John Littlefield is now 64 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 $30.
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 35th annual Draft of our original Rotisserie league from 1984 and the Littlefield effect was still floating around the room with even more influence than normal. Why? With MLB changing their opening day schedule, we actually had nine days of box scores influencing our bids. 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 2018 was starting pitching. Despite the fact that most of the top-tier SP’s were available, there were no bargains. One or two outings from these guys don’t change the prices but with inflation a definite factor, they all went for big bucks…Clayton Kershaw $38, Max Scherzer $38, Jacob DeGrom $34 & Stephen Strasburg $33. None of these were unexpected and within a reasonable range of their projections. The best of the next tier was Hendricks and his $23 price was close to projection while right behind him you’ll find Madison Bumgarner at a $17 price on the DL (right at projection). The next group of SP’s were overpriced and in some cases it was due to early season performance. The most blatant example was Patrick Corbin of the D’Backs whose two stellar outings raised his price from a projection of $8-$10 to an actual auction price of $25! Carlos Martinez also went for $25 even though his projection was around $17 and a number of others came in higher than expected such as Jon Lester & Johnny Cueto ($19), Jose Quintana & Kenta Maeda ($18) and Tanner Roark ($17).
> Closers are always inflated in a 4×4 format, but early-season results created even higher prices. The prime example is Brad Boxberger, who was named Closer late in the Spring and then picked up three Saves before the Draft. The result? He went for $27. Kenley Jensen’s early struggles brought his price down to $31 (well below projected value), less than Rasiel Iglesias at $33.
> Injuries also factor into this equation, as the sore back that caused JT Realmoto to miss the start of the season lowered his price to $11 instead of the $17 projection. Another example is Daniel Murphy going for $16 instead of $20+.
> Hot starts are always the key to this phenomenon costing teams more money. Examples include Colin Moran’s 4-hit, 3-RBI game the night before the Draft essentially doubling his price from around $10 to $20, Michael Conforto’s good health ramping him up to $26 instead of $19-$20 and Scott Kingery’s new contract resulting in a $23 Roto price.
> The Littlefield effect also rears its ugly head in the end game as owners are looking for bargains and stats. Would Nick Pivetta have been a $3 player if he hadn’t recorded 9 K’s and a Win two days before the Draft? How about Trevor Williams and his 2 Wins costing $7? Or Tyler Mahle’s debut bringing up his value to $9?
> 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. However, if MLB keeps the same schedule for 2019, we’ll have the auction two days after opening day and John Littlefield may become even more obscure.
The good news for all of us is that whenever you hold your Draft, it’s your favorite day of the year.