Worst First-Round Picks — #7
A reminder, here’s our methodology.
Worst First-round Picks — #7
1968 – Don Castle
In the year of the pitcher, the Rangers drafted a player wholly for his bat. That would be the least of their mistakes. Their pick that year, a high school first baseman named Don “Donnie” Castle, played in all of four games for the Rangers in 1973; three were as a designated hitter and one as a pinch hitter. He went 4-for-13 (.308) with one double, two RBI, and one walk against three strikeouts. So for all I may say about him to come, as the great Cap Anson was once said to have requested for an epitaph, “Here lies a man who batted .300.”
For most his baseball life, Castle was what is commonly known as an “organizational player”. A career minor-leaguer who drifts from town to town, filling rosters. Castle, as it were, played for eleven years in minor league baseball, finishing his career with the West Haven Yankees in 1978.
Not exactly the ideal of a Top 10 pick.
Sand castles in a hurricane
If ever there were a year to draft hitters, it was 1968. Three men symbolized “The year of the pitcher”.
That June, as the draft was taking place, Don Drysdale was in the backstretch of his epic shutout streak, which would reach 58 2/3 innings before June 8 finally saw it end. Bob Gibson’s ERA hovered near 1.00; it would drop below, into decimal points, before a September “swoon” saw it rise to a still-record low 1.12. He would win the NL Cy Young and MVP, as would his counterpart in the AL. But that’s where the similarities would end.
Drysdale’s season was actually pedestrian for the “Year of the Pitcher”: a 14-12 record and a 2.12 ERA—or a full run off Gibson’s pace. Still, he managed 8 shutouts in 12 complete games in the twilight of his shortened career.
He would retire at the end of the 1969 season as a relatively young 33, beset—like his remarkable moundmate for the Dodgers incredible mid-60’s dominance, Sandy Koufax—by arm troubles, and flustered too by back issues common to his strong 6’5” frame and workman-like approach to each appearance. But for May and June of 1968, he took a seat to no man—not even Robert Gibson.
For those two months, Drysdale used his biting control of the corners to own the National League–the Chicago Cubs, 1-0, the Astros, 1-0, the Cardinals, 2-0, the Astros again, 5-0, the Giants, 3-0, and the Pittsburgh Pirates, 5-0. From May 14 to June 4, he started six games, each with three days’ rest (as was his preference, or at least Walt Alston’s pattern).
As he told the LA Times two decades later, before his far-too-early death of a heart attack in 1993:
“I used to break down a game, pitch by pitch and hitter by hitter and inning by inning,” said Drysdale, who at the time had a 3-month-old boxer named, appropriately, Shutout. “So it was very easy to go along from one shutout to the next. The clubs we had in the late ’60s, we didn’t score too many runs, so you kind of had in the back of your mind going out there that, ‘I might have to shut this guy (the opposing pitcher) out.”
Gibson threw 13 shutouts, three fewer than Grover Cleveland Alexander’s major league record. He won all twelve starts in June and July, pitching a complete game every time, including eight shutouts, and allowed only six earned runs in 108 innings pitched for the draft’s calendar month (a 0.50 ERA). “Hoot” pitched 47 consecutive scoreless innings during this stretch, then the third-longest scoreless streak in major league history—but, thanks to Drysdale, not even the year’s best mark.
Gibson finished the season with 28 complete games in 34 starts; every game he left, he was pinch hit for; in 1968, even the respected Red Schoendienst didn’t dare take the ball from Gibson on the mound.
Of his season, Gibson told the Los Angeles Times in that 20th anniversary lookback:
“I’ve had plenty of times when I threw harder,” recalled Gibson, now a Cardinal broadcaster. “But I very seldom threw a ball above the knee and very seldom threw it over the middle of the plate. It was on the corner, the corner, the corner.”
“It’s a groove. You can feel it. Only one time in your career do you feel that, if at all. . . . It felt like you were in complete control of every situation. If you got ball 3 and no strikes on a guy, you didn’t worry about it. ‘All right, I know what I have to do.’ That’s the way you felt. It was a great feeling.”
There are many fond memories of 1968, obviously. But there is also, still, some disbelief.
“The thing that stands out more than anything else is that I lost nine ballgames,” Gibson said. “How did I do that? I lost nine ballgames.”
Denny McLain was seen as Gibson’s opposite—a Pepsi-guzzling, organ-playing, edge-of-the-rules rogue off the field and mischievous magician on the mound. Only the rogue and magician claims truly stick. The rest was largely McLain playing up small things into his own legend. In that year of the pitcher, perhaps no one surprised as much as McLain. For Detroit’s eventual champions, he went, 31-6, with a 1.96 ERA, completed 28 of 41 starts, threw 336 innings, struck out 280 against 63 walks, and had 6 shutouts of his own. Like Gibson, he was his league’s Cy Young and MVP winner.
Unlike Gibson and Drysdale, McClain, who would serve time in prison for racketeering, does not remember 1968 either deeply or all that fondly, despite trophies and rings:
“To be perfectly honest, I don’t recall much about the season,” he said the other day. “I recall certain moments. I recall hitting a triple in my 29th win. I recall the 30th win, when I almost knocked myself out on the dugout ceiling. But I don’t recall much about individual games.
“I never had the chance to sit back and enjoy it all. I was too busy with all the commitments and all the hoopla. Heck, Detroit hadn’t seen anything like that team in 20 years and the place was going crazy. Everyone was enjoying the atmosphere, but I never had time.
“The attention was incredible. It seemed like everywhere I went, a reporter would be there, too. It got so bad, a cameraman, an ABC guy, followed me into the latrine (in the Tiger Stadium locker room before the 30th win). . . .
“I could not wish that year on anyone. You became so magnified. Every time you stepped an inch, people were around to see if you didn’t really take a foot. On the other hand, whether the time was good, bad or indifferent, it’s been a bonus to me. I’ll always be able to make a living because of the notoriety I got from baseball.”
That’s saying a lot to say the Senators came into 1968 looking for some offense. They saw it in Donnie Castle. Sadly, their gaze, as often happened in the 1960s and 1970s, failed them.
Donnie put up decent numbers in the minors, but not the kind of stats you’d look for from a first-rounder. Here are his splits from his rookie season through his call-up, by team and level, when he was 18 to 22:
That’s a solid combination of speed and power, and if you could translate those splits over to the majors, you’d have a solid infielder. The problem is, you wouldn’t have a corner infielder, even in the 1960s and 70s, unless he had Wes Parker’s glove. And that wasn’t Don Castle.
After his cup of coffee, the Rangers let him go to the Yankees, where he showed flashes of potential—in AA Winter Haven in 1977 he slashed .274/.369/.530 (that’s a .900 OPS) with 23 doubles and 24 homers in 445 plate appearances, but struck out 87 times against only 55 walks. He had the bad fortune of breaking out late and timing it poorly—1976 was the beginning of the Bronx Zoo Yankees, and plenty of players with better bona fides than a guy in Double A at 27.
So who, in that year of the pitcher, should the Rangers have taken? Well, there was another high-school player available. He didn’t have the 6’1”, 205lb Castle’s stocky power profile, but his athleticism and fielding were off the charts and he had enough bat to dream on.
Gary Matthews was 6’2”, but only 170 or so in high school. He’d grow to 185, all of it sinewy strong muscle. Turns out, that sinew belied a bulk of heart and leadership that would lead to his Wrigley Field moniker (as he led the charge out of the dugout to left field: “Sarge”
Matthews was the National League Rookie of the Year in 1973 after batting .300 with 12 homers and 58 RBI for the Giants.
He had his best overall season with the Braves in 1979, going to the All-Star Game during a season in which he slashed .304/.363/.502 with 27 homers and 90 RBI.
Matthews slashed .281/.364/.439 during a 16-season major league career with San Francisco (1972–76), Atlanta (1977–80), Philadelphia (1981–83), the Chicago Cubs (1984–87) and Seattle (1987). In 2,033 games, he had 2,011 hits, 234 homers, and 978 RBI while scoring 1,083 runs.
He was also a post-season performer; Matthews saw October with the Phillies in 1981 and 1983. He homered 7 times in 19 playoff games and was voted the MVP of the 1983 NLCS. In that October’s 4-game series sweep of the Dodgers, he went 6-for-14 with three homers and eight RBIs, slashing .429/.500/1.071. Despite a sweep in the World Series at the hands of the Orioles, Matthews slashed a respectable .250/.333/.438 with a homer in 16 at-bats.
He was also a key contributor to the Cubs’ NL Eastern Division title in 1984, slashing .291/.410/.428 with 101 runs scored and a Top 5 MVP finish. In the first game of the 1984 NL Championship Series against San Diego, he homered twice, and while his average was only .200, he had a 1.029 for the NLCS.
The Dodger Draft
The 1968 draft really ought to be called the Dodger draft.
The Dodgers laid the groundwork for their championship clubs of the 1970s with an outstanding draft across the various phases of the draft. Among the players the Dodgers selected were:
- Davey Lopes (2nd round, January secondary) in the January secondary phase,
- Bill Buckner (2nd round, June regular),
- Joe Ferguson (6th round, June regular),
- Doyle Alexander (9th round, June regular)
- Tom Paciorek (40th round, June regular)
- Steve Garvey (1st round, June secondary)
- Ron Cey (3rd round, June secondary)
In one draft. ONE DRAFT. Holy heck. Greatest draft ever? For my money, yes.