September is not to be trusted. It is the most meaningful month of the baseball season, and also the most misleading.
This is the time when pennant races are resolved and prospects are misjudged. It happens every autumn. The rosters are expanded, and the results can be deceiving. Seasoned observers can be blinded by beginner's luck, or soured by a false first step.
It is a dangerous time to be making decisions about a ballplayer's future.
''I think September can be very misleading,'' Reds manager Jack McKeon said Friday. ''You get a lot of young guys coming in here, and they've got tremendous enthusiasm. They either do well, and you get excited about them, or they do poorly and you cross them off the board. Which is unfair.''
September baseball should be taken with several grains of salt, or one of those memory-erasing devices from Men In Black. These games reveal little about a Triple-A talent except his ability to perform against other Triple-A talent. Results against more reputable competition should not be assessed until after the veterans have a chance to diagnose a rookie's flaws. Not even if his name is Pete Rose Jr.
Putting off the evaluation
September phenoms often show a marked decline in later tours around the league. The secret is to avoid evaluating them until the second time around.
Case In Point No. 1: September, 1981. Paul Householder struck his first major-league home runs against Steve Carlton and Phil Niekro, and encouraged Reds General Manager Dick Wagner to overhaul his outfield. Householder responded with a .211 season.
Case In Point No. 2: September, 1982. Brad ''The Animal'' Lesley parlays an above-average fastball and a theatrical personality into a mistaken impression of a dominant closer. The Animal, it turned out, was a one-trick pony. He would open the 1983 season at Indianapolis.
''I hate to see rookies come in and pitch against us if we don't know anything about him,'' McKeon said. ''If he's got halfway decent stuff, he's going to beat you the first time. A good example is when the Reds had Jeff Russell. He made his first major-league start against us when I was in San Diego (1983), and he throws a one-hitter. He pitched against us again in Cincinnati the following week and we beat the (stuffings) out of him.''
That would be Case In Point No. 3.
The shrewd baseball executive uses September statistics to persuade a more impressionable baseball executive of the merits of a trade. The prudent executive customarily ignores any numbers compiled after Labor Day: good, bad or brutal.
''I had Paul Splittorff in Omaha in 1969 when he was about 20 years old,'' McKeon said. ''They (the Kansas City Royals) took him to the big leagues and started him, and he wasn't ready. He went up and got bombed. Come spring training, he didn't have a chance. The impression was he couldn't pitch out here. He was the first guy sent out.''
Later, when the Royals needed a fresh arm, McKeon recommended Splittorff again. His bosses preferred another pitcher. McKeon arranged to start both of them in a doubleheader, and implored his boss to come see for himself.
Splittorff pitched a one-hitter and struck out 12 Chicago White Sox in his next start. He would last 15 years in the major leagues.
Jack McKeon, consequently, is careful not to judge too harshly lest he later be judged hasty. With an expansion draft upcoming, the Reds are obliged to pick the 15 players they most want to protect. Few of these decisions will be based on September showings.
''A lot of these guys come up and put more pressure on themselves than need be,'' McKeon said. ''They don't perform the way they're capable of performing. On the other hand, guys come up and they happen to face someone else who's throwing a bunch of young guys out there and they do well, and all of a sudden your expectations are higher.''
Second baseman Chris Stynes is hitting .374. Believe what you will.