30 September 2004

Down to the Wire...

The baseball regular season's almost over, and the final picture of the playoff races is beginning to finally come into focus. But, off in the distance, one or two areas simply refuse to be pinned down.

For the first time in months, the Oakland Athletics don't lead the AL West. Anaheim beat Texas last night accomplishing two things:

1) They eliminated the Rangers from the playoff picture, which is particularly good in that it will deprive those who would argue that the A-Rod/Soriano trade made Texas a better ballclub of some fodder for their argument.

B) They moved themselves into first place.

Of course, the second accomplishment was aided by Oakland's loss to last-place Seattle, but more broadly to Oakland's general inability to win consistently for the last month or so. They're 11-16 in September, after finishing August with eight straight wins, a 78-53 record and a healthy three-game lead in the West. Their starters have a 5.92 ERA this month, including one-time Cy Young candidate Mark Mulder's 8.10(!), to go with a 7-11 record. Not a convenient time for your starters to falter.

In the NL, the race for the West is nearly over, with the Giants hanging on for dear life, three games out with four left to play. Not likely, as they say in France. But the Wild Card is still up for grabs, as the Astros have ridden their star to a one-game lead as of last night. Just for the record, Boy of Summer's pick for the NL Wild Card is either San Francisco, Houston or the Cubs, whichever team finishes with the best record at the end of this weekend. Remember: you heard it here first.

So, on to more interesting isseus...

There is a surprising number of individual records that may fall this year. You probably already know about Barry Bonds' myriad of accomplishments: He'll break his own records in single season walks (225 and counting), on-base percentage (currently .610), OPS (1.435 right now), and others. But did you know that his on base percentage is currently higher than all but five other players' slugging percentages, only one of whom plays in the supposedly more offensively oriented American League (Manny Ramirez)? It probably won't happen, but if for some reason Barr's allowed to hit against the Dodgers during the last weekend of the season, and he can hit three homers while Adrian Beltre and Albert Pujols are held in check, he could be the first player in half a century to win a home run title without striking out as often as he homered. Ted Kluszewski did it in 1954, hitting 49 dingers with 35 strikeouts.

Speaking of offense, I'm pretty offended that people are making such a big deal out of Ichiro's chasing George Sisler. Ichiro's quest for the single-season hits record is an interesting footnote to the 2004 season, at best. He's a speedy singles hitter who hardly ever walks, so even with a .370+ batting average, his OBP barely cracks the top 10 in the majors, and his OPS is 38th! Over 150 players have as many doubles as Ichiro right now, and despite all those hits, he might not score 100 runs, partly because his teammates suck, but also because he so rarely gets himself into scoring position.

When George Sisler amassed 257 hits in 1920 he hit .407 to do it. He also was second in the league in homers, doubles, triples, extra base hits, slugging%, OPS, Runs, RBI, steals, and some other stats, most of them behind some guy named Ruth. Ichiro isn't even close to being the second best player in baseball this year. Sisler was elected into the Hall of Fame in 1939, one of the first classes to enter, and he got a higher percentage of the vote than Walter Johnson, Cy Young, Tris Speaker, Nap Lajoie, Pete Alexander, Eddie Collins, Wee Willie Keeler or Rogers Hornsby, to name a few of his competitors on the ballots.

Another interesting note that's gotten almost no press coverage is Adam Dunn's potentially record-setting campaign. Don't know what I'm talking about? See, I told you it's not getting any coverage.

Adam Dunn plays left-field for the Cincinnati Reds and hits cleanup, which makes sense since he has 45 home runs, more than anyone in baseball but Dodgers' 3B Adrian Beltre. He's also walked over 100 times, and driven in and scored over 100 runs each, so he's no one to be trifled with, even though he's only hitting .264. After hitting .215 last year, .264 looks pretty good. What doesn't look good is this number:


That's how many strikeouts Dunn had coming into today's game against Mark Prior and the Chicago Cubs. By the time you read this, he will have at least tied or even set the record for strikeouts in a season. Prior has over 500 strikeouts in less than 440 innings of career pitching at the major league level, so it's a good bet that there might be a couple more added to that by this evening.

The record is 189, set by Bobby Bonds in 1970, his second full season, with the Giants. A handful of other players have been close to this record in recent years, most notably Jose Hernandez, then with the Brewers, in 2002. Erstwhile Brewers' manager Jerry Royster, despite the impending end to Milwaukee's lousy and otherwise inconsequential season, decided to sit Hernandez for the last few games to prevent him from breaking the record, a decision I much derided. But Reds' skipper Dave Miley apparently knows that Dunn is one of his best players, in spite of the strikeouts, amd that if the Reds are to have any chance of playing the spoilers to the Cubs' Wild Card hopes, that chance includes Dunn batting four or five times, and maybe striking out three, but maybe hitting another one over the Ivy covered brick wall at Wrigley as well.

Good for Dave Miley, my new hero. He may not be any better able to keep Junior Griffey in the lineup that Jack McKeon, or Bob Boone, or Ray Knight, or Lou Piniella, but at least he knows how to keep a healthy, productive hitter in there when he needs him, even if it means a possible public relations no-no.

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