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Pioneers/Executives

GM Update #8: Clark Griffith

Clark Griffith is the man of the moment for us. As a potential player, managerial, and executive candidate, his presence bears upon the process we wrote about a couple weeks ago. We need to know which of those roles suits him best for our electoral reasons. Since we know his playing and managing records well, let’s see what the numbers say about his record as a team builder.

Incidentally, we’re hard at work cranking through the transaction records of numerous other GMs. We’re up to 20 now and we’ll roll out information on the several not shown here as we move along.

Team Performance

  • RECORD: Won-Loss record while GM was in office
  • PCT: Winning percentage
  • vs EXP: An adaptation of the expected wins formula Bill James introduced in his managers book. Except we use pythagenpat records instead of actual records to calculate it.
  • OCT: Postseason apperances (starting in 1969).
  • OCT v EXP: Measures postseason appearances against the basic probability of any random team making it.
  • WS APP: World Series appearances
  • WS APP v EXP: Similar to OCT v EXP
  • WS WINS: Championships won
  • WS WINS v EXP: Ditto
  • MGR PYTH: This is the team’s variance against its Pythagenpat record as a measure of how much value the GM’s manager brought to the team.
TEAM PERFORMANCE
NAME RECORD PCT. VS EXP OCT OCT VS EXP WS APP WS APP VS EXP WS WINS WS WINS VS EXP MGR PYTH
BAVASI 1 2386-2166 .524 +54 2 +0.2 8 +5.1 4 +2.5 +42
BROWN 1816-1625 .524 +48 4 +2.5 2 -0.2 2 +0.9 -5
CAMPANIS 1576-1280 .552 +44 6 +4.9 4 +2.5 1 +0.2 +8
GILLICK 2276-1993 .533 +95 11 +5.7 3 +1.0 3 +2.1 +23
GRIFFITH 2967-2964 .500 +24 N/A N/A 3 -1.88 1 -1.44 +35
HOWSAM 1331-1049 .559 +63 5 +3.3 4 +2.8  2 +1.4 +44
MACPHAIL 904-777 .538 +69 N/A N/A 2 +0.6 1 +0.3 +6
QUINN 2147-2126 .502 +17 0 -0.7 3 -0.3 1 -0.5 -9
RICKEY 3265-3015 .520 +87 N/A N/A 8 +2.7 4 +1.5 +46
SCHUERHOLZ 2348-1794 .567 +140 16 +10.8 6 +3.4 2 +1.1 +69
BAVASI 2 756-869 .465 -41 0 -2.9 0 -0.6 0 -0.3 -6
ROBINSON 683-772 .469 -6 0 -1.5 0 -0.5 0 -0.3 -5
SEGHI 883-989 .472 -11 0 -2.0 0 -0.9 0 -0.5 -4
SMITH 566-776 .422 -49 0 -2.1 0 -0.6 0 -0.3 -38

Griffith’s record looks pretty pedestrian overall. In 39 years, it’s hard to say he did a great job by simply observing these figures. As with many baseball lifers, however, the game passed him by. The second half of his executive career wasn’t nearly as productive as the first half:

  • First half (1912–1933): 1795-1533, .533, +88 vs. expected, 3 World Series appearances, 1 title
  • Second half (1934–1950): 1172-1431, .450, -64 vs. expected, no October games

In his first act, Griffith turned a never-had-been into a nearly annual contending team, winning a title along the way, and running up the second best record in the AL from 1912 through 1933. In the second act, immediately after losing the 1933 Fall Classic, the team went into the crapper for 15 years. The primary reason for the abrupt turn in fortunes can be traced to three issues. First, the 1933 Senators ran a lot of veterans onto the field, and many went into decline. Second, Griffith was one of the final holdouts from the owner-operator model. He was not well capitalized like many other owners, so he made his money on tickets, concessions, rental income from the Washington Redskins, and on selling players to other teams. The Great Depression, therefore, posed greater risks to him than to many other teams. The third item, related to both of the first two, was Griffith’s unwillingness to fully adopt the farm-system model of talent development. He couldn’t or wouldn’t buy as many affiliates as his competitors. While Griffith’s scouting network, especially in Cuba, was pretty good, he simply couldn’t compete with a centralized player-development operation like Branch Rickey’s or Ed Barrow’s. They could sign kids cheap and mold them into ballplayers. Griffith had to invest in more polished products, had fewer affiliated options for developing them, and, therefore, had less surplus talent lying around to not only plug holes but to sell to other teams. As a result, he often traded or sold his better players. During the first half of his career, this didn’t much matter because his model mirrored all of MLB. But by the time 1934 rolled around, the rest of the league had passed him by, making a retooling of the Nats incredibly difficult.

GM Performance

  • Now let’s look at how the GMs themselves did at constructing competitive clubs. BASE: Talent in WAR that a GM inherited
  • GM: Talent in WAR that a GM acquired
  • CONT GOAL: The amount of talent the GM needed to acquire to field a contender, a .550 team
  • %GOAL: How close he got, a career average of the seasonal averages
  • med%GOAL: Median seasonal %GOAL
  • WS GOAL: The amount of talent the GM needed to acquire to field a typical WS entrant in his era
  • %GOAL: How close he got, a career average if the seasonal averages
  • med%GOAL: Median seasonal %GOAL
GM PERFORMANCE
NAME BASE GM CONT GOAL avg%GOAL med%GOAL WS GOAL avg%GOAL med%GOAL
BAVASI 1 373 690 791 91% 100% 972 71% 88%
BROWN 281 552 557 97% 101% 696 76% 81%
CAMPANIS 342 407 364 128% 119% 469 87% 90%
GILLICK 385 684 671 108% 107% 807 88% 91%
GRIFFITH 198 1025 1313 78% 79% 1703 60% 60%
HOWSAM 338 229 243 83% 81% 350 60% 53%
MACPHAIL 183 193 257 69% 46% 356 46% 36%
QUINN 222 729 824 92% 97% 1066 68% 72%
RICKEY 428 879 1132 73% 78% 1580 52% 58%
SCHUERHOLZ 487 576 539 116% 105% 667 87% 88%
BAVASI 2 191 128 234 63% 52% 282 48% 47%
ROBINSON 124 183 260 74% 73% 315 58% 60%
SEGHI 115 239 350 63% 72% 420 53% 60%
SMITH 97 114 247 46% 55% 293 41% 47%

The thing about Griffith when you look year by year at him (I won’t bore you with that level of detail) is that he rarely fielded a great team. He never won 100 games, and just four of his teams topped a .600 winning percentage. Until 1933, he consistently fielded contending teams, but never so good that they could directly challenge the big dogs, namely the Athletics, Red Sox, and White Sox powerhouses of the 1910s and the Yankees and Athletics dynasties of the 1920s and 1930s. His teams won pennants when the big powers slumped. In 1924 and 1925, the Yanks were in transition, and Babe Ruth’s tummy ache in the latter season caused the Bombers to fall down in the standings. Griffith’s team was just good enough to take advantage. In 1933 after Connie Mack began the dismantling of his last great team, and while the Yanks’ pitching laid an egg, Griffith’s team found another crack to squeeze through.

Then came the Greenberg Tigers, the five-in-a-row Yankees, and the war. And old age. Baseball became a more corporate enterprise, and family-run teams soon aged out, alongside Clark Griffith.

Transactions Detail

OK, let’s see what MacPhail actually did.

  • AM FA: Amateur free agent
  • PUR: Purchased from another pro team
  • FA: Free agent (includes the short-lived free-agent compensation picks of the early 1980s)
  • AM DF: Amateur draft (any time of year, only players who signed with the team and played in MLB)
  • R5 DF: Rule 5 Draft
  • ML DF: Minor League Draft and First Year Draft
  • TR: Trade
  • WV: Waivers
  • SLD: Players sold to other teams
  • REL: Players released
  • NOTE: Unkown transactions not included except in TOT
TRANSACTION DETAILS: NUMBER OF INBOUND TRANSACTIONS
NAME AM FA PUR FA AM DFT R5 DFT ML DFT EX DFT TR WV TOT
BAVASI 1 101 42 48 69 6 15 29 135 2 455
BROWN 93 27 20 49 7 7 0 85 3 294
CAMPANIS 40 10 38 79 5 2 0 69 2 247
GILLICK 71 40 207 148 19 8 0 130 31 663
GRIFFITH 36 72 18 N/A 35 2 N/A 115 23 608
HOWSAM 33 23 14 50 7 1 0 95 1 228
MACPHAIL 45 73 18 N/A 10 1 N/A 43 14 246
QUINN 137 70 33 25 16 15 0 113 8 436
RICKEY 174 78 32 N/A 25 11 N/A 108 24 748
SCHUERHOLZ  62 14 265 142  7 1 0 150 17 659
BAVASI 2 16 15 157 43 4 0 0 69 16 322
ROBINSON 11 15 130 70 4 1 0 58 15 309
SEGHI 10 14 33 38 4 1 0 106 5 212
SMITH 11 7 103 34 9 2 0 65 22 254
TRANSACTION DETAILS: NUMBER OF OUTBOUND TRANSACTIONS
NAME SOLD REL R5 DFT ML DFT EX DFT TR WV TOT
BAVASI 1 49 59 27 13 6 135 10 308
BROWN 46 51 14 15 12 85 6 218
CAMPANIS 13 63 12 5 0 69 8 179
GILLICK 25 127 22 2 6 130 21 337
GRIFFITH 69 36 3 1 N/A 115 21 304
HOWSAM 22 24 11 3 5 95 1 164
MACPHAIL 37 27 3 0 N/A 43 6 129
QUINN 82 51 21 15 0 113 5 300
RICKEY 111 50 36 9 N/A 108 34 388
SCHUERHOLZ 6 170 11 2 6 150 18 366
BAVASI 2 6 83 0 0 2 69 3 169
ROBINSON 4 66 3 1 5 58 13 155
SEGHI 10 39 2 0 0 106 1 165
SMITH 4 53 5 3 0 65 15 151

Prior to 1950, many transactions aren’t known or accounted for. We code anything that isn’t accounted for that’s between a professional team and the acquiring team as a purchase. I didn’t include those in the PUR column, but I did include them in the total column, which is why they don’t add up. Same for anything that’s described as an “unknown” transaction. Ditto also for “working agreements” or “conditional deals,” which basically function as a purchase of some sort. Griffith engaged in 307 transactions that aren’t clearly known.

Not surprisingly, Griff mostly purchased talent or traded for it.

TRANSACTION DETAILS: VALUE IN WAR TO TEAM OF INBOUND TRANSACTIONS
NAME AM FA PUR FA AM DFT R5 DFT ML DFT EX DFT TR WV TOT
BAVASI 1 430 70 36 235 1 0 54 257 -1 1106
BROWN 313 2 3 228 2 4 0 216 -2 765
CAMPANIS 48 40 2 171 -1 1 0 257 0 518
GILLICK 132 62 194 295 60 -1 0 228 -2 978
GRIFFITH 95 233 26 N/A 39 -1 N/A 416 11 1087
HOWSAM 98 7 2 104 6 0 0 228 0 445
MACPHAIL 116 100 38 N/A 19 0 N/A 219 48 632
QUINN 443 45 183 141 25 2 0 480 1 1318
RICKEY 794 116 211 N/A 122 1 N/A 262 0 1898
SCHUERHOLZ 117 9 142 298 -1 0 0 246 7 818
BAVASI 2 27 9 96 131 0 0 0 24 5 290
ROBINSON 7 14 69 98 6 0 0 59 8 264
SEGHI -4 14 4 32 2 2 0 275 -1 323
SMITH 3 -2 27 36 -2 3 0 140 10 215

 

TRANSACTION DETAILS: VALUE IN WAR OF PLAYERS IN OUTBOUND TRANSACTIONS
NAME SOLD REL R5 DFT ML DFT EX DFT TR WV TOT
BAVASI 1 15 20 129 20 30 438 19 674
BROWN 18 10 4 29 59 343 -2 471
CAMPANIS 22 13 4 23 0 298 17 374
GILLICK 16 20 25 0 -2 285 10 357
GRIFFITH 157 -2 0 0 N/A 528 73 832
HOWSAM 8 4 27 -1 -3 251 0 286
MACPHAIL 45 39 9 0 N/A 146 4 395
QUINN 75 38 3 81 0 496 25 711
RICKEY 337 10 62 -4 N/A 573 8 1040
SCHUERHOLZ 7 46 2 -1 26 246 6 332
BAVASI 2 1 8 0 0 -1 147 0 154
ROBINSON 3 10 2 3 12 92 8 129
SEGHI 2 3 16 -2 0 253 0 272
SMITH 2 1 0 0 0 141 0 144

Of the long-time GMs we’ve studied so far from the pre-amateur-draft era (Rickey and Quinn) Griffith’s record on inbound and outbound value is the least impressive. The mere ratio of value in to out is low, the absolute difference is very low, and Griffith, despite presiding longer than Quinn and just a couple years fewer than Rickey, trails them by a considerable margin in total value in.

So let’s take a deeper look at what went right and wrong for The Old Fox,  starting with his trades.

Won (10+ WAR in Washington’s favor)

  • 12/1911 (+28): Received Eddie Foster, Danny Moeller, and Chet Spencer (29) for Dolly Gray, Jack Livelt, and cash (1)
  • 12/15/28 (+25): Received Buddy Myer (40) for Elliot Bigelow, Milt Gaston, Hod Lisnbee, Grant Gillis, and Bobby Reeves (15)
  • 6/13/30 (+22): Received General Crowder and Heinie Manush (36) for Goose Goslin (14)
  • 12/13/41 (+22): Received Stan Spence and Jack Wilson (21) for Ken Chase and Johnny Welaj (-1)
  • 6/14/50 (+20): Received Mickey Vernon (18) for Dick Weik (-2)
  • 2/25/43 (+17): Received Mickey Haefner (17) for Ray Hoffman and cash (0)
  • 8/25/19 (+16): Received Bucky Harris (15) for Hal Janvrin and cash (-1)
  • 12/31/20 (+16): Received Duffy Lewis and George Modgridge (16) for Braggo Roth (0)
  • 5/26/12 (+14): Received Chick Gandil (14) for Jerry Akers, Charlie Becker, and Bill Cunningham (0)
  • 2/10/23 (+12): Received Muddy Ruel and Allen Russell (18) for Ed Gobel, Val Picinich, and Howie Shanks (6)
  • 10/19/27 (+11): Received Milt Gaston and Sad Sam Jones (11) for Dick Coffman and Earl McNeely (0)

Lost (10+ WAR in the opponent’s favor)

  • 8/23/12 (-56): Received Bert Gallia and Duke Kenworthy (8) for Hippo Vaughn and Tillie Walker (65)
  • 12/14/48 (-53): Received Joe Haynes, Ed Klieman, and Eddie Robinson (1) for Mickey Vernon and Early Wynn (54)
  • 10/26/34 (-29): Received Lyn Lary (0) and $225,000 for Joe Cronin (29)
  • 6/11/37 (-28): Received Mel Almada, Rick Ferrell, and Wes Ferrell (10) for Ben Chapman and Bobo Newsom (38)
  • 12/4/31 (-26): Received John Kerr and Carl Reynolds (2) for Bump Hadley, Jackie Hayes, and Sad Sam Jones (28)
  • 1/15 (-21): Received Henri Rondeau (1) for Irish Meusel (22)
  • 1/10/22 (-21): Received Joe Dugan (0) for Jose Acosta, Bing Miller (21), and $50,000
  • 12/14/32 (-12): Received Goose Goslin, Fred Schultz, and Lefty Stewart (13) for Lloyd Brown, Carl Reynolds, Sam West, and $20,000 (25)
  • 12/8/39 (-12): Received Gee Walker (1) for Pete Appleton and Taffy Wright (13)
  • 8/3/31 (-11): Received Johnny Gill (0) for Pinky Hargrave and Buck Jordan (11)
  • 4/26/30 (-10): Received Bill Barrett (0) for Earl Webb (10)
  • 6/15/46 (-10): Received Joe Grace and Al Lamacchia (1) for Jeff Heath (11)

In his two worst trades, Griffith made the same error. He didn’t see a the star pitcher within a player. First Hippo Vaughn who had struggled in the AL for several years. The Nats got him in the second half of 1912, and he appeared to turn the corner at age 24. Then they dealt him. Later Griffith made the same mistake with Early Wynn who had yo-yoed with Washington and was coming off a poor season. Wynn credited Cleveland’s Mel Harder with teaching him the curve, slider, changeup, and even the knuckler. His SABR bioproject entry quotes him thus: “I could throw the ball when I came here [to Cleveland], but Mel made a pitcher out of me.” You know that’s a lot of pitches to learn. Wynn had been getting by on his excellent fastball but had never learned how to complement it with a secondary pitch. That’s not Wynn’s fault. Wynn left high school to pitch in the independent minor leagues, and the Senators bought his contract and brought him to Washington as a 19 year old. Because Griffith failed to build out a sufficient player development apparatus, a raw talent like Wynn was unable to convert his ample talent into excellence. Then to add salt to the wound, when Griffith dealt Wynn, he also gave up Mickey Vernon who was very good for the Indians.

Griffith’s overall record in trades was 428 WAR in and 516 WAR out. The trades of Vaughn and Wynn alone represent more than the entirety of the value gap in his trading. And there’s this. Through 1933, Griffith’s record in trades was 292 WAR in versus 312 out, which is quite good given how we figure trade value, and especially in Griffith’s time. In the rest of his career, he brought in 124 and lost 216, a substantially worse record. Griffith likely earned his reputation as a shrewd dealer in the first half of his career, but in the second was perhaps too clever for his own good.

Waivers

Griffith didn’t get much value from the waiver wire, but he gave up three players he surely regretted. First in 1917, he took waivers on Charlie Jamieson who went on to provide 24 WAR to other big league teams. As a 24 year old, he looked terrible in 20 games, but it represented irregular playing time and just 41 plate appearances. Griffith gave up on him. In 1928, Tom Zachary was a 31 year old who had a bad first half. He was a known quantity, and Griffith either got impatient with his struggles or thought he was done. He cut him, and Zachary put out 12 WAR in the next four years. Finally, we come to Roy Cullenbine, one of the great misunderstood stars of the prewar era. Cullenbine drew tons of walks and hit for some power but teams never seemed to appreciate his combination of skills. Griffith coughed him up in 1942, and Cullenbine was worth 25 Wins in his 720 odd games.

Buying and selling

Among known free agents, amateur free agents, and simply purchasing players from other pro teams, Griffith did good work:

  • Sam Rice: 53
  • Joe Judge: 47
  • Goose Goslin: 40
  • Joe Cronin: 37
  • Eddie Yost: 26
  • Tom Zachary: 21
  • Early Wynn: 11
  • Sid Hudson: 11
  • Ray Scarborough: 11

In selling players, he gave up a lot of valuable players, but not near as much as he acquired:

  • Bill Nicholson: 42
  • Dutch Leonard (the second one): 21
  • Joe Haynes: 14
  • Jerry Priddy: 12
  • Elmer Smith: 12

We don’t have specific transaction information in BBREF for these guys who came and went:

Came

  • Cecil Travis: 30
  • Essie Bluege: 28
  • Buddy Lewis: 27
  • Firpo Marberry: 25
  • Jim Shaw: 18
  • George Case: 16
  • Bump Hadley: 16
  • Lloyd Brown: 12
  • Doc Ayers: 11
  • Sammy West: 11
  • Harry Harper: 10
  • Joe Kuhel: 10

Went

  • Babe Phelps: 16
  • Danny Taylor: 13

But it’s a pretty great haul as well. Notably, only six among all the players signed or bought were acquired after 1933 (Case, Lewis, Wynn, Hudson, Scarbourugh, and Yost), just two of those six after 1939, and none at all after 1944.

One oddball item to mention. Griffith appeared to have favorites. He acquired some players again and again. He acquired Bobo Newsom five times, two players three times, and 30 more players twice. We now have data on 20 GMs, and we can see how that total compares to other GMs.

HOW MANY TIMES DID A GM ACQUIRE THE SAME PLAYERS MORE THAN ONCE?
NAME 5 TIMES 4 TIMES 3 TIMES 2 TIMES ALL 2+ TIMES TOTAL ACQUIRED %
BUZZIE BAVASI 0 0 0 26 26 531 5%
JOE BROWN 0 0 1 19 20 334 6%
AL CAMPANIS 0 0 1 13 14 268 5%
JIM CAMPBELL 0 0 0 10 10 325 3%
FRANK CASHEN 0 0 0 12 12 360 3%
HARRY DALTON 1 0 3 35 38 526 7%
CHUB FEENEY 0 0 1 12 13 370 3%
PAT GILLICK 0 0 1 48 49 698 7%
CLARK GRIFFITH 1 0 2 30 33 646 5%
BOB HOWSAM 0 0 0 15 15 274 5%
LARRY MACPHAIL 0 0 0 18 18 259 7%
LEE MACPHAIL 0 0 0 20 20 276 7%
JOHN QUINN 0 0 1 27 28 494 6%
BRANCH RICKEY 0 1 0 66 67 819 8%
JOHN SCHUERHOLZ 0 0 1 39 40 694 6%
BILL BAVASI 0 0 0 10 10 340 3%
HERK ROBINSON 0 0 0 10 10 321 3%
PHIL SEGHI 0 0 0 4 4 262 2%
ED SHORT 0 0 0 4 4 164 2%
RANDY SMITH 0 1 2 16 19 298 6%

Interesting isn’t it that among all these GMs, the bad ones reacquire players less often than the good ones? In part that may be because the good GMs have more opportunities to switch teams since they are well reputed in the industry. Also because they don’t last as long. But even so, Al Campanis, Bob Howsam, and Joe Brown (one-teamers all) averaged as many or more reacquires than the bad GMs did as a group. So Griffith might have had a little Bobo fetish, but over all, he wasn’t unusually interested in playing favorites.

In general, it’s easy to see why the Nats had the AL’s second best record from 1912 to 1933. Griffith had a strong scouting network, was a good trader, and had an eye for talent. Buried in that first sentence, however, is a certain kind of spin. You see, they only finished first, second, or third, 11 times in those 22 years despite the league’s second best record. On the other hand, they only three times finished with a .450 or worse winning percentage. The Yankees, of course, dominated the proceedings from 1920 to 1933, easily making up for a meh 1910s, but four of the other teams in the league went boom/bust during these years except for Washington. The Red Sox won three World Series in the 1910s then averaged a a .381 winning percentage from 1920 to 1933. The A’s won the AL in 1912, 1913, and 1914, then averaged a .354 winning percentage for 10 years before cranking up a second dynasty. The Brownies were basically always bad. The White Sox averaged a .557 winning percentage until the Black Sox scandal and .437 after that. The Tigers and Indians simply bobbed up and down around the .500 mark. So the Nats’ “second best record in the AL” has a certain truthiness to it. That said, there’s nothing wrong with being opportunistic is a zero-sum environment.

After 1933, however, it’s also easy to see that Griffith should have handed the player decisions over to someone else. We have to take the bad with the good. We have to see that his skills turned the franchise around in the 1910s and made them an annual contender if not a powerhouse, and that he crippled it in the 1930s and 1940s by failing to create a player-development infrastructure in terms of both coaching and a farm system.

And after all this, it seems to me that Clark Griffith’s strongest case for the Hall of Miller and Eric is not as an executive, but as a manager or player.

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Institutional History

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