Laissez Les Bon Temps Rouler
February 20, 2007

Happy Mardi Gras!  As the Krewes of Zulu, Rex, Elks and Crescent City begin their parades through the streets of New Orleans, thousands of revelers will be lined up along the streets to grab doubloons, beads and trinkets thrown from the floats by masked Krewe members.  That's right - the largely worthless gifts that people scramble for come from anonymous sources.  But not all surprises from unknowns are worthless.  In fact, many of them change the course of history.  

It turns out that probably the most famous pilot in aviation history outside the two brothers who invented powered flight wasn't a very good pilot at all.  Baron Manfred Von Richtoven, better known as the Red Baron, was by most accounts an average pilot when it came to actually flying his plane.  However, he was an exceptional marksman with his plane's machine guns, with both the two versions of the Albatross and his more famous Fokker triplane.  What also isn't well known was that he wasn't shot down in a dogfight by British pilot Capt. Roy Brown, a myth perpetuated by the class-conscious British military.  The bullet that killed the Baron entered his chest with upward trajectory across his torso, something that Brown could not have managed with his biplane in our physical universe.  No, the man who shot down the most feared dogfighter in history was an enlisted Australian anti-aircraft gunner whose identity remains a mystery to this day.  The death of Richtoven was a crushing blow to the German morale, already flagging in the conflict.  Six months after he was buried, so too did the Germans at Versailles bury their aspirations of winning the war.  

More recently, perhaps the two most important men in the history of mankind are unknown to 99.99% of the population on Earth.  Vasili Arkhipov was a submarine officer on a Soviet nuclear attack submarine during the 1962 Cuban missile crisis.  His submarine had been trapped by US warships that were trying to force his boat to the surface.  It was he who convinced the submarine's captain that it would be smarter to surface the sub and await further orders from Moscow than to launch a nuclear torpedo at the US fleet and probably start World War III.  

Stanislov Petrov was a lieutenant colonel in the Soviet military assigned to launch a full scale counter-attack if the US ever launched it's nuclear arsenal at the USSR.  On September 26, 1983, his computer indicated that the US had indeed launched a missile at a target inside Russia's borders.  Despite what his computer indicated, he did not push the button to counter-attack.  He felt there must be some error, reasoning that if the US ever did launch an attack they would launch everything, not just one missile.  Moments later, a second, third, fourth and fifth incoming missile appeared on his screen.  Rather than notify his superiors, which would have almost certainly resulted in a retaliatory strike, he trusted his instincts despite having no other evidence to do so and did not respond.  Fortunately for everyone his instincts proved correct.  

So what does this have to do with baseball?  Well, actually a lot.  In simulation games like Strat-o-matic, roto and even in real baseball, it's often not the famous names who end up being the difference-makers for a championship run.   Everyone knows Albert Pujols and Johan Santana are going to be great, and their price tags reflect that.  It's lesser known guys like Gary Matthews Jr. or Akinori Otsuka or any number of guys who got no respect at the draft that came up big when it was time to collect league trophies.  Even in real baseball, where would the Cardinals have finished without the contributions of Chris Duncan, Scott Spiezio or Adam Wainwright?  

It was with this in mind that I accepted an invitation to a Strat-o-matic experts league that was using players from the 1969 season.  One of the most obvious traits about the league back then was that there was an abundance of really good pitchers.  Bob Gibson, Steve Carlton, Tom Seaver, Nolan Ryan, Juan Marichal, Gaylord Perry, Jim Palmer, Phil Niekro, Don Sutton, Ferguson Jenkins, Catfish Hunter and Don Drysdale are just the Hall of Famers who were active.  The list of 20-game winners, Cy Young winners, no-hitter authors and super-talented pitchers is almost endless: Jim Kaat, Jim Lonborg, Jim Bunning, Bob Veale, Sam McDowell, Mudcat Grant, Dock Ellis, Denny McLain, Mickey Lolich, Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Pat Dobson, Jim Perry, Wilbur Wood, Earl Wilson, Dean Chance, Andy Messersmith, Mel Stottlemyre, Larry Dierker, Claude Osteen, Bill Hands, Bill Singer... so unlike playing a game based on the current player population, filling out a staff of good pitchers shouldn't be overly difficult.

What is difficult is filling out a line-up that can score runs yet won't give back those runs with bad fielding.  There were a handful of great all-around players like Johnny Bench and Hank Aaron, but their pricing in the Sporting News Strat game makes it next to impossible to roster more than two or three without having to fill out the team with extremely marginal players.  The dilemma then is to choose whether to grab a good fielding team and hope they score enough runs, or a take a chance with good hitters and hope the ball finds their glove enough that the pitching staff doesn't need intravenous fluids every game.  

I chose to name my squad the Washington Apollos, in honor of mankind's greatest technical achievement (which just so happened to take place in 1969), and use "the Launching Pad", Atlanta's Fulton County Stadium, as my home park.  This choice turned out to be fortuitous because it was this that allowed me to walk the razor's edge between fielding a good defensive team and a good hitting team.  The key was finding inexpensive platoon players who can take full advantage of a park that is favorable to home runs.  This allowed me to pay top dollar for some of the best all-around players in the middle of the field - shortstop (Rico Petrocelli), second base (Dick McAuliffe) and centerfield (Reggie Smith) - and then find some decent options at third and the other two outfield slots.  The two remaining spots in the line-up - first base and DH - would be filled by inexpensive platoon players that should produce as much offensively as guys twice their salary.  And like the aforementioned unknown men who changed the history of the planet, these largely unknown players could have a huge impact on the outcome of this league.  

My superunknowns are Woody Held and Jim Hicks.  Held's final season of a 14-year career was 1969.  By then he was merely a bench player but for eight years he was a fairly productive hitter, averaging a little better than 20-homers a season.  Hicks, however, was a never-was amassing a total of 141 career at bats split between three teams over five years.  Strangely enough, his Strat card only acknowledges half his 1969 production, the half spent with the Angels.  The other half of his actual at bats came with the Cardinals, where he displayed better contact but not as much power or as good an eye at the plate.   

Their actual numbers as displayed on their Strat cards are in bold.  The other stat lines are what they produced in several SN Strat leagues when given a chance to play regularly.

Woody Held
Name          B  P   Def     AB  R 2B HR RBI BB SB  E   BA  SLG  OBP BAL Salary
Held, W.      R CF 4(+2)e9   63  9  2  3   6 13  0    .143 .317 .299 5R  1.96M
Held, W.      R CF 4(+2)e9  289 44  5 27  52 41  0  3 .187 .484 .303 5R  1.96M
Held, W.      R CF 4(+2)e9  271 46  5 26  56 26  0  4 .199 .535 .285 5R  1.96M
Held, W.      R CF 4(+2)e9  280 51 12 33  76 37  0  8 .275 .671 .378 5R  1.96M
Held, W.      R CF 4(+2)e9  471 85 18 34  73 76  0 22 .198 .452 .318 5R  1.96M
Held, W.      R CF 4(+2)e9  338 67  8 40  83 47  0 12 .240 .624 .346 5R  1.96M
Held, W.      R CF 4(+2)e9  397 76 12 40  92 56  0 12 .222 .554 .333 5R  1.96M
Held, W.      R CF 4(+2)e9  392 76 11 43 104 39  0  8 .255 .617 .336 5R  1.96M
Held, W.      R CF 4(+2)e9  450 89 10 46 101 47  0 11 .220 .553 .309 5R  1.96M

Jim Hicks
Name          B  P   Def.    AB  R 2B HR RBI BB SB  E   BA  SLG  OBP BAL Salary
Hicks, J.     R 1B  4e30     48  6  0  3   8 13  0    .083 .271 .274 9L  1.07M
Hicks, J.     R 1B  4e30     84 17  1  7  25 25  0  6 .226 .488 .400 9L  1.07M
Hicks, J.     R 1B  4e30    161 32  0  7  26 48  0  1 .199 .354 .383 9L  1.07M
Hicks, J.     R 1B  4e30    171 30  5 13  29 45  0  4 .199 .456 .362 9L  1.07M
Hicks, J.     R 1B  4e30    131 29  5 13  32 36  0  2 .237 .573 .396 9L  1.07M
Hicks, J.     R 1B  4e30    200 39  4 16  33 59  0  2 .235 .515 .409 9L  1.07M
Hicks, J.     R 1B  4e30    196 46  3 19  35 45  0  4 .265 .602 .401 9L  1.07M
Hicks, J.     R 1B  4e30    202 51  1 20  52 84  0  3 .223 .545 .446 9L  1.07M
Hicks, J.     R 1B  4e30    221 53  4 20  57 62  0  4 .249 .557 .409 9L  1.07M

To give a comparison, Frank Howard - who was also not a very good fielder but managed to punish opposing pitchers to the tune of 48 homers and a .976 OPS for the Senators in 1969 -  his salary in the game is $7.22 million.  Combining Held and Hicks in a platoon yields similar production to that of Howard but for just $3.03 million, less than half what Howard costs.  Making a similar accommodation at first base with guys like Bubba Morton, Jose Pagan and Willie Smith should also yield pretty decent bargain-basement production.

In order for the pitching staff to work, it will have to be comprised of entirely groundball pitchers with very few if any home run chances.  Jim Bunning's card, for example, was ranked 100th out of 256 pitcher cards in the number of home run chances it allowed but in his first 30 innings of work in this league he allowed 7 home runs.  Guys like Bob Gibson, Sam McDowell, Fritz Peterson, Jerry Koosman, Juan Marichal and Steve Carlton were some of the top starter's cards in this regard.  McDowell was the one I got to lead the starting staff.  Likewise the bullpen had to keep the ball in the park so the obvious choice for closer was Ken Tatum, who not only doesn't have any home run chances on his card but is the closest thing to Mariano Rivera in the 1969 card set.  

I did end up with a few big name players on my team - Petrocelli, Smith, Bobby Murcer, Tug McGraw and Johnny Podres - but the success of the team will depend largely on how effective the little known players like Held, Hicks, Tatum, Steve Whitaker, Tom Murphy and Tommy Harper are.  But as it has been demonstrated in more arenas than just baseball, depending on the unknowns can have a huge pay-off.

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