Today’s baseball quiz consists of two questions, to be answered in six words or fewer.
Question One: How many players are there on a major-league team?
Simple and basic information, right? Let’s see how you did.
Answer: Twenty-five, but forty in September.
The major-league rosters expand for the last month of the season, giving every team the option to add a whopping sixty percent of the usual total to its active list.
What sense does it make to play five-sixths of the season under one rule, and the last part – when the playoff spots are decided – under another? Wouldn’t it make more sense to begin the season with a larger roster, and pare it down after the first month as a kind of audition period? (This was the rule until 1968: teams started the season with 28 players, and had thirty days to come down to twenty-five.)
The bigger rosters give managers more pawns to play with: more pinch-runners, pinch-hitters, situational pitchers. Earl Weaver, a master of match-ups throughout his Hall of Fame career, had a .585 winning percentage from April through August during his first tenure in Baltimore, and a .638 record in September and October regular-season games. Tony LaRussa has shown a slight improvement in September in his 32 seasons (from .533 to .545), but he manages all season as though he has twenty pitchers in the pen.
Very few late-season call-ups make a significant showing in the pennant races – Cardinals closer Todd Worrell in 1985 comes to mind – but why should they have the chance to? Teams should not be allowed to expand their rosters until they’re mathematically eliminated from playoff contention.
Let’s turn to the second question: When is the major-league trading deadline?
Answer: July thirty-first. Or August. Or September.
The official deadline is July thirty-first, but waiver deals can be made until the season ends.
The Chicago White Sox picked up Manny Ramirez for a song this week – maybe not even a song, more like a ringtone. A year and a half after the Dodgers gave Manny a two-year, $45 million contract, they were willing to let him go in exchange for the pleasure of his absence. The White Sox will pay his salary, and hope that he can help them make up their four-game deficit in the AL Central.
This kind of late-season deal has a long tradition in the game. Some of the players who’ve changed teams as August turned to September, most of them in time for the September 1 deadline to qualify for the postseason roster:
Frank Howard: The hulking slugger – oxen used to describe each other as “strong as Frank Howard” – was dealt to the Detroit Tigers on August 31, 1972. The Tigers were a half-game out of first. He was mostly used as a pinch-hitter, though he played first and drove in three runs with a homer and a double in a 6-5 win on September 13. Since the Tigers won the pennant by a half game, the big guy can claim he made the difference, and I wouldn’t want to argue with him.
Don Sutton: The Hall of Famer and winner of 324 games went from Houston to Milwaukee, then in the American League, on August 30, 1982. The Brewers led Boston by four and a half games and Baltimore by five. Sutton went 5-2 for Milwaukee, and won the one absolutely essential game of the year, a victory at Baltimore in the last game of the season with the two teams tied for first.
Bill Madlock: The Dodgers had a six-game lead in their division when they picked up the four-time batting champ in 1985, and won by five and a half. He showed his value in the postseason, homering in three consecutive games in the NLCS against St. Louis; all three were losses, however, two coming in the Cardinals’ last at-bat.
Jason Giambi: The Colorado Rockies added the Giambino as a free agent on August 24, 2009. In 27 plate appearances between September 1 and the Rockies’ clinching of a playoff spot, he had a 1.219 OPS and eleven RBIs.
Larry Andersen: Boston had a six and a half game lead on August 30, 1990, when they decided to shore up the bullpen by acquiring the 37-year-old right-hander. Giving up only a minor-leaguer, they added a pitcher who had a 1.23 ERA for them in September, with 25 strikeouts and just three walks in 22 innings pitched. The team fell into a tie for the division lead on September 18, but recovered to win by two. Andersen left the Red Sox as a free agent in December. The minor leaguer sent to Houston was 22-year-old Jeff Bagwell, as all of New England remembers all too well.
Pedro Ramos: The Great Yankees Dynasty was on life support as the 1964 season was winding down. New York was in third place, trailing the White Sox and the Orioles, when the Yankees picked up Ramos from Cleveland on September 5 for three players to be named. The Cuban right-hander had distinguished himself with his durability and ineffectiveness, leading the league in losses four straight years. His 5.14 ERA with the Indians in 1964 gave no indication of the monster month he was about to have. In thirteen appearances in pinstripes, Ramos had a win and eight saves, gave up 13 hits in 21.2 innings, struck out 21 and walked none. Because he was acquired too late, he was ineligible for the World Series, which St. Louis won in seven games.
Jim Thome: The Dodgers got him from the White Sox for pinch-hitting duties in 2009. He appeared in 22 games including the postseason, went 5-for-20, and had virtually no impact at all on the results as the Dodgers reached the NLCS but fell to the Phillies.
Acquiring a veteran for the stretch run is a crapshoot. But at least it resembles the way the game is played in the other months.