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July 30, 2004

You Could Look It Up

What is a Deadline Trade Worth?, Part 3

by Steven Goldman

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FOR THOSE WHO CAME IN LATE

From now until shortly after the non-waiver trading deadline, YOU will examine the key mid-season trades for each franchise (mid-season being generously described as June 15 to the end of the regular season) and evaluate each trade to see what a mid-season addition is really worth, and if possible to discern patterns and discover which deals really help and which are of little or even negative value. After we break down each trade, we'll come to a "snap judgment," a hasty conclusion. At the end of the series, we'll see if those judgments add up to any helpful conclusions.

Today's entry will be brief, devoted to just one particular move that came early in the 20th century. This survey won't include many trades from baseball's earliest eras. Mid-season dealing was frowned upon then; when the Yankees acquired third baseman Jumping Joe Dugan from the Red Sox in July of 1922 it was widely condemned as dirty pool and caused the creation of the June 15 trading deadline. Yet, this little waiver deal with Hippo Vaughn going from the Highlanders/Yankees to the Washington Senators is too much fun to resist, as it only goes to show that sometimes, for whatever reason, talent evaluators can't see what it is that they have until it's too late.

WASHINGTON SENATORS/MINNESOTA TWINS

DATE: 6/26/1912
TRADE: Claimed LHP Hippo Vaughn off waivers from the New York Highlanders.
RECORD AT TRADE: 37-27 (.578), Third Place, -6.0.
AFTER: 54-34 (.614)
FINISH: 91-61 (.599), Second Place, -14.0.
INTENDED UPGRADE: Starting rotation, which was shaky after 33-game winner Walter Johnson.
RESULT: Jim Vaughn, a big man as you might have guessed from his nickname, (though the Hippo appellation came from the way he looked when running the bases as much as for his 6'4" frame) threw hard. Typical of a fiery young southpaw, it took him awhile to learn control, and that cost him the early years of his career. Manager Clark Griffith brought the 20-year-old Vaughn from the Arkansas State League to the bottom-feeding Highlanders for a cup of coffee in 1908. Griffith was fired after the season and Vaughn went back to the minors but was recalled to the Highlanders by manager George Stallings in 1910. Vaughn was terrific, winning only 13 games but posting a 1.83 ERA against a league average of 2.52 in 221.2 innings. Even his control was above average, with just 58 walks.

Vaughn should have been solid for 1911, but a number of things were working against him. Hal Chase, the gambler, was the player-manager and is presumed to have subverted many games. Vaughn missed a month with an "illness," and didn't pitch well when healthy. He opened 1912 the same way, and manager Harry Wolverton--the New York Americans were going through a manager a year in those days--decided to send him to Providence of the International League. Vaughn balked, saying he would refuse to report unless given a small cash bonus and part of the sale price.

This simply wasn't done in those days. Players were expected to accept their place as chattel. The Yankees waived Vaughn and probably expected him to drift back to the minor league fringes, but Clark Griffith, now managing the Washington Senators, put in a claim and added Vaughn to his staff. Griffith still liked Vaughn's stuff and thought that Hilltop Park, home of the Highlanders, might have worked against the pitcher. Whether that was the case or not we will never know, but Vaughn found himself in Washington and was never lost again, though it took the scouts a while to figure it out. Vaughn improved his control and dropped his ERA by 2.25 runs from New York to pitcher-friendly Washington and helped keep the Senators in the first pennant race in the history of the franchise. From 1901 through 1911, the Senators were perennially seventh or eighth in the American League. Vaughn's future was assured. Control intact, he would be the left-handed complement to Walter Johnson and the Senators would roll up the American League for years.

At the end of the season, Griffith let Vaughn go. Unable to interest a major league team in his services, Vaughn opened the 1913 season with the Kansas City Blues of the American Association. Through August he had pitched in 42 games, throwing 255 innings and walking a league-leading 149 but allowing just 195 hits and striking out 176. The comparison to National League pitchers is quite dramatic: the average NL pitcher in 1913 allowed 8.74 hits per nine innings. At Kansas City Vaughn allowed 6.8. NL pitchers struck out 3.72 batters per nine innings. Vaughn whiffed 6.21. In walks the relationship was inverted. NL pitchers walked just 2.85 batters per nine. Vaughn passed 5.25. The Cubs' starting rotation was staffed by a bunch of guys you've never heard of plus a few remnants from their glory years like Orvie Overall. The Cubs traded the generally effective but unimpressive Lew Richie to the Blues, whence he never returned, in exchange for Vaughn.

No one knew it at the time, but Vaughn was about to become, and remain right down to 2004, the most successful Cubs lefty of all time. Given a chance by player-manager Johnny Evers, Vaughn went 5-1 with a 1.45 ERA down the stretch. Two of his wins were shutouts. The next year began a run of truly spectacular seasons. From 1914 through 1919, Vaughn went 124-77 with a 2.10 ERA, well under the league average. In four of the five seasons Vaughn won 20 or more games; in the other he won 17. His control improved to the point that it was well above average, while he retained his good fastball, leading the National League in strikeouts in 1918 and 1919.

In 1918, Vaughn won the pitcher's "triple crown," leading the league in wins (22), strikeouts (148), and ERA (1.74). That war-shortened season, the Cubs returned to the World Series for the first time since 1910. Vaughn started the first game against Red Sox southpaw Babe Ruth. Both went the distance. Vaughn allowed one run. Ruth allowed none. Vaughn came back in Game Three against Carl Mays. Both went the distance. Vaughn allowed two runs, Mays allowed one. Vaughn returned for the last time in Game Five, this time facing Sad Sam Jones. Both (say it with me) went the distance. Jones allowed three runs, Vaughn allowed none. For the World Series Vaughn pitched 27 innings, allowed 17 hits, walked five, and struck out 17. His ERA was 1.00.

Vaughn had already pitched in a historic game in May, 1917, hooking up with Reds pitcher Fred Toney in a dual no-hit shutout that lasted nine innings. The Reds had started an all-righty lineup, but it availed them not until the top of the 10th inning. With one out, Vaughn finally allowed a hit. An error allowed the runner to make third with two outs. Jim Thorpe came to the plate. Vaughn fired; Thorpe hit a slow roller down the third-base line. Vaughn pounced on it, realized he had no chance to get the speedy Thorpe at first, and fired home. The throw beat the runner, who had broken for home but froze halfway, thinking that Vaughn was about to get him in a rundown, but catcher Art Wilson froze. The throw bounced off of his chest and rolled away, allowing the runner to score. In the bottom of the inning, Toney retired the Cubs in order in the bottom of the inning, giving Vaughn the loss.

Vaughn had his last good season in 1920, fending off the lively ball by posting a 2.54 ERA, good for eighth in the league. After that his arm finally gave out, though he pitched into the 1930s in the minors.

SNAP JUDGMENT: When free talent is available, strike. If you regularly read Chris Kahrl's Transaction Analysis on this very site, about once or twice a year you will see a player put on waivers that cannot possibly miss being claimed by another team. "There are at least three teams bleeding at catcher who should give Cannonball Rosecranz a try," Chris will say. "Cannonball Rosecranz could bring to the Chicago White Sox what J.E.B. Stuart brought to Robert E. Lee at the Battle of Agincourt." In the next TA, Chris will tell you that Rosecranz cleared waivers and will be doing his thing at Triple-A Toonerville and that Prince Harry won't be defeating the French. Players going unclaimed in the face of an obvious confluence of talent and need at worst reeks of the old gentlemen's agreements by which players were allowed to pass out of the league on waivers and at best suggests inattentiveness on the part of certain general managers. Life lesson for today: when you see the Hippo, grab it and hold on.

NEXT: Senators/Twins concluded

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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