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The 100 Greatest Angels: #20 Wally Joyner

#20 Wally Joyner, 1B

Career Stats

Something about Wally Joyner connects a generation of Southern California men to their childhoods so instantaneously and direct that the mention of his name has one of those pleasant instant-elixir effects akin to the smell of play-doh or the song from prom on an oldies radio.

Speaking for my generation, Wally Joyner was a surrogate older brother to all of us - you felt closer to the Angels because he was simply and completely a headline-grabbing young baseball player who was taking the league by storm and he played for YOUR team!!! They renamed Anaheim Stadium Wally World when he batted. He was elected a starter for the 1986 All-Star Game by write-in. Hall-of-Famer Rod Carew retired to make way for him.

You want any more? Well, the Chronicler (blogger of the Angels-centric Chronicles of the Lads blog) has more about Wally...

Wally Joyner is my favorite player of all time.

That probably pegs my age group right there... let's just say that, in 1986, I was young enough to still have favorite players. And, that year, who else are you going to pick?

Wally had big shoes to fill after the retirement of Rod Carew, and broke out in a huge, huge way. Carew, of course, had been on his last legs in 1984 and 1985, basically being a league-average hitter those two years; his power was invisible. But here came Wally, and through July he was hitting .315 with 21 homers - Rod Carew had hit only 18 home runs in his entire Angel career.

Anaheim Stadium had been turned into Wally World, and Joyner's timely hitting and elegant defense made him a crowd favorite (I had - probably still have somewhere - two Wally World t-shirts). He beat out Don Mattingly for the starting lineup of the All Star Game and was turning into a phenomenon.

All along, Wally insisted he wasn't a power hitter, and that he had no idea where these home runs were coming from. He proved himself right; after fouling a ball off of his shin in mid-July, his health got progressively worse, and so did his numbers. From August 1 on, he hit .235 with one home run.

The Angels won the division anyway, though Wally lost out on the Rookie of the Year to Jose Canseco (an unjust vote, in my view; Wally was a better hitter, baserunner, and defender). But disaster struck in the ALCS: after going three for eight in two games, Wally had to be hospitalized with a staph infection in his injured shin. I think we all know what happened there.

Though the team went to all hell in 1987, Wally was even better, hitting a career-high 34 home runs and knocking in 117. But 1987 was the year of home runs; everyone was hitting more home runs than they usually did. What no one realized at the time was that it was just one of those fluky things. But it did manage to skew everyone's expectations.

As Wally always insisted, he wasn't a home run hitter. He was a gap hitter with good control of the strike zone. But his first two years belied his claims, and I think disappointment set in as the world returned to normal over the next few years.

Another thing that no one realized at the time was that 1988 was a tremendous pitcher's year; the park-adjusted AL slugging percentage (per BB-ref) for Anaheim Stadium went from .420 in 1987 to .385 in 1988. Wally's numbers took a hit (he only hit 13 home runs), but his overall production, put properly in context, was just as good as it had been in 1986.

He actually did regress a bit in 1989, but the only real difference was that he drew a few less walks.

One of my favorite stretches of Wally came that season, however. It was during a four-game series in Anaheim against the Tigers...
On July 20, Wally broke a 3-3 tie in the bottom of the ninth with a single to center, scoring Claudell Washington.
The next day, Detroit entered the bottom of the ninth with a 7-6 lead; Devon White singled, and Wally blasted a home run into the old bullpen to win the game.
Two days after that, the score was 4-4 in the bottom of the ninth when Wally came up with the bases loaded; Brad Havens hit Wally with a pitch, giving him one of the easier game-winning RBI ever.

He injured his knee in 1990, which was a lost year for everyone concerned. Wally made up for lost time in 1991. His 301/360/488 line added up to a very good 133 OPS+, and his Gold Glove-caliber defense (the fact that JT Snow has six more Gold Gloves than Wally is as big an indictment of the lousiness of that award as can be conceived) only added to his value.

But... it was his walk year. And he was twenty-nine years old. And Jackie Autry was cheap. And Lee Stevens was ready to take over at first (ha ha ha). So Wally wasn't re-signed after that season. I guess you can say that Wally could have settled for less money... but the amount he was paid by the Royals in 1992 was a whopping $2.1 million more than he had been paid by the Angels in 1991 (Okay, that was a lot then.)

This was a horrific day for Angel fans like me. Wally was Mr. Angel; he had been the best player on the team for just about five seasons (Brian Downing was his only real competition, but was a full-time DH at this point). He was the face of the franchise. And now he was just... gone.

I got a Kansas City Royals t-shirt that year for Christmas. Though, obviously, I didn't actually switch allegiances, I continued to root for Wally, even when he played against the Angels (you can root for a guy to perform well in a losing cause, y'know).

Aside from the PR implications of letting Wally go, it was a nearly catastrophic baseball decision. Wally had put up a 123 OPS+ in five-and-a-half seasons. Over the next five seasons, taking us up through 1996, Angel regular first basemen "contributed" a cumulative OPS+ of 89. Wally's OPS+ over that span was 112 - not spectacular, but a hell of a lot better than what the Angels were getting. And, in 1992, instead of paying roughly $4M to Wally Joyner, then-GM Whitey Herzog paid a total of $4.5M to Von Hayes and Hubie Brooks, who combined for an OPS+ of 70

Wally went on to have success in Kansas City and San Diego, then as a handy bench player in Atlanta. He came back to the Angels in 2001, at the age of 39, trading in his former number 21 (now occupied by Shigetoshi Hasegawa) for 5 (in honor of Brian Downing, perhaps?). He didn't have anything left, and retired a few months into the season. He still hung around the team, though - when Ramon Ortiz was implicated in Agegate the next spring, it was Wally that showed up to the clubhouse with two birthday cakes for him.

Wally had a smooth swing, and after every pitch would step out of the box and tap each shoe with his bat to clear dirt. He would step back in, and swing his bat back and forth like a pendulum, bringing it up to his shoulders when the pitch was ready. His actual attack of the ball was effortless, and his top hand would come off of the bat as his body turned to see where he had dispatched the ball.

Wally is, pretty clearly, a top-10 Angel, I think. He had a 120 OPS+ with the team, which is better than Troy Glaus or Doug DeCinces or Garret Anderson or Jim Edmonds, or Reggie Jackson, or a bunch of guys (and he had more at-bats than a number of these guys, as well). It's better than Rod Carew's, and Wally had 300 more at-bats and was a better defender. His offensive numbers are just a tiny bit short of Chili Davis', but Wally could play defense without making up new ways to make errors.

To put his offense in context, no Angel first baseman has managed a 120 OPS+ in any season since Wally left after 1991. Scott Spiezio got all the way up to 117 in 2002; that's as good as it gets.

Wally Joyner was a damn fine player, but a lot of people ignored it because he wasn't the power hitter he looked like his first two seasons. But he put runs on the scoreboard when he was at bat, and took them away when he was at field. If you hear anyone saying Casey Kotchman is just going to be another Wally Joyner, and they say this with a dismissive tone, well... ignore that. The Angels will be in great shape if Kotchman impersonates Joyner for the next five years.

But no matter what he does, they ain't makin' any t-shirts for 'im, I tell you that.