February 11, 2008
You Could Look It Up
Topping the Twins?
This offseason, three of the American League's 2007 top ten in ERA have been traded, with Dan Haren (third), Erik Bedard (fourth), and Johan Santana (seventh) all filling out change-of-address cards so that they don't miss a single issue of Cook's Illustrated. Each of the teams that traded their aces had their reasons for doing so, but nonetheless these are risky deals as the expectations are that a rare commodity like a number-one starter should bring players of equal potential in trade. Of course, quite often they do not.
For this YCLIU outing we'll focus on pitchers like Santana, traded less than two seasons after their last Cy Young award, or while the glow was still on them. There have been nine of these deals over the years, and today we'll talk about the first four. By the time we're through, we'll see where the Santana deal, perhaps prematurely adjudged a bust for the Twins, ranks among these kinds of deals.
The first Cy Young winner to be dealt off close to his coronation was Denny McLain, who won both the 1968 and 1969 American League awards.
Cy Young going: Denny McLain, from the Tigers to the Washington Senators.
This is one of the more special trades in baseball history. First, it accomplished the exact opposite of what was intended for the team that acquired the Cy Young winner, while the Tigers, who were merely trying to rid themselves of an odious personality, got a huge payoff. To start off with, the Tigers got the left side of the Senators' infield. Though Brinkman and Rodriguez couldn't really hit at all, both were plus fielders, something the Tigers desperately needed. The 1970 Tigers ranked 19th out of 24 teams in Defensive Efficiency. With Rodriguez and Brinkman, they moved up to 15th, as their team batting average on balls in play dropped from .296 to .281.
The real prize for the Kitties, though, was Coleman. Just 24 in 1971, Coleman was already a major league vet, having been rushed to the bigs at 18. By 1970, he had put in three seasons of 200-plus innings while posting an aggregate ERA of 3.37, just a bit below league average. A better indicator of the future was that his strikeout and walk rates were above average. Pitching in front of his slick-fielding fellow former Senators on the left side, caught by defensive standout Bill Freehan, and supported by Detroit's superior offense, Coleman became one of Detroit's aces, turning into an All-Star and a two-time 20-game winner. It was a short-lived peak; Coleman had pitched 1705 innings, still the thirteenth-highest total for a pitcher younger than 27:
They Were Expendable: Most IP though Age 26 Rk Name IP 1 Walter Johnson 2442 2 Christy Mathewson 2300.2 3 Bert Blyleven 2143.2 4 George Mullin 1998 5 Don Drysdale 1945 6 Hal Newhouser 1894 7 Catfish Hunter 1882 8 Fernando Valenzuela 1805.2 9 Chief Bender 1798.2 10 Waite Hoyt 1721 11 Dwight Gooden 1713.2 12 Mel Harder 1710.2 13 Joe Coleman 1705 14 Noodles Hahn 1678.1 15 Robin Roberts 1670
By 1974 Coleman was well on his way to being done, but by then the Tigers had already reaped the benefits from this portion of the deal. In 1971, the new acquisitions and manager Billy Martin added 12 victories over the team's 1970 total, good enough for a second-place finish in the AL East. The next season the Tigers won the division.
Senators owner Bob Short was star-struck, and he paid a heavy price for it in acquiring McLain, the former 31-game winner. In 1970, McLain had made just 14 starts between cortisone shots and three suspensions-one for financing a bookie (Bowie Kuhn gave him just three months, opting to cut McLain a break for not having been a successful bookie), one for dumping buckets of water on two Detroit beat writers, and a third for carrying a gun on the road. He went 10-22 with a 4.28 ERA (about a run below league average) in 1971, before being dumped on the A's.
Of course, as Shelby Whitfield suggested in his book on the end of the Senators' time in Washington, "Kiss it Goodbye," Short might not have been completely mad in giving away so much for one of baseball's biggest bad actors. He was on the verge of moving his team to Texas, and he needed the support of his fellow owners. McLain might have been packaged with a very special future consideration: Detroit's vote in favor of relocation.
Cy Young going: 1974 NL winner Mike Marshall, from the Dodgers to the Braves
Mike Marshall was Walter Alston's everyday reliever with the Dodgers. In 1974 he won the Cy Young Award by setting the standard for excellence in endurance pitching, appearing in 106 games and pitching 208 1/3 innings with a 2.42 ERA. Oddly enough, by the standards of WXRL, Marshall was not the best reliever in baseball that year-both Tom Murphy and Tom House ranked ahead of him because both were a little better when it came to stranding inherited runners.
Injuries set in for Marshall in 1975, and though he still pitched over 100 innings, his strikeout rate was down, and whereas he had won 15 games in 1974, now he put up 14 losses. Though Marshall prided himself on his ability to sustain a heavy workload, he had just completed a three-year stretch in which he pitched in 263 games and thrown 503 1/3 innings. His injuries persisted with the Braves, who sold him to the Rangers early in the 1977 season. However, Marshall still had a couple of good seasons ahead of him pitching for his old Montreal manager with the Twins in 1978 and 1979.
Cy Young going: 1969, 1973, and 1975 NL winner Tom Seaver, from the Mets to the Reds
The WARP results could get you in trouble if you quote them in New York, as even the most pacific Mets fan will likely punch you in the nose if you suggest that the Mets won this deal. Yet, after 1978 Seaver wasn't the ace he had been with the Mets; he was still quite good, but his fastball was going. In his first full season with the Reds, he whiffed 7.8 batters per nine innings, his best rate since 1972. In 1979, his K rate dropped to 5.5, never to recover.
Meanwhile, Steve Henderson was a pretty good player for the Mets, despite some limitations. In four seasons in Queens he batted .287/.360/.423, well above the league averages of the time. Unfortunately, he didn't develop much from his rookie season, when he hit .297/.372/.480. Off-speed pitches from righties gave him fits, which meant that he had to be platooned: in 1978, he hit .324/.398/.505 against lefties, but just .235/.298/.342 against righties. In 1979, he improved, but still had a major split, .260/.345/.390 against righties while murdering lefties at a .395/.450/.538 clip. In 1980, Henderson hit just eight home runs after launching just a mere five the year before; he was given to hitting the ball from gap to gap rather than pull it. During spring training in 1981, the Mets sent him to the Cubs with $100,000 in exchange for the guaranteed power of Dave Kingman.
The rest of the players the Mets acquired were problematic. Zachry had a promising rookie season in 1976, but his strikeout rate dropped dramatically prior to the trade, something that should have warned the Mets off of acquiring him. Despite hanging around the majors until 1985, he would never pitch 200 innings in a season after 1976. Norman never established himself, which leaves glove man Doug Flynn, who is one of the few players in baseball history who could appear in the same article as Ed Brinkman (.218 career EqA) and actually rate as the inferior hitter (.207 EqA).