Blizzard of Oz: As MLB heads to Australia, here are best players from Down Under
With the news that the Dodgers and Diamondbacks will open the 2014 regular season with a pair of games in Australia, we thought we’d take a quick look at the best Australian-born players in major league history. It’s a short list.
There have been just 28 native Australians in major league history and just five of them have compiled more than lefthander Damian Moss’s 1.4 career wins above replacement per Baseball-Reference’s version of the statistic (hereafter bWAR). Despite the fact that baseball first reached the Australian shores in 1888 via Albert Spalding’s world tour (or 1853 according to an American sea merchant who greeted Spalding’s tour in Sydney), and was enthusiastically received, just two Australian-born players reached the major leagues prior to 1992, and not a single Australian-born player appeared in the majors from 1902 to 1985. Utility infielder Craig Shipley broke that drought when he debuted with the Dodgers in 1986, but perhaps the most important Australian-born player in major league history to this point was the one that arrived in 1992 and, at least for a few more months, tops the career bWAR list among his countrymen.
1. Dave Nilsson, C, 10.5 bWAR
Nilsson spent his entire eight-year career with the Brewers, hitting .284/.356/.461 (110 OPS+) with 105 home runs, and remains the only Australian ever to be selected to an All-Star team, getting the nod in his final major league season of 1999 in which he hit .309/.400/.554 with 21 home runs in just 404 plate appearances as the Brewers’ catcher. A key figure in Australian baseball, Nilsson was very involved in promoting the sport at home and Australian involvement in the sport elsewhere. Though often limited by injury during his time in the major leagues, he spent his minor and major league offseasons playing for the Australian Baseball League, which he ultimately bought in 1999, by which point he had become second only to golfer Greg Norman as Australia’s best-paid athlete. A free agent after his All-Star season, Nilsson signed in Japan so that he would be able to participate in the 2000 Olympics, which were hosted in Sydney. Subsequent major league comebacks fell short, and the ABL ultimately folded, but Nilsson did play for Australia again in the 2004 Olympics as well as in the inaugural World Baseball Classic in 2006, the last being his final appearance as a player.
2. Grant Balfour, RHP, 9.6 bWAR
At his current pace, A’s closer Balfour will surpass Nilsson’s career bWAR total before the 2013 season is complete. Despite signing with the Twins as a teenager, Balfour didn’t establish himself in the major leagues until he was in his 30s, finally breaking through as a key member of the Rays’ bullpen in that franchise’s breakout season of 2008. In five plus seasons dating back to that one, Balfour has posted a 2.67 ERA and 1.07 WHIP in 345 relief appearances while striking out more than a man per inning and has accumulated 40 saves for the A’s over the last two seasons.
3. Graeme Lloyd, LHP, 5.3 bWAR
Six-foot-eight lefty specialist Lloyd is best remembered as a key member of the Yankees’ bullpen in their championship seasons of 1996 and 1998 as well as part of the trade that brought Roger Clemens to the Yankees in 1999. There’s nothing particularly impressive about any of the numbers Lloyd put up in his 10-year career, which also included stints with the Brewers, Blue Jays, Expos, Marlins, Mets and Royals and came to an end after his age-36 season in 2003, but he did time his best season extremely well. Lloyd posted a 1.67 ERA, 0.85 WHIP and career-best 3.33 strikeout-to-walk ratio for the 1998 Yankees, proving equally effective against both righties and lefties that season (as a whole, his opponents hit .191/.234/.294 that year). Lloyd also proved untouchable in the postseason, facing 24 batters across the ’96, ’97 and ’98 postseasons with just three of those men reaching base, two on singles and one on an error; he also stranded 13 of the 16 runners he inherited.
4. Peter Moylan, RHP, 4.6 bWAR
Moylan was teenage teammates with Balfour on the Twins’ Gulf Coast League team in 1997, but he was cut after that season and returned to Australia where he pitched briefly in Nilsson’s league and found work as a sales representative for a pharmaceutical company. It wasn’t until he participated in the 2006 WBC, a participation that was itself motivated by his strong showing in that year’s Australian baseball tournament, known as the Claxton Shield, that he found his way back into affiliated baseball, quickly emerging as a go-to set-up man on the 2007 Braves only to have Bobby Cox go to him a bit too often, resulting in Tommy John surgery the following season. That pattern then repeated. Moylan threw 90 innings in 80 games in ’07, then made a combined 172 appearances for Cox in the 2009 and 2010 seasons before going under the knife again for back and labrum surgery in 2011. He has since reemerged in the Dodgers bullpen at the age of 34 and boasts a career ERA of 2.54.
5. Joe Quinn, 2B, 4.5 bWAR
Born in New South Wales in 1864, Quinn was in the major leagues before Spalding landed in Australia, lending credence to that sea merchant’s claim. By far the most experienced Australian-born major leaguer, Quinn spent 14 years in the National League as well as one season each in the Union Association (1884), the Players League (1890) and the brand-new American League (1901, his final season). That doesn’t mean he could hit. A glove-first second baseman, Quinn hit just .262/.302/.328 (76 OPS+) across those 17 seasons and twice served as a player manager. One of those two stints saw him skipper the final 116 games of the Cleveland Spiders’ infamous 1899 campaign. The Spiders had gone 8-30 (.211) under backup third baseman Lave Cross, then went 12-104 (.103) under Quinn. It’s unclear if that performance has anything to do with why no Australian has managed a major league team since.