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.
- 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.
|NAME||RECORD||PCT.||VS EXP||OCT||OCT VS EXP||WS APP||WS APP VS EXP||WS WINS||WS WINS VS EXP||MGR PYTH|
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.
- 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
|NAME||BASE||GM||CONT GOAL||avg%GOAL||med%GOAL||WS GOAL||avg%GOAL||med%GOAL|
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.
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
|NAME||AM FA||PUR||FA||AM DFT||R5 DFT||ML DFT||EX DFT||TR||WV||TOT|
|NAME||SOLD||REL||R5 DFT||ML DFT||EX DFT||TR||WV||TOT|
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.
|NAME||AM FA||PUR||FA||AM DFT||R5 DFT||ML DFT||EX DFT||TR||WV||TOT|
|NAME||SOLD||REL||R5 DFT||ML DFT||EX DFT||TR||WV||TOT|
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.
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:
- 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
- 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.
|NAME||5 TIMES||4 TIMES||3 TIMES||2 TIMES||ALL 2+ TIMES||TOTAL ACQUIRED||%|
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.