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Baseball's Other Races

 

Keeping things interesting

 

By Adam Hoff

 

There has been a great deal of attention given to the baseball pennant races -- and for good reason.  The Red Sox are stalking the Yankees in the AL East, the Cubs are trying to hold off the Giants, Padres, Marlins, and Astros for the NL Wild Card, and the A's are pulling away from the Angels and Rangers.  There should be some great drama the rest of the way.

 

However, I think we can all admit that the pennant races are a little deflated this year.  Other than the Sox-Yanks rivalry and the melee in the NL Wild Card race, there isn't a whole lot left to the imagination.  The Twins, Braves, and Cardinals have all but clinched their divisions and the Dodgers and A's are getting closer to doing the same.  Last year the NL West, NL East, NL Central, NL Wild Card, AL Central, and AL Wild Card races were all still very much up in the air in early September. 

 

So, is this final month merely a tune-up?  Shall we turn all our attention to the NFL before flipping back over in October?  Not a chance.  For in addition to the traditional races that take place at the top of the standings, there are also a series of "other" races that need to be closely monitored.  They range from historical to absurd, but they can all be considered interesting ... if you get creative enough.

 

Ichiro's "Race for 258 Hits."  In 1920, George Sisler rapped out 257 hits, a record that has stood ever since.  It's an insane amount, but it was more realistic given the times.  Nine of the top-10 single season hits totals were recorded before 1930.  In fact, the only player in the past 74 years to crack the list was Ichiro himself when he slapped 242 hits in his 2001 MVP campaign.  This year, he's looking for even more.  At the 134 game mark, Ichiro has 218 hits.  He needs 40 base knocks over the final 28 games to get the record.  Let's do the math on this one.  Over the course of the season Ichiro has averaged 1.65 hits per game.  If he plays in all of the Mariners' final 28 games, he will need to average only 1.43 hits per game.  This is good news, since Ichiro's lifetime average in September and October is nearly 70 points lower than it is in every other month. 

 

The other race that no one has really mentioned yet is the race for .400.  It's almost impossible to get from .373 to .400 in a month, but let's just check the math on this one as well.  Right now Ichiro projects out to 708 at bats for the season (coincidentally this would be another record, eclipsing Willie Wilson's mark of 705), which would require him to have a whopping 283 hits.  All of this boils down to him needing to go a projected 65 for 124 down the stretch.  Meaning: he needs to hit .524 the rest of the way.  Given his past struggles in September, I think it's a safe bet this won't happen.  However, he hit .463 in August and is hitting .548 over the past seven days, so I suppose anything is possible.  If nothing else, Ichiro will give the good people of Seattle something to care about over the season's final month.

 

"National League Home Run Race." What a race this has become.  About a month ago it looked like Jim Thome would wind up leading the NL in home runs for the second year in a row.  Now ... it's anybody's title.  With a month to play, there are six players that have between 39 and 43 home runs.  How's that for exciting?  Here are the participants in a real home run derby:

 

Adrian Beltre (43) -- Has been scorching hot as of late and is even getting some ridiculous press for NL MVP (apparently there are sportswriters who forget that Barry Bonds is in the National League).  He's playing on a bad ankle. dealing with "being the man on a playoff-bound team" pressure for the first time, and pitchers are starting to work around him.  It will be extremely difficult for Beltre to emerge on top.

 

Albert Pujols (43) -- The guy has been on fire lately, making up a four-homer deficit to Beltre in a week.  If it weren't for Bonds, he'd be getting ready to collect his third MVP award in only four seasons.  Unfortunately, there is a Bonds so he has zero.  Still, the way he's swinging with the protection around him ... I think this is my choice.  A hot September and he could wind up with 55 blasts.

 

Adam Dunn (40) -- Maybe the quietest 40-homers-by-September-season in recent memory.  The secretive nature is all the more surprising when you consider that Dunn is one of the rising power stars in the game.  This isn't a Brady Anderson or Greg Vaughn situation; Dunn is going to be around for a while.  Maybe that's why he's been overlooked -- perhaps he's merely living up to expectations?  He's a dark horse to lead the league.

 

Jim Edmonds (40) -- Another guy that has been a house of fire in the last few weeks.  He's hit seven jacks in the past eight days and is third in the majors in home runs after the All-Star break with 19 (Pujols and Beltre each have 21).  He's the sleeper pick.

 

Jim Thome (39) -- On the one hand, you have to figure he's got another hot streak in him.  I wouldn't be surprised to see him on 52 or 53 at season's end.  On the other hand, he's been playing all year with a busted thumb for an extremely disappointing team.  Does he really have a late charge in him?

 

Barry Bonds (39) -- How in the world does this guy have 39 home runs in only 313 at bats?  It's incredible.  If you are looking at the number of at bats it takes a player to hit a home run, Bonds wins in a landslide.  He hits one out every 8.03 at bats; easily the best mark in the majors.  In fact, here is how these six stack up in at bats per home run:

            Bonds              8.03

            Edmonds          10.78

            Thome              11.38

            Beltre               11.56

            Dunn                11.60

            Pujols               11.65

Based on those numbers, you might think Bonds would have the best shot.  But, of course, he doesn't actually get many at bats.  He simply won't see enough pitches to hit. 

           

No matter what happens, I'm convinced the NL home run race is just as exciting as any pennant race.

 

Carlos Beltran "Goes for 40-40." It almost seems automatic at this point, but you never know.  With 29 games left to play, Beltran has 37 home runs and 36 stolen bases.  The way he's been running, he should have four more swipes in a week's time.  Homers are a little harder to control, but I'm confident that he can get at least three more.  It's not inconceivable that he could finish with 45 home runs and 50 stolen bases.  What is inconceivable is that a guy in my fantasy league traded Beltran for Bob Wickman (although the trade was late vetoed) a few weeks ago.  The truly interesting thing about Beltran's quest for 40-40 is that it is flying completely under the radar.  Because he switched leagues halfway through the season, his stats are rarely pieced together.  Therefore, hardly anybody even realizes what he's about to do. 

 

One final thing about Carlos and his possible 40-40: there are only three other major league players that even have a legitimate shot at 30-30 in 2004.  A-Rod needs seven more stolen bases, Bobby Abreu needs three home runs, and Mike Cameron needs two jacks and nine swipes.  I suppose you could toss Corey Patterson and Torii Hunter into the conversation, but they both have a long way to go despite recent hot streaks. 

 

The "Race for Second-to-Last" in each league.  This is one of my personal favorites.  Right now, Arizona and Kansas City appear to be running away with last place in their respective leagues.  There's nothing to get excited about there.  (By the way, how stupid do all the pundits feel for picking KC to win the AL Central?  Oh wait, I picked Arizona to finish second in the NL West.  Never mind.)  However, there is some stiff competition to see who lands in the coveted "second-to-last" spots.  In the American League, Seattle has been earmarked for this position all year, but now Toronto is charging hard.  The Jays only have a 4.5 game lead over the Mariners and they play the tougher schedule down the stretch.  We'll have to keep our eye on that one.

 

Over in the National League, we've got a real barnburner.  I don't know if anyone has noticed, but Arizona has put an incredible amount of distance between themselves and anyone else.  Right now they are 15 games worse than any other NL team.  Amazing.  Here are the four teams that could wind up in "second-to-last" (remember, the team that finishes at the bottom of this group wins the coveted title):

 

Team                Games Behind

NY Mets                      --

Milwaukee                   1.5

Colorado                      3.0

Montreal                      4.0

 

The ‘Spos are currently in the driver's seat, but as you can see, there are three other teams within striking distance.  Colorado is only a game better than Montreal/San Juan, the Brewers are right there, and the impossibly destructive and unlucky Mets are also still very much in the picture.  Imagine if the Mets go from "moving into the NL East picture" to "second-to-last" in two short months?  That, my friends, would be mighty unimpressive.

 

"Race for 100 Wins."  This is always exciting.  Right now the Cardinals seem like the only real good bet to get to the century mark.  They've already won 90 games and only need to 10-18 the rest of the way to hit triple figures.  I think they can handle that.   The Braves would need to be real good in September.  Their record would have to be 21-8 to finish out the season.  The Dodgers must go 22-6.  In the AL, the Yanks have the best shot, needing only to go 17-11 the rest of the way.  The Red Sox must go 20-9 and the A's, 20-8.  Now you can sit back and watch it all unfold. 

 

"National League and American League Doubles Races."  Okay, so maybe this isn't the most glamorous race, but it's important because there are several players from losing teams right in the middle of this thing.  In the AL you've got thee players with 40 doubles or more: David Ortiz of Boston (40), Brian Roberts of Baltimore (42), and Ronnie Belliard of Cleveland (45).  Imagine if Belliard holds everybody off?  I think that would be just the antidote for that awful late season collapse by the Indians.

 

In the NL, there is just as much redemption on the line.  If Lyle Overbay (42) or Sean Casey (41) can track down San Diego's Mark Loretta (44), then wouldn't you have to believe we'd be hearing those feel good stories about Cinci and Milwaukee all over again?  Okay, maybe not.

 

"NL and AL ERA Races."  ERA might be a slightly flawed measurement for a pitcher, but it's still an important statistic.  And boy do we have some great races to the finish line.  In the National League it's a battle between two hard-luck lefties.  Randy Johnson currently leads the majors with a 2.71 ERA (has a paltry 12-12 record to show for it), but Al Leiter is right behind him with a 2.77 mark.  Things are even tighter in the American League where my man Johan Santana has come all the way back from an ERA that was over 5.00 after two months to catch Tim Hudson.  The two are currently deadlocked at 2.95 after Supernatural's one-hitter last night. 

 

The "Race for 20 Wins."  In today's game, with bloated ERA's (two of the top 10 win leaders have ERA's over 4.40) and five-man rotations, 20 wins is one of the last recognizable plateaus left.  Regardless of how you feel about wins as a pitching measurement, there is still something exciting about getting 20 of them.  Does that mean that if Kenny Rogers gets to 20 while Randy Johnson sits at 14 that Rogers is the better pitcher?  Not at all.  But that 20 mark still means something.  It means a pitcher has gone out there and battled and kept his team in games.  Sure, he probably got run support and help from the bullpen and everything else, but if he was trailing when he left the game there would have been no "W" in it for him, that's for sure. 

 

This year there are only a handful of pitchers with a realistic shot at getting to the big 2-0.  Curt Schilling and Mark Mulder have the best chance, with 17 wins each.  They both get great run support and have six starts left to make it happen.  Johan "Man on Fire" Santana is up to 16 wins thanks to his run of 14-2 over the last three months.  However, the Twins don't hit a ton and he only has five remaining starts; he'd have to be perfect to have a shot.  Roy Oswalt is in the same boat.  He's come out of nowhere to win 16 games for the Astros, but he'll only have five starts left to get it done, unless Houston decides to shorten its rotation in the final weeks.  Finally, Carl Pavano could complete an unlikely rise to staff ace if he can get wins in four of his final six starts.  He's 16-5 and with the way this Marlins team can close a season, it's not out of the question.  I'm guessing that Schill and Mulder both get to 20 and that one member of the "16 club" gets lucky, which would give us three 20-game winners.  A far cry from seasons like 1978 and 1984 when eight guys won 20 games in each season, but nothing to scoff at either. 

 

"National League Saves Race."  Mariano Rivera has pretty much sealed up the AL title with 46 saves (Francisco Cordero is second with 41), but we've got a wild race over in the NL.  Armando Benitez is the current leader with 40 saves and he could be a good guy to put your money on.  The Marlins are going to be playing in a lot of close games as they try to corral the wild card, so he's going to get save opportunities.  Jason Isringhausen is next with 39 saves.  He's had a quietly spectacular season, but I'm guessing that the combination of rest and blowout wins will prevent him from getting enough tries.  Danny Graves has 37 saves but he's just coming back off the DL and the Reds don't really win anymore.  That leaves Eric Gagne lurking with 37 saves of his own.  The Dodgers play close games, he's the only proven guy left in that bullpen, and he feels due for one of those strings of four saves in five days.  If he can get that one little hot streak, I think he'll pass Benitez and take the crown.  And what does the winner get?  Well, like all these winners, a big "congratulations" from me. 

 

Adam Hoff is a columnist for WhatifSports.com and can be reached at ahoff@uchicago.edu or by sitemail at adamo112.

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