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February 23, 2004

You Could Look It Up

1984 Part V: Baseball Prospectus, Circa '84

by Steven Goldman

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The 1984 series concludes at last with a look at the issues that perplexed the alternate-universe version of Baseball Prospectus that existed that year. Since it didn't exist, we can't say precisely what BP would have looked like, but one thing is for sure--the authors wore piano ties. Next Friday in this space: Something completely different...and an author who will be well fortified with grape before he dares take another swim in these waters. Onto Chapter (gulp) 14.

XIV: HOW CAN YOU BE SO DEAF WITH EARS LIKE THAT? BASEBALL PROSPECTUS 1984
"In my head I keep a picture of a pretty little miss. Someday, mister, I'm gonna lead a better life than this." - Bruce Springsteen, "Working on the Highway," from "Born in the U.S.A," 1984.

Had Baseball Prospectus existed in 1984, there are a number of topics we would not have been talking about. The debate about how best to use a closer wouldn't have existed because the "one inning and only with a lead" doctrine had yet to be invented. 1984 closers who pitched more innings than 2003 National League Cy Young Award winner Eric Gagne: all of them. Twenty relievers threw over 100 innings that year. The reason that Willie Hernandez was perceived to be so important to the Tigers, why Goose Gossage was considered the last piece in the Padres puzzle, was because they pitched in high-leverage situations. They could have saved 45 games if they had been used that way, but managers of the time thought it would be more useful if they pitched when the game was on the line.

Like all pitchers, some relievers are durable and some are not. Bruce Sutter averaged 99 innings a season through 1984. After that year, in which he recorded a record 45 saves and had a 1.54 ERA, he became a free agent and was signed to a large contract by the Braves. Consistent with the Ted Turner touch o' gold that persisted throughout the second half of the 1980s, Sutter's arm immediately fell off. That was his problem. It was Eddie Haas' problem, Turner's problem. Twenty years later, it should not be Eric Gagne's problem. Sutter was no cautionary tale--pitchers are largely immune from generalization. Each should be exploited according to the extent of his ability to remain healthy (with consideration being given to frequency of use, mechanics, weather conditions, pitches per appearance and the like), rather than at some mythical lowest common denominator level of work which is deemed "safe."

Another reliever question that would have been a hot topic, one that still has no solid answer, is whether a team is making best use of its resources when it shifts a generally successful starting pitcher to the bullpen. Dave Righetti and Britt Burns were both asked to make the transition in 1984.

Here are some more topics BP84 would have surely chewed on:

DEBATABLE MANAGER TRICKS

Yogi Berra's initial defensive alignment for the Yankees had shortstop Roy Smalley at first base, Tim Foli or Andre Robertson at shortstop, Ken Griffey in center field, and Don Mattingly as a utility "swing man," playing first base and the outfield. Griffey was too old to be the center fielder, had not been one in his prime, and did not want to be one now. Foli thought it should be Omar Moreno, who had been ticketed for a bench role. "[In Pittsburgh] he was the best offensive player we had. We had Stargell and Parker and Madlock, but Omar started things going." In the years Foli referenced, Moreno had a .675 OPS against a league average of .721. Bill James called him "the symbol of futility."

Turning his back on the "Lumber Company" tradition of the Pirates, manager Chuck Tanner said the team will stress pitching and defense. The Pirates had very good pitching but couldn't score a run to save their lives, becoming the first team in baseball history to lead the league in ERA and finish last. Not only did the Pirates take very few walks and hit only 98 home runs, they didn't steal bases either.

Off-beat leadoff men would have been a hot topic. Rickey Henderson was then in full flower, but there was also Johnnie LeMaster of the Giants, Rafael Ramirez of the Braves, who Joe Torre also batted third in 16 games, Gary Pettis, Rudy Law, Steve Sax, and Marvell Wynne (.310 OBP, 24/43 stealing).

Pat Corrales, manager of the Cleveland Indians, planned to break his team's streak of finishing fourth or lower in all but two seasons since 1956 with a speed-and-defense attack. The offense would center on Brett Butler, Tony Bernazard, and Julio Franco at the top of the order and rookie Otis Nixon--acquired with reliever/1981 World Series goat George Frazier in the February trade that sent Toby Harrah to the Yankees--at the bottom. Nixon had stolen 94 bases playing for Triple-A Columbus in 1983. "If those four have decent --not great, but decent--years, they should steal 200 bases easy," Corrales said. (SN, 4/2/1984) The Indians lost 87 games and in no way made anyone forget Whitey Herzog. The best thing about the Tribe that year was Bert Blyleven, who posted a 2.87 ERA over 245 innings (a 9.0 WARP season), and must have wondered what the heck he was doing in Ohio. He finished third in the Cy Young voting.

Frank Robinson's planned batting order for the Giants:


Johnny LeMaster
Manny Trillo
Jack Clark
Al Oliver 
Jeff Leonard
Chili Davis
Joel Youngblood
Catcher Du Jour

"Anytime you've got a batting order whereby a Youngblood or a Davis is batting seventh, you're in pretty good shape," Robinson said. Robinson had put his two lowest OBPs in the 1-2 slots, his least powerful, least patient "good" hitter in the cleanup slot. Parenthetically, Youngblood, playing third base full time for the first time at age 32, fielded an atrocious .887, making 36 errors in 117 games.

Bill Virdon decided to play Pete Rose in left field and bat him leadoff, while moving Tim Raines to center field and batting him third. Rose was 43, hadn't played the position with any regularity since 1974, and had not hit a home run since September 18, 1982. Virdon was supposed to have been a font of wisdom about outfield defense.

Tony La Russa announced that he would use lefty thrower Mike Squires as his third baseman for "20 to 25" games, third baseman Vance Law as his center fielder. To paraphrase R. Lee. Ermey in Stanley Kubrick's "Full Metal Jacket," Tony plays his games, we play our games.

Rene Lachemann elected to play Jim Sundberg and Ted Simmons over Paul Molitor. Molitor had a slight tear of the medial collateral ligament in his right elbow, was allowed to hit and run but not throw. Lachemann would not play him at DH because he wanted to keep Simmons in the lineup, and wouldn't play him at catcher because of the presence of Sundberg. In the end, Simmons slugged .300 and had an OBP of .269, Sundberg displayed his usual 10-homer power (he hit seven in the actual event), Molitor played in just 13 games, and the Brewers went 67-94.

It took until the end of June for Tommy Lasorda's Hamlet-ing around with 25-year-old rookie Orel Hershiser to end. The unimposing righty had been working as a swingman. In July, Hershiser made five starts and tossed four shutouts. For the month, the man soon to be known as Bulldog pitched 46 innings, allowing only 20 hits and seven walks while striking out 48. His ERA for the month was 0.78. He went 4-1 that month, only 4-4 over his remaining 12 starts--not because he was ineffective, as his ERA in the final 12 starts was 2.60, but because the Dodgers simply did not hit much. "Nice guys can be tough too," said catcher Steve Yeager.

Twins manager Billy Gardner's plan to shift Gary Gaetti to left field and John Castino to third base, so Tim Teufel could play second base was a beaut. The only thing wrong with this brilliant idea was that Castino couldn't hit. A season- and career-ending back injury to Castino saved Gardner from his own plan.

HITTING ENVIRONMENTS

Fenway Park was the Coors Field of its day. The Red Sox hit .305/.366/.484 at home, .261/.315/.398 on the road. Tony Armas was the Dante Bichette of his time, with a road OBP of .276.

THE AMATEUR DRAFT

Players drafted ahead of Mark McGwire: Shawn Abner, Billy Swift, Drew Hall, Cory Snyder, Pat Pacillo, Erik Pappas, Mike Dunne, Jay Bell, and Alan Cockrell. Olympians were all the rage, just not necessarily the right ones.

TEAM HEALTH REPORTS

Will Carroll would have learned a lot about Tourette's Syndrome. Outfielder Jim Eisenreich of the Twins was a well-thought-of prospect who supposedly had anxiety attacks playing in front of crowds. Naturally, sensitive baseball fans did their best to exploit this. Because of this, he failed to establish himself with the Twins from 1982 to 1984, and retired rather than face any more crowds. Out of baseball, Eisenreich was finally diagnosed with Tourette's and given proper medication. He played well in some semi-pro leagues and finally made it back to the majors with the Royals in 1987, putting together a decent career from that point on.

TRANSACTIONS THAT NEEDED ANALYSIS

Weird contracts: After the original Jerry Hairston had a great 1983 pinch-hitting (.294/..397/.500, 151 PAs, 101 games), the White Sox gave him a three-year guaranteed contract with an optional fourth year. The contract covered Hairston from his 32nd to his 35th birthday, a whole lot of certainty for a pinch-hitter. Steve Henderson, a 31-year-old career platoon player, had his best season in 1983, hitting .294/.356/.450, with 10 home runs in 121 games. The Mariners offered him three years guaranteed.

Toronto gave up its first-round draft choice to the White Sox to sign Dennis Lamp. The Lamp signing set off a chain reaction by which the Mets lost Tom Seaver to the Chicago White Sox. At that time, there was a free agent compensation pool. When the Blue Jays signed Lamp away from Chicago, the White Sox were entitled to pick an unprotected player from any other roster and chose Seaver. Seaver had had a rough year, so the Mets gambled on leaving him off of their protected list.

By the same process, the Yankees lost Tim Belcher. Belcher had been drafted by the Twins as their first pick in the June, 1983 amateur draft. He did not sign, making him eligible to be selected for the now-defunct winter phase of the draft. The Yankees signed him. Unfortunately, they fell victim to a loophole: Belcher was signed five days after the Yankees submitted their protected list. The A's were eligible to take a player because the Orioles had signed Tom Underwood away from them. They took Belcher. He was a Yankee for less than a week. The Yankees protested, but Yankees protests don't get upheld. Donald Fehr also protested on behalf of the players' union, but no go. Oddly enough, Belcher's agent, an up-and-comer named Scott Boras, did not protest.

The Yankees traded SS/1B Roy Smalley to the Chicago White Sox for two PTBNL. These turned out to be two pitchers, the lefty reliever Kevin Hickey and Double-A righty Doug Drabek. With a 46-46 record at the time of the trade, the White Sox were just 2.5 games behind the front-running Angels. Smalley allowed Tony La Russa to play all sorts of managerial games, like moving Vance Law to second base or center field. The Sox couldn't hit that year, and if the goal of acquiring Smalley was to get second baseman Julio Cruz (.176 BA, May-July) or center fielder Rudy Law to the bench, it might have been a good move. Those avenues were not pursued, and La Russa played endless chess games with himself. In any event, Smalley hit just .170 with four home runs in 47 games for the Sox and the defending AL West champs sank like a stone.

HACKING MASS/DiSars

The all-time non-walking king was hard at work in 1984. Shortstop Alfredo Griffin of the Blue Jays had 441 plate appearance and walked just four times. Since he had no power, his OPS was .546 against a league average of .724. His OBP was .248. In the context of modern baseball, it was a special season. Honorable mention: utilityman Rob Picciolo of the Angels: 128 plate appearances, no walks.

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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