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Shining a light on a 1970s role player who was ahead of his time

Joe Hague - St. Louis Cardinals

Happy Thanksgiving weekend, everyone. I hope you’re enjoying it safely and are full of all of the copious holiday foods you desire. It’s a slow time of year for baseball, so today I’d like to take a look at Joe Hague, a little known Cardinals role player from the late 1960s and early 1970s. Other than seven games for the 1968 pennant winning Cardinals, Hague never played on a playoff team in St. Louis. He only had two seasons with any sort of regular playing time, and he broke 200 plate appearances just three times in his six-year MLB career. Yet when we dig deeper, we see a player who was ahead of his time. Joe Hague is exactly the kind of player who might have carved out a more profound career in modern times.

I’ll forgive you if you’ve never heard of Joe Hague. Baseball history is littered with under the radar role players who never broke through to stardom or even regular playing time. I was born four years after his last game as a Cardinal and only recently discovered him. Even then, the only reason I knew about Joe Hague is because he was the replacement for Dick Allen after the Cardinals foolishly traded him following the 1970 season. That’s a tough act to follow.

The left-handed Hague played for the Cardinals from 1968 to May 1972 when he was traded to the Reds straight up for Bernie Carbo. It was one of the few good trades the Cardinals made in that era, though Carbo’s 4.6 fWAR in less than two years in St. Louis is only a footnote since Hague is the point of emphasis here. Hague arrived in St. Louis at age 24 and played seven games as a September call-up. His 19 plate appearances yielded a solid .235/.316/.412 slash line in the fabled Year of the Pitcher. He broke camp with the team as a bench player in 1969 but uneven playing time and poor performance (70 PAs, a .164/.271/.213 slash line) landed him back in AAA Tulsa early in the season, where he racked up an eye-popping 1.029 OPS. The Cardinals called him back up in September and gave him more consistent playing time, but with more mixed results.

The following season was when everything fell into place for Hague. The unfortunate departure of Curt Flood, coupled with injuries to Mike Shannon and Dick Allen, created a chance for him to play regularly. He saw time in 82 games at first base and another 52 in the outfield corners. In 524 plate appearances, he put up a respectable 109 wRC+. His 14 homeruns trailed only Allen and Joe Torre for the team lead.

Allen was (regrettably) traded for Ted Sizemore, clearing the way for more playing time for Hague in 1971. He put up a 103 wRC+ in 443 plate appearances on the strength of a .226/.330/.392 slash line. Through July, he was the heavy half of a de facto platoon at first base with Jim Beauchamp. In August, he moved to right field, center fielder Matty Alou took over at first base, and Jose Cruz took over everyday center field duties. His 16 homeruns were surpassed on the team only by Torre.

He returned to first base in 1972, still the heavy half of a platoon, this time paired with 36 year old Donn Clendenon. Hague was in the middle of his best season, running up a 128 wRC+, when he was traded in mid-May to Cincinnati for Carbo. Hague had been a little outspoken about not wanting to be a platoon player, though we don’t know with certainty if that was the impetus behind the deal. Despite Reds skipper Sparky Anderson touting Hague as a 20 homerun hitter, Hague found himself on the Reds bench for most of the rest of the season. He dislocated a bone in his hand in June of the following season and never played another Major League game.

What’s so Great About Joe Hague?

At this point, you’re probably wondering why Hague merits a full article. It’s because he appears to be a victim of his time. You’ll note that a lot of the description around his better seasons include references to his wRC+. That’s a stat that didn’t even exist then. The same goes for isolated slugging (ISO) and BB%. Some teams were marginally aware of OPS, though it’s doubtful it was a major driver in decisions around playing time. Instead, batting average was one of the primary gauges of quality, and strikeouts were frowned upon. Players like Rod Carew and Pete Rose were superstars.*

*I’m not trying to knock Carew and Rose over their style of play, but there’s no denying that their stardom was indicative of a very different style of game from the one played in the last three decades.

With modern metrics, Hague’s value shines through. Let’s take a look at Hague’s percentile ranks in league-adjusted modern metrics, min. 200 PAs per season. We can split it up between his full run in St. Louis (1968-1972) and his stretch as a semi-regular (1970-1972):

Joe Hague, Percentile Ranks

Category 1968-1972 1970-1972
Category 1968-1972 1970-1972
BB%+ 86.30% 87.8%
OBP+ 58.70% 66.0%
SLG+ 49.00% 56.3%
wRC+ 51.70% 60.8%
ISO+ 67.00% 71.3%
AVG+ 16.80% 28.5%
K%+ 22.80% 25.3%

He had one of the best walk rates in the league. His power was in the upper third. Combined, his wRC+ was a smidge above average. He had some tools to work with. Unfortunately, his chances were diminished at least in part because of the importance in the era placed on avoiding strikeouts and hitting for a high average, where he clearly lagged. His perfectly cromulent 1971 season was referred to as a “slump” because of a .226 batting average despite a top 25 walk percentage and solidly above average power.

Lest you think his talents were only at the plate, he seemingly held his own in the field. Defensive metrics from that era are unreliable, but we can deduce that he was probably sure-handed in that he didn’t bork many obvious plays. His fielding percentage at first base was consistently one of the best in the league. His TZ (total zone)- one of the most advanced numbers we have from that era- grades him as perfectly average at 0. His range factor was a little above average. He was either average at first base or something slightly better, insofar as the data can be trusted.

The larger picture of Hague shows the exact type of player that contenders passed around like joints in the 2005-2015 era. He had a strong platoon split in which he crushed one side, held his own at first base and the corner outfield, walked a lot, hit for power, but struggled with batting average and strikeouts. To varying degrees, that’s late career Jim Thome, or Lyle Overbay, or Matt Stairs, or Russell Branyan, or Matt Joyce, or tons more. But in the early 70s, his chances were brief and didn’t last long.

Joe Hague was ahead of his time.