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The Stooge Division
2004-03-29 10:09
by Jon Weisman
Note: The Dodger Thoughts blog has moved to the Los Angeles Times.

The talk is that it might take only 85 victories to win the National League Western Division in 2004 (and that it might take even less to win the American League Central). Certainly, there are many of fans out there who think this is their best hope.

Ultimately, this might just be talk. Given the unbalanced schedule in which teams play more games inside their division than outside, chances are still good that a 90-win team will emerge, even if that team isn't a truly great team.

Since baseball went to a three-division format, however, several teams have won divisions with fewer than 90 victories. Houston took the NL Central in 1997 with as few as 84 wins.

Furthermore, a sub-.500 champion is possible. In fact, it was only 10 years ago that we had one.

It has been largely forgotten because the 1994 major league baseball season ended with a strike in August. But here are the final AL West standings of that year, featuring the Texas Moes, the Oakland Larrys, the Seattle Curlys and the California Shemps:

American League West (1994 Final)

TEAMWLPCTGB
Rangers5262.456-
A's5163.4471
Mariners4963.4382
Angels4768.4095.5

To put that in further perspective, here are the standings of the entire American League.

American League (1994 Final)

TEAMWLPCTGB
Yankees7043.619-
White Sox6746.5933
Indians6647.5844
Orioles6349.5636.5
Royals6451.5577
Blue Jays5560.47816
Red Sox5461.47017
Twins5360.46917
Tigers5362.46118
Brewers5362.46118
Rangers5262.45618.5
A's5163.44719.5
Mariners4963.43820.5
Angels4768.40924

Somehow, one division ended up with the four worst teams in the league.

On April 22 that year, the Angels were 8-8 on the season when they allowed a run in the bottom of the ninth and fell to Boston, 6-5. That was the last time an AL West team saw .500 for more than a month.

Which is not to say there was no pennant race. While Oakland struggled to play .250 ball for the first two months of the season, Seattle, California (as the Angels were still known) and Texas alternated atop the division. On May 23 the three teams were tied (virtually) for first place.

American League West (May 23, 1994)

TEAMWLPCTGB
Angels2025.444-
Mariners1924.441-
Rangers1823.439-
A's1232.2727.5

As May became June, the Rangers emerged as division leaders by winning 8 out of 12, and on June 6, had a chance to move back to .500. Symbolizing the kind of season it was, Texas sent Roger Pavlik (1-2) to face the Yankees and Jimmy Key (7-1). Pavlik lasted an inning-plus, allowing seven runs, and the Yankees led 10-0 after four innings en route to a 17-7 victory.

However, the Rangers edged the Yankees in consecutive one-run games, 10-9 and 6-5, to move to .500 at 28-28. Two more victories over the AL Central-contending Royals put Texas at 30-28. Although the rest of the division had fallen firmly under .500 (and was in fact struggling to stay above .400), Texas, with consecutive wins over the league's best team and 12 wins in 17 games overall, appeared to give the AL West a legitimate team.

American League West (June 10, 1994)

TEAMWLPCTGB
Rangers3028.517-
Mariners2434.4136
Angels2536.4096.5
A's1841.30512.5

The Rangers lost two games to fall back to .500, won again to reach 31-30, and then lost two more games. Their loss to Seattle on June 15, 5-2, dropped them to 31-32 putting the AL West under .500 for good.

Texas caught the Mariners in a mini-run of their own. Seattle won a muy impressive five out of eight to pull within two games of the Rangers. The Angels kept pace and were only 2.5 games out.

For its part, thought-to-be-truly hopeless Oakland had won six out of eight and 12 out of 23 to pull back within 7.5 games of the lead.

While neither California nor Seattle could continue their push, the A's did. On July 1, Oakland de-cellar-ated with a 6-3 victory over Boston. With a record of 21-15 since May 22, the A's were within four games of the division lead.

American League West (July 1, 1994)

TEAMWLPCTGB
Rangers3741.474-
Mariners3444.4353
A's3345.4234
Angels3347.4125

Five days later , Oakland reached second place, still four games out, and was three games out at the All-Star break, July 11-13.

The A's didn't get any closer to Texas until July 24, when they moved within two games of the Rangers. As late as August 4, the Rangers were 52-56, having gone 15-15 since July 1 and 19-18 since May 22, and held a 4.5-game lead in the division.

However, Texas did not win another game in 1994.

On August 5, the A's and Texas began a three-game series in Oakland.

  • The A's rallied from a 4-1 deficit to tie the first game, then won with a run in the bottom of the ninth.
  • In the second game, after Pavlik pitched seven innings of one-run, two-hit ball for Texas, the A's rallied with five runs in the bottom of the eighth off rookie Darren Oliver and Tom Henke and won, 6-4.
  • Oakland actually ended up with consecutive five-run innings off the Rangers, as home runs by Rickey Henderson and Scott Brosius keyed a five-run first inning and 8-3 victory in the third game.

    Texas' lead was down to 1.5 games.

    Both teams lost on August 8, but the A's gained a game on August 9. With the Rangers losing their sixth consecutive game on August 10, the A's had a chance to move into the division lead. Despite pitching a complete game, Steve Ontiveros was outdueled by Jason Bere of the White Sox in a 2-1 defeat.

    On August 11, with the Rangers off, Oakland still had a chance to tie for the division lead. The pitching matchup: Ron Darling (10-10) for the A's, Randy Johnson (12-6) for the Mariners. Seattle knocked out Darling after three innings, Johnson struck out 15 in a complete game, and Oakland lost, 8-1.

    And the next day, major league baseball went on strike, leaving Texas as division champion. (It has been written elsewhere, but not enough: There is no reason not to award division titles in a strike year, especially when individual champions such as home run titlists are crowned.)

    This was the majors' first season in the three-division format, so one consequence of the strike was that it reduced the potential backlash over a losing team entering the postseason, backlash that perhaps might have brought further realignment to baseball.

    But why were the teams in the AL West so bad?

    Texas had young stars in Ivan Rodriguez and Juan Gonzalez, and good players in their prime with Will Clark and Jose Canseco.

    Seattle had Ken Griffey Jr., Edgar Martinez and Johnson.

    Anaheim and Oakland had less noteworthy talent which, if nothing else, should have made it easier for Texas and Seattle to perform better.

    But, then as now, Texas didn't have the pitching, finishing with a 5.45 ERA, 13th in a 14-team league, despite playing games in a ballpark that in 1994, did not favor hitters. According to Lee Sinins, the Rangers' ballpark factor was 89, when 100 or more favors hitters. According to Baseball-Reference.com, the park factor was 100. (These, along with Retrosheet, were the sources for this story.)

    Kevin Brown, the staff ace, struggled to a 7-9 record, a 4.82 ERA and only 123 strikeouts in 170 innings while allowing 218 hits and 50 walks.

    In fact, all four AL West teams were in the bottom half of the league ERA standings. Seattle and California did play in parks favoring hitters, skewing their pitching stats. But those teams couldn't take advantage offensively. Seattle was ninth in the league in OPS; the Angels were dead last.

    The poor performances by the four teams weren't a complete shock. As a group, the teams were below .500 in 1993 as well.

    1994 American League West Teams in 1993

    TEAMWLPCTGB
    Rangers8676.531-
    Mariners8280.5064
    Angels7191.44815
    A's6894.42018

    Ironically, after the strike was settled, the AL West nearly put all four teams over .500 in 1995.

    1995 American League West

    TEAMWLPCTGB
    Mariners7966.545-
    Angels7867.5381
    Rangers7470.5144.5
    A's6777.46511.5

    And unlike 1994, everyone remembers how 1995 ended. Randy Johnson, arms outstretched on the mound, celebrating a playoff victory.

    So fear not, fans of good baseball and the 2004 NL West and AL Central divisions. You might see a fine pennant race this year despite the teams' weaknesses, and it could even be a sign of greater things to come in 2005.

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