Tag Archives: Washington Nationals

Fortune favours the brave

So the 2,429* game marathon of baseball’s regular season is over and the postseason is about to begin. And if we have learnt anything from the regular season it is that it is a marathon not a sprint – hardly surprising when the season lasts 162 games – and sometimes fortune favours the brave.

Three of the six division winners – the Royals, Cardinals and the Dodgers – were top on July 12th – the last day before the All Star Break – and no one was really surprised that they were still there at the end of the season yesterday. But the other three division winners no one could have predicted at the All Star Break.

On July 12th the Toronto Blue Jays – no post season appearance since 1993 – were actually below .500 (45-46) and were above only the Red Sox in the AL East. The Texas Rangers were even worse (42-46) and were third in the AL West. While the New York Mets were only two games behind in the NL East  that was more because of the poor quality of the division than their own form. The Mets hit a new low on July 23rd when they became only the second franchise since 1920 to field number 4 and 5 hitters with an average below .180 (for a position player in the majors anything below .200 is considered unacceptable). Against Clayton Kershaw! The biggest surprise was not that Kershaw tossed a complete game three hit shut out but that he gave up three hits. The Mets offence was the laughing stock of baseball and that the idea that these two teams would meet in the post season was absurd. But as it turned out not only will they meet but the meeting has been on the cards since the start of September

So how did the Mets (as well as the Blue Jays and Rangers) turn it round? Well in the case of the first two they both had strengths. The Blue Jays offence was seriously good but they lacked an ace on the mound. The Mets had the opposite problem. Their young pitching staff were outstanding – so much so that Matt Harvey is arguably the third best pitcher in the team but their offence as mentioned above was awful. But to their credit both franchises did something about it. The Blue Jays traded for ace David Price while the Mets traded for hitting star Yoenis Cespedes. Both were gambles especially as they would be free agents at the end of the season so in effect they were “rentals”. But their bravery paid off. Price only started 11 games for the Blue Jays but had a 9-1 record providing them with the missing piece in their jigsaw since the offence was already the best in baseball. Cespedes was so successful for the Mets that some people considered him a candidate for National League MVP despite only playing 57 games for the Mets. His average – .287 – was higher than any of his team mates and his 17 home run tally was the third highest for the Mets. It could be said that for the second year in a row he transformed a franchise’s season (last year the Athletics collapsed after they traded him). While in both cases the new stars were not the only factor it is clear they were a major factor and the teams courage was rewarded.

The case of the Texas Rangers** is more complicated. Experienced players like Prince Fielder and Shin-Soo Choo got their form back after an injury ravaged 2014 and the bullpen – a liability early season – became the best in baseball by September. While talisman Adrian Beltre has been outstanding. But again they had the courage to trade for Cole Hamels – an ace – when it seemed they had no chance of reaching the post season (It was reckoned to be a signing for 2016). But although his ERA was actually higher with the Rangers than it was with the Phillies – 3.66 to 3.64 –  the Rangers won his last ten starts and when needed most he pitched a complete game against the Angels to clinch a remarkable Division win (considering it took until August 15th – the team’s 115th game of the season – to go above .500 for good). I don’t think the Rangers win the Division without Hamels.

Whether the Mets and the Blue Jays win their divisions without Cespedes and Price is harder to say. It certainly helped the Mets that their only rivals the Nationals imploded so spectacularly that two of their players Bryce Harper and Johnathan Papelbon ended up fighting each other in the dugout!*** But they were certainly key players. One suspects that if the Blue Jays, Mets or Rangers are to win a League pennant or World Series Price, Cespedes and Hamels will play a part. Proving that in sport fortune can favour the brave.

* There are 2,430 games in the regular season but a September washout between the Tigers and Indians was not made up as neither team could make the post season.

**I must declare that I support the Texas Rangers but I hope I can write impartiality about them.

***And today Nationals manager Matt Williams and his entire coaching staff were fired paying the price for the failure of a franchise that many – including myself – expected to be challenging for at least the NL pennant if not the World Series itself.

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.