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November 20, 2012
The BP Wayback Machine
The Gift of Kuhn
While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive (and mostly free) online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.
Bud Selig took six days to review the 12-player Marlins-Blue Jays trade before allowing it to stand. However, there is some precedent for a commissioner having the power to overturn trades, as Steven Goldman explained in the piece reprinted below, which was originally published as a "You Could Look it Up" column on April 24, 2006.
Of course, the Pirates don't know their own history--witness the decision not to protect
The Pirates' team record for games played at first base hasn't changed in 67 years. Since 1939, it has been held by
They've tried--future Cooperstown residents
Here are the top ten VORP seasons for first baseman (minimum of 100 games at the position) between 1960 and the present:
PLAYER TEAM YEAR VORP Mark McGwire SLN 1998 103.3 Jason Giambi OAK 2001 103.0 Carlos Delgado TOR 2000 99.8 Norm Cash DET 1961 96.5 Derrek Lee CHN 2005 95.6 Jason Giambi OAK 2000 93.2 Rod Carew MIN 1977 92.4 Frank Thomas CHA 1996 92.3 Albert Pujols SLN 2004 92.3 John Olerud TOR 1993 92.2
Nope--no Pirates in there. Let's look at the next ten:
PLAYER TEAM YEAR VORP Mark McGwire OAK 1996 91.6 Todd Helton COL 2003 88.5 Albert Pujols SLN 2005 88.3 Jeff Bagwell HOU 1994 86.0 Don Mattingly NYA 1986 85.8 Jim Thome CLE 2002 85.0 Jeff Bagwell HOU 1999 84.9 Todd Helton COL 2004 83.8 Willie McCovey SFN 1969 83.2 Todd Helton COL 2001 81.6
No Pirates there either. In fact, you have to go quite a way down the list before you find the first Pittsburgh first basemen. Here are the top ten Pirates first base seasons from 1960 through 2005:
PLAYER YEAR VORP Jason Thompson 1982 49.5 Willie Stargell 1972 46.8 Kevin Young 1999 43.9 Willie Stargell 1978 41.8 Donn Clendenon 1966 39.8 Willie Stargell 1975 39.7 Dick Stuart 1961 36.9 Willie Stargell 1979 30.6 Bob Robertson 1971 26.5 Donn Clendenon 1965 24.0
It should be noted that with variances in offense, some of these seasons were quite good in their time. For example, Willie Stargell's 1978 VORP was the 26th-best in the game that year. Jason Thompson's 1982 was 15th-best. Stargell's 1972, which barely qualifies under our 100-game cutoff (see below), was the eighth-best season in baseball that year, sixth-best in the National League, though a good distance back from the players ahead of him, including league leader
It's also worth mentioning that Stargell never played anything like a full season at first base. In his best year as a first baseman, 1972, he played only 101 games at the position. He was back in the outfield in 1973 and 1974, then returned to first for good in 1975. That year he had his career high for games at first, 122. Thereafter injuries curtailed his playing time. He missed two-thirds of the season in both 1977 and 1980. In his three remaining seasons, he averaged 112 games in the field.
Finally, few pre-1960 seasons by Pirates first basemen would rank on this list.
Jason Thompson batted .284/.394/.511 in 1982, punching up his results with 31 home runs and 101 walks. Thompson was a lefty pull hitter. He had little speed, by all reports wasn't much of a fielder, he had trouble with lefty pitchers, his average tended to fluctuate, and he had the appalling 1970s moustache you'd expect from a grown man in 1982. Nevertheless, he was an asset because his game was about walks and home runs, resulting in a career .291 EqA. Naturally, he was accused of being too passive. Showing the absence of sabermetric understanding at the time, Thompson was twice dumped for nothing.
The Tigers drafted Thompson out of Cal State in 1975, and had him starting in the majors by 1976, skipping him past both Double- and Triple-A, batting fifth behind
Thompson finished 1979 in a slump and opened 1980 the same way. Lefties were killing him. Even in 1977, he had struggled with them, batting .312/.409/.589 against righties but .221/.270/.369 against southpaws. Ralph Houk, his manager, did not believe in platooning--in fact did not believe in resting his regulars ever--so Thompson was offered no protection. Sparky Anderson came in at the end of 1979, and was somewhat smarter than Houk. Still, on May 27, 1980 the Tigers made a deal that would leave them without a first baseman for years, trading Thompson to to the Angels for
Thompson was fantastic for the Angels, batting .317/.439/.526 with 17 home runs in 102 games (.342 EqA). The improvement in his rate stats was due in part to Angels' manager Jim Fregosi being smart enough to bench him against lefties. Nonetheless, the following April the Angels, the Yankees, and the Pirates swung a three-way deal in which the Angels sent Thompson to the Pirates for catcher
Ever since Charlie Finley had tried to break up the A's on the eve of free agency by selling
The Yankees-Pirates deal exceeded this amount, and Kuhn declined to give his approval. The Yankees and Pirates restructured the trade. This time the Yankees were to receive Thompson and six minor leaguers. Everything else was the same, with the exception that the avowed purpose of the $450,000 component was supposed to be for the purchase of the Pittsburgh farmhands. The Commissioner again said no, believing that the minor leaguers were not worth $450,000. The Pirates then made a third offer: forget the cash, and give us righty pitching prospect
"It just got to be too much," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner told The New York Times. "It meant stripping myself of a player I consider my future. If Nelson comes on and does a job for me, and Spencer too, I'll know that sometimes the trades you don't make are the most important ones."
Steinbrenner was aggrieved, and rightfully so, as Kuhn's ruling made little sense. Even if his no money policy really stood for the good of the game--and it was convincingly argued at the time that it was, in fact, exactly the opposite--he was arbitrary and capricious in its application. In a December, 1980 deal, the Cardinals had traded
Kuhn had also informed clubs pursuing a trade for
The real issue for Kuhn was not how much money was being spent but who was doing the spending. He felt that the big market clubs like the Yankees would reassert their formerly dynastic dominance if allowed to spend freely on player purchases. Perhaps Kuhn would have let the penurious Cal Griffith of the Twins buy players from the A's, but George Steinbrenner and Tom Yawkey, never. Thirty years of free agency and rising revenue disparities between big and small market clubs have shown Kuhn's analysis to have been overly simplistic.
This stance put Kuhn, a lawyer, in the odd position of player evaluation. As Red Smith wrote at the time, Kuhn "has given himself oversight authority in all player transactions. He decides whether a deal is good or bad for baseball and good or bad for the clubs involved, sets a value on the players concerned and dictates the purchase price. He even claimed to know a prospect from a suspect." For example, the Yankees' purchase of Robinson from the A's was allowed to go through because Kuhn looked at Robinson's stats at Vancouver of the Pacific Coast League, and decided the Yankees would be getting their money's worth. "He's a pretty good prospect," said Kuhn, who couldn't have been more wrong.
Nelson, 20, made the Yankees out of spring training but struggled with his control and was quickly sent down. Exactly one year later, Steinbrenner voluntarily stripped himself for
As for the Pirates, they kept the first baseman they hadn't wanted and eventually got their best season from his position. It was Thompson's last good year. Though he was just 27 in 1982, his bat died. Knee problems, unalleviated by surgery, sapped his power and limited his already poor speed. Through 1982, Thompson had hit .265/.366/.454 against a league average of .266/.329/.390. From then until the end of his career, he hit .250/.369/.388 against a league average of .262/.329/.387. The good eye was still there, but the power had vanished. He was out of the majors at 31.
Since then, for the Pirates it's been all downhill, Kevin Young's 1999 season being an arguable exception, an islet in a sea of mediocrity. With Casey--a long shot to have a top offensive season in the first place--gone for at least two months, the search for a productive first baseman will last at least another year.