Three Thoughts: 9/29/04

Are the Cardinals a great team?

Before the season, most people were picking St. Louis to finish third in the NL Central behind the Cubs and Astros. Some people said not to overlook them completely, but I didn’t see many people picking them to win the division.

Even as the season wore on and the Cardinals started to pull away in the division, most people were pointing out their flaws rather than talking about how good they are. Here we are now with less than a week left in the season, however, and St. Louis has 103 wins.

If the Cardinals can win two of their final five games, they will become the fourth team in the last 15 full major-league seasons to reach 105 wins. If they can win four more games, they will have more wins in the last 15 full seasons than any team besides the 1998 Yankees (114 wins) and 2001 Mariners (116 wins).

Those two teams were obviously among the greatest in baseball history. The third team with at least 105 wins the last 15 full seasons is the 1998 Braves (106), and I’d have to classify them as a great team as well.

Let’s see how this year’s Cardinals compare to those three teams. First, how did the other teams do outside their best year?

They Yankees averaged 97 wins the year before and after 1998, the Mariners averaged 92 wins the year before and after 2001 and the Braves averaged 102 wins the year before and after 1998. We obviously don’t know the St. Louis before/after average yet, but the Cardinals only won 85 games last year. However, they did average 95 wins per season the three years before that.

All great teams have to receive some career years, whether they come from star players or unknown players. The question is, how many?

The 1998 Yankees really only had two. Hideki Irabu had a 4.06 ERA in 173 innings and Ramiro Mendoza had a 3.25 ERA in 130 1/3 innings.

The 2001 Mariners had four. Bret Boone hit .331/.372/.578, Mike Cameron hit .267/.353/.480, Freddy Garcia had a 3.05 ERA in 238 2/3 innings and Arthur Rhodes had a 1.72 ERA in 68 innings.

The 1998 Braves had three. Tom Glavine posted a 2.47 ERA in 229 1/3 innings, Kerry Ligtenberg had a 2.71 ERA in 73 innings and Gerald Williams hit .305/.352/.504 in 266 at-bats.

And this year’s Cardinals? I count five career years. Jim Edmonds (.307/.424/.656) and Scott Rolen (.318/.411/.604) have been great before this year, but they’ve taken their game to a new level this season. Tony Womack is hitting .304/.348/.382, John Mabry is hitting .297/.364/.513 and Chris Carpenter has a 3.46 ERA in 182 innings.

All three of the other teams had a good offense based on OBP and SLG on way or another.

The 1998 Yankees led the league in runs as they were first in OBP and fourth in SLG. They didn’t have any player hit 30 homers, but 10 different players hit at least 10. Only Bernie Williams (.575) had an SLG above .550, but three others were above .500 and three more were above .470. Only Williams (.422) got on base more than 40 percent of the time, but all nine other players who got at least 300 at-bats got on base at least 35 percent of the time.

The 2001 Mariners also led the league in runs and also finished first in OBP and fourth in SLG. Six of their 11 players with at least 250 at-bats had an OBP above .370. The five players on the team who had the most at-bats all had an SLG of at least .450.

The 1998 Braves were fourth in the league in runs as they were fourth in OBP and second in SLG. They had three players with an OBP of at least .385 and two more with an OBP of at least .350. They had four players with an SLG of at least .575 and two more above .470.

The 2004 Cardinals, of course, lead the league in runs as they’re third in OBP and first in SLG. The vast majority of their offensive prowess comes from having three players with both an OBP above .410 and an SLG above .600.

The three other teams all led the league in runs allowed as well, thanks to a nice balance between starting pitching and relief pitching.

The 1998 Yankees did not have a pitcher with at least 100 innings pitched post an ERA below 3.00, but neither did they have one post an ERA above 4.25. Mariano Rivera gave them a 1.91 ERA in 61 1/2 innings and three other relievers contributed solid ERAs in at least 35 innings.

The 2001 Mariners had seven pitchers throw at least 75 innings and six of them had an ERA under 4.25, five under 3.60. The Mariners also had three relievers throw 65-plus innings while keeping their ERA below 3.25.

The 1998 Braves had three starters post an ERA below 3.00 and the highest starter’s ERA was 4.08. Ligtenberg anchored the bullpen, and two other relievers had an ERA below 3.00 in at least 35 innings.

This year’s Cardinals also lead the league in runs allowed thanks to a nice balance between starting pitching and relief pitching. St. Louis has five starters with at least 180 innings pitched, and four of them have an ERA below 4.20 (Matt Morris is at 4.55). The Cardinals also have five relievers with at least 40 innings pitched and an ERA under 3.00.

There is one big difference that jumps out at me when comparing the Cardinals to the other three teams. All three of those teams had pitching staffs that ranked in the top five in the league in strikeouts, walks and home runs. The Yankees allowed the fewest homers, the second-fewest walks and were fourth in strikeouts. The Mariners were fifth in strikeouts, third in walks and fifth in homers. The Braves were first in strikeouts and homers and second in walks.

The Cardinals? They’re second in walks, but they’re only eighth in home runs allowed and 12th (!) in strikeouts. That seems to suggest to me that maybe the Cardinals aren’t leading the league in runs allowed because they have a great pitching staff, but rather because they’ve been pretty lucky.

For that reason, I’m hesitant to call the Cardinals a great team right now. They may just be a very good team that’s gotten more than its fair share of breaks in the regular season.

Of course, there’s nothing saying being a great team is all that it’s cracked up to be. Two of the three teams I discussed didn’t even reach the World Series that year.

The Amazing Ichiro

Everybody is keeping an eye on Ichiro Suzuki and his chase for the single-season record for hits, as well they should. What impresses me the most is not that gaudy hit total (he’s at 254 after two hits on Tuesday), but what it implicitly means.

What it means is that Ichiro has accomplished the impressive task of keeping his batting average really high while piling up a ton of at-bats. Quite simply, the more at-bats you have, the harder it is to keep your batting average in the clouds.

Rob Neyer discussed this when Nomar Garciaparra flirted with a .400 batting average in 2000. He said that Garciaparra wouldn’t reach .400 because he doesn’t walk much, and that means he’s going to have to keep his average up in more at-bats, which is difficult. If that’s not immediately apparent to you, here’s a summary of an example he provided that paints the picture clearly.

In any given day, a great many hitters bat .400 (36 players did so Tuesday). In any given week, there are usually at least 10-12 hitters who bat at least .400. In any given month, a few players usually hit at least .400. In any given year, nobody’s hit .400 since Ted Williams.

So, how amazing is it that Ichiro may set the record for most at-bats in a season, and he’s still hitting .372?

Well, coming into this year, there had been 103 instances of a batter getting at least 660 at-bats in a season. The combined batting average of all those players in all those seasons was .299. Ichiro will not only set the record for highest batting average by a player during a season in which he had at least 660 at-bats, he will be the first player to hit above .355. Five players have hit at least .350.

Darin Erstad hit .355 in 676 at-bats in 2000.

Lloyd Waner hit .353 in 662 at-bats in 1929.

Don Mattingly hit .352 in 677 at-bats in 1986.

Jack Tobin hit .352 in 671 at-bats in 1921.

And Ichiro hit .350 in 692 at-bats in 2001.

This year, Ichiro has 254 hits in 682 at-bats with five games left. If he can go 13-for-24 to finish the season, he will post one of the 100 best batting averages of all-time while setting the record for most at-bats in a season. That would be something.

Just so you know, only three of the 28 .400-plus batting average seasons came during a season in which the player had at least 600 at-bats. Of the top 100 single season batting averages, only 17 times did the player have at least 600 at-bats. Only five times did the player have at least 625 at-bats. Only one player had at least 650 at-bats — Al Simmons hit .387 in 654 at-bats in 1925.

So, right now we’re probably witnessing the greatest instance of a player maintaining a ridiculously high batting average over a ridiculously large number of at-bats since 1925.

Of course, after saying all that, it’s just incredible that Ty Cobb was able to keep a .366 batting average after 11,434 career at-bats.

An Interesting Situation

With Johan Santana pitching about as well as anybody can reasonably be expected to pitch, nobody really wants to face the Minnesota Twins in a five-game series right now. The Yankees, however, might be in the unenviable position of being damned if they do and damned if they don’t.

After getting rained out Tuesday, the Yankees and Twins have three games against each other today and tomorrow. If the playoffs started today, the Yankees would host the AL West winner and the Twins would host the Red Sox. If either team sweeps this series, however, it could very well make them face each other in the first round of the playoffs.

If the Twins sweep, they will likely lock up the No. 2 seed and the Yankees will be 97-62 heading into their final series. With the Red Sox finishing up a four-game series against Tampa Bay, they could improve to 97-62 by winning the final two games of the series. Since the Red Sox have the tiebreaker, the Yankees would then need to do better in the final series to win the AL East. Otherwise, they’d be the No. 4 seed and would play the Twins.

If the Yankees sweep, they will likely lock up the AL East and the Twins will be 90-69 heading into their final series. If either Anaheim or Oakland win the final two games of their current series, they would be 91-68 heading into their final series (which is against each other). Since both Anaheim and Oakland won their season series against Minnesota, they have the tiebreaker to earn the No. 2 seed and Minnesota would need some help to not finish as the No. 3 seed, which would have them facing the Yankees.

It’s more likely that one team will win two out of three games, but I think it’s interesting that a sweep in either direction could change things so that the Yankees and Twins end up playing each other in the first round. Of course, the Red Sox and A’s or Angels would need to take care of things on their end as well, so it’s not a real likely scenario, but anything that makes a series a little more important at this point is nice.

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