Thursday, June 24, 2010

Random Thursday: 1995 American League Central

Oh Thursdays, your randomness is so beguiling. Today, The Common Man will give in to you. And so, using’s “random” feature, TCM jumps from the 1921 batting register that got us talking about Austin McHenry to the 1995 American League Standings, where TCM was staring right at the mighty Indians of the mid-nineties, at the height of their power, in the only season in which they won 100 games and reached the World Series.

Sitting atop the American League Central with a 100-44 record, these Indians stand out like a sore thumb both because of their excellent performance and the terribleness of the rest of the division, all of whom finished below .500. The Indians lorded over their division, beating up in particular on the second place Royals, against whom they finished 11-1. Cleveland also won double digit games against the Orioles, Tigers, and Blue Jays, and skunked the A’s 7-0. They only were below .500 against the Angels, but were limited to just 5 games against the Halos because of the strike. When the abbreviated regular season ended, the Indians were 30 games up on their nearest rival, the largest lead any team has ever had.

That led, of course, is due as much to the Indians’ success as it is to the failure of everyone else in the division. Cleveland had become a player development machine, churning out prospects like Carlos Baerga, Jim Thome, Albert Belle, Sandy Alomar, Charles Nagy, Chad Ogea, and Julian Tavarez, and Manny Ramirez. Jeromy Burnitz and Brian Giles were buried at AAA. They acquired other teams’ projects on the cheap, like Paul Sorrento of the Twins, Omar Vizquel of the Mariners, Jose Mesa of the Orioles, and Kenny Lofton of the Astros, and made them into rousing successes. And they augmented their club with strong veterans, such as Eddie Murray, Dennis Martinez, Orel Hershiser, and Tony Pena (though the less said about Dave Winfield, the better). This team was loaded, and from top to bottom may have been one of the most complete offensive teams of all time.

Meanwhile, the Royals thought they were still playing in 1987, with Vince Coleman, Greg Gagne, Wally Joyner, and Gary Gaetti in the lineup. Gaetti slugged 35 homers in a huge comeback year, but no one else on the team hit more than 14. Designated hitter and 1994 Rookie of the Year Bob Hamlin went from a 146 OPS+ to a 53. The offense finished dead last in the American League in runs per game. They would get worse and worse as the ‘90s ground on, wasting the prime years of Kevin Appier paying exorbitantly for Jeff King, Jose Offerman, Jay Bell, Bip Roberts, and Tom Goodwin.

The White Sox were a year removed from a run of success at or near the top of the AL Central and West under Jeff Torborg and Gene Lamont, and were in 1st place when the ’94 seasons was stopped. So they must have had high hopes coming out of the strike. Alas, a number of players took steps back. Frank Thomas’s OPS+ fell back from 211(!) to 179, because no one can maintain a .487 OBP and a .729 SLG from year to year. Ron Karkovice began to fall back. Ozzie Guillen went from terrible (71 OPS+) to abysmal (56). The DH spot was downgraded from Julio Franco (136 OPS+) to a rotating cast that had a 109 OPS+. Thomas was part of this group, but that moved Dave Martinez to 1B. But a lot of the damage came from the pitching staff, where Jack McDowell was sent to the Yankees and not adequately replaced (McDowell’s spot was filled by a rotating cast of Brian Keyser, Dave Righetti, Mike Sirotka, Luis Andujar, James Baldwin, and Mike Bertotti. Jason Bere also took a huge step back, foretelling the shoulder problems that would eventually derail his promising career. After two straight years with 12 wins, and a combined ERA of 3.64, Bere went 8-15 with a 7.19 ERA. He would combine to make 11 starts over the next two seasons with a 6.75 ERA. And Chicago’s relievers went from having a 4.10 ERA to a 4.85. The club would bounce back in ’96, and hover around .500 before recovering its swagger under Jerry Manuel.

The Brewers should have been essentially a .500 ballclub, as they were outscored by just 7 runs. But playing in an extreme hitters’ park (County Stadium’s one-year Park Factor was 109) masked a team with some troubling offensive problems. John Jaha and BJ Surhoff provided above average production, but played premium offensive positions. Kevin Seitzer and Jeff Cirillo also provided acceptable offense, and some positional flexibility. But none of the other Milwaukee hitters managed more than 1.5 WAR, according to Greg Vaughn, who led the team with a $4.9 million salary, was limited to DH for the year and actually finished below replacement level. Two years later, the Brewers moved out of the American League altogether.

Finally, the Minnesota Twins were enjoying the depths of their decade of cheapness and obscurity. Rather than wait out the strike, Shane Mack took off for Japan and was replaced by Rookie of the Year Marty Cordova. Kent Hrbek decided he didn’t want to stay in shape anymore (or the shape he had chosen to stay in was more circular than is optimal for a ballplayer) and retired, replaced on the field not by heir apparent David McCarty (the 3rd overall pick in 1991), but by something called Scott Stahoviak. McCarty fell out of favor with Tom Kelly and was dealt to the Reds for a non-prospect. Kirby Puckett had been shifted to RF and was replaced by Rich Becker, and would end his career later that season after being hit in the face by a Dennis Martinez fastball.

But the pitching. Oh God, the pitching. Twenty-two year old rookie Brad Radke led the staff with 181 innings and a 5.32 ERA. Kevin Tapani made 20 starts before mercifully being traded to the Dodgers for Ron Coomer and players who were inexplicably more terrible than Ron Coomer. Scott Erickson sulked through 15 games (with a 5.95 ERA) before he was traded to the Orioles (where he would magically go 9-4 with a 3.89 ERA the rest of the year) for Scott Klingenbeck.and Kimera Bartee. Rick Aguilera was dealt to Boston for Frankie Rodriguez because it was clear the team didn’t need anyone special to close games. Aside from Radke and Tapani, by the way, no one on the club pitched more than 100 innings. Mike Trombley made 28 starts, but only had 97 IP, and with a 5.62 ERA, it’s good he didn’t hang around. Rodriguez’s ERA was 5.38. Jose Parra, acquired for Tapani, had a 7.59 ERA. Failed prospect Pat Mahomes finished the year with a 6.37 ERA in 94 innings. Eddie Guardado’s ERA was 5.12. Klingenbeck posted an 8.57 mark. Greg Harris allowed 35 runs in 32 innings, and LaTroy Hawkins allowed 29 in 27. Among players with more than 30 IP, only Rich Robertson and Mark Guthrie (who was traded with Tapani) posted a mark better than the league average. It was, in a word, excrutiating. The Twins allowed 6.2 runs per game in 1995, the first of just four teams since 1940 that have allowed more than 6 runs per game (the others being the ’96 Tigers, ’99 Rockies, and (whatta you know) the ’94 Twins).

And so, the Indians were allowed to run roughshod over the AL Central, dominating it like no other division or league has been dominated before. The ’95 Indians made a mockery of competitive balance, and stand as a strong reminder of what a smart front office can do: run circles around bad organizations.

1 comment:

Monty said...

It was hard to root against the Indians that year, what with all those scrappy players everybody else gave up on. And the gritty manager who urinated on contracts. If only they could find a way to get the Yankees' only hitter (who is always at bat) out...

Yes. The only way my brain can think of successful Cleveland baseball is Major League, history be damned.