John Littlefield is now 63 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 MLB career.
This past weekend, we gathered for the 34th 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 2017 was starting pitching. With all the big gun SP’s already rostered (Kershaw, Scherzer, Bumgarner, Cueto, Lester, etc.), the remaining ones would naturally have prices that were inflated. The best available was Kyle Hendricks and because he hadn’t yet pitched during the first week of the season, his $23 projection yielded normal inflation and a $27 price. Zack Greinke had a $15 projected value and his diminished velocity in March kept his $18 price in the same category. After those two, the Littlefield effect was in full bloom. Carlos Martinez hurled 7+ shutout innings on opening day and his $14 projection turned into $24 at the table. Coming off surgery, Matt Harvey had a $12 projection but his quality start on 4/6 alleviated concerns and it took $17 to buy him. Numerous other SP’s with single-digit projections went for higher prices due to first week outings…Tanner Roark from $7 to $16, Adam Wainwright from $4 to $12, Gio Gonzalez from $3 to $13 and Michael Wacha from virtually no positive projected value to $15.
> Closers are always inflated in a 4×4 format, but early-season results created even higher prices. As of opening day, the only three established Closers available in this Draft were Mark Melancon, Wade Davis & Neftali Feliz. Within the first few days of the season, Greg Holland joined that group. My team had zero Saves on their keeper list, so getting a Closer was imperative and my budget had set aside $30 to make it happen. Interestingly, Melancon was the first player brought up for bid, but he’d blown a Save on opening day and hadn’t pitched since. Despite a projection of $34, I got him for $31. Decisions like this are always difficult, but within a few minutes, Davis cost $35 (projection $27) and then Holland almost doubled his $14 projection by going for $25. Once Feliz was the last man standing, his projection of $11 didn’t get in the way of teams bidding him up to $26.
> Injuries also factor into this equation, as the sore hip that caused Denard Span to miss a couple of games lowered his price to $12 instead of the $17 projection.
> Hot starts are always the key to this phenomenon costing teams more money. Examples include Travis Shaw for $22, Eduardo Nunez (and his three SB’s) went for $25, Matt Kemp (and his two HR game) cost $27, Brandon Belt (and his three HR’s) increased to $31 while Yasmani Grandal’s two HR-game on opening day doubled his projection to $16.
> The Littlefield effect also rears its ugly head in the end game as owners are looking for bargains and stats. Would Jake McGee have been a $1 player if he hadn’t recorded a Save two days prior to the Draft? Amir Garrett pitched six shutout innings in his first major league start and was drafted for $2, Daniel Nava also went for $2 after a two-HR game on 4/6 and Clayton Richard’s eight shutout innings against the Dodgers on 4/4 got him rostered for $1.
> 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 or don’t get drafted at all. Scott Feldman’s six shutout innings (and Win) the day after the Draft didn’t belong to anyone in our league.
> 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.