A new kind of “fantasy draft”

The expansion of the major leagues in 1961 and 1962 was a watershed in baseball history. It may have seemed somewhat less so at the time, at least in the four cities granted new, or at least replacement, franchises. The processes that created the clubs produced, in their initial years, one half-decent team (the Los Angeles Angels), two pretty bad clubs (the Houston Colt .45s—today the Astros—and the new Washington Senators), and one historically awful team (the New York Mets).

This seems inevitable to us in retrospect. The very name “expansion draft” brings to our minds thoughts of the tag-end talents of the league, the players too useless to bother protecting, the has-beens and never-will-bes. Nobody expects that such scraped-together leftovers could form a good team.

Indeed, a friend of mine, in one of those late-hour conversations that produce more article ideas than I am comfortable admitting at the moment, recently wondered whether the players picked up in those original expansion drafts could have produced a good team had they all been in their primes. If the 1962 Mets had had Gil Hodges and Roger Craig and Gus Bell at their best—and Craig Anderson and Sammy Drake and Choo Choo Coleman at theirs—could they have contended for the pennant? And could the Colts and Angels and Senators have done it?

Rules of the game

Taking this question seriously brings with it the rapid realization that an expansion draft cohort is quite a different thing from an Opening Day roster. The draft was the start of the construction of a team, not its finish. Some drafted players were traded away for new ones; other potential starters ended up languishing as more talented players, or at least more promising ones, were brought in via purchases or waivers. The draft was not expected to produce the entire team, certainly not in 1962: 1961 might be a different matter, which I will examine in due course.

Making a team from the best years of the Opening Day players may be a worthwhile exercise, but I am sticking with the one suggested to me. It can serve to demonstrate just how slim the pickings offered to the embryonic teams were, or perhaps what excellence, past or future, there was in the players left unprotected.

I’m going to be looking at several things. First, I’ll see how much value (measured by bWAR) the drafted players produced in the expansion years. Next, I’ll see how much they produced in their best individual years, and also in their best three-year stretches. This lets me give both short-term and longer-term answers to the question of how good a team could be made from the draftees. New teams could have been drafting for immediate results or to build a foundation for later years, so the dual approach makes sense.

To put some boundaries on the speculation, I imposed several rules on the scenario.

First, a player gets credited for his playing value whether or not he played for the team that drafted him, even in the drafting year. If he got traded away a week after the draft, he still counts as a draftee of the team. This applies mainly to counting up the real-life values of the draft class.

This rule produces a number of instances where there are far more plate appearances being tallied at one position—often first base or catcher—than could plausibly have been played there. When this happened, I adjusted plate appearances down, and WAR in proportion, until it fit the expected number of PAs, roughly 700. I tried to take some PAs from all the contenders for playing time at a position, but if one player was obviously far inferior to the other(s), his playing time would drop fast. I also made allowances for players who handled multiple positions.

On the other hand, there are loads of instances where the draft cohort did not produce enough playing time for a position or set of positions. Pitching saw a lot of this, especially for the 1962 expansion teams. In these cases, I spread the players around as far as their plate appearances or innings pitched would go, then assumed replacement-level players (0 WAR) would fill the rest.

About 300 PA per year went to pinch-hitting, approximating real life. I filled that with actual players where possible, carrying over varying fractions of pro-rated WAR. (Outfielders and first basemen counted more, since a higher percentage of their overall value is with the bat.) The remainder got replacement-level placeholders.

I vacillated over plugging in replacement-level performance. It was a different era from today, and it may not have been as easy for these new teams to pick up marginally capable players as it would be now. The historic difference in the success of the teams even suggested that I might assign slightly positive replacements for the respectable Angels and slightly negative ones for the woeful Mets, reflecting the capabilities of the front offices. This I rejected as too big an assumption, and I stayed with replacement level.

When deciding a player’s best single season, I sometimes accepted a negative WAR as “best” if they never had a zero or better WAR in a season. One might be tempted to count a year they didn’t play as their best, but I did not. An altered consideration went into deciding the best three-year stretches. I would consider years when a player wasn’t in the majors as part of the potential string, if they played in the majors both before and after that time. For example, if you played in ’62, then ’65 to ’67, with negative WAR every year, I would count either ’62-’64 or ’63-’65 as your best three years, but ’67-’69 would be ineligible.

I’ll now sketch out, fairly quickly I hope, the two drafts and the four teams they produced, before going on to their fantasy best-case scenarios.

The draft class of 1961

The 1961 expansion draft was done in an indecent rush, trying to trump the National League’s expansion plans for 1962. Less than two months after the NL had announced expansion to Houston and New York in October 1960, the American League had scraped together ownership for clubs in Los Angeles and Washington, and held the draft for teams that were weeks or, in L.A.’s case, exactly eight days old. Hasty as the plans were, there was an elaborate set of rules in place for the inaugural expansion draft.

Each AL club had to expose seven players who had been on the major league roster as of Aug. 31, 1960, and a further eight who had been on the 40-man roster. The new teams had to choose—in order!—10 pitchers, two catchers, six infielders, and four outfielders. They could then pick six more players at any position. No existing team could lose more than seven players, and no expansion club could take more than four from any one team (not counting minor leaguers, limited to one from each team at the end of the draft).

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American League President Joe Cronin ran the draft in a closed-door session with executives of the Angels and Senators—and made an utter botch of it. He forgot to inform the executives fully about the rules, and lost track of them himself during the draft. Once he saw what had happened, he made the teams undo one selection apiece to meet the seven-per-team ceiling, then had them make four trades of draftees they had just picked to get closer to the four-per-team limit.

Even with that, Cronin couldn’t fulfill the rules: Washington had six Kansas City A’s, among other transgressions. Rather than redo the entire draft, he threw up his hands and declared the draft complete. After this display of amateurish incompetence, Cronin was able to cling to his job for only another 13 years.

This threw me a curve—no, more like a spitball. Do I count the original choices, or the altered ones? I went with the latter, since those were the players the respective teams actually had under their control, to play or trade or do whatever.

In the Washington Senators’ case, trading was much on their mind. Bobby Shantz of the Yankees was their first selection (indeed, Yankees pitchers made up the first three choices of the draft: Eli Grba, Shantz, and Duke Maas), but they traded him to Pittsburgh two days later. It was a good short-term move: two of the three players they got in return did little, but pitcher Bennie Daniels put up 3.6 WAR in 1961. Shantz ended up exposed by the Pirates, and chosen by Houston, for 1962, the only player selected in both drafts.

In real life, the Senators finished 61-100, three games short of their 64-97 Pythagorean projection. Team WAR totaled 16.7 (10.8 batting and 5.9 pitching). A pure replacement-level team would be expected to have a .294 winning percentage, working out to 47.3 wins in 161 games. The WAR thus adds up perfectly to the 64 wins of their Pythagorean record—but don’t expect to see anything this neat again.

The Senators’ draft cohort, a total of 31 players, put up 15.4 WAR in 1961, for the Senators or other teams. Washington gained just a smidgen of value with its trades and other acquisitions, 1.3 WAR. Not that the Senators reasonably could have stood pat: they drafted four catchers, and the lone third baseman they picked up, Leo Burke, had five plate appearances that year. And all as a pinch-hitter.

The Los Angeles Angels managed to select two future big-league managers in the draft: Buck Rodgers and Jim Fregosi. (Eddie Yost would be an interim manager for one game.) Rodgers was never a standout player, but Fregosi became a very valuable shortstop before becoming even more valuable trade bait in the deal that netted them Nolan Ryan. Fregosi is thus arguably the greatest expansion draft choice in baseball history—and he was L.A.’s sixth and last mandatory infield pick.

I will also briefly note that, when forced to give up Neil Chrisley of the Tigers as an overdraft, the Angels chose in his stead Faye Throneberry. Yes, that’s the brother of Marvelous Marv Throneberry—who was not drafted by the Mets the next year. Marv came over in a trade from Baltimore.

Los Angeles finished at 70-91 in 1961, seven games behind its 77-84 Pythagorean record. Team WAR was 9.5 batting and 15.2 pitching for a total of 24.7. That comes out to 72 wins, five shy of the Angels’ Pythagorean projection.

The Angels’ draft class, 30 players total, produced 13.3 WAR in 1961. Los Angeles gained more than 11 WAR with its secondary moves, the best of all four expansion franchises. Like Washington, the Angels took four catchers, though one, Red Wilson, didn’t play an inning in 1961, and another, Earl Averill Jr., was chosen as an outfielder but converted to catching for the Angels.

The draft class of 1962

The National League learned some lessons from the junior circuit’s half-cocked misfire of December 1960. The NL broomed the rigid order by position, letting the Mets and Colt .45s draft any available player with any pick. Also revised were the team limits on players lost, as the draft went to a three-tiered format.

First, the Mets and Colts would draft 16 players apiece, two from each existing NL club. They could then draft added players to a limit of one per club for $50,000 each. (The earlier picks had been $75,000 each, but were mandatory, in essence the base expansion fee for the new entries.) After that, the clubs had to expose two more players apiece, available for drafting at the premium price of $125,000. The expansion teams weren’t obliged to select any, but they picked up four apiece.

(The American League expansion draft had also put price tags on selections—$75,000 per major leaguer and $25,000 per minor leaguer—but it seemed a less dominant aspect of the exercise. The NL had longer to plan for maximum extraction of money from its new franchises.)

The best position player selection for Houston was its first: shortstop Eddie Bressoud, who would post 4.8 WAR in 1962. He would do it, though, for the Red Sox. The Colt .45s traded him away for fellow shortstop Don Buddin, who had a flat 0.0 WAR in ’62 and never played in the bigs again. Houston did far better in holding onto pitcher Turk Farrell, who produced 7 WAR in 1962 despite a 10-20 record. He’d compile another 9.7 WAR in four-plus seasons before being traded to Philadelphia.

Houston managed a 64-96 record in 1962, two games behind its 66-94 Pythagorean projection. Team WAR was a quite respectable 28.9, most of it (21.9) coming from pitching. Replacement level worked out to a 47-113 record over 160 games, meaning Houston’s team WAR indicates it could have expected to finish with 76 wins. That’s 10 wins ahead of Houston’s Pythagorean record, and I can’t tell you where those wins went. Maybe the mosquitoes at Colt Stadium ate them: they were big enough to do it.

The Houston draft cohort, 23 players, produced 30.5 WAR in 1962. The Colt .45s, good as their team WAR was, actually lost 1.6 WAR in their post-draft dealings, starting with Bressoud. The 1962 draft dispensed fewer players than 1961’s, meaning Houston didn’t have any comic overabundance at a specific position like the four catchers for the two AL entries. The drafting executives kept things well-balanced.

The one area where the Mets draft excelled was in choosing future managers, beating L.A.’s figure by selecting three. Two of them would meet in the 1989 National League Championship Series, Roger Craig’s Giants defeating Don Zimmer‘s Cubs. The third, Gil Hodges, would manage the expansion Senators for nearly five years before rejoining the Mets as their skipper. There he would have three mediocre years, plus one miracle.

The Mets famously finished 40-120 in 1962, a full 10 games behind their 50-110 Pythagorean result. The team had 6.5 batting WAR and just 3.2 pitching WAR, for a 9.7 total. This would come out to roughly 57 wins, seven behind Pythagoras and 17 behind the real standings. I can’t blame the mosquitoes here, so I’ll hang it all on Marv Throneberry.

New York’s draft class of 22 players fits the pattern, having produced a bare 5.5 WAR in 1962. Mets executives gained 4.2 WAR for the club with post-draft moves, amazingly better than the Senators or the Colt .45s. For a quintessentially Mets move in the draft, look to the two second basemen they drafted, Elio Chacon and Felix Mantilla. Chacon’s primary position in 1962 would be shortstop, and Mantilla’s would be third base.

(If you expected me to mock the Mets’ catchers instead, I have to disappoint you. The three backstops the Mets drafted—Hobie Landrith, Chris Cannizzaro and Choo Choo Coleman—all ended up with production rates between 1.5 and 2.5 WAR per 600 plate appearances. That’s not world-beating by any stretch, but it’s decent, especially given this team. Poor Landrith ended up the player to be named later the Mets sent to Baltimore for Marvelous Marv. So he’s suffered enough.)

The best-case scenarios

And now we finally come to the point of the exercise. How would the new teams have done if the players they drafted were at their all-time peaks? Restricted to single-year performance, the answer is “pretty awesome, except for the Mets.”

In projecting records for them, I took the difference between the draftees’ best-year WAR and the team’s real-life WAR, and added that to their real-life win total. Whatever fluctuations made the records deviate from the WAR numbers, I assume that those carry over.

Team       Tm. WAR  Tm. Record  Best Yr. WAR  Best Yr. Record  Players w/5+ WAR (Best/Real Life)
Angels       24.7      70-91        74.3          120-41             7/1
Senators     16.7      61-100       53.6           98-63             1/0
Colt .45s    28.9      64-96        58.3           93-67             3/1
Mets          9.7      40-120       46.0           76-84             3/0

Obviously enough, the Angels would have run away with the 1961 AL pennant, lapping the fabled ’61 Yankees with their mere 109 wins. By static scoring, the Senators would have come in third behind New York and the 101-win Tigers. However, Washington’s 37 extra wins would have had to come from the other teams in the league. Going by the rough average of four wins per team, the Senators would have pulled Detroit back just enough to pass them for second.

Los Angeles easily had the most players who ever put up 5 WAR or more in a season, equaling the other three combined. Four of the seven were has-beens—Ned Garver, Eddie Yost, Bob Cerv, and Ted Kluszewski—but three not only had their best seasons in the future, but would have them for the Angels. Ken McBride hit his 5.2 peak in 1961; Dean Chance pegged the meter at 9.3 in 1964; Jim Fregosi not only had his 7.9 peak likewise in ’64, but stayed above 5 WAR the next three seasons and threw in a later 7.7, all with the Angels.

Their excellence highlights how the Angels were the class of the early expansion franchises. Not only were they respectable their very first year, they leaped to downright good in their second. In fact, they stood alone atop the 10-team American League on the 4th of July in 1962. The glass slipper didn’t fit, but neither did they turn into pumpkins, finishing third at 86-76, 10 games behind the Yankees. It was the best sophomore performance until the D-Backs won 100 games in 1999, though in the free-agency era the road to rapid improvement is a broader one (as is the road to rapid deterioration).

One can also see, in the inferior results for the National League expansion teams, the effect of the smaller draft classes they were allowed to acquire. Take away eight players, and you take away eight career bests. Even for journeyman players, that will add up.

The best-case Colt .45s would have gotten to the fringes of the Giants-Dodgers pennant race, but no closer. Even after accounting for wins other teams would have lost to the Colts, Houston would have been challenging Cincinnati for third, three games or so back of the leaders (101-61 in real life, before their playoff). It would have been a highly exciting four-cornered race, similar to the AL in 1967, but not quite a triumph for Houston.

And then, as always, there are the Mets. Even with all their drafted players having career years, they finish with a losing record. Assuming they took an average four wins away from every other team, they would have nosed out the Phillies for seventh place in the league.

I could add a great many comments, but I think I can let that testimony to the historic futility of the 1962 Mets stand to speak for itself.

Now for the other best-case scenario, giving the expansion clubs credit for their draftees’ best three-year stretches. This will not be nearly as spectacular for the new teams. I’m almost tempted to call it “realistic.” Almost.

Team/Yr.     Tm. WAR  Tm. Record  "Best" WAR  "Best" Record
Angels '61     24.7     70-91        51.0         96-65
Angels '62     28.1     86-76        46.6        105-57
Angels '63     23.1     70-91        35.8         83-78

Senators '61   16.7     61-100       33.4         78-83
Senators '62   20.4     60-101       30.6         72-89
Senators '63    6.0     56-106       36.7         87-75

Colt .45s '62  28.9     64-96        31.0         66-94
Colt .45s '63  20.1     66-96        24.7         71-91
Colt .45s '64  22.4     66-96        40.9         85-77

Mets '62        9.7     40-120       28.9         59-101
Mets '63        7.2     51-111       16.7         61-101
Mets '64       15.0     53-109       29.8         68-94

It’s little surprise that the Angels are the one team that still gets a pennant in this best-case scenario, though it’s in a different season. The other teams finish in the same relative order as before. All eventually get to a winning record, except for the Mets, who don’t even get to 70 wins.

As a tangential point of interest, I looked up the players who had the widest divergence between how well they played in the year they were drafted and how well they played in their best seasons. The widest gulf is for Dean Chance of the Angels, the -0.2 WAR from his rookie season of 1961 comparing to his 9.3 in 1964 for a 9.5 WAR differential. For the Mets, it’s Gus Bell, who had an atrocious -1.5 for the ’62 Amazins, compared to his peak 4.5 WAR with Cincinnati in 1953.

The winner for the Senators and Colts is the same person: Bobby Shantz. Shantz had an awesome 1952, finishing 24-7 for the Philadelphia A’s with a league-leading WHIP, compiling 9.1 WAR as he won the MVP Award. Subsequent arm trouble meant he never again approached those heights as a starter, though he did transition to effective relief. A productive 1.6 WAR in ’61 and a 2.3 in ’62 still made him the what-could-have-been champ for both clubs.

(Not that they reaped the benefits. Shantz never pitched for the Senators, and he had just three games with Houston—all as a starter, with an ERA of 1.31—before being flipped to St. Louis.)

Summing up

The “fantasy” lineups derived from the expansion draft classes of 1961-62 corresponded fairly well with the real-life performance of their teams. The Angels were the powerhouse; the Mets were the dregs; though the Colt .45s were passed by a Senators team with an inferior record, it’s clearly attributable to the higher number of draftees the Senators were permitted.

The exercise does show how tough it would have been for the new franchises to field strong teams in their first year of existence. Even with such a cheat as using the greatest career years of their draftees, only one of the four tops its league, and not all of them make the first division. It also raised my respect for the L.A. Angels, who put together such a fine draft barely a week into their existence. Gene Autry was way smarter than your average singing cowboy, at least in picking his executives. Kudos.

It might be interesting to run the thought experiment some other time with the later expansion drafts, to see how much stronger those classes were with altered draft rules, or if they really were stronger at all. That might have to wait a while, though. I’m starting to wonder how well the best years of the 1962 Mets draft class would have stacked up against the 1899 Cleveland Spiders at their peak …

References & Resources
Baseball-Reference supplied the statistics, as well as the rosters of the expansion drafts plus background on the rules used for each. You can see lists of the players drafted for 1961 and 1962 at the appended links, but take care to consult the supplemental moves in 1961 to see how the original draft selections changed.

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A writer for The Hardball Times, Shane has been writing about baseball and science fiction since 1997. His stories have been translated into French, Russian and Japanese, and he was nominated for the 2002 Hugo Award.
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Paul G.
Paul G.

Ooh, peak Spiders.  That’s a tough call.  The Spiders had a couple of borderline Hall of Fame candidates in Lave Cross and Jack Stivetts, a former batting champ at first, a solid catching corps, some young players that would develop into fairly good talents eventually (at least for one season), and Chief Sockalexis who was utterly spectacular at the start of his rookie season and then fizzled out.  But they also had some players of essentially replacement players, or worse, for their entire careers.  It is dependent how flexible you want to be with the playing time.

Marc Schneider
Marc Schneider

Interesting article.  It’s sort of odd that the Angels did so well initially in putting together a team from scratch,yet didn’t get to the World Series for 40 years.  There was some bad luck involved but the quality of the front office apparently declined. The Mets, on the other hand, won the World Series only seven years after being the worst team in the history of baseball.

Enjoyed reading the interesting tidbits, such as Joe Cronin’s hilarious botching up the draft rules. Speaking of expansion drafts, I always found it odd that the expansion Blue Jays and Mariners were prohibited from participation in the free agent re-entry draft in 1976. Imagine if after being awarded franchises, they had been allowed to stock and operate farm clubs in 1976. Then, after the expansion draft (moved up a week), they had been allowed to participate in the free agent re-entry draft. Discounting what we know of later injuries, etc., who might have been picked and perhaps signed? Joe Rudi… Read more »