It has been 20 years since the 2001 Seattle Mariners dominated the American League and tied the major league record for most wins in a regular season with 116. Other 2001 Mariners’ accomplishments include a .716 winning percentage which ranks as the fifth best mark in major league history, 59 wins on the road which is the highest single-season total ever and a .728 road winning percentage, fourth best in major league history. The 2001 Mariners’ +300-run differential ranks as the ninth highest in history.
The ’01 Mariners accomplished these feats mainly by excelling in run prevention thanks to a historically great defense. The team also possessed very good speed and its run-production wasn’t necessarily reliant on power which was an aberration during what many baseball fans call the “steroid era.” In many ways, the ’01 Mariners were a unique team for their time which got us thinking, which historic team most resembled the 2001 Seattle Mariners i.e. a team that won a lot of games and were built primarily on defense and speed? With some thought, one could probably come up with an extensive list of teams.
For example, the 1906 Chicago Cubs immediately come to mind. The ’06 Cubs are the only other major league team to win 116 games in a regular season. The team also possessed a lot of speed and its pitching stifled opposing line-ups. The 1959 Chicago White Sox aka the “Go-Go Sox” were built purely on pitching, speed and defense and ended up winning the AL pennant. Speed and defense are also synonymous with the 1985 St. Louis Cardinals. The ’85 Cards ran wild on their opponents and excelled on defense with the likes of Ozzie Smith, Terry Pendleton and Willie McGee in its line-up. And like the 2001 Mariners, the ’06 Cubs, ’59 White Sox and the ’85 Cardinals all came up short of the ultimate prize- a World Series Championship. Those teams provide a good starting point when searching for teams similar to the 2001 Mariners. However, to find a team most similar to the ’01 Seattle Mariners, a more in-depth examination was required.
Our search began with a December 2016 article posted in the Hardball Times. In the article the Times’ Ryan Pollack created a method to identify similar historical baseball teams. The link to Pollack’s work can be found below at the end of this article. Essentially what Pollack did was he “compared teams based on how much they deviated from league average that year” in various hitting and pitching/defensive categories. Based on those deviations he then calculated a “similarity score” between the two teams he was comparing. Pollack created the method with the goal of identifying the team that most resembled the 2016 Chicago Cubs. His conclusion: the 2012 Tampa Bay Rays.
In our pursuit to identify the team most similar to the 2001 Seattle Mariners, we used Pollack’s method but made some slight changes. For pitching/defense Pollack used the following categories: runs allowed, hits allowed, homeruns allowed, walks allowed, strikeouts achieved, complete games and shutouts. However, we replaced complete games and shutouts, stats that have diminished in value over time, with fielding independent of pitching (FIP) and defensive errors. Our belief was that FIP and errors would be more useful in examining how a team prevented runs rather than complete games and shutouts. In terms of run production, we used exactly the same offensive categories that Pollack had used, namely: runs-scored, singles, doubles, triples, home runs, walks, strikeouts and stolen bases.
Below is a comparison as to how the 2001 Seattle Mariners fared in offense and pitching/defense versus league average based on Pollack’s method. Again, a complete explanation as to how the numbers are calculated can be found in Pollack’s article which is linked at the end of this article.
In 2001 the Seattle Mariners scored 927 runs. The “118” normalized number means that the ‘01 Mariners’ 927 runs scored was 18% better than the league average of 787 runs scored. A normalized number of 100 would have meant that the Mariners produced runs at a rate identical to the league average. In terms of home runs, the ’01 Mariners’ total of 169 was 6% below (100-94) the league average of 179. However, the 2001 Mariners were 48% better than league average in stealing bases.
Looking at the pitching/defensive categories we can see that the Mariners allowed 13% (100-87) less hits than league average and 20% (100-80) less runs. The ’01 Mariners were 2% above league average in striking out their opponents and 27% below league average (100-73) in terms of committing errors.
Going by the numbers contained in the tables, we can conclude that the ’01 Mariners scored a lot of runs but not by way of hitting the long ball. Instead they walked a lot (19% above league average), got a lot of hits and stole bases. The M’s prevented 20% less runs due to a tremendous defense as the 27% less error-rate than league average attests. The ’01 Mariners pitching did not dominate their opponents by striking them out. Instead they limited the number of walks issued and homeruns allowed, both at rates 10% below league average.
When we compared the ’01 Mariners’ numbers to all the other teams in major league history using Pollack’s method, the 1998 Yankees were identified as the team most similar to the 2001 Mariners. The “similarity score” between the ’01 Mariners and ’98 Yankees was 895. To put that in context, Pollack’s method calculated the similarity score between the 2016 Cubs and the 2012 Rays to be 836. Given the 836 score between the 2016 Cubs and 2012 Ray, the 895 similarity score between the ’01 Mariners and ’98 Yankees should be considered to be very high.
The ’98 Yankees having the highest similarity score to the ‘01 Mariners does make sense. After all, the ’98 Yankees won 115 games, just one less than the Mariners. The ’98 Yankees’ offense scored at a similar rate to the ’01 Mariners and like the Mariners, the Yankees possessed overall team speed. There were even more similarities between the two teams in the pitching/defensive categories. Like the ’01 M’s the ’98 Yankees also excelled at run prevention mainly by limiting walks and homeruns as well as errors.
However, if we go beyond the numbers and look at the actual lineups of the two teams, their positional strengths and weaknesses etc. are the ’98 Yankees truly the most similar team to the ‘01 Mariners? Perhaps not; for example the ’98 Yankees had a Hall of Famer playing shortstop in Derek Jeter. The ’01 Mariners had Carlos Guillen, a pretty good shortstop but obviously not a Hall of Famer or an all-star for that matter. At second base, the ’98 Yankees received mediocre production from Chuck Knoblauch whereas the ’01 Mariners had an MVP candidate playing second in Bret Boone. Moreover, the ’98 Yankees outfield was very good but not quite at the level of the ‘01 Mariners’ outfield if we use wins above average (WAA) as a barometer. In other words, the ’98 Yankees were similar to the 2001 Mariners but upon further inspection, not “truly similar” which meant that our pursuit had to continue.
The team that scored the next highest similarity score when compared to the 2001 Seattle Mariners was the 1973 Baltimore Orioles. The similarity score between the two teams was 885. A comparison between the Mariners and the Orioles can be found in the table below:
The ’73 Orioles scored runs at a lower rate when compared to league average than the ’01 Mariners; however, the way in which the teams scored was similar. The 1973 Orioles and the 2001 Mariners both walked and hit home runs at a very similar rate. Both teams were also way above league average in the speed categories i.e. triples and stolen bases. In terms of run prevention, with the exception of striking out their opponents, the ’73 Orioles and the ’01 Mariners prevented runs in a similar manner. Both teams limited home runs and walks and excelled on defense. In fact, both teams had historically great defenses which we’ll get into later.
And upon further inspection, unlike the ’98 Yankees, the ’73 Orioles’ line-up received production from positions much more similar to those of the ’01 Mariners. For example, both teams received exceptional seasons from their second basemen; the aforementioned Bret Boone for the Mariners and Bobby Grich for the Orioles. Both teams’ outfields ranked first in the AL in wins above average. The 2001 Mariners’ outfield achieved a WAA of 10.40. The ’73 Orioles’ outfield produced a WAA of 10.60. Moreover, both teams had superb defensive center fielders in Mike Cameron and Paul Blair anchoring each team’s outfield.
Given the 885 similarity score between the two teams, the production both teams received from each position as well as each teams’ positional strengths and weaknesses, we concluded that the team most similar to the 2001 Seattle Mariners was indeed the 1973 Baltimore Orioles.
In the rest of this article, we’ll go further into detail as to how similar these teams were by breaking down each position. We’ll also provide bios for the key players on both teams. However, before we do that, let’s take a look at the major events leading up to each teams’ season beginning with the 2001 Seattle Mariners.
Any talk of the 2001 Seattle Mariners should begin with former Mariners’ general manager Woody Woodward. Although Woodward resigned his position as the M’s general manager in September of 1999, the longtime baseball executive provided the foundation for the ‘01 Mariners.
Woodward was hired by the Mariners in July of ’88. Prior to him being the GM of the Mariners, Woodward, a former major league middle infielder, had also served as assistant general manager for the Cincinnati Reds from ’81 to ’84.
In the fall of ’84 Woodward moved from the Reds organization to the Yankees where he served as vice president of baseball administration. In October of ‘86 the Yankees added general manager to Woodward’s title. In October of ’87 though, fed up with Yankees’ owner George Steinbrenner’s constant meddling, Woodward resigned his position. Shortly thereafter Woodward was hired by the Philadelphia Phillies as vice president of player personnel. In that role Woodward would also perform general managerial duties.
However in June of ’88 Woodward was abruptly terminated by Philadelphia Phillies’ president Bill Giles due to an apparent power struggle. Once again though, Woodward would not be unemployed for very long. One month later the 45 year-old Woodward was hired by the Seattle Mariners to be the team’s sixth general manager in just its twelfth year of existence. Woodward’s official title with the Mariners would be vice president of baseball operations. Unlike the situations in New York and Philadelphia, Woodward would be granted more autonomy in Seattle.
Up until that point the Seattle Mariners franchise hadn’t had a winning season in its brief history. The M’s entered the American League as an expansion team in ‘77. In 1991, Woodward’s third full season as Mariners GM and the organization’s fifteenth year of existence, the team finally finished above .500. Four years later the Mariners won its first division title and appeared in the 1995 American League Championship Series. The team’s appearance in the ALCS proved to be vital in securing government funding for a new baseball only facility, later named Safeco Field. In Woodward’s 11 seasons as GM, the Mariners managed five winning seasons and captured two division titles. During his tenure with the Mariners, Woodward had worked under three different ownership groups.
After spending practically his entire adult life employed in some capacity in major league baseball, both as a player and an executive, Woodward decided to step down from his post with the Mariners in the autumn of ’99. According to Woodward, he had become “worn down” by the job. “It’s never ending (1),” Woodward said of the position. “It’s come down to that. If you’re not working on contracts or free agent status or minor league free agents or player development, you’re suffering through every loss and every tough win (2).” At the time of his resignation Woodward still had one year remaining on his contract and had been the longest serving general manager in baseball.
On October 25, 1999, just over a month after Woodward’s resignation, the Mariners hired the 62 year-old Pat Gillick as executive vice president and general manager. At the time of his hiring Gillick had already accomplished much as a baseball executive. From 1977 to 1994 Gillick ran the Toronto Blue Jays, Seattle’s 1977 sister AL expansion team. Under Gillick the Blue Jays won five division titles and consecutive world championships in 1992 and 1993, a stark contrast in what the Mariners had accomplished during that period. After the strike-shortened 1994 season, Gillick resigned his position with the Blue Jays but remained with the team as a consultant.
In the fall of 1995, Gillick, a former University of Southern California graduate, was part of an ownership group that failed in its attempt to purchase the California Angels from longtime owners Gene and Jackie Autry. Gillick’s group included future St. Louis Cardinals president/chief executive officer Bill DeWitt Jr. “I thought the Angels represented a good situation….we had serious interest but at the time she (Jackie Autry) and Gene seemed too far into negotiations with Peter Ueberroth to change directions. I didn’t know what happened, but it was my impression the Autrys wanted to sell to a baseball-oriented person. I was surprised when they went with Disney and the marketing glitz (4),” Gillick had reflected on the failed purchase-bid years later.
Shortly after the failed attempt to buy the Angels, Gillick was hired as general manager of the Baltimore Orioles. As GM of the Orioles, Gillick would be joining his friend and former minor league teammate Davey Johnson. Johnson, who had played eight seasons for the Orioles from ’65 to ’72, had been hired to manage the club just one month before Gillick’s hiring. Gillick, a former minor league left-handed pitcher, had spent five years pitching in the Baltimore Orioles farm system in the early 60’s which is where he and Johnson first met.
Gillick’s tenure as the general manager of the Orioles lasted three seasons, ending in October of 1998, once Gillick’s contract had expired. Johnson had been fired the year before by Orioles’ owner Peter Angelos. It was Angelos’ more active involvement with the team’s day to day operations that led to Gillick not renewing with the Orioles. “I’ve always said that the owner has the right to his decisions (5), Gillick reflected on his time in Baltimore. “But I also believe that you have to give the general manager some latitude within the financial parameters and you have to respect his experience and evaluation when it comes to personnel decisions. Mr. Angelos wanted to run the club his way. I could accept the fact that he was going to make all the decisions or I could leave, and that’s what I did (6).”
After one year spent as chairman of the U.S. Pan American baseball team, the two-time baseball Executive of the Year, Gillick, was hired by the Seattle Mariners. At the news conference to announce Gillick’s hiring, Seattle Mariners’ chairman, Howard Lincoln, lauded Gillick’s lengthy “experience as a general manager (7)” and most importantly Gillick’s “history of fielding championship teams (8).”
Gillick was clearly the Mariners’ first choice to replace Woodward. He had interviewed for the job three weeks before being hired. However, shortly thereafter Gillick withdrew his name from consideration citing his wife Doris’ ties to Toronto, specifically ownership in an art gallery that she had just started up 18 months prior as the reason for his withdrawal. “It wasn’t fair to ask her to give that up, or to agree to a long distance marriage after I’ve been running around the country for 30 years (3),” Gillick explained. In the end though, Gillick’s wife offered to spend time in both Seattle and Toronto to accommodate her husband’s new role.
At the Seattle Mariners’ press conference announcing his hiring, Gillick listed his new team’s needs. “We need a leadoff hitter, left-handed hitting in the outfield and a left-handed hitting infielder. I think we have to upgrade first base. We could use another starter- a more veteran type guy we could plug in as a number two or three starter. And it’s very crucial these days to have a bullpen, and Lou didn’t have a left-hander he could go to in the bullpen (9).”
Of course the “Lou” Gillick was referring to was Mariners’ manager Lou Piniella who by then had just completed his seventh year managing the club. Piniella was hired by the Mariners in 1992 after he managed the Reds the previous three seasons including the Reds’ World Series winning 1990 season. After declining a three-year contract extension with the Reds at the conclusion of the ’92 season, Piniella was ready to sit out the 1993 season but said that he was willing to, “explore other options to see if anything is out there (10).”
Piniella had been rumored to be interested in the Giants’ managerial position only if the franchise relocated from San Francisco to Piniella’s home of Tampa Bay which was being seriously considered at the time. Also complicating the matter was the fact that the current Giants’ manager, Roger Craig, still had one year remaining on his contract.
Approximately one week after Piniella rejected the Reds’ extension offer; the Mariners fired their manager Bill Plummer and his entire coaching staff after just one season. The Mariners had finished the 1992 season with a 64-98 record, dead last in the American League and next to last in the majors. In his comments to the media explaining the reasons behind the firing of Plummer, Woodward simply stated that, “Bill Plummer is an outstanding man….Bill did a reasonable job in his first season as manager under a difficult time (11). However, ownership feels that the organization needs a new approach on the field….we will begin to put a list of (managerial) candidates immediately (12).”
Number one on Woodward’s list of managerial candidates was Lou Piniella. Reports had Woodward wanting Piniella as the Mariners’ manager back in ’89 before Piniella was hired by the Reds. Woodward and Piniella had a previous history going back to the days when the two worked together in the Yankees organization from ’85 to ’87. According to Piniella, he and Woodward got along very well in New York. “Woody is a good friend, a good baseball man. We had a good relationship in New York and I enjoyed it. A good relationship between the GM and field manager is essential…In New York, Woody let me do my job and if I had a problem, I went to him and we worked it out (13),” Piniella recollected. Ironically it was Piniella who had replaced Woodward as Yankees’ GM after Woodward’s resignation.
The other candidates Woodward had interviewed included the aforementioned Davey Johnson, Tom Trebelhorn and Doug Radar; however, it was only Piniella that had met with the Mariners’ new ownership group (14) which meant that clearly Piniella was Woodward’s first choice. “From the beginning there was somewhat of a consensus that he (Piniella) was our man (15),” Woodward confessed to the media once Piniella was officially hired. Mariners’ vice president Roger Jongewaard confirmed the fact that it was Piniella that Woodward was after all along. “I don’t know if we could have changed Woody’s mind if we wanted to (16),” Jongewaard said at the time. Piniella’s original deal with the Mariners called for a total of $2.5 million over three years with an option for a fourth year.
Piniella’s hiring though posed a potential problem for the Mariners’ and its superstar center fielder Ken Griffey Junior. Piniella had managed Griffey’s father, Ken Griffey Senior in Cincinnati in 1990. The then 40 year-old Griffey Sr., who had been a prominent member of the Reds during the team’s glory days of the 70’s, was asked to retire in order to make room on the Reds’ roster. The person tasked to deliver the news to Griffey Sr. was Piniella. “I talked to Kenny and explained the situation, the roster spots. I don’t think he was totally surprised. He took it like a pro because he has been a pro his entire career (17),” Piniella explained to the press at the time. Griffey Sr. accepted the team’s decision and retired on August 18, 1990. Two weeks later though, Griffey Sr. would reverse that decision thanks to Woody Woodward.
Woodward and the Mariners had offered to sign Griffey Sr. affording the elder Griffey an opportunity to play alongside his son for the remainder of the 1990 season. In ’89 the Griffey’s became the first father/son duo to be playing in the majors at the same time. Now the Griffeys would be playing together on the same team. To accommodate the Griffeys the Reds agreed to release Griffey Sr. paving the way for the Mariners to sign him once he cleared waivers.
When asked about the Mariners’ hiring of Piniella and the events that took place between Piniella/Reds and his father back in 1990, Ken Griffey Jr. answered by saying, “If it was a front-office decision with my dad and Lou just delivered the message, then I’ll apologize to Lou…It’s not like I hate him (18).” Just several weeks prior, Griffey Jr., thru his agent Brian Goldberg, had made it known that he wasn’t exactly pleased with the prospect of Piniella becoming the Mariners’ new manager. “The thought of Lou being the manager doesn’t thrill him (Griffey Jr.) (19),” Goldberg told the press at the time. “Junior wasn’t mad with Marge Schott or Bob Quinn (Reds’ GM), he was mad at Lou….It’s just that Kenny didn’t appreciate the way Lou handled the situation with Senior (20).”
Just days after Piniella’s hiring though, Woodward and Piniella placated their young superstar by promoting Griffey Sr. to Seattle Mariners hitting coach. At the time Senior was a minor league hitting instructor in the Mariners organization. Obviously the move pleased Griffey Jr.
Years later a newly hired Gillick would have to once again find a way to satisfy Griffey Jr. as the 10-time all-star center fielder was making it known that he was no longer happy in Seattle. On top of Griffey Jr.’s dissatisfaction with the Mariners’ state of affairs, Gillick would also have to contend with Alex Rodriguez’s looming free agency. The 23 year-old power-hitting shortstop-phenomenon was set to hit the free agent market at the end of the following season.
Previously, the Mariners had already experienced a messy divorce with the franchise’s greatest pitcher in ’98 when the team traded the Cy Young Award-winning Randy Johnson to the Houston Astros. Woodward had orchestrated that deal. One year later Woodward found himself dealing with a similar situation, this time with Griffey Jr.; however, Woodward was unable to resolve the Griffey Junior situation by the time he stepped down as general manager. Instead it would be Gillick who would have to see through the Griffey Jr. situation as well as contend with the possible departure of Alex Rodriguez via free agency.
It was Woodward’s deal with the Astros for Johnson, Gillick’s deal with the Reds for Griffey Jr. and Gillick replacing Rodriguez with a series of moves just prior and just after Rodriguez had departed the Mariners that set the stage for the 2001 Seattle Mariners’ historic 116-win season.
Much like the 2001 Mariners, the 1973 Baltimore Orioles had also recently parted ways with one of the franchise’s greatest players. On December 2, 1971, the Orioles traded two-time MVP award winner and future Hall of Famer, Frank Robinson, along with left-handed reliever Pete Richert to the Los Angeles Dodgers in exchange for starting pitcher Doyle Alexander, left-handed pitcher Bob O’Brien, catcher Sergio Robles and outfielder Royle Stillman. The 21 year-old rookie, Doyle Alexander, was the centerpiece of the deal. Alexander had just completed his first season in the majors. He was 6-6 with a below league- average ERA of 3.80.
Although at the time there were some reports of the Orioles possibly trading Robinson, the deal still surprised many sportswriters and fans considering what the Orioles received in exchange. “I am sure a lot of fans are going to be puzzled about who these new players are and will hate to see Frank Robinson depart (21),” Orioles general manager/director of player personnel and executive vice president Frank Cashen told the press once the trade was announced. “I can only assure them that we traded him with great reluctance, because of what he has meant to Baltimore in so many, many ways. It was a difficult decision. At the same time, our roster is beginning to show a little age in some key spots and, as time goes on, we have to be thinking of the future (22).”
Baltimore Orioles’ manager Earl Weaver expanded on Cashen’s explanation:
“We have begun an infiltration of young talent to supplement an outstanding staff headed by four 20 game-winners. Not only do we have strong pitching for next season but insurance now, for the years to come. Everybody knows that Dave McNally was disabled last summer for 38 days and had a little more elbow trouble last month in Japan. Mike Cuellar is in his mid-thirties and Pat Dobson is nearing 30. We know that these three plus Jim Palmer are still outstanding, but we feel that acquiring Alexander and O’Brien will be good for us, long-range (23).”
The Robinson trade was made just weeks after Cashen had general manager and director of player personnel added to his title of executive vice-president. Cashen, a one-time sports writer and former executive with the National Brewing Company, had been with the Orioles since 1965. Cashen was originally hired for his marketing expertise specifically in advertising, public relations and promotions.
Just weeks after his hiring in ‘65, Cashen was granted the club’s presidential authority which was formerly held by Lee MacPhail. MacPhail had been the Orioles’ general manager since ’58. The Orioles added president to MacPhail’s title in December of 1959. In December of 1965, MacPhail resigned his position with the Orioles for a position in the office of the newly appointed commissioner of baseball, William D. Eckert. As a result, the Orioles realigned their front office which essentially gave Cashen the final say on player personnel although Cashen would lean heavily on the newly appointed director of player personnel, Harry Dalton. Dalton had previously been running the Orioles’ minor league system which at the time consisted of seven teams. It was in that role that Dalton came to know Earl Weaver.
Weaver, a former minor league second baseman in the St. Louis Cardinals organization, had been managing in the Orioles’ farm system since 1957. In his eleven seasons managing in the minors, Weaver’s teams won three pennants and had finished in second place five times, including a 1962 playoff-title-winning Elmira Pioneers club in which Weaver managed a 24 year-old Pat Gillick.
At the beginning of the ’68 season, Dalton promoted Weaver to the Orioles’ coaching staff. In July of ’68, with the Orioles sitting at 43-37 and 10.5 games out of first place, Dalton fired Orioles’ manager Hank Bauer and named Earl Weaver as Bauer’s replacement. “The change was made because we felt we were more of a sputtering ball club than a hard-driving club (24),” Dalton told the press after he made the switch. “I think Earl Weaver is a winner. He’s been a winner wherever he’s been (25).” Indeed. By the end of the 1971 season, Weaver had led the Orioles to three consecutive American League pennants from ’69 thru ’71, including a World Series Championship in 1970. The Orioles won more than 100 games in each of those seasons.
The team of Cashen and Dalton had also presided over those three Baltimore pennant winning seasons. However in late October of 1971, Dalton left the Orioles to take over the California Angels’ general manager’s job. Once Dalton had left, Cashen assumed the general managerial functions that Dalton had been performing since ’65. Given that Cashen’s background was not in player personnel, he made it clear though that he was going to rely on the input of others when making personnel decisions.
“I’m going to depend heavily on these guys (Orioles’ “baseball men”) whose opinion I value highly, (26)” Cashen explained to the media. “I think we’ve got a good organization and my main goal is to keep it consolidated and keep it moving forward. A lot of people will have to button up and help out but I think we’ve got the caliber of people to do it (27).” Of course one of those men Cashen would “heavily” rely on was Earl Weaver. After Cashen’s trading of Frank Robinson to the Dodgers, it was Weaver who was instrumental in convincing Cashen to make the Orioles’ next blockbuster trade in the offseason of ’72, almost exactly one year after the Robinson deal.
The 1972 Baltimore Orioles’ finished that strike-shortened season with a disappointing 80-74 record and five games behind the AL East winning Detroit Tigers. Fans and some in the media were blaming Weaver for the Orioles’ disappointing season; however, Weaver had his defenders in the media. Lou Hatter of the Baltimore Sun wrote that, “While baseball’s morticians abuse Earl Weaver, a review of facts perhaps will promote perspective on the Orioles’ richly-deserved third-place plunge in the American League-East default derby (28).” Hatter’s colleague, Baltimore Sun sports editor Bob Maisel, echoed Hatter’s thoughts on Weaver. “Right now the ‘in’ thing to do around town is to put the blame for the Orioles’ failure to repeat on Earl Weaver…but trying to saddle him with the bulk of Oriole deficiencies in 1972 is not only a bum rap, it is merely taking the easy way out (29).”
In a column titled “Players Lost Flag, Not Earl Weaver” The Evening Sun’s sports editor, Bill Tanton wrote that, “It’s perfectly obvious why the Orioles did not win this year. They didn’t hit (30)”. Indeed. And if anything, Tanton was understating the Orioles’ 1972 offensive woes. The ‘72 Orioles’ offense was dreadful as Baltimore hitters struggled for most of the year. A comparison between the 1971 Orioles offense and the ’72 team is contained in the table below. The table illustrates just how far the ’72 Orioles’ offense had fallen from the previous season:
Granted, the ’72 Orioles played four fewer games due to the brief player’s strike that occurred at the beginning of the season. And granted, the overall American League average in most offensive categories had fallen; however, the drop in the ’72 Orioles’ production from the ’71 team’s output far exceeded the declines in offense across the American League.
In the Orioles’ three pennant-winning seasons, ’69 thru ’71, the team had finished no lower than second in runs scored. In ’72 the Orioles were eighth. In terms of batting average, each of the three pennant winning Baltimore teams finished no lower than third. The ’72 version finished eleventh, next to last in the American League. In terms of slugging, in the years ’69 thru ’71, the Orioles also finished no lower than third in the AL. In 1972 the Orioles were eighth in slugging. The same can be said regarding on-base percentage + slugging (OPS). The Orioles were first, second and first again in OPS in ’69, ’70 and ’71. In 1972 the team was eighth.
So inept was the Baltimore Orioles offense in ’72 that despite the pitching staff establishing a new Baltimore Orioles’ franchise team low for ERA with a mark of 2.54, the team could only muster a .519 winning percentage. In fact, the ’72 Orioles pitching staff led the AL in ERA (2.54), least homeruns allowed (85); least walks issued (395) and WHIP (1.102). They were second in shutouts (23), hits allowed (1,116) and FIP (2.95). Undoubtedly it was the pitching that kept the ‘72 Orioles in most games which was evident given the number of “close games” the team had played in during the season. The Orioles’ offensive power outage had cost them in said close games. The O’s were 26-32 in one-run games and 12-18 in contests decided by two runs. The team also lost nine of 14 extra-inning affairs. Moreover, there were 60 games in which the ’72 Orioles scored two or less runs as opposed to 36 games in ’71. In ’72 the Orioles managed to score six or more runs in just 24 games. In 1971 that figure was 47. The ’72 Orioles were 23-1 in said games as opposed to 46-1 in 1971.
Understandably, given how far the Orioles’ offense had fallen in ’72, the trading of Frank Robinson the previous offseason was often cited as the main reason as to why the team had such difficulty scoring runs. In his first and only season in Los Angeles, Robinson did have a decent year with the Dodgers by clubbing 19 homeruns and delivering 59 RBI. However, had Robinson remained in Baltimore, those numbers wouldn’t have been nearly enough to make-up for the significant drop-off in offensive production by Oriole veterans such as Boog Powell, Brooks Robinson, Don Buford, Paul Blair, Davey Johnson and Mark Belanger, which interestingly enough were all younger than the then 36 year-old Frank Robinson.
The issue regarding the aging of the Orioles became a topic of conversation during the ’72 season and came to a boil when Weaver was reported to have said that the Orioles may have some players that were “over-the-hill.” Weaver denied using those exact words. However, even if at the very least, had Weaver alluded to the aging of his team, he would have simply been echoing what Cashen had already acknowledged one year earlier when he dealt Robinson and defended the trade by saying the Orioles were “beginning to show a little age in some key spots.”
Given how disappointingly the Orioles ended the 1972 season, both getting younger and improving the Orioles’ offense were top priorities for Cashen and Weaver heading into ’73. Both Cashen and Weaver’s thinking was that if they were successful in both departments, and if the pitching continued to perform at a high level, the Baltimore Orioles would once again find itself atop the American League standings. The trading of Davey Johnson, pitcher Pat Dobson and catcher Johnny Oates to the Atlanta Braves in exchange for essentially catcher Earl Williams accomplished just that and proved to be one of the main reasons as to why the 1973 Orioles won the AL East. Similar to the ’01 Mariners, the ’73 Orioles added by way of subtraction.
“Get me Williams and we’ll win the pennant (31).” That’s what Earl Weaver had reportedly said while relaxing on a beach in Hawaii during the 1972 winter meetings. That story was later debunked; that is the Earl Weaver frolicking on the beach part as well as Weaver’s famous quote. What was accurate though was that the Orioles coveted Earl Williams, and had been in hot pursuit of the Atlanta Braves’ power-hitting catcher for weeks. The 23 year-old Williams was just coming off a season in which he had socked 28 homeruns and drove in 87. In the year prior, Williams’ first full season in the majors, the rising star hit 33 homeruns and was named the NL’s 1971 rookie of the year.
In Weaver’s mind increasing the production at the catcher position was a must if the Orioles were going to contend for the pennant in 1973. “I just have to get some sock back in my catching department (31)” Weaver told the press at the beginning of the ’72 Winter Meetings. “We got 20 homers out of our catchers in 1971. This year we got four (32),” Weaver stated as rumors persisted surrounding the Orioles’ keen interest in acquiring Williams.
Weaver and the Orioles finally got their man in a blockbuster deal that was agreed upon just hours before the December 2nd AL/NL trading deadline. In a trade that at the time was dubbed the “Honolulu Lulu,” the Orioles acquired Earl Williams and shortstop prospect Taylor Duncan from the Atlanta Braves in exchange for three-time all-star and gold glove winner Davey Johnson, former 20-game winner and all-star pitcher Pat Dobson, catcher Johnny Oates and pitcher Roric Harrison. Once the deal was announced, Weaver expressed his delight with the trade and acknowledged that, “This is the fellow (Williams) we came here to get. When we won our pennants we got 20 to 30 homeruns from our catchers…we know we can get between 20 and 30 from Williams (33)…we had this private list with the names we wanted on it. The name on the top of the list, the one we wanted the most, was Earl Williams (34).”
When asked about the steep price the Orioles had to pay in order to acquire Williams, particularly giving up Johnson and Dobson, Weaver answered by saying that both players as well as Johnny Oates “have helped us win pennants at Baltimore. But we felt we could replace them easier. Bobby Grich can play second base, Williams’ takes Oates’ place as our catcher….Doyle Alexander can be a starter in place of Dobson (35).”
Even though the players Baltimore traded could be replaced, the trade was not without risk given Williams’ lack of experience in the catching department. At the time, Williams had only been a catcher for approximately a year and a half. Williams was originally signed as a pitcher but then was converted into a position player in the minors where he played mainly first base and third base with some action in the outfield. The Braves converted Williams into a catcher at the major league level in 1971, Williams’ rookie season. Initially the Braves had requested Williams to be sent down to the minors to learn the position; however, Williams refused to be demoted. Instead he agreed to transition to catcher but only at the major league level.
Earl Weaver acknowledged Williams’ lack of experience at the position by calling him “a manufactured catcher (36).” However, Weaver added that, “the people we have talked to tell us that Williams can go on to become a better receiver than he is now (37).” When asked about Williams’ defense all Atlanta Braves’ GM Eddie Mathews would say on the record was that Williams was a “good mechanical catcher (38).” Orioles’ star pitcher, Jim Palmer, never shy to provide his feedback on anything opined on the trade by saying that, “In all the years I’ve been here, we’ve never had to sacrifice defense for offense…catching is very important to your defense (39).”
Adding to the risk regarding Williams’ inexperience at catching was the rumor that Williams no longer wanted to catch but instead preferred to play first base. Jim Palmer gave credence to the rumors when he revealed that he had supposedly, “talked to some of the Braves’ top players about Williams. They all said he had no interest in catching.” Palmer went on to say that, “It kind of showed last season when he had 28 passed balls and 13 errors (40).” In fairness to Williams, he did catch two difficult knuckle-ballers in Phil Niekro and Cecil Upshaw, which may have partially explained Williams’ passed ball and error totals, a point Palmer either omitted to mention or wasn’t aware of at the time. Palmer ultimately did end up endorsing the deal, stating that Williams would “help us win the pennant (41)” as the Orioles were in need of a “hitter to drive in runs (42).”
According to Weaver the Orioles had inquired about Williams’ willingness to catch and that Braves’ GM Mathews told him that “he talked to Williams last week and said Earl (Williams) told him he had no objections to catching (44).” Apparently that was good enough for Weaver, Cashen and the Orioles.
Williams started the 1973 season slowly. In the month of April Williams hit .182, although he did crank out five homeruns in his 78 plate appearances. By May 18th Williams had raised his batting average to .200 but he hadn’t hit a homerun in almost a month. Unfortunately for Williams and the Orioles the young catcher would be sidelined for the rest of May thanks to a severely sprained left ankle Williams had suffered sliding into second base after hitting a double.
Naturally given Williams’ slow start to the season questions from the press regarding Williams’ state of mind, specifically questions focusing on the perceived pressure on Williams to produce in order to justify the Orioles trading for the 25 year-old slugger and its effect on his hitting were being asked. Williams brushed aside the pressure talk by saying, “I feel some pressure. The same pressure any other ballplayer feels about having a good year. I’d feel pressure about the trade if I made it, but I didn’t make it (45).”
One of those who was involved in making the trade, Earl Weaver, wasn’t too concerned with Williams’ slow start, not publicly anyway. “He’s (Williams) gonna be like Boog (Powell). When he’s hot, he’s hot. When he’s hitting, he’ll hit the ball in his eyes, or in his toes, and he’ll hit it to all fields (46),” Weaver reassured the media. In addition to stating his confidence in Williams’ hitting, Weaver also took the opportunity to praise his new catcher’s defense. “I’m amazed at how good a catcher he is defensively. He’s got good hands, soft hands. He scoops balls out of the dirt like Randy Hundley. He has a strong arm too (47).”
However, just weeks after praising his new catcher, Weaver suspended Williams for an indefinite period of time and without pay. When asked why Williams had been suspended, Weaver responded by saying, “Several things have brought about this situation…Nothing really bad but a lot of irritating little things. One, he has been late on the field; two, missed signs and there were about four or five other things I wanted to talk over with him (48).” Apparently the final straw for Weaver came on June 24th in Boston when Williams missed the team bus that was to take the Orioles from their hotel to Fenway Park. At the time, Weaver elaborated on the incident. “That in itself is not bad, but suppose I wanted to have a team meeting when the bus arrived at the park? I had Earl’s name on the lineup card, and I wanted to give him some advice and a little hell…Earl did not want to hear what I had to say…he started to give me a little lip. I told him if he did not want to sit and listen, he could pack his bags and get out of here (49).”
Weaver claimed to have spoken to Cashen about the suspension and that Cashen backed Weaver’s actions “100 per cent (50).” However, Weaver’s suspension of Williams ended up lasting only a few hours. After Cashen had met with both Weaver and Williams separately, the suspension had been lifted and according to Cashen the “air had been cleared (51).” Cashen though made it a point to mention that despite the brief suspension, Williams’ actions were serious. “Usually, people might expect one to say this incident was blown out of proportion but I don’t think that was the case here. I feel this was a serious situation. Williams and I went over things…He understands our point of view and we understand his (52).”
Williams’ point of view was that he felt he was being made the scapegoat for, up until that point, the Orioles’ slow start. On June 24th, the day of Williams’ suspension, the O’s were 33-30 and three games behind the New York Yankees in the AL East. Baltimore’s offense was next to last in the AL in runs scored with 235. Williams was batting just .207 and had hit only eight homeruns. Conversely, Davey Johnson, one of the players the Orioles had traded to acquire Williams, was hitting .273 with 15 homeruns. Cashen made it clear to the press though that Williams was “not being made the scapegoat (53).”
After the suspension of Williams had been lifted, the Orioles went on to win five of their next six games to finish the month of June with a 17-10 record. In July the O’s were 18-14. They then caught fire in the middle of August and won 15 of their last 17 games in the month which included a 15-game winning streak.
Clearly by the time the Orioles and Williams returned to Boston on September 3rd, both parties’ fortunes had reversed. The Orioles terrific month of August had catapulted them atop of the AL East standings. The O’s record stood at 79-55, six games in front of second-place Boston. And although Williams’ batting average was still hovering in the low .200’s (.226 to be exact), he had hit .244 with nine homeruns and 40 RBI since his brief suspension in late June. Williams clubbed three more homeruns in the September 3rd doubleheader versus the Red Sox to give him 20 homeruns and 74 RBI on the year.
After splitting said doubleheader with Boston, a confident and joyous Weaver met with the media. “I said as we went into the winter meetings last fall that if we could get 20 homeruns out of our catching department we’d be prime contenders for our division championship (54),” Weaver reminded the press. “Well, we’ve already gotten our 20 homeruns from our catchers….if Earl stays as hot in September as he has been recently, I’d say things are looking mighty, mighty good for our chances to win the division (55),” an enthusiastic Weaver declared.
Williams ended the ’73 season with 22 homeruns and 83 RBI and a 3.0 rWAR which was eighth among major league catchers that year. His 1.2 WAA ranked ninth in the majors among catchers although Williams did play 45 games at first base. Fellow Orioles catchers Andy Etchebarren contributed with 0.4 WAA while Elrod Hendricks and Sergio Robles had -0.4 and -0.2 WAA respectively. The collective 0.60 WAA the Orioles received from their catchers was a full point improvement from ‘72 and seventh best in the AL in ‘73. In ‘72 the Orioles received -0.40 WAA from their catchers good for eighth in the AL.
Unlike the 1973 Orioles, the 2001 Mariners never believed their season hinged on the performance of their catchers nor did the team make any significant changes at the position heading into the ’01 season. However, given how the 2000 season ended for Mariners’ catcher Dan Wilson, the Mariners would have been perfectly justified in making a change at catcher.
Dan Wilson had been with the Mariners’ since 1994 and had been their primary catcher since ‘95. Interestingly enough, the former first round pick out of the University of Minnesota was acquired by the Mariners in November of ’93 from the Cincinnati Reds in a trade involving 2001 Mariners all-star and MVP candidate Bret Boone. That autumn Woody Woodward and the Mariners sent Boone and right-handed starter Erik Hanson to the Reds in exchange for Wilson and pitcher Bobby Ayala.
Woodward made the trade in part, to cut costs and in-turn, sign Randy Johnson to a long-term deal as the intimidating left-hander was set to become a free agent after the 1994 season. The 28 year-old Erik Hanson was also set to become a free agent following ’94. The Mariners though could not afford to re-sign both pitchers which meant they had to trade Hanson. Woodward elaborated on the trade by saying that, “It was a chance to move some dollars and pick up a couple of young players. Right now our main thrust is to try to sign Randy (Johnson) (56).”
By 1995 Wilson had become the Mariners starting catcher. That season he started 117 games for the M’s behind the plate. He hit .278 and slugged .416 with nine homeruns and 51 runs batted in. The following year Wilson hit 18 homeruns and drove in 83 and was selected to the AL All-Star team. Wilson regressed slightly in 1997 by hitting .270 with 15 homeruns and 74 RBI. From there Wilson’s offensive numbers continued to decline. However, given the Mariners’ offense of the late 90’s, led by the likes of Ken Griffey Junior, Alex Rodriguez and Edgar Martinez, all-star production from the catcher position wasn’t a necessity.
By the year 2000, Wilson had become known more for his defense and game-calling rather than his bat. “I call him a caring catcher (57)” Lou Piniella told the press during spring training of 2000. “He would rather call a good game and win than put his batting first. He’s got a pretty good idea what he’s doing out there…..the only thing we need to do is rest him from time to time because he wears down a little (58).”
Piniella though ended up doing more than just resting Wilson “from time to time” in 2000. Wilson’s lack of production at the plate had gotten to a point where Piniella was eventually forced to split time evenly between Wilson and 34 year-old veteran catcher Joe Oliver. Oliver had first replaced Wilson during Wilson’s time spent on the DL. Wilson was forced to go on the DL in mid-June due to a pulled side-muscle. At that time Wilson was hitting .245 and slugging .347 with only three homeruns and 13 RBI. Because of Wilson’s injury the Mariners were forced to call-up Joe Oliver from the Pacific Coast League and have him split time with the M’s back-up catcher Tom Lampkin. Oliver took full advantage of the opportunity. He proceeded to hit .286 and slug .464 with two homeruns and seven RBI in 19 games while Wilson was on the DL. Once Wilson returned to the line-up on July 15th, he found himself in an even time-share with Oliver.
Wilson started 36 of the Mariners’ 74 remaining games, Oliver started 38. Wilson’s production continued to decline. The former all-star catcher hit just .223 and slugged .322 with only two homeruns and 14 RBI after returning from the DL. Conversely, Joe Oliver finished the season with 10 homeruns and 35 RBI in just 69 games played which earned him a start in the first game of the ALDS versus the Chicago White Sox. In that game, Oliver proceeded to homer in his first at-bat. Oliver went on to start four of the nine Mariner postseason games that season, recording two hits in 12 plate appearances. Oliver may have started more playoff games if not for a pulled quadriceps muscle that hampered his ability to run. As a result, Piniella was forced to start the struggling Wilson in games 4, 5, and 6 of the ALCS versus the Yankees. Prior to his fifth inning single off of Yankees’ Game Six starter Orlando Hernandez, Wilson had gone hitless in his previous 41 postseason at-bats, dating all the way back to 1995. Wilson hit an anemic .071 in the 2000 postseason with 7 strikeouts in 17 plate appearances as the Mariners were eliminated by the Yankees in five games.
Wanting to improve offensively, Wilson began working on his hitting in January of ’01, weeks before the beginning of spring training. Wilson worked with Mariners’ part-time hitting instructor Lee Elia who had been Wilson’s hitting coach during the mid-90s and up until 1997 when Elia left the organization. Elia placed Wilson back on the same hitting program he had him on from 1993 to 1997. “It’s having a consistent swing each time (59),” Wilson answered when asked about his offseason hitting program and working with Elia. “Staying through the baseball and being able to do it pitch after pitch (60).”
With Joe Oliver signing with the Yankees for the 2001 season and the Mariners not bringing in a replacement for Oliver that could challenge Dan Wilson for the starting catcher’s job, meant that Wilson was set to receive the lion’s share of playing time behind the plate. Lou Piniella and the Mariners did not expect Wilson to suddenly light it up at the plate but they did expect an improvement. “We need a good year from Danny…“he’s had good years before, and we feel he can certainly get back to where he was (61),” Piniella told the press soon after 2001 spring training began.
Although not quite getting “back to where he was,” i.e. his all-star season of ’96, Wilson was able to increase his production at the plate in 2001. In fact Wilson’s ‘01 numbers resembled those of his 1995 season. In ‘95 Wilson hit .278 with nine homeruns and 51 RBI in 440 plate appearances. In 2001 Wilson managed a .265 batting average with ten homeruns and 42 runs batted in. Wilson earned a 2.4 rWAR and 0.8 WAA in 1995. In 2001 the now 32 year-old catchers’ numbers in those departments were 2.1 and 0.6 respectively. Thanks in large part to Wilson’s improvement at the plate in ’01, like the ’73 Orioles, the ’01 Mariners’ WAA received from the catcher position improved by a full point from the negative 0.30 figure in 2000 to the 0.70 earned in 2001.
The tables below contain the 01’ Mariners and ’73 Orioles WAA earned from each team’s catchers as well as their rWAR. Also included are each player’s individual won/losses. Individual won/loss records i.e. “Indis,” a Tom Tango creation, are derived from each player’s WAA/rWAR. Indis are an attempt to provide clarity as to what exactly a player contributed to his team’s won/loss record. A more descriptive definition of “indis” can be found in the link contained at the bottom of this article:
The 2001 Mariners’ catchers had a won/loss record of 6-4 while the ’73 Orioles’ catchers had a 7-5 overall record. The teams’ expectations from their catchers heading into the season were quite different. The end results though i.e. the production received from the likes of Dan Wilson for the Mariners and Earl Williams for the Orioles were similar.
In Part II of this series of articles, we will take examine the 2001 Mariners and the 1973 Orioles right side of the infield.
Austin American Statesman: September 18, 1999 (1, 2)
The New Leader: October 26, 1999 (3)
Los Angeles Times: June 30, 2001 (4, 5, 6)
The Times and Democrat: October 26, 1999 (7, 8)
The Spokesman Review: October 26, 1999 (9)
Index-Journal: October 7, 1992 (10)
Tyler Morning Telegraph: October 14, 1992 (11, 12)
Daily News: October 21, 1992 (13)
Longview Daily News: November 9, 1992 (14, 15, 16)
Dayton Daily News: August 19, 1992 (17)
Spokesman Review: November 12, 1992 (18)
Spokesman Review: October 22, 1992 (19, 20)
Baltimore Sun: December 3, 1965 (21, 22, 23)
Evening Sun: July 12, 1968 (24, 25)
Baltimore Sun: October 28, 1971 (26, 27)
Baltimore Sun: October 6, 1972 (28, 29)
Evening Sun: October 6, 1972 (30)
Independent Record: December 1, 1972 (31)
Daily News: December 1, 1972 (32)
Indianapolis News: December 2, 1972 (33, 37, 38, 39)
News Journal: December 2, 1972 (34)
Atlanta Constitution: December 2, 1972 (35)
Baltimore Sun: December 3, 1972 (36, 40, 41, 42, 43)
Bennington Banner: May 19, 1973 (44, 45, 46, 47)
Wilkes Barre Times Leader: June 25, 1973 (48, 49, 50)
Baltimore Sun: June 28, 1973 (51, 52, 53)
Baltimore Sun: September 5, 1973 (54, 55)
Town Talk: November 3, 1993 (56)
The Pantagraph: March 2, 2000 (57, 58)
Corvallis Gazette Times: February 26, 2001 (59, 60, 61)