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September 9, 2008

You Could Look It Up

Love in the Temperate Zone, Part One

by Steven Goldman

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During my last chat, an innocent question about J.P. Ricciardi's endlessly mediocre tenure as the Toronto Blue Jays' general manager set me to thinking. There has always been something that seemed unusual about Ricciardi's teams, but not in the traditional way that we have of thinking about good teams or bad. The fact is, the Blue Jays have been neither good nor bad for a very long time; they've been treading water for time out of memory. Anyone who has tried treading water knows that there's only so long that you can do it. Even Michael Phelps would get tired bicycling his legs after a few hours, yet the Jays have been doing it for years, neither rising nor falling appreciably, but merely hovering in the same place, season after season.

By neither rising nor falling, I do not mean to suggest that their record has had no variation, but rather that they have gone years at a time without posting a season that we would classify as "good," in this case winning 90 or more games, or "bad," losing 90 or more. Assuming that the 2008 Jays do not finish their season with a 16-6 flurry (possible given their current eight-game winning streak, but unlikely), they will finish their fourth straight season in the temperate zone between 90 up and 90 down:

2005   80   82   .494
2006   87   75   .537
2007   83   79   .512
2008   76   66   .535 (to date)

This is, in a small way, unusual. Since the expansion era began 1960, there have been just 22 times that a team has had four consecutive seasons in the temperate zone before breaking the skein, 12 examples of teams treading water for five years, two each of six- and seven-year stretches, three of eight, and only one of nine. That last, the 1972-1980 Minnesota Twins, coming out of a very successful late-'60s period (one that saw them win the AL pennant in 1965 and AL West titles in 1969 and 1970), as managers (including the well-regarded Gene Mauch) tried to take such excellent players as Rod Carew, Lyman Bostock, Bert Blyleven, and Bill Campbell and turn them into winners-yet no matter what they did, the Twins just could not rise above third place.

The Jays, though, are more special than those Twins, who were caught between owner Cal Griffith's penury and the rise of free agency; when it was over for the Twins it was over. In 1982, the team was sold, broken down, and rebuilt from the ground up with guys named Kent Hrbek, Frank Viola, and Kirby Puckett. The Twins would do a lot in the ensuing years, and none of it involving standing still.

The current Jays are downright historic when it comes to the great art of hovering. This team, and elements of this roster, were also one of the aforementioned three that had temperate-zone streaks of eight seasons. The other two of the three were the 1961-1968 Cleveland Indians, the 1961-1968 Milwaukee/Atlanta Braves (it was a bad era for teams with racially exploitative mascots-even the Washington Redskins didn't post a winning season in those years). The 1996-2003 Blue Jays joined the club with this run of adequacy:


Temperate Toronto, 1996-2003

1996   74   88   .457
1997   76   86   .469
1998   88   74   .543
1999   84   78   .519
2000   83   79   .512
2001   80   82   .494
2002   78   84   .481
2003   86   76   .531

Only the 2004 season, in which the Jays finally broke down and lost 94 games, stood between Toronto and 13 straight seasons of 90-less records. Ricciardi has been the franchise's general manager since November of 2001, which means he has personally presided over five, and now perhaps six, of the team's temperate seasons. Clearly he has done some things correctly, while simultaneously being unable to move the team out of its rut.

A look at some of the other long-term temperate teams may prove instructive, particularly the 1961-1968 Braves, the only club on the temperate list that was just one season away from more than a decade (it would have been 14 straight years) of standing still. There is a significant difference between the two, however, at least as far as GM evaluation is concerned: the Braves broke up their long temperate stay with the 1969 division title:


Brave Mediocrity, 1961-74

1961   83   71   .539
1962   86   76   .531
1963   84   78   .519
1964   88   74   .543
1965   86   76   .531
1966   85   77   .525
1967   77   85   .475
1968   81   81   .500
1969   93   69   .574
1970   76   86   .469
1971   82   80   .506
1972   70   84   .455
1973   76   85   .472
1974   88   74   .543

After 1974, the Braves finally ceased treading water and began a new kind of streak, one in which they lost between 92 and 101 games for five consecutive seasons. Let's take a look at what was happening to the Braves during those years using the simple measure of park- and league-adjusted OPS and ERA. "Rank" indicates league rank in that category:


Braves Team-Level Performance, 1961-74

Year   OPS+  Rank  ERA+  Rank
1961   109     1    96     6
1962   105     3   103     4
1963   104     5    99     7
1964   117     1    86     9
1965   109     2   100     5
1966   112     2    99     6
1967   102     5    96     6
1968   101     4   103     6
1969   102     5    96     6
1970    98     6    99     7
1971    97     5    99     9
1972    99     6    89    10
1973   110     1    93    11
1974    93     8   124     1

As you can see, we're considering a very long span of time in baseball terms, and the team's needs changed over the period in question. In the early '60s, the Braves had a terrific offensive unit, with Joe Adcock, Eddie Matthews, Joe Torre, and, of course, Hammerin' Hank Aaron. These were augmented by more transient figures like outfielders Lee Maye, Mack Jones, and Rico Carty, shortstop Denis Menke, and first baseman Felipe Alou, that kept the batting order potent for years. Starting late in the decade though, the offense began to decline, a fact that was disguised to some degree by the team's relocation from a pitchers' park in Milwaukee to Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium, soon to earn it's later name, the "Launching Pad."

What really stands out is how consistent the team's problems with pitching were throughout the period. Early on, this expressed itself both in starting and relief. The Braves had a good habit of under-playing their Pythagorean projections, in large part because managers like Chuck Dressen and Bobby Bragan hadn't quite managed to get the whole idea of relief pitching settled in their minds, or couldn't find adequate relievers, or both:


Braves Pitching Components Performance, 1961-69

Year  SNLVAR  Rank   WXRL   Rank
1961   23.6     2    1.75     8
1962   23.3     6    4.58     5
1963   20.7     4    2.20     7
1964    8.6    10    0.34     9
1965   15.4     5    6.97     3
1966   15.4     6    1.58     9
1967   16.2     7   -1.35     9
1968   15.8     7    4.46     3
1969   20.4     7    5.82     3

In 1961, the Braves recorded 15 saves and blew 17 save opportunities (not that either were being counted at the time), and were the only team in the league not to be in positive territory. This changed, but the starting pitching remained weak throughout this period, particularly after Warren Spahn and Lew Burdette declined, the former having his last good year at the age of 42 in 1963. There is very little evidence from the trading record that the Braves, led by general managers John McHale (1959-1966), Paul Richards (1967-1972), and Eddie Robinson (1972-1975), were overly concerned with starting pitching at this time. They were helped by the emergence of homegrown products Phil Niekro in 1967 and Ron Reed in 1968, while a June, 1968 trade for Milt Pappas represents their only significant attempt to obtain pitching from outside the organization during the decade. Nor did they put much emphasis on starting pitching in the amateur draft, which began in 1965. The Braves picked just three pitchers in the first round (Al Santorini, Ron Broaddus, and Preston Hanna) from 1965 to 1976.

In this light one of the crucial moves, both in temperate-Braves history as well as that of the franchise overall, was the December, 1960 decision to trade young starting pitchers Joey Jay and Juan Pizzaro to the Cincinnati Reds for veteran shortstop Roy McMillan. McMillan was an excellent glove, but the loss of pitching depth would hurt the team for years to come. Almost as significant was their botched signing of college pitcher Tom Seaver in 1966.


Braves Pitching Components Performance, 1970-74

Year  SNLVAR   Rank   WXRL   Rank
1970    20.0     7    1.75     9
1971    12.2    11    3.77     6
1972     7.5    12   -0.63    10
1973    13.2     1   -6.58    12
1974    28.4     1    5.91     4

A shocking (and as it would prove, short-lived) turnaround in Braves pitching took place in 1974, just before the team would finally crash. Beyond the contributions of Niekro and Reed, it came courtesy of trade acquisition Carl Morton-added in February of '73 in one of a few belated attempts to bolster the pitching staff (another pickup, Pat Dobson, was added along with Davey Johnson for lethargic, power-hitting catcher Earl Wilson in November, 1972, pitched poorly, and was quickly dispatched to the Yankees in a mid-season trade)-and one-year wonder Buzz Capra after being purchased from the Mets, who won the ERA title but was never healthy again. A significant, also not-to-be-equaled contribution was made in the bullpen by future pitching coach Tom House, who threw 102 2/3 innings with an ERA below 2.00.

It may seem overly simplistic to take a 14-year span of mediocrity in a team's life and chalk it up to something as basic as, "They lacked pitching and made only a minimal effort to deal with it," but that seems to be what happened in Milwaukee and Atlanta during their long stretches of mediocrity. The Braves always had just enough pitching to stay where they were, and somehow could not or would not add the additional bodies it would have taken to break free-or that would have made it worthwhile to augment the offense. That's because the lineup was also suffering after 1966, the club's last season of having a truly thunderous attack; in that season, Joe Torre hit .321/.365/.498 as the catcher, but was only the third-best hitter on the club behind Carty at .330/388/.554 and Aaron at .328/.393/.514. The offense was moribund until 1973, the famous year that Aaron, Davey Johnson, and Darrell Evans all hit 40 or more home runs.

In our subsequent, concluding installment of Love in the Temperate Zone, we'll take a look at whether or not Ricciardi's decisions as Jays' GM bear any similarities to those of the Braves.

Steven Goldman is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Steven's other articles. You can contact Steven by clicking here

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