Mike Champion – 1978 Topps

January 8, 2011

The Worst? Really?

My memory is fuzzy, like a four-day beard, but I recall that in either Win Shares or another book Bill James (maybe it was Rob Neyer, but it sounds more like James) said that Mike Champion’s 1977 season at second for the Padres was the worst ever as a fielder in modern times. I think it was in Win Shares.

Ouch, babe!

Now I just subscribed to the Baseball Reference play index and that’s not exactly true. But James may not have had all of the metrics they have now. Tony Womack’s -26 Fielding Runs in 1997 is the worst. Champion was a mere -15.

But it allows me a digression on the 70’s San Diego Padres. They are interesting because of their many different levels of suckage.

In 1975 and 1976, the Padres were finally making baby steps to being .500. They weren’t a last place team any more and their win total crept into the 70 mark. The 1976 pitching staff was almost all 20-something and many (Randy Jones, Brent Strom, Dave Freisleben, Butch Metzger) were tabbed for better things. The offense was still a mess in 1976, bogged down by too much Enzo Hernandez and Tito Fuentes, but Winfield, Ivie, Turner and Grubb were good to go in the future.

Middle infield was a mess, for sure.

1977 was also the first free agency year, and the Padres plunged in. Knowing their offense was a wreck, that’s what they tried to fix by signing Gene Tenace.

They got rid of one of their better hitters in Johnny Grubb as part of a three-player package. However, they received George Hendrick back, so that was a net plus as well. They also shored up the pen by signing Rollie Fingers. Fingers made Metzger seem unwanted, but there’s nothing wrong with having two ace relievers in the pen with a younger staff.

The Padres were also building a farm system. Picking first or second in almost every draft will do that for you. And they thought the young players were ready to contribute. It was a good gamble – I mean I’d rather fail with youngsters than with a Hector Torres or Ted Kubiak.

So around Hendrick, Tenace, Ivie and Winfield (a pretty good core four) and vet Doug Rader at third, San Diego had Gene Richards (two seasons in the minors) and Jerry Turner (age 23) split OF time. Their biggest gamble was up the middle. Billy Almon, the #1 pick of the 1974 draft, was ready to play everyday shortstop. At second, the Padres installed Champion, age 22. He was a second-round pick in 1973 and played with Almon at Hawaii in 1976 as the DP combo. So instead of Fuentes and Hernandez, there was Champion and Almon. A decent risk.

So, when Richards played left, that was three rookies playing every day.

Building around Fingers, Jones, Strom, Friesleben and Metzger were vet Tom Griffin (who at 29 had been in the bigs since 1969), late season find Rick Sawyer, swingman Dan Spillner, and two more rookies in Bob Shirley and Bob Owchinko.

Owchinko, 22, was a first-round pick in 1976 and made 13 starts in the minors. He actually started in AAA Hawaii, but was due up in May.

Shirley, 23, was a January first round pick in 1976 and made 29 starts in AA and AAA before being thrown to the big leaguers.

Well, the mix of youngsters and vets could have worked.

It failed horribly.

Jones was spent after two straight seasons of being a workhorse. Strom was hurt as well. Freisleben regressed. Something went wrong with Metzger. Sawyer bombed.

As for the offense, it was much better than 1976, but Almon and Champion were the weak links. That was expected. What wasn’t expected was the defense.

Almon held his own, but Champion was just a mess. He had no range and couldn’t turn the DP. He left a lot of outs on the field, which hurt the pitching staff of course.

So the Padres panicked, as the Padres were wont to do. They fired John McNamara and hired Alvin Dark. They traded Metzger to the Cards for John (High and Away, Ball Four) D’Acquisto and Pat Scanlan. They sold Rader to the Blue Jays. (OK, that made no sense for either team – the Jays didn’t need a vet like that unless they were falling behind in clubhouse pranks – and the Padres should have received something for him other than cash).

That opened up third base for rookie Tucker Ashford, who wasn’t ready but played most of the rest of the season. So when Shirley or Owchinko pitched, there were up to five rookies in the lineup trying to beat the Big Red Machine, the Phillies, the gelling Dodgers or the Lumber Company.

The largest panic move was trading for Dave Kingman.

You have a second baseman that’s struggling in the basics, you got rid of your veteran third baseman, you have two big-time producers in the outfielders, two speedy youngsters in the outfield, a decent first baseman and a crumbling staff, and you trade for a slow, surly, defensive liability that can’t play any of the positions that you have issues at?

Besides Ashford, the Padres also tried Tenace and Ivie at third and Kingman even started two games there. Ick.

The result? 69-93.

Champion managed to play 150 games – with an OPS+ of 57 and those horrible fielding numbers. His WAR was -2.9 for that season. The anti-All Star.

The next year, Champion was a barely-used utility man as the Padres imported Fernando Gonzalez to play second. Ozzie Smith debuted at short and Almon moved to third. Suddenly, the pitching staff was much better (of course, having a healthy Jones and adding Gaylord Perry did wonders).

Champion went back to the minors and hit .328 in 1978 in Hawaii and then hit relatively well for two seasons at Tacoma. But even though he hit .281 in 1980, he was done at age 25. I mean, gone.

He’s a mere footnote, but an important one. You want to build with youth – but make sure you have a well thought out plan B, and not keep trotting out a big problem for 150 games and trying to fix the little ones.




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