To say the American League has been unpredictable lately is an understatement. The last two seasons have seen the AL pennant go to a team that had lost 93 games the previous year (Boston) and one that had not reached the post season for 29 years (Kansas City). So what on earth could happen this year?
We’ll start with what has usually been the toughest division in baseball – the AL East. Since wild cards begun in 1995 the AL East has had two teams in the Division series in 15 out of 20 years. But last year the AL East did not even get the second wild card and a repeat is a possibility. The Red Sox have added Pablo Sandoval and Hanley Ramirez to an already strong hitting line up but have no ace after failing to resign Jon Lester. The Yankees have one pitcher who is an ace if he is fit – Masahiro Tanaka – and one who was an ace but is past his best – CC Sabathia – but this team is creaking with old age which is why it got wrecked by injuries the last two years and could be so again. It would be nice to see the Blue Jays “do a KC” and end a long post season drought (now the longest in baseball. Post season baseball has not been played in Canada since 1993) and like the Red Sox the offence is good enough – Josh Donaldson and Russell Martin are excellent additions to an offence that already had Jose Bautista and Edwin Encarnacion but ace Marcus Stroman is out for the year which leaves the Blue Jays relying on 40 year old RA Dickey and 36 year old Mark Buehrle for pitching. The Rays – starting their post Joe Maddon- Andrew Freidman era – have the opposite problem. This franchise has never been short of pitching but hitting could be a problem – especially as Will Myers was traded in the off season.
The surprise to me in the AL East is how under rated Baltimore are. Baseball Prospectus rates their post season chances at 19.3 % – astonishingly low for a team who did win the division by 12 games last year. True they’ve lost last year’s home run leader Nelson Cruz and Nick Markasis but against that they’ll hope for full seasons from Manny Machado and Matt Wieters. They are not a team of stars – Adam Jones apart – but they are greater than the sum of their parts and unless Boston signs an ace like Cole Hamels the Os have a good chance of upsetting the odds and defending their division title.
What I’m going to write next could either make me look like a genius or an idiot but here goes. This year could see the end of the Detroit Tigers domination of the AL Central. The team is going for a fifth successive title but stars Miguel Cabrera Victor Martinez and Justin Verlander aren’t getting any younger and already have had injuries pre season. If they miss a lot of games Detroit will be in trouble. They are still capable of making me look stupid but the pressure is on. The team is getting older and their window is closing – especially as David Price will be a free agent after 2015. This could be their last chance to crown their era with a world championship.
Especially as three of the teams in the division are improving. One is amazed that Baseball Prospectus rate the Royals’ post season chances as low as 10.3%. They are the defending AL Champions. While it is true that Billy Butler and James Shields are gone the lights out bull pen and brilliant outfield of last year are still intact. The Royals could win the division or miss out on the post season. The key might be Eric Hosmer and Mike Moustakas . Both did well in the post season but not in the regular season and will need to reproduce the post season form for KC to win the division.
The White Sox are the wild card here though. Although they lost 89 games last year they did have talent – Jose Abreu and Chris Sale come to mind – and have strengthened with Jeff Samardzia, Melky Cabrera and David Robertson. If Abreu avoids second season syndrome and Sale – a future Cy Young winner – gets fit quick (he’ll miss the start of the season) – the White Sox – despite all the hype about the Cubs – could well be the team from Chicago playing post season baseball. And the Indians can’t be ruled out either especially if Cy Young winner Corey Kluber maintains his form (the Twins can be ruled out though). The four non Detroit teams have averaged 75.5 wins in the last four years but that will change this season. The Central will definitely send two teams to the post season and like its NL counterpart in 2013 could send three.
That of course will depend on the AL West. The Astros and my team the Rangers (since ace Yu Darvish is out for the season as he requires Tommy John surgery) can be ruled out of contention. The As have gutted their roster but also made interesting moves. They are back in the role of underdogs which they like and while I don’t think they’ll make the post season they won’t fall back into pre 2012 mediocrity either. The two favourites here are the reigning champion Angels and the much improved Mariners. The Angels won’t win 98 games again – especially as Josh Hamilton has got into off field trouble again – but they still have Mike Trout who is well quite good. The worst they’ll do is win a wild card. But they might not defend the division though as the Mariners look like they have their best team since Ichiro’s rookie season in 2001. Last year they were one game shy of the post season despite run scoring problems. The signing of Cruz will solve that problem as well as offering Robinson Cano protection. While they won’t win 116 games as in 2001 they should at worst win a wild card and are my tip just to pip the Angels. One thing is certain. Unless disaster strikes and ace “King” Felix Hernandez is injured the “King’s Court” at Safeco Field should see their hero pitch in the post season at last.
So I would say that the Os the White Sox and the Mariners are my favourites for the AL divisions this year. But the fact that none can be regarded as certainties sums up the “junior circuit” which looks like it could be as unpredictable this year as it has been in the previous two.
So after 2,430 regular season games and 25 post season ones, we have finally reached the main event of the baseball season, the 2014 World Series. And a perfect match up it has thrown up between the underdogs Kansas City Royals – making their third World Series appearance in franchise history – and the favourites the San Fransisco Giants making their third World Series appearance in the last five years. For the Royals all this is new. The Giants have an experienced core – Buster Posey, Hunter Pence, Pablo Sandoval, Tim Lincecum and Madison Bumgarner – who already have World Series rings. It is a fascinating contrast.
And yet the two teams are quite similar – and both have shown that there are two key points to success in the post season. First and most important is a good bullpen. For if this post season has proved anything it has shown that unless your relief pitchers are up to the task, you are going nowhere. Just ask the Detroit Tigers and LA Dodgers who despite all the money they spent had hopeless bullpens and paid the price. In contrast the Royals’ 7th-8th-9th inning guys – Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland – have been lights out. While the Giants’ bullpen can be summed up by the nine scoreless extra innings it threw in that 18 inning Division Series game at Washington – including six by Yusmeiro Petit in the outstanding performance of the 2014 post season. Bullpen pitchers are the honest foot soldiers of baseball. They don’t command big salaries – in fact Baseball Prospectus 2014 (page 235) says “nobody is supposed to pay money for relief pitching”. Nor unless they are outstanding closers like Mariano Rivera or Trevor Hofffman do they become stars . But they are vital to a team’s post season chances.
The second lesson is that offences that rely on hitting home runs are exposed in the post season against better pitching. The O’s are this year’s example. They feasted on Detroit’s awful bullpen but when they met the Royals’ pitching the home run hitting failed them and they had no other option. The same fate befell the 2013 Braves and the 2012 Yankees. Yes timely home runs are important but you also need to get on base and play “small ball” – the sacrifice bunt the stolen base – the Royals stole seven in one game – are also important and both teams know this. As Brad Pitt – playing A’s general manage Billy Beane – says to Eric Chavez in a scene from “Moneyball” “You get on base we win. You don’t we lose”. If you never get on base you can only score by solo home runs – which don’t win games very often.
So what will happen in the World Series? If I was to name one key player it is the Giants’ starter Madison Bumgarner. Since the bullpens are better than the starting pitchers both teams- but especially the Royals – will try to get ahead by the sixth inning then turn it over to the bullpen. Bumgarner – as the one outstanding starter on show – is a big obstacle to that plan (that is unless Royals’ starter James Shields earns his “big game James” nickname. As Victoria Chiesa wrote on Twitter – @vrcsports – one wonders if the nickname is ironic. He has done nothing this postseason to earn it and the Royals could be said to have won his starts despite him rather than because of him.)
If the Giants win the first game it will be a big test of character for the Royals who have won all their postseason games in 2014 and – unlike the Giants – have no experience of being behind in a post season series. There is a scenario where – like the 2007 Rockies who also won every post season game got hammered in game 1 of the World Series and never recovered – the Royals collapse and the Giants get their second World Series sweep in three years. I don’t see this happening. The series will be tight low scoring and exciting (with my record of making predictions that means tonight’s game will be a 10-8 slugfest!) As for who’ll win? My heart says the Royals. My head says the Giants. So who to go with? One thing this post season has lacked is a game five or a game seven – a final decisive game. I wouldn’t be surprised if this time the series goes all the way to Kansas City for the decisive game seven. And who’ll win? I’ll just go with my head and the Giants. One thing is certain. What will decide it? To misquote Bill Clinton it’s the bullpen stupid..
So the 162-game marathon of the baseball regular season is over for another year and it will be remembered as Derek Jeter’s last. Was anyone surprised his last AB at Yankee Stadium was a walk-off hit? Not me. Some things are just meant to be. But inevitably in sport these days a backlash occurs. And in Jeter’s case it came from Keith Olbermann of ESPN who claims that Jeter is not that great. Sorry anyone who has the sixth highest number of hits of all time, plus the most hits and games for the most successful franchise in baseball history has to be great – and add to that he was a perfect gentleman and a credit to the sport. That is important because when he made his debut in 1995 baseball was in the doldrums after the shambles of the 1994-5 strike and needed an image boost. He’s not the greatest Yankee of all time – that is still Babe Ruth who changed the whole way the game was played – but to say he’s not great is ridiculous. Olbermann is on firmer ground when he attacks the season long “Jeter fest” his retirement has brought but that is the media and MLB’s fault and not Jeter’s. And no one complained when Mariano Rivera went through the same retirement hoopla last year. Jeter might be past his best but I would still hate to be the 2015 Yankees shortstop. The first time “E6” is written on a scorecard in the Bronx next year one suspects the poor guy will be reminded that he is not Derek Jeter. I would also just like to say thanks to Paul Konerko and Bobby Abreu who are two very good players whose retirements went under the radar because of the tributes to Jeter.
So with the regular season ending, we think of the MVP awards. A lot of experts on ESPN’s “Baseball Tonight” seem to think a pitcher shouldn’t be MVP because they have their own award namely the Cy Young . Yet 24 pitchers have won the MVP and two rookies have been MVP in the same year they were Rookie of the year – Fred Lynn in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001 – and no one said that was wrong or that is should stop Mike Trout from being considered for MVP in 2012 so that argument is false. It is true that position players play every day and starting pitchers only every five days but if one of the latter has an exceptional season he should be considered. And Kershaw’s season was exceptional. You want proof? Johnny Cueto and Adam Wainwright both won 20 games. In any other season there would be a big debate over which one of them would win the NL Cy Young. They have as much chance of winning it as I have. Why? Kershaw. By winning 21 out of 27 starts he has done something no pitcher has gone since 1880. Counting two games the Dodgers won when Kershaw had no decisions their win rate is .852(23-4) when he pitches…and .526(71-64) when he doesn’t. That is an MVP season. His only rival is Andrew McCutchen but while his season was a repeat of his 2013 Kershaw was outstanding. The Dodgers fans were right when during his last start they chanted “MVP”.
And so on to the post season. The good thing about this post season is there is no outstanding team this year and anyone of the ten teams in the post season can win the world Series. So many questions. I’ll be fascinated to see how the Angels’ young star Mike Trout fares in his first post season. He’s arguably the best player in MLB today but he has yet to be tested in the post season where there are no rubbish fifth starters to feast on and the pressure is greater. On the other side of the scale tonight is a big night for Adam Dunn of the As who plays his first post season game after 14 years 2001 regular season games and 462 home runs – to say nothing of the Kansas City Royals for whom tonight is their first post season game since 1985.
But two people who are under pressure this post season are Jon Lester and Brad Assmus. First Lester. Ever since the As traded for him – trading their best hitter Yoenis Cespedes in the process – the As offense collapsed. Their second half win percentage (.433) is the worst of any post season team in MLB history and but for the second wild card we’d be comparing the As to the 2011 Red Sox and the 2007 Mets for September collapses. But they are still in the hunt. And this is the game they brought Lester to Oakland for. A must win post season game. The pressure is huge. Oh and the other team’s starting pitcher is known as “Big Game James”. Both offences are poor and this game could be 1-0 either way. The margin for error could be nil. And if the As lose Oakland fans will think “why did we trade for this guy and lose Cespedes?” No pressure Jon..
But the man I would not swap places with is Assmus. You are a rookie manager. Its Game one of the postseason. Who do you put on the mound? Your choice is between Justin Verlander (Cy Young winner), David Price (Cy Young winner) and Max Scherzer (the reigning Cy Young winner). Its like being a kid in a sweet shop. Which one do you pick? And if the one who you do pick gets roughed up by the home run happy Os every one will use hindsight and say you picked the wrong one! I would NOT like to be Mr assmus.
Still I think it will be a happy ending for Assmus. Pre season I tipped the Tigers and the Dodgers to be in the World Series and the winner to be whatever League won the All-Star Game. They are both in the post season. I do not change horses mid race. Still the question remains. Who will be 2014’s David Freese – or 2014’s Bill Bucknor? There’s only one way to find out….