I think I've only referenced the 1997 Giants three times this year in relation to the Pittsburgh Pirates or Baltimore Orioles. That means I can clear another half-dozen in the next month, easy. The '97 Giants aren't the only division winner to ever be outscored -- the '87 Twins actually won the whole thing -- but they were the first contending team I followed as a rabid fan. That team is the reason you're reading this right now.
They were chasing the Dodgers, who had a roster filled with the past five Rookie of the Year winners. That's still one of the most underrated streaks in baseball history. Five Rookies of the Year in a row. That might never be topped. And it wasn't just the ROYs; the pitching staff was filled, one through five, with hard-throwing pitchers under 30, all with previous major-league success.
The Dodgers were the better team. It wasn't even controversial. And because the Giants had a bad run differential for most of the season, they were supposed to combust. It was the first season that I sought out saber-savvy analysis. Because it didn't agree with what I wanted to hear, it angered me. The Giants had heart and moxie and gumption. And Barry Bonds, but that's a minor detail. I was sure the Giants could pull it off, even if the analysts thought they'd fade.
The Giants did pull it off. And one of the reasons they did was Brian Johnson. You probably don't remember Johnson. The journeyman catcher played for six different teams in his eight-year career, but it's possible that only Giants and Dodgers fans remember him. For his career, Baseball Reference has him as being worth 0.4 wins above replacement. That is, he was the definition of replacement level. You want a Brian Johnson? I can get you a Brian Johnson, believe me. There are ways, Dude. You don't want to know about it. Hell, I can get you a Brian Johnson by 3 o'clock this afternoon … with catcher's gear.
But from July 16 through Sept. 28, 1997, after a trade from the Tigers to the Giants, Johnson was worth 1.1 wins above replacement. That's not exactly an All-Star pace, but it's certainly the best stretch of baseball that Johnson ever played in his professional career. Johnson's major-league career to that point: .260/.288/.392. His second-half that season: .279/.333/.525.
Which is all to say this: You have an idea about which teams are favored to win and why. The Cardinals have Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday, among others. The Yankees have Robinson Cano and CC Sabathia, among others. The Rays have one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. Those teams should be favored because, all things being equal. They are statistically likelier to win. But we're talking about less than a month of baseball.
We're at the mercy of weird, now.
Remember the first month of the season? There was weird. Jeff Mathis was hitting like Albert Pujols, and Albert Pujols was hitting like Jeff Mathis. Hell, even the Pirates and Orioles were contending in that first month, if you can believe it.
Things settled down after that, and the season slowly got sucked in by the gravity of our expectations, with just a few outliers continuing to surprise us all season. But there is no after September when it comes to teams making the playoffs. They get a month to cross their fingers and hope for inexplicable hot streaks and unlikely comebacks. They get to hope for their Brian Johnson, Dan Johnson, or Kevin Maas.
The Pirates have Brock Holt, a 24-year-old middle infielder currently filling in for Neil Walker. Holt is hitting .438/.444/.500 in his first 16 major-league at-bats, after hitting .432/.476/.537 in his 95 Triple-A at-bats. He's not that good, of course. Baseball America didn't select him as one of the Pirates' 30-best prospects this offseason. But this is the time of year when you say, "Why not Brock Holt?"
Zach Britton has spent some time in Triple-A this year, where he's walked 20 and allowed five homers in 51 innings, all with a below-average strikeout rate. Since Aug. 18, though, Britton has made four starts for the Orioles. He's gone 4-0 with an 0.94 ERA in that time, with 29 strikeouts and seven walks in 28 innings. This is the time of the year when you ask, "Why not Zach Britton?"
You know the answer. Because it's Brock Holt. Because it's Zach Britton. And there's a good chance that in a year or so, you'll feel weird that you asked the questions. But there's also a small chance that this will last for the next four weeks, which is all the teams are looking for right now.
The caveat for Pirates and Orioles fans is that this also applies to the teams that were supposed to be good in the first place. Oscar Taveras could hit a dozen home runs. Ryan Roberts could hit .450. Jayson Nix could have six different game-winning hits. Weird baseball isn't just for surprising teams.
But I'm tired of talking about the Orioles' run differential. I'm tired of looking at the Pirates roster and waiting for the other cleat to drop. Both of those teams made it through a five-month gauntlet to get here. And while they have less than a month to muster all of the good baseball they possibly can, they also have all the weird baseball at their disposal, too. They just aren't the ones who get to distribute it. There's a pretty good chance that whichever team gets the biggest care package of weird baseball will make the playoffs. It'll all make sense in retrospect, even if it makes no sense at all.