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April 5, 2010

You Can Blog It Up

Dead Player of the Day and Other Notes #6

by Steven Goldman

DEAD PLAYER OF THE DAY

In which I pick a page from the encyclopedia at random and riff on what I find.

Paul Strand OF/LHP 1913-1915, 1924 (1893-1974)

The Man Who Shot Himself in the Foot. As a 20-year-old rookie, pitcher Strand played a small role on the “Miracle Braves” of 1914. A second-division team since the beginning of the century, on July 4, 1914 the Braves were 26-40 and in last place, 15 games behind the first-place Giants (“We not only were in last place on the fourth of July,” Johnny Evers said, “but just after the holiday we lost an exhibition to a soap-company team”). From then on they went 68-19, closing the huge gap by late August and going into first place by early September. Tied with the Giants on September 7, 32 games left on the schedule, the Braves went 26-6, while the Giants went 16-17, including 2-4-1 against the Braves. Incredibly, the Braves did this relying on just three starters, but Strand got into 16 games and went 6-2 with a 2.44 ERA.

The next season, Strand was again pitching well in a secondary role when his arm was injured, apparently severely. Suddenly, he had gone from being a member of the championship team to trying to pitch his way out of the low minors. He spent a couple of seasons trying to come back  while also doing some work in the outfield. By 1919, he had given up on pitching and turned to the outfield full time. In this he was tremendously successful, hitting for both average and power. Playing for the Salt Lake Bees of the Pacific Coast League in 1922, he hit .384 in 178 games (the PCL played a long schedule; why stop the season if there’s never any bad weather?), rapping 289 hits, including 52 doubles, 13 triples, and 28 home runs (.600 SLG). The next year he had a record-setting season: in 194 games, he hit .394 and slugged .662, making a record 325 hits, including 66 doubles, 13 triples, and 43 home runs. He also made a record 589 putouts in center field.

Connie Mack (via his scout, Harry Davis) was watching. It was reported that Mack acquired the now-30-year-old Strand for three fringe players and $100,000. Other sources name other figures, and Strand himself once said he had heard that he actual amount was $150,000. Neither figure sounds much like the tightfisted Mack, and I’m inclined to believe that Salt Lake received only $35,000, another figure reported at the time. Mack planned to stick Strand in center field, and that’s what he did—but not before Strand held out for more money. “I was beginning to believe everything I was reading about myself, so I held out for a $5,000 salary,” Strand said years later.

That extra money must have been a bitter pill to swallow when Strand slumped. Too eager to justify his price, whatever it was, and under pressure to alter what was considered an unorthodox batting stance, he pressed, hitting .228/.254/.329 in 47 games (175 PAs). In what can only be viewed as a fit of pique, Mack dealt Strand to Toledo of the American Association that June. Strand immediately went right back to hitting, but he never got another chance at the majors, and why should he have? He was old, he had a weird stance, had flopped, even at that time there was the feeling that the PCL environment inflated offense, and he had leveraged his team for money. There wasn’t much incentive to hire him. 

Strand hung up his spurs in 1928 and went into the plumbing and heating business. Parenthetically, though both Retrosheet and Baseball-Reference list Strand as both a left-handed thrower and hitter, he was actually that rare thing, a lefty thrower and a righty hitter. He was inducted into the PCL Hall of Fame in 2004.

The Uncertainty of Everything

As last night’s season opener suggested, there is no harder job in baseball than to build a reliable bullpen. At least for that one night, the Red Sox had one and the Yankees didn’t. Buying name relievers is no protection; a good chunk of the guys who are famous in season 1 are going to be infamous in season 2. There is a passage in Huckleberry Finn that relates to bullpens: “It's lovely to live on a raft. We had the sky up there, all speckled with stars, and we used to lay on our backs and look up at them, and discuss about whether they was made or only just happened.” Any GM about to spend precious millions on last year’s middle relievers needs to think very carefully about this passage, because there is at least as much evidence for “just happened” as “made.”

Ironically, the Yankees might have taken the loss because they got away from the “just happened” philosophy they’ve pursued over the last few seasons. Mariano Rivera aside, the Yankees have prospered when giving found relievers like Brian Bruney, Jose Veras, Edwar Ramirez, Alfredo Aceves, Phil Coke, David Robertson, and Jon Albaladejo (not to mention Phil Hughes and Joba Chamberlain) a try—and treating them as disposable, replaceable commodities whenever they failed to perform—and floundered when spending money on Kyle Farnsworth, LaTroy Hawkins, and now Chan Ho Park.

Last night was only one game of 162 and Park had a terrific spring, for whatever those small samples against unreliable opponents are worth, so it’s not worth getting too exercised about one game—to my cyclopean eye, Park was nervous and overthrowing. Still, in that one inning of one game you had a textbook demonstration of why the GM’s instinct to bolster his otherwise off-brand bullpen with a brand-name arm can be so dangerous. Given the unreliability of the breed of relievers as a whole, a promising minor league relief arm is just as good as two-thirds of the “established” major league relievers, and it’s very hard to know exactly where the dividing line is. Barring a more thorough study, it might be that you draw the line under Mariano Rivera, and consider everyone else suspect.

And, of course, Mariano is aging… Someday soon there just won’t be a line at all.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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