Star Crashes II

October 3, 2013

The Angels’ free agent purchases of the perennial MVP candidates Albert Pujols and Josh Hamilton were supposed to guarantee a play-off spot, if not a division leading pass to the ALDS. It didn’t work out that way. 

Have there been any other teams who had comparable hitting stars flop so in the same season? Going through the histories of the players I found with comparable hitting flops in Part I, I did find four other teams with two flops in the same year. One team had three. 

The Cincinnati Reds were the final champions of the dead ball era (1919), and they might actually have been the best team in history up to that point in time. I know that sounds absurd, as they didn’t have any sort of dynasty and had only one Hall of Fame player and a couple of holes in their line-up. 

However, History has overlooked this team because they were handed the World Series by the "Black Sox" and they only won 96 games during their great season. That was a war-shortened season. Their W-L record pro-rates to 106 wins in 154 games (111 wins in a 162 game schedule). That still isn’t as outstanding as the 1906 Cubs or the 1909 Pirates, but over a decade of small improvements to baseball strategies, training, etc., it is plausible these Reds would have topped those earlier teams if they had come back to life after 1919. 

Their top players—Edd Roush (the Hall of Famer) and Heine Groh—were under-heralded stars having to bat in a stadium with 348’ and 393’ foul lines. The major leagues started using only clean baseballs the next year and banned anyone from using the spitball who wasn’t already an established spitball pitcher. Perhaps, these 1919 Reds were the ultimate deadball era team that failed to adapt to the Babe Ruth era.  

This story is not about Roush and Groh, though. Unfortunately, the Reds had a gradual descent throughout the 1920’s. They averaged 95 losses a year from 1930 to1932. Cincinnati was run by an auto and real estate wheeler-dealer named Sidney Weil and they relied on his wheeling and dealing of players; in fact, they had no farm team. Weil did make a few excellent trades (snaring young future Hall of Famer Ernie Lombardi) and a few bad ones, but it is difficult to judge his performance as this was the depression and many trades were made for financial reasons.  

The St. Louis Cardinals not only had a farm system, they had the General Manager who invented the farm system: Branch Rickey. Another thing Rickey was famous for was his preference for trading players before their 30th birthday rather than after. And so, Rickey dealt his top two hitting stars to Cincinnati in the early 1930’s First, 29-year-old Chick Hafey in 1932, then 32-year-old Jim Bottomley in 1933. Both had been fine hitters with the Cardinals, at least one season with an OPS over 1.000 and multiple .900+ seasons. 

With the Reds, Hafey hit a ripe .869 in ’32, but both sluggers fell below .780 in ’33.This was a case of aging ballplayers coupled with moving to parks that favored pitchers. The Reds lost 94 games in 1933, then followed the next year with 99 losses. They did, however, return to the World Series in 1939 and won a World Championship in 1940. By then, Hafey and Bottomley were long gone. 

The Brooklyn Robins went through a gradual decline after their 1920 World Series appearance. As with the Reds, the franchise got even worse in the ‘30s before they got better. They were so bad that in 1937—their fifth of six straight losing seasons—their average attendance was 6,000.  They hadn’t made a profit since 1930, Ebbets Field was crumbling, and thousands of seats remained unrepaired. They had officially renamed themselves the Dodgers, but the New York World-Telegram cartoonist Willard Mullin portrayed them as a bum—and Bums became their unofficial nickname. 

N.L. President Ford Frick tried to get Branch Rickey to take over the running of the Dodgers. He turned it down initially, but recommended Larry MacPhail, who was coming off some success from revitalizing Cincinnati MacPhail immediately transformed the Dodgers. The current Dodger blue began that year (1938) along with thorough stadium repairs, new concession stands, and a much friendlier staff of ushers replacing the thuggish bouncers. To Brooklyn, MacPhail not only brought night games, but broke the New York radio broadcast silence, and eventually brought baseball’s first televised game. That first Brooklyn night game, by the way, was Johnny Vander Meer’s 2nd of back-to-back no-hitters. As you would expect, attendance at Ebbets Field more than doubled over the year. 

On the talent side, MacPhail’s first stroke of brilliance for the Bums was to get the Phillies to trade their hitting star, Dolf Camilli, on the cheap as he was having a contract squabble. Camilli was one 31-year-old who didn’t come back with a third consecutive 1.000+ OPS season (.440+ OBPs), but did continue to hit in the mid .800s to mid .900s until he was 36. 

Attendance and win totals continued to rise in 1939 and it was in 1940 that MacPhail snagged a couple of minor league free agents that further improved the team: shortstop Pee Wee Reese and outfielder Pete Reiser. The Bums finished in 2nd place to MacPhail’s previous team, Cincinnati. 

Meanwhile, the 1937 Triple Crown winner Joe "Ducky" Medwick was unhappy only getting paid $20,000 by the stingy Cardinals. He continued to lead the league in RBI and doubles in ’38—for the third year in a row—but was rewarded for his continued excellence with a 10% pay cut. Finally, in June of ’40 with Medwick experiencing his fourth consecutive decline in hitting, Branch Rickey was traded the 28-year-old to Brooklyn with veteran starter Curt Davis for four players and $125,000  

Medwick was good enough to be a deserving all-star in 1941, but his hitting continued to drop in 1942 against war thinned pitching staffs. He hit only four home runs after averaging 20 his previous years. He did bat .300 and received another all-star berth, but his low walk totals (5%) kept his OPS to a mere .742. He was even worse in ’43. then traded to the Giants in ‘’44, where he came back to a modest degree, then reduced to part time as players started coming back from the war in ’45. 

In Medwick’s last impactful season (’41), the Dodgers won the pennant. In 1942, the U.S. drafted third baseman Cookie Lavagetto for the war. MacPhail responded by trading a quartet of marginally useful players to the Pirates for 29-year-old future Hall of Fame shortstop Arky Vaughn. Especially after that trade, it was assumed Brooklyn would return to the World Series. It was after the ’41 Series, in which a passed ball allowed the championship to slip away and that the phrase "wait ‘till next year" started. 

However, Vaughn was hobbled by injuries in ’41, then suffered a concussion from an exhibition game on August 30th. In ’42, thirty-year-old Vaughn had by far his worse season. After averaging nearly a .900 OPS the previous 9 years, he hit .689. Even with the hugely disappointing seasons from Medwick and Vaughn, the Dodgers still managed to win 104 games. It’s just that those penny pinching Branch Rickey Cardinals won 105. 

At the end of the season, MacPhail resigned. His replacement? As you know, it was Branch Rickey. St. Louis came back with another 105 wins in ’43, while the Dodgers went into a rapid decline brought upon to a large degree by Rickey saving money with a ruthless rebuilding movement. Vaughn rebounded to a .783 season in ’43, but did not get along with manager Leo Durocher. He even quit one day over something Durocher said in the press about one of his teammates Bobo Newsom. The team sided with Vaughn. Rickey talked all of the team except Vaughn back into playing, and by the end of the game had Vaughn back in the dugout as well. Vaughn retired at the end of the year, at age 31. (He did come back in ’47 at age 35 for two seasons as a part-time player.) The Rickey rebuild worked as the Dodgers returned to the World Series in ’47 for ten more times over the next 20 years. 

The 1999 Texas Rangers produced their best record up to that point in history (95-67). The teams’ stars were catcher Ivan Rodriguez (age 27) and sluggers Rafael Palmeiro (34) and Juan Gonzalez (29). In a strong supporting role were outfielder Rusty Greer (30) and relievers John Wettleland (32), and rookie Jeff Zimmerman (26). Todd Zeile (33) was a nice pick-up, helping them at third-base. Rick Helling (28) and Aaron Sele (29) were the only starters with either 200 innings or an ERA below 5.00, but remember that this was a hitter’s era in a hitter’s park. Royce Clayton (29) had the best year of his 16-year career. In other words, this was a team that won because everyone peaked generally at the same time. 

The Rangers dropped below .500 the next year. Free agent Kenny Rogers replaced free agent Sele in the rotation, but Jeff Zimmerman could not reproduce his fantastic rookie season. A three-way trade with Montreal and Toronto proved to be a major upgrade at first-base (shared with DH Palmeiro) from Lee Stevens to David Segui. 

Meanwhile, Juan Gonzalez was traded to Detroit for a package that included Frank Catalanotto, Gabe Kapler, and Francisco Cordero (who proceeded to have one of his worst years). Zeile departed as a free agent. The plan was to have their top prospects Ruben Mateo and Mike Lamb step in as Gonzalez’s and Zeile’s replacements. (Mateo would play center and Kapler play right.) However, Mateo broke his leg after two months and Lamb’s progress at the major league level went slower than hoped. 

The next year (2001), the Rangers slapped down by far the biggest contract ever up to that time ($252 million for ten years) for Alex Rodriguez. You can never be sure about anything in baseball, and, sure enough, the Rangers finished below .500 again. Rogers had his most disastrous season. Wetteland retired. (He had an awful 2000, anyway.) Zimmerman came back, but other than starters Rick Helling and Doug Davis, the entire pitching staff was awful (including rookie R.A. Dickey and 30-year-old starter Darren Oliver). Ruben Mateo lived up to his rookie promise. 

After hitting over .925 OPS in ’96 and ’97 and reaching .898 in ’99, Rusty Greer was now steadily sinking to .795. Even I-Rod seemed to have passed his peak already. Way too many at-bats were given to Ricky Ledee in both 2000 and 2001. This was Michael Young’s rookie season, but he didn’t blossom until his third year. The veterans were aging and the oh-so-promising prospects were struggling to replace them. 

So, in 2002 the Rangers tried bringing back their winning magic by signing their old hitting star Juan Gonzalez, who was then a free agent. Juan Gone had just completed his 7th season of hitting over .900 OPS. Two of those were over 1.000. He was still only 32. 

They further bolstered their line-up by trading for the troublesome 30-year-old outfielder from the Red Sox, Carl Everett. (He was so troublesome that Boston accepted Darren Oliver, whose infrequent good years produced 200 innings of league average pitching. Oliver wouldn’t become a reliable sub-3.00 reliever for another 5 or 6 years.). Everett had hit .969 and .959 OPS in 1999 and 2000. As a first-round-pick center fielder—you could say he was a poor man’s Josh Hamilton. 

The season didn’t work out as planned. In fact, the 2002 Rangers were the only team to have three players in my Stumped Sluggers Under-35 study. Neither Gonzalez nor Everett nor Greer hit above .780. I don’t know what to say about admitted steroids user Ralf Palmeiro at 37 still producing a .972 OPS. Kenny Rogers came back to have a good year, but Doug Davis had a bad year. Rick Helling left as a free agent, but a better free agent pitcher Ismael Valdez replaced him. Jeff Zimmerman had an elbow injury that led to two Tommy John surgeries. He never pitched in the majors again. Cordero, in the meantime, developed into an excellent closer. However, manager Jerry Narron wasted a couple of months using free agent Hidecki Irabu as his closer. The Rangers had another losing season (72-90). Narron was fired. 

In their history, the New York Mets have veered wildly between free-spending and internal talent development. In the year 2000, they faced their city rivals in the World Series, but lost in five games. That team was led mostly by a bunch of players acquired by trade, where new G.M. Steve Phillips (replacing his mentor Joe McIlvaine) was willing to take on the more expensive players: Mike Piazza, Mike Hampton, Al Leiter, Robin Ventura, and Armando Benitez. Just one star player was developed by the Mets: Edgardo Alfonzo.  

The Mets flopped the next year to 82-80, then had three losing seasons in a row. Most of the Met’s core was on the wrong side of 30. Alfonzo departed as a free agent and had an incredibly rapid decline. Ventura, who was already old, was traded for the even older Dave Justice, who was flipped for the even older Mark Guthrie. Mike Hampton left as a free agent—a famously expensive bust for Colorado. Benitez was sold to the Yankees for three prospects—none of whom panned out. Of their biggest established stars of this sad team Mike Piazza was 36 and pitchers Al Leiter and Tom Glavine were 38. 

However, the Mets had two emerging 21-year-old stars to build around: David Wright and Jose Reyes. For whatever reason, they also decided to go for broke in the free agent game that winter. First, they signed Pedro Martinez, then Carlos Beltran, a center-fielder with back to back .900+ OPS seasons and 162 stolen bases over five years with a relatively minuscule 15 times caught (92% success rate!). Both were postseason heroes. Martinez had posted a 6-2 career record, while Beltran had a 1.252 career post season OPS including 1.500+ for Houston the previous year. Best of all, he was only 27. 

The Mets did improve to 83-79 the next year. Martinez was stellar as usual. Glavine had another good year in him as did 32-year-olds Cliff Floyd and Mike Cameron. Wright and Reyes got better, but Beltran disappointed. No worries. Beltran had the best year of his career in 2006 and the Mets won their division. Picking up 33-year-old Carlos Delgado in a salary dump helped quite a bit. Martinez was doing fine until he slipped and injured his hip. This apparently cascaded into a torn calf and a torn rotator cuff.  He never had another season over 109 innings. 

The Metropolitan Club of New York managed to follow with two straight second- place finishes of 88, then 89, wins—not quite good enough to make the play-offs. The ’07 team squeezed one last season out of .916 hitting Moises Alou. He was among five 40+ year olds on that team. Glavine was 41. So were Sandy Alomar and Jeff Conine. Then there was Julio Franco still playing at 48. (The latter three were not all on the team at the same time. Conine was acquired after Franco was released. Alomar was called up whenever one of the other catchers was hurt.) The ’08 team stayed afloat another year by continuing to capitalize on poorer teams’ sell-offs. They took on Johan Santana in exchange for four prospects of which Carlos Gomez and Phillip Humber have each managed to turn in one very good season—neither of which were for Minnesota, who sent Santana to New York.  

In 2009 with a new ballpark, the Mets acquired another 40-year-old released the previous year by Detroit: Gary Sheffield. Their big free agent signing that year was Francisco Rodriguez. However, aging, retirement, and injuries (which usually go together) blew holes in their ship which could not be patched. They sank to 71-92.  

Finally, we come to the Mets 2010 double whammy of disappointing sluggers. The next big spending New York Mets free agent was 31-year-old Jason Bay—fresh from a .921 season for Boston. In fact, his six-season career OPS was .896. For the Mets, he put up only .749—and only worse ever since. Carlos Beltran had knee surgery that January. He didn’t return to the Mets until July 15, and he hit .768 that year. Yet, the Mets managed to improve to 79-83 thanks to comebacks from young starter Mike Pelfrey and the ’09 injured star shortstop Jose Reyes, as well as the emergence of knuckballing R. A. Dickey. Neither David Wright nor Johan Santana had one of their better years, but they certainly continued to make well above-average contributions. 

Since then, the Mets have finally jumped off the treadmill of living off 30-something free agents and salary dump exploitations. Instead, they traded Beltran to the Giants a few months before his contract expired for the 11th-rated prospect in the game (Baseball America): Zach Wheeler—a pitcher who is making a nice contribution this year. They let Reyes go as a free agent and became salary dump sellers, offering Dickey to the Blue Jays for some blue chip prospects (Noah Syndergaard and Travis d’Arnaud). They may be headed for their 5th straight sub-.500 fourth place finish, but, at least, they are saving money and building a pool of talent. Meanwhile, David Wright is still around (only 30) and leading the team with a .904 OPS.


Are Pujols and Hamilton the greatest pair of disappointing sluggers of all time? Well, some of these duos fell further—much further, but I don’t see any who fell from such a height of expectations. We know there is a fair chance they can come back, but their chances of recovering to their previous greatness is low. The Angels reputedly have one of the weakest farm systems, but they do have what appears to be a Willie Mays-level super star in Mike Trout, who just turned 22. They also have the financial resources to prop up their team with expensive old players—just as the Mets and Rangers did before they learned better. 

On the other hand, Trout is young enough that the Angels can focus on improving their scouting and player development to build a longer-lasting great team and still have Trout contribute to that glory. It is highly doubtful that either Pujols or Hamilton will still be around for that era.


COMMENTS (12 Comments, most recent shown first)

The Historical Abstract states that 1919 was a shortened season because the owners were losing money on the April games and decided to eliminate some of them.
1:55 AM Nov 26th
How about the GM: Anthopoulos!
11:38 PM Oct 7th
Good thing this isn't an actual team:

C Saltalamacchia
1B Teixeira
2B Schoendienst
SS Vaughan (yeah, Arky) :-)
3B Groh
OF Yastrzemski (I don't think 1 fan in 3 can spell it)
OF Fukudome
OF Boesch
P Blyleven
P Hershiser
P Pettitte
P Kamieniecki
P Coveleskie
RP Sutter (harder than it looks)
RP Righetti
RP Rzepczynski
MGR Piniella (ditto)

2:20 AM Oct 7th
Eye em agassed to four yer miss steaks. - Boob Gray Gory
8:57 PM Oct 5th
I, two, twotally dissrespect yew for mspellingss.
7:29 PM Oct 5th
Oh, and I am sincerely sorry about the misspellings. I hope I don't have any in the long entry below. I meant to check, but it is late and I sleepily pressed Post.
1:52 AM Oct 5th
Actually, I did originally mention the '86 Mets, but we cut it out to get to the 2000s Mets leading up to the impact of the multiple hitting stars who stopped hitting. The story meandered too much. I mentioned that the '86 had a stronger claim to "greatest team of all-time up to that point in time" than the 1919 Reds. Their fade to black wasn't as drastic as you imply. They won 92 games the next year - that's not an unexpected regression. Then they won 100 games in '88 - hardly fading at all. Then, they started to show signs the dynasty was over dropping to 87 wins in '89 and 91 wins in '90. It was the next few years, that they really fell apart - losing 103 games in 1993.

We think of the '86 team as a dynasty that would last because their two biggest stars were Gooden who was only 21 and Strawberry who was just 24. Among other major contributors: Lenny Dykstra and Sid Fernandez were only 23. Rick Aguilera was 24 and Ron Darling was 25. However, the rest of the key players were 30 or older. Strawberry had a hugely disappointing year in '89, came back OK in '90, then departed as a free agent. The Mets were wise to let him go. He had one more good year before six years in a row of fewer than 65 games in each year. Dykstra was squandered away in a bad trade for Juan Samuel (but that's assuming Dykstra would have had the same career if he stayed with the Mets). The Mets at that point was being run by G.M. Al Harazin - reknown for building the “worse team money can buy”. His willing to spend Wilpon and Doubleday’s money netted Eddie Murray at age 36, Willie Randolf (37), Dick Schofield (a rapidly declining 29 year old), Bobby Bonilla (29), Bill Pecota (32), Vince Coleman (also past his prime at 29), Dave Gallagher (31), Bret Saberhagen (28, but long past his days of pitching over 200 innings/year), and Frank Tanana (39). He made some good deals (John Franco), but on the balance he just kept the Mets on a tread mill that they couldn't keep up with. Dwight Gooden was kept and he pitched well through 1993 - just not at the superstar level he had during his first three years (age 19-21) 1984-1986. In '96, the Yankees signed Gooden, but he was never had another full season close to his '87-'93 level the rest of his career. Just like Gooden, Darling's peak came during his first three years in the Majors ending in '86. His career afterwards went up and down - most downl Aguilera was part of a package for Frank Viola in 1989. Viola left as a free agent in 1992. El Sid pitched very well except for the odd injury right until he was a free agent in 1994.
1:48 AM Oct 5th
I've enjoyed these pieces, but I must say the misspellings of names (e.g., Dolph Camilli, Arky Vaughan) irritates me a little.
12:25 PM Oct 4th
addendum: can't find this tied together in writing, but the 1918 Spanish flu epidemic continued into the the summer of 1919, and that may have had an effect, as people were encouraged not to congregate.​
10:59 AM Oct 4th
I don't think on Novermber 19th they were C-130ing everyone home :-) I did see a reference to MLB being concerned about its "patriotic image". The reality probably was that, players aside, all the businness/infrastructure men needed to get the league jump started again were continuing with military entanglements for at least awhile after (later named) Armistice Day.
10:54 AM Oct 4th
The use of OPS as your main measurement led you to focus on the 1920s, 1930s and the steroid era, both of which inflated league OPS and made players look a lot better than they were Ed Roush was not a great player; neither were Bottomley and Hafey; neither were many of the 1990s stars--if you use WAA or WAR to measure it. Neither is Josh Hamilton. Pujols is a genuine all-time great and his decline has been something of a shock.
True greatness for me is at least 5 WAA per season. What is rather interesting is that given the rules of baseball contracts, it's almost impossible to acquire a free agent who is still performing at that level, because very few people (except in the late 1990s-early 2000s, I wonder why) sustain that level beyond 30. The free agent market focuses on people in the 2-3 WAA range, for the most part. They certainly can be valuable but they are not the most valuable.
Meanwhile, I want to thank you for pointing out that 1919 was a short season, which, I am ashamed to say, I had never realized. It certainly makes Eddie Cicotte's record that much more impressive. But can some one tell me why? It was not "war-shortened." The war ended in November 1918, although we still had occupation troops in Europe for all of 1919.
9:37 AM Oct 4th
Interesting stuff. During the first half of your piece I thought "isn't he going to mention the Mets?". Then you did, but a generation before I would have thought. The Mets brought in Hernandez, Carter, Foster and Mazzilli and got one ring out of it even though each of those guys literally started to slide in numbers as their plane landed at LaGuardia. The pitching helped, of course.
3:49 PM Oct 3rd
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