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March 25, 2005

Prospectus Matchups

Good Fridays Past

by Jim Baker

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It's not a day we often equate with baseball. In fact, in some years--like this one--it occurs before the regular season begins. Nevertheless, I thought it might be interesting to discuss some random occurrences from Good Fridays past.

The first major-league games were not played on Good Friday until 1886. It was, not surprisingly, the upstart American Association that began the practice. Until that time, the National League did not get started until late April or early May, missing even the latest Good Friday by over a week. While some may not consider the league that featured Sunday baseball as an actual major league, they were Good Friday pioneers nonetheless and were back at it again on Good Friday in 1889.

The first National League games were not played on a Good Friday until 1892, the year after the American Association vanished. At that, there were just four contests, and they would prove to be the last Good Friday ballgames of the 19th century. The next time teams suited up on this day was in 1905, when Cincinnati beat Chicago 5-2 and the A's bested Boston 5-4 in the first American League Good Friday game.

One might assume that, in a time when Sunday baseball was still fairly rare, Good Friday might have been treated with equal reverence. Not really. A full slate of games were scheduled by both leagues for Good Friday in 1908 (April 17).

Coming back to modern times, here are some Good Friday games involving teams and people with whom you will be more familiar.

  • April 9, 1971

    You think saves are a silly stat nowadays? On Good Friday 1971, Pirate Bob Moose was cruising with an 8-1 lead over the Braves when he ran into a spot of trouble in the ninth. With two out and two on, a young Dusty Baker hit a pinch double to score a run. In came Dave Giusti to retire center fielder Sonny Jackson for the last out. One-third of an inning with the tying run either on triple-deck or in the double-hole--depending on your nomenclature--and Giusti had the first of his league-best 30 saves.

    Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, late arrivers to Dodger Stadium found the locals down to the Padres 6-3 after two innings. The joke was on them as that would turn out to be final score. Danny Coombs got the win for San Diego. Coming off a 10-14 season--a decent showing for a Padre pitcher in those days--it looked he was on his way to another passable year. Unfortunately, it would be his last big-league victory. Six losses later, he was done.

    Up the coast in Oakland, Vida Blue took the first big step of his Cy Young Award-winning season by striking out 13 of the 24 Royals he faced. When the game was called on account of rain after Kansas City had batted six times, Blue was on pace to tie or perhaps even break the single-game strikeout record of 19, held then by Tom Seaver and Steve Carlton. For their part, the A's scored five runs on just two hits as Jim Rooker and Ken Wright combined to walk seven men.

  • April 20, 1973

    Jim Busby of the Royals gave up three runs in the first inning against the White Sox. To start the second, he surrendered an infield hit, then smacked a batter with a pitch and got yanked. Both runners scored and the White Sox went on to win 16-2. It would be interesting to know if this is the worst start ever by a man who went on to pitch a no-hitter his next time out. (Seven days later, Busby beat Detroit 3-0, getting away with six walks while striking out just four.) The hitting hero for the White Sox in this game was Bill Melton. Two years previous, Melton had led the American League with 33 home runs. It's because of witnessing things like this in their formative years that people of a certain age are overly suspicious of the power sources of modern sluggers.

  • April 8, 1977

    History was made on Good Friday, 1977 when the Seattle Mariners logged their first win ever. Coincidentally, they also scored their first run. That came in the fourth inning when Dave Collins scored on a double by Dan Meyer. Up to that point, the Mariners had played 21 innings against the Angels without scoring. In fact, the Mariners probably qualify for the worst two-game start of any expansion team:

    '77 Mariners: 0-7, 0-2
    '93 Rockies: 0-3, 1-6
    '98 Diamondbacks: 2-9, 0-2
    '62 Mets: 4-11, 3-4

    The other nine expansion teams all won at least one of their first two games. Three of them won both. This includes the '69 Padres, who won their first three games by scores of 2-1, 2-0 and 2-0 against Houston. Seven years before, the Colt .45s had won their first three games by scores of 11-2, 2-0 and 2-0.

    The Mariners were leading 5-3 after seven but saw the game tied in the eighth. They fell behind in the ninth when Bobby Bonds was forced home on a bases-loaded walk. Victory was achieved in the home ninth, however, on RBIs from Scrap Pile Stinson and Larry Milbourne. 11,000 people went home happy. Imagine the panic in the streets today if an expansion team was already down to low five-figures by their second and third games.

  • April 9, 1982

    The Brewers opened their season on a high note, one they would sustain until the seventh game of the World Series. By beating the Blue Jays 15-4, Harvey's Wallbangers broke into double figures for the first of 21 times in 1982. They increased their scoring by more than a run per game from the previous year (note that the American League as a whole went up by nearly half a run). On this day, Ben Oglivie and Cecil Cooper each had four RBI and Pete Vuckovich was the beneficiary of his teammates largesse. This, too, was a precursor of what was to come as Vukovich rode this support to one of the least-deserved major awards in history--a Cy Young for a pitcher with 102 walks and just 105 strikeouts.

  • April 20, 1984

    On their way to a 35-5 start, the Tigers upped their record to 10-1 with a 3-2 win over the White Sox. Larry Parrish broke the tie in the ninth. If it hadn't have been him, somebody else would have done it eventually. Somebody was always coming up with the goods for Detroit at that point in time. There's no doubt about it: if you want to get people to notice you, play .875 baseball for the first quarter of the season. Their first loss hadn't come until the day before against Kansas City and their second wouldn't be for another week yet.

  • April 17, 1987

    Why isn't Bert Blyleven in the Hall of Fame? Well, games like this certainly didn't help. While this was by no means a world-beating performance (3 BB, 4 K, 8 H), Blyleven did hold the Angels to just two runs. His Twins mates, meanwhile, mustered just three hits and fell short, 2-1. It is on collections of small things like this that major events ultimately turn. If this and a dozen other games like it went the other way in his 22-year career, Blyleven would have been 300-238.

  • April 9, 1993

    No, they don't make attendance figures like this anymore: 80,227. That was in Denver. In early April. The occasion was the first Rockies home game ever; the team responded with a dominant performance over the Expos. The Rox led 11-0 going into the ninth and held on for the 11-4 win, their first ever. Bryn Smith pitched seven shutout innings and the still-active Eric Young scored four times out of the leadoff slot. On the other side, rookie Kent Bottenfield became the first major league pitcher to become a victim of the Denver altitude. Unlike Seattle fans 16 years before, Rockies followers showed up again the next day (65,000-plus) and the day after that (66,000-plus) and kept on coming in similar numbers the rest of the year. Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle now have a lot of that turnstile money.

  • April 10, 1998

    In the late '90s, didn't it feel like some team was going to score 30 runs at any given moment? Teams reached double figures routinely. Sometimes, half the scores would include three digits instead of two. Or, as in the case of the Yankees/A's game played on Good Friday, four. New York prevailed 17-13 despite the first three men in the lineup going 1-for-15 and the other Yankees getting just three extra-base hits. A dozen walks from a relay team of five A's pitchers led by the incomparable Jimmy Haynes made up the difference. This game was significant for the Yankees because it brought them to .500 (4-4) for the first time all season. While the demanding New York press was ready to write them off at 1-4, they never looked back until they had won an additional 110 regular-season games and 11 more in the playoffs.

  • April 13, 2001

    Not that this is the point of the exercise, but it's still nice to see one every once in a while. And, if you're a Tampa Bay Devil Rays fan, your team has had just 11 of them in seven years. On Good Friday, 2001, Albie Lopez pitched the team's only complete-game shutout of the season. He gave up two singles, a double to Mike Bordick, three walks and hit two guys. Greg Vaughn's two-run homer in the seventh was the only scoring. How did Lopez do the rest of the year? Not well, registering a -3.1 VORP in 20 starts before being shipped to Arizona. This was a major disappointment, as he was coming off the second-best season ever by a Rays pitcher. Here are the five-best seasons by Tampa starters, followed by the best by pitchers who split their time between the bullpen and starting:

    VORP: Pitcher, Year
    56.8: Rolando Arrojo, 1998
    39.0: Tony Saunders, 1998
    36.3: Bryan Rekar, 2000
    34.9: Jeremi Gonzalez, 2003
    30.6: Victor Zambrano, 2003

    42.5: Albie Lopez, 2000 (45 games, 24 starts)
    33.5: Tanyon Sturtze, 2001 (39 games, 27 starts)

    Arrojo was eighth in the league. No club pitcher has ever gotten any closer. It would seem that for Devil Rays starters to aspire to even these middling heights is to beg for a swift and terrible fall. Consider that the combined VORP of the seven seasons above is 273.8. The follow-up seasons were mostly stunning reversals or, at best, significant drops: Zambrano, 20.6 (0.0 after trade to Mets); Arrojo, 19.5; Sturtze, 7.9; Lopez, -3.1; Gonzalez, -7.1; Saunders, -8.1; and Rekar, -9.3. That's a combined 21.4, or less than 10 percent of their value in the previous year.

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