December 24, 2010

Great Pirates in History: Matty Alou

A championship is awarded for one season, but it represents the work of many years. Today we salute a player who was no longer around when the champagne bottles were popped - but who was certainly integral in building the 1971 World Champion Pirates and the 1970s dynasty.

In December 1966, Matty Alou was known primarily as Felipe Alou's younger brother. He was a career .260 hitter with no power who never walked. Alou had enough speed to cover a lot of outfield ground, but the Giants had Willie Mays in center field and nobody needs a left fielder who can't hit.

Pirates manager Harry Walker, though, saw a hitter who hadn't been given the right coaching or enough playing time to develop. In the type of move that would be laughed at by sites like this one today, Pittsburgh shipped pitcher Joe Gibbon to San Francisco for Alou and even threw in reserve catcher Ozzie Virgil. A lefthander with a 3.61 career ERA, who could start and relieve, shipped off for some guy who hit .231 with two home runs the year before? It was a desperation move for a Pittsburgh squad which at that point had no center fielder on its roster. But it was a desperation move that worked.

Matty Alou was well known as a dead pull hitter - a dangerous recipe for a pure contact guy. Teams could play their outfielders shallow and toward right field, rendering Alou's bat ineffective outside Candlestick Park. Walker taught him to choke up on the bat and spray the ball between the outfielders. Defensively, Alou moved to his natural position, center field. He led off every day against righthanders. Against lefties, Walker would keep Alou on the bench until he was needed for defense or to pinch hit in a hey spot.

Walker had hoped to make Matty Alou into a .280 hitter, but he failed - he made a .340 hitter. By the time he collected four hits on October 2, Alou was the National League batting champion at .342. It was his 55th multi-hit game in only 121 starts. He hit .346 at Forbes Field, .338 on the road; .338 in the first half, .346 in the second half; .315 in his worst month; .364 in his best; .335 during the day, .345 at night. He scored 86 runs, incredible for a platoon player in the pitching-dominated 1960s. Defensively, he was perfect for the spacious Forbes center field. He finished a career-best ninth in MVP voting. The Pirates contended until the final weekend but finished just short of the pennant.

"The harder Matty Alou attacks a baseball, the more it bleeds," wrote the Associated Press's Dick Couch.

Pittsburgh's 1966 outfield may have been the best ever for any team. Roberto Clemente scored 105 runs, hit 29 home runs and drove in 119, all career highs, and won his sixth of 12 straight Gold Gloves and his only MVP. In left field the Pirates had a young slugger named Willie Stargell, who hit .315/.381/.581 with 33 homers and 102 RBI in only 485 at bats. Manny Mota had a career year off the bench, batting .332/.383/.472.

Continued Excellence
In 1967 the league batting average dipped from .256 to .249 and the league ERA was 3.38. Alou was either unaware of this or didn't care, so he hit .338 - third in the league. He had 54 multi-hit games in only 125 starts, and scored 87 runs, 13th in the league and ahead of most everyday players. Unfortunately, though the outfield had another historically great season, the Pirates' pitching was ninth in the league and the club went only 81-81.

A friend of Mota named Rudolfo Perlu, who had fled Fidel Castro's Cuba with a family of ten, lost his Brookline home to fire that summer. Alou invited Perlu's entire family to stay in his apartment. "I don't want any publicity on this," the batting champion told the Post-Gazette.

The 1968 NL was the most difficult league for hitters in the modern era. The league batting average was .243 and the league ERA was 2.99. Alou hit a cool .332 - second in the league. Although he was displaced from his leadoff spot by Maury Wills and still rested against lefthanders, he had 56 multi-hit games. Alou was rewarded with more MVP votes and his first All-Star honor, but Pittsburgh slumped to 80-82 and sixth place.

Most fans no doubt were happy with Alou's performance thus far, but 1969 would be his greatest season as a Pirate. Manager Larry Shepard, who had taken over in '68, decided that there was no point in benching one of the league's best hitters against lefties. He returned Alou to the leadoff spot and batted him there every day. Playing in all 162 games, he held his own against lefties, batting .284, and hit a career high .351 against righthanders for a .331 season average - fourth in the league. He scored 105 runs and led the league with .231 hits and 41 doubles. Alou had 70 multi-hit games, got MVP votes and made another All-Star team. The Pirates improved to 88-74, foreshadowing their dominance in the coming decade.

Alou returned in the same role in 1970, his final year with the Pirates. Unfortunately, this is the year he probably should have been platooning as he hit only .259 against lefthanded pitching, .313 against righties. He still had a good year with 97 runs scored, 201 hits and a .297 average, and still had good range in center. Pittsburgh now had young hitters like Richie Hebner and Al Oliver to complement their All-Star outfield. The Pirates had good enough pitching to win a weak NL East with an 89-73 mark but were swept out of the NLCS.

End of an Era
By the 1970-71 offseason, the Pirates wanted to move young first baseman Al Oliver to his natural position in center field. Matty Alou was the odd man out. He was shipped to St. Louis for pitcher Nelson Briles and backup outfielder Vic Davalillo, both of whom were key contributors for the 1971 World Champions. Without the talents of Alou, there never would have been Nelson Briles's two-hit shutout of the Orioles in Game 5 of the World Series.Few outfielders are valuable without power or plate discipline. Matty Alou was the rare exception. A catalyst at the top of the order, he averaged 20 steals, scored at least 87 runs in four of five seasons, and batted .331 or better four straight years. He was impossible to strike out and his speed and contact abilities induced countless errors by opposing defenses. He filled a major hole in the Pirates' defense, completed the best outfield Pittsburgh has ever seen, and helped usher in the 1970s dynasty. For that, he is truly a great Pirate in history.

1 comment:

  1. Very thorough and interesting. Thank you for this great article on my favorite player from the best outfield ever.