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The Phormer Phillies Philes

This is the first installment of "The Phormer Phillies Philes," a recurring series here at The Good Phight.  The Philes offer a look back into the near past to dredge up and discuss mostly forgotten players we all grew up with.  But this isn't just a nostalgia trip: we're revisiting our memories by applying a more insightful sabermetric approach in evaluating these players, to see just how accurate--or inaccurate--our impressions were, and what can be learned for today's team.

The first player to kick off "The Phormer Phillies Philes" is none other than #17, Ricky Jordan.

Born Paul Scott Jordan in Richmond, California, in 1965, Ricky [n.b. I tried but was unable to ascertain how Paul Scott became Ricky...if any of our phaithful phans have any insight, please let me know] was the Phils' first-round selection (#22 overall) in the 1983 MLB draft. The team plucked Jordan out of Grant High School in Sacramento, California, three spots after Roger Clemens was taken 19th by the Boston Red Sox.  In retrospect, the Phils didn't pass over any superstars by taking Jordan at #22, but the `83 draft was by no means a success: only Jordan and 29th-round selection Mike Jackson reached the majors in a Phillies uniform.  [n.b. Jeff Bronkey and Kevin Campbell didn't sign with the Phils and later made the major leagues with the team that redrafted them.  Kevin Ward made it to AAA before stalling and making the big leagues with the Padres.]

Jordan's minor-league numbers weren't awful, but offered little to suggest stardom to come.  His OPS hovered around the .750 mark as he progressed one level at a time.  It wasn't until 1987, when he repeated AA Reading at the age of 22, that he had a good season, putting up a .318/.362/.491/.853 line.  In 132 games that year, he hit 28 doubles and 16 home runs, knocking in 95 while also stealing 14 bases.  The SB's were a facet of his game that I hadn't been aware of; before his initial call-up, Jordan had 78 steals in five-and-a-half minor-league seasons, topping out at a career-best 26 at Clearwater in 1985.  Whether from injuries or for other reasons, Jordan never translated his moderate success on the basepaths to the majors; over parts of eight big-league seasons, he logged just 10 steals .

Ricky reached Philadelphia in July of 1988 to replace injured first baseman Von Hayes, and made an immediate impression: on July 17, 1988, facing Houston's Bob Knepper in the fourth inning, Ricky hit a HR in his first official at-bat.  (This was something else I wasn't aware of regarding Jordan: he had walked in the first inning, so his home run didn't come in his first plate appearance.  MLB obviously doesn't differentiate between PA's and AB's, but it would be interesting to analyze who else on the HR-in-first-at-bat list falls into the same situation.)  For the year, he put up an impressive .308 batting average with 11 HR's in 273 Abs, slugging a solid .491.

After his strong rookie campaign, Jordan started 1989 as the Phils' everyday first baseman, pushing Von Hayes back to the outfield.  But his first full season was a major disappointment: In roughly twice as many at-bats (523) as compared to the previous year, Ricky was only able to manage one more HR while losing 84 points off his SLG.  Because of this, 1989 pretty much signaled the end of Jordan's career as a starting MLB first baseman: the Phillies traded for John Kruk during that season, and Jordan never again had more than a platoon role.

He remained with the Phillies as a reserve through 1994, but never appeared in more than 101 games and didn't approach his rookie-season high of an .815 OPS, consistently hanging around .750.  He signed with California in 1995 but played at AAA Vancouver, and retired after playing a handful of games with the Mariners in 1996.

For reasons that I can't recall, Ricky Jordan was one of my favorite players as a pre-teen/teenager.  So just how off-base was my like of Ricky?  Well, let's compare his numbers against the league averages for his short career.  Per Baseball-Reference, Ricky was only once better than the league average in OBP, and that was by .002 in 1988.  However, his SLG was only once below the league average, and that was in 1990; no surprise, his peak was in 1988, when he was .111 better than the league average.  Looking at OPS, he was league average or better every year except for 1990.  Again, his peak occurred in 1988, when he was .113 above the league average.

So what does this tell us thus far?  Well, Ricky Jordan certainly was no worse than a league-average player, and in 1988 was actually a pretty good player in relation to the league average.  Compared to others at his position, though, Jordan didn't stack up: first base has been traditionally a position for power hitters, and even though Jordan was better than league average, he was by no means the caliber of slugger that one would expect to man first base.

Here, then, are the league averages for NL 1B, courtesy of Baseball Prospectus' sortable stats page (OBP/SLG/OPS):

1988 - .332/.409/.741
1989 - .353/.429/.782
1990 - .346/.438/.784
1991 - .340/.411/.751
1992 - .342/.422/.764
1993 - .352/.448/.800
1994 - .351/.488/.839

For ease of comparison, Jordan's numbers are listed below (OBP/SLG/OPS):

1988 - .324/.491/.815
1989 - .317/.407/.724
1990 - .277/.352/.629
1991 - .304/.452/.756
1992 - .313/.417/.730
1993 - .324/.421/.745
1994 - .303/.473/.780

As with so many Phillies prospects from the 1980s, the story here is one of promise unfulfilled.  In 1988, Ricky was a far better than league average first baseman, which justified the Phils' move to insert him as their starter going into 1989.  He was a below-average 1B in 1989 and was no better than replacement-level in 1990.  In 1991, he had more power than a league-average 1B, but offset that with an OBP that was .036 below league average.  In his last three seasons in Philadelphia, he was again below average in all facets.

In retrospect, it is unfortunate that Ricky had his career year at the age of 23, but then again, his minor-league numbers (save for his repeat of AA in 1987) never indicated that he would be capable of being productive in the majors.  Jordan's 1988 season was most likely a fluke, but at the time it probably looked to the Phils as though the player they drafted as a "projectable" teenager was growing into his power.  And as a youngster myself, I'm sure I agreed with the team's perception.  I always thought that Ricky Jordan was a pretty good player, and although I can't quite be sure of the exact reasons why, the power he flashed early on probably had a lot to do with my interest in him.  Of course, if I had known then what I know now, I would have looked at Jordan in an entirely different light: a prospect with poor OBP and a modicum of power who would probably never amount to anything more than a marginal big leaguer.

So though I was wrong about Ricky Jordan, it's not like I was totally off the wall with my player evaluations.  I'll just have to chalk it up to youthful indiscretion.