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February 7, 2006

Prospectus Matchups

Frank Thomas' Relocoda

by Jim Baker

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This is where you ask yourself, "What in the name of King Kelly's ghost is a "relocoda?" Don't kick yourself for not knowing because I just made it up. Does the English language have enough words already? Well, perhaps, but since so many of them mean the same things, it's still necessary to create new ones to fill in the gaps.

In this case, it's a combination of two words: "relocate" and "coda." For those of you who didn't spend four years of your life missing baseball games because you were in the high school band, the latter is a musical term meaning the concluding passage of a movement of composition. I conjured this hybrid word in honor of Frank Thomas's move to Oakland after 16 years with the White Sox. I'm applying it to all the players who nearly made it through long careers with the same team only to find themselves elsewhere for their swan songs, finales and, in the case of the pitchers who have been down this road, gotterdammerungs.

Thomas has been preceded in this career path by a number of other very good and great players. In all, 23 Hall of Famers have done this. There have also been some famous non-Hall of Famers who have gone this route as well.

My criteria for what qualifies as a relocoda are as follows:

  • The player needed to spend at least 12 years with his original team.

  • He can't have played for any other team than that one. That leaves out somebody like Nellie Fox. Babe Ruth had what one would assume is a famous relocoda with the Boston Braves but does not qualify by my definition of the word because his career prior to that was split between two teams.

  • The stint in the new city can last no longer than two seasons. Anything more than that is a little too heavy on the relocation and light on the coda.

  • They did not return to their original team for a quick farewell.

Thomas could, by succeeding and staying healthy, play himself right off the relocoda list. If he lasts two seasons beyond 2006, he won't qualify for my criteria anymore. For now, though, we'll assume he belongs. Here, then, is a discussion of the men who have done what he is about to do.

Best relocoda -- hitter
Ty Cobb
Main affiliation: Tigers, 22 years
Relocoda: A's, 1927-28

Of all the players who have done this, Cobb was the most productive, registering a 6.4 WARP3 in 1927. His departure from the Tigers was due, in part, to a problem that no longer bothers team owners: what to do with a player-manager who still wants to play but whom you don't want managing your team anymore. A number of players in the relocoda ranks fit the description of disbarred player-managers including Lou Boudreau, Frank Chance and Gabby Hartnett. It was also at that time that Cobb and Tris Speaker were accused of game-fixing by Dutch Leonard only to be cleared by commissioner Kennesaw Mountain Landis. It was Cobb's desire to not go out on that note and Connie Mack's offer to make him the highest-paid player in the majors was a great way to achieve that end. Cobb, along with fellow-relocodan Zack Wheat and returning A's star of old Eddie Collins gave the A's a total of seven Hall of Famers in 1927.

Two other outfielders of note from the '20s ended up in relocoda programs. Sam Rice played his final season with Cleveland in 1934 after 19 years in Washington. Cobb's old teammate and protégé Harry Heilmann was sold by the Tigers to Cincinnati after the 1929 season. Heilmann missed all of 1931 with neuritis and made an aborted return in 1932. Without the malady, Heilmann would have passed 3,000 hits sometime in 1933 or early 1934 and probably would have made the Hall of Fame in his own lifetime. Classifying him as a true relocodan is a bit dodgy, though. If we do, then his 1930 outing is the second-best relocoda season ever. If not, then…

Second-best relocoda -- hitter
Hank Greenberg
Main affiliation: Tigers, 12 years
Relocoda: Pirates, 1947

Hank Greenberg knew that his destiny was in management and approached the Tigers ownership about such a role in 1946. Unfortunately for their future together, they publicly dissed him as being unqualified. One thing led to another and he was sold to the Pirates for the waiver price. Greenberg had a very nice season with the Pirates, but was unimpressed with the direction of the team and was pained from bone chips in his elbow and complained of leg miseries. He later claimed that he had saved about two-thirds of his career salary of $440,000 to that point, so money wasn't a driving force in keeping him active. The Pirates offer to make him the highest-paid player in the game in 1948 didn't sway him from retiring.

Most celebrated relocoda
Christy Mathewson
Main affiliation: Giants, 16-plus years
Relocoda: Reds, 1916

When Christy Mathewson moved from the Giants' mound to the Reds' managing job in the middle of the 1916 season, he swore that he would not pitch again. He was convinced to do otherwise, though, when an opportunity presented itself to face a man he had been battling since 1903, Mordecai Brown of the Cubs. There was much made of the matchup at the time but the game did not live up to its promise nor to the past glories of the pitchers involved. Ray Robinson describes the pitchers in "Matty, An American Hero" (1993) as "…two ancient embarrassed heavyweight fighters who have long since lost their punch." It turned out to be the second-highest combined scoring game of the year for both clubs as the Reds beat the Cubs 10-8. Both pitchers went the route. How little did they have left at this point? Brown got two hits himself and Matty, who had gone 0-for-17 earlier in the year with New York, went 3-for-5 with a double. After the game, he took the pledge on pitching ever again and, this time, held to it.

Shortest relocoda -- pitcher
Lefty Gomez
Main affiliation: Yankees, 13 years
Relocoda: Senators, 1943

It had been a few years since Lefty Gomez had been his old self. He hadn't struck out more men than he walked since 1939. (A game that may have epitomized his post-power approach occurred on August 1, 1941 when he walked 11 Browns and still managed a shutout.) So, when the Braves offered to buy him from the Yankees, away he went. He never pitched with Boston before his release. The Senators signed him and sent him to the mound for the second game of a doubleheader on May 30. He walked five, surrendered four hits and Washington lost 5-1. He officially retired two months later without having pitching again in the majors.

Shortest relocoda -- position player
Yogi Berra
Main affiliation: Yankees, 18 years
Relocoda: Mets, 1965

After retiring as a player to take over the managing duties of the Yankees, Yogi Berra was unceremoniously dumped when they lost the '64 World Series. The Mets, never ones to pass up an opportunity to suckle off the New York baseball teat, signed him as a player-coach on April 27 of the following season. George Vecsey wrote in "Joy in Mudville" (1970) that Yogi had "…clearly lost his great competitive desire. When Casey Stengel pressed him into some exhibitions, Yogi swung halfheartedly at bad pitches and tried to force his body into shape." After just four appearances, "Berra played briefly but was delighted when they told him he could be a coach again," Vecsey wrote. What would have been cool was to find that the Mets had used an all-relocoda battery by having Berra catch Warren Spahn, but this did not occur. They appeared in one game together when Berra pinch-hit in Spahn's start on May 5.

Best relocoda -- pitcher
Hal Newhouser
Main affiliation: Tigers, 15 years
Relocoda: Indians, 1954-55

Not that there is much competition. After years of heavy workloads, Newhouser appeared to be washed up when he was released by the Tigers in July of 1953. The Indians signed him, and, being very well disposed in the starting ranks, assigned him to the bullpen where he posted an adjusted NRA of 3.70 and was credited with seven of the Indians 111 victories and just two of their 43 losses. He was still a relatively young man, but his accumulated shoulder miseries put the kibosh on continuing much beyond there.

Most misguided relocoda
Ron Santo
Main affiliation: Cubs, 14 years
Relocoda: White Sox, 1974

The Ten and Five Rule was newly minted when the Cubs came to Ron Santo and asked him if he would accept a trade to the Angels. He should have said yes. Instead, he agreed to a trade to the White Sox who somehow got it into their heads that a move from third to second base was just the thing.

Most relocoda stops
Tony Lazzeri
Main affiliation: Yankees, 12 years
Relocoda: Cubs, 1938; Dodgers and Giants, 1939

Warren Spahn, Duke Snider, Juan Marichal and Eddie Mathews all made two stops in their relocoda phases. Lazzeri is the only player of note ever to make three. That wasn't the end of his professional career, though. He continued on through 1943 in the minor leagues, often as a player-manager. It was common practice back then for players to slide down at the end of their careers and it was no different for Hall of Famers and near-greats. The aforementioned Lefty Gomez pitched for Binghamton in the Eastern League in 1946 and 1947. Other greats who were not satisfied to have their big league Relocoda spell the end of their pro careers:

  • Frank Chance: Main affiliation: Cubs, 15 years; Relocoda: Yankees, 1913-14
    Minor league follow-up: player-manager, Los Angeles (Pacific Coast League) 1916-1917

  • Zack Wheat: Main affiliation: Dodgers, 18 years; Relocoda: A's, 1927
    Minor league follow-up: Minneapolis (American Association), 1928

  • Ed Walsh: Main affiliation: White Sox, 13 years; Relocoda: Braves, 1917
    Minor league follow-up: Milwaukee (American Association), 1919; Bridgeport (Eastern League), 1920

  • Gabby Hartnett: Main affiliation: Cubs, 19 years; Relocoda: Giants, 1941
    Minor league follow-up: Indianapolis (American Association), 1942; Jersey City (International League) 1943-44

  • Phil Cavarretta: Main affiliation: Cubs, 20 years; Relocoda: White Sox, 1954-55
    Minor league follow-up: Buffalo (International League), 1956

Most nostalgic relocoda (tie):
Willie Mays
Main affiliation: Giants, 20+ years
Relocoda: Mets, 1972-73
Hank Aaron
Main affiliation: Braves, 21 years
Relocoda: Brewers, 1975-76

The early to mid-'70s were something of the Golden Age of the Relocoda. In addition to Willie Mays and Hank Aaron moving on to finish out their careers, Billy Williams spent two years with the A's after 16 years with the Cubs and Harmon Killebrew spent his last year (1974) with the Royals after 21 years on the Senators/Twins roster. Three other non-Hall of Famers with long one-team careers found themselves on the move at this time as well:

Longest pre-relocoda runs by non-Hall of Famers
20: Phil Cavarretta, with Cubs; Relocoda with White Sox (1954-55)
19: Dwight Evans, with Red Sox; Relocoda with Orioles (1991)
14+: Bob Forsch, with Cardinals; Relocoda with Astros (1988-89)
14: Ron Santo, with Cubs; Relocoda with White Sox (1974)
14: Dick McAuliffe, with Tigers; Relocoda with Red Sox (1974-75)
14: Chris Short, with Phillies; Relocoda with Brewers (1973)

After some slippage at age 38, Mays roared back with an awesome season at age 39. When he began his age-40 season (1971) by homering in the first four games, it seemed as though he might just go on forever. He even went 28-for-31 in stealing attempts in those two seasons. He was still playing decently at 41 when machinations began to get him back to New York City, the place he had first appeared in the majors over 20 years before. This was achieved on May 11, 1972 and Jim Beauchamp switched from number 24 to number 5 to make way for the legend. Mays posted a .308 EqA for the Mets the rest of the way. Had he retired then, all would have been sweet, but he hung on for another year, one in which his awesome talent had vanished seemingly overnight.

Aaron's departure from Atlanta was in the works even before his historic 1974 season came to an end. At a press conference on the final day of the season he cryptically announced that he was playing his last game as a Brave but was not retiring. Current commissioner and then-Brewer owner Bud Selig was machinating to get Aaron back to Milwaukee, the city he had left along with the Braves a decade before. Selig has said that he had been trying to get Aaron for years and, for his part, Aaron was thrilled with the deal, never feeling that he had been embraced in Atlanta the way he had been in Wisconsin.

After an incredible run of 18 plus-.300 EqA seasons, Aaron had finally begun to show slippage his last year in Atlanta. That continued in Milwaukee. He posted a VORP of 13.5 in 1975 and closed out his career with EqAs of .265 in both years there. Of course, that really wasn't the point with this kind of relocoda. The point here was to remind the fans--and, to some extent, the player--of the way things were in the 1957-58 glory days of Milwaukee baseball.

* * * * *

How do the projections look for Frank Thomas's Relocoda? PECOTA has him at .237/.342/.497 in 353 plate appearances with 22 home runs, 61 RBI and a VORP of 15.8. He will not be making a defensive contribution, so we won't be looking for him to challenge the top seasons above in terms of WARP3. He is projecting a historically-adjusted EqA of .295. Should he outperform that by a modest amount, he could well post the best EqA ever by a Relocoda player. (Greenberg and Heilmann were at .311 with Mays at .308 in '72 and Cobb at .301 in '27.) Billy Williams' .287--also with Oakland--is a realistic harbinger as well.

Thanks to Keith Woolner, Nate Silver and Rob Neyer for contributing research to this article.

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