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February 19, 2004
You Could Look It Up
1984 Part III: Ghostbusters
This is part three of a 20th-anniversary look back to 1984, a special daily series meant to introduce You Can Look It Up, a look at baseball history, BP-style. After this trip back to the year when doves cried (again and again and again--there was no escaping Prince in 1984) wraps up with a look at those topics which would have consumed BP in that very busy election year, we'll be starting a weekly schedule, with a brand new YCLIU (pronounced YOO-KUH-LEW) appearing every Friday. Topics will mostly be derived from current events, except when there's no current event from which to derive. Nothing will be off limits in this space...except 1984.
VIII: PRETTY ISN'T BEAUTIFUL...PRETTY IS WHAT CHANGES
The Kansas City Royals forgot to take their calcium; the team had more breakdowns than Zelda Fitzgerald. George Brett's knee blew out, forcing him to miss the first six weeks of the season. Frank White's leg sent him to the DL in July. There was no regular shortstop because both Onix Concepcion and U.L. Washington were hurt (though not because Washington swallowed his toothpick), leaving the position in the hands of chronic non-hitter Buddy Biancalana. Third base rested in the hands of veteran understudy Greg Pryor. Propelled by a 4-for-37 May, Pryor posted a .301 OBP and .356 SLG, a far cry from what Brett would have provided. Then there was Willie Wilson's drug-enforced vacation, which left the team with an ugly outfield of Darryl Motley, Pat Sheridan, and Butch Davis. Only Steve Balboni remained to carry the offense. Balboni, a 27-year-old rookie first baseman/four-time minor league home run champion, had been buried at Triple-A Columbus by the Yankees because (a) he wasn't an expensive free agent (b) he struck out a lot, and (c) he had been lapped by a prospect named Don Mattingly. The Royals had liberated him from New York the previous December by dealing reliever Mike Armstrong and catcher Duane Dewey, one of the more perspicacious trades in team history.
What the Royals lacked in positional depth they made up for in young pitching. At season's outset, Kansas City envisioned its top four starters as Paul Splittorff (37), Larry Gura (36), Dennis Leonard (33), and Bud Black (27, and excellent). The best plans of mice and men quickly ran into the Grim Reaper of Old Pitchers: Splittorff was battered in three starts and summarily retired; Leonard missed the entire season with a knee injury; Gura started well then declined precipitously over the balance of the season. After 10 starts, Gura sported a 3.59 ERA. He allowed 70 runs over his next 101 innings and was yanked from the rotation.
Necessity being the mother of invention, the Royals deployed their every pitching prospect, in the process creating the pitching staff that would get them to the World Series just a year later. The new rotation retained Black, who was pitching his way to a 257-inning/3.12 ERA season (league ERA, 4.00), and added Charlie Leibrandt (unestablished at 27 and freshly returned from a year's exile at Omaha), Danny Jackson (22), Mark Gubicza (21), and Bret Saberhagen (20). Though not all of them were consistently successful that year, Kansas City had performed one of the greatest player-development feats of all time, introducing four of the best pitchers of the era simultaneously.
Like the Tigers, the Royals lacked good middle relievers but didn't miss them due to the presence of an extraordinary closer. Dan Quisenberry's career was short, but he was one of the best relief pitchers of all time and would be a worthy Hall of Famer. The sidearmer had no fastball and struck out few batters, but he got grounders and never walked anyone; not counting intentional walks, he passed just .57 batters per nine innings in 1984. No hothouse flower, Quiz pitched 129 innings in 72 games. He saved 44, falling one short of tying the major league record he set the year before.
Like Quiz, the entire Royals roster was fastidiously averse to walks. The pitchers led the league in fewest walks allowed, the batters in fewest walks taken. As a result of the latter "accomplishment" and the team's general lack of power, the Royals were actually outscored on the season, 686 to 673. The rest of the division did little to prevent them from becoming the first team in baseball history to win a division title while allowing more runs than they scored, despite a mediocre 84-78 record.
The division-defending White Sox took a giant step backwards in all departments. The Mariners, despite having a few good players, lacked the basic rudiments of winning. That left the Twins and the Angels. Minnesota had a fine collection of young players, including a 24-year-old ace in Frank Viola, plus an offense led by Kent Hrbek, Tim Teufel, Gary Gaetti, Tom Brunansky, and Kirby Puckett. Neither Puckett nor Gaetti was at his best that year; Puckett, a rookie, had yet to find his power and hit no home runs in 583 plate appearances, while Gaetti, who had hit 21 home runs in 1983 and would hit 20 more in 1985, mysteriously managed just five round-trippers on the season.
The Twins were handicapped by their rookie shortstop, Houston Jimenez, a no-hit wonder who failed to reach 25% in either the on-base or slugging departments. Late in the season Chris Speier was acquired, but (1) he was damaged goods and went right to the DL, and (2) he was Chris Speier. Minnesota's failure to find even a replacement-level player to place at short had the effect of slow suicide.
Yet even the shortstop situation paled beside the mess in the bullpen. Former setup man Ron Davis, despite struggling in 1982 and 1983, was in his third season as Twins closer. Davis saved 29 games but blew another 16 chances, with eight wild pitches thrown in for seasoning. Even the worst closers generally manage to convert about 75%-80% of their save chances, so this was truly a historic season. Davis was helped to this dubious accomplishment by manager Billy Gardner, who had not the foggiest notion of how to deploy a closer. In some games, Davis would be brought in too early, in others too late. He rarely started an inning but was always coming in with two on and one out. That's great if you're a truly elite reliever, not so much if you're a closer by name only.
Despite these handicaps, the Royals were banged up enough that the division race stayed close until late September. On Sept. 23, the two teams were tied for first with a record of 80-75. The Angels, a team caught between playing superannuated veterans and rookies who would never develop, were third, just 1.5 games off the pace. The Royals had just four wins in the final seven games, but three of them came against the Angels. With one threat eliminated, the outcome of the race was up to the Twins. They quit. Minnesota went on a six-game losing streak, dropping an entire four-game series to the Cleveland Indians. Davis took two of those losses.
IX: UNFAITHFULLY YOURS
The National League Champion San Diego Padres were truly strange. The clubhouse was fractured, not only between the manager and the players, but also between politically conservative and moderate factions, and then there were players with serious drug problems. They won 90 games in part because the rest of the division failed to show up, in part because of some opportunistic acquisitions.
Prior to the season general manager "Trader" Jack McKeon made three decisive moves. In December 1983, he had been at the center of a three-way deal that sent part-time closer Gary Lucas to the Expos for pitcher Scott Sanderson, who was then sent on to the Cubs for outfielder Carmelo Martinez and reliever Craig Lefferts. Free agent bullpen ace Rich Gossage, who was prepared to pitch on the moon before returning to George Steinbrenner's tender embrace, signed on Jan. 6. Finally, when Graig Nettles' Balls made him persona non grata in New York, McKeon sent Dennis Rasmussen east to retrieve the hometown third baseman.
Dick Williams, a manager who knew what he wanted in a second baseman, made his own contribution by dismissing (read: releasing) the incumbent keystoner Juan Bonilla, a no-power, no-average, no-speed triple threat who also had a drug problem. Williams replaced him with Alan Wiggins, an outfielder/first baseman who had a more serious, more obvious drug problem, but was a much better ballplayer than Bonilla. (Make of this what you like; the age of Enron was not the first that principles took a back seat to self-interest. One always wonders if, say, Wal-Mart were to conduct a study that showed it could make more money selling cannabis than it does on garden hoses, would it start lobbying Congress for legalization the next day? Would baseball, which profits from muscular players hitting long fly balls, really want its players to lay off the steroids? These are thoughts for another time.) Wiggins the second baseman took 75 walks and stole 70 bases, which was a plus, and made 32 errors, which not even Alfonso Soriano playing blindfolded (wait--he does play blindfolded?) could match.
The rest of the infield defense was steady, if not particularly rangy. At 39, Nettles was no longer the spectacular fielder of his youth. Shortstop Garry Templeton's knees were beginning to go. Eight-time All-Star and former NL Most Valuable Player Steve Garvey, 35, had very little left in the tank.
That the Padres succeeded with this defense was something of a miracle; the pitching staff struck out fewer batters per nine innings than any other team in the league, and were also near the top in walks allowed and home runs allowed. Tremendous pressure was put on the defense on a daily basis, to which, in theory, it should not have been equal. The team's saving grace was the flyball propensities of the pitching staff:
Pitcher G/F Eric Show .885 Mark Thurmond 1.350 Ed Whitson .829 Tim Lolla .660 Dave Dravecky .862 Andy Hawkins .845 Craig Lefferts .647 Goose Gossage .542
The infielders were left to stand around and watch a fine young defensive outfield in action. Left Fielder Carmelo Martinez showed great range and had 15 assists; Kevin McReynolds, not yet in his fat, lackadaisical Mets period, excelled in center field, and a svelte Tony Gwynn, still in possession of his speed, played right with good range and a strong arm.
The outfield also made up a good percentage of the offense. The Padres had just four players who were capable of putting more than a few runs. Martinez hit for neither a high batting average nor a great deal of power, but he chipped in 68 walks, second on the team to Wiggins. McReynolds tied for the team lead with 20 home runs and led the club with a .465 SLG (League, .369; as a team the Padres slugged .371 and were a tad below average in OBP). Gwynn won his first batting title with a .351 average, hit 10 triples, and stole 33 bases. Nettles, who had supposedly wanted out of New York because the Yankees wanted to platoon him with Toby Harrah, was now platooned with Luis Salazar. In his at-bats against righties, Nettles was roughly who he had always been: he averaged .252/.355/.469, tying McReynolds with 20 home runs. Wiggins was the only Padre to score more than 88 runs.
Garvey, seen by the public as the team's leader, was finished as a hitter. Though his batting average was a respectable .284, he took just 24 walks and hit but eight home runs. In a season in which the NL largely forgot about first basemen, Garvey still managed to be far below average.
This was not a team built to last, perhaps not even to win once, but despite their many flaws, the Padres had little competition for the NL West title. The Astros lacked pitching depth and had, literally, one hitter (the underrated Jose Cruz). The Reds had Mario Soto, a cranky manager, and were about to deliver themselves into the hands of Pete Rose. The Braves, Dodgers, and Giants were being run by famous managers--Joe Torre, Tommy Lasorda, and Frank Robinson--all of whom left their thinking caps at home for the season. More on these three skippers in our "Baseball Prospectus of 1984" segment tomorrow.
X: THE EVOLUTION OF THE FLIGHTLESS BIRD
Ralph Houk's last hurrah put the lie to speed at the top of the batting order. Houk, the winner of the 1961-1963 American League pennants and little of note thereafter, was 64 years old. The 1984 Boston Red Sox would be his 20th and last team. Ironically, it was the first time that he managed to shake off one of baseball's most persistent and bizarre managerial idiosyncrasies.
As Bill James observed in the 1984 edition of his Baseball Abstract, Houk had a career-long habit of making his second baseman his leadoff man. If you played second, you batted first. It didn't really matter if you could hit or not; you just had to be a second baseman. The nadir of this practice came with the 1974 Detroit Tigers. Houk installed the air-bat second baseman Gary Sutherland in the leadoff spot and left him there, allowing him to come to the plate 652 times in spite of his .282 OBP. He scored just 60 times.
The 1984 Red Sox had Wade Boggs on the roster, but for the first six weeks of the season Houk persisted in batting second baseman Jerry Remy at the top of the order. Remy posted an OBP of .302 and a SLG of .290. In this initial configuration, Remy was followed by Dwight Evans, a terrific combination of power and patience. Boggs, one of the best singles-doubles hitters of all time, batted third.
Early in May, a knee injury ended Remy's career at 31; Houk briefly experimented with having rookie Marty Barrett bat leadoff--he was a second baseman after all--but on May 14, Houk finally shattered his calcified consciousness and hit about the potent combination that would carry the team through the rest of the season: Boggs and his .407 OBP would lead off (league OBP: .326), Evans and his .295/.388/.532 bat (37 doubles, eight triples, 32 home runs, 96 walks) would hit second, and Jim Rice, who was ostensibly the big RBI man on the team but didn't actually fare that well that year (.280/.323/.467), batted third. Barrett's .358 OBP sank to eighth.
Boggs scored 109 runs. Evans led the league with 121 runs. Rice, who was having his weakest season to date, had so many opportunities with runners on base that he drove in 122 runs (and set a record by hitting into a spectacular 36 double plays). The cleanup hitter, Tony Armas, who thanks to his .300 OBP was also not terribly productive despite leading the league with 43 home runs, also led the league with 123 RBIs. RBIs are opportunistic; by placing two exceptional on-base percentages at the top of the order, Houk gave Rice and Armas the opportunity to look better than they were. More to the point, Boggs and Evans scored a combined 230 runs despite stealing a grand total of six bases. In a home run-friendly environment, stolen bases have very little to do with scoring runs. The Red Sox proved the point in 1984, in an era where steals were a lot more in favor, homers a lot less, than they are today.
Houk also opened to question the received wisdom "bat your power hitter fourth." If your slugger bats at the top of the order, he gets that many more plate appearances, plus there are no pesky outs coming between him and your best on-base threat. This area remains largely unexplored by major league managers, but Billy Martin did give the concept a whirl in 1985, when he batted Don Mattingly directly behind Rickey Henderson. Another manager who batted a power threat in the number two slot was the short-lived Steve Boros of the Oakland A's. Henderson, not yet a Yankee, was his leadoff man. That was obvious enough. His next best on-base threat was also his leading slugger, center fielder Dwayne Murphy, and he and his 33 home runs followed Rickey. This would have been a swell idea, but for Oakland's situation being different from Boston's--the Red Sox had a roster full of players who could hit to one degree or another. The Athletics did not. Henderson-Murphy would often be followed by Joe Morgan, Carney Lansford, Bruce Bochte, and Dave Kingman. Morgan, 40, could no longer hit at all. Nonetheless, he batted third all season long. Lansford was a singles hitter. Bochte had just returned from a year off and could no longer hit. Kingman, the remaining home run hitter, was buried.
There were many strange batting orders that year, as managers took some real flights of fancy. More on this in tomorrow's final chapter.
Tomorrow: Wrapping up, miscellaneous bits, and the Baseball Prospectus of 1984
The author would like to take this opportunity to acknowledge the incredible repository of baseball information that is www.retrosheet.org.