Commentary

Why so few great sluggers in L.A.?

Updated: July 11, 2011, 1:39 PM ET
By Mark Saxon and Tony Jackson | ESPNLosAngeles.com

Editor's Note: In celebration of tonight's Home Run Derby (5 p.m. PT on ESPN and ESPN3), each of the ESPN local sites is selecting its city's top 10 sluggers and crowning an all-time home run king.

In New York, they talk about Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle and Lou Gehrig.

In San Francisco, they talk about Barry Bonds, Willie Mays and Willie McCovey.

In Atlanta, Braves fans debate between Hank Aaron and Eddie Matthews.

And in Los Angeles? We throw it open for heated debate: Who had more power, Ron Cey or Troy Glaus? No offense to those guys -- they were among the more-feared sluggers in their day -- but the list of Los Angeles-area home run hitters isn't exactly a murderers' row. In the end, ESPNLA.com whittled it down to Mike Piazza or Vladimir Guerrero as the greatest slugger Southland fans have had the privilege of watching, and eventually settled on Piazza for the top spot.

Of the 10 guys on our list, only one -- Reggie Jackson -- is in the Hall of Fame, and his most dangerous years were in Oakland and New York. Piazza eventually figures to join him and -- who knows? -- maybe Matt Kemp or Mark Trumbo one day will, too.

Meanwhile, Los Angeles Angels writer Mark Saxon and Los Angeles Dodgers writer Tony Jackson tossed around pet theories via e-mail about why so few great sluggers have played in Anaheim or Los Angeles.


Vladimir GuerreroHarry How/Getty ImagesVladimir Guerrero's stunning ability to dig out big hits has left an impression.

From: Tony Jackson

To: Mark Saxon

I think it's probably happenstance more than anything. If Piazza had stayed here for his entire career, he might have gone down as one of the greatest home run hitters of all time. Or maybe not. The main reason I selected him at the top of this list was his star power. He was a genuine L.A. celebrity, as opposed to some of the other guys on that list who, you could argue, might have been better home run hitters than Piazza but didn't have anywhere close to his star power.

From: Mark Saxon

To: Tony Jackson

You mean Vladimir Guerrero doesn't have "star power"? Didn't you catch all his appearances on "The Tonight Show" and "Larry King Live"?

OK, so you and I both spend weeks without writing about a home run from the home team here in Southern California. Does it make more sense at these stadiums to build around pitching and defense rather than (say, at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park or Wrigley Field) looking to outscore teams? Is that a factor?

One of the reasons the Angels don't have more guys on this list is that, for 40 years, they were generally awful. But the Dodgers are in a different category. They've always won consistently (at least, until very recently). Why did the Dodger Way never include hitting a ball 500 feet? It seems like that's a pretty convenient way to score. It seems to work for AL teams, anyway.

From: Tony Jackson

To: Mark Saxon

I think you're onto something with the ballpark thing. Dodger Stadium has always been a pitcher's park (and Angel Stadium to some extent too, I believe). That's why even in the glory days, the Dodgers were always more about pitching than offense. Of course, we're seeing that taken to an extreme now. NL teams also tend to be built around their ballparks, often to great success (see the 1982 St. Louis Cardinals). It just stands to reason that if you play in a park that doesn't give up a lot of HRs, you're not going to have any of the great HR hitters in the history of the game. Henry Aaron always played in parks (Milwaukee County Stadium, Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium) that were power-hitter havens, and Barry Bonds played much of his career in a park that was basically built for him.

Mike PiazzaElsa/Getty ImagesMike Piazza's star power helps elevate him in the L.A. conversation.

From: Mark Saxon

To: Tony Jackson

OK, let's switch gears here a little bit.

You and I chose different hitters for the top guy. As great as Piazza was, I still think Guerrero had more raw power. The ones that stand out for me are the home runs Vladdy hit on curveballs that were inches off the plate or fastballs 6 inches outside that he clobbered over the right-field wall. I'm not sure there's any way to measure this, but I'm pretty sure he has some of the strongest hands any human being has ever had. He doesn't wear batting gloves, because -- he says -- his hands grew tough from handling the ropes on cattle when he was a kid growing up in the Dominican Republic.

Aside from his Hollywood personality, what about Piazza stands out for you to name him the greatest slugger the area has ever seen? Also, do you -- as I do -- think the guys who played in the '80s are too low on the list? They had to play in huge ballparks (the Astrodome, old Busch Stadium, etc.) and in those days 30 home runs was really something. The game was more speed-oriented. I suspect even Dusty Baker might have had just as much power as guys who were hitting 40 home runs a few years ago, before drug testing ramped up.

From: Tony Jackson

To: Mark Saxon

I think Piazza's Hollywood personality was the reason he was at the top of the list, especially on a list that any one of those guys could have been at the top based strictly on their performance. In this town, it's all about star power.

I also think Vlad's star power might have been hurt by the fact he didn't speak fluent English. However, if Vlad had played for the Dodgers -- and, if you will recall, he almost did -- that would have helped his star power because of the Dodgers' large Spanish-speaking fan contingent. I also think that although Piazza played more of his career with the Mets than with the Dodgers, he started his career with the Dodgers and became a star with the Dodgers. Vlad had long since become a star with the old Montreal Expos by the time he came to Anaheim.

Mark TrumboGary A. Vasquez/US PresswireWill Mark Trumbo one day be mentioned in the same breath with the all-time L.A. greats?

From: Mark Saxon

To: Tony Jackson

OK, Tony, come back to the present. I look around the Angels' organization and wonder if there is anyone who could one day nudge his way into our top 10. Most of the Angels' power guys are in their decline years. The two guys I would point to with that kind of potential are Mark Trumbo, who figures to cruise to 30 homers a year if they let him keep playing and if he keeps making adjustments, and Mike Trout, who just got called up at the tender age of 19. Trout doesn't have big power now, but some scouts think he could one day be a Ryan Braun type -- just hit line drives so hard that they keep carrying out of the ballpark.

As you scan the horizon with the Dodgers, do you see guys who appear to be locks to enter this conversation? Will Matt Kemp be around long enough and show the discipline to stay on this current trajectory? Is there a guy in the minors who is destined for home run greatness?

From: Tony Jackson

To: Mark Saxon

I do think both Kemp and Andre Ethier have a chance, but given the current financial state of the Dodgers and the uncertainty of their future, it's really tough right now to envision both of them being here after next season, when they become free agents. Whichever one stays will almost undoubtedly make a place for himself on that list. Right now, Kemp is the closest thing the Dodgers have to a marquee player, and he is right on the brink of becoming one of the star players in this league -- if he can keep this up.

From: Mark Saxon

To: Tony Jackson

Just for fun, I ran our list by Mike Scioscia, who has no credentials other than having spent the past 35 years in the two organizations, having been the Dodgers' all-time leader in games caught and the only Angels manager to take them to a World Series. What does he know, right?

Anyway, he said it's impossible to compare guys across eras. Of the three sluggers he played with in the 1980s, he would rank Pedro Guerrero the highest, Cey second and Garvey third. He struggled with whether to rank Piazza or Vladimir first. He played with Piazza in Piazza's rookie season and, obviously, managed Vladdy's Angels career.

Eventually, he settled on Guerrero.

"If you're just talking raw power, I'd go with Vlad, but it's close," Scioscia said. "I've never seen a guy with as big a swing as Vlad who could square a ball up like Vlad. You know, he didn't swing and miss very often."

Matt KempAP Photo/Chris CarlsonEven in a down season, the Dodgers' young center fielder has shown star power. Will it last?

From: Tony Jackson

To: Mark Saxon

That's a good point, and maybe a reason to rank Vlad even higher on the list. His swing and his mechanics weren't exactly textbook, and I guess some old-school hitting coaches might say his plate discipline was lacking. But what is plate discipline, really, other than knowing how to lay off pitches you can't hit. And Vlad could hit almost every pitch in every zone. So was it that he didn't have plate discipline? Or was it that he had perfect plate discipline for him? I was in Montreal with the Reds for the final weekend of the 2002 season, when Vlad was trying to go 40-40. He already had his 40 steals, and he needed one home run in that series to get there. He never did get it, but that series was the first time I really paid attention to his approach at the plate. I saw him double off the right-field wall on a pitch that might have been an inch above the ground. Never seen another player, before or since, who could do that.

From: Mark Saxon

To: Tony Jackson

It sounds like we've settled on the conclusion that these kinds of lists are hard to do. Maybe we should just be happy that we, and other baseball fans in Southern California, have been able to watch so many great hitters over the generations without driving too far from home.

From: Tony Jackson

To: Mark Saxon

I agree. This list is definitely debatable, both in terms of how these 10 are ranked and of a handful of guys who didn't quite make the cut. And of course, it's a temporary list, one that if you put together again 20 years from now might look vastly different. It should be fun to watch the next generation of SoCal power hitters and see how they hold up against this list.

Mark Saxon covers the Angels for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. Tony Jackson covers the Dodgers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.

Mark Saxon

ESPNLosAngeles.com
Mark Saxon is a staff writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. He spent six years at the Orange County Register, and began his career at the Oakland Tribune, where he started an 11-year journey covering Major League Baseball. He has also covered colleges, including USC football and UCLA basketball.

Tony Jackson

ESPNLosAngeles.com

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