many pitchers of that era, he was done early, his last season coming at age 27. But in seven years he went 171-122. Dude knew how to pack a lot into a few years.
Pitcher - Ned Garver (38.7, 1.10)
Known somewhat for being on sad-sack teams due to his 20 wins for the 1951 Browns - a feat that nearly got him the MVP - Garver's 1.10 Spotlight was for a single start with the Tigers in 1952. Otherwise, his highest mark was the next year, at 1.05. It's easy to forget how bad the Tigers were in the mid-'50s; that 1952 Tigers team he was traded to lost more games than the 1951 Browns did. By the time they got good again, he had aged some, and he played out the string with the Kansas City A's and expansion Angels. He had a great career given the circumstances.
Pitcher - Larry Dierker (34.2, 1.06)
Dierker was a key member of the 1969 Astros rotation that set the MLB team record for pitcher strikeouts; he was 22 and was in his sixth year in the majors. The 1969 and 1972 editions of the team contended a little - the 1.06 mark is from 1972 - and Dierker played key roles on both teams. His most similar pitchers from ages 21-27 include Chief Bender, Don Drysdale, and Felix Hernandez, but he was unable to pitch past 30. He did become a successful manager of the Biggio-Bagwell Astros, however - I did not expect so many managers to be on this randomly assembled team.
Pitcher - Ken Raffensberger (33.5, 1.13)
Raffensberger came up with the Cardinals as the Reds became dominant, was traded to the Cubs as they tailed off, went to the Phillies a few years later, then spent eight years with the Reds as the Cardinals were dominant. Raffensberger's career looks a lot like contemporary Ned Garver's, except that Raffensberger was a lefty in the National League. He had excellent control and led the league in shutouts in 1949 and 1952, and that's about the only way he could get a win with a punchless Reds lineup.
Pitcher - Russ Ford (31.3, 1.12)
When your biggest spotlight comes from a Federal League team, that's a big old asterisk. Ford's 1910 season is one of the best rookie seasons of all time - 26-6, 1.65, 11.0 WAR - but he didn't last beyond 1915 in part because the rules changed and banned his emery ball. He happened to pitch in one of the only sustained stretches where playing for the Yankees wasn't a ticket to fame.
Pitcher - Teddy Higuera (30.6, 1.02)
Like Ford, Teddy wasn't from the United States (Ford was Canadian, Higuera Mexican), had his first full season at age 27, dazzled early (1986, losing the Cy Young Award to Roger Clemens), then declined rapidly. He was hurt from 1991-1994, missing all of 1992 and posting ERAs over 7.00 in 1993-94. Even with all that, he remains the Brewers' career pitching WAR leader, five higher than Ben Sheets and 13 higher than Chris Bosio.
Pitcher - Bob Ewing (30.5, 1.19)
Ewing had a little more Spotlight than the other pitchers on this list; the Reds he spent eight years with at the beginning of the 20th century were occasionally competitive. In every year but one he was between two games under .500 and two games over .500 despite above-average ERAs; his 20-11, 2.51 campaign was the exception. He was a high-strikeout pitcher early in his career, which didn't get started until age 29. His career reminds me a lot of the Andy Benes/Todd Stottlemyre mold - if your rotation is deep enough that he'd be your third starter, you feel good about your postseason chances.
Pitcher - Ed Brandt (27.8, 1.19)
Brandt started his career 21-45 with an ERA over 5.00 for the Boston Braves of the late 1920s. When the offensive environment calmed down, Brandt reversed course, from a 4-11, 5.01 line in 1930 to 18-11, 2.92 in 1931, posting similarly positive lines most of the rest of his career. He was a fine swingman on the 1938 Pirates, his final season and his highest Spotlight as they nearly won the pennant.
Ryan Braun (LF), Andrew McCutchen (CF), and Felix Hernandez (P) would make this list on WAR if they retired right now. They each have many years left to get off this list, though. It's a weird list that many players of higher WAR nearly made except for a Yankees cameo or an end-of-career, veteran-presence reserve role. If you're a pretty good player, chances are you will lead a team to prominence or a prominent team will acquire you. For this group, it didn't come together. Here's hoping the active players above get more exposure to match their prodigious feats.
From Playing for a Winner, ©2016 Brandon Isleib by permission of McFarland & Company, Inc., Box 611, Jefferson NC 28640. www.mcfarlandpub.com