Saturday, May 31, 2014

MLB: Traditional Wisdom

Let’s hope Bud Selig reaches retirement before deciding to fix this, but the outcome of three out of four Major League Baseball contests is as pre-determined as was the outcome of the 1919 World Series.

Moreover, this truism is indeed part of the game’s common knowledge, what everybody knows. It’s heard every time a discussion turns to a manager’s impact on his team’s on-field performance.

“Every team will win 60 games; every team will lose 60 games.”

Unless my abacus has blown a gasket, that adds up to 120 games whose outcomes have been established, fully 74.1% of a team’s regular-season schedule.

Baseball’s first utilized a 162-game schedule in 1961 – but only in the ten-team American League. The following season, when the Astros and Mets joined the NL, that total became and has remained the standard. Circumstance has caused the shortening of four intervening seasons: 1971 (156 games), 1981 (111), 1994 (117) and 1995 (145). (We’ll exclude these years, along with the Yankees’ marvelous 103-win though asterisk-scarred 1961 season, from this review.)

From 1962 through 2013, a team has embarked upon a major league season 1,262 times. Only 42 of those teams (3.3 percent) have managed to win fewer than 60 games. Barely more than half as many (22, or 1.7 percent) were able to lose fewer than 60.Those 22 sub-60-loss campaigns were achieved by a mere nine franchises: Yankees (5), Braves & Orioles (4 each), A’s (3), Tigers (2) and Cardinals, Mariners, Mets & Reds (1 apiece).

Not only do sub-60-win seasons occur more frequently than their antithesis, they involve far more teams, 20 to be exact. Two-thirds of the winners’ list is represented here as well, including the most frequent big losers, the Tigers and Mets (5 seasons each). The Nationals nee Expos have four appearances, the Astros, A’s & Blue Jays three apiece, while the Mariners, Pirates, Royals, Rangers & Cubs account for two each. Nine franchises sport one such blemish: D’backs, Brewers, Rays, Marlins, Indians, Braves, Orioles, White Sox & Padres.

Here’s a piece of trivia guaranteed to win you a bar bet: Since MLB instituted the 162-game schedule, which team holds the single-season record for victories? The Yankees? Close but no cigar, as they are one of only two teams who finished with fewer than 50 losses, 114-48 in 1998. The Braves? No, topped out at 106, also in ’98. Weaver’s Orioles? The Big Red Machine? Uh-uh.

Order off the top shelf as you identify the 2001 Seattle Mariners, 116-46.

In this 162 Era, there have also been only two teams to win fewer than 50 games in a full season. Casey Stengel’s Original Mets remain the standard bearers for ineptitude (40-120) and required three more years before reaching the 60 plateau. The 2003 Tigers missed history by a single game, finishing 43-119.

In 2013, the Astros matched the late ‘70’s Blue Jays with three consecutive seasons of futility. Only the Nationals (’08-’09), Tigers (’02-’03) and Kansas City A’s (’64-’65) have done such a dubious double.

Here’s a final dosing of historical karma, for the road, as they say: Seven MLB franchises, six of whom were fielding teams back in 1962, have staunchly upheld the validity of the 60-60 maxim. Each and every one has advanced to a World Series. (And for all its laid-back free spirit, California is home to three of these traditionalists.)

Remember, it’d be better if we don’t mention any of this to the Bud Man.