Tag Archives: San Fransisco Giants

Can the Cardinals/Giants duopoloy be broken ?

Time was when the American League was the most predictable in baseball. Between 1947 and 1964 the Yankees won the AL pennant 15 times out of 18. But this has changed. In the last five seasons four different teams have won the AL pennant while only the Giants (2010, 2012 and 2014) and the Cardinals (2011 and 2013) have won the National League. So as a new baseball season approaches will there be change in the NL this year?

Let’s start with the team that were celebrating at the end of last season – the World Champion Giants. They have bigger problems than the fact it is an odd numbered year and the Giants don’t make the post season in those years. The offence could struggle. Pablo Sandoval and Michael Morse are gone and Hunter Pence will miss the first 6-8 weeks. And it wasn’t the best offence to start with. The pitching would be awesome if all of then were at their peak but that can only be said about post season hero Madison Bumgarner. It will be interesting to see if Matt Cain can come back from injury at or near his 2012 peak but Tim Hudson ,Tim Lincecum and Jake Peavy are surely past theirs. Add to the (easy forgotten) fact the Giants won only 88 games last year in a poor NLWest (apart from the Dodgers of course) plus the fact that the Padres have improved the D-Backs can’t get worse and the Rockies must on the law of averages get a full season out of Troy Tulowitski and Carlos Gonzalez and it adds up to fewer wins for the Giants and probably no post season action this year.

The Cardinals are a different case though. Baseball Prospectus 2015 (page 368) lists the things that went wrong for the Cardinals in 2014 – a list far too long to reproduce here. But they still won 90 games the division and got to the NLCS. Imagine how they could do if fewer things went wrong. They aren’t a lock to win the NL Central – three of their rivals have got to the post season in the last four years and the fifth team the Cubs are stuffed with exciting young talent – but while there is a case for saying the Pirates could win the NL Central one cannot imagine the Cardinals NOT getting a wild card. And as 2011 and 2012 showed the Cardinals with a wild card are dangerous. They are arguably the best run franchise in baseball and will be serious contenders again. Even if disaster strikes and Adam Wainwright is injured one must remember they won the 2011 World Series without him throwing a pitch all season. They find a way.

So if the duopoly is to be broken, who will do it? The obvious contenders are the cash rich Dodgers. Their off season has been fascinating – especially their appointment of Andrew Freidman as President of Baseball Operations. Going from the poor Rays to the rich Dodgers must make him feel that he has won the lottery. But as many lottery winners find out if you are not used to having money you can spend it badly. His moves have been interesting trading Dee Gordon and Hanley Ramirez signing Howie Kendrick and above all trading star player Matt Kemp. The move makes sense – the Dodgers had a log jam in the outfield, didn’t want to lose uber prospect Joc Pederson and probably felt the injury prone Kemp will never return to his 2011 peak. But if he does the fact he went to the division rival Padres means he could come back to haunt them and the fans at Chavez Ravine won’t like that. They should still win the NL West but have one big problem if they want to do what the owners and fans expect – win the World Series. They might have to get by the Cardinals – who seem to have the same effect on the great Clayton Kershaw as kryptonite has on Superman. This gives the Cardinals a huge advantage should they meet again.

So if the Dodgers can’t break the duopoly who can? There is one obvious candidate. The Washington Nationals won the NL East by 17 games had the best record in the NL and had the beat pitching staff in the League. But for a second time in three seasons they did not get out of the Division Series. But in the off season they showed they were determined to change this by signing Max Scherzer. They did not sign this former Cy Young winner to win the NL East. In a division where two teams are on the way up (the Marlins and Mets) but from a poor base – and the other two – the Braves and Phillies -are in decline  – they would have probably won the division any way No. Scherzer has been signed to try and make the Nats post season winners. To stop them being the Oakland As of the NL. This is a declaration that “our time has come”. While nothing is certain in baseball adding Scherzer to a pitching staff so good that even though it has – according to Baseball Prospectus -the best pitching prospect in baseball Lucas Giolito of whom BP says “There are Major League teams that don’t have a better pitcher than him” –  his chances of playing in the Majors are slim – means that if any team can break the Cardinals/Giants duopoly in the NL it is this team.

A previous Washington franchise – the Senators – were so bad the phrase “Washington. First in war, first in peace, and last in the American League*” was coined about them. In 2015 it could be “First in war, first in peace, and first in the National League”.

*The first two baseball franchises in Washington DC  – both called the Senators – were in the American League. It was not until 2005 – when the Expos moved to DC – that Washington became a NL city.

It’s the bullpen stupid…

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..