Bryan Johnson and the Alfredo Griffin vs. Tony Fernandez Debate in Toronto

Here are a few columns from the Toronto Globe and Mail on this debate over who the Blue Jays’ starting shortstop should have been in 1983 and 1984. They’re meant as an accompaniment to this item I did on The Daily Something about Bryan Johnson’s memory of this debate, which could be the first full-fledged controversy about personnel decisions by an MLB team that involved sabermetrics. First, Johnson’s column on June 30, 1983, with the headline “Hard-nosed opinion: bring up Fernandez”:

You can’t be a baseball fan in Toronto these days without getting drawn into the Alfredo Griffin debate. Supporters of the Blue Jay shortstop have laid virtual siege to radio talk-shows, endlessly repeating their arguments against trading him. Rumored deals are a staple of the sporting press. And Exhibition Stadium has become an open forum during Jay games, its concession stands buzzing with Griffin swap talk.

At this point, of course, the discussion is no longer really about baseball. Club vice-president Pat Gillick declared months ago that he didn’t want to “break Griff’s heart.” Newspaper commentators have begun wondering how the Jays could replace Griffin off the field. His offence and defence have given way to catchwords such as team leader and enthusiasm – (plus my favorite: “intangibles”) – as the key factors to consider.

The debate has reached such a touchy-feely level, in fact, that teammate Garth Iorg can blurt out an obvious absurdity such as “everything Alfredo Griffin hits is gravy,” and have it quoted as serious comment.

I have developed my own attachment to Griffin over the years, so I’m not trying to ridicule those kinds of sentiments. Anyone who has watched the guy play for long has to admire his tremendous guts and determination. He’s a battler, what ballplayers call a “gamer,” and it would be foolish to ignore that.

The hard truth, however, is that baseball is not a fairytale in which the most deserving guys win. There is a wonderful dugout bravado in dismissing his hitting as “gravy,” but only until you take the field and discover the other team’s shortstop is creaming the ball. Suddenly, the opposition is scoring the runs and the good guys are left with a fistful of “intangibles.”

The Blue Jays must allow talent to decide their shortstop – and, for that matter, their second baseman. Does anyone doubt that Fernandez is more valuable on the roster than Mickey Klutts? Wouldn’t Fernandez and Griffin have made a fine infield duo when Damaso Garcia was injured? Then let’s bring the kid up and let him play his way into, or out of, the lineup. At the very least, he would be a fine pinch runner and late-inning defensive specialist.

His Willie McGee-style of line-drive hitting is suited ideally to the Exhibition Stadium turf, and he seemed to be an excellent bunter in spring training. That, combined with his speed, would be a tremendous asset in one-run games. Even if he helped Toronto win only two games all year, that might very well decide the American League East pennant.

I am not saying the Jays should hand Griffin’s job to Fernandez – only that his valuable tools, his game-winning tools, are wasted in Syracuse. It is time to cut the sentimental nonsense and send the team’s best talent in hot pursuit of the pennant. It is time for Tony Fernandez.

Late in May 1984, with Alfredo still at shortstop, Johnson elaborated on the case against him:

The truth is that no one knows how many games Griffin wins in the clubhouse. But the best analysts can figure how many he must win there to balance his work on the field. The total is 2.6 games – the number of wins his over-all play cost Toronto last season. That number is supplied by Pete Palmer, an official American League statistician and the inventor of the “Linear Weights” rating system.

Palmer has simulated thousands of ballgames on a computer to discover what each element (error, single, stolen base, etc.) contributes to victory. Then he rates every player’s performance, carefully adjusting to reflect the average play at his position.

The results? Wade Boggs created 5.8 more wins in 1983 than a standard third baseman. Stated another way, the mythical “average” team (with its 81-81 record) would win about 87 games with Boggs in the lineup. Cal Ripken Jr. ranked second, with 5.7 extra wins, while Robin Yount gained 4.4 and Alan Trammell 2.8. Even Scott Fletcher, the lightly regarded shortstop of Chicago White Sox, was worth one extra victory.

Griffin? He cost the Jays 2.6 wins, putting him in the ’83 class with Ron Washington (minus 2.7), Bucky Dent (minus 2.5), and Glenn Hoffman (minus 1.1). Obviously, Griffin’s defenders will merely add these ratings to the pile of “irrelevant” statistics that conspire to downgrade their MVP.

Yet Palmer’s detailed stats measure some of the very “intangibles” Griffin is alleged to contribute. Fielding range, for instance, has more importance than errors among the Linear Weights. But that is no particular help to Griffin because – yet another heresy – there is nothing remarkable about his plays-per-game ratio. If he really is getting to balls the others don’t attempt, there must be a league conspiracy to hide the fact.

Griffin made 4.41 plays a game last season, albeit on a very slick turf. Ripken made 4.99, and Yount 4.86. So, even if we adjust for the fast surface, there is little evidence of his superiority afield.

Perhaps Alfredo really is worth three extra games in the clubhouse. My point is: he’d sure better be.

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