A league divided: Part 4 (1969-81)

In three previous articles, the AL and NL have been divided up into Easts and Wests, given an unbalanced schedule, and discussed as the results warrant. Now that we’re up to 1969, when leagues got real-life divisions, we’ll re-alignh from the two division playoff format to three divisions and one wild card to see what will happen.

This is the setup from 1969-71:

AL East    AL Central AL West     NL East      NL Central NL West
Baltimore  Chicago    California  Atlanta      Chicago    Houston
Boston     Cleveland  Kansas City Montreal     Cincinnati Los Angeles
New York   Detroit    Oakland     New York     Pittsburgh San Diego
Washington Minnesota  Sea./Milw.  Philadelphia St. Louis  San Francisco

In real life, the Senators became the Rangers in 1972, moved to the West, and sent the Brewers to the East (yes, the Brew Crew have been in the West, Central, East, AL, and NL). Here, the Rangers will move to the West, the Brewers will move to the Central, and the Tigers will move to the East,
like this:

AL East    AL Central AL West     NL East      NL Central NL West
Baltimore  Chicago    California  Atlanta      Chicago    Houston
Boston     Cleveland  Kansas City Montreal     Cincinnati Los Angeles
Detroit    Milwaukee  Oakland     New York     Pittsburgh San Diego
New York   Minnesota  Texas       Philadelphia St. Louis  San Francisco

The AL’s expansion in 1977 bumps the Royals to the Central, giving the league the same setup it had from 1994-97.

In each season from 1969-76, teams play 58 games against its own division and 52 each against the other two. From 1977-81 for the AL, the East and Central will play 63 against its own teams, 44 against the West, and 55 against other division, while the West will play 52 against its own and 55 each against the other divisions. Last but not least, we have to deal with the shortening of seasons twice: in ’72 and ’81. The 58/52/52 split in 1972 goes to 54/50/50, and 1981 has all the numbers multiplied by 0.7. With four playoff teams in each league in 1981 and in this hypothetical, I assume that the season wouldn’t have been split; it’s just a lot easier to figure out and to understand.

The results of all this are:

     AL East AL Central AL West AL Wild  NL East  NL Central NL West NL Wild
1969 Orioles Twins      A's     Tigers   Mets     Cubs       Giants  Braves
1970 Orioles Twins      A's     Yankees  Mets     Reds       Dodgers Pirates
1971 Orioles Tigers     A's     Royals   Braves   Pirates    Dodgers Giants

[AL: Senators/Rangers go West, with Brewers to Central and Tigers to East]
1972 Tigers  White Sox  A's     Red Sox  Mets     Reds       Astros  Pirates
1973 Orioles Brewers    A's     Red Sox  Mets     Reds       Dodgers Giants
1974 Orioles Twins      A's     Yankees  Braves   Reds       Dodgers Cardinals
1975 Red Sox Twins      A's     BAL/KC   Phillies Reds       Dodgers Pirates
1976 Yankees Twins      A's     BAL/KC   Phillies Reds       Dodgers Pirates

[AL: Blue Jays in East, Royals move to Central, Mariners in West]
1977 Yankees Royals     Rangers Red Sox  Phillies Pirates    Dodgers Reds
1978 Yankees Royals     Rangers Red Sox  Phillies Reds       Dodgers Giants
1979 Orioles Brewers    Angels  BOS/NY   Expos    Pirates    Astros  Reds
1980 Yankees Royals     A's     Orioles  Phillies Reds       Astros  Dodgers
1981 Red Sox Brewers    A's     Orioles  MON/PHI  Reds       Dodgers Cardinals

With very little changing via unbalancing (see part three for my thoughts as to why), most of these results are a straight sorting, with the differences discussed below usually being only a game or two.

There are five instances where the best record in the league would go to a different playoff team: 1971, 1973, and 1974 with A’s triumphing over the Orioles (partly because they got to play the Orioles less); 1972 Reds over Pirates; and 1979 Expos over Pirates. These instances are ridiculously close and involve well-known teams, so little needs to be said.

There are also two White Sox ’08 situations in here, where in a balanced schedule a team would have played a 162nd game to see if a 163rd was needed: the ’76 A’s for a wild card tie with the Orioles and the ’78 Pirates for a wild card tie with the Giants. (In this exercise, the A’s win the division and the Pirates wind up one game behind the Giants.)

Of course, there are also a number of teams above that get dynasties out of nowhere, like the Mets, the Twins (though they were a mediocre team), and the Reds and Dodgers, once they’re not direct competitors. The 1969 Cubs would win by three games over the Pirates and there would have been far
less choking. If length considerations permitted (and they rarely do with my articles, largely because of parentheticals just like the one you’re reading right this second), I’d discuss the 1973 Brewers, the 1978 Giants, and all the very random teams that show up in that list, but there’s so much to cover from the unbalancing anomalies that I have to leave them out.

1971 Braves

By one game over the Mets, who would have won it in real life, the Braves move from 82-win mediocrity to 85-win mediocrity in this exercise. Their Pythagorean record was 75-87, so this probably wasn’t a team of destiny or anything. At age 37, Hank Aaron posted an insane OPS+ of 194 off 47 homers (led the team by 14) and 71 walks (led the team by 24). Rookie of the Year Earl Williams (123) hit only .260, but had 33 home runs; Ralph Garr (125) would be productive the opposite way by hitting .343 with little power. This was also Darrell Evans‘ rookie year, and he wasn’t too bad either.

The pitching was average, masked by an unforgiving stadium; Atlanta’s R/G differential between home and road was .74, the largest in the league aside from the Reds’, who gave up .97 more runs on the road than at home. Phil Niekro (15-14, 125) was solid, and Ron Reed and George Stone were competent placeholders. The secret boost for the team, though, was Tom Kelley (9-5, 126 in 20 starts), who hadn’t appeared in the majors since 1967 with the Indians. After a few mopup relief games, Kelley started against the Expos on May 27. He four-hit them for the win, striking out nine, and stayed in the rotation to reasonable effectiveness. He was out of the bigs two years later and forgotten, but in a three-division setup, he could have been an Aaron Small-type savior.

Yeah, this team wasn’t that good.

1972 Astros

The real-life version had one fewer win and one fewer loss than the Dodgers, so they would have to play two more games to see if they’d play L.A. for the wild card (and you thought 2008 was complex). Here, they win outright by a game over the Dodgers. This was their first contending team they had for awhile, and the only one for awhile afterwards, so it’s a unique one. Managed by Harry Walker before being replaced by Leo Durocher fresh off his Cubs stint, the team had some curious traits. They led the league in R/G but had bad pitching. Contrary to most Astrodome-era ‘Stros, however, they both scored and gave up more runs at home (to be fair, the fences were moved in about 10 feet everywhere); the pitching was 4.61 R/G bad at home and 3.70 R/G good elsewhere. Really, the only solid pitching was from Don Wilson (15-10, 125) and aged closer Fred Gladding (14 SV, 121). That offense flowed freely showed up in Jim Ray‘s curious relief line: 10-9 with 8 saves in 54 games…with an ERA+ of 78 and a K/BB ratio of essentially 1. No other pitcher has won at least 10 and saved at least eight with that bad an ERA+, and it’s not even close; Firpo Marberry checks in with an 87 from 1927.

Ah, but that offense…young veteran 1B Lee May (137) and old veteran C Johnny Edwards (111, his only OPS+ above 85 in the last nine years of his career) were great complements to one of the best single-season outfields of all time: Bob Watson, Cesar Cedeno, and Jimmy Wynn left to right.

Betcha wouldn’t have guessed the teams on this list:

Teams where 3 OFs had 140+ OPS or better (min. 400 PA)

1908 Tigers          McIntyre/Crawford/Cobb
1925 Tigers          Wingo/Cobb/Heilmann
1926 Tigers          Fothergill/Manush/Heilmann
1939 Yankees         Selkirk/DiMaggio/Keller
1971 Orioles         Buford/Rettenmund/Robinson
1972 Astros          Watson/Cedeno/Wynn
1978 Brewers         Hisle/Thomas/Oglivie

The Orioles and Brewers get asterisks for having some players get significant time at other positions (though Milwaukee gets extra credit for having their fourth outfielder, Sixto Lezcano, clock in at a 135 mark), but aside from old Tigers teams there’s not much, and only one NL team. While playing in the Astrodome and unable to get far with it.

Baseball is strange and I love it.

1974 Cardinals

The Astros from two years prior share some similarities with this team that finished 1.5 behind the Pirates in real life but are 1 ahead of them here. (The Bucs real-life intradivisional matchups were best with the Eastern seaboard, while the Cardinals were much better against the Midwestern teams; funny what division splits will do sometimes.) Neither team did well again until the end of the decade. Both had criminally underrated outfielders, though two here were quite rated. 4 batters were in between 110 and 117 on OPS+, including MVP runner-up Lou Brock (110, but 118 stolen bases) and Rookie of the Year Bake McBride (114). But it was the newly acquired Reggie Smith (155) who made the offense work, and it’s Smith who went home without hardware or serious consideration.

The pitching was bullpen-led, as rookie Bob Forsch (122) and near-rookie Lynn McGlothen (135) had to compensate in the rotation for Bob Gibson‘s surprising decline (95 after years of greatness) and three other starters between 94 and 96. The ‘pen, though, was another story, with four relievers with 121 or better (in this case 3.00 ERA and under). Al Hrabosky was in his second full year, but he got surprising contributions from youngsters Mike Garman and Rich Folkers and 40-year-old Orlando Pena in his last — and best — full season.

The team would have had zero chance against its theoretical LDS opponent, the Dodgers Juggernaut (TM), but it would have been nice to see Gibson and Brock get a last hurrah in October, as well as getting Ted Simmons and Smith a bit more recognition.

1975-6 Orioles/Royals

With a balanced schedule the Orioles would have won the wild card outright; here, they tie with the Royals both times, and the Royals don’t win the division because the A’s do. All this would really do is start the Royals a year earlier in their quest for domination and extend the shelf life of the aging O’s and A’s. The ’76 O’s, of course, had the one year of Reggie Jackson (155), and Wayne Garland‘s random and lucrative 20-win season was that year too. The ’76 A’s had the one year of Chuck Tanner managing before they traded him for Manny Sanguillen; I guess if he had made the playoffs that year, they could have gotten more for him on the trade market…or something. Then again, everything was for trade after the season; Billy North was the only member of the 1976 lineup back the next year.

It’s easy to forget amidst the colorful nature of Charlie Finley and the whole team, but nobody was coming out to see this team even when they were winning. Attendance only went up by 100,000 from their last year in Kansas City to their first in Oakland, and their yearly ranks in league attendance from 1969-76 were eighth, ninth, seventh, fifth, eighth, eleventh (this was their third straight World Series championship year, mind you), sixth, and eleventh, respectively. The franchise attendance record of 1,393,054 was set in 1955, their first year in Kansas City; the team would not top 1.1 million until 1981. Yes, that’s right; the A’s set their Oakland attendance record in a strike year. I guess that says something about Mr. Finley’s relationship with his fans, but it’s completely strange. He could build a team like nobody’s business, but he couldn’t get along with it or the people watching it. Charlie Finley is the idiot savant of MLB front office history.

1977-79: Three ties

More fighting for the AL slots would break out, as the 1977 Red Sox would beat the Orioles outright in an unbalanced schedule for the wild card instead of a tie, the 1978 Rangers would win the West outright instead of tying with the Angels, and the Red Sox and Yankees would tie in 1979 for the wild card instead of the Red Sox winning outright. All of these except the Rangers would make the playoffs in or around these years, so there’s not much to report on them, but go to the Rangers page before you read the rest of this article.

There are three things that strike me about this team. First, they easily could have won the division in real life if Bert Campaneris (37 OPS+ off a .186/.245/.238 line) hadn’t played shortstop for the season, and…how to put this…this is one of the most imported teams of all time. I associate maybe five of these guys with the Rangers; the rest are all better known for playing elsewhere. I’ve never seen anything like it.

And third, this was Danny Darwin‘s first team and season in the major leagues. As I became a fan of baseball in the early ’90s, I’m surprised to find out Danny Darwin even had a first season. He was always kinda just around. It’s like imagining a young Bobby Cox or a thin David “Snack” Wells…I guess you could do it, but what good what it would do, and how accurate would your imagination be?

1981

The split season obscures everything about the year, but these standings aren’t changed drastically from the balanced schedule three-division setup. The only difference is that the Yankees and Tigers would have tied for the wild card with the Red Sox a half-game out pre-unbalancing. Here’s my favorite storyline from each of the three potentially tying teams, Boston, Detroit, and New York:

1) This was Dwight Evans‘ breakout year, the one that set the course for his ’80s self. He was third in MVP voting that year, so it didn’t go unnoticed then, but what’s the tendency in a smaller sample size? Of course a guy who’s 29 and cleared his previous best OPS+ (128) by 34 points isn’t going to do that again. Well, of his remaining 10 years in the bigs, he cleared that figure six times. If Evans had that third of a season back, he would likely have cleared 1500 Rs, 1400 RBIs, 2500 H, and just possibly 400 HRs. Would those round numbers have helped his Hall chances? With that many at stake, maybe.

2) Tigers closer Kevin Saucier broke a strange record: for any pitcher with at least 40 innings pitched and at least 3.8 BB/9, Saucier’s .959 WHIP was by far the lowest. This record was broken by Carlos Marmol in 2008, with a .927 WHIP with an astonshing 4.23 BB/9 (he walked one more than got a hit off him). Unlike Marmol, however, Saucier was not a strikeout pitcher, with only 4.22 K/9. In his 49 IP, he gave up 26 hits, 21 walks, and struck out 23. And his era was 1.65. There’s so much cognitive dissonance that I have to move on to number 3.

3) They say that pitching and defense win championships. Tell it to the Yankees…the team gave up only 3.21 R/G; this is the only team total under 3.5 in the AL from 1976 onward, and the three in 1973-75 are barely under. The DH league hasn’t seen pitching like this since and probably won’t for a long time…and with an unbalanced schedule and three divisions they wouldn’t even have gotten the chance to blow the World Series.

Next time

Wrapping up the divisions with 1982-93…there’s a rather big surprise in 1986, and Pete Rose was an all right manager.

References & Resources
Ballparks.com gives Astrodome fence information. Thanks, ballparks.com!

Baseball-reference.com gives lots of information. Thanks, B-ref!

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