The team, fans, and all of baseball mourn the loss of Bill Buckner.
There were some good things that happened in Boston sports on Monday. The Red Sox scored 12 runs and blew out the Cleveland Indians to go four games above .500. The Bruins were able to score four unanswered goals after being down 2-0 to go up 1-0 in the Stanley Cup finals. Alas, all was not well for Red Sox Nation.
Bill Buckner passed away at the age of 69 from Lewy Body Dementia. Piling on to the bad news was a press conference where Red Sox legend Dustin Pedroia announced he was taking a break from baseball due to his persistent knee problem, and that his future as a major leaguer is in doubt. Here we’ll cover Buckner, while Pedroia will be the subject of tomorrow’s article.
Buckner will forever be remembered for one of the most infamous errors in baseball history and it’s not fair. It led to my favorite team winning the only World Series of my lifetime, but I was too young to remember it, or appreciate it anyway. Even if that were not the case, and even if the Mets’ championship became one of my greatest sports memories, I would still believe that remembering Buckner for a gaffe on baseball’s biggest stage would not be fair.
FanGraphs’ Jay Jaffe wrote up an excellent article covering Buckner’s career in depth, and in it he declined to include or even link to a clip of Buckner’s infamous error, telling the reader to “find it yourself.” I applaud Jaffe for that, and I am going to follow his example here.
It was revealed after the World Series that Buckner was suffering from a bunch of injuries, to the point where I am amazed that he was able to walk, let alone play baseball. Red Sox manager John McNamara deserves most of, if not all of the blame, and I am not the first one to think that. McNamara should have subbed in Dave Stapleton at that point of the game.
The 32-year-old first baseman was not exactly Keith Hernandez defensively, but he would have been a lot more reliable there than an injury-ravaged 36-year-old who had been playing affiliated ball since 1968, the year he was drafted. Even if Buckner indeed still had “great hands” as McNamara was quoted as saying afterwards, his legs and feet were a mess, especially his ankles. McNamara still stubbornly defends his decision.
I was surprised to read about how forgiving Red Sox fans were of Buckner, though there were still plenty of people who held a grudge, some to the point of sending death threats over a game, all as a result of prolonging the Red Sox championship drought. All too often he had to deal with terrible people saying terrible things to him, even if his family was with him. I shudder to think about what would have happened in the age of social media, especially given the reputation of Boston sports fans. I am truly thankful that Buckner never had to experience that.
After the Red Sox finally broke their drought in 2004, Buckner scoffed at those who proclaimed “We forgive Bill Buckner,” and he was right to feel that way. Quite frankly, I can’t believe the audacity of someone who thinks that he needed to be forgiven, as if it was a purposeful, malicious act.
Buckner had a strange career when looking at it through a modern lens. He played 21 years not counting his one plate appearance in 1969, and he hit .289/.321/.408, which is not even a 100 wRC+. That was at low-value positions, too, mostly first base. Granted, they cared a lot more about home runs and RBI totals back then and not OBP, but he did not have eye-popping numbers in those categories either. He hit only 174 HR over 10,037 PA, with a single season career high of just 18. His calling card was his ability to hit for average, which was far more emphasized back then. He finished his career with a .289 AVG, and he hit over .300 seven times in a season, though two of those times he barely played over 100 games, but he also had a season where he hit .299, as well as winning a batting title in 1980.
I’m sure there are plenty of people reading this who are familiar with Willians Astudillo, the unique Minnesota Twins catcher who almost never walks or strikes out. Buckner was sort of a less-extreme version of Astudillo in that respect. Though he did walk a lot more than Astudillo , his career rate was still just 4.5 percent, with the average walk rates not being much different than they are today. However, as has been frequently publicized, strikeout rates today are much higher than they were when Buckner was playing. During his career, strikeout rates ranged from 12.5 to 15.5 percent as opposed to the 20-23 percent range we have been seeing the past several years. Even then, Buckner only struck out 4.5 percent of the time. When adjusting for the era, only three players had better strikeout rates than Buckner during the bulk of his career, which I am considering to be 1971-1988. Two of those players, Glenn Beckert and Scott Bradley, accomplished it in just a fraction of his plate appearances. The third Félix Millan, was at least able to accomplish it over a substantial career of 6,325 PA, but he did not hit for a lick of power.
It is amazing that Buckner’s major league career lasted 21 seasons, especially as someone who was primarily a first baseman who never really raked. Back then, however, there was always a demand for a high contact batter who could hit for average.
Buckner was seemingly beloved by all who knew him. Condolences from the BTBS staff to his family and friends, may he rest in peace.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.