Trends of a World Series Champion, Volume III

For the last two Octobers, I’ve looked at the trends of past World Series champions, and how each team in that year’s MLB postseason field compared to the trends that a typical World Series-winning team fits.

(2015: Trends of a World Series Champion)
(2016: Trends of a World Series Champion, Revisited)

As we enter the 2017 postseason, starting with the AL Wild Card game tonight, let’s look at the 10 teams in this year’s postseason and how they stack up to the trends of a World Series champion.

 

Trend:  Team batting average of .250 or better
Within the trend:  Astros (.282), Rockies (.273), Nationals (.266), Indians (.263), Yankees (.262), Twins (.260), Red Sox (.258), Cubs (.255), Diamondbacks (.254)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (.249)

Trend:  Number of offensive starters hitting .290 or better (min. 50 games)
Within the trend:  Astros (5), Rockies (5), Nationals (4), Indians (3), Diamondbacks (3), Dodgers (2), Cubs (2), Red Sox (2), Twins (2)
Outside the trend:  Yankees (1)

Trend:  Team ERA of 4.00 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (3.30), Dodgers (3.38), Diamondbacks (3.66), Red Sox (3.70), Yankees (3.72), Nationals (3.88), Cubs (3.95)
Outside the trend:  Astros (4.12), Rockies (4.51), Twins (4.57)

Trend:  Starting rotation ERA of 4.25 or better
Within the trend:  Dodgers (3.39), Indians (3.52), Diamondbacks (3.61), Nationals (3.63), Yankees (3.98), Astros (4.03), Cubs (4.05), Red Sox (4.06)
Outside the trend:  Rockies (4.59), Twins (4.73)

Trend:  Bullpen ERA of 3.92 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (2.89), Red Sox (3.15), Dodgers (3.38), Yankees (3.44), Diamondbacks (3.78), Cubs (3.80)
Outside the trend:  Astros (4.27), Rockies (4.40), Twins (4.40), Nationals (4.41)

Trend:  Home winning percentage of .550 or better
Within the trend:  Dodgers (.704), Diamondbacks (.642), Yankees (.630), Indians (.605), Astros (.593), Cubs (.593), Red Sox (.593), Nationals (.580), Rockies (.568)
Outside the trend:  Twins (.506)

Trend:  Away winning percentage of .520 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (.654), Astros (.654), Nationals (.617), Dodgers (.580), Red Sox (.556), Cubs (.543), Twins (.543)
Outside the trend:  Diamondbacks (.506), Rockies (.506), Twins (.494)

Trend:  Win percentage after Sept. 1 of .500 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (.867), Astros (.724), Yankees (.690), Cubs (.655), Red Sox (.607), Diamondbacks (.607), Nationals (.552), Rockies (.517), Twins (.517)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (.433)

Trend:  Win percentage in one-run games
Within the trend:  Cubs (.605), Rockies (.600), Astros (.594), Nationals (.588), Indians (.571), Dodgers (.568), Diamondbacks (.558), Red Sox (.537)
Outside the trend:  Twins (.455), Yankees (.409)

Trend:  Baseball-Reference.com Simple Rating System of 0.2 or better
Within the trend:  Indians (1.5), Yankees (1.3), Astros (1.2), Dodgers (0.9), Red Sox (0.8), Diamondbacks (0.8), Nationals (0.6), Cubs (0.6), Rockies (0.3), Twins (0.2)
Outside the trend:  none

 

Here are how many trends of a World Series champion each playoff team fit:

Indians 10
Cubs 10
Red Sox 10
Nationals 9
Diamondbacks 9
Dodgers 8
Astros 8
Yankees 7
Rockies 6
Twins 5

By this analysis, the Indians, Cubs and Red Sox would be World Series co-favorites, and each certainly have a very strong team with a great chance at hoisting the Commissioner’s Trophy.

But only eight of the 22 World Series winners in the Wild Card era (since 1995) have fit all 10 criteria, so those who have missed in a category or two still have a great statistical shot at winning the World Series.

18 of the last 22 champions have fit eight or more criteria, and 21 of those 22 have fit at least seven (the 2006 Cardinals, with just three, are the huge outlier.)

More recently, the 10 champions since that 2006 Cardinals team have all fit eight or more criteria, and four of the last seven have fit all 10.

That said, seven of the 10 playoff teams, including all six that have already advanced to the League Division Series, fit eight or more criteria and fit the trend to win the World Series.

Though the shoe fits some better than others, the race is absolutely wide open as the playoffs begin.

 

 

Using these trends (and homefield to break ties where applicable), here is how the playoffs would play out–with the very World Series matchup and outcome I predicted in March:

AL Wild Card: Yankees def. Twins
NL Wild Card: Diamondbacks def. Rockies
AL Division Series: Indians def. Yankees, Red Sox def. Astros
NL Division Series: Diamondbacks def. Dodgers, Cubs def. Nationals
AL Championship Series: Indians def. Red Sox
NL Championship Series: Cubs def. Diamondbacks
World Series: Indians def. Cubs

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MLB Trade Deadline: Dodgers Move Late, Get Darvish

When the MLB non-waiver trade deadline passed at 4 p.m. eastern time on Monday, it appeared the Yankees’ acquisition of Sonny Gray was the biggest trade on a fairly quiet deadline.

Then the best team in baseball stunned everyone.

Darvish to the Dodgers

After it appeared the Rangers had decided in the end not to trade pitcher Yu Darvish, FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal broke the news at 4:12 p.m. that the Los Angeles Dodgers had, in fact, acquired the Japanese right-handed starter.  (Deals have to be done by the 4 p.m. deadline, but that doesn’t always mean they are reported in the media before 4 p.m., though most are.)

Dodgers acquisition Yu Darvish (Matthew Straubmuller/Flickr)

Darvish, a 30-year old four-time All-Star who has pitched to a 4.01 ERA with 148 strikeouts in 137 innings this season, will join the Dodgers for the rest of the season before becoming a free agent.

The move gives the Dodgers, who boast an MLB-best 74-31 record and a 14-game lead in the NL West, further rotation depth for the postseason, and helps for the immediate future as Clayton Kershaw sits with a back injury.

Darvish wasn’t cheap, but the Dodgers were able to avoid trading their top two prospects–considered untouchable–instead sending the Rangers 2B/OF Willie Calhoun, RHP A.J. Alexy and IF Brendon Davis.  All were among the Dodgers top 27 prospects, according to MLB.com, with Calhoun ranking as the fourth-best prospect in the Dodgers minor-league system, and the 69th-best in all of baseball.

Darvish wasn’t the only addition to the Dodgers pitching staff, as the team added two left-handed relievers in Tony Watson and Tony Cingrani.  Both add to an already deep bullpen, and will help in setting up closer Kenley Jansen.

Watson, an impending free agent, was acquired from the Pirates, who receive IF Oneil Cruz, the Dodgers’ 21st-ranked prospect, and RHP Angel German.  Cingrani, signed through 2019, was acquired from the Reds for OF Scott Van Slyke (son of Andy) and C Hendrik Clementina.

All three moves by the Dodgers appeared to happen in the final hour before the deadline, as the team is clearly “going for it.”  The additions make the Dodgers, who are already clearly the best team in baseball, the overwhelming World Series favorites as they try to win their first championship since 1988.

Gray to the Yankees

Yankees acquisition Sonny Gray (Dinur/Flickr)

Before the Dodgers acquisition of Darvish, the biggest move of the day was made by the Yankees, who acquired right-handed starting pitcher Sonny Gray from the Athletics.

The 27-year old is signed through 2019, filling a Yankees need for starting pitching both for this year and the future—Gray has a 3.43 ERA in 16 starts this season totaling 97 innings, and a 3.42 career ERA in five seasons, all with the A’s.

Given that Oakland was giving up two more seasons of Gray, they required a big prospect package from the Yankees.  They got one, acquiring the fourth, eighth and 12th-ranked Yankee prospects in OF Dustin Fowler, the 77th-ranked prospect in MLB, SS/OF Jorge Mateo and RHP James Kaprielian.  Fowler and Kaprelian are both out for the season with injuries.

The move furthers the chances of both making the postseason and making a deep run in it for the Yankees, who lead Boston by a half-game in the AL East.

Other Moves

Another of the biggest deadline moves was agreed to late Sunday night, as the Cubs acquired left-handed reliever Justin Wilson and C Alex Avila from the Tigers for two prospects:  Jeimer Candelario, a corner infielder who was the Cubs’ top-ranked prospect (and MLB’s #92) but was blocked at the major-league level by stars Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo, and SS Isaac Paredes, the Cubs’ 10th-ranked prospect.

Wilson, who will likely be the setup man for closer Wade Davis, is signed through 2018.  Avila will be a free agent this winter; Tigers GM Al Avila became the first GM to trade his son at the major-league level since Al Campanis in 1967.

The Dodgers and Cubs were not the only teams to trade for relief pitching.  The Nationals, who acquired relievers Sean Doolittle and Ryan Madson from Oakland two weeks ago, added their biggest piece yet in their continued search for bullpen help, getting closer Brandon Kintzler from the Twins, adding LHP Tyler Watson (Nationals #17 prospect) and increasingly-valuable international bonus pool money.

The Red Sox acquired RHP Addison Reed, who will set up for closer Craig Kimbrel, from the Mets; Dillon, S.C. native RHP Jamie Callahan was part of a return that included three top-30 Red Sox prospects but none of their top 17.

Veteran LHP Francisco Liriano was acquired by the Astros, the best team in the AL at 68-36, where he is expected to move to the bullpen.  Veteran OF Norichika Aoki and ninth-ranked Astros prospect Teoscar Hernandez were shipped to the Blue Jays in return.  The move was the only move made by the Astros, however, who lost ground to the Dodgers in a potential World Series matchup.

The Brewers got RHP Jeremy Jeffress from the Rangers, where he had been dealt at last year’s deadline.   The Indians added RHP Joe Smith from Blue Jays, the Diamondbacks acquired RHP David Hernandez from the Angels, and the Pirates acquired RHP Joaquin Arias from the Phillies, all for low- to mid-level prospects.

On a day pitching dominated the headlines, only two major-league position players were moved.  The Diamondbacks traded for 2B Adam Rosales after IF Chris Owings broke his finger on Sunday and IF Ketel Marte was placed on bereavement leave due to his mother’s death.  The Orioles, who were surprise buyers sitting 5 ½ games out of the playoffs, traded for Rays IF Tim Beckham.

A Quiet Deadline

This deadline, the story of who wasn’t traded is as big as the stories of who were.  After a July filled with rumors about numerous big-name players, most remained with their current club when the dust cleared.

These names include a trio of Tigers in RHP Justin Verlander, 2B Ian Kinsler and SS Jose Iglesias, Orioles relief ace LHP Zach Britton, Padres LHP Brad Hand, Cardinals RHP Lance Lynn, Marlins RHP Dan Straily, Blue Jays RHP Marco Estrada and LHP J.A. Happ, and numerous veterans on out-of-contention teams including the Braves, Giants and White Sox.

The relative lack of deadline drama is in part due to the high volume of trades between the All-Star Break and now, as teams opted to make moves sooner rather than later to address their weaknesses and add personnel, rather than waiting until the deadline.

Deals over the last three weeks include LHP Jose Quintana to the Cubs, OF J.D. Martinez to the Diamondbacks, IF Todd Frazier, RHP David Robertson and RHP Tommy Kahnle to the Yankees, RHP David Phelps to the Mariners, 1B Lucas Duda, LHP Dan Jennings, RHP Sergio Romo and RHP Steve Cishek to the Rays in separate deals, IF Eduardo Nunez to the Red Sox, RHP Anthony Swarzak to the Brewers, RHP Pat Neshek and C Jonathan Lucroy to the Rockies in separate deals, RHP A.J. Ramos to the Mets, 2B/OF Howie Kendrick to the Nationals, RHP Jeremy Hellickson to the Orioles, and LHP Jaime Garcia to the Twins, who in turn traded him to the Yankees.

Trades can still be made after Monday’s deadline, but players have to pass through revocable waivers to be traded, making the process more difficult.  To be allowed to participate in the postseason for their new club, players must be acquired by August 31.

Fans Week Roundtable, Part II: Sports Heroes and Hysteria

In Part I of my Stiles on Sports Fans Week roundtable discussion with Justin Kenley (Cardinals, Panthers, North Carolina fan), Ryan Pittman (Cubs, Packers, South Carolina fan) and Garrett Black (Clemson fan), we discussed both exciting wins and heartbreaking losses they’ve experienced as fans.

In Part II, I asked more about their fan experiences, including who they admire on the field and the crazy things they’ve done and seen as a fan.

 

SOS:  Who is your favorite player, and why?

Justin:  For the Panthers it’s hard, but I’ve got to say Luke (Kuechly).  And not even just from that fandom perspective; I just love how he brings it every single play.  The dude is everywhere.  And I guess that’s something that, as a fan, you appreciate a guy going all out.

For the Tar Heels, it’s hard man.  I love me some Marcus Paige, though.  I just love his story.  Kind of a guy that not a lot of people knew, coming out (of high school), and “is he really going to be that good,” and to carry the team the last two years the way he did, that was just, I love Marcus Paige.

And Cardinals, good gosh, if this was six years ago, I would’ve said (Albert) Pujols, without even a wink, definitely.  I don’t know, man, I like so many of them, for different reasons.  There’s very few guys that we’ve had in the last few years that I said, “man, I just don’t like that person.”  If I had to say my top ones, I love Molina (Yadier Molina), because I was a catcher, and I think he’s just amazing at what he does.  I love the way Carp (Matt Carpenter) plays, I love the way Waino (Adam Wainwright) pitches, and then… it’s hard to narrow that one down.

Ryan:  There are three.  Jason Grilli is probably my favorite player of all time.  I met him when I was 10 years old at a baseball camp in Toledo.  He actually taught me how to bunt.  He’s a relief pitcher, and he was a nobody then, and I guess he’s kind of a nobody now, but he’s had some times where he’s been closer with the Pirates, he’s been closer with the Braves, and the occasional game saved for the Blue Jays now.

I met him 12 years ago when he was nobody, and I’ve watched him ascend throughout the major leagues, and he’s almost 40 now and still pitching.  It’s kind of cool to be like, hey, I’ve got his autograph right there.  It’s kind of cool.

Another is Omar Infante.  I just watched him growing up, and he played the same position I did, and he played for the Mud Hens in Toledo.  He played shortstop, then moved to second base; I played shortstop, then moved to second base.  And it was kind of cool.

Carlos Pena is also on that list.  There was one time I called him over to sign his baseball card, and they asked everyone to stand for the national anthem.  He’s holding my pen and my baseball card, and he says “Hold on,” and puts it on the railing, turns to put his hand over his heart for the national anthem, then he grabs the card, signs it, and then runs over to first base to play.  He went from me to first base to start the game, and it was just really cool.

And then he went on the next year, two years later, to hit 40-something home runs for those same Rays that I described earlier, the ’08 Rays, and he became a huge power hitter, and I still remembered that fond memory as a kid.  Kind of changed the way I think about professional athletes.

Garrett:  I’m gonna have to go with Hunter Renfrow.  Not only did he catch the winning touchdown, but he’s got the story and the character to go behind it, and it’s just great to see a former walk-on catch a touchdown and then be vainly tackled by three future draft prospects.

 

SOS:  Who is a “role player” you’ve always liked, and why?

Justin:  Easily Skip Schumaker.  Just a guy that comes, and didn’t matter where he was playing, he was going to bring it, every day.

I’ll never forget in 2013, we went to St. Louis for my graduation present, and the Dodgers were playing, and it was the first time Skip had come back to St. Louis after he got let go, and man, Skip Schumaker, who a lot of people wouldn’t know his name, he got a standing ovation from like 40,000 people in Busch Stadium, and it was awesome.  It was just really, really cool.

If you know the Cardinals, you appreciate what he did.  Because he could play second base, right field, pinch hit.  You knew he was going to do something.

Ryan:  I’ve always been a fan of utility players in baseball.  Currently Ben Zobrist fits that, and I guess there are so many now.  It used to be a lot more rare.

Guys like Martin Prado, who’d play every infield position and every outfield position, and I appreciate that, they might not have a set position that they’re best at, but their bat is valuable enough and their leadership is valuable enough their team can’t take them out.  So they might not have an everyday spot, but they play everyday.

Garrett:  I really have to appreciate Cole Stoudt.  Can we call a backup quarterback a role player?  Because he was never gonna be the guy.

I mean, he was a starting guy, but the expectation was never to win a championship with Cole Stoudt.  But I think he provided leadership to keep the team together, in the Tajh (Boyd) to Deshaun (Watson) handoff, and got hurt just in time for Deshaun to come.  But I think the kind of leadership he provided for the team, in that transition year between Tajh and Deshaun truly taking over, kind of kept that team together.

SOS:  That’s interesting, because that’s not necessarily a popular opinion in Clemson fan circles.

Garrett:  Here’s the thing:  at any other school that wasn’t swimming in quarterback prospects, like Clemson has been lately, Cole Stoudt could’ve started.  I mean, he wasn’t great, and to be fair we kind of got spoiled with Tajh, so we kind of expected we’d get that kind of production, and to be fair we got better later on, but we should’ve known it was going to get worse before it got better.

 

SOS:  Besides your favorite teams’ known archrivals, who is one team you can’t stand?

Justin:  I really don’t like the Reds, but I feel like that falls in that rivalry a little bit.  There’s a couple of NFL teams I don’t like.  Really, the AFC North.  The Ravens, the Bengals, and (my fiance) Courtney would kill me because Courtney is a Bengals fan, but just, the way they play just irks me.  There’s not one team—I hate the Patriots, obviously, but I feel like everybody hates the Patriots, so I feel like that doesn’t really count.

I will say in basketball, I really don’t like Kentucky.  Kentucky just, I love beating Kentucky.  I don’t mind the whole one-and-done movement to an extent, but I kind of hate the way they’ve done it, and I just, I don’t really like Kentucky.

Ryan:  Typically because of fantasy sports, I don’t hate any team, because I need their players.  That’s tricky.

I don’t like the Mets.  I really don’t like the Royals either.   I feel kind of bad saying it, but like the kind of players they had that have now since passed who were frustrating to watch, you know, Yordano Ventura was just annoying… rest in peace.  He was trying to cause fights, and they seemed to be getting into fights with other teams because they didn’t think they were getting the respect they deserved, and I was like, “come on, play the game, earn the respect,” and that was really frustrating recently.  But yeah, the Mets.  The Mets just always beat my team, knocked us out.

Garrett:  Everyone hates Alabama, but we just beat them so I don’t have as much hatred in my heart anymore.  I’m probably going to have to go with Florida State next, although that’s a division rivalry.  It’s hard to hate Pitt (laughs).

I loved beating Ohio State (in the 2016 Fiesta Bowl).  That felt good.  Because everyone was telling us how Urban Meyer’s like the best coach ever, and to be fair, he’s a great coach, but it feels good to topple the big guys.

 

SOS:  Who is one team you wish you had been alive to watch or old enough to remember?

Justin:  I would have loved to seen, and I don’t have a pinpoint year, but I would’ve loved to have seen Stan Musial play for the Cardinals.  Just because he meant so much to my grandpa; I mean, that was my grandpa’s dude.

Ryan:  Actually there’s two.  The Yankees, back when they were with Babe Ruth, and Joe DiMaggio, and those Yankee greats, I’d love to see one of those Yankee teams play.  And then, more recently, but still before me, was the Big Red Machine.  Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan

SOS: Pete Rose

Ryan:  Yeah, I’d love to go back and watch them, because they were a dominant team, but they weren’t in a big city.  They were small market Reds winning games, pretty cool.

Garrett:  ’81 (Clemson), obviously.  That was the other golden era.

 

SOS:  Do you have any strange superstitions when your favorite teams play?

Justin:  If I go to one game, and what I wear works, I wear the same thing again.

Two years ago in the (NFL) playoffs, the first day we went it wasn’t that cold, so I wore my Luke Kuechly jersey, and just a hat or whatever, but then the next game it was really cold, it got colder, and I didn’t care, I just wore the same thing.  We won in this last time, I’ll win in it again.

I’ve never been like a crazy superstitious kind of guy.  I will always, though, if I’m watching my team play, I’m going to wear something of that team.  I will do that, even if it’s just sitting on the couch.

Ryan:  Sometimes, in a game that really matters, in football or baseball playoffs, something like that, if my team is struggling, say, two-thirds of the way through the game, and I’m not wearing any gear of that team, I’ll go track down a Cubs hat or a jersey or a Packers t-shirt, just to see if (it helps), just supporting.  Never the opposite, though.  If I’m wearing gear and they lose, I don’t take it off, but sometimes you’ll get halfway through a game and go, “oh shoot, I’m not supporting my team,” so you do whatever you can to make them get back in business.

Garrett:  I have a mechanical tiger that plays Tiger Rag.  He used to dance, but the wheels broke.  Every time we score any points, I always click his paw and make him play the Tiger Rag song, and while this probably has more to do with Dabo (Swinney) and Deshaun (Watson), it has only been wrong, like, three times in the last four seasons.

SOS:  What do you mean, “it’s only been wrong”?

Garrett:  Like, whenever I hit the button every time when we play, we always win.  Again, that probably has more to do with the players, but I like to think I’m contributing.

 

SOS:  What is a crazy or unique experience you’ve had while watching a game?

Justin:  I remember, it was so funny, because my dad is not a guy to like freak out on TV.  At the game, he’ll freak out and stuff, and yell, but on TV he just doesn’t.  And I vividly remember when Marcus Paige hit that shot (to tie the game) against Villanova last year, the shot that no one will ever remember except Carolina fans, my dad jumped off the couch and just screamed his head off, and was pumped.

And I remember, it was just so funny, because obviously I was caught up in the moment, freaking out, but it was just funny to me, because I was like, “my dad never gets this into it in a game.”

The Seahawks game two years ago in the playoffs (was crazy).  We made that huge run, 15-1, divisional playoffs, and I kid you not, the upper deck where we were sitting at, we did not sit down for the entirety of that game.

Like, we were up at first half, at kickoff, when they came out of the tunnel, and then we sat down at halftime, and then when the clock hit zero we left.  And it was just crazy.  Because like, I’ve been at games where you stand a lot, but just the way that season was rolling, and the electricity in the air, you didn’t want to sit down, and so that was pretty crazy.

I about hit Courtney in the face this year, when Luke Maye hit that shot against Kentucky.  I really did.  I was punching the air, I was going nuts.

I will say, I am really weird about, like—regular season, and I can just sit on my couch and chill, but like, if it’s the playoffs, I bring a chair, and I sit probably as close as me and you to the TV, and I’m in it.  I’m in it.  Because it’s every pitch.

Ryan:  I was at Wrigley Field in 2003 when Barry Bonds, in batting practice, hit a baseball over Sheffield, through a window across the street, and that video’s kind of gone popular now, a cool “I didn’t do it,” you know, that was pretty funny though, just to—I don’t think he even noticed that it was out there, and it was like “did he just…?”  Yeah, he just hit one across the street, through a window.  That stands out.

I seem to have been to a lot of games where Top 10 plays happen on SportsCenter.  You were at one where Andrelton Simmons made that sick play against the Mets that we didn’t see because people (standing in the aisle) blocked us.

SOS:  I kind of saw it.  You were a little more blocked.  The best play I’ve ever seen live.

Ryan:  It’s kind of cool, you see it in person and then the next day it’s #1 on SportsCenter.  I was at a Hawks and 76ers game and a dunk made #1 on SportsCenter, and I was sitting right there watching it.  That’s pretty sweet.

Garrett:  The year of the “Kick Six” in the Iron Bowl, we were sitting in a beach house, and the Iron Bowl was taking a little long to finish that year, so we had the Iron Bowl going on here (on one TV), and the Clemson-(South) Carolina game going on here (on another TV).

And I would much rather see us win and Alabama win—I don’t like Alabama, but I’d rather–I’d trade an Alabama win for a Clemson win, if that makes sense—but I was incredibly ecstatic watching, what’s his name, Chris Davis run that kick, that (missed) field goal back for a touchdown, but then my joy quickly turned into despair when Tajh Boyd proceeded to throw like six interceptions.

 

Tomorrow, Fans Week continues with a look at some of the crazy things I’ve ever heard and seen from fans at sporting events. 

Fans Week Roundtable, Part I: Gratifying Wins and Gut-Wrenching Losses

Most of us aren’t members of any team or coaching staff in any pro or college sport, but there is one position we all hold:  fan.

This week, Stiles on Sports will glimpse at the admiration for our favorite teams and players, the exciting wins, and the heartbreaking close calls that are all a part of fanhood.

Welcome to Fans Week.

To start, I talked to three friends (and fellow recent graduates of Anderson University) who are as big of sports fans as I am in a roundtable discussion about their experiences as a fan.

All three have had one or more teams they pull for win championships in recent years, and all have had agonizing near misses too.

Justin Kenley is a St. Louis Cardinals, Carolina Panthers and North Carolina Tar Heels fan.

Ryan Pittman pulls for the Chicago Cubs, Green Bay Packers and South Carolina Gamecocks.

Garrett Black is a Clemson Tigers football fan.  While he only has one team he is a diehard fan of, following that team has been a roller coaster ride over the last few years.

Our conversations covered the full gauntlet of fanhood:  Part I of this two-part roundtable includes discussion on joyous championship occasions and agonizing losses.

 

SOS:  What is your best win as a fan?

Justin:  It’s got to be Game 6 (of the World Series) in 2011.

It was on a Thursday night, and I had a cross country meet Friday morning, and I had to run at 7:30, so we had to be at the meet at 6:15.  Our coach was the kind of guy that you’re in bed by 9:00 on those nights, and I was like, “nah, I can’t go to sleep.”

I was sitting on the edge of our ottoman, and my mom and dad were in there, and I remember thinking we were really done.  And when David Freese hit that triple, I lost my stinking mind.  I just went crazy.  And then, obviously, the next inning, Josh Hamilton hits a home run (for Texas), and then Lance Berkman ties it up again, and then obviously the home run in the 11th.

Honestly, the home run in the 11th, I didn’t freak out nearly as bad as I did for the triple and the single, because it was just the moment, with two strikes, down to your last pitch, but yeah, it’s got to be that.  Game 7 was kind of a letdown too–well, not for me, but as a game.

Ryan:  Probably South Carolina baseball in, I think it would’ve been 2011, they played UConn in the Super Regional, and it was at Carolina Stadium, and I was actually able to go, and I was there when they clinched it to go to Omaha.

As a fan, actually being there for that, seeing the celebration–you know, you watch other teams win on TV and stuff, but actually being there and watching them make the dogpile in the middle, that’s a priceless moment.

And obviously, my greatest sports thing as a fan ever was when the Cubs won the World Series last year.  I’ve never been happier in my life.  I was watching a team that I thought never could win win, and that was pretty spectacular too.

SOS:  Garrett, as a Clemson fan I guess yours is pretty obvious.

Garrett:  Well, let me tell you about a game that happened this past January… (laugh)

SOS:  What was that like as a fan?

Garrett:  I lost my mind.  My younger brother actually took a video of my reaction.  I go in and out of the frame multiple times because I spent the next 30 seconds to a minute just kind of screaming and running around the room.

 

SOS:  What is your worst loss as a fan?

Justin:  I’ve gotta go with the Super Bowl loss…not to the Patriots but to the Broncos.  Villanova (beating North Carolina in 2016) sucked, but just growing up in Charlotte, and loving the Panthers, and just to see the electricity that that team was bringing to Charlotte, and to be on such a roll, and then to just fall short, that hurt.

I was awful mad that night.  Because I had to drive back two-and-a-half hours from my home, because we had a Super Bowl party, and that was not a fun ride back.  Because I still think, and call me a biased fan, but I still think if we play them 10 times, we win seven of them.  I really do think that, especially that year, and they just didn’t play good, so that sucked.  Villanova’s up there, but that one really sucked.

Ryan:  I’ve got to go back to the Packers when they were playing the Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game.

They had the huge lead in the fourth quarter (19-7), and the Seahawks got a miraculous touchdown with like, what was it, 30 seconds or a minute left, and then freaking, was it… Bostick, Brandon Bostick, decided not to block, decided to be a hero and field the onside kick, and he ended up becoming the villain, and the Packers lost that game, which I thought was a game they should have easily won, and been in the Super Bowl that year.  And that was painful.

Garrett:  I’m probably going to have to go with the Orange Bowl loss (to West Virginia in 2012, 70-33).  Just, I remember me and my dad watching it, and I think we were down two or three scores, and we’re like, okay, now’s the time to buckle down and get with it, and I think we allowed another two touchdowns within—I mean, West Virginia was scoring all over the place that game.  So we just turned the TV off, and we didn’t speak for the rest of the night.  It was tough.

 

SOS:  What non-playoff win stands out in your memory?

Justin:  Two years ago, we were playing the Cubs in the regular season, and it was just one of those frustrating nights, the ball didn’t seem to bounce our way, nothing really happened, and then the ninth inning with two outs, Jhonny Peralta hits a line drive over the left-center field wall in Wrigley Field.

And it was just awesome to see Wrigley Field so pumped and excited, and then the air was let out of that place.  And I think if I remember correctly, they went on to win it in the 10th.  Which, it’s kind of funny that that’s a baseball game, because one out of 162, but that one stuck out in my mind.

Another one I remember… I was at Bank of America Stadium the year before we made the big run, and we went 12-4, and it was when we played the Saints, in the monsoon game.  And literally, I was up in the upper deck and couldn’t even see the field, because the rain was so bad.  It was that bad.  But that kind of like Cam (Newton)’s emergence, leading us to a division title and stuff, and that game sealed the NFC South for us.  That was awesome.

Ryan:  This is going to be a little off the grid…

SOS: That’s the point of the question.

Ryan: I think it was two or three years ago, South Carolina basketball was in the SEC Tournament as like a 13-seed, and all of a sudden they won a couple of games and made it to the quarterfinals and lost there.  It wasn’t a great season, but those two wins, I think were against Auburn and another crappy team in the SEC, but it was like—in my opinion those wins were big, because I was like, “hey look, we’re winning in the tournament.” It was symbolic to the fact that it was going to get better.  So at the time, obviously, it’s not a huge deal when a 13-seed beats a 12-seed, or something like that, it’s not a big deal…

SOS: But the next day beat a 5-seed, I think.  I want to say it was Arkansas.

Ryan: Yeah, it’s like wow, here we are, it’s a game that didn’t really matter but it gave me hope as a fan.

Garrett:  When Deshaun (Watson) snapped the losing streak against (South) Carolina, and he was playing on, what, a torn ACL, and it was a home game, in fairness, but five losses in a rivalry that heated, in a row, that was like being able to breathe air again.

 

SOS:  What non-playoff loss stands out, or “still stings”?

Justin:  Any time we lose to Duke, I hate it.  I almost treat the Duke games like playoff games.  And obviously there’s playoff losses that sting, but just regular season games—there’s always a game that where like, “man, we had that.”

I also hated when (the Panthers) lost to Atlanta, when we went 15-1.  That really stung.  Because I really thought, “we’re going to go undefeated this year.”  Only two games away from doing it, and then to win in the fashion we did in Week 17, it would’ve been nice to have won in Week 16.

Ryan:  This is going to go way back.  Wow, it must have been ’03 or ’04.  The Cubs were playing the Brewers at Miller Park.  Craig Counsell hit a leadoff home run, and the Brewers won the game 1-0.

I watched that entire game as a 10-year old, like, come on, come on, let’s get a run, like, can we score a run, because the pitching was great, and that game still stands out, because, like, the first inning home run, you can get so much time to come back, you’ve still got 24 outs to work with, and…. no.  That loss stands out.  It didn’t affect anything, but that’s a non-championship, non-playoff loss that stands out.

Garrett:  The one that’s freshest on my mind is the loss to Pitt this year, because we were the better football team, we were at home, we should’ve won that game.

But we were kind of resting on how good we were supposed to be, and not actually playing to our full potential, and I think had we won that game we wouldn’t have won the national championship.

 

SOS:  Who is one team that didn’t win a championship that you are particularly fond of?

Justin:  I loved the 2013 Cardinals.  I thought that team was loaded.  I still think we were the best team that year.  I loved our bullpen, going seventh, eighth and ninth, with (Kevin) Seagrist, (Carlos) Martinez and (Trevor) Rosenthal; I was like, “man, you get us in the seventh inning with the lead, it’s ballgame.”

I loved that team, and I hate that—I feel like it was one of those things that we just didn’t play well in the World Series, and it happens.  I loved that team, and obviously the Panthers two years ago.  That was a fun team to watch.  Cam (Newton) doing Cam things that we’d never seen before, that was a lot of fun.

But that Cardinal team was good, man.  I remember going into the World Series, and obviously, 2011 was different, because we snuck in to the Wild Card and just got hot at the right time, but 2013 I was like, “man, this is the best team I’ve seen us put together in a while.”  So just, it just kind of sucked to lose it, because I felt like we were so good, but that happens, man—sports.

SOS: Yeah, to win a World Series you’ve got to play well for a whole month.  You have an off week, you’re done.

Justin: It happens.

Ryan:  Does it have to be a team that’s my favorite team?

SOS: Not necessarily.

Ryan:  Because, there’s a handful of those teams that I just… I think the Tampa Bay Rays, back in 2008, when they made the World Series.  It was with their low-payroll, low-everything, no really big superstars, but they found a way to win games, and it was kind of cool to watch that small market team that hadn’t been in the league that long just kind of come out of nowhere with guys that were fun to watch and just enjoying the game.  That’s probably my favorite non-championship team.

I could say the 2015 Cubs, too, (once the rebuilding team was respectable), but there wasn’t that connection yet with those players.  It was still bits and pieces, and like it wasn’t quite there yet.  It was all magical anyway, we shouldn’t have even been in the playoffs that year.

Garrett:  I’d have to give it to the ’15 Tigers, the ones that lost the championship game.  They’re the ones that kind of finally shed the underperforming label, because we could’ve won the ACC as many times as we wanted to and that would always just be “all you can do is win the ACC.”

I remember, like in the 24 hours after we lost that game (to Alabama), I saw probably three or four different think pieces on how much respect people had for Clemson after that game.  It just was like the perception of who Clemson was and what we could accomplish kind of just changed overnight after that game.

 

Tomorrow in Part II, our roundtable will discuss the panelists’ favorite players to watch, who they wish they could’ve watched, and crazy things they’ve done and seen as a fan.

 

Fast Five: Memorable Sports Farewells

I’ve attended academic classes for five days a week, nine months a year from the time I was three years old, through two years of preschool, 13 years of K-thru-12, and four years of college.

But last week, I walked out of a college classroom for the last time, ahead of my graduation from Anderson University this Saturday.

As the sports aficionado I am, I couldn’t help but compare myself leaving school–retiring from school, in a sense, after what amounts to a 19 year academic “career”–to many of my athletic heroes in recent years walking away from the game.

Sure, the conclusion of my school years has come with much less fanfare than many of the highly-publicized retirements, such as Chipper Jones, David Ortiz, Tony Stewart, Alex Rodriguez, Paul Pierce, Landon Donavan, and even broadcaster Vin Scully, over the last several years in the sports world (in addition to some of the athletes listed below).  But, like many of these stars, I am also unsure of what is next.

But while the finish of my last final exam was as mundane as me handing it to the professor and quietly walking out the door, these athletes had more memorable farewells:

Honorable Mention:  Jeff Gordon

The four-time NASCAR champion’s final season came alive when he won at Martinsville in The Chase for his 93rd career win, clinching a spot in the Championship Round.  Gordon was one of four drivers to compete for the title at Homestead in the season finale, when he finished 6th behind champion Kyle Busch after leading nine laps.  The roar of the fans when Gordon took the lead could be heard over the roar of the engines in the race’s broadcast.  While Gordon has returned as an injury replacement for Dale Earnhardt Jr., his final full season was a memorable and successful farewell in a sport where many stars’ careers have ended either in mediocrity or by injury/death.


Honorable Mention:  David Ross

Ross, a “role player,” was never a household name, playing mostly as a backup or platoon catcher during stints with the Dodgers, Pirates, Padres, Reds, Red Sox, Braves and Cubs.  In his final season with the Cubs, “Grandpa Ross” hit 10 home runs in 67 games in the regular season, most often getting playing time as Jon Lester’s personal catcher, and was a leader of the 103-win Cubs team.  But his farewell will be remembered for his playoff performance.  Ross hit .250 in the postseason with two home runs, with a .400 batting average in the World Series.  In his final at-bat, Ross became the oldest player (39) to homer in a World Series Game 7, helping the Cubs to their first championship since 1908.


5.  Kobe Bryant

The Black Mamba played his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, and by the final season was playing reduced minutes in most games as his body was less durable than in his prime.  But on his final night in the NBA, Bryant played 42 minutes and exploded for 60 points, the most by any player in a game in the 2015-16 NBA season.  Bryant made 22 of his 50 shots, including six threes, and was 10-for-12 on free throws.  Bryant outscored the opposing Utah Jazz 23-21 in the fourth quarter, helping the Lakers to a 101-96 win to eliminate the Jazz from playoff contention.

The only thing that could have made this farewell better was if it were in a game that counted for the Lakers.  But as Bryant ended a career that included five NBA championships, his Lakers struggled to a 17-65 record.


4.  Ted Williams

Teddy Ballgame was one of the greatest hitters in MLB history.  His .482 career on-base percentage is the best of all-time, and he is the last player to hit .400 or better in a season (.406) in 1941.  Williams hit .316 with 29 home runs and 72 RBI in his final season in 1960 with the Boston Red Sox, where he played his entire 19-year career.

The final home run, the 521st of his career, came dramatically, in his final at-bat at Fenway Park on September 28, 1960.  Williams never acknowledged the crowd during his career, but later said he almost tipped his cap while running around the bases after the home run as the fans roared.  The Red Sox’ final three games of the season were in New York, but Williams played in none of them, making the Fenway home run the final at-bat of his illustrious career.


3.  Peyton Manning, John Elway and Jerome Bettis

This group of two Hall of Famers and Manning, who will be a first-ballot Hall of Famer when eligible, each culminated their careers with a Super Bowl title, with each overcoming the criticism of not being able to win “the big one” over the course of their careers.

Manning won Super Bowl XLI with the Colts, but also lost Super Bowls XLIV with the Colts and XLVIII with the Broncos.  He was able to finish with a second championship by winning Super Bowl 50 with a 24-10 win over the Panthers (although it should be noted the defense had more to do with the championship than Manning’s tired arm).  Manning didn’t announce his retirement until weeks later, although fans and the media alike could sense that Super Bowl 50 was very likely his final game.

Elway lost three Super Bowls early in his career (XXI, XXII, XXIV), but reached two more Super Bowls (XXXII, XXXIII) in his final two seasons and finished with back-to-back titles.  After beating the Packers in Super Bowl XXXII for his first championship, Elway led the Broncos to a convincing 34-19 win over the Falcons in Super Bowl XXXIII, his final game, and finished his stellar career by winning Super Bowl MVP.  Like Manning, Elway didn’t officially announce his retirement until after the season.

Bettis, the lone player in this group who played running back instead of quarterback, played his final 10 seasons with the Steelers after playing for the Rams his first three years.  Super Bowl XL was the first Super Bowl appearance of his career, which included six Pro Bowl appearances and the 2001 Walter Payton NFL Man of the Year Award.  After Bettis’s Steelers won the Super Bowl with a 21-10 defeat of the Seahawks, Bettis announced during the post-game trophy presentation that “the last stop for ‘The Bus'” would be with the NFL title won in his hometown of Detroit.

2.  Derek Jeter

The Captain, whose jersey will be retired this Sunday night by the New York Yankees, was one of the most beloved players throughout his career as the Yankee shortstop.  The .310 career hitter, who hit .308 in the playoffs in his career while leading the Yankees to five World Series titles, announced before his 20th season in 2014 that he would retire at season’s end.

Through eight innings of Jeter’s final home game at Yankee Stadium on September 25, 2014, Jeter had a double, two RBI, and a run scored.  But after the Yankees blew a 5-2 lead in the top of the ninth, Jeter got an additional at-bat in the bottom half, with the game tied and pinch-runner Antoan Richardson at second.  Jeter delivered one of the great moments in recent MLB memory, collecting a walk-off single to right field in his final home at-bat for his third RBI of the game, giving the Yankees a 6-5 win.

But the season still had three games remaining, which were played in Boston.  Jeter played DH–he wanted his final game at Yankee Stadium to be his final game at shortstop–and on September 28 earned an RBI infield single in his final at-bat, before being pinch-run for by Brian McCann.  As dramatic as his final home at-bat had been, his final overall at-bat in Boston showed how respected Jeter is, as he left the field to a standing ovation from the fans of the Yankees’ archrivals.


1.  Lou Gehrig

Gehrig was the “Iron Horse,” a durable player who was twice American League MVP as the Yankees first baseman, was a part of six World Series titles, and is one of 12 modern-era players to win a Triple Crown.  But Gehrig’s performance began to diminish in late 1938, and by the beginning of the 1939 season, it was clear something was physically wrong.  On May 2nd, Gehrig took himself out of the lineup, ending a streak of 2,130 consecutive games over the previous 14 seasons, a record that would stand until 1995.

Gehrig was diagnosed with ALS (nicknamed Lou Gehrig’s Disease), on June 19, and officially retired on June 21.  On July 4, the Yankees held Lou Gehrig Day.  Between games of a doubleheader, after Gehrig’s #4 became the first number retired by a team in MLB history,  stirring tributes were given by Babe Ruth, New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, and Yankees manager Joe McCarthy, among others.

Once Gehrig stepped to the mic he was, at first, too emotional to speak.  But once he did, he delivered a speech that has long been remembered beyond the realm of baseball:

“Fans, for the past two weeks, you’ve been reading about a bad break. 

“Today… I consider myself… the luckiest man… on the face of the earth.  I have been in ballparks for seventeen years and have never received anything but kindness and encouragement from you fans.

“When you look around, wouldn’t you consider it a privilege to associate yourself with such fine-looking men as are standing in uniform in this ballpark today?  Sure, I’m lucky.  Who wouldn’t consider it an honor to have known Jacob Ruppert?  Also, the builder of baseball’s greatest empire, Ed Barrow?  To have spent six years with that wonderful little fellow, Miller Huggins?  Then to have spent the next nine years with that outstanding leader, that smart student of psychology, the best manager in baseball today, Joe McCarthy?  Sure, I’m lucky.

“When the New York Giants, a team you would give your right arm to beat, and vice versa, sends you a gift – that’s something.  When everybody down to the groundskeepers and those boys in white coats remember you with trophies – that’s something.  When you have a wonderful mother-in-law who takes sides with you in squabbles with her own daughter – that’s something.  When you have a father and a mother who work all their lives so you can have an education and build your body – it’s a blessing.  When you have a wife who has been a tower of strength and shown more courage than you dreamed existed – that’s the finest I know.

“So I close in saying that… I might have… been given a bad break, but I’ve got an awful lot to live for.  Thank you.”

Gehrig’s remarks were followed by a two-minute standing ovation from the sellout Yankee Stadium crowd.

Gehrig was immediately elected into the National Baseball Hall of Fame, as the writers who vote waived the typical five-year waiting period for eligibility due to Gehrig’s illness.  Gehrig died of ALS on June 2, 1941.

2017 MLB Preview

After a thrilling 2016 season that concluded with the Chicago Cubs winning their first World Series since 1908 (and being named Stiles on Sports Sportsmen of the Year), it’s time for the 2017 season to commence.

The season begins today with a trio of games on the ESPN family of networks (N.Y. Yankees at Tampa Bay, San Francisco at Arizona, Chi. Cubs at St. Louis), before Opening Day around the country tomorrow.

As usual, there are many storylines entering the season.  With the Cubs no longer having a century-long curse without a title, the longest drought now belongs to the Cleveland Indians, but they have positioned themselves well to potentially end their own dry spell this year.

Meanwhile, the Cubs remain strong and have a legitimate chance to repeat, while every other team that made the playoffs in 2016 has very good shot to return, with nearly all favored or co-favored in their respective divisions.

That’s not to say there can’t be risers from 2016’s non-playoff teams.  That group includes the Cardinals, Royals, Pirates, Tigers and Astros, all of whom have had recent success, as well as teams on the rise like the Braves, Rockies, Yankees and Mariners.

So without further adieu, here are my predictions for each division race in the 2017 season.

P.S.:  don’t take these to the bank–last year’s picks missed all over the map, with some picks missing badly.

 

Editor’s note:  instead of boring you with a detailed description of the depth of each roster, I’ve only included a few key points.  Links to each team’s MLB.com depth chart are included if you would like to see how each individual position stacks up.

 

NL East 

1. Washington Nationals
2016: 95-67, lost to Dodgers in NLCS
The Nationals have a rotation–Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg and Gio Gonzalez at the top and the underrated pair of Tanner Roark and Joe Ross at the bottom–to match that of the division-rival Mets.  Scherzer is the defending NL Cy Young winner, but it was Roark who had the staff’s best ERA last year (2.83).  The bullpen, however, will be a question mark.

With the additions of OF Adam Eaton and C Matt Wieters, which helped offset a few bench departures, their lineup is better than New York, and should give them the slight edge in a tight division race.  It’s hard to believe, but the Nationals have still never won a playoff series in franchise history, including last year’s 5-game NLDS loss to the Dodgers; that fact could change in 2017.

2. New York Mets
2016: 87-75, lost to Giants in NL Wild Card Game
After a Wild Card Game loss to the Giants, if the Mets stay fully healthy, they could very easily top the Nationals.  But over the last couple of years, injuries have ravaged this team on both sides of the ball.  Their rotation, when healthy, may be the best in baseball, but all five of their young arms have an injury concern, and oft-injured 3B David Wright is out for now with a shoulder injury.  That said, Robert Gsellman, who may not have even made the roster if not for Steven Matz’s elbow inflammation, is a sleeper candidate for NL Rookie of the Year.

Offensively, the Mets return last year’s lineup, which was at times too reliant on the home run–no regular starter hit higher than .282 (Neil Walker); for their best shot at the Nationals, more consistency in the offense and their health will be important.

3. Atlanta Braves
2016: 68-93; last postseason appearance: 2013
The Braves were a different team last year after the trade-deadline acquisition of Matt Kemp (37-68 before, 31-25 after), which gave Freddie Freeman some “protection” in the lineup.  2017 Rookie of the Year favorite Dansby Swanson was also effective in a short late-season stint, and the bullpen got better as the year progressed.

Now, with no significant roster losses and the interim tag removed from manager Brian Snitker, the Braves pitching staff has added Jaime Garcia and former Cy Young winners Bartolo Colon and R.A. Dickey to the rotation short-term to bridge the gap to 2018 and beyond, when the strong pitching in baseball’s top farm system will continue reaching the majors.  In the meantime, this team should be more competitive than the last two years, and if it all comes together could be a sleeper in the East.

4. Miami Marlins
2016: 79-82; last postseason appearance: 2003
The September death of pitcher Jose Fernandez was tragic, as a shining young star in the game was lost much too soon.  But beyond just the emotional loss for the Marlins, they now have a hole to fill in the rotation.  The team tried in free agency, but the aging Edinson Volquez is unlikely to match Fernandez’s effectiveness or spirit.

This team will hit, especially if Giancarlo Stanton stays healthy (he hasn’t for a full season since 2014), and has added veterans Brad Ziegler and Junichi Tazawa for depth in an already strong bullpen.  This team is not terrible, and should hover at or just below the .500 mark again, but there is no reason to believe this is the year they make the leap to contenders.

5. Philadelphia Phillies
2016: 71-91; last postseason appearance: 2011
The Phillies added some experience to their young roster this offseason, adding P Joaquin Benoit in free agency and trading for P Clay Buchholz, P Pat Neshek and OF Howie Kendrick.  However, these moves essentially just offset the players lose in free agency, leaving the Phillies with a similar roster composition to their team from last year.

This organization is moving in the right direction, although they are doing it slowly.  There is talent on the major league roster, and those players will get better with more experience, while more young talent comes through a strong farm system.

 

NL Central

1. Chicago Cubs
2016: 103-58, defeated Indians to win World Series
A year after breaking the most famous drought in professional sports, the Cubs are fully capable of winning the World Series again in 2017.  The core of the 2016 champs is intact, with the exception of free agent departure Dexter Fowler, whose place in center field will be taken by a Jon Jay/Albert Almora platoon.  Kyle Schwarber will also be with the team a full season after missing the entire regular season then becoming a World Series hero.

The Cubs rotation, with the 2015 Cy Young Winner (Jake Arrieta) and two of the top three in last year’s Cy Young voting (Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks) held a remarkable 2.96 ERA.  The bullpen lost free agent closer Aroldis Chapman, but after signing Wade Davis and Koji Uehara have three of the last four pitchers to record the final out of the World Series (along with returning Cub Mike Montgomery).

2. St. Louis Cardinals
Projected Wild Card #1
2016: 86-76; last postseason appearance: 2015
The Cardinals missed the playoffs by one game last season, snapping a five-year postseason streak, and they’ll be motivated after their rivals from Chicago won it all.  Free agent OF Dexter Fowler left the Cubs to come to St. Louis, giving the Cardinals the true leadoff hitter they’ve lacked the last couple of years.

The pitching staff doesn’t have the depth they’ve had in previous years, especially in the bullpen, but should still be strong; Carlos Martinez has emerged as the staff ace, and free agent signee Brett Cecil will help in the ‘pen.

This is still the typical Cardinals roster full of players they have drafted and developed (with a few exceptions), and while they don’t quite match up with the Cubs, they are still capable of a successful season and a wild card berth.

3. Pittsburgh Pirates
2016: 78-83; last postseason appearance: 2015
The Bucs took a big step back last year, winning 20 games less than in 2015, and this year they continue to look fairly mediocre.  The pitching staff features young talent, including Jameson Taillon and Tyler Glasnow, who may experience some growing pains.

Offensively, while no position stands out as a glaring weakness, there aren’t many strengths either.  How Andrew McCutchen plays after the Pirates tried to trade him in the offseason could be a big key to whether or not the Pirates have any shot at contending, although being in the same division with the Cubs, said contention would more likely be for a wild card spot.

4. Milwaukee Brewers
2016: 73-89; last postseason appearance: 2011
The Brewers understand their situation as a rebuilding team, and instead of punishing manager Craig Counsell for losing seasons his first two years, extended him through 2020.  A pitching staff full of young players and reclamation projects is potentially no better than last year, especially after losing free agent reliver Tyler Thornburg.

Offensively, the team does have a couple of things going for them, even after the loss of free agent slugger Chris Carter.  Ryan Braun continues his very solid career, and Jonathan Villar has established himself at the top of the order.  An intriguing player is Eric Thames, who hasn’t played in MLB since 2012 but signed as a free agent after a successful stint playing in Korea.  But even if it all clicks offensively, it’s unlikely to be enough to contend.

5. Cincinnati Reds
2016: 68-94; last postseason appearance: 2013
The Reds are also in a rebuild, and I wrote about their indifferent long-term outlook when they traded Brandon Phillips in February.  After going a combined 132-192 in the last two seasons, they return virtually the same roster (with the exception of losing Phillips).

Offensively, a lineup including 1B Joey Votto and young slugger Adam Duvall was mid-pack in the National League, and should continue to be.  However, the pitching staff had a team ERA of 4.91 a year ago, including 5.09 in relief, and is no better this year.  Some of that is due to playing in a small ballpark, but the struggles of this pitching staff still can’t be ignored entering 2017.

 

NL West 

1. San Francisco Giants
2016: 87-75, lost to Cubs in NLDS
After having the best record in MLB at the All-Star break last season, the Giants ended up as a Wild Card team; the main reason was a horrendous bullpen.  That unit improved with one offseason move–the signing of closer Mark Melancon.  Now, when the solid Madison Bumgarner-Johnny Cueto-Matt Moore trio in the rotation gives the Giants a lead, there’s a better chance the team will keep it.

Last year’s Giants offense, led by C Buster Posey and OF Hunter Pence, was above average in batting average and below average in home runs.  That combination had that offense, which is essentially unchanged, ranking ninth in the NL in runs.  With a strong rotation and improved bullpen, that could be enough to win the West.

2. Los Angeles Dodgers
Projected Wild Card #2
2016: 91-71, lost to Cubs in NLCS
The Dodgers have won four straight NL West titles, and have the longest active postseason streak in baseball.  Last year, they did it offensively with young players, like Joc Pedersen, Andrew Toles and NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager.  They’re all back, with another year’s experience under their belt, although they lose OFs Josh Reddick and Howie Kendrick.

The pitching staff couldn’t stay healthy last year, and still had a 3.70 team ERA.  The best pitcher in the game resides at Dodger Stadium in Clayton Kershaw, but he also has a very deep unit behind him (so much so, Alex Wood is starting the season in the bullpen).  The bullpen lost some of its depth in free agency and is the team’s biggest question mark–even with the re-signing of closer Kenley Jansen, the unit’s instability moves the team just behind the Giants in the West.

3. Colorado Rockies
2016: 75-87; last postseason appearance: 2009
The Rockies have improved their win total the last two years, and have one of the best offenses in the game–their offensive stats, including a .275 average, are spectacular, even for a team that plays half its games at altitude–led by MVP candidate Nolan Arenado.  That offense now adds veteran Ian Desmond, a player who is used to being on successful teams, although he’ll start the season on the DL.

Pitching at Coors Field is tough, and while this team (or any Rockies team, for that matter) is highly unlikely to lead the league in ERA, their young rotation has a shot to be really good, while a bullpen that had a 5.13 ERA in 2016 has bolstered itself by adding Greg Holland, Jake McGee and Mike Dunn.  The Rockies are probably still a year away, but some teams have gotten “ahead of schedule” in recent years, so Colorado could be a sleeper team out west.

4. Arizona Diamondbacks
2016: 69-93; last postseason appearance: 2011
After looking like a potential contender last year, the Diamondbacks’ season was about as horrendous as their uniforms.  Former Red Sox bench coach Torey Lovullo comes in as manager, and faces a tough task in the desert.  The offense was not the problem in 2016–led by 1B Paul Goldschmidt, the D-Backs were above average in batting average, OPS, homers and steals–and should still be good, even without NL hits leader 2B Jean Segura.

A 5.09 staff ERA was main cause of last year’s struggles, including a 5.19 rotation ERA.  This year’s staff may be moderately better with the additions of Taijuan Walker in the rotation and Fernando Rodney in the bullpen, but mostly consists of the same cast of characters and lack of depth that plagued them last year.  Those struggles are likely to continue, keeping them from contention once again this year.

5. San Diego Padres
2016: 68-94; last postseason appearance: 2006
The Padres have lost at least 85 games every year since 2010, and after a rough 2016 campaign have lost OF Jon Jay, C Derek Norris, P Edwin Jackson, P Brandon Morrow and P Tyson Ross (who was injured in 2016 but was a key piece previously).

Jhoulys Chacin, who was the #4 starter to start the season last year for an Atlanta team that lost 93 games, is now the Opening Day starter for the Padres, and former catcher Christian Bethancourt has made the roster as a reliever, both of which tells you all you need to know about their lack of pitching depth.  The offense, which was well below average last year, has solid young players like OFs Hunter Renfroe and Manuel Margot, in addition to established 1B Wil Myers, but this team looks worse than last year’s 94-loss team, and is miles away from contention.  Three Rule 5 Draft players made the roster; the last such team was the 2003 Tigers (43-119).

 

National League Playoffs Prediction

NL Wild Card Game:  Cardinals def. Dodgers

NLDS:  Cubs def. Cardinals, Nationals def. Giants

NLCS:  Cubs def. Nationals

 

AL East

1. Boston Red Sox
2016: 93-69, lost to Indians in ALDS
After winning the AL East last year, the Red Sox got even better in the offseason.  While they lost David Ortiz to retirement, 1B/DH Mitch Moreland is a worthy addition to mostly fill that void, and the young outfield of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi will be a year older and more experienced after each were solid in 2016 (Benintendi is still considered a rookie, and is AL Rookie of the Year favorite).

The pitching staff boasts 2016 AL Cy Young winner Rick Porcello, but he is not even the best pitcher on the staff after the acquisition of Chris Sale; a top three featuring those two and David Price, also a former Cy Young winner, is as good as any.  In the bullpen, trading for Tyler Thornburg (although he’ll start on the DL) offsets some losses in free agency.  The Red Sox are favored to repeat as AL East champs, although it will, as always, be a very tough division to win.

2. Toronto Blue Jays
Projected Wild Card #1
2016: 89-73, lost to Indians in ALCS
The Blue Jays return mostly the same roster that has gone to the ALCS the last two years, with one glaring exception.  DH Edwin Encarnacion became an Indian in free agency, and the aging Kendrys Morales, who signed with Toronto, won’t replace all of Encarnacion’s production.  Otherwise, the team’s offense remains intact.

While the Blue Jays are known for the high-flying offense of the last two years, their pitching staff is quietly one of the best in baseball.  Their 3.78 ERA last year was the best in the AL, with a strong five-deep rotation (Aaron Sanchez, J.A. Happ, Marcus Stroman, Marco Estrada and Francisco Liriano) and a bullpen anchored closer Roberto Osuna and former closer Jason Grilli.  Beating Boston won’t be easy, but it’s doable if everything comes together.

3. New York Yankees
2016: 84-78; last playoff appearance: 2015
The Yankees are transitioning into a team with a young core capable of a sustained run, a solid development for a team whose main criticism the last couple of years was its increasing age.  Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira retired and Brian McCann was traded, clearing the way for young guns such as C Gary Sanchez, 1B Greg Bird and RF Aaron Judge.  This trio will make the Yankees formidable in the years to come.

The Yankee rotation is still old, led by Masahiro Tanaka and C.C. Sabathia.  The bullpen is bolstered by Aroldis Chapman, who was dealt to the Cubs in July for prospects and returned to New York on a lucrative five-year free agent deal.  The ‘pen, which also features Dellin Betances (who would close almost anywhere else) and Tyler Clippard, pitched to a 3.67 ERA last year.  The Yankees are probably a year away from threatening a deep playoff run, but if the young players adapt quickly and the veterans stay healthy they could pose a threat to Boston and Toronto now.

4. Baltimore Orioles
2016: 89-73, lost to Blue Jays in AL Wild Card Game
The Orioles under Buck Showalter have made the playoffs every other year; if the trend continues, they’re due to miss the postseason this year, and after a quiet offseason that is realistic.  Offensively, C Wellington Castillo replacing the departed Matt Wieters is the only major change to an offense right at the league average in batting average and on-base percentage, although they only stole 19 bases all season.

Rotation depth was questionable last year, with a 4.72 unit ERA, and is worse this year after Yovanni Gallardo was traded and Tommy Hunter became a free agent.  Making matters worse, two of their five projected starters are on the DL to start the season.  The bullpen is good (3.40 ERA in 2016), and closer Zach Britton is great (), but how many leads will they get?  Sure, this is somewhat the same team that won 89 games last year, but after their stagnant offseason they’ve lost ground in the AL East.

5. Tampa Bay Rays
2016: 68-94; last playoff appearance: 2013
After losing 94 games in 2016, the Rays also had a tellingly uneventful offseason.  An offense that hit a league-worst .243 last year is no better, and while the team did make one signing to try to improve themselves, it was C Wilson Ramos, who is out until at least the All-Star break with a knee injury from last year.

The Rays have a solid top three in the rotation, with Chris Archer, Jake Odorizzi and Alex Cobb, although below that it is less stable, and a bullpen that pitched to a 4.09 ERA last season lost Kevin Jepsen.  In the AL East, facing the four teams above them 19 times each, it is going to be a long year for the Rays.

 

AL Central

1. Cleveland Indians
2016: 94-67, lost to Cubs in World Series
The 2016 Indians lost Game 7 of the World Series in extra innings, becoming the first team to do so since the 1997 Indians.  Good news for Cleveland is all three previous teams to lose Game 7 in extra innings won at least 89 games and made at least the LCS the following year.  Even better news is that this year’s edition should be even better than the 2016 team.

The core of last year’s squad is intact, while free agent DH Edwin Encarnacion adds some power to the lineup.  The 2016 playoff run was without OF Michael Brantley and pitchers Carlos Carrasco and Danny Salazar; all three of those key pieces are now healthy. Imagine last year’s playoff run with even more pitching depth, or another clutch hitter.  It’s scary, and the rest of the league should be scared of what this team is capable of in 2017, as they try to win their first World Series in 69 years.

2. Detroit Tigers
2016: 86-75; last postseason appearance: 2014
Last year, the Tigers were still alive to make the playoffs on the last day of the regular season.  This year, with mostly the same roster, Brad Ausmus’s team is looking to take the next step.  The offense was the strength of last year’s team, led by a perennial MVP candidate in 1B Miguel Cabrera, veteran DH Victor Martinez and slugging LF Justin Upton.

The pitching staff’s 4.24 ERA last year was 11th in the AL, despite the resurgence of ace Justin Verlander and the Rookie of the Year season of Michael Fulmer.  The bullpen has been a problem here for years, although it is improving, led by closer Francisco Rodriguez and up-and-coming set-up man Bruce Rondon.  The Indians will be tough to catch, but a Wild Card berth is very realistic for the Tigers.

3. Kansas City Royals
2016: 81-81; last postseason appearance: 2015
After ending a 29-year playoff drought in 2014 by reaching the World Series, then winning it all in 2015, the Royals led the division after a 30-22 start, a 20-33 record in June/July doomed them to a distant third-place finish and a .500 record.  Offensively, the team offset the loss of Kendrys Morales by signing Brandon Moss, traded for OF Jorge Soler, and retain most of the core from the championship team.

The biggest loss of the offseason came with the death of ace Yordano Ventura in a car accident.  Overcoming that loss emotionally won’t be easy, and replacing him on the field won’t be either, especially since the team lacks the depth provided previously by departed players Edinson Volquez, Luke Hochevar and Wade Davis.  The addition of Travis Wood will help, and Mike Minor, who has moved to the bullpen, could as well if he stays healthy, but it’s hard to see any better of a record than last year.

4. Minnesota Twins
2016: 59-103; last postseason appearance: 2010
2016 was not a good year for the Twins, who had a league-worst 5.08 ERA, a league-worst .979 fielding percentage, and a fifth-worst .251 batting average.  On one hand, the outlook isn’t good for 2017 either, as C Jason Castro is the team’s only addition, although he essentially just replaces free agent Kurt Suzuki.

On the other hand, this is a rebuilding team, and the young core of the future is intact for another season.  Sure, it can’t get much worse than a 103-loss season, but players like Miguel Sano, Max Kepler and Byron Buxton who are the all-stars of the future should be better with more experience.  This team won’t win the Central, but still has some big issues in the pitching staff, but should be moderately better and could pass the White Sox.

5. Chicago White Sox
2016: 78-84; last postseason appearance: 2008
The White Sox started 2016 at 23-10 and looked like a potential contender, but as the season crumbled away the team decided it was time to rebuild.  Chris Sale and Adam Eaton were traded, and Justin Morneau and Austin Jackson are among the free agent departures.  Those trades netted the Sox two of baseball’s best prospects in P Lucas Giolito and IF Yoan Moncada, but they aren’t quite MLB-ready to start the season.

Besides Jose Abreu and Todd Frazier in the middle of the order, the lineup is full of young players and reclamation projects.  The rotation is led by legitimate ace Carlos Quintana, but it’s no secret the White Sox are trying to trade him for a haul of prospects, so it’s unknown if he’ll be in Chicago all season, and beneath him the pitching staff has many more questions than answers.  It’s going to be a long year (or few years) in the South Side as the White Sox rebuild.

 

AL West

1. Houston Astros
2016: 84-78; last postseason appearance: 2015
Last year, coming off their “ahead of schedule” postseason berth in 2015, the Astros underachieved and missed the playoffs.  As a result, they were aggressive in free agency to try to add to their talented core of young stars including Carlos Correa, Jose Altuve and George Springer, and added DH Carlos Beltran, C Brian McCann (via trade) and OFs Nori Aoki and Josh Reddick.  This lineup is stacked, which is refreshing after they struggled to score at times last year.

The bullpen (3.56 ERA in 2016) remains a force from top to bottom.  The biggest question is the rotation, which added Charlie Morton to offse tthe loss of Doug Fister.  If Dallas Keuchel can return to his 2015 Cy Young form, there’s no reason the Astros can’t win the West and be a threat to go deep in October.

 

2. Seattle Mariners
Projected Wild Card #2
2016: 86-76; last postseason appearance: 2001
The Mariners fell just short in 2016, and still seek their first playoff appearance since 2001.  Some wonder if their window is closing, as stars Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz aren’t getting any younger.  In an effort to win now, the Mariners made a plethora of trades this offseason, but none were bigger than a deal to get SS Jean Segura, who led the NL in hits last year with Arizona.  The Mariners stole just 56 bases last year, while Segura himself stole 33.

The back end of a good rotation was helped with the acquisition of Yovanni Gallardo, while Edwin Diaz emerged as the closer last year in a strong bullpen (3.55 ERA) that could be even better.  This team has the talent to win the division, although they’ll need a solid season to beat Houston.

3. Texas Rangers
2016: 95-67, lost to Blue Jays in ALDS
The Rangers were a statistcal anomaly in 2016, at 26 games over .500 despite a run differential of just +8.  Now, while the core of the defending West champs remains, some of the supporting cast is absent.  DH Carlos Beltran, OF Ian Desmond, 1B/DH Mitch Moreland and P Colby Lewis are among the departures.  The team did add 1B Mike Napoli and P Andrew Cashner, who will start the season on the DL.

The lineup was above average in every major category last year, but that may change without Beltran, Desmond and Moreland.  A good rotation led by Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish will give way to a bullpen that struggled last year to a 4.40 ERA and is virtually unchanged.  This is still a good team, but the Astros and Mariners have passed them this offseason.

 

4. Los Angeles Angels
2016: 74-88; last postseason appearance: 2014
Depth is a key issue for the Angels.  Offensively, behind Mike Trout and Albert Pujols, there’s not much there, although they have one of the game’s best defenders in SS Andrelton Simmons.  There also aren’t reinforcements coming:  the Angels farm system is consistently rated one of the game’s worst.

Starting pitching depth and health was an issue in 2016, and loses depth in departed veterans Jered Weaver and C.J. Wilson.  The bullpen isn’t bad (3.77 ERA in 2016), that won’t be enough to cure this team’s problems.  The Angels are in transition; they aren’t in a all-in rebuild, but they also aren’t going to be contenders.

5. Oakland Athletics
2016: 69-93; last postseason appearance: 2014
The A’s have lost 93-plus games the last two years, and last year were well below average on both sides of the ball.  The lineup adds Matt Joyce, Rajai Davis and Trevor Plouffe, and while no large holes jump off the depth chart their lineup is full of guys who would be hitting in the bottom half of the order most other places.

On the mound, ace Sonny Gray will start the season on the DL, and beneath him the A’s have no rotation depth.  The bullpen isn’t much better, with journeyman Ryan Madson set to serve as closer.  The “Moneyball” concept has worked at times in Oakland; this is not one of those times, as the refusal to spend much to make this team better is going to cost them for another year.

 

American League Playoffs Prediction

AL Wild Card Game: Blue Jays def. Mariners

ALDS: Indians def. Blue Jays, Red Sox def. Astros

ALCS: Indians def. Astros

 

World Series Prediction

113th World Series:  Indians def. Cubs

Fast Five: Greatest Moments of 2016 MLB Postseason

It’s baseball season.

Pitchers and catchers reported to Spring Training for a few teams on Monday, and most report today.  All of them have one goal in mind:  playing (and winning) in October.

Sure, the 2017 postseason is a long way off, and while many (including me) will try to predict who will reach the playoffs, there are always surprise teams, especially in baseball.

Whoever makes the playoffs will have a tough act to follow, after so many great moments in the 2016 postseason, culminating with the first Chicago Cubs World Series title in 108 years.

As we look ahead to the 2017 season, here’s a look back on the best moments from last October (and early November):

5.  The Cubs comeback to win NLDS

After the Cubs led the best-of-5 NLDS 2-0, the San Francisco Giants came back to win Game 3 in extra innings and stay alive.

In Game 4, the Cubs trailed 5-2 after eight innings, and Giants starter Matt Moore looked unstoppable.  However, Moore due to a high pitch count Moore had to come out after the eighth, handing the game over to the shaky Giants bullpen.  A pair of Giants relievers allowed four Cubs to score, including a game-tying 2-RBI single by Willson Contreras and a go-ahead RBI single by Javier Baez.

When Aroldis Chapman got the save, the Cubs had completed the largest ninth-inning comeback in a series-clinching game in MLB history, and ended the Giants run of “even year” dominance (they won the World Series in 2010, 2012 and 2014).


4.  Two Blue Jays walkoff clinchers

The Toronto Blue Jays reached the ALCS, doing so on the strength of walk-off wins to clinch both the AL Wild Card Game and the ALDS.

In the Wild Card Game, with lights-out Orioles closer Zach Britton still in the bullpen in the 11th inning, Edwin Encarnacion hit a 3-run homer off Ubaldo Jimenez, giving the Blue Jays a 5-2 win to advance to the ALDS.

In Game 3 of the ALDS, with Toronto leading the series 2-0, a Russell Martin grounder seemed poised to send the 6-6 game to the 11th.  But after a bad throw pulled Texas Rangers 1B Mitch Moreland off the base, Josh Donaldson broke for the plate, beating the throw to score, winning the game and the series.

This play had some additional procedural drama, as the Rangers appealed that there had been obstruction at second base on Encarnacion.  When the play was reviewed and upheld, the top-seeded Rangers had been swept, and the Blue Jays were in their second straight ALCS.


3.  Indians shutout wins pennant

The Cleveland Indians progressed through the playoffs on the strength of their incredible pitching.  After ousting the Boston Red Sox in the ALDS to end David Ortiz’s career, the Indians took a 3-0 lead in the ALCS against Toronto.

The Blue Jays won Game 4, and many favored Toronto to win Game 5, as Cleveland turned to rookie Ryan Merritt, who had just one regular season start.

Merritt, who inherited a 1-0 lead after a run scored on an error in the top of the first, went 4.2 scoreless innings (falling one out short of qualifying for the win), and the Indians bullpen finished the job (one inning by Bryan Shaw, 2.2 innings by Andrew Miller, one inning by Cody Allen).

All told, it was a six-hit shutout of a potent Blue Jays lineup, as Cleveland clinched their first pennant in 19 years.  They would eventually fall just short in the World Series, and enter 2017 seeking their first title since 1948.


2.  Kershaw saves Game 5

The winner-take-all Game 5 of the NLDS between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Washington Nationals was the longest nine-inning game in MLB postseason history–and was well worth the time investment to watch.

Starters Max Scherzer (WAS) and Rich Hill (LAD) both pitched well, allowing a single run.  Scherzer’s run was a game-tying homer in the seventh by Joc Pederson.

That only began the wild seventh–after Scherzer was relieved, Carlos Ruiz gave the Dodgers a lead with an RBI single, and Justin Turner stretched it to 4-1 with a 2-RBI double.  In the bottom half, Chris Heisey hit a 2-run pinch-hit homer to make it 4-3.

After the homer, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen entered with no outs in the seventh.  He stranded the bases loaded in the seventh, and another runner in the eighth.

With two on and one out in the ninth, Dodgers ace Clayton Kershaw entered the game on one day rest.

Kershaw got Daniel Murphy to pop up, then struck out Wilmer Difo to end the game, earning his first major league save to clinch a postseason series (and his first save at any level since 2006 in rookie ball).


1.  Cubs win first World Series since 1908 in Game 7 for the ages

After six thrilling games, the 112th World Series between the Indians and Cubs was tied at 3-3.  The Indians had led the Series 3-1, but the Cubs had come back to force Game 7.

Before Game 7, I called it baseball’s “game of the century” thus far, fully expecting that it would not live up to that lofty level of hype.  And yet, the game far surpassed it, legitimately becoming the greatest baseball game played in the 21st century.

Game 7 had everything.  Dexter Fowler led off the game with a home run, and Javier Baez and David Ross added solo homers for the Cubs, with Ross’s coming in the final at-bat of his career.  Cubs starter Jon Lester came in in relief, giving up one earned run in three innings.

The Cubs committed three errors, and two Indians scored on a wild pitch, the first such play in a World Series game since 1911.  Cubs leads of 5-1 and 6-3 evaporated almost instantly in the eighth, with Rajai Davis tying the game with a 2-run homer.

It became the first Game 7 to go to extra innings since 1997 (which the Indians lost to the Florida Marlins), and that was put on hold for 17 minutes by a passing shower (the first World Series rain delay since 2008).

Ben Zobrist’s RBI double put the Cubs ahead, and Miguel Montero added an RBI that turned out to be a big insurance run.  In the bottom of the 10th, Davis singled to pull to within 8-7, before Mike Montgomery came in to pitch and took just two pitches to record his first professional save, a final out that will be replayed forever.

A story that many veteran writers called the best story they had ever covered–the Cubs finally winning the World Series–was an appropriate end to an insane 2016 MLB postseason.  After Cubs fans waited 108 years,