Wednesday, July 25, 2018

No Stick, He Stuck-Ray Oyler

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TRIVIA QUESTION:  Along with Ray Oyler what was the common physical attribute shared by several other shortstops of the day including Roy McMillan, Bud Harrelson, and Dal Maxvil?
ANSWER TO TRIVIA QUESTION IN THE PREVIOUS COLUMN: In 1979 Harvey Haddix returned to the Pittsburgh Pirates to join the "We are Family" team as pitching coach. It was there he won his second World Series ring. He won his first as a member of the 1960 Pirates where he won two games against the Yankees and picked up his second win in Game 7 when Bill Mazeroski homered to win the series.

If you were to argue who was the worst hitter in baseball history with at least five years of service, a good argument could be made for Detroit Tigers shortstop, Ray Oyler. Long before the establishment of the Mendoza Line, things got so bad for Oyler the Tigers chose to bring their outstanding defensive center fielder in to play shortstop during the 1968 World Series, over Oyler. 
Oyler came to the Tigers in 1965. He was known as a defensive wiz at shortstop. At 5'11" and 165 pounds he didn't look like much. Kind of a string bean type of player. In the same mold perhaps as Bud Harrelson of the Mets or Mark Belanger of the later Orioles. and Dal Maxvill of the Cardinals. But even the weakest hitters of that group were no match for the bottom dropping out when it came to Oyler.  
Oyler came to the plate 217 times in his rookie season and battled .186. Remarkably, it was his second best season at the dish over his six year career. Defensively he made 11 errors in 246 chances. His .955 fielding average belied his reputation, but then again he was a rookie.

When 1966 rolled around, the Tigers were grooming him for the spot as their regular shortstop. They never believed he would be a standout at the plate and they had sluggers Al Kaline, Norm Cash, Willie Horton, Bill Freehan, Jim Northrup and Dick McAuliffe to wear out the opposing pitchers. Batting Oyler at the bottom of the order was not going to be a liability.

The following year there was little improvement. He still made 11 errors in about the same number of chances, played about the same number of games and had about the same number of at bats. His average dropped to .171. 

The Tigers were on their way up however, moving from 4th in 1965, to 3rd in 1966 and in 1967 (Oyler's best season) they came in second. For the shortstop it was a breakout season. He registered career highs in games played (148), plate appearances (424), hits (76) and for the only time in his career crossed the Mendoza Line. He hit .207. He even smacked 14 doubles. It was the only time in his career he ever hit an extra base category for double digits.

In the field he was not so good. He made a career high 21 errors and fielded a dismal .964. Only his rookie season was worse. Clearly Ray Oyler was not working out. The Tigers went into the 1968 season with high hopes. Those hopes were achieved. With Denny McClain picking up 31 wins Detroit would face the Cardinals in the World Series. Defending champs.
The Tigers were a great team and Oyler was just another cog in the wheel. He had his worst year at the plate, .135 but in the field he settled down. He made only eight errors in 111 games and had his best defensive percentage at .977. It was a respectable season in the field and it's what the Tigers needed and wanted. Not that it mattered, he managed his worst ever slugging percentage as a regular player at .186.

When it came time to face the NL Champion Cardinals however, Manager Mayo Smith decided to take no chances, by taking a chance. He moved one of the leagues best defensive center fielders, Mickey Stanley to shortstop instead of Oyler. Stanley had played the position in the minors so he was familiar enough and it gave Smith the opportunity to get another bat, any bat into the line-up. It also meant aging Al Kaline who at 33 was limited to 102 games, would be in the outfield.

Kaline was a fan favorite and a Detroit legend. He'd been usurped in the outfield this season with Stanley, Horton and the strong armed Northrup. Moving Stanley to short meant Kaline would play. Kaline responded, batting .379 and smacking two home runs. While Stanley only hit .214, Oyler never came to the plate. He played in four games defensively. Stanley did make two errors in the seven game series, but both came in Detroit blowouts, 8-1 and 10-1. 
Detroit won the series in seven games and Oyler was only a factor except by not being a factor. By not playing, Kaline led the Tigers to victory. He was nudged out of MVP honors by Mickey Lolich who won three games in the Series. 
(Oyler makes a play at 6:54 of the above video.)

For Oyler it was the end of the line in Detroit. With expansion the Seattle Pilots ended up with Oyler who, after one season, moved onto the California Angels where he finished his career with a lifetime batting average of .175 with 221 career hits in six seasons. Fittingly, he didn't hit .100 that final season (limited playing time) closing at .083. The Tigers would try an abundance of players at the position until 1977 when Alan Trammel arrived on the scene. 

Ray Oyler died in 1981 at the age of 42 of a heart attack.
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