Monday, February 27, 2006

News and notes

Spring training has begun in earnest, and here are the biggest stories so far . . .

A special Hall of Fame committee devoted to studying the Negro Leagues has announced the induction of no less than 17 new members. Along with Bruce Sutter, this makes the HOF Class of 2006 the biggest ever. While I'm hesitant to throw any 17 people into the Hall at one time, but I'm of the opinion that ignorance of the Negro Leagues is a problem facing baseball history at large. There are many great players and executives enshrined who truly deserve the honor, and I have to admit that I'm happy to see them selected.

The first woman ever inducted to the National Baseball Hall of Fame is Effa Manley, co-owner of the Newark Eagles Negro League team. Manley was not just a pioneering executive in the Negro Leagues, but an activisit for racial justice and harmony. Manley was, according to Larry Lester, a white woman married to a black man who was able to pass as white. Some of the initiatives sponsored by Manley were an Anti-Lynching Day at the ballpark to support the passage of anti-lynching legislation in an era when it was sorely needed.
Alex Pompez was a Cuban-born promoter and executive involved in the development of Latin American baseball. Places such as Cuba and other Caribbean countries were fertile bases for baseball talent, and Pompez was instrumental in bringing them first to the Negro Leagues, and then to the majors as a scout with the New York Giants, scouting 4 Hall-of-Famers and other major stars.
Cum Posey was the mind behind the ever-powerful Homestead Grays. Posey was an aggressive and sometimes ruthless operator, but he was a vigorous hand behind the Negro Leagues, not just with his team (and its biggest slugger, Josh Gibson) but behind the scenes as well.
J.L. Wilkinson was a white man who owned the Kansas City Monarchs. The thought of a white man running a Negro League team may not sound quite right, but Wilkinson was famous not just for forming one of the greatest baseball teams of all time in the Monarchs, but was well-regarded for his fairness and even-handed dealings with his players. He was also an innovator, spending his money on a portable lighting system to give Negro League fans night games.
Sol White operated in the days before the organized Negro Leagues, but was a multi-talented man who made his presence felt in many ways. After a successful playing career, White authored Sol White's History of Colored Baseball in 1907, a wealth of information and a landmark book. White was also a manager and later in his career became a writer with black newspapers in several cities.

Mule Suttles is a name I'd often heard mentioned as the best Negro League ballplayer not yet in the Hall. This first baseman/outfielder was a slugger nearly as potent as Josh Gibson, although he didn't hit for as high an average as Big Josh.
Cristobal Torriente was a versatile outfielder famous for his sharply-hit line drives to all fields. He had a strong, accurate arm and often stepped in as a pitcher. According to Robert Peterson in Only the Ball was White, Torriente was scouted by a major league team, who felt his skin was light enough to pass in the majors, as several light-skinned Cubans had already done. But Torriente apparently had "kinky" hair, which apparently kept him out of the majors.
Louis Santop was a pre-organized Negro Leagues star, a slugger who was one of the most famous black ballplayers of his day. Santop was a well-travelled catcher, earning a reported $500 a month at his peak, a fortune for a black man in the early 20th century.
Biz Mackey is regarded as the best defensive catcher in Negro League history. Information about his hitting is dicey, although his Hall-of-Fame webpage gives him credit for some good batting averages. Mackey was the primary tutor for Roy Campanella when the youngster came up with the Baltimore Elite Giants.
Frank Grant was considered the best black player of the 19th century. Primarily a second baseman, statistics are relatively sketchy (as they tend to be for all 19th-century baseball), but they seem to bear out the reputation.
Pete Hill's reputation is based mainly on favorable testimony from his contemporaries. His more enduring contribution may have been as Rube Foster's field lieutenant on many of the great early black teams, such as the Leland Giants and Chicago American Giants.
Jose Mendez was a truly dominant pitcher at the turn of the century, as is evidenced by his performance against white superstars such as Eddie Plank and Christy Mathewson. Peterson claims that John McGraw out a $50,000 value on Mendez if he were white.
Other players inducted are Ray Brown, Willard Brown, Andy Cooper, Jud Wilson, and Ben Taylor.

The election of these players is another step towards rectifying the injustices of the color line in baseball. Baseball, more than any other sport, thrives on its history. That history is what drives the game, be it through film and TV, books and statistics, or simply nostalgic memories. Many of the players listed above were deprived of that history based on the color of their skin. It's naive to think that we can right past wrongs with these inductions; but it can only make the Hall of Fame a better place to have these people inside.

Other quick observations:

  • Barry Bonds has made some statements suggesting that this may be his final season in the majors. He has refused to give a definite answer on that yet. We may have to watch his reality TV show on ESPN to find out. And no, I'm not kidding, ESPN is planning a show centered around Bonds' quest to break Hank Aaron's home run record. Since most of the baseball world a) doesn't like Bonds and b) doesn't want him to break the record, I can't see a lot of positive energy following him around this year.
  • Frank Thomas, since his departure from the Chicago White Sox, has made a number of comments knocking his former team for the way they handled his departure. Not only that, but he made negative comments about the contracts given to his replacement, Paul Konerko, and the trade made for Jim Thome. I wasn't aware that the Thomas affair was such a big deal until I read about White Sox GM Kenny Williams' explosive tirade against Thomas. Williams, usually a level-headed and diplomatic fellow, lashed out in the most direct and profane way I've ever seen from a GM. He called Thomas an "idiot," claimed that he was "selfish" and said that the White Sox "don't miss him. We don't miss his attitude, we don't miss the whining, we don't miss it. Good riddance."
    It's a wee bit unusual to see a GM talk this way, but all that I know about Kenny Williams is that he' s a genuine fellow not given to violent outbursts. Thomas' statements aren't really excusable, and if an otherwise docile person like Williams was driven to such outrage, it makes Thomas look like a real pain in the ass. Not a good impression to make there Frank, and I hope you handle things in Oakland much better.
  • More stars continue to depart the World Baseball Classic. It's getting thinner and thinner, at least in terms of the secondary players and supporting cast (Melvin Mora, Aramis Ramirez), although there are still enough superstars to go around. It simply isn't any kind of good news, with the Winter Olympics -- the f'n Winter Olympics -- getting far more coverage than the WBC. Baseball needs to hope that the other countries are a lot more excited about this than America is. Wait till March Madness begins -- the WBC will fall completely off of the American sports radar.
  • Roger Clemens is in camp with the Astros, although he can't sign with them until May 1. It looks more and more likely that Clemens will return to Houston after May 1.
  • Injuries are plaguing the Yankees in camp. They're a good team, but boy are they old and fragile.
  • Early returns on new Braves pitching coach Roger McDowell are positive, according to Jerry Crasnick.

Not a whole lot else going on in the world of baseball. Spring training is in full swing, and George Steinbrenner still wants the WBC to go away. Back with more later.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Sammy Sosa

Big news came recently when Sammy Sosa declined a contract offer from the Washington Nationals. Since that was the only offer he had, it seems (according to several sources) that Sosa will retire. Sosa hasn't formally announced retirement, and it's entirely possible that he will change his mind, get an offer from another team, or reconsider the Nats' offer. This could all be a publicity stunt. But it seems now that Sammy Sosa is going to retire.
Given Sosa's likely retirement, the question being asked is how we should look at Sosa's career. Is Sammy Sosa a Hall-of-Famer? Five years ago, the answer would have been yes; everyone thought Sosa was well on his way to Cooperstown. But a lot has changed since Sosa was one of the nation's favorite ballplayers. Steroids, corked bats, an ugly exit from Chicago, and an embarassing season in Baltimore have all contributed to the dismantling of Sosa's reputation.
This still leaves us with the question, though: was Sosa a Hall-of-Famer? That's what I'm here to determine. First, I'll start by coming to grips with the numbers; defining Sosa's career as well as possible in relation to his context, and compared to other Hall-of-Famers. Then, I'll consider all of the off-field issues that have cast a dark cloud over his career.
The Numbers
Sammy Sosa was a home run hitter. That's about the most obvious statement one can make. But it's also the essence of his value as a baseball player: the home runs. If you had to describe Sosa to someone who had never seen him before, you would start with the homers. In fact, Sosa's value is tied up almost exclusively in the homers. He wasn't like Willie Mays; he wasn't home runs and . . . No, he was a slugger. Sosa hit 588 career HRs (5th all-time) and posted a lifetime .537 slugging percentage, good even by today's standards. But other than that, what did Sammy Sosa do?
The short answer is, not much. Sosa hit for a .274 career average, but then the league average for his career was .268. Sosa's career OBP was .345, but the league OBP over his career was .338, again not much of an advantage. He did drive in a lot of runs, but that's simply a function of his home runs and the lineups he hit in, not much of a comment on the man himself.
He stole bases, at least early in his career. Sosa has 234 career SBs with 107 CS (caught stealing), for a 69% success rate -- about average. He was a good defensive right fielder, but not great. He certainly deserves credit for these things, but not so much as you may think. His stolen base success rate indicates that he didn't add much to his team's offense, as his CS nearly cancelled out his successful steals. He did have good defense, but right field isn't an incredibly important defensive position. So Sosa gets a bonus from these areas, but not a whole lot.
Oh -- I forgot the strikeouts. Sosa racked up 2,194 career Ks, second all-time to Reggie Jackson. That's a big number, especially considering his mere 895 career walks.
So is it possible for someone to homer their way into the Hall of Fame?
Yes, but not easily.
It's quite possible for someone to hit so many home runs that their home runs alone can get them into the Hall. Is it possible that Sosa, given average or slightly above-average skill in other areas of the game, could swat his way into the Hall with 588 dingers?
Yes, it's possible.
So now that we understand Sosa, we have to try and put his career numbers into some context. I said that it's possible, under the right circumstances, for a player to homer his way into the Hall. Let's see if Sosa played under those circumstances.
The best thing is to try and condense Sosa's career into a single number -- a dicey proposition, but something that several statistical metrics have been created to do.
Win Shares: Sosa has 312 career Win Shares. This ranks him 25th all-time among right fielders, behind Harry Hooper and Jack Clark, and just ahead of Manny Ramirez (for now), Harold Baines, and Bobby Bonds.
But total Win Shares don't tell the whole story. Was Sosa a better player than these guys? It's possible that Sosa's low number of Win Shares is due to his short career, having "retired" at the relatively young age of 37.
The answer is that Sosa's best seasons obliterate anything these guys did. Sosa's 1998 was great (377/647/308, with 66 HR), and his 2001 was even better (437/737/328, with 64 HR).
Hall-of-Fame value is determined by how good a player was over a long time. It's possible for someone -- a la Sandy Koufax or Earl Averill -- to get elected to the Hall with a short, brilliant burst of a career. Koufax's raw career numbers rank him as about the 150-175th greatest pitcher ever; but when you take into account how good he was at his peak, he gets into the Hall. Because the Hall isn't just for people like Don Sutton, who were pretty good for so long that they compiled big numbers; it's also for guys like Koufax, who were far superior over a shorter amount of time.
Does Sammy Sosa qualify for the Koufax treatment? Bill James suggests determining Win Shares per game, which gives you an idea of how good a player was, regardless of career length. I used WS/162 G (to simulate an average season) and compared Sosa to his contemporaries. Was Sosa a greater player, per game, than guys like Jack Clark, Reggie Smith, and Andre Dawson, other comparable right fielders not in Cooperstown.
The answer I got surprised me: No, he is not. Not even remotely. Sammy Sosa produced 22.56 Win Shares per 162 games. Here's a ranking of RF by career WS/162 G (min. 300 career WS):
1. Babe Ruth (48.93)
2. Hank Aaron (31.58)
3. Mel Ott (31.33)
4. Frank Robinson (29.94)
5. Gary Sheffield (29.66)
6. Manny Ramirez (28.75)
7. Sam Crawford (28.70)
8. Paul Waner (26.88)
9. Harry Heilmann (26.84)
10. Reggie Smith (26.49)
11. Bobby Bonds (26.45)
20. Harry Hooper (22.53)
21. Sammy Sosa (22.56)
22. Sam Rice (22.03)

So not only does Sosa have a relatively small career Win Shares total, there's nothing to suggest that he was a greater player, per year, than his career total would indicate.
What about other statistical metrics? It's certainly possible that Win Shares is missing something that other methods have picked up on. Just to check, I compared Sosa via these other stats:
Equivalent Average:
A statistic that takes into account a player's hitting and baserunning (but not defense) and condenses it into one stat, similar to batting average. .300 is a good EQA, .200 is bad, and .400 is great. It's an all-in-one statistic that's easier to comprehend that abstract numbers like Win Shares.
Among all RF (with more than 300 Win Shares, to retain the same sample used above), Sosa ranks here:
1. Babe Ruth (.364)
2. Manny Ramirez (.333)
3. Mel Ott (.326)
4. Hank Aaron (.323)
5. Frank Robinson (.322)
22t Sammy Sosa (.294)
22t Enos Slaughter (.294)
24. Harold Baines & Rusty Staub (.293)
Keep in mind that since EQA is an average, it's kinder to active players like Ramirez who haven't gone through the decline phase of their careers yet. What EQA does give us is a better idea of who was good, not necessarily over any length of time. Ruth and Aaron are where we would expect them. Pete Rose, however, sports an EQA of .288. So while Rose wasn't really great, what he was was good for an exceptionally long time. So EQA leaves us with almost exactly the same answer as WS/162 G: Sosa was very good, on a per game basis, but not great. He ranks around some Hall-of-Famers, but they're mostly the marginal ones.
An uber-statistic developed by Baseball Prospectus that attempts to take into account a hitter's total contribution. WARP stands for Wins Above Replacement Player, and the 3 denotes the third variation of the stat, one which places adjusts for all time, not just one year. WARP is a counting stat that rewards long careers as opposed to pure quality. The relationship between WARP and Win Shares on one hand, and EQA and WS/G on the other, is similar to the relationship between hits and batting average. One measures quantity, the other quality. The truly great can combine both to some degree. Here is where Sosa stands:
1. Babe Ruth (224.7)
2. Hank Aaron (199.8)
3. Mel Ott (171)
4. Frank Robinson (153.3)
5. Pete Rose (151.3)
19. Rusty Staub (96.8)
20. Enos Slaughter (96.2)
21. Sammy Sosa (93.7)
22. Harry Heilmann (92.8)
Again, we come to the conclusion that Sosa was about the 21st or 22nd-greatest RF in history. He seems to be a borderline Hall-of-Famer. His name appears a couple time next to resident HOFer Enos Slaughter, but Slaughter lost 3 prime years to World War II; Sammy has no such excuse.
To sum up, we can see little in the statistics to say that Sosa is a true Hall-of-Famer. He falls on the ever-hazy borderline, along with players like Andre Dawson or Jack Clark, of players who might be good enough, but just as likely might not.

Sosa played in one of the most hitter-friendly eras in history. It was, in fact, the most home run-friendly era in baseball history so far. This is instructive for someone who made his name on home runs, almost exclusively. It's interesting in compiling this study, because going in I thought Sosa was almost an exact clone of Reggie Jackson. Both were generally good hitters who made their name almost exclusively by homers and strikeouts. Jackson's other hitting stats were better, but Sosa has the edge in defense and baserunning. While their career numbers are fairly similar, it must be said that Jackson made his name mainly in the late 60's and 1970's, when run production was down dramatically from present levels. So Jackson's 563 HR are much more important, in context, than Sosa's 588.
Stats like WS and EQA take ballparks and era into account, though. So what we're left with is a player who is, at best, a borderline Hall-of-Famer.

Other Issues
This is where Sosa's Cooperstown case is undone. Whereas Reggie had his great October performance to hang his hat on, fans and writers will remember Sosa largely in a negative light. His 1998 heroics were forever tainted by alleged steroid use, his being caught with a corked bat, and stories of his egotism and self-involvement. Even his exit from the game is rubbing people the wrong way. Sosa had an offer for a 1-year, %500,000 contract with the Nationals and decided to retire rather than take it. It's not a great way to cement your legacy. Early fan responses show a split opinion. The ESPN poll linked in the last sentence shows, after over 20,000 votes, an exact split 50.0% each for yes and no, on the question "Does Sosa deserve to be in the Hall of Fame?".

How is it possible that someone like Sammy isn't a Hall-of-Famer? He just seemed so much like one, at least to me. The main reason is that we, as fans, don't think of the big picture when examining someone's career. We look at two or three memorable moments. And if we do look at statistics, we look at the wrong ones (career hits, career batting average) without even putting them in context. While I can't deny the excellence of Sosa's 1998 and 2001 seasons, the rest of Sammy Sosa, all those years that we don't remember, doesn't add up to a Hall-of-Famer. The statistics don't see him as a clear choice for the Hall, and I really have no reason to doubt them. And based on his recent actions, I don't see many people arguing on his behalf come 2010. It's a tough choice and a complex one, but I don't think Sammy Sosa belongs in the Hall of Fame.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

1969 Expansion, Final Part

San Diego Padres
It took a long time for the Padres to become competitive, and since then it's only come in fits and starts. The team has won two pennants and four division titles, but in between these strong showings has been some truly insufferable baseball.
The early Padres, owned by California banker, C. Arnholt Smith, had a very neo-Dodgers look to them. Not only was the city selected at the behest of Dodger owner Walter O'Malley, but the first General Manager hired was former Dodger chief Buzzie Bavasi. The team also, in its early years, hired many managers with connections to the Dodgers. Although some were suspicious, suspecting that the Padres might be run as a big-league dodger farm system along the lines of the old Yankees-Athletics connection, the front office went out of their way to avoid making deals with the Dodgers; over the first ten years of the team's existence, they only made one very minor trade with the Dodgers, involving pitcher Al McBean.
Even by expansion standards, the Padres did a very poor job of assembling a roster to open their inaugural 1969 season. The Padres were lucky to find any C-level players (3B Ed Spiezio, OF Tony Gonzalez, and washed-up P Johnny Podres, among others), let alone building blocks for the future of the franchise. This was essentially the story of the early years in San Diego; modest stars such as Nate Colbert would make a name for themselves, but the lack of any significant talent acquisitions made the team a perennial loser.
The Padres matched the Expos with a 52-110 record in 1969. Bright spots on the team were 1B Colbert's 24 HR and the development of young hurler Joe Niekro, acquired in a trade with the Cubs. None of the regulars hit better than .265 or posted an OBP above .350. It was difficult to see the potential for future success with this club, and the early 70's bore that out.
In their first 6 seasons of existence, the Padres lost 100 games 4 times and never less than 95 losses. Enthusiasm for such an awful young team was hard to come by, and the team finished last in the NL in attendance each of its first 5 seasons.
The seemingly hopeless franchise turned panicky when owner Smith announced in 1973 that he was selling the team to Washington grocery chain owner John Danzansky, who openly spoke of moving the team to D.C. The ensuing snarl of ownership issues was far more entertaining that anything that happened on the field in San Diego.
This is where the unique monopoly of baseball is exposed; in no other industry do you need the approval of your competitors before you can sell your business. But baseball is different, and the other NL owners sought high and low for a way to keep hold of the lucrative San Diego market, not feeling optimism over a move into a city that had killed off two AL teams in the past 15 years. Owner Smith's financial woes were so pressing that not only did he sell of players for cash; he arranged to let future owner Dazansky have approval over all current player transactions in exchange for a "deposit." Smith felt that the move would be sealed by Commissioner Bowie Kuhn, who had openly campaigned for baseball's return to the nation's capital. As the other owners froze the sale and attempted to drum up other potential buyers, Smith became increasingly paranoid, asserting at one point that he was the victim of a plot because of his ties to the Nixon Administration, then in the throes of the Watergate scandal.
The crisis seemed to be solved when Bavasi and Smith found an interested party in Marjorie Everett, main stockholder in the Hollywood Park race track. Everett matched Danzansky's offer, along with an assurance to keep the team in San Diego "for at least a couple of years." But then the other NL owners stepped in to refuse this deal. Everett had formed prickly relationships with other owners, some of whom also in the racing business, and the league was also scared by a corruption scandal in Chicago involving Everett's father. The league went so far as to reopen the possibility of Danzansky's offer, even if it meant moving the team to D.C. Smith, however, formally accepted Everett's offer. This led Danzansky to sue him for breach of contract, and it was rendered moot when the NL owners officially rejected the sale in a 9-3 vote.
The league went back to Danzansky, only to find that the Washington grocer had changed his mind; he was not interested in being jerked around like a pawn in the owner's power play; he took back his deposit and left the scene. The capper was when 1974 baseball cards showed up in stores with San Diego players wearing uniforms and caps with a "W" on them, so sure was the league that the team would go to the capital.
The whole fiasco finally ended when McDonald's mogul Ray Kroc matched the other offers, along with assurances to keep the team in San Diego.
The 1974 team was little better; it finished dead last once again with a 60-102 record. Surprisingly, attendance went up strongly on the season. After averaging barely 7500 fans per game in 1973, the 1974 squad drew over 13,000, a strong increase. The new ownership and settlement of the offseason farce may have had something to do with it; but a more likely reason could have been the presence of a couple players who actually looked good, maybe even great.
The first was pitcher Randy Jones. Jones, with an 8-22 record and 4.45 ERA, didn't look like anything special in 1974, but he turned it around in 1975. Jones posted back-to-back 20-win seasons, averaging 300 IP per year with ERAs well below the league average. His 1976 season won him the NL Cy Young Award. But either because of overwork and injury, or due to the fact that his low strikeout rate didn't bode well for the future, Jones was never able to recapture his 1975-76 glory, going to the Mets in 1981 and leaving the majors for good after 1982.
One superstar who did stick around was outfielder Dave Winfield. The only player ever to be taken in the NFL, NBA, and MLB drafts, Winfield chose baseball (a choice that would never be made today). When told he'd been drafted by the Padres, Winfield said that he was flattered, but that he'd honestly never heard of them.
After a 1973 debut, Winfield emerged as a reliable player in 1974, hitting 20 HR and posting a respectable .265 average. He took a step forward in 1975, drawing more walks and stealing more bases. He continued to develop into an all-around star, so that he was -- in my opinion -- the best player in the league in 1979. After the 1980 season, Winfield left to take a huge free agent contract with the Yankees. He went on to compile 465 career HR, over 3,000 hits, and a Hall of Fame resume. He was inducted into Cooperstown in 2001, the only player in the Hall wearing a San Diego cap.
The team continued a few modest steps forward, peaking in 1978 with an 84-78 4th-place finish, the first over-.500 season in the franchise's 10-year history. Winfield was joined in the outfield by solid players Gene Richards and Oscar Gamble, former A's catcher Gene Tenace manned first base, and a young shortstop named Ozzie Smith started to make a name for himself with fantastic defense.
The pitching staff was anchored by Jones, but the ace was Gaylord Perry, acquired from the Texas Rangers just in time to win the 1978 NL Cy Young. Perry only stayed in San Diego for two seasons of his nomadic career, but he made them count. One big-name free agent the Padres did manage to net was former A's closer Rollie Fingers. Fingers spent four seasons in San Diego, and three of them were quite good.
It turned out, though, that 1978 was just a blip on the map; the team went back to 5th place in 1979 before tumbling into last in 1980 and 1981. Ownership decided to shake things up by adding hard-nosed manager Dick Williams before the 1982 season.
Along with GM Jack McKeon, Williams succeeded in turning the team around. The Padres finished 81-81 in both 1982 and 1983 before going 92-70 in 1984 to win the NL West in surprising fashion. Some of the improvement is attributable to McKeon; although he did trade "wizard" shortstop Smith to St. Louis in exchange for the moody Garry Templeton, he managed to nab valuable starting pitcher Ed Whitson from Cleveland, 3B Graig Nettles from the Yankees, and sign veterans Steve Garvey and Goose Gossage as free agents.
Williams' martinet style in the clubhouse didn't make him Mr. Popularity, but so long as the team was winning, it was grudgingly accepted. The 1984 division winners featured a solid if nameless pitching staff, with solid contributors such as Whitson, Eric Show, Tim Lollar, and Mark Thurmond.
The previously barren farm system had finally given the Padres a lineup to be proud of. Along with trade acquisitions Garvey, Templeton and Nettles, the infield featured leadoff speedster Alan Wiggins at second and the perennially underrated Terry Kennedy behind the plate, a solid backstop. The outfield included former first-round pick and potent hitter Kevin McReynolds, the capable Camelo Martinez, and a rather squat, unlikely superstar in right field named Tony Gwynn.
Gwynn came out of San Diego State and was drafted by the Padres in the 3rd round of the 1981 draft. I'm not really sure you can really call someone a "pure hitter," but if you can, then Tony Gwynn was it. Even in the 1980's players were more and more focused on home runs, but Gwynn's cerebral approach to hitting reflected the great slap hitters of years past. Although fully capable of punching doubles and a few home runs, Gwynn's specialty was making contact; he rarely struck out, finishing his 20-year career with a total of 434, or about 3 years of Dave Kingman. Gwynn also drew his walks, finishing with a .388 career OBP. But his most enduring accomplishment would be his 8 batting titles and his .338 career average. It's the best career batting average by anyone since the expansion era began in 1961. I mentioned earlier that Dave Winfield is the only player in Cooperstown in a Padre cap; barring catastrophe, he will be joined by Tony Gwynn next year.
Having won only 92 games in a weak NL West, it was hard for anyone to take the Padres seriously. It didn't help when the Cubs pounded Show and the Padres for a 13-0 victory in Game 1 of the NLCS. It was a closer 4-2 victory for Chicago in Game 2, with the underdog Padres about to be laughed out of the playoffs. But after a close victory in Game 3, San Diego faced a nail-biter in Game 4. With the score tied 5-5 in the 9th, Steve Garvey hit a walk-off 2-run homer off of Chicago closer Lee Smith to force a decisive Game 5. The Cubs took an early 3-0 lead, but an error by Cub 1B Leon Durham opened the door, allowing the Padres to run to a 6-3 victory, and the first pennant in franchise history.
But even underdogs have to face reality at some point. It happened to the Padres when they faced the 104-win juggernaut Detroit Tigers in the World Series. Admittedly, most of the games were very close, but the Tigers still took an easy victory in 5 games.
Despite the World Series loss, the Padres looked good. Well, they didn't actually look good. When he first tried on these uniforms, Steve Garvey remarked, "I look like a taco." In all seriousness, though, the Padres were riding high. They had a group of solid young rookies, veteran leadership, and good reason for optimism. After drawing 1.9 million fans in their pennant-winning 1984, the Padres topped that with over 2.2 million the following season. The former red-headed stepchild of the NL was now 4th-best in attendance in the league.
The same core group held 1st place in the NL West as late as July 4 in 1985. After that, the team went into a tailspin that saw it finish a disappointing third. Serious cracks began to appear, with great discontent rumbling in the clubhouse. With the team no longer willing, manager Williams' drill-sergeant style came under increasing criticism. Not helping things were the presence of Show, Thurmond, and Dave Dravecky, vocal members of the uber-right wing John Birch Society. The front office was no quieter. After Kroc's death in January 1984, his wife Joan took control of the team. With GM McKeon looking to force out Williams, he fired coach Ozzie Virgil, a Williams lieutenant. Owner Kroc embarassed McKeon by overruling him and reinstating Virgil. The last straw came for Williams when he insisted on the ouster of coach Harry Dunlop, whom he considered a management spy. On the day spring training opened, the team announced that Williams was out in favor of computer-friendly manager Steve Boros.
The Padres of the late 80's veered up and down on what was almost a year-to-year basis. With the nucleus of a solid-hitting lineup in place, the club rose and fell based on the performance of whatever pitching staff it could cobble together. After a 4th-place finish in 1986, the team dropped to last in 1987. They rebounded to a 3rd-place finish in 1988 (with former GM McKeon stepping down to take over as field manager), and came in a close 2nd to the Giants in the 1989 NL West race. But then the club fell again to mediocrity, winning between 75-85 games for the next 3 seasons.
While the pitching staff survived on the arms of an eclectic assortment aging veterans (Bruce Hurst, Walt Terrell, Show and Whitson) and some promising youngsters such as Andy Benes, the lineup featured some very famous faces. Veteran catcher Kennedy was traded off to the Giants to make room for prospect Benito Santiago. Not only was Santiago a howitzer behind the plate, he was a fine hitter, taking home the 1987 NL Rookie of the Year thanks to a rookie-record consecutive games hitting streak. The other highly-touted prospects were the Alomar brothers; second baseman Roberto and catcher Sandy (son of former major-leaguer Sandy Alomar, Sr.). Sandy never panned out to be much of a superstar, but Alomar became an all-around gem at second base.
1990 saw a change in ownership as Joan Kroc sold the team to television producer Tom Werner. McKeon returned full-time to GM duties, with Greg Riddoch taking over as manager. With clubhouse tensions still rampant, the team continued its yo-yo, showing two promising 3rd-place finishes in 1991 and 1992 before tumbling to an awful 61-101 record in 1993.
With Benes the only semi-reliable pitcher on the squad, it fell to the offense to produce. Gwynn did, but his supporting cast was spotty. Having lost both Sandy Alomar and Santiago, the Padres decided to use Roberto as the chip in a major trade. The Padres traded Alomar and outfielder Joe Carter to Toronto for versatile shortstop Tony Fernandez and slugging first baseman Fred McGriff. It's difficult to say who got the better end of the deal; Carter was essentially done, his 1993 heroics notwithstanding, but Alomar was a great hitter at second base, an amazingly rare commodity. The Padres did get a very useful, underrated middle infielder in Fernandez and a big bat at first in McGriff. Hard to say who got the better of that one, although the loss of Alomar was quite tough.
Another rather risky trade saw the Padres bring in talented -- and mercurial -- slugger Gary Sheffield from the Brewers for a pittance. Sheffield did a fine job in San Diego - his 1992 season especially great -- but the Padres, too, tired of his attitude and traded him to the Marlins in 1993 for 3 unknowns, one of whom was future closer Trevor Hoffman. This was part of owner Werner's attempts to strip the roster down and cut any salary they could. Franchise player Gwynn survived, but the other big names were either allowed to leave as free agents or traded away.
It was then a great surprise when, after middling success in 1994 and 1995, the Padres won the NL West in 1996. Part of the reason was Werner's successor as owner, Jeff Moores, who loosened the purse strings. The greatest result was a blockbuster trade with the Astros that saw the Padres give up little apart from outfielder Derek Bell in exchange for Ken Caminiti and Steve Finley. It was a new-look Padre team, with Bruce Bochy installed as manager and a much more eye-friendly pinstriped uniform.
With Gwynn, Finley and MVP Caminiti supplying the offense, along with surprising veterans Wally Joyner and Rickey Henderson, it was once again a patchwork pitching staff that supported the team's division title. With Hoffman installed as closer, the starting rotation was a work in progress; 1996 saw a comeback by former Dodger Fernando Valenzuela, Ol' Stingy-Walks Bob Tewksbury, as well as solid performers Andy Ashby and Scott Sanders. The victory party was short lived, however, when the Cardinals swept them out of the NLDS.
After a disappointing last-place finish in 1997, the Padres bounced back to win another division title in 1998. Key additions included base-stealing 2B Quilvio Veras, Greg Vaughn's 50 HR, but above all the ace pitching of Kevin Brown. The Padres picked Brown off of the 1997 Marlins' scrap heap. Brown only stayed for one season, but it was an 18-7, 2.38 ERA, performance, with 257 K in 257 IP against just 49 BB an 8 HR. A good argument could be made for Brown as the '98 Cy Young Award Winner, although Tom Glavine was the actual winner.
This team proved that it was indeed better than its 1996 predecessors when it moved past Randy Johnson and the Astros with a 3-games-to-1 NLDS win, then surprised the 106-win Braves with a 6-game NLCS victory. There were only so many mountains the Padres could scale, though, and they were unceremoniously swept out of the World Series by the dynastic 114-win Yankees.
With the team getting older and the purse strings tightening, the Padres finished last or next-to-last in the next 5 seasons. The only bright spots on the team were the success of closer Hoffman and the career milestones achieved by Gwynn before his 2001 retirement.
GM Kevin Towers had plans to return the team to respectability, hoping that it would coincide with the team's move into spacious Petco Park in 2004. Not only did the Padres rebound from a 98-loss season to go 87-75 in their new home, they also topped 3 million in attendance for the first time ever. This time, the success did not appear to be illusory. The emergence of ace Jake Peavy gave the Padres an exciting young pitcher they could hang their hat on for the first time in quite a while. Veteran hitters Ryan Klesko, Mark Loretta, and trade acquisition Brian Giles were joined by rookie shortstop Khalil Greene to return the Padres to competitiveness.
2005 was a worse year; except that it was better. The Padres fared worse in the won-loss department; posting a disappointing 82-80 record. But it wasn't disappointing, because they won the NL West. The Padres became the team with the worst win-loss record ever to qualify for the postseason (the pennant-winning '73 Mets were 82-79). Much was made of the dubious honor of being the 2005 NL West Champions; not only did fans dismiss them as the best of the NL "Worst," but the Padres' poor record meant they would face the 100-win Cardinals in the NLDS. It wasn't an absolute embarassment, but the Cardinals did prevail easily with a 3-game sweep.
Whither the Padres in the future? GM Kevin Towers surrounds good trades with bad and doesn't seem to have a consistent way to find his asshole, let alone a contender. During the 2005 offseason, the Padres spent their greatest energy on resigining free agents Brian Giles and Trevor Hoffman. Successful though they were, this means that they're right back where they were last year -- 82 wins. They're also replacing catcher Ramon Hernandez with the questionable Mike Piazza, losing 2B Mark Loretta in a boneheaded trade for a backup catcher, and seeing stars like Klesko, Giles and especially Hoffman getting older. The NL West may not be an incredibly competitive division, but unless they can get some young players to support what they've got, the Padres' 2005 season will be remembered as an aberration; another jump in the yo-yo of their existence.

Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.

Monday, February 13, 2006

1969 Expansion Pt. 3

Montreal Expos
The dissolution of the Expos franchise is one of the more shameful stories of modern baseball. Whereas the steroids problem developed gradually out of many directions with no main culprit, the death of the Expos was the conscious effort of many people, most notably Major League Baseball itself. One of the claims made in the PR campaign to kill off the Expos was that Montreal simply couldn't support a major league team. This was a preposterous statement, as the history of the Expo franchise proves.

When the decision was made to expand the National League to 12 teams in 1969, Montreal was considered a favorable target for a new franchise. It had been the home of a Dodgers' farm team for years, and it was the city that saw organized baseball integrated when the Dodgers signed Jackie Robinson to play for the minor-league Royals in 1946. Thoughts of placing a major league franchise there, however, foundered at the feet of Dodgers owner Walter O'Malley, a considerably powerful owner not willing to sacrifice a city from his farm system. When the AL announced plans to expand to 12 teams by 1969, however, it was O'Malley who volunteered Montreal as the location for a new NL franchise, along with San Diego.
The franchise was awarded to Charles Bronfman of the Seagram distilleries. The inaugural team in 1969 was a collection of young talent combined with a few established stars. The most notable was former Houston Astro Rusty Staub. Staub was the first Expo to achieve stardom, beginning in 1969 with 29 HR, a .426 OBP and a .302 batting average.
But the 1969 club was, apart from Staub, relatively unimpressive. Their 52-110 record was quite poor, even by expansion standards. The Expos played Jarry Park, a hitter's ballpark that helped them finish above their expansion-mate Padres in runs scored per game (3.59 to SD's 2.89), but they finished dead last in the league in runs allowed per game (4.88).
But the novelty of the team enabled them to draw more than a million fans, ranking 7th in the 12-team NL. Fans not only enjoyed Staub (dubbed "Le Grand Orange" for his fiery red hair), but also other, less memorable players, such as Coco Laboy and John Boccabella. The only bright spot among the pitchers, though, was Bill Stoneman, who managed to toss a no-hitter 10 days into the season, although his 4.39 overall ERA was well below-average. The Expos had former relief aces Roy Face and Dick Radatz on the roster, but neither contributed much more than a recognizable name.
Under manager Gene Mauch, the Expos of the early 70's were never very good, finishing between 4th and last place every year from 1969 through 1978. The franchise was never able to find sufficient support for the few superstars they had, such as Staub . However, the late 1970's saw the flowering of a youth movement that helped energize the franchise.
A 55-107 finish in 1976 seemed to indicate a troubled franchise. But then the Expos finished 5th in 1977, then 4th in 1978, and jumped all the way up to 2nd place in the NL East with a franchise-best 95-65 record in 1979. The franchise effectively pieced together a number of quality players from other teams (Tony Perez, Chris Speier, "Spaceman" Bill Lee, and relievers Elias Sosa, Stan Bahnsen, and Woodie Fryman), but the real story of the 1979 team was the arrival of a number of good young players from the Montreal farm system.
The first to arrive was starting pitcher Steve Rogers, an Expos 1st-round pick in 1971. After a couple years in the majors, Rogers arrived in 1975, posting a 3.29 ERA with 137 K. He would be an above-average pitcher for the next 8 seasons, often well above-average. The Expos have never been great at producing good pitchers from the farm system, but Rogers is easily the best pitcher the franchise has ever had for a good length of time. His 1978 season (2.47 ERA) and 1982 season (2.40 ERA, 179 K in 277 IP) ranked him among the best in the league. Rogers only finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting three times and was unfortunately never recognized as the high-quality hurler he was. He's no Hall-of-Famer, but he did manage to win 158 career games with a 3.17 career ERA on some pretty poor teams.
1979 saw the further development of center fielder Andre Dawson, who hit 25 HR and stole 35 bases despite a dismal .309 OBP. This would be the tale of Dawson's career, as his combination of power, speed, and good defense led mainstream observers to think him much more valuable than he was, as his .323 career OBP is a millstone around the neck of any effort to get him into Cooperstown. Regardless, though, Dawson was a big part of the Expos each year until he went to the Cubs as a free agent in 1987.
A player who should merit Cooperstown consideration was outfielder Tim Raines, who made his major league debut in 6 games in 1979. Raines wouldn't become a regular until 1982, but he went on to compile, in a career spent mainly in Montreal, 808 career stolen bases, a .385 career OBP, a .294 career average, 2,605 career hits, and even 170 career HR. Raines was probably the best player in the NL on two occasions, but never merited serious consideration, due to the presence of doppelganger Rickey Henderson, who had even more stolen bases over in the AL.
The 1979 team had two Hall-of-Famers. One was first baseman Tony Perez, obtained from Cincinnati in a surprising trade that sent the Reds relief pitchers Woodie Fryman and Dale Murray in exchange for reliever Will McEnaney and Perez. Perez was no longer an elite hitter, but was still valuable enough, both as a hitter and team leader, to merit more than a couple relief arms.
The other Cooperstown inductee on the '79 team was catcher Gary Carter. Carter is the only player in Cooperstown wearing a Montreal cap. Despite the fact that he became more famous as the veteran team leader of the World Champion '86 Mets, 12 of Carter's 19 major league seasons were in Montreal, where he had most of his best seasons. Not only was Carter a quality backstop, he was one of the best-hitting catchers of his era. Unfortunately for Carter, he began his career in 1974 under the shadow of superstar Johnny Bench, and never escaped it. Comparisons to Bench (unfair, since no one really compares to Bench) delayed Carter's induction to Cooperstown, but the belated honor finally came down in 2003.
With this solid core of young talent and veteran leadership, the Expos became competitive for the first time in team history. More importantly, their 2nd-place 1979 drew over 2 million fans for the first time in team history. They followed it up with an even-better 2.2 million drawn in 1980, when they went 90-72, again finishing second. It was another close finish; in 1979 the team finished 2 games behind the division-winning Pirates, and in 1980 they narrowed the gap to just 1 game, this time behind the Phillies.
The club finally moved into 1st place in 1981, when they finished 1st in the NL East in the second half of the split season. With additions such as young third baseman Tim Wallach and starting pitcher Bill Gullickson, the Expos were able to secure their first (and to this day, only) postseason appearance in the special 5-game divisional playoff series. The Expos faced off against 1st-half NL East champions (and defending World Champions), the Phillies. The Expos took the first two games in Montreal, but the Phillies came back with victories in Game 3 and Game 4. The deciding Game 5 in Veterans Stadium was a pitching showdown between Montreal ace Rogers and Phillies ace Steve Carlton. Rogers outpitched Carlton, and the Expos took the game 3-0. Their series victory ensured them a spot in the NLCS against the Dodgers.
After splitting the first two games in Los Angeles, the Expos won Game 3 at home in Montreal, with ace Rogers outdueling Dodger pitcher Jerry Reuss 4-1. The victory gave the Expos a 2-1 Series lead and moved them just one game away from the World Series.
The Dodgers scored 6 runs in the final two innings of Game 4 to nab an easy 7-1 victory. Game 5 in Montreal was a showdown between Expo starter Ray Burris and Dodger phenom Fernando Valenzuela. The game was tied 1-1 going into the 9th inning, and Burris was lifted for ace Rogers, pitching on just two days rest after his Game 3 victory. Rogers gave up a solo home run to Dodger Rick Monday, and Bob Welch retired the Expos in the 9th to send the Dodgers to the Series and hand the Expos a tough loss.
The rest of the 1980s saw the Expos always competitive, but not quite as good as their 1979-1981 team. As their stars aged (Rogers) or left for free agency (Carter, Dawson, Raines), the Expos had difficult replacing them with top-notch rookies. Some exceptions would be first baseman Andres Galarraga, who unfortunately had his best after leaving Montreal, third base stalwart Tim Wallach, and rehabilitated starting pitcher (and Nicaraguan national hero) Dennis "El Presidente" Martinez, obtained in a trade with Baltimore.
After a last-place 71-90 finish in 1991, the Expos underwent a shift in the front office that saw wunderkind Dan Duquette installed as GM. Duquette was known for his friendliness toward statistics as well as his sometimes unorthodox decisions. But along with new manager Felipe Alou, Duquette helped turn the decent Montreal franchise into a true contender. The 1992 team went 87-75, moving up to 2nd place in the NL East for the first time since 1980. Along with stalwarts Wallach and Martinez, the Expos added a group of very talented youngsters to create a potent lineup. There was second baseman Delino DeShields, a top-of-the-order speedster, whose greatest value proved to be a few years later, when the Dodgers gave up Pedro Martinez to get him. Most important, though, was a juggernaut outfield. In left field was the manager's son, Moises Alou, who could prove to be the Most Valuable Alou, as he combined power with all-around hitting prowess. Alou was acquired from Pittsburgh as the Player to be Named Later in a trade for Zane Smith (a good example of why the great Pirates' teams of the early 90's died off). In center field was prize farmhand Marquis Grissom, a power/speed threat and all-around quality player. But the best of them all was probably right fielder Larry Walker. Walker was a good right fielder, hit for average, hit for power, had great plate discipline, and even stole some bases in his younger days. Walker became more famous with the Colorado Rockies, but even with Coors Field juicing his career statistics, Walker was quite a hitter who lost his spot in Cooperstown due to rampant injuries that cut short his later years.
The Expos didn't have an equally fearsome pitching staff, but behind a list of seeming no-names were some quality performers. The Expos got the best out of underrated starter Ken Hill and had a killer bullpen, a group that included Jeff Fassero and Mel Rojas and was anchored by ace closer John Wetteland.
After such a strong 2nd-place showing in 1992, the Expos did even better with a 94-68 performance in 1993, just 3 games behind division-winning Philadelphia.
The team peaked in 1994. At the time the strike ended the season, the Expos sported a 74-40 record, which was tops in baseball. They had a 6-game lead over the second-place Braves, and were looking like the team to dethrone the then 3-time division champions. The Expos returned all the stars from the past two seasons, including hitting prospects Rondell White and Cliff Floyd. Their pitching staff was top-notch, thanks to a young pitcher picked up in a trade with the Dodgers. His name was Pedro Martinez, and we'll talk more about him later.
At long last, it looked like the Expos had a team that would not only return to the postseason, but win once they got there. The strike stopped those efforts altogether. The team that returned in 1995 went 66-78 and finished last in the NL East. The Expos did manage to win 88 games in 1996 and finish in 2nd place, but it was 8 games behind the 1st-place Braves. After that, the team finished in 4th place for 4 straight years before falling into dead last in 2001.
What happened to the 1994 team? How did all those potential stars disappear so quickly? In 1995, right field superstar Larry Walker went to Colorado as a free agent (where he won the 1997 NL MVP). Ace closer John Wetteland was traded to the Yankees for the immortal Fernando Seguignol and cash. Center fielder Grissom was traded to the Braves for 3 no-names in what must have been a salary dump. Starter Ken Hill was traded to the Cardinals for 3 players I've never heard of. Left fielder Alou stuck around through 1996, before going to Florida as a free agent. Hitting prospect Cliff Floyd was abandoned in 1997, traded to Florida for mediocre players Dustin Hermanson and Joe Orsulak.
The most notoriously evil trade of all saw ace Pedro Martinez, fresh off of winning the 1997 NL Cy Young Award with a brilliant pitching performance, traded to the Red Sox for Carl Pavano and Tony Armas. Both Pavano and Armas were good prospects, but it was still an absolute steal for Boston, and a cynically brutal cost-cutting move on the part of the Expos.
A suspicious person might suspect that the team was being intentionally dismantled. The Expos were always near the bottom of the league in attendance, but the nadir of less than a million in attendance in 1991 was nearly doubled when the team became competitive in the mid-90's. So while the team admittedly did not draw a lot of fans, it wasn't until the 1994 was sabotaged that attendance slipped to the dismal figures that enabled the league to move the team.
So did the league intend to destroy the Expos in order to move them? Was Major League character Rachel, the evil owner, secretly running the team? GM Kevin Malone seemed to think along those lines when, after the last-place 1995 campaign, Malone resigned claiming he wanted to "build a team, not dismantle it." It's too convenient to claim that MLB planned the demise of the Expos as early as 1995; what's more likely is that ownership sold off the team for parts (not exactly an uncommon occurence) which ended up, a few years later, playing right into the MLB's hands.
It was no surprise, then, that with ownership all but admitting that they wanted to run a Bullsh*t team, that fans stopped showing up to Olympic Stadium, a not-so-baseball-friendly location in the first place. The only bright spot for the franchise was the development of hitting star Vladimir Guerrero. Guerrero spent his first 8 seasons in Montreal, hitting over .300 with over 230 HR. His powerful right arm also generated praise, although Guerrero excelled in relative silence, with very little baseball news escaping Montreal. As he approached free agency, however, everyone talked about how underrated he was until he became overrated (the Garret Anderson Effect). With the Expos at death's door, Guerrero signed a big-money contract with the Angels, nabbing the 2004 AL MVP as the Angels won their division.
As the team fell to last place in 2001, it was new owner Jeffrey Loria presiding over the team. As the team continued to make only halting attempts at improvement, Loria blamed the empty seats in Montreal on the 1994 strike, ignoring the fact that it wasn't until the team's superstars were jettisoned that attendance plummeted. The 1996 Expos actually drew nearly as many fans as their 1993 counterparts. So if the fans weren't showing up because of the 1994 strike, it took them about 2 or 3 years to make up their minds to do so.
With the Quebec government not interested in funding a new stadium closer to downtown, it became clear that everyone's priority was to kill off the Expos and move them. Not only that, but they would blame the move on the lack of support in Montreal. This became clear in an ownership do-si-do that took place after the 2001 season. To save Loria the trouble of supervising a team on Death Row, the 29 other owners bought the Expos from him. Loria then took over the Florida Marlins, with Marlins owner John Henry buying the Boston Red Sox. It seemed as if the 19th-century syndication schemes were back in force, with the lords of baseball pulling strings among allegedly independent team organizations for their own benefit, regardless of the fans involved. Here's a before-and-after look at the 2001-2002 Shameful Shift of Shit:
Before (2001):
Expos: owned by Jeffrey Loria
Marlins: owned by John Henry
Red Sox: owned by Yawkey Trust, the estate of deceased former owner Tom Yawkey
After (2002):
Expos: owned by the MLB itself
Marlins: owned by Jeffrey Loria
Red Sox: owned by John Henry
It seemed to be a flagrant conflict of interest to have a baseball franchise run by its 29 competitors. It was no surprise then, when the MLB, owners of the Expos, made only a modest show of running the franchise well. The decision was made in 2003 that the Expos would play half of their home games in San Juan, Puerto Rico. This was done mainly as part of Bud Selig's attempt to globalize baseball. Selig undoubtedly knew that the move would further kill support for the Expos in Montreal, and I'm sure that's exactly what he wanted. Ownership kills off the team, and so the fans stop showing up. Then ownership blames the lack of attendance on the fans, and thus keeps killing off the team. A similar situation is taking place now with the Florida Marlins. And who currently owns the Florida Marlins? None other than former Expos chief Jeffrey Loria. Hmm . . .
Despite the Herculean efforts of manager Frank Robinson and GM Omar Minaya, the Expos were only able to remain competitive for so long. Fatigue rose to historic levels, as the Expos home games themselves were a road trip, since their two homes were thousands of miles apart. A sad example would be in 2004, when the Expos and Blue Jays played an interleague ballgame on Canada Day. It makes perfect sense, right? Except, of course, that the game was played in San Juan, Puerto Rico.
The utterly shameful charade of the MLB-owned Expos came to an end when baseball finally announced that the team would be moved to Washington, D.C. for the 2005 season. Selig and the MLB, however, were characteristic in not factoring in the practical difficulties involved in the move. There's a very short time between the end of the World Series and the beginning of Spring Training, and the shift of an entire baseball franchise takes a little more time than that. It was an abysmal mess of practicalities, with the Washiungton team offices housed in a few on-site trailers for a time. New GM Jim Bowden (Minaya fled to take over the Mets after the 2004 season) turned his great energies toward putting a competitive team on the field.

Washington Nationals
Most of the problems facing the now-Washington Nationals, however, were beyond Bowden's powers to solve. The greatest roadblock was the D.C. City Council which, quite wisely, sought assurances to contain the amount of public money spent on the new stadium. The MLB, used to violating city councils with sweetheart deals on new stadiums, leases, etc., was shocked at the delay, and vilified the councilwoman who tried to introduce the proposal. The roadblock put the team's future in temporary jeopardy (the offices were actually shut down for a while), but a compromise was reached, and the team went forward with the 2005 season, to be played in old RFK Stadium until a new ballpark could be constructed.
The 2005 season, all things considered, was an on-field success. Manager Robinson continued to exercise great patience in dealing with the off-field horrors while forming a decidedly competent team. Stars included outfielder Brad Wilkerson (recently traded to the Rangers), young closer Chad Cordero, and firebrand outfielder Jose Guillen. The team's 81-81 finish may have been good enough only for last place in the NL East, but all things considered, it was a success.
However, two great problems still stand in the way of the Washington franchise finally existing on its own terms: 1) a new ballpark, and 2) new owners. Numerous practical issues, mostly involving the spiralling costs of the planned new ballpark, continue to prevent a final agreement on a lease for the team. Until a lease is agreed upon, Selig is unwilling to decide upon a new owner. No one really believes Selig anymore when he sets deadlines for these decisions to be made, because he's been promising answers to these problems for months now. It's a significant embarassment for Selig and the MLB that they can't get the relatively simple issue of a ballpark lease decided. It's most likely due to the fact that the MLB owners, flush with new money, are not willing to give an inch on the ballpark issue when other cities never gave them this much trouble when building new parks.
The most important fact concerning the Nationals is that they are still, for the fourth season now, owned by the MLB. This is a travesty of justice and a farce of competitive balance, which makes Selig look more and more like a paper tiger more interested in protecting the best interests of the 29 millionaires than the best interests of baseball. On-field, the Nationals are a competitive, if still unspectacular team. They have great support among the Washington, D.C. fanbase, although they're playing in what is now one of the older ballparks in baseball. Off-field, they're still a mess, and it's a mess that Bud Selig has proven entirely unable to fix. Rob Neyer once said that he hopes, one day, that someone writes a book about the mess that was the Expos of the 21st century. I hope it comes, so that we can finally placed a considerable amount of blame upon the few higher-ups who truly deserve it.
And neither Bud Selig nor Jeffery Loria would read it.

Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella

Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

2006 predictions

Now that most of the major free agents have signed, it's time to turn the prediction-maker on and look at the MLB in 2006. I'll start out by telling you how I go about doing this:

  • The statistical metric I use is Win Shares. It's a Bill James stat that takes a team's wins (100, say) multiplies by 3, and distributes those Win Shares among the players on the team. 1 win = 3 Win Shares (WS, for short).
  • Then I make out a tentative lineup for a team for next season. This lineup includes the 8 starters (9 in the AL with the DH), 5 starting pitchers, and closer. I make an educated guess (the best I can) how many Win Shares the player will produce in the coming year, taking into account as many factors as possible. I determine how many Win Shares these players "will" produce in 2006 and compare it to the number of WS the team got from the same positions in 2005. For example, the 2005 Braves got 199 Win Shares from their 8 starters, 5 starting pitchers, and closer. By my prediction, the 2006 Braves will get 203 Win Shares from these same positions. This means that next year's Braves will have 4 extra Win Shares, or roughly 1 extra win. So my rough prediction for the 2006 Braves is 91 wins, 1 more than their 90 last season. Taking into account all the other variables, I create a 5-win range for the Braves. So while 91 wins is my official prediction, there's little chance they will settle on exactly that many wins. What I will predict with greater accuracy is that the Braves will win between 89-93 games. This takes into account many other unforeseen factors. This, then, is the core of my predictions.

Now I'll tell you everything that my predicting system does take into account:

  • Difference in league or ballpark. Win Shares adjust a player's reward for the park in which their games are played. So, unlike batting average or slugging percentage, you're not going to have everything thrown off by Coors Field on one end and Petco Park (San Diego) on the other. A good example is Luis Castillo. Castillo is a second baseman who spent last year with the Marlins, playing one of the more pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, Dolphins Stadium. This year, he's been traded to the Twins. So not only is he playing in a more hitter-friendly league, he's playing in a more hitter-friendly ballpark, even in relation to the league. So we would expect Castillo's raw batting stats (AVG, SLG, etc.) to go up drastically next year, even if his rough level of talent and production is the same. WS, however, is not fooled. Luis Castillo is who he is, wherever he plays.
  • Luck (to a certain degree). My system factors out some of the luck inherent in baseball. I may, in my predictions, call for another 28 Win Shares for Brian Roberts, since he's only 28 years old and not inclined to suffer a serious decline in quality this year. But the realist in me says that, considering Roberts' otherwise unspectacular career, that he was amazingly lucky in 2005. So my prediction will be more in line with his career numbers, although somewhat higher to reflect the remote possibility that he did just suddenly get better at his age (it really never happens, except, of course, when it does). I've also looked at some more sophisticated stats in The Hardball Times Baseball Annual which try to predict which players got lucky (and unlucky) in 2005. Mark Ellis, of the Athletics, had an excellent 2005, hitting 384/477/316 with good defense, producing 21 WS. But the Annual cites Ellis as, according to their PrOPS stat, the luckiest hitter in baseball last year. This makes perfect sense because Ellis, like Roberts, has never been this good before, and likely just had a career year last season. The Annual also constructs a similar table for entire teams.
  • Variations in single statistics. WS are nice, because they help us keep sight of a player's ultimate contribution, placed in one bottom line number. So we aren't distracted by Andruw Jones' career-high 51 HR in 2005, since we know that those HR did not make him significantly more valuable, nor did they represent anything but what is likely a career year. Andruw did not likely just wake up one day with extra home run power, and history suggests that his power will disappear just as suddenly as it appeared, unless Andruw is a once-in-a-lifetime player or taking steroids (both of which I doubt).

And now that things that my system does not take into account:

  • Luck (in every other sense). One of the drawbacks of Win Shares is also its strength; it inexorably ties a team's performance to the players'. The sum of the parts is always equal to the whole in Win Shares. In reality, this isn't always so. If a team gets exceptionally lucky one season, Win Shares isn't going to notice. It will simply divide the luck in 3 and evenly distribute it to every player. Not only is luck never evenly distributed, but it's also just luck, so it's useless when predicting the future. So when I'm determining a team's 2006 record, I'm assuming that the team that won 90 games last year really was good enough to win 90 games, and not just a lucky team. Because a 90-win team with a lot of luck can turn into an 80-win team without it, making an unwitting predicter look stupid.
  • Regression to the mean (on the team level). Regression to the mean is a fairly complex name for a simple phenomenon; performances to any extreme (good or bad) tend to trend back toward the average over time. This makes sense; a player who hits .380 over the first half of the season is more likely to get closer to the average as the season goes on. It's easier to hit 50 HR in one season than it is to hit 500 in your career. So a player's performance to any extreme (good or bad) needs to be adjusted back to the average due to regression to the mean. I've adjusted for this on a player-by-player basis, but I haven't on the team level.
  • Bullpens. I mentioned before that I only use the numbers of the 8 positions players, 5 starting pitchers, and a closer. This assumes that the bullpen doesn't change from year to year, which it can and will. A team's bench players make a relatively small contribution; and the difference between the best and worst pinch-hitter is truly marginal. The same cannot be said of middle relievers. Middle relievers play an increasingly important part in the game, and their performance can add (or subtract) several wins to a team's total. So why don't I measure them? Why don't I include middle relievers? 2 reasons: 1) I simply don't have the knowledge and 2) neither does anyone. I pride myself on being fairly familiar with every regular in the major leagues. And while I can recognize the names of most middle relievers in baseball, I'm not nearly qualified to tell you what they did last season, let alone predict what they'll do next season. On the second point, relief pitchers are the most volatile "stocks" in baseball; they go from good to bad fairly frequently, moreso than other players, and no one really knows why. So if Bill James can't accurately predict what Julian Tavarez will do next year, I sure as hell ain't going to try.
  • Intangibles. I often use this word derisively, but there are simply many things that affect a team's W-L record that my system doesn't take into account. For example, the Reds recently changed owners, General Managers, and had their front office effectively gutted. This will have a potentially large impact on the team's record as soon as this year, but no one can predict what.
  • Platoons/Changes in roster. My system assumes that one person is the sole inhabitant of a position, which never happens. I also don't/can't take into account how the team will change over the course of the season. Trades will be made, some with a lot of impact, and there are a couple free agents still out there.
  • The basic answer is that while I'm not great at predicting the future, neither is anyone in baseball. It's why they play the games.

I've spent so much time qualifying my predictions that the final ones seem anticlimactic. Before I make my final calls, I'll share with you the rough answers I got when I did the math on Win Shares. These aren't my "final" answers, but this is what my numbers told me (with a brief explanation):

Baltimore: 74 wins (72-76 win range)
2005 wins: 74
The Oriole lineup hasn't gotten significantly better, and their pitching only marginally so. This is a bit tough on them, but they're in a tough division.
Boston: 96 wins (94-98 win range)
2005 wins: 95
The Red Sox are losing a good deal but also gaining a good deal. The Red Sox have several volatile players, players who could be either good or bad, and their performance will be telling. This was also true last year, when the awfulness and injuries to Schilling and Foulke torpedoed a potential World Champion.
New York: 95 wins (93-97 win range)
2005 wins: 95
Yeah, they've still got a good lineup, but they're sporting the exact same pitching staff they trotted out a year ago, except that Randy Johnson is now 41 (forty-one) years old. The difference between the Red Sox and Yankees is marginal; any number of unforeseen factors could determine the AL East race; Theo Epstein could get pneumonia and lose the division to the Yankees.
Tampa Bay: 67 wins (65-69 win range)
2005 wins: 67
I guess it's a bit of a cop-out to predict the same number of wins as last year. But the D-Rays haven't gotten much better. The x-factor that I don't take into account is a fairly large group of young hitting prospects. Will they get to the majors in time to make big impact this year? Who knows?
Toronto: 82 wins (80-84 win range)
2005 wins: 80
Again, you see how conservative I am in my predictions. Realistically, I think the Blue Jays will be better than even 83 wins. But they're not the contenders everyone else thinks they are; they've still got a truly unimpressive outfield, a hole at second base, an unpredictable rotation, and despite all the trades and shenanigans, only marginally better production at 1B-3B-DH. The Jays' hopes rely on the health of ace Roy Halladay and volatile (and expensive) reliever B.J. Ryan.

1. Boston – 96 (94-98)
2. New York* – 95 (93-97)
3. Toronto – 82 (80-84)
4. Baltimore – 74 (72-76)
5. Tampa Bay – 67 (65-69)
* --
represents Wild Card

Chicago: 93 wins (91-95 win range)
2005 wins: 99
The White Sox were quite the lucky team in 2005, as I don't think they were really as good as 99 wins, their World Series sweep notwithstanding. GM Kenny Williams has taken good steps to make a good team, rather than rolling the dice on the same unimpressive 2005 lineup. They're a better team in a very competitive AL Central.
Cleveland: 91 wins (89-93 win range)
2005 wins: 93
The Indians were relatively unlucky in 2005, so one would expect a rebound in 2006. But along with Regression to the Mean (R2M in the future), the Indians had several good performances that may not be reproduced in 2006. They've also lost starting pitcher Kevin Millwood, who had an excellent year for them in 2005. They replaced him with Paul Byrd, who is good, but represents a rotation that is, on the whole, unreliable. Give me Chicago's pitching with Cleveland's hitting, and you've got a World Champion.
Detroit: 77 wins (75-79 win range)
2005 wins: 71
R2M is mainly why the Tigers are getting better. Remember the movie Weekend at Bernie's, where two guys tried to pass of a dead guy as alive so they could have a party? I often think of the Tigers as baseball's equivalent. They're not obviously
dead and festering, like the Royals. But they're an essentially lifeless and dying organization with a pretty poor future. The Placido Polanco trade is the only faint pulse that Bernie might not be quite dead.
Kansas City: 60 wins (58-62 win range)
2005 wins: 56
The aforementioned festering corpse. They moved up to 60 wins because it's just as hard to lose 106 games 2 years in a row as it is to win
Minnesota: 92 (90-94 win range)
2005 wins: 83
The Twins were a terrible-hitting team in 2005. Several players (such as Justin Morneau) simply must get better, and the trade for Luis Castillo also helps fill a gaping hole. The AL Central should be an exciting 3-way race, as my win range would indicate.

1. Chicago – 93 (91-95)
2. Minnesota – 92 (90-94)
3. Cleveland – 91 (89-93)
4. Detroit – 77 (75-79)
5. Kansas City – 60 (58-62)

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the USA in the Western Hemisphere of Earth in the Milky Way: 88 (90-92 win range)
2005 wins: 95
The Angels have been surprisingly silent this off-season, losing key pitchers as well as catcher Bengie Molina to free agency. They've got a stacked deck of young hitting prospects, but how many of them are major-league ready? And who will pitch? It's doubtful they'll be anything better than 2nd-best to the rebuilt Oakland A's.
Oakland: 96 (94-98 win range)
2005 wins: 87
The A's also dealt with some bad luck in 2004, but have done a good job of correcting it. They're a better team all-around and, by my win range, the best team in baseball going into the season.
Seattle: 79 (77-81 win range)
2005 wins: 69
The Mariners should rebound due to R2M and the addition a some free agents. They're not an awful team, but they're still the 4th-best team in a 4-team division.
Texas: 79 (77-81 win range)
2005 wins: 79
Intuitively, I think the Rangers are a better team than this. But the stats are informative; their outfield is better, yes, but their infield is worse, and their pitching staff is as unpredictable as ever. They could put it all together and make a run at 90 wins, but only if the pitching gods smile on them. And the pitching gods have never smiled in Arlington.

1. Oakland – 96 (94-98)
2. Los Angeles – 88 (86-90)
3. Texas – 79 (77-81)
4. Seattle – 79 (77-81)

Atlanta: 91 (89-93 win range)
2005 wins: 90
If ever a team deserved the benefit of the doubt, it's the Braves. They shouldn't have won the division about 5 times the past few years, but they always did. The loss of Leo Mazzone, however, could potentially be a big crack in the foundation. But the Braves can also take comfort in the fact that they had a lot of great rookies in 2005; rookies who are only likely to get better in 2006 (but Jeff Francouer is not
the next Dale Murphy).
Florida: 59 wins (57-61 win range)
2005 wins: 83
The only regulars returning from the 83-win 2005 team are outfielder/potential MVP Miguel Cabrera and potential Cy Young-winner Dontrelle Willis. Together, they account for about 25 wins or so. That leaves a cast of unproven rookies and humpties to fill out the lineup and play minor league ball in the highly-competitive NL East.
New York: 88 wins (86-90 win range)
2005 wins: 83
You could certainly argue that I've given the Mets short shrift here. I do think they've improved by more than 5 wins this off-season, but not a whole lot more. They've still got a lot of problems. Their pitching staff is held together by Pedro Martinez, Tom Glavine, some scotch tape, and a lot of hope. Still, they could very well be the team to dethrone the Braves in 2006.
Philadelphia: 84 wins (82-86 win range)
2005 wins: 89
The Phillies got left out of the off-season free agent love-in, making them a worse team than they were last year. They too have a potent offense, but a pitching staff worthy of Major League.
Washington: 81 wins (79-83 win range)
2005 wins: 81
It took a lot of energy for the Nationals to end up back where they started. That's the story of GM Jim Bowden. He does a lot and makes a lot of headlines, but it's uncertain whether he actually, you know, helps his team win more games.

1. Atlanta – 91 (89-93)
2. New York* – 88 (86-90)
3. Philadelphia – 84 (82-86)
4. Washington – 81 (79-83)
5. Florida – 59 (57 – 61)

Chicago: 73 wins (71-75 win range)
2005 wins: 79
The Cubs did very little this off-season, and they're back in the familiar position of pinning all their hopes upon the fragile arms of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood. The Cubs will get better production with Juan Pierre in center, and might possibly get better production from Jacque Jones in right (Jones is replacing Jeromy Burnitz, who is a better hitter, if older). What dooms the Cubs is the fact that there's no way Derrek Lee will reproduce his memorable uber-career year in 2005, where he produced 37 Win Shares. 23 Win Shares would be a good guess for Lee, meaning the Cubs are losing about 5 wins right off the top.
Cincinnati: 74 wins (72-76 win range)
2005 wins: 73
The Reds have good hitting, but their pitching has to get a lot better for them to even be remotely competitive. Boy, if I wrote the same season preview for the Reds every year, would anyone notice?
Houston: 79 wins (77-81 win range)
2005 wins: 89
The Astros were another exceptionally lucky team in 2005. Their offense is awful, and despite the addition of Preston Wilson, it's the same bunch of guys this year, only older. Oh, and they lost their best pitcher. Even if Roger Clemens does come back, it will only be for a few months, and nowhere near as good as he was last year.
Milwaukee: 81 wins (79-83 win range)
2005 wins: 81
The Brewers' hitting prospects should only get better in 2006, but there's still a big question mark surrounding their pitching staff, especially concerning the health of ace Ben Sheets. Even considering this, I think the Brewers are, at this point, the second-best team in the division.
Pittsburgh: 76 wins (74-78 win range)
2005 wins: 67
Even now, staring at the numbers, it's impossible for me to believe that the Pirates will win more than 70 games next year.
St. Louis Cardinals: 90 wins (88-92 win range)
2005 wins: 100
The Cardinals are a significantly worse team than they were last year. They've lost a good chunk of production from Reggie Sanders and Larry Walker, replacing them with bargain-bin finds like Larry Bigbie and Juan Encarnacion. They should get better production from 3B Scott Rolen, but they lost a good 2B in Mark Grudzielanek and will deal with David Eckstein's inevitable decline.

1. St. Louis – 90 (88-92)
2. Milwaukee – 81 (79-83)
3. Houston – 79 (77-81)
4. Pittsburgh – 76 (74-78)
5. Cincinnati – 74 (72-76)
6. Chicago** – 73 (71-75)
** -- keep in mind that these are "rough" predictions. I can't really believe that the Cubs are any worse than the Pirates or Reds.

Arizona: 75 wins (73-77 win range)
2005 wins: 77
The Diamondbacks were the luckiest team by far in baseball in 2005. So while I don't think they're significantly worse than they were last year (as my prediction suggests) they are, realistically, even worse than that. They've got a lot of prospects, but few have so much as made an appearance in the majors.
Colorado: 71 wins (69-73 win range)
2005 wins: 67
It's too bad the Rockies aren't near a large body of water, because boy, are they treading it.
Los Angeles: 86 wins (84-88 win range)
2005 wins: 71
The Dodgers had so many injury problems in 2005 that they can't help but get better. They're not a great team, but I think they're easily good enough to win the West, in spite of their management.
San Diego: 79 wins (77-81 win range)
2005 wins: 82
The Padres spent most of their off-season energies re-signing their free agents. So after all that effort, they're the same mediocre team they were last year. But whereas the rest of the division has gotten better, they have not. They decided that one of baseball's best second baseman, Mark Loretta (in terms of bang for your buck), wasn't as valuable as Boston's backup catcher, Doug Mirabelli, so they traded for him. Kevin Towers, you surround your brilliance with stupidity in a curious way.
San Francisco: 74 wins (72-76 win range)
2005 wins: 75
If you thought the Giants were an old, beat-up team last year, well they're even older this year. This is what the Giants are without Barry Bonds and his 50 Win Shares. And even if the Giants get Bonds back (for a MAXIMUM of 140 games), the odds that it will be the same, Ruthian Barry are remote. He's 41 years old now, and several knee surgeries removed from his last MVP season. Even steroids can't save him now.

You'll notice that I didn't term these my "final" predictions. I'm saving those for some more time for reflection, as well as a chance to conider the "bullshit" factor. This is a sense of realism that needs to be applied to all statistics to avoid following mistaken statistics into a stupid decision. It's not an excuse to discard your logic for your "gut instinct," but a chance to combine the two for, hopefully, a more reasonable conclusion.

More to come later . . .

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

1969 Expansion Pt. 2

Seattle Pilots
In my last entry in the expansion series (many moons ago), I spoke of the Kansas City Royals, one of two new AL teams in the 1969 expansion. The Royals, their present dreadfulness notwithstanding, were the franchise that legitimized expansion, making themselves competitive very quickly. On the other end of the spectrum we have their expansion-mates, the Seattle Pilots.
The Seattle Pilots were a doomed enterprise from the beginning. When the franchise was awarded to former Indians owner William Daley and Pacific Coast League President Dewey Soriano, it was with the understanding that the minor-league Sicks Stadium would be enlarged to accomodate a major league team. This simply didn't happen, every interested party blamed the others for the delay, and Seattle mayor Floyd Miller threatened to evict the team from the stadium. Plans to fund a new domed stadium (the future Kingdome) foundered on the issue of public money (sound familiar?) with the final plans not executed until after the team had already left town. The team name, "Pilots," was a nautical reference. The uniforms bore captain's stripes on the hat and sleeves along with a bizarre flying baseball.
The Pilots made a fair showing in the expansion draft, relatively speaking. Their first pick was Yankee farmhand Mike Hegan. They went on to nab speedy outfielder Tommy Harper from the Reds, slugging first baseman Don Mincher from the Angels, and reliever Diego Segui from the A's. They also picked up former Dodger star Tommy Davis, former Yankee star Jim Bouton, former Indians star Gary Bell . . . you get the idea.
Despite a fairly strong start, the thin talent and utter mismanagement of the team resulted in a last-place, 64-98 finish (only the Indians sported a worse record in the AL). The owners made many bone-headed decisions. The worst may have been the non-payment of bills for their spring training complex, which eventually led to a lawsuit. Or possibly the theory that since they made so little money from television revenues, they would raise ticket prices. The thought that charging higher admission than any other AL team to see a game in prehistoric Sicks Stadium was a good idea is laughable.
Although the AL made assurances about keeping the team in Seattle, the horrible management led the Sorianos to take offers from other cities. After several legal measures taken to keep the team in Seattle, the okay finally went through approving the sale to Milwaukee car dealer Bud Selig. Just one year after their creation, the Pilots went bankrupt and moved across the country.
Some of the fallout from the whole fiasco included numerous lawsuits against the league that totalled some $32.5 million, political griping by Washington congressmen (leading the league to promise Seattle another team in the future), and a pretty big black eye for baseball in allowing the whole charade to take place at all.
But the Pilots are really remembered because of a book written by relief pitcher Jim Bouton. Bouton kept a baseball diary during the season, recording candid conversations about the real life of a baseball player. The book, Ball Four, is tame when compared to modern tell-all exposes. But it was a huge scandal at the time. Not only did Bouton violate the code of silence among baseball players (and baseball media) by revealing players' rampant use of amphetamines and adultery on the road, he was uncomfortably honest about the incompetence, heartlessness and racism among upper management.
The book is still funny, even 35 years later. My particular favorite story is when Bouton recalls -- from his time with the Yankees -- an exchange between Mantle and manager Johnny Keane. Mantle was finding it more and more difficult to deal with his aching knees, and Bouton quotes an exchange between the two about his status:
JK: "How do your legs feel today, Mick?"
MM: "Not too good."
JK: "Yes, but how do they feel?"
MM: "It hurts when I run, the right one especially. I can't stride on it or anything?"
JK: "Well, do you think you can play?"
MM: "I don't know. I guess I can play. Yeah, hell, what the hell, sure I can play."
JK: "Good. Great. We need you out there. Unless you're hurt -- unless it really hurts you. I don't want you to play if you're hurt."
MM: "No, it's okay. I hurt, but it's okay. I'll watch it."
JK: "Good, good we sure need you."

Mantle and Bouton would then joke about it later:
JB: "Mick, how does your leg feel?"
MM: "Well, it's severed at the knee."

JB: "Yes, but does it hurt?"
MM: "No, I scotch-taped it back in place."
JB: "And how's your back?"
MM: "My back is broken in seven places."
JB: "Can you swing the bat?"
MM: "Yeah, I can swing. If I can find some more scotch tape."
JB: "Great. Well, get in there then. We need you."

Milwaukee Brewers
The Brewers started off in an unfortunate place, having to put together a franchise from the rough pieces of the Pilots. With a new staff of upper management and the loss of several key players, the Brewers were not anyone's choice as Most Likely to Stand a Chance in Hell. The 1970 team picked up where the Pilots left off, faring only slightly better at 65-97, tied with the Royals for 4th in the AL West. Though they fared slightly better in the Win-Loss column, the team finished last in the next two seasons.
The mid-70's were a difficult time for the franchise. While never degenerating to the truly awful, the team was a perennial loser, finishing either last or next-to-last from 1971-1977. It wasn't until 1978 that the nucleus of a good team became apparent. Under new manager George Bamberger, the Brewers went an amazing 93-69, finishing in 3rd place, 6.5 games back in the AL East.
The core of the team was a powerhouse offense that finished 1st in the AL with 4.96 runs/game. It was primarily powered by the first fruits of the farm system, future Hall-of-Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor. Yount, a shortstop later converted to center field, was a fine hitter and a capable defender. A two-time MVP and consistent producer, Yount spent his 20-year career entirely with the Brewers, compiling 3,142 hits. He was inducted into Cooperstown in 1999.
Molitor was an excellent hitter, but a defensive challenge. He was such a good hitter (306/369/448 career) that his place in the lineup was assured. But while he wasn't awful defensively, he simply didn't fit into any natural defensive position. He finished his career as a Designated Hitter, but not before playing 791 games at third base, 400 games at second, 197 at first, 57 at shortstop, and another 50 in the outfield. He was inducted into Cooperstown in 2004, the first player so inducted who spent the majority of his career as a DH.
Along with these two key ingredients, the Brewers added former Athletics team leader Sal Bando (who later moved into the front office), good-hitting first baseman Cecil Cooper, slugging center fielder Gorman Thomas, and other solid hitters such as Ben Oglivie, Sixto Lezcano, Don Money and Larry Hisle.
What held the team back was its decidedly mediocre pitching. Despite several solid contributors (Mike Caldwell, Pete Vuckovich and Jim Slaton, among others), the Brewers have never had a truly good pitching staff, nor have they produced a truly excellent pitcher from their system. (Two possible exceptions to that last statement: Mexican pitcher Teddy Higuera, who certainly was excellent until injuries essentially ended his career at age 30, and current star Ben Sheets, who still has a lot to prove at age 27 and must avoid suffering Higuera's fate).
Good though the Brewers were, it must be noted that they bore some of the more embarassing uniforms of all time, as these bananaberry togs illustrate. They also created a ball-in glove logo. It's not only a ball in a glove, it's also an "M" above a "B." I'm forced to admit that I've been looking at this logo for 20 years and did not notice this until recently.
The "Brew Crew" improved to 2nd place in 1979, going 95-66. After a dip to 86-76 in 1980, new manager Buck Rodgers guided the team to a close victory in the AL East in the second half of the season (the 1981 season divided in half by a players' strike). The Brewers met the first-half champion Yankees in a special division championship series, their first postseason appearance, and quickly went down 2-0 in the best-of-5 series. But the Brewers fought back valiantly, taking close victories at Yankee Stadium in Games 3 and 4, before losing the decisive Game 5.
The 1982 team was the start of a new era. New manager Harvey Kuenn presided over an offense-heavy team dubbed "Harvey's Wallbangers." The Wallbangers had the image of a gutsy, blue-collar team, perfectly in keeping with their hometown. Along with veterans Yount, Molitor, Cooper, Oglivie, and Thomas were added veteran catcher Ted Simmons, slick-fielding second baseman Jim Gantner, and ace closer Rollie Fingers. Starting pitcher Pete Vuckovich took home the Cy Young Award with an 18-6 record, despite the fact that he wasn't even one of the twenty best pitchers in the league that year.
The Brewers went 95-67, just edging the Orioles by 1 game. In the ALCS against California, the Brewers found themselves in a familiar position when they fell behind 2-0 in the best-of-5 series. But the Brewers scored 14 runs in the next 2 games, forcing a decisive Game 5 in Milwaukee. Conquering the demons of the previous year, the Brewers gained a close 4-3 victory in Game 5, with Cecil Cooper's bases-loaded single in the 7th inning the decisive blow.
The Brewers set the tone in the World Series with a sound 10-0 thrashing of the St. Louis Cardinals. Mike Caldwell threw a shutout, Ted Simmons homered, and the Brewers did some wall-banging indeed at Busch Stadium. The Cardinals came back to win Games 2 and 3, and appeared to have Game 4 in hand, taking a 5-1 lead into the 7th inning. But the Brewer bats awoke for 6 runs, giving them the 7-6 lead they would retain, evening the Series at 2-2. After a close win in Game 5 behind ace Caldwell, the Brewers took a thrashing in their own in Game 6, getting bombed for 13 runs while Cardinal pitcher John Stuper allowed just 1 run in a complete-game victory. Game 7 was close, with Cy Young winner Vuckovich against Cardinal ace Joaquin Andujar. But Andujar was just a little better, and the Cardinals took the game and the Series with a 6-3 win.
1982 was as good as it got in Milwaukee. In the 23 seasons since, the Brewers have never again finished in first place, and only managed a second-place with a 92-70 performance in 1992. Unfortunately, 1992 also marked the last time the team finished above .500. They came close this past season, but had to settle with an even 81-81 record.
The simple story was that the team, never strong on pitching, wasn't able to replace hitters like Yount or Molitor as they aged. With the exception of Higuera, the Brewers of the late 80's and early 90's simply weren't able to produce a star from their farm system (Higuera excepted), with solid but unspectacular players such as B.J. Surhoff, Greg Vaughn, and Pat Listach the best they could do. On second thought, they did produce a bonafide star: Gary Sheffield. But Sheffield was not only slow to develop; he was also a perceived attitude problem. So they traded him to the Padres for Ricky Bones, Jose Valentin and Matt Mieske, whereupon Sheffield embarked on what could very well prove to be a Hall-of-Fame career.
The 1992 team, managed by Phil Garner, succeeded with a mediocre offense (with Molitor and Darryl Hamilton the only strong contributors) but had the best pitching staff in the league. Unfortunately, none of the stars were either consistent or reliable. The staff was led by guys like Bill Wegman, Jaime Navarro, Chris Bosio, Cal Eldred, and Doug Henry. All pitchers who had some good years, but nothing to build a franchise on. The 1992 success was illusory, as the rest of the 1990s would illustrate.
There were several good-but-not-great hitters to come through the Brewers through the rest of the 1990s. There was capable slugger Jeromy Burnitz, all-around gem Jeff Cirillo, solid second baseman Fernando Vina, versatile catcher Jeff Nilsson, defensively-challenged hitter Jose Valentin, solid left fielder Geoff Jenkins, and aforementioned slugger Vaughn. With good pitching, this team could easily have contended, and might even have made the postseason at some point. But the Brewers couldn't put together a good pitching staff for the life of them. When they did get a good pitching performance, it was usually some journeyman having a career year (Ricky Bones' 1994, Scott Karl's 1995, Jeff D'Amico's 2000). So while they were rarely awful (1993 was the only year of the decade they lost more than 90 games), they were never competitive.
Another notable development of the 1990's took place in the front office. Owner Bud Selig had always been one of the strong guiding hands behind baseball ownership. He was, along with White Sox owner Jerry Reinsdorf, one of the primary forces behind the ouster of Commissioner Fay Vincent. Selig took over as Interim Commissioner until such time as a replacement could be found. As time went on Selig, still the guiding force behind the Brewers although his daughter exerted nominal control, continued as commissioner (through the 1994-1995 quagmire), eventually taking on the job on a full-time basis. Control of the Brewers reverted to daughter Wendy Selig-Prieb, but the huge potential for conflict of interest was on everyone's minds.
The greatest example of this conflict was the realignment of the major leagues that took place to accomodate the 1998 expansion. It was impractical to have two 15-team leagues, since one team in both leagues would always be idle at a given moment. It became clear that one team would have to switch leagues to even things up. MLB's first choice was Kansas City, but the Royals turned them down. Selig saw his chance and proposed moving the Brewers. Milwaukee voters were keen to the idea. There was a history of National League baseball in the city, and relatively few people really gave a damn about which league such a bad team was in. Selig, however, saw with the move to the NL Central the chance to create a potentially lucrative rivalry with the nearby Chicago Cubs. So the Brewers opened the 1998 season in the National League, the only team ever to switch leagues between the AL and the NL. (Conflicts of interest, and allegations of financial misconduct, were set to rest recently when the team was sold to Mark Attanasio).
After only a mediocre 2000 (73-89), the Brewers embarked on their worst 4 years ever. In 2001, 2003, and 2004, the team lost 94 games. In between was a truly horrific 2002, where the team went 56-106. The only silver lining was the further development of slugging first baseman Richie Sexson and the future of star pitching prospect Ben Sheets.
The 106-loss 2002 resulted in a housecleaning for the organization. Former Ranger executive Doug Melvin took over in the front office as GM, and Braves third base coach Ned Yost took over as manager.
By all accounts, the change has been a fruitful one for Milwaukee. Yost, along with pitching coach Mike Maddux, have often been able to make something of nothing. The team still suffers from a weak pitching staff, and Maddux has gone to work creating unlikely closers out of Dan Kolb and Derrick Turnbow.
But the most instrumental person in the organization has been Melvin. Melvin has quietly returned the Brewers to respectability. This is confirmed not just by their 81-81 record in 2005, but with the record of Melvin's transactions. Melvin has not only presided over an impressive crop of young players (Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks, J.J. Hardy, though unfortunately no pitchers) while doing a good job of fleecing other GMs. A good example would be a trade before the 2005 season that sent Brewer closer Kolb to the Braves in exchange for pitching prospect Jose Capellan. Kolb bombed in Atlanta, and was recently traded back to Milwaukee. So Melvin somehow has everything he had a year ago, plus a good pitching prospect.
But the best trade Melvin ever made was one with the Arizona Diamondbacks before the 2004 season. The D-Backs coveted slugging first baseman Richie Sexson and asked for him in a trade. Melvin traded Sexson to Arizona and got, in return:
  1. Lyle Overbay, who gave the Brewers 2 fine seasons at first base. In December, Melvin traded Overbay, increasingly expensive and expendable with the arrival of Prince Fielder, to Toronto for a serviceable pitcher and two prospects.
  2. Chris Capuano, who pitched fairly well in 2004, then emerged as a durable if unspectacular starting pitcher in 2005, posting a 3.99 ERA with 176 K in 219 IP.
  3. Craig Counsell, second baseman, who had a decent 2004 before leaving as a free agent.
  4. Junior Spivey, who hit quite well with the Brewers, although in limited time due to many injuries. With the arrival of Rickie Weeks at second, Spivey too became expensive and expendable, so Melvin sent him to Washington for serviceable pitcher Tomo Ohka.
  5. Chad Moeller, no kind of hitter, but a good backup catcher.
  6. Jorge de la Rosa, a young pitcher who didn't pan out (5.12 ERA in 65 IP in Milwaukee).

And for all of this, the Arizona Diamondbacks got Richie Sexson and two no-names. Most importantly, though, Sexson was eligible for free agency in a year. So unless the Diamondbacks were able to convince him to sign an extension to stay in Arizona, they would have given up all of the above just to get one year of Richie Sexson. Which is exactly what happened, as Sexson only stayed in Arizona for a year, taking a big-money contract in Seattle.

But the funniest thing about it all? Sexson got injured and only played 23 games in Arizona. The silver lining, I guess, is that Sexson hit 9 HR in those 23 games, including a 500-plus-foot bomb that hit his own image on the center field scoreboard. So the Diamondbacks have a discolored blotch on the center-field scoreboard as an eternal reminder of the time they got absolutely fleeced by Doug Melvin.

But I digress. The simple fact is that the Brewers have improved and continue to improve. The NL Central is pretty much up for grabs, and the Brewers have the chance to emerge as contenders, and soon. It all depends on their pitching, still their Achilles heel after all these years. If they can find a solution to their pitching ailments, the Brewers could emerge as a National League powerhouse. You heard it here first.


Total Ballclubs by Donald Dewey & Nicholas Acocella
Total Baseball Encyclopedia 2004 Ed.
Ball Four by Jim Bouton ed. Leonard Schechter