The aging Nats and the effect of playing time lost to crises

May 9, 2020 (updated in October):

As this was written, every major leaguer healthy enough to be on the field was awaiting that opportunity. How would the layoff affect a team with several key players well into their 30s? (Well, they missed the ridiculously expanded playoffs.)

Ryan Zimmerman turns 37 in September. (On June 29, he announced that he’d skip the planned 60-game season. He said he’s not ready to announce his retirement.) Will he still be able to reach 300 homers? He has 270. Will Howie Kendrick, who turned 37 in July, be able to replicate his outstanding 2019 season?  Anibal Sanchez is 36. Kurt Suzuki turns 37 in October. (Answer: Howie hit .275, 30 points below his lifetime mark and was hurt again, Sanchez had a 6.62 ERA. Zuk hit .270, but also missed time with an injury.)

The biggest concern, however, has to be Max Scherzer. As fierce a competitor as has ever walked onto – or stalked around — a pitcher’s mound, Max takes excellent care of himself. Still, he turns 36 in July. Can he continue to perform at the astoundingly high levMax Scherzerel he has since his breakout season in 2013? (He pretty much did.)

With three Cy Young Awards, Max would seem to be a lock for the Hall of Fame. Still, Nationals fans would hope for at least two more outstanding seasons to cement his status and ensure he gets into Cooperstown wearing a curly W. The weird 60-game season almost certainly will prevent Max from topping 200 strikeout for a ninth straight time, which would match Tom Seaver’s record. (It did. He fanned 92 in 67.1 innings)

Aside from the aging Nats, players such as Albert Pujols, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander may not reach career milestones they might otherwise have because of a truncated or lost season.

Countless players have had their careers derailed by injuries, of course, but far fewer have lost significant amounts of playing time because of events beyond their control – wars, strikes and now, COVID-19. Somehow, When healthy players are unable to play, the sting is greater.

We’ll never know, for instance, if Tony Gwynn would have hit .400 in the strike-shortened 1994 season. Would the Expos have won the N.L. East and gone to the World Series that year (and perhaps never have become the Nationals)?

Most famously, one the game’s greatest players, Ted Williams, lost nearly five full seasons in the prime of his career to military service – first in World War II and then in Korea. After his first triple-crown season in 1942, he missed all of the next three years – at age 24, 25 and 26. Reactivated at age 33, he missed nearly all of 1952 and two-third ’53, yet came back to hit .407 in 37 games. He hit .345 in 1954.  Even conservatively assigning him mediocre statistics for those years, he clearly would have reached 700 home runs, 2,200 RBIs and 3,500 hits. His lifetime average probably would have been higher than the lofty  .344 he ended up with.

Several other Hall of Famers also lost prime years to World War II. Next to that of Williams, Bob Feller’s career was probably the most affected. Coming off three seasons of 24, 27 and 25 wins and four strikeout titles – Feller, who volunteered for the Navy, lost nearly four years (at ages 23 to 26) to military service.

Joe DiMaggio, Williams’ peer, also missed three prime years – ages 28, 29 and 30 – in the service. The Yankee Clipper likely would have neared 3,000 hits and 450 homers if he had played over that span. Yet he wasn’t all the Yankees lost in WWII.

The Bombers’ Hall-of-Fame double-play combination,  Phil Rizzuto (three seasons) and Joe Gordon (two) missed prime years to the war. All-star outfield Tommy Henrich missed all of 1943, ’44 and ’45. Fellow all-star Charlie Keller missed 1944 and most of ’45. Two other Yankee Hall of Famers, 37-year-old catcher Bill Dickey and 38-year-old pitcher Red Ruffing also spent two seasons in the service near the end of their careers.

Hank Greenberg, the A.L. MVP in 1940, was drafted after playing 19 games in the 1941 season. He proceeded to miss all of 1942, ’43, ’44 and half of 1945. His return helped the Tigers edge the Senators for the 1945 A.L. pennant. Greenberg easily would have topped 500 homers if he hadn’t missed the war years.

Slugger Johnny Mize led the N.L. in RBIs in 1942 before spending the next three years as a G.I. He returned to the Giants after the 1946 season had started but hit 51 homers in ’47 and 40 more in ’48.

The Boston Braves lost two pitching aces for three full seasons at the start of their careers – Warren Spahn,  who went on to become the winning-est lefty of all time, and Johnny Sain, who returned from the war to win 20 games in 1946.  They led the Braves to the N.L. pennant in 1948.

Hall of Famer Enos Slaughter of the Cardinals was 27 when he was drafted. He missed the 1943, ’44 and ’45 season. He was a key part of the Cardinals’ World Series champs in 1946.

The Senators lost four of their best players to military service, one of whom might have gone on to a Hall of Fame career, were it not for a war injury. Cecil Travis, their shortstop and third baseman, was a three-time all-star who led the A.L. in hits in 1941, finishing at .359. He had hit .317 or better in six of his seven seasons when he was drafted. He missed three years and suffered frostbite to his toes at the Battle of the Bulge. He was not the same player when he returned.

Senators all-stars Mickey Vernon, Buddy Lewis and Sid Hudson missed three seasons each in the war. Perhaps the 1945 Senators might have overtaken the Tigers for the A.L. pennant if future Hall of Famer Early Wynn had not missed that season in the military. Pitcher Walt Masterson, who later started an all-star game, missed nearly three seasons in the service.

Johnny Pesky, a star shortstop for the Red Sox in the ’40s, led the league in hit and batted .331 as a rookie before missing the next three seasons in the military. Despite a .307 lifetime average, he’s not in the Hall but does a have a foul pole named after him in Fenway Park. Pesky actually finished his career with the Nats in 1954.

Another Red Sox star of the ‘40s, Dom DiMaggio, spent three years in the service from age 26 to 28. An outstanding center fielder, he finished with a .298 average. Mostly hitting leadoff, he had .383 lifetime OBP. Hard throwing Virgil Trucks missed two prime years –at age 27 and 28 – to the war after establishing himself as a top pitcher with the Tigers. Johnny Vander Meer, of double-no-hitter fame, missed two full seasons after leading the N.L. in strikeouts three years in a row. Elmer Valo, a steady outfielder for the Athletics and later an amazing pinch hitter for the 1960 Senators, spent 1944 and ’45 in the service.

More than 500 players who spent time on major league rosters served during World War II, some missing as many as four seasons. Surely, they rightly are proud of having served — many, like Travis and Lewis, earned medals — and all realized nothing was more important than winning the war.

The Korean War cost Williams, Willie Mays and Whitey Ford nearly two years of their playing careers. Other notable players who lost most of two seasons to that war include Cy Young Award winners Don Newcombe, Bob Turley and Vern Law. Jim Lemon and Ron Kline, both of whom starred later for the original and expansion Senators, respectively, also served during the Korean War.

Players in the Vietnam era mostly served a few months, if at all, when reserves or National Guard units were activated. Darold Knowles and Ed Brinkman were lost to the expansion Nats at times under those circumstances.

Unless a draft is re-instituted, military conflicts are unlikely to affect pro baseball players. At least, let’s hope our nation does not have to face anything of that sort. A dispute over the next collective bargaining agreement could shut down the game. For now, the pandemic virus is putting even the planned 60-game 2020 season in doubt.

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