Friday, June 13, 2014

Card #60: Tony Armas

Who Can It Be Now?
Antonio Rafael (Machado) Armas was born on July 2, 1953 in Puerto Piritu, Anzoategui State, in Venezuela.  Anzoategui is known for its beautiful beaches, and Puerto Piritu is a small 11,000-inhabitant town on the Caribbean Sea a little less than 30 miles from Barcelona, which is the capital of the state

Armas told his story about growing up to Sports Illustrated back in May of 1982 in a feature story about the entire Oakland A's outfield of Rickey Henderson, Dwayne Murphy, and Armas.  Armas grew up in a family of 14 and started playing baseball in pickup games at the age of 6.  Armas's father worked for an electrical company and disapproved of all the "time wasting" at baseball that Armas did, so Armas waited until his father left for work before sneaking over to the playground to play.

Armas was signed by the Pirates as an international free agent in 1971.  Armas tells the story that he was playing for Venezuela in a youth tournament against Cuba, Panama, Puerto Rico, Ecuador, and Colombia.  The Pirates were impressed by Armas and came to Venezuela to sign him.  Armas was concerned about signing because he knew no English whatsoever, and he had to change planes in Miami to get to Sarasota.  He heard some people in the Miami airport speaking Spanish and asked them where the plane to Sarasota was -- and as luck for him would have it, they were also ballplayers going to Sarasota.

Armas was reporting at the age of 17 to the Gulf Coast League Pirates (rookie league) in Sarasota.  He did not hit all that well there, but the Pirates moved him to the Carolina League later in the year.  He spent 1972 in the Carolina League as well and, there, he started hitting better.  Being just 18 years old and nearly three years younger than his competition, his showing in Gastonia in 1972 convinced the Pirates to push him to Double-A in 1973.  He stayed there for two seasons in the Eastern League -- with 1973 shortened by injury -- before spending two years in Triple-A at Charleston.  He received a 6-plate-appearance call-up in 1976 with the Pirates and, as a result, he got on his first baseball card as well in the 1977 Topps set.

The Pirates in 1976 were pretty well loaded in the outfield already, what with Richie Zisk, Al Oliver, Dave Parker, and Omar Moreno already getting significant playing time.  To the Pirates, that made Armas expendable.  In a blockbuster deal involving nine players, Armas was sent to the Oakland Athletics with Doug Bair, Dave Giusti, Rick Langford, Doc Medich, and Mitchell Page in exchange for Chris Batton, Tommy Helms, and Phil Garner.

Armas's problem throughout his career -- which showed up in the minor leagues and continued in 1977, 1978, and 1979 -- was being injured.  As this 1981 news story points out, Armas being injured was a common theme:
"Just say he's doing great," said Manager Billy Martin.  "I don't want to put any more pressure on him. I just hope he doesn't get hurt."
So does Armas.  Injuries to a knee when he banged into the [Oakland-Alameda County] Coliseum wall, to a shoulder on a diving catch and other hurts sabotaged his early career.  He spent a month on the disabled list after coming from Pittsburgh to Oakland in 1977.  He was out of action for more than a month in 1978 and practically half the season in 1979.
When Armas was able to stay healthy in 1980, his monstrous season seemed to come out of nowhere as a result.  In 158 games in 1980, he hit 35 homers, drove in 109, and slashed at .279/.310/.500.  He only walked 29 times in 666 plate appearances and grounded into 22 double plays, but let's be clear -- the only thing people noticed were those first two numbers and the batting average.  Armas went up to the plate swinging, and he got noticed for the first time in his career -- finishing 12th in the MVP voting (and second on his team behind Rickey Henderson) on a team that went 83-79 and finished second in the AL West.

His year in 1981 was similarly good as 1980.  He tied Eddie Murray, Dwight Evans, and Bobby Grich for the American League Home Run title by hitting 22 home runs.  He finished second to Eddie Murray in RBI with 76.  Receiving less attention was the fact that he struck out 115 times (24 more than second place, teammate Dwayne Murphy) and he walked just 19 times.  Nonetheless, he made his first appearance as an All-Star -- striking out against Nolan Ryan to lead off the bottom of the eighth inning.  He finished fourth in the MVP voting behind Rollie Fingers, teammate Rickey Henderson (who missed the MVP by just 11 points), and future teammate Dwight Evans
While at the plate, everyone knew Armas could hit for power, the other thing people noticed was Armas's arm.  The 1982 Sports Illustrated article from which Armas's short growing-up biography was taken noted that all three outfielders had strong arms at the time, but that Armas's was "perhaps the strongest in baseball." Armas led the American League in assists as a right fielder in 1980 with 15 and was third overall for outfield assists with 17.  He benefited from a pitching staff with flyball tendencies and finished first in putouts as a right fielder in both 1980 and 1981.  From all indications, he was a good right fielder.  But his fielding was not what made people pay attention.

Coming in to 1982, then, expectations were high for Armas. And, while he did not have a terrible year, he also did not have a good year.  His surface numbers -- 28 HR, 89 RBI, .233 AVG -- weren't all awful, but his abysmal walk rate led to a .275 OBP.  That OBP led to a .708 OPS -- which clocked in at 3% below the league average.  

Perhaps the A's believed that Mike Davis would serve them better, so the A's traded Armas and Jeff Newman to the Boston Red Sox for minor leaguer Jerry King, Garry Hancock, and Carney Lansford.  In the mid-1980s, the Red Sox were trying to bludgeon their opponents in every game and so they shoehorned Armas -- a good right fielder with a powerful throwing arm -- into center field.  

In Boston, Armas enjoyed his finest season as a major-leaguer in 1984.  He won a Silver Slugger award, was an all-star, and finished seventh in the MVP race.  He led the American League in both homeruns and runs batted in and hit .268.  Again, he did not walk hardly at all -- just 32 in 679 plate appearances -- and he tied for the AL lead in strikeouts at 156, but he also led the league in total bases and extra base hits.  

Armas stayed in Boston between Jim Rice and Dwight Evans through the 1986 season. Armas hit just one time in that fateful 1986 World Series, but his role in the Red Sox getting to the Series is not much remembered.  Many baseball fans know the story of Dave Henderson and his home run off Donnie Moore in the ALCS prior to that World Series.  The only reason that Dave Henderson was even in the game was because Tony Armas sprained his ankle in the second inning of that game 5 and was replaced by Henderson.

After the 1986 season, the Red Sox declined to exercise their option on Armas and he was granted free agency.   He was so little in demand after the 1986 season that it took him until July 1 of the 1987 season to sign on with any team -- and then it was a Triple-A contract with the California Angels.  He was called up to the majors on August 18 when Gary Pettis was sent down, and he made the most of his opportunity, parlaying it into a three-season stint.  

His career came to an end in 1990.  He was invited to the Angels spring training as a non-roster player, but he never showed up to spring training -- or at least he had not and was incommunicado through late March.  He never played in the majors again.

Family Ties
Tony's much younger brother Marcos Armas got a fifteen-game looksee from the Oakland Athletics in 1993.  Of course, Tony's son, Tony Armas, Jr., pitched for ten seasons in the major leagues mostly with the Expos/Nationals.  Junior was the player-to-be-named-later in the Boston Red Sox trade (by Jim Beattie for the Expos as their GM) for Pedro Martinez in December of 1997.  Oddly enough, Junior had just joined the Red Sox organization in August of 1997 when the Red Sox traded Mike Stanley and a minor leaguer to the Yankees in exchange for Armas Jr. and Jim Mecir.

A Few Minutes with Tony L. 
I remember that Tony Armas was one of the "it" players in the majors in the early 1980s, though he never got as much press as guys like Jim Rice or Rickey Henderson.  Despite that, as a Brewer fan, I never remember being all that scared when he stepped to the plate.  

His career stats against Milwaukee seem to bear that out.  Outside of his 6 National League at-bats, Armas did not hit particularly well or for power against Milwaukee.  Indeed, of his 251 career homeruns, Armas hit only 10 against Milwaukee -- his lowest against any American League team and four fewer than the two teams (Oakland and Boston) where Armas spent the majority of his career.  

His other stats are similarly anemic: 47 RBI and .237/.272/.389.  In comparison, he crushed the Mariners -- 27 HR, 85 RBI, .296/.333/.560.  Some of that had to do with the Mariners being an expansion team and all, but that is still a huge disparity and informs my recollection of him not being all that great.

Bill James's The New Historical Baseball Abstract made great points along these same lines. Though Armas is rated the 89th best right fielder in major league history (one spot ahead of Dante Bichette), James notes that:
Tony Armas went from being underrated to being overrated in about two weeks. Armas had two skills: an outstanding arm, and power.  The rest of his game was zeroes; his speed was average, he was a .250 hitter, and his strikeout/walk ratio was the worst in major league history until Shawon Dunston came along.  Up to 1979 he was just a platoon player/defensive sub in right field, prone to long slumps.  When Billy Martin took over the A's in 1980 he put Armas in the lineup and got him to cut down on his swing with two strikes on him (and, allegations were, to cork his bat.)  He hit 35 homers and drove in 109 runs, anyway, and a lot of people immediately lost sight of his many weaknesses.
Corked bat? The only reference to that I can find is a blurb in an article from 2003.  Jim Palmer was being interviewed during his "tour of 25 minor-league parks to educate fans about acid reflux, a condition he discovered he had in the 1990s."  The article says:
Palmer, 57, said the only player he ever faced whom he suspected of using a corked bat was Tony Armas in 1984, a year when Armas hit 43 homers for the Boston Red Sox.  Palmer said Armas hit a 400-foot home run off him into the wind.  The ball didn't make a sound when it left the bat, according to Palmer. "I wanted to break the bat at home plate," Palmer said.  "The catcher wouldn't let me."
That's a nice claim, Jim, but, um, you never pitched against the Red Sox in 1984. And, in 1983, you faced the Red Sox twice: on June 19, 1983 (Armas did not hit a home run) and on September 6, 1983 (you guessed it -- no Armas home run).  For what it is worth, Armas did hit three lifetime home runs off Palmer -- two in 1981, one in 1982 -- but Armas was not on the Red Sox then.

I guess my fact checking is improving.

UPDATE THROUGH THE BLOG:  As Night Owl has noted, there are a lot of players in the 1982 Topps set sporting a hairy upper lip.  The mustachioed men of this set will have the label of "Mustache" included whether I mention it in the write-up or not.  Taking a look at Armas made me realize that this timing for adding the 'stache is as good as any.

1 comment:

  1. Maybe the Armas home run against Palmer happened in a spring training game. Otherwise, he misremembered it.