Back in the spring of 1962, an 11-year-old boy who was a bit of a statistical smart aleck looked at the roster of the first-year New York Mets and let himself dream. After all, Richie Ashburn, Roger Craig and Gil Hodges had each produced some impressive seasons. Why couldn't this team be a winner right out of the box?
The boy's father, looking at the same collection of players, was unimpressed. "That's a .250 team," he announced. "Nothing more, nothing less."
Troubled by his father's assessment, the boy figured out that over 162 games a team couldn't finish at .250:40 wins and 122 losses would be .247; 41 wins and 121 losses, .253. He said to his dad, "I'll bet you the Mets aren't a .250 team." His father, standing by his instinct, took the bet.
The Mets went on to win 40 and lose 120. One game was canceled by rain, one ended in a tie. Final winning percentage: .250.
Forewarned is forearmed: Expansion seasons are unpredictable. By their mere presence the Colorado Rockies and the Florida Marlins, the two new National League teams, will change some things.
If the 1962 New York Mets, with their 40-120 record, reside in the expansionists' basement, the Los Angeles Angels live in the penthouse. The '61 Angels had the best first-year record ever, 70-91 (.435), and their 86-76 mark in '62 is still the best by any of the 10 expansion teams in any of their first four years of operation.
A look at the collective record of the 10 expansion teams suggests that fans of the Rockies or the Marlins best be prepared to wait until the next millennium for their team to win more games than it loses; the average expansion team has taken 10 years to reach the .500 mark. Even so, improvement has been steady (left). And while only the Angels and the Royals finished with a winning record in any of their first six seasons, just three of the 10 teams went a full decade without finishing above .500 once. Two of those three (the Astros and the Expos) surpassed .500 in their 11th season; the Mariners didn't make it until their 15th.
More Hits For Most
Expansion has usually been associated with an increase in offense (chart, above). That connection began in 1961, when the New York Yankees' Roger Maris (above, left) hit 61 home runs in the first 162-game season.
It has not always been a simple case of more bad pitchers serving up more gopher balls. Maris, for instance, did not take advantage of substandard pitchers in his record year. Consider his 1961 batting statistics against pitchers who had made at least 25 starts or had 10 or more saves in the preexpansion season of '60: a .343 (57 for 166) average with 23 home runs. Compare that with his average of .241 against all other pitchers. Had he hit home runs against all pitchers with the frequency he did against the experienced group, he would have had 82 that year.
In 1969 and '77 there were extenuating circumstances that suggest the offensive surge was due to more than just expansion. Not only was 1968 the worst offensive season of the live-ball era, but also a rule change lowering the pitching mound from 15 to 10 inches in '69 certainly contributed to the batting boom. As for '77, anyone who pitched during that season will insist that a livelier baseball was used.
Fewer Hits for Some
Whatever the causes of the offensive fireworks in expansion seasons, it is clear that the expansion teams' hitters themselves have not been a contributing factor. No player on a first-year expansion team has ever driven in 100 runs in a season; Frank Thomas (above) of the '62 Mets holds the record with 94. His 34 home runs that season are also the high on a first-year expansion team; no one else has reached 30. And while first-year teams have produced a pair of .300 hitters (Rusty Staub for the Expos in '69 and Bob Bailor for the Blue Jays in 77), we're still waiting for the first .300 hitter on an expansion team in the U.S.
The Rockies and the Marlins play in stadiums that are familiar to NFL fans: Colorado's Mile High Stadium, home to the Denver Broncos, and Florida's Joe Robbie Stadium, home to the Miami Dolphins.
It remains to be seen if Mile High will be as kind to the Rockies as it has been to the Broncos, who have the NFL's best regular-season home record since 1980. During the last 10 years the Broncos' neighbors, the Nuggets of the NBA, have played .693 basketball on their home court, compared with .293 on the road—the greatest disparity between home and away records in the league. If, as it seems, NFL and NBA visitors have difficulty acclimating themselves to Denver's altitude, will baseball teams, too?
Every National League team could have trouble adjusting to the environment in sometimes-soggy Miami. If Florida had joined the league last year, five home games would have been rained out in the first half of the season alone. A similar meteorological pattern this year would mean the Marlins could single-handedly bring back a baseball anachronism: the doubleheader (that's two games in one day, for you younger fans).
Statistics Compiled by The Elias Sports Bureau
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*became the Astros in 1965