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Sandberg, Franco, Bell and What Could Have Been

Were the Phillies so bad in the 80’s that adding three All-Stars wouldn’t have made them competitive?

As discussed yesterday, Pat and I have been preparing lists and things for the site. One of the lists we have been preparing is the 10 Worst Trades in Phillies History. Generally, it is better to have a Hall of Fame player than to not have a Hall of Fame player. There are exceptions, a player on the downswing of his career would be one, but Hall of Fame players in their prime are very, very obviously an asset to a team.

However, there are occasions where the difference between having a Hall of Fame player, in his prime, or even a Hall of Famer and two additional All-Stars just wouldn’t make that much of a difference. I present you the tale of the 1983 through 1989 Phillies.

A few comments were made both in our comments section here on the site and on our Facebook page on our “5-for-1” retrospective that the Phillies would have been better served had they kept Julio Franco, instead of trading him to Cleveland. There was further speculation, a few “what ifs”, regarding what a line-up might look like with Mike Schmidt, George Bell (claimed prior to the 1981 season in the Rule 5 draft), Julio Franco, Juan Samuel, Hall of Famer Ryne Sandberg.

The first thing that came to mind when I saw that speculation was “Wow, that could have been a pretty solid team.” My second thought was “Hmm. They have one too many middle infielders and not enough corner infielders. Franco, Samuel, and Sandberg’s values would have been decreased at a corner infield spot.” My third thought was “The mid and late-80’s Phillies were so bad. Would a Hall of Famer and two multiple-time All-Stars have made a difference?”

The answer? Not really.

There are a couple of reasons adding Bell, Franco, and Sandberg wouldn’t have magically turned the team around. Let’s start with Bell’s case. Taken from the Phillies’ ranks prior to the 1981 season, Bell had to stay on the Blue Jays’ 1981 roster the entire year. Bell appeared in just 60 games for the Jays in 1981, none in 1982, and 39 in 1983. Bell, now age 24, received his first significant playing time in 1984, hitting 26 homers with 11 steals, hitting .292 with a .498 SLG%.

Garry Matthews had solid years in 1981 and 1982, leaving Bell no hypothetical spot to play but injuries to Matthews in 1983 would have given Bell an opening. Had Bell bell played LF for the Phillies from 1983 through 1989, the following would have happened:

LFgraphSomewhat surprisingly,  Bell would have only been an improvement in LF in four out of seven seasons. In two seasons (1986 and 1988), the Phillies’ often duct-taped LF actually out-performed Bell and 1983 was a wash. Granted, Bell saw limited playing time in 1983 and there isn’t really a way to know how he would have done in 600 PA, but generally speaking, a rookie Bell might have produced at about the same level.

(Note: the green line reflects in gains or losses relative to the All-Star or Hall of Fame player. In this case, the Phillies would have netted about three additional wins with Bell in LF instead of the conglomeration of folks they ran out there in 1989.)

Moving on to Franco brings in some more convincing evidence that this hypothetical roster would have certainly won more games from 1983 through 1989 than they actually did:



Franco, on average, would have added 1.98, or 2, wins per year over what the Phillies had at shortstop from 1983 through 1989 and would have been a consistent improvement over the players they played there.

Finally, let’s compare what Sandberg would have contributed to the Phillies v. what their actual second baseman contributed. Note: This means that  Samuel would not have been on the roster as a regular and could have been used in trades:

2BgraphBy replacing, in generalities, Samuel with Sandberg, the Phillies would have been better off at second base in five out of seven seasons from 1983 through 1989.

In general, the Phillies would have been a better team from 1983 through 1989, on average, gaining about five more wins per season, assuming the Phillies would have been able to directly duplicate Hayes’ production somewhere else, which, as we will soon see, is a big, big assumption.



In 1983, the one-loss difference would not have cost them the pennant but, conversely, the wins added in the future years would  have put them in the playoffs in only one year, 1987:

Standings Constant


Where the math gets trickier is accounting for Hayes. If you assume the Phillies retain Franco, you then should assume the Phillies would not have Hayes. As demonstrated yesterday, Hayes was a very productive player in the 80’s and was surprisingly healthy throughout the decade. His production based on plate appearances alone would have been very tough to duplicate.

For each year from 1983 through 1989, I compared Hayes to players at his position(s) and saw how many players had at least that many plate appearances. I also compared Hayes to the average fWAR. Three out of seven seasons, including Hayes’ 1983 rookie campaign, Hayes was below the average expected output among qualified players with his # of PA or more.

In this, there is statistical bias: you have to be 1.) very good and 2.) very healthy to reach the number of plate appearances Hayes did in the 1980s or you simply wouldn’t play. If you don’t play, you cannot accumulate fWAR. To try to neutralize this element, I calculated the anticipated output of  an average Hayes replacement at that production level (# of players that hit Hayes’ PA mark or more divided by the number of MLB teams times the average fWAR for those players). In short, I tried to take WAR and make it WAVHL (Wins Above Von Hayes‘ Level).

Von  Hayes Factory


As illustrated above, the Phillies would have actually had a particularly hard time replacing Hayes’ production levels had he been dealt away. There just weren’t that many players that were able to stay as healthy, and productive, as Hayes was through the 1980s. In only 1983 and 1988 would it have been a relatively safe move to take “the field” at Hayes’ positions v. Hayes. Otherwise, Hayes was particularly valuable to bad Phillies clubs.

(Note: There are more complex ways, mathematically, of addressing these series of What Ifs but they are beyond my scope. I attempted to assume how realistic it was for the Phillies to be able to find someone of “average” contribution within the parameters of PA that Hayes had.)

Finally, let’s put it all together: what would a Phillies team with Bell, Franco, and Sandberg, but without Hayes and Samuel, have looked like, in a vacuum based on their actual production, versus what actually happened:


As you’ll notice, the Phillies once again top the eventual actual division winners only once in any scenario and that was, once again, in 1987.

This exercise may show the following:

1. The Phillies were pretty bad in a number of areas in the mid and late 80s. Even in their most competitive years, adding a Hall of Famer and two All-Stars only would have likely launched them to one division title. Granted, anything can happen in the playoffs, however, the 1987 team had a rotation of Shane Rawley, Don Carman, Bruce Ruffin, and Kevin Gross.

Which brings me to…

2. The Phillies had horrible, if not insurmountably bad, pitching in this time period. Despite having Schmidt for the last hurrah of his prime during this period and two Cy Young winners, the Phillies ranked 21st in fWAR from 1983 through 1989. At 60-66 with a 3.87 ERA, Gross led the team in wins during this period.

This really wasn’t all necessarily the pitchers’ faults, though because…

3. The defense was horrible. The Phillies ranked 26th out of 26 in Total Zone rating according to FanGraphs from 1983 through 1989. The defense was so bad that the Phillies had the 10th best FIP in the Majors during that time but somehow were only the 21st most valuable set of pitchers. You could argue that Bell, Franco, and Sandberg would have been improvements in this regard as well however, any improvement seen in defensive metrics would have come through in the overall fWAR calculations.

4. Von Hayes was a pretty good player and probably not as replaceable as many fans think.

5. Adding two players that won MVPs in the span of a set seven year period and another future All-Star really doesn’t improve a horrifically bad team’s chance of competing that drastically.

6. Finally, the competition was particularly strong in the NL East in most years. The Mets won 108 games in 1986 and 100 games in 1988. They would have been a hard team to catch regardless of who was on your roster. Additionally, the Cardinals won 101 games in 1985 to win the division crown.

I welcome any thoughts or counterpoints, particularly to the anticipated values portion, to this discussion.

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