Goldman: Chasing Ken Phelps

From SABR member Steven Goldman at The Hardball Times on April 11, 2019:

The Ken Phelps–Jay Buhner trade that so enraged Larry David that he made a point of shaming George Steinbrenner for it in a Seinfeld episode eight years after its consummation could have happened three years earlier than it did. The New York Yankees acquired the 34-year-old Phelps from the Seattle Mariners for the outfielder Buhner, 23, and pitching prospects Rick Balabon and Troy Evers (their 1985 first- and second-round draft picks, respectively) on July 21, 1988, but they had been endeavoring to acquire the left-handed slugger since 1985. The question then, as it was three years later, was why.

Actually, we can dispense with part of the why: Phelps was a unique hitter, a left-handed-hitting, three-true-outcomes unicorn. In 529 games with the Mariners, Phelps hit .249/.392/.521 with 105 home runs in 1,399 at-bats. If Phelps’ rate of a home run every 13.3 at-bats during those years qualified for the all-time list, it would fall between Barry Bonds’ one home run per 12.9 and Jim Thome’s 13.8. Phelps wasn’t much with the glove, and he was much less exciting against same-side pitching (.202/.329/.370 career), but if you needed damage done against a right-handed pitcher, this Muppet-looking dude with the big mustache and bigger glasses was as good as anyone in the game. During his Mariners years, just three players outpaced Phelps when it came to OPS versus right-handed pitchers (.938): Darryl Strawberry (.962), George Brett (.963), and Wade Boggs (.984).

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Originally published: April 11, 2019. Last Updated: April 11, 2019.