August 6 – Happy Birthday Ken Phelps
Every fan of the “Seinfeld” television series remembers when George Costanza’s father blurted out this question to George Steinbrenner (played by Larry David). If you didn’t see that episode, you can watch the clip here. The reason that trade was made is today’s Pinstripe Birthday Celebrant.
Back in the mid eighties, a guy named Bill James was in the process of revolutionizing the way baseball stats were kept and interpreted and he was sharing his work through his annual “Baseball Abstract.” James started applying and trumpeting the use of OPS as a true measure of a baseball player’s value to a team. He would illustrate how the measure was being virtually ignored by coming up with complete lineups of players with great OPS numbers who were then sitting on the benches or playing in the Minor Leagues of MLB teams. Ken Phelps’ name appeared on every one of these lists. That’s why, when George Costanza’s Dad asked about the Buhner trade, Larry David’s Steinbrenner responded that his “baseball people” loved Ken Phelps bat. That’s because Steinbrenner’s real-life baseball people were becoming real-life disciples of Bill James.
Phelps’ career OPS during his 10-season Minor League career was .954. An average OPS for the Major Leagues would be somewhere in the high .700s. Phelps’ OPS during his five plus seasons in Seattle was .913. James loved players like Phelps because his home run per at bat ratio and on base percentage as a minor leaguer had been so impressive. So you could say the Yankees were playing the percentages when they gave away Buhner for Phelps in that mid-season 1988 transaction.
Phelps’ OPS during his 131 games in pinstripes was just .781. By comparison, Buhner’s OPS during his 14 seasons in Seattle, was .852. The Yankees traded “Digger” Phelps to the A’s for a guy named Scott Holcomb in August of 1989. He played big league ball until 1995. The Seinfeld episode was a lot funnier and much more entertaining than the results of the actual trade, especially if you were a Yankee fan.