You may or may not realize that the Oakland A’s have already played a 60-game season. If you’re younger than 39 it happened before you were born, in the days when starting pitchers threw 14 inning complete games and you pulled off triple-steals to offset the reality that your infield and bullpen were terrible.
These were the magical days of “Billy Ball” when in 1981, the A’s were coming off of a fantastical 83-79 season in which the baseball world was introduced to a young speedster by the name of Rickey Henderson.
The A’s had suffered through a woeful 54-108 campaign in 1979, so even though they barely won half their games in 1980 it was an impressive leap of 29 games in the win column under the leadership of the polarizing and audacious Billy Martin.
So hopes were high in 1981, even though any baseball analyst could see holes aplenty. An infield of Dave Revering, Keith Drumright, Fred “Chicken” Stanley, and Wayne Gross? Or did you want to sub in Shooty Babitt, Rob Picciolo, and Mickey Klutts? Plucky or sucky? You decide.
And the bullpen, with closer Dave Beard “leading” the way, was so shaky that the A’s skipper decided he’d just leave his starting pitchers in until they dropped — which, as it turns out, they all did around 1982, but Billy Martin was never one to think too far ahead.
As it turned out, the 1981 season was interrupted by a strike after — yep, you guessed it — exactly 60 games. Of course we didn’t know that when the season began, and boy did it open with a bang. Prior to 1981 no team had ever started a season by winning each of its first 11 games, and yet that’s exactly what the A’s did.
The 1981 Oakland A’s were 11-0 on April 19th, and 17-1 a week later. How good were they? Actually, not very. Consider that they finished the season’s “first half” 37-23, which means they could not play .500 ball after that epic start. In the “second half” they were 27-22.
So if you combined the two halves the A’s were 64-45, but really they were “17-1 and then a .500 team”. However, in short seasons an 11-game winning streak can carry you a long way, and in 1981 the A’s were crowned “first half” AL West champions on the strength of their sprint out of the gate.
To give context to the 60-game “first half” division win, the A’s opened the first half by winning nearly 20% (18.3%) of what would turn out to be the total number of games. A regular season equivalent would be for a team to open the season with a 30-game winning streak. Even the Mariners might be able to ride that to a division title.
What does this tell us about 2020’s 60-game schedule? Two really hot weeks, if they’re hot enough, and mediocre play the rest of the way, can get you pretty far. A fast start or a slow start can inform the entire season. Just last year, the Washington Nationals were crowned world champions after starting off 24-33. If I were advising the Nats, I’d suggest they try to win more than 24 of their first 57 this season.
They say baseball is a marathon and not a sprint, but 2020 is strictly a sprint so it’s a good idea not to stumble out of the starting block. If there is a poster boy for the virtues of hitting the ground running in a 60-game season, it’s your 1981 Oakland A’s. Win early and you may not have to win often.