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Matt Williams, Rethinking 1994 Without A Strike

The real HR champ?

The real HR champ?

Matt Williams is eligible for the HoME for the first time in 2009. He’s obviously not going to get a plaque on Friday, and spoiler alert, Monday will be the day he receives his HoME obituary. But what if there were no MLB player strike in 1994? Might things have been different? We can only imagine, which is what we’ll do today.

During his 17-year career, Matt Williams was about as unhealthy as any star you can think of. Only four times did he reach 150 games. And only seven times did he top 112. Yet, he’s still 69th in career home runs at the time of this post, with a high of 43 set on 1994. And it’s that season, one of only 112 games, about which we’re going to chat today.

In 1994, the MLBPA went on strike. They left on August 12 and didn’t return until the next season. Had they not, Matt Williams might have become the single-season home run champion. And baseball history might have been different.

In ’94 Williams was 28, in the prime of his career, healthy, and having a career year. He smacked 30+ homers five other times. And he reached 20+ four more beyond those seasons. In 1994, however, he was onto something special. On August 10 of that year, Williams hit his 43rd homer, his fifth in the last ten games, and he was right on pace with Roger Maris.

Then came the strike.

Let’s say the strike never happened. And let’s say Williams bested the incredibly impressive pace of hitting 18 homers in his final 47 games. How might history have changed?

Let’s pretend.

Williams’ next series was set to be played in San Diego. The Padres were a weak team in ’94 but had pretty decent pitching. On the road, they really suppressed the long ball, but they allowed around the league average at home. Williams might have seen Scott Sanders (4.78), Wally Whitehurst (4.92), and Andy Ashby (3.40). Given the problems the starters in the first two games might have had, he’d have also seen a reliever or three, likely of higher quality than the starters. Williams takes Sanders deep in the first inning of the opener and adds another against Whitehurst in his second at-bat. He nearly connected opf Pedro Martinez (no, not that one) in the ninth, but still left San Diego with 45 homers.

(I think I might have chosen the right starters in the Padre series. However, trying to get it right the rest of the way is an exercise in foolishness. Thus, I’m going to give Williams one game against each of the ace, the #3 starter, and the #5 starter, based on their BBREF placement, for most of the rest of this pretend experience).

After an off day, the Giants returned home to face the Marlins. Florida had a poor pitching staff in 1994, and Williams would face only one squad that allowed more homers that year. Though his home/road splits were pretty equal (20/43 homers at home), the home cookin’ and the Marlins had him salivating. Patt Rapp (3.85) is tough on Tuesday night, inducing weak contact throughout. But on Wednesday, the knuckler of Charlie Hough (5.15) isn’t knuckling by the Bay. Williams homers in the first, just misses one in the third, and goes deep again in the sixth to move his total to 47. On Thursday Chris Hammond (3.07) is lights out. No further damage by Williams.

The Pirates and their somewhat below average hurlers come to San Francisco for a weekend set. Williams doesn’t connect against Zane Smith (3.27) in the opener, but he does touch Steve Cooke (5.02) Saturday afternoon. To close things out, Giant manager Dusty Baker gives Williams, sort of, his final day off of the season against Jon Lieber (3.73). He does get an at-bat in the ninth against closer Alejandro Pena (5.02) but can’t connect. He hits the road at 48 homers.

Historically, hitters don’t love going into St. Louis to face the tough Cardinal pitching. But the 1994 Cardinal staff wasn’t a typical one. They had the worst pitching in the NL, allowing the most long balls by far. Titular ace Bob Tewksbury (5.32) was throwing that first night, so Giant hurler Bryan Hickerson threw Williams batting practice. No, Hickerson and Tewks weren’t similar pitchers. Williams just wanted someone against whom he could tee off. Hickerson gave up more than a homer ever five innings in 1994, and he sets up Williams nicely. Williams opens scoring in the fourth with his 49th of the season. And then, with the Giants down one in the ninth, Mike Perez (8.71) comes in to close. One pitch, and Williams has #50. Good thing because Allen Watson (5.52) and Rick Sutcliffe (6.52) mesmerize Williams the next two days. Heading to Pittsburgh for the weekend, Williams stands at 50, one behind Roger Maris on the same day in 1961.

Maris didn’t homer in his next three games, and neither does Williams. He goes oh-fer the series in Pittsburgh.

The good news for Williams is that he’s back home to end the month. The great news is that he gets the Cardinals again. Because the Cards played only three games since last facing the Giants, we’re going to go with starters 2-4 in this series. Vicente Palacios (4.44) was the only Card starter with an ERA south of 5.30. But that doesn’t help him against Williams. The Carson Crusher breaks his five-game homerless streak in the second. He homers again in the fourth. And he takes Rich Rodriguez (4.03) deep again in the sixth. In the ninth, with a chance to make history, Williams faces Willie Smith (9.00). To this point the huge righty and heretofore career minor leaguer had allowed four homers in his seven big league innings. It was as if Cardinal manager Joe Torre was rooting for Williams. If so, his prayers were almost answered with a first pitch fastball, pulled just foul into the upper deck. Smith somehow finished off Williams, so our hero is stuck at 53. Allen Watson wasn’t as lucky against Williams as he was a week before, as Williams hits #54 in the fourth. And Omar Olivares (5.74) gets touched in the finale. Williams is up to 55 homers. But sadly for him, there are no more games against the Cardinals.

Also sadly for Williams, his next set of games is against the Braves and their vaunted pitching. Happily, under my system, he doesn’t get Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine, and John Smoltz. Rather, he gets Maddux (1.56), Steve Avery (4.04), and Kent Mercker (3.45). Then again, it’s not hard to argue that Mercker was the best non-Maddux starter on the club in ’94. And Avery was no slouch either. On Friday night, Maddux is dominant, throwing nine scoreless. But a spot start by Bud Black matched Maddux pitch-for-pitch. An inning from Greg McMichael and an inning from Mark Wohlers later, and the Braves get the win 1-0. No homers, clearly, for Williams. On Saturday afternoon, Avery didn’t have his best stuff and was pulled after five innings and 118 pitches. Thus, Williams gets to face Steve Bedrosian. And he takes advantage with #56. Kent Mercker dominates on Sunday, and Williams finishes his first September series at 56, three ahead of Maris at that point, and needing just five to tie with 26 games left to play.

In another series against Florida, Williams again sees Pa Rapp, Charlie Hough, and Chris Hammond. The first two pitchers keep him in the park, but Hammond surrenders Williams’ 57th. Four to go!

Ooh, but four games follow in Atlanta. And the Braves have Maddux, Glavine (3.97), Avery, and Smoltz (4.14) going. Undeterred, Williams hits #58 in the second inning of the opener against Maddux. He’s held homerless against Glavine and Avery, but he touches Smoltz in the finale. That’s 59. Two to go.

And Williams takes care of those long balls in his first two at-bats against Scott Sanders. It’s September 12, and Williams is tied with Roger Maris for the single-season home run record. The next two nights see Williams whiff seven times against Wally Whitehurst, Andy Ashby, and five different relievers. Fortunately, or not, he has an off day to think about the Astros coming in for the weekend.

Doug Drabek (2.84) has his best stuff in the first game of the set. Williams doesn’t homer. He also fails against Darryl Kile (4.57). But he’s sure to set the record against Brian Williams (5.74). Unfortunately, he doesn’t. Rather he strikes out for the eleventh and twelfth times in five games.

The homestand and the home schedule end with three against the Cubs. If Williams is going to break the record for the home crowd, he’s going to have to get out of his funk pretty quickly. Cub pitching allowed as many homers on the season as the Rockies and Marlins, so it seems there’s hope. But Steve Trachsel (3.21) is unhittable. And Anthony Young (3.92) and a trio of Cub relievers stymie Williams as well. The awful Matt Morgan (6.69) is the last chance for Williams to get it done at home. Our Maris wrecker breaks up a pretty shocking perfect game in the bottom of the fifth with #62. Morgan then falls apart, and Williams hits his second homer of the inning against Chuck Crim (4.48). That’s where things end. Williams heads to the road with an all-time record of 63. And now he can breathe.

Jose Rijo (3.08) stops him. Same with Erik Hanson (4.11). And Tim Pugh (6.11) does the unthinkable. Luckily for Williams, he gets to the pen and connects in the ninth against closer Jeff Brantley (2.48) for number 64.

And now Williams gets to go to Colorado, a place where he homered once in his 13 at-bats earlier in the year. Greg Harris (6.65) starts the opener and waits until the fifth before he gives up Williams’ #65. Marvin Freeman (2.80) and Mike Munoz (3.74) pitch a shutout in the second game. And Kevin Ritz (5.62) keeps the ball in the yard in the finale.

Matt Williams, 1994With only three more games to add to his total, Matt Williams heads to Los Angeles, where Dodger pitchers were excellent, though more likely to give up the long ball than when they were on the road. Ramon Martinez (3.97) holds Williams homerless for two at-bats, but reliever Jim Gott (5.94) can’t get the job done. That’s 66. In the second game, Tom Candiotti (4.12) proves that knuckleballers can contain Williams, so there’s just one more game left. And in that game Orel Hershiser gives up a second inning shot. Matt Williams finishes the pretend season with 67 home runs.

So what?

Let’s keep pretending, somewhat realistically.

Sammy Sosa, 1998Sammy Sosa

The 1998 battle with Marc McGwire is still an epic one. Sosa still hits 66 homers, one of the three years he tops Maris. But it’s a less meaningful number now. The goal was 67, not 61.

Mark McGwire

Mark McGwire, 1998With three games remaining in our new 1998, just like in the old 1998, McGwire sat with 65 home runs. But rather than just battling Sosa, he was chasing history. He still homers against Shayne Bennett to tie Sosa and to pull within one of Williams with two games left. But as many hitters will do, Matt Williams in 1994 included, Mark McGwire got tight as he approached the all-time record. The four homers he hit on the final two days of the real 1998 disappeared during the imagined 1998. McGwire finishes one short with 66.

Barry Bonds

Barry Bonds, 2001The great home run chase of 1998 was great and all, but since both Sosa and McGwire fell short of the record 67 of Matt Williams four years before, Bonds doesn’t get jealous. It’s Moises Alou who wins the MVP Award, not Sosa. It’s Craig Biggio who gets SI cover time, not Mark McGwire. Bonds never hires Greg Anderson to replace Raymond Farris as his personal trainer. And Bonds never uses performance enhancing drugs. In 2001, he still has a career year, but he plays in 146 games, not 153. And while he sees more pitches, he hits fewer out of the park. Because of nagging injuries, Bonds musters “only” 67 home runs to move into a tie for the all-time single-season record with Matt Williams.

Steroids

Congress doesn’t ask McGwire and Sosa to testify. Bonds is there though. And he’s clean.

The steroid era still exists, no doubt. But there are different poster boys.

The Hall of Fame

Roger Maris, 1961Matt Williams massacres the seven Hall of Fame votes (1.3% of the vote) he actually received in 2009, totaling exactly 21.9%, just what Mark McGwire actually got that year. Maris, who was likely a somewhat inferior player, received at least 16% of the vote every one of the fifteen times he was on the ballot, and he topped 40% in each of his last three tries. Because of the new rules, Williams doesn’t have fifteen years, only ten. I guess we have three imaginary years left to see where he finds up.

Conclusions

To be honest, Matt Williams wouldn’t be any more a Hall of Famer or a HoMEr if the 1994 season played out like I imagined. That’s okay. In our fake season, Williams would have shacked and delighted the world. And for my money, that’s worth a few votes.

Miller

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