Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The 40 Greatest "First Losers"

By The Common Man

Friend of the Blog, and Godfather of baseball blogging, Aaron Gleeman started a project back in 2006 where he would count down the top 40 Twins of all time. Since then, Aaron’s started, stopped, and restarted and restopped his project, though he has made noises recently about getting going again this off-season. The Common Man hopes he does, because he provided some of the most detailed and well researched material on the central Twins cast members ever put together. In the meantime, as a sort of homage to Aaron’s efforts, and because people like lists of things, The Common Man is going to start his own Top 40 lists. Of what? you ask. Of darn near anything. The 40 Greatest St. Louis Browns? Sure. The 40 Greatest mustaches of all time? Why not? The 40 Greatest fluke seasons? We’ll get to that.

So last week, The Common Man enjoying watching the Twins sweep the White Sox out of playoff contention, when he began to wonder about the best teams to not make the postseason. As we get down to the final two weeks of the regular season, more and more 2010 squads are beginning to become eligible for the honor. Alas, because of the Wild Card, most of the great teams to not make it to October hail from a much earlier era. Indeed, the most recent team to make the list is the 1993 Giants, who won 103 games, and finished one game back of the Braves. The reason for this is simple; the wild card has allowed the really great also-rans another way into the playoffs, making it far less likely to have a team with 95 wins or more who can’t get in somehow. There simply aren’t enough great teams out there to realize this scenario. Likewise, there are fewer teams from the division era (1969-1993) than in the era where there were simply two leagues and no playoffs.

The criteria was relatively simple.  TCM looked at wins, of course, and winning percentage, but he also looked at how far back the teams finished, and how far they were ahead of the next club to get a sense of what the overall strength of the league was.  And sometimes, it's just a subjective feeling.

Finally, The Common Man should note that 1994 teams are only eligible if they would not have made the playoffs on the day the season ended. Ditto for 1904 teams, since there was no World Series. And now, on with the show, Casey Cassem style.  Remember, second place is first loser.

40) 1904 New York Highlanders (92-59, .602)
The team finished fourth in runs scored and fifth in runs allowed, and probably only should have won about 84 games. But this team rode Jack Chesbro all the way to almost glory, finishing just 1.5 back of the Red Sox. Chesbro finished the year 41-12, 1.82 in 454.2 innings and 51 starts, which is basically the only reason he’s in the Hall of Fame. But it was a remarkable year nonetheless. Hall of Famer and player-manager Clark Griffith also pitched some, and Wee Willie Keeler had a terrific year at the plate (.343/.390/.409, 147 OPS+). The Highlanders actually ended up tied with the Sox in the loss column, but there was no rule about teams having to make up unplayed games on the schedule, and the Highlanders had three games postponed or suspended that were never made up. If they had won all three, they would have tied the Sox for the AL Pennant.

39) 1952 Cleveland Indians (93-61, .604)From 1950-1955, the Indians won 92 or 93 games four times, a remarkably consistent run that netted them four 2nd place finishes. They would take the American League with a historic 111 win campaign in 1954. The ’52 squad, however, was the best of the also-rans by an eyelash, finishing just 2 games back of the Yankees and 12 games up on their nearest competitor. The team was built around Al Rosen and Larry Doby, a pair of 28 year old sluggers who combined power and patience, and every position player in their starting lineup (with the exception of catcher Jim Hegan) had an OPS+ above 100. The team’s rotation was also incredibly strong, with Bob Lemon, Mike Garcia, and Early Wynn all winning at least, and leading the league in complete games. The immortal Bob Feller had a down year but was the team’s 4th starter. When Bob Feller’s your #4 starter, you’re doing ok. In all, the club boasted four Hall of Famers (Lemon, Feller, Wynn, and Doby).

38) 1985 New York Yankees (97-64, .602)Yogi Berra was famously fired by George Steinbrenner after starting 6-10, and replaced with Billy Martin (who else?), who led the club to a 91-54 mark the rest of the way. The Yankees finished just 2 games back of a terrific Blue Jays team, and 15 up on the Tigers for 2nd place. Rickey Henderson, who had been acquired in an off-season trade, proved to be the catalyst the Bombers were hoping for, hitting .314/.419/.516 (157 OPS+) with 80 stolen bases (at an 89% clip) and 146 runs scored. According to BR.com, he led the league in WAR, and was worth 10 wins above replacement by himself. Not coincidentally, Don Mattingly knocked in 145 runs in an excellent season of his own (.324/.371/.567). The starting rotation, led by Ron Guidry, wasn’t exceptional, but the bullpen was outstanding. The club’s top four relievers (Dave Righetti, Bob Shirley, Brian Fisher and Rich Bordi) combined to throw 412.1 innings and had an ERA of 2.75. Three Hall of Famers (Henderson, Dave Winfield, and Phil Niekro) played on the roster, and stars Guidry, Mattingly, Righetti, Willie Randolph, Ken Griffey Sr., and Don Baylor also played large roles.

37) 1985 New York Mets (98-64, .605)This must have been an amazingly frustrating summer in New York, as the Go Go Cardinals sent the other NYC team home for October. The Mets were terrific, anchored by a couple babies in 20 year old Doc Gooden (24-4, 1.53 ERA, 268 Ks in 276.2 IP, with 16 CG and 8 shutouts) and 23 year old Darryl Strawberry (.277/.389/.557). Gary Carter (.281/.365/.488, 32 HR, 100 RBI) and Keith Hernandez (.309/.384/.430) also supplied a bunch of offense, while Ron Darling, Sid Fernandez, and Rick Aguilera looked to form a promising young rotation. In the bullpen, Davey Johnson mixed and matched with Roger McDowell and Jesse Orosco at the end of games. In reality, though, this young club was not quite ready for prime time. Lenny Dykstra, Kevin Mitchell, Howard Johnson, Wally Backman, and Bob Ojeda would contribute hugely in ’86 and propel the Mets to 108 wins and a World Series Title.

35) (tied) 1977 Boston Red Sox (97-64, .602) and Baltimore Orioles (97-64, .602)The Red Sox and Orioles ended up tied for second in the AL East in 1977, 2.5 games back of the Yankees. The Sox were reaping the benefits of their patience with Jim Rice, as he had his first big season, hitting .320/.376/.593, and leading the AL in homers. George Scott and Butch Hobson also each hit 30 bombs, and Carl Yastrzemski hit 28 in his last great season (.296/.372/.505). The Sox finished the year second in the AL in overall offense. The starting rotation was pretty pedestrian, but the bullpen was amazing. Bill Campbell, Bob Stanley, and Mike Paxson combined to throw 399 innings, and Campbell had 13 wins, 31 saves, and a 2.96 ERA in 140 innings.

The Orioles went the other way, finishing near the top of the pack in pitching, while featuring a mediocre offense. Jim Palmer (20-11, 2.91 in 319 innings, and 22 complete games) was dominant, and backed by solid seasons from Rudy May and Mike Flanagan. Eddie Murray won Rookie of the Year honors and Ken Singleton showed off the underlying talent that made him one of the most underrated and frustrating players of the 1970s, hitting .328/.438/.507.

Each team featured three Hall of Famers. Rice, Yaz, and Fergie Jenkins suited up for the Sox. Meanwhile, the O’s had Murray and Palmer, and a 40 year old Brooks Robinson.

34) 1954 Chicago White Sox (94-60, .610)The Sox won 94 games, and came nowhere near the incredible Cleveland Indians, who won 111. The Sox also finished behind the ’54 Yankees (also on this list), who finished with 103 wins. The Sox were pretty terrific in their own right though. Their pitching was outstanding, sporting an ERA+ of 122, while the offense boasted strong seasons by almost everyone, especially Minnie Minoso, who had his best year. Hall of Famers Nellie Fox and George Kell played for the club.

33) 1934 New York Yankees (94-60, .610)
In Babe Ruth’s last season in New York, the Yankees finished 7 games back of a Detroit Tiger juggernaut, but 9 up on the Indians. The 39 year old Ruth was still terrific at the plate when he played (.288/.448/.537, 161 OPS+), but had lost a good deal of power (just 22 homers) and essentially could no longer play defense. Tony Lazzeri, at 30, was also beginning his decline and Earle Combs had been reduced to a 4th outfielder. Lou Gehrig, however, was other-worldly in perhaps his best season, winning the both the regular and sabremetric Triple Crowns .363/.465/.706 with 49 homers and 165 RBI. And Lefty Gomez won the pitching Triple Crown, winning 26 games with a 2.33 ERA and 158 Ks. He also led the league with 281.2 IP, and 25 complete games. The Yankees had seven Hall of Famers, including Ruth, Lazzeri, Gehrig, Combs, Gomez, Red Ruffing, and Bill Dickey.

32) 1912 Pittsburgh Pirates (93-58, .616)The Pirates were terrific, but had nothing on the New York Giants, who won the NL by 10 games. This was really the last great season of Honus Wagner’s career. The Flying Dutchman had an .891 OPS and 144 OPS+, but he was nowhere near the height of his powers. Fortunately, he was supported by Chief Wilson, who came out of nowhere to hit 36 triples, which still stands as the single-season record and the best pitching staff in the National League. The pitching was led by 23 year old Claude Hendrix (24-9, 2.59) and veteran Howie Camnitz (22-12, 2.83). But really, this was Wagner’s team. And as he declined, so did they. The Pirates wouldn’t be competitive again until after he retired. Wagner was the sole HOFer who played for the Bucs in ’12, but manager Fred Clarke also made the Hall, but chose not to deploy himself for the first time.

31) 1930 Washington Senators (94-60, .610)
In four seasons as the team’s manager, Walter Johnson won more than 90 games three times. This was the first of them. The Senators had a strong squad led by Goose Goslin, Joe Cronin at the plate and Bump Hadley on the mound. In fact, the Senators had some of the best pitching in the American League, but on June 13, they made a significant trade that drastically altered their franchise, trading one Hall of Famer (Goslin) for another (Heinie Manush) and pitcher General Crowder. Goslin had shown a decline in power (which he rediscovered in St. Louis), while Manush was a doubles machine. Crowder was a former 20 game winner who was scuffling (3-7, 4.66). In Washington, however, both Manush and Crowder came alive. Crowder won 15 games in 25 starts (completing 20 of them) with a 3.60 ERA, and gave the Senators the best pitching staff in the AL. Manush batted .362/.406/.559 and provided comparable production to Goslin. The two, especially Crowder, would go on to contribute strongly to winning Senators teams in the next few seasons, and Crowder would win 20 games again in each of 1932 and 1933. In 1930, however, they couldn’t help the Senators catch up to the Philadelphia A’s, who won 102 games. Manush, Goslin, Cronin, and 40 year old Sam Rice (who hit .349/.407/.457) would all go to the Hall of Fame.

30) 1950 Detroit Tigers (95-59, .617)
The 1950 Tigers were the Moneyball A’s before anyone had ever heard of On Base Percentage. Obviously, their front office valued patience. Before the season, the Tigers bought the excellent Jerry Priddy from the Browns to man 2B. 1B Don Kolloway was swiped from the White Sox for next to nothing the year before. Slugging catcher Aaron Robinson had been acquired in ’49 for Billy Pierce and cash. Johnny Groth, Vic Wertz, Hoot Evers, and Johnny Lipon were all home-grown players. And George Kell was George Kell. They paced the league with 722 BB, and finished with the second fewest strikeouts (481). Meanwhile, Tiger pitchers abhorred the walk, surrendering just 553, best in the AL by nearly 100. Meanwhile, despite the emphasis on accuracy, they still managed to be fourth in the AL in strikeouts. Had they not given up 141 homers (most in the AL), their staff would have appeared much more formidable. This was the last hurrah for a Tigers team that had been consistently competitive since 1942, and was the last effective season for veterans Dizzy Trout and Hal Newhauser (who was just 29). Newhauser and Kell were the sole Hall of Fame members on the roster.

29) 1948 New York Yankees (94-60, .610)
The Yankees were just at the start of their dominant run of 15 pennants in 18 years when they lade this egg, finishing 2.5 games back of Cleveland in 3rd place. Joe DiMaggio led the American League in homers (39) and RBI (155), and the pitching staff had a lot of above-average performances, but nothing particularly exciting. The Yanks were tied for first as late as September 24th, but lost three of their final five against the Red Sox in the last 10 days to fall back in an extremely hard-fought campaign. DiMaggio, Phil Rizzuto, and Yogi Berra eventually made the Hall from this team.

28) 1931 New York Yankees (94-59, .614))
Like the ’34 Yankees, but younger, and with even more talent. Joe Sewell was manning 3B, Earl Combs was playing regularly. Ruth hit .373/.395/.700 with 46 homers and 163 RBI. Herb Pennock (11-6, 4.28) was still active in the rotation. In all, the ’31 Yankees had NINE Hall of Famers (Sewell, Ruth, Combs, Gehrig, Lazzeri, Dickey, Gomez, Ruffing, and Pennock). The only thing they lacked was any kind of a chance to catch a Philadelphia A’s team that won 107 games. The Yankees finished 13.4 back, and just 2.5 up on the Senators. The A’s, by the way, had only 6 HOFers, but one of those was Lefty Grove and his 31 wins and 2.06 ERA, and another, Al Simmons, hit .390.

27) 1921 Cleveland Indians (94-60, .610)The 1920 Indians had won the World Series, but the team regressed slightly in ’21 while the Yankees surged. There were several reasons for the falloff. The offense roughly held steady, but could have used another super-human year from Tris Speaker, but had to settle for The Grey Eagle just being ridiculously good (.362/.439/.538, 146 OPS+). The pitching regressed significantly, probably suffering from a heavy workload the year before. Jim Bagby pitched his way into the bullpen, dropping from 31 wins and a 2.89 ERA in 339 innings to 14 wins and a 4.70 ERA in 192 IP. Ray Caldwell dropped from 20 wins and a 3.86 mark to 6-6 with a 4.90 ERA. Neither was ever effective again. Their rotation replacements George Uhle and Duster Mails were solid enough, but couldn’t match their predecessors production. The club finished 4.5 games behind the Ruth-led Yankees, and 13 games ahead of their closest rival. The team would decline further in 1922 and 1923, before falling into the second division for much of the rest of the decade. The club had three Hall of Famers (Stan Coveleski, Joe Sewell, and Speaker).

26) 1942 Boston Red Sox (93-59, .612)
Ted Williams was inducted into the Navy in May of 1942, but was allowed to finish out the year for the Red Sox. He won both the traditional and sabermetric triple crowns in one of his greatest seasons, hitting .356/.499/.648 with 36 homers and 137 RBI. He also led the AL in runs scored (141) and walks (145), but was jobbed out of the MVP by Joe Gordon of the Yankees. It fit the pattern. The Spendid Splinter couldn’t help the Sox overtake the 102 win Yankees either, and the Sox finished 9 games back. Williams was aided by Bobby Doerr, Johnny Pesky, and Dom DiMaggio, all of whom turned in good campaigns. But Jimmie Foxx, who was hitting .270/.392/.460, was hit in the ribs while tossing batting practice, and was sidelined for the a week and a half, when the Sox strangely decided to sell him to the Cubs and go with Tony Lupien at 1B.* Lupien was nowhere near the hitter Foxx was, and 1B became a liability. Tex Hughson won 22 games and had a 2.59 ERA (144 ERA+) in 281 innings, but the rest of the staff was just adequate. The Sox just needed another pitcher, and perhaps a happy and healthy Foxx, but would get neither, and fell out of contention by July. In addition to HOFers Williams, Foxx, and Doerr, Joe Cronin gave himself 95 at bats.

*There’s got to be more to this story. Foxx was sent for x-rays, which supposedly came back negative. But he wasn’t allowed to play. He seemed extremely pleased at joining the Cubs, saying “I feel like I still could go out there and do a good job if I could play every day. But I can’t get going when I’m in the lineup for two or three days and on the bench a couple.” But this doesn’t jive with Foxx’s playing time, as he played in 30 of the Sox’s 34 games before being dealt. And he got 3 plate appearances in 27 of those. Foxx would go on to hit just .205/.282/.288 for the Cubs, which perhaps suggests that he was hurt, and nobody admitted it.

25) 1946 Brooklyn Dodgers (96-60, .615)For the first time ever, two teams, the Dodgers and the Cardinals, ended the regular season tied, which forced a best-of-three playoff series. To that point, the Dodgers were actually 96-58-1, because on September 11, they played a 19-inning, scoreless contest against the Cincinnati Reds that was declared a tie (though it’s unclear why. Ebbets Field hosted the first ever night game in 1938, but it’s also unclear when the lights necessary to make that happen were made a permanent addition to the ballpark. It could have been called on account of darkness (if the lights were not available) or lateness (if there was some rule about not starting innings past a certain time. Officially, the game lasted 4:40.)). The Reds starter, Johnny VanderMeer shut out the Dodgers for 15 of those innings, allowing just 7 hits and striking out 14, and Dodgers outfielders Pete Reiser and Dixie Walker each threw out runners at the plate. If Brooklyn had pushed even a single run across the plate, the playoff would not have been necessary.

As it was, manager Leo Durocher went with a 20 year old Ralph Branca, because the youngster had shut the Cardinals out on Sept. 14, in Game 1 in St. Louis. Branca didn’t get out of the 3rd inning, allowing 3 runs on 6 hits and 2 walks. Meanwhile, the Cardinals ace Howie Pollet pitched a complete game, allowing just two runs. In game 2, Durocher went with the more conventional choice of Joe Hatten, but the 14 game winner also scuffled, giving up five runs in less than five innings. The Cardinals won the pennant in lopsided fashion and the Dodgers went home. Pee Wee Reese is the only Dodger from 1946 to make the Hall of Fame.

24) 1945 St. Louis Cardinals (95-59, .617)
During World War II, the Cardinals made the World Series four times in five years. This was the only year they didn’t make it, and the only year in which they didn’t win at least 98 games. So what happened? Even as they were winning pennant after pennant, the Cardinals attendance stayed low, and with a war on the Cardinals felt a further pinch at the box office. And with Stan Musial, Walker Cooper, and Danny Litwhiler away in the military, the Cards essentially decided to punt in ’45. Over the next year, Mort Cooper was dealt to the Braves for Red Barrett (who, it should be noted, did go 21-9, 3.00 for the Cards) and $60,000. His brother Walker was traded to New York while he was still in the military. They traded Johnny Hopp to the Braves for Eddie Joost (who they never used and eventually sold to the A’s for $10,000) and $40,000. The money kept the Cardinals in business until 1946, when Musial and Enos Slaughter each came back and propelled the Cards to another World Championship. With the stars off at war, rookie Red Schoendist is the only Cardinal from ’45 who made the Hall of Fame.

23) 1948 and 1949 Boston Red Sox (96-59 and 96-58)Ted Williams and his merry men had back to back seasons where they just couldn’t topple the Yankees, losing each season by a game. The Sox brought back virtually the same squad both years, and predictably got the same result. As such, The Common Man is counting them as one team.

22) 1909 Philadelphia A’s (95-58, .621)Consider the ’09 A’s as the staging area for Connie Mack’s dynasty from 1910-1914. Home Run Baker was a rookie, acquired from Reading in the Tri-State League, and replacing Jimmy Collins. Catcher Ossie Schreckengost was jettisoned to make way for the Cerberus-like team of Ira Thomas, Paddy Livingston, and Jack Lapp. Simon Nicholls gave way to slick-fielding Jack Barry at SS. Cy Morgan (who would win 51 games over the next three seasons, was acquired from the Red Sox, and solidified the best pitching staff in the American League. The team still had some dead weight, in particular OF Bob Ganley (.197/.272/.226) got 338 PAs while superior options Topsy Hartsel and Heinie Heituller sat. Replacing Ganley full time might have actually allowed the A’s to catch the Tigers, who finished 3.5 games up. The ’09 A’s were flush with Hall of Famers. Baker teamed with Eddie Collins in the infield, while Eddie Plank and Chief Bender led the pitching staff. A 19 year old Joe Jackson got 18 plate appearances, but was sent to the Cleveland Indians a year later for The Human Eyeball, Bris Lord.

21) 1980 Baltimore Orioles (100-62, .617)Baltimore had the best pitching in the American League in 1980, even with Jim Palmer on the way down. Scott McGregor and Cy Young winner Steve Stone proved more than adequate, however, and won 20 and 25 games respectively. The bullpen was also strong, anchored by Tim Stoddard and Tippy Martinez. Eddie Murray (.300/.354/.519, 32 HR) led the offensive attack, and the O’s featured a very deap bench filled with strong and versatile hitters. Alas, 100 wins just wasn’t enough to overcome the Yankees, whose lead was never really in jeopardy.

20) 1981 Cincinnati Reds (66-42, .611)The Reds were the best team in the National League in 1981 (or at least had the best record), but thanks to the player’s strike, the season was split into two halves, with the winner of each half getting to advance to a divisional playoff series. The Reds finished second in both halves (by just a half game in the 1st), behind the Dodgers and the Astros, but finished four games ahead of LA in the overall standings. For this, they got to watch the playoffs from home, as LA went on to win the World Series. The Reds got terrific pitching from Tom Seaver (14-2, 2.54) and great hitting from George Foster(.295/.373/.519, 22 homers, 150 OPS+) and Johnny Bench (.309/.369/.489, 141 OPS+).

19) New York Giants (87-53, .621)
Because of World War I, the 1919 season ended early, which means their 87 wins looks out of place on this list. But the shortened schedule probably didn’t hurt their pennant chances, as they still finished 9 games back of the Cincinnati Reds. However, the Giants did also employ Hal Chase at 1B and Heinie Zimmerman at 3B, both of whom were later thrown out of baseball for throwing games (Chase had been suspected as far back as 1910), and OF Benny Kauff was soon suspended for stealing and selling stolen automobiles. So the Giants’ 1919 season probably wasn’t entirely on the up and up. The Giants, in 1919, had HOFer Ross Youngs in the outfield (143 OPS+) along with George Burns (142 OPS+), and 2B Larry Doyle (136 OPS+), and the pitching staff was led by 25 game winner (with a 2.40 ERA) Jesse Barnes.

18) 1962 Los Angeles Dodgers (102-63, .618)
Once again, the Dodgers ended the regular season tied with another NL club (this time the Giants again), and were forced into a three-game playoff. While the Dodgers would base much of their success in the 1960s on the arms of Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale (and to a lesser extent, Johnny Podres), their offense was actually far more effective in 1962. Tommy Davis hit .346/.374/.535 (149 OPS+) and knocked in 153 runs. Frank Howard hit .296/.346/.560 with 35 homers. Maury Wills had an OPS+ of 100, and stole 104 bases. Ron Fairly and Willie Davis also had solid offensive season. The club as a whole finished second in the NL in runs scored.

In game 1 of the playoffs, Walter Alston started Sandy Koufax, but the Giants had his number, and hit two homers off him in just over an inning of work. While the Dodger bullpen proved ineffective, the Giants’ Billy Pierce shut their offense out entirely on just three hits. In game 2, the Dodgers won in dramatic fashion, with a sacrifice fly by Ron Fairly in the bottom of the 9th, which scored Maury Wills. In game 3, the Dodgers bullpen bent again, allowing four runs in relief of Johnny Podres and the season was over. Koufax, Drysdale, and Duke Snider were inducted into the HOF from this squad.

17) 1920 New York Yankees (95-59, .617)Babe Ruth’s presence (and 54 homers) catapulted the New York Yankees from 80 wins to 95, and announced the Yankees’ arrival as a perennial contender for the next 40 years or so. Ruth wasn’t enough to get them all the way there, however, and they finished three back of the Cleveland Indians for the league title. The season of both the Yankees and the Indians, of course, was marred by the death of Ray Chapman, who was hit by a Carl Mays fastball on August 16. It didn’t hurt Mays’ performance much, as the Yanks’ ace would go 8-2 down the stretch with a 2.07 ERA to finish 26-11, 3.05. The proto-Bombers led as late as September 14, but the Indians finished 14-4 to rip the title away. Ruth pitched a single game, as did another star outfielder, Lefty O’Doul, who played for the Yanks as a 23 year old, long before he’d establish himself as a star at the age of 31.

16) 1951 Brooklyn Dodgers (97-60, .618)The third Dodger team in this list that had to go to a three-game playoff to go to the World Series. The ’51 Dodgers were famously victimized by Bobby Thomson’s pennant winning “Shot Heard ‘Round the World.” Instead of this, however, let’s point out that these Dodgers were absolutely loaded in ’51. They led the league in runs, hits, doubles, homers, stolen bases, batting average, OBP, SLG, and total bases. Their starting lineup featured four HOFers in the primesof hteir careers, Duke Snider, Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Roy Campanella. 3B Billie Cox was the only starter with an OPS+ below 100, and he was at 98. And the pitching wasn’t bad either. Don Newcombe, Preacher Roe, and Ralph Branca formed an excellent front three, and rookie Clem Labine was a revelation in 65 innings (9 of which included a six-hit shutout of the Giants in the playoffs). You can read more about the playoff elsewhere, considering it’s the most famous three-game stretch in baseball history. The Common Man finds it odd that Roe was never used in the series, but thinks the decision to hold him back and bring in Branca was justifiable given the Dodgers would have needed someone to start against the Yankees the next day for Game 1 of the World Series.

15) 1920 Chicago White Sox (96-58, .623)
Rumors that they had thrown the World Series the year before swirled around the White Sox all summer. Despite the distraction, the Sox were in a tight three-way race with the Yankees and the Indians. With three games left to play in St. Louis, the eight players involved in the scandal were indicted by a Chicago grand jury, and Joe Jackson and Eddie Cicotte confessed. All seven remaining players (Chick Gandil was no longer with the club) were immediately suspended by their owner, Charles Comiskey. The Indians had a 1.5 game lead and were playing four games in the final weekend against the Tigers. It seemed likely the Sox needed a sweep to stay afloat. In game one, Red Faber took his turn in the rotation, but instead of having Jackson, Buck Weaver, Happy Felsch and Swede Risberg behind him, he had a 20 year old Bibb Falk (who had 19 PAs in 1920), Amos Strunk (218 PAs), Harvey McClelland (25 PAs), Eddie Murphy (133 PAs). The Browns jumped over Faber in the 3rd for 5 runs, and the Sox didn’t have the firepower to come back. They managed a win behind Dickie Kerr on October 2nd, but the Indians won as well to clinch. In addition to Jackson, who would have been a Hall of Famer, the Sox had HOFers Faber, Eddie Collins and Ray Schalk.

14) 1935 St. Louis Cardinals (96-58, .623)The last gasp of the Gashouse Gang saw the famous pairing of Dizzy and Daffy Dean, who combined to win 47 games, before Daffy got a sore arm and Diz was sold to the Cubs. The brother tandem was supported by excellent seasons from Joe Medwick (151 OPS+) and Ripper Collins. The Cardinals actually led the NL until September 12, but from Sept. 13 on they went 9-9 while the Cubs were enjoying a September that saw them go 23-3 (which included a 21 game winning streak). The Cards didn’t choke; the Cubs just ripped the pennant away from them. In addition to Dizzy and Medwick, the Cardinals had Hall of Famers Frankie Frisch, Pepper Martin, and Jesse Haines (and HOF manager Leo Durocher).

13) 1905 Pittsburgh Pirates (96-57, .627)The Pirates were a perennial powerhouse from 1900-1912, mirroring the incredible prime of Hans Wagner. As TCM said previously, as went Wagner, so went the Bucs. And this was one of Wagner’s best seasons (.363/.427/.505). Player-manager Fred Clarke and OF Ginger Beaumont each had terrific seasons. And Deacon Phillippe (20-13, 2.19) and Sam Leever (20-5, 2.70) led solid pitching staff. However, as good as the Pirates were, the Giants were just as incredible, if not better. In 1905, they got off to a hot start, and ran away and hid early en route to winning 105 games. And you just can’t compete with that. Wagner and Clarke were the Pirates’ only HOFers.

12) 1906 New York Giants (96-56, .632)
There was no shame for the Giants in 1906. How in God’s name are you supposed to beat a team that wins 116 games in a 154 game schedule? Despite winning 96 of their own, the Giants finished 20 games out. Frankly, the rest of the National League would have been better taking the year off. The race was actually pretty close until August, at which point the Cubs went on an historic tear, winning 50 of their last 58 games (an .862 winning percentage). The Giants featured Hall of Famers Christy Mathewson, Joe McGinnity, Roger Bresnahan, and even John McGraw gave himself three plate appearances.

11) 1961 Detroit Tigers (101-61, .623)
Quick, who led the American League in scoring in 1961? If this weren’t about the Tigers, you would have probably said the Yankees, given all the homers they hit. And while it’s true that the Yankees had a tremendous offense in 1961, the Tigers outscored them thanks, in large part, to an offense-friendly ballpark (whereas Yankee Stadium actually depressed scoring by about 5%). While the Yankees were probably the better offense (and definitely the better team), the Tigers were no slouches. Norm Cash turned in his career year with a .361/.487/.662 (201 OPS+), with 41 homers. Rocky Colavito hit 45 homers and Al Kaline also had a terrific campaign. Meanwhile, the pitching was ugly…by which TCM means that Don Mossi contributed mightily (15-7, 2.96) to the rotation’s success, along with Jim Bunning (17-11, 3.19) and Frank Lary (23-9, 3.24). The Tigers rank lower on this list than other 100 win teams that didn’t make the postseason for a couple of reasons. First and foremost is the expansion of the American League. The Tigers, like the rest of the AL, got to fatten themselves on the horrible new teams in Washington and in Los Angeles, against whom they went 27-9 overall. Second, the expansion of the American League schedule to 162 games means that making it to the century mark was easier for the Tigers than for most of the other clubs on this list.

9) (tied) 1908 Pittsburgh Pirates and 1908 New York Giants (both 98-56,.636)The Cubs and Giants, along with the Chicago Cubs, combined to win every NL Championship from 1901-1913. The Cubs won four of those, including in ’08. The Pirates also won four and the Giants won five. This was the most hotly contested all the seasons, as all three teams finished within a game of one another (the Cubs would win 99 games).
The Pirates wasted what was one of the best seasons of all time by SS Honus Wagner, who hit .354/.415/.542 with a 205 OPS+. He led the league in hits, 2B, 3B, RBI, SB, batting average, OBP, and SLG. The Bucs also got good seasons out of 3B Tommy Leach, Roy Thomas, player-manager Fred Clarke, and 2B Ed Abbaticchio. The pitching was good, but the team’s 2.12 ERA is deceptive, as 30% of the runs they allowed were unearned. Indeed, they actually finished fourth in runs allowed. The Bucs won eight in a row, and 13 of 14 heading into the last game of the season against the Cubs, and were up by half a game. Vic Willis, who had won 23 games, went for the Pirates against Three Finger Brown, who was pitching his third game in six days. Tied 2-2 in the 6th inning, Brown singled off of Willis to give the Cubs the lead, which they’d never give back. Of the ’08 Pirates, Wagner, Clarke and Willis all made the Hall of Fame.

The Giants, on the other hand, may have been even closer to winning the NL pennant. Their offense was, by far, the best in the National League. And their pitching was also terrific, allowing the second fewest runs in the circuit. And on September 23, they were both tied with the Cubs in the standings and through 8.2 innings. With Moose McCormick on 3B and rookie Fred Merkle on 1B, Al Bridwell singled up the middle. McCormick came home and the Giants (and their fans) thought they had the game won. But Merkle (as was common at the time) did not touch 2B, instead breaking for the clubhouse (in center field) to escape the fans that were streaming onto the field. Johnny Evers retrieved the ball (allegedly), touched second base, and appealed to the umpires, who called Merkle out. With the fans all over the field, they couldn’t continue play. The game was declared a tie, and ordered replayed after the regular season ended (on October 8). The New York Times called it “censurable stupidity on the part of player Merkle…[that] placed the New York team’s chances of winning the pennant in jeopardy.” And, indeed, the season came down to a final game between the Cubs and Giants with the two teams tied. Christy Mathewson was squaring off against Jeff Pfeister, and New York struck first, getting a run in the first inning. Then, with two on and two out, down 1-0 in THE FIRST INNING(!!!) Manager and 1B Frank Chance brought in his ace, Brown, from the bullpen. Brown would pitch the rest of the way and restrict the Giants to just one more run, while the Cubs scored four off of Matty. From the Lewiston Evening Journal: “The Giants, well tho they fought, were outplayed. They lacked, among other things, that certain indefinable something, absence of which is probably in this instance explained by the results of the great and continuous strain they have been under the past week.” And like that, the pennant was gone and Merkle’s Boner became part of baseball lore.*

*For the best account of this season, check out Cait Murphy's Crazy '08.  A terrific book.

8) 1949 St. Louis Cardinals (96-58, .623)Now these Cardinals did choke away their pennant, losing four of their final five games to finish a game behind the NL champion Dodgers. On the final day of the season, down a game, Stan the Man hit two homers, and Howie Pullett pitched a complete game and drove in 3 with 3 hits to give the team hope. But the Dodgers scored 2 in the 10th against the Phillies to pull out a clutch win and the pennant. In addition to Musial (176 OPS+) and Slaughter (143 OPS+), the Cards had Hall of Famers Red Schoendist and Marty Marrion, who each had decent years.

7) 1941 St. Louis Cardinals (97-56, .634)Again, the Cardinals fell short of the Dodgers, this time by 2.5 games. Terrific seasons by Hall of Famers Johnny Mize (156 OPS+) and Enos Slaughter (141), and an amazing debut by Stan Musial (.426/.449/.574 in 49 PAs) just was not enough. It’s worth wondering whether replacing Gus Mancuso, who had not been a starting catcher for four years, and whose offensive skills had declined significantly (Mancuso hit .229/.309/.293 in 375 PAs, good for a 65 OPS+) with 26 year old Walker Cooper might have made up a lot of that gap.

6) 1915 Detroit Tigers (100-54, .649)The Tigers led the American League in Runs, Hits, 2Bs, SB, BB, batting average, OBP, SLG, and total bases. And, of course, so much of hat damage was done by Tyrus Raymond Cobb, who batted.369/.486/.487 with 118 BB and 96 SB. SS Donie Bush hit .228, but managed a .364 OBP thanks to 118 BB of his own. Along with Cobb’s 185 OPS+, the Tigers outfield also boasted Sam Crawford and his 134 OPS+, as well as Bobby Veach’s 141. Indeed, it’s possible that this was the best hitting outfield of all time. Unfortunately, the pitching was utterly mediocre, in a virtual tie with the Highlanders for the 4th in the AL. It’s a shame Cobb couldn’t pitch too.

5) 1954 New York Yankees (103-51, .669)
This season also took place in the Yankees’ 15 pennants in 18 years run. Most years, 103 wins will get you a pennant. In 1954, it left the Yankees EIGHT games behind the Cleveland Indians. Maybe if the club hadn’t given 369 plate appearances to a clearly done Phil Rizzuto (.195/.291/.251) or 332 to Jerry Coleman (.217/.278/.277) they could have closed that gap some. Mickey Mantle, just 22 years old, feasted on AL pitching (.300/.408/.525 with 102 BB, 27 HR, 129 runs, and 102 RBI). Yogi Berra was terrific (.307/.367/.488, 125 RBI). And the club got great support from guys like Gil McDougal, Hank Bower, Bill Skowron. The pitching was solid and anchored by Whitey Ford, Bob Grim, and Allie Reynolds. But they just couldn’t compete with an amazing convergence of talent in Cleveland. These Yankees included five HOFers: Mantle, Berra, Ford, Rizzuto, and Enos Slaughter.

4) 1928 Philadelphia A’s (98-55, .641)Like the ’09 A’s discussed earlier, the ’28 A’s were a staging ground for the juggernaut that Connie Mack was about to unleash on the American League. Jimmie Foxx, who was entering his 4th season at just 20 years old, was given his first extensive playing time, backing up at 3B, 1B, and C, and had a 148 OPS+. The club also used Ty Cobb and Tris Speaker, both in their 40s, as veteran leadership in the outfield. The following year, the A’s simplified things further, jettisoning Cobb and Speaker, and 1B Joe Hauser,* and installing Foxx and Mule Haas full time. The team’s scoring increased by 72 runs on the year, and they jumped from 98 wins to 104. The ’28 team was overflowing with Hall of Famers (even moreso than ’29), with Foxx, Mickey Cochrane, Al Simmons, Cobb, Speaker, Eddie Collins, Lefty Grove, and Rube Walberg on the roster. For those keeping track, that’s at least six inner-circle HOFers (it could be seven ifyou’re a Simmons fan). Wow.

*Poor Joe Hauser. All he did was hit .260/.369/.517 in 1928. And for that, he was sent back to Milwaukee in the American Association. Hauser hit .299 with a .575 SLG in the minors, and had 399 homers across 16 minor league seasons. He continued plyaing as late as 1942, when he was 42 years old, and hit .302 with 14 homers and a .579 SLG. Somebody should make a movie about that guy.

3) 1993 San Francisco Giants (103-59, .636)The year before baseball split into six divisions (three per league), and instituted the Wild Card, the Giants were really the last dominant team to be excluded from the postseason. With 103 wins, in virtually any other season, the Giants would have won in a walk, but they ran into a buzzsaw in the form of the Atlanta Braves, who won 104. San Francisco was led by Barry Bonds, in his first season with the Giants after leaving the Pirates as a free agent. Bonds hit .336/.458/.677 (204 OPS+) with 46 homers to win the NL MVP award. 2B Robby Thompson hit .312/.375/.496 and 3B Matt Williams pounded 38 homers and hit .294/.331/.561. Billy Swift and John Burkett each won more than 20 games, and Rod Beck set the NL record for saves with 48. The Giants and Braves went into the final game of the regular season tied with 103 wins each. The Braves, facing the Rockies, pitched Tom Glavine on 3-days rest, and he held the Rox in check for almost 7 innings and earned the win. The Giants, rather than bringing ace Billy Swift back on 3 days rest or going with the more experienced Trevor Wilson, started 21 year old rookie Salomon Torres. Torres had gone 3-4 with a 3.70 ERA, but struggled significantly with his control walking 22 in 41 innings, against 22 strikeouts. Predictably, Torres couldn’t find the plate. In 3.1 innings, he allowed five hits and walked five more. He left with a 3-0 deficit, and the Dodgers would go on to win 12-1.

2) 1942 Brooklyn Dodgers (104-50, .675)
This was Dodgers President Larry MacPhail’s last (and best) team before he enlisted in the US Army for World War II. And with 104 wins, they should have, by rights, won it all. Hall of Famers Joe Medwick, Arky Vaughan, Pee Wee Reese, and Billy Herman were ancillary players behind the big seasons of Dolph Camilli and Pete Reiser. The pitching staff featured great performances by veterans Whit Wyatt (19-7, 2.73), Curt Davis (15-6 2.36), and Larry French (15-4, 1.83). Absolutely nothing went wrong for the Dodgers in 1942…except that the St. Louis Cardinals won 106 behind Enos Slaughter, rookie Stan Musial, and incredible seasons by Mort Cooper (22-7, 1.78) and Johnny Beazley (21-6, 2.13). After the season, Cardinals GM Branch Rickey left the Cardinals and took over Brooklyn to replace MacPhail.

1) 1909 Chicago Cubs (104-49, .680)
The ’09 Chicago Cubs also won 104 games, but had one fewer loss than the Dodgers above. They also finished 6.5 games back of the 110 win Pirates, and 12 games up on the Giants, demonstrating a lot of separation between themselves and the rest of the National League. The Cubs had won each of the last two World Series and three of the previous NL pennants. They’d also win the NL pennant in 1910, so this was a one-year hiccup in a half-decade of absolute dominance. So what went wrong in ’09? For one thing, player-manager Frank Chance was calling his own number a lot less, and replacement Del Howard hit .197/.282/.251. Johnny Evers and Joe Ticker also dropped off significantly. But the biggest problem was the loss of catcher Johnny Kling (.290/.336/.395, 125 OPS+ in the previous 3 seasons), who left the club after 1908 after winning the national billiards championship. After spending a year on the professional circuit there, Kling came back in 1909 and hit .269/.354/.360, a 109 OPS+. In his absence, Jimmy Archer (.230/.266/.291, 71 OPS+) and Pat Moran (.220/.278/.285, 72 OPS+) donned the tools of ignorance, and cost the Cubs a lot of wins.


Anonymous said...

How about the '78 Red Sox? they won 99 games and lost the one game play-off, right? Come on...

Anonymous said...

It's "Newhouser" re: 1950 Detroit Tigers

Anonymous said...

1974 Reds. 98 game winners. Rose, Bench, Morgan, Perez, Concepcion in their prime. They got off to a slow start (73 playoff hangover?) and couldn't quite catch the 102 win dodgers.

Anonymous said...

re: 1935 and 1949 Cardinals-Pepper Martin and Marty Marion are not in the Hall of Fame.

Anonymous said...

Also, Rube Walberg, of the 1927-28 Philadelphia Athletics, is not a Hall of Fame member.

J said...

Joe Ticker on the 1909 Cubbies? Tinker mebbe.