Dwight Evans

Olde Sox: Dwight Evans Was Captain Consistency

I’ve been thinking a lot about the Hall of Fame recently, and that usually means thinking about the guys on the margins. It’s a weird thing to be really, really great, but on that edge of enshrinement in the Hall. If you spend your whole career (minus a year in the wild with a division rival) with a team, put up All-Star numbers for the duration and find a way to stay on the field for the better part of two decades — that’s kind of the textbook definition of a Hall-of-Famer, right?

Then there’s Dwight “Dewey” Evans, a fixture in the Boston outfield for two full decades (70s and 80s) and a cornerstone of several competitive Red Sox teams. He put together seasons that the new-school sabermetrics kids might call “awesome”, but at the time he may have had more of a reputation as a steady, solid producer and not a superstar. And when it came time to consider his career in the context of the Hall of Fame, before those kids and their computers started running the numbers in earnest, he fell off the ballot quickly despite a solid case for immortality.

Perhaps most interestingly, Dewey was two different players throughout his lengthy career — at least in terms of balance of production. During the 1970s, he was a good hitter, but a great defender in right field. During the 1980s, he was a great hitter, but a fair-to-poor defender in right field.

I’ll actually start with defense because, perhaps more than anything else, great defense was Dwight Evans’ calling card for much of his career. Despite spending most of his innings in the defensively invisible position of right field, Evans had both a sterling reputation as a defender (especially once the late 70s rolled around) and the stats to back that reputation up … at least for a while.

Do you love good defensive plays? Good, because Dewey caught this ball just for you. World Series, 1975.

Magnificent. Range and a cannon arm, a devastating combo for a right fielder. Ken Griffey is still running, I think.

It’s interesting — Dewey’s defensive reputation appears to have logged behind the reality, at least according to our current defensive metrics. Here’s a quick table of Evans’ 20 years of FRAA stats, by year, along with the years he won the Gold Glove.

Year FRAA Gold Glove?
1972 -1.1
1973 0.1
1974 18.9
1975 18.1
1976 6.3 YES
1977 2.9
1978 6.1 YES
1979 8.5 YES
1980 7.7
1981 13.5 YES
1982 13.2 YES
1983 -1.6 YES
1984 -1.9 YES
1985 -0.7 YES
1986 1.7
1987 -4.5
1988 -6.1
1989 -3.7
1991 -2.2

We don’t have the greatest data on defense from the 70s and 80s, but FRAA and the like make for pretty good proxies. I’m not saying that Evans didn’t deserve the award in the years that he won, or that he did deserve it in the early years where he didn’t — but it looks like the voters might’ve moved to reward Dewey just a bit late for his outstanding prowess in the field.

Eight Gold Gloves isn’t exactly chopped liver, but one might argue that a few were undeserved, while his early-career seasons of ‘74 and ‘75 are under-appreciated. Perhaps Evans got more credit in his later career for defense, because that’s when he started to really emerge as a hitter.

See, from the jump, Dewey Evans could get on base, but it wasn’t until 1981 that Evans’ bat really started talking. Prior to that point, Evans was a prodigious walker, regularly taking a free pass, and hitting for what most might consider today a “good enough” batting average. The combination of his patience and bat-to-ball abilities resulted in an on-base percentage that hovered between .320 and .365 for much of the 80s.

I probably don’t need to tell you today that excellent defense, plus a True Average that regularly topped .270 (average for the league) makes for a valuable player in any era. But Evans didn’t carry the power — or the RBIs — of teammates like Jim Rice right away. He’d regularly hit 10 to as many as 17 homers, but in 1978 the power started coming out.

First it was 24 homers in 1978, then 21 in 1979. By 1981, his best season offensively, he hit 22 homers in just 108 games, thanks to the strike-shortened season. This was good enough to tie for the league lead in home runs, and from that point on, Evans could be counted on to hit between 20-34 homers every single season until his final two campaigns.

Dewey Evans had a knack for going yard on the first day of the season. Opening Day, 1986:

As the power increased, Dewey also began walking at a higher rate than ever before, and his overall offensive performance stayed strong. Even as his defensive numbers shrunk, his offense carried the day, and he put up season after season of consistent, All-Star-level performance, despite only making the mid-season team on three occasions (‘78, ‘81, and ‘87).

Evans would finish his career with a .294 True Average, well above the average rate for his era. Since his career was as long as it was consistent, he finished with 385 career homers and 69.4 WARP, which places him firmly at 31st on Baseball Prospectus’s all-time position-player WARP leaderboard. Now, this admittedly doesn’t cover all of baseball history, just the latter part of the 20th century and the 21st — but it’s still an astonishing feat for any player.

There’s a pretty interesting comp for Evans in the big leagues today: St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Jason Heyward. Heyward, like early Evans, has a reputation as a truly outstanding defensive outfielder. Both men have otherworldly seasons by defensive metrics such as Baseball Prospectus’s FRAA. Evans had four seasons worth 10 or more runs defensively by that metric, and Heyward has two so far (including his ridiculous 26.4 FRAA last season).

There’s a pretty interesting comp for Evans in the big leagues today: St. Louis Cardinals right fielder Jason Heyward.

Both hitters know how to work the count, as Evans has his aforementioned tremendous walk rate of 13.2% — a rate that only increased as his career went on. Heyward’s walk rate is only 10.9% for his career, but one could see it increasing as time passes and he matures as a hitter. Evans was certainly the greater power threat — 385 career homers is no mean feat — but Heyward has flashed plus power at times as well, and could top 100 career dingers before this season is over.

As far as Red Sox players go, finding a comp to Evans is nigh-impossible. The closest comp might be Mookie Betts, he of the prodigious minor-league walk rate and will-he-won’t-he power stroke. But Betts profiles as less bat and more fielding, which is true of, oh, perhaps 90% of all baseball players in history. And Betts can run, which Dewey, sadly, could not. I’m stretching a little bit here — Dwight Evans probably isn’t walking through that door, unless Manuel Margot turns into something even his biggest fans haven’t seen coming.

Few hitters could post something like a .270/.370/.470 slash line over a season, much less a career. While Evans wasn’t exactly a singular performer, and sometimes overshadowed by players like Jim Rice and Fred Lynn, he was a critical piece on two decades worth of Red Sox teams.

Dewey was what I would consider a complete ballplayer … though he wasn’t always complete at the same time. He hit for power and for average. He got on base. He was a good, or maybe great, defensive outfielder for a portion of his career. He couldn’t really run, but he gets a pass there.

And not only was Evans great, but he’s played more games for the Red Sox than anyone not named Yastrzemski. 19 years, people! That’s just about a lifetime in navy and red, with only a handful of seasons putting up less than three WARP. That’s a career better than any Boston position player not named Williams, Yastrzemski, or Boggs. That’s what Dwight Evans brought to Fenway Park day in and day out.

Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images

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