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Two surprise teams, two closers named Jim

Over 50 years ago, the Philadelphia Phillies did something quite similar to what the Orioles are doing this year. Right down to their closer named Jim.

Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

A new feature here on Camden Chat is the introduction of SBN "Designated Columnists" writing about issues both local and national. Think of them as guests in the community. I'm really excited about it as I want to provide the best Orioles coverage on the internet, and the most great voices, the better. We're beginning this week with Bill Parker, better known as one of the minds behind The Platoon Advantage. --Stacey

Pro baseball has been around for quite a while now, and it's rare for anything that happens, no matter how cool it is, not to be essentially a repeat of something else. Triple crowns have happened before, of course. Comebacks from 13-game deficits have happened before. It turns out even this year's Orioles have happened before, more or less.

The Orioles' 14-year streak without playoff baseball or even a .500 team no doubt seemed very long (and it was), but it's nothing like what fans a few hours up the road and 63 years in the past had lived through. Out of the 31 seasons from 1918 through 1948, the Philadelphia Phillies posted a winning percentage of .500 or better once (and just barely; they were 78-76 in 1932), and of below .400 twenty times, including five seasons below .300 and one more at exactly .300. In an eight-team league, they finished seventh or eighth 24 times. They surprised with a winning record in 1949, at 81-73, but they still finished in third place, sixteen games behind the Dodgers for the National League pennant, and they were actually outscored on the season, 662 runs to 668.

The 97-win Dodgers were returning essentially their entire team for 1950, including Jackie Robinson, Pee Wee Reese, and Gil Hodges in their primes, and Duke Snider and Don Newcombe just entering theirs. The Cardinals had won 96 games, led by Stan Musial, and returned most of their team as well. The Phillies had to be seen as a rather dim flash in the pan, much more likely to slide back to the second division than to challenge either of those two powerhouses.

A bit like the Orioles, right? Both teams came into the season a distant afterthought in a division (back then, a league) with two monster franchises (here, arguably, three) with whom they had very little hope of competing. Like these Orioles, though, the 1950 Phillies beat those odds; the Dodgers and Cards both took small steps back and the Phillies were red-hot all summer, playing .637 baseball from May through August. They weathered an 18-22 April and September and won a last-day confrontation with the Dodgers, barely avoiding a playoff series, to finish with 91 wins, two games up on Brooklyn.

Like the Orioles, the 1950 Phillies didn't have the run differential we'd expect from a team with that record, though they were only four games ahead of their pythagorean record, a far cry from the Orioles' 11. Also like the Orioles, the Phillies' offense was anchored by a star catcher (Andy Seminick, having a career year with a .925 OPS), center fielder (Hall of Famer Richie Ashburn) and right fielder (Del Ennis, wrapping up a great three-year run with a .923 OPS and league-leading 126 RBI). In addition, both had middle infields that were strong defensively, but offensive black holes, and both inexplicably followed the book and batted their OBP-challenged shortstop second (Granny Hamner in 76 starts for the Phillies; J.J. Hardy, of course, in 150 for the Orioles). Both suffered what may have been devastating losses of star players late in the year; Markakis's injury for the Orioles, while the Phillies, left-handed ace Curt Simmons was called to active military duty to serve in the Korean War in September, and would miss the last month, the postseason, and all of 1951. The Phillies had better starting pitching (anchored by Robin Roberts and Simmons), and the Orioles have a better overall bullpen, but still: both were surprise teams outplaying their run differential, against more-talented-on-paper competition, with lineups of a strikingly similar construction.

And then there's the most striking connection: both teams got huge, surprise contributions from new closers named Jim. You know about Johnson and how integral he's been to the O's' 2012. The Phillies had Jim Konstanty, who'd had a career as a mostly minor league journeyman until he pitched 97 fairly effective innings for the Phillies in ‘49. He stepped in as "closer," before that was really a thing, in 1950 and, like Johnson, led the league in saves (with 22, ten years before it became an official stat), along with appearances and games finished. Most surprisingly, though, he was also credited with 16 wins -- the first player, and currently one of just seven in history, to collect that many wins without starting a single game.

So, we've seen most of this before (well, most of us haven't, but baseball has). It's really uncanny, actually, how similar these two teams are. For the record, after slogging through September, the Phillies were creamed in four games by a vastly superior Yankees team, for the second of the Yanks' five consecutive Series wins. More interestingly, though, despite the flukish feel to the season, the Phillies were able to stay good for another few years -- they went just 73-81 in Simmons' absence in ‘51, but with a slightly positive run differential, then had two more years well above .500 -- and one can imagine that had they had Simmons (one of the great non-Hall of Fame pitchers) and free agency permitting them to fill in some holes here and there, they could have parlayed that initial success into three or four more very good years.

What does the Phillies' example mean for the Orioles? Likely nothing; a superficial similarity doesn't dictate destiny. Moreover, I tend to think we're not as good at separating the "good" teams from the "lucky" teams as we like to pretend we are, and that as the Orioles had a +58 run differential over the last two months of the season, they're probably better right now than their full-year run differential and individual stat lines might suggest to us they are. The Orioles, unlike those Phillies, may be in a position to make a few shrewd moves this offseason and turn this one-year fluke into an extended run of success.