19 to 21
Baseball 2015

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  John Shiffert has been a sportswriter off-and-on since he was in the 11th grade at Germantown Friends School . . . which is longer ago than he cares to admit. A native Philadelphian currently living in exile outside of Atlanta, he is a member of the Society for American Baseball Research, a true red Phillies fan who is still enjoying re-living the 2008 baseball season, a certifiable history nerd, and the author of three baseball history books, the most recent of which, "Base Ball in Philadelphia," is the story of the game in the City of Brotherly Love from 1831 to 1900. His fourth book, on that very same 2008 baseball season, "The Breaks Even Out and Midnight Comes Quickly for Cinderella," is now available. 

Contact John at jas2baseball@gmail.com

19 to 21... A Review of Baseball History

Volume 13, #11, June 18, 2015

You Never Trade an Ace… Revisited

  The original version of this article was written two years ago. With everyone from Johnny Cueto to Cole Hamels supposedly (and in most cases illogically) on the market, the basic theory is just as true in 2015 as it was in 2013… you never trade a true ace, not if you’re smart, not if you want to get an equitable return for the rarest commodity in baseball.

  While the past has seen aces have traded in what were essentially salary dumps; Lefty Grove (Rabbit Warstler!), Grover Cleveland Alexander (Pickles Dillhoefer!), David Price (Nick Franklin!), etc., you never trade an ace, at least not without getting the short end of the stick. Sure, there are circumstances where it appears as if an ace has to be traded because he won't re-sign with his current team, Price, for example. But, unless forced by such circumstances, a GM should never trade an ace, both because of their rarity, and the impossibility of guaranteeing value in return.

  Thirty home runs hitters? Relatively speaking, a dime a dozen. Guys who can hit .300, still pretty common. Effective leadoff men? All you need is someone who can get on base. Glove whizzes? There are literally dozens of them in the minors. But, aces? Guys who can win 20, pitchers who can go out to the mound every fifth day and overpower a 6-5, 230 pound gorilla with a slider or a 95 MPH fastball or a disappearing circle change? Ah, those are a rare breed; if you have one (or two) and they’re not verging on middle age, keep him, don’t trade him for anything, because the greatest prospect in the world is just that, a prospect, and that’s about the same as buying lottery tickets… a losing gamble.

  You never trade an ace when he’s still an ace, and at the top of his game. Just ask the New York Mets. In 1977, they traded one George Thomas Seaver to the Reds at a time when the stiffs they were otherwise running out to the mound in Shea Stadium amounted to a case of, “If it’s Not Seaver, Warm-Up a Reliever.” In return, they got back Doug Flynn, Steve Henderson, Dan Norman and Pat Zachry, and the Mets finished sixth, sixth, sixth, fifth, fifth, fifth and sixth in the next seven seasons. Then, remarkably, they got Seaver back in 1983, from the Reds, in trade for Jason Felice, Lloyd McClendon and Charlie Puleo. Think the Mets got equal value, or gave up equal value, in either deal? Think the Reds regret letting Seaver go? Think maybe the Reds should recall this stinker of a deal when suitors for Cueto come calling?

  Or ask the Detroit Tigers. Following the 1963 season, they traded their ace, Jim Bunning, to the Phillies for Don Demeter and Jack Hamilton. Demeter had a couple of decent years in the American League, but was out of a job shortly after his 32nd birthday. Hamilton was gone from Detroit in two years, and never did master his control problems, which had him out of the majors when he was 30. Bunning, on the other hand, had four super years with the Phillies, and ended up in the Hall of Fame.

  Of course, Bunning ended up in the Hall of Fame AFTER the Phillies traded him to the Pirates for Harold Clem, Woodie Fryman, Bill Laxton and Don Money. The less said about Clem and Laxton, the better. Fryman was a decent journeyman pitcher and Money was supposed to be one of the great prospects of that era. And, he did become a good player, after the Phillies sent him to the Brewers.

  That move took place during the offseason after Steve Carlton had one of the great years of all time, going 27-10 with a 1.97 ERA and 30 complete games. Where did the Phillies get Carlton from? You know the answer; in an even-up, challenge trade with the Cardinals for Rick Wise. Although this trade was actually ace for ace, since Wise was the Phillies' top pitcher in 1971, it hardly turned out to be equitable. Carlton won 329 games in his storied career, and Wise was merely a good pitcher, winning 188, but only 32 of them with St. Louis.

  One of the contributing factors to the Montreal Expos becoming the late, lamented Montreal Expos is because they traded their ace, the reigning Cy Young Award winner, Pedro Martinez, to the Red Sox after a 1997 season wherein he had led the NL in almost everything, including funny quotes. Martinez would go on to post the best-ever career ERA+ among starting pitchers, and win two more Cy Young awards (while finishing in the top five in the voting four other times) for the Sox.

  The Expos got Carl Pavano and Tony Armas, Jr. (the mediocre pitcher, not the home run hitter) for Petey. Guess how many Cy Young vote points (not awards, points in the voting) those two received? Six, all by Pavano in 2004, when he was with the Marlins anyway.

  Although the Seaver and Martinez trades stand out like all-time steals, the Indians actually win the booby prize for partaking in this strange activity. Between 2002 and 2009, Cleveland managed to divest itself of Bartolo Colon, CC Sabathia and Cliff Lee.

  While the first trade, in 2002 for Colon, can be partially excused because they got Lee in return (along with Brandon Phillips, Grady Sizemore and Lee Stevens – admittedly, Sizemore and Phillips became all-stars, but Phillips did it with the Reds, and Sizemore flamed out early), they then turned around in 2009, the year after Lee won the Cy Young, and shipped him off to the Phillies for Jason Knapp, Carlos Carrasco, Jason Donald and Lou Marson. Only Carrasco, at long last, has shown any signs of being worth anything. And in between those deals, they traded the Brewers into the 2008 post season by accepting Rob Bryson, Zach Jackson, Matt LaPorta and Michael Brantley for the one and only Carsten Charles.

  The next two Cliff Lee trades garnered even less return; the first (Phillies to the Mariners) brought back a wild young pitcher (Phillippe Aumont), and two players who are already toast (Tyson Gillies and J.C. Ramirez), at least as far as the Phillies are concerned. The next Lee trade was from the Mariners to the Rangers, this time for Matthew Lawson, Blake Beavan, Josh Lueke and Justin Smoak. When Carlos Carrasco is the only promising player that the last three Cliff Lee trades have brought back to the trader, well that just goes to show that you won't get a fair return for your ace

  Remember Roger Clemens? He moved around a lot as a free agent, but he was also traded from the Blue Jays to the Yankees. That deal involved Homer Bush, Graeme Lloyd and David Wells. Now, Boomer Wells was a pretty good pitcher, but he wasn't a 350-game winner and with his 4.13 career ERA, he's not going into the Hall of Fame anytime soon.

  Despite all the evidence that you don't get an equitable return for an ace, it keeps happening. Curt Schilling was traded twice, ala Seaver, once to the Diamondbacks (by the Phillies) and once by the Diamondbacks (to the Red Sox). The first deal, coming mid-season in 2000, was close to being the worst one in Phillies' history, since it cost them the 2001 National League East pennant. If you put Schilling back on the Phillies roster for the 2001 season, and give Arizona back Travis Lee, Vicente Padilla, Nelson Figueroa and Omar Daal, then the Phillies easily make up the two games they trailed the Braves at the end of the 2001 season and, as an added lagniappe, and the world champion Diamondbacks don't even make the postseason in 2001.

  Want some more examples? The Twins sent Johan Santana to the Mets for Deolis Guerra, Carlos Gomez, Philip Humber and Kevin Mulvey. Actually, neither team made out well in that one. Zack Greinke from KC to Milwaukee? That was for Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar, Jeremy Jeffress and Jake Odorizzi. Cain (a career 100 OPS+) and Escobar (a career 77 OPS+) are the only two left in KC from that deal. Then, Greinke was traded to the Angels with the main bounty being Jean Segura, he of the 87 career OPS+. And, how about another all-timer, Roy Halladay from Toronto to Philadelphia for Travis d'Arnaud, Kyle Drabek and Michael Taylor. Drabek, with a career 5.27 ERA, has had two Tommy John surgeries, marvelous for someone whose command was lousy to start. Taylor, supposedly another great prospect, has retired. And d'Arnaud, if he can stay healthy (a big if) will be doing whatever he does with the Mets.

  One exception, sort of, to this rule is Randy Johnson. In case you've forgotten, the Big Unit, when he was an ace, was traded three times. All of those deals were heists for the receiving team; in order, the Astros (who at least sent three decent players to the Mariners), Yankees (from the Diamondbacks) and Diamondbacks (from the Yankees).

  Note: The latter two deals were in the same time frame as the two Schilling deals involving Arizona, which proves something about that team's management at that time, but it's hard to say exactly what, except they liked to trade with aces.

  One exception was how Johnson got to Seattle in the first place, before he was the most feared lefty in the game. That was as part of a deal between the Expos and the Mariners that involved Seattle's ace at the time (1989), Mark Langston. If you look up his record, you'll see that Langston was coming off a stretch of five years where he had led the American League in strikeouts three times. However, it is fair to say that Seattle got a good return for its ace, since Johnson, who had barely pitched at all for Montreal, would go on to lead the AL in Ks four times and win the Cy Young award as well for the Mariners. Still, two fair deals for an ace out of the 22 listed (including the first Lee trade as the other exception) is hardly a good batting average; two-for-22 doesn’t even get you to the interstate.

  To circle back around, what brought this all up is the rampant speculation about aces on the move by the forthcoming trade deadline, apparently under the theory that a non-contending team one year has no hope of getting back in contention without divesting itself of its most prized asset. Is that stupid, or what? Maybe the Indians, the New York teams, the Diamondbacks, the Mariners and the Phillies, all of whom seem to be addicted to this form of Russian Roulette, should unload the gun and re-consider, especially the latter team, which has 31 year old ace who would be the perfect player to re-build around.

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19 to 21... A Review of Baseball History

Volume 13, #10, June 15, 2015

Split Seasons

  A suggestion was recently floated in the mainstream media (that’s assuming you consider News Corp. to be “mainstream” anything) that Major League Baseball should consider what some might see as a dramatic, if not drastic, revision of its schedule… in the name of added excitement, additional pennant races, more trading deadlines, overall heightened interest and even (heaven forefend) increased TV ratings.

  What was this radical proposal? A split season.

  The columnist in question, possibly facetiously, possibly not, expressed the desire that his Twitter account not be flooded by tweets suggesting that he had committed some form of sacrilege. As if the Wild Card, interleague play, the DH, video review, three hour long games and the continued failure of the major league game’s popularity in south Florida weren’t sacrilege enough.

  The actual fact is, a split season, that is, dividing the major league season up into two, separate 81 game halves, is less radical a change for the Grand Old Game than say, the DH and interleague play (the latter of which, BTW, would have to go with a split season, due to scheduling issues), which were largely foreign to MLB until some genius(es) thought them up in the 1970s and 1990s.

  What was really remarkable about the recent split season suggestion is that the columnist in question is either totally clueless when it comes to MLB history, and/or he chose to ignore the 1981 season for whatever reason(s)… possibly because both the 1892 season (the first and as yet only planned split season in major league history) and the 1981 season were near-unmitigated disasters; which would kind of weaken his argument.

  To deal with the obvious first; let us not forget the first real strike season, 1981, when baseball took a mid-summer hiatus due to labor problems on a level the likes of which the National Pastime hadn’t seen since the Players League of 1890. (The conjunction in time of the Players League with the 1892 split season is no coincidence, but we’ll discuss that later.) Due to labor unrest among the unwashed masses – this was before all the players were millionaires – MLB took an unplanned two-month vacation from the second week in June (i.e., almost exactly 34 years ago) to the second week in August.

  At the time there was much consternation in terms of how to handle the situation, especially since, initially, no one knew how long the strike would last. (Where was the Taft-Hartley Act when we really needed it?) Would the whole rest of the season go down the drain? (Hello, 1994.) Would there only be a brief respite, as was the case at the start of the 1972 season? Would Marvin Miller be hung in effigy, if not in real life, by the fans? When the mess was finally settled after two months, it was decided to create a split season, somewhat in the tradition of 1892, and to have the first half winners in each division play the second half winners in the first-ever Division Championship Series (Whoopee!)

  This led to, among other things, the best team in the National League not even getting into the postseason. The Reds, with an overall record of 66-42 had more wins than any other NL team, but made the mistake of finishing second in the NL West in each half season. And why did they finish second both times? Because, before the strike they had played one less game than the Dodgers, and thus ended up with a 35-21 record vs. the Dodgers’ 36-21 record. You may have forgotten this, but, rest assured, the fans in Porkopolis haven’t.

  A similar fate befell the Cardinals. They finished a game-and-half behind the Phillies in the first half, despite losing one less game, and then missed out on the second half crown because they had played one less game than the Expos; said late, lamented franchise from north of the border finishing at 30-23 against the Cards 29-23. Rest assured that faithful Cardinals fans, the Jim Hardys of the world, haven’t forgotten that one, either, although a lot of Cubs fans, the Mark Dickens of the world, are still chuckling over this one.

  And while it’s true that the uneven number of games issue wouldn’t come up in a planned split season, what might well come up is what also happened in ’81; the teams that finished first in the first half tanked in the second half (the Phillies finished third in the second half, the Dodgers fourth), since they knew they’d get into the postseason in any case. So much for better competition.

  This is something along the lines of what happened in 1892. That split season came about because the 1890 Players League helped bring about the demise of the American Association after the 1891 season. At the point, several AA owners were willing to sell out, and the National League, taking advantage of its stronger competitive position, bought out four of its AA rivals, and assimilated the rest into what was technically called for the next eight years “the National League and American Association.” Right...

  Whatever it was called, it produced an unwieldy, 12-team league that no one ever seemed to consider breaking up into geographic eastern and western divisions. A couple of other solutions were tried at giving some sort of competitive flavor to the 12-team league. As it was, for various reasons, the NL between 1892 and 1899 never had a really good pennant race.

  The first such solution was the split season of 1892. It failed so miserably that the idea was never seriously floated again. Instead, the NL next tried the Temple Cup Series, pitting the first place team in a championship series against the second place team at year’s end. The first NLCS (Whoopee!) This worked about as well as the split season, since the first place teams figured they had already won the pennant, and tended to tank the Temple Cup Series games.

  So, what exactly happened in the only planned split season in MLB history? Recognizing that split seasons have been for years quite common in the minor leagues, it still appears from the current perspective that the idea just doesn’t work on the major league level, maybe because the minors now exist to feed the majors, and not to provide first-rate pennant races, although that does happen from time-to-time.

  The season was divided into two championships, the first to end on July 15 and the second to end in mid-October. The number of games was also increased from 140 to 154. Attendance was down in many cities, notably New York, where the Giants got off to a bad start. Apparently, the possibility of a second half half pennant didn’t excite New Yorkers.

  The team that was hot throughout the year were the Bostons, known at that time as the Beaneaters. They won the first half championship and finished three games out of first in the second half, coincidentally becoming the first MLB team to win 100 games in a season.

  The Cleveland Spiders won the second half, and were said to be, according to the next year’s Reach Guide, “extremely anxious to meet the champions of the first series.” However, the 1893 Reach Guide continued, “Boston expressed an unwillingness to play any such games. They alleged that an impression prevailed among baseball patrons in their city that their team had not tried to win the second series in order that they might, in that way, secure the financial benefit which would arise out of a subsequent struggle for the Championship of the United States.”

  Hmmm…

  However, league officials insisted that, as planned, the series take place, in this case a best-out-of-nine affair, with the first three in Cleveland, the second three in Boston and the last three, for some reason, in New York. Maybe it was thought that the New York games would give a better gate. One thing was for certain, the games that were played didn’t draw especially well.

  The opener was, at least, a famous and notable event, as the Beaneaters Jack Stivetts dueled Cy Young to a 0-0, 11-inning tie in front of less than 6000 fans. (Legend has it that Boston ace Kid Nichols hooked up in this game with Young. Nope, it was Stivetts.) After that, the entire enterprise went downhill, especially for the Spiders, who lost the next four games, 4-3, 3-2, 4-0 and 8-3, before crowds reported as “almost 7000,” 6000, 3466, and 1812. That’s an average of about 4800 per game. And while that’s about twice what a good regular season crowd was in this era, let us not forget that big games, not championships games but regular games between the top teams, were drawing upwards of 20,000 as far back as the 1860s.

  What was the upshot of the 1892 season? Again, we turn to the 1893 Reach Guide

  “The clubs have this year acknowledged their error in both the double championship and the lengthened season by abolishing both. This year (1893) there will be one continuing season beginning late in April and ending about the first of October."

  It’s also worth noting that attendance did increase in 1893 without the split season, mainly because the pitching distance was increased to 60½ feet, and the pitchers box was eliminated in favor of what is now the rubber. That resulted in greatly increased hitting and attendance.

  This is not to say that split season won’t work in terms of generating more interest, just that it didn’t work in the past, and baseball would do better to look at other remedies, maybe in terms of ditching now-outmoded changes like interleague play and the DH, or maybe by adapting to the immediacy of the 140 character generation, who tweet their complaints in those terms.