When One Player Makes A Difference

When One Player Makes A Difference

Just what impact could any one free agent have on a particular team? To find out the real measure of how important one player can be, we turn to the Philadelphia Athletics for one stand-out example.

In the absence of hard news on the baseball front, pretty much everyone with any kind of opinion is breathlessly reporting every supposed move made as the teams jockey for position in the free agent scramble. "Cashman Flies to Arkansas !" "Werth on Red Sox Radar!" "Angels Could Pursue Crawford!" And, of course, the ever-popular, "Yanks and Jeter Talk!"

While it's true that Cliff Lee (why else would anyone fly to Arkansas), Jayson Werth, Carl Crawford and Derek Jeter are all fine players, you'd think, at the very least, the fate of the Western World, to say nothing of several pennant races, rested on the final destination of these, and a few other, free agents. And yet, it doesn't always work that way. In fact, it often doesn't work that way, especially with hitters. There's a logical fallacy here that tends to over-value individual stars. That is, there's an implied assumption that Jayson Werth, or Carl Crawford, or Victor Martinez, or anyone else you care to name, brings with him an absolute value. And that's not true. Even Babe Ruth didn't have an absolute value of 229 runs created in 1921 (that was his single season high, in fact, it's the major league record in the Non-Steroid Division). No, Ruth's 1921 value was 229 runs minus however many runs a replacement-level outfielder might have generated. In other words, if the Babe had decided to take off the 1921 season to become a race car driver, SOMEONE would have taken his place in the Yankees outfield, and that someone would have had some offensive value. Thus, even superstars tend to be overvalued as individual players.

However, every once and a while, it is true that one player can make a major difference in the fate of a team. In fact, back in 1901, a single player, and an incredibly stupid move by a pinch-penny owner, cost one team, not only a pennant, but dominance in its hometown for a half-century. The following is a true story that was originally written for "Base Ball in Philadelphia ," but was cut out for space considerations. It is indeed a true story, and the names HAVE NOT been changed to protect the innocent… or guilty.

From 1892 until the end of the 19th Century, the Phillies were the only game in town in Philadelphia , that is, they were the only major league team in Philadelphia . As the 1900 season closed, the Phillies owned what could have very well been considered the best baseball town in America . Don't believe it? Look at their attendance figures with a team that never finished higher than third place.

            Attendance                   Rank

1892    193,371                       2nd

1893    293,019                       1st

1894    352,773                       2nd

1895    474,971                       1st

1896    357,025                       2nd

1897    290,027                       5th

1898     265,414                      3rd

1899    388,933                       1st

1900    301,913                       1st

And just two years later, the Phillies were decidedly second-best in town, getting outdrawn almost four to one by the upstart American League Athletics.

What happened? How did a baseball team that owned Philadelphia in 1900 fall on such hard times, and fall so quickly? It was partly a case of Connie Mack's abilities as a manager and a general manger and Phillies' owner Colonel John Rogers' sins coming back to haunt him. Put them together, and the Phillies fell just short of a pennant in 1901, the year they needed to make a big impression against the first-year interlopers. And, having failed to win the 1901 pennant, and then being utterly devastated by a second year of American League raids, the Phillies were easy prey for Mack's 1902 AL pennant winners, thus possibly changing the entire history of major league baseball in Philly (at least from 1901 on.) Because, you better believe that the A's owned Philadelphia from 1902 until at least the Whiz Kids Era started in 1950.

The case for Colonel Rogers' major blunder stems from two facts – he was a cheapskate, and he wasn't terribly honest.

Since just after the end of the second American Association war in 1891 there had been a de facto salary cap in the National League -- $2400 per player. However, human nature being what it is, this was a rule that was honored both in its enforcement and in its breach. This was as true in Philadelphia as it was anywhere else, except that Rogers tried to dissemble between his two major stars, Ed Delahanty and Napoleon Lajoie.

Prior to the 1900 season, the Phillies' two brightest lights, both of whom were rightly destined for the Hall of Fame, agreed between themselves not to sign their contracts unless they were promised more than the $2400 minimum. Rogers went along with the demand and conned Lajoie into signing for the magnificent sum of $2600. Where Rogers ran into trouble was in then turning around and paying Delahanty $3000, after assuring the Frenchman that Big Ed would be getting the same $2600 as King Larry. Rogers may have thought he was pretty smart, but, in reality, he was pretty dumb. All Lajoie had to do was see one of Delahanty's checks, and the cat was out of the bag. To make matters worse, Lajoie demanded the extra $400 from Rogers , and was turned down. Thus was Rogers exposed as being both venal and short-sighted, the latter because, not only was Lajoie already more popular than Delahanty, he was also seven years younger.

Enter Frank Hough, sports editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer and Connie Mack's bag man. Hough offered King Larry $4000 to play for Mack, and the popular Frenchman was gone, though not very far, officially signing with the new Philadelphia American League team on March 20, 1901. And the loss of King Larry, and the subsequent failure of the Phillies to find even a replacement-level second baseman, cost the Phillies the 1901 National League pennant.

Let's look at Lajoie's absence from the Phillies' lineup from the perspective of runs created. Playing for the Athletics in 1901, Lajoie had one of the notable seasons in major league history, .426/.463/.643. His OPS was 1.106, his Adjusted OPS was 200. Lajoie led the AL in its first year in batting (the 20th Century record), on base, slugging, OPS, runs, hits, total bases, singles, doubles, home runs, extra base hits, RBIs, Adjusted OPS and runs created, with 158.

Suppose Lajoie's runs had been created for the Phillies, instead of the Athletics? What difference might he have made in the National League pennant race? It's generally accepted that the National League was much stronger than the American League in 1901. How much stronger? That can't really be determined exactly, but, even if you assume that the level of play in the NL was, say 33 percent better than the AL in 1901, that still leaves Lajoie with the equivalent of 105 (one-third of 158 is 53, and subtracting 53 from 158 gives you 105) runs created in the National League. So, let's assume for argument's sake that King Larry would have created 105 runs in the National League in 1901. That seems reasonable, since he had already created 117 in 1897. How does that measure up against his replacements?

The Phillies ended up using five players at second base in 1901, primarily going with Bill Hallman (90 games), but also sticking Shad Barry (35), Joe Dolan (10), Bert Conn (five) and Hughie Jennings (one) in at second. Not counting Jennings ' brief appearance, these four worthies were awful in 1901.

                        Games w/Phillies           Games @ 2b    Total Runs Created      

Hallman                        123                              90                    24       

Barry                            67                               35                    22       

Dolan                           10                               10                    0                    

Conn                              5                                5                     1

To estimate their runs created while playing second, just multiply the percentage of their games played at second by their total runs created…

                        Runs Created at 2b

Hallman                        18

Barry                            11

Dolan                           0

Conn                            1

Total                            30

A total of 30 runs created for the Phillies at second base in 1901. If you subtract that from Lajoie's projected 105 runs created, you get a difference of 75. Since the Phillies only played 140 games in 1901, that's more than a half a run a game. Lajoie would have made the second-place Phillies' offensive output 743 runs instead of 668 runs. If you plug the new figure into the Pythagorean Formula (along with their 543 runs allowed), you come up with a predicted winning percentage of .652. The first-place Pirates finished 1901 with a 90-49 record, a .647 W-L percentage. For the 140 games the Phillies played, .652 works out to a 91-49 record. Thus, without even going into the fact that Lajoie was a better defensive player than any of his replacements (his career fielding percentage at second was .015 higher than the league, and his career range factor was 10% better than the league), it can be postulated that Mack's 1901 raids on the Phillies, notably his signing of King Larry, could very well have cost Colonel Rogers the 1901 National League pennant… and the city, at least until the Athletics left town in 1955.


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