Top Five Astros Of All-Time: Right Field, No. 1

We have finally reached the end of the line on our first positional look at Astros history. Who's left to talk about? Our first Canadian, of course, in one Terry Stephen Puhl. To his list-topping resume:

 

  • 788 games in right field
  • 62 home runs, 56 triples and 226 doubles in 5,428 plate appearances over 14 seasons with Houston
  • A career line of .281/.349/.389 with 1,357 hits, which ranks him seventh in franchise history
  • Career bbWAR of 26.1 and fWAR of 28.6

 

Looking through his career, I'm struck by two things. First is how few years Puhl needed as the every day right fielder to claim this title. He really only started for six full seasons and played part-time in eight others. Second is the transition from Puhl to No. 2 on this list, Kevin Bass. We think about players giving way to younger guys as something that happens once a player reaches his 30s. With Puhl, it happened in his Age 29 season and was due to injury more than an actual desire to replace him in the lineup. After the jump, I'll look at Puhl's career and what it meant for him to be replaced.

If there was ever a typical Astrodome player, it's Puhl. He didn't flash a lot of home run power, but he hit to the gaps, played solid defense and stole bases when he could. Puhl was also the consummate contact hitter. In half of his 14 seasons with Houston, Puhl had more walks than strikeouts. Of course, the problem with being a contact hitter is Puhl was very dependant on his BABiP. When it trended under .300 for a season, chances were his batting average was going to drop precipitously. 

I don't know that there's been definitive studies done to show how much control a hitter has on his BABiP. Right now, the thinking is that there isn't one level most hitters trend to, but that each hitter has a basic BABiP they can sustain. For Puhl, there wasn't really a level he hit consistently. Instead, his BABiP jumped around quite a bit. It's hard to judge based on part-time performances, but the difference between Puhl's '85 and '86 seasons illustrates this nicely. When he was hitting .308 on balls in play, he had a batting average of .284. When that BABiP crashed to .264 in '86, his batting average fell 40 points to .244.

Regardless of the fluctuations in his batting line, Puhl was invaluable to the Astros. He had the highest career WARs of any right fielder by a large margin. He also had one of the best defensive seasons by an Astros outfielder in 1980, when he helped key the Astros first playoff run in franchise history. According to FanGraphs, Puhl had 18 fielding runs and a WAR of 5.5. That season, he also had 11 outfield assists and was part of three double plays. 

His best offensive season probably came in 1984, his last season as a regular starter for the next five years. In '84, Puhl hit what we might see as a pedestrian .301/.380/.434 and had 19 doubles, seven triples and nine home runs. He also had 13 stolen bases in 21 attempts. Part of the reason his seemingly ordinary line netted him 18.6 batting runs according to FanGraphs and 39 offensive RAR according to BBref was his 137 OPS+. That's right, an OPS of .817 was 37 percent better than league average in '84. His 18 batting runs was the 19th best total in the NL that season. The '84 season was just weird. The league OPS was .688 and the league average OPS+ was 93. Puhl was a big reason why the Astros were second in the league in OPS+ at 102.

Puhl would have been ranked higher, but his Total Zone rating crashed after that amazing 1980 season. He did have hamstring problems, but I have a hard time believing that his defense suddenly got that much worse. What's more likely is that part of his excellent rating in '80 was due to all the outfield assists. Once teams realized what kind of arm he had, they must've adjusted, which left him without the same number of chances to pick up assists. That would limit his Total Zone number in future seasons.

That hamstring injury, suffered over the winter (apparently), didn't let him miss any time in 1985, but it did give Kevin Bass all the time he needed to take over Puhl's position. That ended a string of five straight Opening Day starts for Puhl in right field. Bass started in center field on Opening Day 1985, as 32-year old Jerry Mumphrey took over for Puhl.

Puhl was just 28 at the time, but had been playing since he was 20 years old in 1977. He'd played in 1,017 career games to that point and had hit 52 of his 62 career home runs. As I said, he was also coming off one of his best seasons in '84, so there was no real reason for the Astros to think he was declining.

And yet, Puhl was pushed to the bench in favor of the (barely) younger Bass. Remember, in '86, Bass was 27 while Puhl was 29. We're not talking about a youth movement here. The only thing I can think is the Astros were desperate for Bass' power in the lineup. Instead of being pushed out by Kevin Bass, it might have been the Astros acquisition of Billy Hatcher for Mumphrey that did the trick. Hatcher started in center, which moved Bass to right field for good.

Puhl got one last chance to play extensively when Bass suffered a hamstring injury in 1989. Puhl hit .271/.353/.364 in 406 plate appearances with 25 doubles and four triples. If it's any comfort to Puhl, he outlasted Bass, who was traded to San Francisco after the '89 season, Hatcher (traded to Pittsburgh in '89) and Mumphrey.He also got to play in three different decades, which is a feat only a few Astros have accomplished (Cruz, Biggio and who else?). 

What are your memories of Puhl? Would he be your choice as the best right fielder in club history? Is he also the best player in team history from Canadia?

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