It’s fitting that Ray Lankford was inducted into the Cardinals Hall of Fame over the weekend, because the last couple years have felt a lot like the 90s.
Today’s 20-something Cardinal fans had never lived through the joylessness of the last couple years. I’m not old enough to remember the barren 70s, but I grew up right through the really shitty 90s, when Ray Lankford was about all we had.
But Lankford wasn’t just significant because of the role he filled for fans my age. He was a bridge from the Whiteyball Cardinals of the 80s to the Cardinals dynasty of the 2000s. His style of play was also in some ways ahead of its time, and therefore not as appreciated as it should have been.
When Lankford was called up on August 21, 1990, he joined a roster that still included names like Ozzie Smith, Willie McGee, Terry Pendleton and John Tudor. The lineup card still looked like the Whiteyball Cardinals, but the play on the field did not. The team was on its way to a last place finish in the NL East with 70 wins - 2nd worst in the entire league.
So from the outset, Lankford was in a tough position. Here was the team’s hottest prospect, finally promoted to the big leagues. That should be the kind of ray of hope that ignites a fanbase of a last place team... and for some it was.
But the promotion of Lankford also signaled to fans that their beloved icons of the 1980s were on the way out. Specifically, Lankford was inserted into center field, moving Willie McGee to right, and more or less confirming that the team would not be re-signing him when he reached free agency at the end of the year.
In fact, the team would trade McGee to the A’s just eight days later for a package that included Felix Jose. Terry Pendleton and Vince Coleman would both depart that offseason via free agency. Ozzie Smith expected to be dealt as well.
Whitey Herzog had already resigned (in July) when it became clear the team was moving towards rebuilding. The atmosphere in his clubhouse wasn’t exactly great, as Pedro Guerrero said of Herzog’s departure, “I probably would have quit too. It’s been a long year. I can’t wait till it’s over.”
Herzog also kicked a litte dirt on Lankford on his way out, saying he was unimpressed with Lankford’s .270 batting average at Louisville. And while he probably wasn’t the first to lob that kind of criticism at Lankford, that set the template for how many fans would view him throughout his career.
Here’s Lankford’s 1992 Score baseball card:
Look at that card through the lens of the early 90s and what do you see? You see a guy who barely hit .250 in his first full season and drove in less than 70 runs. And granted, in ‘91 Ray Lankford wasn’t quite RAY LANKFORD yet, but you can already see the problem.
Lankford only batted above the Gold Standard of .300 once in his career. He only surpassed 100 RBI in a season once - and both of those seasons wouldn’t come until the end of the decade. Likewise, while he would eventually hit 31 HR twice, he spent most of his career in the more pedestrian 15-20 range.
But if you look at Lankford’s Fangraphs page through a modern lens, you see a much different player. Lankford drew walks at such a clip that his OBP outpaced his AVG by 100 points for most of his career. Even before his home run totals surged, his doubles power was pushing his SLG% into the very good range. His wRC+ surged to 143 by 1992 - just his 2nd full season - and would stay essentially between 120 and 150 throughout his Cardinals career. As for not reaching 100 RBI? Lankford batted at the top of the order for much of the 90s, and RBI are bullshit.
Roll in his defense and base running, and Ray Lankford was an extremely valuable player. His 36.1 WAR in the 90s led all Cardinals by a wide margin. (Brian Jordan is 2nd with 20.) From 1995 to 1998, the only outfielders with higher WAR were Barry Bonds and Ken Griffey, Jr.
Unfortunately for Lankford, nobody knew what those words meant in the ‘90s. Despite being one of the best outfielders of the decade, Lankford would only make one All-Star team. And in St. Louis, being framed as “Willie McGee’s replacement” didn’t help matters. In 1990, McGee left St. Louis hitting .355 and winning his 2nd NL Batting Title. Nobody knew what WAR was in 1990, but they sure as hell knew that a batting title meant you were THE BEST HITTER IN THE LEAGUE.
It didn’t help matters that Lankford played much of his career on some extremely middling Cardinals teams. The alleged rebuild that he ushered in came at the end of the Anheuser-Busch ownership, when payrolls were slashed and homegrown players were not supplemented with enough outside talent to make the club competitive.
But Lankford’s career spanned that gulf of the 90s, and he remained with the club for the start of the Albert Pujols era in 1991 - though he was traded midseason to the Padres. But Lankford returned as a role player in 2004, as part of what I think we all agree was the greatest Cardinal team of the modern era. The player who began his career playing alongside Ozzie, Willie and Pendleton ended it alongside Pujols, Edmonds. Rolen and Chris Carpenter.
Given the lukewarm fan reaction to Lankford throughout his career, it’s not surprising his induction into the Cardinals Hall of Fame took a few years. But through a modern lens, it was certainly overdue. His 38 career WAR as a Cardinal is 13 more than McGee, and just 3 behind Lou Brock.