The 1971 Athletics (Six Prime 40-WAR Players, Part 4)

Welcome to part four of my series on teams that had six 40-WAR players, age 30 or younger, with at least 1.0 WAR that year. (Series recap at bottom.) Our subject is the first flower of what would grow into one of baseball’s true dynasties — one of four teams ever to win three straight World Series, and the only one of those not named “Yankees.” Enjoy the ride!

 

1971 Athletics: 101-60 (MLB #2), won AL West by 16 games, lost ALCS 0-3 to defending champion Orioles.
Next 5 years: .576 W% (MLB #2), World Champs in 1972-74, AL West champs in ’75, 2nd place in ’76.

What did 1971 mean in A’s franchise history?

  • Their first 90-win team (and first postseason appearance) since Lefty Grove got sold out of Philly, two towns and three wars ago.
  • Fourth of nine straight winning years to start the Oakland term of a franchise that arrived toting 15 straight losing seasons.

This table shows some stats for the six qualified players and other notable names on the ’71 A’s:

OAK 1971: 1st, 101-60 Career WAR Future WAR HOF? OAK WAR% OAK:
Yrs; Reg
1971 Age 1971 WAR WAR-
Next 5
Yrs OAK-
Next 5
Reggie Jackson 73.8 51.1 BW 65% 10, 9 25 6.5 31.1 4
Sal Bando 61.4 35.8 85% 11, 9 27 6.4 26.4 5
Bert Campaneris 53.1 27.0 92% 13, 13 29 3.3 22.9 5
Gene Tenace 46.8 42.8 50% 8, 5 24 2.2 19.5 5
Vida Blue 45.5 37.5 64% 9, 7 21 9.0 17.0 5
Catfish Hunter 41.4 24.6 BW 64% 10, 10 25 4.3 24.2 3
GROUP TOTALS 322.0 218.8 2 71% 61, 53 25.2 31.7 141.1 27
*Felipe Alou 42.2 0.0 5% 2, 1 36 0.9 0.0
Rick Monday 33.1 17.3 48% 6, 5 25 2.3 11.2
*George Hendrick 28.9 29.3 -2% 2, 0 21 -0.5 7.9 1
*Ken Holtzman 27.1 11.1 40% 4, 4 25 1.3 12.4 4
Rollie Fingers 26.1 24.2 BW 46% 9, 8 24 1.8 10.9 5
Joe Rudi 25.4 22.0 84% 11, 7 24 2.3 18.6 5
*Mudcat Grant 19.4 25% 2, 1 35 0.6

* Not an A’s regular in ’71.

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How were they formed? Very home-grown: All six of the focus group debuted with Oakland, as did almost all the key players. Out of eight lineup regulars, the 5-man rotation and the relief ace, only 1B Mike Epstein broke in elsewhere.

The 1971 A’s are the first of these studied teams to emerge since the amateur draft began in 1965. Finishing last in ’64, ’65 and ’67 yielded high picks, which paid off handsomely. Their very first draft yielded three All-Stars in Rick Monday (1st over all), Sal Bando (6th round) and Gene Tenace (20th). Reggie Jackson was the #2 pick in ’66 (as every Mets fan knows all too well), and Vida Blue was a ’67 2nd-rounder. (George Hendrick, the top pick in the ’68 January draft, was dealt away before making his mark.) Two of the focus group were not drafted: Catfish Hunter signed out of high school in 1964, the last pre-draft year (along with Rollie Fingers, Joe Rudi and Blue Moon Odom), while Bert Campaneris came from Cuba in ’61.

Their six-man focus group averaged 25.2 years old in 1971, tied for second-youngest of the eight teams studied. The whole team’s average of 26.6 years (weighted by playing time) would have been the youngest in last year’s majors, and they were even younger if weighted by positive WAR output (25.7 years). But age is relative, as we’ll see later.

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How did they win? Early and often. With Blue winning ‘most every start, and no division foe giving much resistance, the race was well in hand by the All-Star Game. As if to show the A’s weren’t kidding, Reggie went all tower-ranger to help break the senior circuit’s 8-year vise, giving Blue a token triumph on top of his 17-3, 1.42 in real games. Oakland finished 3rd in scoring (without impressive marks in any category), 2nd in run prevention, and 2nd to the Orioles in run differential. They were 2nd in defensive WAR, efficiency and fielding percentage.

This early A’s edition was the most star-driven: Blue, Jackson and Bando produced almost half the team’s total WAR, with Vida’s 9.0 WAR 2nd of AL hurlers, Reggie and Sal nos. 4-5 in WAR/pos. Blue took the MVP, with Bando 2nd. Hunter, a seasoned vet just turned 25, notched the first of five straight 20-win years. He came into the year with over 1,300 career innings, but just a 94 ERA+ and a 73-78 record. It was 1971-75 that put him in the Hall, including a 7-2 mark in the postseason.

The bullpen had been excellent in 1970, paced by a random monster year from Mudcat Grant, the former 20-game winner bought for a song when he seemed almost done. With Grant dealt to Pittsburgh, the ’71 bullpen was off some, so they bought him back for the stretch run, and he dazzled again, with a 1.98 ERA in 27 IP after August 10. Fingers did a good job in his first year as the nominal closer, converting 17 of 20 save tries, but the 9th inning still was a group effort; Rollie had less than half the team’s saves, and a quarter of the games finished.

These A’s weren’t yet the running team you might remember. Forty-steal men Bill North and Claudell Washington came aboard later, as would Charlie Finley’s pet pinch-runners. Only Campaneris (34) and Jackson (16) swiped more than 7 bags in ’71, and the club’s 80 steals were just above average.

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How long did they last? The whole focus group stayed through the 1972-74 three-peat. Hunter then became the first big-time free agent, lost through Finley’s oversight and stubbornness, but the rest won a fifth straight division crown. Others present on all five AL West champs were Fingers, Rudi, Odom, and Angel Mangual (the fourth outfielder). Ken Holtzman, acquired for Monday after ’71, topped 250 IP in each of the next four division titles.

They didn’t make the study list after 1971 because Tenace slumped under 1 WAR in ’72; Campaneris turned 31 the next year; and Holtzman, who had 28 WAR in his 20s, flamed out soon after, falling well short of 40 WAR.

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What brought them down? Here’s the accepted narrative: Free agency arrived at the worst time for this dynasty. In December ’75, arbitrator Peter Seitz ruled that the reserve clause meant one year only, not a perpetual club option. While the owners pursued every appeal, scores of players stayed unsigned, including almost all of Oakland’s stars. By mid-season, the two sides settled on free agency’s essential form, which lasts to this day: Players are free after six years of MLB service. But the current holdouts were exempted from that settlement. Finley’s unsigned stars would be free to leave that fall.

The Catfish circus had showed that free agents would command far more than any player yet had earned in the old system. Finley knew he couldn’t shop in that new marketplace. The A’s averaged just 8th in AL attendance in the title years, and their broadcast deals were minuscule. During the limbo between Seitz’s ruling and the negotiated settlement, Finley dealt Jackson and Holtzman to Baltimore for three younger players in Don Baylor, Mike Torrez and Paul Mitchell. That was a decent haul, under the circumstances, and an early glimpse of how small-market teams would learn to juggle the salary cycle. But further such attempts were fruitless. Each lost appeal crystallized the coming revolution, and thus the depth of Finley’s bind. Teams wouldn’t trade for Oakland’s unsigned players, and players wouldn’t sign before seeing the new market.

It all came to a head with Finley’s announced sales of Blue, Rudi and Fingers, for a total of $3.5 million — much more than Oakland’s whole payroll that year — and the subsequent veto by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who wielded his “best interests of baseball” carte blanche against his nemesis. While Kuhn’s ruling was clearly capricious, divorced from history, and swayed by personal animus, it’s still just a footnote to the end of Oakland’s dynasty. That $3.5 million could not have kept the A’s competitive; it wasn’t half the total deals signed by A’s that winter — and Finley would have had to pay a premium, given the toxic atmosphere he’d fostered. The money could have helped restock their farm system, but that would take time.

After the veto, the A’s rallied around their shared hatred of Finley and scrapped their way out of 5th place to finish 2nd, keeping pressure on the Royals right into the final week. Blue and Fingers posted ERAs below 2 after their sales fell through, with massive workloads: Fingers logged a career-high 135 relief innings, and Blue averaged 8.7 IP in his last 22 starts. Torrez and Baylor actually yielded more WAR than Jackson and Holtzman, and new skipper Chuck Tanner unleashed the running game, producing an AL-record 341 stolen bases. (When you get 20 steals from Sal Bando, you know you’ve pushed the envelope.) But they still fell a little short, and then came the exodus: The only ’76 regulars who’d return in that role were Blue (who’d signed a 3-year deal to facilitate the sale), Bill North, and the erratic rookie Mike Norris. The A’s would average 100 losses over 3 years, and but for a brief burst of Billyball, they were out of contention until 1987.

Revisionist History

Did free agency really kill the A’s dynasty? Or was it just the ravages of Father Time, compounded by low draft picks? Let’s relive the three seasons after their last championship, as if free agency had never come:

1975 — Without Catfish, they still won the division, so the question here is how much help he might have given in the postseason. The A’s were favored over Boston in the ALCS, having led the league with 98 wins. But they came up flat and lost in three straight, their starters yielding 11 runs in 14 innings. Luis Tiant dominated Game 1 against Holtzman, meting out just 3 hits, and a lone unearned run after the game was all but over. Blue lasted just 3 innings in Game 2, but he left a 3-3 tie, and Fingers took the loss by letting in 3 runs. Holtzman started Game 3 on 2 days’ rest, and got knocked out in the 5th, as Boston seized a 4-0 lead. Obviously, Hunter would have started one of those games. But what other assumptions do you make?

Catfish was at his peak in ’75, and his postseason record was stellar, with a 2.53 ERA in 12 starts to that point. But as the brokerage ads remind us, past performance is no guarantee; after all, Holtzman’s ERA was 1.97 in 10 postseason starts before that series. And the BoSox had won all four games against Catfish that year. Anyway, if he goes first and holds them to just 2 runs (three below their AL-best average), the A’s still lose. And if they had gone to Game 4, they would have seen the red-hot El Tiante again — and all he did in his next actual start was blank the Reds in the Series opener. (Pop quiz: Name the other AL pitcher since 1969 with consecutive no-earned-run complete games in the postseason.)

The bottom line is, Oakland totaled 7 runs in 3 games (3 runs coming almost too late to matter), batting .194 with one homer. You might argue that Hunter’s presence would have lifted the whole team, beyond his actual pitching. But your brief must address the fact that Oakland improved by 8 wins without Catfish that year, while the Yanks fell by 5 games despite his 23 wins. It’s just not clear that Hunter’s absence affected Oakland’s final fortunes.

1976 — What if the A’s still had Catfish, Reggie and Holtzman? The real club finished only 2.5 games behind. But shifting actual performances from one team to another gives no net change in WAR. Baylor and Torrez out-WARred Jackson and Holtzman, by 8.2 to 6.4. Hunter was still a horse, but he led the majors in earned runs allowed, scoring a mere 1.5 WAR. Picking whom he’d replace in ’76 is difficult, since just two A’s lasted all year in the rotation. But let’s say Hunter replaces (a) Paul Mitchell, who came in the Jackson deal, and (b) Mike Norris, who likely wouldn’t have been thrust into the rotation at 21 if there were better options. Their combined output was -0.2 WAR, but swapping in Hunter still leaves the restored A’s a whisper short of their replacements. Even giving Reggie’s number a small bonus — since he sat out Baltimore’s first 16 games, fuming over the trade — doesn’t fix the pennant math. Again, we can’t gauge how the real events affected team morale. But then, the ’76 A’s were roused by the attempted fire sale — from 27-31, they went 7-5 while all three stars were in transaction limbo, and closed at 60-43 — so it’s not clear which events had the most psychic impact.

1977 — Although eight ex-A’s had pretty good years, I still can’t see them contending in ’77. Tenace, Reggie, Campy, Garner, Bando, Rudi, Torrez and Fingers totaled 28 WAR. But the 1977 A’s finished 38 games behind the Royals. And you can’t return both Reggie and Torrez, since they were swapped for each other. Meanwhile, Hunter and Holtzman were under replacement level. And if there had been any hope for the ’77 A’s, they never would have traded Phil Garner, their All-Star second baseman, for a surprise package that spared them from historic badness: Mitchell Page topped all these players with 6.0 WAR in ’77; rookie Rick Langford logged 208 IP with a 100 ERA+, good for 2.1 WAR; and RPs Dave Giusti (rebounding at age 37) and rookie Doug Bair chipped in another 2.4 WAR. (Also in that bonanza was future All-Star Tony Armas.) Likewise, without a hole in their rotation, they don’t trade solid RP Jim Todd for Joe Coleman, who had an 81 ERA+ in the last 3 years, but at least had past success as a starter. Coleman surprised with 2.6 WAR as a swingman, while Todd completely crashed.

You can tinker with assumptions about who replaced which departed player, and how the other dominoes would fall. My audit shows a net loss of about 15 WAR from the mass exodus. That’s not enough to lift them past .500.

Just in case ’77 was a fluke, I also checked 1978. All of the ’75 A’s plus Catfish totaled 27 WAR in ’78, less than half their 1975 sum. And the real 1978 A’s had little talent to add.

The dynasty just wasn’t destined to rule past 1975. The lineup might have stayed good, but pitching would have been a weakness: During 1977-79, all who had hurled for Oakland in the 1st-place years averaged less than 0.6 WAR, except for Blue (2.8 avg.) and Fingers (1.1). Of those acquired by other means than trading off the stars, none averaged over 1.4 WAR in those 3 years.

But then again, sometimes a dead-and-buried dynasty has one last fling with an infusion of new talent. Just for fun, let’s peek ahead to 1980, when the real A’s had an outstanding outfield and some good starting pitchers. We’re still pretending the Garner trade never happened, so that cuts out Tony Armas (5.9 WAR in ’80), Rick Langford (2.6), and also 1B Dave Revering, an indirect fruit of that deal (3.6). But the 1980 A’s could have looked like this:

Hypothetical 1980 A’s (’75 regulars in bold)

Pos Player WAR WAA Def. OPS+ BA OBP SLG OPS G PA Age
C/1B Gene Tenace 3.9 2.5 0.8 137 .222 .399 .424 .823 133 416 33
1B Denny Walling 0.9 -0.3 -1.2 121 .299 .374 .387 .761 100 321 26
2B Phil Garner 3.8 1.6 2.2 86 .259 .315 .358 .673 151 610 31
SS Mario Guerrero -0.4 -1.7 0.3 65 .239 .273 .307 .580 116 414 30
3B Wayne Gross 3.2 1.9 0.2 132 .281 .355 .467 .822 113 419 28
LF Rickey Henderson 8.8 6.7 1.3 135 .303 .420 .399 .820 158 722 21
CF Bill North 2.3 0.6 0.3 91 .251 .373 .292 .665 128 500 32
RF Dwayne Murphy 6.9 4.7 2.4 119 .274 .384 .380 .764 159 702 25
DH Reggie Jackson 4.7 2.8 -2.1 172 .300 .398 .597 .995 143 601 34
 ———- ——————— ——- ——– ——- ——– ——- ——- ——- ——- —— ——- ——-
C/1B Jeff Newman 0.1 -1.4 0.3 85 .233 .273 .384 .656 127 474 31
C (Def) Jim Essian 1.2 0.2 1.4 78 .232 .302 .323 .625 87 321 29
OF/PH-R Joe Rudi 0.7 -0.6 -0.2 90 .237 .277 .417 .694 104 399 33
OF/PH-L Claudell Washington 0.3 -1.1 -1.9 117 .278 .326 .452 .778 111 403 25
IF (Def) Dave McKay 0.5 -0.5 0.8 70 .244 .283 .315 .598 123 322 30
IF (Off) Mickey Klutts 0.8 0.1 0.2 102 .269 .313 .401 .714 75 212 25

 

Pos Pitcher WAR WAA ERA+ W L SV IP H BB SO ERA G GS CG GF Age
SP Mike Norris 5.9 3.4 149 22 9 0 284 215 83 180 2.53 33 33 24 0 25
SP Vida Blue 5.0 3.0 119 14 10 0 224 202 61 129 2.97 31 31 10 0 30
SP Matt Keough 3.3 1.1 129 16 13 0 250 218 94 121 2.92 34 32 20 0 24
SP Glenn Abbott 2.4 0.5 101 12 12 0 215 228 49 78 4.10 31 31 7 0 29
SP Steve McCatty 0.5 -1.4 98 14 14 0 222 202 99 114 3.86 33 31 11 2 26
 ——- —————- ——- ——– ——– —- —- —- —– —– —– —– ——- —- —- —- —- —–
CL Rollie Fingers 1.8 0.6 123 11 9 23 103 101 32 69 2.80 66 0 0 46 33
RP-L Bob Lacey 1.0 0.3 129 3 2 6 80 68 21 45 2.94 47 1 1 31 26
RP-R Stan Bahnsen 0.6 -0.2 118 7 6 4 91 80 33 48 3.05 57 0 0 19 35
RP-R Jeff Jones -0.2 -0.3 134 1 3 5 44 32 26 34 2.84 35 0 0 13 23
Long Brian Kingman -0.1 -1.9 98 8 20 0 211 209 82 116 3.83 32 30 10 0 25

Total WAR: 52.0 (pro rated to a real team’s playing time).
Breakdown: 34.9 WAR/pos, 17.1 WAR/pitch; 23.1 WAR from ’75 regulars.

Would they have won? They’re in the playoffs, at least. The two 100-win teams that year, the Yanks and Orioles, both had about 48 WAR, while the pennant-winning Phillies and Royals both were near 45 WAR. These hypothetical 1980 A’s would have been hard to beat.

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Feeling A Draft?

The A’s dynasty shows how the amateur draft promotes competitive balance. High picks in 1965-67 — reaped from a .393 W% for 1964-66 — became cornerstones of the dynasty. In just those 3 drafts, Oakland signed five players who’d be in the top 40 in total WAR/pos or WAR/pitch over the next 20 years: Reggie Jackson (#6), Sal Bando (#14), Darrell Evans (#18, but lost via Rule 5), Gene Tenace (#35), and Vida Blue (#19 in WAR/pitch). And Rick Monday was no slouch (#80).

That haul led to eight straight years in 1st or 2nd place. But that brought lower picks, while rising salaries for the stars meant less money Finley would shell out for signing bonuses. From 1969-76, out of 24 picks in the first 3 rounds of the main June draft, just three both signed with Oakland and went on to real big-league careers — and all three were shipped out before they ever played for Oakland:

  • Chet Lemon (1st round in ’72) came through the minors as a good hitter but a problematic third baseman. He was swapped for Stan Bahnsen halfway through 1975, helping to fill the gap that Hunter left. Lemon became a White Sox star after moving to center field, but Bahnsen did help Oakland win that fifth division title, and was a useful swingman in their ’76 bid.
  • “Disco Dan” Ford (1st round, ’70) was a Class-A batting champ at 20 and a good hitter in Triple-A the next year. But the ’74 A’s had no need of outfielders, so Ford stayed down another season. Then he was dealt to get back 27-year-old Pat Bourque, a foolish and failed bid to land the slugging lefty first baseman they’d lacked since dealing Mike Epstein. Bourque hadn’t hit much in two years of part-time duty, and he never played with Oakland after this trade, jumping to Mexico instead. Ford immediately became a Twins regular, posting a 115 OPS+ over his first 7 years.
  • Don Stanhouse (1st round, ’69) starred in Double-A at 19, but was traded after one more season for the bloated corpse of Denny McLain. “Full Pack” never made it as a starter, but he turned in four useful years as a swingman and closer from 1976-79, precisely when the A’s could best have used him.

Dealing prospects for help right now is an inherent risk for all contenders. But Finley dealt from a farm crop that was already thin. Of all the players they broke in from 1971-77, just three topped 15 career WAR, none of them pitchers, and none from the June draft:

  • Phil Garner (’71 January draft), 29.6 WAR from 1973-88. Missed the title years, went to Pittsburgh in the big ’77 deal that yielded four regulars for the ’80 A’s.
  • George Hendrick (’68 January draft), 28.9 WAR from 1971-88. Dealt at 23 after hitting .209 in two trials. Bad deal, but they had a lot of outfielders.
  • Claudell Washington (undrafted ’72 signee), 19.4 WAR from 1974-90. All-Star at 20, then regressed. Dealt to Texas before ’77, for speedy no-hit IF Rodney Scott and sore-armed Jim Umbarger.

Of course, the draft isn’t pure socialism. Good scouting (and good luck) can turn low picks into real talent. In 1971, the A’s took high-school pitcher William Daniels in the 1st round (pick #17), passing on the likes of George Brett, Mike Schmidt, Ron Guidry and Rick Rhoden, who all went within the next 2 rounds. Their 2nd-round pick in ’72 (after taking Lemon in the 1st) was HS outfielder Garret Strong; the next 7 draftees included Gary CarterDennis Eckersley and John Candelaria. Their top pick in ’73 was USC pitcher Randy Scarbery; his teammate Fred Lynn went in the 2nd round, Eddie Murray in the 3rd. In ’74 they snapped up one HS catcher, Jerry Johnson, while passing on another, Butch Wynegar, who went 15 picks later and was an All-Star within 2 years.

And in a classic whiff, they took HS pitcher Thomas Sullivan at the end of the ’76 1st round. Two picks later, Detroit tabbed Alan Trammell, who reached the bigs for good after just one full year of grooming. Oakland had a black hole at short for many years after Campy left: In Trammell’s first 8 full seasons, his 4.0 WAR average topped the total for the Oakland regulars.

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“Age ain’t nothing but a number”

As noted, the 1971 A’s average of 26.6 years old (weighted by playing time) would have been the youngest in last year’s majors. Their top 10 in WAR for 1971-75 averaged 26.8 years old during those years with Oakland. But actually, the A’s were about average during most of that span. They were an older team by 1975, and their ’76 lineup was the oldest in MLB (which makes their stolen base record even more impressive). Here’s how their groups compared to the MLB norm (A’s listed first):

  • 1971 — Pos. 26.8 < 27.6 … Pitchers 26.5 < 27.1 … Combined 26.6 < 27.4
  • 1972 — Pos. 27.7 > 27.5 … Pitchers 27.0 < 27.2 … Combined 27.4 = 27.4
  • 1973 — Pos. 28.4 > 27.6 … Pitchers 26.8 < 27.5 … Combined 27.6 = 27.6
  • 1974 — Pos. 28.6 > 27.4 … Pitchers 27.1 < 27.6 … Combined 27.8 > 27.5
  • 1975 — Pos. 28.8 > 27.4 … Pitchers 29.1 > 27.6 … Combined 29.0 > 27.5
  • 1976 — Pos. 29.5 > 27.6 … Pitchers 27.9 > 27.5 … Combined 28.7 > 27.6

This was the tag end of the most youthful period of the live-ball era, probably due to the 1960s expansions that goosed the player pool by 50%. The weighted average age of position players has been over 28 ever since 1918, except for a brief dip to 27.9 from 1940-42, and a deeper drop to 27.5 from 1961-78, the latter period spanning the first three expansions. Since 1980, it’s been 28.2 and up, averaging 28.7. (The ’90s expansions had no measurable effect on age, but those only grew the population by 15% combined.)

There’s a beautiful symmetry in Oakland’s 5-year string of division titles, with three championships in the middle, so it’s fitting that they crack this list at the start of their run. Somewhat surprising is that the focus group’s combined WAR was highest on the ends of the span, while their expected peak age was in the middle:

  • 1971 — 31.7 WAR … 5.3 per man … avg. age 25.2
  • 1972 — 23.6 WAR … 3.9 per man … avg. age 26.2
  • 1973 — 27.4 WAR … 4.6 per man … avg. age 27.2
  • 1974 — 29.7 WAR … 4.9 per man … avg. age 28.2
  • 1975 — 31.5 WAR* … 5.2 per man … avg. age 29.2
    (*counting Hunter’s 8.1 WAR with New York)

Of course, we can’t expect a normal curve from just six players. Vida Blue’s early peak — his 1971 WAR nearly equals his next 4 years combined — is enough to skew the curve all by itself.

The group held its value well into their 30s, even with Catfish fading at 31. Their average WAR for age 30-32, per year:

  • 5.3, Tenace
  • 5.1, Campaneris
  • 4.8, Bando
  • 4.4, Reggie
  • 3.5, Blue
  • 0.8, Hunter

That’s an outstanding average of 4 WAR per man-year for age 30-32. All four position players ranked top-20 in total WAR for that age group during 1972-82, and Blue was #16 among the pitchers. Their latest 3-WAR years, by age:

  • Jackson, age 36 — 3.1 WAR in 1982
  • Campy, age 35 — 4.3 WAR in ’77
  • Bando, age 34 — 5.6 WAR in ’78
  • Tenace, age 33 — 3.9 WAR in ’80
  • Blue, age 30 — 3.0 WAR in ’80
  • Hunter, age 29 — 8.1 WAR in ’75

Of the eight teams in this study, the A’s focus group ranked 4th with 141 total WAR for the 5 years after they first made the list, or 4.7 WAR per man-year. But they were much closer to the top three (151 per group, 5.0 per man-year) than to the bottom four (109, 3.6).

Oakland’s dynasty years aligned extremely well with their stars’ peak years. (Feel free to roll your eyes and mutter “well, duh,” but obvious facts can still be noteworthy.) This table compares 1971-75 WAR against each player’s best 5-year span, first for the focus group, and then for others who were A’s regulars at least 2 years during 1971-75:

Player WAR
1971-75
Best
5-Year
(When) 1971-75 as
% of Best
Yrs OAK Reg.
Reggie Jackson 32.2 32.2 same 100% ’68-75
Sal Bando 27.0 32.9 ’69-73 82% ’68-76
Catfish Hunter 25.1 25.1 same 100% ’65-74
Bert Campaneris 21.7 24.8 ’68-72 88% ’65-76
Vida Blue 18.5 21.0 ’76-80 88% ’71-77
Gene Tenace 17.6 25.3 ’75-79 70% ’72-76
FOCUS GROUP: 142.1 161.3 88% 51 Years
Joe Rudi 18.6 18.7 ’72-76 99% ’70-76
Bill North 16.4 19.5 ’73-77 84% ’73-77
Ken Holtzman 12.2 18.4 ’69-73 66% ’72-75
Rollie Fingers 8.1 12.1 ’74-78 67% ’69-76
Paul Lindblad 8.0 8.0 same 100% ’66-70, ’73-76
Dave Duncan 7.0 7.8 ’70-74 90% ’68, ’70-72
Mike Epstein 6.4 12.6 ’69-73 51% ’71-72
Dick Green 5.6 8.7 ’69-73 64% ’64-71, ’73-74
Dave Hamilton* 5.3 5.6 ’73-77 95% ’72-74
Bob Locker 3.4 7.0 ’66-70 49% ’70-72
Darold Knowles -0.2 10.2 ’66-70 -2% ’71-74
Blue Moon Odom -2.4 6.6 ’68-72 -36% ’66-74
ALL REGULARS: 230.5 296.5 78% 118 Years

* Hamilton debuted in ’72, so his “1971-75” is actually 1972-76.

You know what seems ironic here? Despite posting his best year in 1971, Vida Blue is the lone star whose best 5-year span completely misses the dynasty years. You’d never guess that from his basic stats: 78-66, 3.35 ERA, 107 ERA+ for 1976-80, against 89-53, 2.80, 121 for 1971-75. But the league context and his defensive help both were more challenging in the latter period, and he tossed a few more innings then, as well.

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The Upside of Fury

His pro career began in the outfield. He didn’t settle at his ultimate post until his 4th year in the minors, and didn’t hold a big-league regular’s job until late in his 8th pro season, at age 25. But Fury Gene Tenace shed his anonymity that fall, winning the 1972 World Series MVP with 4 HRs and 9 RBI in the 7-game thriller, including the final go-ahead hit in the clincher. And for 8 years from that point, Tenace was deadly consistent:

  • OPS+ between 130 and 149 each year, averaging 138
  • WAR from 3.9 to 5.9 each year, averaging 4.8

Although he made just one All-Star team, Tenace ranked 9th in total WAR for 1973-80. Of those with 3,000 PAs, he was 13th in OPS+ (tied with George Brett, a point behind Dave Parker and Jim Rice). His .391 OBP ranked 5th, and he trailed only Joe Morgan in walks, averaging 103 per year.

Among those with 800 games caught, Tenace’s 136 OPS+ is 2nd to Mike Piazza, and his rate of 5.5 WAR per 650 PAs is 2nd to Johnny Bench. Both the JAWS rating system and the Hall of Stats have him #13 among catchers.

His career walk rate — 116 BB per 650 PAs, or 17.8% — is 8th of modern players with 500 bases on balls. He leads all modern catchers with 984 walks (despite less than 6,000 PAs), and owns 5 of the 16 modern years of 100+ walks by a primary catcher, as many as the next two men combined. And his walks-to-hits ratio, 0.928, is 2nd to Max Bishop among those with 500 hits. He’s the only player ever to earn 4+ offensive WAR while batting under .230, which he did twice.

Now, here’s a real freak stat: Batting 5th throughout the 1973 World Series, Tenace tied Babe Ruth’s record by drawing 11 walks (since topped by Barry Bonds), giving him a .467 OBP despite just 3 base hits. Somehow, he didn’t score a single run — setting a Series record with 14 fruitless times on base — as Oakland’s 6th through 8th-place hitters combined to bat .134 (11 for 82). But Tenace tied for the team lead in Win Probability Added, and the A’s repeated as World Champs despite getting out-hit (.253-.212), out-homered (4-2) and out-scored (24-21) over 7 games.

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Nail-Biters

In their three championships, Oakland went 21-12 in the postseason, but they outscored their foes by just 4 runs in total. They were 14-5 in one-run games, including 9-3 in the World Series. Their average winning margin was just 1.8 runs, while their average losing margin was 2.8 runs.

A breakdown of those 19 one-run games:

  • Two at 5 to 4 … 0-2 record
  • One at 4 to 3 … 0-1 record
  • Nine at 3 to 2 … 8-1 record
  • Five at 2 to 1 … 5-0 record
  • Two at 1 to 0 … 1-1 record

They never scored more than 5 runs in a World Series win, and did that just twice. Seven of the 12 wins came by the exact score of 3 to 2. Two were 2-1, one 3-1, and two 5-2. And it had nothing to do with the era they played in. The previous five champions (1967-71) had their 20 World Series wins by an average score of 5.35 to 2.41. Oakland’s average WS win came by 3.17 to 1.38.

So, the A’s were built to win close, low-scoring games. Right? They won so many October nail-biters because they’d polished those skills during the season … right?

Nothing could be further from the truth. During the 1972-74 regular seasons, Oakland merely broke even on one-run games, 75-75, and only five teams played fewer of them. In 2-run games, they were just 47-50. But in games decided by 3 runs or more, they led the majors at 155-77. For blowout margins of 5 or more, the A’s were 2nd in both wins and win percentage; only the Big Red Machine won more blowouts than the Mustache Brigade. And the team often remembered for its pitching actually was an offensive powerhouse, ranking 1st or 2nd in OPS+ all three years, and a close 2nd to Boston in total AL scoring, despite the huge difference in their home park factors.

But back to those postseason one-run games … We tend to link such success with a great bullpen, and the 1972-74 A’s did have a a very good one. But in the postseason, A’s starters were even better, both over all (2.51-2.95 RA/9) and in one-run games (1.91-2.22). Out of 33 starts, just one featured more than 4 runs, while 24 let in 2 runs or less.

On the offensive side, the A’s scored 3 runs or less in 25 of 33 postseason games, and went 16-9 in those — 15-3 when scoring 2 or 3 runs. In those 3 regular seasons, they went 65-84 when scoring 2 or 3 runs. A further breakdown of A’s games by their runs scored:

  • Exactly 1 run — 1-2 postseason … 5-45 regular season
  • Exactly 2 runs — 5-1 postseason … 19-42 regular season
  • Exactly 3 runs — 10-2 postseason … 46-52 regular season
  • 4 runs or more — 5-3 postseason … 207-44 regular season

So the regular-season A’s were absolutely dominant when scoring 4 or more, but lost more than they won at every lower level — and the postseason A’s were pretty much the opposite.

You want more? In the regular season, the A’s out-homered foes by 26% (413-329). In the postseason, they got out-homered by 21-20. In the World Series, they both hit and allowed 11 HRs — and were out-scored by 56-53 — but went 12-7.

In the regular season, Oakland stole almost twice as many bases than they allowed (379-209), with a far better success rate (66%-57%). In the postseason, the A’s had 20 SB with 15 CS, their foes 16 and 13. In the World Series, Oakland went 6 for 16 in steals, while their opponents went 15-4.

Credit the strong arms of Johnny Bench, Jerry Grote and Steve Yeager for casting out the thieves. But the bigger picture is, the Oakland A’s we saw on TV in October played a style far different than the one that got them there. Whether that’s just a fluke, or further testament to their all-around greatness, it sure is curious.

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“Batting” vs. Scoring

For 1971-75 combined, the A’s .251 BA ranked just 7th out of 12 AL teams, and never above 5th in any season. But in scoring, they were a close second to Boston over all, with no year worse than 3rd. One big factor was their 1st-place rank in home runs — 30 HRs more per year than the other AL teams averaged.

Reggie averaged 31 bombs in those 5 years (2nd in MLB to Willie Stargell), Bando 21, and Tenace averaged 26 HRs in his 3 full years. But it was depth that made them #1: Nine different A’s clouted 15 or more in at least one of those seasons, totaling 23 such years; the other AL teams averaged 7 such players and 12 such years.

Yet the long balls alone probably wouldn’t have made them a high-scoring team, if not for the walks that boosted their below-average BA into an above-average OBP. Here are the AL teams’ output for 1971-75 in certain categories, expressed as a percentage of league average, and ordered by runs per game:

AL 1971-75 R/G % BA % OB % ISO % HR %
BOS 111% 103% 103% 115% 115%
OAK 109% 99% 101% 113% 123%
BAL 105% 100% 103% 104% 105%
MIN 104% 104% 103% 96% 96%
KCR 103% 102% 102% 97% 82%
NYY 100% 102% 101% 96% 92%
CHW 99% 100% 101% 99% 100%
DET 96% 98% 97% 111% 122%
MIL 95% 96% 97% 103% 103%
CLE 95% 99% 96% 100% 109%
WSA 94% 98% 99% 86% 83%
CAL 88% 97% 96% 80% 71%

Detroit’s power was much like Oakland’s, but their sub-par OBP led to sub-par scoring. Cleveland also hit lots of homers, but they were last in OBP, and near the bottom in scoring. Now check out the Twins and Royals — both low on power, but well above the scoring norm, thanks to good OBP. The lesson, as always: No stat plays a bigger role in scoring than on-base percentage.

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Odds & Ends

Three of the six focus A’s totaled 40+ WAR while with Oakland — about the norm for these eight studied teams:

  • 5 — 1931-33 Yankees; 1998-99 Yankees
  • 3 — 1901-02 Pirates; 1914 A’s; 1915 BoSox; 1971 A’s
  • 2 — 1935 Cubs (but two more in spitting distance); 1996 Indians

During his 8 full years with Oakland (1968-75), Reggie Jackson ranked 3rd in MLB with 48.9 WAR, a smidge behind Joe Morgan and Johnny Bench. Sal Bando joined the lineup the same year as Reggie, and stayed through ’76; in his 9 full A’s seasons, Bando’s 50.5 WAR rated 5th, after Morgan, Bench, Reggie and Pete Rose. (Sal’s 10-year prime is as good as any by a 3B not enshrined.) Bert Campaneris ranked 10th with 42.3 WAR in that same span.

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The 1975 A’s were the first of seven teams that had 9 players reach 500 PAs. Six of those seven teams made the playoffs, and the other won 93 games. The ’75 A’s were also the second of 11 teams that had 8 players reach 540 PAs; those teams averaged 94-68, all but one winning at least 90.

The 1972 A’s had 9 pitchers with 60+ innings, and each one had an ERA of 3.00 or lower. They are the only team ever with 9 such pitchers. They’re one of two full-season teams with no 60-inning pitcher above a 3.00 ERA; but the fact that the other was the 1972 Orioles puts the achievement in appropriate context: The American League ERA that year was 3.06, lowest of any live-ball year except for 1968.

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Rollie Fingers began 1971 in the rotation, making 8 starts in place of injured Chuck Dobson. Like almost every closer before the mid-’80s, Rollie had come up as a starting pitcher. But after 35 career starts through May of ’71, his record was just 7-15, with a 4.45 ERA and a severe case of gopheritis. Fingers moved to the bullpen for good after that, but a starter’s stamina still came in handy: His 48 relief games of 4+ innings were 2nd-most from 1969-82, and his 116 stints of 3+ IP were 3rd. His term as all-time saves leader was over long ago, but he still holds a record with 201 saves of more than one inning, and that one’s going to last a while. Mariano finished with 119 (82 short), and no one else in the last 20 years has even half of Mo’s count.

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Catfish Hunter batted 36 for 103 in 1971, a .350 average. No pitcher since has collected 30 hits in a season. Hunter hit .226 in his career, good enough to earn the 4.8 WAR/pos that pushes his combined total over the 40-WAR threshold of this study.

Vida Blue, on the other hand, hit .104. His 15 RBI are the fewest of anyone with 600 PAs. In postseason games, Blue went 0 for 13 with 12 Ks; his other at-bat was a dribbler in front of home plate.

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In the 1974 ALCS, Blue tossed a 2-hit shutout in which no Oriole reached second base, facing just 30 batters in a 1-0 win over Jim Palmer. (“Cakes” yielded but 4 hits himself, one of five postseason losses ever with 4 hits or less in 9+ innings.) Blue’s 90 game score was then tied for 7th-best in the postseason, now 14th. But that’s the only game he won out of 10 starts (1-5, 4.79), and by far his best starting performance; just one other featured 6+ innings on 2 runs or less. Oakland had lost all six of his starts before that shutout, and finished at 2-8. (To be fair, Vida did have some clutch relief outings, none bigger than 4 scoreless frames preserving a 2-1 lead to clinch their first pennant.) Pop quiz: Who’s the only pitcher with 10+ postseason starts and zero wins?

That Blue-Palmer duel in Game 3 of the ’74 ALCS was the last of four postseason games in which both starters went the distance on 4 hits or less. The same teams did it in Game 3 of the 1973 ALCS, with Ken Holtzman outlasting Mike Cuellar to win on Campy’s leadoff homer in the last of the 11th. The first two such games were in the 1906 World Series, both captured by the “Hitless Wonders” White Sox — Nick Altrock over Three-Finger Brown in Game 1, and Ed Walsh over Jack Pfiester in Game 3. (In between, the Cubs’ Ed Reulbach held the Sox to one 7th-inning single. The Southsiders split the first 4 games while collecting just 11 hits, but then erupted for 8 runs in each of the last two.)

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Did you ever wonder … Would Finley still have tried to sell his stars in 1976, if the A’s hadn’t been in 5th place, 10.5 games behind? The outright sales were Finley’s last resort; he had been seeking fair trades like the Jackson deal. But Oakland hadn’t yet put two good weeks together, and they’d fallen far behind with an 0-8 road trip in mid-May. The imports had started slowly, Baylor batting .219, while Torrez was 6-7, 3.64. The 1st-place Royals were on a 13-2 tear when Finley pulled the trigger. Charlie O. was a shrewd businessman and often a skinflint — but above all, he was egotistical, competitive, and craved the limelight that his team’s success provided. If one more October showcase had seemed in reach, I think Finley would have chased it as long as possible.

And if it had been anyone but Finley who first tried to sell his walk-year stars, would Bowie Kuhn still have acted as he did? If Kuhn had not made precedent before that winter’s free-for-all revealed where salaries were heading, might he have been more open to such sales? The impact of an open mind at that critical moment could have been huge. From the Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract:

“What Kuhn should have done [is] rule that players could be sold [], but 30% of the money had to go to the players. [T]his policy would have allowed the rich teams to strengthen themselves without inflating the salary structure, and would have allowed the weaker teams [] to remain financially competitive by profiting from developing young players.” [emphasis original]

Free agency without a salary cap was bound to cause the type of strategic divide that we have now based on team revenues. Small-market teams can still compete despite serving as feeders to the rich, but the current system makes it far more complicated than is necessary. To reap fair value for a star they won’t be able to afford in the near future, a team must find a partner who both needs that star and has the right package of young talent to trade. And one whole class of assets that is integral to player swaps in other sports — draft picks — is off-limits in MLB transactions. Such bartering is inefficient; it interferes with maximizing the return. Isn’t that why modern economies use currency?

If all assets could be converted into dollars on the open market, the challenges of managing the salary cycle would be streamlined. And legalizing sales wouldn’t necessarily increase player moves. A low-budget team with multiple players about to get expensive could put them all up for cash bids, take the one or two best offers, and use that money towards keeping the others — instead of the wholesale roster moves we saw this winter from the A’s and Rays.

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Recapping this blog series: These teams all had six players who (a) were 30 or younger and scored 1+ WAR that year, and (b) amassed 40+ career WAR. Due to the limitations of a bulk search, players appearing with two teams that year did not count towards finding the subject teams. Pitchers’ WAR is counted as the higher of pitching WAR only, or pitching plus offensive WAR.

  1. Pirates, 1901 (1st, 90-49) and 1902 (1st, 103-36) (No World Series yet) — Part One of series
  2. Athletics, 1914 (1st, 99-53, lost WS 0-4) — Part One of series
  3. Red Sox, 1915 (1st, 101-50, won WS 4-1) — Part Three of series
  4. Yankees, 1931 (2nd, 94-59), 1932 (1st, 107-47, swept WS) and 1933 (2nd, 91-59) — Part Two of series
  5. Cubs, 1935 (1st, 100-54, lost WS 2-4)
  6. Athletics, 1971 (1st, 101-60, lost ALCS 0-3)
  7. Indians, 1996 (1st, 99-62, lost ALDS 1-3)
  8. Yankees, 1998 (1st, 114-48) and 1999 (1st, 98-64) (swept both WS)

The team tables in each post list the six players who met the criteria (seven in one case), and their group totals, followed by other notables. Italics and an asterisk by the name mark a player who was not a regular with that team. If the column headings are unclear, just ask.

As always, my main data source is Baseball-Reference.com and their indispensable Play Index.

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Dr. Doom
Dr. Doom
7 years ago

Those hypothetical ’80 A’s are a pretty great team! Considering that it’s 9 years after the year in question, it’s pretty remarkable that they might’ve been the best team in baseball that year, in spite of the fact that they would’ve been pretty mediocre the three years previous. That was a REALLY cool exercise in a great post, JA! Also, poor Gene Tenace. That’s a guy who I think deserved a better shot in MLB. How does a catcher with that kind of power end up with such a (relatively) meager number of PAs in MLB? Even so, there’s STILL… Read more »

Daniel Longmire
Daniel Longmire
7 years ago

John, this is very illuminating, but I would expect nothing less of you. I’m sitting here, trying to ascertain the reasoning behind the BBWAA voting Hunter into the Hall of Fame, but not Blue. Their counting stats are nearly identical, and Blue laps Hunter comfortably in WAR (especially in the Baseball Reference version). Were the writers focusing on Catfish’s two additional rings in the Big Apple? The five consecutive 20-win seasons? His superior post-season results? Your thoughts would be appreciated.

Daniel Longmire
Daniel Longmire
7 years ago
Reply to  John Autin

Glad to read that I’m not off the rails with that sentiment, John. Hunter definitely received a fair amount of reflected glory from being on those Yankee teams, but overall he is still HOF material; in my opinion, they are both worthy. I was unaware of Blue’s holdout (and substance abuse issues??), so that’s likely why he was in the bullpen for the ’72 playoffs. His later suspension for cocaine possession also eluded my memory, but hey, I was only six years old at the time. And Brent, I’m not aware of any systemic bias by the writers against other… Read more »

Daniel Longmire
Daniel Longmire
7 years ago

One final footnote on Blue: he is one of just sixteen pitchers in the live-ball era with 150 wins before the age of 30. Only one of those 16 hurlers ended up reaching 300 victories, but you probably already knew the answer to that trivia question.

Hartvig
Hartvig
7 years ago

I clearly remember Blue’s breakout season altho after that my memory is far less vivid since I was entering high school and I had discovered that girls were even more fun than baseball and thus I began a decade spent in baseball wilderness. However I did remember about the cocaine possession since by that time I had figured out that while women have much more to offer than girls they are also a lot more work and sometimes impossible to understand so I had returned to baseball as place to go to relax and make sense of the world. And… Read more »

Doug
Editor
7 years ago
Reply to  Hartvig

That breakout season by Blue was more than just a baseball story. Blue made the cover of Jet magazine in July, Time magazine in August and a feature article in Ebony in September (that feature was promoted on the Ebony cover, but the cover itself was of the Jackson Five).

In a foreshadowing of future troubles, the Jet magazine article was critical of Finley for not giving Blue a bigger contract (Finley, instead, gave Vida a new Cadillac).

Brent
Brent
7 years ago

I have always thought that grouping your best years, like Catfish did, is more impressive to the HOF voters than spreading them out, like Blue.

Other differences are their postseason records (legitimate), cool nickname advantage (not legitimate), years played for high profile teams (not legitimate), legal/substance use troubles (quasi-legitimate) and the color of their skins (hopefully not a factor and certainly not legitimate)

Doug
Editor
7 years ago

Answer to the trivia question is Mike Boddicker who posted consecutive CGs with nary an earned run allowed in the second games of the 1983 ALCS and WS.

Brent
Brent
7 years ago

BTW, I am unsure the A’s truly would have beat out the Royals in 1980 if they had kept all the gang together. My recollection was that the Royals coasted in September (and my recollection is correct, 12-19 in September/October after going 85-46 the first 5 months of the season). Their 20 game lead on 8/31 had shrunk to 14 games by the end of the year. Without doing a little research, I cannot confirm my memory that they truly coasted, resting a number of regulars quite a bit that September.