A Weekend to Remember

The final weekend of the 2004 season figures to be pretty amazing for baseball fans. With the A’s beating the Mariners and the Angels losing to the Rangers yesterday, Anaheim’s one-game lead atop the American League West lasted less than 24 hours. Now, with everything tied up, the A’s and Angels begin a three-game series tonight that will determine the AL’s fourth and final playoff team. It doesn’t get any better than that, whether you’re an A’s fan, an Angels fan, or just some guy living in Minnesota.

Well, maybe it can get just a little bit better, as the National League will also have a race to the playoffs this weekend, with three teams battling it out for the Wild Card spot. I’m not a fan of the Wild Card and I’m fairly certain I never will be, but good baseball is good baseball, so you won’t hear any complaints from me while I watch San Francisco, Houston and Chicago this weekend.

Sadly, while the AL schedule gives us the exciting Oakland-Anaheim series to finish the season and determine the AL West title, there isn’t a matchup between Wild Card contenders on the NL schedule. The Astros host the lowly Rockies, while both the Giants and Cubs go up against first-place, playoff-bound teams. Someone — I’m guessing Houston and sort of hoping for San Francisco — will emerge from the weekend with the Wild Card and get the honor of squaring off against the Braves or Cardinals in the opening round of the playoffs.

The interesting thing is that once the postseason begins, how you got there usually means very little. Wild Card teams are 10-6 all-time in their opening-round series, despite never having homefield advantage. And, of course, they’ve had plenty of success beyond the first round, with the Angels winning the World Series as the AL Wild Card in 2002 and the Marlins going from NL Wild Card to World Series champions in both 1997 and 2003.

As far as regular season baseball goes, this is the sort of stuff baseball fans should dream about. Two playoff spots coming down to what will likely be the final, 162nd games of the season for several teams, with one of those spots being decided with a head-to-head matchup. I’m actually getting a little worked up just thinking about it.

While we wait for what promises to be a very memorable weekend to get started, here are a couple other things that caught my eye …

Whiffing Into the Record Books

With the second of his three strikeouts yesterday, Adam Dunn broke the all-time single-season strikeout record, surpassing Bobby Bonds‘ total of 189 whiffs from way back in 1970. I, for one, am very happy to see this record finally fall, not because I have anything against Bonds (or Dunn, for that matter), but because it is a mark that would and should have fallen a long time ago if various players and managers had simply let it happen.

From 2000-2003 alone, a hitter came within 15 strikeouts of Bonds’ record nine times, but no one was brave enough to actually surpass the mark until now. Jose Hernandez got to within four strikeouts of tying Bonds in 2001 and then got to within one strikeout in 2002, but sat out several times near the end of both seasons. The same was true of Preston Wilson, who struck out 187 times in 2000, but found himself out of the starting lineup several times in late September.

This has always seemed silly to me, because a strikeout, while a bad thing, is typically no worse than any other sort of out, and whether someone finishes the year with 180 strikeouts or 190 strikeouts has very little to do with their value as a player. In Dunn’s case, the fact that he has struck out 191 times this season certainly takes a backseat to many of his other numbers, chief among them his 45 homers, 107 walks, 101 RBIs and 103 runs scored.

The nice thing about Dunn’s season is that it’s likely good enough to avoid a lot of the anti-strikeout talk that would normally come from the mainstream media. Not only has Dunn had an outstanding all-around season, hitting .264/.387/.564, he’s done well in both the first half (.263/.407/.566) and the second half (.263/.370/.551), at home (.261/.389/.591) and on the road (.264/.393/.528), with no one on base (.262/.356/.606) and with ducks on the pond (.264/.425/.508), and with runners in scoring position (.246/.447/.529) and in “close and late” situations (.333/.434/.774).

Like Bonds, who hit .302/.375/.504 and was one of the best players in baseball in 1970, Dunn is a player having a great season who just happens to strike out a lot. If, in 2004, there are people out there who still believe Dunn’s strikeout total is more representative of his value as a player than his other numbers, those people are probably beyond help. I expect to see the record fall plenty over the next decade or so, and I’d be shocked if the all-time mark isn’t over 200 very soon. Hopefully by that time it won’t be a big deal at all.

One Long Ball

In addition to making lots of people in Anaheim happy and lots of people in Oakland and Texas sad, the home run Francisco Cordero served up to Troy Glaus on Wednesday was his first allowed in over 70 innings of work this season. That’s pretty spectacular, particularly considering the ballpark he played half his games in, and obviously a big reason for Cordero’s dominance this year.

In fact, over the last 50 years there have only been 10 instances in which a pitcher has managed to finish a season with more than 75 innings pitched and no homers allowed …

PITCHER                  YEAR        IP    HR  
Dale Murray              1975     111.1     0   
Terry Forster            1972     100.0     0   
Greg Minton              1980      91.1     0   
Warren Brusstar          1978      88.2     0   
Jim Crawford             1975      87.0     0   
Greg Minton              1981      84.1     0   
John Buzhardt            1968      84.0     0   
Greg Minton              1979      79.2     0   
Gary Wagner              1968      78.0     0   
Tippy Martinez           1979      78.0     0

The post-1954 record holder, Dale Murray (not to be confused with Dale Murphy, who hit plenty of homers), had a very strange career when it came to his home runs allowed. As a 24-year-old rookie with the Expos in 1974, Murray gave up just one homer in 69.2 innings and then followed that up with the 111.1-inning, zero-homer season you see above. Then, in his third year, he once again gave up just one homer, this time throwing 113.1 innings.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

So, through his first three seasons in the big leagues, Murray had allowed an amazing three homers in 294.1 total innings. And what happened in his fourth year? Murray served up 13 homers in 102 innings, of course. If you ignore the fourth season of his 12-year career, Murray surrendered just 27 homers in 800.1 career innings, an average of one homer every 29.6 innings pitched. In that fourth season, 1977, he gave up one every 7.8 innings.

Since the strike in 1994, no pitcher has been able to finish a season with even 70 innings without allowing a homer, with Jason Isringhausen‘s 65.1 homerless innings in 2002 leading the way. Cordero, who gave up four homers in 82.2 innings last year and two homers in 45.1 innings in 2002, made it to 70.1 innings without giving up a long ball this season, but all it’ll get him is a spot on the list of pitchers who gave up one homer. And really, who cares about that group?

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