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May 31, 2007 at 4:38 PM

Outside looking in

OK, at the risk of staying at the office too late, I did crunch the numbers. I realize that Stark’s column linked to below didn’t address games behind as much as it did games under .500, so here you go, just to be safe:
Of the 96 playoff teams in the wild-card era, a grand total of six of them made it to the post-season after being a half-dozen games or more out of a playoff spot on June 1. Those would be the 2006 Twins, the 2003 Marlins, the 2002 A’s, the 2001 A’s, the 2001 Braves and the 2000 Giants. Some won the wild-card after trailing by that gap, others a division title. Yes, yes, I know the Mariners were a lot further behind in August of 1995 and still came back to win the division. But on June 1, they were only a handful of games out. They are what we call an exception. Even if we count them on the list, that only makes seven out of 96 teams. Just about 7.5 per cent. So, lose any more ground to the Angels, and the M’s division chances will be quite slim indeed. They still have hope in the wild-card race, mind you, and overcoming that 3 1/2-game gap would not merit them a place in that elite group of six or seven teams which conquered mightier odds. But I’m just trying to illustrate what they are up against.
Somebody asked in the comments thread today just what the odds would be of the Mariners overcoming their 5 1/2 game deficit to make the playoffs now that we are two months into a six-month season.
I was all set to sit down and do the math for you, having just got off my plane from Anaheim to Seattle, but then fortunately glanced at and saw that Jayson Stark had beaten me to it.
Stark is writing about the St. Louis Cardinals’ chances of repeating as World Series champs, given how they are 6 1/2 games out in the division race. He notes that “history tells us that, at 21-29 and 6½ games out of first, the Cardinals have a better chance of winning the World Series of Cod Fishing this year than they do of winning that other World Series.
“Of the 96 playoff teams in the wild-card era,” Stark continued, “only one — the 2005 Astros (19-32) — headed into June as many games under .500 as the Cardinals are now.”
There you go. No, the M’s are not yet 6 1/2 out. Heading into the series with the Angels, I wrote that Seattle could not, under any circumstances, be swept. That would have left the M’s 7 1/2 out and if you look at what Stark just wrote, the obvious conclusion is that Seattle would be toast. At 5 1/2 back, the M’s aren’t toast yet. but drop tonight’s game and head into June 1 with a 6 1/2 game deficit and, well, guess what? Yes, they are closer in the wild-card hunt, only 3 1/2 behind Detroit. But there are a lot of other teams to compete with in that chase, one reason most computer prognostication sites will tell you their division chances are superior. You never know.
I realize Stark is talking about games under .500 here. Not games behind the playoff leaders. But the two figures are very similar. I’ll dig up a few for you shortly. But this column more or less says it all.
So, thanks to Mr. Stark for saving me some time. I’ve actually crunched the numbers for the entire 1900s on this issue. Did it back in 1998, don’t still have the data, but I can assure you it was a whole lot tougher to overcome such gaps and make the playoffs before the wild-card era. Why, you ask? Because the teams making the playoffs tended to be better. They were division and league champions. Wild-card leaders, with some noted exceptions, tend to be the best of the rest. In order words, a little more prone to losing streaks and giving up big ground. Not that much more prone. Just a little.
To answer some questions from down below, I think it’s time to stop holding Yuniesky Betancourt’s hand. He is playing inferior defense this season to what he supplied in 2006 and took a severe downward turn on this road trip. I did not suggest last night that his catch in the seventh inning was the wrong play to make. All I said was that if the M’s are to prevent the run, Ichiro has to catch the ball. Maybe he could, maybe he couldn’t. The television angles I saw were inconclusive as to whether Ichiro could have caught it on a dead sprint to the ball had Betancourt not been so close by. It was a superb catch by Betancourt, but the minute he caught it, the run was in. Those are the facts. And Betancourt has got to play better defense than he did all week.
Why do I say that offense doesn’t win division titles, but take Vladimir Guerrero out of the Angels lineup and they may have trouble finishing first? Simple. Guerrero is the American League MVP right now. Take any league MVP off any team and they’ll have trouble winning. That’s what makes them an MVP. Now, in every other instance (roughly 93 per cent of the time) a team doesn’t have to worry about it. The M’s don’t have any league MVPs on their squad. So, if someone goes down, it doesn’t necessarily send the whole team off the rails (even when Felix Hernandez went down, it didn’t). The Angels no longer have Guerrero and eight times of crossing your fingers as an offense. Reggie Willits and Orlando Cabrera keep setting the table. By they aren’t setting it for Casey Kotchman. That offense, while a little more versatile, is still geared entirely around Guerrero. And you have to have at least some offense to make the post-season. But without pitching, you don’t win period. That was my point.
As for Felix Hernandez, I’m sure the rush to get him back from his injury did hurt a bit. He could have used some rehabilitation outings, as we suggested back during that San Diego series two weeks ago. But last night? To me, it looked more like a young guy making the type of mistakes young guys do. Roy Halladay made them for three full seasons before winning 19 games in 2002. Halladay was older than Hernandez when he broke into the majors as well (21 compared to 19). Halladay served up his share of gopher balls early in his career. Yes, every pitcher has off days, even Andy Pettitte, even Roy Oswalt. But when’s the last time Hernandez went seven innings or more. When I say he isn’t an “ace’ it has little to do with giving up the runs he did last night. It’s the lack of consistency at maintaining a level of excellece. One thing I forgot to mention about aces last night and this morning is, their managers know the bullpen will likely get a lot of rest or even a night off most times they pitch. Can’t say that with Hernandez now.
What in the world is wrong with the Texas Rangers? Alowed too many big bats to leave would be my first guess. Allowed tonight’s starter, Vicente Padilla, to be their No. 2 guy in the rotation for big bucks. After one big walk year. Tisk, tisk. Don’t be surprised to see the Mariners easily take three of four. The M’s have been playing good ball of late. They could have won last night’s game. They didn’t and now they will suffer for it, but that doesn’t change that they have played well. The Rangers have played horribly.



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