Play Index: Jack Clark and the three true outcomes edition

Yesterday marked the 32nd anniversary of Jack Clark effectively sending the Cardinals to the 1985 World Series with a decisive three-run home run against the Dodgers in the top of the 9th inning of Game 6 of the NLCS. (Check out RetroSimba’s detailed account of the home run here.) Ozzie Smith’s walk-off home run two days earlier in Game 5 is likely more famous, but to a Dodgers fan I imagine that this one to be more devastating.

For starters, the Dodgers had a one-run lead. First base was open (Ozzie was on second, Willie McGee was on third) and Clark represented the Cardinals’ only real power threat. Remove him from that lineup and Andy Van Slyke would have led the team in home runs that season with 13. The smart move was probably to walk him, and the decision to pitch to him haunted Tommy Lasorda long after this game ended. And, there were two outs, so the Dodgers were just inches away from forcing a Game 7. At home no less. But then:

Clark may have taken it extra slow on this particular home run trot, but I remember that being his demeanor almost 100 percent of the time. If his stats didn’t tell you otherwise, you’d almost mistake him for disinterested. But a slouch he was not. In fact, Clark might be the most significant hitter in Cardinals lore to have less than 1,500 plate appearances with the organization (1,371 total, to be exact). And since this is a Play Index post, this claim can be corroborated to some degree.

Here are the top ten Cardinals as sorted by wins above replacement, with less than 1,500 plate appearances with the team:

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 8.15.22 PM

Story checks out.

Without question, 1987 was Clark’s finest season in St. Louis, and I’ve written about it before. To sum it up, Clark led the National League in both on-base percentage and slugging, and posted the highest walk rate (24.3%) in the NL since the league was integrated – so long as we exclude Barry Bonds.

Clark finished third in MVP voting in a competitive field with outstanding seasons turned in by teammate Ozzie Smith (who I believe should have won the award), along with contemporaries Eric Davis, Tim Raines, Tony Gwynn, and Darryl Strawberry. Andre Dawson went home with the trophy in what was probably a miscarriage of justice but he led the NL in home runs and RBIs so what can you do.

Clark’s candidacy was likely hampered by injuries, which was a theme during his three-year stint in St. Louis. He only saw 559 plate appearances that season, just the 44th most in the NL, but something caught my eye and curiosity when looking at his stats: He still eclipsed 30 home runs, 100 walks, and 100 strikeouts. He was the epitome of a three true outcomes player.

Thinking that must be rare, I did a search on the Play Index for all players since 1901 who had less than 600 plate appearances, but also reached at least 30 home runs, 100 walks, and 100 strikeouts. The result? Only ten total seasons. Ten. 

Screen Shot 2017-10-16 at 8.47.28 PM

And, as you see, at the time Clark’s was the first. Perhaps that’s a result of the Play Index whiffing on seasons from way back when, but I doubt it. In my experience the Play Index is as good of a research tool you’ll find for baseball stats, and this is likely a product of evolution. Take a look at players who qualified for a batting title 40 or 50 years ago and you’ll see that they simply didn’t strike out as much as they do today.

Last thing, of Clark’s 559 plate appearances in 1987, 56 percent ended in a home run, walk, or strikeout. That’s the highest on the list above, save for that magical Jack Cust season, which came in right at 57 percent. (It strangely makes me happy that guys named Jack Clark and Jack Cust excel at this skill.) Fifty-seven percent. That’s the same percentage of three true outcomes turned in this season by rookie Aaron Judge, who led the American League in all three categories. In that sense, Jack Clark, true renaissance man, was ahead of his time.

Credit to the Baseball Reference Play Index for most of the stats in this post. Subscribe to the Play Index here.

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