Jimmy Wynn, a Cincinnati native, passed away on March 26th. Jay Jaffe wrote about “The Toy Cannon” over at Fangraphs on Wednesday, and his article took me a little bit down the proverbial rabbit hole.
Born in Cincinnati, Jimmy Wynn went to Taft High School and graduated in 1960. He was the only Major League player ever from the school, and only one of three to ever play affiliated baseball. This was before the draft was instituted in baseball. The Cincinnati Reds tried to sign Wynn out of high school, but he opted to head off to college. He would go on to play at Central State University in Wilberforce, Ohio. He was only one of two players from the school to ever play in the Major Leagues – former Red Eddie Milner was the other.
But Wynn only played one season at Central State University. The Reds signed him prior to the 1962 season for $500 – that’s just over $4200 in today’s money. Cincinnati assigned the outfielder to Tampa, their Class D affiliate in the Florida State League. And Wynn was a man among boys that season for the Tampa Tarpons, hitting .290/.448/.445 with 113 walks, 10 doubles, five triples, and 14 home runs in 120 games.
Obviously the 113 walks don’t need context for how insane that is – but let’s put the other numbers in context. His 14 home runs were three fewer than the entire roster for the Sarasota Sun Sox. His 14 home runs were four fewer than the entire roster of the St. Petersburg Saints. In fact, only two teams hit more than 26 home runs that year – Wynn’s Tampa squad, with a league best 44, and the Palatka Cubs, who hit 43.
The league as a whole hit .237/.334/.308. And before you begin thinking that maybe Tampa was playing in a hitter friendly ballpark and Wynn was just mashing because of that – think again. The Tarpons hit .237/.343/.312 as a team. His .290 average was 13th best in the league that season. Bobby Kilpatrick of Sarasota led the way with a .343 average that year. He never reached the Major Leagues. Wynn did, however, lead the league in both on-base percentage and slugging percentage (and obviously in OPS, because duh). He also led the league in home runs with 14, and only two other players even reached double digits. One of those players was Lee May, who hit 10. The other was Robert Michael of Palatka, who also hit 10. Michael never reached the Major Leagues.
Just how much better was Jimmy Wynn in that 1962 season for Tampa? Well, at least when we are speaking of offensive outputs, he was really stinking good. We don’t have home and road splits for the teams in the league, so we can’t calculate a true OPS+ formula. But if we assume that Tampa played in a league neutral ballpark his OPS+ that season would have been 179. Joey Votto, for example, posted a career best OPS+ of 177 back in 2012. Obviously it’s tougher to do that at the big league level since everyone there is a big leaguer – while the talent level in the minors isn’t quite as tight from best to worst like it is in the majors – it does give perspective as to just how much better he was the the league average hitter that season.
While the teams most certainly weren’t aware of Jimmy Wynn posting a 179 OPS+ for Tampa that year, his talent was obvious. No matter which stat you were looking at in 1962, he stood out. And while we don’t have video to watch him play from that season, it feels like a good bet that he passed all of the eye tests, too.
And it’s those reasons that led directly to Jimmy Wynn no longer being a Cincinnati Red. While the Major League Baseball draft as we know it didn’t exist in 1962, another draft did. It was referred to as The First Year Player Draft. It was similar in ways to the current Rule 5 draft that we have today, but not quite the same. From an article at SABR.org:
The first-year player rule was still not strong enough to fully moderate bonuses, so some teeth were added to it in 1962. The draft price was lowered to $8,000 for all teams. More important, a new restriction was applied. With one exception per team, first-year players added to the 40-man roster to protect them from the draft could not be optioned to the minors. Furthermore, the one option teams were allowed (the designated assignment) had the effect of reducing the size of their active roster from 25 to 24 for the bulk of the season. If teams wanted to send additional first-year players to the minors, they had to obtain waivers from the other MLB clubs, who could claim each player at the same $8,000 price applicable to the draft. To further encourage drafting, teams with a full 40-man roster were allowed to select one first-year player, although they were not permitted to take anyone in the Rule 5 draft. These changes had the desired effect, at least in the most visible way. The number of first-year draftees selected by MLB teams jumped to 45 in 1962 with an additional 33 picked by minor league clubs. Among them were such future stars as Glenn Beckert, Paul Blair, Dave May, Lou Piniella, and Jim Wynn.
It was that winter following the 1962 season that saw the Houston Colt .45s select Jimmy Wynn from the Cincinnati Reds. Beginning the following season he would play in the Major Leagues for the next 15 seasons for Houston, Los Angeles, Atlanta, New York, and Milwaukee. Over the course of his big league career he would accumulate 55.8 WAR – more than plenty of players in the Major League Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, while hitting .250/.366/.436 with 285 doubles, 39 triples, 291 home runs, and 225 stolen bases in 1920 games played.