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May 24, 2012

The Lineup Card

10 Mr. Almosts

by Baseball Prospectus

1. Al Kaline: 399 Homers
Some players hang on too long; some cases in point are Early Wynn pitching forever until notching his 300th and final victory and Willie Mays, perhaps the most graceful player in baseball history, stumbling around the bases in the 1973 World Series. Give Al Kaline credit for knowing when to quit. The Hall of Fame outfielder retired from the Tigers at the end of the 1974 season at age 39 with 399 career home runs. It would have been easy for Kaline to return for one more season and get No. 400. Instead, he knew was at the end of the line after hitting .255 and .262 in his final two seasons, which ironically caused him to miss another milestone—the subpar years dragged his career batting average down to .297. —John Perrotto

2. Mike Mussina: Almost Perfect, Almost a Champ
Mike Mussina pitched his entire career in the AL East, and he proved to be one of the few long-term, big-money contracts for pitchers that actually worked out well. During his career, Moose twirled 3,562 2/3 innings and won 270 games, posted a 3.68 ERA (3.63 FIP), struck out 2,813, and amassed 60.1 WARP. While we'll leave the debate of his Hall-worthiness to Jay Jaffe, there are two big things missing from Mussina's résumé: a World Series championship and a no-hitter. As the New York Times put it, Mussina was the Yankees' Mr. Almost: He had almost won 20 games. He had come within one out of a World Series title. He had finished in the top 10 in Cy Young voting nine times. He had almost tossed two perfect games.

Mussina spent the first nine-plus years of his career in Baltimore and played in a couple of playoff series, though the O's never made it past the ALCS. In one of those failed post-season campaigns, the 1997 season, Mussina  almost threw his first perfect game against the Cleveland Indians on 30 May 1997. He sat down the first 25 hitters in order, but with two outs to go, Sandy Alomar Jr. singled to break up his bid. As an Oriole, Mussina hurled three one-hitters and one two-hitter.

When the 2000 offseason came around, Mussina jumped ship to play for the reigning-champion Yankees, the team that had ended the Orioles' playoff bid in 1996. With Mussina entrenched in the rotation, the Yankees made the playoffs in every season between 2001 and 2007, and they made the World Series in 2001 and 2003, but the team never took home the title. Mussina even developed a reputation as a pitcher who could not handle the October spotlight, despite the fact his October stats were mostly superior to his regular-season rates.

During his time with the Yankees, Mussina was a workhorse, averaging 194 innings per season while posting a 3.88 ERA. He had a few ineffective campaigns tossed in there, but there were times he was almost unhittable. On 2 September 2001, Moose made his closest bid for perfection, retiring the first 26 Red Sox batters. With 13 Ks already under his belt, Mussina pushed Carl Everett to a 1-2 count before allowing a bloop single. Moose went on to record the final out on a grounder by Trot Nixon, but the damage was done. In the 2004 ALCS, Mussina again faced the Red Sox and blanked the first 19 batters before allowing a hit.

In Moose's final season, 2008, the Yankees didn't make the postseason, but Mussina had reinvented himself after an awful 2007 campaign and scratched one "almost" off his list: He finally won 20 games. Fittingly, that final victory came against the Red Sox. —Stephani Bee

3. Steve Arlin's Near No-Hitter
On July 18, 1972, the Padres played the 569th game in franchise history. Right-hander Steve Arlin, the penultimate player taken by San Diego in the 1968 expansion draft, got the start at home against the Phillies, who originally drafted him out of Ohio State in 1966.

Arlin's career to that point had been nondescript. After going 19-33 with a 4.47 ERA in five minor-league seasons, he led the National League in losses in 1971, and placed fifth in both walks and shutouts. He had thrown a no-hitter in the minors, on July 25, 1967, while pitching for Reading of the Eastern League. And on a Tuesday evening at San Diego Stadium it looked like Arlin might throw another at the big-league level. Carrying a 5-0 lead into the ninth, Arlin retired Deron Johnson and Larry Bowa to begin the frame. Then Denny Doyle came to bat. Padres manager pulled rookie third baseman Dave Roberts in to guard against a possible bunt (apparently that unwritten rule hadn't yet been unwritten) and Doyle bounced a 1-2 pitch over Roberts' head to break up the no-no.

As Zimmer later noted:

I messed it up... Roberts was playing shallow on Doyle, but he wanted to move back after Arlin got two strikes on him.

I made Roberts stay in close. If I had let him move back, he would have fielded the ball.

Roberts was none too pleased himself:

I missed the ball by less than a foot. The fact that it was so close makes me sick. I feel like we lost the game.

Arlin then balked Doyle to second and gave up an RBI single to Tom Hutton before retiring Greg Luzinski to preserve the victory. This improved Arlin's record to 6-6 on the season (not bad for a team that was 32-52 at the time). He then would drop 15 of his final 19 decisions to again lead the league in losses with 21.

After remaining in the Padres' rotation through mid-June 1974, Arlin was shipped to Cleveland for Brent Strom and Terry Ley (who can forget them?). Arlin made 10 starts for the Indians and then retired at season's end to pursue a career in dentistry, which he still practices in San Diego.

The Padres, meanwhile, continue to seek their first no-hitter. —Geoff Young

4. Ken Griffey Jr.: 61 Homers
Before Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa, and Barry Bonds made their runs at Roger Maris' single-season home-run record, the man who would have been voted most likely to topple the long-standing mark was Griffey. He bopped 45 as a 23-year-old in 1993 and appeared poised to obliterate not only that but also Maris' 61 when he hit his 32nd homer of the year in the Mariners' 72nd game on June 24, a 72-homer pace. Even when an 11-game homerless drought ensued, and the homers were fewer and further between, he remained on pace; when he hit a pair in the 89th game to get to 35, he was still on target for 64. Alas, a bigger problem for Griffey was the looming players' strike; he had 40 by the time the players walked out after the games of August 11.

Injuries and shortened seasons prevented Griffey from immediately mounting another assault, but in 1997, he bashed 24 homers by the end of May, again a 72-homer pace. He hit just eight over the next two months, appearing to kill any notions of approaching the record, but a monster August with 12 homers, followed by another six in the first six games of September, ran his total to 50 with 19 games to go, leaving him a fighting chance. A seven-game whitewash cost him dearly, though, and even with six homers in the final 12 games, he finished with 56.

He would have one more shot in 1998, the same year that both McGwire and Sosa passed Maris. A 14-homer June gave him 33 by the end of the month, four behind McGwire and tied with Sosa. By the end of July, he had 41, four behind McGwire, three behind Sosa, and on pace for 62, but a slump in which he hit just one homer in 19 games killed the dream dead. By the end of August, McGwire and Sosa both had 55 homers, with Griffey back at 47, an afterthought. He would finish with 56, win the third of four AL home-run titles, and amass a total of 630 before he retired in 2010, but he wouldn't get any closer to 61. —Jay Jaffe

5. The Almost-20-Loss Club
There's a popular notion that losing 20 games is some kind of a stigma. That's ridiculous. Randy Jones bounced back from a 22-loss season in 1974 to win 20 in the next two consecutive campaigns. Steve Rogers recovered from a 22-loss season to become one of the best pitchers in Expos history. Jerry Koosman lost 20, only to win 20 two years later. Steve Carlton lost 20 immediately after winning 27. Robin Roberts, Luis Tiant, Mel Stottlemyre, Mickey Lolich, Larry Jackson... heck, Wilbur Wood and Phil Niekro each lost 20 on two separate occasions, including one season each in which they supplemented that with 20 wins. The point is that good pitchers... even great pitchers... lose 20 games sometimes.

But every time somebody gets close to that 20th loss, a flood of articles used to come out about Brian Kingman (who lost 20 in 1980) and how guys wanted to avoid being labeled "20-game losers." A couple of guys actually skipped multiple starts at the end of the season to avoid getting tagged.Tim Leary missed his last two starts with the Yankees in 1990 and Kirk McCaskill, who lost his 18th game on September 4, only made one more start in 1991.

Now, those guys are largely forgotten. Even if you remember the careers of Leary, McCaskill, Matt Young, Jose DeLeon, Mike Moore, Scott Erickson, Omar Daal, Bobby Jones, and Albie Lopez, you almost certainly didn't remember that they lost 19 games in a season. Heck, I remember all of those guys, but I didn't remember that they'd each lost 19 games (DeLeon twice!). But I remember that Brian Kingman lost 20 in 1980. And I remember that Mike Maroth bit the bullet and lost 21 for the 2003 Tigers, perhaps the worst team of all-time. That's an accomplishment. That's immortality. That's something the Tim Learys and Kirk McCaskills of the world never got. Too bad for them. —Michael Bates

6. Matt Williams: 61 Homers
On the first day of the 1994 season, when Matt Williams homered twice, I would have told everybody around me that he was on pace to hit 324 home runs. I was 13. Of course I would have told them that. A tenth of the way through the season, he was on pace to hit 61. A fourth of the way through, he was on pace to hit 61. Halfway through, he was on pace to hit 61. Just so steady, maintaining an unimaginable trot at Roger Maris' record. But by the time August began, the threat of a strike was upon us. Matt Williams' pace suddenly looked impossible. Either he needed to hit 21 home runs in a week, or the players and owners needed to agree to a collective bargaining agreement. It wasn't clear which was less likely.

There was always something awesome about Roger Maris holding the record, and there would have been something awesome about Matt Williams holding the record. Babe Ruth, Barry Bonds, Mark McGwire: Those guys were known for doing so many great things that giving them one of baseball's most iconic records felt like giving the rich another truckload of money. But Maris. What would Maris have, if not 61? He would be no better remembered than his top Baseball-Reference comps: Bob Allison, Dean Palmer, Sid Gordon, Matt Stairs. Williams was a better player than Maris, but he's no Hall of Famer (his OBP that near-61 season, was .316!), and he won't be remembered much better than some of his comps: Vinny Castilla, Jermaine Dye, Aramis Ramirez. One thing that makes baseball great is how reliably the sheer volume of games produces truth. Nobody flukes his way to the top of the career homer list, or to 300 wins. But another thing that makes baseball great is how reliably surprise players disrupt the established order, and Roger Maris atop a list that included Ruth, Foxx, Greenberg, Mays, and Mantle was one of the great disruptions in history. Matt Williams would have perhaps been its equal. But no.

Williams homered in Game 115, his 43rd, a perfect pace for 61. So steady. The season ended. He hit 13 in the Giants' first 36 games of 1995, then fouled a ball off his foot and missed more than two months. Put those two stretches together, and he'd have 56, in 151 games. That's about a half a home run shy of a 61-homer pace. So, so close, but not really close at all. —Sam Miller

7. Jose Hernandez: 189 Strikeouts
Before Drew Stubbs. Before Mark Reynolds. Before Adam Dunn and Howard, but after Rob Deer and Bobby Bonds was Jose Hernandez. Hernandez's place in baseball immortality never did materialize, so his career has mostly been lost to the ravages of time, but a decade ago, Hernandez was a useful player.

A utility infielder by trade and a solid enough glove man, Hernandez played every non-battery position in his 15-year big-league career, more than half of them at shortstop. Hernandez was less a three true outcome hitter than a two true outcome guy. See, he didn't walk, but he did hit home runs (19 or more four times) and he did strike out. A lot. In fact, in 2001, a season in which he'd club 23 homers for Milwaukee, Hernandez fanned 185 times, four short of Bobby Bonds' then-31-year-old record.

Undaunted, the next season, Hernandez, (in the midst of a 4 WARP season that saw him make the All-Star team) set his sights on the record again. As September wore on, Brewers fans actually started cheering every swing and miss. After a two-strikeout performance on September 18, and with only personal milestones to play for, it seemed a fait accompli that the righty-hitting slugger would whiff his way to the record. But manager Jerry Royster didn't want to embarrass his shortstop. So he sat him. For five days. Hernandez, still one short of Bonds record, finally re-entered the lineup on September 23 and, for the first time in five months, managed to play three consecutive days without striking out, going 6-for-11 in the process. And then he was out of the lineup again, never to set foot on the field again that year.

In all, the Brewers lost 106 games (they were 2-6 in the games Hernandez sat). Royster was fired, in part for his decision to bench the Brewers' most valuable player that year. Hernandez went on to play another four years in the big leagues. In 2003, he fanned 177 times for three teams (Colorado, Cubs, Pittsburgh) and even had a solid year off the bench for the 2004 Dodgers, hitting 13 homers and posting a 910 OPS in 95 games. But he'd never reach that elusive milestone.

Since 2004, five players have posted 11 total seasons with more strikeouts than even Bobby Bonds' record of 189 punchouts. It could have been Jose Hernandez's record they were trying to break. Just another case of what might have been. —Michael Ferrin

8. Michael Barrett and the Batting Title
Now, Dusty Baker isn't the reason that Michael Barrett missed out on a batting title in 2006. Some of that has to do with all of the players with higher batting averages than Barrett. And some of that has to do with all the playing time Barrett missed on account of punching A.J. Pierzynski in the face. But Dusty didn't exactly help as much as he suggested he might:

Baker said he would give catcher Michael Barrett every opportunity to win the batting title. Baker said he knows exactly how much playing time Barrett needs over the final seven weeks to receive the 502 plate appearances necessary to qualify for the batting title.

"You have team stuff and personal stuff," Baker said. "Team stuff comes first, and then the personal stuff comes later. But if you have the opportunity to do that in a personal situation where he might not have been there before--and who knows if he'll be there again?--you have to go for it."

...

Baker has not considered trying Barrett at first base to increase his playing time. Barrett played six games at first in Montreal but hasn't done it since 2002.

"I talked to [bench coach Dick Pole] and people who saw him play first [with the Expos]," Baker said. "They said he wasn't that good at first."

Now, here's three things to remember:

  1. Derek Lee had broken his wrist earlier that season.
  2. The Cubs were filling in with a platoon consisting of Phil Nevin and John Mabry.
  3. Dusty somehow neglected to ask Dick Pole for a scouting report about Barrett's defense at catcher.

This is probably the least of Dusty Baker's mistakes in Chicago, to be sure. But that has to be the only time in his career Barrett was a catcher because of his glove. —Colin Wyers

9. Matt Garza: Almost a Complete-Game Shutout
Matt Garza is one the most hyper-competitive ballplayers I've been around. Mostly that's a good thing, but sometimes his emotions spiral out of control and cause him to do silly things. On April 12, 2012, he was rolling. He had the Brewers down 8-0, limiting Milwaukee to just two hits. He'd gotten two quick outs to begin the ninth. His pitch count was edging up, but Norichika Aoki had two strikes. Aoki hit a little comebacker and Garza stepped off the mound and fielded cleanly. He had plenty of time to make a nice, careful toss to first baseman Bryan LaHair. Garza has had a Chuck Knoblauch-like mental block on these simple plays at times in has career, so he'd taken to running the ball toward first, then throwing underhand to complete the play. He could have easily done the same thing to get Aoki.

Instead, Garza's nose opened up and he decided that the thing do was to wind up and fire a 98 mph fastball at LaHair, emphatically finishing his complete-game shutout. LaHair looked up helplessly as the ball sailed into the stands. Aoki was safe on the error and awarded second base. That had been Garza's 119th pitch, and with an eight-run lead, Dale Sveum wasn't going to stretch his best pitcher, not in the second week of April. He went out and took the ball from Garza, who walked off the mound with his head hanging. After he went into the tunnel, toward the clubhouse, he threw a fit, swearing, throwing things, and raging at some unknowing media that was passing by on the way to the postgame interview room. A few minutes later, he sheepishly apologized. It was one of my favorite little moments of the season so far. —Bradford Doolittle

10. Mickey Mantle and Barry Bonds Almost Hit .300
Look, we all know batting average isn’t the end-all, be-all or anywhere close to such, especially for superstar Hall of Fame-level careers, but a .300-plus batting average carries a cosmetic significance that can’t really be measured. Many believe Barry Bonds had a Hall of Fame-level career before he ever hit those 73 home runs in 2001, what with his three MVPs, 494 home runs, 471 stolen bases, .412 on-base percentage, and 979 OPS. His .298 batting average was far from bad, but it certainly didn’t catch your eye like the other numbers. Then he began his unthinkable tear.

From 2001-2004, Bonds hit a combined .349 with 209 home runs, netting four MVPs and solidifying himself as one of the best hitters ever. His career OBP was now a filthy .443 and his batting average rose to exactly .300. Perhaps in a twist of poetic justice, Bonds hit just .276 in his final three years, lowering his career mark to .298 despite his video game-esque .464 OBP, which was fueled by 256 walks.

Mantle, meanwhile, last hit over .300 in 1964 (his fourth straight .300-plus season), four years before the end of his career. His .303 average in 465 at-bats that season left him with a .309 career mark, giving him a solid cushion entering the twilight of his career.

In an ugly twist of fate, Mantle would hit .255 or worse in three of his remaining four seasons (the exception being a .288 average in 1966), taking his career batting average down 11 points and leaving him on the wrong side of .300.

Mantle actually carried a .302 mark into the 1968 season, his last, but wound up hitting just .237 on the season, leaving him short. He hardly limped to the finish, with a .385 OBP that year and a very capable 143 OPS+, which only further proves how inept batting average at capturing the value of a player, even a great like The Mick. —Paul Sporer

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