Before I get into today’s real subject, let me take just a moment to remind you that The RagTime Traveler will be released June 6, exactly two weeks from today. June 7, I’ll be signing copies from noon to 1pm at Seattle Mystery Bookshop. Spread the word!
I haven’t written much about baseball this season, largely because it’s been a rather painful year for Seattle–no pun intended. The season has been marred by injuries, bad play, and an overall failure to live up to expectations.
But I can’t keep pulling the covers over my head and hoping the team will improve. So I’m going to pick at the scab a little.
The Mariners are among the youngest teams in Major League Baseball. Only the Rockies and Marlins (founded 1993) and Diamondbacks and Rays (founded 1998) are younger. The Mariners and Blue Jays both joined the league in 1977. I don’t know what, if anything, Toronto is doing to celebrate their team’s 40th anniversary, but Seattle’s advertising theirs fairly heavily.
Apparently, fortieth birthdays can be as depressing for baseball teams as for individuals. As I write this–before any teams take the field on May 23–the Mariners are 20-25, having lost three straight, and sit ten games behind Houston in the AL West. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays won their last game to pull to 19-26, eight and a half games behind New York in the AL East (and one game behind the Mariners in the Wild Card chase, not that either team is showing any sign of contending for those playoff slots).
At least I can take some consolation in the fact that the Mariners aren’t alone in their struggles.
It’s got nothing to do with youth, by the way. Colorado and Arizona are currently first and second in the NL West. Tampa Bay is three games ahead of Toronto, flirting with respectability. Only Miami, at 15-28, is making the middle-aged couple look good.
In case you’re curious, by the way, the next-oldest teams are the Kansas City Royals (18-26), San Diego Padres (16-30), Washington Nationals (formerly the Montreal Expos, 26-17), and Milwaukee Brewers (formerly the Seattle Pilots, 25-19). The evidence suggests that teams who indulge their mid-life crises by moving to another city do well for themselves. But let’s note that the Pilots’ mid-life crisis was when they were a year old. Don’t read too much into the raw numbers.
Anyway, given the fortieth anniversary hype around the Mariners, I started wondering how this year’s team compared to the 1977 team.
For starters, going into play on May 23, the Mariners had won two in a row, raising their record to 16-28. That put them eleven and a half games behind the first place Twins–but a mere four and a half games behind Oakland.
I haven’t found a way to look at player stats as of a particular date, but over the course of the season, Seattle’s leading hitters (based on OPS*) were Leroy Stanton (.852), Ruppert Jones (.778), and Dan Meyer (.762).
* OPS is on-base percentage plus slugging. Today’s statisticians consider it a better measure of a hitter’s value than batting average, which was the stat of choice in 1977. An OPS between .700 and .766 is considered average; an elite hitter will have an OPS above .900.)
Doesn’t sound too hot, does it? If you look at the team as a whole, the Mariners’ batters ranked twenty-first out of twenty-six teams. (The Blue Jays, by the way, ranked twenty-fifth.)
Nor did the numbers look much better defensively. Seattle’s pitchers, led by Enrique Romo and Glenn Abbott, collectively ranked twenty-fifth. (Amusingly, the Blue Jays’ pitchers came in twenty-first.)
The bright side, if you can call it that, was the Mariners’ fielding. Showing off the defensive emphasis that served them so well in the early two-thousand teens*, they came in twelfth in baseball. The Blue Jays showed off their consistency, coming in twenty-fifth in fielding.
* Sarcasm alert.
Given those stats, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise to hear that the 1977 Mariners would finish the year at 64-98, thirty-eight games out of first. What might be more surprising is that they didn’t finish dead last in the AL West. Oakland slogged through a 63-98 year to take the West basement. Toronto, meanwhile, proved that consistency isn’t necessarily a virtue. Their 54-107 mark was the worst in baseball that year.
* If you need a dose of schadenfreude, the worst record in MLB’s modern era belongs to the 1916 Philadelphia Athletics, whose 36-117 (.235) sets a standard of futility that will hopefully never be matched. By comparison, the 1977 Blue Jays’ .335 is merely the twenty-third worst, tied with the 1988 Baltimore Orioles (sorry, Jackie).
By comparison with all that doom and gloom, today’s Mariners seem positively respectable. Nelson Cruz has a .947 OPS, twenty-second best in baseball. As of this writing, the team is eleventh in hitting, twenty-fifth in pitching, and eleventh in fielding. Get a few of their starting pitchers off the disabled list, and the Ms could be middle-of-the-pack Wild Card contenders.
OK, that doesn’t sound like much, but it’s all about setting attainable goals. And, lest we forget, the 2006 St. Louis Cardinals finished the regular season 83-78 and won the World Series.