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20 years later: The 1994 MLB strike wiped out the Indians' best season in decades

What might have been???

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the start of the MLBPA strike. One month later, acting commissioner Bud Selig announced the cancellation of the 1994 playoffs and World Series.

The owners, only a few years removed from having colluded to cheat players out of tens of millions of dollars, had approved a plan to implement a salary cap, but the Players Association wasn't having it. In June the owners withheld a $7.8 million payment into the players' pension plan. In July the players set a strike date for one month later, and when little progress was made between the two sides in the weeks to follow, the players followed through and went on strike on August 12.

I was away at summer camp when it happened, and remember hearing the news on a radio that someone in the kitchen was listening to. I didn't realize at the time that it might mean they'd never finish the season, but I did know it was a big deal. The conclusion of any season being wiped out would have been a big deal, but in some ways 1994 was an especially bad year for it to happen, because so many interesting things were going on.

Historic Seasons

  • Tony Gwynn was batting .394, giving him a legit chance to become the first .400 hitter since Ted Williams in 1941.
  • Matt Williams had 43 home runs, putting him on pace to tie Roger Maris' single-season record of 61. Ken Griffey wasn't far behind, with 40 home runs, putting him on pace for 58.
  • Jeff Bagwell already had 300 total bases, putting him on pace for 422 of them, which would have been the most by any player since Stan Musial in 1948. Griffey, Frank Thomas, and Albert Belle were each also on pace for 400+.
  • Bagwell was on pace for 163 RBI, Kirby Puckett was on pace for 161. No player had drive in 160+ since Jimmie Foxx in 1938.
  • Chuck Knoblauch was on pace for 65 doubles, only two shy of Earl Webb's record of 67. Craig Biggio was on pace for 62, Larry Walker for 61.
  • Greg Maddux had a 1.56 ERA, more than a run better than any other pitcher that season; he had a 0.896 WHIP, while no one else was below 1.026, and he was averaging more than 8 innings per start (!). As is, he finished the season with 8.5 WAR, the most of any player in baseball.

The Standings

In addition to the numerous historic season being had by players, the standings were very interesting at the time of the strike as well.

The big loser from the strike will always be the Montreal Expos, who had the best record in baseball. Their lineup was led by a fantastci outfield comprised of Moises Alou in left, Marquis Grissom in center, and Larry Walker in right. They had four starting pitchers posting All-Star quality numbers,  including a 22-year-old righty named Pedro Martinez. The strike cost Montreal a playoff spot, and things may have turned out very differently for the franchise if they'd made a run to the World Series. Instead, they were soon stripped for parts, and eventually moved to Washington DC.

In the first season with six division instead of four, the Texas Rangers led the AL West with a record of 52-62, on pace to become the worst postseason team in MLB history. The Yankees were in 1st place in the AL East, with the best record in the league, looking for their first playoff appearance since 1981. In the AL Central there was a team looking to break a much longer playoff drought.

The Indians

The Indians were 66-47 when the strike hit, having their best season since winning the AL pennant 40 years earlier. They were one game behind the White Sox for first place, and in possession of the newly created Wild Card spot. If anything though, they were better than that. The Indians started the season 14-17, and having had seve consecutive losing seasons, things seemed much as usual, in many ways. From that point until the strike hit three months later though, the Indians went 52-30, best in the American League, and they outscored their opponents by 136 runs over that stretch, also the best in the league.

At the time of the strike, Belle has hitting .357/.438/.714. He was only 2 points behind Paul O'Neill in chase for the AL batting crown. He was leading the league in total bases, tied for the lead in extra-base hits, and among the top three in OBP, SLG, OPS, OPS+, doubles, home runs, and RBI.

Kenny Lofton was batting .349/.412/.536. He was leading the league with 60 stolen bases and with 160 hits. He was second in runs scored, and among the top five in times on base, doubles, triples, and total bases. He also led the American League in WAR, with 7.1

Eventually the BBWAA voted for MVP, Cy Young, and Rookie of the Year winner. Belle finished 3rd for the MVP, Lofton finished 4th (Frank Thomas and Ken Griffey were 1 and 2). If the season had played out and the Indians had overtaken Chicago, either Belle or Lofton probably would have won the MVP.

Given what happened in 1995, I think it's fair to say those three months weren't some fluke, they were the start of a dominant stretch of baseball from a young team on the rise. I think the Indians would have won the division if the season had continued.

Would they have won the World Series that year? Who knows. The playoffs are a crapshoot, so the odds are against any one team. The Tribe would have had as good a shot at the AL pennant as anyone, and unlike 1995 and 1997, they'd have had home-advantage in the World Series, if they'd made it.

Would 1995-1999 have played out any differently? Again, who knows. Maybe an extra season of postseason experience would have made a difference, maybe being having been there before would have won them a better strike zone in 1995... Maybe the team would have come apart sooner somehow, with salaries escalating more quickly and players' egos growing more.

There's no way to know what would have happened, but I'll always wonder.