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.
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.