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.

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.

MLB: Wild Card Games Preview

It’s the first week of October, meaning baseball’s playoffs are here.  However, before Division Series play begins later this week, first the Wild Card winners in each respective league play in the one-off, winner take all Wild Card Game in each league.  While I still don’t like the format, as I would like to see this round be a best-of-three series, I do like the additional team the extra round gets into the playoffs, as the Cubs and Astros, who haven’t been in the postseason since 2008 and 2005, respectively, are the occupants of the second Wild Card spot in their respective leagues.  Here is a preview of the pair of Wild Card Games:

American League Wild Card Game

Houston Astros at New York Yankees
Tuesday, 8:00 pm ET, ESPN

The Yankees will play their first playoff game since 2012 tonight in the Bronx, hosting the Astros who, as I mentioned, are making their first playoff appearance since losing the 2005 World Series.  Here is how the matchup breaks down:

Starting pitching:
The Yankees send Masahiro Tanaka (12-7, 3.51 ERA) to the mound tonight, but the probable AL Cy Young winner, Dallas Keuchel (20-8, 2.48 ERA) gets the call for Houston.  Even on short rest, he should be excellent.
Advantage: Astros

Bullpen:
The Astros bullpen has the better collective ERA (3.27 for Houston, 3.70 for New York), and also has more experience, although the Yankees’ Andrew Miller has some excellent playoff outings last year with the Orioles.
Advantage: Astros

Lineup:
The question of experience against age comes into play for the Yankees, with all the Yankees’ starters except one being over 31.  Both teams aren’t great offensively, with the Yankees collectively hitting .251 and the Astros hitting .250, and although for the year the Yankees outscored the Astros 764-729, the Yankees are without injured slugger Mark Teixeira (31 HR, 79 RBI), creating a hole in their lineup.  The Astros have also out-homered the Yankees 230-212 on the year.
Advantage: Astros

Atmosphere:
One-game playoff at Yankee Stadium.  Enough said.
Advantage: Yankees

Experience:
The Yankees roster is made up of big name players like Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixiera, Carlos Beltran, and Brian McCann, among others, who have a plethora of postseason experience.  The Astros are a very talented group of young guns, many of whom are making their first playoff appearance, and while many say they won’t be fazed by the moment, history shows that their inexperience may be a red flag.
Advantage: Yankees

Manager:
Joe Girardi of the Yankees has plenty of playoff experience, including a World Series title in 2009.  Houston’s AJ Hinch has no playoff experience, but is one of the favorites for AL Manager of the Year for the job he has done with this young Astros team.
Advantage: even

This matchup is very even, so this game should be close, but with Keuchel pitching, I will favor the Astros.  Were Teixeira in the Yankee lineup, it might be a different story.

The Astros will win and advance to the ALDS to play the Kansas City Royals.

 

National League Wild Card Game

Chicago Cubs at Pittsburgh Pirates
Wednesday, 8:00 pm ET, TBS

For the third straight year, despite a 98-win season, the Pirates are relegated to the Wild Card Game after the Cardinals won the NL Central.  A third team from the Central, the Cubs, who won 97 games themselves, is a worthy opponent.  The Pirates and Cubs have the second and third best records in all of baseball, yet with this format one of them will be eliminated tomorrow night.

Starting pitching:
Gerrit Cole is starting for the Pirates, and has had an outstanding year (19-8, 2.60 ERA), but he goes up against Jake Arrieta (22-6, 1.77 ERA), one of the three favorites for the Cy Young Award in the NL, and has held the Pirates to a .151 batting average in five starts against them this year.
Advantage: Cubs

Bullpen:
The Cubs aren’t bad in the bullpen, particularly with closer Hector Rondon holding a 1.67 ERA, and four members of the bullpen having major league closing experience.  However, the Pirates boast a 2.67 bullpen ERA, the best in baseball, with Tony Watson (1.91 ERA) and Mark Melancon (2.23 ERA, 51 saves) forming an excellent eighth and ninth inning duo.
Advantage: Pirates

Lineup:
For the season, the Cubs were outscored by the Pirates 697-689, and the Pirates had a higher batting average (.260 for Pittsburgh, .244 for Chicago).  However, in head-to-head matchups the Cubs outscored the Pirates 81-71 on their way to an 11-8 head-to-head record, and the Cubs have more homers than the Bucs by a wide margin (171-140).  The Cubs also have two impressive individual stat-lines, with Anthony Rizzo (.278 avg, 31 HR, 101 RBI) and likely NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant (.275 avg, 26 HR, 99 RBI), although the Pirates’ Andrew McCutchen (.292 avg, 23 HR, 96 RBI) is one of the game’s best as well.
Advantage: Cubs (barely)

Atmosphere:
The Pirates are hosting this game for the third straight year, so you would think they have the advantage.  However, home teams are 2-4 in the short history of the Wild Card Game, with the Pirates winning at home in 2013, but losing at home last year.  The Cubs won only one game less on the road than they did at home during the season.
Advantage: even

Experience:
As I’ve said, the Pirates have been here before.  Jon Lester is a Cub with tons of playoff experience, but he’s not likely to pitch in this game, and the average age of the Cubs offensive players is a very young 26.5.  Much of the Pirates roster is the same as the past two years.
Advantage: Pirates

Manager:
Both Clint Hurdle of the Pirates and Joe Maddon of the Cubs have led other franchises to the World Series, and are trying to do the same with their team this year.  Both are candidates for NL Manager of the Year, although Maddon is the favorite.
Advantage: even

This is a very difficult pick, as this matchup is very even between two complete clubs, as evidenced by their records of 98-64 and 97-65.  Arrieta has a 0.41 ERA since August 1, which is an MLB record (min. 10 starts), giving the Cubs their best chance to unseat a very strong Pirates team, who is a World Series contender should they escape the Wild Card round.

The Cubs will win and advance to the NLDS to play the St. Louis Cardinals.

MLB Pennant Races with Two Weeks Remaining

October is just a few days away, which for baseball fans means the regular season is closing down and the playoffs are close.  And while for some teams it is, at this point, just a formality that they will make the postseason, for others, they still have very meaningful games left, as they need to survive September if they want to experience October.

Some will say that whoever the last couple of teams to get in the playoffs are won’t be irrelevant because they have no chance of winning the World Series, but that simply isn’t true.  Both teams who reached the World Series a year ago, the Giants and the Royals, were Wild Card teams, with the Giants being the last team to get in the NL, and both franchises not clinching their spots until the season’s final weekend.

That being said, here is a look at every playoff race in baseball, with some expected to come down to the wire, while others are already a foregone conclusion.

(Note: this post uses the “magic number”, which tells how close a team is to clinching.  The number reduces by one each time the team leading wins a game, or the team chasing them loses a game, and the team leading clinches when the number hits zero.  It is explained more in-depth here.)

Division Races

American League

AL West
Texas  80-69  —
Houston  80-71  -1.0
LA Angels  76-74  -4.5

The Rangers were 9.5 games back on May 20, and were 47-52 on July 28, just two days before they acquired Cole Hamels, but thanks to a 33-17 stretch since, and a four-game sweep of Houston last week, they have passed the Astros, who spent 139 days in first place.  The Angels, who were the favorites of many before the season, have very gotten back within arms reach of first after sitting 65-66 on August 31 after a 2-9 stretch.  The Angels are in Houston for three games this weekend, and the Rangers head to Houston for three this weekend, giving the Astros a change to rectify their 6-12 September record before ending with six games on the road.  Should the Angels be able to get any closer to the Rangers, they’ll have a great chance to win the division when they play a season-closing four-game set at Texas.  This race is the most up in the air of all of the division races, as it is the closest, and also has three teams involved, but with Texas’s recent run I expect them to win the division, albeit by a very narrow margin.  The Rangers’ “magic number” is 12.

AL Central
Kansas City  87-62  —
Minnesota  76-73  -11.0

The Royals have the best record in the American League, as they have for a majority of the season, and have been in first place for 150 days.  The Twins have been a nice story as a surprise contender, and have a shot at the Wild Card, but this division race that’s been “over” for quite a while will officially, mathematically be over very soon; the Royals “magic number” is down to three.

AL East
Toronto  86-64  —
NY Yankees  82-67 -3.5

The AL East race has been a fun one all year, with the Yankees, Orioles, and Rays taking turns in the lead through the first half, although the Yankees led the most, totaling 100 days in first place for the season.  The Blue Jays were 50-51 and eight games back on July 28, just before they acquired Troy Tulowitzki and David Price.  By August 12, in the midst of an 11-game winning streak, the Jays were up a half game on the Yankees.  They’ve led every day since August 23, and have led by as many as four and a half games, but for most of that time the Yankees have stayed much closer than that.  Toronto and New York are currently in the midst of a huge three-game series in Toronto through Wednesday, which Toronto won the opener of, after which both teams will play out the regular season against teams that are going to miss the playoffs.  While the Jays do play their last seven games on the road, I expect them to ride their hot second half all the way to the division title, although it may come down to the final weekend.  The Blue Jays’ “magic number” is 10.

National League

NL West
LA Dodgers  85-64  —
San Francisco  78-71  -7.0

Many thought the NL West would be a three-team race, with the Padres acquiring several big name players in the offseason, but San Diego started 39-49 and never recovered.  The Dodgers have led the division nearly wire-to-wire, and have led every day since May 29.  The Giants were within a game and a half as late as August 23, but the Dodgers swept them in a three-game series from August 31 to September 2, which stretched the lead to six and a half.  The Giants are the defending World Series champions, but don’t have the momentum to catch the Dodgers, whose “magic number” is seven.

NL Central
St. Louis  94-56  —
Pittsburgh  90-60  -4.0
Chic. Cubs  88-62  -6.0

This is a strange division race, because all three teams are realistically guaranteed to make the playoffs, with the Cardinals already clinching at worst a Wild Card berth, and the Pirates and Cubs also about to do so as well, with the nearest Wild Card challengers nine games behind the Cubs.  But all of these teams want to avoid the one-off Wild Card Game, so they all want to win the division.  The Cubs and Cardinals have been over from the beginning, with the Pirates struggling early to an 18-22 record before an 11-2 stretch got them into the race.  The Cardinals have the best record in baseball, as they have most of the season, and these three teams have the best three records in the NL.  The Cubs won two out of three over the weekend in their last series of the regular season against the Cardinals, and host the Pirates for three games this weekend.  Pittsburgh then hosts St. Louis next week for three games.  The Cardinals and Cubs finish with six straight on the road, while the Pirates finish with six straight at home, although overall between now and the end of the season, all three teams have six at home and six on the road.  The Cardinals are the best team in baseball, so they should be able to hold their four game lead over the last two weeks, and their “magic number” is nine.  It is really unfortunate that two of these three teams are going to be in the Wild Card Game, and one of them will lose it, meaning their season will be over on October 7.

NL East
NY Mets  85-65  —
Washington  78-71  -6.5

The Mets are looking for their first playoff berth since 2006, but New York winning the division didn’t look likely before the season, with the Nationals being picked by every single season preview I read, and in a “World Series-or-bust” state of mind.  The Mets strong pitching staff, and their resurgent offense since trading for Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline, took the lead for good on August 3rd, after the two teams had gone back-and-forth on top for most of the season.  The Mets steadily built their lead up to nine and a half games on September 13, a seemingly insurmountable gap for the Nationals, but Washington has closed the gap a little bit coming into the season’s final stretch.  Both teams have games exclusively against teams under .500 until the season’s final weekend, when they play each other, but by that time the race will very likely be over.  The Mets’ “magic number” in seven.

Wild Card Races

AL Wild Card
NY Yankees  82-67 +3.0
Houston  80-71   —

Minnesota 76-73  -3.0
LA Angels  76-74  -3.5
Cleveland  74-74  -4.5

The Yankees and Astros have both spent a lot of time in first place, with the Astros only spending 31 days not in first, but have been the victims of big second half pushes by the Blue Jays and Rangers and, should they not come back to win the division, are currently positioned to appear in the Wild Card Game.  The Twins were not picked by anyone to be in this position, but can be very proud of their contention to make the postseason.  However, three games may be hard to make up with this little time left in the regular season.  It’s even more unlikely for the Angels and Indians to reach the playoffs as they have multiple teams to pass at this point, although they can still keep fighting with the hope of a strong finish and some help from those above them.  The Yankees are currently playing division leader Toronto, but have an easy finishing stretch after that series is done.  Houston is hosting the Angels this week in a big three-game set, which they took the opener of last night.  The Twins and Indians have seven games left against each other, and since both need an excellent stretch to catch Houston, if they split these games fairly evenly, it may end both teams’ playoff shot, but if one wins five or more out of the seven, that could be the team to make a run.  The Astros’ “magic number” is 10, and the Yankees’ is 8.

NL Wild Card
Pittsburgh  90-60  —
Chic. Cubs  88-62  -2.0

Washington  78-71  -9.5
San Francisco  78-71  -9.5

The Nationals and Giants both came into the season with the playoffs as a goal, but both are closer to their division leaders than they are to the Wild Card at this point, a race that is nearly over.  The only part of it that isn’t realistically over is between the Pirates and the Cubs to see who will host the Wild Card Game, although one or both of them could catch the Cardinals in the NL Central to shake things up as well.  A big series towards determining that home field advantage for the one-game happens this weekend in Chicago, when the Cubs host Pittsburgh.  As for clinching a playoff berth, the Cubs’ “magic number” is four, and the Pirates’ is two.

 

While this isn’t necessarily the closest pennant race we’ve ever seen, with many of the races being a foregone conclusion, this should be an excellent postseason.  We know this because all of the teams in playoff positions are very deserving, and there are some very good teams that are going to be left out, no matter how these last two weeks play out.  We also know this because teams like the Mets, Cubs, and Astros haven’t been in the playoffs in a while, and the Blue Jays haven’t been in them in my lifetime, not appearing in the postseason since Joe Carter’s World Series-winning walkoff homer in 1993, the last year before the Wild Card era began.  Add the teams that haven’t been in the playoffs in this decade to teams like the Rangers and Yankees that have but have had a couple of down years in between, as well as the Royals, who appeared in the playoffs last year for the first time since 1985, and teams like the Cardinals, Pirates, and Dodgers who we’ve become accustomed to seeing in the postseason, and there will be no shortage whatsoever of storylines this October.

When the World Stopped Turning

September 11, 2001.

It was America’s darkest day in the last 70 years, and arguably in all of history.

19 radical extremists changed the world forever, killing 2,977 victims, attacking the World Trade Center and the Pentagon with hijacked aircraft, while also crashing an aircraft into a field near Shanksville, PA, after some heroic citizens fought back against the terrorists to avoid further attack against American landmarks.

Shortly after the attacks, which were 14 years ago today, Alan Jackson penned a somber anthem called “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning”.  The world, obviously, didn’t really stop turning, but from the first news of the attack, the world virtually and collectively stopped what it was doing, first to watch the events unfold, then to mourn the unthinkable loss and try to figure out what in the world to do next, meaning that title phrase was perhaps the greatest analogy to how the world reacted to the catastrophic events.

You may be wondering why a sports blog like this one is writing about September 11, even on the anniversary of such a generation-defining event.  After the attacks, however, the sports world also stopped turning, because sports suddenly didn’t matter.  At all.

There is some irony here, because the top story before 8:46 a.m. on September 11, 2001, even in the mainstream news media, was a sports story.  Michael Jordan, who was 38 at the time and had retired in 1999 from the NBA, was hinting at a comeback (which he would eventually make later that fall with the Washington Wizards), and the question of “Will he or won’t he?” was the top story on NBC’s Today Show, among others.

Within two hours of Today coming on the air at 7 a.m., Jordan, and the rest of the sports world, was totally irrelevant.  Everyone’s attention was focused on New York, and later Washington, as the attacks unfolded.

Major League Baseball games taking place that night were quickly cancelled by commissioner Bud Selig.  While other sports sanctioning bodies who were in-season in mid-September of 2001 like the PGA Tour, NASCAR, and particularly the NFL and NCAA Football, had time to decide, as their events would not commence until the weekend, baseball, as an everyday sport, had to make their decisions much more quickly and on-the-spot.

MLB later cancelled all games through Thursday the 13th, then through Sunday the 16th, deciding to resume the season on Monday the 17th, and tagging the six days of games that had been cancelled on to the end of the season, delaying the playoffs, and resulting in the first November games in the World Series in history.

As the weekend approached, the PGA Tour cancelled the WGC-American Express Championship in St. Louis, an event which had a very strong field before its cancellation, as well as an alternate event, the Tampa Bay Classic.

NASCAR cancelled its race scheduled for Sunday the 16th, tacking it on the end of the season on the Friday after Thanksgiving.

The NFL cancelled all of its Week 2 games scheduled for Sunday the 16th and Monday the 17th.  This was perhaps the largest cancellation of all of them, partially because the NFL is the most-watched and most-followed sports league in the United States, and partially because the NFL had not cancelled games after the assassination of John F. Kennedy in 1963, a decision then-commissioner Pete Rozelle later called his biggest regret.

The games which were cancelled by the NFL were added on to the end of the season, resulting in the first February Super Bowl.  Ironically enough, due to changes in the NFL schedule, only one Super Bowl since has not been in February.

The decision in college football wasn’t made as willingly by everyone.  While the Big East and ACC cancelled games fairly quickly, and seven Big Ten schools called off games on their own before the conference’s decision, the SEC came very close to playing games as planned on Saturday the 15th.  The thinking was that they would be helping heal the nation’s psychological wounds by going forward with the games, since sports is in many ways a form of entertainment.  Additionally, after President Bush said in an address that the nation getting back to normal as quickly as possible would be a sign to the terrorists that they had not completely destroyed American culture, the league thought playing on Saturday would signal a return to normal way of life (particularly since in part of the country where the SEC resides, football is a big part of that normal way of life).  The scheduled games included a big rivalry game in Gainesville between #8 Tennessee and #2 Florida.

This wasn’t without controversy, as years later SEC spokesman Charles Bloom recalled that the league got numerous messages from fans disapproving of playing just four days after the attacks.  Bowling Green was scheduled to play South Carolina in Columbia, but pulled out of the game because the team didn’t feel comfortable traveling by air.  Steve Spurrier, then at Florida, said his team couldn’t focus at practice after the attacks.

Then-SEC commissioner Roy Kramer later said he had contacted the NFL as early as Wednesday the 12th, and at the time had gotten the impression they were considering going forward with the games, which led the SEC to initially plan to play on.  The NFL announced their cancellation on Thursday the 13th,  after which the SEC, Big 12, and WAC followed.  The SEC’s reluctance to cancel games had been the most public, and later remembered in an al.com story 10 years later.

By Sunday the 16th, as athletes watched the aftermath of 9/11 unfold with the rest of us at home, the Ryder Cup announced its postponement for a year until 2002.  The bi-annual golf event between the United States and Europe had been scheduled for September 28-30, at The Belfry in England, but it was decided that an American team traveling overseas for a hostile event like this one (the 1991 edition in Kiawah Island, SC was dubbed the “War by the Shore”, and the most recent edition in 1999 had been perhaps the most controversial of them all) wouldn’t be in the best taste, given the real “war” that was beginning to unfold.  The players which had qualified for the event in 2001 would play the event in 2002, which resulted in a couple of players who had clearly earned spots on the 2001 team coming into the 2002 competition in poor form.  Instead of playing the Ryder Cup again in 2003, it moved to even-numbered years after the 2002 edition, and remains in even-numbered years to this day.

The return to normal in the sports world mirrored the return to normal throughout the nation.  On Monday the 17th, the New York Stock Exchange re-opened in the morning, and the Major League Baseball season resumed that evening.

On Thursday the 20th, the PGA Tour season resumed at the Marconi Pennsylvania Classic, which happened to be played in Ligonier, PA, only about 40 miles from Shanksville.  The event used American flags in place of the normal numerical flags on each hole.

That evening marked another return, as the first Division I college football game was played in Starkville, MS, between Mississippi State and South Carolina.  Pre-game ceremonies were both patriotic and emotional, as the game returned while remembering the lives lost nine days earlier.  If football is America’s game, this could be said to be the night when America, at least partially, returned to normal, as its favorite sport was played for the first time since the tragedy.

On Friday the 21st, 10 days after the World Trade Center fell, New York held its first professional sporting event since it had been attacked.  The New York Mets hosted the Atlanta Braves at Shea Stadium in Queens, winning 3-2 after Mike Piazza homered off Steve Karsay (who happened to be a New Yorker).  While many said “it’s just a game” when sports resumed after 9/11, and while that was in many ways true, this particular game gave New York something to smile about, even as they began to recover all the destruction that had occurred.

The NFL returned on Sunday the 23rd, 12 days after the attacks, with a very emotional set of games.  The ESPN video below says “Our football heroes honored America’s real heroes by playing, and by playing hard.”  The most watched sports league in America provided a welcome distraction, at least for one Sunday afternoon.  Simultaneous to the NFL’s return, NASCAR also ran its first Winston Cup (now Sprint Cup) race since the attacks in Dover, DE (a race recap and the final few laps are in the second video below; notice the American flags on most of the cars, with a few cars completely red, white, and blue).

Once everything resumed in the sports world, those who wished to take a break from the aftermath of the attacks could now watch SportsCenter or listen to sports talk radio, and those programs had games and results to talk about.  As the MLB season closed, the Mets missed the playoffs narrowly, but the Yankees, who had won the World Series in four of the previous five seasons, cruised into the postseason.

And suddenly the Yankees, the team everyone loves to hate, who had 26 World Series titles at the time and in 2009 added a 27th, were the sentimental favorites.  They lost the first two games of their best-of-five series against the Oakland Athletics, but then won three straight against them to advance, and won the best-of-seven American League Championship Series in five games over the Seattle Mariners, who had posted an astonishing regular season record of 116-46.  The Yankees advanced to the World Series, where they met the Arizona Diamondbacks.

And what a Series it was.

Arizona was dominant in the first two games in Phoenix, but when the Yankees returned home they won all three games at Yankee Stadium, all by a single run, with two of the three going extra innings.  Games 4 and 5 are considered by many to be among the greatest World Series games ever played.

Game 4 was played on October 31, but ended after midnight, becoming the first World Series game to touch November, and ended with a homer by Derek Jeter, who was instantly called “Mr. November”, an homage to Yankee great Reggie Jackson, “Mr. October.”

Arizona won the final two games at home, winning the series, including another classic in Game 7.  The only time that most of America was cheering for the Yankees, they lost the series, but the Yankees had been 6-3 in their games in New York in the playoffs, losing only once after the opening round, and winning all three at home against Arizona.  They, too, did their part in helping the healing of New York.

The complete stoppage of every major sports league in the United States wasn’t unprecedented, as sports had mostly stopped during World Wars I and II.  However, the days after the September 11 attacks are the only time in my lifetime sports has stopped nationwide.  And it was absolutely the right call on all of the leagues making the decisions, because there were much more important things going on in the country, and it wouldn’t have been right for fans to be cheering someone for running over a white line or hitting a ball over a fence when nearly 3,000 lives had been lost.

The events of September 11, 2001 changed the world forever, including the sports realm.  An ESPN article from October 2001 said “Never again will a playoff or final or bowl seem quite as ‘huge.’ Not as long as we remember what the Towers and Pentagon looked like before and after, not as long as we ponder the millions of lives touched by the (thousands of) innocent people who are dead or missing.”

Security in sports stadiums will be forever changed, as tens of thousands of people gather in a single, compact place, something that everyone knows is a potential terrorist target.  But that being said, hopefully there is more civility in stadiums, both on and off the playing field, after America, and the world, was permanently changed after 9/11.

Never again since September of 2001 has there been any event to stop sporting events nationwide for even 24 hours, much less for several days like it was after 9/11.  Hurricane Katrina stopped many collegiate events in the part of the southeast where it hit, and moved pro sports out of New Orleans for over a year.  Other tragedies since 9/11 have led to cancellations locally, but everywhere else the games continued after a tribute or moment of silence beforehand.

But after 9/11 sports handles tragedy differently.  Helmet stickers and uniform patches have always been commonplace after a noteworthy loss of life, but stadium atmospheres and pre-game ceremonies seem to be somber and respectful after such events, as perhaps sports learned how to honor those lost after we lost so much 14 years ago.  (Then again, I’m too young to remember how sports dealt with tragic loss before 9/11.)

September 11, 2001 is a day no one who was old enough to remember will ever forget.  It was a day when, figuratively speaking, the world stopped turning, watching in stunned silence as the worst of humanity was on full display.

 

(Editor’s note: Last year, Ari Fleischer, who was George W. Bush’s press secretary on 9/11, “live tweeted” what he and the president were doing on 9/11/01, in real time.  It is a fascinating read, and this article has put the highlights in chronological order)

Impressions After One Month of the MLB Season

Just over one month has passed in the MLB season, and a lot has changed since I made my picks for the season back in early April.  That being said, it’s still very early in the season’s proceedings, so a lot can change, but a month of games is still enough to have some idea of what is going to take place over the next five months before the postseason in October.

Here’s a look at my impressions after roughly 35 games, or about one-fifth, of the 2015 campaign.

The Cardinals are really good

St. Louis was my World Series pick before the season, and so far they haven’t disappointed, starting the season a big league-best 23-10 to take a five game lead over the Cubs in the NL Central, which is tied for the largest current division lead in baseball.  The Cardinals are doing it with pitching, as they always seem to do, as they lead all of baseball with a 2.74 team ERA, which is 0.25 better than anyone else, and is due in large part to a 1.61 bullpen ERA.  And those numbers are, since April 25, without ace Adam Wainwright, who is out for the year with a torn Achilles.  The Cards won the World Series without him in 2011, although they did have Chris Carpenter at the time.  Complementing the pitching is an offense that ranks fourth in batting average (.273) and 11th in runs (150), and the offense and the pitching staff have merged to create the second best run differential in baseball (+50).  A lot is made of the Giants’ streak of winning the World Series the last three even-numbered years, and rightfully so, but the Cardinals have reached the Fall Classic in the last two ensuing odd-numbered years.  It’s 2015, an odd-numbered year right after another Giants title, and the Cardinals are positioned very well to continue that pattern and potentially reach another World Series.

The Dodgers are good too… and they’re not even healthy

Don Mattingly’s team is playing very well to begin their quest for a third straight NL West division title, which they were favored for coming into the season.  Their 22-11 record has given them a five game lead over the Padres, which is tied for the biggest division lead.  They lead baseball in homers (53), are second in runs (174), and are third in batting average (.269), supplementing a pitching staff that is fourth in team ERA (3.19).  That combination of pitching and hitting has given the Dodgers the best run differential in baseball (+63).  These numbers are remarkable, considering that Carl Crawford, Kenley Jansen, Joel Peralta, Yasiel Puig, and Hyun-Jin Ryu are all currently on the disabled list temporarily, and Brandon League and Brandon McCarthy both out for an extended period of time.  This team will only get better when they get healthier, which is a scary thought for the rest of the National League.

The Nationals will be just fine

A Nationals team picked by many to reach and even win the World Series didn’t live up to the billing for the first three weeks of the season.  After a loss to the Braves on April 27, Washington was 7-13 and in the midst of a six game losing streak, and was in last place in the NL East, eight games behind the division-leading Mets.  The next night, they trailed 10-2 in the fifth before coming all the way back to win 13-12 on a ninth inning Dan Uggla homer, and since they have won games in groups of no less than three games, and haven’t lost back to back games, resulting in an 12-3 stretch to move them to second in the East, one and a half games behind the Mets.  While their pitching has been solid the entire season, the Nationals team average was .236 in April, but is .296 in May, thanks in large part to Bryce Harper catching fire, hitting six homers in a three game stretch last week.  The offensive success has been without Anthony Rendon, who hasn’t played a game yet due to knee and oblique injuries.  Once he gets healthy, a Nationals team that is now suddenly playing up to its potential will be even better, so the team’s current record of 19-16 shouldn’t worry anyone in Washington, but rather the rest of the NL East.

That being said, with the Mets pitching being so strong, ranking second in baseball with a 2.99 team ERA, I don’t see them going on any extended losing streaks.  The NL East race between the Nationals and Mets should be a great one all year, although I expect the second place finisher in the division to be one of the National League’s Wild Card teams.

Tigers-Royals should be an excellent race

Speaking of excellent division races, the AL Central race between Detroit and Kansas City should be great to watch all year long.  This is another race where I expect the team who finishes second to play in the Wild Card Game, but there is such an advantage to winning the division and advancing to the Division Series that the teams surely will want to avoid the one-off Wild Card playoff at all costs.  Last year, these two teams fought all the way to the finish, with the Tigers winning the Central by a single game, but the Royals advancing from the Wild Card Game all the way to the American League pennant.  The Royals are off to the better start, ever so slightly, at 21-13, tied for the best record in the American League, while the Tigers are a game back at 20-14.  The Royals are doing it with pitching, as they are fourth in the AL with a 3.52 team ERA, featuring a 1.63 bullpen ERA which is the best in baseball, but also with their offense, with the team leading MLB in batting average (.285, which is 15 points higher than the next best), and tied for third in runs scored (167).  The Tigers are just behind the Royals with the second best batting average in baseball (.270), but strangely are 16th in runs (142).  Detroit is also mid-pack in the major pitching categories, and it is very curious that they are 20-14 despite a run differential of only +2 (142 for, 140 against).  The Royals look much better statistically than the Tigers, and have won four out of seven head-to-head meetings thus far, so the Royals, who I picked to win the American League, remain the favorites to win the Central and then the pennant.

The Astros could be for real

It’s been a long few years in Houston since reaching the World Series in 2005.  The Astros have only had more 100-loss seasons (3) than winning seasons (2) since, and were 72-90 last year with a lot of young players as they continued their rebuilding process.  Before the season I thought this year’s team, which had added the likes of veterans Evan Gattis, Colby Rasmus, Jed Lowrie, Luke Gregerson, and Pat Neshek to solidify their young roster, reminded me a little of the 1991 Braves, who went from “worst-to-first” and nearly won the World Series, with strong pitching, young hitting with potential, and some veterans brought in in the offseason.  That being said, I picked the Astros fourth in the decent AL West, but they are off to a 21-13 start, which is tied for the best record in the AL, and have a four game lead over the Angels.  The pitching is the key, with a 3.43 team ERA ranking second in the AL, with a bullpen ERA of 2.18 also second in the league.  The team’s starter’s ERA is 4.13, which ranks 16th out of the 30 teams, but the rotation is led by two very strong pitchers in Dallas Kuechel (4-0, 1.39), who is one of the early favorites for the Cy Young Award, and Collin McHugh (4-1, 3.50).

There are two big questions for whether or not the Astros can contain their early season success.  One is their offense, which ranks in the middle of the pack in runs scored (12th, 145), and second in home runs (49), but dead last in batting average (.225).  That last stat likely needs to improve for the team to continue its success over the course of 162 games.  The other question is how the Astros will handle the pressure over the summer from the chasers, particularly from the Mariners and Angels.  Both teams have started around .500 but are playing well the last few days, and as divisional opponents of the Astros will have plenty of head-to-head opportunities to gain ground.  The Astros look very solid right now, but there’s still too many questions around this team to say whether or not they should be a playoff team.  The Astros could be for real.

The Yankees could be the Yankees again

The New York Yankees are the most successful franchise in baseball, with 27 World Series championships to prove it, but have missed the playoffs in back-to-back years, finishing 12 games behind the Red Sox in 2013 and the Orioles in 2014 in the AL East.  Without any major offseason acquisitions coming into this season, expectations were for the team to likely finish over .500, as they’ve done every year since 1992, but not necessarily be a postseason threat.  After a 1-3 start, however, the Yankees are now 21-14, and lead the Rays by two games in the AL East.  Some (including me) thought pitching could be a concern, but the Yankees’ staff leads the AL with a 3.33 team ERA, with the bullpen’s 2.18 ERA ranking third in the AL. Michael Pineda (5-0, 2.72) is leading the rotation, while the best one-two punch in any bullpen so far this season, closer Andrew Miller and setup man Dellin Betances, have yet to allow an earned run in 36.2 innings between them.  The Yanks have also struck out more batters (311) than anyone.  Offensively the team ranks sixth in runs (164), tied for third in home runs (43), and they are eighth in OBP (.324) despite ranking just 17th in batting average (.251).  Pretty much the entire Yankee lineup is performing well, but particularly Mark Teixiera (.246, 11 HR, 28 RBI) and Alex Rodriguez (.241, 8 HR, 20 RBI), who is outperforming expectations after coming back from a year-long suspension at age 39.  The Yankees are the fourth oldest team in baseball, and have the oldest offense by nearly two years, so health will be a question.  But if this team can stay healthy, they can be a real threat, as on baseball-reference.com‘s Simple Rating System (combining run differential and strength of schedule), they have the best rating in all of baseball by a fairly wide margin.

The Red Sox aren’t what we thought they were

Below the Yankees, and below everyone else in the AL East too, sit the Boston Red Sox.  The team is trying to become the first worst-to-first-to-worst-to-first team in MLB history, after winning the 2013 World Series in between two last-place seasons, but is not off to a good start at 16-18.  To their defense, the AL East is the only division where that record would even be close to last place.  But there are definitely some issues this team needs to address if it wants any chance at the division title they were predicted to win.  The team ranks in the top half of the league in runs and home runs, although they are 27th in team batting average (.230).  With the slugging types of David Ortiz, Hanley Ramirez, Pablo Sandoval, and Mike Napoli, those ups and downs offensively could be expected.  The issue for the Red Sox is their pitching staff, with a team ERA of 4.90, which ranks next to last in baseball (last place Colorado plays half their games at altitude, and generally has a high ERA).  While the bullpen ERA is 3.75, which isn’t terrible but does rank 12th out of 15 in the AL, the rotation ERA is 5.65, the worst in baseball.  The best Sox starter in terms of ERA is Rick Porcello at 4.50, and the next lowest is Wade Miley at 5.60, with two of Boston’s starters at 6.35 or worse.  It doesn’t matter how good the offense is when the pitching is that bad, plain and simple.  The current result is that the team is still winning about half their games despite a fifth-worst run differential of -30, but they can’t keep the record even this decent all year unless their pitching really improves.

“Way Too Early” Award Winners

American League
MVP:  Nelson Cruz, Mariners (.346, 15 HR, 29 RBI) (Also considered: Stephen Vogt, Athletics; Mark Teixiera, Yankees; Mike Trout, Angels)
Cy Young:  Dallas Kuechel, Astros (4-0, 1.39 ERA) (Also considered: Felix Hernandez, Mariners; Andrew Miller, Yankees; Sonny Gray, Athletics)
Rookie of the Year:  Devon Travis, Blue Jays (.275, 7 HR, 25 RBI) (Also considered: Mark Canha, Athletics; Steven Souza Jr., Rays; Roberto Osuna, Blue Jays)
Manager of the Year:  A.J. Hinch, Astros (Also considered: Paul Molitor, Twins; Joe Girardi, Yankees; Kevin Cash, Rays)

National League
MVP:  Bryce Harper, Nationals (.308, 12 HR, 31 RBI) (Also considered: Adrian Gonzalez, Dodgers; Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks; Matt Carpenter, Cardinals; Joey Votto, Reds)
Cy Young:  Zack Greinke, Dodgers (5-0, 1.52 ERA) (Also considered: Max Scherzer, Nationals; Matt Harvey, Mets; Shelby Miller, Braves; Bartolo Colon, Mets; A.J. Burnett, Pirates; Michael Wacha, Cardinals)
Rookie of the Year:  Joc Pedersen, Dodgers (.255, 10 HR, 21 RBI) (Also considered: Kris Bryant, Cubs; Jung Ho Kang, Pirates; Archie Bradley, Diamondbacks)
Manager of the Year:  Terry Collins, Mets (Also considered: Joe Maddon, Cubs; Don Mattingly, Dodgers; Mike Matheny, Cardinals)

 

 

MLB Standings

AL East
1. N.Y. Yankees 21-14
2. Tampa Bay 19-16, 2 GB
3. Toronto 17-18, 4 GB
4. Baltimore 15-17, 4.5 GB
4. Boston 16-18, 4.5 GB

AL Central
1. Kansas City 21-13
2. Detroit 20-14, 1 GB
3. Minnesota 19-15, 2 GB
4. Chi. White Sox 14-17, 5.5 GB
5. Cleveland 12-20, 8 GB

AL West
1. Houston 21-13
2. L.A. Angels 17-17, 4 GB
3. Seattle 15-18, 5.5 GB
4. Texas 15-19, 6 GB
5. Oakland 13-23, 9 GB

NL East
1. N.Y. Mets 20-14
2. Washington 19-16, 1.5 GB
3. Miami 16-19, 4.5 GB
4. Atlanta 15-19, 5 GB
5. Philadelphia 12-23, 8.5 GB

NL Central
1. St. Louis 23-10
2. Chi. Cubs 18-15, 5 GB
3. Cincinnati 17-17, 6.5 GB
3. Pittsburgh 17-17, 6.5 GB
5. Milwaukee 12-23, 12 GB

NL West
1. L.A. Dodgers 22-11
2. San Diego 18-17, 5 GB
3. San Francisco 17-17, 5.5 GB
4. Arizona 15-18, 7 GB
5. Colorado 11-19, 9.5 GB