MLB Races With A Week To Go.

Last year I wrote article nearly every day on the complicated MLB pennant race. This year, it is very siimple. In the American League, only the Central DIvision is undecided as Detroit leads KC by a single game. The Royals are playing Cleveland in Cleveland today and finish at Chicago. The Tigers host Chicago and then the Twins over the final weekend. That gives the Tigers at least a one game advantage and they will probably win the division, leaving the Royals as one of the two wildcard teams.

The other AL wild card will be the A’s who lead Seattle by 2. Seattle ends with the Angels, not the place to be if you are trying to sweep a series. Look for a playoff between Oakland and Kansas CIty for the fourth playoff spot. Of interest here, is that Oakland with 86-70 wins has a one game home field advantage over KC. 85-71 that may be determined by a coin lip in a week. Hang on.

In the National League, it is all over. St. Louis, Baltimore, and the LA Dodgers won divisions and Pittsburgh and San Francisco will play the wild card game. Pittsburgh has a 1/2 game home field advantage there, so another coin toss may occur. 

This season will end without the great drama I like to see, but that drama will likely come in the playoffs.  There are great teams playing and the chance of a Washington World Series is a lot to consider for me. Having just watched the Angels recently, I am leaning toward them as well. I would go to a game just to see Mike Trout play centerfield. There is also the possibilty of Baltimore-Washington, a LA-LA, or a KC-St.L World Series matchups.  Could be interesting, don’t you think?

For now, it is just a matter of waiting, unless, of course, something unexpected happens, and that happens often in the wonderful world of Major League Baseball. 

Playoff War Continued, Late Inning Victories

There were two games yesterday in the MLB Playoffs. Boston beat the Rays 3-1 to advance to the League Championship Series and Detroit beat the A’s 8-6 to force a final game in Oakland on Thursday.

Red Sox scored all of their runs in the final three innings and Detroit scored five and the A’s three in the final three innings. This points to the reality of championship baseball where teams have learned the three stages of team success. First, they learn to play, then they learn to win, then they learn to win when they have to. These teams are the demonstrated masters of this art. They know how to win when they have to.

The next rule is that a baseball game is really two games in one. The first game is a six inning game to gain an advantage in the short, three inning game that determines the winner. The short game is played by specialists, relief pitchers, pinch hitters and runners, and defensive replacements. It is the true test of a team as it involves the entire roster.

The Rays entered the short game yesterday with a lead and the Red Sox scored two in the seventh and one in the ninth to win, using three relief pitchers, Craig Breslow, who sruck out three Rays in the seventh, Junichi Tazawa, who struck out the one batter he faced, and Koji Uehara, who struck out the first batter he face in the 8th inning, and the three batters he faced in the ninth went out quietly with a fly ball, a ground ball to the pitcher, and a strike out to end the game.

During this same period, the Rays made wholesale pitching changes and they simply did not work. The game came down to three Red Sox relievers who were perfect. The Rays’ relievers faltered.  In this game, thirty-eight players participated, eleven of them relief pitchers and seven pinch hitters and defensive replacements.  It does take a team! 

In Detoit, with a 8-4 lead in the ninth, Joaquin Benoit, the closer, replaced Max Scherzer, and allowed two runs in the ninth but won. Scherzer, a stating pitcher acting in relief, had faced a baseloaded, no out, situation in the 8th and struck out the next two batters, and got the third, a pinch hitter, to line out to centerfielder Austin Jackson to end the inning. It was a magnificent display after he loaded the bases. Maybe he just likes drama. There were thirty players involved in this game, six relief pitchers, and four pinch hitters, runners and defensive replacements.

The lesson from these games is that teams win and a complete roster of talented players is needed to win pennants. For those teams that finished poorly this year, the road to success is not through free agent signings, but through improvement of the roster overall.  It takes a team to win and all players must be talented as they are for these teams playing for World Series glory. 

Playoffs Mean War, Baseball at Its Best

Yesterday I lamented the one sided games that had dominated the playoffs to that point. Last night saw a flurry of heated, competitive, last gasp wins that showed baseball at its best. The best is where games are determined by a hit, pitch or catch that wins or saves a game in the last innings. These games are the Fifth Games that determine championships. See “Fifth Game Theory” here.
The first of these games was St. Louis 2-1 win at Pittsburgh. Rookie pitcher Michael Wacha took a no hitter into the eighth inning where the Pirates scored their lone run on their only hit, a homerun by Pedro Alvarez.. St. Louis had scored two on a Matt Holiday homer in the sixth. The Cardinals made the pitches and plays in the field, scored enough and the Pirates failed to do so. The last out was on a fly ball to center by Andrew McCutchen, the Pirates best player, who said “I wish it got more of the barrel (of the bat).” Such is the way Fifth Games are decided. He took his swing and just missed, and his team lost

The next such game was in Tampa Bay where the Rays beat the Red Sox 5-4 on a walk-off homerun, and this one had an incredible twist involving the DH rule.  The game was tied through seven innings at 3-3, when the Rays scored their fourth run, setting up the incredible ninth. The eighth had its incredible moments as well. It started with a walk to James Loney who was replaced by Sam Fuld, the fellow who stole a run against Cleveland this week. Desmond Morriss then bunted the ball (not a sacrifice as he was bunting for a hit) that was fielded by the pitcher Morales. As the first baseman had also tried to field the ball, no one was covering first and Morriss beat Morales to the bag. Two on, no outs.  Matt Joyce then popped up his attempted sacrifice bunt in foul territory and Red Sox catcher Matt Saltalamachia made a sliding catch behind homeplate. Two on, one out.  Yunel Escobar then singled up the middle on a ball fielded by Stephen Drew who could not make a play on it. Bases loaded, one out, and the ball has not yet left the infield!! Delmon Young then hit a ground ball to short and was thrown out as the runner on third scored. That runner had reached base on a lead off walk. The next batter flied out. 4-3 Rays, ninth innning.

The Red Sox lead off hitter was walked by close Fernando Rodney. Walking the lead off hitter is a cardinal sin in baseball and it happened twice here and both runners scored.  Jacoby Ellsbury then blooped the ball over third. Two on, no outs. The next batter, sacrificed the runners to second and third. Dustin Pedroia then drove in the tying run on a grounder to short. One on, two out, game tied. Then Jacoby Ellsbury stole third but Mike Carp was called out on strikes.

In the bottom of the ninth the first two batters made outs so up comes Jose Lobaton. He was in the game because of a subtley in the Designated Hitter rule. Will Myer had injured himself striking out in the seventh. The rule says that if a DH enters the game in a defensive position, the DH is lost for the rest of the game. This prevents managers from substituting players in and out of the DH slot during a game. The best substitute was DH Matt Joyce who entered the game in right field, eliminated the DH. There was the a double switch and Lobaton entered the game as catcher batting fifth, Myers’ slot. He hit a homerun on a 0-1 pitch to win the game. Such is the stuff of Fifth Game baseball. The Rays and Red Sox play tonight in St. Petersburgh. The Red Sox lead 2-1.

The third incredible game of the night was in Los Angeles where the Dodgers won the series on an eighth inning, two run homerun by Juan Uribe.
The Braves had taken the lead in the seventh on a triple by Elliott Johnson and a single  by Jose Constanza. Again, a magical Fifth Game.

The other game was an A’s 6-3 victory over the Tigers to take a 2-1 lead in the series that continues in Detroit today. 

The three games described above were played in the best baseball tradition, Fifth Game victories.  Those games came down to a hit made, a ball missed, and the other small events that determine baseball games that are bitterly contested. There will be more such games in this playoff season, stay tuned and pay attention.

MLB Playoffs: Excitement in the Last Innings

The fabulous Wild Card race has given way to a somnambulistic Division Series. The scores of the games, without team names, tells the story. 9 -1, 7-1, 12-2, 7-4, 6-1, 13-6, but the other games give me hope that games will be fought to the last out going forward as four games of the ten played qualify as the epitome of baseball games, the “Fifth Game.” See Fifth Game Theory here .  That theory says that one game in five is a Fifth Game and here we have four of ten as Fifth Games. The teams playing here are the masters of Fifth Games, so this is not surprising.

The contested games in this Division Series started with Detroit scoring three in the first inning and holding on, per Max Scherzer, to three hit the A’s who scored two in the 7th in Oakland on a Yoenis Cespedes homerun. One run short; fifth game stuff. Oakland came back in the next game with a perfect Fifth Game victory 1-0 over Detroit, scoring the one run in the bottom of the ninth. Yoenis Cespedes opened the inning with a single, Seth Smith then singled, Josh Reddick was walked intentionally, and Stephen Vogt singled to win the game. The starting pitchers in that game were Justin Verlander and Sonny Gray (Oakland) who were superb as it was the first time in Playoff history where both pitchers had nine strikeouts and no runs scored.

The Pirates 5-3 win over the Cardinals in game three was a fifth game victory as the winning runs were scored in the eighth inning after St. Louis tied it on a homerun in the top of the inning.

In the second game in Atlanta, the Braves scored two in the seventh to go ahead 4-1, the Dodgers scored twice in the top of the eighth to make it 4-3. In classic Fifth Game style, Atlanta made four defensive changes and brought in a new pitcher to start the inning and changed pitchers again after Hanley Ramirez hit a two run homerun and Yasiel Puig struck out. In the top of the ninth for the Dodgers, after a strike out, A.J. Ellis walked, Dee Gordon pinch ran and was thrown out trying to steal while pinch hitter Andre Eithier was at bat, he ultimately walked and was replace by pinch runner, Scott Van Slyke, but Carl Crawford struck out.  A great game and well played Fifth Game.

I pay attention to Fifth Games. Embrace the theory and you will understand a season and enjoy it well. This theory, by the way, allows Tampa Bay to accept their two losses to the Red Sox as not being Fifth Games. They were never going to win those two in Fenway anyway.  Alex Cobb will pitch for the Rays and he was 7-0 at home this year.

I only want four five game series in the Divisional Series, and seven gamers in the League Championship and World Series. Tag’em.

  

The Los Angeles Angels and Free Agent Signing Errors

The Los Angeles Angels just traded their best relief pitcher, Scott Downs, for a minor league reliever. This is the sign of a team that has given up on 2013 and is looking forward to better days. The Angels plans are made more difficult by a signing error in 2011 when they signed Albert Pujols to a 10 year $240,000,000 contract that ends with escalating payments. They then signed Josh Hamilton to a 5 year $125,000,000 contract this year.

In March, I predicted that the Angels with Trout, Trumbo, Pujols and Hamilton would win the AL West. Today, they are 14 games behind Oakland and eight games under. 500. It is a disaster. My prediction failed as I over estimated the adequacy to the Angels’ pitchng and did not recognize the rapid decline in Pujols’ performance and Hamilton’s collapse. Hamilton is a psychological case.

Pujols decline is classic baseball decline and was predictable due to physical factors.  First, he hit his peak when he was 28 in 2008. It is shibboleth among baseball purests that a player peaks at 27. His decline in batting average has been 2008, .357,  .327, .312, .299, .285, and .258 this year. He has been troubled by plantar fasciatis this year as well. His OPS (slugigng plus on-base percentage), a statistic some think is indicative of true value,  has similary declined as follows,  2007, .997, 1.114, 1.101, 1.011, .906, .859, and .767 this year.  The numbers at age 27-28 are dramatic and rank with baseball’s great players, but that was then.

The undeniable fact that players performance declines after age 27-28 begs the question of why a team would sign a player to a multi-year, escalating payment contract for what must be declining performance. The Alex Rodriguez contract with the Yankees should have been instructive here, but it seems Angels’ owner, Artie Moreno, wanted to be like the Yankees by signing Pujols and then Hamilton. If he was looking there for guidance on how to run a team, he looked in the wrong direction, but then again his team had recently lost to the Yankees in the layoffs.

The proper place to look was a few hundred miles north to Oakland or to Tampa on Florida’s west coast.  Those two teams are in first place in their divisions with modest payrolls, but balanced, performing teams.  Moreno has become like the Yankees, who are in fourth place, as are the Angels, even though playing +.500 ball. The Angels winning percentage is 11th in the American League.  The real test in these signings is the reaction of the player’s former team to the player’s departure. The Cardinals seemed to be interested in re-signing Pujols, but dropped out of the bidding. The Cardinals, one of baseball’s best organizations, is 19 games over  .500 in first place in the NL Central and Hamilton’s former Rangers team is eight games over  .500, but trail the A’s for first.

This gets to the basic error in the Pujols signing. No one player makes a baseball team. A single player can only come to bat 11% of the time. Teams are a combination of pitching, fielding, and batting. Too much batting was expected from an aging star.

The rule that a team “shouldn’t get hit by a falling star” has slammed the Angels. I was overly impressed by the Angels offense last March, and have learned  a lesson. I imagine Artie Moreno has learned the same lesson.

How to Manage a Team and Win the Pennant

The Major league season is past the quarter pole and has taken a very interesting turn as teams that were predicted to dominate are disasters.
    In the  AL Central,  Cleveland and Detroit are tied at the top and KC just behind. Detroit will win that one, but Cleveland is good and is playing very well. KC may surprise all of us, but I don’t think they have enough yet to win in the long season.
    In the AL East, the Yankees, Red Sox, Orioles, and Rays are all over .500 and only Toronto is failing . Of course, readers of this blog will remember that I predicted the Jays would win it all. That was because, on paper, they had a very good team, but it is playing horribly with key players not performing, see Bautista’s record.  
    In the AL West, the Angels are horrible. With Trout, Pujols, Hamiltom, Trumbo and Hendrick in the batting order, this team should score lots of runs, but it is not and can’t pitch. A real and expensive disaster.
    In the National League Central, the Cardinals, Reds, and Pirates are within 2.5games. This was predictable, and I have suggested the emergence of the Pirates for two years. This division is the prime example of baseball culture dominating.
    In the NL East, the Braves, Nationals, and Phillies are within 3.5 games. The Phillies are doing it by sheer desire. The Braves and Nationals are wonderful teams, great players, good pitching and both teams drip baseball culture. The Braves have had that feature for decades; the Nats have developed it over two seasons, a tribute to Lerner and company.
    In the West, we find the worst disaster of all time. The D’Backs, Giants, and Rockies are over .500. The Dodgers, the highest salaried team in MLB, is in last place. (See update below!) With good hitting, they are not scoring runs.  Contrasting the Dodgers and Giants is a study of baseball culture being dominant in SF and deteriorating in LA.

     Let’s pretend you are running a team. You will  need to look at what non-uniformed managers can do to keep it going or reverse a slide. I sat with a group of sports executives a few years ago and I asked “what management could do?” “Where could management make a difference beyond the selection of players.” In other words, once your team is selected, what options are there for improving performance?.
    
    Here are some suggestions, listed in no particular order,

Technique. Coaching can improve play through instruction and improved technique, but in the top professional leagues, this is incremental change, only.

Training .Players can be coached to be physically fit for stamina, quickness and speed. This also is an injury prevention and recovery program.

Body knowledge This is training again to have the player aware of his physical strengths and weaknesses and correct through weight lifting and other exercises. This has an injury prevention aspect as well.

Diet. This means eating to stay at the right weight, neither too much or too little. Players do lose weight and strength and this can be monitored and corrected.

Nutrition. This is telling players what to eat, fewer Twinkies, (Yes, they are back) and more protein. This is actually very important and nutritional counseling should be offered at the earliest days of a career.

Equipment: The players simply have to have the correct equipment from shoes to caps, bats, sticks, helmets etc. No secret here
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Drug counseling. This is obvious for two reasons. First, drugs have health risks, and Second, a player that fails drug testing is lost to the team.

Mental training: Here counseling should be offered to keep players balanced during period of stress, like every day. Sports are marked by failure and players have to learn how to handle it. There are more mental casualties than physical career ending events. The simple management technique here is to make sure a player hears three positive comments to each negative one. This is to develop a positive attitude. For example, tell a player who just grounded out that he had a good swing, hit a good pitch and almost got it. This is the difference between missing a put and thinking you almost made a put. The latter attitude will sink the next one. I told Harmon Killebrew that he struck out on a great pitch, he said, “ I just missed it.”

Social style counseling: Part one: This is how to be a good teammate, building cohesion, and supporting others. Part two. Family and friends’ This means be careful of who you hang out with and keep your wife happy. Family peace helps a player and discord has an effect on the field.

    Implementation of these programs gets at developing a baseball culture, which is all about scoring or preventing runs. Nothing else matters. This requires total focus on baseball at every step, from the ushers, the concession workers and vendors to the players, 24/7, as they say. This is what the Nationals, Rangers, Braves, A’s, Cardinals, Reds, Tigers and Giants have, and the Dodgers have just recovered it and are now, August 10, five games ahead of Arizona. It is this culture that wins pennants and that culture is built with focus on the management elements listed above.