The “five best” series continues today with a look at the five best left fielders in Chicago Cubs history. This series is based on last year’s all-time top 25 rankings. Unless otherwise noted, statistics are for each player’s tenure as a Cub, and references to WAR are to the Fangraphs version unless otherwise noted.
#5: Alfonso Soriano 2007-13, .264/.317/.495, 109 wRC+, 18.1 WAR
Yeah, this one surprised me a bit. The Soriano in my memory is a bad fielder and miscast leadoff hitter whose constant battles with Lou Piniella and Milton Bradley Jr. were frequent SportsCenter fodder. This impression isn’t entirely wrong, but it’s incomplete. Soriano never justified his eight-year/$136M price tag, but his first two years with the Cubs were excellent: 300 hits, 62 homers, an .888 OPS, and a 121 OPS+.
His defensive metrics range from OK to ‘yikes’, but they agree that he had an outstanding defensive year in 2007, leading the league in assists with 19. During his Cubs tenure, he would never finish worse than fourth in the league left field assists, though that might have been because opposing managers were convinced he could be goaded into launching one all the way to Chicago Heights.
#4: Hank Sauer 1949-55, .269/.348/.512, 124 wRC+, 18.5 WAR
A three true outcomes hitter who made his living by pulling the ball hard in the air, Sauer would fit right in to many modern major league lineups. In other ways though, he was a man of his time. To combat his tendency to pull pitches foul, he used a 40-ounce bat, a weight unheard of today. Sauer was the best position player on the bad Cubs teams of the early to mid ’50s, and is second in homers for all Cubs left fielders (198), behind only Billy Williams.
Sauer made slow progress through the minors which the war then interrupted; he didn’t become an everyday starter until Cincinnati traded him to the Cubs in 1949, his age 32 season. He’s leads all Cubs in homers from age 32 on, and is fourth in major league history for left fielders.
#3: Jimmy Sheckard 1906-12, .257/.374/.346, 118 wRC+, 23.7 WAR
One of the last-arriving key cogs in the 1906 Cubs juggernaut, the Cubs obtained Sheckard over the winter from Brooklyn in exchange for $2,000, some flotsam, and a contract-jumping pitcher who would never report. Sheckard was an on-base machine who had a 12.4 career walk percent during his career against a league average of just over seven. He trails only Gary Matthews in OBP for Cubs left fielders. He leads Cubs left fielders in fielding runs, and is eighth on the all-time major league list. As for the eye test, well, let’s just say they don’t write like this anymore:
"One sportswriter described Sheckard as “a marvelous workman in his pasture and one of the surest, most deadly outfielders on fly balls that ever choked a near-triple to death by fleetness of foot and steadiness of eye and grip.”"
(Note: No triples were harmed in the preparation of this post.) A lefty, Sheckard’s OPS against southpaws was almost 100 points worse than against northpaws. This might have accounted for his ghastly performance in the 1906 World Series, where he went 0-for-21 against a predominantly left-handed White Sox rotation. In the 1910 series, he pounded the all-righty Philadelphia A’s staff to the tune of a 1.071 OPS. I say “staff” – Connie Mack used exactly two pitchers (Charles “Chief” Bender and Jack Coombs) to pitch all 45 innings.
#2: Riggs Stephenson 1926-34, .336/.408/.469, 133 wRC+, 25.5 WAR
Every qualifying hitter for the 1929 World Series Cubs was an import except Woody English. Hack Wilson arrived in 1925, Stephenson in 1926, Kiki Cuyler in 1927, and Hornsby in 1928. A bat-first second baseman with the Guard – er – Indians, Stephenson’s fielding shortcomings eventually banished him to the pasture before a mortifying demotion in 1925. The Cubs traded for him in the summer of 1926 and plugged him directly into left and the starting lineup, where he would terrorize NL pitching for most of the next eight years.
Stephenson is second in hits and doubles for Cubs left fielders, behind only Williams. An outstanding contact hitter,, it is reasonable to suspect Stephenson had high exit velo given his career .346 BABIP, more than 50 points above the league average. He hit for a high average (.378) in his two World Series appearances in 1929 and 1932, but collected a total of just two extra-base hits.
#1: Billy Williams 1959-74, .296/.364/.503, 134 wRC+, 58.9 WAR
"My black teammates and I had to rely on our white teammates to bring us a sandwich in the back of the bus after they were done enjoying their casual meal at a segregated restaurant. Jim Brewer, a white pitcher who befriended me in the minors, often made sure I got some food delivered to me. – Billy Williams in Billy Williams: My Sweet-Swinging Lifetime with the Cubs (2008) (with Fred Mitchell)."
Jackie Robinson may have erased the color line in Brooklyn in 1948, but the line was still brutally present in San Antonio in 1959. As told in his book, Williams famously quit baseball that year, despite having a fine season with the Double-A club in San Antonio, rebelling against the dehumanizing treatment he confronted daily in the segregated city. In a story out of a Hollywood script, the Cubs turned to Buck O’Neill to travel to Williams’ home in Whistler, Alabama to talk him back into the game. Williams ultimately agreed, and would spend only a short time more in the minors before getting called up.
Williams, easily a top 25’er, was unbelievably reliable; he didn’t really have any bad years in his 16 seasons with the Cubs. From September 22, 1963 to September 2, 1970, Billy Williams missed as many major league games as you’ve played. That’s a streak of 1,117 consecutive appearances, good for sixth on the all-time list. He was so fatigued toward the end of the 1968 season that he … hit three dingers in one game. In 1972 Williams almost achieved the Triple Crown at age 34, when many players are starting to contemplate a career in broadcasting.
Chicago Cubs: Looking at some honorable mention candidates
Injuries may have robbed Augie Galan (1934-41, 17.8 WAR) of a Hall of Fame career. An eagle eye at the plate and excellent extra base skills made him a potent offensive player, but injury-related decline hit him hard in the 1940 and 1941 seasons and led to a trade to the Dodgers. Classified as 4-F because of his myriad physical problems, he would remain stateside and feast on wartime pitching, continuing to hit well through 1948 with the Dodgers and later the Reds.
If you want your kid to be a good ballplayer, naming him “Abner” probably isn’t a bad start. Abner Dalrymple (1879-86, 17.7 WAR) was the leadoff hitter for the early Cap Anson teams. Dalrymple has the third most triples (65) of any Cubs left fielder. Williams (87) actually beat him, but that took almost three times as many plate appearances.
Moises Alou (2002-2004, 10.7 WAR) had a short but eventful stay on the North Side. Most of his value came in 2004 when he raked 39 homers and had a prodigious slash line of .293/.361/.557. Of course, before that happened, this happened.
If you’re playing in an all-Alou fantasy league, draft Moises first. Here’s the WAR for each: Moises 47.7; Felipe 38.1, Matty 20.4, Jesus 0.8.