Monday, September 28, 2009

Fixing The Wild Card

There has been some talk floating around this September regarding ideas to add a second wild card spot to both leagues.

When I first heard of any idea involving changing baseball's playoff format, I was not in favor of it. Hey, maybe I don't like change. Neither do a great many fans of the game.

But after a dismal September in terms of pennant races, I am beginning to think that another wild card team would not be such a bad idea.

The NFL season is still young, only wrapping up week three. Yet, already, the interest of most cities has turned away from the diamond and to the gridiron. Even the Giants and the Jets have been the main talk of baseball-happy New York over the cruising Yankees and the dismal Mets.

Now, I am sure teams such as the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies, and maybe even the Rockies will reclaim their respective town's attention once October finally gets here; but why lose the September ratings in towns such as San Francisco, Atlanta, and Chicago?

A greater chance to get into the playoffs would mean a longer interest in those teams five or six games out of the wild card.

In addition, many fans and experts alike believe that there is not enough incentive to win the division, and that many teams are happy simply settling for the wild card spot.

This is, of course, bad for competition. There needs to be a greater sense of urgency to win for teams in August and September.

Though I cannot claim my solution to be completely original, what it is is a combination of everything I have heard.

As I mentioned, there would be two wild card teams from both the American and National League. Those two teams would then play each other to see who advances to play the team with the best record in each respective league.

For example, if the season were to end today, the Red Sox would play a series against the Rangers in the American League, and the Rockies would play the Braves in the National League.

After those series are finished, the rest of the playoffs would proceed as they do now. The Red Sox would go on to play the Angels or the Rangers would play the Yankees, while the winner of the Colorado and Atlanta series would play the Dodgers.

Using this year as an example, the American League wild card race would still consist of only Boston and Texas. However, over in the National League, San Francisco, Florida, and the Chicago Cubs would each be at least within four games of getting to the playoffs, as opposed to within six under the current format.

The question now becomes how long the extra series would be.

Most people would automatically suggest a a best of three series. It would make sense, seeing as how the Division Series is a best of five, and the Championship and World Series both consist of a best of seven.

However, I believe that, for the sake of not having the World Series go deeper into November, it should simply be a one game series.

It could be called the "AL and NL Wild Card Series" or, more appropriately, "The AL and NL Wild Card Games" and could be played on the Monday following the season, with one game starting at four o'clock and another starting at eight.

In addition, this would force all wild card teams to use their best starting pitcher for the one game playoff, thus giving the winning teams a disadvantage once they advance to the Division Series.

This model would serve as a solution to both lower ratings in cities not in the pennant race, and would certainly add to each team's will to win the most games possible.

While it may seem weird at first, I believe that this is very necessary for the sake of Major League Baseball.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Could Be Major Drama: Tigers vs. Twins

It has been an eventful weekend. While the games may not have been the most exciting, the playoff picture is starting to come to form.

The New York Yankees managed to officially take the American League East and home field advantage throughout the playoffs by beating the Red Sox this afternoon.

Meanwhile, out in Colorado, the fighting Rockies gave way to the Cardinals on Saturday night, allowing St. Louis to claim the National League Central Division.

In addition, the Los Angeles Dodgers were able to at least secure a playoff spot. They can now concentrate on moving ahead of the afore mentioned Cardinals to take home-field advantage in the National League.

With most other teams a game or two away from wrapping up their respective divisions, the focus this week now turns to the American League Central, which features the only real race left - and what a race it has been. Quite fittingly, it will all culminate this week as the Minnesota Twins, two games back of the Tigers in the division, will make their way into Detroit for a four game series.

You want drama? You've got it.

In a perfect world, Detroit would like to welcome Minnesota in Comerica Park by winning three out of four, which would give the Tigers the division. But, if the Twins have proven anything over the last month, it is that they are not ready to go down without a fight.

Conversely, if Minnesota can manage to win three out of four, it would send both teams into the final weekend of the regular season tied atop the Central, with the Tigers welcoming in the White Sox and the Twins going home to play the Royals.

However, we are getting a bit ahead of ourselves here.

Probable pitching matchups for the series are as follows:

  • Nick Blackburn, RHP (11-11, 4.18) vs. Rick Porcello, RHP (14-9, 4.14)
  • Brian Duensing, LHP (5-1, 3.33) vs. Justin Verlander, RHP (17-9, 3.41)
  • Carl Pavano, RHP (13-11, 4.86) vs. Eddie Bonine, RHP (0-1, 4.60)
  • Scott Baker, RHP (14-9, 4.48) vs. Nate Robertson, LHP (2-2, 5.56)
Detroit may have the slight advantage in terms of pitching, but I emphasize the word "slight". The Tiger staff contains more talent, yet it holds more question marks.

Look for both offenses to step up. MVP hopeful Miguel Cabrera has been hot for the Detroit lately (reaching 100 runs batted in for the sixth year in a row on Saturday), while the Twins, led by Joe Mauer, have gone 8-2 since clean up hitter Justin Morneau went down with a stress fracture in his lower back on September 15th.

Another race?: The Atlanta Braves still stand only 2.5 games behind the Colorado Rockies in the National League Wild Card Race. While the teams do not play each other before the season ends, it definitely should prove to be an exciting finish to what has been an intriguing race since late August.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The AL Cy Young Picture

As the regular season starts to wind down, postseason match-ups are not the only topic debated by both the experts and the fans. Who will receive what award starts to become a very heavily discussed matter around this time of year.

Today we turn to the American League Cy Young award.

This year's race can easily be narrowed down to just a handful of candidates. However, once you have your finalists picked, the task of separating the best becomes quite tricky.

The Favorites

Zack Greinke - Kansas City Royals
15-8, 2.08 ERA, 229 SO

Zack Greinke solidified his reputation as one of the American League's elite pitchers in 2009. He has always shown the ability to be a solid pitcher, but no one had expected him to be this good.

On a team which is now 25 games under .500, Greinke is on pace for 16 wins. He should also finish up the year around the 250 mark in strikeouts and he currently leads the league with his microscopic 2.08 ERA.

In addition, he managed to pitch six complete games.

The 25-year-old Greinke is a great story as well, as his stellar season has come just two years after he had to take time off from the game to battle his social anxiety syndrome and bout with depression.

Felix Hernandez - Seattle Mariners
16-5, 2.45 ERA, 196 SO

This would not be the first time that the young Seattle ace garnered positive attention, but it would be his first time receiving Cy Young type of attention.

Some of the experts believe that Hernandez actually has the advantage over Greinke due to a higher win total and a tougher division. In my opinion, those may not be the best reasons to take "King Felix", as he is affectionatly called by the Mariner faithful, over Greinke. However, if Hernandez was to win the award, it would be hard to argue against it.

2009 has certainly been Hernandez's best year, as he has set career highs in almost every major statistical category.

He ranks at least within the American League's top four in wins, earned run average, and strikeouts while logging well over 200 innings.

Perhaps With A Strong Finish...

CC Sabathia - New York Yankees
18-7, 3.31 ERA, 186 SO

Already 2007's AL Cy Young winner, Sabathia did not disappoint during the first season of his seven year, $161 million contract. The New York Yankees made it clear that Sabathia's responsiblity was to be a true ace of the staff and Sabathia did just that.

He currently leads the major leagues in wins with 18 and managed to pitch his way into at least the seventh inning during almost evey start, something not consistently done in this day and age.

While the Cy Young may be out of reach for this year, New York can at least be assured that they got a solid return on investment after CC's 2009 performance.

Justin Verlander - Detroit Tigers
16-9, 3.44 ERA, 245 SO

After a brutal 2008 (11-17, 4.84 ERA, 163 SO), Verlander returned back to form this year.

The Detroit ace leads the American League in strikeouts and has pitched three complete games.

If Verlander doesn't manage to take the Cy Young home with him this year, he can at least look forward to getting some consideration for the American League Comeback Player of the Year.

The Long Shot

Roy Halladay - Toronto Blue Jays
15-10, 3.01 ERA, 193 SO

Remember this guy?

It seems that after having a first half in which people could not stop talking about him (10-3, 2.85 ERA), Halladay cooled off a bit in the second half of the season (5-7, 3.21 ERA); particularly after numerous trade talks involving him kept popping up around the trade deadline.

Nevertheless, Halladay's end-of-season numbers should look very good, as they always do.

Despite Toronto's sub-par offense, Halladay managed to rack up 15 wins, while going the complete distance seven times.

Perhaps the Blue Jays will finally put an end to the 32-year-old Halladay's misery this offseason and finally ship him off to an actual contender. It would be awesome to see this guy go to work in the playoffs, don't you think?

Monday, September 21, 2009

Where We Stand

After a huge football weekend, there were still some pretty important series going on in Major League Baseball. Ground was both lost and gained in many different spots.

American League East

The Boston Red Sox still remained strong throughout the weekend. As expected, they swept the Baltimore Orioles. They now stand five games behind the Yankees (four in the loss column), who dropped two of three to the Seattle Mariners over the weekend.

It is not time for New York to panic - yet. The Yankees have lost five of their last nine to teams that they really should have put away with ease, while the Sox have continued to cruise.

There is a bit of a silver lining for the Bombers, however, as a win against the Angels tonight OR a Texas Rangers loss would at least give New York a guarunteed playoff berth.

That said, the Yankees would love to take the division, which is something they haven't done since 2006. Their magic number to clinch stands at 9.

American Leauge Central

The Minnesota Twins continue to keep things interesting, taking two of three from the Detroit Tigers this weekend.

The loss of Justin Morneau to injury certainly makes things a bit more challenging, however Twins outfielder Michael Cuddyer has picked up the pace, going 7 for 24 this past week with four home runs and 11 runs batted in.

Minnesota finishes up the weekend only three games back of Detroit. And to make things even more exciting, these two will meet again a week from today in Detroit for the first game of a four game series.

Keep an eye on this, because it appears to be far from over.

American League West

Not that anyone in the Angels organization was that concerned, but the Angels took two out of three from the second place Texas Rangers over the weekend.

Texas now stands 7.5 games behind Los Angeles, as the Rangers continue to falter down the stretch.

American League Wild Card

The American Leauge West wasn't the only place where the Rangers lost ground over the weekend.

After Boston's sweep of Baltimore over the weekend, Texas is now eight games behind the Red Sox in the Wild Card.

Barring a miracle, it appears that the Texas Ranger season will end at 162 games. However, a great amount of positives can be taken out of this season for the young team. For one, they are just that: young. Players such as Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, Josh Hamilton, and Chris Davis should give Texas fans a great amount of hope for the future.

In addition, the guidance of team president Nolan Ryan has refocused the organizations concentration on aquiring solid, young pitching. This was something sorely lacking on the sub-par Ranger teams of the early to mid 2000's.

The pieces will continue to come together, as I would expect this team to be an absolute powerhouse in another season or two.

National League East

It belongs to the Phillies - enough said.

Philadelphia has been on cruise control for the last month or so. They lead the second place Florida Marlins by eight games.

Right now, manager Charlie Manuel should be concentrating on getting his team ready for the playoffs, particularly his bullpen, which has proven to be the team weakness all season long.

Magic number: 6

National League Central

After taking two of three from the rival Chicago Cubs over the weekend, the Cardinals are in even better shape, division-wise, than the Phillies.

The aquisition of outfielder Matt Holliday in late July has ended up being one of the most ingenius moves of the season.

Since joining St. Louis, Holliday owns a .355 average with a .413 on-base percentage. In addition, he has offered excellent protection for Albert Pujols in the Cardinal lineup.

The performances of pitchers Adam Wainwright and Chris Carpenter should also have St. Louis fans feeling confident about the NLDS, as they provide an excellent one-two punch.

St. Louis's magic number to take the Central is 4.

National League West

The Colorado Rockies are still hanging around in the West at five games behind the Los Angeles Dodgers.

The Dodgers have stayed consistent since mid-summer, when they began to cool off a bit after Manny Ramirez's return.

While solid pitching has carried them through much of the season, the Los Angeles offense, while not completely overpowering, still poses a threat, as it has the ability to "make things happen."

Late surges by players such as Andre Eithier, Matt Kemp, and James Loney also supply good news for Los Angeles. With strong showings from the young core, the Dodgers may not have to completely rely on Manny's bat for offense through the playoffs, which proved to be one of their downfalls last year after losing the NLCS to Philadelphia.

National League Wild Card

The race still remains close after the weekend, although San Francisco dropped a game in the standings.

The Giants, Marlins, and Braves currently stand 4.5, 5, and 5.5 games behind the Rockies, respectively.

Still, no teams have given up hope. As Braves third baseman Chipper Jones points out, "It's not over until you're mathematically eliminated...we still need to take care of business."

Friday, September 18, 2009

Thursday, September 17, 2009

NL Wild Card Living Up To Its Name

With a little over two weeks left to go in the regular season, most division races are pretty much wrapped up. Sure, some teams can make are certainly capable of making a late push. However, here on September 17th, history will be working against cities hoping for some kind of Cinderella story.

With the Texas Rangers faultering in the Wild Card, it appears that everything in the American League is set. In addition, the closest division race in the National League is now the Los Angeles Dodgers's five game lead over the Colorado Rockies in the National League West.

At this point, it is time to turn to the National League Wild Card for a glimpse at the last great race before the postseason. Three teams are currently within five games of the leading Rockies: the San Francisco Giants (3.5 GB), the Florida Marlins (4.5 GM), and the Atlanta Braves (5.0 GB).

A 4-3 win by the Rockies last night marked the last time that they will see the Giants in the regular season.

The remainder of Colorado's schedule is filled with both highs and lows. While they will be playing a few sub-500 teams over the next two and a half weeks (Arizona Diamondbacks, San Diego Padres, Milwaukee Brewers), they will welcome the Central Division leading St. Louis Cardinals into Coors Field next weekend, and will be visiting the Dodgers for the last series of the season (a game which could have more at stake than just solidifying the Wild Card).

The Giants schedule appears to be smooth sailing ahead once this weekend's series with bitter rival Los Angeles is over. The only challenge after this weekend would appear to be the four game series with the underachieving Chicago Cubs next weekend.

Out on the East Coast, the Marlins and Braves are still in it to win it.

The Braves have simply not been able to get over the hump all season long. Starters such as Jair Jurrjens and Derek Lowe are going to need to lead the way to make up for what has seemed like a bland offense all year if they have any hope at five games behind.

The Marlins are always a dangerous team. Amazingly, they somehow seem to stay competitive every year, despite having such a putrid payroll. The lineup is filled with a long list of young studs, starting with National League batting leader Hanley Ramirez.

In addition, every starter is capable of pitching an absolute gem on any given day.

While the Marlins are a long shot, they are still a very scary team which Colorado and San Francisco cannot fall asleep on.

The Braves and Marlins actually play each other one more time this season in Atlanta. However, that will not matter if Colorado stays on its current pace.

While the Rockies have shown a tendency to be streaky all year long, still look for them to claim the Wild Card spot for themselves, as they did back in 2007.

If hurlers Jason Marquis and Umbaldo Jimenez can keep the rotation afloat and give the offense a chance to win every night, then Colorado has shown that it can compete with just about anyone in the National League.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

The Yankees Had Better Get Their Act Together

So far, 2009 has proven to be the most exciting year for the New York Yankees since 2001. Clutch hitting late in games seems to be a recurring theme, there are finally some reliable arms in the bullpen, and most importantly, strong team chemistry seems to be back.

The team's dominance since the All-Star break has led many people to believe that the Yankees are uncontested favorites to be the American League representative in the World Series. You would be a fool to pick against the Bronx Bombers with a year like this, right? Well, not so fast.

There is no debating it. The Yankees are currently the best team in baseball. They lead the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim by five games in the loss column for the best record in the American League, which would give them home field advantage throughout the playoffs (a vastly overrated benefit if you ask me, but that is neither here nor there).

But, the Yankees are not invincible. What seemed like a huge strength at the beginning of the 2009 season has now become a bit of a weakness.

At the beginning of the season, the Yankee rotation projected to be a collective group of established veterans and all-stars. CC Sabathia, A.J. Burnett, Chien-Ming Wang, Andy Pettitte, and Joba Chamberlain. Are you kidding me?! That sounds like a "murderers row" of pitching!

Unfornunately, this is no longer the case.

After some shaky starts (shaky is an understatement) and a minor league stint, Wang was finally put on the shelf, receiving shoulder surgery in late July. He is now out for the season, ending up with a 1-6 record and a 9.64 ERA.

With Wang out, the rotation still appeared strong. Prized prospect Phil Hughes was called up to fill in the fifth spot of the rotation and, for the most part, did a servicable job going 3-2 with a 5.45 ERA in seven starts. However, he has since been moved to the bullpen in order to cut down on his innings total for the year and protect his right arm.

Since Hughes's move, journeymen Sergio Mitre and Chad Gaudin have filled in the fifth spot for the most part. Both proved to be highly inconsistent.

A.J. Burnett has also proven to be a bit of an enigma. At some times, he has pitched like a Cy Young Award candidate. At others, he has pitched as if he is in way over his head. He stands at 11-9 with a 4.33 ERA. Not exactly what the Yankees had envisioned when they signed him to a five year contract worth over $80 million, but not terrible either.

The real concern with Burnett comes from his last nine starts. Since August 1st, Burnett is 1-5 with a 6.14 ERA.

And finally, the strategy devised by the Yankees to limit Joba Chamberlain's innings may have made Joba a complete mental case.

His last three starts have been good, giving up one run in his last start verus the Angels and two on both September 9th versus Tampa Bay and September 4th against the Toronto Blue Jays.

However, everything is relative. Because of the "Joba Rules", the starts lasted three, three, and four innings, respectively. In my opinion, this is not nearly enough to judge Joba on, especially since he still did not show any ability to get outs with a lesser amount of pitches.

So, looking at the playoffs, the Yankees are left with two reliable starting pitchers, with the rest appearing the be a bit of a crapshoot.

CC Sabathia currently has a 17-7 record with a 3.42 ERA. Pettitte stands at 13-6 with a 4.14. With the way things are going, these will be the starters for Games one and two in the ALDS.

Both are very solid choices, however Sabathia has even shown a tendancy to implode in the playoffs. In addition, let's not forget that Pettitte was originally penciled in as the fourth starter in the rotation and now is acting as a number two.

Perhaps this is thinking a little too much into it, but both facts could prove to be detrimental to New York.

In my opinion, the key truly is A.J. Burnett. If he can settle down, and pitch like everyone knows he is capable of, he can be slotted in as the number two pitcher during the ALDS, moving Pettitte, and his postseason-rich resume, back to what could be a pivotal game three.

However, if Burnett falters, so will the Yankees. With talk of Joba not even pitching in the first playoff series, the Yankees need A.J. to have his A-game by the time October rolls around.

Like defense in football, the old baseball cliche is that pitching wins championships. The Yankee offense can only bail out the latter end of the starting rotation so many times. While seeing walkoffs and games with scores the upwards of five runs is fun to watch, these things are often absent in the playoffs.

The previously struggling Daisuke Matsuzaka turned in a solid six innings for the Red Sox last night, giving up no runs and eventually earning the win.

At 6.5 games behind the New York (five in the loss column), it is doubtful that Boston will catch the Yankees in the division with so little regular season games remaining. But if Boston can throw Josh Beckett, Jon Lester, and Matsuzaka at you, along with ol' reliable Tim Wakefield in a playoff series, watch out.

While it may still be a little to early to start thinking about playoff matchups, the fact remains that the Yankee starting rotation had better get its act together if New York has any plans to bring home number 27 this year.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Stories of Note

Morneau Out, Twins Too?: Tuesday morning brought with it a big blow to the Minnesota Twins as first baseman Justin Morneau appears to be out for the season with a stress fracture in his lower back.

Morneau had apparently been playing with back pain for some time. However, an MRI yesterday revealed the fracture, effectively ending the 2008 Home Run Derby Champion's season. Morneau finishes his 2009 campaign with a .274 batting average, 30 home runs, 100 runs batted in, and a .363 on-base percentage in 135 games played.

This may put an end to any hope that Minnesota had of making the playoffs. Losing their clean-up hitter leaves MVP candidate Joe Mauer, who will now receive little protection batting in the third spot of the order, as the only notable Minnesota slugger.

While other Twins bats such as Michael Cuddyer and Jason Kubel are fine ball players, they still will not be able to make up for the loss of Morneau's production, nor do the Twins have the pitching to carry a diminished offense. At 5 1/2 games behind the Detroit Tigers in the American League Central, and 13 games out for the Wild Card, the situation is not looking great out in Minneapolis.

Game(s) of Interest: The Boston Red Sox will be hosting the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim up in Fenway Park tonight through Thursday, with the first pitch slated to be at 7:10 this evening. Check it out, as these two have played each other in the American League Division Series three times over the past five seasons (with the Red Sox winning all three times). If all stays the same in the American League, they will face off yet again this October. Consider tonight's game a pretty legitimate playoff preview. The Angels will send ace John Lackey (10-7) to the mound, while the Red Sox will counter with the struggling Daisuke Matsuzaka (1-5).

Over in San Francisco, the Rockies and Giants will be playing game two of their three game series. The Rockies now lead the National League Wild Card by 3 1/2 games over the Giants after last night's loss. Two wins by the Giants over the next two nights could make things very interesting as this race has remained tight down the season's homestretch. Umbaldo Jimenez (13-10) and Barry Zito (9-12) will go to the mound for Colorado and San Francisco, respectively.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Like A Child

I didn't fall in love with baseball until I was about 10-years old. That was 1998, the year that the New York Yankees won 114 regular season games (125 including the playoffs) and eventually the World Series, sweeping the San Diego Padres. In my opinion, that team was the best in baseball history, and perhaps the most dominant team ever, relative to its sport. Since then, I have made it my business to follow baseball as close to as is humanly possible.

Growing up about 30 minutes outside of New York, you realize something very early on, and that is that here baseball is king. This town takes great pride in every one of its teams. From the Rangers, to the Knicks, to the Giants and Jets, sports are just as much the lifeblood of this wonderful city as its culture and art. However, nothing compares to its love for baseball.

Now don't get me wrong. I, along with many other New Yorkers, jumped up from the couch with unparalleled joy almost two years ago when Eli Manning's pass somehow found the hands (and head) of David Tyree in Superbowl XLII. However, I would be willing to bet that after the New York Football Giants have given us a fourth Superbowl (between the Giants and Jets), nine out of ten New Yorkers are now looking for another World Series before they see another Lombardi Trophy, despite already owning 28 between the Yankees and Mets.

I am aware that the rest of the country does not share the same love for baseball that "baseball cities" such as New York, Boston, and St. Louis do (at least when it comes to choosing between baseball and other sports). The NFL's ratings have been far superior to those of Major League Baseball since the early 1970's. However, as James Earl Jones so poetically put it in the movie Field of Dreams, "Baseball has marked the time."

As far as we know, the sport of baseball as it exists today came into being around the 1830's. Since then, I believe that any major point in American history can be paralleled with something significant happening in baseball.

From the tandem of Ruth and Gehrig giving people something to root for during the Great Depression, to Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in the game, serving as a reminder that all men were still a long way off from being treated as if they were created equally, to Mike Piazza's 8th inning home run on September 21st, 2001 giving a city in shambles hope during our country's darkest hour.

Baseball has always been there for us.

A list of baseball heroes has stretched for over two centuries now. Day in and day out, April through October, we have the option of inviting these players into our homes. And the slow nature that baseball is sometimes criticized for is exactly what makes the sport so personal.

We see the human tendencies of every player, pitch by pitch. The joy, the anguish, the heart; all of which reminds us that while these players are capable of what seems to be god-like talent, they are simply just like you and me.

Recently, the sport has suffered a bit. The events that have taken place in baseball over the past decade will not necessarily be looked upon favorably in sports history. We are still not sure what the repercussions will eventually be. But, for me, the "Steroid Era" will forever serve as a constant reminder that no matter what the ratings say, baseball will always be at the forefront of Americana.

Steroids and other performance enhancing drugs run rampant throughout every other professional sport in one way or another, but it is baseball that our country has bent over backwards to protect. We ask for it to be as close to perfect as possible, just as we would our own children. Consequently, it is that which inspired the title of this blog.

Whether we are playing it in the school yard or watching it on the 52" flatscreen, baseball will always be America's baby.