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Wednesday, September 18, 2013
Those history-chasing Atlanta Braves


History in baseball comes in many shapes, many sizes, many colors, many forms. Those 2013 Atlanta Braves are living proof.

On one hand, their closer, Craig Kimbrel, is on the verge of doing something Mariano Rivera has never done -- and, for that matter, something no pitcher in the history of baseball has ever done.

On the other hand, this is a first-place team that, amazingly, has two every-day players -- Dan Uggla and B.J. Upton -- living life below the Mendoza Line. Many of you have asked me how rare that is for a team heading for October. Well, friends, the September History Watch has the answer. Read on …

Part I: The Closer

The Craig Kimbrel portion of this historical dissertation would have been a lot more impressive a few days ago, when the best closer in baseball was cruising along with an ERA under 1.00 (namely, 0.91).

Then this guy had to go and do something he hasn't done since he was like 14 years old -- get scored on in back-to-back outings. Which inflated his ERA all the way up to an unsightly 1.33.

Craig Kimbrel
Over a span of 28 appearances from July 8 to Sept. 10, Craig Kimbrel allowed zero runs, walked five, struck out 41 and held opponents to a .115 BAA.

But it tells us a little something about how unhittable Kimbrel has been that, even after allowing four runs (three earned) over his past two trips to the mound, he's still on the road to history.

What kind of history, you ask? Take a look:

Kimbrel's ERA last year: 1.01. His ERA this year: 1.33.

And how many pitchers in the history of this fine sport have had back-to-back seasons in which they worked at least 60 innings and had ERAs that low?

That would be zero, ladies and gentlemen. Nada. Nary a one. Thanks for asking.

In fact, only two pitchers in history have ever had ERAs below 1.40 in two consecutive seasons of 60 innings or more. Perhaps you've heard of them.

One would be Walter Johnson.

Who did it as recently as, oh, a century ago.

Johnson's ERA in 1912: 1.39. His ERA in 1913: 1.14.

The other would be another Hall of Famer with an awesome nickname, Mordecai "Three Finger" Brown, who did this so long ago, it's possible those other two fingers hadn't even been invented yet.

Brown's ERA in 1906: 1.04. His ERA in 1907: 1.39.

OK, so the Big Train (715) and Three Finger Brown (510.1) threw slightly more innings over their two seasons Craig Kimbrel has over these two seasons (123.2). I get that. They have different jobs. So if you're about to bash out a tweet informing me those old-timers' feats were a way bigger deal, OK, fine. I'm not going to argue.

Just trying to make a point about the guy pitching in this century. And that point is: Nobody does this. No matter what their job is.

For slightly more perspective …

Here are the only other pitchers in history with ERAs under 1.50 in back-to-back seasons of 60 or more innings, according to Lee Sinins' indispensable Complete Baseball Encyclopedia:

Good group. Also an ancient group.

And here are the only other relief pitchers in modern history with ERAs under 1.75 in back-to-back seasons. Let's just say it won't take you an hour to read this list:

And then there's Craig Kimbrel. Who has blown away the numbers of everyone on all of those lists. Now all he has to do to finish this deal is go back to what he has been doing for most of the past three years -- i.e., striking out pretty much everyone he faces and then shaking hands a lot.

Part II: The Mendoza Brothers

But meanwhile, on the very same team, we have a slightly less glorious form of history unfolding, down there where you need a submarine to find it.

In other words, 20,000 leagues below the Mendoza Line.

Dan Uggla
Dan Uggla is batting .143 (4-for-28) with five walks and 10 strikeouts this month.

Batting average this year of Braves second baseman Dan Uggla: .183. Batting average this year of Braves center fielder B.J. Upton: .188

Well, you don't see that much.

So how much do we see it? Two every-day players on one team hitting under .200? Excellent question. And the answer, according to baseball-reference.com's fabulous Play Index, is, um, never -- not in the live ball era, anyway.

Now if we keep going, back toward the beginning of time, we do find three other teams in the history of baseball that have had two regular position players with batting averages under .200 and at least 400 plate appearances apiece. So here they come:

Boy. Quite a list. You should know that those 1886 Orioles played in the old American Association, famous for its then-daring decision to sell beer in the stands, and that the listing of Muldoon's name on their roster at baseball-reference.com is followed by a question mark, which is never a good sign. So who knows what to make of them?

You should also know that none of those teams finished in first place -- although those Indians (88-66) and Phillies (83-57) at least had winning records.

But even more important, you may have noticed that none of those teams had two players with averages that submerged not just below .200 but also below .190, as these Braves do. So this feat gets more unique by the paragraph.

Then again, when the Braves get around to playing baseball in October, all their averages will get reset to .000, and then Upton and Uggla will get to write a whole different story for themselves. Which is the cool thing about playing baseball for a team this good.

But in the meantime, all of us at the September History Watch would like to thank them for playing -- and making our latest foray into impressive historical research so eminently rewarding.