We are celebrating the history of the Cleveland Indians by building an all-time roster. In this installment, we select our starting center fielder.
Unlike many of my choices at positions like shortstop, third base, or catcher, center field was pretty straight forward. Tris Speaker, the Gray Eagle, was one of the great players of his era.
He was a legend in his day, a fierce rival of Ty Cobb, and an all-time great Major Leaguer that left a lasting legacy not with the Cleveland Indians, but all over the baseball landscape.
Speaker is arguably the best hitting Indian ever. In 6,628 career plate appearances with the club, he hit an astonishing .354/.444/.520 and holds two Tribe records with a 158 wRC+ and 476.8 Off. He also ranks first in another important offensive category with a .449 wOBA (weighted on-base average).
wOBA is a very important statistic that, like wRC+ and WAR, is polyfactorial. It was created by Tom Tango in an effort to quantify a hitter’s overall value.
Batting average tells us how often a hitter achieved a hit per at-bat, but it assumes all hits are equal. On base, average tells us how often a hitter reached base per time up but assumes all ways of reaching base are equal.
wOBA takes all of these factors, all hits and way to reach base, and assigns each a number based on its impact in the game. It can be thought of as on the same scale as OBA; In 2018 the MLB has a league average of .318 OBA and a .315 wOBA.
Speaker ranks right at the top of the heap in several other offensive categories as well. His 486 doubles are the most in Indians history. He ranks 2nd all-time with 72.6 fWAR, 1965 hits, 1079 runs, 108 triples, and he ranks 5th with 884 RBI.
Traded from the Red Sox to the Indians in the 1915 off-season amid a scandal that saw Speaker sent to Cleveland for, among other things, $55,000. Speaker refused to report to the Indians until he received $10,000 of the Red Sox money. Shot down by the Boston brass, Cleveland owner Jim Dunn agreed to give him a $2,500 signing bonus. Speaker agreed and the rest is history.
He hit below .300 only once in his 11 seasons as an Indians and batted over .380 four times. Arguably his best season in a Tribe uniform came in 1916 when he lead the league with a .386 batting average. Ty Cobb had won the last 9 consecutive batting titles before Speaker beat him out .386 to .371 (later adjusted to .370).
The Gray Eagle played his home games in League Park, a stadium with a center field wall 460 feet away from home plate. Even with that huge outfield, Speaker played so close to the infield that he recorded 6 career unassisted double plays at second base, the most ever for a center fielder.
He was also known to be the pivot man on routine infield double plays, he often covered second on bunts, and many times covered the keystone base on pickoff plays.
His penchant for playing a shallow outfield was so effective that Speaker logged a Major League record 449 outfield assists over his 22-year career.
Speaker operated as player/manager of the Cleveland club from 1920-1926 and led the team to its first World Series Title. In that historic 1920 championship series, Speaker implemented a strategy that is still used in the game today.
He created a platoon system where he matched up right-handed hitters with left-handed pitchers. The technique was met with great criticism with many sportswriters espousing that the strategy would never last in the Majors.
Speaker left the Indians after the 1926 season amid great scandal. He, along with Ty Cobb was accused of fixing a game between the Cleveland Indians and Detroit Tigers. He was forced to resign as manager of the Indians and it was reported the great center fielder would retire.
After an extensive investigation, MLB Commissioner Tennessee Mountain Landis cleared both players of any wrongdoing but Speaker would not return to Cleveland. He instead signed with the Washington Senators, thus ending his 11 year Tribe career.
The Gray Eagle was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1937, entering as the HOF’s sophomore class. He retired as MLB all-time leader with 792 doubles.
Tris Speaker was a true Cleveland baseball legend and one that is more than deserving of his place on the Cleveland Indians all-time team.
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Be sure to check out the next installment of this series where I will select my Indians all-time left fielder.