Ladies and Gentlemen, The Hit Show!

If you were to go up to a random person on the street and ask them what they knew about the Tampa Bay (Devil) Rays organization, what do you expect the top answers would be?  Right now, my guess is the answers would fall something like this: 1) they stunk for a really long time, 2) they made the World Series recently, and 3) Carl Crawford and Evan Longoria.  These are just random guesses made off the top of my head, so they are quite possibly wrong, but I'm guessing the most common answers would fall somewhere along these lines.  The World Series run in 2008 is now the defining moment of our franchise, and I would expect most people's answers to focus on that moment in some form or another.

Now, how would people have answered that same question before the 2008 season?  What was our franchise's defining moment before we made the playoffs and World Series?  This is a much tougher question, and I think there are a couple potential answers.  Some people might have mentioned Rocco Baldelli and his explosive entrance to the majors in 2003.  Others may have brought up the Scott Kazmir trade, which is still infamous among Met fans at the very least.   And then some people probably would have brought up "The Hit Show".

For those of you that don't know or want a refresher, "The Hit Show" was the slogan that the Devil Rays front office chose for the 2000 team.  Specifically, they labeled sluggers Fred McGriff, Jose Canseco, Greg Vaughn, and Vinny Castilla as the Hit Show, since they supposedly represented four of the best hitters in the league.  McGriff and Canseco had been with the Devil Rays the previous season, while Vaughn and Castilla were billed as big additions that off-season.  And rightly so: Vaughn had launched 40+ homeruns the last two years in a row and Castilla hit over 30 homeruns in each of the past five years.  McGriff and Canseco had been quite productive players in 1999 as well, and it appeared that the Rays would have a strong offense going into the 2000 season.

Of course, though, the Hit Show flopped.  The conventional wisdom goes that the players were all too old and fell off a cliff, making this a defining moment of the Devil Rays ineffective front office.  Maybe I'm attributing more fame to the Hit Show than it actually garnered, but at least in my mind, the Hit Show has always been the moment that aptly defined our franchise's early history.  It highlighted the ineffective front-office, the poor decision making, the faulty talent evaluation - all of these things rolled into one.  Just like the Curse of the Bambino defined the Red Sox for decades, I felt like the Hit Show defined the Rays.

Since I've been in a retrospective mood recently, I was looking back over the statistics for the players on the Hit Show the other day and received a bit of a shock.  You know, the Hit Show wasn't half bad.

 

Take a look at these stats from the 2000 season:

OPS

ISO

wRAA

wOBA

Salaries

Greg Vaughn

0.864

0.245

16.1

0.375

$7.0M

Fred McGriff

0.826

0.175

10.6

0.359

$5.9M

Jose Canseco

0.832

0.193

6.8

0.370

$3.0M

Vinny Castilla

0.562

0.088

-30.3

0.243

$6.25M

Granted, Vinny Castilla's 2000 season was a giant albatross sucking the life from the Devil Rays' lineup, but besides for that, that's not half bad, right?  Nothing incredibly inspiring, but a far cry from downright atrocious.  Vaughn may have only hit 28 homeruns, but he got about 100 less plate appearances in 2000 than in 1999 and his ISO remained nearly the same between the two years (thanks to a great increase in doubles).  McGriff and Canseco provided solid value and some nice pop, performing just about as good as anyone could reasonably expect from them.  If it weren't for Castilla forgetting how to hit, we may not remember the Hit Show for any particular reason today.

Should the Devil Rays' front office have seen Castilla's drop-off coming?  Looking back, is there anything we can glean from his stats that would suggest this was a bad move at the time?  To be honest, there's really not a whole lot to see:

Team

AB

2B

HR

R

RBI

AVG

1995

COL

527

34

32

82

90

0.309

1996

COL

629

34

40

97

113

0.304

1997

COL

612

25

40

94

113

0.304

1998

COL

645

28

46

108

144

0.319

1999

COL

615

24

33

83

102

0.275

2000

TB

331

9

6

22

42

0.221

2001

TB/HOU

538

34

25

69

91

0.260

Team

BB%

K%

BB/K

ISO

BABIP

1995

COL

5.40%

16.50%

0.34

0.254

0.321

1996

COL

5.30%

14.00%

0.4

0.245

0.301

1997

COL

6.70%

17.60%

0.41

0.243

0.315

1998

COL

5.80%

13.80%

0.45

0.270

0.314

1999

COL

7.90%

12.20%

0.71

0.203

0.268

2000

TB

4.10%

12.40%

0.34

0.088

0.236

2001

TB/HOU

6.10%

20.10%

0.32

0.206

0.284

Castilla had played in Coors for the previous seven seasons, and his statistics there were almost certainly inflated as a result, but that doesn't change the fact that Castilla was an above-average bat during his time with the Rockies.  His dip in offensive value in 1999 is concerning in retrospect, but I could also see a team interpreting it as unlucky.  Castilla suffered a severe drop-off in his BABIP in 1999, which made his value much lower than it would have been otherwise, without seeing many other drops in some of his peripheral stats.  His BB% increased to a career high and his K% decreased to a career low, while his ISO dipped but was still certainly respectable.  Maybe the Devil Rays saw this as a chance to grab a valuable bat at a reasonable discount, since other teams may have been scared off by the dip in production in 1999 and the effect from leaving Coors.  Maybe that interpretation is giving the Devil Rays' front office too much credit, but it's certainly not out of the realm of possibilities.  Castilla was only 32 during the 2000 season, which is getting old for a slugger, but it's not as if Castilla was 36 at the time he was tendered a contract.

Castilla is a good example of all that was good and bad about the Hit Show.  While the processes behind signing each individual player weren't horrible - even Vaughn's signing can be justified like Castilla's, although the length of his contract was a bit much - they also weren't terribly great.  Individually, I don't have a huge issue with any of the contracts tendered to the Hit Show members; however, when looked at in its full context, the Hit Show was a very poor investment.  No team should ever sink that much money into aging sluggers, especially when you're attempting to build a competitive team from the ground up.  Investing in one older slugger would not have been a bad strategy, but four of them at once diverted way too much money away from other critical aspects of development.

So in the end, my final assessment of the Hit Show ends up being rather similar to what our conventional wisdom tells us: it was a poor investment that handicapped the team going forward, and it turned out badly.  However, at the same time, the Hit Show wasn't as bad a disaster as everyone claims, at least during the 2000 season.  I think what fascinates me about the whole situation is that despite the processes being so wrong for where the franchise was at the time, the Devil Rays nearly got what they were hoping for: a strong offense for a season or two.  If Vaughn had only been signed for a one or two year deal, and Castilla had merely regressed as opposed to flopped, we could be having an entirely different conversation about the Hit Show now.  Heck, it may have actually been a show worth watching.

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