Three Thoughts: 9/15/04

As the baseball season goes on, I often notice or think of things that I want to talk about, but aren’t really long enough to warrant their own column. So, starting today, every now and then I’m going to discuss three things (just seems like a good number to tackle at once) that have caught my attention recently. Without further ado, here’s today’s list.

How Big are the Big Three?

More than a couple times this season, I’ve said that I want the Oakland A’s to make the playoffs because then certain people will have to stop talking about how the only reason the A’s (and Billy Beane) are successful is because they got lucky with the Big Three, since Barry Zito hasn’t been good and Tim Hudson hasn’t been fully healthy this year.

Recently, I started wondering just how important the Big Three have been to the A’s in general. This is the fifth year all three have been in the majors, and the A’s made the playoffs each of the first four years and are leading their division this year.

In 2000, Hudson, Zito and Mark Mulder combined to go 36-20 with a 4.29 ERA in 449 innings, which was good for 29 Win Shares. The A’s won 91 games and, since each win is worth three win shares, the Big Three was responsible for 10.6 percent of Oakland’s wins.

In 2001, they went 56-25 with a 3.43 ERA in 678 2/3 innings, good for 50 Win Shares. The A’s won 102 games, so the Big Three was responsible for 16.3 percent of them.

In 2002, they went 57-21 with a 3.05 ERA in 675 innings for 66 Win Shares. The A’s won 103 games, so the Big Three earned 21.4 percent of the Win Shares.

In 2003, they went 45-28 with a 2.90 ERA in 658 1/3 innings for 58 Win Shares. The A’s won 96 games, and the Big Three earned 20.1 percent of the Win Shares.

This year, they are 39-19 with a 3.88 ERA in 557 innings, which was good for 41 Win Shares through Sept. 9. At that point, the A’s had 81 wins, meaning the Big Three was responsible for 16.9 percent of them.

Hudson, Zito and Mulder have been amazing the past five seasons, combining to go 233-113 with a 3.44 ERA in 3,018 innings. From the start of the 2000 season through Sept. 9, 2004, they earned 244 Win Shares. That’s about 81 wins over almost five seasons.

As good as that is, somebody (many different somebodies, in fact) was responsible for the A’s winning 392 other games. Keep that in mind the next time somebody tries to talk down Oakland’s (or Billy Beane’s) accomplishments as just good luck.

Actually, the last three seasons it’s been misleading to refer to Hudson, Zito and Mulder as Oakland’s Big Three. The A’s have really had four important pitchers each of the last three seasons. Keith Foulke earned 21 Win Shares last year, second on the pitching staff behind Hudson’s 23. In 2002, Billy Koch had a performance worth 19 Win Shares, which was better than Mulder’s 18. And in 2001, Jason Isringhausen had a 14 Win Share season, just barely worse than Mulder’s 15 Win Shares.

Nomar’s nightmare season

Something occurred to me while watching the Red Sox start an unbelievable winning stretch after the trading deadline at the same time the Cubs started struggling. That something was that Nomar Garciaparra must not be celebrating a lot of wins this season.

I decided to look it up, and sure enough, Garciaparra has played 69 games and his teams are 36-33 in those games. That’s good for a .522 winning percentage. He went 19-19 (.500) with the Red Sox and is 17-14 (.548) with the Cubs.

Since the Cubs have a .549 winning percentage, Garciaparra’s record with the team is just about right. But that record with the Red Sox is way off. Garciaparra hit .321 with a .367 OBP and .500 SLG with Boston, but the Red Sox are 67-38 when Garciaparra hasn’t taken the field for them. That’s a .638 winning percentage, compared to their .500 winning percentage with him in their lineup.

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I don’t know how you explain that. Certainly some of it’s Garciaparra’s declining defense, and a lot of it is probably luck. What it means is that this season must be anguish for Garciaparra. He’s been limited severely by injuries, and even when he’s been able to play, he’s barely won more games than he’s lost despite playing for two teams with a combined .575 winning percentage this season.

Cy Young closers

In recent weeks, I’ve seen arguments for the Cy Young (or even) MVP candidacy of Mariano Rivera, Francisco Cordero, Joe Nathan, Armando Benitez and Eric Gagne. I find myself wondering why.

The first four relievers in that group have something in common. They all have at least 40 saves and an ERA under 2.00.

Rivera has 48 saves and a 1.76 ERA with 60 strikeouts in 71 2/3 innings. Cordero has 44 saves, a 1.89 ERA and 68 strikeouts in 62 innings. Nathan has 43 saves, a 1.52 ERA and 78 strikeouts in 65 innings. Benitez has 41 saves, a 1.16 ERA and 58 strikeouts in 62 1/3 innings.

Gagne isn’t far from joining that group, as he has 41 saves, a 2.09 ERA and 101 strikeouts in 73 1/3 innings.

Of course, Gagne won the NL Cy Young award last year, posting 55 saves with a 1.20 ERA and 137 strikeouts in 82 1/3 innings. What you might not realize is that he was joined by three other relievers to form another quartet of players with at least 40 saves and an ERA below 2.00. The other three were Rivera (40 saves, 1.66 ERA, 63 strikeouts, 70 2/3 innings), John Smoltz (45 saves, 1.12 ERA, 73 strikeouts, 64 1/3 innings) and Billy Wagner (44 saves, 1.78 ERA, 105 strikeouts, 86 innings).

While Gagne won the award, none of those other three relievers got a single Cy Young vote last year. Gagne’s performance last year was much better than what anybody’s done this season, and nobody this season is having a season appreciably better than Rivera or Wagner (Smoltz had a rather low inning total) did last year.

So, I don’t see how any of those five relievers I mentioned are in line to win a Cy Young award this season. They’ve all been awesome, but they haven’t been quite as awesome as it seems relievers need to be.

By the way, Rivera’s presence in both quartets gives him a chance to become just the second pitcher to post back-to-back seasons with at least 40 saves and an ERA under 2.00. The other pitcher was Gagne the last two seasons, and he obviously still has a chance to become the first pitcher ever to post three such seasons consecutively.

In fact, only one other pitcher has ever had three such seasons in his entire career — Rivera. He had 43 saves and a 1.88 ERA in 1997 (when he received no Cy Young votes) and 45 saves and a 1.83 ERA in 1999 (when he finished third).

Only three other pitchers have ever had two 40-saves, sub-2.00 ERA seasons — Dennis Eckersley (1990 and 92), Bryan Harvey (1991 and 93) and Robb Nen (1998 and 2000).

One more note along this line — as far as I can tell, there were only 19 40-save, sub-2.00 ERA performances before last season. Depending on the next three weeks, there could be eight or nine such performances between last season and this season.

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