The best Septembers ever, when the best Septembers ever were required.
In this series, we’re looking at the 210 teams that won at least two thirds of the games they played in September and October. I divided them into three groups. In the first installment, I examined Group 1: They Were Gonna Win Anyway. They’re the 87 teams that were leading their league or division at the end of August, or were less than three games behind, and rode a hot September/October to the postseason. I also looked at Group 2: No Cigar, Often Close. That’s the 91 teams that that won two-thirds of their games starting September 1, but didn’t play beyond the regular season’s close. Now we’re at the really fun teams—those that were trailing by three or more games at the end of August but rallied to make the postseason.
Group 3: From the Depths of Hell
If you haven’t seen this video of a collegiate 4x400 relay, you really should, partly because it’s a thrilling race, but also to hear the announcers, one of whom makes a Tom Hamilton home run call seem sedate while the other at points seems to be channeling Fred Willard in Best in Show. So which major-league teams, like the anchor-leg runners, have used a sizzling final lap to come from behind and win their races?
There have been 32 teams that were in second place or lower, three or more games back, at the end of August, but won two-thirds or more of their September/October games to qualify for the postseason. Prior to divisional play, only eight clubs had managed the feat. From 1969-1994, the two-division era, six teams did it. Since 1995, 18 teams have done it. However, of those 18, 14 were within three games of the wild card as of August 31. So there are only 18 teams since 1913 that have trailed a postseason berth by three or more games as of the start of September but got to play into October via a blistering finishing kick. Here they are, ranked by the deficit they overcame in ascending order:
The first All-Star Game was in 1933. Ever since, the Midsummer Classic has provided a convenient, if mathematically inaccurate, way of dividing the baseball season into halves. The first “half” has comprised, over the last 10 years, an average of 90 games. The remaining 72 games of the schedule make up the second “half.” I’ll dispense with the quotation marks here, but keep in mind this is a figurative, not literal, half.
This year, the All-Star Game was a little earlier than average, so the first half was a little shorter than average, with the 30 clubs playing between 87 (Baltimore, Boston, and Milwaukee) and 91 (Dodgers, Toronto) games, with an average of 89. Through Labor Day, teams had played an average of 48 games in the second half, with an average of 25 games to go.
And wouldn’t you know it, we’re seeing something that we’ve never seen before.
With the last month of the season comes an opportunity to indulge in Pointless Baseball, for all it's worth
Tonight, after a week in which I grappled with whether I might take a mulligan or write a scintillating piece on, like, what Tim Tebow means for the ontology of MLB, I found myself listening to a Phillies-Braves broadcast in the car. There are pointless baseball games, and then there are Pointless Baseball Games. A spring training game is the lowercase version of a pointless baseball game: the record doesn’t really count, the performances are questionably reliable, and the overall product is informative but probably misleading at best for an analyst or a fan. An early-September game in which a team that is 10 games out of the wild card race hosts a team that is 19.5 games out is the capital-letter version of a Pointless Baseball Game—there is nothing to gain or lose. You can’t even be mislead.
Now, of course, on a practical level there are certain things that these late-season games provide. They provide audition grounds for promising and even not-so-promising prospects who might be vying for jobs with the big-league club come March. They give managers and veteran players alike a shot at auditioning for jobs they might have to fight for over the offseason. And they determine seeding for the bottom dwellers of the league (when those same bottom dwellers aren’t playing spoiler). There’s certainly quite a lot of use for Pointless Baseball.
But what Pointless Baseball does not provide very well is any incentive for fans to tune in, at least on its face. The games drag on, hurt by the fact that they mean almost nothing, and generally killed by the fact that there is something nicer to do outside in the waning days of summer and the early onset of crisp fall. Any incentive to watching a 6-4 game that largely stars Jeremy Hellickson—just to pick a random for instance—is shot down once the viewer realizes “oh, hey, my team has zero chance of capitalizing on a win here.” Bereft of the systemic drama of the playoff race, we tune out until the Rule 4 draft.
Well, except in two situations (three if you count people who blog about baseball and desire nothing more than to punish themselves by watching September games and thinking seriously about them). The car is the first situation in which you might listen to the game, as there’s rarely anything more peaceful than hearing a baseball game over a middling car stereo with the windows down on a warm summer night. The second situation is the only thing that gives the car a run for its money in terms of pure, uncut baseball emotion: a trip to the ballpark.
Because while TV ratings tend to drop precipitously as teams reach the point of no return on their season, there’s no reason to think that the quality of the team need be a death knell for in-park attendance. While attendance varies from team to team and, more importantly, from market to market, it’s not uncommon to see teams that are well out of the race fill a park on a nice afternoon or evening. And as parks become more and more attuned to the total experience of their fans, providing them with jumbotrons, specialized park food, craft beer, et al, the in-person experience becomes more and more detached from the product on the field.
While it might seem that the last thing teams in MLB would want to do is divorce their stadia from the products housed in them, I think that actually, they’d probably be pretty happy about it, all things considered. Because while tickets sell themselves during playoff runs, the only salable point that teams have during slumps, losing streaks, and abysmal rebuilds is the park and the experience of live baseball. And as you’re probably recalling right now, a good chunk of that experience has little or nothing to do with the game on the field itself. Drinking beers, telling stories with your friends, playing jumbotron race games, figuring out if you’ll eat at the park or after the game—these are often the elements of a day out at a baseball game that stick with a spectator more than the box score. And if those elements can be divorced from the product on the field entirely, then there’s a true draw to late season Pointless Baseball, namely the venue itself.
A few years ago, it was common wisdom that teams were overvaluing their prospects. There's more to it than that.
As front offices have evolved, there’s been a growing perception that they are valuing prospects more and more. Research has shown, for instance, that front offices are bolstering their scouting departments to find top prospects and make sure they don’t miss on the next big star. But a number of people have also asked whether teams are overvaluing these prospects.
Rany Jazayerli has argued that in the past teams were able to “plunder” prospects away for far less than they can today. Jazayerli credits teams for being savvier nowadays, making it harder to swipe a top-ranked prospect in a trade. Jazayerli, however, suggests that the blowback on some of these trades has made teams overvalue their prospects, especially after the Mark Teixeira deal in 2007. “The blowback from the Teixeira trade seems to have made teams even more conservative about trading prospects, even for elite major league talent. As a result, for perhaps the first time in baseball history, minor league prospects seem to be overvalued by MLB front offices.”
To answer this, I selected every team from 1913 through 2015 that won at least two-thirds of their games in September (and, where appropriate, October.) I used two-thirds as my cutoff…well, because. That’s a pretty good month! It equates to a 108-54 season.
If you’ve read any of my columns thus far, you probably could see this one coming. Tommy La Stella, erstwhile OBP machine second-base fantasy sleeper for the Atlanta Braves and current Iowa Cub, has been one of the most fascinating baseball stories this year—well, at least for someone like me who likes to think about labor and contracts and the ugly side of baseball.
The short version is that La Stella, despite putting together a pretty solid year as a utility/spot start guy, got sent down to the minors after the Cubs acquired Once, Future, Past, and Present Cub Chris Coghlan. Understandably frustrated, La Stella made the unexpected move to, well, not report. He did not show up in Des Moines and held out in his home of New Jersey. Held out might be the wrong word here, as La Stella does not have the leverage that an NFL player like Joey Bosa does in his current holdout or like a young top draft pick like Jacob Groome did in this year’s Rule 4 draft. La Stella didn’t make any dramatic demands or pleas of unfairness; he just decided to take some time to think about what he wanted from his future.
Unsurprisingly, the minds at Baseball Prospectus Wrigleyville have had some wonderful takes on the situation. Twitter pal and good writer Tom Hitchner produced a piece near and dear to my heart that tied film analysis to the La Stella situation in an effort to talk about anticlimax in baseball. And Ken Schultz put together a lovely piece explaining the ways in which La Stella’s holdout was not what it might seem, and that a young player might actually deserve time to get his head together.
And it’s times like this that I’m grateful to my colleagues for being such good people. Baseball Prospectus, despite its beep bop boop computers reputation, gets that people, who are sometimes flawed and complex, play the game. In the mainstream press, La Stella has not fared so well. Most notorious is the piece that Schultz critiques in his BP Wrigleyville essay, a fairly brutal polemic against La Stella by Paul Sullivan of the Chicago Tribune.
I don’t want to give my editors conniptions by spending an entire article getting furious at another reporter, so let me give the very quick blow-by-blow of what I find problematic about Sullivan’s piece. First he opens with a fairly hamfisted Carlos Zambrano comparison that smacks of typical Anti-Latino sentiment in major-league baseball writing. Second, the piece refuses to believe La Stella’s own explanation of his behavior, casting not-so-subtle aspersions on his claim that his refusal to report to Iowa was not about being demoted. But third, and worst of all to this leftist’s mind, he sides with management. A longish quote:
Baseball's move beyond seat-of-your-pants, gut-feel baserunning is good for winning and good for Vince Coleman's records.
In this article, I talked about Vince Coleman who stole 326 bases in his first three years in the majors, eclipsing 100 every season, and opined that Billy Hamilton is a similarly devastating basestealer in a more boring era. I calculated that if Hamilton had been used in 2014-2016 the way Coleman was in 1985-1987, he’d have 244 stolen bases since the start of 2014 rather than his present 166. That breaks down to 87 in 2014, 89 in 2015, and 68 so far in 2016. We’d be talking about one of the greatest basestealers in baseball history rather than a guy who’s just really fast. Why aren’t we? Why aren’t the Reds deploying Hamilton the way the Cardinals deployed Coleman three decades ago?
Well, it’s not the Reds. It’s baseball.
It’s not just that Hamilton gets (justifiably) marked down for his low OBP (.296 so far in his career, .294 since 2014) in a way Coleman never did. Here’s a chart of stolen base attempts per team per year from 1951 to 2016. I’ve normalized all the figures to assume a 162-game season, to put the pre-expansion 154-game seasons, the strike years, and the ongoing 2016 season on equal footing.
Modern baseball is smarter, which isn't always as fun.
At this year’s Saberseminar, I was out for dinner and one of the people in our group asked what contemporary player we think we could tell our grandchildren, “I saw him play.” Mike Trout was a gimme, but we had a hard time coming up with someone else. My thought was that Billy Hamilton would be such a player, but he was born about 30 years too late.
I know, Billy Hamilton is not a great player. He’s having his best season, and his career on-base percentage is still below .300. And it’s not like he compensates with power: Of the 172 players with 1,200 or more plate appearances from 2014-2016, his .088 ISO ranks 164th. He does play a good center field, but he’s got a .236 career TAv. That’s a lot of bad bat to carry with a glove.
But he can run. Man, can he run. Through games of August 16, when he was sidelined by a knee contusion, he has 29 stolen bases. Since the All-Star break. The only players, other than Hamilton, with that more swipes all year to that point were Jonathan Villar, Starling Marte, and Rajai Davis. And that doesn’t include plays like this:
Despite the obvious strategic benefits, teams never tactically surrender. Why that should give you faith in the game.
The first season of the Toronto Blue Jays’ existence was 1977. It didn’t go particularly well, as is true of most first seasons, and they began play on September 15 with a 48–96 record. Baltimore was their opponent that evening, owners of an 87–58 record, second-best in the American League. The Orioles had won seven straight games and 15 of their previous 18, and were looking to narrow the gap between themselves and New York in the pennant race and leave Canada with a four-game sweep of the Blue Jays behind them.
By the third inning of that night’s game, a steady drizzle had begun to fall over Exhibition Stadium. The temperature that day was in the 50s, so drizzle probably wasn’t the end of the world, but Exhibition was not a pleasant place to play. Originally built for football, the Blue Jays would spend their first 12 years in the park as it became renowned for dismal seating, bad weather, and seagulls. On this day, however, Exhibition’s important feature was its on-field bullpens, squeezed tightly into the sparse foul territory of the oddly shaped stadium’s outfield.
As the rain continued, the grounds crew placed tarps over the bullpen mounds, and weighed them down with bricks. Presumably, this had happened before, but perhaps never against the Orioles, and more importantly, never against Earl Weaver. The famously combative Hall of Famer was in the 10th year of his hugely successful tenure as manager of the Orioles, and he protested the deployment of the tarps vociferously, citing the risk of slipping and injury to his players. Crew chief Marty Springstead ordered the removal of the bricks, but wouldn’t order the tarps removed or declare them out of play, as Weaver wanted. In response, the Baltimore manager removed his players from the field, and refused to have them return while the tarps remained. As a result, midway through the fifth inning, with the Blue Jays leading 4–0, Weaver’s Orioles performed the first, last, and, to date, only voluntary forfeit since integration.
You can't predict baseball, Suzyn, yet baseball's allure is its fundamental predictability.
There is something about hometown radio broadcasts that can captivate even during the most boring games or amid the worst seasons. Simply hearing the same cadences that you’ve heard hundreds of times before, or rehashes on the same jokes again and again, can bring a sense of calm or stability to a short trip in the car. At least, that’s how it is for me, and based on the hagiography of voice that stands as a backbone to baseball’s popularity, I’m not alone: Harry Kalas, Bob Uecker, Jack Buck, Vin Scully—the list of baseball men alive or dead who have been the je ne sais quoi of their team goes on. Add in the crackly static of a fickle AM broadcast, and you have quite the stew going.
What I’ve always thought is that the mix of warm feelings and familiarity was a product of memory, and that the tricky catch of aural recall mixed with the distinct feeling of a summer evening produced a powerful trick of the senses. Listening to the game, in other words, isn’t the perfect experience we think it is, it’s the memories that go along with it that trigger our euphoric calm. But I’m less and less convinced that it’s anything as simple as that.
One of the things I wrote about in my very first column here at Baseball Prospectus was the issue of fun in baseball. Whether or not baseball is “fun” in the way that, say, football is “fun” is part of a debate that refuses to die. Some people will tell you baseball isn’t fun at all, while others will tell you it’s boring to watch on TV but fun at the park. And many, many people will profess the beauty of a game on the radio during a day at the beach or while grilling up food for a twilight picnic in late July. But many more will be more than happy to detail exactly what they dislike about baseball in general: it’s too slow-paced; the mound visits make the thing so boring; the athletes don’t look like they’re in shape; steroids; etc., etc. It’s just that all that irritation about the game and its various flaws and foibles goes away when we hear the familiar voices that go along with it.
So why would that be? More and more I’m convinced that it’s because much of the general enjoyment of baseball—much of what makes it “fun” for an average, non-fanatical or BPro-subscribing viewer—is its predictability. If this seems counter-intuitive, I get it. A lot of what is most fun about baseball on the surface is its unpredictability, its intensification of football’s iconic “Any Given Sunday” mentality in which any given team might beat any other given team given a best of five series. The 2011 Phillies taught us that you can’t stack enough pitchers up to clinch a five-game series on merit alone, and the 2001 Mariners taught us that you can’t brute force your way to a World Series (sorry to the 2016 Cubs). And that kind of variance is fascinating as much as it is heartbreaking and frustrating, so to say that the bedrock appeal of the game lies in the totally opposite direction is, on its face, a bit perplexing.
But the appeal of a single game of baseball is different than the appeal of the sport entire. And for most people, the 162-game season deeply discourages acute attention to individual games. As my colleague and diehard Yankees fan Mary Hale loves to tell me, the season doesn’t even start until the playoffs. Her ability to get under my skin with this notwithstanding, I’m pretty sure that most fans feel similarly: that the regular season is a morass of either positive or negative trends that don’t quite become real outside of the abstraction of box scores until October. And so, the out and out unpredictability of a mid-June or late-August game probably means more to you and me, dear reader, than to, say, our dads or a random barber.
But—But!—the games still happen! Yes indeed, despite interest or attention or ratings to speak of, the games happen constantly through the dog days of summer. And often, they happen in front of packed stadiums and cheering fans, even when the home teams are skidding to yet another disappointing season, and especially when those home teams are cruising to an easy playoff berth (someday I will write a column devoted to how pleased I was to move away from Wrigleyville in the early summer of 2015). And I would hazard a guess that 75 percent of those fans filling the seats are less interested in the exact standings or particular stats of their chosen team and more interested in enjoying a nice night outdoors with some beer, hot dogs, and good company. All paced by the familiar cadence of the nine innings.
All the good hitters are young. This is not true of the other half of the league's players.
I recently moved back to where I grew up, in the Philadelphia area, or if you want to be specific, just north of that Delaware Valley we know and love. Moving back home has meant moving back to a lot of familiar people and places, and that’s been a real joy; perhaps not chief among these joys, but among them, has been a return to Philadelphia sports radio. When I lived in Chicago, I’d dabble in the ocean of sports radio there, but the pessimism and anger there just wasn’t the same as my pessimism and anger, so it never quite clicked. Now that I’m back, I can listen to the angry men yell on the AM radio for as long as I can stand, which is usually 15-20 minutes.
And while there is increasingly more decent sports radio—the immortal Chris Mueller and John Barchard have helped with this—the angry, reactionary takes far outweigh the reasoned ones. And so I started listening more carefully for germs of sense in the reactive talk. Obviously we know what isn’t true—the Phillies can’t trade for Mike Trout; no one will be selling the team; ownership will not “reward” the fans for their loyalty. But in the premises of some of the call-in segments and rants, there are legitimate questions, and on the rare occasion those questions devolve on baseball in August in a city where there’s no hope of the postseason, there are some compelling threads to pull out. For instance: Where are all the really good, kind of old veterans?
When I heard the question, I initially scoffed because, of course there are good older veterans. This was just a case of confirmation bias and a young, fun, and bad Phillies team featuring Ryan Howard’s terribly aging corpse distorting perspectives.
Well, as it happens, give a point to sports talk radio. As has likely been discussed in the pages of this site many times, the top 10 in rWAR this year, according to Baseball Reference, are all 33 or under. Take out the outliers of Robinson Cano, Josh Donaldson and Clayton Kershaw (RIP) from the list, and that number plummets to 26. (Jose Altuve, you are now an elder statesman.) Now, 33 isn’t exactly young in baseball years, but Cano isn’t in the same geriatric ballpark as A-Rod or Beltran, let alone 39-year-old Barry Bonds, who had led the league in rWAR back in 2004. So what the heck? Where art thou, 32-40-year-old stars? Is Robinson Cano all that’s left?
Scanning a list of WAR leaders, the answer is kind of “yes and no.” Miguel Cabrera remains in the top 30 thanks to his bat if not his glove, but despite seeming like he’s been around forever, he’s only 33. Same with Evan Longoria, who, while transcendent in his way, is only 30. Daniel Murphy’s 31-year-old season continues to be a revelation, and Justin Turner is still hitting. Ian Kinsler is the oldest within spitting distance, at 34 years old, and we’d be wrong to not mention the prejudices of WAR when it comes to analyzing designated hitters, as David Ortiz is having a historically good 40-year-old season. But I think we at least have to wonder—where are the late-career stars?
One answer, looking back at previous Top-10 rWAR lists, seems to be that many of our best stars from 2004-2010 burned out pretty much around the same time. The bright and quick peaks of players like Chase Utley; the steady decline of players like Ben Zobrist or Albert Pujols; the retirements of Derek Jeter, David Ortiz, and Alex Rodriguez. All of these contribute to what seems like a barren landscape of truly elite older position players. Add on to this that some of the best older position players still at it are not as flamboyant as your Manny Ramirezes gone by, and you’d be forgiven for thinking that the older star had vanished. There are 66 position players over 30 playing in the majors this year, and very few of them are what you’d, subjectively, call bona fide stars. Raise the age to 33, and you’re left with 28. Above 35? Only 14. Which is sobering not in terms of numbers—only 11 players were over 35 in 2006—but in terms of names. No Jim Thomes or Frank Thomases on the list in 2016 to be sure.
Groundball pitchers seem like a good thing, but does DRA agree?
Back in June, I took on the issue of groundball pitchers. Well, more specifically, I took on the issue of groundball pitchers and Bill James’ antipathy toward them. This article was prompted by James’ comment, “If you like Groundball pitchers, you’re welcome to them. I don’t want nothin’ to do with them.” In the article, I looked at pitchers last year. I found that if you rank every pitcher in 2015 by groundball percentage and divided them into deciles, generating more groundballs was correlated fairly strongly to fewer home runs and lower ERA and FIP. Here’s the key table: