19to21: October 23, 2008
Polishing Those Glass Slippers: Baseball's Cinderella Teams
19 to 21
No, that’s not how long it takes Cinderella’s carriage to turn back into a pumpkin, it’s Baseball...Then and Now
Cinderella, Cinderella, night and day, it’s Cinderella. That’s either a line from a Disney movie, or the national media coverage – be it print or electronic, although the latter is the far worse offender in this case -- of the 2008 World Series. That’s all you hear about, all anyone is interested in writing about – the Cinderella Rays. All well and good – but what no one seems to recall is that, in the movie as well as in real baseball life, Cinderella (or the carriage) usually turns into a pumpkin sooner (before the glass slipper) or later (after the glass slipper). Somewhere around when the clock strikes 12.
It’s a fact. While you can debate the exact definition of a Cinderella baseball team (young team… worst-to-first, unexpected success, bad team becoming good overnight), you can’t debate the fact that every single Cinderella team in baseball history, that is, a team that comes out of nowhere and finds some level of postseason success, with one notable exception, has turned into a pumpkin sooner or later, usually sooner. Bill James calls it the Plexiglas Principle, although it also could be a similitude of water finding its own level. Putting the phenomenon in baseball terms, a team that makes a great leap forward in one year tends to regress towards the mean in the next year. Or, to get really simple – a bad team that suddenly becomes a good team tends to become a bad team (or at least a poorer team) again very quickly. To put it another way, Cinderella becomes a cinder. For those with short memory, it happened to the Rockies during last year’s World Series. Having gone 76-86 in 2006, and having not seen the light of .500 since the 2000 season, to say nothing of the postseason expect for a quick Wild Card exit in 1995, the Rockies suddenly got hot in September 2007, finished 90-73, won the Wild Card in a playoff and went all the way to the Series… where they were squashed, spindled, folded and mutilated by the Red Sox in four straight games. They then repeated the same performance throughout 2008, going 74-88, thanks to a couple of key injuries (Todd Helton and Troy Tulowitzki) and the fact that their starting pitching weren’t really anything special in the first place (hello, Jeff Francis).
That’s one Cinderella story. How about some of the others? The first true Cinderella team was an outfit known as the Louisville Colonels of the old American Association. One of the least-fabled pennant-winners in baseball history, the Colonels took advantage of the 1890 Players League War to make the biggest turn-around in baseball history, going from 27-111 in 1889 (that’s right, they won less than 20 percent of their games the year before) to 88-44 and the AA flag in 1890. That’s a 64-game advancement in one year. The Colonels took advantage of the fact that most of the AA’s best players were off playing for the Brotherhood in the PL, and that most of their players were so bad that the Brotherhood teams didn’t want them. Partly as a result, they got a big year out of the euphoniously-named William Van Winkle Wolf, who led the AA in batting (.363), hits (197) and total bases (260), and a couple of young pitchers who were hardly ever heard from again. Wolf, variously nicknamed both “Chicken” and “Jimmy” (no, I don’t know why), was the only person to play in every season (1882-1892) of the AA’s existence. He wasn’t a great player (career OPS+ of 118), but he had quite a year feasting on second line pitching in 1890. Among the second line pitchers he didn’t face were 20-year old Scott Stratton and 21-year old Red Ehret. Stratton went 34-14 with a 162 ERA+ for the Colonels in one of the least-known great pitching seasons ever. He won a total of 50 games over the course of the rest of his career, and finished with a 97-114 (98 ERA+) overall mark. Ehret went 25-14 (151 ERA+) for the ’90 Colonels, and although he won 139 games in his career, he never won as many as 20 in any other year and also finished under .500, at 139-167. As for the Colonels, whose team age was just 24.8 years in 1890, after tying their postseason series with the National League’s Brooklyn team (the PL winners weren’t invited), they turned back into a pumpkin in 1891, going 54-83. After switching to the National League in 1892, they never again reached .500, finally being contracted after the 1899 season.
Since Walt Disney hadn’t gotten around to making Cinderella (or even Steamboat Willie) yet, the 1914 Boston Braves were known as the Miracle Braves. After dominating the NL in the 1890s, Boston fell on hard times shortly thereafter. They were awful – finishing last every year from 1908 to 1912, and losing more than 100 games every one of those years, to say nothing of losing 205 more games in 1905 and 1906. Having brought in George Stallings, who had been a disaster managing the Phillies in the 1890s, in 1913, they went 69-82 and finished fifth, which could hardly have sent shock waves of excitement through Beantown. Then, they got hot in the tightly-bunched 1914 NL season, blew by the Giants in September, won 94 games, and shockingly upset a badly-divided Philadelphia Athletics team in the World Series. They were the youngest team in baseball. However, it was all an illusion, the glass slipper didn’t fit, although the team didn’t really turn into a pumpkin for a few years. The Braves only had two decent field players, Rabbit Maranville and Johnny Evers (both of whom shouldn’t be in the hall of Fame, although they are) and the pitchers who were so outstanding in 1914 really weren’t aces in the long run, mainly because they got hurt. The most notable victim was Bill James (no, not THAT Bill James) who, after going 26-7 in 1914, won only five games in the rest of his career. Dick Rudolph, who went 26-10 in 1914, went 22-19 and then 19-12 over the next two years, slowly regressing along with the team. After that, he went 40-53 for the rest of his career. Lefty Tyler, 16-13 in 1914, was really just an average pitcher for his entire career, finishing 127-116 with a 102 ERA+. And the Braves slowly sank back to the depths… finishing second in 1915 as the Phillies took revenge for their AL counterparts, third in 1916, sixth in 1917 and seventh in 1918. At that, they lasted a lot longer near the top than some Cinderellas.
In the 1950s the Cincinnati National League club had both an identity crisis and a pitching crisis. Due to rampant McCarthyism, they had to go by the Redlegs (instead of Reds) for a few years, and their pitchers never quite matched up to their heavy hitters. As a result, they bumped along below .500 in 1958, 1959 and 1960, with the last-named team being the worst, a desultory sixth place at 67-87. Then seemingly out of nowhere, they went 93-61 and won the NL pennant in 1961. It was such a shock that the cover of pitcher Jim Brosnan’s diary of the season, “Pennant Race” had a blurb to the effect that this was the story of a Cinderella team that got hot and went the distance. What actually happened was that they rode super seasons from their two young stars, Frank Robinson (25) and Vada Pinson (22) to a pennant with help from some astute trades that brought them Joey Jay, Ken Johnson and Gene Freese. Plus, a couple of other youngsters pitched well … Jim O’Toole and Ken Hunt. They then turned into a pumpkin in the World Series, getting brushed aside in five games by the Mantle and Maris Yankees. Although the Reds stayed close to the action for the next few years, successively finishing third, fifth, second and fourth, they only really came close to first in 1964, and were a completely different team when they next won the NL in 1970. Only pitcher Jim Maloney played on both the 1961 (27 games) and 1970 (seven games) pennant winners. What happened here was that some guys – Freese, Gordy Coleman, Jerry Lynch, Wally Post to a certain extent -- had career years in 1961, and the pitchers, notably O’Toole, Jay and Hunt, didn’t turn out to be able to produce in the long haul.
Three years after the Reds went to the Series, the Red Sox turned the baseball world upside down with the “Impossible Dream” team. (Around the time “The Man of LaMancha” came out.) And it sure seemed impossible. The Sox had been pretty bad since Ted Williams retired, finishing sixth, eighth, seventh, eight, ninth and ninth from 1961 to 1966. In fact, they weren’t too hot in Teddy Ballgame’s last two years, coming in fifth and seventh. So maybe Dick Williams was truly the Boston Miracle Worker, taking a 72-90 team to 92-70 and one game from a World Series title. And not just a 72-90 team, but a team that averaged 25.4 years, the youngest team to win a 20th Century pennant. That can sometimes happen when you get the kind of years that 27-year-old Carl Yastrzemski (.326/.418./.622 and the Triple Crown) and 25-year-old Jim Lonborg (22-9, 3.16, the Cy Young and two-thirds of the Pitcher’s Triple Crown) had. However, Lonborg tore up his knee skiing that winter, and the rest of the pitching staff (Gary Bell, Lee Stange, Dennis Bennett, Dave Morehead) wasn’t all that hot in the first place. So they slipped to 86-76 the next year, and then bumped along in second or third for another half-decade or so until the 1975 team finally made it back with Yaz and Rico Petrocelli the only holdovers from the Impossible Dream.
Two years after the Impossible Dream, the baseball world was once again turned upside down, this time by the Miracle Mets, a team now so famous that no one seems to realize that, outside of Tom Seaver (with a little Jerry Koosman and a fluke year out of Cleon Jones) they weren’t really very good, despite beating an overconfident and vastly superior Orioles team in the World Series. After ’69, the Mets were barely a .500 team even with Seaver. On the days that Seaver didn’t pitch, i.e., if it’s not Seaver, warm up a reliever, the Mets of this era were a mess. If you take the Mets’ record for the years from 1970 to 1973 and subtract out Seaver’s contributions (he was 34 games over .500 collectively in those years), you find they were 13 games under .500 for those four years. Even if you add in 1969, for the five years between ’69 and ’73 they were only seven games above .500 without Seaver, or just over one game per year. Yes, the 1969 Mets have benefited from the greatest hype in baseball history, mainly because the team was so execrable from 1962 to 1967, losing an incredible 648 games, the worst sustained period of incompetence in major league history. (They were 73-89 in 1968, which was practically good.) The mind doesn’t just boggle, it has a full-blown seizure. Thus, it should come as no surprise that, despite the fluky 1973 pennant, the Mets were just a cumulative 13 games over .500 in the next seven years after 1969, before becoming lousy (64-98) again in 1977.
Maybe more famous as losers, especially after what happened in 2008, are the Cubs. Yet, in 1984, having lifted Dallas Green, Ryne Sandberg, Larry Bowa, Gary Matthews, Bob Dernier, Keith Moreland, Richie Hebner, Dick Ruthven, Warren Brusstar, Dickie Noles, Porfi Altamirano, the statue of Billy Penn, Independence Hall and the Liberty Bell either directly or indirectly from Philadelphia (if you want to know why the Phillies weren’t able to sustain their winning ways past 1983, here’s a good place to start), they shockingly won the NL East before the inevitable happened, the lost in the NLCS to the Padres. Still, this bunch of oldtimers (with some help from mid-season acquisition Rick Sutcliffe) came a long way from the team that had “winning” percentages of .395, .365, .451 and .438 in the preceding four years. A rare “old’ Cinderella team, the Cubbies quickly reverted to form, finishing under .500 and fourth, fifth, sixth and fourth over the next four years. They unexpectedly won again in 1989, largely behind the two young stars from ’84, Sandberg and Sutcliffe, before expectedly losing to the Giants in the NLCS and returning to mediocrity for another decade. C’est la vie, Chitown.
The 1987 and 1991 Twins also both pretty much fit the Cinderella slipper. Except for a .500 season in 1984, the Twins had been pretty bad in the eighties, with winning percentages of .478, .376,. .370, .432, .500, .425 and .438 before sneaking over .500 at 85-77 in 1987 and surprisingly upsetting the Cardinals (who, led by Whitey Herzog, whined about the whole thing all the way from one end of the Mississippi to the other) in the World Series. They actually improved their record to 91-71 in 1988, but finished second, before settling back to fifth and seventh in 1989 and 1990. Then came what was loudly hailed as the initial worst-to-first team (even though Louisville had done it 101 years before) that jumped to 95-67 and won the Series for the second time in four years. These two Twins teams can be considered Cinderella teams, or just up-and-down teams, depending on your preference. However, it is worth noting that, after a 90-72 second place finish in 1992, they returned to the depths, finishing fourth or fifth and under .500 for the next eight years, before beginning an ascension in 2001 that continues to this day. However, that was long after Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Gary Gaetti and Frank Viola were gone from the Twin Cities.
Perhaps a better example of Cinderella was the 1993 Phillies. (Note: The Whiz Kids don’t qualify for this study. They went 81-73 in 1949, and were clearly a young team on the rise going into the 1950 season.) Dogged by injuries, bad managers, bad pitching, bad luck, and an iffy farm system, they spent the seasons from 1987 to 1992 under .500, with the ’92 team finishing 70-92. And then, everyone got healthy for one remarkable season. Adding in a couple of key off-season pickups, notably Danny Jackson, Jim Eisenreich, Pete Incaviglia and David West, the ’93 Phillies not only went worst-to-first, but dominated, leading the NL East for all but one day of the season, finishing 97-65 and coming within a 15-14 abortion of a World Series game and Jim Fregosi’s inability to manage his bullpen of winning the World Series. The next year, and subsequently, seemingly everyone went back on the DL. Pitchers Curt Schilling and Tommy Greene went down. John Kruk developed cancer and, even though he came back, he wasn’t the same. Lenny Dykstra ruined his back by going out of control (on and off the field). Darren Daulton’s knees gave out. And that was all she wrote. They spent the next seven seasons under .500 before Larry Bowa led the team to the start of the present-day Renaissance.
Not a pretty history for Cinderellas, is it? And yet, as is so often the case in baseball, there has been one exception. The same team that the Twins beat in the 1991 World Series and the Phillies beat in the 1993 NLCS. After winning the NL West in 1982, and coming close in 1983, the Braves were horrid for the rest of the 80s, only getting close to .500 in 1984 and losing 106 games in 1988 (that’s Metsesque). They weren’t any better in 1990, finishing last at 65-97. And then, they went all the way to first in 1991. A 94-68 record and one game, one inning actually, short of a World Series title. And, even though said title would remain remarkably elusive for the next 14 years (with only 1995 providing any satisfaction), the Braves would finish first in 13 of them. Every year from 1991 to 2005, with the exception of 1994 (when the Expos were in first and pulling away when the strike ended the season), the Braves would finish first. Maybe (no maybe about it, they did) they would flop in the postseason, but Cinderella kept the glass slipper this one time, largely due to a genius named John Schuerholz (if there is any justice in this world, he’s a lock for the Hall of Fame) and possibly the best long-term pitching staff ever put together. And that is indeed how the Braves did it. Schuerholz and pitching. With a lot of help from possibly the best pitching coach of all time, Leo Mazzone. (Anyone notice that the Braves haven’t won a pennant since Schuerholz stepped down and Mazzone left? Gee, Bobby Cox must have gotten awful dumb awful fast.) Tom Glavine. John Smoltz. Greg Maddux. Steve Avery. Kent Mercker. Charlie Leibrandt. Denny Neagle, for goodness sakes. John Burkett, for goodness sakes. Russ Ortiz, for goodness sakes. Kevin Millwood. Mike Hampton. Tim Hudson. Mike Stanton. Mark Wohlers, etc., etc.
Make no mistake about it, that’s how you keep the glass slipper. Pitching. Young pitching developing, staying reasonably healthy and being augmented at the right time by the right vets. Does the Rays’ young starting staff have what it takes to both develop and stay healthy like the Braves’ staff of the early 1990s? Especially since their ace, Scott Kazmir, already has a proven injury history? It’s too early to say, except to say that the Rays don’t have John Schuerholz or Leo Mazzone, and that, in baseball as well as in Disney movies, midnight comes quickly for Cinderella.
-- John Shiffert