From Photobucket, by Andy Cummings

Ghosts of Indians Past: The Underappreciated Rocky Colavito

Recently, while perusing the internets and Google machine for pictures to accompany another article, I stumbled upon this photo. That, my friends, is Rocky Colavito. He’s widely regarded as one of the greatest Indians of all-time among fans of an older generation and the mere mention of his name can elicit the telling of stories for hours on end. In fact, Colavito is held in such high regard that it prompted The Plain Dealer’s Terry Pluto to write a book in 1994 entitled The Curse of Rocky Colavito: A Loving Look at a 33-Year Slump.

From someone who never had the privilege of seeing Colavito play through no fault of my own (I’m sorry—it was out of my control that I was born 15 years after Colavito last set foot on a baseball diamond), I really have no idea how good Colavito was or wasn’t. I’ve simply relied on the opinions of those who saw him play and local folklore to shape and form my opinions. For better or worse, all of this has helped lead me to believe that Colavito was an incredible player, ruggedly handsome, and his trade in 1960 forever crippled the fortunes of the Indians and perhaps all Cleveland sports.

That got me thinking. Just how good was Rocky Colavito? Was he everything everyone claims he was? Was he even better than people say? Was he possibly worse? I honestly had no idea. I decided to do some digging to find out and finally formulate an opinion of my own—and so I concluded that Rocky Colavito was a beast and the stories back up what was truly an impressive career.

Allow me to explain. During his eight-year, two-stint stretch with the Indians, Colavito belted 190 home runs and drove in 574 runs while batting .267/.361/.495 with an OPS+ of 137. In his best single season with the Tribe in 1958, Colavito hit .303/.405/.620 with an OPS+ of 180, 41 homers, 113 RBI, and 7.0 fWAR. All he did was follow it up with 42 homers and 111 RBI while accumulating 6.0 fWAR in 1959. In those two seasons Colavito also made an All-Star team and had two top-five finishes in AL MVP voting.

Unfortunately, days before the 1960 season was set to open, Indians’ GM Frank Lane traded Colavito to Detroit for Harvey Kuenn. Colavito was the reigning home run king and just entering into his prime at the age of 26. Kuenn, who was three years older, batted .353 while providing absolutely no power in 1959 to claim the AL batting title and 4.6 fWAR. Hindsight is 20/20, but even at the time this deal must have made little to no sense. If only they had advanced metrics and a better concept of which stats really mattered back then.

The deal was every bit the disaster that it seemed. Kuenn lasted one season in Cleveland in which he batted .308, but he was never fully accepted by fans who clamored for Colavito. Kuenn was traded to San Francisco the following season for pitcher Johnny Antonelli and outfielder Willie Kirkland. Yes, the trade and asset they acquired in exchange for a star player was so unpopular with fans that the team was forced to trade said asset away in an attempt to erase it from memory. Well, played Frank Lane. Well Played.

Meanwhile, Colavito continued his reckless assault on American League pitching. In the five years following the trade he smashed 173 home runs, drove in 532 runs, and made three AL All-Star teams for the Tigers and A’s combined. During that five year stretch Colavito accumulate 28.7 fWAR, achieving a career best 8.8 fWAR during a 1961 campaign in which he batted .273/.371/.514 with an OPS+ of 157, 37 home runs, 112 RBI, and 90 runs scored.

Colavito eventually returned to the Indians in 1965, and was still an impact player. He hit 61 homers with 201 RBI in two and a half seasons, made two All-Star teams, and finished fifth in the 1965 AL MVP voting, a season in which he posted a respectable 4.7 fWAR. Colavito was eventually traded to the White Sox to close out the 1967 season and then spent the 1968 season split between the Dodgers and the Yankees before finally calling it a career.

But, with all of that taken into account, why isn’t Colavito showered with praise like other legendary Indians? If he was so great why isn’t his number retired? Yes, he was enshrined into the Indians’ Hall of Fame in 2006, but that’s where it seems to end. Instead he gets dubbed with a “curse” that is responsible for all of the team’s foils over the years. What more could Colavito have done to garner higher esteem in the eyes of the franchise whom he played for longer than any other?

(If you want to be technical, one of his numbers is retired. Both Colavito and Hall of Fame pitcher Bob Lemon wore #21. The Indians retired the number in honor of Lemon in 1998. It’s most likely that if the Indians were to honor Colavito in such a way they would use the #6 which he wore during his two most dominant seasons in Cleveland, 1958 and 1959. Not #38 or #21. Also worth noting, the Indians haven’t retired the number of any player that was with the team beyond 1959. That’s a little weird. Is there really no one else worthy? I know we were bad for a long time, but really? There’s no one else?)

From flickr, by firebrandal. Used under the Creative Commons License.

It could be due to Colavito’s lack of a presence in the top 10 of the Indians’ records lists. As team records currently stand Colavito ranks 10th in franchise history with 190 career home runs and he had the eighth- and 11th-most prolific home run seasons in franchise history in 1959 and 1958 respectively. Colavito’s 16.8 at bats per home run as an Indian ranks fourth all-time. The three players ahead of him: Jim Thome, Albert Belle, and Manny Ramirez, all of whom played for the Tribe during the steroid era.

Looking at things from a more modern point of view, Colavito’s cumulative 29.3 wins above replacement as an Indian places him in 22nd place according to Fangraphs. That puts him behind the likes of Albert Belle, Grady Sizemore, and Omar Vizquel, but has him ahead of familiar names such as Travis Hafner, Buddy Bell, and Victor Martinez. His .856 OPS in 3,700 at bats as an Indian was good enough to place him 16th all-time in team history sandwiched between Bruce Campbell and Shin-Soo Choo, while his 137 OPS+ puts him in 11th place.

His career numbers as an Indian indicate that he was well above average but they don’t stand up in comparison to a lot of other players throughout the franchise’s history. So what has led me to believe in the legend that was Rocky Colavito? Well, it’s a twofold answer.

First off, Colavito isn’t working on a level playing field with some of the players who accumulated bigger and better stats. One would hope that a player with 1,000, 2,000 or even 3,000 more plate appearances than Colavito would accumulate greater counting numbers. Such is the case in a lot of instances. Does anyone believe that Travis Hafner was a more prolific home run hitter than Colavito, or did he benefit from 4,413 plate appearances to Colavito’s 3,700?

If the Indians had never traded Colavito to the Tigers in 1960, the team’s records may look substantially different. If Colavito had accumulated his four seasons’ worth of Tiger statistics and one year of A’s statistics as an Indian, he would have finished with 363 home runs and 1,106 RBI, good enough to sit comfortably in first and second on the Indians all-time lists, respectively. How differently would we view Colavito under those circumstances? He’d be one of if not the greatest Indians’ hitter of all-time.

From Photobucket, by Bill Burgess

In terms of wins above replacement, Colavito’s cumulative 57.1 fWAR during that time frame would bump him up from 22nd to fourth on the Indians’ all-time fWAR list. The only three players that would have been ahead of him under those circumstances would be Tris Speaker (80.3 fWAR), Nap Lajoie (78.7 fWAR), and Lou Boudreau (68 fWAR). Colavito’s 57.1 fWAR would place him directly ahead of Earl Averill (54.2 fWAR), Larry Doby (49.2 fWAR) and Jim Thome (48 fWAR). That’s not bad company.

The other factor to take into consideration is that Colavito was doing what he was doing 30 years prior to the dawn of the steroid era. He was a prolific home run-hitting machine during an era when home run hitters weren’t a dime a dozen. The level of health and consistency with which Colavito performed was also astounding considering he didn’t have the benefit of advanced training techniques, medical know how or scientifically engineered aids.

So why isn’t Rocky Colavito not held in higher regard when it comes to the Indians? Why has he not gotten his proper due in terms of recognition from a team he spent the better part of eight seasons playing for? Why is his name not listed with Feller, Averill, Boudreau, Doby, Harder, and Lemon? This seems unfair; that the only regular recognition he receives from anyone is his name attached to a fluky curse.

I fully believe that Rocky Colavito was a premier player and deserves a better place in Cleveland Indians lore than the one he currently holds. Why should his legacy be ignored because of the mistakes of general manager Frank Lane? Meanwhile, we continue to hold other players in higher esteem that through their own choosing opted to leave Cleveland for bigger and better things. Unfortunately, until people begin seeing Colavito as the great player he was and not simply as a legend or part of local folklore he may never get the credit he deserves.

And maybe, just maybe, that’s the real “Curse of Rocky Colavito.”

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