The Futility Infielder

A Baseball Journal by Jay Jaffe I'm a baseball fan living in New York City. In between long tirades about the New York Yankees and the national pastime in general, I'm a graphic designer.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

 

Last Buzz

The second installment of my historical take on recently deceased former executive Buzzie Bavasi is now up at Baseball Prospectus. It's even longer than the first part, covering not only the Dodgers' 1960s heyday -- Sandy Koufax's prime -- but also his tenures with the Padres and the Angels. At one point, I was sure I'd bitten off more than I could chew with this piece, at least in this format; I've delivered book chapters that were less than half that length. But in the end, I simply found the stories of the teams he built too compelling to stop exploring. Even though I had to bypass a bit more of the character sketch stuff as compiled from numerous articles and books about him and the Dodgers, I hope that comes through in the piece. Here's an excerpt about the 1965 champions:
The 1962 and 1963 teams had overachieved; the former (102-63) had outdone their Pythagorean record by five games, the latter (99-63) by seven games. Their luck finally reversed in 1964. Despite outscoring opponents by 42 runs with virtually the same cast, the Dodgers slumped to sixth at 80-82, six games below their projected record. Losing Koufax for the final six weeks of the season didn't help, but the Dodgers were just 58-57 and mired in seventh place when he went down with traumatic arthritis, the result of a jammed shoulder sustained while diving to avoid a pickoff throw.

Koufax and Don Drysdale had combined for 68 starts of 2.01 ERA ball, amazing even given that the park-adjusted league average for Dodger Stadium was 3.25. The rest of the 1964 rotation, most notably Phil Ortega and Joe Moeller (25 and 24 starts, respectively), had combined for a 3.96 ERA, nearly double that of the dynamic duo. Thus Bavasi's big focus over the winter of 1964-1965 was bolstering the rotation, and to do so he made perhaps the boldest move of his tenure, trading the team's top power threat, Frank Howard, to the Washington Senators in a seven-player deal. A 28-year-old, 6-foot-7 behemoth, Howard had hit 24 homers in 1964, but those only partially redeemed a .226/.303/.432 performance coupled with defense that was well below average (-13 runs according to the Davenport Translations, and worth only 2.8 WARP in all). Howard would go on to some monster years in Washington, but Claude Osteen, the 25-year-old lefty who was the prize of the return package, would become a mainstay in LA. In 1965, his 15-15 record belied the impact of giving the Dodgers 40 starts of 2.79 ERA ball in an environment where 3.26 was average.

To offset the loss of Howard, first baseman Ron Fairly moved to right field, and Wes Parker, who'd spent 1964 as a reserve, moved in at first. Though hardly a power threat, Parker was a legitimate plus defender who would go on to win six Gold Gloves. Also new to the lineup was second baseman Jim Lefebvre, who won Rookie of the Year honors while upgrading a position where Nate Oliver, Dick Tracewski, and Jim Gilliam had combined to hit an anemic .235/.308/.283 the year before. Along with Maury Wills and Gilliam--who had retired to become the team's third-base coach, only to rejoin the lineup as the third baseman in late May--the infield was entirely composed of switch hitters, a first.

Bavasi needed to make one more major move once the season began. On May 1, two-time All-Star Tommy Davis, the team's left fielder, broke his ankle sliding into second base; though Davis was coming off of a down year (.275/.311/.397, 5.9 WARP), the loss looked potentially devastating to the lineup. Luckily, Bavasi had stashed Lou Johnson at Triple-A Spokane; Johnson was a 30-year-old journeyman who had been kicking around the minor leagues for a dozen years while getting just 185 big league at-bats; he'd been acquired from the Tigers for pitcher Larry Sherry the year before. Johnson filled in seamlessly for Davis, hitting .259/.315/.391 and tying with Lefebvre for the team high in homers with 12 (no, those Dodgers didn't have much offense, but remember, it was a low-offense era). All in all, his performance was worth 5.0 WARP, right in line with a conservative estimate of what Davis might have provided.

The Dodgers led the NL for most of the year before a 13-16 stretch starting in mid-August dropped them as far down as third behind the Giants and Reds. They stormed back and won 13 straight, with the pitching staff allowing just 14 runs in that span, six of them in one game. They retook first with a week to play, nipped the Giants by two games to win the pennant, and went on to win a thrilling seven-game World Series over the Minnesota Twins, with Koufax pitching a three-hit shutout on two days' rest in the clincher. Johnson homered to provide the finale's first run; it was his second homer of the series as he hit .296/.321/.593. For the second time in three years, the Dodgers were World Champs.
Reviewing Bavasi's life's work, I find it remarkable and more than a little disappointing that he's not in the Hall of Fame, but then general managers haven't been well-served by Cooperstown (more on that in a moment). Bavasi has been up for election by the Veterans Committee in each of the past two years, but VC politics and the change from a larger electorate of all living Hall of Famers, Spink and Frick award recipients to a 12-man panel of so-called experts did not serve him well. After pulling 37 percent in 2007, he fell to under 25 percent (with no exact total given) in 2008. In the first year, the candidates were on a composite ballot with managers and umpires, and the electorate could vote for as many as 10 individuals, while in 2008, the group of 12 could only vote for as many as four individuals:
                   2007    2008
Barney Dreyfuss ---- 83.3%*
Bowie Kuhn 17.3% 83.3%*
Walter O'Malley 44.4% 75.0%*
Ewing Kauffman ---- 41.7%
John Fetzer ---- 33.3%
Marvin Miller 63.0% 25.0%
Bob Howsam ---- 25.0%
Buzzie Bavasi 37.0% <25.0%
Gabe Paul 12.3% <25.0%
John McHale ---- <25.0%
Bill White 29.6% ----
August Busch Jr. 16.0% ----
Charley O. Finley 12.3% ----
Phil Wrigley 11.1% ----
Nobody from this august group was elected by the larger VC in 2007, and of the three elected in 2008, only O'Malley had even drawn minimal support beforehand. Meanwhile Marvin Miller was knocked down a peg by the reconstituted group in favor of stuffed shirt Kuhn. Interestingly, though Bavasi's take on the entry of agents and free agency into the game was a somewhat reactionary one, he himself harbored no ill will against Miller ("Marvin Miller never did one thing to hurt the game of baseball," he told BizofBaseball.com's Maury Brown).

Author and former Hall of Fame employee Bruce Markusen had this to say about Bavasi's case upon his passing:
Perhaps Bavasi has been overlooked because of those who worked with him--and before him--with the Dodgers. His predecessor as Dodgers GM was Branch Rickey, one of the game's clearest thinkers, the man who brought Jackie Robinson to the big leagues, and a certifiable baseball genius. That's a tough act to follow, though Bavasi did it very well. And then there was Bavasi's owner during his time with the Dodgers. Walter O'Malley, the National League's most influential owner for decades, cast a long shadow as a mover and shaker. O'Malley himself didn't earn election to the Hall of Fame until last December, so perhaps it's understandable that Bavasi has had to wait this long.

There's another factor at work here, too. In general, general managers are woefully underrepresented in the Hall of Fame. Unless they happened to have doubled as owners, their chances of making the grade in Cooperstown haven't been very strong. Look at some of the men who have been elected to the Hall of Fame at least in part for their work as de facto general managers. Rickey was, for a time, the Dodgers' owner, Lee MacPhail worked for a long time as the American League president, Ed Barrow was an owner, and Bill Veeck was an owner. As fellow historian Eric Enders has pointed out, only George Weiss has been elected to the Hall of Fame solely for his work as a GM. Weiss was never an owner, never a league president, and never a pioneer in the sense of Rickey.

Well, it's time to change that trend. General managers are vitally important to building championship ballclubs. The best ones should be represented in Cooperstown. Bob Howsam, the architect of the Big Red Machine who died earlier this year, should be in, as should Bavasi. Arguments could also be made for Harry Dalton (based on his work in Baltimore) and perhaps even Joe Brown (the architect of two championship teams in Pittsburgh). And perhaps one day John Schuerholz, the longtime general manager of the Braves, will receive his due in the form of a plaque in the Hall of Fame Gallery.

We can only hope that the same honor is given to Bavasi, even if it has to come after he can enjoy it.
Unfortunately it won't be until 2010 that Bavasi can be considered again, but then again, we shouldn't expect much from the Veterans Committee in any form.

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