It’s been a long time, baby (bears)

On the surface, it may not seem like such an interesting story: the National League’s best team (and consensus preseason pick to win the World Series) will play tonight against the American League’s second-best team in game 1 of the 2016 World Series. But it’s incredibly unlikely, given the two teams representing their respective leagues.

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The AL champion Cleveland Indians, the class of the Central division from 1995-99, are making their first World Series appearance since their heartbreaking seven-game (extra innings in game 7, of course) loss to the Florida Marlins in ’97. They also appeared in the 1995 Fall Classic, their first postseason participation since being swept by the New York Giants in ’54. Their only titles came in 1920 and 1948; the ensuing 67 year drought is the second-longest streak in baseball.

The longest, every decent fan knows, belongs to the Chicago Cubs. Not only does their title deficiency stretch all the way back to 1908 (107 years!), they haven’t even appeared in the World Series since 1945. Game 7 was played October 10, just over one month after V-J Day–the official end to World War II.

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Cubs fans celebrating their latest National League crown. Or so I’m told…

Obviously, it would be too easy to put this historical awfulness in perspective by comparing modern amenities and conveniences with those available in ’45. “Gah! No smartphones?! What sort of cultural backwater was that?” “Forty-eight states? What’s up with that?!” “Politicians trying to drum up support among the electorate by singling out people different from them? Appalling!” (Okay, so that second example technically started in ’47. But, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and all that, amirite?).

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Instead, I thought it would be a little more fun and obscure to do so with baseball-specific trivia. So, without further, potentially one last jab at the expense of the Cubs and their fans.

  • Cubs’ skipper Joe Maddon (b. 1954) wasn’t born yet.
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    Uncle Joe with the letter ‘o’

    Same for owner Tom Ricketts (b. 1963). Maddon’s predecessors (Rick Renteria, Dale Sveum, and Mike Quade) weren’t born yet, either. Lou Piniella was 2 when the Cubs last represented the NL in the World Series. The last Cubs manager to likely have any memory of their participation was Don Zimmer (b. 1931); he was fired from that position in 1991.

  • Interleague play wasn’t even a faint glimmer in Bud Selig’s eye; in fact, he turned 11 the summer of the Cubs’ most recent postseason success.
  • The AL wouldn’t adopt the designated hitter, forever rendering that league inherently inferior to the NL, for another 28 years.
  • The streak turned 13 shortly after current commissioner Rob Manfred was born (1958).
  • Blacks were still banned from baseball in 1945. To put it another way, 69 years after Jackie Robinson integrated MLB, Chicago will finally have a black player appear in the World Series. Way to be behind the curve! Dexter Fowler (assuming he leads off for the visitors’ half of the first) will be the first; Addison Russell will also likely start, but Jason Heyward is a toss-up, considering he started NLCS game 6 on the bench and has had an all-around miserable postseason (.071/.133/.179). For whatever it’s worth, Cleveland’s Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the AL less than three months behind Robinson and appeared in the ’48 World Series.
  • Among its 16 member franchises, MLB had two teams in Boston, three in New York, two in Philadelphia, and two in St. Louis. Those four cities used to make up 56.25% of the league’s teams; now it’s 16.67% (5 of 30). Only the Red Sox, White Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, Tigers, Phillies, Pirates, Reds, and Yankees still play in the same metropolitan area.
  • The Boston Red Sox ended their futility (1918-2004) and have won the World Series three times (2007 and ’13, too)! Even Chicago’s south-siders, whose previous triumph came in 1917, won it all in 2005.
  • Six expansion franchises (est. 1962-present) screen-shot-2011-09-23-at-11-32-13-amhave won the World Series:
    • Mets in 1969 and ’86
    • Royals in 1985 and 2015
    • Blue Jays in 1992 and ’93
    • Marlins in 1997 and 2003 (see inset)
    • Diamondbacks in 2001
    • Angels in 2002
  • The clock on the NL’s second-longest title drought, belonging to the Giants, began ticking with their win in 1954 and lasted until their recent string of success started in 2010.
  • Connie Mack would manage the Philadelphia Athletics for another five seasons. He was born in December 1862, during the American Civil War. The Battle of Antietam had just been fought the previous fall, and Gettysburg was still over six months away.
  • Ty Cobb was baseball’s career hits leader, with 4189; Pete Rose would not surpass that mark until forty years later, in 1985.
  • Babe Ruth was baseball’s home run king, holding both the single season record of 60 (he’s now 8th on that list) and career mark of 714 (3rd).
  • Walter Johnson held the record for the lowest single season ERA recorded in the post-dead-ball era (1919-present): 1.49 in 1919. Any good Cards fan knows Bob Gibson was the first (and only) pitcher since to come in below that number, when he posted his remarkable 1.12 in 1968.
  • George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns laid claim to the longest hitting streak in baseball’s modern era, beginning in 1901, with hits in 41 consecutive games in 1922.
  • Lou Gehrig was still baseball’s “iron man,” and would be for another forty years.
  • Only three perfect games had been tossed since 1901; the current count is at 21.
  • The Yankees had already won ten World Series, and lost four more. Seventy-one years later, the Cardinals are the only franchise to have made it to double-digits, which they accomplished in 2006. To this day, only four other franchises (Giants, Cardinals, Dodgers, and A’s) have even appeared in at least fourteen Fall Classics.
  • The Red  Sox, Giants, White Sox, and Cubs are the only franchises that had won a World Series when the Cubs won their latest and last in 1908.

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Care to take any other cracks at the Cubs’ futility? Comments on this matter are most definitely encouraged below.

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Wayback Wednesday: ten years ago tonight

I still remember when the Cardinals first sniffed World Series success in my lifetime. I was one when Don Denkinger flubbed his way to officiating infamy in 1985, and three when the Cards succumbed to the Twins two years later. But 2004, that was a fun summer. St. Louis steamrolled its way to 105 wins, took out the Dodgers with relative ease in the NLDS, narrowly avoided an upset at the hands of division rival Houston Astros in the NLCS, then were summarily flattened by the Boston Red Sox in a quick four-game World Series. I was even in the bleachers at old Busch Stadium for game 4, where the Cardinals went out with a whimper, losing 3-0 to the Red Sox, who had just reeled off eight straight wins beginning with an unprecedented comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS and following it up with the Cards.

Boston Red Sox Vs. St. Louis Cardinals: 2004 World Series Game Four

The following season proved to be fun, as well. The ’05 Redbirds coasted to 100 wins and seemed to be on pace to make it back to the World Series; the second-best NL team, in Atlanta, finished with a mere 90 wins, and St. Louis would face the 82-80 NL West champion San Diego Padres in the NLDS. They handled that with ease, but the 89-win Astros surprised the Cards in 6 games in the NLCS.

By 2006, the championship dream shared by the “MV3” (1B Albert Pujols, 3B Scott Rolen, and CF Jim Edmonds) seemed to be fading. Rolen missed roughly two-thirds of ’05, and Jim Edmonds would end up playing only 110 games in ’06. Chris Carpenter and Pujols also made short trips to the disabled list, as well.

There was some turnover on the pitching staff, as well. Woody Williams left for San Diego after the ’04 postseason run, while Matt Morris departed for San Fransciso following the ’05 campaign. Holdovers Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan combined for 65 starts, but Marquis’ 6.02 ERA didn’t do the slumping offense any favors. The team limped to the finish line at 83-78, barely allowing the Padres to retain their distinction from the previous season as the worst division champ and postseason contestant in a full season in MLB history. As September waned, it felt as though the Cardinals would likely need to enter a rebuilding phase after another unsuccessful attempt at a World Series title.

Compounding the team’s problems heading in to October was the fact that closer Jason Isringhausen, who was an integral part of the team’s postseason runs the two prior seasons (2.55 ERA and 86 saves from 2004-05), had been up and down all season, before finally heading to the DL in mid-September. Rookie reliever Adam Wainwright was thrust in to the closer’s role on September 7, but only had the chance to close out five games prior to the season’s end.

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The Cards skipped past the Padres in the NLDS yet again. The pitching suddenly seemed to click; the Padres only hit .225 and scored 6 runs in the four-game series. Carpenter and Suppan were the only pitchers to allow any runners to score at all, in fact (though Carp’s were over two starts and 13 1/3 innings, while Suppan took the sole loss in game 3, only lasting 4 1/3 innings).

 

Unfortunately, the path to World Series glory would have to go through New York.

The ’06 Mets possessed a fearsome, if not over-the-hill, starting rotation. Fortunately for the Cardinals, injuries to Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez–both of them starting pitchers with substantial postseason experience–wiped the duo out of the Mets’ postseason plans in the last week of the regular season. Tom Glavine was still in the rotation, though, and had just posted a sub-4.00 ERA with 15 wins at age 40. Carlos Delgado, David Wright, and Carlos Beltran would combine to provide significant offensive firepower, hitting .285 combined, with each player contributing at least 26 HRs and 114 RBIs. Jose Reyes also joined the fun, leading off and hitting .300, and generally making pitchers nervous by swiping 64 bases during the season.

The teams split the first two games at Shea Stadium, but the Cardinals gave the home-field advantage right back, dropping one of the three games at brand-new Busch Stadium, heading back to New York with a 3-2 series lead. Game 6 went the home team’s way, meaning the Cards and Mets would square off in a winner-take-all Game 7.

Both Jeff Suppan and Oliver Perez would turn in solid quality starts, each lasting at least 6 innings and allowing only one run apiece. Entering the final frame, in fact, the game was still knotted at 1-1, the two bullpens having done their respective jobs accordingly. In the top of the 9th, Aaron Heilman struck Jim Edmonds out, but allowed Scott Rolen to single. Then this happened:

 

Of course Yadier Molina homered. He hit .216 during the season, and managed all of six HRs. But his timely tater to left put St. Louis up 3-1 with only three outs to go.

Tony LaRussa brought in his new closer to finish out the biggest game of his career. Wainwright would be facing the bottom of the Mets order. Jose Valentin, hitting .217 in the series, led off with a single; Endy Chavez, .154 in the NLCS, moved him over to second with a single of his own. Waino buckled down and retired pinch hitter Cliff Floyd and Reyes in succession. Unfortunately, he summarily walked Paul Lo Duca, which brought Beltran to the plate with 2 outs and the bases juiced. Any hit would likely tie the game; any extra-base hit would almost certainly win it for the Mets.

Fans in St. Louis may have fonder memories of Beltran now, after spending two All-Star seasons here in 2012-13, the latter of which included a trip to the World Series. But in 2006, he was one of baseball’s most fearsome hitters, particularly to Cards fans. Playing for the division rival Astros in ’04, he’d helped his club sweep the Redbirds in the regular season’s penultimate series, helping Houston leapfrog Philadelphia for the NL Wild Card, um, title in the final week. In the ‘stros’ near-miss in the NLCS, Beltran produced a ridiculous slash line of .417 / .563 / .958 with 4 HRs and 4 SBs; Cardinals pitchers walked him 8 times (only once intentionally). He also scored 12 of his team’s 31 runs in the series.

With all that baggage–Beltran was hitting .308 in the present NLCS, as well–it was hard not to be a little scared as a Cardinals fan. Rookie closer, bases loaded, noted slugger at the plate… it was almost too much. But Wainwright rose to the occasion and established a name for himself in his first full season with the big league club with a sick 12-to-6 curveball that absolutely froze Beltran:

 

Two reasons that make the nostalgia of that clip even more beautiful:

  1. Waino would follow up that performance with one slightly less apprehension in the World Series

2. Wainwright and Molina are still important pieces on the team, now one decade removed from some of their first big league success

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Unfortunately, we don’t get to cheer on our Redbirds this postseason, but at least we can remember some past postseason glory tonight.

And hope that the Cubs lose to the Dodgers again.

Even Bruce finds it odd

A great deal of coverage has been given to the apparent even-numbered year (ENY) dominance of the San Francisco Giants. Prognosticators aplenty wondered, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, if the Giants would win the World Series this season prior to April. It was too coincidental, after all, when in 2014 they won their third title in five seasons, adding to the Commissioner’s Trophies they claimed in 2010 and ’12. Of course, they followed that up this year by narrowly surviving a second-half swoon–they were 57-33 at the All-Star break and 30-42 thereafter–to claim the National League’s second wild card over the St. Louis Cardinals on the regular season’s final day.

What’s even more unusual is that they followed up each championship with a postseason miss in the subsequent odd-numbered year (ONY). And while they finished just barely on the outside looking in during the ’11 and ’15 campaigns, they limped to the finish at 76-86, well out of contention. That season was marked by unexpectedly poor pitching from starters not named Madison Bumgarner–Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, and Ryan Vogelsong combined to go 27-41 with a 4.78 ERA. And with Bumgarner going 9 and shutting out the defending NL champion Mets, it looks like this could be another ENY to remember.

Wild Card Game - San Francisco Giants v New York Mets

What makes this trend so unusual is that, it hasn’t been going on for just a few years. Instead, it seems to have followed manager Bruce Bochy since he took his first job with the San Diego Padres in 1995. Students of the game might remember he managed them to an unexpected 98 regular season wins into the 1998 World Series, where they were unceremoniously swept by one of the greatest teams ever assembled, the 114-48 New York Yankees.

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So Bochy’s four World Series appearances stretched across 21 seasons (I’m excluding 2016) all came in ENYs. Unusual coincidence, right? Perhaps not.

I compiled a Google Sheet using Bochy’s managerial record as of October 6, 2016, according to baseball-reference.com. At the bottom, I split up Bochy’s respective tenures with the Padres and Giants by ONYs and ENYs, as well as his entire 22-year career. The results, you will see, are staggering. Some thoughts on what I see:

  • Bochy’s average winning percentage is 45 points higher in ENYs vs. ONYs.
    • Because the ’95 season was shortened by 18 games due to the players’ strike, it’s tough just to average the wins from each 162-game season together, but it works out to nearly 7 1/2 wins more per ENY than ONY.
    • That total was nearly 9 wins more per ENY during his dozen seasons with the Padres, which added up to finishing, on average, more than one position higher in ENYs than ONYs.
  • He has managed exactly three postseason games (all losses) in an ONY–the 2005 NL Division Series, in which the 100-win Cardinals dispatched the 82-win Padres in three games.
    • Interesting side note 1: Three NL East teams finished with better records but still missed the postseason that year.
    • Interesting side note 2: If not for the universally dreadful play in the NL West that year, Bochy’s team would have very likely missed the postseason altogether–they do, after all, hold the distinction of the worst regular season record ever to advance to the postseason in a non-strike-shortened season (to see why I needed that qualifier, see: ’81 Royals).
  • His teams have played seventy (70!) in ENYs, including last night’s wild card victory over the Mets.
  • Greatest win total for an ONY: 88, in 2009. That number has been at least equaled in six ENYs (1996, ’98, 2006, ’10, ’12, and ’14).

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Before I created this spreadsheet, I wondered if perhaps some of his ONYs were simply unlucky, the victim of a dominant division foe and stronger wild card contenders. But his overall winning percentage as well as postseason performance in ENYs compared to those in the ONYs indicate there’s something more than just luck. Perhaps it’s part of his strategy, to overuse players (pitchers in particular) who are doing well, burning them out after a lengthy postseason run, thereby harming any results the following, but allowing the player(s) enough time to recover for the next ENY.

If you think of it that way, it’s an interesting strategy that pays off if it works. He’s won three World Series titles in San Francisco after an abysmal ENY in ’08 (72-90). That kind of hardware haul allows a manager and his players some breathing room when it comes to dealing with management, local sports media, and fans.

Conversely, by going for broke every other season, missing the ultimate prize stings even more when failing to contend for the postseason the next year. After a pair of successful ENYs (’96 and ’98) in San Diego, the team held a fire sale and finished under .500 in the next two (’00 and ’02), and won only one of seven NLDS games in ’04 and ’06.

Following that last unsuccessful postseason run, incoming CEO Sandy Alderson permitted Giants general manager Brian Sabean to interview Bochy for their job. Bochy, of course, got the gig and, while he took it on the chin the first two years with San Francisco, he quickly transformed them in to the ENY juggernaut we know today.

Even though the Cubs basically wrapped up home-field advantage in the National League by Memorial Day and sauntered to 102 wins, their NLDS match-up with Bochy’s late-clinching Giants, beginning Friday evening at Wrigley Field, should prove immensely entertaining, if for no other reason than the inevitable championship feeling that Bochy’s club has this season.