December 10, 2013
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Sunday, August 12, 2012
A quarter-century ago today, baseball had one of the greatest examples ever of an archetypal trade. It’s possibly the most intriguing win-Now vs. win-later trade of all time.
On Aug. 12, 1987, the Detroit Tigers sent young prospect pitcher John Smoltz to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for veteran arm Doyle Alexander.
On the face of it, the Braves undoubtedly got the better of this one. In Atlanta, Smoltz developed into a star pitcher with a Cy Young Award, two titles for most wins in the league and eight All-Star team selections. He was a key part of the Braves' 1990s dynasty, and all they had to give up to get him was an aging workhorse in Alexander.
Who was this Doyle Alexander person? He was a late-blooming pitcher in his 17th season of a 19-year career. Aside from leading the league in winning percentage in 1984, he never led in any notable category. He never won more than 17 games in a season, and at the time of the trade he had zero All-Star Game selections. Frankly, he’d never seemed like that great of a pitcher.
But down the stretch in 1987, he was a great pitcher, as fantastic as you could hope a pitcher could be. Though fumbling through the first two thirds of the season with a 5-10 record as a Brave, upon his arrival in Detroit, Alexander turned into a baseball demigod.
While he had a rough go of it in his first start for a no-decision, he pitched eight shutout innings in his second outing for the win. And very quickly, he got in the habit of this winning ballgames things.
He’d start 11 games for the rest of the season with the Tigers, averaging eight innings an outing and posted a 9-0 record. The team won both his no-decisions, too, and Alexander’s perfect winning record wasn’t some fluke of offensive support. His ERA was 1.53. Yeah, that ain’t bad.
The day of the trade, the Tigers were in tight three-way race in the AL East with Toronto and New York. They stood in second place, a game-and-a-half behind the Jays and a game ahead of the Yankees. With Alexander, they didn’t stay in second.
The clubs faced off in two key late-season series, and Alexander played a key role in both. On Sept. 27, Alexander took the hill in the last of a four-game series. Detroit had lost the first three games, pushing them 3.5 games behind Toronto with just eight more left to play. Detroit needed a win, and behind Alexander they did win, 3-2 in 13 innings.
Alexander didn’t actually get the win, but he deserved it. Detroit scored in the top of the 11th for a 2-1 lead, and Alexander would’ve pitched a one-two-three bottom half of the inning for a complete-game win, but there was a defensive error, and the tying run came around to score. Still, Detroit did win, and Alexander’s 32-out performance was part of it.
Five days later, Alexander pitched the first game of a season-ending three-game series. Toronto entered the day up by a game, and thus Detroit had little margin for error. Alexander did what the team needed, and they won to tie up division race. The Tigers wound up winning the division by two games, and Alexander clearly was the difference.
Unfortunately for the Tigers, they lost in the ALCS to an inferior Twins team. (And, to be fair, Alexander was a large part of that loss, as he went 0-2 in an ERA of 10.00). But this trade is the ultimate win-now vs. win-later trade.
As great as Smoltz would be, he wouldn’t help Detroit that year. And frankly, as bad as the Tigers were in the 1990, he wouldn’t have made much difference then, either. But Alexander gave Detroit a division title, and, as they say, flags fly forever.
In terms of overall value, the Tigers lost this trade, but it’s the sort of trade where a team can lose the overall value and still later on argue that it was a good move. That division flag still flies, after all.
Aside from that, many actual incidents today celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that occurred X-thousand days ago) today. Here they are, with the better ones in bold if you’d prefer to just skim over things.
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