The Key to Winning Pennants in the Major Leagues. It’s simple!

The regular Major League Baseball season has ended. The 10 winners are in the playoffs. The non-winners move to the off-season and start planning the next season. These teams, like my own favorite, the Minnesota Twins, try to take solace in the fact that they finished only 12 games behind the division winner, Kansas City. That is 12 games over 26 weeks; only one game every 2.3 weeks. Easy right? They will say that they are only .074 points behind KC. Next year, they hope, with phenoms Miguel Sano and Byron Buxton, new pitchers, improvement from all players etc. etc, they can close the gap. The gap, however, is more formidable than first seen. All teams, by the way, do this analysis, but it is wrong.

Baseball is much more complicated than that. There is more balance in baseball than in any other team sport. All teams win 2 of 5 games and lose 2 of 5 games. It is that “Fifth Game” that determines pennants and there are only 32 of them. I call this “Fifth Game Theory,” href=”http://www.clarkgriffithblog.com/2013/06/1″>here The chart below shows the distribution of teams at the end of the season. For the most part, you can use the GB (games behind) column to see the difference in “Fifth Games” won. (The Phillies with 64 wins and Reds with 63 are rare outliers, but they were really bad.)

American League -East

      American League- East
      Team GP W L Pct GB Home Road
      Toronto Blue Jays 162 93 69 0.574 – 53-28 40-41
      New York Yankees 162 87 75 0.537 6.0 45-36 42-39
      Baltimore Orioles 162 81 81 0.500 12.0 49-32 32-49
      Tampa Bay Rays 162 80 82 0.494 13.0 41-40 39-42
      Boston Red Sox 162 78 84 0.481 15.0 43-38 35-46

American League – Central
Team GP  GB Home Road
Kansas City Royals 162  –
Minnesota Twins 162   12.0 46-35 37-44
Cleveland Indians 161  13.51 36-45
Detroit Tigers 161 74 87 0.460 20.5 38-43 36-44

American League – West
Team GP W L Pct GB Home Road
Texas Rangers 162 88 74 0.543 – 43-38 45-36
Houston Astros 162 86 76 0.531 2.0 53-28 33-48
Los Angeles Angels 162 85 77 0.525 3.0 49-32 36-45
Seattle Mariners 162 76 86 0.469 12.0 36-45 40-41
Oakland Athletics 162 68 94 0.420 20.0 34-47 34-47

National League – East
Team GP W L Pct GB Home Road
New York Mets 162 90 72 0.556 – 49-32 41-40
Washington Nationals 162 83 79 0.512 7.0 46-35 37-
Miami Marlins 162 71 91 0.438 19.0 41-40 30-51
Atlanta Braves 162 67 95 0.414 23.0 42-39 25-56
Philadelphia Phillies 162 63 99 0.389 27.0 37-44 26-55

National League – Central
Team GP W L Pct GB Home Road
St. Louis Cardinals 162 100 62 0.617 – 55-26 45-36
Pittsburgh Pirates 162 98 64 0.605 2.0 53-28 45-36
Chicago Cubs 162 97 65 0.599 3.0 49-32 48-33
Milwaukee Brewers 162 68 94 0.420 32.0 34-47 34-47
Cincinnati Reds 162 64 98 0.395 36.0 34-47 30-51

National League – West
Team GP W L Pct GB Home Road
Los Angeles Dodgers 162 92 70 0.568 – 55-26 37-44
San Francisco Giants 162 84 78 0.519 8.0 47-34 37-44
Arizona Diamondbks 162 79 83 0.488 13.0 39-42 40-41
San Diego Padres 162 74 88 0.457 18.0 39-42 35-46
Colorado Rockies 162 68 94 0.420 24.0 36-45 32-49

The argument that the Twins are within 12 games of the Royals is not the way to look at it. (You can insert your team here as well, like “Giants 8 behind Dodgers”)The proper way to look at next season, or any season, is to grant each team 65 wins and 65 loses for 2016. That means the winner will be the team that wins the most “Fifth Games;” that one game in five that is won or lost late in the game on a pitch, swing, catch or error. The Twins won 18 of these games in 2015,.562, while the Royals won 30 or .937; A huge difference. Instead of being 12 games in back of 162, they are 12 back in the 32 game “Fifth Game” schedule. In other words, the Twins have to improve dramatically in “Fifth Game” wins to get close to KC. Of course, the Royals have to win “Fifth Games” with the same efficiency​ as in 2015, but they are really good.

So what does a team have to do to improve its “Fifth Game” record. First, pitchers must avoid walking batters in late innings. That is a simple but true statement. Never walk the lead off hitter, never. Middle of the plate fast balls are better than walks. (I am amazed by how many “Fifth Games” are lost to walks to lead-off hitters in the late innings.) A team must have hitters who can adjust to situations by preparing for the moment and make a single when the game is in doubt. The old adage, “up the middle to win the game” is always true. That forces the batter to focus on the ball, hit it square in front of the plate, and go up the middle. This is the sign of a smart hitter. Then, make sure your fielders can play under pressure. It is not the extraordinary play that wins games most of the time, it is the error on a simple play that loses them. A prime example occurred in the Rangers/Royals last game the ALDS when Texas Rangers’ second basemen, Rougned Roberto Odor, missed a pop up he had called for. The Royals scored three runs after that and won. If Odor made that play, it may have been different. (Teams measure their competence by their play in the field. Errors destroy this competence/confidence and that’s not good) Players who can play “Fifth Games” are discovered by diligent scouting and it is your own team you should scout hardest.

There are players who win “Fifth Games” by making the right pitch, catching and throwing the ball accurately, and being prepared to hit the opposing pitcher. These are mental preparation matters and that’s what wins baseball games and players with these skills win pennants. This is sometimes called “Small Ball,” but it wins critical games, go with it. That’s how teams win pennants.

League Championship Series; Three Great Games, Then Last Night in Boston, Wow.

The League Championship Series is well underway and the drama is intense.The St. Louis Cardinals and Los Angeles Dodgers have played twice in St. Louis and the Cardinals have won both times, They won the first game 3-2 in 13 innings as Carlos Beltran batted in all the runs and threw out one at home. They won the next game 1-0 as Michael Wacha pitches 6 2/3 shutout innings. The Cardinals in this second game, used four pitchers to finish 2 1/3 innings, three for the next 1 1/3 and Trevor Rosenthal struck out the three Dodgers, Yasiel Puig, Juan Uribe and Andre Ethier, he faced in the 9th. Nothing to it, as they say, and the Cardinals have a two game lead over the Dodgers going to Dodger Stadium.

In the American League, the Tigers and Justin Verlander beat the Red Sox in Fenway 1-0 in a very good game on Saturday, but it was Sunday’s game that will get all the attention for the next century, especially in New England, where the town of Nonantum voted last night to change its name to Ortiz.

In Sunday’s game, the Tigers were cruising behind Max Sherzer’s pitching and were leading 5-1 in the 8th inning when the wheels fell off. First, Scherzer was replaced by Jose Veras who gets one out and then gives up a double to Will Middlebrooks. Then Drew Smyly replaced Jose Veras and walked Jacoby Ellsbury, so he gets replaced by Al Alburquerque, who strikes out Shane Victorino, but then gives up a single to Dustin Pedroia, loading the bases.

At this point, where getting one out is critical and the batter, David Ortiz, is the most dangerous of the Red Sox, I was thinking a left handed pticher would be brought it to face the left hand hitting Ortiz, Phil Coke, maybe, but Manager Leyland brought in Benoit, his closer. He did this after consulting data on Ortiz v. Benoit, and Oritz v. Coke. Benoit was the choice. I have another objection to Benoit at this time. He is a closer and is accustomed to pitching the bottom of the ninth on the road when he has a lead and no baserunners. Here he had three baserunners and Ortiz. His first pitch,  a fast ball that was over the plate and had no sink, was hit into the Red Sox bull pen to tie the game. One pitch by Benoit, and the series is changed.

Baseball is a curius game in that one game is seldom critical, unless it is the last game. So the Tigers will come steaming back and probably, with Verlander on Tuesday against Lackey, then Fister aganst Peavey and then back to Sanchez and Scherzer, will win this series. However, that will not happen if it plays in the field like it did Sunday. In the ninth inning alone three plays gave away the game. Jonny Gomes hit the ball in the hole to short. Jose Iglesias fielded the ball moving away from first, threw awkwardly towards first eventhough he had little chance to getting the runner, and the ball went past Prince Fielder, who, as a first baseman, had to stop the ball. He simply waved at it as it almost hit him.  This puts the winning run on second, scoring position! Fielder wasn’t finished yet. Jarrod Saltalamacchia popped the ball up foul and Fielder tried to catch it while standing against the low fence. The ball went off his glove. He just blew that one too. He claimed he was interferred with by a fan, but he was not. The ball hit his glove on the back side. Then Tiger pitcher Porcello wild pitched Gomes to third. Where it should have been one on, one out, it was none out, runner on third. Saltalamacchia, batting with the infield drawn in, singled to left scoring Gomes. Game over.

Baseball is a wonderful game and we have the Dodgers and Cardinals tonight. Wainright 19-9 for the Cards aganist Ryu 14-9 for the Dodgers. I can’t wait to see what they have in order for us. It will be interesting.
  

MLB Wild Card: The Final Week, The Small Market Teams Prevail.

Jason Giambi hit a “walk off” pinch hit home run last night to beat Chicago and keep the Indians one game ahead of the Texas Rangers for the final wild card slot in the Majors. The Indians have won five in a row and have five games remaining against Chicago (1) and Minnesota (4). Texas has Houston (1) and LAA (4). The Indians should make it, but they have had problems in Minnesota this year and the Twins are well lead and will not lay down.

The NL Division series will start October 1, with Pittsburgh and Cincinnati playing a one game playoff game. The location, if played today, would be Pittsburgh, as the Pirates now have a one game lead. The two teams play the last three against each other in Cincinnati this weekend and that will determine the victor.

The most interesting factor in the 2013 Playoffs is that of the ten teams involved, seven of the teams are small and mid-sized markets. Only Atlanta, LA, and Boston are large market teams. Detroit is a mid-sized market, but the rest, Cincinnati, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and St.Louis are in the bottom half of MLB rankings of market size. Oakland, due to its poor stadium, is classified as a small market due to low local revenue.

This indicates that design and intellect still matter. I once classified MLB teams as being capital intensive or labor intensive organizations and here the labor (or intellect) intensive teams are prevailing. There is a lesson here that should not be lost on the large market teams in New York, Chicago and the Angels as they try to recover in 2014. There is a way to do this and planning and thinking leads the way.

Revenue sharing allows small market teams to retain their better players, so the free agent market does not allow large market teams to spend their way to success. They will have to do it the old fashion way by scouting well and developing players in the Minor Leagues. It is, in my opinion, the only way. 

MLB Pennant Race on August 25

I wrote on August 12 about the Wild Card race here and added the Yankees to the mix recently here. The Yankees have the benefit of the right schedule but they need to win half the time versus Tampa Bay, Boston and Baltimore. So far, they have lost two to Tampa Bay to move 4.5 games behind in the Wild Card race. They must win against the top teams to allow the schedule to work for them.

The most disapointing feature of the race is the Kansas City Royals seven game losing streak. I am a Royals rooter because I like seeing teams improve to the point they can contend. There are three steps to this process, first you learn to play, then you learn to win, finally you learn to win when you have to. The Royals have clearly not learned the last step. Maybe next year.

As an example of this process, the Miami Marlins, who have been playing better, lost a game 3-2 to Colorado because of the failure to cut off a throw from the outfield that allowed Michael Cuddyer to advance to second after a game tying single. He scored the winning run moments later on a double. The Marlins learned the second lesson there as this is the sort of play a winning team makes.

These are the days where winning Fifth Games ( Fifth Game Theory) is all important. Last night, Texas lost 3-2 to the White Sox, who scored in the bottom of the ninth. Oakland won in Baltimore with a run in the top of the ninth. These are examples of Fifth Games that must be won by pennant contenders.

As I look at box scores every day, I look first at the line score to see who won in the last three innings. This is because a baseball game is really two games in one. The first game is a six inning game that is played to gain an advantage in the three inning game. This short game is played by specialists, relief pitchers, closers, pinch hitters, defensive replacements and the like. To win pennants, teams have to have competence in the “specialist” category. Take a look at the line score to gain an appreciation of the nature of the game. As Yogi Berra said,”It ain’t over until it is over,” and that means after the last out.

MLB Playoffs 2013- updated September 12.

MLB’s playoff format was changed for 2012 by adding a one game playoff between the teams with the second highest winning percentage among non-division winners. Previously, the team with the highest winning percentage was the wild card and played the winningest team, if that team was not in its division, for the Division Championship, prelude to the League Championship Series.

What this means is that contenders in August and September are focusing on that second wild card position and that creates some interesting scenarios. In the National League, the scenario is who plays whom with five teams all but guaranteed playoff positions. The second highest winning percentage is Cincinnati’s  .556. 65 wins v. 52 losses. No one else is close. The only question is whether the wild cards, all from the NL Central,  will include èittsburgh or St. Louis, depending on whether the Pirates can hold its 3 game lead over St. Louis. That will be close, but this one game playoff, Cincinnati v. either St. Louis or PIttsburgh, will be very competitive.

In the American League, the situation is not so clear as there are three teams Tampa Bay, Oakland, and Baltimore, that will make up the two teams that playoff for the Wild Card position in the Division Series. If Oakland beats Texas or Tampa beats Boston and wins the Division, make the changes that implies. It will be interesting.

The determining factor will be the teams’ ability to win under pressure. See here The games will be largely determined by the ability to catch the ball and make plays in the field, the most rudimentary of baseball actions.

UPDATE- I now include Kansas City and New York in the Wild Card Race as both teams have played very well. There will be two wild cards this year, so pay attention.