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Was Griffey Lied To?

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There is a bit of a brouhaha in Cincinnati over some recent comments by Ken Griffey Jr., to the effect that he thinks he was lied to by Cincinnati management. Griffey’s claim is that the Reds promised to build a strong team around him, but never had any intention to do so. Now, Griffey’s claim is problematic for a lot of different reasons; Seattle had gone to the playoffs twice in the four years previous to his trade, had a brand new stadium, and had made clear the intention to spend quite a lot on improving the team, so the idea that Griffey had to leave Seattle in order to “play for a winner” is absurd on its face. But let’s set that aside for a moment and see if Griffey had a case. Of course, part of the reason that the Reds haven’t contended is because Griffey’s Cincy performance has never matched his Seattle performance. But could the Reds have won even with a very strong Griffey? Here’s the Reds records since Griffey arrived, games behind the wild card, Griffey’s WARP (Wins Above Replacement), a plausible projected healthy Griffey WARP, and the difference if Griffey had been healthy:

Wins Losses GB WC Grif WARP Exp. WARP Diff. Ad. GB
2000 85 77 9 8.6 10 1.4 7.6
2001 66 96 27 2.5 10 7.5 19.5
2002 78 84 17 0.8 10 9.2 7.8
2003 69 93 19 1.6 9 7.4 11.6
2004 76 86 16 3.2 9 5.8 10.2
2005 73 89 16 5.4 8 2.6 13.4
2006 80 82 3.5 1.7 8 6.3 -2.8
2007 72 90 13 6.3 7 0.7 12.3

Now, there are some Reds friendly assumptions in this table, most notably that anytime Griffey didn’t play (most of several seasons) his replacement was, well, replacement level; I don’t have the time to go back and check on the validity of that assumption (I suppose it’s possible that his replacements were below replacement level), but I doubt it would change very much. The basic story here is that Griffey is more or less correct about the management of the Reds. Even performing at a level that’s probably optimistic for an aging ballplayer, Griffey could not have led the Reds to the playoffs in any year other than 2006. Interestingly enough, Griffey played 109 games that year, the problem being that he was pretty terrible. If he had played at his 2005 or 2007 level, the Reds might very well have beaten the Cardinals and gone to the playoffs. And the Cardinals, of course, managed somehow to win the World Series that year, despite being the weakest entrant into the playoff field. It’s worth noting, however, that the 2006 Reds team was pretty lucky, with a real record 4 games above its pythagorean record.

Still, I have to think that Griffey was right about Reds management being unserious about putting a winning team in the field. Griffey’s problem is that he completely misestimated the relative strength of the Reds and Mariners franchises; both had gone to the playoffs in 1995, but the Mariners had gone in 1997, would go again in 2000 and 2001, and would be competitive all the way up until 2003. Of course, one reason they would be so competitive is that Mike Cameron (who the Ms got in the Griffey trade) was better than Griffey every year except for 2000, and usually much, much better. Nevertheless, it’s hardly Griffey’s fault that the Reds failed to contend; even if he had done what was expected (and performed at a level which would have justified his contract), the Reds still would have lost almost every year.

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