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February 17, 2004
You Could Look It Up
1984 Part I: Sparky Was Watching
After the introductory edition of this column appeared last week, I received a couple of messages from--if Star Trek fans are "Trekkies," what are BP fans? Beepies? Beppies?--readers asking why we were bothering to take notice of the 20th anniversary of the 1984 baseball season, with a week-long series no less. Nothing special happened that year, they said.
Actually, 1984 was a case study in baseball problem solving, as executives were faced with difficult decisions, like, "If my entire starting rotation retires at once, what do I do?" "How do you react to an aggressively restructuring team who happens to be leading you in a close pennant race?" "If one-10th of my 40-man roster is arrested for attempting to obtain illegal drugs, how many of them should I retain?" and many more.
Call the year a Choose Your Own Adventure book for managers and GMs, not to mention little pubescent proto-sabermetricians and performance analysts nationwide. Speaking of which, as we get to the end of this magical history tour, we'll check in on what Baseball Prospectus would have been like 20 years ago--what issues would have taken up pages written in cuneiform on stone tablets, instead of HTML.
I: THE ANATOMY LESSON
The feelings provoked by looking back at the baseball of 1984 from today's smoggy vantage point are probably not unlike those experienced by John McGraw on the day in February, 1934 he rode the express elevator to the observation deck at the top of Rockefeller Center's RCA building and tried to spy the fading light of the deadball era on the western horizon. The majors of 1984 had only four divisions and 26 teams. Offenses were quieter. Over the last five years, the isolated power (slugging percentage - batting average) in the major leagues has been .161. In 1984, American League ISO was .134, National League ISO .114. Only 10 players hit more than 29 home runs back then--two in the National League, eight in the American--compared with 30 players in 2003.
The players were shorter, thinner. From 1999 to 2003, 86 players had official weights of 230 or more pounds. From 1980 to 1984, there were only 11. During that same period, only 62 players appeared in the majors who were 6'5" or taller, and only one of those, J.R. Richard, was as tall as 6'8". Over the last five years, 148 players have stretched the tape measure to 77 or more inches, and six of those would have challenged Richard for head room in the team clown car.
The makeup of the players was different as well. In 2003, 36 players born in the Dominican Republic enjoyed regular or semi-regular status (defined as 200 or more plate appearances), 10% of all such seasons. In 1984, only 4% of regulars or semi-regulars hailed from the Dominican Republic. Offense was concentrated in the traditional areas, at least in the American League, which had a fine crop of young first basemen in Don Mattingly, Kent Hrbek, Alvin Davis, Greg Walker, and Pete O'Brien, as well as veterans like Eddie Murray and Willie Upshaw. The American League also anticipated today's more equitable distribution of offense around the defensive spectrum with excellent offensive shortstops like Cal Ripken, Alan Trammell, and Robin Yount, soon to be joined by Julio Franco and Tony Fernandez, both already in the league but not yet what they would become. The National League was closer to the historical norm, with just one shortstop, Ozzie Smith, who was even an average hitter. Oddly, the same could be said for half of the senior circuit's first basemen, most of whose names are so obscure as to be answers to some kabalistic riddle: Greg Brock. David Green. Franklin Stubbs. Tim Corcoran. Scot Thompson. Len Matuszek.
II: (DON'T GO BACK TO) ROCKVILLE
1984 was the year baseball first discovered it had an extensive drug problem. Had Will Carroll been out of the CIA then, he would have had to write as much about the psychological aspects of addiction as he now does about groin pulls and frayed rotator cuffs.
There were more than 30 players who had disclosed or would, in future seasons, disclose abuse of drugs or alcohol. Seven players missed all or part of the season due to drug rehabilitation, commissioner suspension, or incarceration due to drug use or being implicated in the attempt to buy drugs: Willie Aikens, Willie Wilson, Jerry Martin, Vida Blue, Rod Scurry, Pascual Perez, and Steve Howe. Aikens, Wilson, Martin, and Blue, the so-called "Kansas City Four" had been sentenced to two years in prison, all but one month suspended; commissioner Bowie Kuhn added his own punishment, telling the four to stay home for the entire year. The union appealed the suspensions, and an arbitrator agreed that Kuhn had exceeded his powers. All but Blue were reinstated on May 15. In a separate hearing, the arbitrator agreed with Kuhn that Blue had been more deeply involved with drugs and drug dealers than had his teammates and the enforced sabbatical was sustained.
Even before that, the Royals had divested themselves of Aikens, Blue, and Martin--other teams were happy to acquire them--while retaining Wilson, which just goes to show that when principles wrestle self-interest, hypocrisy is the only winner.
III: AIN'T NOTHING GONNA BREAK MY STRIDE
In 1983, the Detroit Tigers went 92-70, finishing second in the American League East, six games behind the first-place Orioles. Looking at the playoff contenders that fall, Tigers manager Sparky Anderson noted that the field included the withered remains of what Earl Weaver had built in Baltimore and a zombified recreation of the Big Red Machine in Philadelphia and sighed, "There are no great teams anymore." He was about to prove himself wrong.
The Tigers opened the season 9-0, then 26-4, the best 30-game start ever, and finally, on May 24, 35-5. They were helped to this start by a schedule that was dominated by games with the weak American League West. That division would have just one team finish over .500, the Kansas City Royals, with a 84-78 record (.518). The Tigers played the Royals and the Red Sox during this stretch, but more than made up for that with series against exceedingly weak Rangers, Mariners, and Indians clubs.
Still, 35-5 is what it is, no matter what breaks the team got along the way. The Detroit drive was sparked, pardon the pun, by the manager's adroit handling of the lineup and a last-minute trade with the Phillies that reshaped the bullpen. The Tigers began the season with the strongest up-the-middle conglomeration in baseball: catcher Lance Parrish, second baseman Lou Whitaker, shortstop Alan Trammell, and center fielder Chet Lemon. An unacknowledged truism of baseball: While not all contenders have great offense up the middle, all teams with great offense up the middle are contenders.
Despite this advantage, the Tigers had a number of problems: The starting rotation was unsettled after the top three of Jack Morris, Dan Petry, and the unspectacular Milt Wilcox. The whole pitching staff could not claim even a mediocre lefty among its number. There was not an established first baseman, third baseman, right fielder, or designated hitter. Kirk Gibson, who Anderson thought of as a Mickey Mantle-type talent, had hit a mediocre .227/.320/.414 in 1983.
Newly acquired by pizza magnate Thomas Monaghan, the club entered 1984 in a rare mood of munificence--Detroit, the second-to-last club to accept integration, was also one of the last to sign a major free agent (only the Mets, Royals, and Blue Jays waited longer than the Tigers' seven years). Just outlasting the Cincinnati Reds, who broke down and signed Dave Parker on December 7, 1983, the Tigers put cash on the barrelhead for San Francisco's 37-year-old lefty first/third baseman Darrell Evans, who had hit .277/.378/.516 with 30 home runs and 84 walks that year. Having hit .297/.394/.528 away from difficult Candlestick Park (he "seemingly [led] the league in warning track outs during his SF stint," the 1984 edition of The Scouting Report claimed) it was thought that his age would not be an impediment to a big year in Tiger Stadium's friendly confines.
Evans' days as a full-time third baseman were thought to be in the past, so his acquisition counted towards the first-base problem. The Tigers considered using incumbent right fielder Glenn Wilson at third. He had played the hot corner for one season in the Tigers' system, making 33 errors in 77 games. The Tigers moved him to the outfield. Third base remained a question mark, with rookie Barbaro Garbey, 23-year-old Howard Johnson, and perennial holdover Tom Brookens vying for a share of the job in spring training.
On March 24, the Tigers took part in a three -ay trade that solved all of their problems. With Evans in Motor City, the Giants had slotted lefty glove man Dave Bergman to be their regular first baseman, but a clutching-at-straws Feb. 27 trade with the Expos for the 37-year-old Al Oliver (then-San Francisco manager Frank Robinson was trying not to go down with the ship) had rendered "Bergie" surplus meat. The Giants dealt him to Philadelphia for the impossibly impatient outfielder Alejandro Sanchez (one walk, 66 strikeouts in 215 career plate appearances), who then packaged him with lefty reliever Guillermo "Willie" Hernandez and sent him to the Tigers in exchange for Wilson and utility man John Wockenfuss. "The deal gives us great outfield depth," said Phillies manager Paul Owens.
Hernandez had been pitching middle relief in the Cubs' bullpen since 1977 with only middling results; it appeared his weak fastball (just 85 mph) would consign him to a career of mop-up work. In 1981 the Cubs sent him to Triple-A Iowa. Hernandez returned with a variety of new arm angles and a mean screwball. At the time of his demotion, Hernandez was 26 years old, with a career 4.01 ERA--high for a reliever in that era. From his return in 1982 until the end of his career, Hernandez posted an ERA nearly a run lower at 3.03. "If Detroit doesn't win by 10 games this year," Whitey Herzog said after the trade, "they ought to fire Sparky."
Traded to the Phillies in 1982, Hernandez had further established his bona fides with four scoreless innings in the 1983 World Series. Anderson now had two reliable relievers in the pen, Hernandez and righty Aurelio Lopez, the incumbent closer. Anderson looked at his all-righty pitching staff and correctly understood that Lopez would have to set up for the southpaw Hernandez, despite the latter's lack of closer experience. His decision was amply rewarded, as Hernandez proved to be not only effective, but durable. Anderson used Hernandez in 80 games and 140 innings, reaping nine wins, three losses, and 32 saves. Hernandez blew one save all year, that coming at the end of the season, long after the race had been decided. That fall, Hernandez won both the Cy Young and Most Valuable Player awards.
Bergman became part of an infield mix that Anderson determined not to untangle. Nor did he attack the open outfield spot or anoint a regular designated hitter. Anderson was a great admirer of Casey Stengel. Now he proceeded to use Stengel's methods of roster management, using a different lineup every day depending on matchups. He rarely let a lefty bat against a lefty all season long, limiting lefty-on-lefty confrontations to 480 at-bats, 70% of those going to Kirk Gibson (who used them well) and Lou Whitaker (who did not). The club used five men at first base, five men at third, and rotated virtually the entire roster through the DH slot. Nominal third baseman Howard Johnson played five positions, including short and the outfield. Garbey, primarily a first baseman, also logged time in the outfield, at third, and at second. Johnny Grubb and Ruppert Jones, another of GM Bill Lajoie's spring acquisitions, provided power off the bench. Marty Castillo was both the backup catcher and third baseman. For the season, Detroit's pinch-hitters hit .312 with six home runs in 186 at-bats. Grubb hit .364 with three homers in 22 pinch-hit ABs. Jones hit .400 with a home run in 15 pinch-hit at-bats. It was a bench Casey Stengel would have been proud to call his own.
The Tigers dominated from wire to wire--sort of. For the balance of the season, the Tigers went 69-53, a .566 pace, and were actually outplayed by the Yankees the rest of the way. At 17-23, 17.5 games behind at the 40-game mark, the Yankees rallied behind superb relief pitching from Jay Howell and Dave Righetti, an unexpected batting race between Don Mattingly and Dave Winfield, and the ageless arm of Phil Niekro to go 70-52, compiling the best second-half record in baseball.
It was too little too late; the race had ended in May. Detroit's record start created a new baseball religion, the cult of the fast start. For years after, the 1984 Tigers were invoked as proof of the need for clubs to come flying out of the gate in April. Winning the pennant race by surviving the dog days of August and getting hot down the stretch, long a baseball cliché, was replaced by the nouveau concept of victoire au printemps. Managers and general managers were duly put on notice. The real point was missed: The uniqueness of Detroit's season was not in its quick getaway, but in Anderson's refusal to look for routine solutions to his problems, in his not being resistant to the labor of thinking.
The implications of Detroit's success for rebuilding franchises such as the present-day Tigers is that in 1984 the Tigers had exactly eight superior players: five position players, two starting pitchers, and their closer. The rest was improvised. That this was enough to carry them can be pegged to two reasons: Secondarily, there was the luck of timing; the Tigers had the best hand in a thin year for the AL. Primarily, it was the distribution of the core players.