Sunday, September 16, 2012

Baseball's Race to the Postseason (AL Edition)

The baseball season has zoomed by so fast that I haven't had much time to write anything about it. As Austin receives its first extended downpour of rain in about 3 months, now's the time to quickly share my thoughts on how things have played out and what we can look forward to over the final 15 games or so of the regular season.

First, I need to state for the record that the second Wild Card team that's been added this year for each league does not make things any more exciting for me. In fact, I think it's a greedy attempt by MLB to line their pockets with extra postseason revenue. Of course, mainstream baseball media types use every chance they get to gush about the added suspense of having another door to the postseason opened up but I don't believe it. Not when both Wild Card teams are due to play a one-game playoff to see who advances to the real postseason.

The best-of-one Wild Card games will surely be exciting baseball to watch but I think it cheapens the overall postseason picture a bit. For many years their were only two playoff teams in baseball---the season ended with the best NL and AL teams facing off in the World Series. Then they created the League Championship series where the top two teams from each league battled for a slot in the World Series (4 playoff teams total). The advent of Wild Card teams in the 90s brought about the Division Series (8 playoff teams) leading to all kinds of unprecedented results and teams like the Florida Marlins winning two World Series (each time as a Wild Card team having finished 2nd in their division).

All of that is to say: the path to the World Series has become overly complicated (10 playoff teams, 4 of which aren't really playoff teams...?). As such, it complicates the picture when we attempt to analyze a team's chances. The A's are a great, exciting team this year, but they can easily be knocked off in a silly, fickle one-game playoff, rendering all of their achievements over six months of the season moot in a span of less than 3 hours.

With all of that out of the way, here are some scattered thoughts on baseball's postseason race, starting with the AL.

American League

AL East

Yet again, baseball proves itself to be utterly, hilariously unpredictable. The AL East division coming into this season looked to be a historically tight race between four teams: the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, and up-and-coming Blue Jays. Instead, the Red Sox and Blue Jays had most of their rosters crumble due to injuries and are now fighting for last place. The Yankees started off strong but have faltered over the last two months and the Rays did the opposite, starting slow and now fighting to get back in the mix. Zooming to the top of the pile out of nowhere are the Baltimore Orioles.

Not a soul alive could have predicted the Orioles to be a playoff contender this year, extra Wild Card or not. And even as they continue to stay neck-and-neck with the Yankees through the middle of September, most baseball analysts still don't believe their success and have trouble accounting for it. This is because the Orioles, who own a record of 81-64, have been outscored by 24 runs on the season which means their record should be closer to 70-75.

Luck has been a major factor in their favor, certainly, as they've had unusual success in close games despite a bullpen full of nobodies. Their starting rotation hasn't been very good and they aren't exactly overflowing with talented hitters. What they do have is great power (four hitters with at least 20 homeruns and Matt Wieters with 19) and strong defense up the middle. Their shortstop J.J. Hardy isn't having a great season at the plate (despite 20 homers and 28 doubles) but he's played in almost every single game with top-notch defense. Centerfielder Adam Jones is having his best year at age 26 and, most significantly (I think), catcher Matt Wieters has come into his own not only as a hitter but as a play-caller behind the plate. It also helps to have players get hot at the right time and their volatile first baseman Mark Reynolds is the hottest hitter in baseball right now---since August 1st he's got a 1.032 OPS.

Despite losing their tussle with the Yankees as I type this, the Tampa Bay Rays remain my World Series pick. They're 4 games behind the Yanks, 3 behind the O's but they've got six games left against the division's crappy teams (Red Sox and Jays) and they finish the season at home against Baltimore. That final series promises to be a thrilling one while the Yankees, on the other hand, face the A's in a three-game set but otherwise get to play last place teams the rest of the way out. The Orioles have six more games left against the Red Sox which should be fun only because their roles were reversed last year---the last-place Orioles spoiled the Red Sox season by beating them in two late September series and now the Sox get their chance at revenge. The current iteration of Boston's baseball team is so decrepit, though, that I can't imagine they muster much of a fight.

AL Central
Same old story. The White Sox and Tigers have to battle it out for the division crown because neither of them is likely to find their way to the Wild Card backdoor. Unfortunately, the two teams only have one game left playing head-to-head (a rain-out makeup on Monday) so the excitement of their closing weeks is a bit tempered. The two teams are neck-and-neck, though, with similar talent levels and so this might come down to an extra tie-breaker game which would give us another one-game playoff at season's end. Having to choose between the two teams, I'll pick the Tigers to win only because their best players (Verlander, Cabrera, Fielder) are a bit better than the White Sox best (Sale, Konerko, Youkilis).

AL West
The Orioles are certainly a huge story this year, but it is out west where most of the excitement lies as we come down to the season's final weeks. Before the season started I tried to envision the most optimistic scenario for the Oakland A's and came up with some reasons why they could be an above-average team. Well, they managed to outshine even my sunny projections. They've been the best team in baseball since the beginning of July.

Having gotten off to a .500 start and playing in the same division as one of our game's great contemporary dynasties in the Texas Rangers, the A's find themselves two games out in the division but are comfortably ahead in the Wild Card race and Baseball Prospectus odds give them a 95% chance at making the postseason. Their success has been powered by finally having some guys that can hit, as Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, Jonny Gomes, Seth Smith, Brandon Moss, and Chris Carter have all slugged at least 10 homers. The usual mix of great pitching and great defense remains present and having one of the smarter front offices in baseball has kept the team improving---they shored up their two weakest spots, shortstop and catcher, with Stephen Drew and a fun platoon of George Kottaras/Derek Norris and now look like a legitimate all-around championship contender.

That rebuilt A's squad will go head-to-head with the Rangers who, for the third year in a row, are among the top-3 best teams in the sport. It's the same collection of contributors, basically, that's gotten them to the World Series two years in a row so they'll be a favorite to make it deep into the postseason again.

The Angels are very much like the Tigers in that they spent a bunch of money to build a powerhouse team but have underachieved most of the year. Except for Mike Trout, of course. The 20-year-old Trout leads a new generation of young stars flooding into the game today. He's been by far the best player in baseball this year despite getting a late start (he's been worth 10.3 wins while the next closest guy is at 6.5). If they had him for the first month of the season, maybe the Angels wouldn't be struggling to squeeze their way into the playoffs right now. As it is, they've assembled a deep collection of top-tier talent and have played well lately after a terrible start to the year but it might not be enough. They're 2.5 games out of the Wild Card right now and have to play Texas six more times over the next two weeks.

I foresee the Angels just missing the boat, while the Rangers hold onto the division and the A's get the Wild Card. My World Series pick, the Tampa Bay Rays, should snatch the second Wild Card.

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