Monday, October 14, 2013

Pitching Rich, Division Series Poor: The 2000-03 Oakland Athletics

In the crucible of postseason baseball, teams with superior pitching are usually said to have the advantage.  With the Oakland Athletics losing once again in the Division Series and remaining snake bit in the 21st century when it comes to advancing deep in the postseason, this Baseball Historical Insight looks at the A's from 2000 to 2003, a team with exceptional starting pitching that was continually frustrated in the Division Series because their offensive weaknesses were exposed in high-stakes short series.

Pitching Rich, Division Series Poor: The 2000-03 Oakland Athletics

With right-hander Tim Hudson and southpaws Mark Mulder and Barry Zito, the Oakland Athletics from 2000 to 2004 had probably the best front three in an American League starting rotation over consecutive years since the heyday of the Baltimore Orioles with Jim Palmer, Dave McNally, and Mike Cuellar (also one righty and two lefties) from 1969 to 1974.  Although Zito did not make his big league debut until July 22 of 2000, the three won a total of 234 games during those five years while losing 149 for a combined winning percentage of .611 and accrued a collective player value of 70 pitching wins above what could be expected from a replacement-level hurler from Triple-A.  Each was a 20-game winner, leading the league in victories, once during that time--Hudson at 20-6 in the year perhaps best known as Y2K, Mulder at 21-8 in 2001, and Zito at 23-5 in 2002.  Hudson and Mulder finished second in AL Cy Young Award voting in their 20-win seasons, while Zito out-polled Pedro Martinez to win the '02 award. With their three aces starting 57 percent of the 2000-04 A's games and accounting for 48 percent of the A's 483 total victories, Oakland was first (in 2002 and 2003) or second in league ERA each year.

The Athletics capitalized on their pitching to make the postseason every year except for 2004--three times by winning the AL Western Division title and once as the wildcard (in 2001, when their 102 victories was amazingly 14 fewer than the Seattle Mariners' 116)--but never made it out of the Division Series round. Not even once. They did, however, go the five-game distance each time, losing the decisive elimination game twice to the Yankees (in 2000 and 2001) and once to the Twins (2002) and Red Sox (2003), often in excruciating fashion (witness the defining play of Derek Jeter's career in the 2001 series).  Four of the 12 games they lost were by one run, including the "Jeter backhand flip" game and the deciding games of both the 2002 and 2003 Division Series. Pitching was not the issue as much as an inability to capitalize on scoring opportunities. These Oakland teams were done in by the lack of a diversified offense--particularly speed and the ability to manufacture runs--to face off against postseason opponents that had good enough pitching (even if not the caliber of Hudson, Mulder, and Zito as three in a row) to stymie the A's core of power hitters. 

The A's during these years had some imposing batters in the line-up--specifically Jason Giambi in 2000 and 2001 knocking out 81 home runs and batting .338; shortstop Miguel Tejada for all four years with 122 round-trippers (an average of 30.5 per year) to call his own; and third baseman Eric Chavez for all four years with 121 homers.  Aside from these players, the A's starting line-up typically included the likes of Mark Ellis, Terrence Long, Jermaine Dye and Ramon Hernandez who were capable journeyman-type players but hardly significant offensive threats.  Consistent with the must-have-runners on base philosophy of General Manager Billy Beane, the Athletics were second, first, third, and fourth in the league in drawing walks from Y2K to 2003, but the team gave virtually no emphasis to small-ball tactics as a way to manufacture runs.  Of 14 American League teams, Oakland was never better than next-to-last when it came to sacrifice bunts and was last or next-to-last every year in stolen bases, as well as stolen base attempts.  The one year when the Athletics did have a modicum of a running game was in 2001, the only year they had Johnny Damon (obtained in a trade and gone as a free agent at the end of the season) batting lead-off and accounting for 27 of Oakland's 68 stolen bases.

The lack of a practiced multifaceted offense to deal with the better quality of pitching expected in October baseball, compared to the overall quality of pitching they faced over the course of a long season, almost certainly cost the Athletics the opportunity to advance, even once, to the ALCS despite the strength of their core starting rotation.  In each of their Division Series losses, the Athletics had at least three starting position players hit less than .200; in the four series they had a total of 14 position players who started at least four games in a series hit less than .200, compared to a total of eight starting position players on their opponents whose series batting average was below the Mendoza line.  Of greater significance because runs are more difficult to score in the pressure and sustained superior competition of a postseason series than during the regular season, the Athletics hit only .224 with runners in scoring position in the four Division Series, and only .196 in 92 at bats with runners on second or third in the 12 Division Series games they lost.

And in postseason series where hits and runs are at a premium, extra-base hits are particularly important to driving in runs since, by definition, runners will advance at least two bases.  In their Division Series losses to New York in 2000 and Boston in 2003, the Athletics' percentage of hits that went for extra bases dropped dramatically from regular-season levels of 36 and 37 percent to only 26 percent in both series in their first-round elimination, while their opponents' percentages of extra-base hits were comparable to what they had been in the regular season.  Except for the 2002 series against Minnesota, when the A's hit eight home runs (and the Twins five) as the two teams combined to score 53 runs, Oakland's power was shut down in the postseason; the A's hit two home runs against the Yankees in 2000 and only one against the Yankees in 2001 and one against the Red Sox in 2003.

While the Athletics were being eliminated in the first round of the postseason four straight years, the New York Yankees went to three World Series and failed to advance to the ALCS only once--in 2002, a year ironically where both they and the A's won 103 games to lead the major leagues and neither made it out of their respective Division Series.  The Yankees did not have a starting threesome that could match Hudson, Mulder, and Zito in excellence and consistency, but with Roger Clemens (past his prime, possibly with a little PED help), Mike Mussina, David Wells, and the perennial Andy Pettitte, the pinstripes had a core of starting pitchers that could hold their own against any other team's starting line-up of position players and shut down teams that lacked a balanced offense.  And anchored by Jeter, Bernie Williams, and Jorge Posada all four years, Alfonso Soriano for three, and Paul O'Neill and Tino Martinez in 2000 and 2001 and Jason Giambi (signed as a free agent after starring for Oakland) in 2002 and '03, the Yankees had precisely the more diverse and deeper line-up that the Athletics lacked.


Clarification:  In my previous post on "Cardinal Pennant Clusters," I wrote in the lead paragraph that the Cardinals "have won as many pennants (18) as the Dodgers, and they have won more World Series (11) than any team not named the Yankees, but both of those franchises have received much more historical attention and fanfare than the Cardinals."  While accurate and to my point, especially beginning with the "but" clause, this leaves the impression that the Cardinals and Dodgers are tied for the most pennants in National League history since 1901. In fact, the Giants have won 20 NL pennants since the start of the twentieth century, including (as we all know) two in the last four years.

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