A league divided: Part 5 (1982-93)

In the series previously, we’ve looked at hypothetical two-division setups with unbalanced schedules from 1901-68 and three-division setups from 1969-81. Now we wrap up with the last 12 years of wildcardifying the two-division era.

Wonderfully for me, the division setup is the exact same in the AL as it was in the wild card era from 1994-97; you’re familiar with it and I don’t need to reprint it here, I’m fairly certain. In the NL, 1993 is as it was from 1994-97 in the wild card era. From 1982-92, it’s the same as the setup we used for 1969-81 in the previous article. Many thanks to MLB for being stable in this period and saving me busywork space.

On to the results, which are:

     AL East   AL Central AL West AL Wild   NL East  NL Central NL West NL Wild
1982 Orioles   Brewers    Angels  Royals    ATL/PHI  Cardinals  Dodgers ATL/PHI
1983 Orioles   White Sox  Rangers Tigers    Braves   Cardinals  Dodgers Phillies
1984 Tigers    Royals     Angels  Blue Jays Mets     Cubs       Padres  Cardinals
1985 Blue Jays Royals     Angels  Yankees   Mets     Cardinals  Dodgers Reds
1986 Red Sox   Indians    Angels  Yankees   Mets     Reds       Astros  Phillies
1987 Tigers    Brewers    OAK/SEA Blue Jays Mets     Cardinals  Giants  Expos
1988 Blue Jays Twins      A's     BOS/DET   Mets     Reds       Dodgers Pirates
1989 Blue Jays Royals     A's     Angels    Mets     Cubs       Giants  Padres
1990 Red Sox   White Sox  A's     Blue Jays Mets     Pirates    Dodgers Reds
1991 Blue Jays Twins      Rangers White Sox Braves   Pirates    Dodgers Padres
1992 Blue Jays Brewers    A's     BAL/MIN   Braves   Pirates    HOU/SD  Reds
1993 Blue Jays White Sox  Rangers Yankees   Braves   Cardinals  Giants  Phillies

As with the last article, the three best record changes are rather boring: 1982 O’s/Angels over Brewers, 1993 White Sox over Blue Jays, and 1993 Giants over Braves. There are far more compelling storylines in all this, so let’s get at ‘em. (I’ll also be commenting less on individual team makeup, in large part because a large portion of the readership was following baseball in these years.)

1982 Braves/Phillies

I can’t separate either one of these even though both teams are in the same division and both teams make the playoffs, because they tied in the head-to-head record. The normal tiebreaker on this is runs scored in the head-to-head matchup, but as this exercise merely inflates divisional records rather than get into the nitty-gritty of games, one of them wins the East and one of them wins the wild card, and we don’t know which is which.

Pete Rose

Second-place managers get a disproportionately leery eye from their fanbases compared to first-place managers; ask Willie Randolph. But what happens when the second-place teams become first-place ones? The Reds pick up three playoff spots in four years under the Pete Rose managership, led by an emerging Barry Larkin and Eric Davis, Dave Parker, Tom Browning, John Franco, and by 1988 the core that would win it all in 1990 and prove solid through the ’90s. Would that change how Rose’s gambling on his own team would have been viewed? I wasn’t much of a sentient being in those years, so I don’t know, but in my view that would have to temper the hubbub somewhat. If Joe Torre had bet on his Yankees to win the World Series in the late ’90s, my response would have been “safe bet,” not “Tainter of Game.” All this stuff looks different, of course, with Rose’s Reds always pulling up short by a few games. But still…they were actually quite good teams from the mid-’80s to the mid-’90s, and in this context Rose’s 2 division titles and a wild card look about the same as Lou Piniella‘s 2 wild cards a few years later.

Doug Rader

Rader didn’t manage long anywhere, but with four playoff spots he heads to October twice, with the 1983 Rangers and the 1989 Angels. The Rangers were not a good team, going all the way up to 80-82 with an unbalanced schedule (they were pathetic against the East), but it still wins the West by six games. The team was literally all pitching; only five hitters of any plate appearances cleared a 94 OPS+ (which belonged to Dave Hostetler for his .220/.323/.372 line), but only two pitchers of any innings fell below 102 ERA+. The rotation stayed in the majors for a ridiculously long time after 1983 as well; Mike Smithson retired in 1989, but Charlie Hough, Danny Darwin, Rick Honeycutt (who was traded midseason for Dave Stewart), and Frank Tanana all kicked around for at least 11 years each. I don’t know how often that group longevity occurs except for recent Braves teams, but it’s noteworthy all the same.

The 1989 Angels were actually a good team, but were buried in their division by the all-powerful A’s and the still-breathing Royals. The team had a lot of the pitching skill of the ’83 team – Chuck Finley (148), Jim Abbott (130) and Bert Blyleven (140) forming a ridiculously talented front three and Bryan Harvey (111) being the worst reliever on the team — but the hitting was actually serviceable. Mind you, it didn’t do much better in the runs column, placing 12th in the AL as opposed to the 13th the Rangers “achieved.” They were last in walks, first in strikeouts, and first in homers, but Chili Davis led the team with only 22; eight guys hit at least 10 homers. In other words, anyone on this team was a serious threat to hit a solo shot when they weren’t striking out. Tony Armas was a backup outfielder here. It makes sense.

In any event, like Rose, Doug Rader would have looked a lot better as a manager if his teams had made it somewhere. He couldn’t get an offense together, but nobody could in California for a half-decade, expectations in Texas weren’t huge, and he got some ridiculously good years out of his pitching staves. (You say staffs, I say staves. Mine’s cooler by fiat.)

1986 Indians

Perhaps known more than anything for their contribution to the Sports Illustrated Cover Jinx, this team would have won the divsion by nine games. The team overachieved a bit, but was at least far more fun than any other Indians team over the era. Scoring the most runs in the league but also giving up the most is not how you want to build your team, but it’s better than, say, scads of embarrassing seasons and buckets of withering scorn. The pitching started and pretty much ended with Tom Candiotti (116) in his first full year in the bigs, but the offense…only the Cubs, Rangers, and Red Sox outscored them in 2008, and obviously the conditions were a bit different back then. Everybody but catcher Andy Allanson (49) contributed; Joe Carter (130) and Mel Hall (128) had plenty of chances to drive in Brett Butler (102, which was third-worst in the lineup), and the others were solid. Even Tony Bernazard (124) chipped in with a career year. Once again, though, this was a team last in walks (strange how they’re pockmarking this article). It was the remarkably high .284 average, the best in either league from 1981-93, that kept it all going. Average-based offenses have a hard time sustaining themselves, as the next decade in Cleveland could testify, but this team had almost an entire lineup under 30 that was capable of scoring tons of runs. It was promise, but the pitching was never there, and it only took a few slumps in the offense to return to 100-loss teams.

1987

The Brewers’ ridiculous winning streak to start the year would have meant something under new manager Tom Trebelhorn (and I have to assume that his MLB career record of 23-4 from the end of ’86 to 4/27/87 is the best manager start ever). The Twins, mediocre as they were in real life, get no playoff spot from moving to the Central even though the unbalancing gains them a win, and the Blue Jays’ sputter in
September would still get a wild card (more ’06 Tigers than ’07 Mets). All of this opens the West up for the A’s and Mariners to fight it out at 80-82. The A’s you know from the years afterward, and the Mariners were only a shade better than their usual bad selves, but all these different results is the reason I like doing these weird hypotheticals.

The NL doesn’t have any odd results from unbalancing, but it highlights a few key features of this exercise. First, the Mets win the East in the middle of a 7-year streak; instead of the perceived tailing off at the end of the run and the fights with the Cardinals, it would have been business as usual. Second, even with this system, the Expos only make the playoffs once, and it’s the wild card in this year. I think the sad history of the franchise and the players whose reputations have been altered by that history may have started to overestimate the quality of the team in the ’80s. They weren’t a bad team by any means, but their only serious run at October was here. The Mets were just that good, and only Whitey Herzog‘s on-again, off-again Cardinals stopped that from showing up.

1988 Blue Jays

It’s always fascinated me that the Jays made the playoffs in the last year of Bobby Cox and the first year of Cito Gaston, but not in between. Here, they come off the 1987 wild card to win the AL East by a game over the Red Sox and Tigers, who fight out the wild card. The main distinctions of this edition of the team were at the corners, where Fred McGriff (157) took over for Willie Upshaw at 1B and Kelly Gruber (113, but with 33 doubles) took over for Rance Mulliniks‘s and Garth Iorg‘s amazingly long platoon. Both McGriff and Gruber were solid role players in 1987, and both would be vital in the next few years (although McGriff’s main contribution became the Carter/Alomar trade). So much of perennial contention is knowing how to plug in holes, and the Jays did a great job of this for years, especially with young players. When they couldn’t find the plugs anymore, the bottom fell out hard, and the organizational culture has yet to recover.

1991-92 Padres

Before unbalancing the schedule, the 1991 Padres would have tied for the wild card with the Cardinals (honestly, I know very little about the 1991 Cardinals), and the 1992 version would have won the division outright. Would this have stopped a fire sale? Who knows, but there weren’t four good teams in the NL at the time, and these Padres were nothing special, making October off 84 and 82 wins respectively. Not that the team didn’t have its strong points; Fred McGriff (147 and 166) had his numbers deflated because of the era but was a serious power threat, and Gary Sheffield (170 in 1992) joined him for one of the best hitting duos in Pads history. Tony Gwynn (118 and 122) was a bit off-peak, but since he had help it wasn’t quite as egregious. The rest of the lineup was inconsistent; Jerald Clark wasn’t scaring anybody, try as he might. Both years, the closer was the worst member of the bullpen, with Craig Lefferts in 1991 (97) and Randy Myers in 1992 (83), though the Friars surprisingly got the same ERA+ out of Lefferts in ’92 by making him a starter at age 34. Like many bullpens, the cast was seemingly random but effective, as Rich Rodriguez, Mike Maddux, and Larry Andersen bridged from the solid-but-unspectacular starters to the solid-but-unspectacular closers. The rise of the Giants in 1993 might have prompted a fire sale anyway, but this team deserved a better fate than sheer unrepentant gutting. (Then again, every team pretty much does. That’s why you read THT — it’s that insightful analysis like “gutting teams isn’t nice.”)

Conclusion

It amazes me how much perception of a team can change just by rearranging a few things. The unbalancing part of the exercise did very little as time went on, but for each era there was always some surprise team, just as it has been in the wild-card era. Some teams formed dynasties out of having less competition, while others were as dominant as they were in history. If the game ever becomes like basketball (yeech) and has a huge playoff system, we’ll be looking back wondering how things would be different. Hopefully, this series has been a realistic way of looking at such a problem.

References & Resources
Forman’s millions.

Bonus track: for all you long-suffering Rangers fans, if baseball had stuck with a two-division format from 1994 onward, the Rangers would have gone straight to the LCS in 1996 and 1998-99 instead of going home in the first round. Obviously, it’s rare that a team could be shafted by having more chances to win, but that’s Texas baseball for you. Also, the Braves’ run would have stayed the same except for 2000-01, when the Giants and Astros would have won the NL West respectively. It was impressive enough with three divisions, but it’s even more so with just two.

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