December 5, 2013
Get It Now!Hardball Times Annual is now available. It's got 300 pages of articles, commentary and even a crossword puzzle. You can buy the Annual at Amazon, for your Kindle or on our own page (which helps us the most financially). However you buy it, enjoy!
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Tuesday, November 27, 2012
40 years ago today, one of the most one-sided trades of the 1970s occurred. It was among the best deals the Yankees have made – and among the worst the Cleveland Indians agreed to.
On Nov. 27, 1972, the Yankees sent Cleveland Rusty Torres, Charlie Spikes, Jerry Kenney, and John Ellis in exchange for Jerry Moses . . . and Graig Nettles.
Five of those six names you’ve probably never heard of, with Nettles of course being the exception. Nettles would play 22 years in major league baseball, hit 390 homers (including a league leading 32 in 1976), and have a stellar defensive reputation.
Most of that was in the future, though. 40 years ago today, Nettles was a 28-year-old third baseman who’d just completed his third year as a starting third baseman. He was a respected talent—he’d even received a token 10th-place vote for AL MVP in 1971—but he wasn’t seen as anything too special. Cleveland was actually Nettle’s second team. The Twins had sent him there.
He was a good offensive player, but was ultimately a ‘tweener. He had some power, but nothing great. He drew some walks, but he was well under the league leaders. Sure he had a great glove, but in 1972 defensively there was Brooks Robinson and then there was everyone else. Nettles was one of the everyone elsers. Worst of all, Nettles’ weakest point was batting average, which was the best regarded offensive stat back then. In three years as Cleveland’s third sacker, he’d hit just .250. That’s nice, but nothing outstanding. Combine that with his 71 homers, and Cleveland felt he had enough value to be worth trading but not enough value to be worth keeping.
Also keep in mind that Cleveland had just finished in last place in 1972—and that was despite a Cy Young Award performance from ace pitcher Gaylord Perry. The team was 10th in runs scored with a .234 average. Nettles, they felt, was part of the problem, not the solution. So they peddled him off and see how many holes they can fill in the process.
So what did they get? All four guys coming to Cleveland were position players. If things worked out perfectly, they might get half of a starting lineup. Yeah, if only some things broke their way, they could have two good starters.
The least of the four was infielder Jerry Kenney. 10 months older than Nettles, Kenney was already a bust. He was supposed to be the Yankees third baseman of the future, but hit .193 in 140 games in 1970. He improved in 1971, but flopped back in 1972. The Yankees wanted Nettles to replace Kenney. So they gave Kenney to Cleveland, who hoped he could rekindle his game. It didn’t take. He played five games in Cleveland before calling it a career.
Well, he was supposed to suck. How about Rusty Torres, the young rightfielder? He’d hit .211 in a partial season with the Yankees in 1972, but he was only 23-year-old and maybe he’d improve as he aged? Nope. In two years and 230 games, he hit .199 and 10 homers.
Next is John Ellis. He was a first baseman/catcher who’d actually had success in the bigs before coming to Cleveland, hitting .294 in 52 games at age 23 with the 1972 Yankees.
Sure enough, that wasn’t a fluke, as Ellis was a solid hitter for Cleveland in 1973 and 1974, hitting .278 with 24 homers. It’s nothing world class, but it made him an above average hitting catcher. Yeah, but in 1975 he strangely flopped. Cleveland palmed him off on Texas, where he became a longtime backup.
That just leaves Charlie Spikes, a corner outfielder just shy of his 22nd birthday at the time of the trade. Spikes had the best career of the bunch, earning a starting slot in the Indians outfield for four years. But he didn’t quite pan out. He started out showing promise, hitting 23 homers at age 22 in 1973, albeit with a low .237 average. Next year, he kept the power and improved his average to .271. But he was still merely serviceable. With fewer walks or steals, you need better power or a superior average from a corner outfielder.
Instead, Spikes fell apart. He hit .229 with 11 homers in 197 and .232 with three homers in 101 games in 1976. As he entered what should’ve been his prime, he was worthless.
Cleveland got four flavors of blah. Meanwhile, Nettles made a half-dozen All-Star teams, and was solid and steady enough to keep his job in the starting lineup through 1987, at age 42. By that time he was no longer a Yankee, but Nettles helped New York claim three pennants and three division titles from 1976-81. Meanwhile, Cleveland had become an annual cellar dweller in the AL East. The only nice thing for Cleveland is that Jerry Moses, the other guy they gave up, didn’t do anything.
Still, it was a terrible trade for Cleveland – a trade that is now 40 years old.
Aside from that, many other baseball events celebrate their anniversary or “day-versary” (which is something that happened X-thousand days ago) today. Here they are, with the better ones in bold to make things easier to skim.
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This set of 11 retired players who were active after the dead ball era ended enforces Mark McGwire's 70-homer season in '98 as the upper limit for candidacy. Eight of them are in the Hall of Fame, a ninth is in for his playing and managing record, and a 10th probably should be in. And yet hardly any of them ever managed to have a double-digit homer season. Here's the list, in descending order, with sketches of each player:
Lou Boudreau, 68. In his Historical Abstract from the '80s, Bill James points to a type of player fairly common in the '30s and '40s: small, drew lots of walks, hit .300 or more, didn't have home run power, typically played up the middle, and scored lots of runs. Some of those players, including Boudreau, are on this list. He averaged nearly 40 doubles annually, hit around .300, drew another 70 walks or so, and what's more, Boudreau led AL shortstops in fielding percentage seven times.
He played only nine full seasons, but he managed the Indians as well from the age of 24 onward. His managing career was finished after he turned 42, but Boudreau had already led the Indians to their last World Series title to date. Later, he became part of the Cubs broadcast team and the father-in-law of Denny McLain.
Earle Combs, 58. Although Bill James calls him a no-power hitter in the Hall of Fame only because he was a starter for the '27 Yankees, Combs posted a .462 slugging percentage (currently good for about 260th on the all-time list) that's the best of any of these players, so he obviously did hit for power, just not home runs.
I don't know, maybe he still doesn't belong in the Hall of Fame. After all, in his induction speech Combs said, "I thought the Hall of Fame was for superstars, not just average players like I was." He did have a very, very good '27 season, and Combs was the guy Ruth and Gehrig were driving in much of the time—often enough to score 1,186 runs in his short career, and over .8 per game.
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