1994: The Yanks coulda been a contenda

I really enjoyed Domenic’s piece yesterday about the 1994 Expos and Yankees playing each other in the 1994 World Series. As Domenic mentions, much has been written about the 1994 Expos and how the labor stoppage not only killed the Expos’ greatest chance at post season history, but perhaps killed the franchise as well. While the Yankees franchise has survived the labor unrest quite well, the team was poised to erase twelve years of post season inaction and it was quite possible the Yankees’ great dynasty at the turn of the millennium might have started two seasons earlier. What if the 1994 Yankees were able to complete that 1994 season?

The more I thought about this piece, the more variables I came up with. I am not going to present simulations. Number one, I’m not that savvy. Number two, Bill James did that for us back in 1995. What interests me more is the individual seasons it cut short and whether the team would have actually made it to the World Series.

Paul O’Neill

There is no doubt that Paul O’Neill was having his best season in 1994. His OPS of 1.064 and wRC+ of 177 were easily the best of his career. He had his highest walk rate that season, his highest ISO and had compiled 4.9 rWAR in just 106 games.

Most would think that O’Neill might have regressed if he had played his last fifty games that season. Bill James‘ projections had O’Neill finishing with a .361 batting average (.359 when the season was halted) and a .448 on-base percentage.

Why would there be an expectation that Paul O’Neill would play even better in those last fifty games? For one, the offensive climate in 1994 was explosive. The combination perhaps of two expansion teams in 1994, the proliferation of PEDs and other factors led to a jump in OPS starting in 1994 and lasted through 2009. Conditions were ripe for O’Neill to continue his torrid hitting. He probably would still have finished behind Frank Thomas, Albert Belle and Kenny Lofton in the MVP vote.

But the key point here is that O’Neill’s season is given an asterisk because it wasn’t a complete season.

Jimmy Key

Speaking of keys, Jimmy Key had an amazing season going in 1994 which followed another great season in 1993 for the Yankees. When the season was shut down, Jimmy Key was 17-4 and in 1993 and 1994 combined, Key went 35-10. According to James’ season projections, Key would have finished with a 23-6 record.

As it stood, Key finished second to David Cone for the Cy Young Award in the American League that season. Along with Cone, there were two other pitchers (Mussina and Johnson) who had better peripherals than Key, but a 23-6 record would have been hard for voters to ignore, especially if the Yankees won the division.

If 1994 had been completed, it may have been the only season Jimmy Key won twenty or more games. He was a terrific pitcher that history has passed by. Perhaps a 23-win season, post season coverage (to add two what he did in 1996) and a Cy Young Award would have led to a more lasting impression.

There is one other “what if” concerning Jimmy Key’s 1994 season. If the season had finished normally and the 1995 season had not been delayed in starting, would Key have gotten injured in 1995? It’s hard to say because Key had an injury-prone career. But it is interesting to think about.

Wade Boggs

The 36-year-old Wade Boggs was in vintage form in 1994. When the season was terminated, he was hitting .349. James projected that Boggs would have finished with a .353 average that season with a .439 on-base percentage. His OPS was the highest he had reached since his 1988 season.

If Wade Boggs had been allowed to finish his 1994 season, he would have jumped perhaps three spots higher on the all-time hit list and walk list. He finished 26th all-time in both. Plus, if he had been allowed to finish the season over .350, it would have been his sixth such season tying him for fifth place for the most times doing so. That would have tied him with guys like Lou Gehrig and Tony Gwynn.

Oh, by the way, Boston Red Sox: Retire Wade Boggs’ number. It was 26 if you’ve forgotten.

Don Mattingly

Don Mattingly was seriously broken in 1994 and would finish his career in 1995 with his only post season appearance. He was one of the few Yankee icons who never won a World Series title. Perhaps 1994 would have been his season.

Buck Showalter

Buck Showalter was managing arguably the best team in the American League in 1994. He would then lead the Yankees to a tough LDS in 1995 that the Yankees lost in the fifth game of the series. What if the Yankees were able to finish the 1994 season and get to the World Series and a championship? Would 1995 have been such a disappointment to the front office which let him go before the 1996 season?

In other words, if Buck Showalter had been allowed to finish the 1994 season, would he have been at the helm throughout the dynasty and championship years instead of Joe Torre?

Derek Jeter

In 1994, Derek Jeter was only twenty-years-old and just two years removed from being drafted. He was promoted three times in 1994 after starting at A+ in Tampa. By the end of the 1994 season, Jeter was in Triple-A and Jeter killed it at every level. He also cut his error level by half that season and seemed to get a grip on his fielding.

What if at the end of the 1994 season, Jeter ended up his three-level odyssey with a September call up in 1994? While unlikely, the possibility remains that Jeter could have fought for the shortstop job in the 1995 Spring Training after giving a glimpse of what he could do in 1994.

And what if that had occurred and Jeter made the kind of impact for the 1995 Yankees that he did for the 1996 Yankees? Maybe that team would have then gotten past the LDS and Buck Showalter again had a different reason to keep his job.

If that scenario had a chance to occur with a full season, then Derek Jeter might have 150 or more hits, and 200 more times on base pushing him up a couple of notches in the all-time lists for those categories.

Was the World Series a lock in 1994?

As much as I loved Domenic’s piece, it was assumed that the Yankees made it to the World Series that season. That assumption was quite a challenge. The Texas Rangers were going to win the West Division even though the 1994 Texas Rangers were ten games under .500 and had absolutely the worst pitching around. So you can pretty much discount them.

The Central Division had two tough teams in the Indians and the White Sox. When the season ended, the White Sox were up by a game. The Yankees had lost four of the six meetings they played against the White Sox that season. Frank Thomas was in another world in 1994 and the White Sox had the best pitching in the American League.

If the Indians had won the Central Division, the Yankees seemed to match up better. The Yankees won all nine games they played against the Indians that season. But the Indians were loaded with Belle, Murray, Thome, Manny, Baerga, Sorrento and Lofton. They could rake. The Indians had very good starting pitching and a lousy bullpen.

Both teams would have posed problems for the Yankees in a short series. The Yankees, for all their record, did not have dominant pitching. They finished first or second in all batting categories but were much more mundane on the mound. The rotation was iffy beyond Key and the bullpen was led by Steve Howe. Let that sink in for a second. Bob Wickman was as overworked as ever but mostly successful.

There is certainly no guarantee the Yankees would have gotten to the World Series. They had just as good a chance as any, but no guarantee.

What ifs are fun and sad at the same time. Just at a time when everything seemed to come together for not only the Expos but the Yankees after long droughts for both, the season was snuffed. While fun to think about what might have happened, the sad reality is that it was never allowed to happen and we will never know.

William Tasker grew up in Bergenfield, New Jersey but has lived in New England since 1975 and in the far reaches of northern Maine since 1990. Tasker is the author of nine (non-baseball related) books and, besides writing here for three years, has written for his own site at www.passion4baseball.blogspot.com since 2003.

One thought on “1994: The Yanks coulda been a contenda

  1. […] It’s About the Moeny | Williams Tasker: If the 1994 strike didn’t happen, the careers of Don Mattingly, Buck Showalter, and Derek Jeter could have been much different. […]

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