While baseball’s time-tested adage about not being able to win a championship in April is true enough, there are times when teams defy the simple arithmetic logic of that bit of wisdom. In other words, there are exceptions that prove the rule. One in particular comes to mind.
In 1984, the Detroit Tigers were 18-2 in April. They were in first place in the East (there were only two divisions in each league in 1984), 6 games up on the Toronto Blue Jays. The Tigers were 30 games over .500 for the rest of the regular season, and they finished the season at 104-58, 15 games ahead of the Blue Jays. They went on to sweep the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship series before dispatching the Padres in 5 games in the World Series. For all of 1984, they were never out of first place.
Their offense was powered by guys like Lance Parrish and Kirk Gibson; their starting pitching featured Jack Morris, Dan Petry, and Milt Wilcox; and their primary closer was Willie Hernandez who, in addition to converting 32 out of 33 save opportunities, pitched a remarkable 140 and 1/3 innings. They were ranked first in the American League in runs scored, probably the most important offensive team statistic, and first in the league in team ERA. The 1984 Tigers were by any measurement a phenomenal team, and it was as clear on the last day of April that year as it was when Willie Hernandez got Tony Gwynn to fly out to left field to end the World Series.
So what about this year? What about a team like the 2013 Oakland Athletics? While it’s only the second week of April, and there’s no old adage about winning a championship by the second week in April, let’s take a look at where they are as of the morning of April 14th. They are 9-3, which puts them a mere 2.5 games ahead of last year’s second place team in the West, the Texas Rangers. Their pitching is third in the American League with an ERA of 3.16. They lead the American League in runs scored with 73, averaging more than 6 runs per game; they are best in the Majors with 19 home runs; and their team batting average of .276 is good enough for third in the American League, and fourth in MLB.
A great start, whether it’s for two weeks, a month, or even two months, obviously does not guarantee a great finish. Most great starts end up being just that – a great start – and nothing more. Ron Swoboda hit 11 homeruns for the New York Mets in the first two months of 1965, his rookie season. The New York press loved having something positive to write about the lowly Mets. Before long, the New York papers had charts comparing Swoboda’s unexpected pace, a homerun in every 12 at bats, with Babe Ruth’s lifetime average of a homerun every 11.8 at bats. New York had a new Sultan of Swat! Well, Swoboda ended up with 19 homeruns that year and 73 for his career. So much for great starts.
Last year, the Oakland A’s were in first place for exactly one day, and that was on the last day of the season, the only day that counts. So far this year, they’re in first by virtue of winning a lot of games with a great balance of pitching and hitting. Where they are after 162 games will tell us if the start is a harbinger or a fluke. In the meantime the team and their fans are enjoying the ride.