Tagged: roger metzger

The Legend of Dickie Thon

With a rare mid-series off-day today, we have an opportunity for reflection. Of course, reflecting on the Astros’ just-passed Memorial Day weekend performance is likely to induce too much gnashing of teeth, so instead we’ll look a little farther back.

Everyone knows by now that this is Houston’s 50th anniversary season. In celebration, the Astros are doing what franchises often do to celebrate such milestones, and allowing fan voting throughout the year to help determine the club’s official All-Time Team. Voting in April was for the starting position players; voting this month is for the next five best positional guys, to fill out the bench. If there was an announcement of the winners for the starting 8, I missed it, but we can deduce from the names left on this month’s ballot that the lucky 8 are:

C: Alan Ashby
1B: Jeff Bagwell (duh)
2B: Craig Biggio (also duh)
SS: Craig Reynolds
3B: Doug Rader
OF: Jose Cruz
OF: Cesar Cedeno
OF: Lance Berkman

I more or less agree with those choices; I voted Brad Ausmus for catcher and Ken Caminiti for third base, but I’ll concede that those arguments could go either way. The biggest trouble spot for Astros fans whenever assembling a list like this, however, always comes down to the man standing left of second base. You’d expect, in 50+ years of history, that a club would feature at least one standout performer at each position. But it seems that shortstop has almost always been a sinkhole for the Houston lineup.

I get the Craig Reynolds choice. I do. He’s the club’s #2 all-time in games played at the position with 926 (behind only Roger Metzger’s 1007), and popularly regarded as their best long-term two-way player there. He’s a Houston native, a member of the Astros’ first three playoff teams, and by all accounts, a super nice guy. You could argue for Metzger and his Gold Glove, or for Adam Everett and the Gold Gloves that should have been his; Everett even has better career offensive averages than Reynolds, though over 4 fewer seasons. I believe Astros fans swung and missed on this one, though, as Houston does have a historical standout at short. My vote indisputably goes to Dickie Thon.

Astros die-hards are no strangers to Thon’s story – promising youngster in 1982, caught fire in 1983, then had his path to stardom tragically jerked from beneath his feet by a fastball to the face five games into 1984. At least Houston’s other great “what if?” tragedy, J.R. Richard, had more time to write himself into the record books before his career reached a too-early end. Thon only had two full seasons as Houston’s SS1 before his career-altering injury, and that is no doubt the core of the argument against his place on the Astros’ All-Time team. But Astros fans adore J.R. Richard not just for what he was, but also for what he could/would/should have been. Dickie Thon deserves the same kind of recognition.

Even in spite of his tragic circumstances, Thon still ranks #5 on Houston’s list of career games played at shortshop with 505. Here’s a side-by-side statistical comparison of those top five:

Roger Metzger (1007 G, .229/.291/.291, 3.1 WAR)
Craig Reynolds (926 G, .252/.286/.345, 8.3 WAR)
Adam Everett (632 G, .248/.299/.357, 11.4 WAR)
Rafael Ramirez (534 G, .257/.290/.335, -1.9 WAR)
Dickie Thon (505 G, .270/.329/.395, 15.3 WAR)

It’s pretty obvious from those numbers that Reynolds, Everett, and Thon are your three best candidates. Of those three, it’s obvious that Thon has the best numbers, too – even with three post-injury seasons dragging his averages down. From ’81-’84, he posted an even more robust .282/.336/.424 line. Reynolds ONLY advantage is that he played in almost twice as many games as Thon, but Thon still managed to post almost double the career WAR in only half the time.

Thon is also the only Astros shortstop to rank in their top 50 for single-season WAR, and he did it twice – 5.9 in ’82, and a monster 7.2 in ’83. Only Messrs. Bagwell, Biggio, and Cedeno have ever had higher single-season WAR totals among ALL Astros position players. In comparison, Reynolds best two seasons were 2.8 in ’84 and 2.3 in ’79; Everett posted 3.2 in ’06 and 3.0 in ’04. Metzger never topped 1.4 for a season, Ramirez peaked at 1.2. Even Miguel Tejada, by far the biggest name ever to man shortstop for Houston, only managed a WAR of 1.7 and 1.6 in his two years here, as his career was already in decline before he ever arrived.

Jed Lowrie’s hot .280/.354/.484, 1.7 WAR to start this season has him on pace to post by far the best overall season by any Houston shortstop since ’83, which has brought Dickie Thon back to mind. Many Houston fans – myself included – will argue that J.R. Richard’s #50 and Cesar Cedeno’s #28 deserve a place in the Minute Maid Park rafters alongside the other Astros elite; I wouldn’t take the argument for Thon (and his #10) that far. But absolutely, unquestionably, as the Astros are honoring their greats throughout this year, Dickie Thon deserves his place among them.

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