Archive for August, 2006

“The Trade”

Tuesday, August 29th, 2006

It was a trade that shocked the team, it was a trade that shocked the fan base, and some around the league scratched their head at its intent. Some laughed, and yet some got ready for the opportunity it would provide. The fact was the Reds were coming off a losing season, a season where the offense of the departing player might have helped, but never the less it didn’t do anything to push them over the top and into a winning record, a feat that the franchise had been finding hard to hold onto.

But why would a team jettison a starter who could hit for a middle reliever, a middle infielder who once was a Cardinal (The Horror) and a question mark? What would the receiving team say about the injured players arm, what would the medical tests say?

It made little sense… or did it?

I’m not kicking around Krivsky’s trade of Lopez and Kearns; instead I’m focusing on a trade that occurred 45 years ago, a trade that occurred out of nowhere, a trade that was made to help the team that season, a trade that when you look at didn’t help at all and eventually it didn’t matter, because the Reds succeeded despite its failure.

April 27, 1961
Traded Ed Bailey to the San Francisco Giants. Received a player to be named later, Bob Schmidt, and Don Blasingame. The San Francisco Giants later sent Sherman Jones to the Cincinnati Reds to complete the trade.

Ed Bailey was a fan favorite, a slugging catcher whose slow southern drawl was a good fit in a town that bordered the south. His bat made his reputation, and somehow in the midst of that he was known as possessing a strong arm. However the prior three years to the 1961 season had shown a rise in stolen bases and a drop in home runs, the game was changing. As was the Reds front office, Bill DeWitt was a Rickey man, which meant that he valued youth and speed, something that Ed Bailey had neither of. On April 15th Ed Bailey paid his taxes like every other American, he also turned 30, which in the world of Rickey men was the proverbial “coach into a pumpkin” moment. Sensing a change in Bailey as well as the speed game DeWitt traded Bailey to the Giants (A team that was picked to finish ahead of the Reds) for a 30-year-old middle infielder Don Blasingame (Law #1 Rickey men would often bend their own rules to fix holes) a catcher who had just turned 28 five days before the trade and a middle reliever.

A real head scratcher to many Reds fans, the season was early, surely there must time? Surely there had to be better deals out there, like a starting pitcher.

After all the Reds were 5-7 and in the pre-season Sporting News query, none of the over 200 baseball writers asked had picked the Reds to finish 1st, surely the move was made too soon, it smacked of desperation.

A month after the trade it looked like a wasted move, the replacement (Bob Schmidt) for the departing Bailey was bust, whereas Bailey had a bat that the Reds could count on Schmidt had no such thing, compiling a putrid .140/.229/.140 batting line in the month of May. Meanwhile rookie catcher Jerry Zimmerman who was earmarked as the backup was pushed into a role he wasn’t ready for, after Schmidt produced a line of .095/.208/.238 in June he was sent down and replaced by 23 year old Johnny Edwards who split the year with Zimmerman, the Reds catchers that season produced a .534 OPS, a huge drop from the .704 that Bailey and company had produced the prior year.

To compound matters the centerpiece of the trade for the Reds was 2nd Baseman Don Blasingame a man who up until 1960 had produced a robust .341 on base percentage in the National League, unfortunately his bat never made it to Cincinnati. Don batted as poorly as he ever would in the game and his .222/.287/.286/.573 line would have Reds fans pining away for Billy Martin, the man who was the first to go in Dewitt’s attempt to reshape the Reds when he took over in the late fall of 1960. The middle reliever (Sherman Jones) didn’t do to well either, appearing in only 55 innings that season and surrendering 2 home runs in his first appearance in a Reds uniform. The next year would be his last as he experienced the ultimate insult, being cut from the expansion New York Mets. In fact in two years the other two acquired players would be toiling for the Senators, the American Leagues answer to the Mets at the time.

From the onset it was an odd trade, from the Reds point of view it was not only odd, but a bad trade, they lost a steady starter with pop and got nothing to build on, Blasingame ended up being known as the man who was moved aside for Pete Rose, and essentially in the eyes of Reds fans he’s the Wally Pip of Reds lore. Meanwhile the starting catcher that the Giants were obtaining began to show his warts, namely a bum arm and declining batting skills. Bailey produced his lowest on base percentage and power numbers as a starter, but it was his arm that worried the Giants, the league was changing running was sneaking back into the offense of many teams and with that occurring the need to have a healthy arm behind the plate was an important need, especially if the team to the south was going to run on you every time the chance arose. In hopes of finding a problem with Bailey’s wing x-rays were taken, but alas nothing was found. Bailey’s descent was more or less natural. The Rickey men had forecasted his path and 1961 would be the last year that Ed was a fulltime catcher.

In the end the Reds would jump from a .435 winning percentage in 1960 to first place and a .604 winning percentage in 1961, cementing that team in the hearts of the locals who had been patiently waiting for a championship of any kind since 1941, the odd trade faded into the background and the players involved followed shortly after. Meanwhile the Reds and Giants would do battle the following year with the Dodgers, neither missing the men that had been such a major part of “The Trade.”

More Monday Minutiae

Monday, August 21st, 2006

Sometimes too much really can be too much.

Too much of one thing is not a good thing, at least when it comes to a weakness that stretches across the diamond.

Bill James wrote that a team is best to avoid having too many players who have the same weakness. Eventually if a team is loaded with too many slow players a player who is not fast will be forced into a situation that demands speed, or say a team has too many poor defensive players; eventually one of them will be leveraged in a position that can’t handle the strain of a poor defensive player.

From these situations we often find the result to be disastrous.

In the Reds case it seems the weakness that plagued the lineup at times last season and thus the new front office was the offensive strikeout, or shall I say, the Reds hitters tendency to strikeout.

Your 2005 Reds Strikeout leaders

Strikeouts                       SO       BB       PA
Adam Dunn                   	168      114      671
Wily Mo Pena                	116       20      335
Felipe Lopez                	111       57      648
Austin Kearns               	107       48      448
Jason LaRue                 	101       41      422
Ken Griffey Jr.              	 93       54      555

Last season the Reds were 7 strikeouts in Ken Griffey Jr.’s strikeout column from having six players with 100 or more strikeouts, this season it’s likely that they will only have one. Currently Dunn leads the team with 144; in second place is a guy who only batted for the Reds in games prior to the All Star Game (Kearns with 85), in 4th place with 66 is another ex-Red Felipe Lopez.

With the emergence of Ross and the receding of Larue’s plate appearances added to Griffey’s current pace it looks as though Dunn could be the only Red with 100 strikeouts this season.

That’s quite a drop from the 5 players last season.

The debate of the significance of a strikeout vs. another out is not the issue of this meandering, what’s interesting is the application of the aforementioned James principle and that’s simply the Reds refusal to ride into a game with two-thirds of the lineup capable of striking out anywhere from 1 every 3 at bats to 1 time every 5 at bats. The truth is that many stat guys (many who are much like me) will dispute the Reds approach by pointing out that the Red Sox have had 4 players who struck out over 100 times in each of the last 2 seasons.

While this is correct on both counts it also fails to recognize that the Red Sox play in a ball park that increase batting average and thus they can also could boast that in 2004 3 of the players averaged .31 points above the leagues batting average and the other one was only .07 below the average. The following season all four of the Red Sox strikeout leaders combined to beat the league batting average by .19. In the meantime only one of the Reds 100 K hitters hit above the league average (Lopez .23) the other three averaged .19 under the league average. There has to be a payoff for the player that strikes out over 100 times, and part of it has to be in what happens when they do connect.

It’s quite possible that Larue will be gone before next season; this would leave the Reds with only one from the five above, a scant 2 seasons after they achieved the dubious distinction. Meanwhile over on the Atlantic seaboard it looks as though the Reds Sox will be reducing their numbers as well, perhaps only having three hitters this season who hit the century mark in strikeouts.

However this will probably change if they give more time to Wily Mo Pena.

Say it slow, say it loud.

The above numbers represent the number of games that the Reds finished under .500 the past 5 seasons. That’s an average of 17 games a season and 4 of them were above double digits.

In 2003 the Reds finished last in fielding, 2nd to last in pitching and 14th in hitting. The team didn’t spend one day of the whole season in first place, in 2004 they spent 39 days in first, but didn’t sniff it after June 12th. IN 2005 the Reds spent 4 days in first place, in April and never sniffed it again after 4-17.

Currently the Reds are doing their best to mirror the 1984 Royals and achieve success in a season despite a negative run differential. This is all happening despite a radical roster turnover and questionable pitching depth.

  • A year ago the Reds were 22 games back and were 56- 67
  • Two years ago the Reds were 58-63 and 21.5 games back
  • Three years ago the Reds were 56-69 and 9.5 games back
  • Four years ago the Reds were 63-61 and 6.5 games back
  • Five years ago the Reds were 49-75 and 22 games back.
  • Today they sit at 64-60 and 2.5 games back.

The numbers to beat are 30-6-24-10-16.

There’s no easy way to lose your sight
On the street, on the stairs
Who’s on your flight
Old couple walks by, as ugly as sin
But he’s got her and she’s got him

Never say never

Digging through my old Bill James Abstracts and his book “This Time Let’s not Eat the Bones.” I came across the subject of the Royals, a subject that James has great passion about, much like I have about the Reds and much like most of the folks I talk baseball with have. In the wake of the Reds new owners and management I found Bill’s comments on the Royals to be interesting to say the least, especially concerning the team and the upcoming 1984 season, a season that looked doomed on the heels of the horrible 1983 season (Drug Trials). Much of Bill’s chagrin can be seen as being aimed directly at The Royals general manager John Schuerholz, a man who spent his time in the player development section of the Royals organization during their successful run in the late 1970’s, a run that cumulated with an appearance in the 1980 World Series, which they lost. After the series Schuerholz took over as the Royals general manager and following a 90 win season in 1982 the 1983 Royals finished under .500 for the first time since 1974 (under Jack McKeon).

It was after that season in his 1984 Baseball Abstract that James wrote the following about the 3rd year GM Schuerholz.

At this point in his career John Schuerholz has yet to try anything that has worked.

James continues to dissect the moves made by the Royals and the pattern of bringing in veterans to plug holes. His disdain for this method is real, it’s something that he feels is wrong, to his very core and something he has no qualms about stating. He obviously has no confidence in John Schuerholz as he states, The pathetic thing about John Schuerholz is that he fancies himself a gambler, but a gambler is in fact, exactly what he’s not.

Bill drags his real feelings of the Royals current plight to the surface when he declares.

A return to the top of the division in the next 3-4 years is all but out of the question.

Fade to black…

Fade in from black…

The 1984 Royals finished 84-78 and in first place.

All despite a negative run differential, thus becoming the first team to ever win a title of any type in major league history with more runs allowed then scored, in short they were special and what I mean when I say “special” is more a special that has to do more with being peculiar then being unique enough to want to emulate.

In honor of that Royals team and their accomplishment James entitled his chapter on the Royals in the 1985 Baseball Abstract as “Competitive Mediocrity” asserting that a team that achieves a feat similar to the Royals as being “over efficient.” In the 1985 Abstract James focuses his Royals essay on the teams main hitting weakness, getting on base, in short their inability to draw walks. The 1984 Royals walked only 400 times as a team, dead last in a league that had 14 teams. In this long study on walks and the power of avoiding outs James fails to mention the man who plagued him so the year before, he however creates a tome to the power of the walk in the game that should be read by any fan of the game who tends to think of them more as a gift then a hitters tool.

Later in the study James lists the ten teams that are most similar to the 1984 Royals team, this is done in attempt to prove that the teams overachievement would most likely not transfer into the next season. This is despite the presence of several Phillies teams from the mid 70’s and the top of the list was graced by the 1979 Phillies, a fact that isn’t lost on James as he states, Anyway the Phillies the next year after that, won the World Series, which is meaningless but you can base a hope on anything if you want to.

Fade to black…

Fade in from black…

Late January 1985

Jim Sundberg traded by Milwaukee Brewers to Kansas City Royals as part of 4-team trade

* Kansas City Royals sent Don Slaught to Texas Rangers.
* Kansas City Royals sent Frank Wills to New York Mets.
* New York Mets sent Tim Leary to Milwaukee Brewers.
* Texas Rangers sent Danny Darwin to Milwaukee Brewers.
* Texas Rangers sent Bill Nance to Milwaukee Brewers.

The acquisition of a 33-year-old catcher and the departure of a 25-year-old catcher was perhaps the epiphany that James needed to better understand his feelings towards Schuerholz and the Royals approach to building a team.

In his Don Slaught piece he wrote:

The five most reasonable explanations that I can think of why anyone would trade Don Slaught for Jim Sundberg:

1. Don Slaught is a secret hemophiliac and his hobby is playing with chainsaws.
2. Don Slaught likes to jump out of airplanes and frequently forgets to put on his mask before the start of the inning.
3. Don Slaught made a pass at Ewing Kaufmanns wife.
4. Don Slaught made a pass at Ewing Kaufmann.
5. Don Slaught’s agent carries a razor.

If none of these conditions apply, then I really don’t understand the trade.

Looking at a player over 30 and the player who is 25 the Branch Rickey in most of us will lean towards the younger player, especially the one who squats for a living. James of course was perplexed; it went against the grain of what he had determined to be the proper way to build a winning baseball team, the way that he spent a good part of his life mulling over. Rather then rant and rave and declare stupidity in every hallway of Royals Stadium he made a statement that most likely sums up what many Reds fans feel about the moves that Wayne Krivsky has made this season.

James wrote the following after laying out the reality of Don Slaught the player (not going to be a star) and the reality of Sundberg the player (solid, respectable catcher, but over 30):

It was, rather, this: the unavoidable acceptance that I am, as a fan, rooting for an organization whose philosophies are diametrically opposed to my own, not only the question of whether you succeed, but to the question of how you succeed.

Perhaps, in the eighties, the Royals’ organization will teach me differently. Will teach me that success comes from cashing in the raw material of potential for the hard wealth of established talent. I’m afraid I shall find this lesson hard to enjoy.

To find a season that the Royals as a staff had a better ERA then they did in 1985 you’d have to go back to 1978, the 1985 Royals team won 91 games and came back from a 3 games to 1 deficit in the Division Championship and swept the lat 3 games, the last two on the road. To enrich it even more the Royals only allowed 5 runs in the final three games. To ensure the world that it wasn’t a fluke they came back from a similar deficit against the Cardinals and won the final three games of the World Series, this time only allowing 2 runs in the last three Royal wins.

Eighteen months after Bill declared in the 1984 Baseball Abstract that the Royals had no chance of finishing in the top of their division in the next 2-3 years they had two American League West Titles, a AL Championship and their first World Championship. Clearly it was evident that sometimes even the best baseball analysts sometimes swing and miss, sometimes they go on bad streaks and make poor decisions. Nobody is infallible in baseball, not the guys on the field, not the guys holding the radar gun behind home plate, the guys announcing the game and least of all not the guys who spend their lives trying to figure out a game that gripped them and likely will never let them go.

Like most great minds Bill was able to admit he was wrong and this summation, in his essay “The History of being a Kansas City Baseball Fan” covers his feelings on what he had written:

In view of the success of the Royals over the last two seasons, it is incumbent upon me to consider whether my remarks at the time were unfair to Schuerholz. I don’t honestly know. The thing is I don’t really know what within the offices at Royals Stadium. But John Schuerholz has to be given credit for what he has done. It’s a simple game; if you win you deserve credit for it. John Schuerholz has built the Royals into one of the best teams in baseball

In 2006 we all know the story of both these men, both went on to greater success and both proved to have a firm grip on how to build a baseball team, both even have a World Series ring that reflects that knowledge and its application in the real world.

Life’s funny, I bet 20 years ago when James penned his mea culpa he had no idea that one day he would be working on the side of the game he currently resides in. But then again he didn’t think the Royals had a chance in hell of getting where they got to way back in 1984 and 1985.

As for where they are at today, I’m fairly certain he has an opinion about that.