Every team wants power, and not just in small doses. Make all the jokes you want about slap hitters on the Royals, or the on-base percentage monsters that the Athletics and Rays chase after, but deep down inside, every single front office wants mounds and mounds of dingers. In baseball the home run is the game’s greatest currency and, by that standard, Mo Vaughn was hella rich.
To a subset of younger (but not too young!) Red Sox fans, Mo Vaughn stands out as one of the most dynamic players during the team’s turbulent nineties. Vaughn was many things off the field: philanthropist, troublemaker, businessman–but on the field he was one of the team’s most valuable assets, rivaling even Nomar Garciaparra in on-field value. Sometimes. Of course, as great as Vaughn was, he never soared to quite the same heights as his short-term teammate. By the end of his run in Boston, he wasn’t exactly missed … especially once he took the field for his second and third teams.
But we’ll get to that later. First, let’s reminisce about the great times Vaughn had in Boston, where he posted terrific, consistent numbers for the better part of six seasons. He was a true masher, launching balls over the right field fence with alacrity, and striking fear into the hearts of all opposing hitters.
In baseball the home run is the game’s greatest currency and, by that standard, Mo Vaughn was hella rich.
Vaughn came up with the Sox in 1991, but didn’t really make a mark on the team until his 1993 season. For his first two partial seasons, he struggled a bit, showing his under-developed skills but hinting at the skills that made scouts like this one excited about his future middle-of-the-order potential. In 659 plate appearances in ‘91 and ‘92, Vaughn only hit 17 home runs and showed no indication he’d develop into a .300 hitter, managing just a .244 batting average. In short, he was a poor man’s Tom Brunansky.
In 1993, he officially ousted Scott Cooper from the first base position on a permanent basis, and it was now that he started to shine. That season, he showed the combination of skills that would define him during his prime: excellent power (.525 slugging), great contact ability (.297 batting average), and solid patience (79 walks). His .306 True Average that season was substantially above-average–and it would go on to be the lowest seasonal mark for the rest of his career as a Red Sox.
The only real dig one could find on Vaughn at that point was that he didn’t exactly field his position like Keith Hernandez. The young Vaughn was still a large man, and though athletic, he was more of a designated hitter operating as a first baseman out of necessity. BP’s FRAA fielding metric docked him only three runs over that full season, but things never would get substantially better for Vaughn with the leather. Oh … that’s not true. Vaughn would go on to cost himself about half a win per season just by being a terrible baserunner over much of his career. Mo Vaughn: not exactly a five-tool player.
But oh, that bat.
In 1994, he didn’t get the chance to play a full season, but still managed to lead baseball with 20 intentional walks and smack another 26 dingers. By this point, coming into his prime, he was flirting with the platonic ideal of the middle-of-the-order hitters of the time: 30+ homers, .300 batting average, and 100 RBI. But by 1995, those numbers would look like child’s play. During that season in the middle of the decade, Vaughn had his most famous, and one of his best seasons. He turned up the power, bashing 39 homers and leading the league in RBI, even though his overall offensive performance by True Average (.307) wasn’t much different than his ‘93 campaign. Still, he firmly established himself as one of his day’s premier bats. Who cares that he went 0-for-the-playoffs after the season ended?
Was Albert Belle a better hitter in ‘95? Sure. Was teammate John Valentin arguably a better overall player that season? Ask your older sister or your uncle! (Yeah, probably.) But Vaughn walked away with the American League MVP Award, his first All-Star appearance, and a Silver Slugger.
In 1996, Vaughn did something a bit unexpected: he improved on his ‘95 performance, in almost every way. This was his true offensive peak in my book, a season where he appeared in 161 games, hit a career-high 44 homers, and posted a .420 OBP to go with a .583 slugging percentage. His defense was god-awful if you ask FRAA (-24.2 runs), though Total Zone was more forgiving, so he didn’t post as high a WARP as he did the previous year (3.8 WARP in ‘95, 2.7 WARP in ‘96).
At the risk of sounding boring, the next two seasons–what would be his final seasons in Boston–were simply more of the same. In 1997 and 1998, Mo would post his two finest seasons by TAv (.319 and .323) while hitting 75 homers and taking over 1,300 plate appearances. Steady and solid as a rock, Mo also managed to redeem his poor playoff showing by hitting two homers in four games in the Sox’s aborted 1998 playoff run. He remained one of the league’s most compelling and fearsome hitters, able to take one out of the park or off his arm–he crowded the plate pretty good–no matter the scenario. He hit bombs like this one, walking it off on Opening Day in his final season with the team.
Vaughn never reached the gaudy WARP (or fWAR, or bWAR, for that matter) totals of some of his peers due to his position, his poor fielding, and his god-forsaken baserunning. Where some players were and are able to supplement their bats with other, less-impressive skills, Vaughn was all-bat, all-the time. There’s nothing wrong with that, but his offensive output was merely great, not the legendary stuff of Ted Williams and the greatest hitters of his time. In order to truly stand among the best to ever wear Red Sox colors, he’d have to continue his dominance for several more seasons. Of course, that didn’t happen. He elected a six-year, $80 million contract from the Angels that was the largest contract ever, at the time of its signing.
Reportedly, Boston made little effort to re-sign Vaughn as he entered free agency after the 1998 season. Despite his popularity and skill, this turned out to be a very, very smart decision by team management. Mo’s weight and conditioning was always a concern for the Sox, and in his final five seasons in the league, it would contribute to a series of injuries that saw him change from an impact bat to just an impact contract. He swiftly converted from a transcendent bat to just an above-average one, and his sketchy defense an inability to stay healthy saw his career fall into decline in his final seasons with the Angels and Mets.
Boston made little effort to re-sign Vaughn as he entered free agency after the 1998 season. Despite his popularity and skill, this turned out to be a very, very smart decision by team management.
Of course, we have to ask ourselves this: is there anyone currently in the Red Sox organization who can do a convincing Mo Vaughn impression? Vaughn was known for his unbelievable left-handed power, keen eye, and poor defense even at first base … so naturally the Sox have been employing an accelerated version of him for the past 13 seasons. David Ortiz is the apotheosis of Mo Vaughn, his perfected state. Sure, Ortiz doesn’t have Vaughn’s MVP season, but he has enough top-five MVP finishes to hold his own. And while Papi had his down seasons–Remember 2009? I wish I didn’t!–his best years were better than Mo’s best.
No, I don’t think there’s another Mo Vaughn lurking in the Red Sox’s developmental pipeline, but who cares when the Sox have had Vaughn-plus in the lineup for over a decade. Perhaps that’s why Mo is a bit of forgotten lore in Red Sox history these days? You hardly hear his name mentioned in the annals of great Sox sluggers, despite his towering power and relative consistency. Perhaps it’s because of Ortiz’s shadow, his shorter peak, or the acrimonious way he left the team.
Despite all that, despite the team’s darker days in the mid-90s, there was a time when young Sox fans could glimpse the foundation of a team with Garciaparra and Vaughn blasting their way through American League rotations. Though Vaughn never reached the Hall of Fame heights of some other Red Sox greats, he certainly remains one of the team’s most distinguished, and identifiable sluggers.
Photo by Kelly O’Connor/www.sittingstill.smugmug.com/