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April 27, 2007
The Race to the Middle
While you take time to imagine the level of chaos that would be reigning in the Bronx right now had Alex Rodriguez not shown up with one of the best starts in history, consider that the Torre-Era Yankees have not been immune to slow starts-especially of late. This is the fourth consecutive season in which they've banged their heads getting out of the gate; 2005 was especially rough at first, as the Bombers fell as low as 12-19 before wrestling there way back to a .500 record before putting the spurs to it in June.
What follows are the very latest sub-.500 records of all the Yankee teams in the Joe Torre tenure. As of the very next game, they went to .500 to stay:
2006: 7-8 2005: 31-32 2004: 10-11 2003: N/A 2002: 0-1 2001: N/A 2000: N/A 1999: 0-1 1998: 3-4 1997: 11-12 1996: 6-7
Why then does the Yankees current record of 8-12 look so jarring? Probably because, in spite of what has transpired over the course of the last three years, our collective memory harkens back to the five-year run they had beginning in 1999 when they performed at the outset as we anticipate teams with high expectations to do. Even the greatest Yankee team of them all, the 1998 edition, had a bit of a hiccup as they dove into their regular-season schedule, losing their first three games.
With the state of their pitching and the inevitability of a Rodriguez cool-down, it is probably tempting to think that this year is somehow going to be different, but they've been here or near here in each of the past three seasons, and still managed to win their division. Even 2005, a year in which their starting pitching was every bit as problematic as it is this season, ended like they all have, with the Yankees on top.
The Pirates enter this series at 10-10. Seeing them with a .500 record-something they haven't achieved in a full season since 1992-might seem every bit as incongruous as seeing the Yankees below .500. The truth is, though, they have been doing this sort of thing throughout these, their wilderness years. In nine of these seasons, Pittsburgh has found itself playing at .500 or better deeper into the schedule than what we've seen so far in 2007. So if it seems like there's something different going on here based on their record alone, there isn't really-the Pirates have been here before. Reversing what we just did with the Yankees, here is the list of seasons since the Pirates last finished .500 (96-66 in 1992), along with their record indicating the last time they were at .500 in each year. If this seems like a long list that's because, sadly, it is:
2006: N/A 2005: N/A 2004: 23-23 2003: 14-14 2002: 19-19 2001: 4-4 2000: 2-2 1999: 67-67 1998: 34-34 1997: 67-67 1996: 15-15 1995: N/A 1994: 38-38 1993: 37-37
The one year that probably stands out the most came a decade ago when a depleted National League Central division allowed the Pirates to stay in contention much longer than their middling record would have in any other circumstances. They still had a shot heading into the final weeks of the season, but a late spurt by the Astros kept them at a safe distance. The good news for the Pirates this year is that that very same scenario could play itself out again. If the Brewers don't get too ambitious and if Pittsburgh can match their 1997 or 1999 outputs through 134 games, they'll enter the final month of the season with a shot at the division.
Maybe, at that juncture, they'll add someone for the stretch to help see them through. Wouldn't that be a pleasantly unexpected headline to see? "PIRATES MAKE DEADLINE DEAL FOR AUTUMN FUN RUN!" The Pirates last did that very thing in 1997, when they added Shawon Dunston from the Cubs. He had a heck of a month, too, hitting five home runs and driving in 16 men. He hit .394, slugged .690, and scored 14 runs. Of course, as only Dunston could manage, his OBP was five points lower than his batting average-which is perfectly acceptable if you're going to hit .394.
For those keen on nostalgia, there was a bit of it in play on Wednesday night in Oakland. Jarrod Washburn entered the ninth inning with closer J.J. Putz warming up in the bullpen. To that point, he had allowed just two hits and was holding a 2-0 lead. His opposite number, Joe Blanton, had managed to go all the way, throwing just 105 pitches in the process. When Washburn surrendered a leadoff single to Shannon Stewart to start the ninth, it seemed for all the world that Putz would be brought in to close the deal. After all, it's what we've come to expect in our baseball. Out in the bullpen, you could almost see Putz mentally entering the game-except that he didn't. Mike Hargrove opted to leave Washburn out there, and he got out of it with a tip of the cap to first base umpire Jim Wolf, who was a bit generous to Seattle on a game-ending double play call.
So, having thrown a combined 209 pitches, Blanton and Washburn had themselves a double complete game (a 2xCS, if you will). How rare of a beast has that become in this day and age? Pretty precious. Let's look at the frequency of this event since the advent of expansion:
Double complete game frequency
At the beginning of the expansion era, there would be one about every two days or so. Somewhat surprisingly, given that things got easier for pitchers in the late '60s, the frequency drops a bit in the second half of that decade. One possible explanation is that, with strikeout frequencies increasing, a complete game was more of a chore during that time. Here's another theory that might be fun to check: with scoring down, games were closer and, therefore, there were more opportunities for pinch-hitters to make a difference so that it was worth sacrificing the presence of a cruising pitcher in the lineup, replacing them with a live bat.
I was also surprised to find that the peak came in the late '70s, when closers were really beginning to make a name for themselves. The drop-off since then is as you would have probably guessed. At the beginning of the '90s you could still expect to see a 2xCS about once every 90 games or so, but by the end of the decade the frequency had almost been halved. In the last few years we're at the point where we might see one, maybe two, each month. So, while not as rare as no-hitters, the double complete game is on the threshold of novelty territory.
If you were going to guarantee one game this weekend, wouldn't it be the Mets over Jerome Williams and the Nats on Saturday night? Williams has been bombed in three of his four starts, and the Mets have scored the most runs in the league. New York was especially cruel to the Nats in DC last year, hitting them up for 13 runs twice and outscoring them 66-18 in the nine games played there, winning eight in the process. That's no guarantee that 2006's results will flow into 2007, but these are two teams that appear to be even more divergent than they were last year. How much more divergent than 66-18/8-1 we'll have to wait to see.
Say what you will about the Nationals, but there are plenty of guys in their lineup you wouldn't mind having on your team-Felipe Lopez, Ryan Zimmerman, Ryan Church, Austin Kearns, and the oft-injured Nick Johnson would all be welcome additions to most teams. Ronnie Belliard and Brian Schneider could be put to use on another roster in the right circumstances. So far, though, the team's bench has been pretty grim. The combined talents of Robert Fick, Jesus Flores, D'Angelo Jimenez, Michael Restovich, Josh Wilson, and Kory Casto have accumulated a .167/.323/.198 line in a little over 100 plate appearances. They've got three doubles to their names. On the plus side, they have walked 14 times between them.
That's also as many as Dmitri Young has in just 87 PA, so attention must be paid for now to the man who was publicly exiled from the Series-bound Tigers last year. That walk rate is a bit out of character for him in the context of his career, so one wonders if it's sustainable. One thing is for certain given the Nationals' makeup-much as he was with Detroit in 2003, it looks as though Young's in the wrong place at the wrong time once again.
The Elder Young
Keith Woolner contributed research to this column.