The Sinister Causes of Sudden Stops, 1988 Version

There are some parallels between this year’s Nationals and the 1988 Yankees. (via D.B. King)

The Washington Nationals’ playoff chances appear to be dying. The New York Mets’ are nearly dead. The Seattle Mariners’ chances are very much alive. All of these statements in some sense defy preseason expectations, the first and last because the Nationals were thought to be good and the Mariners bad, the other because the Mets feinted towards contention before dying hard. It just goes to show how teams can give off confusing signals that complicate what we think about how the season is going to go, or even how it’s going.

Thirty years ago this summer, the New York Yankees had a season with similarities to all three 2018 teams mentioned above, plus a bit of the unique peak of High Steinbrennerism. That is to say that whatever happens over the remainder of the 2018 season, we can be reasonably certain no team, not even the Mets, will be so dysfunctional as to make a trade so bad it ends up as a punchline on “Seinfeld.”

One of baseball’s eternal questions is, “When can I trust what I’m seeing?” Each season, a few teams expected to limp out of the gate, if not in perpetuity, will stack up wins while a handful of consensus contenders find themselves looking up at the rest of the league at the end of April. When should you revise your opinion of which teams should be in each category? Study the question and you get different answers, usually landing between 15 and 30 games. But while this rule applies in general, it might be wrong in any specific case.

Example: The Houston Astros were born in 1962 and lost 96 games for three straight seasons. In year four, they varied things up by losing 97. They had some good young players—Joe Morgan, Jimmy Wynn, Rusty Staub, Larry Dierker—and more on the way, but heading into the 1966 season there was no real reason to rank them with contenders like the Giants, Dodgers, and Cardinals. Nevertheless, on Sunday, May 15 they hit the 30-game mark at 18-12, a record that put them on a pace to win 97 games. Suffice it to say the Astros did not win 97 games that year, and in fact did not win 97 games in any season until 1999. The 1966 team stopped winning in June and never started again. They went 54-78 the rest of the way and finished eighth in a 10-team league.

Conversely—just to pick one of dozens of examples—the 1952 New York Yankees, the third of what would be five consecutive World Series winners and the sixth of 12 straight teams with 92 or more wins, were a mediocre 18-17 through the end of May, a 79-75 pace that saw them standing fifth in an eight-team league. They went 77-42 the rest of the way. For a more extreme case, see the 1979 “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates, who started out 12-18, faced down a nine-game deficit in the standings, went 86-46 (.652) over the remainder of the season, and ultimately won the World Series.

As the Nationals’ current slump demonstrates, the season’s turning points don’t always break down into neatly delineated categories or calendar periods—good, then bad; May, then June. Sometimes they don’t signal themselves at all. On May 30, the Nationals were in first place and playing at a 97-win pace. This seemed to make sense: The Nats won at least 95 games in four of the previous six seasons, and most of the players who made those seasons possible are still on hand, albeit in varying states of health and productivity.

Since then, the Nationals have compiled the third-worst record in the National League at 12-22. Only the Mets, who were themselves 17-9 at the end of April, and Pirates have been worse. At this writing, the team has managed to get back to a game over .500, but beware the word “slump” used in the previous paragraph: It implies a transience that may prove to be inaccurate. They can’t play the Marlins forever. We won’t know which is the “real” Nationals until it’s all over. Sometimes you think the season is one thing, and it turns out to be another.

The Nationals have inherent weaknesses and a talent for injuries. The Mets had few strengths and that same fragility. The Mariners have played 37 one-run games, more than any team except the Rays, who also have played 37. The M’s have won 26 of them. And while one might try to construct an argument that this is a manifestation of a skill that will persist through the conclusion of the season—as opposed to a series of coin flips that has come up “heads” an inordinate number of times—this is one of those “It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” situations. You can’t say that whichever quality has helped the Mariners to six walk-off wins and just two walk-off losses will endure until the season is safely in the rearview mirror.

It seems safe to say that it helps not to be distracted or mismanaged. That’s why the players-only meeting held by the Nationals after their July 4 shutout at the hands of the Boston Red Sox was redolent of the 1988 Yankees. It suggests that someone—Max Scherzer, perhaps—felt the team was suffering from more than a lack of clutch pitching or timely hitting. As Chelsea Janes wrote in the Washington Post:

[Manager Dave] Martinez certainly has not lapsed into negativity. He continues to defend his team vehemently. Perhaps the players believed this message had to come from within. With a team this experienced, that has been through so much together, perhaps those are the most poignant.

“We’re going to play free. We’re going to play loose,” [Matt] Grace said. “And I think we’re going to play for each other until we turn it around.”

Read into those words—“play for each other”—what you will.

The 1988 Yankees could have used that kind of focusing sentiment. They too were a team that needed interior motivation; the exterior motivators, whether manager, general manager, or owner, had failed them. Despite this, they at first appeared to be on the road to success. The season marked the fifth and final return of Billy Martin as manager. Martin was the greatest short-term turnaround artist is baseball history, but by this point the totality of his alcoholism, psychological issues, and age had burnt him out for good. Yet, whether despite his ebbing judgment or because he was like a dying battery with one last erg to give, the team got off to a spectacular start.

Through the end of May, the Yankees were on a pace for 109 wins. Historically, most teams with that record at that point in the season would win something. Maybe not the World Series, but they would reach the postseason, especially after the switch to the multi-tiered playoff format in 1969. From 1946 through 1988, 35 teams had a record as good or better than the one the Yankees had through May 31 (33-16). Twenty-six of them went on to play in October. For the Yankees, though, it was just at the point that a successful season seemed assured that the wheels came off.

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That Yankees team had two future Hall of Famers near the peak of their powers in outfielders Rickey Henderson (.305/.394/.399, 93 stolen bases) and Dave Winfield (.322/.398/.530), as well as two hitters, whose careers and abilities were of nigh-Cooperstown quality, who had solid seasons in first baseman Don Mattingly (.311/.353/.462) and designated hitter Jack Clark (.242/.381/.433).

What they didn’t have was much in the way of pitching. Of the seven main starting pitchers, one, Ron Guidry, had won a Cy Young Award; four (Rick Rhoden, Tommy John, Richard Dotson, John Candelaria) had at some point in their careers finished in the top five in the Cy Young voting. The one youngster on a staff that averaged 32.5 years of age as a whole, 22-year-old rookie Al Leiter, would have a 10-year run as a reliably strong starter, particularly with the turn-of-the-century Mets. However, none of those pitchers were at the peak of their powers that year. Candelaria was the most consistent of the bunch but was limited by injuries and frequently complained about wanting to move to the bullpen.

Said bullpen, headed by fireman Dave Righetti, struggled to hold the few leads that group of mostly decrepit starters could hand it, and it was here that Martin and the season began to unravel. The Yankees had a 35-year-old reliever, Tim Stoddard, who was notable mostly for his 6-foot-7 stature. Stoddard had been ineffective over the first quarter of the season, and Martin wanted him released. The front office disagreed.

On June 19, as the Yankees clung to a half-game division lead heading into a game at Cleveland, Martin decided winning was less important than staging a protest. With the Yankees trailing 4-3 in the sixth, Martin brought Stoddard into the game with two men on. Stoddard gave up a single to bring one runner home and wild-pitched the other to the plate before getting out of the inning. Martin left him in to begin the seventh, watching passively as he threw at a batter, walked the bases loaded, and then walked in a run. Finally making a move with the score 7-3, Martin brought in Charlie Hudson, who promptly gave up a grand slam.

Stoddard had faced eight batters and retired just one. “They say he’s capable of pitching up here,” Martin said after. “Let him pitch. I’m not going to drain my bullpen. Sometimes you have to go down the drain with one guy.” Stoddard still wasn’t released, but Martin had created a self-fulfilling prophecy in that he had already settled on one pitcher, righty reliever Cecilio Guante, to ride down the drain. Guante was a good pitcher, but by June he was on a pace to throw 128 innings on the season and was wearing down.

The Stoddard game and the overreliance on Guante weren’t what finished Martin, though, or not those things alone. In May, he and Mickey Mantle had gone to a Dallas topless club after a game against the Rangers. Somehow Mantle had gone home alone, leaving Martin on his own.

At that point, a party or parties jumped Martin in the men’s room and beat him to within an inch of his life. He was thrown face-first down a wall; his face kept going, but one of his ears nearly stayed behind—depending on the source it would take from 50 to 80 stitches to sew it back on. Owner George Steinbrenner was not only in Texas but happened to be standing in front of the team hotel when Martin, who in his foggy state thought he could sleep off a semi-detached ear and severe blood-loss, came stumbling in.

When Martin had gotten into fights in the past, Steinbrenner had publicly wondered how it would look if the manager of the New York Yankees killed someone. Now he began to think about how it would feel if the manager of the New York Yankees was killed by someone. When the Stoddard game was followed by three-straight one-run, walk-off losses at Detroit, two of them due to home runs allowed by Guante, Steinbrenner replaced Martin with 1987 manager/1988 general manager Lou Piniella. “Martin wasn’t the same Billy Martin this time,” Steinbrenner said. Actually, Martin always had been erratic and prone to working at cross-purposes with his employer. So Steinbrenner was wrong, unless by “not the same” he was noting a one-ear deficit.

Strangely, the losses to the Tigers were not the nadir of the season. Having gone from a half-game ahead to 2.5 games behind in the span of three days, the Yankees started winning again. By late July they had slid back into first place, albeit by the same half-game they had held before being swept by the Tigers. In the midst of that resurgence, on July 21, the Yankees took one of their top young prospects, the outfielder Jay Buhner, and, for reasons that have never been satisfactorily explained, traded him and two pitching prospects to the Seattle Mariners for 33-year-old designated hitter Ken Phelps.

The trade was odd not because the Yankees had profligately spent from a resource they had little of, namely good young players—under Steinbrenner they had done that many times before. It wasn’t that they thought less of Buhner than the rest of baseball did—they believed he had a fatal hitch in his swing; that was typical, too. It wasn’t that the trade was imbalanced—this was the team that traded Fred McGriff for Dale Murray and Willie McGee for Bob Sykes. It wasn’t even that Phelps was a bad player—as platoon designated hitters went, he was one of the best ever, a slugger who, from 1984 through 1987, had hit a home run every 12.8 at-bats while walking so often that he had a .393 on-base percentage despite a batting average of just .245.

Rather, it was that the Yankees needed pitching, not their third first-baseman/DH after Mattingly and Clark. Phelps hit 10 home runs in 107 at-bats for the Yankees, but even so he was purely redundant. The trade only got worse as the years went on; Phelps had just eight home runs left in his career after 1988, while Buhner had 297 still to go.

As July turned to August, for a moment, a fatal moment, the Yankees just stopped, in the same way that, prior to their comeback win over the Marlins on July 5, the Nationals had stopped. August was basically a series of four-game losing streaks interrupted by one-off wins. From August 2 to September 2, the Yankees went 11-24, They won consecutive games just twice and never were able to win as many as three games in a row. The position players slumped, averaging just 3.9 runs per game and .247/.308/.363 during this period. (On the season, AL teams averaged 4.4 runs per game and hit .259/.324/.391). But it was the aged pitchers who had given out, allowing an incredible 6.5 runs per nine innings.

“You try to go home and not kick the dog or kick over a lamp,” Winfield said, “because they’re all imported.” Then, weirdly, they got better again. It was a slow year in the AL East, so the Yankees were still alive, at least on paper, just five games behind the division-leading Boston Red Sox with 24 games to play. That might have been surmountable, but they were also in fourth place, and they would not only have to jump the Sox but the Brewers and Tigers, as well.

New York made things interesting, sweeping a four-game September set from Detroit at Yankee Stadium. Exorcising Guante’s ghost, three of the four wins came on walk-off home runs, the last a dramatic bottom-of-the-18th shot by platoon center fielder Claudell Washington off southpaw Willie Hernandez, a pitcher he wasn’t supposed to be able to hit, and, to that point in his career, hadn’t.

How Guante felt about all the walk-offs went unrecorded; the Yankees had dumped him on Texas on August 30, receiving journeyman Dale Mohorcic in return. Mohoric actually pitched as if his horse was quite well, but it was all beside the point by then. The Yankees never got closer to the Red Sox than 3.5 games. “’We’re still battling for a pennant,” Steinbrenner said in late September. “Until the last dog dies, I won’t say the race is over.” The Yankees clearly had something against dogs.

That canine fatality came as a final indignity when the Yankees returned to Detroit to close out the season. They were swept again, not only getting eliminated from postseason contention but dropping into fifth place. Take out the lost five weeks that began in August, and they played at a 95-win pace. The division-winning Red Sox won only 89 games.

They could have played .500 ball during that period, or even a few games worse than that, and still been in the postseason picture. Among the teams they couldn’t beat during the time Winfield was tempted to kick his imported dog were the Twins, Blue Jays, and Brewers, who were good, but also the Mariners and Angels, who were not. When it was over, Clark offered a deep thought: “You can only lose so many games.” At least he didn’t threaten the dog.

Why do teams come to a halt even when, over some larger portion of the season they have proven to be capable of much more? Shallower fans and sportswriters might invoke the word “quit,” but there was no cabal waving the white flag. Steinbrenner had ripped his team at the All-Star break, among other things calling Mattingly, “the most unproductive .300 hitter in baseball.” Mattingly had taken it hard.

About the same time, there was grousing in the clubhouse about club rules being flaunted. Yet, were this the case, there would have been no reason for September’s rally, and as the reality of that month’s shortfall crept over them, many players expressed seemingly sincere regret for what had been squandered. No doubt luck and coincidence can pile up with devastating and unusually sequential consequences.

Alternatively, perhaps the Yankees, with their superannuated pitching staff, had had good luck all year long, and the August 2-September 7 Yankees were representative of the team’s true ability. We have no way of knowing, just as, when all is said and done, what the Mariners and Nationals did to continue or arrest their progress may remain a mystery.

References and Resources

  • Baseball-Reference
  • The New York Times
  • David Falkner, The Last Yankee: The Turbulent Life of Billy Martin
  • Peter Golenbock, Wild, High and Tight: The Life and Death of Billy Martin
  • Billy Martin and Peter Golenbock, Number One


Steven Goldman is the author of Forging Genius: The Making of Casey Stengel, the editor and coauthor of numerous other books including Mind Game, It Ain't Over 'Til It's Over, and Extra Innings: More Baseball Between the Numbers, and hosts The Infinite Inning baseball podcast. A former editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus, his writing on the game, its history, and sundry other topics have appeared in numerous publications. He resides in New Jersey, which is not nearly as bad as you've been told. Follow him on Twitter @GoStevenGoldman.

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7 Comments on "The Sinister Causes of Sudden Stops, 1988 Version"

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martyvan90
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martyvan90

Thanks for the memories. As a Yankee fan, I was glad I was on the West Coast during this period. It was a dark period for Billy and the Yankees.

Pepper Martin
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Pepper Martin
Oh man it was depressing being a Yankee fan in the late 80’s and early 90’s. The 1990 Yankees team that followed this one was one of the most depressing teams I’ve ever had the misfortune of following — every single starting pitcher had a losing record and an ERA worse than league average. On offense, the team ranked last in the AL in Batting Average, last in the AL in OBP, and last in the AL in slugging. Other than the magic of Kevin Maas’ small sample size debut, there was absolutely nothing enjoyable about watching that team. But,… Read more »
shortstop
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shortstop

Great piece! Unproductive .300 hitter or not, it’s a shame Mattingly wasn’t on better teams.

Paul G.
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Paul G.
Sparky Lyle (and his ghost writer) spoofed the Ken Phelps trade in his book The Year I Owned the Yankees: A Baseball Fantasy. During the season the team kept trading for left-handed power hitters that only could play first and DH under the philosophy that one can never have enough left handed power in Yankee Stadium. Mind you they already had an in-his-prime Mattingly at first. I think at one point they had four of them on the roster, the last one playing two games before they figured out that, yes, it was possible to have too much left-handed power… Read more »
Johnston
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Johnston

“we don’t know until we know.”

It ain’t over until it’s over.

GoNYGoNYGoGo
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GoNYGoNYGoGo

If I recall correctly, that season was also when during a national game of the week, Martin had Rick Rhoden, who was a good hitting pitcher, either DH or pinch hit to demonstrate to the front office that he needed another bat on the bench.

Raf
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Raf

1988 was the same year Jose Cruz Sr finished up, and Chris Chambliss was activated. In that context, the acquisition of Ken Phelps makes sense. They just HAD to have that old LH bat that year.