At this moment -- late in the evening of April 22, 2003 -- two questions about baseball tower above all others:
How many games will the Yankees win?
How many games will the Tigers lose?
Most years, of course, we wouldn't bother asking such questions on April 22. We wouldn't have any reason to ask them. Even when teams do have odd-looking records at this point in the season, we generally find there's a fair amount of luck involved. For example, right now the Giants are 15-4, about three wins better than we would expect from their 109 runs scored and 86 runs allowed.
The Yankees and the Tigers, on the other hand, have actually played about as well or poorly as their records suggest. The Yankees are 17-3, which is what we'd expect from their 142 runs scored and 63 runs allowed. The Tigers are 1-17, which is about we'd expect from their 39 runs scored and 99 runs allowed.
The Yankees have been just about as good as a team can possibly be. The Yankees have hit more home runs than any other team in the American League, and drawn more walks than any other team in the American League. The Yankees have allowed fewer home runs than any other team in the American League, and allowed fewer walks than any other team in the American League.
This, of course, gives them a perfect Beane Count: 4.
Four is good.
Actually, 24 would be good, and 14 would be very good.
So 4 is really good.
In 2001, the Yankees finished second in the American League with an 18 Beane Count (fourth in homers, seventh in walks, fourth in homers allowed, and third in walks allowed). In 2002, the Yanks were tops in the league with a 7 Beane Count (second in homers, first in walks, third in homers allowed, and first in walks allowed).
Going back to 1920, no team has ever led a major league in all four categories. The closest I could find were all Yankees teams (naturally). In 1927, they finished first in three categories and second in another. In 1937, they finished first in three categories and tied for second in another. And in 1938, they finished first in three categories and third in another.
You want other ways of measuring the dominance? The Yankees have more home runs (40) than the Tigers have runs (39). The Yankees have allowed only five home runs in 20 games, while no other major-league team has allowed fewer than 13.
So how many games can the Yankees win? Before the season, I had them at 103 wins, figuring that Derek Jeter would be healthy most of the season and Jose Contreras would make a big contribution in the rotation. Well, based on what we've seen of them without Jeter and Contreras, I don't think 110 wins is an unreasonable expectation. You don't score 142 runs and allow only 63 by some sort of accident. Could they win more than 110? Threaten their franchise record (114 in 1998), or the Mariners' American League record (116 in 2001)?
Sure. It's pretty clear that we're in a different environment; last season was the first in which three major-league teams won 100 (or more) games and three major-league teams lost 100 (or more) games. Throw in the recent examples of teams that won more than 110 games, and it would be foolish to suggest the Yankees can't hit that lofty figure.
And how many games can the Tigers lose? The other day, Max Kellerman asked me if I thought these Tigers could lose 120 games, thus matching the 1962 Mets for the all-time record. I told him I didn't think so, and I still don't.
That said, what I didn't discover until later is that the Tigers, who lost 106 games last season, were significantly worse than their terrible record. Given their runs scored (575) and allowed (864), we'd have expected the Tigers rack up 112 losses rather than 106. And if you're trying to predict this year going off last year, you'll do better if you consider the 2002 Tigers a 112-loss team. And is it really such a stretch to assume that a team with three Rule 5 pitchers and a starting rotation completely populated by question marks might lose eight more games than it did a year ago?
On the other hand, the biggest problem hasn't really been the pitchers. Three American League teams have worse ERA's than the Tigers', and the Tigers haven't been much worse than the Angels. The biggest problem has actually been the hitters, and the Tigers' hitters really shouldn't be quite this bad. No, there aren't any superstars in the lineup, but Carlos Pena, Dmitri Young, Bobby Higginson, and perhaps Eric Munson could play for a lot of teams. Yes, the Tigers will probably score fewer runs than any other team in the league this season, but not by the huge margin currently projected; they've scored just slightly more than half as many runs as the next-worst team (the Twins) in the league.
So the Tigers will get better, and they won't lose 120 games. But they will lose 110. And the Yankees will win just as many.
Senior writer Rob Neyer, whose Big Book of Baseball Lineups will be published in April by Fireside, appears here regularly during the season. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.