Jimmy Wynn’s Special Place in MLB and Houston Astros History

Jimmy Wynn hit 37 HR for the 1967 Houston Astros, second to Hank Aaron’s 39, in the National League (NL), quite a NL season for the 25=year old Wynn, who played half his games in Houston’s Astrodome, a very difficult venue for home run hitters. So, how good was Jimmy Wynn—who played 11 of his 15 MLB seasons with Houston—and how does he compare to other ex-Houston Astros outfielders like Cesar Cedeño, and to players from all eras? Does Wynn deserve Cooperstown consideration by a future Veterans Committee?

Face-to-face meeting, Hiram Bithorn Stadium, December 1967

Jimmy Wynn with San Juan

A few active American League (AL) and NL players visited Puerto Rico in December 1967, to film a special segment at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, in the section of San Juan known as Hato Rey. The author—who lived in Hato Rey at the time—was at Bithorn Stadium that warm Saturday morning. He conversed with Orlando Cepeda, wearing his St. Louis Cardinals uniform with #30. “You were voted the 1967 NL MVP the month after you turned 30,” said the author to Cepeda. “You batted .325 with 25 HR and 111 RBIs…got on base four of every 10 times!” Cepeda looked at me in amazement, and exclaimed: “I’m going to introduce you to Jimmy Wynn, my friend with the Houston Astros. Maybe you can tell him how old he is and his stats!”

Wynn wore his Houston uniform with #24—my favorite number. Cepeda introduced us and asked me how old Wynn was: “25, but he is 26 when the 1968 [NL] season starts,” was my answer. “You (Wynn) were 2nd in HR (37) fourth in RBIs (107) this past [1967] season,” noted the author. Wynn replied, “So, who was ahead of me?” “Oh, that’s easy,” replied the author. “Aaron hit 39 HR; Cepeda had 111 RBIs; Roberto Clemente drove in 110; Aaron knocked in 109; then, you had 107. And Tany (Tony) Pérez had 102 RBIs…just five NL players had 100+ RBIs; you were one of them! That’s good company for a 25-year old Houston Astros CF. And you were a 1967 NL All-Star—singled off Al Downing in the ninth, before Downing retired Mays, Clemente, and Aaron!”

The author alerted Wynn he hoped to manage him in the future. Wynn laughed; “How can you manage me?” My reply was Strat-O-Matic, a baseball probability game, where one creates leagues, sets the line-ups, and keeps up with player stats. (The author began playing Strat-O-Matic in the summer of 1967.) Before we said good-bye, Wynn asked the author if there was anything else. “Well, you stole 16 bases in 1967, and were only caught four times. So, you were safe eight of every 10 times…that is good. You were a teammate of Roberto Clemente with San Juan, part of 1963-64; and Cepeda played for my favorite team—Santurce Crabbers. Willie Mays played for them in 1954-55. Keep up the good work. You and (Houston teammate) Joe Morgan [5’7”] have shown me you don’t have to be tall to play great baseball!” Wynn smiled; shook my hand; and exclaimed, “Willie Mays was, and still is, my favorite player. I enjoyed it.”

Joe Morgan, Bob Aspromonte, Larry Dierker, and Jim Bouton remember Jimmy Wynn

Joe Morgan

Wynn’s passing, at age 78, on March 26, 2020, is the reason for doing this blog. It seemed appropriate to write about my chance December 1967 encounter with the “Toy Cannon,” whose nickname was given to him in 1964 by Houston Chronicle sportswriter John Wilson. David Barron’s March 27, 2020 article in the Houston Chronicle has some quotes from Joe Morgan, Wynn’s road roommate with the Astros for seven seasons. “Had he played on a better team, he (Wynn) had the skills to merit consideration for induction into the National Baseball Hall of Fame,” said Morgan. “He was a true five-tool player,” Morgan said. “He had the power to hit 37 home runs in a season while playing in the Astrodome, and one year (1966) he stole 43 bases and was caught four times. He could run the ball down in the OF, he had a great arm, and if he could have gone to a winning team like I did, I think he could have made the Hall of Fame. There would have been nothing to stop him.” https://www.houstonchronicle.com/texas-sports-nation/astros/article/Jimmy-Wynn-Toy-Cannon-stood-tall-with-early-15160359.php

One-third (97) of Wynn’s 291 career MLB HR were hit at the Astrodome. Bob Aspromonte, his ex-teammate with the Colt 45s and Astros, remembers Wynn: “ Jimmy had such power. He had that incredible upward swing. He brought the bat through with such speed and quickness. We used to laugh all time about how his hits went into the stands and mine died at the warning track. He had such ability and such talent, and he handled himself so well off the field. He was a dear friend. He (Wynn) was a smaller version of Willie Mays,” said ex-Astros pitcher, broadcaster, and manager Larry Dierker. “He had the same gait, he had the same uppercut swing and the same uniform number (24). He could run, and he could dunk a basketball. He could do extraordinary things on the field.” Jim Bouton, in his book “Ball Four,” noted that “Wynn was among the leaders among the Astros in bringing together all players from all backgrounds,” calling the 1969 Astros “a more harmonious group” than the (1969) Seattle Pilots.

Cesar Cedeño comes to town

Cesar Cedeño

A 19-year old phenom from Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic, debuted with the 1970 Astros. Cesar Cedeño made his presence felt; some sportswriters called him a “younger version” of Roberto Clemente. Mr. Clemente himself once opined this was unfair to Cedeño, who became a 4x NL All-Star, 2x leader in doubles; 5x Gold Glover, and Houston’s career leader with 487 SB in 12 seasons. Coincidentally, Cedeño’s first manager (1970-72) with Houston was Harry “The Hat” Walker, born in Pascagoula, Mississippi toward the end of World War I, when the elder Walker worked at a shipyard. Walker managed Clemente in Pittsburgh (1965-68) and developed a special relationship with Clemente and Mateo “Matty” Alou from the Dominican Republic. The 1972 Astros were falling behind the first-place NL West Cincinnati Reds—who had acquired Joe Morgan in a major off-season trade—when Leo Durocher was hired to replace Walker (67-54) at the Houston helm. Durocher put even more pressure on the 21-year old Cedeño, comparing him to the 20-year old Willie Mays he managed with the 1951 New York Giants. (Houston management was hoping the 1972 Astros could overtake the Reds, just like the 1951 Giants overcame a 13.5 game deficit to tie the Brooklyn Dodgers by season’s end, and win the tie-breaker playoff.) Cedeño had become the Astros CF in Walker’s tenure, when Durocher took over. Wynn played LF part of 1970; RF part of 1971; then RF all of 1972. Let’s compare him to Cedeño, 1972.

Jimmy Wynn, age 30, played 145 of the team’s 153 games, in a strike-shortened season. His slash line was .273/.389/.470, with a .860 OPS, to Cedeño’s .320/.385/.537 slash line, and .921 OPS. Wynn drew 103 walks to Cedeño’s 56, but struck out 99 times to Cedeño’s 62. Cedeño had more doubles and triples than Wynn, 39 and 8, versus 29 and 3, but Wynn outhomered him, 24-to-22; had eight more RBIs: 90-to-82; and 14 more runs scored: 117-to-103. Wynn played six more games (145-to-139), and had a higher fielding PCT, .983-to-.981. Cedeño had more OF assists (nine) and errors (seven) than Wynn’s eight assists and five errors. Wynn was traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers following the 1973 season. He spent two years with them, followed by one season in Atlanta (1976); and, split 1977 between the New York Yankees and Milwaukee Brewers.

Wynn helped the 1974 Dodgers win the NL pennant, moving back to CF, and playing 150 games. He batted .271/.387/.497, with a .884 OPS. Wynn led the team in HR (32), runs (104), and walks (108); and finished second in RBIs (108), behind Steve Garvey’s 111. Wynn’s fielding PCT was .992, with 10 OF assists and three errors. On June 10, 1974, the author witnessed Wynn’s 17th HR of the season, off Sonny Siebert, of the St. Louis Cardinals. It came in the fourth inning at Dodger Stadium. The game went into extra innings, and was decided by a Joe Torre HR, top of the eleventh, in St. Louis’ 4-2 win. https://www.baseball-reference.com/boxes/LAN/LAN197406100.shtml

As a side note, the author was in Los Angeles with his mother, to visit relatives, and attend his grandmother’s 90th birthday party! While traveling by plane from New York to Los Angeles, Paula Van Hyning (author’s mother) mentioned she was a high school/college classmate of Lee MacPhail Jr., the new AL President, as of January 1, 1974. They graduated from Swarthmore (PA) College in 1939, and from the same New York City high school in 1935! Mr. MacPhail and the author corresponded after Paula passed away. Paula led an interesting life, including nearly four years as a World War II spy, for the Office of Strategic Services (OSS), in Washington, D.C.

Wynn also homered in Game One of the 1974 World Series, October 12, in Los Angeles, off Rollie Fingers. Oakland’s Reggie Jackson homered earlier in the same game. The A’s won the series in five games, Wynn’s only Fall Classic. He played a half-season for the 1977 New York Yankees, mainly as a DH, but was released on July 12, before signing with the Milwaukee Brewers two weeks later. His highest salary, $95,000 for one season, was his final contract with the Yankees.

In 11 seasons with Houston, Wynn had a .255/362/.455 slash line, with a .806 OPS. He hit 223 HR with the Astros, fourth-best in franchise history through 2019, behind Jeff Bagwell (449), Lance Berkman (326), and Craig Biggio (291). Cedeño’s 163 are sixth-best; George Springer’s 160 are seventh. Wynn stole 180 bases and was caught 77 times, for a 70 percent success rate, with Houston. Cedeño’s 12-season Houston slash line was .289/.351/.454, with a .805 OPS. His 487 SB are a franchise-best, 73 more than Biggio’s 414. José “Cheo” Cruz stole 288 bases, followed by José Altuve (254), and Joe Morgan (219), ranked 3-4-5 in Astros history as of March 31, 2020.
Wynn led the NL in walks twice: 148 in 1969; 127 in 1976.

Other talented CF who played with Houston, include Steve Finley (1991-94) and Carlos Beltrán (2004 and 2017). Beltrán was a DH in 2017, and the Astros CF the second-half of 2004. He ranks ninth All-Time for CF, MLB history, using the Jaffe War Score System (JAWS), per Table I.

TABLE I: COMPARISONS FOR 25 MLB CF, USING JAFFE WAR SCORE SYSTEM

JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score System) was developed by sabermetrician Jay Jaffe to measure a player’s Hall of Fame worthiness. A player’s JAWS is their career Wins Above Replacement (WAR) averaged with 7-year peak WAR. Only batting or pitching WAR are used in determining the averages at a given position. The current Hall of Famers are then grouped by position and a position average JAWS is computed. MVP is Most Valuable Player for a given season.

https://www.baseball-reference.com/leaders/jaws_CF.shtml

Upon closer review of Table I, Wynn is ranked higher in JAWS than Cooperstown Hall of Famers Kirby Puckett #23. Larry Doby #24, and Hack Wilson #46. Wynn’s #17 ranking edged Cedeño’s #18 slot. Wynn had three more Wins Above Replacement (WAR) than Cedeño (55.8 – 52.8); an edge in best seven-year WAR: 43.3 – 41.1; and a 2.5 lead in JAWS: 49.6 – 47.1. Wynn had three Top 10 WAR seasons; one season in the Top 5 MVP ranking; plus, one season as a Top 10 MVP.

Wynn would be thrilled to see Willie Mays—his role model and hero—at the top of the JAWS list for CF, 114.9 JAWS score, followed by Ty Cobb (110), Tris Speaker (98.4), and Mickey Mantle (87.4). Future members of the Veterans Committee covering the 1960s and 1970s should keep in mind that Wynn played most of his home games in the Houston Astrodome; came up in the NL (1963) during an era of high-caliber pitchers, included, but not limited to: Sandy Koufax, Dan Drysdale, Bob Gibson, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Warren Spahn (still sharp in 1963), Jim Bunning, Ferguson Jenkins, Jim Maloney, Tom Seaver (1967-1976 decade), among many others.

Joe Morgan said it best. “And he (Wynn) was an everybody person. He liked everybody. Jimmy Wynn was good people.” The author will never, ever, forget Jimmy Wynn, #24. He was inducted in the Houston Astros Hall of Fame, August 3, 2019. His #24 was retired, along with other Astros players/numbers including Bob Aspromonte, Cheo Cruz, Larry Dierker, Joe Morgan, and Nolan Ryan, among others, in Houston’s first Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony.

https://astros.mlblogs.com/astros-reveal-full-details-of-new-astros-hall-of-fame-presented-by-houston-methodist-e0e52bbfe1fb. Wynn was a Community Outreach Executive for the Astros when this ceremony took place.

With special thanks and appreciation to Jimmy Wynn, for making a 13-year old feel special one Saturday morning at Hiram Bithorn Stadium. Thanks to Orlando Cepeda for introducing me to Wynn. And thanks to Jorge Colón Delgado for suggesting it would be appropriate to depict the all-time JAWS rankings for MLB CF, when comparing Wynn to others who played this position.

First photo Jimmy Wynn with Houston courtesy of Jack Webster

Photo Jimmy Wynn with San Juan courtesy of Jorge Colón Delgado

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