Ken Phelps

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Kenneth Allen Phelps

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Biographical Information[edit]

Ken Phelps played 11 seasons in the big leagues, gradually earning attention as a player who posted high on-base percentages and high slugging percentages in spite of having low batting averages.

He was born on August 6, 1954 in Seattle, WA. He went to Ingraham High School then attended Mesa Community College and Arizona State University. From 1972 to 1976, he was drafted four times. He was first picked out of high school in June 1972 in the 8th round by the Atlanta Braves. He was selected twice out of Mesa CC, in January 1974 by the New York Yankees in the first round of the regular phase and in the June draft that same year by the Philadelphia Phillies in the secondary phase. The Kansas City Royals then drafted him in the 15th round in June 1976 after his senior year.

Phelps quickly established himself as the perfect "Moneyball" player, i.e. lots of walks and plenty of power, long before the term was invented. He split his first professional season between the GCL Royals and the Waterloo Royals in the Midwest League. In 52 games combined, he drew 54 walks. His line was an impressive .282/.456/.471, playing first base, the only defensive position he would occupy through his pro career.

The lefty hitter had a fabulous start with the Daytona Beach Islanders in the Florida State League in 1977. In 40 games, his line was .345/.440/.497 with 32 RBIs when he was promoted to the Jacksonville Suns in the Southern League, where he struggled, hitting only .195 with 5 home runs in 81 games. It was the only time he would have trouble adjusting to minor league pitching. He spent the whole 1978 season with Jacksonville, leading the team with 99 walks and was second with 16 home runs. His line was .247/.407/.425.

Phelps played the next two seasons with the Omaha Royals in the American Association. In 1979, he was second in the league with 99 walks and reached the .400 mark in OBP again. He had 20 home runs and 77 RBIs. In 1980, his 128 walks were a league best along with a .456 OBP. He was second in the circuit with 30 doubles. Combined with 23 homers and an improved batting average (.294), his slugging percentage was over .500 for the first time (.532). He was called up to Kansas City in September, making one start and going 0 for 4. He made the American Association post-season All-Star team as a first baseman.

1981 was a wasted year for Phelps. He made the major league Royals out of spring training as a substitute and had made only 2 starts when the players went on strike in June. Phelps thus was idle until play resumed in August, at which point he was demoted to Omaha, where he played 19 games, destroying AAA pitching with a line of .333/.436/.712, 5 home runs and 21 RBIs. He was called up but made only 3 appearances. In January 1982, he was traded to the Montreal Expos for Grant Jackson.

Phelps played with the Wichita Aeros in the American Association in 1982, a place that was as hitter-friendly as any in the circuit and he certainly took full advantage of it. He led the league in home runs (46), RBIs (141), walks (108), OBP (.469), slugging percentage (.706) and total bases (320). He was named the league MVP. The Expos called him up in September, but he was used exclusively as a pinch-hitter. In 8 plate appearances, he had 2 singles and no walk.

The following spring training, in 1983, Phelps knew he had no chance to crack the line-up with Al Oliver at first base. He repeatedly requested a trade. In the meantime, he just crushed the ball in the Grapefruit League. At the end of training camp, his contract was sold to his hometown Seattle Mariners. Phelps made the team out of spring training but the opportunities to play were few. In mid-June, he was demoted to the Salt Lake City Gulls in the Pacific Coast League. In the next two months, he put on massive numbers. In 74 games, he had 82 RBIs and 24 home runs while his line was .341/.450/.759. He was called back in September where his numbers were way better than in his first stay with the team. He made 17 appearances in the last month, including 12 starts, with a solid line of .279/.333/.535.

1984 was the year he established himself as a Major Leaguer. Even though Pete O'Brien had been the main first baseman the year before and had been named the team MVP, Phelps was the favorite to take the spot. He was in the opening day lineup at first base and in his first three games, had 2 home runs, 5 hits and a walk. But he then suffered a fractured finger after being hit by a pitch from Jerry Augustine and missed more than a month. In his absence, Alvin Davis took over at first and went on to have a spectacular rookie season. Upon his return in May, Phelps was thus used mostly as designated hitter. In 101 games, he hit 24 homers and his line was .241/.378/.521. He faced righthanded pitchers most of the time with only 48 plate appearances against southpaws, a usage that would define his whole career from that point forward.

His next season, 1985, was a major struggle for Phelps. His batting average was below .200 almost all season as his playing time was cut due to Gorman Thomas playing DH; he finished at .207. Still, Phelps was productive in his own way with 9 home runs in only 116 at-bats. Despite his very low batting average, his OPS was over .800, thanks to a high walk ratio. He made only 26 starts that season.

The period from 1986 to 1988 was the best stretch of his career. In 1986, despite hitting .247, he was third in the American League in OPS (.932) behind Don Mattingly and Wade Boggs and his OBP was second to Boggs. In 125 games, he had 24 home runs and 88 walks, starting at both DH and first base. In 1987, he was again in the top 10 in the junior circuit with a line of .259/.410/.548 with 27 home runs in 120 games. His 105 starts were all as DH, except for one game at first base. The next year, in 1988, the majors suffered a major decline in offensive stats but Phelps didn't seem to notice. In July, his OPS was .982 in 72 games with 14 home runs when he was traded to the New York Yankees. Many teams were looking for ways to bolster their offence. The Yankees were one of them and in Phelps, they saw a perfect fit with the short distances in right field at Yankee Stadium. In return, the Yankees got three minor league players, including future Mariners star Jay Buhner. In New York, he hit 10 home runs in 45 games and only 107 at-bats, hitting only .224 but with an OPS close to .900. The trade was later rued by Yankee fans, and became the subject of a famous joke on the sitcom Seinfeld.

His stats declined sharply in 1989, especially in the power department. He hit only 7 home runs in 86 games. His batting line was .249/.340/.378. In August, he was traded to the Oakland Athletics for minor leaguer Scott Holcomb. Phelps made only one start with the A’s but was on the team roster in the postseason as the team won the World Series. Phelps was used twice as a pinch-hitter in October. He became a free agent after the season but opted to re-sign with Oakland.

Phelps really struggled in the first two months with the A’s in 1990 with only one home run and a batting average below .200, stats that even his high walk ratio couldn't overcome. His final home run came with the Athletics on April 20th of that year. The pinch hit blast broke up Brian Holman's bid for a perfect game with two outs in the 9th inning. In mid-June, his contract was sold to the Cleveland Indians. He hit only .115 with no extra-base hits the rest of the way in what was his last season in the majors.

He signed a minor league contract with the San Francisco Giants organization shortly before training camp in 1991 but he played only 7 games with the Phoenix Firebirds in the PCL and was released on April 22nd.

He worked as an assistant coach with Arizona State in 1992. Phelps was a radio broadcaster for the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2004.

In the 1980s, his name became synonymous with a certain type of overlooked player when Bill James made him the focus of a recurring feature in his Baseball Abstracts. The idea of the Ken Phelps All-Stars was to bring to light players who had been successful in the minor leagues but had never been given the chance to prove their mettle in the majors (at that time, Phelps had finally established himself with the Seattle Mariners after years of minor league stardom). Every year, James would identify a full team of players who could help a team if only given some playing time. The antithesis of the Ken Phelps type was teammate Henry Cotto, a flashy player who would always be given playing time in spite of never showing an ability to contribute anything of value to his team's offense. Phelps had long been a favorite of James, dating back to his days as a slugging first baseman in the Kansas City Royals farm system in the late 1970s.

Phelps' value as a player came both from his remarkable home run power, and his ability to draw walks, even though he was slow and an indifferent fielder. Phelps' career OPS+ was 132 (higher than contemporary Hall of Fame player Jim Rice's 128). He is the fastest American League player to reach the 100 home runs, taking him only 1,322 at-bats, and he was also was the fastest to reach 100 home runs in the major leagues: his 1,330 at bats were the record until Ryan Howard, who reached the total in 1,141.

"My baseball people kept saying Ken Phelps, Ken Phelps" George Steinbrenner to Mr. Costanza - Seinfeld

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