Here we are again, on the verge of another World Series. As much as I love Spring and the beginning of the baseball season, October is still the best time to be a fan of the sport. Like most ‘seamheads’, I have been spending the last few weeks enjoying postseason baseball and all the intrigue and drama that surrounds it. Since I’ve been fairly silent this month (mostly due to other responsibilities), I thought I would pass along some of my thoughts from the playoffs so far, as we get ready for one long-standing streak to fall once the Fall Classic is over, as either the Chicago Cubs or Cleveland Indians eviscerate a drought that has been going on before even some of our parents were born. So what’s been on my mind this October? All of what is to follow and more…
- Weeks later and I still have a hard time figuring out how Buck Showalter went the entire American League Wild Card game without bringing in stud closer Zach Britton. Look, I get that most managers like to wait (especially on the road) till the very end of the game to bring in their closer, but when the playoffs are involved, you don’t chance it the way Buck did. There has been a movement for managers to use their closers in a different manner than most are accustomed to; not waiting for a save situation and using your best pitcher in the most high leverage situation possible. Showalter, who I consider to be one of the best managers in the game and one who isn’t shackled to conventional thinking, seemed to fall back into a frame of mind that is actually fairly normal in today’s game and it might have cost his team the chance to advance to the ALDS. The hope is that Showalter’s mistake (and yes, it was a mistake) might shine a light on reliever usage and force managers to use their closers in better situations than just the 9th inning.
- On the other end of that spectrum is Terry Francona’s use of Andrew Miller this postseason. Miller, the ALCS MVP, has been used as early as the 5th inning during the playoffs, many times for multiple innings. It might be considered unorthodox by some, but it has done nothing but garner success for Francona and the Indians. One has to wonder if teams will be on the lookout for relievers like Miller, someone with electrifying stuff and the ability to be used for more than just one inning at a time. While the argument could be made that you can’t use your bullpen during the regular season the way most teams do in October (and there is at least some truth to that), it doesn’t mean that you won’t see more managers trash the old, antiquated system and start using some relievers the way Miller is used. While Showalter was the example of what not to do with your closer, Francona is the example that managers around the game should be trying to copy when 2017 rolls around.
- The Texas Rangers collapse in pitching took me by surprise this month. I figured with the front two of Cole Hamels and Yu Darvish and a bullpen that had been racking up a 35 inning plus scoreless streak, this team could be a dangerous one in the playoffs. Instead, Rangers pitching gave up 22 runs in three games and the team from Arlington limped out of the playoffs. While some of the credit should go to Toronto’s offense, the Rangers pitching should get more of the credit for the Blue Jay’s sweep than anything else. One would have to think that Texas will spend the offseason fortifying the rotation and making sure it is stronger headed into the next season.
- Speaking of the Blue Jays, their exit from the playoffs couldn’t have come in a more appropriate manner. For a baseball fan outside Toronto, this is a hard team to like. While they are not short on talent, over the last few years we have seen the Blue Jays main hitters continuously whine and complain about one thing or another. Front and center has been Jose Bautista, a man who will never be confused with a golden gloves boxer. Bautista claimed that Toronto were victims of “circumstances” in this series and that was why their offense had gone south. Edwin Encarnacion also had to be escorted away from the home plate umpire one game, with Toronto just hopeful he wouldn’t be ejected. While there were a few pitches called strikes against the Blue Jays that might have been balls, that is a fairly common aspect of today’s game and not really something worth blaming their four games to one loss in the ALCS. In fact, Cleveland only scored 12 runs in the five games, with Toronto posting 8 runs. All the way around, it was a low scoring series. The real “circumstances” that Bautista talked about was Cleveland’s pitching and their dominance against Toronto’s bats. Kluber, Merritt, and Tomlin all silenced the Blue Jays and when you tack on their lockdown bullpen, it was easy to see why Cleveland is headed to the World Series. A big part of Toronto’s issues lie in their leadership and their tendency to make excuses rather than owning up to their own struggles. The Blue Jays temperament just isn’t one of a championship team, and it showed in the ALCS.
- Has there been a more disappointing team in the postseason the last few years than the Washington Nationals? The sky seemed the limit a few years back with their blend of youngsters and veterans and two of the most intriguing players in the game (Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg). Instead, since 2012 the Nationals have lost in the NLDS three times. What very well could have been a dynasty has left this organization with more questions than answers. If you are Washington’s braintrust, what should you think? If you saw a team with Harper, Strasburg, Max Scherzer, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, Trea Turner and Tanner Roark, you would have to think at the least they would have made the NLCS at least once. Instead, this team now has to regroup and wonder what the missing piece is. Last year, the belief was getting rid of Matt Williams and hiring Dusty Baker would fill that needed puzzle piece. Is it the manager? Does the team need another bat? Another stud starter? Or do they need a clubhouse veteran to be this team’s glue? It will be an interesting offseason in Washington and one that might define this team’s immediate and long-term future.
- There is no better story in the playoffs this year than the Chicago Cubs. You’ve all heard the numbers on the years of futility; their last world championship was 1908, last trip to the World Series was in 1945. Last month I mentioned I was rooting for the Cubs but even if I didn’t have the emotional connection from my youth, I would probably still want to see the Cubbies rack up their first world title of the century. It’s not just the years of bad luck and bad teams, not just the old lovable stadium or long history of the franchise in general. It is a change in the culture in Chicago, brought forth by both Theo Epstein and Joe Maddon. Maddon might be one of the great motivating managers of the last 30 years, if for no reason than how loose he keeps that clubhouse. Add in the mix of exciting youngsters and grizzled veterans and you have a recipe for not only a championship but also possibly a dynasty. I found it ironic that Chicago bounced the Dodgers from the playoffs, since the Cubs should probably thank Los Angeles for putting them in this position in the first place. If not for LA prying Andrew Friedman from the Rays, the Cubs would not have been able to get Maddon to manage this team. Maddon had a clause in his contract that allowed him to “look elsewhere for employment” if Friedman left the organization, which he took advantage of when Andrew left Tampa for Los Angeles. The Cubs swooped in, procured the services of Maddon and as they say, “the rest is history”. There are many a reason to root for Cleveland as well (The Revenge of Willie Mays Hayes?), but more than anything, this Cubs team just feels like a team of destiny. I know there will be Chicago fans who will be waiting for the other shoe to drop but…but what if there is no other shoe?
- Finally, one has to feel for Los Angeles’ Clayton Kershaw. Kershaw, easily the best pitcher in baseball, was the victim of Chicago’s clinching win on Saturday night in Game 6 of the NLCS and because of it the narrative will be pushed again that Kershaw is not a “big game” pitcher. The funny thing is while Kershaw has had a couple of clunkers over the years (I’m looking at you, Game 1 of the 2014 NLDS), he hasn’t been nearly as bad as some would have you believe. In his 14 playoff starts, Kershaw has 8 quality starts while he has five starts of giving up 5 runs or more. Just looking at the last two years, Kershaw has thrown 38 playoff innings, compiling a 3.79 ERA while striking out 48 and allowing a .218 batting average over that span. Sure, he isn’t Madison Bumgarner or Curt Schilling in the postseason, but he isn’t worthless in the playoffs either. Even with that being said, this year in particular should not be a determining factor on how Kershaw performs in October. He would return from a back injury that kept him out for over two months on September 9th and would allow 4 earned runs the rest of the year. So obviously Kershaw was putting up Kershaw numbers, but was he 100% healthy? I didn’t feel like he was at all this October and apparently I wasn’t alone:
That comment was from Saturday after the Dodgers loss to the Cubs to wrap up the NLCS. This also tells me that even 80-85% of Kershaw is probably better than most pitchers alive today. So the narrative for him will live on in some minds, but it probably shouldn’t. Clayton Kershaw is still the same pitcher in October that he is the other months of the year; he’s just not perfect like some would expect from him.
So here we are, just a day away from the World Series. It is also our reminder that at the most, we have only seven games left in this 2016 season before baseball takes a few months off (at least on the field). It has once again been a fun October, even without my Royals in the playoffs. In fact, it has been stress-free without my team to cheer on in the playoffs. No matter the outcome of the World Series, one team will slay a beast of a streak, one that sits at 68 years while the other one sits at 108 years. It should be a fun series, as we should see some stellar pitching and some clutch hitting. I always hope for a seven game series, so we get not only the greatest amount of baseball but also some high drama. We should get both and yes, I do believe this series could go all seven. So my prediction? The Cubs in seven. Sure, they won’t be able to clinch at Wrigley Field, but a win is a win. I look forward to the next week of action and what will ensue. No matter what, we the fans are the true winners. Thank you, baseball.