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25 May

Decisions, Decisions

I’m introducing a new category: Decisions, where I’ll take a look back at past decisions made by Bobby Cox and John Schuerholz and examine them on the basis of, “If we knew what they knew then, was making this decision reasonable?” (This has some relationship to Neyer’s “Blunders” book but these decisions are not necessarily blunders.)

I’ll start off with the first big decision John Schuerholz made after taking the job.

Terry Pendleton Statistics – Baseball-Reference.com

December 3, 1990: Signed as a Free Agent with the Atlanta Braves.

The deal was for four years, $10.225 million, a pretty big deal for the time. TP was coming off of a bad year, in which he hit .230/.277/.324 and lost his job to Todd Zeile.

Obviously the deal worked out. But knowing only the information Schuerholz had at hand, could he have known that? As I see it, there are three questions here:

1. Could he have known Pendleton would rebound?

2. Could he have known Pendleton would turn into a batting champion?

3. Could he have known any other reason to make the deal?

I believe that the answers are “Yes”, a qualified “No”, and “Yes”.

1. Pendleton, in the years 1987-89, had put up OPS+ of 103, 87, and 98. He was a slightly below-average hitter, but certainly not a drag on the offense. (His real offensive value is probably slightly less than that indicates, because he hit into a lot of double plays and was a poor percentage basestealer, but these are fairly minor quibbles.) He had been hurt in 1990 and when healthy was being jerked around because the team had nothing invested in his future. It was fairly predictable that he would return to hitting at his 1987-89 level.

2. However, was there anything in his record that suggested that he might blossom into (for two years) a top hitter? Not to the extent that he did, no. I do think that in retrospect he could have been expected to play better than he had. Busch Stadium at the time was an awful hitter’s park and might as well have been designed to suppress Terry Pendleton. A guy with little or no power who hit a lot of chopper and ground balls like Ozzie Smith or Willie McGee would hardly even notice the offensive suppression. A Jack Clark would overcome any park. But someone like TP could get hurt a lot. Losing five or ten homers a year would hurt Clark a little, but it would devastate a guy with 20 HR power like Pendleton. Baseball Prospectus‘ ratings say that TP should have hit 44 homers from 1987-89; he actually hit 31.

Some of this is “context”, as we call it; a .280 hitter might hit .290 in one park or .270 in another but have the same value everywhere. But sometimes we don’t recognize that “context” can be overblown; some hitters really are more valuable in different contexts. Bill James once wrote (I’m paraphrasing from memory) that just because Gavy Cravath led the league in homers with 20 and Babe Ruth led with 50 doesn’t make Cravath the equal of Ruth, because 20 homers aren’t 50 homers, and they just don’t produce as many runs.

Terry Pendleton became a better hitter in Fulton County Stadium. Busch Stadium was a really bad place to hit, a place where a lot of fly balls went to die. It’s not surprising that he hit almost as many homers in 1991-92 (43) as in his entire career to that point (44), nor that his batting average went up as well. That being said, expecting him to lead the league in hitting would have been foolhardy unless they really knew something that isn’t part of the public record; Schuerholz makes no mention of this.

3. That being said, Schuerholz’s thought processes in this matter are pretty clear to me.

“We have a really bad defensive infield.”

“Three of our top four starters are lefthanded.”

“Terry Pendleton is the best defensive third baseman in baseball and he is a free agent.”

With three lefty starters, you expect a lot of GB5s. In 1990, the Braves’ primary third baseman was the heroically awful Jim Presley, who fielded .930. Pendleton came in and fielded .950. Presley’s range factor was 2.50, which was above the league but not particularly impressive since most of the Braves’ starts were by lefties. Pendleton’s was 3.09. Why did Tom Glavine and Steve Avery suddenly blossom? In large part, because they finally had a defense they could rely upon, and the biggest reason for this was Terry Pendleton.

Pendleton’s MVP in 1991 is ridiculed in some quarters, but it’s perfectly justifiable. I mean, you have a player who comes to a team that has been losing 100 games a year, takes over a leadership role, wins the batting title while hitting over 20 homers, and plays gold glove defense. Sounds like an MVP to me. But a lot of Pendleton’s value is hidden because it shows up in Glavine’s and Avery’s and Leibrandt’s lines.

18 Responses to “Decisions, Decisions”

  1. 1
    zerotres Says:

    Wow, very nice analysis. You make some great points that I, for one, hadn’t thought about.

    I vaguely remember when the Braves signed Pendleton and I remember thinking “WTF?”. Of course, Pendleton’s contributions eventually proved my doubts were unfounded.

    Looking forward to more of these, especially the entry about Dan Kolb. ;-)

  2. 2
    Jay Says:

    The move from astro-turf to grass may have helped TP some too. Seeing him run on turf always hurt my knees.

    The other question that comes to my mind is context: what other third basemen were available that year? What did others get on the market?

    This deal makes me think of the Renteria trade. A guy comes off an off year, and Schuerholz seems to just know they’re going to rebound big.

  3. 3
    JoeyT Says:

    That’s an impressive entry, Mac. So I take it that the answer to the core question is “Yes”? Even if he hadn’t exploded offensively, the defensive help alone would have been enough to make the move reasonable?

  4. 4
    Mac Thomason Says:

    I think that’s a fair summary. Pendleton was more valuable to the Braves than he would have been to anyone else. Part of the disagreement with the signing at the time was probably because the Braves were supposedly years away from being competitive, but that wasn’t the case…

  5. 5
    Brian Says:

    TP is my favorite Brave of the Shurholtz / Cox regime. He stepped up and got the job done and gave the Braves something they needed — leadership. He wasn’t flashy or a little bitch. Just solid.

  6. 6
    Smitty Says:

    He was the master of the “one hop throw to first” on astroturf.

  7. 7
    Mac Thomason Says:

    I’m going through in basically chronological order (though I reserve the right to go backwards.) The next one will surprise many of you, I think.

    One thing I didn’t mention, and which I don’t know that Schuerholz considered (though he may have) was that TP had his best year in 1987, when home runs were much easier to come by than in the rest of the decade.  That suggests that in a home-run friendly environment he would prosper.

  8. 8
    ububba Says:

    Helluva question. I can’t imagine that anyone could’ve predicted the extent to which TP helped turn things around in ATL. He was a good fielder with a winning pedigree. He had a lousy 1990, but .319 & MVP in ’91? You had to be reading tea leaves to predict that.

    I recall thinking that TP was a solid addition, if for no other reason that he came from a winning culture. We needed an attitude adjustment & he was part of that. Those Cardinals teams were weird and seriously annoying to play, but boy could they catch the ball. They certainly whipped our lousy asses. Between 1984-89, StL was 49-20 vs. ATL.

    TP was just unreal in ’91. He made big plays all over the place and was pinging hits in big spots, especially right after the all-star break when the Braves made their big move and the Dodgers began their big gag.

    Don’t believe in clutch? Check this out. (I looked it up.) In the first 8 games after that break, TP was 13/28 (a cool .464) with 9 RBI, and the Braves went 7-1. In a little over a week (and with help from LA), they went from “a nice story” to legit contenders who believed in themselves. For a long-suffering Braves fan, closing that gap on first place that summer was as thrilling as anything I’d experienced in professional sports.

    What should’ve been a perfect capper on TP’s season was ruined by Lonnie Smith, Chuck Knoblauch & that Alice-in-Wonderland roof at the Metrodome. When it was TP who laced that double, I recall thinking: “Of course…”

    And somewhat sadly, TP never did win a ring. He was 0 for 5 in the WS, each outing a heartbreaking 6- or 7-game affair. But he was a winning ballplayer & he brought something special to this franchise.

  9. 9
    Sam Says:

    I think this is a great idea. Keep it up, Mac. :) I didn’t know about the circumstances of the Terry Pendleton signing since I was 8 at the time. Although in hindsight, I know something now, heh.

  10. 10
    jenny Says:

    I was 3, so I win for ignorance! Seriously, though, this is really interesting reading. I wish we could go back in time and see what would have happened if we’d drafted that Van Poppel dude first instead of Chipper. Nothing good, I bet.

  11. 11
    Miranda Says:

    I was like ONE… lol

    That was very interesting! I look forward to reading this stuff!

  12. 12
    Mac Thomason Says:

    And now, the second entry.

  13. 13
    Jeff M. Says:

    I wonder, too, the effect defensively of bringing in Belliard (yeah, I know, the guy couldn’t kill a fly with his bat) and Sid Bream as well. Neither was great offensively, but defensively they were at least pretty good and solid (respectively), for a time that had been dismal defensively and a team that was trying to win with young pitching that would have been crushed by a ton of errors from the likes of Presley and Andres Thomas.

  14. 14
    Stephen Says:

    Mac, these have been fun posts (including the Leibrandt one) and I hope that we see more.

    Anyway, one small thing that I would like to add to the JS thought process: in addition to the Presley the Braves had already invested in someone who might have been able to play third, but now couldn’t.

    The Braves signed Nick Esasky to play first before the 1990 season. He had come up as a third baseman, but had spent most of the late 1980s at first.

    Esasky put up impressive numbers in 1989 and the Braves could not have foreseen that he would develop vertigo, leading him to play in 9 games in 1990.

    For those of us who lived through the rock bottom days of the late 1980s (worse possibly than the cellar of the late 1970s) the Esasky fiasco seemed to fit the franchise. It was one of those little things which made the next season just about magical.

    Jenny, I realize that this must be ancient history….

  15. 15
    Kyle S Says:

    I was in 4th grade at the time, but a huge fan. I too remember how clutch TP was, and how many people at my elementary school considered him their favorite player. It really is amazing to look at the really early Braves teams (91 – 95) and to realize apart from the starting pitching how crappy they look in retrospect.

    Also, it boggles my mind that there are Braves fans out there who DON’T remember this team.. shows I’m getting old :)

  16. 16
    Jeff M. Says:

    Kyle S.,
    It doesn’t necessarily show how old you (or some of the rest of us on this blog) are; instead it shows just how long this run has been going on. Most sporting runs are comparitively brief. During the Braves’ historic run, their have been other sports dynasties that have come and gone. This speaks to the amazing length of the streak. Long live the streak!!!!

  17. 17
    nevin Says:

    wow. Been out of the country fro two weeks and checking back in, and this is dope. Thanks for everything, Mac. Great read.

  18. 18
    No. 26: Terry Pendleton - Braves Journal Says:

    […] Terry was John Schuerholz’s first player acquisition with the Braves. Schuerholz was criticized for this, bringing in a subpar hitter coming off a bad year and suffering hamstring problems. In retrospect, it’s clear that JS made upgrading the defense his highest priority, and Pendleton was the key component in that. What maybe couldn’t have been predicted was that Pendleton would blossom into a star for the first two seasons of his contract. […]

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