Ken Phelps is a Punchline of Circumstance

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In today’s NY Times, Tyler Kepner discusses the maneuvers the Yankees made on Friday night in acquiring Michael Pineda from the Mariners via trade and signing Hiroki Kuroda to a 1-year, $10 million contract.

Because the Yankees traded one of their top prospects, catcher Jesus Montero, there is concern that Montero will eventually become a historic mistake. Kepner writes:

Years from now, the trade could be a punch line on some latter version of “Seinfeld,” if Montero slugs like Jay Buhner and Pineda fizzles like Ken Phelps.

Phelps is considered the epitome of Steinbrennerean stupidity because the Yankees traded a young prospect who became a feared power hitter and Phelps was a recognizable and unneeded name the Yankees added as they were in the midst of a mid-season shakeup that resulted in Billy Martin being fired (again) and replaced by Lou Piniella.

When the trade was made on July 21st, the Yankees were only 2 games out of first place. Phelps would’ve been a help if they’d needed him at all.

But that’s the problem.

The Yankees didn’t need Phelps—they had Jack Clark as their DH and Don Mattingly as their first baseman—and Phelps only had 145 plate appearances from his acquisition through the end of the season. Unsurprisingly, Phelps hit 10 homers in those 145 plate appearances. The team wound up in 5th place in the AL East and Piniella was fired at the end of the season as well.

What was ironic about the Phelps acquisition isn’t that Buhner became a star with the Mariners or that the Yankees didn’t use Phelps correctly, but that Piniella was Buhner’s manager with the Mariners from 1993 on and benefited from that trade as Buhner was a producer on the field and a fiery leader off it.

The Yankees continued their charade with a parade of managers, GMs and “strategies” that didn’t work. Only when Steinbrenner was suspended and Gene Michael was able to build the team correctly did the team regenerate itself to what they are today.

But what of Phelps?

Is he a punchline?

In looking at his numbers, Phelps’s biggest obstacle was the era in which he played. As simplistic as the George Steinbrenner method of finding players was, in this case he was right—Phelps hit a lot of home runs in relatively few at bats—but Phelps was caught in the Yankees turmoil and that there were 12 hitters who deserved a place in a lineup with only 9 spots.

The value of a player who had power and walked a lot was yet to be widely understood, therefore he was pigeonholed as a poor defender who couldn’t hit lefties and didn’t deserve a chance to play more than he did.

Phelps was a prototypically perfect DH, but never played in more than 125 games for one season in his career.

Not surprisingly in those 125 games, he hit 24 homers, had a .406 on base percentage and .526 slugging.

Had anyone recognized what Phelps was and given him an opportunity to play regularly, there’s no reason he couldn’t have been a David Ortiz-type who got better hitting against lefties the more he faced them. In addition to that for a power hitter, Phelps rarely struck out.

If he were playing today, Phelps would be a slugging bat in the middle of the lineup for a contending American League team like the Red Sox or Yankees and have a lucrative, long-term contract. Instead, he’s used as an example of a mistake the Yankees made in 1988. But the mistake wasn’t in trading for him. The mistake was in not telling him he was going to be in the lineup every single day when he got to the park. If that had been done, he’d have been more than a joke for something out of his control, a joke because of the player he was traded for.

He exemplifies a Yankees mistake, but for the wrong reasons.


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