Thursday, February 25, 2010

Random Thursday: Farmer Vaughn

Today is Thursday, and The Common Man feels lucky today, and has decided to make it random. Using Baseball-Reference.com’s “random” button, TCM leapt from the 1964 White Sox to Farmer Vaughn, a part-time 19th century catcher and first baseman who started in the American Association before moving to the Players League, and eventually settling with the Cincinnati Reds. Despite his relative anonymity, Vaughn’s career is interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, Vaughn is one of many American Association players who jumped to join the Players League in 1890, when it was founded by John Montgomery Ward, Buck Ewing, Tim Keefe. Vaughn had been playing (poorly) for Louisville for the previous two seasons, but took advantage of the shortage of ballplayers and rise in salaries created by the new league and signed on with Ewing and Keefe’s New York Giants. The three league organizers were three of the biggest stars from the 1889 Giants of the National League. In addition, to its starting SS, C, and the ace of its staff, the Giants lost slugging 1B Roger Connor, 2B Danny Richardson, 3B Art Whitney, and 2/3 of its OF (George Gore and Jim O’Roarke). The ’89 Giants also lost pitchers Ed Crane and Hank O’Day (the same Hank O’Day who would gain fame as an umpire and work the infamous Merkle game). Surprisingly, the NL Giants were owned by perhaps the best owner in baseball. John Day paid the highest salaries and was popular enough with his players that the Players League organizers warned him of their conspiracy in advance and attempted to persuade him to join them. The year after winning the NL Championship, almost completely bereft of its former players, the Giants fell to 6th. Vaughn would play poorly in 1890, getting into just 44 games and posting an OPS+ of just 63. For a great account of the Players League and the revolt of 1890, check out Bryan di Salvatore's excellent biography of John Montgomery Ward, A Clever Baseballist.

Despite apparently jumping twice in his career to teams outside of his regional home, Vaughn is also a terrific example of the parochial nature of baseball in the 19th Century. Except for his season in New York and a 25 game stint for Milwaukee (a team that folded after 36 games) in 1891, Vaughn spent his entire career in and around his hometown in Ruraldale, OH (located approximately 90 minutes east of Columbus; looking at Google Earth, trust TCM that his nickname fits). Vaughn played two seasons for Louisville at the start of his career, before making his big jump to the Players League, and after Milwaukee folded, he caught on close to home with the American Association’s Cincinnati club. Once the American Association folded, Vaughn was absorbed by the NL Reds, for whom he played until 1899. Regionalism played an enormous role in the composition of baseball teams during the 19th Century, as scouting as we know it today didn’t really exist. And the “minor leagues” mostly consisted of town and trade teams and semi-pro factory leagues. Young, promising players were often lured off of these teams to graduate to the professional ranks, but teams rarely ventured outside of their regional sphere.

Finally, Vaughn is a terrific example of how context-dependent RBI is as a statistic, and how meaningless it is in player evaluation. Vaughn was considered good enough to play 100 games just twice in his career, once in 1893 and again in 1896. In 1893, Vaughn got into 121 games and hit 521 times. Vaughn managed just 135 hits, just 30 of which went for extra bases. Indeed, Vaughn managed just a single home run. His batting average (.280) was exactly league average; however, his OBP (.332) and SLG (.371) were both well below the league’s mean. Vaughn’s OPS+ was a paltry 85. Nevertheless, Vaughn managed to drive in 108 runs that year.

While no batting order data is available for that year, it’s clear that Vaughn must have hit high enough in the lineup to benefit from ample RBI opportunities. Hall of Famer Bid McPhee and Bug Holliday both sported OBPs of .401. Artie “The Freshest Man on Earth” Latham had a .368 OBP. But the rest of the team was disappointing. Germany Smith managed just a .293 mark, and Jim Canavan got to just .305. And, horror of horrors, 1B Charlie Comiskey, at the tail end of his playing career, would sport just a .257 OBP and 40 OPS+. Cincinnati’s team OBP was 10th in a 12 team leagues, as was their R/G.

Holliday knocked home 89, but no one else on the squad had more than 68. From this, we can presumably conclude that Vaughn batted 3rd or 4th, behind McFee and Latham (each of whom scored more than 100 runs). Holliday’s depressed RBI numbers, despite superior slash stats, suggest that he may have been hitting behind a slower runner who got on base less often. Vaughn would certainly count as that. In an era of rampant thievery, Vaughn managed a career high of 16 in 1893. However, Holliday also managed to score 108 times with no one else of note hitting behind him, so the catcher with almost no extra-base punch could have been batting cleanup. Anyway, like Joe Carter from 1986 to 1997, it’s clear that Vaughn’s success in 1893 was a product of increased opportunities in the form of increased playing time and the performance of the players hitting in front of him. It’s not that Vaughn had a great season; it’s that he had more chances to not screw up. Appropriately, his employers were not impressed, and he was demoted back to part time status the next year. His second-highest total would be just 66.

Vaughn would fade into obscurity after his playing career, and didn’t seem to ever get back into organized ball. The Common Man could find nothing about his post-baseball life, except that he died in Cincinnati in 1914, just 49 year old.