Monday, January 25, 2016

Best Postseason Win: New York Yankees

A fair number of these posts have begun with a description of the featured team's ill-fated history. No team bears a greater culpability for those tales of woe than the Yankees.

But that's not to say the Yankees have been uniformly successful throughout their history. They took about 20 years to win their first AL pennant (depending on whether you date from the league's beginning in 1901 or the first season played by a New York AL franchise in 1903), and they've had two other extended downturns, failing to make the postseason from 1965-75 and from 1982-93. The 1994 team likely would have broken the second streak, as it had the best record in the AL, but the strike resulted in cancelling the postseason altogether. All told, from 1965-94, the Yankees made only five playoff appearances, winning four pennants and two titles.

(Yes, at this point in the post you are allowed - nay, encouraged - to offer gratuitously insincere sympathy for the past suffering of Yankee fans.)

Postseason or not, the '94 Yankees certainly seemed to indicate a franchise that was turning its fortunes back around. And in 1995, the reversal continued, as the team went 79-65 and claimed the inaugural AL Wild Card.

The three division winners in the AL were the Indians (100-44), Red Sox (86-58), and Mariners (79-66, having staged a furious rally during the late stages of the year and won a single-game playoff to capture the AL West crown over the Angels). I remember that Wild Cards weren't allowed to play a first-round series against teams from their own division (until the recent doubling of the Wild Card made that rule logistically unfeasible). I do not, however, recall why the Wild Card Yankees were matched against the Mariners, rather than the obviously superior Indians.

Whatever the reason, the result was a pair of exemplary series, one of which managed to produce the best of the Yankees' 224 postseason wins to date.

1995 ALDS Game 2: Yankees 7, Mariners 5 (15). Seattle's Andy Benes was making his first career postseason start; it would not be his last of the year (we've already covered another one), and he would also return to the playoffs on multiple future occasions as a Cardinal.

New York's starter was also making his October debut, and would also go on to make a few more playoff appearances as a big leaguer. His name was Andy Pettitte.

Friday, January 22, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Chicago Cubs

At the end of the 1944 season, the Cubs were having a rough stretch. Which, at the time, was actually unusual. (Yes, really.)

After a highly competitive decade in the '30s (winning records every year and three pennants), the early '40s brought a string of five consecutive sub-.500 efforts, the longest such streak in franchise history to date. (Yes, really.)

But 1945, the most extreme of the wartime seasons, finally allowed the Cardinal monopoly on the NL pennant to be broken (barely - they still won 95 games). Led by a league-best pitching staff and a lineup bolstered by excellent years from Andy Pafko, Stan Hack, and batting champ Phil Cavarretta, Chicago took 98 games and their first flag in seven years. It was their third-longest gap between pennants to this point in the 20th century. (Yes, really.)

Their World Series opponent would be the Tigers, who even with ace Hal Newhouser's 25-9, 1.81 season could only manage 88 wins - a very low total for a pennant winner in the pre-divisional era. But the end of the war brought many of baseball's stars home, and one of the first to return was Detroit's Hank Greenberg, who spent half a season reminding American League baseballs of the punishment from which they'd been exempted during his lengthy military service.

With their best hitter back in action, the Tigers were primed and ready for the World Series - but the Cubs took two of the first three games in Detroit, and the series shifted to Wrigley for the remaining contests (travel was limited due to wartime restrictions). However, the road team continued to have the advantage after the change in venue, as the Tigers took Games 4 and 5, putting them on the brink of the title and leaving Chicago with a must-win...

1945 World Series Game 6: Cubs 8, Tigers 7 (12). The two starting pitchers were both of the sides of wartime baseball - Chicago's Claude Passeau was a capable-but-aging hurler whose career was extended by the weakened wartime competition, while Detroit's Virgil Trucks had made a very strong start to his career in '42 and '43, then missed almost two full seasons, coming back in time to make only one regular season start before the World Series.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, California

I think we covered all of their geographical names. I'll come back and update the title later if they decide to go even broader at some point, like "The Entire West Coast of North America Angels."

Anway... By early expansion team standards, the Angels got off to a pretty solid start; they had a winning record in their second year, and added three more during their first decade of play. From 1979-86, they won the AL West 3 times in 8 years - not exactly dynasty material, but solid, reliable contention, even if they did lose all three ALCSs (two of them in pretty heartbreaking fashion). They slipped back into mediocrity-or-worse for most of the next decade and a half, though, with only one season of more than 85 wins.

In 2001, the Seattle Mariners set an AL record with 116 regular season wins. The Oakland A's won a mere 102 games - but they went 63-18 over the second half of the season, one of the best last-81 records in a very long time. The Angels, meanwhile, shared a division with both of those teams, and went a combined 10-29 against them, which helped keep their record down to 75-87.

The next year, the Angels began 6-14 - and with Seattle having sprinted out to a 17-4 opening, the season was not off to anything resembling a promising start. But the team righted itself with striking rapidity, winning 21 of its next 24 games and charging into the thick of a marvelous three-way divisional race. The Mariners would cool off from their hot start (obviously), but still held onto first place until late August, before slipping to a 93-win, third-place finish. The Angels would hang tight for a little longer, but Oakland's second-half prowess would eventually prove too much again, as they closed the season 57-24 over their last 81 games and captured the AL West title.

But in 2002, the 99-win Angels had another route to the playoffs, and took it, cruising to the AL Wild Card. Naturally, their success brought them up against a rather formidable foe - the four-titles-in-the-last-six-years Yankees. New York flexed its muscles early, posting a four-run eighth inning to grab an 8-5 win in the first game. Which brings us to...

2002 ALDS Game 2: Angels 8, Yankees 6. Anaheim's Kevin Appier was 34 years old and making his second career postseason start. New York's Andy Pettitte was four years younger, and making playoff start number 25.

Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Texas Rangers

This game was discussed in this space recently enough that I'm not going to do a big introduction.

The Rangers started out as the second iteration of the Washington Senators in 1961. They were so bad that Ted Williams won Manager of the Year for getting them into fourth place in a six-team division. They moved to Texas after about a decade, and were mostly pretty bad there too, not making a single playoff appearance until 1996, or winning a playoff series until 2010.

They made the World Series in 2010, and lost. In 2011, they were even better, got back to the playoffs, and took another shot at it, which led them to the ALCS against the Tigers.

2011 ALCS Game 2: Rangers 7, Tigers 3 (11). In 2011, Texas' Derek Holland had a better year than Detroit's Max Scherzer. Given that he was also two years younger, one might have thought he was on his way to surpassing the heterochromic Tiger righthander.

One would have been wrong. 2011 is the only year in which Holland's performance has been better to date, and four years later, the gap in Scherzer's favor is not particularly narrow.

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Houston Astros

The 2004 Astros had a wonderful season in essentially all respects. They had one of the NL's best lineups, led by an extraordinary year from Lance Berkman, who was complemented by solid seasons from Jeff Kent, Jeff Bagwell, and even the aging Craig Biggio. The capper, however, was the midseason acquisition of the magnificent Carlos Beltran, who hit, fielded, and ran beautifully both in the regular season and in the playoffs. The team mounted a late charge to pass the fading Cubs for the Wild Card, won an excellent NLDS against the Braves, then faced the Cardinals in a classic NLCS that went the full seven games before Houston went down in defeat.

After that season, the team lost Beltran and Kent to free agency. Their replacements were mostly Chris Burke and Willy Taveras, which was a notable downgrade. Moreover, Bagwell missed most of the year due to injuries and was ineffective when on the field. And Berkman, while still a fine player, slipped a bit from his '04 productivity. The departures and declines were partially offset by Morgan Ensberg's big season, but the team still slipped from 5th in the league in scoring to 11th.

As a result, their record declined from 92 wins all the way down to... 89, and a second consecutive NL Wild Card. The team was buoyed significantly by improvement in the pitching staff; the pitchers were largely the same as they'd been the year before, but Andy Pettitte stayed healthy all year and had an exemplary season, and Roger Clemens shaved more than a full run off of his already-terrific ERA. Add in a 20-win season from Roy Oswalt, and you had a front three that helped the team allow the fewest runs in the league.

Their reward? A second consecutive LDS matchup with the Braves. The teams split the two games in Atlanta, and the Astros grabbed Game 3 back home, which brings us to...

2005 NLDS Game 4: Astros 7, Braves 6 (18). Atlanta started Tim Hudson, who is actually pretty similar to Oswalt in that they were both among the 5 or so best starters of the generation that debuted around the turn of the century, but have little to no chance at the Hall of Fame. It would have been vaguely poetic Houston had responded with Oswalt; instead, they selected Brandon Backe, who was... not as good.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Best Postseason Win: New York Mets

The Mets of the late '90s worked very, very hard to build a contending team. In 1997, '98 and '99, they brought in John Olerud, Mike Piazza, Rickey Henderson, Robin Ventura, Al Leiter, Orel Hershiser, and Kenny Rogers. The moves largely paid off, as the team won 88 games in '98 (finishing a game out of what would have been a 3-way tie for the Wild Card), then improved to 97 victories the next year.

The trouble was, there was a reason that the Mets felt the need to bring in that many players to become a contender. That reason was the Atlanta Braves, and they remained intact, winning 103 games in '99 and forcing the Mets to settle for the Wild Card (which they won in a single-game playoff). The Mets beat the Diamondbacks in the LDS, and the Braves handled the Astros, and their regular season rivalry was set to resume in the NLCS.

Atlanta appeared to be well on its way to continuing its track record of success against the Mets, taking the first three games of the series. New York clawed out a win in a tense Game 4, but their backs were still firmly pressed to the wall.

Which brings us to 1999 NLCS Game 5: Mets 4, Braves 3 (15). Fighting for their playoff lives, the Mets sent Masato Yoshii, who had come over from Japan before the '98 season and was a slightly-above average starter who'd narrowly qualified for the ERA title in each of his first two major league seasons.

The Braves responded with Greg Maddux, who had won twice as many ERA titles in his career as Yoshii had qualified for.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Melog ratings: Pre-Australian Open 2016

Are these rankings technically pre-Aussie Open even though the event started over an hour ago?

(Yes, they are, because the rankings themselves don't factor in any results from the event. Moving on.)

Friday, January 15, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Brooklyn Dodgers

The 1947 Brooklyn Dodgers had an interesting season.

In 1941, the Dodgers had won their first pennant in just over two decades. They remained significant contenders after that, losing an all-time great pennant race in 1942 and mostly hanging around the top three of the standings for the next few years despite the upheaval of World War II. The 1946 Dodgers, led by star outfielders Dixie Walker and Pete Reiser, double-play combo Eddie Stanky and Pee Wee Reese, and a steady, balanced pitching staff, won 96 games and lost an end-of-season playoff to the Cardinals for the pennant.

Before the 1947 season started, Brooklyn manager Leo Durocher was suspended for the year due to "association with known gamblers." On the bright side, the Dodgers also added the most talked-about rookie in the league. Despite playing out of position at first base, he still posted a healthy .383 OBP, stole a league-leading 29 bases, and scored 125 runs, second in the NL.

Also, he was the first African American player in the majors in modern baseball history, so there's that.

With Jackie Robinson added to their inordinately balanced offense and a pitching rotation bolstered by a wonderful year from Ralph Branca, the Dodgers took the 1947 pennant by five games. Their reward, of course, was a date with the Yankees in the World Series. (The Yankees weren't actually the only team allowed to win the AL pennant - this was their only Series appearance from 1944-48. But they seemed to make sure to win it every time the Dodgers won the NL.)

The Yanks took the first two games of the series, but Brooklyn won the third back in Ebbets Field, taking a huge early lead and hanging on for a 9-8 victory. That brings us to our entry...

1947 World Series Game 4: Dodgers 3, Yankees 2. Brooklyn started Harry Taylor, whose MLB career included under 400 total innings, nearly half of which were thrown during the '47 season, and a 19-21 record. New York countered with Bill Bevens, who ended up with a comparatively impressive 642.1 innings and a 40-36 mark.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Los Angeles Dodgers

The 1988 Dodgers were a two-man team.

This is, of course, not literally true; they had a full roster. It's not even figuratively true, as they had a number of effective supporting players. But a midseason trade of Pedro Guerrero to the Cardinals left them with only one starting position player with an OPS+ over 120, and only three over 100. The pitching staff was a bit deeper, with three starters at 115 or higher in ERA+ and a quality bullpen - but the team still only had two players who earned over 3 WAR.

Fortunately, those two were very, very good. Kirk Gibson won the NL MVP, and Orel Hershiser set the major league record for consecutive scoreless innings and won the Cy Young. Still, the NLCS pitted them against the Mets, who had a Gibson-quality player in each corner outfield spot and plenty of depth to spare in their league-best lineup, not to mention a stacked rotation that helped them allow the fewest runs in the league.

The series started in LA, where the teams split the first two games. The Mets took Game 3 back in New York, which rendered Game 4 a near-must-win for the Dodgers. Which brings us to...

1988 NLCS Game 4: Dodgers 5, Mets 4 (12). (Not the game you were expecting, was it?)

The pitching matchup was a pretty good one. Not only that, but it's one that will bring a smile to the faces of baseball nerds everywhere - albeit not as much of one as if it had occurred 3 years earlier. It was New York's Dwight Gooden against LA's John Tudor (who had been acquired for Guerrero in the aforementioned midseason deal).

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Best Postseason Win: San Diego Padres

Sadly, unlike the last entry, this game probably needs at least a bit of introduction.

The defining story of the 1984 season was the Tigers, who started 35-5 and steamrolled the entire American League. Despite that, the NL felt the need to send a team to the World Series as well, and as a result, the NLCS took place as scheduled.

The matchup was a pretty intriguing one - the Cubs won the NL East and were making their first postseason appearances since 1945, and the Padres won the West and were making their first postseason appearance ever. Chicago won the first two games in Wrigley, and the series shifted to San Diego for the final three (if necessary). The Padres took the third game, which brings us to...

1984 NLCS Game 4: Padres 7, Cubs 5. The game featured a fairly typical Game 4 matchup - the Cubs started the mediocre Scott Sanderson, and the Padres sent the slightly-worse Tim Lollar.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Arizona Diamondbacks

You may have noticed that I have a tendency to be somewhat long-winded in my introductions to some of these games. In this case, I don't feel the need to act as though an extended prologue is necessary.

2001 World Series Game 7: Diamondbacks 3, Yankees 2. The pitching matchup was about all you could hope for, and may well be the best ever in a seventh game: Roger Clemens for the Yanks, Curt Schilling for the Snakes.

Monday, January 11, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Colorado Rockies

It was September 15, 2007, and the Rockies were in fourth place.

Admittedly, they were better off than most fourth-place teams; for starters, they were the only one in baseball that had a winning record. But at 76-72, it was a pretty uninspiring figure by winning record standards, and they trailed three other teams for the Wild Card, all of them by at least three games. With only 14 games left in the season, their playoff chances looked to have been effectively finished off by their current three-game losing streak.

But the Rockies recovered to win the final game of their series with the Marlins 13-0. Up next came a four-game series against the Dodgers, one of the teams that Colorado trailed. They won all four games, including a doubleheader sweep which in turn included this absolutely insane game, a multi-comeback 9-8 victory. The Padres, also direct competitors, were the next victims, with a three-game road sweep (including a 2-1 win in 14 innings) putting the Rockies just a game and a half out of the Wild Card. They faced the Dodgers in three more games and again won them all, pushing their streak to 11 and pulling within a game of San Diego for second place with three to play.

The Rockies' last remaining games were against the league-best Diamondbacks, while San Diego took on a .500 Brewers team. When Colorado dropped the first game of their series and the Padres won theirs, things were back to looking grim. But the Rockies won the second game of their series in blowout fashion, while San Diego dropped a nailbiter courtesy of a Trevor Hoffman blown save. And on the last day of the season, Milwaukee pounded the Padres and Colorado took a tight one that went back-and-forth late, and the two teams were tied.

That meant a single-game playoff - which is technically part of the regular season, but which I'm designating as their best postseason win anyway, because I'm pretty sure it's the most fondly-remembered game by Rockies fans.

2007 NL Wild Card playoff: Rockies 9, Padres 8 (13). The starters could hardly have been more different; Colorado's Josh Fogg was a well-traveled soft tosser who had never in his career thrown over 100 innings with an ERA better than league average, and would never meet even the first of those criteria again after this season. San Diego's Jake Peavy, on the other hand, had just completed a year that would win him a unanimous Cy Young.

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Florida Marlins

(Yes, I know they're the Miami Marlins now, but they haven't made the playoffs under that name yet.)

As I've mentioned before, I consider several factors external to WPL when choosing each team's best postseason win. One of the most important is whether the team went on to win the World Series that year, as victories that lead to titles are more likely to be fondly remembered than those that don't.

For the Marlins, that factor is a complete non-issue - because they have made the postseason only twice, and gone on to win the World Series both times. Which means they are the only team never to have lost a playoff series. (And they were the wild card both times, which means they've won two World Series championships and no division titles.)

Of course, there are still other factors in the decision, one of which came strongly into play when making this selection. See if you can figure out which one!

1997 World Series Game 7: Marlins 3, Indians 2 (11). The pitching matchup was not necessarily what you'd expect from a winner-take-all game. Florida selected Al Leiter, who had taken a while to establish himself, but at age 31 was now a reliable lefty starter, even if he had just finished what was a pretty bad year for him. Cleveland countered with Jaret Wright, a 21-year-old rookie right-hander. In a rookie righty vs. veteran southpaw matchup, you'd figure on the youngster being the wild one - but not this time, as Leiter had both a higher strikeout rate (7.9 per 9 innings to 6.3) and a significantly higher walk rate (5.4 to 3.5).

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Tampa Bay Rays

In terms of baseball history, the struggles of the Tampa Bay Devil Rays were the smallest of potatoes. Yes, they were bad when they started out; so were most expansion teams. Yes, they had losing records for ten consecutive years, peaking at 70 wins during that stretch. Ask a fan of the Boston Braves, or St. Louis Browns, or the Phillies between the World Wars, or the College of Coaches Cubs, or even the Royals and Pirates from exactly the same time, how much sympathy is merited by that level of suffering.

Still, the Devil Rays were lousy, and with 96 losses in 2007, showed no signs of coming out of it any time soon. And the standards for expansion teams weren't as low as they once had been; the Diamondbacks, who'd also been created in 1998, won the World Series just three years later, and the 1993-born Marlins won two titles in their first eleven years of existence.

The '07 Rays are a fairly fascinating team in retrospect. Their lineup was actually not bad - or, more correctly, their offense was not bad. Their defense, on the other hand, was appalling. Defensive Efficiency Rating is (I believe) a Bill James statistic for team defense; it measures the percentage of balls in play converted into outs. In 2007, the AL average was .684 (meaning that if you put the ball in play against an AL team, you would expect to hit .316). The league-best Red Sox checked in at .704; the Mariners had the second-worst figure in the league at .672.

The Devil Rays? .652, 32 points below average and 20 points away from thirteenth place. The league hit .348 against them if you leave out strikeouts and homers... which is very bad. That was a big part of the reason that the Rays allowed 76 more runs than any other team in the league, almost half a run per game, and were a full run per game worse than league average.

Before the 2008 season, the Rays were officially rebranded, dropping the Devil from their name and switching from the sea-creature definition of Rays to the beam-of-light definition. More significantly, they managed to execute a remarkable overhaul of their team without actually changing too many players. Here's how it worked, broken down by defensive positions.

The Rays started the same players at catcher (Dioner Navarro), first base (Carlos Pena) and left field (Carl Crawford) as they had the year before. In 2007, Akinori Iwamura served as the regular third baseman, while second base was manned by a creature with one more head than Cerberus (BJ - now Melvin - Upton, Brendan Harris, Ty Wigginton, and Josh Wilson), but with far less defensive effectiveness than the famed guardian of the underworld. Harris, being stretched past his limits in manning second base for about 50 games, was also stretched much further in the half-season he spent at shortstop, with Wilson and Ben Zobrist faring little better.

The infield mess settled down considerably in 2008. Iwamura moved his competent glove from third to second, and trade acquisition Jason Bartlett took over shortstop, where he played... not spectacularly, but at least an an acceptable major league level, something the Rays had sorely lacked in the middle infield a year earlier. And a month into the season, they called up the wonderful Evan Longoria to take over third.

The outfield transition had actually begun the year before, as the aforementioned Upton had moved from second base (where he was dreadful) to center field (where he was excellent), displacing a terrifying agglomeration of Elijah Dukes, Rocco Baldelli, and amazingly, Delmon Young. (I understand Carl Crawford is a tremendous left fielder, but I don't know how you justify keeping him there and playing Delmon Young in center instead.) Upton took over center full-time in 2008, and the combination of Young and Jonny Gomes in right was replaced almost entirely by a significantly superior Gabe Gross/Eric Hinske platoon.

As a result of that reshuffling and replacement, the Rays went from the worst DER in the AL to the best (.708) in one season. Unsurprisingly, this helped their pitchers considerably - enough to turn the league's worst run-prevention unit into its second-best, and thereby propelling Tampa to 97 wins and the AL East title.

One round of postseason later, the Rays would face the team they had narrowly bested in the division, leading to our entry here. The selection is 2008 ALCS Game 2: Rays 9, Red Sox 8 (11), which began with a pitching matchup of two fairly mercurial but highly noteworthy talents - Boston's Josh Beckett and Tampa's Scott Kazmir.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Chicago White Sox

As I've mentioned in this space before, there is a lot of talk in baseball about tortured franchises. In that discussion, most of the publicity has gone to three places - Philadelphia, Boston, and Chicago.

That's accurate to an extent - but part of the problem with it is that the Chicago attention is focused exclusively on one team. The second city's second team has a dreadful history in its own right, with a nearly nine-decade title drought that ended this century and included the only thrown World Series in baseball history (as far as we know, anyway).

In fact, the White Sox have only 29 postseason victories in their history. Not only is that the fewest of any original franchise, but there are also two expansion teams who've exceeded that total, with a few others coming up in the rearview mirror.

The total is low enough that it's not much of a shock to find only one White Sox victory among the top 99 playoff games of all time. Fortunately for South Side fans, it's a really good one.

2005 World Series Game 3: White Sox 7, Astros 5 (14). The Sox started Jon Garland, who was good for 200 respectable innings if you put a solid defense behind him. The Astros opposed him with Roy Oswalt, who was usually quite a bit better, for more innings, without nearly as much dependence on his fielders.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Best Postseason Win: Detroit Tigers

The Tigers have generally been a pretty solid franchise, steady without being dominant; they've won pennants in seven different decades and have four World Series titles, all of which are separated from the others by at least ten years. So it's a bit surprising that their four best games are in two tightly-grouped pairs - two of them from the 2012 season, and two from the 1934-35 repeat pennant winners.

Of the four, we're picking the game that actually led to them winning a World Series.

1935 World Series Game 3: Tigers 6, Cubs 5 (11). The matchup was the two pitchers who'd led their leagues in winning percentage, though it was a relatively undistinguished duo for meeting that standard; Detroit sent sidearmer Elden Auker against Chicago's Bill Lee (who is almost certainly the second-most famous pitcher by that name, although he was better overall than his successor, Spaceman Bill Lee).