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Forgotten Greats: Seven A’s hitters we should remember more often

Not the most famous names, but they dominated in Oakland

Oakland Atheltics
Mitchell Page

With the MLB lockout pausing the offseason, and baseball news virtually nonexistent, this is a good time to look back on some Oakland A’s history.

While scrolling through Twitter the other day, I came across an interesting conversation starter from Fox Sports analyst Ben Verlander:

What player was absolutely dominant for a period of time but is mostly forgotten about today?

I’ll start: Travis Hafner

Indeed, I hadn’t thought about Hafner in quite a while. Did you remember the Cleveland slugger led the American League in OPS in 2006? From 2004-06 combined, Pronk led the entire AL with a 167 wRC+, ahead of Manny and Papi and A-Rod and Vladdy, trailing only Pujols in the NL. Dominant!

However, Hafner was a DH in a small market, he didn’t win an MVP, he was never even an All-Star, he only made one brief trip to the postseason, and his production tailed off sharply after age 30. All of that combines to make you say, “Oh yeah, forgot about him! He was great!”

That brings us to A’s history. What Hafners have we forgotten about from Oakland lore? We’re not looking for the most famous stars here, but rather players who were briefly and/or quietly great. Let’s start with hitters, and then in another post we’ll follow up with some pitchers.

Bill North

There are so many classic names from the 1970s three-peat champion A’s. Catfish, Reggie, Rollie, Vida, Captain Sal, Blue Moon, Campy, Rudi, Tenace, Fosse, the list goes on and is frequently celebrated. But often overshadowed is North, who was the everyday CF for two of those title years and shared the top two lineup spots with Campy.

North posted more than 6 WAR in 1973, including 53 stolen bases. He didn’t quite repeat that value the next year, but he still had an above-average batting line with plus defense and he led the league with 54 steals. He put up another 5 WAR in 1975, and then the following summer he exploded for an MLB-best 75 steals, ultimately sticking around Oakland through mid-1978.

However, memories are often forged in the playoffs, and things didn’t go as well for North there. He hurt his ankle at the end of 1973 and missed all of October while his teammates went all the way, then in 1974 he went 2-for-33 in the postseason and misplayed a routine ball on defense that led to a highlight for Reggie backing him up.

North might not be one of the first 10 names who comes to mind when you think of the Swingin’ A’s, and he was never an All-Star on a roster that annually sent at least six players to the Midsummer Classic, but he was a legit star CF here for a few years and won a pair of rings.

Mitchell Page

When Verlander made his tweet, former longtime A’s beat writer Susan Slusser of the S.F. Chronicle responded with Page as her answer.

In 1977, the left fielder burst onto the scene at age 25 with a .307/.405/.521 line, 21 homers, 42 steals at a high success rate, and what we now know to be a 157 wRC+ and 6 WAR. He lost out on Rookie of the Year to future Hall of Famer Eddie Murray mostly due to HR/RBI, but today Page would have won in a landslide.

However, he never again matched that breakout. He took a step back to merely solid the next season (2 WAR), then declined down to replacement level or worse as injuries took their toll. By 1981 he was mostly out of action, and he was left off the postseason roster that fall, at age 29. A few years later he was out of the majors.

It was a short peak on a bad A’s team, but it was a great one worth remembering. Click here for a nice obituary of Page, who died in 2011, including notes about his perpetual smile and his nickname The Swingin’ Rage.

Dwayne Murphy

Pop quiz! Who are the Top 10 leaders in career WAR among Oakland hitters?

Is Murphy on your list? He should be, at seventh, right ahead of Giambi and Canseco. (As in MVP winners Jason and Jose, not Jeremy and Ozzie.) That’s because Murphy spent a decade here, most of it as an underrated star.

From 1979-86, he posted a 118 wRC+ with a strong OBP, averaged nearly 20 homers per year (topped at 33 once) with double-digit steals (topped at 26 twice), and won six straight Gold Gloves in CF. In 1980 he exceeded 6 WAR, and he added three more seasons in the 4-5 range, and a few more in the 2-3ish range.

However, most of that work came for losing clubs, sandwiched between the dynasties of the mid-70s and late-80s. He only played in the postseason once, in 1981, and he was excellent (8-for-19, HR, 2 doubles, 3 BB), but Oakland lost in the ALCS. He was never an All-Star, as his teammate Rickey often got the club’s lone berth in the early-80s.

It’s not that Murphy is completely forgotten, but he doesn’t get enough credit as one of the very best in Oakland history. He just picked the wrong decade to be awesome here.

Tony Armas

Seven Oakland players have won the MVP award, and Armas isn’t one of them, but he came closer than we might remember.

Acquired as a prospect in the same rebuilding trade that brought Page here, it took Armas until 1980 to really get going at age 26. That year he blasted 35 homers with 109 RBI and played well-regarded defense in RF, and despite a low OBP he posted 5+ WAR and a solid 122 wRC+ and placed 12th for MVP.

Then 1981 was even better. The season was shortened by a work stoppage, and he tied for the league lead in dingers and managed around 4 WAR in 109 games. His OBP dipped to an awful .294 and he led the majors in strikeouts, but his wRC+ raised anyway to 124, and along the way he netted an All-Star berth and finished fourth place in MVP voting. That fall when the A’s made the playoffs, he went 6-for-11 with a pair of doubles and three RBI to help lead their ALDS sweep, including driving in both of the team’s runs in their Game 2 victory.

He was traded away to Boston entering 1983, and today he’s better known for his time there plus his legendary status in his native Venezuela and his MLB bloodline, but for a couple summers here he formed part of an amazing young outfield with Rickey and Murphy. In ‘81 all three of them received MVP votes, with Rickey finishing in second place and Murphy 11th, and they got as far as the ALCS together. And on the way out the door Armas left a final parting gift for Oakland, as one of the players the Sox sent over in exchange for him is the next name on this list.

Carney Lansford

Pop quiz, part two! Which two position players led the World Series champion 1989 A’s in WAR?

First place was Rickey, who was ridiculous for 85 games after being reacquired midseason. Second place was Lansford (in the mid-4 WAR range), who only hit two homers but batted .336 and had more steals (37) than strikeouts (25, at an MLB-best 4.1% K-rate). Meanwhile McGwire hit .231, Canseco missed most of the year to injury, and only one other hitter beyond that quartet (Parker) had an above-average batting line, with off-years at the plate for Hendu and All-Star catcher Steiny.

Then in the playoffs, Lansford went 5-for-11 (.455) in the ALCS with two walks, two steals, and four RBI, followed by 7-for-16 (.438) in the World Series with three walks, a homer, a double, and another four RBI. Add it up and the third baseman batted .444/.531/.593 that October en route to a ring.

Like Murphy, Lansford put in a quietly strong decade in Oakland, and didn’t get a lot of major recognition (one All-Star berth) despite a bunch of good years (tied for ninth in Oakland career bWAR, 11th in fWAR). And similar to North, he’s not one of the very first names you think of among his own championship team full of superstars. But Carney was a primary factor in 1989, the year they actually won it all, making non-stop contact every time he came to the plate.

John Jaha

The A’s went dormant for most of the 90s, just as they had for several years after their mid-70s glory, but in 1999 they began to roar back to life.

They built momentum with an upstart roster featuring young upcomers Giambi, Tejada, Chavez, Hudson, and Grieve, plus misfit toys like Stairs and Heredia. Then they made a bunch of midseason trades to add veterans Appier and Velarde, and a new closer in Isringhausen. They didn’t quite make the playoffs, but they competed for the first time in a while and won 87 games.

Their lone All-Star that year? It was Jaha, the fallen former Brewers slugger who had arrived in town that winter on a minor league contract. He bounced back to his old peak form and batted a monstrous .276/.414/.556, with 35 homers, 111 RBI, 101 walks, a 149 wRC+, and better than 4 WAR as a DH. That’s a Top 20 season in Oakland history, and it earned him AL Comeback Player honors at age 33.

And then like that *poof* he was gone. Injuries limited him to 33 games the next year and never let up, and by July of 2001 he retired. Slusser reported that he was “enormously popular” with his teammates and received an ovation from them when he announced his decision to hang up his spikes.

It’s too bad that Jaha didn’t get to keep bashing the next few years when the A’s did make the playoffs, but at least he had one season for the ages here.

Mark Ellis

Athletics Nation hasn’t forgotten Ellis, our sweet unicorn. But do we really appreciate how good he was during his decade here? If you ask bWAR then he led the team in both 2007-08, and if you ask fWAR then he led in 2007 and finished runner-up in ‘05 and ‘08. He ranks 11th on the Oakland career bWAR list, and 13th in fWAR.

It wasn’t just his magical defense, nor the fact that his lack of any Gold Gloves is one of the biggest awards snubs in MLB history. He could also hit, including five straight years of double-digit homers (topped at 19) and one summer with a .316 average, and he swiped double-digit bags a couple times too. His overall Oakland line of 96 wRC+ might not jump off the page, but he posted triple-digits in four seasons, and combined with Chapman-level defensive metrics that’s some serious value.

But the very best memory of Ellis comes from the day he was traded. It was Root Beer Float Day at the Coliseum, and he was scheduled to take part in the pregame event, but the news broke right then that he’d been dealt to the Rockies. Despite not being on the team anymore, he still stuck around anyway to hang out with his fans. Heroes get remembered, but legends never die.

***

North, Page, Murphy, Armas, Lansford, Jaha, and Ellis. They’re not Hall of Famers, most of them weren’t even All-Stars, and some of them we barely even seem to remember, but each was great for a while in Oakland and they all hold special places in A’s history.