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September 2, 2003
Reading the Schedule
The A's have ripped off nine straight wins, taking the lead in the American League West in the process. It's not the most impressive streak ever--the nine wins have come in equal parts against the Blue Jays, Orioles and Devil Rays--but it has allowed them to regain their balance after losing Mark Mulder for the season to a hip injury.
Beating up weaker teams going into September has become something of a rite of passage for the good teams in the AL West. Last year, the Angels took advantage of a similar stretch to leap over the Mariners and become the team to beat in the Wild Card race. They went 10-2 in a two-week run covering late August and early September in which they played only the D-Rays and Orioles. At about the same time, the A's were winning 20 consecutive games, helped in part by a schedule that had them playing 21 in a row against the shaky AL Central.
The practice of the teams in the game's best division inflating their records against the AL's weak sisters in August was actually set in 2001. The Mariners went 9-3 against the same bottom-feeders in the AL East in the same part of the season, setting up their September push to 116 wins. The A's did even better that year, going 11-1 against the Devil Rays and Orioles in the middle of their 58-17 second half.
The point is that when judging the performance of teams in the short term, it is essential to look at the schedule. With the unbalanced schedule in the unbalanced American League, teams can go through extended stretches of playing only good or only bad teams. It's not enough to see that a team has won 15 of 18, or that they went 11-17 in a month. It's imperative to look beyond that, because the AL schedule largely sets up in four-week stretches of home-and-homes against blocks of opponents, and in the AL, those blocks are often widely disparate, say, two weeks against the Yankees and Red Sox, followed by two weeks against the Tigers and Indians.
What does all this mean for the A's? Well, their current streak could continue for some time, as they'll play their next six games in Baltimore and Tampa Bay, and their next 16 against sub-.500 teams. In fact, the A's have just six games left against a team currently above .500, that being a home-and-home with the Mariners later this month that will probably determine the division winner. The A's may not be as good as they look right now, but they are likely to look this good for a few more weeks.
A week ago, I wrote an article about the NL Cy Young race that didn't once string together the syllables "Mark" and "Prior." Prior, who I pegged as the NL Cy Young Award winner before the season, was left out of the piece for two reasons: he was a mere seventh in the league in SNWAR at the time, and he had just 12 wins.
Since that article was penned, Prior has thrown 16 innings, allowed one run on eight hits and won two games. He's now fourth in the league in SNWAR, third in ERA, third in wins and third in strikeouts. With 14 wins, he now looks like he could get to 17, which has been the bare minimum for Cy Young winners in the past. Jason Schmidt has a profile that almost exactly matches Prior's in the traditional stats, and is a full win ahead of him by SNWAR. He, too, now looks like a stronger candidate after two wins in the past week.
John Smoltz isn't a contender any longer, which means that the race is down to one reliever in Eric Gagne, one wins guy in Russ Ortiz, and the two pitchers who have the strongest claim to the honor. As well as they've pitched, however, their chances of winning the award are largely out of their hands. It will come down to how many runs their teammates score, and how well their bullpens protect their work. Prior and Schmidt need Ws to impress the voters, and unless they get them, we'll see an oddball choice for NL Cy Young this year.
Prior, by the way, threw 131 pitches in yesterday's win over the Cardinals. The start was his fifth straight above 100 pitches, and in four of those, he's been at 116 or higher.
I'm willing to concede that a team in a pennant race has to take more risks that one that isn't, which causes me to temper my criticism somewhat. That said, this is the Cubs, who under a different administration worked Kerry Wood like a demon in the second half of 1998 in pursuit of a Wild Card slot. For their troubles they got three postseason games and lost Wood for all of 1999 and most of 2000.
Prior is two years older than Wood was in 1998, and to the best of our knowledge wasn't asked to do the things in high school that Wood was. Nevertheless, Prior's arm is still developing, and throwing 1,200 pitches over 10 starts in a pennant race increases the risk that, like Wood, he'll have his career interrupted by an injury. While I hope that this year's Cubs can find the happy medium between maximizing Prior's impact of their chances and minimizing the risk to his future, I'm inclined to believe that the latter isn't much of a blip on their radar at the moment.