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March 22, 2011
Baseball on the Ones
For many of us, awaiting baseball’s Opening Day is like sitting in a movie theater marking time until the feature presentation begins. Here we are, popcorn in our laps and anticipation in our hearts, enduring that endless preview of coming attractions called “spring training.” Action unfolds in front of us, but it’s not real action, and though we may be tempted, even encouraged, to use these small-sample snippets to determine whether a team or a player is going to be worth our attention when the show begins, this isn’t our first rodeo. We may hear the voice of Don LaFontaine intone “In a world … where Jake Fox can hit .333/.345/.833 … hope springs eternal,” but experience tells us the quality of his season is less likely to be Citizen Kane than Throw Momma From The Train. Excepting a handful of roster battles and unfortunate injuries, spring training gives us precious little insight as to what kind of season we have in store.
Because, to paraphrase Mark Renton: “Let’s be clear about this. There are baseball seasons and there are baseball seasons. What kind is this to be?” Obviously we have a pretty high base-line expectation—we’re fans, after all, and we wouldn’t be so eagerly anticipating the show if we didn’t already believe even the most mundane baseball season will be entertaining and worthwhile. But sometimes we’re treated to something special, or to put the question in Coen Brothers terms, will the 2011 season be Burn After Reading, a film a friend of mine would describe as “worth seeing, if only for the illusion of motion produced by the repetitive display of still images,” or will it be Fargo? For all the worthwhile time and effort we expend here at Baseball Prospectus to predict player and team performance, we haven’t developed a tool to predict the quality of an upcoming season as a whole, leaving us only the option of buying something off the shelf and adapting it to this purpose.
One possibility is to cross-pollinate our own version of the “Burt Reynolds Mustache Indicator,” which purportedly showed that the quality of Reynolds’ films was inversely proportional to the size (or presence) of his facial hair, and the “Woolly Caterpillar Forecaster”, which supposedly foretells the severity of an upcoming winter by the thickness of a caterpillar’s medium-brown central color band. Applying this method at BP would clearly require us to measure and take color samples from Jay Jaffe’s majestic philtrum-warmer, with the resulting analysis most likely dooming us to a less-than-stellar 2011 MLB season; however, since the quality of Boogie Nights and the inaccuracy of The Old Farmer’s Almanac makes me greatly question both premises, I’m disposed to set this test aside.
Thankfully, there is another tool at hand: numerology. Keeping with the movie theme, there are many who feel you can pre-determine the quality of a Star Trek film by determining if it is an odd- or even-numbered film in the series. I can’t vouch for this personally, having not seen any of the Patrick Stewart films, but I like the idea of applying a simple, numerical approach to find predictable patterns. Baseball seasons are annual events labeled under a base-10 numbering system, and when considered in this way, the 2011 season seems likely to be memorable. Baseball, like James Brown, has often found magic on the one, as some of the most dramatic seasons and events in the game’s history have occurred in seasons that ended with that particular numeral. If the 2011 season can live up to the standards set by its previous like-named cohorts, we’re in for a great year. Here’s a quick stroll through “Baseball On The One” since the close of the Deadball Era:
1921: Most people think the Yankees have been great forever, but that’s not true. They’ve merely been great since 1921, when they made the first of their 40 World Series appearances. They lost to John McGraw’s Giants that year, but began their habit of being especially dominant in years ending in one: the Yankees have been to six of the nine fall classics played those years, winning three of them. This was also one of Babe Ruth’s greatest seasons—many of his records have been eclipsed over time, but his 177 runs scored in 1921 stands as the only major single-season record Ruth still holds.
1931: Like Ruth, many of Lou Gehrig’s records have fallen, but his 184 RBI in 1931 still stands as the American League standard, second only to Hack Wilson’s 191 the year before. Earl Webb stroked a record 67 doubles, and Lefty Grove’s 31 wins is still the most in the Liveball Era, tied with Denny McLain’s out-of-nowhere 1968. Grove’s Philadelphia Athletics lost a seven-game series to the Cardinals when Burleigh Grimes, the spit-balling pride of Emerald, Wisconsin, out-dueled George Earnshaw in the finale. This would prove to be the end of Connie Mack’s second Philadelphia dynasty, one of the best teams in baseball history.
1941: While war raged in Europe, Ted Williams hit .406 but didn’t win an MVP award. Joe DiMaggio hit safetly in 56 straight games, and it might have been 73 if Ken Keltner hadn’t made two outstanding defensive plays to help end the streak. The Brooklyn Dodgers won their first pennant in twenty years, but lost to the Yankees in the World Series.
1951: The Giants came from way back to catch the Dodgers and force a three-game playoff, culminating in the most famous call in baseball history: “The Giants Win The Pennant! The Giants Win The Pennant!” Of course, they then lost to the Yankees, the world’s ultimate spoilsports.
1961: Everyone remembers Roger Maris hit 61* home runs in 1961, just like everyone remembers Mickey Mantle probably had a better year. Not everyone remembers the monster years of Norm Cash (.361/.487/.662) and Jim Gentile (.301/.423/.646), who placed ahead of a few somewhat-memorable players named Robinson, Aaron, Mays, Mathews, Maris, Clemente, Cepeda, and Killebrew in True Average. And guess what? The Yankees won the World Series.
1971: Only 22 years old, Vida Blue won both the Cy Young and MVP awards, but the Orioles set the gold standard for outstanding starting pitching with Dave McNally, Mike Cuellar, Jim Palmer, and Pat Dobson each winning 20 games. Earl Weaver’s dynasty lost to the Pirates in a classic seven-game series, however, as the pre-Steve-Blass-Disease Steve Blass outdueled Cuellar for the series-clinching win.
1981: Fernandomania! The Dodgers polished off the Yankees in a six-game set, marking the third time in five years those two teams had met in the World Series. As this happened during the heart of my formative baseball years, this period is clearly the genesis of my long-harbored (but since diminished) distaste for both franchises. Despite the fact that the Yankees waited another 15 years before again playing for the title, and the Dodgers have only been to the fall classic once since then, it took a long time for me to stop thinking the Yankees and Dodgers would play for the title every single friggin’ year.
1991: I doubt if a single game that did more to burnish a player’s legacy than Jack Morris’ Game Seven World Series victory over the Braves—in fact, it’s hard to think of a single game that was more dramatic.
2001: A super-sized version of Barry Bonds hit 73 home runs. The Mariners won 116 games, but lost to the Yankees in the playoffs. The World Series, played in the shadow of the September 11th attacks, saw the Diamondbacks prevail in seven games over the Yankees. Remember who hit the game-tying double off of Mariano Rivera? Tony Womack. Truth is stranger than fiction, and the late innings of that game are some of the most memorable of my lifetime.
Could another cohort of seasons be better than these? If 2011 can keep pace with the other “ones,” we’re in for a treat. Numerology suggests we should expect a number of memorable individual performances, a shattered record or two, and the Yankees losing in the World Series, perhaps in some extremely dramatic way. I’ll take that.