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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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,

MLB Playoffs: NLDS Preview

After the Blue Jays and Indians took a 1-0 series lead in the two American League Division Series yesterday, each of those series will play Game 2 this afternoon, setting the stage for two series openers tonight in the National League.

(For a preview of each ALDS matchup, click here.)

 

Los Angeles Dodgers (91-71, NL West champion) vs. Washington Nationals (95-67, NL East champion)
(Game 1:  Friday, 5:38 pm ET, FS1)

This series matches a pair of teams notorious for postseason struggles in recent years, and that will continue for one of them.  The Dodgers won the season series, 5-1, but that doesn’t do justice to how good a matchup this should be.

Both teams, and especially the Dodgers, have overcome injuries throughout the season, making Dodgers manager Dave Roberts and Nationals manager Dusty Baker the two favorites for NL Manager of the Year (I’d give the advantage to Roberts).

Both pitching rotations are very strong, although the Dodgers may have a slight advantage.  Washington, with a 3.51 team ERA, has NL Cy Young contender Max Scherzer (20-7, 2.96 ERA) to start Game 1, underrated Tanner Roark (16-10, 2.83 ERA) in Game 2, and Gio Gonzalez (11-11, 4.57 ERA) in Game 3, but are without Steven Strasburg (15-4, 3.60 ERA).  The Dodgers, with a 3.70 team ERA, have the very strong trio of Clayton Kershaw (12-4, 1.69 ERA), Rich Hill (for the season with OAK/LAD combined:  12-5, 2.12 ERA), and Kenta Maeda (16-11, 3.48 ERA) lined up for the first three games.

The two bullpens have nearly identical ERAs (3.35 for Los Angeles, 3.37 for Washington), and each have lockdown closers who will be tough to come from behind on in the ninth inning, with deadline acquisition Mark Melancon (for the season with PIT/WAS combined:  47/51 saves, 1.64 ERA) for the Nationals, and Kenley Jansen (47/53 saves, 1.83 ERA) for the Dodgers.

Offensively, both teams have a blend of exciting young talent and experienced stars in their lineup.  The Dodgers (.249 team BA) feature likely NL Rookie of the Year Corey Seager (.308 BA, 26 HR, 72 RBI) and veteran leaders Adrian Gonzalez (.285 BA, 18 HR, 90 RBI) and Justin Turner (.275 BA, 27 HR, 90 RBI).  The Nationals (.256 team BA) are led by NL MVP contender Daniel Murphy (.347 BA, 25 HR, 104 RBI), while rookie Trea Turner (.342 BA, 13 HR, 40 RBI, 33 steals) has made his mark in just 73 games, and 2015 NL MVP Bryce Harper (.243 BA, 24 HR, 86 RBI), even after a down year, is always a threat.

 

The Nationals have never won a postseason series in franchise history, while the Dodgers have won four straight division titles and only have one series win to show for it (and that was against another team known for postseason struggles, the Braves).  One team has to win this one, and this is the toughest pick for me of all four LDS matchups, as I can see reasons why both teams can win, and why both teams can lose.  That said, the Nationals do have home-field advantage, and fit more of my criteria for teams that do well in the postseason, including playing better than the Dodgers away from home and in one-run games.  I expect this series to be really close, with the Nationals squeaking out a victory.

Prediction:  The Nationals will win the series, 3-2.

 

San Francisco Giants (87-75, NL Wild Card Game winner) vs. Chicago Cubs (103-58, NL Central champion)
(Game 1:  Friday, 9:15 pm ET, FS1)

This highly-anticipated series matches the Cubs, who seem to be considered a team of destiny, against the Giants, the Wild Card Game winners who have won the World Series in the last three even-numbered years.  The Cubs won the season series, 4-3.

This series features two very good pitching rotations.  The Cubs, led by the trio of Jon Lester (19-5, 2.44 ERA, Game 1 starter), Kyle Hendricks (16-8, 2.13 ERA, Game 2 starter), and Jake Arrieta (18-8, 3.10 ERA, Game 3 starter) have a ridiculously good rotation ERA of 2.96, with an overall team ERA of 3.15.  The Giants counter with Johnny Cueto (18-5, 2.79 ERA, Game 1 starter), former Cub Jeff Samardzija (12-11, 3.81 ERA, Game 2 starter), and Wild Card Game hero Madison Bumgarner (15-9, 2.74 ERA, Game 3 starter; complete game, 4-hit shutout in Wild Card Game).

The Cubs have the overall pitching edge, however, because of the differences in these two bullpens.  The Cubs bullpen, led by closer Aroldis Chapman (for the season with NYY/CHC combined:  36/39 saves, 1.55 ERA), have a 3.56 ERA as a unit.  The Giants bullpen had a 3.65 ERA for the season, but struggled mightily in the second half, blowing 13 games for the Giants.

While the Giants have a higher team average than the Cubs (.258 for the Giants, .256 for the Cubs), the Giants dropped from .263 in the first half to .252 in the second half of the season.  The Cubs are clearly the more explosive offense of the two, as they ranked second in the NL in runs, fifth in home runs, and second in OPS (on-base plus slugging), while the Giants were ninth in runs, 13th in home runs, and 10th in OPS,

No one in the Giants lineup particularly stands out, although Brandon Crawford (.275 BA, 12 HR, 84 RBI) led the team in RBI, Brandon Belt (.275 BA, 17 HR, 82 RBI) led in homers, Hunter Pence (.289 BA, 13 HR, 57 RBI) led in batting average, and team leader Buster Posey (.288 BA, 14 HR, 80 RBI) is strong all around.  The Cubs have arguably the best assemblage of young hitting talent in baseball, featuring likely NL MVP Kris Bryant (.292 BA, 39 HR, 102 RBI), Anthony Rizzo (.292 BA, 32 HR, 109 RBI) and Addison Russell (.238 BA, 21 HR, 95 RBI).

The Cubs are the best team in baseball, and won 103 games this season for a reason.  While the Giants are certainly a talented team, Bumgarner can’t pitch every game for them, and while Cueto and Samardzija are certainly worthy starters, I’m not sure the Giants bullpen can hold a lead against this potent Cubs lineup.  I’m also not sure how many leads they will get, as I expect their offense to struggle against the Cubs starting pitchers.

Prediction:  The Cubs will win the series, 3-1.

Trends of a World Series Champion, Revisited

As the MLB Postsesason moves into series play today following a couple of fantastic Wild Card Games, many will try to take their pick of who is best equipped to win the World Series.

Last year, I did this by statistically putting the playoff teams up against the previous 20 World Series champions based on the trends that the majority of those champions showed, in a post called “Trends of a World Series Champion.”

Every world champion did not necessarily fit every one of the 10 criteria, but most were within the trend in a majority of the categories.  Last year’s Kansas City Royals fit eight of the 10 criteria and won the World Series.

Eight teams are still alive in the chase for the Commissioner’s Trophy:  The Chicago Cubs, Washington Nationals, Los Angeles Dodgers, and San Francisco Giants from the National League, and the Texas Rangers, Cleveland Indians, Boston Red Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays in the American League.

Here is how each of the eight fit the trends of a World Series champion:

 

Trend:  Team batting average of .250 or better
Within the trend:  Red Sox (.282), Rangers (.262), Indians (.262), Giants (.258), Cubs (.256), Nationals (.256)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (.249), Blue Jays (.248)

Trend:  Number of offensive starters hitting .290 or better (min. 50 games)
Within the trend:  Red Sox (5), Indians (3), Nationals (3), Cubs (2), Rangers (2)
Outside the trend:  Dodgers (1), Blue Jays (1), Giants (0)

Trend:  Team ERA of 4.00 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (3.15), Nationals (3.51), Giants (3.65), Dodgers (3.70), Blue Jays (3.78), Indians (3.84), Red Sox (4.00)
Outside the trend:  Rangers (4.37)

Trend:  Starting rotation ERA of 4.25 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (2.96), Nationals (3.60), Blue Jays (3.64), Giants (3.71), Dodgers (3.95), Indians (4.08), Red Sox (4.22)
Outside the trend:  Rangers (4.38)

Trend:  Bullpen ERA of 3.92 or better
Within the trend:  Dodgers (3.35), Nationals (3.37), Indians (3.45), Red Sox (3.56), Cubs (3.56), Giants (3.65)
Outside the trend:  Blue Jays (4.11), Rangers (4.40)

Trend:  Home winning percentage of .550 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (.704), Rangers (.654), Indians (.654), Dodgers (.654), Nationals (.617), Red Sox (.580), Blue Jays (.568), Giants (.556)
Outside the trend:  none

Trend:  Away winning percentage of .520 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (.575), Red Sox (.568), Nationals (.556), Blue Jays (.531)
Outside the trend:  Rangers (.519), Giants (.519), Indians (.513), Dodgers (.469)

Trend:  Win percentage after Sept. 1 of .500 or better
Within the trend:  Red Sox (.655), Cubs (.621), Indians (.621), Nationals (.586), Dodgers (.586), Rangers (.536), Giants (.500)
Outside the trend:  Blue Jays (.448)

Trend:  Baseball-Reference.com Simple Rating System of 0.2 or better
Within the trend:  Cubs (1.3), Red Sox (1.3), Blue Jays (0.8), Nationals (0.6), Indians (0.6), Dodgers (0.4), Giants (0.3), Rangers (0.2)
Outside the trend:  none

 

Here are how many of the criteria each team fits the trend:

Nationals 10
Cubs 9
Indians 9
Red Sox 9
Giants 8
Dodgers 7
Rangers 6
Blue Jays 5

By this token, the Nationals should be the favorites to win the 2016 World Series.  But as I mentioned, last year’s Royals only fit eight of the criteria, so that would suggest that the top five all have a legitimate chance to win it all.

With five teams qualifying so well to make a deep run, and four rating better than the Royals (or anyone else) did last year, it shows the strength of this year’s playoff field.

In other words, it should be quite a postseason.

Fast Five: Greatest Games at Turner Field

Turner Field in Atlanta will host its final game on Sunday after 20 seasons as the home of the Atlanta Braves.

The ballpark, named for Atlanta media tycoon Ted Turner, was originally built as Centennial Olympic Stadium for the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, and was retrofitted into a baseball stadium, opening on April 4, 1997 with a 5-4 win over the Chicago Cubs.  Its final game is Sunday against the Detroit Tigers, before the Braves move to SunTrust Park in northern Atlanta for the 2017 season.

Turner Field has hosted 39 playoff games, including two games in the 1999 World Series, and the first ever National League Wild Card Game in 2012.  The 2000 MLB All-Star Game was at Turner Field, as was Braves manager Bobby Cox’s 2000th win in 2004, pitcher John Smoltz’s 3000th strikeout in 2008, and three no-hitters (in 2004, 2010, and 2014, all by visiting teams).

Greatest Games at Turner Field

Some games at “The Ted” are more memorable than others.  Here are the five greatest games at Turner Field, listed in chronological order:

Oct. 19, 1999: Braves 10, New York Mets 9 (11 inn.), NL Championship Series, Game 6
The Braves and division-rival Mets met in the 1999 National League Championship Series, and after the Braves won the first three games, the Mets won the next two to bring the series back to Atlanta, including a 15-inning thriller in Game 5 that ended on Robin Ventura’s “Grand Slam Single.”  The Braves, looking to clinch the series, led 5-0 after an inning, and 7-3 after six, but Mets C Mike Piazza capped off a four-run seventh with a game-tying homer to make it 7-7.

The Mets scored again in the eighth and 10th innings, but the Braves answered in each bottom half, taking the game to the 11th at 9-9.  In the bottom of the 11th, starter Kenny Rogers came on in relief for New York, and after Gerald Williams led off with a double and was bunted to third, Rogers intentionally walked the bases loaded to face Andruw Jones.  Jones drew a walk-off walk, winning the game, 10-9, and the series, 4-2.

With the win, Braves were in the World Series for the fifth time in nine seasons, but this season was the only World Series appearance for the Braves in the Turner Field era.  The Braves were swept by the Yankees in the World Series.

May 18, 2004:  Arizona Diamondbacks 2, Braves 0
Sorry, Braves fans, for including a loss, but when something happens that has only been done 23 times in the long history of baseball, it qualifies for this list.  The Braves entered this game having struck out 18 times against Ben Sheets in a May 16 loss in Milwaukee, and after a day off returned home to face Randy Johnson and the Diamondbacks.  Johnson, whose 4,875 career strikeouts are second all-time, was already well on his way to the Hall of Fame, but “The Big Unit” added to his legend on this night.

Johnson retired all 27 men he faced, throwing the 17th perfect game in MLB history (there have now been 23).  Johnson, the tall left-hander, struck out 13 Braves (including Chipper Jones in all three of his at-bats), throwing 87 of his 117 pitches for strikes.  The Diamondbacks got a run in the second on an Alex Cintron RBI double, and another in the seventh on a Chad Tracy RBI single, and the two runs were more than enough for Johnson on this night.  Pinch-hitter Eddie Perez (now the Braves first base coach) struck out for the historic final out.

Johnson was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in 2015, becoming the sixth Hall of Famer to have thrown a perfect game, and at 40 years old is the oldest pitcher to throw a perfect game.  Johnson’s perfect game is the only perfect game the Braves have been involved in, and the 2004 Braves are the second-winningest team to be the victim of a perfect game.

Oct. 3, 2010:  Braves 8, Philadelphia Phillies 7
Hall of Fame manager Bobby Cox was in his final season, and a sold out crowd packed Turner Field for his final regular season game, with the Braves entered the day tied with the San Diego Padres for the NL Wild Card (back when only one Wild Card team qualified for the playoffs).  The test in the finale was not easy, as the Phillies had won the NL East, and was the two-time defending National League champions.

The Braves fell behind 2-0 in the top of the third, but took an 8-2 lead through six innings, using 2 RBI each from Omar Infante and Brooks Conrad, and an RBI from starting pitcher Tim Hudson.  Jayson Werth hit a two-run homer in the seventh to make it 8-4, and in the eighth, an RBI single by Wilson Valdez and a two-RBI double by Ben Francisco cut the Braves’ lead to 8-7.  But in the ninth, Braves closer Billy Wagner, who had allowed both RBI hits in the eighth, struck out all three batters looking to seal the Braves 91st win of the season, and ensure they would not be eliminated from playoff contention. My dad was more excited after the final out of this game than any other I can remember (although I do not remember the 1995 World Series championship).  When the Padres lost in San Francisco, the Braves won the NL Wild Card for the first time in their history, and in celebration the players carried Cox off the field on their shoulders.

The Phillies were in another historic game three days later, when pitcher Roy Halladay threw the second postseason no-hitter in their playoff opener against the Reds, before eventually falling in the NLCS to the Giants.  The Giants had defeated the Braves in four games in the NLDS, with each game of the series decided by one run.  The series clincher, and Cox’s final game, also came at Turner Field on Oct. 11, and in one of the classiest moves in baseball history, the Giants stopped their celebration on the field to applaud Cox as he took his final curtain call.


July 26-27, 2011:  Braves 4, Pittsburgh Pirates 3 (19 inn.)
The Braves (entered at 59-44) and Pirates (53-47) both entered this game in the midst of pennant races in their respective divisions, and while the Braves had been to the playoff the season before, the Pirates were looking for their first winning record since 1992 (the year of “Sid’s Slide” in the NLCS at Atlanta-Fulton County Stadium).  Even with the playoff races, this game looked pedestrian on the surface, but it became one of the craziest games in baseball history.

Pittsburgh scored two in the first on RBIs by Neil Walker and Pedro Alvarez, before Michael McKenry homered in the second to give the Pirates a 3-0 lead.  The Braves answered in the third, with an RBI single by Dan Uggla and a two-RBI single by Jason Heyward, and after that, the run of zeros in the line score began.  Neither team scored for 15 consecutive innings (although for the game the teams combined to leave 39 men on base), and Tuesday night turned to Wednesday morning.  In the bottom of the 19th, Julio Lugo walked and Jordan Schafer singled him to third, before relief pitcher Scott Proctor, whose only two at-bats of the season were in this marathon, grounded to third, and Pedro Alvarez appeared to throw Lugo out at the plate easily–but umpire Jerry Meals called Lugo safe, and the Braves won 4-3.

In 2011, instant replay in MLB only entailed reviewing boundary home run calls, meaning this play was not reviewable.  The six hour, 39 minute game was the longest for the Braves since moving to Atlanta, and the two teams combined used 15 pitchers and 41 total players.  The Braves collapsed in September to miss the playoffs by one game at 89-73, while the Pirates’ loss in this game began a 1-12 stretch that doomed their playoff hopes, and they finished 72-90 before finally getting the elusive winning record (and playoff berth) in 2013.

Sept. 2, 2012:  Braves 8, Philadelphia Phillies 7
2012 was the final season in the career of legendary Braves 3B Chipper Jones, and leading into this game on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend, the Braves were 6.5 games behind Washington for the division lead, but 3.5 games clear in the Wild Card race.  The Phillies had won the division the previous five seasons, but entered this game 64-69 on their way to a third-place finish in the NL East.

The Phillies jumped out to a 5-0 lead in the first, with a two-RBI double by Ryan Howard, and a three-RBI double by Erik Kratz, and after the Braves scored on a Reed Johnson RBI double in the second, the Phillies made it 7-1 when pitcher Cole Hamels had a two-RBI double of his own.  Johnson added two more RBI on a single in the sixth to make it 7-3, and the score remained there until the ninth, Johnson singled, and Paul Janish and Michael Bourn walked to load the bases.  An error by Phillies 3B Kevin Frandsen scored two, making it 7-5, before Chipper Jones came up to face Jonathan Papelbon.  Jones launched a long walk-off homer, giving the Braves a wild, come-from-behind 8-7 victory.

The game-winning homer by Jones would be the last of his 468 career home runs, and was his second walk-off homer of his final season, both against Philadelphia.  The Braves won the first NL Wild Card, clinching the title when Freddie Freeman got a walk-off homer of his own, and hosted the first ever NL Wild Card Game on Oct. 5, in a game that became known as the “Infield Fly Game” in Atlanta, as the Braves lost 6-3 to the St. Louis Cardinals, ending Jones’s career.

Honarable Mentions:
May 20, 2010:  Braves 10, Cincinnati Reds 9
After the Braves trailed 9-3 entering the ninth, four singles, a walk, and an error set the stage for Brooks Conrad’s pinch-hit, walk-off grand slam to win 10-9.  The homer bounced off the glove of Reds LF Laynce Nix into the stands (and Conrad thought he caught it), and after the wild finish, Braves broadcaster Joe Simpson said, “I’ve been to two rodeos and three goat ropings, but I’ve never seen anything like that!”

April 6, 2013:  Braves 6, Chicago Cubs 5
Melvin and Justin Upton, both new Braves in 2013, hit game-tying and walk-off homers in the ninth, finishing a Braves rally to win after trailing the Cubs 5-1 after the seventh.  The Uptons became the first brothers to hit game-tying and walk-off home runs in the same inning in MLB history.  This game was part of a 12-1 start, and the second of a 10-game winning streak, as the Braves never looked back and went on to win the NL East.

Greatest Games I Witnessed at Turner Field

While I can’t say that I was in the ballpark for any of the moments listed above (although I will be for the park’s historic final game on Sunday), I was at Turner Field for these games, the five greatest I saw at the venue:

June 15, 2001:  Boston Red Sox 9, Atlanta Braves 5 (10 inn.)
This was my first game at Turner Field, but I was 6 years old so I don’t remember much.  I do remember that we got to see Hall of Famer Greg Maddux pitch for the Braves.  I thought Red Sox RF Trot Nixon must have been the son or grandson of Richard Nixon (again, I was 6).  We sat through a rain delay, then once the game resumed, those of us way up in the upper deck near the lights sat through the pummeling of a swarm of moths.  I thought I remembered the crowd groaning after a Chipper Jones strikeout, but according to the box score, he never struck out in the game (and, if you’re wondering, Andruw Jones did not either, so this wasn’t just a name confusion).

As it turns out, Boston scored three in the first, but the Braves pulled to within 3-2 in the third, and took a 5-3 lead in the seventh on an Andruw Jones RBI single.  The Red Sox scored a run each in the eighth and ninth (with the aforementioned Nixon responsible for the latter) to tie it at 5-5, before scoring four runs (three unearned) in the tenth to win 9-5.  Due to the rain and the extra innings, the game ended after midnight, which gave us problems getting back to our camping site at Stone Mountain State Park.

July 4, 2005:  Atlanta Braves 4, Chicago Cubs 0
My family vacationed at Stone Mountain again in 2005, and saw the Braves beat the Angels, 3-2, on July 7.  Less than a month later, friends of ours won four tickets about 25 rows up behind home plate for the Braves’ July 4 game with the Chicago Cubs.  Me, my parents, and our friend Marcia drove over six hours from Kernersville, N.C. to Atlanta that afternoon.  The always-attract-a-crowd Cubs, in addition to the holiday, made this a big crowd–the 52,274 in attendance set a regular season attendance record for a game at Turner Field at the time.  Every fan in attendance was given a dark blue, patriotic Braves cap, leading to a comical moment when my mom called my grandfather on the phone and he asked “What color hat is Christopher wearing?”

Cubs star Kerry Wood was on the mound against Kyle Davies, one of the “Baby Braves” who came up from the minors in 2005 and had such a big impact on that year’s division-winning team.  Wood struggled early, allowing an Andruw Jones RBI single and an Adam LaRoche 2-run homer in the first, making it 3-0 Braves.  No one scored again until the eighth, when LaRoche hit his second homer of the game, a solo shot to make it 4-0 (this is one of two major league multi-homer games I have seen in person).  This game was simply an excellently-pitched game by Davies, John Foster, Blaine Boyer (another of the “Baby Braves”), and Chris Reitsma.

One trivial note is that this is the same series when Jeff Francoeur made his Braves debut, which included a homer as his first MLB hit.  That game was three nights later.  Since no YouTube highlights exist of the July 4 game, here if Francoeur’s homer on July 7, another one of the great moments at Turner Field:

Sept. 28, 2013:  Philadelphia Phillies 5, Atlanta Braves 4
Student Activities at Anderson University, which I attend, sponsored a trip to a Braves game in the fall of my freshman year.  I had actually considered going to watch the Wake Forest-Clemson game (Clemson is about 30 minutes away), so this saved me seeing that 42-13 drubbing.  We carpooled, and the van I was in (me and six ladies!) got to Turner Field about an hour before first pitch, for my first game at Turner Field in eight years.  The Braves had clinched the NL East six days earlier, and were playing for playoff seeding.

Cesar Hernandez got a bunt hit on the first pitch, and Jimmy Rollins doubled on the second pitch, putting men at second and third after two quick pitches.  Mike Minor almost escaped the jam, but with two outs, Cameron Rupp singled to score both runners, making it 2-0, before a Freddie Freeman sacrifice fly in the bottom half made it 2-1.  It stayed that way until the seventh, as Mike Minor was solid for the Braves, while “Johnny Wholestaff” was strong for the Phillies.  The Phillies added two in the seventh and one in the eighth on RBIs by Rollins, Dominic Brown, and Chase Utley, making it 5-1, at which point one of the other cars of AU students actually left the game.

They were nearly embarrassed by leaving before the ninth, as the Braves made a valiant comeback.  After two singles, Justin Upton homered to make it 5-4.  Even from my seat in right field (the ball was hit to left), I knew the ball was gone on contact and leaped in the air to celebrate–before it actually just barely cleared the wall (had it been two feet shorter, I would have looked like an idiot).  After Freeman singled and Evan Gattis walked, Chris Johnson was robbed of a hit by an excellent play by Rollins at shortstop.  Just over a week later, the Braves lost in the NLDS to the Dodgers, three games to one.

Apr. 10, 2015:  Atlanta Braves 5, New York Mets 3
This is another game I got tickets to from AU Student Activities, and this game was the home opener of the Braves’ 50th season in Atlanta.  Once me and friends Ryan and Brady got out of class, we drove right into the infamous Atlanta rush hour, joined Ryan’s sister at her apartment, and rode MARTA to the stadium.  Pregame ceremonies included appearances by Chipper Jones, Bobby Cox, and Hank Aaron.  The game was delayed by rain, which seemed to make the crowd even more excited once the game finally began.

After a perfect top of the first by Eric Stults, Cameron Maybin, making his Braves home debut, led off the bottom half with a homer, before a Jonny Gomes single later in the inning made it 2-0, and an unearned run in the third made it 3-0.  In the fourth, the Mets tied it 3-3 on back-to-back pitches, with homers by David Wright (2-run homer) and John Mayberry (solo).  The score remained tied until the eighth, when Phil Gosselin came through with a two-out, two-run single to give the Braves a 5-3 lead (likely the biggest hit of the utility man’s career).  This was the first Braves home game after the trade of closer Craig Kimbrel, so we were all curious what the entry would be like for new closer Jason Grilli going to the ninth; “Fire Up The Grilli” became a catchphrase in Atlanta as he came through the bullpen gate, and the veteran slammed the door on the Mets for the 5-3 win.

This game also included the greatest defensive play I’ve ever seen live, as Andrelton Simmons threw out Travis d’Arnaud from deep shortstop on a jump throw with all of his momentum going the opposite direction (see below).  Simmons got a well-deserved prolonged standing ovation after the phenomenal play.

This game was part of a 5-0 start for the 2015 team, which included another 5-3 win over the Mets the following night, which the four of us also attended.  The 2015 Braves were 67-95, but won all five games I saw that year, which also included Aug. 24 over the Rockies (also 5-3), and a season-ending double-header sweep of the Cardinals on Oct. 4.  This Mets team, who did not look very good in April, slowly improved all season, and eventually became the only team to date I have seen in person who played in the World Series the same season.


Apr. 4, 2016:  Washington Nationals 4, Atlanta Braves 3 (10 inn.)
This was also an AU Student Activities ticket, but I would not have gone to this game were it not Opening Day and, for that matter, the last Opening Day at Turner Field.  With first pitch at 4:10 pm, Ryan, our friend Danny, and I left Anderson (on a good day, two hours northeast of Atlanta) at 1:15 when Ryan got out of class.  We got caught in bad Atlanta traffic before we were even around the stadium, and then once we got to Turner Field, parking was sold out, and we eventually had to park for $20 in someone’s driveway about three blocks south of the stadium.  The neighborhood around Turner Field isn’t exactly Beverly Hills, and to be honest we, jokingly, wondered if the car or its contents would still be there when we got back.

The game got underway as we stood in line at the gate, and I was listening to the game on the MLB At Bat app on my phone, although we heard cheers (which we figured, in the top of the first, were outs) and boos (which we absolutely knew meant Bryce Harper was coming to bat) before the delayed broadcast could tell us what was going on.  Harper, the defending NL MVP, homered on his first swing of the year, and we heard that reaction too.

We reached our seats, in the upper deck down the right field line, a couple batters after Harper, and saw Julio Teheran get the final out of the top of the first.  In the bottom half, Freddie Freeman hit a solo homer of his own to tie the score at 1-1.  In the fourth, the pattern repeated, as Daniel Murphy homered for Washington and Adonis Garcia answered with a homer for Atlanta, making it 2-2.

With the same score in the bottom of the eighth, Jeff Francoeur, the beloved outfielder and Atlanta native who had been traded away in 2009, came to the plate to pinch-hit.  “Frenchy” received a standing ovation, and the crowd stood for the whole at-bat, which ended in a walk.  After Felipe Rivero loaded the bases, Shawn Kelley walked Garcia, scoring Francoeur and giving the Braves a 3-2 lead.

Washington tied the game, 3-3, in the ninth on a sacrifice fly by Michael A. Taylor, although CF Ender Inciarte nearly threw Jayson Werth out at home plate (live, I thought he had, but C A.J. Pierzynski dropped the ball).  The game went extra innings, and in the 10th, defensive replacement Gordon Beckham made an error, and Murphy capitalized with an RBI double, giving the Nationals a 4-3 lead.  The sight of Nationals closer Jonathan Papelbon riled up the crowd one more time (he is not one of MLB’s most popular players), but the Braves went down in order.

Traffic was just as congested on the way out, but we eventually made it out of the Turner Field area, and then made it back to Anderson in time to watch the final 10 minutes of the classic Villanova-North Carolina NCAA Tournament title game on TV.


 

 

***Editor’s note:  This post would not be possible without the help of baseball-reference.com, which helped me turn my memories (quite vague ones in some cases) into more detailed accounts.

Fast Five: World Series Favorites After the All-Star Break

Play resumes tonight in MLB after a four day break for the league’s All-Star Game in San Diego.  Roughly 21 of the 30 teams still have a realistic chance at making the playoffs (exactly how many depends on your definition of realistic), but a few stand out at the most likely teams to make a deep run come October.  Here are my five biggest favorites to win the World Series:

5. Cleveland Indians (52-36)
Over the last few years, my biggest point of skepticism with the Indians has been whether they could score runs, because they’ve had the pitching to contend for a while.  This year, while the pitching continues to be strong (the staff leads the AL with a 3.63 ERA), the offense is beyond just a complement to the pitching, as the Indians have become a force on both sides of the ball.  The Tribe scored 5.4 runs per game during a recent 14-game winning streak, and are led by SS Francisco Lindor (.306 BA, 10 HR, 45 RBI).  While Lindor leads the club in Wins Above Replacement (WAR), however, the next five are still pitchers (Danny Salazar, Trevor Bauer, Carlos Carrasco, Corey Kluber, Josh Tomlin), showing that the pitching staff is still the foundation as the club tries to make its first World Series trip since 1997, and tries to win it for the first time.  The Indians currently have a comfortable 6.5 game lead in the AL Central over the Tigers.

4. Washington Nationals (54-36)
Last year the Nats were a team of dysfunction, but under new manager Dusty Baker they have, at least thus far, realized their potential in 2016.  Bryce Harper, the defending NL MVP, is having somewhat of a down year, at least by his lofty standards (.256 BA, 19 HR, 52 RBI), and is seventh on the team in WAR.  Like the Indians, the Nationals are built with pitching; four of the top five in WAR are pitchers (Steven Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Tanner Roark, and Joe Ross, with 2B Daniel Murphy being the exception), and the team leads all of baseball with a 3.29 ERA.  Offensively, it is Murphy who is putting up MVP numbers (.348 BA, 17 HR, 66 RBI), as part of an offense that is sixth in the NL in runs and first in homers.  This team, who leads the Mets and Marlins by six games in the NL East, has the talent to win it all in October, although they have never even won a playoff series, something they would have to do twice to reach the Fall Classic.

3. Texas Rangers (54-36)
Last year, the Rangers made a surprise run in the second half to reach the postseason after many pundits thought they were best positioned for a run in 2016.  Well, they have an excellent chance at another playoff opportunity this year, as they sport the best record in the AL and have a 5.5 game lead on the resurgent Houston Astros.  The scary thing for the rest of baseball is that this team, as good as they have been, has not been completely healthy at any point yet this season.  Ian Desmond (.322 BA, 15 HR, 55 RBI) is a candidate for the MLB Comeback Player of the Year Award after a very poor 2015 campaign with Washington, although Matt Bush (3-1, 2.49 ERA) also has an exceptional comeback story as a key contributor on the AL favorites just months after his release from a 39-month prison term.  This particular year, the AL field in the playoffs will likely not be as strong as the NL field, something that could play right into the Rangers’ hands as they try to win their first World Series title.

2. San Francisco Giants (57-33)
Yes, it is an even-numbered year, but that is not the main reason the Giants are on this list.  The team has a remarkable stretch of winning the World Series the last three even years (2010, ’12, ’14), and they are contenders to do it again in 2016, currently leading the Dodgers by 6.5 games in the NL West.  The Giants are fourth in the NL in runs, despite ranking next to last in homers, and are still doing well at the plate despite three offensive starters on the DL.  But like most of the teams on this list, the Giants’ strength is their pitching, with a 3.55 team ERA that is fifth in MLB, and two bona fide aces leading the staff in All-Star starting pitcher Johnny Cueto (13-1, 2.47 ERA) and Madison Bumgarner (10-4, 1.94 ERA).  10 teams do not yet have a complete game, yet Cueto has four and Bumgarner three.  The team is 40-15 (albeit against a weak schedule) since May 10, and has the best record in baseball at the All-Star break for the first time since 1993, although just six of the last 30 teams to lead baseball at the break have followed in the fall with a title (and the ’93 edition is the last team to miss the playoffs with 100+ wins).  Only time will tell if this even year plays out like the last three.

1. Chicago Cubs (53-35)
In April I picked the Cubs to end their infamous 108-year championship drought, and I am sticking with it despite their recent 6-15 midseason swoon.  This team is simply too good for this slump to continue, and while I am not explicitly saying they will definitely win the World Series, I do still believe they have the best chance of anyone in baseball.  The Cubs are built differently than the other teams on this list, as five of their top six in WAR are position players, including their leaders in 3B/OF Kris Bryant (.286 BA, 25 HR, 65 RBI) and 1B Anthony Rizzo (.299 BA, 21 HR, 63 RBI).  That being said, their pitching has (for the most part) been outstanding as well, led by defending NL Cy Young winner Jake Arrieta (12-4, 2.68 ERA) and Jon Lester (9-4, 3.01 ERA).  This team is much better than recent form would indicate, and this rough patch is not likely to be anything more than a blip on the radar screen and is something every team goes through at some point.  The Cubs still lead the NL Central by 6.5 games over the Cardinals, and to me are still the World Series favorites just as they have been all along in 2016, as they try to do something that very few living souls have ever seen and win their first title since 1908.

 

 

 

MLB Standings

AL East
1. Baltimore 51-36
2. Boston 49-38, 2 GB
2. Toronto 51-40, 2 GB
4. N.Y. Yankees 44-44, 7.5 GB
5. Tampa Bay 34-54, 17.5 GB

AL Central
1. Cleveland 52-36
2. Detroit 46-43, 6.5 GB
3. Chi. White Sox 45-43, 7 GB
3. Kansas City 45-43, 7 GB
5. Minnesota 32-56, 20 GB

AL West
1. Texas 54-36
2. Houston 48-41, 5.5 GB
3. Seattle 45-44, 8.5 GB
4. Oakland 38-51, 15.5 GB
5. L.A. Angels 37-52, 16.5 GB

NL East
1. Washington 54-36
2. N.Y. Mets 47-41, 6 GB
2. Miami 47-41, 6 GB
4. Philadelphia 42-48, 12 GB
5. Atlanta 31-58, 22.5 GB

NL Central
1. Chi. Cubs 53-35
2. St. Louis 46-42, 7 GB
3. Pittsburgh 46-43, 7.5 GB
4. Milwaukee 38-49, 14.5 GB
5. Cincinnati 32-57, 21.5 GB

NL West
1. San Francisco 57-33
2. L.A. Dodgers 51-40, 6.5 GB
3. Colorado 40-48, 16 GB
4. San Diego 38-51, 18.5 GB
5. Arizona 38-52, 19 GB

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