Wednesday, October 3, 2007

The 1964 Phillies and 2007 Mets Should Not be Viewed as Harshly as They Are

Mention the 1964 Philadelphia Phillies and any knowledgeable baseball fan will instantly think "late season collapse." This year's New York Mets, depending on who you ask, either joined the Phillies or supplanted them as the prototypical example of a team fading into oblivion (or "Bolivian," as Mike Tyson would put it) at the last possible moment. The Phillies were 90-60 and had a 6.5 game lead in the National League standings after their 3-2 win over the L.A. Dodgers on Sunday September 20, 1964. They lost nine straight games and the St. Louis Cardinals rallied to not only win the pennant but also beat the Yankees 4-3 to capture the World Series crown. Similarly, the Mets were 83-62 and had a 7 game lead in the National League East standings after their 4-3 win over the Atlanta Braves on Wednesday September 12, 2007. They lost five in a row to cut their lead to just 1.5 games, won four out of five to seemingly right the ship but then closed the season by losing six of their last seven games to finish one game behind, ironically enough, the Phillies. As Darth Vader would say, "The circle is complete."

The anguish experience by Phillies fans in 1964 and Mets fans in 2007 is palpable. In New York, the question of the day is who to blame for the Mets' collapse and Phillies fans have debated the same question about their team's infamous "Phold" literally for decades. However, I remember watching a show about that Phillies team on ESPN a few years ago--probably one of those wonderful "SportsCentury" pieces--and several veteran baseball observers emphasized that Philadelphia, under Mauch's leadership, had in fact done quite well (I hate the word "overachieved") to be in first place that late in the season and that the team should be remembered more for getting the most out of its abilities than for those few losses at the end. That is an interesting take but how does one quantify this? One way is to use a statistic developed by Bill James that is called "Pythagorean Winning Percentage," which describes as "an estimate of a team's winning percentage given their runs scored and runs can tell you when teams were a bit lucky or unlucky." According to PWP, the 1964 Phillies would have been expected to go 88-74--four games worse than their actual record. Here are some other numbers from that season: the Phillies ranked fourth in batting average, fourth in home runs, 10th in stolen bases, fourth in team ERA and ninth in complete games pitched. Keep in mind that in 1964 the National League consisted of 10 teams and there were no divisions. Most of the pitching staff's complete games (25 of 37) were tossed by their two aces, Jim Bunning (19-8) and Chris Short (17-9). Mauch has been criticized for overusing those two pitchers in those fateful final games but if you look at the rest of his rotation he did not really have any other good options. Mauch guided a team that was middle of the pack in batting average and ERA to the brink of a pennant and chose to rely on his two best pitchers to seal the deal. As heartbreaking as that collapse was to Philadelphia fans, no one can honestly say that the Phillies were clearly the best team in the National League in 1964--and if they were not clearly the best team can they really fairly be said to have "blown" the pennant? The season lasts 162 games and it does not matter when your winning streaks or losing streaks happen--all of the games count exactly the same in the standings. The Phillies did not have the best team but they made a gallant run at the pennant anyway.

PWP says that the 2007 Mets would have been expected to go 86-76--two games worse than their actual record. The Mets did rank second among 16 National League teams in batting average and fourth in runs scored but, like Mauch's Phillies, they did not have a great pitching staff, finishing seventh in ERA, ninth in complete games and eighth in saves. During the fateful 5-12 stretch that concluded their season, the Mets gave up eight or more runs eight times and lost each of those contests; their pitching, never great throughout the season, completely fell apart at the end, culminating in the first inning of their last contest when Tom Glavine--a future Hall of Famer who led the Mets in innings pitched, went 13-8 this year and has won 303 games in his career--gave up seven runs and retired just one batter. The Mets lost 8-1 to the Florida Marlins, enabling the Phillies to claim the division title after a 6-1 victory over the Washington Nationals. No cold logic, hard facts or mountain of statistics will console Mets fans but the numbers show that the Mets did not clearly have the best team in the N.L. East. Granted, this team had more talent relative to its competition than the 1964 Phillies did and the Mets did win the division in 2006 with a 97-65 record, so expectations for the Mets were justifiably high this season. Nevertheless, when you consider all of the statistics, the Mets' collapse--while noteworthy from a historical standpoint and very dramatic to watch--is not entirely inexplicable.

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