Friday, March 28, 2008

Revisiting the Indian Uprising of 1987

As we wait out the final couple of days before the season begins in earnest, many of us will be tempted to take one last look at the season previews. The ones that preordain the Red Sox, Tigers, Angels, Mets, Cubs, and well, everyone but the Giants in the NL West as favorites. Reading such stuff may be depressing if you're, say, a Blue Jays or Braves fan, and it must be downright miserable if you live in San Francisco or Baltimore.

So, if your team isn't projected to be all that good, what can you do?

My suggestion: read the 1987 Sports Illustrated baseball preview issue which famously touted the Indians as the best team in the American League.

I vividly recall receiving that issue in the mail as a thirteen year-old. I didn't know shit from shinola about baseball analysis in those days, but even back then I raised an eyebrow, thinking to myself that the only way the Indians could win the AL was if the airplanes carrying the Blue Jays, Tigers, Red Sox, and Yankees simultaneously crashed, and if every member of the Brewers came down with dengue fever.

How could Sports Illustrated -- THE sports authority of the time -- get it so wrong? Since we have nothing to do until Sunday night's Braves-Nats game, let's take a closer look at Ron Fimrite's infamous feature story and see what happened.

After a very entertaining paragraph at just how bad Indians' baseball had been for the previous thirty years, Fimrite says:
True enough, but last season the Indians won more games (84) than they had in any year since 1968, and they passed 1985's attendance in their 38th home date. The fans are excited. It's like 1948 all over again. There's a feeling that this is the year. People, baseball people, are starting to talk.

All of that may have been true, but a look at that 1986 Indians' team (with two decades of hindsight-aiding statistical analysis under our belts) reveals that things weren't as encouraging as they may have appeared to be. For one thing, the 1986 Indians were outscored 841-831 by their opponents, outperforming their Pythagorean record by four wins. For another thing, that record was padded somewhat in relatively meaningless games, as the Indians were eliminated on September 19th, after which they went 10-5 to close out the season against the expanded rosters of other also-rans. Above all else, the AL East was loaded in the mid 80s, so even if the Tribe was on the rise, Fimrite would have done well to tell us why, exactly, the Blue Jays, Tigers, Red Sox, and Yankees were going to just go away, which of course they didn't.
The Indians have quality players at every position, so many good ones, in fact, that first baseman Pat Tabler, a .326 hitter in 130 games last season, will not start against righthanded pitching; and leftfielder Mel Hall, a .296 hitter in 140 games, will not play against lefties.
The Indians actually did have a number of quality players, but in 1987 they either (a) weren't optimally utilized; (b) suffered off years; or (c) both. For example, while Fimrite was correct that Tabler would split time at first base, manager Pat Corralles stuck him at DH on those putative off days, giving him 618 plate appearances that year, a full 431 of which were against the righthandeders he wasn't supposed to be able to hit. Well, he didn't hit them. He pulled off a .281/.350/.383 line against righties which, while not that bad in the on-base department, didn't represent the sort of power you want from a 1B/DH. Against lefties? .366/.412/.564. Shoulda stuck with the platoon, Pat.

Corralles did stick with the plan to platoon Mel Hall. That backfired too, as Hall went .274/.301/.434 in 472 plate appearances against those righties he was supposed to handle. His .364/.417/.515 against lefties in limited plate appearances suggests that maybe he should have played more against them instead.

The regular infield averages 27 years of age and 87 RBIs. It's a team that is just approaching its peak.
Believing that the infield would drive this team was actually a pretty reasonable assumption. Fimrite imagined a Tabler/Joe Carter platoon at first which may have actually helped the team if (a) Tabler didn't didn't play so damn much; and (b) Carter hit .300 like he did the year before. As it turned out, Carter's average -- which constituted almost all of his on-base ability -- fell 40 points, resulting in a bat which was barely above league average and far below league average for a first baseman.

Second base was a bigger nightmare. Far from "approaching his peak," Tony Bernazard would record only 12 more Major League at bats after 1987, and all of those came after a three year exile from the bigs. Not that anyone had a reason to expect such a thing. Coming off a fabulous 1986, Bernazard would crater in '87, posting a .239/.300/.399 which got him sent to Oakland that July for two fellas -- Brian Dorsett and Darrel Akerfelds -- who would fail to aid in any Indian uprisings. One shudders to think how bad things would have gotten if Julio Franco (.319/.389/.428) and Brook Jacoby (.300/.387/.541) weren't manning the left side of the infield. Well, how bad offensively anyway, because those guys accounted for 39 errors between them.

But the real beauty of the 1987 Indians was their pitching staff, because that's where this team really earned its 101 losses. Let's see how Fimrite saw things in April:
Yeah, but how about pitching? Understand they've got some 48-year-old geezer starting for them. Not just any 48-year-old. He's Phil Niekro. Knucksie. And they have some young guys, including a phenom, Greg Swindell, who throws hard. They also picked up Rick Dempsey, a smart catcher. He'll be a big help.

I can imagine some SI editor seeing this copy in 1987 and wondering if that's all Fimrite had to say about the staff. I can also imagine some conversation between the two of them in which Fimrite convinces the editor that no more detail is needed because he envisioned the Indians as a "Niekro and Swindell and pray like hell" kind of thing. In short, I can see Fimrite getting the benefit of the doubt.

So what happened?

Niekro started 22 games for the Tribe, putting up a 5.89 ERA. He was traded to Toronto on August 9th for a minor leaguer and a player to be named later. The Jays gave Knucksie three starts in which he put up an ERA of 8.25. Toronto lost all three games. The player who was named the day after the trade was a slightly above average (for that season anyway) reliever named Don Gordon. On the day of the trade the Jays were a half game ahead of the Tigers. They finished the season with a seven game skid, losing the division to Detroit in a final, suspense-filled weekend series.

Query: you think the Jays had wished they hadn't given Niekro those three starts? You think they wouldn't have minded having an extra useful reliever like Gordon around during that train wreck that ended the season? Me too. Back to the Indians:

The less said about the rest of the staff the better. In 1987 Greg Swindell began his decade-long campaign of proving that not every big hoss of a pitcher from the University of Texas was as good as Roger Clemens, even if he did pull off a pretty mean Tony Fossas impression late in his career. Unfortunately, Swindell's midseason elbow injury wasn't even the worst thing that happened to the Indians' rotation that year. You may recall that Steve Carlton's rotting corpose made 14 starts for the Tribe that summer (ERA: 5.37). The rest -- among them Ken Schrom (6.50 in 29 starts) and the aforementioned Ackerfelds (6.75 in 13 starts) -- were simply ghastly. Their two best starters ended up being Tom Candiotti (4.78) and Scott Bailes (4.64). Not surprisingly, the 1987 Indians gave up a baseball-high 957 runs -- 77 more than the next worst staff. Not even Rick Dempsey (.177/.295/.270) could help these guys.

The remainder of the preview was dedicated to coverboys Joe Carter and Cory Snyder and Fimrite's musings on a future for those two in Cleveland that seemed brighter than the burning Cuyahoga. Fimrite, quoting Carter:
"I think we've got the kind of ball club anyone would want to play for," he says. "We're all in our prime. This is not just a one-year thing. We've got nothing to look forward to but the future. They say everything that goes around comes around. Well, I think it's finally come around to us. I think our time has come."

It's every bit as easy as it is unfair to check this prediction, but check it we must. Carter, as most of you know, never did put up a season as good as his 1986 again, and after three more good but by-no-means great years he was traded to the Padres for players -- Sandy Alomar, Jr. and Carlos Baerga -- who actually would help bring a winner to Cleveland. Snyder delivered even less on his promise, recording a single decent year -- and three dreadful ones -- in Cleveland after Fimrite's article went to press.

But you knew all that already. So why did I bother with this exercise? Certainly not to simply rehash the unspeakable fate of the 1987 Indians (the less said about them the better). And certainly not to simply pick on Ron Fimrite who, as even this unfortunate article shows, could turn a pretty decent phrase. Rather, I bring all of this up to remind you of just how easy it is to get carried away this time of year.

As we sit here, a little over 48 hours before the first pitch in Washington on Sunday night, most people are convinced that Johan Santana will win the Cy Young Award and lead the Mets to glory. Most people are convinced that Soto, Fukudome, and Pie are going to hit the ground running on the north side, allowing the Cubs to outlast the Brewers. Most people are convinced that Pettite, Mussina, Hughes, and Kennedy will all be productive and healthy enough to keep the AL East a two-team race. If I had bothered to write season previews I probably would have come down that way as well.

But for the past twenty-one years, I have read every preview I could get my eyes on. I have kept the memory of that SI cover in the back of my head, remembering as I read each one that nothing that we wiseacres say about the season matters after the pitcher's toe hits the rubber and the rubber hits the road. Could it happen the way the experts say it will? Maybe. But maybe not, and that's why they play the games.

Now. Let's play ball.


Mac said...

According to Peter Gammons (quoted in The Curse of Rocky Colavito, which for some reason I have in my office) it was the editors, not Fimrite, at fault:

"The writers on the staff didn't vote the Indians as the best team. We knew that Cleveland had major pitching problems, that they would be lucky to go .500 with the pitching. But an editor there thought picking the Indians would be cute, so they went ahead with it."

Anonymous said...

I do remember this SI edition at my parents home in Idaho at 14 years of age. I looked at it and said outloud "Indians?".


Craig Calcaterra said...

Mac -- that makes me pretty sad, actually. I mean, it's one thing for a guy to write something really wrongheaded because he believes it on some level. It's another thing altogether to basically make someone do it. Either way he looks kinda silly, but earnest silly is better than disingenuous silly.

Unless of course it was his idea all along.

Chris Hyser said...

Thanks for the walk down memory lane!

I was just discussing this issue the other day with a co-worker.

As a 15-year-old Tribe fan in 1986 ... I remember the 10-game winning streak that put the Indians in 1st place early the the season ... the flash crowd at at the old ballpark.

But, I'm not sure eve I believed we were contenders in 1987.

We did set a record in '87, however.

After the corpse of Steve Carlton was sent to the bullpen, he became the first 300-game winner to ever relieve another 300 game winner when he replaced Niekro in a game.