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March 24, 1997

Fun and Games in the Cactus League

A History of Baseball Futility

by Jonathan Bernstein

We're joined this week by Jonathan Bernstein, who is a regular on rec.sport.baseball. This is the first of a two-part series on baseball in the Cactus League. Our thanks to Jonathan for the contribution.

Quick: where are the good teams this time of year?

For a forthcoming study of spring training effects, I played around with a few controls for league quality, which required calculating the aggregate won-loss (regular season) records of teams training in Arizona and in California.

In short, Cactus League teams have been putrid.

Actually, the Cactus League has had somewhere close to its share of good teams, thanks mainly to the two great A's teams since the move to Oakland. Arizona (or California) trained teams captured an almost respectable twenty divisional titles during the four-divisions era; that's a fifth of all divisional titles, won by eight of the twenty-six teams at that time. Training in Arizona isn't a curse in October, either, although it doesn't help much. Cactus League teams won nine of those twenty division series; the Giants and Padres only won when facing the (Mesa-based) Cubs, and the Brewers beat the hapless (Palm Springs-based) Angels. All three of those teams, of course, went on to lose the World Series, giving Cactus League teams a 4-5 overall record in the Fall Classic. In the three years of six-division play, Arizona-based teams have captured two of the eighteen division titles and one of the six wild card spots, with only one of those teams advancing as far as the LCS.

That's not much of a record. But the story of Cactus League futility isn't about the occasional good teams; it's about the many terrible ones. Despite the almost-normal number of division winners, during the twenty-five years of the four-division system, Cactus League teams as a whole exceeded .500 ball just three times: 1982, 1988, and 1989. Cactus League teams combined for a yearly average of sixty games under .500. Sixty. That means that the average Cactus League team finished at around 77-85, year after year, team after team, for twenty-five years.

And the strike year of 1994?

In just two-thirds of a season, the Cactus League teams managed to end up 110 games under .500. While they weren't quite the worst eight teams in baseball, no Grapefruit League team was looking up in the standings at a Cactus League team when the strike hit.

The 1997 Cactus League teams were a combined 32 games under .500 in 1996.

Bill James once speculated that differences in division quality could be self-perpetuating, because rational GMs in a league where 88 wins is enough will aim lower than those in a league where you need 98 wins. I don't know; I wonder whether simply being surrounded by mediocrity kills critical judgement. Spend a month playing in the Cactus League, and maybe you start to think your SS must be OK since he's at least better than Enzo Hernandez or Mario Guerrero; your 2B is better than Duane Kuiper or Damion Easley; your ace pitcher is better than Glenn Abbott or Mark Gardner.

Vic Harris played for three Cactus League teams. So did Paul Dade. Jim Anderson only had two, but Dante Bichette is on his third. All of Rick Manning's springs were in Arizona.

One Cactus League team made Frank Duffy their starting SS for six years. Another one traded George Foster to get him.

The eight Cactus League teams have lost 100 games fourteen times since 1969; the eighteen (now twenty) Grapefruit League teams have turned the trick eighteen times.

Even when they do well...Cactus League Cy Youngs have included Mark Davis, Bob Welch, and Pete Vuckovich. Cactus League MVPs? Well, there's always Andre Dawson. A bad Grapefruit ROY would be someone like Eric Karros or Sandy Alomar or Jon Matlack. Cactus League ROYs include immortals such as Butch Metzger, Jerome Walton, and Pat Listach. Grapefruit League ROYs: Cal Ripken, Lou Whitaker, Eddie Murray, Carlton Fisk, Jeff Bagwell. Cactus League ROY: Joe Charboneau.

Dan Meyer was a regular for two Cactus League teams. So was Juan Eichelberger. And Gary Thomasson. J.T. Snow and Turner Ward, too. Gary Alexander played with three, and so did Dave Heaverlo and Bob Owchinko. And Glenallen Hill.

Dave Kingman played for five Cactus League teams.

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