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Unsung Orioles heroes: Lenny Webster

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Surrounded by high profile stars and personalities, Webster was able to provide a steady presence behind the plate without much fanfare during his multi-year run with the Orioles.

BBA-EXPOS-ORIOLES-WEBSTER Photo by TED MATHIAS/AFP via Getty Images

Lenny Webster was never the biggest guy on the field; he was 5’9” when the Minnesota Twins drafted him out of Lutcher High School in Louisiana in the 1982 draft (16th round), at which time he spurned the pros for college. He was still 5’9” when the Twins drafted him again three years later — this time in the 21st round (535th overall) — out of Grambling State University.

Webster was never the most powerful guy on the field; his career high for home runs in a season was 10 with Baltimore in 1998 during his age 33 season.

And Webster was never the fastest on the field either; he was a catcher after all, with just one stolen base over the entire span of his 12-year career.

Yet in spite of all this, he managed to carve out a niche during his relatively short period of time with the Orioles. That period began with the magical 1997 season when the Birds went wire-to-wire and ran away with the American League East but ultimately lost to the Cleveland Indians in the AL Championship Series.

From 1997-98, Webster split time at catcher with Oriole fan favorite Chris Hoiles, who averaged 19 home runs and a 121 OPS+ per year from 1991-1998. Over that same time frame, Hoiles’ OBP (.369) was more than 100 points higher than his batting average. Not easy to follow.

But Webster did well handling the pitching staff. In his first year with the O’s, Lenny appeared behind the plate in 97 games and the pitching staff compiled a 3.65 ERA in those games. In 87 games with Hoiles catching, Oriole pitchers put up a 4.16 ERA.

Among catchers on the team, Webster also had the best caught stealing percentage in 1997 (30%) and 1998 (23%).

The 1997 team’s roster had a starting rotation anchored by a formidable first four: Mike Mussina, Scott Erickson, Jimmy Key and Scott Kamieniecki. Those four pitchers accounted for 130 of Baltimore’s 162 starts (80%) that season.

With Webster behind the plate specifically, three of the four put up strong numbers in ‘97. In 57.7 innings throwing to Webster, Jimmy Key put up a 2.50 ERA. Scott Kamieniecki had a 3.43 ERA over the course of 99.2 innings with Webster.

Scott Erickson and Lenny Webster were essentially exclusive battery mates that entire year, with Webster catching 30 of Erickson’s 34 appearances in a pairing that yielded a 3.67 ERA and .665 opponent OPS over the course of 196.1 innings. Erickson’s 3.91 ERA in four games with Hoiles behind the plate wasn’t bad either.

Among the O’s top four starters in ‘97, Mussina was the only exception when it came to starters’ pitching stats when coupled with Webster. Moose actually fared better with Hoiles calling the pitches (2.92 ERA in 25 games). In eight games with Webster catching, Mussina’s ERA jumped to 4.15.

It’s funny how time can distort the memory, as I first recalled Webster as the backup catcher until I began researching for this article recently. The at-bat tallies show that it was more of an even time share between Hoiles and Webster. In 1997 the at-bat split between the two was 320/259 in favor of Hoiles and in 1998 it was 309/267 in favor of Webster.

Not that this is a competition between or comparison of Webster and Hoiles. The latter was obviously the stronger offensive player, which goes a long way. But even though Webster did not have the same level of hitting prowess, he brought different skills that worked in a complementary role with Hoiles. The result was a well-rounded catching backbone.

Again, Webster was not known for his hitting. He finished his career with a .254/.324/.375/.699 batting line. In his first year with the O’s, which was the wire-to-wire season, Webster hit .255/.317/.375 with seven home runs and an OPS+ of 83. He fared better at the plate in 1998 with a .285/.317/.434 batting line, 10 home runs and a 95 OPS+. But the team as a whole imploded.

Talk about an unbelievable two-year swing. After winning their division and making it to the AL Championship Series in 1997, the O’s went 79-83 to finish fourth in the AL East in 1998.

Webster’s time share partner Chris Hoiles retired after that season and the Orioles brought in free agent Charles Johnson to be the full-time catcher heading into 1999. In his third and final year with the Birds, Webster appeared in 16 games, hitting .167 with a .528 OPS before being released in July of ‘99. He would retire after the 2000 season.

But for a brief time, Webster provided quiet value to the Orioles at the all-important position of catcher, which tends to lend itself to unsung heroics. When their team is on the field, a catcher is involved in literally every pitch. That creates a lot of opportunities to make a difference and do the little things right.

Lenny Webster was the embodiment of an undervalued player. He wasn’t huge or lightning-fast or flashy, but he made a career out of doing enough little things behind the plate to make a difference.

Statistics provided by Baseball Reference.