This is part one of a three part examination of Matt Williams, the Montreal Expos, and the lost season of 1994.
We are twenty years removed from the genesis of Major League Baseball as we now know it. Twenty years removed from MLB expanding each league from two divisions to three and introducing the Wild Card game. More teams. More drama. More fans engaged at season’s end. Sound familiar? In a game that prides itself on tradition, realignment and doubling postseason participation is about as nontraditional as it gets. 1994 was supposed to be a celebration. A coming out party for a new era. Instead, as ones left with memories of the dead, we are twenty years removed from its wake.
Even though the season’s start brought with it the real possibility of a player’s strike, it wasn’t until after the season when the real damage was supposed to occur: lockout. As with all things, money lay at the heart of both sides’ arguments, or the equitable distribution of revenue, and both sides were equally entrenched. Worry? Certainly not. Worry was for another time. At the end of the season.
’94 was a new beginning, so let the games begin!
Oh, and how the players celebrated. Baseballs exploded off of bats like a nightly fireworks show. Tony Gwynn chased .400. Jeff Bagwell, until he broke his left hand, and Frank Thomas each threatened to win the Triple Crown in their respective leagues. Six batters were on pace to top 50 home runs, with a seventh, Fred McGriff, also having an outside shot, and amazingly enough, four batters (three after discounting a miraculous recovery by Bagwell) destroyed baseballs at such a prolific rate that passing Roger Maris’s 61 home runs was more real than wishful thinking.
Of the three men chasing Maris, current Nationals manager Matt Williams owned the most realistic shot. Williams had finished ’93 winning the Silver Slugger and Gold Glove at third base and came in 6th in the NL MVP race. After the season, the Giants made him the seventh highest-paid player in baseball. As if to assure Giants GM Bob Quinn that he’d invested wisely, Williams opened ‘94 against the Pittsburgh Pirates with two home runs and never once looked back, hitting 43 in 115 games. Before Sammy Sosa made 60 bunny hops an annual event, Williams was on pace to hit 61.
Williams hit home runs with amazing consistency. If you should chart each home run by game only rarely would they appear in bunches. Every four or five games Williams hit another, finishing each month (not counting the three hit in August’s eight games) like a man putting in work: 10, 9, 10, and 11. And, you could even argue that he was unlucky that year as he’d hit only .239 on balls in play. His career BABIP was .282, and .239 represented the lowest he ever hit as a fulltime starter. His walk rate of 6.8% and strikeout rate of 18% were nearly identical to his career rates of 6.2/17.9, so there doesn’t seem to be anything fundamentally different with Williams’ approach that year.
No. Perhaps 1994 was simply a bad year believe it or not. How many home runs would he have hit if there had been no strike? 62 of course. His last a moon shot off of Tom Candiotti to clinch the NL West. Obviously it’s impossible to say for certain, but if we look at the numbers from ‘90, his first full season, through ’94, he hit for a slightly higher average in the second half, .277 to .260, with slightly fewer home runs per at bats: 16.65 to 16.24. Extrapolate monthly home run rates to assumed ABs and I have him finishing with 55 home runs. Based on his historical averages. ’94 was as atypical a season for Williams as they come. He was launching home runs at a rate of one every 10.3 at bats.
Maybe pitchers would have walked him more. Doubtful when you consider that Williams hit behind Barry Bonds, the greatest ballplayer of his generation, and who, by the way, had won two straight MVPs and three of the last four. Bonds was in the midst of another amazing season, with an outside shot at 50/50 (home runs and stolen bases). Bonds was always on base, whether that be swiping or circling them, so Williams would have seen pitches to hit. Nice meaty fastballs to keep Bonds on first.
Was 62 possible? What about 57, breaking the then NL record of 56 by Hack Wilson in ‘30? Or 53, passing Willie Mays’ Giants record set in ’65. Williams was denied even chancing that run at history. There would be no records in ’94. On August 12, angry after an owners’ proposal to a new labor agreement, the players called a strike. The owners cancelled the season 34-days later.
So it goes.
Looking back, Williams’ season was all the more remarkable because it was the only one he topped 40 home runs, and he passed that milestone in 2/3 of a season. Even Brady Anderson considers ‘94 an outlier.
If fireworks illuminated ballparks that summer, it was over millions in green backs that darkened those parks like a shroud. And, perhaps darkest of all, the gates in Montreal closed shut for a franchise, not just a season.
Part two will cover the Expos season that almost was.