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Was Frank Costanza fair to George Steinbrenner?

Frank Costanza had an opportunity to yell at George Steinbrenner and he took it. But was he right?

Yankees Nostalgia Train by MTA is licensed under CC 2.0

Was Frank Costanza fair to George Steinbrenner?


Estimated Reading Time: 4 Minutes

When Jerry Stiller passed away there was an interesting effect that made “Seinfeld” fans smile. It was shortly after Stiller’s passing broke on Twitter that former Seattle Mariner Jay Buhner began trending.

The reason? This scene.

When I saw this news, I had to re-watch this scene and realized something; I had no idea who Ken Phelps was.

So, I had to look up if Frank Costanza was right to yell at Big Stein for trading Buhner away.

Who was Ken Phelps?

Ken Phelps was a left-handed hitting DH who played mostly against right-handed pitching. However, he was pretty good at hitting.

In his six seasons as a Mariner (and over ~1400 ABs), Phelps hit 255 HR with a .392/.521/.913 slash line.

Here are his stats for the two and a half seasons before being traded for Buhner (the trade was on 7/21/88):

  • ’86 season: 24 HR and .406/.526/.932
  • ’87 season: 27 HR and .410/.548/.959
  • ’88 season (72 games): 14 HR and .434/.547/.959

Phelps was nearly a 7 WAR player for Seattle during this time. For further context, the OPS leaders in 1988 were Darryl Strawberry (.911) and Wade Boggs (.965).

The verdict is when Steinbrenner says, “They love Ken Phelps’ bat.” in the show, there was a legit reason why.

And yes, I am aware that’s not the real Steinbrenner in the show.

Phelps’ fit on the Yankees

Phelps, as discussed, was a DH. But the 1988 Yankees already had Jack Clark (remember him, Sox fans?). Clark finished 3rd in MVP voting in 1987, and while his 1988 wasn’t up to the same standard it seems weird to trade for a backup DH.

Phelps only had 107 ABs for the Yankees in ’88 with 10 HR and a .339/.551/.890 slash line. The Yankees were 53-39 when they traded for Phelps and were 2 games behind in the division.

After the Phelps trade, the Yankees went 32-37 and finished 3.5 games behind in the division.

This is not the result a baseball team looks for when making a trade.

Buhner?…Buhner?……Buhner?

Jay Buhner was a very solid outfielder in his career, and trading him away in a year your team misses the playoffs can really sting.

However, I am not sure Frank Costanza’s wildly inappropriate reaction was just. And trust me, I am a big proponent of appropriate wild reactions.

Buhner became a free agent in the 1994 offseason. Before that, he was a little over a 10 WAR player across 6+ seasons with the Mariners. This is the time period when the Yankees would have had team control over Buhner and he would have been most valuable to the team.

After Buhner was traded, here were the right fielders for the Yankees through the 1994 season, and their WARs while patrolling near that short porch (I just threw up in my mouth a little writing that):

To review, that’s 22.5 WAR total over that timeframe in RF for the Yankees. I won’t discount that the Yankees needed to throw resources in trades (Leiter wasn’t LEITER when the deal happened ,and wasn’t for several years after) and FA dollars to do this, but what they put in the position during this time equated to more than 2x Buhner represented during this time.

Trading a young, cost-controlled OF for a mid-30’s backup DH is in a vacuum a bad move, and not one I’d be in favor of. But, this didn’t bite the Yankees in the ass as Frank assumed.

What should have been Frank’s issue

Yes, trading away a player who eventually becomes very solid for someone who did not help you win a championship hurts. It can be difficult to let go of these types of moves.

But I don’t think the trade is what Frank should have yelled about.

Buhner was a free agent in the 1994 offseason and signed for 3 years and $15.5 million to return to the Mariners.

He went on to hit 124 HR over the next 3 years with a .900+ OPS and was worth 9.2 WAR.

Now Paul O’Neill was coming off a season where he hit .359 and finished 5th in MVP voting, so replacing him with Buhner doesn’t make sense. But you know who played left field for the Yankees in 1995? Luis Polonia and Gerald Williams.

Frank should have been LIVID the Yankees didn’t bring back Buhner, who by the way had a .500/.625/1.125 slash line with a HR as the Mariners eliminated the Yankees in the playoffs in 1995.

And to Jerry Stiller…

Let me just end this by saying thank you to Jerry Stiller for some of the best moments on “Seinfeld” and on “King of Queens”. If being the crazy dad on “Seinfeld” was Stiller’s “Jordan on the Bulls” years, then his work on “KoQ” is definitely worthy of comparison to MJ making two All-Star teams on the Wizards and averaging 21+ ppg in his late 30’s.

Also, the Buhner trade moment isn’t even the best part of that “Seinfeld” episode.

It’s this.

Rest in peace, Jerry.

Terry is from Massachusetts and is a passionate fan of the Patriots, Celtics, Red Sox and Bruins. He also will admit he only pays attention to Syracuse basketball when they're good. If there's a Twitter trade rumor even remotely associated with one of his teams, he's likely fallen for it. Finally, he believes 100% that if the Celtics had beaten the Heat in the 2012 Eastern Conference Finals they would have swept the Thunder in the Finals.

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