Eight-year MLB veteran LaMarr Hoyt passed away this past Monday evening at age 66 after a lengthy battle with cancer. If you’re under 40, it’s unlikely you remember Hoyt, and it’s even possible you’ve never heard of him prior to this week. Those of us who saw him pitch (or played endless games of Strat-O-Matic in that era) remember him as a pitcher who, if he were on the mound against your team, made you realize you had your hands full that night.
As a member of the White Sox, Hoyt had his breakout season in 1982, leading the AL in wins. The next year, he led all MLB pitchers in WHIP, BB/9, SO/W ratio, and wins with 24, earning him the AL Cy Young award. He followed that up by once again leading the AL in K/BB ratio and BB/9, but pitching for a White Sox team that regressed from 99 wins in 1983 to 74 wins in 1984, Hoyt led MLB in losses with 18. In 1984, that would get you jettisoned out of town pretty quickly, which Chicago did, trading him to San Diego. In San Diego, Hoyt once again led MLB in BB/9 and started the 1985 All-Star game for the NL – a game in which he threw 3 scoreless innings, earning him the All-Star Game MVP.
Hoyt’s career only lasted one more season, however, as a seemingly endless run of substance abuse and legal problems put an unceremonious end to a very good career. Pitching in an era in which Peter Ueberroth was MLB Commissioner was a stroke of bad luck as well, as Ueberroth had a very inflated sense of the impact he had on athletes who used drugs*, suspending Hoyt for an entire season at one point - a suspension that was quickly reduced to 60 games by an arbitrator.* Regardless, Hoyt’s career was over after the 1986 season.
*Read John Heylar’s “Lords of the Realm” for more fun stuff about Commissioner Ueberroth and drugs in that era.
Beyond reminiscing, we as Yankee fans can connect Hoyt to the Yankees both past and present - if we go back 45 years. The 1976 Yankees won 97 games and the AL Pennant, which is to say, were a very good team. There were some issues going into 1977 though, as the Yankees were in the very tough AL East, and the Royals – who were turning into a powerhouse themselves - would be a serious problem in the ALCS for whoever came out of the AL East. Should the AL pennant be won, either the reigning champion Big Red Machine or the loaded Dodgers would likely be waiting for the AL champs in the World Series.
In order to improve an already good team, the Yankees signed free agent Reggie Jackson to be “the straw that stirs the drink” in right field. Corner outfield wasn’t the only position that needed a serious upgrade, as the shortstop platoon of Fred Stanley and Jim Mason had combined for 1.8 WAR over the previous two seasons.
Yankees’ GM Gabe Paul turned to the Chicago White Sox, the AL’s worst team in 1976, for help. Chicago’s shortstop Bucky Dent had finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting two years prior and was an AL All-Star the previous season – he’d be the perfect fit for a Yankee team that only had this last hole to fill. Paul felt so strongly about Dent that he sent Gamble and a highly-regarded pitching prospect – a kid named LaMarr Hoyt - to Chicago, for Dent.
The trade worked out for the White Sox, but it worked out even better for the Yankees. Their new upgrades turned out to be exactly the push they needed as they won 100 games, edging out Boston and Baltimore who both won 97 games. They went on to overcome Kansas City in the ALCS, then the Dodgers in the World Series for their first title in 15 years, and the first of two in a row. All told, with Dent as their shortstop from 1977-1981, a stretch in which Dent averaged almost three wins more per season than his predecessors, the Yankees won four division titles, three AL Pennants, and two World Series. Dent himself chipped in the 1978 World Series MVP award, two more All-Star appearances, and one of the most famous home runs in Yankees’ history.
I’m not here to argue that Dent had as much to do with the Yankees’ success in that era as Jackson, Willie Randolph, and Ron Guidry had, but his acquisition can remind us of a couple things. First, the 1970’s Yankees’ dynasty was far less of a byproduct of free agency than people tend to characterize it today. A slew of phenomenal trades, Dent of which was one, were the driving factors that led to the success of those teams. Look at the top 10 WAR producers of the 1977-1978 World Series-winning teams:
Seven of the top ten, including the top three position players, were acquired via trade. Guidry and Thurman Munson were Yankees’ draft picks, Jackson the only free-agent acquisition.
Secondly, if you’re a team that’s reached the postseason each of the past five seasons while averaging 95 wins per 162 games over that stretch, (as the current Yankees have) then you’re not that far away from being a championship team. Now is the time to pull the trigger on a trade or free agent that can put you over the top. Even a player who’s only a three-win upgrade at his position might be a difference-maker at this point - imagine what two or three players like that can do.
RIP LaMarr Hoyt. He were a great pitcher, and a heck of a lot of fun to watch. Here’s hoping the current Yankees can learn from your small piece in team history.