Forgotten Yankees: Ken Phelps

A montage of Ken Phelps baseball cards from his time on the Yankees. (1989 Donruss, 1989 Fleer, 1989 Topps)
A montage of Ken Phelps baseball cards from his time on the Yankees. (1989 Donruss, 1989 Fleer, 1989 Topps) /

Those of you who were huge Seinfeld fans will remember George Costanza’s father yelling “What the hell did you trade Jay Buhner for?!” at George Steinbrenner. Let’s see the guy the Yankees got back in that terrible trade, Ken Phelps!

One thing you have to remember about any trades or signings the Yankees made in the 1980s, is that George Steinbrenner was completely insane, and often forced his executives to do ridiculous things on whatever whim hit him on any given day. That’s why, on July 21st, 1988, in support of Steinbrenner’s quest to acquire a left-handed hitter who could mash some taters towards the short porch in right field, Yankees GM Bob Quinn sent prospects Jay Buhner, Rick Balabon and Troy Evers to the Mariners for Ken Phelps.

This might sound awful to you now because you don’t see a Ken Phelps plaque in monument park and you remember Buhner hitting a lot of homers against the Yankees, but let’s be fair. Phelps was a pretty impressive power hitter during his prime years, which happened immediately before the trade. He wasn’t an every day guy because of his platoon splits, but Phelps put up some legitimate numbers for a few years there at the Kingdome. A late bloomer who had underwhelmed with the Royals and Expos early in his career, Phelps’ first big year was 1984, when he hit .241/.378/.521 with 24 home runs in just 360 plate appearances at age 29. He would slug 24 home runs in 1986 and 27 more in 1987, and his OPS+ during those years was a robust 146.

Besides power, Ken had a keen eye. From ’84-’87, he walked 253 times in 1,365 plate appearances, which is a rate of one every 5.4 PAs. To put that in perspective, Reds First Baseman Joey Votto walked 143 times last year to lead the NL, and his walk rate was one every 4.9 PAs. Also, as you can see from his baseball cards above, he had an awesome 80s mustache. The value of a good 80s mustache cannot be understated. Remember Magnum P.I.? That’s all I’m saying.

Buhner, on the other hand, was a bit of an unknown. The one thing the Yankees knew the kid could do well was hit the long ball. In 1987, Buhner had hit 31 home runs for AAA Columbus. He didn’t impress during his September call up that year (he went 5/22 with no homers in seven games), but he was just 22 years old at the time, so there was hope for improvement. He said during spring training in 1988:

“They know what I can do. It doesn’t hurt me to come in and show them my power, but they know it’s legit. They have their plans. I just have to keep going at it day after day. I think I have a shot.”

Buhner did get a shot. Unfortunately, he did not have a good showing for the team in a few stints with the team in 1988. He hit just .188/.250/.319 with 3 homers and 13 RBI in 76 plate appearances, including a 1/30 stretch. Steinbrenner was definitely infamous for his lack of patience with young players back then, and Buhner’s struggles probably helped write his ticket out of town. Also, although he would eventually be famous for some unique facial hair, Buhner didn’t have a mustache back then… huge mistake.

Phelps, meanwhile, was a total beast early in 1988. Through the first 72 games, the 33-year-old crushed it, hitting .284/.434/.547 with a ridiculous OPS+ of 170 and 14 home runs in just 190 official at bats. The Yankees had interest in Phelps the previous winter, and his hot start in ’88 cemented those feelings. Ten days before the 1988 trade deadline, the deal was done. Buhner was a Mariner, and the Yankees had gotten their man in Phelps.

Now that they had him, getting Phelps in the lineup was actually a bit of a challenge. The Yankees had Don Mattingly at first base, Rickey Henderson, Claudell Washington and Dave Winfield in the outfield, and Jack Clark at DH. Manager Lou Piniella, who was apparently insane, had this to say about how the team would find at bats for Phelps:

“What we’ll try to do is rest Winfield a day a week, Henderson a day a week and Clark a day a week. Another option is to put Phelps at first and move Mattingly to the outfield.”

Maybe that quote wasn’t all that relevant to this story, but I really wanted to point out that A, maybe Phelps wasn’t the guy the Yankees needed to be trading for back then, and B, Lou Piniella wanted to put Don Mattingly, one of the best first basemen in team history and arguably one of the greatest and most beloved Yankees of all-time, in the outfield. Late 80s Yankees baseball! Woo! For the record, three days after the trade, Mattingly played five innings in left field against the Royals. He would play eight innings in RF in a game in 1989, and one inning in 1990… Nice plan, Lou.

Anyway, the Yankees managed to get Phelps into 45 games that summer, with mixed results. He hit .224 with the team in 127 plate appearances, which was bad. However, his 19 walks pushed his on base percentage to .339, which was good. He only managed 24 hits, which is bad, but 15 of them went for extra bases, including 10 home runs. That pushed his slugging percentage to a robust .551, which was really good! Phelps even drove in 22 runs in that time. All in all, the trade seemed OK, especially considering the fact that Buhner also hit .224 with 10 home runs (in almost 100 more plate appearances). Phelps didn’t get the Yankees into the playoffs, as their 85 wins were only good enough for fourth place in the AL East, but there was some hope that the team would improve with Phelps on the bench for a full season in 1989.

In reality, 1989 was a disaster, and the beginning of a dark few years in Yankees land. Phelps, now 34, was awful. In 86 games with the Yanks, phelps hit .249/.340/.378 with just 7 homers and 29 RBI in 215 plate appearances. His power was gone, and even that mustache couldn’t save him. On August 30th, the Yankees shipped him to the Oakland Athletics for a minor league pitcher named Scott Holcomb, who never played a big league game for the Yankees. Now I think we all get why George Costanza’s father was so upset.

Phelps was not long for the game of baseball, but Oakland proved to be a pretty sweet destination for him. He got himself a World Series ring that year when the A’s beat the Giants in the fall classic, and the A’s made the World Series again the next year. The A’s would release him midway through the 1990 season, however, and he would retire after a dreadful 24 games with the Indians to close out the year. That being said, his crowning achievement with the A’s was probably breaking up a perfect game bid against Scott Holman of the Mariners with two outs in the ninth inning of a 1990 game. Take a look:

If any of you followed the Yankees in the 1990s, and their rivalry with the Seattle Mariners, you know exactly who Jay Buhner turned out to be. The man they called “Bone” was one of the better power hitters in the game during his prime. From 1991 to 1997, Buhner hit .259/.363/.507 with 224 home runs (including topping 40 each year from ’95-’97) and he also had a cannon in right field. That’s slightly more than the Yankees got out of 131 games from Phelps.

Buhner is still beloved in Seattle, and he damn well should be. I know the Yankees didn’t technically miss him during those years (except maybe in 1995 when the Mariners eliminated them in the NLDS), and they later fleeced the Mariners out of both Tino Martinez and Jeff Nelson to make up for this deal, but what an awful trade, and what a disaster this organization was before Steinbrenner was suspended in the early 1990s!

Related Story: Brien Taylor: A Yankees Tragedy

Anyway, just for fun, and to get our minds off of this deal, Ken Phelps and that mustache… let’s watch the famous scene from Seinfeld!

What the hell indeed…