Danny Walton – 1978 Topps
January 11, 2011
Strikeouts aren’t the devil. No matter what your Little League coach said, they’re just an out – one of 27 you get. So I’m not really upset by a player that whiffs a lot if he can do other things.
However, a high strikeout rate can also mean a hole in a players game that is quite exploitable. Mr. Walton is a prime example.
I had no idea about his past when I pulled this airbrushed beauty, and since he wasn’t playing in the US at the time I didn’t really dig into his story.
I did know that the Astros of that era were trying to develop and maintain some power hitters as it was a perceived shortage. But the 1977 Astros had a good set for the Astrodome – Bob Watson hit 22, Jose Cruz 17, Enos Cabell 16 and Cesar Cedeno 14. Cliff Johnson had 10 before he was traded. But they still needed some power off the bench, and Jim Fuller rather much washed out. Actually, Fuller whiffed out – striking out 45 times in 100 at bats. He had 197 one year in the IL, and that should have said something.
Walton was ‘Mickey Mantle II’ by reputation – someone who could launch home runs, hit for average and be the All-American Boy while switch hitting (though he stopped that when he was in the minors). Never mind that Walton wasn’t much of a defender or speedster and was from California and not Oklahoma. Ah, well…
But even though he hit .332 in Oklahoma City in 1969 with 25 home runs (and 100 K’s) at age 21, they sent him to the Pilots for Tommy Davis. The Astros were in a pennant race (though they fizzled in September as you read in Ball Four) and the Pilots’ veteran-heavy strategy was flailing.
At age 22, he was the regular left-fielder for the Brewers. He was having a great year for a rook, and then, like Mantle, he wrecked his knee. Out for the season in late August, he had an OPS+ of 117, and seemingly in the hunt for ROY.
There were some trouble signs, though, even before the knee injury. He did whiff 126 times in 397 at bats, and he scored just 15 runs in 117 games that weren’t the result of his 17 home runs.
On his return, he struggled and then the Brewers sent him to the Yanks. New York parked him in Syracuse for the next 1 1/2 seasons, where he did what he did – hit home runs and strike out.
The Yanks swapped him for Rick Dempsey (yes, old man Dempsey was a Twin and a Yank before an Oriole) and he rode the pine for the Twins in 1973, hitting .177 with four home runs and 28 whiffs in 96 at bats.
Back to AAA in 1974, he hit 35 bombs and whiffed 109 times in Tacoma. But it was the same as it ever was in 1975 for the Twins, a low batting average with K’s galore and not much power. When he was sent down in July 1975 he started mashing the ball again in Tacoma.
In fact, one could be said that without shortening his swing he was going to be one of the streakiest players in baseball. He could get away with the whiffs in AAA by feasting on pitchers that didn’t have command or control. Major league pitchers have command and control. During his good 1970 season he started out on fire, then hit .156 in June.
The Twins sent him to LA in 1976 in exchange for Bob Randall, who became the Twins starting 2B when Rod Carew moved to first. Walton, however, was used as a pinch hitter exclusively from late May to early August. He spent all of 1977 down in Albuquerque, wearing the orange and gold of the Dukes and mashing 42 home runs, which led the PCL by six over Gorman Thomas.
That led to a trade to the Astros in early September. The Astros gave the Dodgers Alex Taveras and another minor league player for the privilege of paying Walton to pinch hit and fill in at first base and whiff five times in 21 at bats.
He signed in Japan for 1978, and if you were like me when you pulled this card you went to the box scores in the newspapers and looked for his name. Then you went to the Sporting News, and like me, you didn’t see him in the major or minor league stats. So he was just a non-entity with a poorly airbrushed card.
Walton had struggles in Japan – hitting for a low average with high strikeouts. So it was back to the States, and a year in AAA with Seattle. The K’s were still there, but the power was gone – only 15 home runs. Moving to the Texas organization, he struggled in Charleston in 1980, had 13 plate appearances in the middle of the year, and hung ’em up at the end of it.
They didn’t have fancy ways to communicate in Walton’s era, but they had knowledge for sure, passed from one player to another and from team to team. After a couple of months in 1970, the majors caught up to him, and he kept chasing pitches trying to hit them into another zip code like he did in AAA.