John Littlefield is now 62 years of age, but his name still resonates with baseball card collectors and Rotisserie League Baseball team owners. He only spent two seasons in the major leagues but what wouldn’t the rest of us give to always be known as “a former big league Pitcher”?
The baseball card connection is easy to explain, as Littlefield played in the early 80’s when the card industry exploded with new manufacturers. The Topps company had a virtual monopoly on baseball cards from 1956 – 1980 but in 1981, licenses were given to both Donruss & Fleer and despite the competition, all three companies were guilty of less-than acceptable quality control of their products. There were numerous examples all through the 1980’s of mistakes, misprints, corrections and embarrassments. The most infamous incident involved the now legendary 1989 Fleer Bill Ripken card that was distributed with a picture of the player holding a bat that had an obscenity written on the bottom of the barrel. Fleer tried to correct the card quickly but never really got it right, producing a total of five different variations.
Littlefield’s card legacy was early in the cycle, as his 1982 Fleer card was originally distributed with a reverse negative of the picture, turning the 27 year-old right-hander into a southpaw. Fleer corrected the card, thus making the original a very scarce item. Even today, the corrected version is a “common” card worth about a nickel, while the difficult-to-find “error” card will set you back about $45.
Littlefield’s enduring legacy to Fantasy Baseball comes from the original 1984 “Rotisserie League Baseball” book that started this amazing hobby played by millions of fans. As the founding fathers of the game had actually started playing a form of the game in 1981, they shared many stories of the fun, camaraderie and strategy they had experienced in those early years. A segment of the book talked about “The Littlefield Effect”, an interesting factor that impacted the value of players at their first few Drafts. While the early 80’s isn’t really that long ago, it was long before the digital age of affordable PC’s, the Internet and instant information. The Roto inventors decided that the best time to have the player Draft was on the weekend following opening day in order to have reasonably valid information about the official MLB 25-man rosters. After all, stats were only published weekly in the USA Today and league standings were always at least a week behind the actual games.
The timing of the Draft, however, led to 4-5 games being played prior to the auction / player selection and box scores were readily available in daily newspapers. Could a few games really have a major impact on the value of a player in a 162 game season? John Littlefield answered that question in 1981. In 1980, he had a very productive rookie campaign with the Cardinals, appearing in 52 games with a 3.14 ERA, 5 Wins & 9 Saves. In December, the Cards made an 11-player trade with the Padres and Littlefield headed west. To say that the ’81 Padres were terrible would be a compliment. In the strike-interrupted 110 game season, they went 41-69 and the entire team only hit 32 home runs. Ozzie Smith was the Shortstop and despite leading the NL in At-Bats, he hit .222 with 0 HR’s & 22 RBI’s.
The Padres opened the year in San Francisco and Littlefield saved the 4-1, 12-inning win. The next day, he registered another Save in a 4-2 victory. So, by the time the Rotisserie owners showed up for the Draft, it seemed logical that the Padres had anointed him as their Closer. With Saves being one of only four statistical pitching categories in the standings, his auction price ended up being $34, equal to 13% of the total 23-player budget of the winning bidder. As you might guess, the remainder of the 1981 season was very forgettable for Littlefield, as he suffered 2 losses and a blown Save later in April and was replaced as the Closer by a Pitcher named Gary Lucas. He pitched in 14 games at AAA Syracuse in 1982 with an ERA of 7.49 and his career was over at age 28.
For those of us who still play “old-school” Rotisserie Baseball and draft our teams on the Saturday following opening day, we also have memorable “effects” of our own. One of the classics was in 1994, when a Cubs outfielder named Karl “Tuffy” Rhodes hit 3 Home Runs on opening day. Even though he had never played more than 50 games in any major-league season, his price on Draft day was $22. He ended up with 8 HR’s for the season and never hit another one in his career.
This past weekend, we gathered for the 33rd annual Draft of our original Rotisserie league from 1984 and the Littlefield effect was still floating around the room. Using projections from a highly-respected Fantasy site, let’s see how things played out at the table. As this is a keeper league, we’ll assume that there could be an inflation factor of 20% added to the 4 x 4 projections.
> The most obvious example for 2016 is Trevor Story, the Rockies opening day SS. Only on the roster thanks to Jose Reyes’ attempt to go a few rounds with the spouse, Story hit 6 HR’s in the four games leading up to the Draft. Consequently, his $5 season-long projection turned into a $22 price tag at the table.
> The Dodgers new Japanese import Kenta Maeda pitched reasonably well in Spring Training but still had no track record in American professional baseball. Due to that uncertainty, his projection was in the neighborhood of $7. However, after pitching six shutout innings in a Win on 4/6, the Draft table price ended up at $19.
> Injuries also factor into this equation, as the DL trip of Ben Revere opened up playing time for Michael Taylor in the Nationals OF. Even with Revere’s time off in the calculation, Taylor’s projection was still only around $13. However, with speed & power in his arsenal along with the late timing of his nomination at the table, the final winning bid was $26.
> Denard Span is a good ballplayer, but injuries had derailed his performance last season and he is 32 years old. A HR, 6 RBI’s and a SB in the first week increased his value from $20 to $28.
> Jay Bruce has been horrible the last two seasons primarily due to his inability in adjusting to the shift. This Spring, he was rumored to be traded to the AL and the Reds are definitely in the re-building phase. Two HR’s and 5 RBI’s on April 7th buoyed his projection of $18 to a winning bid of $23.
> The last two seasons in Milwaukee, Jean Segura had OPS figures of .614 & .616. A fresh start in Arizona and a first week including 3 HR’s & 2 SB’s gave his $19 projection a boost to $27.
> The effect also can work in the opposite direction. Starting Pitchers who have a bad outing prior to the Draft often go for reduced prices. An example is Andrew Cashner only costing $5.
> While “newbies” to the Roto game might think that we are dinosaurs, don’t forget that the timing also allows us to know who has the job on opening day. And the teams that were influenced by box scores may have to deal with the consequences as the seasons rolls on.
The good news for all of us is that whenever you hold your Draft, it’s your favorite day of the year.