A few people — including my most excellent colleague Joe Sheehan — have been thinking about a 16-game baseball schedule. We’re right about at the 16-game point now. And what’s happening? The Cleveland Indians are in first place with the best record in baseball. The Boston Red Sox are 5-10. The Colorado Rockies look unbeatable, which usually doesn’t happen until September, and the Kansas City Royals are on pace to win 100 games which usually takes the better part of two seasons.
Needless to say, 16 games doesn’t tell you very much.
But how little does it tell us? Should Indians fans be excited about this team? Should Red Sox fans be panicking? Is Matt Kemp going to hit .400? Will A-Rod slug .800? Will Jered Weaver strike out 300 batters? Will Carl Crawford hit .180?
Probably not, no. But that’s part of what makes early season baseball fun.
Question 1: How likely is it that a team that is in playoff position after 16 games will make the playoffs at the end of the season?
I only looked back five years … but that was really as far back as I needed to look. The answer is: Not likely. From a quick summary after 16 or so games, only 14 of the 40 teams that eventually made the playoffs the last five years were even tied for a playoff spot. Three of the 14 were the Boston Red Sox, so that should tell you something.
Here’s pretty much what you need to know: The last five years, the New York Yankees were only in playoff position once after 16 games. The year? Yep: 2008 — the one year since the strike that the Yankees did not make the playoffs.
Teams that were in playoff position after 16 games the last five years: Baltimore (twice!), 2009 Kansas City, 2008, 2009 AND 2010 Florida, Oakland four times and so on. You might be aware that none of these teams made the playoffs.
A good start can spur a surprising season, I suppose. The 2009 Mariners got off to a great start and then played surprisingly good baseball all year long … that season becomes more surprising every day. The Mariners were 10-6 after 16 games, 12-6 after 18, and won 85 games for the season. They have won 66 in the season and change since then.*
*What in the heck happened to Chone Figgins? Up to 2010, Figgins was an extremely useful player who got on base, stole a lot of bases at a decent rate, could and would play just about any position and play it very well, he seemed to give a good effort all the time, he seemed likable … you wanted to have Chone Figgins on your team.
The Mariners then gave him a four-year deal with a vesting option — which at age 32 doesn’t look like the most astute of moves. But Figgins was coming off a terrific year when he deserved to be in the MVP discussion and anyway the Mariners in 2009 looked to be a pretty shrewd organization. So it seemed a positive move.
Wow. What a disaster. Figgins took an offensive step backward last year — his OBP dropped 55 points, his superior defense dulled (and he played only one position, second base), he got into a squawk with his manager, it was a basically dreadful year all around. And this year? Well, it’s only a few games into the season, but you can’t be encouraged. At this writing, he’s nine for 60 (.150 average), one for two in stolen bases, zero for two in answering questions from reporters Saturday night and generally seems determined to turn himself into the sort of player you DESPISE having on your team (and with two full years and that now-beachfront-property-in-Missouri looking vesting option to come).
Players do not age well. This is both the most obvious and least appreciated fact in baseball. The people who were predicting doom for Derek Jeter this year and beyond were not doing so because they didn’t like Jeter … or at least most of us were not doing it for that reason. As mentioned, I happen to like Jeter a lot. But he’s turning 37 in June. That isn’t just past prime, it’s WELL past prime. Jeter has aged very well — his age 35 season is probably the best for a shortstop the last 100 years. But nobody holds off age forever, and while Jeter certainly should have good moments again, he was clearly slowing down last year, and then he started trying various adjustments, and now he’s all but incapable of hitting the ball in the air, and it’s a tale as old as time.
Most players start to seriously decline well before they get to 37, and maybe that’s what is happening to Figgins. Well CERTAINLY that is what is happening to Figgins, a quick glance at his numbers suggest he’s hitting fewer line drives, more ground balls and is having serious trouble with the fastball (can’t catch up with the fastball — the all-time age cliche). But this precipitous a drop makes you wonder if there’s something else going on. I happen to love gray days, but I’ve heard again and again that the constant gray days in Seattle can bring you down. Possible?
The Royals got off to 16-3 start in 2003 and rode that for a shocking five months. The Atlanta Braves of 1982 started off 13-0 and won seven of their last 10 to win the division. But in general, it seems that after the first 16 games of the season, we know no more, and might know even less, than we did after reading the preseason magazines before Opening Day.
Question 2. Who hit the most home runs in the first 16 games of a season, and how did they end up?
So glad you asked. Right now, Troy Tulowitzki has seven home runs. Lance Berkman, who at 35 is looking reborn in St. Louis, has six, as does Jonny Gomez in Cincinnati.
The most home runs hit in the first 16 games — well, it’s a tie. Mike Schmidt hit 12 home runs in the first 16 games of the 1976 season. That included his four-homer game at Wrigley on April 17. There were nine home runs hit that day — two by Rick Monday — and the Phillies won 18-16 in the 10th on, of course, Mike Schmidt’s fourth homer of the day. At the time Schmidt was just 26 years old, and he had led the league in homers the previous two seasons, so there was no telling how many home runs he might hit over the whole season. It was pretty exciting. The Maris countdown was on (Maris did not hit his 12th homer until his 40th game). But Schmidt went on a power drought in late May and early June, going 21 games without a home run. He ended up with 38, which did lead the league.
Alex Rodriguez his 12 homers in the first 16 games of the 2007 season. Of course by 2007, home runs were no fun anymore, and if anything baseball fans FEARED that A-Rod would hit some outrageous number of home runs, 84 or 91 or something, and make even more of a mockery of the record books. A-Rod did hit 54 homers which in 1995 would have tied him for the seventh highest total in baseball history and made him the first non first baseman or outfielder to hit that many homers. By 2007, the list of players who hit 54 or more homers in a season included:
— Barry Bonds
— Mark McGwire (3 times)
— Sammy Sosa (3 times)
— Ken Griffey (2 times)
— David Ortiz
— Ryan Howard
— Luis Gonzalez
A-Rod had done it once before too. He does remain the only non-first baseman or outfielder to hit 54-plus homers in a season, so there is that.
Other great 16-game homer starts include:
Albert Pujols, 2006, 11 HR (49 for season)
Willie Mays, 1964, 10 HR (47 for season)
Luis Gonzalez, 2001, 10 HR (57 for season)
Ken Keltner, 1948, 10 HR (31 for season — he hit one in August).
Willie Stargell, 1971, 10 HR (48 for season)
Question 3: If you’re hitting .500 through 16 games, are you probably a really good player?
Short answer: Yes.
Right now, Matt Kemp is leading baseball with a .459 average and Joey Votto is hitting .429 and while the “Can anyone hit .400?” is not worth asking at the moment, they are both very good players.
Which made me wonder: If someone is hitting some sort of crazy number, like .500, sixteen games in, does that tell you anything? Is it at all likely that some bland or less-than-bland player, say Yuni Betancourt or someone like that, will just start off the year scorching hot and be hitting .500 on April 20 or so leaving everyone wondering if the world has spun off its axis?
Well, actually, no. Not if they are hitting THAT good. Best I can tell, there have been seven players hitting .500 or better after 16 games (assuming they actually played in all the games). And of the seven, six are in the Hall of Fame. Hey, it’s HARD to get one hit every two at-bats over any stretch of time, much less over three weeks of baseball games. Here is the list:
— Paul Waner, 1930, .566
— Stan Musial, 1958, .516
— Hank Aaron, 1959, .516
— Bob Fothergill, 1927, .509
— Eddie Murray, 1982, .500
— Rogers Hornsby, 1920, .500
— Harry Heilmann, 1923, .500
Well, you will note that Bob Fothergill kind of stands out in that group. But he doesn’t stand out as much as you might think. Fats Fothergill hit .325 over a 12-year career with the Tigers, White Sox and Red Sox. He didn’t have much power, and he hardly ever walked, but he also hardly every struck out and hit for very high averages throughout his career. He hit .367 in 1926. In 1927, he started the year on an 18-game hitting streak, which included four consecutive three-hit games and a four-hit game against the Indians.
The hottest player I ever saw in the early season was John Olerud* in 1993. I saw him rifle seven hits in 12 at-bats in three games at Cleveland, and I mean he was scorching the ball. At some point, he was so ON the ball I thought: This guy’s going to hit .400. And sure enough, he was hitting .400 in August. This made me feel really smart, though I’m not kidding anybody … it was just a coincidence.
*I know people have come up with various versions of the “Hall of Very Good” … but I wonder if there is something else in baseball, something like: “People who are absolutely good enough to be in the Hall of Fame but, for whatever reason, won’t ever go, and few people even seem to care.” I do realize that would make for a very long and unwieldy acronym.
Maybe we could call it the “Hall of Not Famous Enough.”
John Olerud was probably a better player than all but seven or eight first basemen in the Hall of Fame. His WAR of 56.8 would tie him for sixth with Hank Greenberg. His OPS+ of 128 would rank him 10th, just behind Eddie Murray. His best season was probably 1993, when he hit .363 with a league leading 54 doubles, a .473 on-base percentage and 109 runs scored with 107 RBIs (and played excellent defense as he did his whole career) That season ranks with the best seasons of the Hall of Fame first baseman (Gehrig and Foxx excepted). But Olerud’s 1998, when he hit .354/.447/.551 with the Mets was a terrific season too. Truth is, he had six seasons with a WAR higher than 5 — among Hall of Famers only Lou Gehrig, Johnny Mize and Jimmie Foxx had more.
John Olerud is not going to the Hall of Fame. He got four votes his one year on the ballot, and there was no outcry that he deserved more. I’m not saying Olerud should be in the Hall — I can’t say that because I didn’t vote for him — but I am saying that he was as good as or better than most of the players of his position in the Hall. There are just some players who are cursed to be under-appreciated.
Players in the Hall of Not Famous Enough (PED players excluded):
First base: Keith Hernandez, Will Clark, John Olerud, Norm Cash.
Second base: Lou Whitaker, Bobby Grich.
Shortstop: Alan Trammell (assuming Barry Larkin goes next year).
Third base: Ron Santo, Graig Nettles, Buddy Bell, Sal Bando.
Outfield: Tim Raines, Dwight Evans (with Kenny Lofton, Larry Walker and Jim Edmonds on the horizon).
Catcher: Ted Simmons
Right-handed pitcher: Luis Tiant, Kevin Brown, Rick Reuschel (with Mike Mussina on the horizon).
Question 4: Who had the most strikeouts after 16 games?
1. Sam McDowell, 1966, 59
2. Nolan Ryan, 1973, 54
3. Bob Feller, 1946, 48
(tie) Nolan Ryan, 1978, 48
5. Gaylord Perry, 1975, 44
(tie) Mickey Lolich, 1970, 44
(tie) Pedro Martinez, 1998, 44
(tie) Pedro Martinez, 2001, 44
(tie) Randy Johnson, 1999, 44
(tie) Roger Clemens, 1998, 44
They are all Hall of Famers except for Lolich, who received enough Hall of Fame consideration to stay on the ballot for 15 years, and Sam McDowell, who did not get a single Hall of Fame vote. Sudden Sam … amazing how little people consider his career. He led the league in strikeouts five times. He led the league in WAR twice. He pitched in six All-Star Games. Until Koufax in 1960, no starting pitcher had ever struck out 10 per nine innings. McDowell in 1965 struck out 10.71, which was a record. It actually was the record for two decades, until the 19-year-old Dwight Gooden struck out 11.39 per nine inning back before hitters figured out how to lay-off the nose-high fastball.
Conclusion: There is no conclusion, certainly not to a winding, all-over-the-place post like this one. It’s probably fair to say that there isn’t much you can learn from the first 16 games of the baseball season.
If the baseball season was REALLY only 16 games, it would be very different. They would play once a week, probably, so you would only see the very best pitchers. Rosters might be 25 men, but they would only have five or so you would see a lot of specialists, match-ups, that sort of things. The games would be more tense, probably more violent, and they would last four hours, except for Red Sox-Yankees games, which would go six. I suspect it wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.