Monday, April 23, 2012

The Greatest Starts in MLB History

This is a follow up to Rick’s excellent post on how teams’ early performances are reflected in their final season records. How’s your favorite team doing so far? The best starts are by the Rangers (13-3), the Dodgers and Nationals (12-4), and the Cardinals (11-5). Some players and teams have already proven that their Spring Training stats didn’t mean much, but how likely is it that these fast starters will prove themselves to be top-notch teams? 

Well, I would say it’s unlikely that the Nationals or the Dodgers will make it to the World Series. The Rangers and Cardinals certainly have a shot at going all the way though. What, you may ask, are the best starts of all time, and how did those teams fare the rest of the way?

Let’s start with consecutive wins. The record is thirteen straight and two teams did it. The 1982 Braves, led by Bob Horner, Dale Murphy, and Phil Niekro, went on to lose the NLCS to the Cardinals in 3 games. The ’87 Brewers, who featured Paul Molitor's .353 average and 45 stolen bases, ended up 3rd in the AL East in spite of a 91-71 record and therefore did not make it to the playoffs.

In 1966 Baltimore almost won 13 in a row (12-1) and thanks to Triple Crown winner Frank Robinson (.316, 49 HRs, 122 RBIs) and Boog Powell (34, 109), great defense led by Brooks Robinson, and two solid closers – an art form still in its infancy – won 97 games and then swept the Dodgers.

The 1939 Yankees started 29-7 and, led by Joe Dimaggio (30 HRs, 126 RBIs), Joe Gordon (28, 117), and Red Ruffing (21 wins), they won the pennant (hardly a surprise in those days) and then swept the Reds.

In 1970 the Big Red Machine was just getting revved up. They started 23-7 with a young Johnny Bench slugging 45 home runs and knocking in 148 and Tony Perez hitting 40 homers and driving in 129. They didn't have great pitching but didn’t really need it. They won 102 regular season games but only one Series game against Baltimore.

In 1984 everyone waited for the Tigers to come back to Earth after a 35-5 start. They didn’t. Led by Lance Parrish (33, 98), Kirk Gibson (27 HRs), and Jack Morris (19 wins) they won 104 games and needed just five games to down the Padres in the World Series.

Two years later Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden led the Mets to a 21-4 start and an 108 win season. They beat the Red Sox in a drama-filled seven game Series.

Under their new manager Lou Piniella the 1990 Reds led from wire-to-wire (after starting 29-11) and finished by sweeping the A’s, who had won the Series the year before. They didn’t have a lot of power (Hal Morris, their first baseman and leading hitter at .340 hit only 7 home runs) but they stole a lot of bases. How times have changed – they had just three players making more than $100,000.

The ’95 Indians also started 29-11 and ended up with an even 100 wins. Albert Belle hit 50 homers, Kenny Lofton stole 54 bases, and five regulars hit over .300. They beat the Red Sox and Mariners but lost to the Braves 4-2. Four years later the Tribe again started 29-11. Manny Ramirez belted 44 dingers and Jim Thome added 33. Omar Visquel and Robbie Alomar stole more than 30 bases each. Bartola Colon was 18-5. They went out in the first round.

And now a few personal reflections. There have already been some rare feats in this young season – an inside the park home run, a perfect game, and an amazing comeback. On Saturday I pulled a Phil Rizzuto. No, I didn't execute a smooth double play or lay down a perfect bunt. As a broadcaster Rizzuto was famous for leaving games early (to beat the traffic on the George Washington bridge) especially if it was a lop-sided affair. In the second game of their weekend series with the Red Sox the Yankees were trailing 9-0 and nothing was going right for them – their rare line shots were hit directly at enemy fielders. After the fifth, even though Joe Girardi had pointed out that no lead was safe at Fenway, I gave up, surrendered the remote, and went off to read. The Yankees scored seven runs in each of the next two innings and went on to win!

The day before I had been delighted as the Yanks downed the struggling Red Sox in a game marking the 100 year anniversary of Fenway Park. Both teams wore 1912 uniforms and the game was played in the daytime – but there the similarities to 1912 ended. The walls had changing electronic ads. There were black, Japanese, and Hispanic players on the field. Players weren't chewing tobacco. Batters wore helmets and elbow protectors. An outfielder made a catch with a glove the size of a bushel basket. Pitchers didn’t throw spitters or go the distance. And a new ball was thrown in whenever it acquired a microscopic speck of dirt.

One final note ... one of the announcers hailed an innovation that is designed to speed up the game. Batboys have been instructed to have a bat ready to give to a hitter whose bat is broken so he doesn't have to go to the batrack for a new one. Wow! That should make a big difference! Forget about preventing pitchers from taking forever to deliver each pitch, or banning batters from stepping out, or allowing relievers nine warmup pitches, etcetera, etcetera. No, those close-at-hand replacement bats should do the trick. Bud Selig was in the broadcast booth patting himself on the back for the new playoff format and labor peace, maybe he should have addressed what he will do to speed up the game.

1 comment:

Rick Blechta said...

Re: your last paragraph. Boy, with this latest innovation, why, I'll bet games will be sped up by at least a minute – maybe even two!

What will they think of next?