Ron Cey is this close to my in/out line. He reckons out to a 98 by CHEWS+. He ranks twenty-third all-time among every third basemen in history, if we count Deacon White as a third baseman—there’s good reason to consider him a catcher. Cey rates twenty-first among eligible third basemen and twentieth if we think of John McGraw as “ineligible” because we honored him as a manager instead. Cey’s credentials compare closely to certain players near on the border of Hall of Miller and Eric third basemen.
ALL-TIME NAME RANK CHEWS+ PEAK7 CAREER =========================================== DEACON WHITE 21 114 34 63 DAVID WRIGHT* 19 103 43 54 SAL BANDO 20 101 41 55 JOHN MCGRAW 22 100 43 50 RON CEY 23 98 38 55 NED WILLIAMSON 24 97 41 51 HEINIE GROH 25 97 39 53 BOLD = HoMER ITAL = HoME MANAGER *NOT ELIGIBLE YET
Cey exists in a sort of HoME limbo for me. Not enough peak to push him over the line with that career total. But not enough career to push him over the line with that peak total. He’s a tweener, but just barely. An important factor barely hinted at by this chart dampens my enthusiasm for “The Penguin,” and you can start to see its outlines by looking at Cey relative to Sal Bando and Heinie Groh, the latter of whom Cey outranks by the numbers. This next chart will offer some more clarity. It includes all HoME third baseman who played contemporaneously with Cey and Groh for an extended period of time.
ALL-TIME NAME RANK CHEWS+ PEAK7 CAREER =========================================== MIKE SCHMIDT 1 186 65 116 GEORGE BRETT 3 144 52 88 HOME RUN BAKER 7 125 51 67 BUDDY BELL 13 116 43 69 GRAIG NETTLES 14 116 43 69 DARRELL EVANS 17 113 40 69 SAL BANDO 20 101 41 55 RON CEY 23 98 38 55 HEINIE GROH 25 97 39 53
The baseball gods blessed the 1970s with an unprecedented cavalcade of amazing third basemen. Perhaps the catchers of the 1970s and the shortstops of the 1930s rival this constellation of stars, but the sport has rarely witnessed so many talented players at one position at the same time. Cey ranks seventh among his peers. He has no argument for the best at his position or in his league. This does, and should, give a person pause. Groh, on the other hand, has only one great competitor in his time, Baker, and rates, for me, as the best NL third baseman between Tommy Leach (who had moved to centerfield by the time Groh came along) and Eddie Mathews. Forty years is a long time.
There’s one little thing, however, that we might want to think about. While Ron Cey had cups of coffee with the Dodgers in 1971 and 1972 (13 games, 47 plate appearances), his big-league career didn’t get underway until 1973, at age twenty-five—awfully late for a player of his caliber. The Mets drafted Cey out of high school in the nineteenth round of the June 1966 draft. He chose college instead. Two years later, the Dodgers drafted him in the third round of the secondary phase of the 1968 June draft. midway through his college career. This time Cey signed. There’s little biographical material available on Cey, especially about his pre-major-league days, so we have to look at his record for clues about his early years. In the chart below, rAGE is shorthand for relative age, or Cey’s age in years compared to the leagues he was in (thanks, as always, BBREF!).
YEAR AGE rAGE LEVEL G PA AVG/OBP/SLG =============================================== 1968 20 -0.2 Lo-A 74 308 .299/.397/.480 1969 21 -2.0 AA 13 40 .156/.300/.188 1969 21 -0.8 Hi-A 98 413 .331/.423/.569 1970 22 -1.2 AA 71 277 .331/.406/.481 1971 23 -2.7 AAA 137 572 .328/.400/.588 1972 24 -1.6 AAA 142 626 .329/.455/.546
The shape of Cey’s game never changed. He drew a lot of walks and hit for good power. He never appeared to lose any part of his core game as he moved up the ladder. Well, that’s not entirely true because his run environments got progressively more hitter friendly each year from 1969 onward. The PCL back then was a high-flying offensive environment, scoring about five runs a game during his time in it. Still the walks and power, the core of his game, never retreated in the face of stronger competition. Nor did they again players progressively older than he. Hitting well against higher-quality, older competition? That’s the stuff that makes prospect mavens drool.
In today’s terms, Cey might have made some sleeper lists after his age-20 season. His age-21 season, dominating the Hi-A California League, would have gotten him on Dodgers top-twenty prospect lists with comments like, “let’s see how he does against the more polished pitchers of the AA proving ground.” Then in 1970, it appears Cey had some kind of injury that kept him out of play for about half the season. Nonetheless, when he did play, he once again dominated. Touts would have ranked him among the top five or so Dodger prospects, probably writing something like “Assuming the injury has cleared up, Cey could be a longshot to make the parent team out of spring training. He has mastered the AA challenge, and may not require much AAA time to prove he’s ready for the big time.” Well, the Dodgers did send him to AAA, and he once again proved equal to the task. Our imaginary prospect hound might start getting nervous for Cey, “We may need to launch a ‘Free Ron Cey’ campaign. He looked ready last year, and his 1971 season in Spokane did nothing to dispel the idea that he needs no more seasoning.” Finally, after another stunning stat line at AAA at age twenty-four, Ron Cey made the big leagues to stay in 1973.
Before we did into why the Dodgers kept him on the farm so long, let’s see what the Minor League Equivalent process spits out for those seasons. I would hasten to note that because we have no park factors, and because he played 1972 at altitude with the Albuquerque Dukes, it’s possible his numbers that year look a little inflated.
YEAR AGE LG G PA BAT BSR DP FLD POS RAA WAA WAR NOTES ====================================================================== 1968 20 NL 160 666 -20 -1 -1 1 3 -18 -2.3 0.6 MLE 1969 21 NL 128 525 -3 -1 -1 1 2 -2 -0.3 1.8 MLE 1970 22 NL 85 272 16 0 0 1 2 19 1.9 2.9 MLE 1971 23 NL 153 632 6 -1 -1 1 3 7 0.8 3.4 MLE+MLB 1972 24 NL 155 684 16 -1 -1 -2 3 16 1.8 4.6 MLE+MLB 1973 25 NL 152 595 5 -2 -3 16 4 21 2.1 4.0 MLB 1974 26 NL 159 673 11 0 -1 12 4 26 2.8 4.9 MLB 1975 27 NL 158 662 30 0 -1 10 4 43 4.6 6.7 MLB
The MLE routine really nails Cey. His translations look exactly like what you’d expect from an advanced prospect growing rapidly into a star player. The Dodgers had a big-time talent on their hands, and they must have known it. So why didn’t they move him up more aggressively? Simply, they had too much big-league ready talent on the mother ship.
Cey could conceivably played third base and first base. He just didn’t have the build of an outfielder and didn’t fit the stereotype of the lithe little middle infielder of the time. Here then, are the Dodger’s corner men from 1968 until Cey grabbed hold of third base in 1973.
YEAR 1B 3B BENCH ======================================================================== 1968 W PARKER (28) B BAILEY (25) K BOYER (37), J LEFEBVRE (27) B SUDAKIS (22) 1969 PARKER (29) B SUDAKIS (23) BOYER (38), R FAIRLY (39), T HUTTON (23), LEFEBVRE (28), B GRABARKEWITZ (23) 1970 PARKER (30) GRABARKEWITZ (24) S GARVEY (21), LEFEBVRE (29), SUDAKIS (24) 1971 PARKER (31) D ALLEN (29) GARVEY (22), GRABARKEWITZ (25), LEFEBVRE (30), SUDAKIS (25), B VALENTINE (21), M WILLS (38) 1972 PARKER (32) GARVEY (23) B GRABARKEWTIZ (26), JIM LEFEBVRE (30), TERRY MCDERMOTT (21), TOM PACIOREK (25), VALENTINE (22)
The Dodgers had a wealth of young and middle-aged and sometimes old players on the corners. Cey finally closed the revolving door at third base where the Dodgers tried everyone from Dick Allen (a terrible third baseman with a bum throwing shoulder), Bill Sudakis (who later converted to catching), utility man Bill Grabarkewitz, Steve Garvey who had trouble throwing, as well as Ken Boyer, Jim Lefebvre, Bobby Valentine, Maury Wills, Bob Wills, Willis Drummond, Joe Strummer, Donna Summer, Don Ameche, and Chi Chi Rodriguez. Wes Parker’s retirement after 1972 to pursue an acting career sort of broke the logjam. Bill Buckner got some time at first, but Garvey scooted across the diamond and stuck there beginning in 1974. Should the Dodgers have promoted Cey earlier? Probably. He was unlucky to have signed with an organization that had so many options at his position.
That said, had he signed with another organization, his career could look quite different. I don’t dwell on what ifs, but for those inclined to give someone like Cey special consideration, it’s a question of when he would have made the majors absent so much competition. I think it’s certain that he would have spent all of 1972 in the majors. Without knowing his injury status in 1970 or the reason for his absence from the lineup for much of the year, it looks like at least a partial season for 1971 makes sense. Let’s call it a half season. For me it doesn’t change his peak value, but it cranks him up to 61 career WAR, which would lead to a 103 CHEWS+ and probably put him on the good side of the in/out line.
Tune in next week when we focus on almost contemporary hitters whose rose to stardom in spite of their teams’ inability to find them playing time.