Thursday, September 15, 2005
O's are a model of dysfunction
By Jayson Stark
And now we present still more historical pursuits you'll undoubtedly never find commemorated in the Field Museum of Natural History:
TEAMS TO WATCH
They left their BB's in San Francisco
For some reason, no team in baseball walked more last year than the Giants (705 of them, if you stopped counting). There's a theory going around that those walks might have had something to do with a left fielder they used to run out there every day, whatever his name was. Could be. But this year, in an apparently related development, the Giants haven't walked so much. Matter of fact, not only haven't they approached 700 walks yet, they haven't even gotten to (gulp) 400 walks. Well, that had the smell of a major historical development to us. And sure enough, the Giants are probably heading for the biggest plummet in the old walk column of all time. They're on pace to drop from 705 to 433 at the moment -- a cliff dive of 272. And if you toss out strike seasons, the record is 256 -- by one of the most historically memorable teams of all time, those 1899 Cleveland Spiders (who went from 545 walks in 1898 to 289 in 1899). Of course, those Spiders (season record: 20-134) avoided a lot more than walking that year (such as winning, for instance). They're a special case. Which means the more legit record, for teams since 1900, is 222, by Baby Doll Jacobson's 1917 St. Louis Browns. So, how many times would the Giants' back-from-hiatus left fielder have to walk in the next two weeks for them to avoid this record -- 50 times? Maybe 80? Hey, he has it in him. Don't you think?
A tale of two seasons
Once, there was a time when this looked like a fun little season in the life of the Orioles. Unfortunately, that fun little season kept going -- for about three months too long. And now the Orioles are in danger of making the kind of history nobody wants to make. After 70 games, they had a picturesque winning percentage of exactly .600 (42-28). Since then, however, their record, as you might have noticed, hasn't been quite as photogenic. Going into Thursday, they were 27-48 since Game 71. That comes to a .360 winning percentage -- which would be the lowest since 1900 by any team that played .600 baseball or better in its first 70 games. The current record is .370 (34-58), by George Mitterwald's 1977 Cubs. And the AL record is .381, by Bunk Congalton's 1905 Cleveland Naps. The only other team to plummet from .600-plus to .400-minus is Fabian Gafke's 1941 Indians (.393). So, can this group in Baltimore possibly overturn Bunk Congalton's only claim to fame? We have 2½ weeks to find out.
Remember six months ago, when all that money the Reds spent on their pitching staff was supposed to propel them into contention? OK, seemed like a good theory at the time. What actually transpired, though, was a season in which these pitchers allowed 182 more hits than innings pitched in their first 146 games. And if you divide that up per game, you find they've been allowing a messy 10.07 hits every nine innings. How painful is that? Well, if you toss out a certain team that plays in the Rocky Mountains, no National League pitching staff has given up hits at that rate since the 1937 Phillies.
The height of incompletion
One thing you can't say about these Devil Rays is that they've been a complete mess. That word, "complete," you see, doesn't apply to them this season. With only 16 games left, they're in danger of becoming the first pitching staff ever to go through a whole season without a complete game. And no one else in history has ever even come this close. (The Yankees had only one CG last year, but had the good sense to throw it on April 22.) It probably tells you something about this Devil Rays staff that Chris Carpenter has made it through eight innings more times (14) than all the Tampa Bay starters combined (four). But if the Rays set this record, we'd blame Travis Lee before we hang this on Casey Fossum. They actually would have two complete games by now -- except that Lee hit game-tying home runs in the ninth inning of both games (Aug. 16 and Sept. 3). So, Lou Piniella had to change pitchers. Doesn't this guy check the stat sheet?
Call of the wild
Next time you take in a Rockies game from a seat in the lower deck, you might want to take proper precautions -- and wear a catcher's mask. Because barring a sudden attack on the strike zone, the Rockies are on the verge of wrapping up the highly prestigious Wild Thing Triple Crown. Their pitchers lead the league in walks, and wild pitches, and hit batters. And that trifecta would be an honor they would share with only 10 other teams in baseball history, according to Retrosheet's Dave Smith. But no NL team has pulled this off since the 1977 and '78 Braves. And since those staffs rode Phil Niekro's knuckleball to their triple crowns, we can report that only four knuckle-free NL teams have ever done this -- Dave Freisleben's 1974 Padres, Kirby Higbe's 1947 Dodgers, Boom-Boom Beck's 1939 Phillies and Jakie May's 1919 Cardinals. If the Rockies pick up their balk pace, they also could become the first team since those '47 Dodgers to win the Wild Thing Quadruple Crown (BB, WP, HBP, balks). And that's wild, wild stuff.
The 90-90-90-90 club
Usually, it takes a while for really, really good teams to turn into really, really bad teams. Three years, four years, five years. That's how it's supposed to happen, anyway. In other words, not the way it's happened to those Seattle Mariners. As recently as 2003, they were wrapping up their fourth straight season of 90-plus wins. But as recently as Thursday, they were on the verge of a slightly different streak. Unless they start wreaking some serious havoc, and win 10 of their last 17 games, they're about to do something only one other franchise has ever done -- lose 90 or more games in back-to-back seasons, immediately after winning 90 or more in back-to-back seasons. The only other franchise to do that is Connie Mack's old 1913-16 Philadelphia Athletics. That team actually ran off six straight 90-win seasons, followed by three straight years of at least 98 losses. But at least it had an excuse: After the 1914 season, Mack went el cheapo and sold off everyone but the Crackerjack vendors. The Mariners, on the other hand, have had one of the AL's four highest payrolls two straight seasons. They're just going to have to blame it on -- what else? -- the weather.
Onward and upward
What's the definition of rock bottom? The good people in Kansas City would love to know. They thought it had arrived last year, when the Royals lost 104 times. But apparently not. Barring an emergency late-September comeback by George Brett and Hal McRae, the '05 Royals are going to do something only two teams have done in the last 65 years -- follow up a season of 104 losses or more by losing more games the next year. Since the '30s, the only two teams that have managed this challenging feat are the 1964-65 Mets teams that drove Casey Stengel out of the business (from 109 to 112 losses) and the free-falling 2003-04 Tigers (from 106 to 119). The only three other teams to do it: the 1938-39 Phillies (105-106), 1925-26 Red Sox (105-107) and the aforementioned 1915-16 Athletics (109-117). The good news: For all those teams, that was rock bottom.
There are lots of ways to assemble a playoff-type pitching staff. And no one proves that, year after year, better than the Atlanta Braves. Four times, back in the mid-to-late '90s, they had a staff that led the league in strikeouts. This year, on the other hand, they have a slightly different kind of staff -- one that's actually last in the league in whiffs. But that lack of swinging and missing hasn't stopped them from roaring into first place. And that's a unique way to win, even for the Braves. If they hang onto last in the K standings but first in the NL East standings, they would be the first team to win this way since Jeff Brantley's 1989 Giants. And if you toss out the 1981 strike season, only six teams in the division-play era have ever been last in whiffs and first in the standings, according to Elias. Amazing.
These Sox don't match
The Braves aren't the only team trying out an innovative formula for finishing first. Has anybody out there checked the Red Sox pitching numbers lately? Through 145 games, these Red Sox had a 4.76 team ERA and were on pace to give up 815 runs -- but still win 95 games. Think that happens much? Uh, afraid not. There have been just two teams in history that had an ERA that high, won that many games and finished in first place in any league or division -- the 1999 Indians (4.91, 97 wins) and the 1999 Rangers (5.07, 95 wins). But what people in Boston really need to know is that the record in this category for a World Series champ is 814 runs and a 4.76 ERA -- the figures rolled up by a 2000 Yankees staff that included Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte and Mariano Something-or-other. Just what the Red Sox need -- a way to get mixed up in another duel with that team.
Not your average walking men
Hmmm. Could working the count be overrated? The 2005 Cubbies seem to think so. Through Wednesday, they were in a virtual tie with Florida for the highest team batting average in the NL. But they were last in the league in walks. Which means they'd be a perfect team for, say, Ichiro? Well, it's true the Cubs aren't the only team with this approach. That first-in-average-last-in-walks trick was turned as recently as last year, in fact -- by the Angels. But only five other teams in the division-play era have ever done it: the '89 Cubs, '86 Indians, '75 Cardinals and '72 Pirates. And what do they have in common with these Cubs? None of them won a playoff series.
"The Story of O" was not a tale based on the 2005 A's. But it could have been. This is a team whose pitchers are tied for the league lead in shutouts (with the Yankees), with 12. It's also a team whose hitters are tied for the league lead in shutouts (with Toronto), again with 12. So how often do you see that kind of versatility -- a team capable of leading its league at both ends of the shutout spectrum? Well, it hasn't been done in the AL in almost 50 years, if that tells you anything. Bill Arnold, author of the syndicated "Beyond the Box Score" column, reports that no AL team has pulled this off since the 1959 Yankees and Orioles tied for the lead in both departments. And only three other AL teams have duplicated that feat -- the 1947 Senators, 1941 White Sox and 1915 Senators. So let's hear it for a team that has put the O back in Oakland.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
Beware the RBI champ
Nobody will dispute that Andruw Jones has had a fabulous year. But he might not have had quite as fabulous a year as you might think. If you just check his RBI totals, it's a darned impressive sight to see he's opened a 16-RBI gap over Albert Pujols. But not all RBI totals are created equal. And especially in this case. Despite all those RBIs, Jones' batting average with runners in scoring position was a mere .224 through Wednesday -- 104 points lower than Pujols (.328) and 86 points lower than Pat Burrell (.310), who is 17 RBI behind Jones. That might not seem possible. But when one guy (Jones) has more than 40 plate appearances with men in scoring position than another guy (Pujols), it's real possible. What's just as possible is that Jones could actually set a record for lowest average by a modern RBI champ with runners in scoring position. In the 30 years the Elias Sports Bureau has kept those scoring-position numbers, the lowest average by any RBI champ was .252, by Eddie Murray in the 1981 strike season. Lowest in a full season: .256, by Vinny Castilla last year. To avoid this not-so-coveted feat, Jones would need to go 8-for-8 in these spots over the next couple of weeks, by our calculations. Wish him luck. You'd hate to see a season like this end in a record like that.
The Clark expedition
Another guy who has had a sensational, bounce-back kind of year is Arizona's Tony Clark. He's now up to 25 homers, just three years removed from a season in Boston in which he hit three all season. Clark is one terrific human, and we're happy for him. But still ... one thing that happens every time a guy hits a home run, we're pretty sure, is that he also gets to score a run. But that must not be happening when Clark hits his homers -- because he has scored just 41 runs all season. That means he has driven himself in nine more times than all his teammates have knocked him in. And loyal reader Dave Chavanne wondered if he's headed for the weirdest homer-to-runs ratio of all time by a guy with that many homers. And that answer would be ... absolutely -- unless his teammates pick up the pace. The fewest runs scored by any 25-plus-homer man in history is 45, by the always-resourceful Wily Mo Pena (in a 26-homer season) last year. And of the five men in history who drove themselves in at least nine more times than their teammates did, the only one who needed fewer than 60 homers to do it was Matt Williams (self 43, teammates 31) in 1994. So it's about time those Diamondbacks started giving their pal, Tony Clark, a ride home -- or he's going to set one really goofy record.
The 200-.200 club
It hasn't exactly been one of the stellar years in the life of the great Ichiro Suzuki. But at last look, he was still on pace to collect his standard 200 hits, just as he's done every year since crossing the Pacific. There might be something different about this 200-hit season, though. There's a chance Ichiro might not even bat .300 while collecting all those hits. Which is tough to do, friends. Only seven players in history have hit under .300 in a 200-hit season -- Bill Buckner (.299) in 1985, Buddy Bell (.299) in 1979, Ralph Garr (.299) in 1973, Matty Alou (.297) in 1970, Lou Brock (.299) in 1967, Maury Wills (.299) in 1962 and Jo-Jo Moore (.295) in 1935. Ichiro is currently hitting .301, and on pace for 203 hits. With a little veer in either direction, he could set a record for most hits by a 200-hit man who didn't hit 300 (208, by Wills) or, if he turns the wrong way, lowest average by a 200-hit man (.295 by Moore). One thing we've always loved about Ichiro is his relentlessly historic nature. Although this kind of history isn't quite as much fun as the history he made last year, we'll take it.
Lean to the left
Mark Teixeira hit a home run batting right-handed in the All-Star Game. We saw it with our own eyes, so we know he can do it. But as switch-hitters go, Teixeira is using the "switch" part of that expression a little more loosely than just about any of his ambidextrous ilk ever has. Of his 39 regular-season homers this year, 35 of them have been hit left-handed. Which means just four have been bopped right-handed. Which kind of makes Teixeira the Michael Moore of switch-hitters. In the history of switch-hitting, just one man has ever leaned further toward the left than this, according to SABR's David Vincent: Lance Berkman, who had an even more unbelievable 40-to-2 left-right split in 2002. The only AL switch-hitter who ever hit 30 more homers left-handed than right-handed was the eminent Mickey Mantle in 1956. But he had to hit 56 homers (43 of them left-handed) to do it. If Teixeira is going to stay off this list, he'd better flip the switch.
Life in Lima-ville
The inimitable Jose Lima is one of 22 pitchers in history who once had a season (of at least 150 innings) in which his ERA finished north of 6.50. (He tossed a 6.65 out there in 2000.) Granted, only six of those pitchers have done that since World War II. But at least Lima has company. ... Maybe not for long, though. His ERA this year is a scruffy 6.66. Which means he's in danger of becoming the only name on another list: pitchers who had an ERA of 6.50-plus more than once. Lima's only hope is to reinvent those glory days of Lima Time in a major hurry -- because he'll need to get that ERA under 6.30 to find any other pitcher who had two seasons as unsightly as his 2000 and 2005 masterpieces. Back in the 1930s, those St. Louis Browns had a pitcher named Jim Walkup who had ERAs of 6.27 in 1935 and 7.38 in 1937. (Walkup also had ERAs just as ugly in 1936, '38 and '39 -- but he wasn't allowed to pitch enough to qualify.) Which list will Jose Lima wind up on? He could have four more starts to answer that. Walkup sales ought to be brisk.
The wild, wild Westbrook
Three months ago, you could have won a whole lot of money in beautiful downtown Las Vegas wagering that Indians pitcher Jake Westbrook would have a winning record this season. And with good reason. As recently as June 9, this man's record was 2-9. Not necessarily through much fault of his own (since his team had scored two runs or fewer for him eight times in 13 starts). But 2-9 is 2-9. After his start Wednesday, though, Westbrook's record had made it all the way back above Mount .500 -- at 15-14. If he can just keep that win total one tick higher than his loss total, he'll do something only three other pitchers in the last 25 years have done -- start out at least seven games below .500 and still finish with a winning record. The only men to do it, according to Elias: Scott Erickson (from 1-8 to 15-12 in 1999), John Smoltz (from 2-11 to 14-13 in 1991) and Charlie Leibrandt (from 3-10 to 13-12 in 1988). Very cool feat. But actually, about all it proves is that wins and losses don't always tell you much. After his start Wednesday, Westbrook is 12-5 since June 19 -- and his ERA has actually gone down only slightly (from 4.57 to 4.39). But hey, we don't try to explain baseball. We just try to chronicle its amazing twists and turns. And as always, this season has had a billion of them.
Jayson Stark is a senior writer for ESPN.com.