The Littlest League: The Four-Team AL West

When Major League Baseball re-aligned into three divisions per league in 1994, the AL West and NL West were assigned only four teams each.  These two divisions thus became the smallest units of regular season competitive standings at the major league level of baseball since such leagues have existed.  The NL West enjoyed this cozy arrangement only until 1998, when a new baby arrived in the form of the Arizona expansion team.  The AL West, on the other hand, has remained undisturbed as a family of four for eighteen seasons.

2012 will, however, be the last year of splendid isolation for the Angels/Mariners/A’s/Rangers as the emigrating Astros arrive on the AL West’s shores beginning in 2013.  In addition, 2012 brings, to the AL West, the Player of the Century thus far (WAR 2000-2011: 1. Pujols 88.7, 2. A-Rod 78.5, 3. Bonds 64.4, 4. Halladay 58.9, 5. Beltran 56.2).  So it seems an opportune time to look back at some stats-based history of the four-team AL West, which you can read after the jump.The players who have generated the most Wins Above Replacement (non-pitching) for AL West teams since the current four-team format was adopted in 1994, using the baseball-reference formula for WAR:

1. Alex Rodriguez 61.0
2. Ichiro Suzuki 54.5
3. Edgar Martinez 49.4
4. Ivan Rodriguez 43.7
5. Ken Griffey, Jr. 39.0
6. Eric Chavez 36.0
7. Tim Salmon 32.6
8. Jason Giambi 30.5
9. Garret Anderson 28.6
10. Darren Erstad 28.0
11. Mchael Young 26.9
12. Vlad Guerrero 26.7
13. Ian Kinsler 24.9
14. Mark Ellis 21.6
15. Chone Figgins 21.4

This list allows us to fill the hitting/defense side of a pretty good All-Star roster of AL Westerners:

C: Ivan Rodriguez
1B: Jason Giambi
2B: Ian Kinsler
3B: Eric Chavez
SS: Alex Rodriguez
LF: Garret Anderson
CF: Ken Griffey, Jr.
RF: Ichiro Suzuki
DH: Edgar Martinez
INF bench: Michael Young, Mark Ellis
OF/1B bench: Tim Salmon, Darin Erstad, Vlad Guerrero
UT: Chone Figgins

However, we don’t really have a backup catcher in this group. The highest AL West WAR by a catcher other than Pudge Rodriguez is the comparatively recent sensation Mike Napoli at 16.1 WAR. We’ll put him in the back-up catcher slot on our roster and count on him to keep adding WAR.

How about the pitching side?  The most pitching WAR for AL West teams, 1994-2011:

1. Kenny Rogers 33.9
2. Jamie Moyer 32.4
3. Felix Hernandez 29.1
4. Tim Hudson 28.9
5. Barry Zito 28.8
6. Jered Weaver 26.8
7. Jerrod Washburn 26.7
8. John Lackey 25.3
9. Randy Johnson 23.3
10. Chuck Finley 22.0

That gives us ten starters, some of whom we could use as middle and long relievers. On the relief ace side, the top WAR numbers for AL West teams have been:

Frankie Rodriguez 18.0
Troy Percival 17.9

The pitching on this team is probably not quite up to the standards of the hitters, in terms of combining both quality and quantity of performance in the AL West.  But it’s still a pretty good staff.

In the four-team AL West, the Mariners have been division champs 3 times, the A’s 4 times, and the Rangers and Angels 5 times each.  Is that more evenly split than you thought?  Theoretically, being in a four team division should give a team an advantage in the quest to win a World Series, by giving each team, all other things being equal, a 25% chance of  qualifying automatically for the post-season.  But that theory has not produced practical results, as not a single one of the 17 division winners from the four-team AL West has ever gone on to win the  World  Series.  The only World Series champ the current AL West has ever produced, the 2002 Angels, made it as a wild card team (finishing behind the Moneyball era A’s, with their movie-famous 20-game win streak).    It does seem that the Astros, who have now played 50 seasons of baseball and have yet to win a single World Series game, may fit in nicely with this group. Or perhaps 2012, as the swan song of the four-team division, will finally produce an AL West champion who can win a team-ful of World Series rings.  It is, after all, hardly possible to get any closer without winning it all than the AL West Rangers did in 2011.

24 thoughts on “The Littlest League: The Four-Team AL West

  1. 1
    bells says:

    What immediately stands out to me is how little dominance (and, in the last decade, even ‘success’) the Mariners have had, despite having superstar players. I know that Griffey, Edgar, Ichiro and ARod had only somewhat tenures (and some of ARod’s AL West WAR was with Texas), but still, looking at that list in and of itself, you have to shake your head at their inability to put it all together.

  2. 2
    Hartvig says:

    Two things about the AL West really stand out for me. The first was the inability of the Mariners of the ’90’s with Griffey & Arod & Johnson & Martinez & Olerud and everyone else to ever reach the World Series or even dominate their own division. And that leads me to the second thing, which is what a huge advantage it is for a team to play in a 4 team division, rather than 5 or even 6. If you think about how some teams dominated for years and even decades at a time back in the 8 teams per league days and how much less common that is nowadays- the Yankees because of their money, the Braves of the ’90’s because of their pitching, maybe the Reds of the ’70’s or Red Sox of the ’00’s- teams that were in contention every year and actually won a significant number of championships over a 5 to 10 year time frame. It’s much harder because there are so many more teams in the league. But it should also be true then that it’s easier to dominate at the division level and that a 1 or 2 team difference in the number of teams in the division would make an enormous difference. I know if I owned a team in a 5 or 6 team division I would be screaming bloody murder over the advantage they have for post season revenue and the added regular season ticket revenue that brings (because it’s how you did the year BEFORE that sells season tickets for this year)

    • 3
      Ed says:

      I agree. On the other hand, this cements interleague play, something I’ve never been a fan of. And if I remember correctly, they have to increase the number of interleague games in order to make the schedule work.

      BTW, I remember Jay Buhner once refusing to come back from an injury early stating that the Mariners problem was pitching not offense. Ummm…Jay…if your team scores more runs, you need less pitching.

      • 5
        Doug says:

        I don’t know if they are going to increase IL games or not, but they don’t have to.

        60 series, or 4 series per team, will cover the whole schedule. That’s all they need.

        IL play happening every day of the season will make it seem like just another series – will quickly become nothing special (sketptics, of course, contend that’s what it already is, but fan attendance seems to indicate otherwise).

        • 6
          Ed says:

          Back in November, the LA Times reported 72 divisional games, 60 games against other teams in the league and 30 interleague games. They don’t provide a source for that info however.

          The one thing that’s true is that interleague will basically be a season long thing.

          • 9
            Doug says:

            Yikes. 30 interleague games, 9 or 10 series. Too many, if you want to preserve separate AL and NL identities as we know them.

            Instead, will become more like the NFC and AFC in the NFL. The NFL plays 25% of its schedule against the opposite conference. 30 games is 18.5% of the MLB schedule.

          • 21
            Ed says:

            I’m with you Doug but the Budster disagrees:

            “As a baseball issue, Selig argued strongly that the realignment made sense. And he dismissed the notion that year-round Interleague Play will water down the excitement that accompanies an AL vs. NL World Series by arguing that the same thing happens in the NFL and the NBA, where teams play across conferences throughout the season.”


        • 8

          Which is exactly what IL play should have become years ago… just another part of the schedule, not a cash cow for “Larry” Bud Selig to milk until the udders fell off.

          I’m old enough to remember when the leagues were two separate entities that seemed to operate individually under the MLB umbrella, but I never understood why that was necessary. IL play every day is the penultimate step in fully unifying the two leagues (ala the AFL/NFL merger). That last step (and you all know what that is) will likely be taken care of before the decade ends…

          • 11
            Tmckelv says:

            “That last step (and you all know what that is) will likely be taken care of before the decade ends…”

            Apparently everyone except for me. 🙂

            Are you talking about the DH resolution one way or the other? Which I guess would be like the NFL…

            Or something like The leagues reshuffled Geographically with 6 divisions of 5 teams? With an example Northeast division of Mets, Yankees, Phillies, Red Sox, Blue Jays…Which would be like the NBA.

          • 23
            Dr. Remulak says:

            MLB should model IL play after the NFL. Nice orderly rotation. Mets and Yanks should not play each other every year.

    • 4
      Lawrence Azrin says:

      Hartvig, you mentioned the Mariners underachieving with “Griffey & Arod & Johnson & Martinez & Olerud”.

      Problem is, they never had them all at the same time, and when they _were_ together, sometimes they were injured and missed large stretches of games. Olerud arrived in 2000, but Griffey left before 2000. A-Rod left before 2001.

      Even forgetting Olerud, the only time that Martinez/ Griffey/ A-Rod/ Randy Johnson were all together, was from 1996 till when Johnson was traded to the Astros in 1998. Plus, Johnson only pitched 61 innings in 1996. Griffey missed over half of ’95, Martinez missed a lot of ’93 and ’94.

      You’re right about your main point; when the “big four” were together from 1996 to 1998, the Mariners records were an underwhelming 85-76, 90-72, and 75-86.

      • 13
        Hartvig says:

        I really shouldn’t have included Olerud because I was specifically referring to the ’90’s, so that was definitely my bad.

  3. 7
    birtelcom says:

    Over the nine-year period from 1995 through 2003, the Mariners had the third- best total regular season record in the majors, behind only the Braves and Yankees. During that period, Seattle averaged 5.47 runs scored per game, best in the majors except for the Rockies (who were at 5.50), and slightly better than the Yankees who were at 5.44. The Mariners surrenderd 4.82 runs per game during this period, which was good for third best in the AL over that time but behind the Red Sox and considerably behind the Yankees who surrendered an average of 4.51 runs per game over those nine years. The Mariners moved midway though this period from the Kingdome, a largely neutral park from a run-scoring point of view, to a pitcher-favorable park at Safeco.

    • 16
      Hartvig says:

      True, but if you remove the remarkable 2001 season, I would guess they’re at least much closer to the pack if not actually even further down the list. That, coupled with the fact that they finished third in a four team division as often as they finished first over that time frame would leave them well short of dominant, except for a few scattered seasons. And the weirdest part of all, is in the season that they were truly historically dominant, they had neither Griffey nor Rodriguez nor Johnson. I actually think their story over those years is not how dominant they were but more how dominant they should have been but weren’t.

      • 18
        Doc_Irysch says:

        That 2001 team was so much fun to watch, but it was an interesting example of a team that overachieved, many guys had their top or one of their better seasons all at once. Watching that year in the playoffs showed the importance of power: it is too difficult against playoff pitching to string a bunch of hits together to manufacture runs like they did in the regular season.

    • 22
      Lawrence Azrin says:

      While the Mariners did have an excellent regular-season record over 1995-2003, as you demonstrated, the popular perception was one of underachievement, due to lack of postseason success. If even one of the Mariners teams in this time period had won a World Series, or even gone to a WS and played decently, the popular perception would be different. In the time frame you cite, they were in the postseason four teams, but only won one series.

      Also, as Hartvig points out in #16 below, the 116-win season in 2001 skews the averages somewhat.

  4. 10
    Tmckelv says:

    I wonder if Lance Berkman would want to go back to Houston to DH (if he couldn’t be a full-time OF) in 2013.

  5. 12
    John Autin says:

    Interesting angle, Birtelcom.

    “Theoretically, being in a four team division should give a team an advantage in the quest to win a World Series….”

    The counterpoint is that, to some extent, GMs focus on building a team capable of reaching the postseason. When that task is easier, as for the 4-team division, they have less incentive to build a stronger team, one that can go all the way.

    A similar rationale has been put forth to explain the relative paucity of deadline trades in recent years: The more teams feel they have a chance to make the postseason, the less likely they are to trade current assets for future ones.

  6. 14
    Insert Name Here says:

    Maybe a little off topic, but… How about we add 2 teams and split the leagues into 4 4-team divisions each (East, North, South, and West) like the NFL, except abolish the Wild Card. This was suggested at the old B-R blog once and I thought it was an interesting idea. Here’s how I’d do it:

    AL East: Baltimore, Boston, NY Yankees, Toronto
    AL North: Chicago White Sox, Cleveland, Detroit, Minnesota
    AL South: Kansas City, Tampa Bay, Texas, new team (New Orleans?) or Houston
    AL West: LA Angels, Oakland, Seattle, new team (Portland?) or NL transfer
    NL East: NY Mets, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Washington
    NL North: Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati, Milwaukee, St. Louis (in North to keep Cubs-Cards rivalry)
    NL South: Atlanta, Miami, and a combo of 2 of these 4: the 2 new teams, Arizona, and Houston
    NL West: whichever 4 teams remain

    • 15
      nightfly says:

      I’d prefer four 8-team divisions. Twelve games in division (84 total), 6 games against the other division (48 total), and 24 interleague (three-game sets against one of the other two divisions) for 156 total games. Only tough part is convincing the owners to give up three home dates each year. I suppose they’d eventually add those two series back in, probably interleague “grudge matches” – i.e., the Yanks and Mets or Royals and Cardinals would play one series every year as rivals, and the extra series every other year.

      Division winners get into the postseason, along with the next-best four (or six, now) teams. From there the playoffs ought to be simple to work out.

    • 17
      Hartvig says:

      While I agree with nightfly about preferring four 8 team divisions, since not only will that mean fewer regular season games it would also mean fewer playoff games unless you’re going to include second place finishers, in which case you may as well go for more divisions, because there is no way owners with accept both fewer regular season games and fewer playoff games. Insert’s format is probably something they would accept. What ever they end up doing would have to be better than the current 3 division format as far as I’m concerned.

      • 19
        Insert Name Here says:

        Or, if we must have 10 playoff teams, than they could allow (in an 8-division, 4-teams-per-division format) a Wild Card team to play a play-in game (or best-of-3) with the worst division winner IF the Wild Card team has the better W-L record; if the would-be Wild Card team has the worse W-L, then there just wouldn’t be a Wild Card that year.

    • 20
      bstar says:

      I think this is the eventual framework that we’re going to have whenever 2 more teams are added: 4 4-team divisions in each league, just like the NFL, and MLB will be ready at this point to increase the playoff teams per league to 6, with two wild cards. The math just works out so well with 16 teams in each league and four teams in each division. Maybe my biggest complaint about having 5 teams per league qualify for the playoffs this year is that’s it’s just an easy setup to go to 6 once expansion happens. Still, the move to 5 does basically cut the odds of a wild card team winning the world series in half, which isn’t all bad. The playoffs to me already seem like too much of a crap shoot, so going to 5 this year and then 6 later is just going to make that dynamic more pronounced.

  7. 24
    Mike L says:

    I realize this is never going to happen, but I’d prefer a balanced schedule with limited or no inter-league play. The addition of extra wildcards, along with the already existing disparities in strength of the divisions, plus a lucky draw in inter-league, create endless opportunities for inferior teams to sneak in the back door with a weaker schedule, win a one game playoff, and then have parity with teams that had to grind it out all year.

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