May 4, 2005
You Could Look It Up
Infinity Edition #2
If Baseball Prospectus did player profiles for dead guys, they might look like this. The teams and years listed represent the time and place of the player's primary achievements. Last week we covered A through E. This week, players were selected from F through J.
One of the more obscure Hall of Famers, Elmer Flick once was nearly traded even up for a young Ty Cobb on the theory that Cobb's temper would either burn him out early or get him run out of the league. As things turned out, Cobb was still playing nearly two decades after Flick hung up his cleats.
Flick was a lefty who hit lots of triples--home runs weren't really an option during the dead-ball era--and amassed a career line of .313/.389/.445. As a member of the Phillies, Flick was one-third of one of the greatest outfields to that point, with center fielder Roy Thomas and left fielder Ed "Watch Out for Open Drawbridges" Delahanty. The trio was together from 1899 to 1901, their best season coming in their final year as a unit:
G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SB AVG OBP SLG WARP Delahanty 139 542 106 192 38 16 8 108 65 29 .354 .427 .528 8.7 Thomas 129 479 102 148 5 2 1 28 100 27 .309 .437 .334 5.8 Flick 138 540 112 180 32 17 8 88 52 30 .333 .399 .500 9.7Actually, all three seasons are about the same, with individual variations. The WARP total for 1899 was 23.2, 1900 was 23.2 again, and 1901 was 24.2. Flick's own personal best came in 1900, when he batted .367/.441/.545, against a league average of .279/.339/.366. He was 11 wins above replacement level.
In 1902 Flick jumped to the American League, where he continued to hit well until sidelined by a mysterious stomach ailment in 1908. He was 32 years old. But for an abortive comeback attempt, his career was over. Given that Flick died two days before his 95th birthday, his tummy problem looks to our jaded, Prozac-besotted minds like some kind of anxiety disorder. Of course, in those early days of the Pure Food and Drug Act it might simply have been the water. Or the meat. Did Elmer Flick ever read Upton Sinclair? The mystery may never be solved.
Then again, it might not have been the meat, but the poultry. Flick was afflicted by southern cuisine during spring training. "The climate is all there is, and that is fine," Flick said in 1906, "but as for the cookery, it may suit epicures, but if you like sweet potatoes fried in cottonseed oil, take it. If you like chicken served three times a day, dive in. As for me, for a month after our return to the North, I get sick in the stomach whenever I hear a hen cackle." (Reported in "Kings of the Diamond," by Lee Allen and Tom Meany)
Flick was officially the last major league ballplayer to use the word "epicures" in a sentence. He also lathed his own bats.
Warning: Do not deploy against Alan Trammell. The Yankees acquired Guante in the ill-fated deal that sent future Cy Young award winner Doug Drabek to the Pirates. That gives Guante two footnotes in Yankees history, as he also personally deep-sixed Billy Martin's fifth and final tour as manager of the New York Yankees.
On June 20, 1988, the Yankees entered Detroit trailing in the American League East by half a game. Martin's behavior had been typically erratic and his job was rumored to be hanging by a thread. In the first contest of the three-game series, the Yankees carried a 1-1 tie into the bottom of the 10th, after a strong start by Tommy John. Martin brought in Guante to face right-handed third baseman Tom Brookens. One home run later, the Yankees were down a game and a half. The next night, the Yankees took a 6-1 lead into the bottom of the ninth, but closer Dave Righetti was ineffective, loading the bases and walking in two runs before Martin called for Guante to face Alan Trammell. Trammell put a Guante offering into the seats for a grand slam and the Yankees went down 7-6. The Tigers completed the sweep on June 22, and Martin was let go that night. The team never did recover its momentum.
According to the Moss Klein/Bill Madden book Damned Yankees, Guante, a Dominican, claimed to speak only Spanish while with the Yankees, until, on the day he was traded, he ran out of the clubhouse shouting, "Free at last! Free at last!"
The short list of best relief seasons ever includes John Hiller's 1973 campaign, in which he went 10-5 with a league-leading 38 saves, a 1.44 ERA and just under a strikeout an inning. In fact, by the lights of WXRL (Win Expectation, Adjusted for Lineup and Replacement Level), it was the best relief season of the modern era, narrowly surviving a challenge from Eric Gagne in 2003. (A complete leader list for this statistic, as well as all other Baseball Prospectus statistics, can be found in BP's forthcoming book on team-building and the 2004 Boston Red Sox, entitled Mind Game.)
Hiller's season, which netted him a fourth place finish in the Cy Young voting, was unexpected in every sense of the word: His career had seemingly been ended by a heart attack in 1971. He was only 28 years old; the cause was apparently an out-of-control cholesterol problem. Hiller took a year off and came back apparently stronger than ever, reeling off a half-dozen solid to excellent seasons in the aftermath of his attack. Best of all, he's still around; this entry sponsored by Lipitor.
Emerging from the Mets' successful arbitration against middle reliever Innis in 1991, then-GM Al Harazin said, in essence, "Jeff is a heck of a nice guy, but I'll be darned if he helped us win or save a game last season." Harazin was just one on a long line of failed Mets GMs, but this one time he had a point. Innis had pitched in 69 games and allowed only 89 baserunners in 85 innings and an ERA of 2.66, but manager Bud Harrelson had used Innis almost exclusively when the team was behind; he had not recorded a single win or save. His only bottom-line contributions were four holds--if you believe in holds--and two losses. Meanwhile, BP shows that he added .585 wins that year. A 13th-round draft pick of the Mets in 1983, Innis was a right-handed side-armer with the side-armer's usual vulnerability to lefty batters. Over the last three years of his career--consecutive seasons of declining effectiveness--Innis held righties to a .235 average, while lefties hit .279.
Brook Jacoby probably saw as much concentrated losing as anyone who played after the days when the Phillies and A's were annual 100-game losers. His Indians lost over 100 games three times during the eight seasons above and were never competitive, not even during a celebrated 1986 season in which they actually finished above .500.
Jacoby was probably more part of the problem than part of the solution, or at best neutral. A middling hitter and a poor fielder--he had seasons of -14 and -15 RAA at third base--he also developed a reputation, largely deserved, as being RBI-averse. The origin of this reputation was the 1987 season, when Jacoby hit 32 home runs but drove in only 69 runs. This is actually very hard to do. Given the number of baserunners available to him, 344, Jacoby should have driven in about 80 runs without even trying. This is not a large number of baserunners; Jacoby would have had to drive in 20% of them to reach an even 100 runs. Instead he drove in just .108 of his baserunners; most hitters, when they hit over 30 homers, find it very hard not to hit some with runners on base and plate an average number of runners--about 14%. Jacoby hit 27 of his 32 home runs with the bases empty and hit just .221 with runners in scoring position.
LOWEST PERCENTAGE OF BASERUNNERS DRIVEN IN, 1972-2004 (300 or more baserunners) POS YEAR RUNNERS RBI PCT. 1. Felix Fermin SS 1989 326 21 .064 2. Craig Counsell SS 2004 305 21 .069 3. Joe Morgan 2B 1979 310 23 .074 4. Joey Cora 2B 1998 348 26 .075 5. Ruben Rivera OF 1999 327 25 .076 6. Royce Clayton SS 2003 363 28 .077 7. Matty Alou OF 1973 350 22 .077 8. Doug Flynn SS 1983 339 26 .077 9. Doug Flynn SS 1980 313 24 .077 10. Tim Foli SS 1975 356 28 .079 11. Mark Belanger SS 1973 340 27 .079Note that with the exception of the hapless Ruben Rivera, most players who have severe trouble in the RBI department are middle infielders whose bats were amputated at birth (the Joe Morgan here is the post-MVP/pre-ignoramus version). Players who can actually hit, as Jacoby did in 1987, find it difficult to dance between the baserunners with such efficiency.
Jacoby also figures in one of the worst trades of all time, the one that brought Len Barker from the Indians to the Braves in 1983. We'll cover that when we get to Brett Butler next time through the alphabet.