Friday, October 1, 2021

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, August 27, 2021 -- "Second Place"

 This is a preview of the Joe Sheehan Baseball Newsletter, an e-mail newsletter about all things baseball, featuring analysis and opinion about the game on and off the field from the perspective of the informed outsider. Joe Sheehan is a founding member of Baseball Prospectus and has been a contributor to Sports Illustrated and Baseball America. He has been writing about baseball for nearly 25 years.

Your subscription gets you the newsletter and various related features two to five days a week, more than 150 mailings (more than 200,000 words) a year full of smart, fun baseball writing that you can't find in the mainstream. Subscribers can also access the new Slack workspace, to talk baseball with me and hundreds of other Newsletter subscribers.

You can subscribe to the newsletter for one year for $59.95 using your PayPal account or major credit card.


The Joe Sheehan Newsletter
Vol. 13, No. 78
August 27, 2021

The Dodgers recovered from Wednesday’s marathon game more quickly than their opponents did, shutting out the Padres 4-0 behind near-Padre Max Scherzer. The win pushed the Dodgers’ record in August to 18-4. Jon Weisman, the great Dodgers writer, pointed out that all that winning has gained them just a half-game on the Giants (18-5) this month.

Now, I’m stubbornly sticking with my preseason pick of the Dodgers to win the division. They trail the Giants by 2 1/2 games, three in the loss column, with 34 to play. The two teams have a pair of three-game sets in September that will go a long way to determining who wins the division and whose season comes down to beating Luis Castillo or Yu Darvish. 

Whoever lands in second, though, is headed for history. The Dodgers are on pace to win 102 to 103 games, an incredible number for a second-place team.

Greatness Denied (most wins without finishing first, MLB history)

           Year    Record    Behind
Dodgers    1942    104-50    Cardinals
Cubs       1909    104-49    Pirates
Giants     1993    103-59    Braves
Yankees    1954    103-51    Indians
Athletics  2001    102-60    Mariners
Dodgers    1962    102-63*   Giants
Tigers     1961    101-61    Yankeees

*101-61 in scheduled play, lost NL playoff series to Giants 2-1

What jumps out here is that most of these seasons happened in moments of low competitive balance for one reason or another. The 1942 Dodgers, of course, played during World War II. The 1993 Giants, 1962 Dodgers, and 1961 Tigers all posted their marks in expansion seasons; Oakland's big year in 2001 happened as the game was still rebounding from the 1990s double expansion and CBA changes that drove competitive imbalance. These Giants and Dodgers play in the tanking era. There’s almost always an externality that allows for these extremes.

When it comes to great records falling short, I think of the 1980 Orioles, who went 100-62 and finished three games behind the Yankees. I was obsessed with baseball, and had been too young to really follow the 1978 team, so this was my first experience living through a real pennant race. I still have an image of watching a late-season Yankees/Orioles game, almost certainly on a Sunday, in a long-gone American Legion hall that my family was a big part of in the 1970s and 1980s.

Those Orioles, coming off an AL pennant in 1979, were 42-36 and nine games behind the Yankees at the All-Star break. They would go 58-26 in the second half, Weaverballing their way to five runs a game over that stretch, playing great defense. They closed to a half-game of the Yankees in late August but never caught them, succumbing to the Yanks' 30-11 closing kick that pushed them to 103-59. (As I recall, they didn’t play a postseason that year.)

The Orioles won 100 games and went home, one of just two teams to do that since 1963. The 1993 Giants, in The Last Pennant Race Ever, won 103 games and finished just behind the Braves at 104-58. Fans younger than...well, me...might find it hard to believe the way that race was the biggest story in sports that month. Baseball used to own September in most years, a position it forfeited, probably forever, just 11 months after that Braves/Giants race ended.

In the wild-card era, just two teams have won 100 games and not won their division. The 2001 A’s, pre-Moneyball, had the misfortune of trying to chase down the 116-win Mariners in the AL West. The format then meant that the A’s weren’t much worse off than the Mariners were in October, and when they took a 2-0 lead in the Division Series, it seemed like they would get another crack at Seattle in the ALCS. Mike Mussina and Derek Jeter intervened. (As I recall, they didn’t play a World Series that year.)

Seventeen years later, it was the Yankees’ turn to be a great second-place team, winning 100 games and never really getting close to the best Red Sox team ever. The Yankees did get a second shot at the Sox in the Division Series, but were taken out in four games as the Red Sox waltzed to their fourth World Championship in 15 years. 

That’s the scenario we could be headed for in 2021, with the NL West champion finding itself facing the team it bested over 162 when it plays its first playoff series. (The aforementioned Mssrs. Castillo and Darvish may have a say in the matter.) In a season where team greatness has been undercut by injuries on a daily basis, the prospect of a playoff series between two teams that won 100 or more games is tantalizing. That the teams are rivals dating back a century makes it that much more delicious.

However the postseason plays out, though, it’s nearly certain that the NL West runner-up will be among the most accomplished bridesmaids in baseball history.