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The best player you didn’t know was a Texas Ranger

Willie Davis was a great center fielder, a borderline Hall of Fame candidate, and, briefly, a Texas Ranger

Willie Davis Kneeling

Willie Davis was a terrific, if largely unheralded, center fielder who has a case for being in the Baseball Hall of Fame.

He also, very briefly, played for the Texas Rangers, a fact that I think most people don’t realize. He’s a legitimately great player who was once a Ranger, and I think many Ranger fans don’t even know who he is, much less realize he once played for Texas.

Willie Davis signed with the Dodgers out of high school, and after slashing .365/.430/.593 for Reno in the (then) Class C California League as a 19 year old, he put up big time numbers in AAA as a 20 year old in 1960, slashing .346/.381/.556 for Spokane. Davis was called up to the majors in September, 1960, slashing .318/.348/.477 in 94 plate appearances, and he never went back to the minors.

Davis ended up spending 14 seasons with the Dodgers, and during that time slashed .279/.312/.413 in 8035 plate appearances over 1952 games, averaging 24 steals and 11 home runs per season while playing a stellar defensive center field. The raw slash line looks less impressive compared to today’s game, but Davis played in a pitcher-friendly era and in pitcher-friendly stadiums — he had a 107 OPS+ in his time with the Dodgers.

Davis started getting some attention towards the end of his time in Los Angeles — he won Gold Gloves every year from 1971-73, was an All Star in 1971 and 1973, and finished 16th in the MVP balloting in both 1971 and 1973. The first decade of Davis’s career, the National League Gold Glove balloting was near-impossible to crack...from 1963 through 1968, Curt Flood, Willie Mays and Roberto Clemente were the three Gold Glove outfielders from the National League every year. Clemente and Mays also were winners in 1961 and 1962, while Clemente and Flood both won in 1969.

Davis’s 1964 season was, by bWAR, one of the greatest overlooked seasons in MLB history. Davis slashed .294/.316/.413, was 42 for 55 in stolen bases, started 152 games, all in center field for the Dodgers. That alone was good for an impressive 4.9 oWAR — but Baseball Reference’s numbers calculate that he had an all-time great year with the glove, giving him an 8.3 bWAR season, fourth best in the National League that year.

Despite that, Davis didn’t appear on a single MVP ballot.*

* Willie Mays had the highest bWAR in the National League — slashing .293/.383/.607, with 19 stolen bases and his usual god-tier defense, he put up an 11.0 bWAR season. He finished fifth in the N.L. MVP. The two other guys ahead of Davis, Dick Allen and Ron Santo, finished 7th and 8th in the balloting, respectively. Roberto Clemente, who had a 7.2 bWAR, finished 9th.

The 1964 National League MVP was Ken Boyer. He had a 6.1 bWAR, which is really good, though not Mays, Allen, Santo or Davis good. However, Boyer led the league in RBIs, which was hugely important to voters back then, and he also played for the World Champion St. Louis Cardinals. If you led the league in RBIs while playing for a pennant winner, you were going to be named MVP.

Rounding out the top five were Johnny Callison, Bill White, Frank Robinson and Joe Torre, all of whom had very good seasons. Ruben Amaro, who had a 648 OPS in 323 plate appearances while starting just 76 games, logging a 0.5 bWAR, got 5 points in the balloting (and won a Gold Glove). Barney Schultz, a reliever for the Cardinals who threw 49.1 innings over 30 games, got 1 point. Someone named Sammy Ellis, who had 122.1 IP for the Cincinnati Reds while starting 5 games and pitching 47 games in relief, got 13 points.

And perhaps most interesting, in the context of our discussion today, Tommy Davis, Willie’s teammate and fellow outfielder, got 4 points while slashing .275/.311/.397 and playing left field. Maybe whoever voted for Tommy got their Dodger Davises mixed up.

And if you prefer fWAR? Willie Davis had a 6.7 fWAR in 1964, sixth best in the National League, behind Mays, Santo, Allen, Robinson and Hank Aaron.

However you slice it, he was really good that year.

Davis posted middling bWARs the next three seasons, as B-R sees his defense going backwards during that time, but he then posted five straight seasons where both bWAR and fWAR had him pegged no lower than 3.9 in any season, including a 5.5 fWAR/5.7 bWAR 1972 season. After the last of those five seasons — 1973 — Davis was traded by the Dodgers to the Montreal Expos for relief pitcher Mike Marshall.*

* Marshall is probably worth a post all to himself. He won the Cy Young Award for the Dodgers in 1974, appearing in 106 games in relief and throwing 208.1 IP. No other pitcher has appeared in more than 94 games in a single season. Marshall also is tied for fourth on the all time single season appearance list for pitchers, with 92 for the Dodgers in 1973, and is tied for seventh, with 90 appearances for the Twins in 1979. He got a PhD in Exercise Physiology from Michigan State and now teaches a (somewhat controversial) pitching method to baseball players.

And like Davis, he was very briefly a Texas Ranger.

Davis had a very Willie Davis season in 1974 for the Expos, putting up a .295/.322/.427 slash line with 25 steals in 32 attempts, though at the age of 34, he appears to have lost a step defensively by that point, as he graded out roughly average with the glove from 1974 through the end of his playing career per B-R, while Fangraphs has him a little below average going forward.

Then, on December 5, 1974, exactly one year to the day after he was traded to the Expos, Davis was dealt to the Texas Rangers for infielder Pete Mackanin and relief pitcher Don Stanhouse.*

* Mackanin had put up a 293 — yes, 293 — OPS as a shortstop for Texas in 1972-73 in 104 plate appearances. He never did hit and ended his career with a 602 OPS and a -2.1 bWAR in 548 career games. He spent years afterwards as a minor league manager and a major league coach, and managed the Pittsburgh Pirates and the Cincinnati Reds briefly in 2005 and 2007, respectively, before taking over for Ryne Sandberg as the Philadelphia Phillies manager in June, 2015. Mackanin was replaced as the Phillies manager after the 2017 by Gabe Kapler, another former Ranger.

Stanhouse had a two year run as the Baltimore Orioles’ closer in the late 70s when the Orioles were good, saving 45 games with a 2.87 ERA in 108 games from 1978-79 for Baltimore. He did it while walking more batters (103) than he struck out (76), however, leading O’s manager Earl Weaver to dub him “Fullpack,” which was, Weaver said, the number of cigarettes Earl went through while watching Stanhouse pitch.

Davis was acquired to be the Rangers’ center fielder for the 1975 season — Joe Lovitto had been the regular center fielder in 1974, but he didn’t hit at all, and so Davis was brought in in his stead. Davis’s stint with Texas was brief, however — he didn’t hit much, slashing .249/.270/.408, and apparently didn’t get along with Rangers manager Billy Martin.

On June 4, 1975, after just two months with the Rangers, Davis was shipped to the St. Louis Cardinals for Ed Brinkman and Tommy Moore. Brinkman played just one game for the Rangers before being sold to the New York Yankees a few days later, and Moore put up an 8.14 ERA in 12 relief outings for the Rangers in 1975, didn’t pitch in the big leagues in 1976, and was sold to the Seattle Mariners after the 1976 season.

Not the best trade the Rangers ever made.

Once Davis was away from the Rangers and Martin, he went right back to producing, slashing .291/.319/.431 while playing all three outfield positions for the Cardinals, who also had Lou Brock, Bake McBride and Reggie Smith in their outfield.

In October, 1975, Davis was traded to the San Diego Padres for outfielder Dick Sharon. After a decent year as the Padres’ semi-regular center fielder, Davis went to Japan, putting up a 957 OPS for Chunichi in 1977 and a 768 OPS for the Crown Lighter Lions in 1978. Davis returned stateside for 1979, putting up a 621 OPS in 43 games, mostly off the bench, for the California Angels, who won the American League West that year but lost in the ALCS to Don Stanhouse and the Baltimore Orioles.

Davis appeared twice in the ALCS — he pinch hit for shortstop Jim Anderson (who played for the Rangers in the early 80s) in the top of the 10th inning of Game 1 and had a 6-3 against Stanhouse. His final major league appearance was the top of the 9th of Game 2, pinch hitting for Dickie Thon (who also played for the Rangers in the 80s) trailing 9-6, and doubling to left field off of Stanhouse, later scoring on a Carney Lansford single to cut the lead to 9-8, which is where the game ended.

According to B-R, Davis spent 1980 with Vera Cruz in the Mexican League, though there are no stats on B-R for his time there. He retired after that, at the age of 40.

Davis, who passed away in 2010 at the age of 69, amassed an impressive resume over the course of his career. He had a career .279/.311/.412 slash line, which resulted in a 106 OPS+ and a 105 wRC+ for his career, in 2429 games over 9822 plate appearances, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Davis accumulated 2,561 career hits, which puts him 93rd all time, and his 398 career stolen bases put him at 76th all time.

When you look at the advanced stats, Davis looks even more impressive. His 60.8 career bWAR is 15th all time among center fielders in major league history, slotting him between Andruw Jones (62.7) and Jim Edmonds (60.4). Aside from Jones, the only center fielders ahead of him in bWAR who aren’t in the Hall of Fame are Mike Trout, Carlos Beltran, and Kenny Lofton. If you prefer fWAR, Davis is 20th all time (though Fangraphs has Robin Yount and Al Simmons in their center field rankings, which B-R doesn’t).

Davis’s defense in center field was what made him special. Per Fangraphs, Davis was +90.7 runs defensively for his career, 11th all time in center field. Among players who had at least 80% of their playing time in center field, Davis has the 8th highest dWAR, per B-R. Other than 30 innings in right field in 1970, Davis only played center field until he was traded to the Cardinals in 1975. Out of 2218 games he started in the outfield in his career, 2142 of them were in center.

Willie Davis was a legitimately great player, and its noteworthy, to me, that so few people realize he was a Texas Ranger at one point. The position players who appeared in a game for the Texas Rangers who have a higher career bWAR than Davis:*

Alex Rodriguez

Adrian Beltre

Rafael Palmeiro

Carlos Beltran

Pudge Rodriguez

Kenny Lofton

Buddy Bell

Andruw Jones

* I didn’t know how to search bWAR for just players who appeared for certain teams, so I just went down the career bWAR list. So I might have overlooked someone. If I did, please let me know and I will fix it.

Yes, Davis has a higher career bWAR than Vlad Guerrero, and Sammy Sosa, and Juan Gonzalez.

So when we are talking about the greatest players ever to don a Rangers uniform, while the time here was brief, we shouldn’t forget Willie Davis.