The Significance of This MLB Playoff Season

The Pittsburgh Pirates beat the Cincinnati Reds in the one game that determined the NL Wild Card last night. It was an easy game for the Pirates. What occurred to me as the game unfolded that the oldest professional baseball team, the CIncinnati Reds (nee Redlegs or Red Stockings) was playing an original National League team. The league was formed in 1876. From there, it occurred to me that every team, except the Tampa Bay Rays, in the playoffs this year was an original team either from the original National League or the ‘upstart’ American League, formed in 1901.

The Detroit TIgers, Boston Red Sox, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, and St. Louis Cardinals are in their original cities. The Cardinals actually became the Cardinals later. The Atlanta Braves started as the Boston Beaneaters, Red Stockings, and then Braves, moved to Milwaukee in 1955, and Atlanta in 1966. The Oakland Athletics started as the Philadelphia Athletics, moved to Kansas City in 1955, then to Oakland in 1968.  The Brooklyn Dodgers, (nee the Trolley Dodgers) moved to LA in 1957. (It is curious that LA’s two top teams are named after Brooklyn trolley dodging and Minneapolis Lakes.)

There is an additional aspect to these playoffs that is of importance as well. The Cardinals, Pirates, Athletics, Rays, and Indians are all small market teams with low payrolls compared to the much more afluent Yankees, White Sox, Giants, Cubs, Angels, Astros, Rangers, Phillies, and Nationals. The Cubs and White Sox, two original teams, finished last in their divisions, by the way.

The provenance of the teams may be only a historical anomaly, but the small market teams victories, and I must add the expansion Tampa Bay Rays to this mix, are there because of the exquisite way they play baseball, from the scouting of amatuer players to finesse baserunning in the playoffs (Tampa’s Fuld stole a run in Texas Monday night).

This indicates the precision these teams give to the operation of their teams. Much has been said about sabermetrics, that computer generated analysis of everything that occurs on a baseball field, and all teams engage in some sort of sabermetric analysis, but it is the scouting and player development they engage in that makes them successful. The Cardinals and Rays are prime examples of this and the play of those teams shows great discipline, energy and thought to the way they play the game. Among these disciplines is the act of throwing first pitch strikes. A small thing you may think, but getting pitchers to do it is daunting, but the Cardinals and Rays do it. Also, these teams catch and throw the ball with precision. This takes skill and discipline, but that’s how you win pennants.

The Indians and Rays play for the AL WIld Card tonight and then the real playoffs begin. Watch to see who plays the game correctly.

MLB Wild Card:The Final Week, update

The Pittsburgh Pirates and Cincinnati Reds both won last night, the Reds in 10 innings over the Mets, to clinch a playoff berth. They have identical records and the three game series between the two teams this weekend will settle the home field advantage, if they remain tied going into that series. They are only two game behind St. Louis, but the Cardinals show no sign of losing the division lead.

In the American League, Tampa Bay, Cleveland and Texas all won last night, so Texas remains one game in back of Cleveland. As pointed out before, Cleveland has the easier schedule and should win. That “easier schedule” does include Minnesota this weekend and the Twins are showing some late season energy in that they beat the Tigers in 11 innings last night on a single by Josmil Pinto. This catcher played in AA baseball this summer until he was called up to the Majors this month. He is batting. 359 so far. is he for real or just a September wonder? What all of that means is that Cleveland will have to play well until their Wild Card berth is settled, one way or another and the Twins will not give in. This is typical of baseball teams, by the way. 

Next week we will be dealing with a new set of facts, equally engaging, and set to determine participation in the World Series. “Fall Baseball is War,” here  and these are continuing battles.

Wild Card Race on September 16; Yankees Falter

The AL Wild Card race is becoming clearer. In two weeks the regular season will be over, and,we will know more, and may even have a playoff for the playoffs, an interesting scenario.  This morning finds Texas and Tampa Bay tied at 81-67 for the two Wild Card slots. Cleveland is now only  .5 games behind, with Baltimore  2.5 back and New York 3 back. On August 23 Here that the Yankees, due to the easy schedule in the last twelve games had a real chance to make the Wild Card, however, the Yankees have faltered. Where they had to win half the games against the better teams, Baltimore and Boston, they have lost 8 of 12, and dominate the lesser teams, they beat Chicago times. The poor showing against Boston, especially, where they lost 7 of 8, is the reason they remain 3 games back. The Red Sox, I am certain, regale in their role in the Yankees apparent demise. 

The Orioles likewise, lost 6 of 8 against NY and Cleveland. They did win 5 of 8 against Toronto and the White Sox. They remain 2.5 games behind.

The team that has won according to the dominate/breakeven rule is the Cleveland Indians. They won 6 of 7 against the Mets and White Sox in September, and won 4 of 7 against KC, Balitmore and Detroit. They are  .5 games behind. If any of the three teams are to make the Wild Card, it seems the Indians are the team.  They will  have to pass Tampa or Texas to do that.

Texas has only won 1 of 10 recently and play Tampa Bay and KC 7 times this week.  They finish with Houston and LAA. Tampa Bay, of course, has the 4 against Texas at home this week and then play 7 against NYY and Baltimore before the final three in Toronto.

Tampa Bay and Cleveland are the probable winners here. However, baseball has strange twists. Yesterday, trying to win its twelth in a row against Minnesota, ran into a Twins team that hadn’t scored in 25 innings only to have the Twins score twice in the 7th on a single by Chris Parmelee, BA  .223 and four times in the 8th, three runs coming on a homerun by Josimil Pinto, a catcher who spent the Summer in AA, to win the game. Tampa Bay will remember that piitch to Pinto if they fail to make the playoffs. That final three in Toronto are critical.

There is another race worth noting and that is to avoid the Igniminy and the MLB Cellar Dweller, Here.  In the NL West, San Francisco, San Diego are tied and Colorado 1 game down for last place. Maybe they will all tie for last, or, as they would describe it, fourth, place and all will avoid the Ignominy of the Cellar Dweller.

The last two weeks of the regular season, like all of September is War, after that we have the playoffs and then the long, cold Winterl

Indians Choking Again, Maybe the Tigers, too.

Major League Baseball pennant races are a psychological as well as physical test. For the last two days I have written about the race to the pennant and the pressures felt by the division leaders. I have focused on the Tigers and Indians and how it is hard to play with your hands on your throat. On Friday, the Indians gave away a game to Minnesota by errors that lead to two unearned runs and a tainted run that could have, had the players Chisenhall and Swisher caught baseballs, resulted in an Indian’s victory. Last night the Indians lost by the same 3-2 score and gave that one away as well.

In the top of the sixth, Jason Kipnis, the Indians best hitter, homered to give them a 2-0 lead. In the bottom of the sixth, however, the Indians gave it back. After Mauer had singled and moved to third on a Morneau single, a grounder to Chisenhall at third was fielded cleanly, but Chisenhall, trying to put Mauer out at home, threw the ball into the Twins’s first base dugout. Now think about this play. With no one out and Morneau on first, Mauer, not a fast runner, was running to avoid a double play by forcing Chisenhall to throw home rather than to second to start the double play. Mauer’s hope was that by sacrificing himself, the Twins would have two runners on and only one out rather than one on and two out.  Chisenhall, who booted the ball Friday night, threw the ball past the catcher.

How hard is it for a major league player to throw a ball ninety feet so errantly so as to fly past the catcher and end up in the dugout? Well, it may happen once a season for some and never in a career for most. These are the plays that are made a thousand times in practice and games by those who make it to the major leagues. It seldom happens in highschool because the throw has to be horrible and the recipient of the throw has demonstrated ability to catch everything, even moderately errant tosses. The “hands on the throat” factor is why this happened and it infects the entire team.

This infection got to  second baseman Jason Kipnis, who, after the score was tied on a bloop to right, dropped a double play ball and only made one out as the winning run scored. Hand on his throat, I think so!

The Twins played perfect defense, by the way, with right fielder Ryan Doumit making a spectaclular play to throw Asdrubal Cabrera out at second. Cabrera represented the tying run.

In Kansas CIty the Tigers lost 6-5 as Justin Verlander lost to KC for the first time since 2009. A little tense, Justin, maybe?

The results of Friday’s and Saturday’s games, is that the 1 1/2 game Tiger lead is still there, but KC is now 6 behind. Almost close enough.

Keep watching this race, as nerves are already taking a toll and either team may collapse. For the Indians, they have Justin Masterson pitching today and he is their best. If he wins, they may get their groove back. In Kansas City, James Shields is pitching for KC; they may be five behind after today. 

By the way, Aviles is playing 3rd for the Indians today as Terry Francona is keeping Chisenhall on the bench for his, Francona’s, benefit.

For further reading see “Fifth Game Theory” in the archives for June 19, 2013 and “Kansas City Royals Emerge” in the archives for June 18, 2013.

Detroit v. Cleveland for the AL Central TItle

As a follow up to yesterday’s post on the American League pennant race that focused on the Tigers and Indians, last night was very interesting. In the post, I mentioned that in September, when both teams will be playing sub  .500 teams, they will be “playing with their hands around their throats.” 

Well, it seems that may have started early.

Last  night the Indians gave up two unearned runs and one tainted run in a 3-2 loss to Minnesota, who played like a team that wanted to beat a contender. Indian 3b Chisenhall booted one ball that lead to two runs and 1b Swisher simply dropped a thrown ball that happen to “hit him in the glove.” In  baseball lore, it is well known that it is “hard to catch the ball with your free hand around your neck.”  That quote is attributed to Gary Gaetti who said it after screwing up a play in Cleveland in September 1984 that may have cost the Twins a chance at the division lead.

What made the game all that important was that Cleveland was watching the scoreboard that showed KC beating Detroit 1-0, the final score as it turns out. Of course, in KC, Detroit was watching the Twins and Cleveland tied at 2 until Swisher dropped that ball and Mauer singled in the winning run in the 8th.

This going to be a very interesting last two months. Stay tuned.

The American League Race as MLB Starts the Final Run to the Pennant.

The All-Star Game is history and the American League won to give Manager Jim Leyland’s Tigers home field advantage in the World Series, if they can get there. The problem he faces is that there are nine other American League teams with a credible chance to also enjoy the home field advantage the All-Star Game victory awarded to the league.
A credible chance means that a team is within nine games of the lead or wild card race. The LA Angels are arguably part of this race, but too far back in both categories to have that credible chance.
The reason I cut it off at nine games is that there are just over ten weeks left in the season and that means a team nine games out now must gain a game a week and then one more in the tenth week to win. Baseball’s rigid math makes that very difficult. Not impossible, just very difficult.
For example, if the A’s win at  .589 as they have so far over the next 71 games, they will win 95 games, for the Angels to win 95 games, they will have to win 51 of the remainng 69 games. I said “very difficult” but not “impossible.”  To make it reasonably possible, the Angels would have to win fifteen in a row. If the A’s won eight times duting that period, the Angels would only be five behind, but with just over six weeks to play. The math in the game is relentless.   
Tampa Bay is 2 1/2 behind the Red Sox and Baltimore is 4 1/2 behind.  A real horse race. The Rays play the Red Sox and Orioles seven times going forward. That division will go to the last week.
The race that really has my attention is Detroit and Cleveland. The gap today is 1 1/2 games. The Tigers have 68 games to go, the Indians 66. They will play each other seven games in the last ten weeks. It is the way the season ends for the two teams that really has my attention.
The Tigers finish with nine games againt the last place White Sox, three at home, then three with the Twins and three with Miami on the road. The Indians finish with last place Houston (four at home and the White Sox, two at home, then finish in Minnesota with four at Target Field. In fact the Indians and Tigers don’t play a  .500 team for the last 21 games of the season. The schedule maker does have a sense of drama.
What makes this interesting is that the two contenders will be playing with their hands around their throats, where every pitch is significant and they will be playing against teams that are trying to have an impact by determining winners. The Twins, for example, may be trying to avoid losing 100 games that last four game series. If history is helpful, they play very will trying to avoid that ignomy.
The National League has its close races too, and I will write about those soon. But the Tiger Indian race is the one I am focused on because both teams have strengths and demonstrable weakness as well.

Jim Leyland managed  the All-Star Game to gain home field advantage, Let’s see if this works out for him., L

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.