Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Philography: Kevin Stocker

During this current off-season, the “Philography” series has covered 1970’s era shortstop and franchise icon Larry Bowa, and early 20th century outfielder Sherry Magee.
In this piece, we’ll take a look at an often overlooked, but extremely vital piece to the ‘Macho Row’ NL pennant winners of the 1993 season, shortstop Kevin Stocker.
Stocker was born on February 13th, 1970 in Spokane, Washington. He grew up in that Pacific Northwest town, attended high school there, and went on to play baseball in-state at the University of Washington.
In the 1991 MLB Amateur Draft, the Phillies made a pitcher out of Wichita State University, Tyler Green, their first round pick at 10th overall. In the second round with the 53rd overall pick, the Phils selected Stocker.
To say that Stocker didn’t hit well in his first professional season during that summer of 1991 at Spartanburg would be an understatement. He produced just a .220/.310/.272 slash line with a dozen extra-base hits in 290 plate appearances.
But Stocker did flash some speed, swiping 15 bases in 18 attempts. And he fielded the shortstop position extremely well. At just 21 years of age, he looked like the prototypical good glove, light-hitting shortstop with some speed whose ability to actually reach the Major League Baseball level was extremely questionable.
In 1992, Stocker got stronger and improved his offensive production. He split the season between High-A Clearwater and AA-Reading, producing a .267/.339/.349 slash line with 74 runs scored and 32 steals over a combined 550 plate appearances. He showed that improved strength and adjustment to pro pitching with 30 extra-base hits, including his first two professional home runs.
Meanwhile in Philadelphia, the Phillies were seriously struggling. The big league club finished 70-92 and in last place in the NL East in what was a 6th consecutive losing season for the franchise.

The shortstop position was a particular mess. In that 1992 season, the Phillies gave significant plate appearances to four different players: Juan Bell (168), Dale Sveum (153), Kim Batiste (145), and Joe Millette (78), and those players produced just 36 RBI and 39 runs scored, with six stolen bases and 16 extra-base hits.
As the 1993 season got underway, no one expected much of the Phillies. The team had added just a handful of new faces to the ’92 last place finishers. Jim Fregosi‘s squad appeared headed for yet another losing season. And what was just as bad, the organization minor league prospects were not expected to bring much help.
History records that something magical took place in that 1993 season. It happens every once in a while in sports. A team receives peak performances from a number of players at the same time, is relatively healthy for an entire season, has tremendous chemistry, and overachieves to an extreme level.
The ’93 Phillies started with a three game sweep of the Astros in Houston. The club then returned to Veteran’s Stadium and lost their home opener to the Chicago Cubs in an 11-7 slugfest, falling into 2nd place in the NL East. It would be the only day all season that the team did not spend at the top of the division standings.
On July 6th, the Phils were right in the middle of an 11-game homestand, and they dropped a 7-5 decision to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Despite the defeat, the team had still built up an incredible 55-29 record to that point, and had a six game lead in the division race.
One place that the club was receiving little production still was at that shortstop position. Neither Bell nor Batiste, who were getting all of the opportunities, were doing anything. Fregosi and GM Lee Thomas decided that it was finally time to see what Stocker could do.
To that point, Stocker was not tearing it up at AAA Scranton-Wilkes Barre. He was hitting for just a .233/.312/.313 slash line with 18 extra base hits in 357 plate appearances. But as was typical to that point, he was fielding the shortstop position flawlessly, and had swiped 17 bases. The hope was that he would solidify the infield defensively and perhaps give the team some spark on the bases.
Stocker’s first big league start on July 7th, 1993 against the Dodgers at The Vet was a memorable one. He took an 0-6 collar at the plate. But the game lasted 20 innings.
In the top of the 9th, the Dodgers had rallied from a 5-3 deficit to tie. Stocker saved the game with a tremendous play to nail the Dodgers’ Jose Offerman at home plate trying to score the go-ahead run.
Jim Eisenreich and Mickey Morandini started the bottom of the 20th with singles, bringing Stocker to the plate. He laid down what was meant to be a sacrifice bunt, but reached safely when the Dodgers’ tried unsuccessfully to cut off Eisenreich at 3rd base as the lead runner. When Lenny Dykstra followed with a ground rule double, the Phillies had a dramatic walkoff victory in a manner for by which that team would become famous.
Stocker was handed the starting shortstop job, and over the next 17 games he would surprise everyone with his offense, delivering for the team big time. In those games, he would hit for a .452/.514/.581 slash line with nine RBI and 11 runs scored.
That hot stretch helped propel Stocker to a rookie season in which he would hit .324 with a .409 on-base percentage. He delivered 17 extra-base hits and scored 46 runs in just 302 plate appearances over the season’s final three months. The Phillies would build up an 11 game lead at one point, and coast home to the NL East crown.
In the National League Championship Series, the Phils went up against the talented Atlanta Braves, who had won 104 games in the regular season. As underdogs, the Phils stunned the baseball world once again, beating back the Braves in six games to capture just the 5th NL pennant in franchise history.
In that NLCS, Stocker hit just .182 with only four hits. But as was typical of him that year, one of those hits was pivotal. Trailing two games to one in the series, and 1-0 in Game 4, Stocker delivered a one-out sacrifice fly in the bottom of the 4th inning off future Hall of Famer John Smoltz, scoring Darren Daulton with a run to tie the game.
Pitcher Danny Jackson would follow with a ground single to center, scoring Milt Thompson to put the Phillies up 2-1. Jackson would then take the mound and deliver with a 118-pitch gem. Mitch Williams closed out the win, and the Phils had tied the series up in Atlanta. They would win the next two games in dramatic fashion as well to reach the World Series for the first time in a decade.
In the six game World Series defeat at the hands of the Toronto Blue Jays, Stocker would hit just .211 with four hits, scoring and driving in just one run. He was on the field at his shortstop position as Joe Carter drove a pitch from the Wild Thing out to left field in the bottom of the 9th inning of Game 6.
Stocker was quoted on that historic moment by Larry Stone of the Seattle Times: “I had gone out for the relay. I thought it was too high, and would drop on the warning track. Inky (left fielder Pete Incaviglia) kept going back. When he put his hands on the wall, I knew it was not good.
Still, he had been everything that Phillies team could have hoped for in 1993, especially from a 23-year old rookie – a vital piece to a pennant-winning ball club. Stocker would finish 6th in the NL Rookie of the Year voting following that freshman campaign.
He followed it up with another solid season the following year, producing a .273 batting average and .383 on-base percentage in 330 plate appearances during the strike-shortened 1994 season. But the team was just 54-61 at the time of the work stoppage.
When baseball returned, neither Stocker nor the Phillies were able to recapture that previous magic. The team went just 69-75 in 1995, while Stocker hit for just a .218 average. In 1996 and ’97, it got even worse, with the team finishing a cumulative 135-189 and in last place both years. Stocker continued as a strong defensive shortstop, and showed more extra-base pop, but was never a significant offensive contributor.
On November 18th, 1997 after five seasons as the Phillies starting shortstop, Stocker was traded to the expansion Tampa Bay Devil Rays in exchange for a 23-year old outfielder named Bobby Abreu. It would turn out to be one of the best trades in Phillies history, as Abreu became one of the most productive offensive players in team history over the next decade.
For his part, Stocker became the first shortstop in Rays’ franchise history. He spent parts of three seasons in Tampa before being released in May of 2000. Five days after his release, the Anaheim Angels signed him, and he finished out the season with the Halos. It would turn out to be his final big league season. He would report to spring training with the New York Mets in 2001, but his heart was no longer in the playing, and he would leave before that Grapefruit League ended.
Following his retirement, Stocker moved into the broadcast booth as smoothly as he fielded his shortstop position. He worked in minor league baseball, for CBS Sports, and with the Pac-12 Network, where he remains an analyst today. He was a finalist for the Phillies broadcast booth each of the last two off-seasons, losing out to Jamie Moyer in 2014, and then to Ben Davis a year ago.
In the 2008 World Series, his two main big league teams, the Phillies and Rays, found themselves facing off. Stocker was asked at that time who he was rooting for, and was quoted by Stone: “My loyalties are with the Phillies. They treat their former players great. To this day, they still call and keep in contact.
The feeling is mutual for Phillies fans. Stocker has remained a fan favorite at reunions and other events involving alumni, especially involving that beloved 1993 team. Anyone who lived through that magical summer, an oasis in a parched 14-season losing streak of a desert, will always hold that particular team and its players close to our hearts.

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