A 1971 time capsule unearthed

Recently I received a package in the mail. It contained a letter written in December—December of 1971.

This letter addressed an interesting topic: whether the San Francisco Giants (who had been NL West champs in 1971) or the Los Angeles Dodgers (who’d finished just one game behind) had taken better steps toward improvement that offseason, and more generally, which team shaped up as stronger for 1972.

The sender of this package let me know that he thought I might enjoy reading this 36-year-old artifact of baseball analysis. I most certainly did, so much so that I’ve decided to share it with you.

Here’s an excerpt from the early part of that letter:

First off, we will look at and analyze the recent offseason trades made by the two franchises. The Giants, trading Gaylord Perry and reserve infielder Frank Duffy for Sam McDowell, gave up, you say, one of the “great competitors of baseball … Perry has the stuff of which pennants are made.” In comparing Gaylord to McDowell, you say that McDowell can strike out batters, but not win ball games.

Maybe so, but the Cleveland Indians batting support can hardly be called sensational. In 1970, they had their first half-way decent hitting attack since the early sixties, and McDowell responded with 20 of the team’s 76 wins. So, it is my opinion that Sam McDowell could win with good batting support.

Now, Perry. The San Francisco Giants gave him good hitting support from 1964-71 (excepting 1968, when no team hit well) and despite very low earned run averages, Perry could manage a .600 winning percentage only twice. Seems that he couldn’t win games, either. That’s the stuff pennants are made of? Hmmm …

In addition, there’s one other factor that’s a McDowell plus. For the 1972 season, McDowell is 29, and Perry 33. Can Perry, who has pitched 2,295 major league innings, pump out 300 innings a season much longer?

Well, then. The writer of this letter didn’t quite prognosticate the outcome of that trade with much accuracy, did he?

But let’s give this writer credit for two things. First, while the Perry-McDowell deal did stimulate some questioning in the San Francisco Bay area, it is the case that no 1971 pundit of whom I’m aware predicted either McDowell’s swift collapse or Perry’s exceptional late-career rejuvenation and longevity.

Second, it’s important to point out that the writer of this letter was just 13 years old.

Then begins the young writer’s assessment of the Dodgers’ offseason transactions:

The Los Angeles Dodgers traded, in two deals, Richie Allen, Doyle Alexander, Bob O’Brien, Sergio Robles and Royle Stillman. They received Frank Robinson, Pete Richert, Tommy John and Steve Huntz. Huntz, a throw-in, may be disregarded. So can O’Brien, Robles, & Stillman, who are all good prospects but are at least two years away. Also, Richert, a short relief man, won’t make much of a difference. But those others …

Doyle Alexander is a find. No doubt about it. No mention about his replacement in your letter, is there? And he’s a hard one to replace. Only a rookie, he still won six games for L.A. last season, nearly all coming in the season’s second half. And—here’s the punch line—he walked only 18 batters in 92 innings. Rookie pitchers—or any pitchers, for that matter—with control like that are pretty hard to come by. Yes, Alexander is definitely a very, very good young pitcher.

Okay. The writing style is, shall we say, preteen awkward. And the overselling of Doyle Alexander is egregious: talk about cherry-picking the solitary stat that supports the case.

But let’s give the kid his due. He nailed the insignificance of Huntz, O’Brien, Robles and Stillman, and pretty much put Richert in his proper place. This youngster wasn’t a complete idiot.

He proceeds to the big names in the Dodgers’ trades:

Tommy John, though a pretty good starting pitcher, is not a “great talent” as you call him. This is the reason:

In my opinion, the National League has become very superior to the American in the last ten years. One way of telling this is by the All-Star game domination the N.L. has. Another is by the results of inter-league trades. The majority of players who have done considerably better statistically in one of the two leagues have done better in the American League.

Look at pitchers Mike Cuellar and Pat Dobson of Baltimore. Both were .500 pitchers in the National League and 20-game winners in the American League. And players Amos Otis and Fred Patek of Kansas City. Neither could do anything much in the National League but are American League all-stars. And pitchers Jim McGlothlin of Cincinnati and Jim Nash of Atlanta. Both were tremendous young prospects in the American League but last year in the National League McGlothlin won only eight games, while Nash took nine but had a 4.94 ERA. And so on and so forth.

These examples prove that it is much harder to excel in the National League than the American, indicating a pretty definite N.L. superiority.

It is for this reason that I believe Tommy John will not win at any better regularity for the N.L.’s Dodgers than he has for the A.L.’s White Sox. He won’t do worse, for he will get much better batting support with L.A. But he won’t do better, either.

Look past the clumsy construction, and the content here is, well, almost insightful. Not every 13-year-old is clued in to such subtleties as relative league strength.

Next the kid anticipates a consequential objection:

You could say, also, that this National League superiority would affect Sam McDowell, too. It might, but I would give it less chance of affecting McDowell than John because McDowell is simply a flame-thrower. No “stuff,” no control, just fastballs. It seems to me that it wouldn’t matter who a pitcher like that would be throwing to, that he would be equally effective in either league.

Whereas John is the type of pitcher who gives up hits pretty often, but doesn’t worry about it, as he relies on double plays and no long hits, just singles. He doesn’t go for strikeouts like McDowell. So I think the superior National League hitters would get more than one hit an inning off John. Therefore, he would not be as effective.

Yikes. Nice try, kid. Better hitters can handle junk, but not heat? Sorry, but this is transparently prejudicial hope, not objective analysis.

This same National League superiority applies to Robinson and Allen, too. Frank Robinson seemed to be nearing the end of the line in the N.L. in 1963, ’64, and ’65. But once in the American League he hit 49 home runs and took the MVP, and despite an off-year in 1968, he has hit since 1966 like it was going out of style. Now, with Los Angeles, he is back in the National League with its tough pitchers.

And—one other thing—both teams Robinson has been with have had home parks where home runs were pretty common, especially Cincinnati’s old Crosley Field. But Dodger Stadium is one of the least home run-ny (home run-ny?) parks in existence. Richie Allen, one of baseball’s most powerful sluggers, could crack 34 HR’s out of St. Louis’s big Busch Stadium but hit only 23 in Chavez Ravine. Duke Sims hit 23 in Cleveland but six for Los Angeles. Tom Haller hit 27 for San Francisco and managed 10 once in four seasons for L.A. Pretty hard to homer for L.A., it seems.

So I am betting on Robinson to have all kinds of problems with: one, National League pitching; two, the Dodgers’ spacious ball park; and three, the big bad monster—age. Robinson will turn 37 next August.

Well, here now, let’s give the youngster some kudos. He’s acutely aware of the substantial importance of park effects, though his evidence is crude.

And, come on, don’t you like the self-critically humorous touch with the “home run-ny” phrase? This little guy was 13, after all.

Okay then, on to Mr. Allen:

And as for Allen, a “divisive influence?” True, Allen had problems in Philadelphia, but in the past two seasons, at St. Louis and Los Angeles, he got along great. I understand he was a very close friend of Walt Alston. I feel that Allen has grown up a lot in recent years and is now ready to play and give one hundred per cent, as he did for the Dodgers last season.

And no one can argue about his playing ability. True, he’ll never be a fielder, but for a big man he is very fast and has incredible batting power. I can’t wait to see the year he’ll have in Chicago, even though he’ll have a notoriously big park, too. Personally, I fail to see how old Frank Robinson, though an all-time great in his prime, can replace Richie Allen, who could in a small park lead any league in home runs and runs batted in.

I have no idea where the teenybopper was getting that “very close friend of Walt Alston” stuff. But the kid pretty well nailed just what kind of a year Allen would be able to put together in the A.L. in 1972 (leading the league in homers and RBIs, career-high 199 OPS+, near-unanimous MVP), and as well he accurately predicted that Robinson’s performance with the Dodgers in ‘72 (he would earn 14 Win Shares) wouldn’t be much of a replacement for what Allen had delivered in ’71 (29 Win Shares).

To summarize these trades, I would say this: the Giants made a risky but potentially great deal in the McDowell trade, and whereas the Dodgers in their two deals seem to be going for a one-shot pennant. They gain a dependable starter (Tommy John) but give up a potentially better one (Doyle Alexander). And Allen for Robinson doesn’t look too bright. Plus they gave up some good rookie prospects. (Although I have to add that the Giants did too in Frank Duffy. Marvelous fielder.)

In short, my unbiased opinion is this: in those trades alone, the San Francisco Giants improved their chances of repeating as champs more than the Dodgers improved their chances of dethroning S.F.

Well, young friend, you were entitled to your “unbiased” opinion. But events would prove your general prediction to be not quite on the money: The Giants in 1972 would careen to a 69-86, fifth-place finish, while the Dodgers remained a serious competitor at 85-70, in third.

So why do I take such interest in these nearly-four-decades-old scribblings by some preteen proto-sabrgeek?

Well, because (if you haven’t yet figured it out) that preteen proto-sabrgeek was me.

I wrote the letter to my uncle Dan Finkle (who was very kind to have saved it all these years, and recently discovered it while cleaning out a file cabinet). He lived in southern California back then, and while he was really much more of an Angels fan than a Dodgers guy, it was in his good nature to indulge his smart-alecky nephew in some offseason Giants-Dodgers back-and-forth banter via U.S. mail.

In addition to the main body of the letter, which I’ve liberally excerpted above, my epistle to Dan included a position-by-position breakdown of each team, with capsule comments and prognostications on various players. I’ll spare you most of that, but a few weren’t too bad. Bear in mind that these were formulated as of 1971:

- Young Joe Ferguson is erratic but, when streaking, can be excellent.

- Third base has two potentially good young players, Steve Garvey and Bill Grabarkewitz. Garvey, though slow and not a great fielder, is going to be a great hitter someday. Grabarkewitz was hurt and slumping in 1971. I doubt if he comes back to the way he was in early 1970.

- Al Downing will probably win nowhere near 20 in ’72.

- Lefthander John Cumberland looked good in 1971 but whether he’ll stay good is unknown.

- The Giants had Jerry Johnson as ace reliever in 1971 but he may have pitched his arm out.

Not that I’ve ever learned it, but there’s some sort of lesson here about being careful what you write.

References & Resources
My wonderful uncle Dan was somewhat prominent in the primordial pre-Internet days of sabermetrics. Among the antiques he recently pulled out of that old file drawer was some 1980s correspondence with Bill James, as well as copies of the Baseball Analyst journal James edited that featured articles by Dan:

“The Best Fielding Second Basemen since 1925,” by Dan Finkle, Baseball Analyst, Issue 9, December 1983.

“The Best Fielding Third Basemen since 1925,” by Dan Finkle, Baseball Analyst, Issue 11, April 1984.

“Why Making DPs is Important,” by Dan Finkle, Baseball Analyst, Volume 28, March 1987.

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