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August 8, 2002

Prospectus Feature

Breaking Balls: Unbalanced

by Derek Zumsteg

The unbalanced schedule rules.

People complain that it's unfair to some teams chasing the wild card. Perhaps, but with "natural rivalries" and bizarre interleague schedules, fairness has already been tossed out the window. At least divisional play can make for great matchups, unlike, say, the thrilling mid-week sweep of the Brewers by the A's in June.

This comes up because there's an awesome division race in the AL West, and I get to see it because I'm lucky enough to be in Seattle. I honestly prefer this year's nail-biting, wonder-if-we'll-make-it marathon to last year's record 116 wins, when it was obvious by the All-Star break that the Mariners were heading to the playoffs.

As I write this, the Ms are two-and-a-half games up on the Angels. Anaheim has put together the weirdest run at .600 ball and a division title as I can remember, a straight batting average and no-strikeout attack. If you look at the raw stats, they're right up with the Mariners in run scoring, despite giving up 16 points of OBP and having a comparable slugging average. Park-adjusted, the offenses aren't close, but I still look at the daily standings and shake my head. Neither team made race-changing trades before the deadline, though the Angels picked up a spare outfielder--Alex Ochoa--who the M's could have used.

Meanwhile, Oakland made moves to improve for the stretch run, trading for Ricky Rincon and Ray Durham, and they're just four games back, with a front-line pitching rotation that can put the hurt on anyone and a dangerous offensive core.

The Mariners play both teams six more times, a home-and-home series each, including a can't-miss-it buy-your-tickets-now September homestand against the Angels and A's starting September 20 (just after the most likely strike date, for my convenience).

Anaheim and Oakland meet eight times before season's end, playing a four-game home-and-home series.

These games are where the AL West will be decided, and possibly the wild card as well. The M's limp along with three starters and erratic zombie James Baldwin, patching the fourth spot with a platoon of John Halama and Ryan Franklin, one relieving the starter who gets shelled. They have an awful bench and a couple of starters having bad years. Then there's Jeff Cirillo, who's now saying he thinks it'll take years and another 20 pounds of muscle to adjust to hitting at Safeco Field.

Both of the Mariners' rivals have better rotations, the Angels even though they've dragged around the declining Aaron Sele. John Lackey has loooked very good in his eight starts. The A's have had the same problems trying to get quality work out of the back end of the rotation, but if Cory Lidle has come around--and he's had two exceptional starts in his last four--I'm worried. Both Seattle and Anaheim have gotten great work out of their bullpens, while Oakland's has struggled all year.

These are all teams with interesting strengths that could carry them far in the postseason, and with problems that could cause their seasons to collapse. All three have great backstories:

  • the Mariners' vulnerability after their storybook season ended with them losing badly to the Yankees in the ALCS;
  • the Angels--the team the Mariners stepped on in 1995, who twice since then have had records that would have put them in contention in the AL Central;
  • the A's, in contention again despite a $40 million payroll that puts them at the low end of the spectrum, right next to the Twins, both giving the lie to the belief that only the biggest spenders get waved into the post-season.

The Mariners have recently played teams that have maybe two players who still care at this point in the season. They're playing out the string, while the Mariners look at the out-of-town scoreboard and realize if they don't score and soon, the Angels will be back on top of the division tomorrow. Meanwhile, the A's and Angels are facing each other even while playing baseball in Tampa Bay or Baltimore. If I see any of these three teams go through a stretch the rest of the season in which they phone it in, I'll be shocked.

In the last six weeks of the season, there will be 20 games between three divisional teams playing near .600 ball. So abolish interleague play if you want to make things a little more fair, because the unbalanced schedule is the greatest thing since the DH and free agency, and if I could, I'd put more divisional play in and go nutty with the matchups.

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