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April 24, 2006
You Could Look It Up
The Gift of Kuhn
When Sean Casey's back broke, it highlighted the difficulties the Pirates franchise has had getting even mediocre production from the first base position, which is theoretically the easiest position to fill. Help Wanted, the ad would read, Big guy with bat. Need not be too mobile. Experience preferred. This is, after all, the franchise that brought baseball Dick Stuart, the original "Dr. Strangeglove," and even won a World Series with him as the regular first baseman, so if the club has any idea of its own history, they should know that you can win with the worst defensive first baseman ever as long as he hits enough home runs.
Of course, the Pirates don't know their own history--witness the decision not to protect Chris Shelton back in 2003. Witness Kevin Young, Sid Bream, Daryle Ward, and Randall Simon, all players who had no business playing first base. They even paid serious money to some of them.
The Pirates' team record for games played at first base hasn't changed in 67 years. Since 1939, it has been held by Gus Suhr. Suhr had more in common with Sid Bream than Dick Stuart, enjoying only one truly outstanding season for the Pirates. They haven't done much with the position since, or before, or ever. With the exception of Willie Stargell, who was a left fielder for three-quarters of his career and only moved to first when age and weight cut his range to that of a garden gnome, there have been no Hall of Fame seasons from Buccos first basemen.
They've tried--future Cooperstown residents Honus Wagner and Hank Greenberg logged time at first for the Pirates at the tail end of their careers, but in over a century of trying, the best season by a Pirates first baseman was had by Jason Thompson in 1982. If not for a series of bizarre decisions by then-commissioner Bowie Kuhn, the Pirates wouldn't even have had that.
Here are the top ten VORP seasons for first baseman (minimum of 100 games at the position) between 1960 and the present:
PLAYER TEAM YEAR VORP Mark McGwire SLN 1998 103.3 Jason Giambi OAK 2001 103.0 Carlos Delgado TOR 2000 99.8 Norm Cash DET 1961 96.5 Derrek Lee CHN 2005 95.6 Jason Giambi OAK 2000 93.2 Rod Carew MIN 1977 92.4 Frank Thomas CHA 1996 92.3 Albert Pujols SLN 2004 92.3 John Olerud TOR 1993 92.2
Nope--no Pirates in there. Let's look at the next ten:
PLAYER TEAM YEAR VORP Mark McGwire OAK 1996 91.6 Todd Helton COL 2003 88.5 Albert Pujols SLN 2005 88.3 Jeff Bagwell HOU 1994 86.0 Don Mattingly NYA 1986 85.8 Jim Thome CLE 2002 85.0 Jeff Bagwell HOU 1999 84.9 Todd Helton COL 2004 83.8 Willie McCovey SFN 1969 83.2 Todd Helton COL 2001 81.6
No Pirates there either. In fact, you have to go quite a way down the list before you find the first Pittsburgh first basemen. Here are the top ten Pirates first base seasons from 1960 through 2005:
PLAYER YEAR VORP Jason Thompson 1982 49.5 Willie Stargell 1972 46.8 Kevin Young 1999 43.9 Willie Stargell 1978 41.8 Donn Clendenon 1966 39.8 Willie Stargell 1975 39.7 Dick Stuart 1961 36.9 Willie Stargell 1979 30.6 Bob Robertson 1971 26.5 Donn Clendenon 1965 24.0
It should be noted that with variances in offense, some of these seasons were quite good in their time. For example, Willie Stargell's 1978 VORP was the 26th-best in the game that year. Jason Thompson's 1982 was 15th-best. Stargell's 1972, which barely qualifies under our 100-game cutoff (see below), was the eighth-best season in baseball that year, sixth-best in the National League, though a good distance back from the players ahead of him, including league leader Joe Morgan at 74.1. Still, it is safe to say that the Pirates have had few truly outstanding seasons from their first sackers.
It's also worth mentioning that Stargell never played anything like a full season at first base. In his best year as a first baseman, 1972, he played only 101 games at the position. He was back in the outfield in 1973 and 1974, then returned to first for good in 1975. That year he had his career high for games at first, 122. Thereafter injuries curtailed his playing time. He missed two-thirds of the season in both 1977 and 1980. In his three remaining seasons, he averaged 112 games in the field.
Finally, few pre-1960 seasons by Pirates first basemen would rank on this list. Elbie Fletcher had a few seasons that might rank in the lower half; Suhr, one or two. That's it.
Jason Thompson batted .284/.394/.511 in 1982, punching up his results with 31 home runs and 101 walks. Thompson was a lefty pull hitter. He had little speed, by all reports wasn't much of a fielder, he had trouble with lefty pitchers, his average tended to fluctuate, and he had the appalling 1970s moustache you'd expect from a grown man in 1982. Nevertheless, he was an asset because his game was about walks and home runs, resulting in a career .291 EqA. Naturally, he was accused of being too passive. Showing the absence of sabermetric understanding at the time, Thompson was twice dumped for nothing.
The Tigers drafted Thompson out of Cal State in 1975, and had him starting in the majors by 1976, skipping him past both Double- and Triple-A, batting fifth behind Rusty Staub and Willie Horton. He struggled to hit for average in his rookie year, but in his sophomore season, he knocked 31 home runs.
Thompson finished 1979 in a slump and opened 1980 the same way. Lefties were killing him. Even in 1977, he had struggled with them, batting .312/.409/.589 against righties but .221/.270/.369 against southpaws. Ralph Houk, his manager, did not believe in platooning--in fact did not believe in resting his regulars ever--so Thompson was offered no protection. Sparky Anderson came in at the end of 1979, and was somewhat smarter than Houk. Still, on May 27, 1980 the Tigers made a deal that would leave them without a first baseman for years, trading Thompson to to the Angels for Al Cowens, a light-hitting right fielder (.279/.326./.399 to that point in his career).
Thompson was fantastic for the Angels, batting .317/.439/.526 with 17 home runs in 102 games (.342 EqA). The improvement in his rate stats was due in part to Angels' manager Jim Fregosi being smart enough to bench him against lefties. Nonetheless, the following April the Angels, the Yankees, and the Pirates swung a three-way deal in which the Angels sent Thompson to the Pirates for catcher Ed Ott, a 29-year-old non-hitter, and Mickey Mahler, a 28-year-old lefty swing man with a 5.50 career ERA. The Pirates and GM Harding "Pete" Peterson then sent Thompson on to the Yankees for veteran first baseman Jim Spencer, minor league pitchers Greg Cochran and Fred Toliver, and $850,000. Spencer was one of the more punchless first basemen ever to play 1500 games (with the exception of a strangely potent 1979), but the Pirates desperately needed a good glove to spell the increasingly fragile Stargell. Over half of the $850,000 was earmarked to pay Spencer's salary in 1981 and 1982.
Ever since Charlie Finley had tried to break up the A's on the eve of free agency by selling Vida Blue to the Yankees and Joe Rudi and Rollie Fingers to the Red Sox, Commissioner Bowie Kuhn had been obsessed with keeping cash out of baseball transactions. He had vetoed the Finley sales as not being in the best interests of baseball, and later established an arbitrary ceiling of $400,000 in any deal.
The Yankees-Pirates deal exceeded this amount, and Kuhn declined to give his approval. The Yankees and Pirates restructured the trade. This time the Yankees were to receive Thompson and six minor leaguers. Everything else was the same, with the exception that the avowed purpose of the $450,000 component was supposed to be for the purchase of the Pittsburgh farmhands. The Commissioner again said no, believing that the minor leaguers were not worth $450,000. The Pirates then made a third offer: forget the cash, and give us righty pitching prospect Gene Nelson. At that point, the Yankees walked away from the table.
"It just got to be too much," Yankees owner George Steinbrenner told The New York Times. "It meant stripping myself of a player I consider my future. If Nelson comes on and does a job for me, and Spencer too, I'll know that sometimes the trades you don't make are the most important ones."
Steinbrenner was aggrieved, and rightfully so, as Kuhn's ruling made little sense. Even if his no money policy really stood for the good of the game--and it was convincingly argued at the time that it was, in fact, exactly the opposite--he was arbitrary and capricious in its application. In a December, 1980 deal, the Cardinals had traded Ted Simmons to the Brewers. The Brewers paid Simmons $750,000 to accept the trade. Apparently in Kuhn's arbitrary system, players could receive large sums of cash as part of a deal, but teams could not. In February, 1979, Kuhn allowed the Yankees to pay $400,000 to the A's for minor league catcher Bruce Robinson and the aforementioned pitcher Cochran. Somehow, according to Kuhn's Mickey Mouse logic, the Yankees could spend nearly half a million on untried players, but couldn't spend a like amount for an established first baseman. The Vida Blue sale had been for $1.5 million; Blue would certainly seem to have been worth four times the two minor leaguers.
Kuhn had also informed clubs pursuing a trade for Rod Carew in 1978 that no cash should be involved, just because it was Carew. "Carew is a very special case. Carew is a great superstar of the game. To make a deal for Carew involving a great deal of cash wouldn't be a good thing. I just didn't think there should be cash in the Carew deal. The Carew case stands on its own two feet."
The real issue for Kuhn was not how much money was being spent but who was doing the spending. He felt that the big market clubs like the Yankees would reassert their formerly dynastic dominance if allowed to spend freely on player purchases. Perhaps Kuhn would have let the penurious Cal Griffith of the Twins buy players from the A's, but George Steinbrenner and Tom Yawkey, never. Thirty years of free agency and rising revenue disparities between big and small market clubs have shown Kuhn's analysis to have been overly simplistic.
This stance put Kuhn, a lawyer, in the odd position of player evaluation. As Red Smith wrote at the time, Kuhn "has given himself oversight authority in all player transactions. He decides whether a deal is good or bad for baseball and good or bad for the clubs involved, sets a value on the players concerned and dictates the purchase price. He even claimed to know a prospect from a suspect." For example, the Yankees' purchase of Robinson from the A's was allowed to go through because Kuhn looked at Robinson's stats at Vancouver of the Pacific Coast League, and decided the Yankees would be getting their money's worth. "He's a pretty good prospect," said Kuhn, who couldn't have been more wrong.
Nelson, 20, made the Yankees out of spring training but struggled with his control and was quickly sent down. Exactly one year later, Steinbrenner voluntarily stripped himself for Shane Rawley, sending Nelson, Bill Caudill, and Bobby Brown to Seattle for the lefty pitcher. He would have his best success as a mainstay in the bullpen for the great A's teams of the late 1980s. Pete Peterson got to be the GM of the Yankees for awhile. With no Jason Thompson in his way, Don Mattingly got to be the Yankees first baseman starting in 1984. Parenthetically, Nelson was said at the time to throw four pitches--a fastball, a changeup (his out pitch, and at times his only pitch), a knuckle-curve, and a knuckle-slider--that last being the only known time anyone has claimed to throw such a pitch.
As for the Pirates, they kept the first baseman they hadn't wanted and eventually got their best season from his position. It was Thompson's last good year. Though he was just 27 in 1982, his bat died. Knee problems, unalleviated by surgery, sapped his power and limited his already poor speed. Through 1982, Thompson had hit .265/.366/.454 against a league average of .266/.329/.390. From then until the end of his career, he hit .250/.369/.388 against a league average of .262/.329/.387. The good eye was still there, but the power had vanished. He was out of the majors at 31.
Since then, for the Pirates it's been all downhill, Kevin Young's 1999 season being an arguable exception, an islet in a sea of mediocrity. With Casey--a long shot to have a top offensive season in the first place--gone for at least two months, the search for a productive first baseman will last at least another year.