Saturday, August 06, 2005


August 6th, 1954

Ken Phelps Born

Most famously remembered as the man the Yankees got in exchange for Jay Buhner—prompting Frank Costanza’s assertion that George Steinbrenner didn’t know what the hell he was doing—Ken Phelps was a player whose skill set was so vastly misunderstood and underappreciated by his teams that instead of contributing on the Major League level, he wasted away in Triple A.

Phelps consistently put up numbers in the minors indicating he could hit major-league pitching, and even proved it when given a shot. In 1984 with the Mariners, he was given nearly three hundred at-bats, and responded by hitting just .241 but posting a .378 OBP and .521 SLG. The slugging was highest among team regulars and the OBP second to Alvin Davis. Apparently unconvinced, the Mariners gave the DH job in 1985 to 34 year-old Gorman Thomas. Thomas hit .215 with an on base percentage of .330 and slugged .450. In his limited action, Phelps hit just .207 but topped Thomas in both OBP and SLG and homered at a better rate. Finally, in 1986, Dick Williams gave Phelps a regular job and he responded by hitting .247, but getting on base more than forty percent of the time and slugging .526, both team leading figures. The next year Phelps was a regular again and again topped .400 in on-base percentage and .500 in slugging, this in his age 32 season. At 33, Phelps was hitting .284/.434/.547 when the Mariners (wisely) traded him to the Yankees for Buhner. He would never post another season like the ones he had in Seattle, although he did hang around long enough to win a World Series ring for the ’89 A’s.

Phelps' other legacy—besides Seinfeld-related infamy—is of the “Ken Phelps All-Stars.” Created by Bill James, the ‘Phelpses’ were summarized in 2001 by Baseball Prospectus’ Jeff Bower as “an assemblage of players with skills that made them useful, but who were generally not given a fair opportunity to prove their worth in the majors or had been given unwarranted labels they couldn't shake.” In Phelps’ case, this was an inability to hit for average and an inability to play anywhere but DH that kept him from becoming a viable major leaguer. Phelps was a Moneyball player cursed to be born before Moneyball had come into fashion. When Bower wrote a 2001 version of the Ken Phelps All-Stars he included players who’ve since become valuable members of Moneyball style teams, notably Mark Bellhorn (Boston) and Erubiel Durazo (Oakland).

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