The Great Leap Forward
[Editor's note: This article was conceived a couple of weeks ago without knowledge that a similar article by Jim Baker was on the horizon at ESPN or the use of the same title would appear in Kevin Goldstein's Future Shock column yesterday at Baseball Prospectus.]
"Five-Year Plans lead not to pennants but only to new Five-Year Plans."
It's early September and the Tigers, Dodgers and even the Reds are in the midst of a pennant race. Granted, the Reds are puffing along like Homer Simpson chasing a donut across the kitchen floor, but they're within sniffing distance of something special, as are the Tigers and Dodgers.
Well, you should be. These improvements came much quicker than the pundits predicted. And with a division championship and perhaps a league championship - or even to dream BIG, a World Series Championship - comes entrance into a select club, a club full of legendary teams, forgotten teams, teams loaded with stars and some not so loaded. The one thing that ties all these teams together is that they were able to take the "Great Leap Forward" (GLF) in one season and traverse the terrain from losers to winners and in the process stun the baseball establishment. To gain entrance to this list a team must jump from a sub-.500 season to the championship of their respective league or division the next season.
In the past 99 non-interrupted seasons, 47 teams have achieved the feat, at least one in every decade. Of the 47 teams, some have climbed from the bottom of the standings, and still others have just leaped the short span that separated them from being a winning team. The advent of divisional play increased the number of teams who achieved the feat. Twenty eight of the 47 have occurred since 1969, and six of these teams have won it all. [corrected version]
So let's visit a few of them.
YEAR PLACE W L PCT GB 1958 7th 71 83 .461 21 1959 1st 88 68 .564 +2
"Naturally your ball club is always changing, and that's going to determine how you play your game."
In the fall of 1957, the Dodgers announced they were heading west. Further shock was absorbed in Dodgerland when catcher Roy Campanella wrecked his car in January 1958, ending his career and paralyzing him for life. The move was marred with a major problem; the Pacific Coast League Park, Wrigley Field only held 21,000, not large enough for Walter O'Malley's taste. The team cut a deal to play in the Los Angeles Coliseum, a park that could hold 90K, but was flawed by a ridiculous distance of only 250 feet to left field (where a 40 foot screen was placed in hopes of legitimizing the field.) The centerfield fence was 425 feet away, and the right field line was 301 feet. Walter Alston said that all of Ebbets Field could be placed on the grass of the Coliseum, which despite its largeness was ill suited for the dimensions of a baseball diamond.
Aside from being in a transition year on the roster, Alston declared that the park was affecting the team's psyche and that the loss of Campanella denied the team of a key right-handed power hitter to exploit the short LF fence. Also affected was Don Drysdale, who shied away from his strength (pitching inside) to avoid the wall. This approach bloated Drysdale's early-season ERA, which didn't drop under 5.00 until August. Meanwhile, the rest of the team went south as well, and after 100 games the Dodgers sat at 46-54 and the locals were burning effigies of Alston in Ventura.
By season's end, it was the worst finish by a Dodger team since 1944.
Prior to the 1959 season the Dodgers attempted to take the field's quirks head on, first they redesigned the right field dimensions and targeted a hitter to attack the short LF wall. The man the Dodgers obtained was left-handed, opposite-field hitter Wally Moon. Moon's inside-out swing exploited the short distance to left, and his 14 HR's at the Coliseum led the team as did his robust .297/.397/.557 home. The league as a whole was weak that season and the Dodgers' 88 wins were the lowest for a champion since the Cubs won 89 in 1938. As with many turnarounds, the pitching was a major reason for success. The home ERA dropped 0.75 and the road 0.61. The man who carried the team on his back was Don Drysdale who logged 270 innings and a 2.97 home ERA. The age of Dodger pitching dominance essentially began that season. To wit, since 1959, the Dodgers team ERA is 0.42 above the league average, .031 above the next best team (Cardinals).
YEAR PLACE W L PCT GB 1968 9th 73 89 .451 24 1969 1st 100 62 .617 +8
"The greatest mystery of the marvelous season is how 25 men playing an uncomplicated game with a bat and a ball can make a whole city happy."
Paul J. Montgomery: New York Times
In 1969, the GLF became mathematically more likely to occur when baseball went to 4 separate divisions. That season, the Braves jumped from a dead even .500 team to the NL West title. The Twins jumped from under .500 to the AL West championship. But no one saw the Mets winning it all, and to this day it is one of the greatest stories in the game.
But how'd they do it?
To start, they improved their hitting. 1968 was the year of the pitcher, but in New York the Mets were redefining inadequate with the stick. The Mets' .596 OPS ranks as second worst in the expansion era and 18th since 1900. The following season saw an increase in 44 hitting Win Shares for the Mets as Art Shamsky had a career year and Tommie Agee raised his OPS an impressive .244 points. The pair teamed with Cleon Jones to help the Mets lift their team OPS to .662.
ERA IP RSAA Tom Seaver 2.21 273.1 40 Jerry Koosman 2.28 241 33
The Mets' real team strength was pitching, and they were able to boast of two aces (Tom Seaver & Jerry Koosman). With these aces and a strong bullpen, the Mets were one of two NL teams to have a team ERA below 3.00 that season. The team's pitching prowess was never more apparent then in the late months of the season when a 2.32 August ERA and a 2.15 September ERA propelled them past Chicago. The Cubs, who had led the Mets by 5 games early in September and trailed them by 8 games 1 month later, provided the yin of failure to the Mets yang of success; the Cubs' collapse was as amazing as the Mets rise from the ashes.
YEAR PLACE W L PCT GB 1986 6th 71 91 .438 21 1987 1st 85 77 .525 +2
"The best you can hope for is to contend every year, play good baseball and put people in the stands. If you catch a break or two, and win a pennant every four or five years then that's pretty damn good."
In 1987, the Cardinals experienced their first GLF. However, in the postseason they met their match in a team that was also experiencing a magic GLF year - the Minnesota Twins. (The Twins Franchise boasts five of the 35 GLF's in baseball history and three of the eight World Series wins). The Twins, who had finished last in the AL West in 1986, won the World Series in 1987 with the lowest winning percentage (.525) of any World Series champ ever. For the season, they raised their team OPS .003 points and dropped the team ERA down a mere .008 points. Good for only 11th in the league in team ERA and 8th in runs scored, The Twins were not a club that many should have been scared of, but instead a lucky team that took advantage of small things like having played out their schedule with the A's by early August and a timely late season surge in team ERA that helped hold off the Royals from achieving their very own GLF.
More a result of a weak division and timely pitching, the Twins GLF is perhaps more a miracle than the 1914 Braves achievement, more amazing then the 1969 Mets rise, and more shocking than "The shot heard 'round the world" way back in 1951. In 1991, the Twins performed the feat again when they matched up against the Braves (the team to jump the furthest in GLF history from a .401 winning % to a .580) Again, the Twins surprised the game when their pitching brought another championship.
YEAR PLACE W L PCT GB 1989 5th 75 87 .463 17 1990 1st 91 71 .562 +5
"We came back home 6 and 0 after sweeping the Astros and the Braves, and I remember standing in front of 55,000 screaming maniacs in Cincinnati and that made it even sweeter."
Prior to the divisional play the GLF was often an oddball event, one that was usually marked by outside forces, such as a war or rival league competition. Often the GLF is achieved by the emergence of a new manager. Twenty of the 47 of the GLF teams have had first- or second-year skippers, and 11 of the 47 were able to win the World Series, making their GLF an even sweeter ascent. The 1990 Reds are an example of a team that wallowed in turmoil one year and were reenergized by new blood, and were able to not only make the GLF, but also win it all. [corrected version]
On August 21, 1989, Pete Rose managed his last game for the Reds. Earlier that season, a rash of injuries (including an arm injury to Barry Larkin in a throwing contest at the All-Star game) further challenged the Reds, who were already immersed in a media circus that was following the Rose gambling investigation. The Reds quickly fell into the bottom of the division. By the end of August, Reds fans had seen enough of Scotti Madison, Jeff Richardson and Todd Benzinger, and they wouldn't be seeing much of Rose anymore. The gloom over the franchise was heavy, and change was needed. By early November, the Reds had a new General Manager (Bob Quinn) and a new manager (Lou Piniella). 1990 started askew for the Reds, since they started the season on the road for the first time since 1966. They also started the season in first place and didn't relinquish it for the rest of the season.
How'd they do it?
Staying healthy was the first trick. Adding players like Hal Morris, Glenn Braggs and Billy Hatcher helped as the season progressed. But the real key was pitching, a part of the game that isn't typically a strength in the Ohio River Valley. However, in 1990 the Reds pulled off one of their best pitching years in the post war era. Key to this transformation was an excellent relief ERA of 2.91, highlighted by Rob Dibble's 1.74 ERA and the now famous other "Nasty Boys."
ERA IP GS 1 Rob Dibble 1.74 98 0 2 Randy Myers 2.08 86.2 0 3 Norm Charlton 2.74 154.1 16
The trio, along with rotation ace Jose Rijo, guided the Reds to the National League title, never leaving first place despite going 57-59 over the final 117 games of the season. Achieving this and the eventual World Series sweep was a tonic that the city needed, as it helped wash away the reality of Pete Rose's suspension and subsequent jail time. More importantly, it renewed the fans that were still shell shocked from the 1989 season.
The 2006 season brought new managers to the Reds, Tigers and Dodgers. The Dodgers and the Reds also brought in new GM's, men who obviously were not afraid to make moves to fix the problems they saw. Despite the weakened National League, the change of culture and a marked increase in team pitching has helped the Reds (until recently), while the Dodgers have found more offense and defense in their acquisitions and many of them have fueled their second-half surge. In Detroit, the infusion of young and veteran pitching plus the steady hand of Jim Leyland has been the key to the Tigers' run at the GLF. With one month left, all three of these franchises can be proud of what they have accomplished. But none will be totally satisfied unless they can finish the season on top. This would clearly place them in the family of those who have made the Great Leap Forward.
Note: Here is a complete listing of the GLF Teams since 1900.
Brian Erts is a Multimedia Developer, who lives in Portland, Oregon. He was introduced to the game by Ernie Harwell and known to try and mock Dick McAuliffe's stance back in the day. Enticed by Pete Rose's hairstyle, he jumped leagues and has been a Reds fan for the past 30 years. A member of SABR, he writes as much as his brain allows at Baseball Minutia, where you're likely to find more stuff about baseball that will probably never help you get a job.