Birthday Bull - Remembering 19 as he celebrates 63

Rob Carr

Greg Luzinski turns 63 today. He was instrumental in the Phillies' emergence as a power in the mid-1970s.

Greg Luzinski turns 63 today, and it's worth taking a moment to remember what he meant to the Phillies in the 1970s, culminating in the first World Series championship of the franchise in its 98th year of existence.

The Phillies selected Luzinski out of Notre Dame High School for Boys (suburban Chicago) with the 11th overall pick of the 1968 draft (6 picks later the Giants selected Gary Matthews).

Luzinski's power was evident immediately, hitting 13 homers in 57 games as a 17 year old in Rookie ball, and then 31 the following year at A-ball Raleigh-Durham in 1969. He moved up again to AA Reading the next year and had a great season, hitting .325/.439/.609 with 33 homers and 120 RBI. That earned him a September call-up to the big club in 1970 while still only 19.  Finally, after a season in AAA in Eugene, Oregon with 36 homers and .312/.358/.582 hitting, he got an extended look and started every game at first base for the Phils in September (regular first baseman Deron Johnson moved to third base for the month to accommodate the rookie). He only hit 3 home runs, but his .300/.386/.470 line (144 wRC+) was impressive for a 20-year-old. At this point, with the exception of five games at third base in Rookie ball, Luzinski had never played anywhere but first base in the minors or majors.

The Phillies in the meantime were in the process of rebuilding. They hadn't had a winning season since 1967, and had finished in last place in 1971 at 67-95. They would finish in last again in 1972, but Steve Carlton (27 years old) had been acquired, Larry Bowa (26) was already manning short, Willie Montanez (24) was patrolling CF, and Don Money (25) was at third.  Money would be traded to Milwaukee after the 1972 season to make room for Mike Schmidt (22). Bob Boone arrived along with Schmidt in 1973, and Dave Cash came in 1974.

But with veteran Deron Johnson (33) at first, and a hole in Left Field, the Phils moved Luzinski to the outfield  for the 1972 season, where, not surprisingly, he struggled defensively.

He did hit though:

1972 at 21, .281/.332/.453 (120 wRC+), with 18 HR and 68 RBI
1973 at 22, .285/.346/.484 (126 wRC+), 29 HR, 97 RBI, and even some MVP votes

Injuries kept him to only 85 games and a 99 wRC+ in 1974, but then he came back strong:

1975: .300/.394/.540 (152 wRC+), 34 HR, and a league-leading 120 RBI -- 2nd in the MVP voting to Joe Morgan
1976: .304/.369/.478 (138 wRC+), 21 HR, 95 RBI
1977: .309/.394/.594 (157 wRC+), 39 HR, 130 RBI -- 2nd in the MVP voting go George Foster
1978: .265/.388/.526 (152 wRC+), 35 HR, 101 RBI

Over those four years, he was one of the elite hitters in baseball, ranking...

2nd in wOBA (.405), behind only Morgan
5th in wRC+ (150), behind Morgan, Rod Carew, Ken Singleton, and Foster
4th in home runs (129), behind Foster, Schmidt, and Jim Rice
2nd in RBI (446), behind only Foster

Luzinski made the All-Star team in each of those four seasons (three of them as a starter, in 1976-78), and twice finished 2nd in the MVP voting. The 1975 vote wasn't close, but in 1977 there were only 36 points separating him and George Foster (.320/.382/.631, 52 HR, 149 RBI).

Defense

A discussion of Luzinski wouldn't be complete without touching on his fielding.  Over these four years, he was 48 runs below average according to Total Zone, 4th worst in the majors, out of 112 qualifiers.

By comparison to some other Phillies' left fielders:

-22  Pat Burrell's worst 4-year stretch: 2005-2008
-25  Raul Ibanez in his 3 years here (-16), plus 2008 with Seattle to make it a comparable 4 years
-44  Domonic Brown, extrapolating his TZ in 251 career games (-18) to Luzinski's 601 games in 1975-78

So imagine Brown, not as the somewhat improved outfielder he was in 2013, but over his entire time in the majors, and that's about how bad Luzinski was.

This cost the Phillies in the pivotal game 3 of the 1977 NLCS against LA.  Whereas manager Danny Ozark had routinely substituted Jerry Martin in the late innings, he didn't in this game and Luzinski missed a tough fly ball in the 9th inning that Martin may have been able to catch. That was one in a series of miscues, bad bounces, and bad calls that allowed the Dodgers to storm back and win that game on what came to be known as Black Friday.

1979-1980

In 1979 he fell off to .252/.343/.427 (108 wRC+) and about the same in 1980: .228/.342/.440 (113 wRC+). He missed 45 games with knee surgery and rejoined the team late in the season. Luzinski hit well in the amazing 1980 NLCS, .294/.294/.588, with the only home run of the series. He struggled in the World Series, though, playing in only 3 games and going 0 for 9, but the Phils had their championship.

In late March 1981, a week before the season was to start, Luzinski was sold to his home town White Sox for an undisclosed amount. Gary Matthews had just been acquired from Atlanta, and Lonnie Smith had also shown a lot of promise during the 1980 pennant run. This article also mentions that Luzinski had been critical of the way Dallas Green used him after his surgery.

Primarily DH-ing, Luzinski had 3 more good years in 1981-1983, with wRC+s of 146, 128, and 130, helping the White Sox win a division title in 1983.  1984 had its highlights, including hitting grand slams in back-to-back games, and driving in runs in ten straight games, but he finished the year at only .238/.329/.364 (93 wRC+), and retired at the end of the season.  He was still only 33.

Miscellaneous

As an aside, 1975-78 were Luzinski's age 24-27 seasons. The player who baseball-reference.com thinks is the most similar at that point in his career, out of the dozens of sluggers in MLB history, is none other than Del Ennis, who manned Left Field for the Phillies for 11 years (1946-56) including on the previous pennant winning team.

One other thing that's weird about those comps: most similar to Luzinski at age 21 is one Dick Kokos (.261/.351/.459 on the 1949 St. Louis Browns), who had a couple of good years before spending his age 23 and 24 seasons in Korea, and then not doing as well on his return. But the funny thing is that he is buried in a cemetery in the same Chicago suburb of Niles, IL, and which is only 3 miles from where Luzinski went to high school.

Full bio at baseball-reference.com: here
Stats at at bb-ref and at Fangraphs

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