Almost without argument, this is the least dramatic second-half my baseball watching lifetime. Let’s take a look at the leaders and runners-up of the division races as of September 8th:
AL East: New York, Boston 2.5 games back
AL Central: Detroit, Chicago 9 games back
AL West: Texas, Anaheim 2.5 games back
AL Wild Card: Boston, Tampa Bay 7 games back
NL East: Philadelphia, Atlanta 10.5 games back
NL Central: Milwaukee, St. Louis 7.5 games back
NL West: Arizona, San Francisco 7 games back
NL Wild Card: Atlanta, St. Louis 6.5 games back
So to recap – out of the 8 races, only 2 teams are within 6.5 games of the division leader…one of which is the Red Sox, who leads Tampa Bay by 7 games in the wild card. For all intents and purposes, there is currently ONE race within any type of reasonable drama in the AL West (and even here, the word “reasonable” is in question; the Rangers have held the division lead since May).
Why did this happen? At the All-Star break, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Atlanta, Cleveland and Anaheim either had the division lead, a share of the division lead, or were within 4 games of the division lead. Cleveland, Pittsburgh, St. Louis, San Francisco and Cincinnati have gone on to play combined .455 ball since then, while Detroit, Milwaukee, Philadelphia, Texas and Arizona have played at a .649 clip. This confluence of the teams with incredible winning and losing streaks led to a second half where nearly all the playoff spots were locked up by the end of August. Baseball is already a pretty slow game; ending the division races 4/5 into the season gives it the pace of competitive dart throwing. So unless you play fantasy baseball or you are a masochist who enjoys seeing your team try to make up a 12 game differential in 30 games (Go Dodgers!), then the next four weeks of baseball are going to be an awful affair for you. This is my nightmare.
HOWEVER – for all the baseball fans out there (not just fans of a team; meaning, you watch Sunday Night baseball even if your team isn’t in it, you enjoy watching Cliff Lee pitch regardless of who it’s against or you hate AJ Burnett for existing), there’s a silver lining. This could be one of the most competitive MLB playoffs ever. Take a look at these teams – more specifically their bullpens, their starting rotations and best hitters:
SP: Jon Lester (2.93 ERA, 167 K), Josh Beckett (2.49 ERA, 155 K)
RP: Daniel Bard (2.76 ERA, 0.86 WHIP), Jonathan Papelbon (2.75 ERA, 29 SV)
Hitters: Adrian Gonzalez (.343 AVG, 24 HR, 106 RBI), David Ortiz (.319 AVG, 29 HR, 92 RBI), Jacoby Ellsbury (.316 AVG, 102 Runs, 36 SB), Dustin Pedroia (.301 AVG, 87 Runs, 77 RBI), Kevin Youkilis (17 HR, 80 RBI), JD Drew (is terrible)
SP: CC Sabatha (2.92 ERA, 211 K), Fat Bartolo Colon (3.72 ERA, 123 K), Ivan Nova (post All-Star, 7-0, 3.45 ERA, 1.09 WHIP)
RP: Mariano Rivera (2.13 ERA, 39 SV), David Robertson (1.23 ERA, 89 K)
Hitters: Curtis Granderson (126 Runs, 38 HR, 106 RBI), Robinson Cano (.303 AVG, 24 HR, 105 RBI), Mark Texeira (36 HR, 103 RBI)
SP: Justin Verlander (2.44 ERA, 232 K, the best pitcher alive), Justin Verlander (2.44 ERA, 232 K, the best pitcher alive), and Justin Verlander (2.44 ERA, 232 K, the best pitcher alive)
RP: Jose Valverde (2.49 ERA, 42 for 42 in SV opportunities), Al Albuquerque (2.15 ERA, 59 K)
Hitters: Miguel Cabrera (.332 AVG, 26 HR, 95 RBI), Victor Martinez (.326 AVG, 89 RBI), (Jhonny Peralta (.841 OPS, 77 RBI)
SP: CJ Wilson (3.13 ERA, 179 K), Alexi Ogando (3.66 ERA, 116 K)
RP: Neftali Feliz (2.87 ERA, 29 SV), Mike Adams (1.65 ERA, 0.92 WHIP), Koji Uehara (0.95 WHIP)
Hitters: Michael Young (.333 AVG, 91 RBI), Josh Hamilton (.298 AVG, 19 HR, 80 RBI), Mike Napoli (.995 OPS, 24 HR), Nelson Cruz (28 HR, 84 RBI)
SP: Halladay, Hamels, Lee and Oswalt. Do you really need stats here?
RP: Ryan Madson (2.79 ERA, 29 SV), Antonio Bastardo (1.66 ERA, .114 batting average against), Brad Lidge (1.46 ERA)
Hitters: Shane Victorino (.300, 85 Runs), Ryan Howard (31 HR, 108 RBI), Hunter Pence (.308 AVG, .906 OPS), Jimmy Rollins (79 Runs, 28 SB)
SP: Tim Hudson (3.14 ERA, 1.13 WHIP), Brandon Beachy (3.29 ERA, 142 K), Jair Jurrjens (2.96 ERA, 1.22 WHIP)
RP: Johnny Venters (1.49 ERA, 89 K), Craig Kimbrel (1.57 ERA, 113 K in 68 IP), Eric O’Flaherty (1.13 ERA, 1.08 WHIP)
Hitters: Dan Uggla (33 HR, 72 RBI), Brian McCann (.850 OPS, 23 HR), Freddie Freeman (.292 AVG, 18 HR)
SP: Zack Greinke (3.93 ERA, 1.17 WHIP), Shawn Marcum (3.11 ERA, 1.09 WHIP), Yovani Gallardo (3.71 ERA, 171 K)
RP: John Axford (2.23 ERA, 41 SV), Takashi Saito (2.11 ERA, 1.17 WHIP), Francisco Rodriguez (2.79 ERA, 1.19 WHIP)
Hitters: Ryan Braun (.332 AVG, 27 HR, 95 RBI), Prince Fielder (.293 AVG, 31 HR, 108 RBI), Corey Hart (23 HR, .849 OPS), Rickie Weeks (19 HR, 71 runs)
Translation: In Algonquin means, “The Good Land”
There you go; seven title contenders in an eight team field. Every team has an above average (mostly well above average) two starting pitchers, a great pen and a good to great offense.
I view the MLB playoffs unlike the NBA, NFL or any other pro sport. As long as you make the playoffs, have at least one great pitcher, a good pen and a competent/hot offense, you have a shot. It doesn’t matter how many wins you finish with, or how you came into the playoffs or how good your team looks on paper. Just make sure your team is hot when the games start, and that you have one starting pitcher you can ride to the title. This happens more often than you would think:
2002 Anaheim Angels
2004 Chicago White Sox
2006 St. Louis Cardinals
2008 Philadelphia Phillies
2010 San Francisco Giants
When the playoffs started, no one gave any of those teams a chance. In fact, all 5 of those teams were underdogs in the first round they played. But they all looked like the teams that wouldn’t win the World Series because of some definable flaw. There’s always a couple of these teams in every playoff field; look at last year for example. Did anyone think the Giants had a prayer of beating the Phillies? Or the Rangers? When the playoffs started, it wasn’t just them that no one gave a chance of winning. The Giants, Reds, Braves and Twins were all written off immediately. Most critics and fans saw the Yanks, Phillies, Rays or the Ranger taking it. There’s always going to be those teams that don’t pass the sniff test; the teams that you look at and say “no chance in hell”.
In 2011? There’s one team, Arizona, that I would write off. And on paper, this Arizona team looks like it could blow the 2010 Giants, Reds, Braves and Twins out of the water.
Take a look at those 7 teams again; can you say any of them is an easy out? Do any of them have any glaring, visible flaws? In isolation, don’t all seven of those teams look like World Series champions? I think so. For the first time in a long time, I don’t know who is the favorite. I think I may have seven.
The 2011 regular season may have suffered through the longest period of inconsequential baseball in the history of the majors, but come October, it could all be worth it. We may be looking at the most competitive playoffs ever. Dig it.