The narrative that the Mets are lovable losers has probably been seen by people outside New York as one of those strange New York things like saying "on line" instead of "in line," walking fast or knowing a good bagel from a bad one. Outside of New York, the Mets are not compared to the Yankees all the time, but are just another baseball team. Today, they are not just another team, but one of the very best. Perhaps Mets fans will grow to prefer that storyline and recognize that compared to many teams they've had it pretty good.
If, however, recent, and not so recent World Series history tells us anything, it is that anything can happen this week. The Royals bullpen could blow three leads, Bumgarner could get roughed up in the first inning of game one. The Giants could continue to score runs on wild pitches and errors by the pitchers as they did against the Cardinals. A light hitting middle infielder like Joe Panik or Alcides Escobar could hit a big home run or two to win a game. The kvetching that these are not the best two teams in baseball, whatever that means, notwithstanding, this should be a fun World Series with lots of interesting stories and players, but the way each team got to this point is a reminder that predicting what will happen next is a mug's game.
he games themselves still need to be played and it is possible this World Series could be a less than dramatic one, but that can happen any year even when the Yankees or Red Sox are playing. However, the stories, players and characters behind this World Series are as compelling as in almost any year. If you're a baseball fan and don't realize that, you haven't been paying attention.
The regular baseball season now extends over six full months, the first regular season game is scheduled for April 5, and the last for October 4th. The World Series is not expected to start until October 28th, a full 24 days after the season ends and will almost certainly extend into November again. For those of us for whom there is no such thing as too much baseball, this is a fine arrangement, but seven months of baseball is a lot and does not come without a cost.
With roughly a month remaining in the baseball season, it is clear that, at least for 2014, there has been a geographical shift in the game's balance of power. If the season were to end today, four California teams would be assured of one of baseball's ten post-season spots, while another west coast team still has a chance for the second wild card in the AL. Equally significantly, no team from Boston, New York or Philadelphia would make the post-season. The last time none of those three northeastern cities all missed the post-season was 1992. That was also the last year that only four teams made the playoffs.
The Red Sox might not be able to trade Lester, or the the prospects they get for Lester may not turn into valuable players in the future, but the willingness of the Red Sox to shop Lester demonstrates why the Red Sox are one of the smartest organizations in baseball. It also presents a stark contrast between the Red Sox and their top rival the New York Yankees. In recent years, the Yankees have never accepted that they are out of contention or decided to trade a player approaching free agency. This has contributed to a cycle that demands the Yankees sign increasingly expensive and old free agents to field a team that is unlikely to play deep into the playoffs.
Duvall is never going to be a big star and probably will never hold down a full time job in the big leagues, but he has brought needed power to a Giants bench that includes Joaquin Arias, Joe Panik and Ehire Adrianza who have combined for zero home runs in 286 plate appearances and Hector Sanchez who has three home runs in 168 plate appearances. Duvall is, like all those other players, a role player but he plays a different role. Duvall cannot catch or play the middle infield. He plays an adequate first base, but his real position is hitter.
Beane's recent trade is relatively easily explained by the likelihood that Beane is trying to build an A's team that will play deep into the playoffs and possibly win the World Series, something they have not done since 1989. It is also possible that Beane sought to exploit a new market inefficiency-the overvaluation of prospects. The growth of prospect analysis, the knowledge fans have of prospects, and the improvements in scouting and drafting have all contributed to an environment where teams are reluctant to part with their prospects, and covet the top prospects on other teams.
At best these debates are fun, challenging and seemingly important. Hall of Fame and Award related discussions feel important because they have direct bearing on how the game and its history are remembered. One of the annual baseball debates that meets none of these criteria surrounds the All Star Game. These debates begin around this time of year and usually take the form of whether some genuinely underrated very good player, a famous and clearly great player having an off-year or a not well known player having a good first half should start the All Star Game, or make the team. This year Josh Donaldson, Derek Jeter and Seth Smith are good examples of each category.
Williams played for the Yankees for 16 seasons, most of them as their star center fielder. The Yankees have a tradition of great center fielders; and while Williams is obviously not in the same class as Mickey Mantle or Joe DiMaggio, he is clearly the third best center fielder in franchise history. Williams also played more games in centerfield for the Yankees than DiMaggio, Mantle or anybody else. Williams batted cleanup and played a marquee position for a team that won three consecutive World Series, spent his entire career with the Yankees, was very popular with the fans, but the hoopla around the notion of the core four has caused Williams to be almost entirely forgotten less than eight years after he played his last game
The Dodgers are a good team that narrowly missed the World Series last year and has a good chance to get at least that far again, but there are no guarantees and much that could go wrong for the team between now and October. They have become a contender through strong international signings, a farm system that has developed one of the very best players in the game, but most significantly an ability to take on contracts like those of Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez that other teams do not want, and by signing free agents as needed. This is the model that the Yankees began to use after their 1996-2000 run, with mixed results. The Dodgers are employing that same strategy in a much more difficult context. They could get a few breaks and win it all as the Yankees did in 2009, but those eight years from 2001-2008, when the Yankees missed every year and kept spending more money on free agents could well be a more likely scenario for the Dodgers.
Removing the collision at home plate, takes a tactic away from base runners with the intention of making the game safer, but it does not change the overall dynamic or balance of the game. In this respect, these rule changes are different than the changes over the decades that have been implemented to keep batters safer from pitched balls. The required use of batting helmets, increased use of body armor and system of quicker warnings for pitchers who rely throw brushback pitches, has created an advantage for hitters that did not exist 60 years ago. Regardless of whether or not one supports throwing inside, it is hard to deny that for many years it was a legitimate part of the game, and of the game's strategy.
Jeter is one of the most intriguing of baseball players because for most of his career he has simultaneously been overrated, he is clearly not the greatest player or even the greatest Yankee in history, and underrated. He is not strong on defense, but has not been as bad as many think. Moreover, Jeter's extremely cautious style with the media has led most of the media to cover him as some sort of baseball saint, always ready with a good team oriented quote, respectful of the game and its history and almost never willing to criticize a teammate, or opponent. A minority of fans, however, see this is as a highly choreographed image by Jeter, which of course it is, and decry him for not being genuine.
Berkman's Hall of Fame fate is a measure of how the Hall of Fame voters punish both steroid users, for their steroid use, as well as clean players for not being quite as good as their steroid using opponents. The result of this will be a Hall of Fame with the excellent sluggers from previous generations, but only the very best, more accurately only some of the very best, from the last twenty years or so.
The Cardinals are obviously a very good team, but some of the mistakes they make as an organization would draw much more attention if not for the best organization frame. One of the most memorable moments of the last World Series occurred in game four when Kolten Wong got picked off first base for the last out of the game with the tying run, in the person of Carlos Beltran, at the plate. It is not fair to blame that defeat on Wong as the Cardinals were in a very tough position, but if the top prospect for another organization had made such a mistake in a similar situation, it would likely have been viewed as a reflection on that organization. Similarly, failing to address the shortstop situation after 2012 was an organizational mistake.
Two other intriguing Hall of Fame manager candidates are Bruce Bochy and Terry Francona. They are 58 and 54 years old so have more years as managers left than the others. They have also both each won two World Championships, but Bochy has only won 1,630 games while Francona has only won 1,121. Bochy and Francona are both still managing so they have the opportunity to increase their total number of wins and both have an outside chance at winning another championship. If Bochy manages four more years, he will have well in excess of 1,900 wins and will have a strong Hall of Fame candidacy. Francona will need to mange for nine or ten more years go get to 1,900 wins, so despite being younger he has a more difficult challenge.
The bigger problem facing the Hall of Fame is that due to the backlog on the ballot, as well as the increased numbers of team, players and thus, eligible candidates, the players from the 1990s and later will be severely underrepresented over time. Finding a way for one of these players to get in will only make the lack of players from the 1990s and later more striking. If Parker gets into the Hall of Fame only a few years after getting rejected by the voters, the cases for more recent corner outfielders like Lance Berkman, Larry Walker, Gary Sheffield, Vladimir Guerrero and others who were better hitters, but with shorter careers like Bobby Abreu and Brian Giles will be much stronger. Similarly, the logic of letting Garvey in, while, as is likely to happen, keeping John Olerud, Jason Giambi and Fred McGriff out, is tough to follow. Garvey or Dave Parker would not be the worst Hall of Fame selections, but perhaps the most puzzling.
This will, and probably should, be enough to get Ortiz into the Hall of Fame. On the surface it seems wrong that a player who is, on the numbers, a strong, but not overwhelming Hall of Fame candidate and who has some connection to steroids will get into Cooperstown before some of the greatest players of his generation who have their own strange and unclear relationship with steroids. There is, of course, an inconsistency here. Had Ortiz not been so good with the media, and such a likable player, the Hall of Fame discussion, and the discussion of his recent World Series performance would be very different right now. It is possible that if Ortiz is elected, the rancor towards other players with connections to steroid use will slowly recede because the questions around Ortiz will linger. If not, the Hall of Fame will look even more absurd with Ortiz on the inside and Bagwell, not to mention Bonds, Roger Clemens and Rodriguez on the outside.
Clearly the team that wins the World Series plays the game the right way, but the meaning of this phrase in not always what it might seem. The right way to play baseball at the big league level is to score more runs than the other team. That is all. However, when an announcer or writer describes a team as playing the game the right way, this usually means the team fields well, doesn't hit too many home runs, probably bunts too much and does things like move the runners by hitting to the right side of the infield.
The San Francisco Giants, who have won two of the last three World Series, have been forgotten by most of the media, partially because they had such a poor season and partially because it was such a long time ago. In 2012, to refresh our memories, the US was fighting a war in Afghanistan, Barack Obama was president and Miguel Cabrera was viewed as baseball's best hitter. Many of the things that make the Cardinals a great organization were true of those 2010-2012 Giants as well. They developed a core of great young players like Buster Posey, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain. They invested wisely in players thought to be washed up such as Aubrey Huff, Ryan Vogelsong and Andres Torres and they had a strong and deep bullpen. The Giants also had a manager who was at his best in the post-season. It is worth remembering that one of the reasons the Giants won in 2012 is because Bruce Bochy ran circles around Cardinal manager Mike Matheny in the NLCS that year.