13 August 2007

AL, NL Pennant Races Heating Up...

Who says the Wild Card has ruined the excitement of playoff races?

One of the major criticisms of the three-division/Wild Card system, implemented back in 1994, wa sthat it would ruin some of the great pennant races. That the "Down the stretch they come..." excitement and intrigue of years past would be lost, because there would suddenly be a consolation prize for whomever lost out on the division title. In the 1993 NL West, for example, the Braves edged out the Giants on the last day of the season, winning 104 games to the Giants' 103, so they could have the privilege of choking in the playoffs against the Phillies. The Giants would have been in the playoffs anyway with the three-division format, so how exciting is that, really?

Well, it would have been exciting for the Cardinals. They finished 87-75, and would have won the NL Central, if such an animal had existed at the time. They'd have made the playoffs ahead of the Montreal Expos, despite having seven fewer wins, and they'd have had the Cubs and Astros right on their tail, both within three games at the season's end. That would have been exciting for lots of people around the midwest, don't you think? And the Phillies would have won the NL Wild Card with their 97 wins, not particularly close to the Braves' record, but worrying about the gaining Expos, who finished just three games behind them. So while we would not have had two 100+ win teams vying for one playoff spot, we would have had five teams competing for two playoff spots, which would have kept a lot mor efans interested for a lot longer.

Fast forward to 2007, and I've got some even better examples for you.

American League...

In the AL, you've currently got six teams competing for four playoff spots. The Boston Red Sox, who looked so unstoppable for the first three months of the season, have, well, stopped. Winning, that is. Their closest competition was 11.5 games out as recently as July 5th, but their lead has been whittled down to just 4 games by the end of this weekend. The'll get to beat up on Tampa Bay, the worst team in baseball, for six of the next nine contests on their schedule, and indeed, the remaining 44 games on their schedule include only 16 against teams with winning records. If you discount Toronto, which just barely has a winning record at 59-57 right now, that's only 10 games against "good" teams the rest of the season. The Yankees, by contrast, have 27 of their remaining 45 games against winning teams, so their road looks much tougher, at least on paper. I doubt that even the Red Sox could mess this up. The will win the AL East.

That leaves five teams for three remaining spots, and the field is wide open at this point. The LAnahfornia Angels have a 3.5 game lead over Seattle at the moment, but they've got a stretch of 17 straight games against teams that currently have winning records, and the Mariners' schedule is comparatively soft for the next few weeks, so that lead could slim down even more. In a virtual tie with Seattle for the AL Wild Card at the moment are the Yankees, of course, with the Cleveland Indians only 1.5 games behind. The Tribe, however, is only 1/2 game behind the Detroit Tigers for the AL Central Division lead, which I'm sure they'd much rather have anyway.

My best guess is that the Angels and Sawx will hold onto their respective division leads, that the Yankees will cool off a bit but will probably still win the Wild Card. Seattle may have a 65-50 record right now, but their runs scored and allowed suggest a more pedestrian 59-56 team, and I expect them to start playing like that again soon. Cleveland and Detroit are both trying their darndest, it seems, to let each other take over the AL Central lead. The Tigers are just 13-18 since the All-Star break, with a 5.71 team ERA, but the Indians are right on the Tigers' tail as they tumble, 13-17 since the break, with a .698 team OPS and a .252 batting average in that stretch. One of them, however, is going to have to win it, as the Twins (58-59, 7 games out) don't look like they're equipped to make a run this season. Look for the Tribe to take advantage of the relatively soft schedule they have for the rest of the year and overtake the Tigers to win the Central.

National League...

If the pennant races are hot in the AL, then they're positively on fire in the Senior Circuit. All three divisions are contested by no more than three games, and the NL East has three teams within 3.5 of the lead. Concurrently, there are six teams within three games of the NL WIld Card lead, which means that there are nine teams vying for four playoff berths. That's more than half of the teams in the National League still in contention with a month and a half left of the season. You odn't hear anybody lamenting the Wild Card system this year, do you? They're all too busy checkin gthe box scores.

To begin with, the NL East has been led by New York virtually all season, but the Metropolitans are losing ground to the Phillies quickly, mostly because the latter are starting to play like I said they would. The Atlanta Braves, despite a terrible season by Andruw Jones, an injury to Edgar Renteria, a couple of no-names at the back of their rotation and a half dozen pitchers on the DL, are only a half-game behind the Phillies, 1.5 out of the NL Wild Card race.

In the Central, the Milwaukee Brewers finally took Tom Hanks' advice, stopped crying poor, and started playing good baseball. They built up an 8.5 game lead as recently as June 23rd, but have watched it ebb away ever since. They're 12th in the majors in runs scored, and 14th in ERA, and their runs scored and allowed suggest a 59-59 team instead of their actual 62-51 record, so I fully expect them to wilt in the heat of the race, though they'll probably finish with a record at or just above the break-even mark. The Cubbies, despite losing records in both April and May, went 34-20 over the next two months before cooling off again in August. They're only 1.5 games behind the Brew Crew at the moment, and if their pitching can keep them in contention until Alfonso Soriano and Aramis Ramirez are healthy, they should be able to take the Central title. The defending world champs are currently 7 games out, with a record 5 games under .500, so they're not likely to turn things around this late in the season.

The wild, NL West has four of its five teams within 6 games of the division lead, and any and all of those could win the Wild Card as well. The Diamondbacks sit atop the division as I write this, with a 67-52 record, but they've actually allowed more runs (523) than they've scored (502), owing their status as division leaders to a luck-and-relief-pitching-induced, 26-16 record in 1-run games, so I don't think they'll stay there. The bullpen is composed mostly of rookies who have yet to see opponents ofr a second or third time and veterans playing way over their heads, so it's just a matter of time before things fall apart out there in Arizona. The Dodgers are 6 games out, with a 60-57 record, and one of the best pitchers in baseball in Brad Penny, but their offense is going to have to turn it up a notch if they're going to make a run.

The other two temas, the San Diego Padres and Colorado Rockies, are three games and five games behind 'Zona, respectively, but the old Yogi-ism could not be better applied than to these two. That is, if you'll forgive my paraphrase, "You can't compare the two. Their similarities are different."

The Colorado Rockies play in the best hitter's park in the history of recorded baseball, Coors Field, and their offense takes advantage of it. Their 602 runs scored overall are second only to the Phillies in the NL (In the AL, only Detroit, Boston and New York have scored more runs.), and nobody in the NL has scored more runs at home than the Rockies, which helps to explain their 35-23 record at Coors Field. The team has six players with at least 10 homers and every regular his hitting at least .279. Unfortunately, they're dreadful on the road, scoring less than 4.5 runs per game, and dropping to 26-33. Amazingly, their pitching is somehow consistent, with a 4.48 ERA at home, and a 4.34 mark on the road.

San Diego, by contrast, has four guys with double-digit homers, but nobody who's likely to join them before the season is out. The Padres play in one of the best pitchers' parks in the majors, and it shows. Brian Giles is hitting .298, but with only 7 homers and 31 RBIs in 77 games. No other regular is hitting more than .269, and half the lineup is hitting .240 or worse right now. They're last in the NL in batting average and OBP, 13th out of 16 NL teams in slugging, and 11th in Runs Scored. On the other side of the equation, though, lies their pitching, and this is how San Dego has stayed in contention all season. Thier 3.54 collective ERA is easily first in the NL, best in the major leagues, actually, and almost half a run better than the Mets, their closest Senior Circuit competition. Not surprisingly, the Padres have a winning record at home, 32-26, but they've also played decently when away from Petco, 31-28. Both teams have half of their remaining schedule in their home parks and half on the road.

So my guesses for the NL are that the Mets will hold on to the East, the Brewers will fade adn give way to the Cubs, who will take the Central, and the Snakes will cool off, allowing the Padres in to take the West for a third straight year. The D-Backs' youth and inexperience and the Rockies' inability to win on the road will keep them both out, and the Dodgers' age and inability to hit for power will kill their chances, though Penny could win the Cy Young Award. The Phillies will win the NL wild card...

...and then lose to the Cubs in the playoffs.

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