Ah, 1989: the U.S. inaugurated a new president, Thomas and Friends begins to air on PBS, and the top played song was “Look Away” by Chicago. Around the world, Hirohito passed away, Poland had free elections, the Berlin Wall fell, and the world made Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” the top played song across the globe. It was a pretty big year around the world: holes were being blown through the Iron Curtain as the Cold War wound down. It all makes what the Phillies were going through look pretty small.
The 1989 Phillies entered the season with few expectations and little talent. Mike Schmidt was entering his age 39 season, coming off his worst season since his rookie year. Two seasons removed from his 3.9 fWAR 1987 and three from his 5.0 fWAR 1986, the expectations and mood surrounding Von Hayes had officially turned sour. And the team inexplicably traded away their 29-year old center fielder who looked like he was putting the pieces together to be a strong everyday player (Milt Thompson) for a back-up catcher whose claim to fame is a trading card where he is featured with his pet cockatoo (Steve Lake) and a utility outfielder who was out of the Major Leagues before the end of the 1990 season (Curt Ford).
In hindsight, there are a surprising amount of parallels between the world and the Phillies in 1989, with it being understood that the Phillies positive changes were about 1/1,000,000,000th as positive on the scale of global contribution. Although the song “Wind of Change” by German rockers the Scorpions would not be released until 1991, there was a lot of pretty positive change about to take place both across the world and in the Phillies locker room.
With little hope by mid-season, the Phillies dealt 1987 Cy Young winner Steve Bedrosian to San Francisco for Terry Mulholland, Dennis Cook, and Charlie Hayes, who had a place to play in Philadelphia with Schmidt’s retirement. The Phillies acquired a chubby corner outfielder from San Diego whose 2.0 and 3.6 WAR 1986 and 1987 were beginning to look like a fluke (John Kruk) and a talented utility player without a home (Randy Ready) for the disappointing Chris James. And, oh: Von Hayes had 26 HR and 28 steals in his first and only All-Star campaign.
The Phillies made a couple other moves during the 1989 season and all the wheeling and dealing would lead to a whopping two win improvement from the previous year. The biggest move, at the time and in hindsight, was moving franchise favorite, infielder-turned-center fielder Juan Samuel for New York Met bad-boy Lenny “Nails” Dykstra. Dykstra’s acquisition would be the nail in the coffin, pun intended, of the failed Samuel/Bob Dernier center field platoon.
Samuel joined the Phillies late in the 1983 season, starting 15 games down the stretch for the Wheeze Kids. In 1984, Samuel replaced Hall of Fame second baseman Joe Morgan and was a rookie sensation. Samuel finished second in Rookie of the Year voting to Dwight Gooden, leading the National League in plate appearances, at bats, triples, and strike outs, but putting up a .272/.307/.442 line with 15 HRs and 72 out of 87 (82.75%) successful steal attempts.
Samuel was an All-Star twice for the Phillies in what were otherwise disappointing years. After the surprise Wheeze Kids run of 1983, Samuel and Schmidt were the primary identity of the Phillies nationally. From 1983 through 1987, Samuel was firmly in the second tier of top second basemen, with frequent cameos amongst the first tier. His 12.7 fWAR in that time period ranks sixth among National League second basemen and ninth among Major League second basemen. And then 1988 happened.
Samuel was amongst the most reliable players in the Majors in this time period and 1988 was no different. Samuel played 157 games, but instead of them all being at second base, the Phillies began to test his versatility. Samuel started twice in center and once in right and that three game sample apparently told the Phillies all they needed to know about Samuel’s ability to play the outfield. Samuel would go into 1989 as the Phillies primary center fielder.
Joining Samuel in center was ten year veteran Dernier. Dernier had first seen time with the Phillies in 1980 and spent his first full season with the club in 1982. Up to 1989, Dernier was a career .262/.325/.343 hitter but was coming off a .289/.330/.337 season in part-time play in 1988. Denier was sent out of town in 1984 with Gary Matthews to the Cubs where he’d win a Gold Glove in his first season. Dernier returned to the Phillies as a free agent for the 1988 season and split time across all three outfield positions in 1988 and 1989. Dernier hit .171/.225/.214 for the Phillies in 1989, playing his last game in the Majors on October 1. Samuel hit just .246/.311/.392 for the Phillies, with 8 HR and 11 SB in 219 PA before being traded for Dykstra.
Nails came to Philadelphia with a reputation that already had preceded itself. Keith Hernandez noted in his book Pure Baseball that despite Dykstra hitting .429/.600/.857 in the 1988 postseason, the Mets had chose to trade Dykstra because of his wild demeanor. Hernandez also believes that is one of the main reasons the Phillies desired him.
Dykstra came with a reputation of being a tough as nails competitor who did not let his physical attributes, lack of pedigree (13th round pick) or his mind, for that matter, get in the way of what he wanted to do on the baseball field. Billy Beane was quoted in Moneyball as describing Dykstra as having “no concept of failure”, being “perfectly designed, emotionally” to play baseball. Dykstra filled in for Mookie Wilson before outplaying and displacing George Foster in 1986 to become a full-time starter for the Mets in 1986 en route to their most recent World Series championship.
After hitting .279/.348/.413 from 1985 through 1988 with 27 HR and 103 SBs for the Mets, Dykstra got out of the gate well for New York in 1989. Dykstra, just 26, hit .270/.352/.415 for the Mets before they surprisingly dealt him and Roger McDowell for Samuel.
Long term, this trade is one of the Phillies’ finest trades in their history. Dykstra’s acquisition was the driving force in the Phillies’ return to competitive baseball. Dykstra saved an insane 25 runs in the center field for the Phillies in 1990, contributing to a 9.2 WAR campaign with a line of .325/.418/.441, finishing only behind Rickey Henderson and Barry Bonds on the WAR leaderboard. Dykstra’s 192 hits and .418 OBP led the National League in 1990 and was just the beginning of what would be one of the most exciting but injury-filled seven and a half seasons in Phillies history.
Dykstra’s 1993 season led him to a second place MVP finish behind Barry Bonds. Nails socked 19 HRs, stole 37 bases, and hit .305/.420/.482 while leading the NL in runs, hits, and walks, with an insane 129 free passes. His 6.9 WAR that season was good enough for third in the NL, behind Bonds and rookie sensation Mike Piazza.
The acquisitions of Dykstra, Kruk, and Mulholland in 1989 were smart moves that helped the Phillies move from 67 to 77 wins in 1990 and then to 97 wins in 1993. In each of these trades, and several other acquisitions, including that of Dave Hollins for 1990, the Phillies acquired a little bit of surplus value at a time and incrementally built up a power house, albeit, for only one season.
How Hard Was it to Replace the Incumbent?
Dykstra came to Philadelphia with Roger McDowell in what was one of the all-time great trades for the Phillies but out of the gate, it did not feel that way. In his first 392 PA with the Phillies in 1989, Dykstra hit just .222/.297/.330, one of the worst stretches of his career. Still, that line was good enough to out-WAR Samuel and Dernier: -0.1 to -0.5 to -1.1. Yet, for a player who probably came off more arrogant than fun, WAR, particularly in 1989 when it did not yet exist, would not have been enough to convince fans it was the right move.
To make matters worse, Thompson, who was traded to St. Louis, put up a 4.6 WAR season in 1989, hitting .290/.340/.393, saving 17 runs on defense, hitting four jacks with 27 steals. Thompson ranked 13th in the NL in WAR and posted the most WAR among NL center fielders in 1989, as well.
In defense of the early return of Dykstra and McDowell, Samuel hit a disappointing .228/.299/.300 in 370 PA for the Mets, playing 84 games in center field. And in recognition of McDowell, McDowell posted a 1.11 ERA in 44 games for the Phillies, saving 19 games and finishing 41. McDowell was traded in 1991 to the Dodgers for Mike Hartley who was packaged before the 1993 season and sent to Minnesota for 1993’s pennant-winning set-up man David West.
While Dernier quietly left the Majors after 1989, Samuel went on to make his third All-Star appearance in 1991, playing 152 games at his natural position of Second Base. Samuel remained a Major Leaguer until 1998, primarily as a utility infielder and outfielder while Dykstra was out of baseball after the 1996 season following multiple injuries. McDowell played through 1996 while West was a Phillie through 1996, last pitching in the Majors for the Red Sox in 1998.
This one was tough to pin down since Dykstra kind-of replaced Thompson but more directly replaced the Samuel/Dernier combo. Samuel could have a feature like this in his own right – a Phillies Wall of Famer, Samuel is the most beloved player of the talent-dry mid/late 80’s squads not named Mike Schmidt. Nails will always have a special player in my heart, as well: he was my brother’s hero and my brother is my hero. Anyone who is good enough for my brother will be good enough for me.