Last year, the Seattle Mariners finished 50 games ahead of the Detroit Tigers in the standings. Seattle went 93-69 while Detroit finished 43-119. Usually, when a team finishes that far ahead of another team in the standings, you’d expect them to finish ahead of the same team again the next year. This season, however, is providing a reminder that it doesn’t always work out that way.
Today, Seattle (58-94) is 10 games behind Detroit (68-83). If things stay the way they are, that two-team swing of about 60 games in the standings from one year to the next will be one of the biggest in major league history. So, what happened?
For the Mariners, the team that finished the 2003 season looked remarkably similar to the one that started the 2004 season. Mike Cameron left via free agency and he was replaced in the outfield with Raul Ibanez as Randy Winn slid from left field to center field.
The only other positions that lost their primary starter from 2003 were third base (Jeff Cirillo) and shortstop (Carlos Guillen), but neither Cirillo nor Guillen were able to play in more than 85 games last year.
Meanwhile, the starting rotation returned the same five pitchers — Jamie Moyer, Freddy Garcia, Ryan Franklin, Joel Pineiro and Gil Meche — none of whom missed a single start last year. In the bullpen, the big change was the signing of Eddie Guardado to replace Kaz Sasaki.
Because of the loss of Cameron’s glove in center field and the age of some key players, many people did expect the Mariners to slip a bit this year. But 30 or more games? No way.
Unfortunately for Seattle, all the older players felt their age at the same time and none of the new acquisitions worked out. John Olerud had slumped to .269/.372/.390 last year and slumped even further to .245/.354/.360 this year before the Mariners let him go. Bret Boone was coming off his second .900 OPS season (.294/.366/.535) in three years, but he’s only hitting .252/.316/.426 this year. Edgar Martinez hit .294/.406/.489 last year and decided to keep playing rather than retire. His .268/.351/.392 line this year has convinced him that now it is time to go.
With those three key players all aging at once, Seattle need help from the newcomers, but didn’t get it. Scott Spiezio had the seemingly easy task of replacing Cirillo’s .205/.284/.271 line from last year. He’s hitting just .210/.285/.345 and his defense isn’t nearly as good as Cirillo’s. Rich Aurilia was coming off a decent .277/.325/.410 season, but he slumped to .241/.304/.337 in his attempt to replace Guillen before Seattle got rid of him.
Ibanez (.292/.344/.453) has hit about as well as Cameron (.253/.344/.431) did — or even a little better — but the drop in defense from Cameron in center and Winn in left to Winn in center and Ibanez in left made the switch a huge loss. And that loss appears to have been felt in the pitching staff.
The Seattle pitching staff posted a 3.76 ERA last year. This year, with many of the same pitchers, the Mariners have a 4.83 ERA. Of the five starting pitchers, only Garcia saw an improvement in his ERA and the Mariners traded him after 15 starts. Moyer and Franklin have both seen their ERA rise by a run and a half and Pineiro and Meche haven’t been as healthy as last year.
The bullpen was supposed to be a strength with Guardado, Shigetoshi Hasegawa and Rafael Soriano. But Guardado’s been limited to 45.1 innings by injury, Soriano pitched in just six games and gave up five runs and Hasegawa saw his ERA rise from 1.48 to 5.15.
So, the Mariners have lost about 30 games in the standings because almost everything that could go wrong, went wrong (the exceptions being Ichiro Suzuki and Bobby Madritsch). Meanwhile, Detroit had everything go wrong last year. Natural normalization (that’s the best term I can think of) plus the addition of some important new players has led to a gain of 25 games.
There were several new players, but the important ones were Guillen and Ivan Rodriguez. Not only did they show up in Detroit and have excellent seasons, but the players they replaced were some of the worst hitters in the majors last year.
Last year, Brandon Inge caught 104 games and hit .203/.265/.339 while Ramon Santiago and Omar Infante saw the bulk of the time at shortstop and hit .225/.292/.284 and .222/.278/.258, respectively. Taking over those two positions that combined for a sub-.600 OPS were Guillen, who hit .318/.379/.542 before an injury ended his season, and Rodriguez, who is hitting .337/.386/.514.
Amazingly, Inge and Infante have both seen time elsewhere and have both magically learned how to hit. Along with them, Carlos Pena, Craig Monroe, Alex Sanchez and Bobby Higginson have all increased their offensive production this season.
The pitching staff hasn’t improved as dramatically, but Detroit’s ERA is below 5.00 this year (4.96) after finishing at 5.30 last year. The biggest change has been Mike Maroth, who went from 9-21 with a 5.73 ERA last year to 11-11 with a 4.23 ERA this year.
At any rate, now you know the formula for two teams changing so dramatically in the opposite direction. Seattle combined the sudden aging of its key players with poor player acquisitions and fell on its face while Detroit combined the end of its awful luck with good player acquisitions and surged toward respectability.
While this may be the biggest two-team swing in major league history, it’s not the first time a team has finished 40 games ahead of another team one year and behind that team the next. As far as I can tell, it’s happened five other times. Here’s a brief look at what went on each time.
2001-02 Mariners and Angels
In 2001, Seattle was the toast of baseball with its 116-46 record while Anaheim had a nondescript, third-place 75-87 campaign. The next year, the Mariners didn’t have everything go their way as they had the year before and fell to “only” 93-69. The Angels, meanwhile, caught fire and went 99-63 on their way to winning the World Series.
The Mariners simply had everything fall right in 2001. Several players had career years and Seattle led the majors in both runs scored (927) and runs allowed (627). Even with those run totals, the Mariners won seven more games than the Pythagorean Theorem says they should have. Those kinds of seasons just don’t happen twice in a row.
Some players (Olerud, Guillen, Moyer, John Halama) were actually better in 2002 than in 2001, but not enough. Boone had a good season instead of an historic one, Martinez, Ichiro and Cameron all slipped a bit, Cirillo wasn’t as good as David Bell had been and Seattle’s offense went from a .360 OBP and .445 SLG to a .350 OBP and .419 SLG. That cost the Mariners 113 runs and dropped them to sixth in the AL.
On the pitching side, Garcia was significantly worse, Pineiro pitched more innings but wasn’t as ridiculously good and James Baldwin was terrible. The Mariners saw their ERA rise from 3.54 to 4.07 and fell to fifth in the league in runs allowed (699).
This time, the Mariners did exactly what those run totals said they should have, and the result was a loss of 23 games in the standings. The Angels, meanwhile, were going the other direction with almost exactly the same team.
The Anaheim middle infield of Adam Kennedy and David Eckstein improved dramatically, Garret Anderson had his first legitimately great season, Tim Salmon rebounded nicely from his worst season and Brad Fullmer arrived and hit .289/.357/.503.
All that helped the Angels to improve from .261/.327/.405 and 691 runs scored (12th in the league) to .282/.341/.433 and 851 runs scored (fourth in the league).
The pitching changed almost as dramatically. In 2001, only one Anaheim pitcher who started more than one game posted an ERA below 4.30. In 2002, only two Anaheim pitchers who started more than one game posted an ERA above 4.30.
Ramon Ortiz and Jarrod Washburn both improved their numbers significantly while Kevin Appier and John Lackey both arrived in Anaheim and had solid seasons. The bullpen was excellent thanks to Troy Percival, Ben Weber, Brendan Donnelly and Scot Schields and the team’s ERA fell from 4.20 to 3.69. After finishing fourth in the league with 730 runs allowed in 2001, the Angels led the league with 644 runs allowed in 2002.
The Angels actually underperformed by a couple wins in 2002, but they were still good enough for a 47-game swing between them and the Mariners.
1993-94 Giants and Mets
In 1993, San Francisco and New York had mirror records. The Giants went 103-59 while the Mets went 59-103. Things were much different for both teams the next year. The Mets stood near .500 at 55-58 while the Giants were a game further below even at 55-60 when the strike ended the season.
One year after winning 103 games but still missing the playoffs, everything fell apart for the Giants.
Todd Benzinger (.265/.304/.399) replaced Will Clark (.283/.367/.432) at first base after he signed with Texas, John Patterson (.237/.315/.325) replaced Robby Thompson (.312/.375/.496) at second base after Thompson could only play 35 games, Kirt Manwaring and Royce Clayton both went from bad to awful, and Barry Bonds wasn’t quite as great as he had been the previous year.
The result? The 1993 Giants hit .276/.338/.427 and finished second in the league with 808 runs scored. The next year, they hit .249/.313/.402 and were 10th in the league with 504 runs when the season ended.
The pitching was quite as bad, but it didn’t help stave off the collapse. Bill Swift was good in 1994, but not as good as in 1993. Salomon Torre and Bryan Hickerson were terrible. The excellent bullpen trio of Rod Beck, Mike Jackson and Kevin Rogers was reduced to the excellent bullpen duo of Beck and Jackson.
San Francisco’s ERA rose from 3.61 to 3.99 and the Giants went from finishing third in the league with 636 runs allowed to finishing fifth in the league with 500 runs allowed. It certainly didn’t help matters that the Giants were underperforming their Pythagorean record by three games when their season ended, either.
The Mets actually didn’t need to get much better to get much better. In 1993, the Amazin’s amazingly underperformed their Pythagorean record by 14 games, and that’s pretty tough to do two years in a row. The Mets scored 672 runs (13th in the league) and allowed 744 runs (ninth in the league) and while that’s bad, it’s not 59-103 bad.
In 1994, Todd Hundley and Jeff Kent were both significantly better, and the Mets improved from 13th in the league in runs to ninth (506). The pitching was pretty much a wash as the ERA went up from 4.05 to 4.13 but the Mets improved from ninth in the league in runs allowed to eighth (526).
Bobby Jones was excellent in 1994 and Bret Saberhagen was even better than he had been in 1993, but Pete Smith had a 5.55 ERA in about 130 innings and nobody but those three reached 10 starts or 70 innings. Dwight Gooden and Eric Hillman combined for a 3.66 ERA in 353.2 innings in 1993 and then combined for a 6.99 ERA in 76 innings in 1994.
So, the Mets improved a bit on offense, but about two-thirds of the improvement in their record came from simply doing what they should have done given their run totals. That combined with San Francisco’s collapse was good for a 45-game swing between the two teams.
1933-34 Senators and Browns
In 1933, the Senators finished first in the American League at 99-53 while the Browns finished last at 55-96. The next year, the Browns improved slightly to sixth place at 67-85 while the Senators plummeted to seventh at 55-86.
Washington didn’t tear its team apart or anything like that, it simply suffered a reversal of fortune. Not only did the Senators outplay their Pythagorean record by six games in 1933, but they were also remarkably healthy.
Of the eight regulars in their starting lineup, only catcher Luke Sewell failed to reach 500 at-bats and he had 474. With Hall-of-Famers Joe Cronin and Heinie Manush leading the way, the Senators finished third in the league with 850 runs scored.
The next year, only Manush, Cronin, Fred Schulte and Buddy Myers were able to reach 500 at-bats and Cronin hit significantly worse than he had the year before. Manush hit even better than he had in 1933, but it wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that the Senators needed to rely on their bench players much more and they fell to sixth in the league with 729 runs scored.
The pitching problems were even worse. In 1933, Earl Whitehill, Alvin Crowder, Lefty Stewart and Monte Weaver combined to post a 3.64 ERA in about 950 innings as none of them had an ERA above 4.00. The next year, the four hurlers combined for a 4.83 ERA in 692 innings as none of them had an ERA below 4.00.
The Senators fell from leading the league with 665 runs allowed to finishing sixth in the league with 806 runs allowed. Placing sixth in both runs scored and runs allowed dropped the Senators six spots from first to seventh.
The Browns aren’t nearly as interesting because they only improved by 11.5 games and most of that was because they underperformed their Pythagorean record by seven games in 1933 and outperformed it by three games the next year.
The offense improved from a .320 OBP and .360 SLG to a .333 OBP and .373 SLG, but only scored five more runs (from 669 to 674) and actually fell from seventh in the league to eighth.
The pitching did improve a bit, mainly because not as many guys were truly awful in 1934. In 1933, the Browns had five pitchers throw more than 50 innings and post an ERA above 5.00, and four of those pitchers threw at least 80 innings. In 1934, only one pitcher had an ERA above 5.00 in at least 50 innings and he only threw 61.2 innings.
The staff improved from a 4.82 ERA in 1933 to a 4.49 ERA the next year and went from finishing last with 820 runs allowed to finishing fifth with 800 runs allowed. So, an improvement of 25 runs in run differential led to an improvement of 11.5 games in the record, which led to a 44.5-game swing between the teams.
1917-18 White Sox and Browns
The White Sox went 100-54 in 1917 and won the World Series and went 88-52 in 1919 and I think we all know that story. The year in between? Chicago went 57-67 and finished sixth in the AL. The Browns only won one more game in 1918 than in 1917, but they lost 33 fewer in the war-shortened season, improving from 57-97 to 58-64.
So, how does a team that went to the World Series twice in three years finish 10 games below .500 in the year in between? Well, maybe the team’s best hitter was limited to 17 games because of the war and the team’s best pitcher for some reason had an average year in between to amazing years.
Joe Jackson hit .301/.375/.429 in 1917, and back then that was good for a 143 OPS+. In 1918, he only got to play 17 games because of World War I. Some other players — Ray Schalk, Eddie Collins, Buck Weaver — hit worse in 1918 than in 1917, but the main reason the White Sox went from leading the league with 656 runs scored in 1917 to placing sixth with 457 runs scored in 1918 was the loss of Shoeless Joe.
On the other side of the ball, Eddie Cicotte picked 1918 to have one of the worst seasons of his career. He went 28-12 with a 1.53 ERA (174 ERA+) in 346.2 innings in 1917 and 29-7 with a 1.82 ERA (173 ERA+) in 3-6.2 innings in 1919. In 1918, he went 12-19 with a 2.77 ERA (99 ERA+) in 266 innings.
With their ace having an average year, even good seasons from some of the other pitchers only meant that the White Sox slipped from second in the league with 464 runs allowed to third in the league with 446 runs allowed. You might notice that they went 57-67 despite outscoring their opponents by 11 runs, and that’s another reason it wasn’t much of a surprise that they bounced back in 1919.
The main difference for the Browns was that they got to keep their superstar in 1918. George Sisler hit .353/.390/.453 (161 OPS+) in 1917 and then stayed around to hit .341/.400/.440 (157 OPS+) the next year. Another plus was that the Browns didn’t have as many terrible hitters in 1918. Among players with at least 200 at-bats, only Joe Gedeon and Fritz Maisel were truly bad offensively. In 1917, Doc Lavan, Burt Shotton, Tod Sloan and Armando Marsans all struggled mightily at the plate.
Overall, St. Louis improved from last in the league with 510 runs to seventh in the league with 426 runs. Not a monumental leap, but better than falling five spots like the White Sox did.
On the pitching staff, Allen Sothoron improved from 14-19 with a 2.83 ERA (92 ERA+) in 276.2 innings to 12-12 with a 1.94 ERA (141 ERA+) in 209 innings, and Urban Shocker had his first great, albeit abbreviated, season with a 1.81 ERA in 94.2 innings.
The Browns went from seventh in the league with 687 runs allowed to fifth in the league with 448 runs allowed. Amazingly, St. Louis hit its Pythagorean record exactly both years. The only reason there was a 45-game swing between these two teams is that the White Sox were hurt more by the war and Cicotte had an off year.
1914-15 Athletics and Naps/Indians
Cleveland didn’t actually have very much to do with this swing as there was only a 6.5-game improvement from 1914, when then Naps went 51-102, to 1915, when the Indians went 57-95. The reason for this 62.5-game swing in the standings between these two teams is that Philadelphia crashed from 99-53 in 1914 to 43-109 in 1015. It wasn’t a freak occurrence.
After the 1914 season, Connie Mack dismantled the A’s. Eddie Collins was sold to the White Sox. Frank Baker didn’t play in 1915 and was sold to the Yankees in 1916. Eddie Murphy was sold to the White Sox in July of 1915, Herb Pennock was claimed by the Red Sox in June of 1915 and Bob Shawkey was sold to the Yankees in July of 1915. Chief Bender and Eddie Plank both jumped to the Federal League in 1915.
The people Mack replaced all of those good-to-excellent players with were not up to the task, and the A’s went from first in the league in runs scored (749) and third in runs allowed (529) to sixth in runs scored (545) and last in runs allowed (888).
So, Mariners fans, while your team has gone from 40-plus games ahead of a team one year to behind them the next year twice this decade, at least you can take solace in the fact that ownership has yet to intentionally and completely dismantle the ballclub.