The Case for Tony Campana: A Fan’s Take

Recent talk about Tony Campana; his speed as well as his “less than great” OBP got me to thinking. It was Brian Davis’s article about speed that really made a light bulb go off when he pondered why the Cubs haven’t built a team around speed, even though it is the one thing not affected by the changing conditions at Wrigley.

That article led me to flip back to the 1984 Cubs; the other Cubs team that came one game from the World Series. I was curious how Tony Campana compared with some other players on that team and what were the defining characteristics of that group that won 91 games.

Interestingly, speed was in abundance on that team more than anything else. Centerfielder Bob Dernier had a career year that season batting .278 with 45 stolen bases. Ryno stole 32 bags that year and three others, Gary Matthews, Larry Bowa and Leon Durham all had double digit swipes. There was some power as the team lofted 136 dingers combined, but it was a team with a balanced attack. It was not a team that hit for average (.260) but it did have a respectable collective OBP (.331) led by Matthews (.410) and his 103 walks.

The pitching, ERA-wise at least, was pretty respectable at 3.75, but only Rick Sutcliffe (16-1) won more than Steve Trout’s 13 that year. Reliever Tim Stoddard won 10 games, so at a glance the strength of the bullpen keeping the team in games surely contributed to their success that year. However, the glaring characteristic that leaps out from the team stats is speed.

Those cubs, in fact, stole 154 bases (220 attempts). That was good for 4th in the NL that year. Those stolen bases put runners in scoring position which contributed to 762 runs, two players with over 100 runs scored and six players with at least 80 RBI’s led by Ron Cey at 97.

There are times I think that fans and analysts often put too much emphasis on a player being good immediately at most everything to be considered a good player. Tony Campana has had one part-time opportunity at the major league level and all too often all you hear about him is that his walk numbers were too low and his average was too low. I guess if you don’t come out of the box hitting like Starlin Castro, you’re not good enough to be an everyday player, right?

Truth is, not suggesting the future of TC by any means, but many great players came out for their first taste of the bigs with less than stellar performances. Alex Rodriguez dialed up a .204 BA in his first call-up and hit .232 the following year in 149 at bats. We all know what happened the next season. Ken Griffey Jr. played a full season in his first call-up and hit .264 with only 44 walks (about 12 more than Campana would have had in a full season).

The point to assessing Campana correctly is to look on what he can do right now as well as what he could do with development. TC is fast, real fast and he creates headaches for the opposition when he’s on base. He can hit just fine. A .259 average is a starting point, not the definition of what a player will do over a career. Maybe he’ll do better or maybe he’ll tail off, but if the kid can average .260 or so and steal bases at the clip he did last year, he’s in my outfield day one.

Great teams are often not made of great players all tearing it up. They are made of team members working in unison with their various skill sets in a complimentary effort. Larry Bowa of the 1984 Cubs was the only one of three shortstops to hit above the Mendoza Line (.223)…..but he was an important piece of that team.

That inevitably brought me to comparisons with other speedsters of the past. When Kenny Lofton came up with the Astros in 1991, he stole 2 bases and hit .203 in 74 at bats. Had Campana come up and performed like that, every Cubs fan on here would be writing him off as a career minor leaguer. Lofton got better and Campana will too if he’s given the chance, more likely than not in my mind.

Also interestingly, the player that Campana is perhaps most comparable to in his first year is Ron Leflore. LeFlore came out with the Tigers in 1974 and hit .260 with 23 stolen bases and only 13 walks in 254 at bats. In his first full season in 1975, he hit .258 with 28 steals and only 33 walks in 591 at bats. During the height of his 9-year career (1976-80), LeFlore scored between 93-126 runs each of those years with a high of 97 stolen bases in 1980. He also batted over .300 three of those seasons. His walk rate improved, but was never particularly stellar.

Campana could stand to get better at getting on base, but how often you get on base is not necessarily as important as what you do when you get there. I believe Campana could and probably should become the everyday left fielder of the Cubs (as soon as Soriano can be jettisoned…….at any price frankly). Like LeFlore, who was a left fielder with a not-so-great arm, this is a guy I see performing at a similar level and who I believe could steal 100 bases in a season for the Cubs even if his OBP never improves, which it will. The organizational talent at the outfield position should really excite Cubs fans and Tony Campana should too. He represents the one thing none of the other prospects have to offer………and that is game changing speed to make things happen for an offense. Remember 1984 Cubs fans. Speed does matter.


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