Tuesday, September 28, 2010
Buck Showalter on a historic run
By Jayson Stark
Don't look now, but it'll be October any minute now. So Three Strikes is back with another edition of the September History Watch before we all start gathering up pumpkins.
Strike One -- Big Bucks Dept.
It's obvious now that Buck Showalter is one of the great managerial magicians of all time. But his work since he took over the Orioles is more than just astonishing. It's historic. Here's exactly how historic it is:
• When Showalter took over on Aug. 3, the Orioles had won 32 games -- out of 105 (i.e., 32-73). Since then, they've won 30 games -- out of 51 (i.e, 30-21). The all-time record for most wins by any team after its 73rd loss is just 34 -- held, according to the Elias Sports Bureau, by Terry Francona's 1997 Phillies. (That team started 36-73, then somehow scraped together a 34-21 finish.) These Orioles would need to go 4-2 the rest of the way to tie that record.
• Ah, but those '97 Phillies didn't change managers, did they? And these Orioles have -- twice. So if the Orioles go 3-3 in their last six games, Showalter is going to do something that's just about impossible: He's going to win more games than the previous two Orioles managers this year combined. And that's not easy, considering those two (Dave Trembley and Juan Samuel) managed more than 50 games apiece. Amazing.
• Since these Orioles are the first team in history to have three different men manage more than 50 games in the same season, Showalter automatically would become the first manager to outwin two guys who managed about as many games as he did. But if he does get to 33 wins, we can put this in even better historic perspective: According to Elias, he'll be the first manager since 1900 to take over any team in August or later and win more games the rest of the way than that team had won before he got there.
• The latest previous date any manager took over and did that? July 19 -- more than two weeks earlier than Showalter's debut. In 1902, John McGraw took the helm of the 23-50 New York Giants on July 19 and went 25-38 the rest of the way. And in 1976, Don Zimmer assumed the reins of the 41-45 Red Sox on the same date and finished the year 42-34.
• The most previous games into a season where any manager pulled this off? That would be 88, according to Elias. The 2004 Astros were 44-44 before Phil Garner showed up -- and went 48-26 thereafter.
• But that means Garner's Astros had a 17-game head start on the post-Buck-fied Orioles, right? So if Buck Showalter can get to 33 wins, he may not win the manager of the year award. But he sure deserves the reclamation-project manager of the year award.
Strike Two -- Mauer Power Dept.
Joe Mauer won the batting title last season. He also won the batting title the season before that. But this year he's tailspinned all the way into second place in that batting race. He sure is slipping, isn't he?
We found this fascinating. So we did a little research to see just how unusual it is for a guy to have three seasons like this:
• First off, it goes without saying that no catcher in the live-ball era has ever had three straight top-two finishes in the batting race. Mauer owns as many batting titles (three) as all the other catchers in history combined. So not much competition there.
• Next, we found only two other players in the live-ball era who won back-to-back batting titles and then finished second the next year. One was another Twin, the great Tony Oliva (won in 1964 and '65, finished second to a Triple Crown winner, Frank Robinson, in '66). The other was someone named Ted Williams (won in 1947-48, finished second to George Kell, by .0002 of a point, in '49).
• If we do this top-three stuff in any order, Mauer would join only five American Leaguers in the live-ball era who had at least three consecutive top-two finishes in a batting race. The other five: Wade Boggs (four straight titles, from 1985 to '88), Rod Carew (also four titles in a row, from 1972 to '75), Oliva and Williams two different times (2nd-1st-1st in 1956-57-58) and (2nd-1st-1st-2nd in 1946-47-48-49), and Al Simmons (2nd-1st-1st in 1929-30-31). One asterisk alert here, because I know I'll be hearing from the Ted Williams Fan Club: Williams also won two straight batting titles in 1941-42 before going off to war, then came back and ripped off four more top-two finishes. So that was six in a row in seasons he played in, but only four in a row on the calendar. Got that?
• But unfortunately, we don't like Mauer's chances of breaking the modern record for consecutive top-two finishes -- or anybody else's chances, for that matter. Ty Cobb holds that one with 13 in a row, from 1907 to '19 (11 titles, two silver medals). But by modern standards, Joe Mauer is still hanging with a bunch of legends. And that's no accident.
Strike Three -- Poor Felix Dept.
As you may have noticed, Felix Hernandez is heading for one of those seasons that defies rational comprehension. Let's show you again just how historically bizarre his season has become:
• As loyal reader Andrew Tanker pointed out recently, Hernandez went into his start Tuesday with a 2.31 ERA, a 1.06 WHIP and 227 strikeouts -- and his record is 12-12. So Tanker's question was: Has anyone ever had stats that good and a record that bad? And the correct answer is: Never in the live-ball era, anyway. And the only pitcher since 1900 to do it was Ed Walsh (18-20 in 1910, despite a 1.27 ERA, 258 whiffs and a 0.82 WHIP).
• Meanwhile, Felix went into his start Tuesday leading the league in ERA and innings pitched, and just about a lock to pass Jered Weaver (who was only two K's ahead of him) and move into the strikeout lead. In the Cy Young Award era, only six pitchers have ever led the league in all three of those categories in the same year -- and they all won the Cy Young. Those six: Randy Johnson in 1999, Roger Clemens in '97, Mike Scott in '86, Dwight Gooden in '85, Steve Carlton in '72 and Sandy Koufax in both 1965 and '66. So what's the big difference between those guys and Felix? Guess what? Those guys finished a combined 103 games over .500 in their seasons. And their average season was 23-8. And King Felix is 12-12. Crazy.
• And even if you take most of those other categories out of the argument, think how hard it is to have a losing record when just your ERA is that low. ESPN's Stats & Info department reports the last American League pitcher to make 30 starts or more, have an ERA as low as Hernandez and finish with a losing record was Dutch Leonard (16-17, 2.17) -- in 1917. And only two NL starters have done it in the live-ball era -- Bob Veale (13-14, 2.06, in 1968) and Dave Roberts (14-17, 2.10, in 1971).
• But let's just add this tidbit for a little perspective. In seven of Felix's 13 starts before Tuesday, he left the game in the seventh inning or later with no runs scored for him. For all those traditionalists who are dumping on the King's Cy Young credentials and wondering why this guy is only 12-12? That explains it nicely. Don't you think? If he can find a way to win with zero runs scored, he doesn't just deserve a Cy Young. He deserves a Nobel Prize in mathematics.