The most tragic part of a curtailed MLB season in 1994
In 1994, a mid-August players’ strike wiped away the final 29 percent of the Major League Baseball season. There were several captivating things that we’ll never know how they would’ve played out. Among them:
- Several players had a puncher’s chance at breaking Roger Maris’ single-season home run record.
- No one had hit 55 doubles in a season since 1950 George Kell, and no one had hit 60 since the 1930s. Chuck Knoblauch, Craig Biggio, and Larry Walker all were on pace to do so, with Earl Webb’s single-season record of 67 not out of the question.
- No one had reached 400 total bases in 16 years. Only 1978 Jim Rice and 1959 Hank Aaron had done so since 1950. Jeff Bagwell was on pace to soar way past those guys, with a shot at 430, which no one had done since 1932 Jimmie Foxx. Albert Belle, Frank Thomas, and Ken Griffey, Jr. were all on pace to easily cruise beyond 400 as well.
- Kirby Puckett, who hadn’t driven in even 90 runs in four of the previous five full seasons, had already driven in 112 in a late-career renaissance season. That robbed him of the chance to be the first player since 1950 Walt Dropo to average an RBI per game (min. 120 games). Bagwell was also in position to do so.
- Bagwell — along with his May 27, 1968 birth compadre Frank Thomas — had an OPS above 1.200, something not done since 1957 Ted Williams. The two did combine for nearly 1,000 plate appearances, which legitimizes it, but it still would’ve been fun to see if they could’ve maintained that rate.
- Tony Gwynn had a .394 batting average that would’ve lended itself to a plausible shot at .400.
- The Expos! In their lone season of Pedro Martinez/Larry Walker (in the first year of his prime) overlap, they were having by far the best season in franchise history and not only had MLB’s top record that season at 74-40, but, going back nearly 20 years, their winning percentage (64.9) was matched only by the eventual-World-Series-winning 1986 Mets. Perhaps a third straight Canadian World Series title, eh?
And then we have the AL West. Nothing about the season not finishing brings as much heartache as not seeing what would have wound up happening there.
A quick backdrop of that 1994 season: in MLB, both the National League and American League had been split into divisions for 25 years. It had always been two divisions per league during that time, but ’94 was the first year with three. Winning your division is a guaranteed trip to the postseason. And good lord was that looking to be a hysterical proposition as to the AL West in ‘94.
Had there indeed been a postseason that year, one of the Rangers, Mariners, A’s, or Angels would have ultimately competed in October thanks to the automatic division-winning postseason invitation. Turns out, that would’ve been like giving Charles Barkley an invitation to compete in the Masters.
The more competent element of baseball that the AL West was its batting. And even in that department, the Mariners and A’s had the most games in the league scoring no more than two runs, with the Angels not far behind:
And batting was the division’s strength. Let’s turn to its pitching. The four AL West squads hemorrhaged runs, and in terms of games allowing at least 10, the division again had very strong representation near the top:
Here’s the overall snapshot of American League pitching in 1994:
This all resulted in a lot of games in which an AL West team didn’t even come particularly close:
It didn’t take long for all four teams to sink toward the league’s run differential cellar … and stay there:
The Mariners had scored three runs more than they allowed entering game number 27 on May 6th. They lost that game by five, and from then on every AL West team operated in the run differential red for every day for the rest of the season.
Here’s everyone’s season-ending run differential, as well as their winning percentage:
You might notice the four leftmost teams there are all in green. The four worst records in the league and the four teams in the AL West were one and the same. Every team in that division had a worse record than every team in each of the other two divisions. What a delight.
The Texas Rangers were the lucky ducks atop the West when the season came to a halt. Their record was 52-62.
Through the first 25 full seasons of the three-division-per-league era, 1995-2019, there have been 216 playoff teams: the 150 division winners, the winners of the newly instituted wild card spot in each league for those first 17 years, and two wild card spots per league in each of the ensuing eight years.
The 2005 Padres were the only team in the 25-year sample of data we have to finish fewer than five games above .500 while crashing the postseason party, and they at least still had a winning record. The 1994 Rangers, a team leading its division with an inside track at a playoff spot in a normal season, were ten games under .500:
And that’s even despite a larger postseason field: four, and, as of 2012, even five playoff spots per league per year across that time. I can only imagine the shuddering of old-timey baseball folks used to pre-1969 times when all but two teams went home after the regular season; the days when the World Series was the entire postseason. Or even from 1969-1993 when four MLB teams — the four division winners — advanced to a postseason that included an ALCS/NLCS.
With fewer playoff teams before that 1994 divisional re-alignment, the team with the worst record in a full season to make ’em was the 1973 Mets, who were three games above .500; the next-worst was the 1984 Royals at six games above .500:
The 1994 AL West. A beautiful thing which would have certainly given us a scintillating stretch run that we were ultimately deprived of. Seeing that division race play out the next year was fun, at least.