Chasing Ken Phelps

The Yankees really needed Mark Langston from the Mariners. Instead, they got Ken Phelps, and all it cost them was Jay Buhner. (via Jeff Thompson)

The Ken PhelpsJay Buhner trade that so enraged Larry David that he made a point of shaming George Steinbrenner for it in a Seinfeld episode eight years after its consummation could have happened three years earlier than it did. The New York Yankees acquired the 34-year-old Phelps from the Seattle Mariners for the outfielder Buhner, 23, and pitching prospects Rick Balabon and Troy Evers (their 1985 first- and second-round draft picks, respectively) on July 21, 1988, but they had been endeavoring to acquire the left-handed slugger since 1985. The question then, as it was three years later, was why.

Actually, we can dispense with part of the why: Phelps was a unique hitter, a left-handed-hitting, three-true-outcomes unicorn. In 529 games with the Mariners, Phelps hit .249/.392/.521 with 105 home runs in 1,399 at-bats. If Phelps’ rate of a home run every 13.3 at-bats during those years qualified for the all-time list, it would fall between Barry Bonds’ one home run per 12.9 and Jim Thome’s 13.8. Phelps wasn’t much with the glove, and he was much less exciting against same-side pitching (.202/.329/.370 career), but if you needed damage done against a right-handed pitcher, this Muppet-looking dude with the big mustache and bigger glasses was as good as anyone in the game. During his Mariners years, just three players outpaced Phelps when it came to OPS versus right-handed pitchers (.938): Darryl Strawberry (.962), George Brett (.963), and Wade Boggs (.984).

Who wouldn’t want to acquire that? In a vacuum, every team in baseball, or at least those with a DH position available, should have been on board. In reality, desire depends on needs and positional availability—or at least, it normally does. George Steinbrenner’s method of baseball ownership was quixotic to say the least, but his multi-year pursuit of Phelps deserves to rank towards the top of the list of his many self-immolating gestures. Contra Larry David, the reason is not that the move cost the Yankees Jay Buhner. Rather, it was that he cost the Yankees Buhner, one of the team’s few legitimate prospects, for an asset the Yankees didn’t need and had no way to use. This was true during both the 1985 and 1988 pursuits of Phelps. Value is in utility; potential is worthless if you lack the opportunity to unlock it.

The Yankees of the 1980s rarely needed offense. What they needed, perennially, was:

  • Starting pitching.
  • Relief pitching.
  • Left-handed pitching.
  • Right-handed pitching.
  • A shortstop not named Clunky McButterfingers, but also?
  • Pitching.

In the course of every baseball tale you read, you should stop and ask, “Why do I need to know this story? What application could it possibly have to my life?” The Curious Case of Ken Phelps represents an eternal human quality: the pursuit of something we desperately want but will do us no good if we get it.

If you’ve ever fallen in love with someone whose main ability is to hurt you, you’re Chasing Ken Phelps. If you’ve ever bought an 85-inch gigglephonic 3-D television set when you already have a 84-inch gigglephonic 3-D television set in your 83-inch living room, that’s Chasing Ken Phelps too. If you need a car and buy a boat, ditto. Any time in life that your proposed solution to a problem is a complete and total non-sequitur, you’ve got a bad case of CKP.

Say tomorrow the Baseball Time-Travel and Transportation System calls the Los Angeles Angels and tells them they can acquire peak-period Joe DiMaggio in exchange for a prospect, but that the Clipper insists on playing what he deems his rightful center field position. That’s not too tough a decision for the Halos, assuming Mike Trout is willing to play ball—you just have Brad Ausmus to relocate Trout to left or right field and, ta-da, better team.

The Yankees didn’t have those kinds of choices when it came to Phelps, who was a confirmed DH and if-you’ve-gotta first baseman. In 1985, the Yankees had a 24-year-old Don Mattingly at first base. Mattingly had just won the batting title and was en route to receiving the first of nine Gold Glove awards. He wasn’t going anywhere. Due to an earlier Steinbrenner spending spree, the Yankees also had approximately 37 corner outfield/designated hitter possibilities, but the primary DH was former AL MVP Don Baylor. In his previous two seasons with the Yankees, Baylor had hit .303/.361/.494 and .262/.341/.489. In a previous lifetime he had played left field, but an old football injury meant that Baylor had one of the weakest throwing arms in the game. In 1985, Yankee Stadium still possessed something akin to its old outfield dimensions—it would have taken a relay team to help Baylor get a ball hit into the alley back to the infield. Thus, he, like Mattingly, couldn’t budge to make room for Phelps.

Meanwhile, the Yankees starting rotation was 46-year-old Phil Niekro, 34-year-old Ron Guidry, and the soup du jour. This was a direct result of Steinbrenner’s Yankees failing to take the amateur draft seriously. In fact, they disdained it. Almost all of their first-round picks were sacrificed to free-agent compensation. (Balabon was the fruit of one of the few first-rounders the Yankees held long enough to use, and he was a bust.) As has always been the case, the best pitchers were selected at the top of the draft. The Yankees, not picking until the second or third round, and rarely caring who they selected when they did, got the dregs.

Due to a combination of collusion and generational scarcity (the 1980s were, for whatever reason, not a fecund time for starting pitching), the Yankees were unable to buy who they couldn’t draft. Maybe they could have traded for it, but (A) Steinbrenner hated young pitchers and went out of his way to destroy or dispense with most who came his way, and (B) having spent the rare Buhner on a Phelps, he didn’t have any Buhners left over to acquire quality pitching had he known it when he saw it.

That misallocation of resources was the real sin of Buhner-Phelps. It was definitely possible to look at Buhner as of 1988 and doubt that one was seeing a future (one-time) All-Star. Certainly, the Pittsburgh Pirates, the organization that originally drafted him, didn’t think much of him given that they traded him to New York for two superannuated veterans and cash. Similarly, whereas Buhner had hit 31 home runs for Triple-A Columbus in 1987, the power came with what was, at the time, a high number of strikeouts and a swing that scouts complained had a hitch in it. This diagnosis seemed to be borne out in the sporadic auditions the Yankees gave the outfielder before dealing him—he hit .198 in 99 plate appearances, walking four times and striking out in about a third of his chances. The Yankees were evaluating him at a particularly dire moment; before sending him back to Triple-A Columbus for what would be the final time he had made one hit and struck out 15 times in his previous 30 at-bats. Buhner, “has great tools,” said Yankees titular GM Bob Quinn, “But there is no guarantee he’ll make it.”

Then there was a positional problem—Buhner was a corner outfielder trying to find room to play on a team that had (insofar as it knew) Rickey Henderson and Dave Winfield in the left and right gardens for the foreseeable future. In 1988, when the Yankees finally did acquire Phelps, the same logjam situation among the position players obtained, while the lack of pitching had worsened. Mattingly was still ensconced at first base, while the designated hitter role had been taken over by the highly fragile Jack Clark (no one knew why Clark was with the Yankees, and he was visibly miserable, but there he was). The pitching staff was another aged agglomeration, with only the wild and blister-prone 22-year-old Al Leiter providing a change of pace from the likes of the 35-year-old Rick Rhoden and the 45-year-old Tommy John. This was the problem that Buhner-Phelps was somehow intended to ameliorate.

Who the Yankees really needed from the Mariners was Mark Langston, the hard-throwing lefty who had racked up three league strikeout titles in four years in the majors through 1987. In fact, Langston was only a year away from being traded as he headed for free agent eligibility. He and the Mariners, owned by the parsimonious George Argyros, were unable to come to terms on an extension. As Phelps said upon being traded to the Yankees, “At least [George Steinbrenner] wants to win and tries to win. I can’t say that about the other George.”

By spring of 1989 Langston was being shopped to every team in the majors. The New York Mets offered a package of veteran pitching featuring Sid Fernandez and Rick Aguilera, or Fernandez and pitching prospect David West. Rumor had the Los Angeles Dodgers offering any two pitchers out of a group that included Ramon Martinez, Tim Belcher, John Wetteland, and Tim Leary. On May 25, the Mariners made their pick, opting to send Langston and a player to be named later (former first-round pitching selection Mike Campbell) to the Montreal Expos in exchange for three pitchers—Brian Holman, Gene Harris, and Randy Johnson. Holman and Harris were 24 years old, Johnson 25. The Yankees couldn’t offer anything like three major league-ready pitchers. That was the whole problem.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Of course, in an alternative universe, the 1988-1989 Yankees had not dealt Buhner for Phelps, Doug Drabek for Rhoden (November 1986), Bob Tewksbury for Steve Trout (July 1987), Dan Pasqua for Rich Dotson (November 1987), or Leiter for Jesse Barfield (April 1989), and might have had more to offer—or not needed to make an offer due to the additional possibilities that blossomed when they just calmed down and let the kids play. But we are now talking about a Yankees team that never could have existed due to the peculiarities of the man in charge.

The rest you know: The Yankees planned to find playing time for Phelps by giving Henderson, Winfield, and Clark scheduled days off. That’s easier said than done with three of the best right-handed hitters of their time, one of whom is the greatest leadoff man in history. Manager Lou Piniella also suggested—insanely—that Mattingly could spot in the outfield. He had played the corners in the minors as well as in his first few major-league seasons.

It never did happen. “I told Lou I gave away my outfielder’s glove this spring,” Mattingly said. “I didn’t think I’d need it again. I haven’t taken fly balls since 1984.” Phelps didn’t start even one game at first base. Clark did make the odd lumbering-Frankenstein appearance in the outfield corners, so Phelps could DH, but for the most part he stayed on the bench. Phelps started just 25 of the 68 games remaining after his acquisition. He made the most out of his playing time, hitting .224/.339/.551 with 10 home runs in 107 at-bats. Because player-evaluation was still overly focused on batting average in this era, the productivity (147 OPS+) wasn’t necessarily visible to the casual observer. It certainly wasn’t visible to the Yankees.

Clark asked to be traded after the season and the Yankees accommodated him. Lacking leverage, they made another miserable deal, sending away a 33-year-old who would post a 135 OPS+ over the four seasons remaining in his career, plus a serviceable lefty spot reliever in return for two busted former first-round draft picks and righty reliever Lance McCullers. Like his son, the current Astros pitcher, McCullers had formidable stuff but equally formidable problems with durability. The trade still failed to open consistent playing time for Phelps, and he didn’t hit with his usual panache when he did play, averaging .249/.340/.378 in 215 plate appearances. The Yankees had spent at least four years coveting Phelps. Just over a year after finally satisfying that strange letch, they sent him away, trading him to the Oakland A’s in return for a struggling teenage pitching prospect, Scott Holcomb, who never would develop.

Despite what the Rolling Stones sang, sometimes you do get what you want and find out it’s not what you need. Possibly this is a more valuable lesson, to be discrete in one’s wanting.

What the foregoing leaves aside is the Mariners’ part in the story, specifically why they didn’t trade Phelps when the Yankees came calling in 1985. To that point, Phelps could very easily have been dismissed as a journeyman or one-year wonder. It’s the only reason he was with the Mariners to begin with. Drafted by the Kansas City Royals out of Arizona State University in the 15th round of the 1976 amateur draft, Phelps was a slow, on-base-focused player in an organization that played in a big turf park and prioritized speed and defense. Though today we would find a player who hit .265/.406/.479 at Triple-A (with 20 home runs, 98 walks in 130 games; Phelps was 24) intriguing, the Royals opted to trade with the Angels for a very similar player of almost exactly the same age, Willie Mays Aikens.

The Aikens trade had the effect of burying Phelps in the minors; in addition to Aikens, the Royals had an everyday DH in Hal McRae. In January of 1982, the Royals dealt Phelps to the Montreal Expos for the veteran lefty reliever Grant Jackson. Now Phelps was in another organization that played in a big turf park, one that had an established first baseman in Warren Cromartie, would soon add another in career .303 hitter Al Oliver, and had no opportunity to use a DH.

Playing for the Triple-A Wichita Aeros that year, Phelps hit .333/.469/.706 with 46 home runs in 132 games. He was named the American Association MVP, but this changed nothing for the Expos; Phelps was 27, a journeyman having a fluke season. “Some guys are spoon fed and some aren’t,” Phelps said during spring training 1983. “I wasn’t one of them… You just try to learn from it and become a better person.” His season did, however, intrigue Mariners general manager Dan O’Brien, who purchased him the following spring. Perhaps it helped that Phelps was a Seattle native.

The Mariners, still in their long post-expansion hangover period, had a veteran DH in Richie Zisk, an excruciatingly slow former left fielder, but needed a first baseman after a season in which a carousel of starters had combined to hit .240/.295/.377. They opted for journeyman Pat Putnam and put Phelps on the bench for three months, finally sending him down in June. He raked again in Salt Lake City (.341/.450/.759 in 74 games), but it was only in September, when knee problems ended Zisk’s career (signed for another four years, the M’s carried him on the disabled list for all of 1984 before finally eating the contract) that Phelps was recalled, allowed to play, and hit well enough (.279/.333/.535 in 66 PAs) to put himself, finally, into a club’s big league plans.

At 29, Phelps was the Mariners’ Opening Day first baseman in 1984, but for some nothing is ever easy; Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Jerry Augustine broke his finger in the third game of the season. He was gone for more than a month, and in the interim the Mariners called up 23-year-old Alvin Davis, who hit so well (.284/.391/.497) that he won the American League Rookie of the Year Award and put a lock on the position for the next five years. Phelps would have to find playing time as a platoon designated hitter. In the end he got into 101 games and hit .241/.378/.521 with 24 home runs in 290 at-bats. That was enough to forever cement him in George Steinbrenner’s mental landscape, but it probably shouldn’t have been enough to cement him in Seattle given the team’s needs.

Sure, Phelps had real hitting ability but he was also limited and, at 30, not going to around for all that long. Given that the Yankees could have offered Buhner then, or Leiter, or Pasqua (although something of a flop in the majors, Pasqua was, at that moment, a major prospect, having just hit 33 home runs at Double-A), or Roberto Kelly—the Yankees were so profligate with prospects you are free to imagine almost any possible trade this side of Mickey Mantle—the Mariners could perhaps have been able to boost a team that had never had a winning record in eight seasons. They wouldn’t succeed at finishing over .500 until 1991, when Buhner, Holman, and Randy Johnson helped them get there. It might have happened sooner. It might have happened better.

We are again in the realm of counterfactual history. We’ll never know how it could have been, just as, at the time, no one knew what was happening then. The Yankees robbed themselves. The Mariners got a gift. As a reward, they fired general manager Dick Balderson within days of his making the trade. Chasing Ken Phelps means never knowing when you’re well off.

Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.
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Buhners Rocket Armmember
5 years ago

Very interesting and nicely written post, even though it seems I was left out.

5 years ago

From Sports Illustrated, August 22, 1988:

In the hope of shoring up their beleaguered pitching staff, the Yankees brought in Clyde King on Aug. 9 to replace Stan Williams as pitching coach. But by now it should be apparent that it’s not the coaching that is the problem, but the person making the pitching-personnel decisions. Consider some recent Yankee blunders:

•Last month they traded one of their most marketable players (outfielder Jay Buhner) for a designated hitter (Ken Phelps), when the Cubs wanted to discuss trading righthander Rick Sutcliffe for Buhner and the Orioles were offering righty Mike Boddicker.

•The Yanks released pitchers Doyle Alexander and Rick Reuschel, who have 26 wins between them this year, within 10 days in 1983.

•They traded with the White Sox in 1985 for lefthander Britt Burns, who retired before throwing another inning.

•They traded pitchers Shane Rawley, Ed Whitson, Dennis Rasmussen and Jim Deshaies—who have a combined 34 wins this season—for four pitchers who have since departed: Marty Bystrom, Tim Stoddard, Bill Gullickson and Joe Niekro.

•They passed on pitchers Alexander, Reuschel, Jack Morris, Mike Flanagan, Dennis Eckersley and Dave LaPoint in 1987 and instead traded for the erratic Steve Trout.

Compare that record to the work done by Oakland general manager Sandy Alderson. In less than one year, Alderson acquired a first-class stopper in Bob Welch, a closer with 30-plus saves in Eckersley, a quality starter in Storm Davis and a solid left-handed reliever in Rick Honeycutt—all without giving up anyone who would have played a significant role for the Athletics this season.