He glared, he scowled and he treated pitchers like they killed his hunting dog. I loved that about Will Clark. He brought a sweet left-handed swing and an intensity to the game that was rarely seen in the late 80s and early 90s. He wore eye-black, was a redneck and played the game to win. He was a bit of a throwback, who was at his best when it counted most. And from his debut in 1986 to the time he hung `em up in 2000, he was my favorite player.
Road To The Majors
After a distinguished collegiate career at Mississippi State, Will Nuschler Clark, Jr. was selected with the second overall pick in the 1985 draft by the San Francisco Giants. The 1985 draft was a strong one, with Clark selected behind only B.J. Surhoff and ahead of notables such as Barry Larkin, (former college teammate) Rafael Palmeiro, John Smoltz and future teammate Barry Bonds.
Clark began his professional career in high A-Ball with Fresno of the California League. As a 21 year-old, he appeared in 65 games while hitting .309/.464/.512. The high on base percentage was due to his outstanding plate discipline. He drew 62 walks in roughly 275 plate appearances while striking out only 46 times.
His domination of A-Ball pitching impressed the Giants front office enough they decided to bring Clark north with the big leaguers when they broke camp in the spring of 1986. But to be honest, the Giants didn't have much choice considering their first basemen the previous year were the instantly forgettable David Green (.248/.301/.347 in 106 games) and the rapidly ageing Dan Driessen (.232/.297/.326 in 54 games after arriving from Montreal in a trade.) Clark was the future for San Francisco and the future was now.
The San Francisco Years (1986-1993)
Clark's major league debut came against Nolan Ryan and the Houston Astros on April 8, 1986. Facing a future Hall of Famer in Ryan, didn't phase the rookie as he took the Ryan Express deep in his first professional at bat. Clark had a flair for the dramatic that way. Besides that home run, he homered in his first professional at bat in A-Ball and he also homered in his home debut in Candlestick. Plus, by the time The Thrill called it a career, he had hit a total of six home runs off Ryan, the most against any pitcher he faced.
The home run in his first professional at bat was the start of a great run as a Giant. Thrill's best seasons came early in his career.
What many people don't realize, is that for five years from 1988 to 1992, Clark was one of the best all around players in the game. Thanks to his durability, he appeared in 767 games (out of a possible 810) over those five years and posted a split of .302/.379/.503. From that era, only one player ranks in the top 10 in all three categories: Will The Thrill.
In fact, a surprising number of players enjoyed their peak seasons from 1988-1992. Here's a list of some notables who had their best five consecutive years during that span, sorted by WARP3:
That's a very impressive group of players who enjoyed their best years together. Aside from Clark, three are in the Hall of Fame, one should be, one is a lock when he becomes eligible and one is Fred McGriff. And no one was better during that span than Will Clark.
His finest single season came in 1989. In leading the Giants to 92 wins and the NL West division title, Clark hit an incredible .333/.407/.546 while scoring 104 runs with 70 extra base hits and an OPS+ of 175. Bill James credits Clark with an incredible 44 Win Shares for the 1989 season. It wasn't just the best performance in the league that year. It was one of the top performances of the decade.
Here's how Clark's 1989 season stacks up with other great individual performances of the decade:
(It's interesting to note that of those seasons, only Schmidt in 1981 and Yount in 1982 won the MVP Award. But that's another argument for another day.)
Not only was Clark's 1989 performance one of the best of the 1980's, it was one of the greatest individual seasons by a first baseman in the history of the game:
And Clark capped off his incredible 1989 season with one of the best postseason performances in memory in the NLCS against the Cubs. In Game One of the series he single-handedly destroyed Greg Maddux, hitting a run scoring double in the first, a solo home run in the third and a grand slam in the fourth. He also drove in the runs that clinched the series for the Giants in Game Five and defensively threw out three runners at the plate over the five games. For the series, Clark hit .650 with 8 runs scored and 8 RBI in leading the Giants to the World Series for the first time since 1962.
The Thrill was not only at his best offensively in San Francisco, he was at the top of his game defensively as well. His average Rate (and Rate2) in his Giant years was 107 and he finished above 100 every season. He won a grand total of one Gold Glove for his efforts (in 1991), losing out to perennial defensive wizard Keith Hernandez early in his career and to Mark Grace at the end of his time with the Giants. The Gold Gloves are among the most subjective awards you can find in the game. Just because Clark only has one to his credit, doesn't mean he wasn't great. He was certainly among the top fielders at his position in the late 80s to the early 90s.
But by the end of 1993, the once durable Clark began to battle a variety of nagging injuries, most notably bone chips in his elbow. For a player who appeared in 320 consecutive games from September 1987 to August 1989, he began to miss a handful of games here and there. He played in 154 games in 1990 and followed that up with seasons of 148, 144 and 132. Not only that, the injuries began to sap his power.
He enjoyed a couple of good power seasons based on ISO, but from 1990 to 1993, he only had one season that could be described as good. And by 1993, he had fallen dangerously close to league average where he would remain for most of the remainder of his career.
1993 was a key season for Will Clark and the Giants in many ways. San Francisco led the Braves by as many as 9.5 games as late as August 7, only to go into a slide and give up over 13 games to Atlanta by September 17. It didn't help that The Thrill was in the lineup in only 16 games during that span. And when Clark was in the lineup, his .283/.367/.432 season was his least productive season since his rookie year.
The bitter taste of a lost pennant in 1993, combined with what management perceived as Clark's declining production led the first baseman to enter the free agent market.
Clark, Texas Ranger (1994-1998)
Seeking a fresh start, The Thrill moved closer to home and signed with the Texas Rangers for five years and over $26.6 million. Moving from a ballpark (Candlestick) that heavily favored pitchers, to a home field that was essentially hitter-neutral (during the season's he played there) helped Clark rejuvenate his career. He rebounded nicely from his dismal 1993 to post a split of .329/.431/.501 with an OPS+ of 140 (which was the tenth best in the AL) in the strike-shortened season of 1994.
But after the 1994 season he began to miss serious amounts of playing time. He missed 21 games in 1995, 45 games in 1996 and 52 games in 1997. The former iron man of the San Francisco Giants was turning into paper mache for the Rangers. Bone chips in his elbow in 1996, a strained wrist at the beginning of 1997 and torn fascia in his right heel at the end of 1997 all limited his plate appearances and his effectiveness.
Indeed, the years from '95 to '97 were the "lost years" for The Thrill. His splits of .303/.388/.470 are consistent with his career totals, but are unimpressive in the context of the era when home runs and doubles were flying around the yard at a record pace. Despite the lack of power, his OBP showed he could still be a useful player. As shown by this chart illustrating his BB/K ratio, he became more selective at the plate during his time in Texas, peaking with an outstanding ratio in 1995, and staying well above average during his time with the Rangers.
But factoring in his new home stadium, new league and the offensive explosion that occurred in the late 90s, it's interesting to note that Clark's power numbers didn't seem to benefit. For his career with the Rangers covering five seasons, Clark hit only 77 home runs. His OPS+ during his time in Texas was 125, which is well below his career average of 138. And his WARP3 ranged from a high of 6.7 in his first season with the Rangers in 1994 to a low of 4.6 in 1996. In his five seasons with the Rangers, his WARP3 was 27.2, or an average of 5.4 per year.
It was also during this time that his formerly rock solid defense began to suffer. Perhaps it was the injuries limiting his effectiveness or maybe it was sharing an infield with Dean Palmer, but whatever the reason, Clark posted three seasons with a Rate below 100 while with the Rangers, including a career-low of 90 in 1994.
Moving On (1999-2000)
Following the 1998 season, Clark signed a two-year $11 million deal with the Baltimore Orioles. Charged with replacing former Mississippi State teammate Palmerio for the second time in his career, The Thrill had a dismal 1999 season.
Hampered again by a bum elbow, his only full season in Baltimore was forgettable. Hitting .303/.395/.482 with a career low WARP3 of 3.2 and an OPS+ of 124, it ranks among the least productive seasons in his career. And it certainly wasn't what the Orioles were expecting. So even after hitting .301/.413/.473 over the first four months in 2000, the Orioles had seen enough. At the trading deadline, they shipped The Thrill to the Cardinals who were in a pennant race and needed cover for an injured Mark McGwire.
Rejuvenated by the trade, The Thrill had one of the best stretches of his career, posting a split of .345/.426/.655 over 51 games. Most amazingly, the power that had all but disappeared returned in a big way for the Cardinals. The Cards went 37-20 after he joined the team and Clark banged 12 home runs in his two months in St. Louis, an average of a round tripper every 14.25 at bats, much better than his career average of a home run about every 25 at bats. St. Louis, who held a four game lead when Clark joined the team, went 37-20 and won the division by 10 games. In the playoffs that October, Clark played like it was 1989 all over again, hitting .345/.441/.621 with 2 home runs and 6 runs scored in 8 games. It was a fitting end to a fine career.
A Hall of Fame Career
Will The Thrill made a grand total of one appearance on the ballot and received 23 votes or 4.4%. It was a ridiculously low number for someone who was such a great player.
Consider the careers of the last five first basemen elected to the Hall of Fame by the BBWAA compared with Clark.
For the purposes of the table, I'm using each player's best five consecutive seasons as their "Prime." Looking at this list, it's difficult to understand why The Thrill was so convincingly denied membership in the Hall. His prime years were better than any of this bunch and his overall WARP3 totals compare very favorably. And according to Jay Jaffe's JAWS system, Clark stacks up very well with the players in the list, not to mention the entire class of first basemen enshrined in the Hall. The average JAWS score for first basemen in the Hall of Fame is 84.5 while the average WARP3 is 103.2.
Here's something else in Clark's favor. He walked away from the game after playing some of his best baseball in years. He was 36 when he appeared in his final game and had a WARP3 of 6.7 in 2000, which was his highest since 1994. Most of the guys on this list hung on (racking up the attractive milestones) well past their prime. Harmon Killebrew was done after the 1972 season, but played for three more years. Willie McCovey's decline was incredibly painful, lasting over five seasons. No question, Eddie Murray was a great player and worthy of inclusion, but he limped to the finish line. And Tony Perez overstayed his welcome by at least five seasons.
Then there is the postseason and "clutch" factor. In his career, Clark played in 31 playoff and World Series games, hitting .333/.409/.547 with 20 runs scored and 14 extra base hits. While I've already discussed his 1989 and 2000 postseason heroics, he also had a solid NLCS in 1987, hitting .360/.429/.560. He also had a couple of entirely forgettable ALDS while with the Rangers. To be fair, many Ranger fans would like to forget those series as well.
Clark's numbers with runners in scoring position are very similar to his overall career stats. With RISP Clark hit .306/.407/.498 and with RISP and two outs, Clark hit .290/.431/.477. In fact, all of Clark's situational "clutch" numbers are surprisingly consistent with his overall career stats. It plays into his legend: That Will The Thrill approached each at bat with the same level of intensity no matter the situation.
If Clark had chosen to play just three more seasons, it's not unconceivable that he would have added 375 hits, 80 more doubles and 50 home runs to his career totals. Perhaps the padded career stats would have appealed to the writers. But as it is, his career stands on it's own and is very clearly Hall of Fame worthy.
Since Clark dropped off the Hall of Fame ballot after only one appearance and has to depend on the Veteran's Committee, it's incredibly doubtful that he will ever have a plaque in Cooperstown. That's unfortunate because The Thrill belongs in the Hall of Fame.