The Big 101: #98 to #92
Let's continue the countdown of the 101 greatest Reds in history
Let’s keep counting ‘em down! Last time around, we began the countdown of the top 101 players in Cincinnati Reds franchise history, an off-season project that I’ve been thinking about for years. As I noted in the first installment, I don’t know how long this project will take, but the top fifty will get full essays about their lives and careers. I’ll spend a little less time on the next 51, but they’re all good players who deserve to be remembered.
We’ll begin with Number 98 on what I’m calling “The Big 101” (get it?). But first, let me remind you: this is only an exhibition. This is not a competition. Please, no wagering.
98. Todd Frazier
I wrote about Frazier’s magical moment last week. It’s a big reason why Frazier will be a Reds Hall of Famer. But it’s not the only reason. First of all, he made a couple of All-Star teams as a Red, and that’s generally enough to get you into the conversation on this list. And did you know that he posted the 7th highest WAR in Reds history among 3Bs post-1900? (I will conceded that, in some circles, that’s the very definition of “damning with faint praise.)
97. Fred Norman
When Fred Norman was traded to the Reds from San Diego in the middle of June in 1973, no one paid much attention. Cincinnati gave up very little in return (Mike Johnson, Gene Locklear, and cash), and to that point in his career, the 30-year-old Norman had not made much of an impact on the big league scene, despite debuting at age 19. Before 1973, Norman had played for five different teams, mostly in relief, posting a 14-28 and a 4.04 ERA.
The 1973 season began even worse: at the time of the trade, Norman was 1-7 with a 4.26 ERA, and diminutive lefty’s career appeared to be on the rocks.
Welcome to Cincinnati! Norman joined Sparky Anderson’s rotation and immediately spun back-to-back complete-game shutouts in his first two outings. He almost pitched a third one in his next start, but surrendered a solo homer with two outs in the ninth inning before finishing out a 4-1 victory.
At the time of the trade, the Reds, fresh off an appearance in the 1972 World Series, were in fourth place in the NL West. They would, of course, go on to win the division, and Norman would settle in as a mainstay of the rotation throughout the Big Red Machine years.
Norman was inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame in 2018. Five years before, he appeared on back-to-back episodes of our podcast, where he did a deep dive into his Reds career with my friend Bill Lack. You can listen to those episodes here: part one and part two.
96. Jim Brosnan
A Cincinnati kid, born in the Queen City in 1929, Brosnan had a terrific run with the Redlegs from 1959 to 1963. If you’re like me — an obsessive collector and reader of books about the Reds — you likely know Brosnan as the author of a couple of pretty great ones. In “The Long Season,” Brosnan chronicles the year he was traded from St. Louis to Cincinnati; it was a precursor to the “diary” style of sportswriting that would reach its pinnacle one decade later with the publication of Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four.”
Brosnan — by now known as “The Professor, a nickname purportedly hung on the pitcher by teammate — later wrote “Pennant Race,” about the magical 1961 season in which the Reds surprised everyone by winning the National League pennant. Both are worth reading if you are a Reds fan (and if you’re not, why are you here?).
That 1961 season (10-4, 3.04, 16 saves) was among Brosnan’s best, but he was effective throughout his five seasons in Cincinnati: 29-14, 190 games pitched, 43 saves, 3.04 ERA, 131 ERA+. Along with Danny Graves and Hal Chase, Brosnan is one of the eligible players on The Big 101 list who has not yet been inducted into the Reds Hall of Fame.
95. Pedro Borbón
No pitcher in Reds history appeared in more games for the club than Pedro Borbón, who stepped onto the mound 531 times while wearing a Cincinnati uniform. (The next closest is the rubber-armed late-90s/early-00s reliever Scott Sullivan at 494.) But ask anyone who remembers Borbón what they remember most, and you’ll likely get some version of the beginning of his entry at the Reds Hall of Fame’s website:
He was a licensed barber who once claimed that his grandfather was still alive at age 136. He was well-schooled in the sport of cock fighting -- illegal in the United States, but a thriving industry in his native Dominican Republic. He once bit an opposing player in the heat of an on-field fight.
But Borbón was pretty effective, too! A key member of Sparky Anderson’s Big Red Machine bullpen, averaging nearly 70 appearances per season during his seven full seasons in Cincinnati from 1972 to 1978. My favorite Borbón story, of course, comes from Game 3 of the 1973 National League Championship series, when the famous Pete Rose/Bud Harrelson fight happened. During the fracas, Borbón battled with Mets pitcher Buzz Capra. After the fight ended, Borbón picked up a cap and placed it onto his head. He soon realized that he was wearing Capra’s Mets cap. So Borbón did what Borbón does: he ripped off the cap and took a bite of it.
94. Ted Abernathy
Admit it, you’ve never heard of Ted Abernathy. As a North Carolina schoolboy, Abernathy tore muscles in his shoulder, forcing him to adopt a submarine-style pitching motion. It worked, and the Reds nearly signed him after high school, but he ultimately accepted an offer from the Washington Senators.
After eight up and down seasons for four clubs, the Reds selected Abernathy in the 1966 Rule 5 draft. At age 33, he immediately transformed into the best reliever in the league in 1967. Abernathy won the “Fireman of the Year” Award, going 6-3 with a 1.27 ERA (299 ERA+) with 28 saves in 70 games. According to Baseball-Reference, Abernathy posted 6.2 wins above replacement that season, an almost-incomprehensible total for a reliever.
In 2001, in his “New Historical Baseball Abstract,” Bill James declared Abernathy’s 1967 season one of the ten most valuable relief seasons ever (it was #8 on the list, for what that’s worth). It’s by far the best season for a reliever in Reds history, and for that, Abernathy deserves a spot on The Big 101.
93. Scott Williamson
The most difficult decisions on The Big 101 will be around relief pitchers. Scott Williamson is the third of those we’ve already discussed and there will be a handful more to come. What’s the best way to rate relievers? Obviously, historically, relievers have been far less valuable than starters. (That very well may be changing in the modern era.) But how do we acknowledge the impact of the best relievers in Reds history? Once this project is completed, I expect that there will be a good argument that I’ve included too many relief pitchers. Feel free to disagree with my choices! I think I probably included too many…I just couldn’t figure out which ones I was comfortable removing from my final list.
The fact that Williamson made it onto this list surprised me more than any other selection. But if you look at career impact, Williamson compares favorably with the other relievers here. Williamson won the Rookie of the Year award and made the All-Star team in that memorable 1999 season, when he went 12-7 with a 2.41 ERA, 19 saves, and a 194 ERA+. He was only in Cincinnati for five seasons, but his production was far better than I remembered. Williamson’s ERA+ of 155 was better than John Franco, Raisel Iglesias, or any of the Nasty Boys. Among all pitchers in Reds history who spent their careers primarily as relievers, Williamson’s 8.1 WAR is firmly in the top ten. Williamson is not (yet) ha Reds Hall of Famerh, but he’s probably better than you remembered.
92. Greg Vaughn
One of the all-time “Only played one year for the Reds” players. (Another entry on that list coming up next.) Acquired in a blockbuster deal with the Padres* prior to — again — the 1999 season, Vaughn was a three-time All-Star who was coming off perhaps his best season yet. In 1998, he hit .272/.363/.597 with 50 homers and 119 RBI, finishing in the top five of MVP voting.
*Cincinnati traded Reggie Sanders, Damian Jackson, and Josh Harris to San Diego in exchange for Vaughn and Mark Sweeney.
With the Reds, he immediately had a historic impact; less than two weeks after the trade, he forced Reds owner Marge Schott to end the team’s ban on facial hair. (The last Reds to wear facial hair were Jake Beckley and Tom Daly in 1903.) Vaughn’s glorious goatee was immediately installed into the cleanup spot and he led the Reds to a remarkable season in which they won 99 games and narrowly missed the playoffs., smashing 45 homers with 118 RBI.
Vaughn’s 3.8 WAR doesn’t necessarily stand out, but I’m bumping him onto this list because of “intangibles.” (Feel free to yell at me now. Reds broadcaster Marty Brennaman once said that Greg Vaughn was the best leader he ever saw in his 46 years in Cincinnati. I agree.
What I’m reading
Not much to read online this week, but I just purchased Quentin Tarantino’s “Cinema Speculation.” I’ve just begun reading it, but so far it appears that he is speculating about cinema. I will report back later.
What I’m watching
It’s not often I get surprised at the theater, but it happened this week with “The Menu.” Starring Ralph Fiennes, Anya Taylor-Joy, and a fine ensemble cast, it was billed thusly: A couple travels to a coastal island to eat at an exclusive restaurant where the chef has prepared a lavish menu, with some shocking surprises. Darkly comic fun. 4.5 stars out of 5.
I was also disappointed at the theater this week, by Wakanda Forever. Perhaps I expected too much after the original Black Panther, but this one is a muddled mess with a meandering plot and spends too much time promoting Disney+ shows. 2.5 stars out of 5.
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