Wednesday, September 10, 2008

The After-Effects of a Work Stoppage (v.2008)


I am going to poach an article that I wrote for my old website six years ago (I actually couldn't believe it when I saw the date on the article - it is amazing that I have been writing this drivel for that long). I am going back to this article because it is a topic that I find fascinating and because I think there is more to the story than I hit on back then.

I originally wrote this in August of 2002, as major league baseball was preparing for a work stoppage (which was averted before the deadline). What I wrote mainly concerns the fate of the Montreal Expos after the 1994 strike and then mentions a few other feats that were in progress in 1994 that were interrupted. Here is what I wrote then:

The Major League Player's Association has set a strike date for this Friday, September 30. I'm sure you already know this fact (if you don't then you've probably clicked on the wrong link). There are a multitude of articles being written lately about how the economics of baseball works (or doesn't work) and why there will or won't be a strike, depending on who is doing the writing. But I am going to take a different approach to this article, I am going to write about the effects of a work stoppage. No, I don't mean that fans will lose interest and that the economics will actually probably get worse before they ever get better. No, I am referring to the effects on the history of the game. Baseball is an inherently historical game. Players and teams do not just face their opponents of the day, but they also are challenging their historical predecessors. This is true because the game of baseball and its history is so very statistically oriented. The majority of baseball fans could tell you the signifigance of the numbers 755, 56, and 61. This article, then, will make a case study of the 1994 strike shortened season and its effects on the history and statistics of baseball.

In 1994 the player's union stuck in early August. Most teams had completed between 110 and 120 games of their schedule. The Montreal Expos had completed 114 games. Their record was 74-40, which is a winning percentage of .649, and they were six games ahead of Atlanta in the National League East. It is possible that Atlanta would have mounted a charge in the last 50 games to catch Montreal, but we will never know. Instead, let's look at the statistical projections based on the first 114 games of Montreal's season. They would have won the East by 9 games, winning a total of 105 games (which, by the way, would have projected to the best record in baseball). Here is their starting lineup and primary pitchers (with projected stats):

[Note: back in 2002 the level of sophistication that I used for statistics was really quite low. To project the stats I just took the prorated portion of the season and extended the statistics out as if they played 162 games. I am sure that BP and others have more sophisticated projection models that would take into account the remaining schedule and usage patterns in making a projection, but this is good enough for the purposes of this post]

C - Darrin Fletcher .260 14 hrs 81 rbi 0 sb
1B - Cliff Floyd .281 6 hrs 58 rbi 14 sb
2B - Mike Lansing .266 7 hrs 50 rbi 17 sb
3B - Sean Berry .278 16 hrs 58 rbi 20 sb
SS - Wil Cordero .294 21 hrs 90 rbi 23 sb
OF - Marquis Grissom .288 16 hrs 64 rbi 51 sb
OF - Moises Alou .339 31 hrs 111 rbi 10 sb
OF - Larry Walker .322 27 hrs 122 rbi 21 sb

SP - Ken Hill 23-7 3.32 era
SP - Pedro Martinez 16-7 3.42 era
SP - Jeff Fassero 11-9 2.99 era
SP - Kirk Rueter 10-4 5.17 era
SP - Butch Henry 11-4 2.43 era
RP - John Wetteland 6-9 2.83 era 36 saves
RP - Mel Rojas 4-3 3.32 era 23 saves
RP - Jeff Shaw 7-3 3.88 era

This team led the national league in ERA and SB, was tied for second in batting average, and was third in homeruns. The next year, though, Larry Walker, Marquis Grissom, Ken Hill, and John Wetteland were gone. By 1998 not a single player listed above still played for the Expos. Would this team have been able to win the World Series in 1994? No one can answer that, but it was certainly a possibility. Would the Expos have been able to keep this team together even without the financial strain caused by the strike? Impossible to say, but you have to believe that the strike had a direct correlation with Montreal's subsequent fire sale of players. We know that Larry Walker went on to have an MVP season and continues to be one of the top players in the game, Moises Alou put up all-star numbers until the last two years when he disappeared due to injury, John Wetteland was an all-star closer and won a World Series with the Yankees, Cliff Floyd is just now reaching his full potential after years of solid play, Jeff Shaw was a solid closer for the Dodgers for several years, and of course, Pedro Martinez has been one of the top four or five pitchers in all of baseball over the last five years.

It is obvious that, if Montreal could have kept the core of this team together, they would have been one of the elite teams in baseball throughout the late 1990's. Usually success breeds fan interest. If the Expos had that kind of success, would there have been enough fan interest to remove them from Bud Selig's contraction chopping block?

There were other things happening in 1994 at the time of the strike besides the Expos strong season. Tony Gwynn was batting .394. Once again, we can only speculate as to whether he would have been able to improve his batting average by .006 over his last 45 games (San Diego played 117 before the strike), but it is certainly possible. The last person to bat .400 for a season was Ted Williams, but for the 1994 strike that piece of history might have changed. Matt Williams hit 43 homeruns in 1994. That put him on pace to hit 60.57 homeruns through a full season. Would he have broken the single season homerun record then held by Roger Maris? Who knows, but it was well within the realm of possibilities. If he had hit 62 homeruns, would people have treated Mark McGwire's 70 homeruns in 1998 with the same "disinterest" (that term is used loosely here) as they did with Barry Bonds' 73 homeruns in 2001? Instead McGwire is seen as the hero breaking Maris' record and Bonds is seen as, well, still a jerk, regardless of what he does on the field.

What we can see from this look back at 1994 is that the 20/20 vision of hindsight will be the true judge of the effects on baseball of a strike. It is impossible to see now what far-reaching effects the strike could have on the game of baseball.

Ok, so that wasn't too bad - my writing hasn't really gotten better in the last six years, which is disappointing, but otherwise I think the point was adequately made (the one funny thing I found is how much I disliked Barry Bonds back then - I have mellowed on that quite a bit). I think the part about the strike leading to the downfall of the Expos is pretty good, actually.

Anyway, we now have even more perspective on the costs of the work stoppage, as some of the stars of that era have retired or are wrapping up their careers. I want to look especially at a player who wasn't mentioned in the original piece because he wasn't chasing any records, but who had a significant part of his prime cut down by the strike (there was somewhere in the neighborhood of 65-70 games per team lost due to the strike between 1994 and 1995 and if you assume a player has a three year "prime" then we are talking about close to 15% of their prime that was lost).

Greg Maddux

I once wrote an ill-conceived article for my old website about the twenty greatest pitching seasons ever. It was ill-conceived because my method for ranking the seasons was irretreivably flawed. Nonetheless, the two seasons that jumped out at me when making the list were Maddux' 1994 and 1995 seasons. Maddux clearly had other great seasons - '94 and '95 were #3-4 of a four year Cy Young streak for Maddux, and he is a no doubt first ballot Hall of Famer, but these two seasons were his absolute best.

In 1994 Maddux had an ERA+ of 271 (on an ERA of 1.56), which means that he was 171% better than league average. He went 16-6 with 10 complete games and three shutouts. He struck out 156 batters in 202 innings (people don't think of him as a strikeout pitcher, but his strikeout numbers are actually quite good) and walked an amazingly low 31 batters (as it turns out this wasn't his lowest BB/IP of his career, neither was 1995, but it is still incredible).

In 1995 Maddux had an ERA of 1.62, which made for an ERA+ of 262 (which, by the way, make Maddux' 1994 and 1995 the fourth and fifth best single season ERA+ ever). He went 19-2 and again had 10 complete games and 3 shutouts. He struck out 181 batters over 209.2 innings and only walked 23 batters (three of which were intentional - same as in 1994).

So what did Maddux lose in the strike? In 1994 he probably lost nine or ten starts and probably another four at the start of 1995. So baseball fans missed out on fourteen starts from one of the top two or three pitchers of the last twenty-five years at the very apex of his career. Statistically, Maddux probably would have two more 20 win seasons on his resume and 10 or 11 wins to add to his already-gaudy total, not to mention all of the peripheral counting stats he would have compiled. It may not seem like much because Maddux has had such a long and distinguished career that his accomplishments are still Hall of Fame worthy. But think about other superstar players and what their careers would look like if you cut out 15% of their prime. Just imagine what Maddux' career would look like if he had that 15% back.


Daily Links - 9/11/08

This is a great post by Joe Posnanski (TBSWIA) about Carlos Beltran, but the best part was when he listed the most absurd mishaps of the Royals over the last decade. What a team!

Buster Olney likes the Blue Jays going forward.

Here is a convincing argument that Todd Helton may be underrated and an attractive trade target this offseason.

Every year Tom Tango solicits opinions from fans on the fielding abilities of players they watch on a regular basis - a "wisdom of crowds" study. Here, Tom breaks down how fans viewed one team compared with how a (pseudo) expert viewed the same players.

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