Happy birthday to Bill Buckner, who turns 64 today.
Bill Buckner is mainly remembered today as a punchline, the guy who booted a grounder in the 1986 World Series that allowed the New York Mets to score the winning run in Game Six, and ultimately take the World Series. He is, for an entire generation of fans, the personification of the goat, and until the BoSox finally won it all in 2004, he was so beleaguered by fans that he moved to Idaho to escape the notoriety.
That overlooks, though, that Boston reliever (and former Met) Calvin Schiraldi blew the game earlier, by allowing the Mets to score a run in the bottom of the 8th to tie the game at 3-3. Then, after the BoSox took a 5-3 lead in the top of the 10th, Schiraldi retired the first two batters he faced, then allowed three straight singles to make the score 4-3. Bob Stanley then came into the game and threw a wild pitch that allowed Kevin Mitchell to score and Ray Knight to advance to second base, before Mookie Wilson hit the fateful grounder that went for an error and allowed the winning run to score.
Even if Buckner fields the ball cleanly, though, the teams still go to the 11th tied 5-5. Boston doesn't necessarily win if Boston fields the ball.
That being said, the error also ends up overshadowing what was a long and interesting -- albeit not terribly good -- career for Buckner. Buckner was sort of the poor man's Steve Garvey, a first baseman who hit a bunch of singles but didn't really do anything else. He got his first at bat in the majors at the age of 19, was a regular at age 21, and got at least 300 plate appearances for year, generally as a starting 1B, every season from 1971 to 1988. He's one of those rare players to appear in games in four different decades, making the majors in 1969 and playing until 1990.
Buckner did that despite not being very good to the modern saber-friendly evaluator. He was never a very good defensive first baseman, he didn't have much power, and he never -- and I mean never -- walked. His value was entirely wrapped up in his hitting singles...but this was an era when batting average was valued, so because he hit for a high average, he was considered to be a good player.
I mentioned above that he never walked. Buckner drew 29 walks per 162 games. That's low. But he also drew 7 intentional walks per 162 games, which means his unintentional walk rate was 22 walks per 162 games. That is near Pierzynskian levels of not walking. In 22 seasons, he drew 450 walks, of which 111 were intentional. Barry Bonds drew 359 unintentional walks from 2001-03...more, in three seasons, than Buckner did in his entire 22 career.
Of course, Buckner never struck out, either. He fanned just 453 times in his career, 29 times per 162 games. Buckner led the league in most ABs per K four times, and was second in that category four times.
Yes, it was a different time in the 70s and 80s, and there were fewer walks and Ks then than there are now...but even for that era, Buckner was unique.
Buckner's lack of walks and limited power meant that he was not that great offensively, despite all the singles. Buckner managed to rack up 2715 hits in his career, 62nd all time, and yet he had an OPS+ of just 100. Buckner had a 14.7 bWAR for his career, and had more than 1.5 bWAR just four times. fWAR is a little kinder, putting him at 18.8, while WARP has him at 16.9. Whichever method you look at, though, he doesn't rack up the value you'd expect form someone who got within spitting distance from 3000 hits.