November 15, 2000
Revisiting The Baseball Book 1992, Pt. 2
In The Baseball Book 1992, Bill James condensed each team into a box. Each box comprised a summary of the team's 1991 season, a general prognosis for 1992, a look at the teams' best prospects and a bunch of other nuggets, most of them for fun.
For each team, though, he designated one player as "Most Likely to Still Be Here in 2000". To satisfy my curiosity, I'll take a look at the player designated by James as most likely, ruminate on whether it was a good choice at the time, and then see what happened afterwards.
The purpose of this article is not to take James to task for the rightness or wrongness of his predictions. In most cases, the player he picked was the most logical choice, or at least a justifiable one. He probably spent a total of ten minutes considering them for all 26 teams, and didn't mean them to be taken too seriously.
Last week's piece looked at the American League. This time, we examine James's National League predictions.
BB92 SAID: Dave Justice
A GOOD CHOICE? I guess so, though I disagreed at the time. Justice had suffered a back injury in 1991, and I thought he was an inferior talent to Ron Gant.
The Braves were awash in young talent at the time: Justice, Gant, Mark Lemke and Jeff Blauser were all 25 or 26. 23-year-old Brian Hunter had slugged .450 in part-time play and Keith Mitchell was just reaching the majors. On the mound...wow. Tom Glavine was 25, Steve Avery was 21, John Smoltz 24, Kent Mercker 23, Mike Stanton 24 and Mark Wohlers 21. That's 12 players for whom one could make a reasonable case for their continued presence through 2000, which is impressive. Really, Bill James couldn't have made a wrong move with this bunch.
IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? No.
IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Glavine and Smoltz, of course, the Spahn and Burdette of the nineties. Brian Hunter, of all people, played the prodigal Brave briefly this year. Technically, so did Avery. Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz are still there, and any time a manager and/or GM lasts that long these days, it's worthy of mention.
BB92 SAID: "[Ryne] Sandberg. He'll be 40."
A GOOD CHOICE? Yes, actually. Sandberg was one of the best second basemen of all time, and there was no reason to believe that he wouldn't stick around that long, though probably not as a second baseman. As James pointed out, the Cubs had no hitters on the team who were both good and young. Mark Grace was 27, which isn't young. Jerome Walton and Rick Wilkins, both younger, were awful in 1991. Greg Maddux had just pitched 263 innings at age 25, and a case could have been made for him, but you don't bet against one of the all-time greats.
IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? Nope. He's retired.
IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Mark Grace, of course. Joe Girardi made a return visit.
BB92 SAID: Reggie Sanders
A GOOD CHOICE? Yes. He was the consensus prediction for 1992 Rookie of the Year, 23 years old and he ran well. He was injury-prone, but no one knew he would make a habit of it.
IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? No, unless you think that the DL has been his real team all along.
IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? I didn't think he would have been as good a choice as Sanders, but Barry Larkin made it through the whole decade in a Reds uniform.
BB92 SAID: Jeff Bagwell
A GOOD CHOICE? Absolutely. You don't bet against the Rookie of the Year, especially when he's a real young player (23) and not one of those older RoY-types like Bob Hamelin.
IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? And how.
IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Two players are, and it's sort of silly. Craig Biggio is one of them, of course. You remember how one of the reasons they moved Biggio from catcher to second base was to help him avoid injury, so he'd be able to play all decade? Well, the other member of the 1991 Astros to spend the entire decade in the organization was...catcher Tony Eusebio. (Ken Caminiti, of course, did a there-and-back routine.)
Los Angeles Dodgers
BB92 SAID: "No obvious candidate. I think we can rule out John Candelaria".
A GOOD ASSESSMENT? Only because of the bias against pitchers: 23-year-old Ramon Martinez had been a 20-game winner in 1990 and looked like a rotation anchor for years to come. Aside from that, there wasn't any obviously impressive young talent: the youngest regular or near-regular was 26-year-old Lenny Harris, and aside from Martinez all of the pitchers who saw real playing time were 29 or older.
A few youngsters were peeking their heads up: Jose Offerman hit .195, Eric Karros was 1-for-14, Tom Goodwin hit .143 and Mike Scioscia's heir apparent, Carlos Hernandez, hit .214. The pick of the youngsters was Dave Hansen.
IS ANYONE STILL AROUND? Eric Karros made it. Plus, like the Rangers, the 2000 Bums had three returnees: Hansen, Goodwin and Orel Hershiser.
BB92 SAID: Matt Stairs
A GOOD CHOICE? I guess he broke his own rule (he probably wasn't even aware that he'd made the rule), but Matt Stairs was the only player James named who did not actually play in the majors in 1991--Stairs was in Double-A for the entire season. You wouldn't think it to look at him now, but Stairs was a second baseman at the time.
Anyway, if you allow for people who aren't in the majors yet to be considered, then the exercise becomes rather silly--just look at each team's top hitting pick from the 1990 or '91 draft, and if they look like they know what they're doing with the bat, they're in. But what fun is that?
The top choices who actually played for the Expos in 1991 were the young trinity of Delino DeShields, Marquis Grissom and Larry Walker. I would have picked DeShields without hesitation: his defense at second base looked terrible enough that they'd move him to some other position before he could get injured, and his walk rate was outstanding enough that he looked like he could have a wonderful career as the next Rickey Henderson.
IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? Stairs? No.
IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? No.
New York Mets
BB92 SAID: Todd Hundley
A GOOD CHOICE? Pretty much. The obvious pick, Gregg Jefferies, had just been traded after the '91 season, and there were no other obviously good young players around. Hundley had the hype and the minor-league record, so he earned the honor by default.
IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? No.
IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? John Franco made it. Left-handed relievers never die, though they generally they move around a lot. In New York, Franco outlasted both Patrick Ewing and Cats. Wow.
BB92 SAID: Tommy Greene
A GOOD CHOICE? Pitchers are usually bad bets, so I probably would have picked Wes Chamberlain. Greene, 24 at the time, did look like the real deal, though.
IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? Only in the sense that the air exiting his lungs contains more CO2 than the air which went in.
IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? No. Mickey Morandini and Andy Ashby made return visits.
BB92 SAID: Three Rivers Stadium
A GOOD CHOICE? Nyuk nyuk nyuk. As James saw it, the Pirates represented the flip side of the Cleveland Indians' circumstance,. The Indians, remember, looked like a bad team which would never have the revenue stream to hang on to their good players. The Pirates, straight off of two division championships, looked like a very good team which would still never have the revenue to hang onto their good players. Bobby Bonilla had just left as a free agent. It was almost a fait accompli that Barry Bonds, Doug Drabek and Jose Lind would be gone the following year, and the prospects for the future were uncertain.
I probably would have made a push for naming John Wehner, who was 24 and looked to be the solution for their third-base problems for a goodly while, as the Player Most Likely To. Orlando Merced, 24 with an excellent walk rate, would also have been a reasonable pick.
IS ANYONE STILL AROUND? Well, Wehner came back, but that doesn't count. Even Three Rivers Stadium barely made it through the decade as a baseball park.
St. Louis Cardinals
BB92 SAID: Todd Zeile
A GOOD CHOICE? Yes. Zeile was 25 and had been moved to third base from catcher in order to protect his long-term future; organizations usually don't bother to do something like that unless they intend to keep someone around. The Cards had two 24-year-old outfielders that year, Ray Lankford and Bernard Gilkey, but Zeile looked more than a year better than either of them.
IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? Since 1995, Zeile has changed teams seven times. Not even Bobo Newsom changed uniforms that many times over a six-year span.
IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Ray Lankford.
San Diego Padres
BB92 SAID: Andy Benes
A GOOD CHOICE? Well, he certainly had been hyped through the minors, but it's difficult to accept this as a good choice if we agree with James' "no obvious candidate" assessment for the Dodgers. Ramon Martinez was the same age and had been, to that date, a better pitcher. I would have stumped for Fred McGriff; although he was 27, he was just too good--it appeared that he would age well enough to still be a 36-year-old regular in San Diego by decade's end.
IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? No.
IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Of the eight Padre regulars from 1991, the only one still around is the oldest: Tony Gwynn.
San Francisco Giants
BB92 SAID: Will Clark
A GOOD CHOICE? Close call, in my opinion. Clark was 27 and two years removed from his best season. Matt Williams was 25 and had led the team in home runs. Darren Lewis was 23 and looked like a right-handed Brett Butler: good speed, good defense, tremendous patience. With no obvious star-quality pitchers on the roster that year, I probably would have picked Williams.
IS HE, IN FACT, STILL AROUND? No. Long gone.
IS ANYONE ELSE STILL AROUND? Nope. Gil Heredia is just across the bay, but that doesn't count. Rick Reuschel turned 51 in May.
Of the 26 teams, Bill James made a pick for 21 of them. For three teams, he explicitly made no pick; for one team, he picked a minor leaguer. The last team (Oakland) just got lost in the shuffle.
Of the 21 teams for which James made a pick, 14 of them still have a player around, so that represents the highest number of possible correct answers. In exactly four of those cases, James named the (or a) correct player: Sandy Alomar Jr., Jeff Bagwell, Cal Ripken and Frank Thomas. That success rate is 28%.
For the three teams on which he thought no one would last the decade, one of them (the Dodgers) crossed him up by actually having someone stick around. The one team for which he named a minor leaguer--the Expos--didn't have anyone stick around.
So there are a variety of ways you could compute the success rate--do you call it 4-for-14, 4-for-21, 6-for-25, 6-for-24...? I prefer to define the issue very narrowly, and give him the benefit of the doubt. (Remember, the heading was "Most Likely To...", not just "Likely To...") So I prefer to just look at the circumstances where it was possible for him to have actually picked a player and where he did indeed pick a player. That puts it at 4-for-14.
James Kushner is an occasional contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He can be reached at email@example.com.