September 29, 2005
Races, and Other Sideshows
A couple of busy days around the game, as more and more teams earn the right to play weird lineups…
- The Angels clinched the AL West Tuesday, wrapping up the crown on the A's home field for the second year in a row with back-to-back 4-3 wins. Their title is a triumph of run prevention; just one hitter, Vladimir Guerrero, has even a .300 EqA, and only part-time Casey Kotchman joins Guerrero above .280. It's a lousy offense, but when you have five good starters, including three of the top ten in the league, along with a nasty, strikeout-generating bullpen, you can get away with scoring issues. I don't know that this Angels team could have beaten out the competition in previous seasons, but it was a down year in the West, and they leveraged their strengths into a title. Given the mess that the AL is heading into October, they are a serious threat to make their way back to the World Series just on the basis of having a strong staff and one of the three best players in the league.
The A's will win in the high 80s in a transition year. That's a bit disappointing given that they were tied for first place in the middle of September, but not a bad performance in the first season post-Big Three. It's reasonable to wonder if they've maxed out their potential in their current payroll band; the A's biggest need is for an MVP-level thumper, and their farm products, aside from Daric Barton, don't have that kind of upside. The Adam Dunn/Bobby Abreu player they lack is going to cost a pretty penny, and may not be available this winter even if they had the money to spend.
- The Braves locked up their 14th straight full-season division title, triumphing over a group of teams that may all finish above .500. As they did more than a decade ago, the 2005 Braves turned over much of their everyday lineup to homegrown products. The process wasn't without its problems--outside of Jeffrey Francoeur, the influx of youth contributed largely by being better than guys like Raul Mondesi, not by being above-average by their own lights. The Braves' success is along the lines of the 1996-2000 Yankees: if you're good enough up the middle, you can give back a lot everywhere else and still succeed.
- The Padres got back to .500 last night, and for their troubles, were granted the NL West title. This creates an interesting situation for Bruce Bochy; to win a championship, he'd be best-served by getting his regulars some rest over the next four days and not worrying too much about results. However, the Padres need to win two of their last four games to avoid being the first division titlist with a sub-.500 record, and all four to avoid setting the record for worst record by a division winner. Now, that shouldn't matter in the big picture, but it's human nature to not want to hold that kind of mark, so it will be interesting to see how Bochy and the team plays out its schedule.
By the way, a nod to reader Shane Demmitt, who pointed out that the 1981 Royals played in the postseason with a 50-53 record. They came in through the back door of the guest house, qualifying by finishing second in the AL West in the second half when the A's won both halves of the strike-cleaved season.
- And how about that AL foursome?
White Sox 95-63 .601 -- 1 @ Det, 3 @ Cle
Yankees 93-65 .589 2.0 1 @ Bal, 3 @ Bos
Red Sox 92-66 .582 3.0 1 vs. Tor, 3 vs. NY
Indians 92-66 .592 3.0 1 vs. TB, 3 vs. CHW
The White Sox are all but in the postseason. For them to not play next week, they'd have to lose out, have Indians win out, have the Yankees and Red Sox both win today, have the Red Sox take exactly two out of three from the Yankees, and then lose a playoff game. It could happen, but the Playoff Odds Report has it about right, giving the Sox a 99.2% chance of reaching the Division Series.
(Worth mentioning: there's still a chance for a four-way tie among these teams if everything in the above paragraph happens except that the Indians lose to the Devil Rays tonight. Yes, that's Bud Selig's head exploding.)
That doesn't mean the Pale Hose have it easy. If the Padres have to make tough choices about how seriously to take their weekend, the White Sox will have it worse, most likely forced to play their front-line guys all the way even if they clinch because of the importance the games have to the Indians. That these four teams are playing each other this weekend and possibly beyond, while the Angels play meaningless games and set up their postseason rotation, is just one more reason to take the Halos seriously.
- The Indians picked an awful time to walk under a ladder. Leading 3-0 over the Royals Sunday, they blew the edge and lost 5-4 on a fly ball that Grady Sizemore lost in the sun. Then they lost back-to-back one-run games at home to the Devil Rays, the first when Ron Belliard hit into a double play with the tying run on third base, the second when Seth McClung and his nearly 7.00 ERA shut them out for eight innings. It doesn't say anything about their character; it's just one of those stretches that happens in a baseball season, and it's unfortunate for them that it's happened while everyone is watching. They still control their destiny--if they win out, they do no worse than a playoff--and that's all you can ask for with four games left.
- It's not like the AL East contenders are lighting things up. The Yankees were blown out Tuesday by the Orioles, who came back to life for one night and 17 runs (somehow, Joe Torre kept Al Leiter in the game after the Yankees took a 7-5 lead, with predictable results), and won a 2-1 squeaker last night. The Red Sox had a 5-2 lead in the fifth inning of the second game of Tuesday's day/night doubleheader, then tanked, losing that game 7-5 (Curt Schilling has nothing, by the way) and then getting pounded last night, 7-2, to fall out of first place again. The Sox are in the worst position of these four teams, a game out in the division, tied for the wild-card and stuck facing the hottest team of the bunch over the weekend. The Red Sox are capable of allowing eight runs in any game not started by Tim Wakefield, which puts their fate in the hands of the offense.
- The Astros' magic number is down to two, thanks to a pair of huge wins over the Cardinals in St. Louis, as well as the Phillies' submarine-with-a-screen-door approach to the race. Key for the Astros is whether they can lock this thing up without putting Roger Clemens back on the mound; if they can, they'll be in much better shape to win a short series over the Braves, whose rotation is not a strength at this point in the season.
I should note that even though the Phillies lost Tuesday, they did manage to get Billy Wagner into the game, using him to pitch the top of the ninth with the team down by one. This is actually a viable strategy, as Nate Silver's research confirms; the difference between being down one and being down two is large enough to make using your best reliever sensible.
For all the talk about pitch counts and how starting pitchers are babied nowadays, it's relievers who we've turned into hothouse flowers. If the game's best relief pitchers threw 20% more innings, not only would they have more value--even allowing for a bit less effectiveness--but the effects would be felt in roster construction, especially on offense. Teams routinely sacrifice offensive flexibility--pinch-hitters--for 11th and 12th pitchers, and that's a poor tradeoff, as anyone who's watched the Indians' OBP sinks at the bottom of the lineup this year would attest.
- The Cardinals are in, but they have to be panicking just a little bit. Chris Carpenter looks like he's hit a wall, with four straight shaky starts. Remember, he's already 25 innings past his previous career high, and he missed the end of last season and the playoffs after being worked hard during the season. The Cardinals' key strength is rotation depth, but not having their best guy, on top of not having their superstar third baseman, knocks them down to the level of the competition. There's not a team in baseball that can lose two eight-win players and not feel that.
"Don't you get it?"
That was Senator John McCain's refrain yesterday as he thundered away at MLBPA head Donald Fehr, imploring, cajoling and threatening him to acquiesce to a plan that would subject baseball players to more drug tests and greater penalties for use of banned substances.
I'm sticking this at the bottom of the column in part because I hope it gets lost. I largely avoid writing about the issue of steroids in baseball, and the steps being taken to address the problem, because I sense that my opinion is so far from the mainstream as to make my expressing it counterproductive. But with yet another Congressional camera-fest yesterday, yet another unproductive parade of self-righteous pandering and oversimplified bleating, I find myself wanting to speak.
Despite the rush to judgment on the matter, the throngs of senators and columnists and talking heads shouting from the rooftops that performance-enhancing drugs are pervasive in baseball, their use a negative influence on the young people of this nation, and a testing program with harsh penalties the only solution, this is far from a black-and-white issue. I don't think the evidence supports the notion that a large number of baseball players are cheating in this manner; I certainly doubt that suspicion that baseball players succeed due to PED use is a driver in decisions that young athletes make to use (when did baseball become influential again?); and I think the drawbacks to universal testing are not being discussed at all.
It's a prove-your-innocence program, and we should be above that in this country.
The fact is, Congress isn't involved in this because it's the best use of their time. They're involved because it's an easy issue that provides massive doses of publicity with virtually no pushback. Those who would defend a more nuanced approach, a full study of the issues, up to and including privacy, are easily shouted down by the argument that drugs and cheating are bad!
Politically, this issue is a no-contest. Congress is attempting to force something on a group of maybe 1,500 people scattered around the map and, in many cases, not even eligible to vote. There's no chance at all that beating up on baseball players will threaten their war chests or re-election campaigns. The other side of the argument--the privacy issue, largely--is hard to reduce to sound bites and is largely ignored by a media that also wants no part of subtlety, or for that matter, challenging authority.
But there is another side, it's valid, and it's Don Fehr's job to represent it. It's his job to stand in the way of the game's owners and management when they want to take things away from his constituents--freedom, an unfettered labor market, privacy, dignity--that they have rights to. It's defending the unpopular positions where Fehr earns his money. Perhaps if congressmen ever showed that much character, they'd undertstand, but there's precious little stomach in the American political arena for such acts.
It's funny to contrast Congress' performance on this matter to its work when confronted with the business of baseball. Consider the kid-glove treatment Bud Selig got when asked to explain why his claims of poverty stood in stark contrast to the available evidence, the generous rescues by his local senator, the chair of the committee who made sure he didn't have to actually answer the tough questions. Consider the tone with which "statesmen" like McCain speak to Fehr, as opposed to how they handled Selig two years ago.
Threatening Congressional action on the use of performance-enhancing drugs is just bullying. Where the American sports landscape needs legislative action is in restricting the use of public funds for stadia when the revenues generated in the stadia flow largely to private hands. To address that issue, though, would be hard; it would anger wealthy constituents, ones with power. It would mean possibly making enemies of politicians who have staked their political futures on the building of these stadia.
So better to be out front on the easy issue, while the cameras are rolling, and propose solutions that take away the rights of a group of people who don't have the power to stop you.
Good decisions aren't made in congressional hearings. Sound bites are made; reputations are made. Perhaps candidacies are made. Good decisions are made out of the spotlight and away from the cameras, away from the third-party grandstanders and their made-for-TV opinions. An agreement reached due to external pressure is far more likely to be imbalanced, unfair, and eventually resented than one reached between equals. Just as Selig allowed the media to put its thumb on the scale in 2002, he's allowed Congress to tilt the balance in 2005, forcing the MLBPA into an untenable position despite its having legitimate points to discuss.
I still don't know to what extent performance-enhancing drugs are a problem in baseball. When testing turns up just a small number of users--which it has--the argument then becomes, "well, they're using stuff that can't be detected." When the efficacy of testing is then questioned, it becomes about deterrence, and then setting examples. When it's pointed out that it's not 1935 any more and American kids don't ape baseball players, there's no good response.
It's a complicated issue that can't be reduced to simple exchanges. Doing so just gets in the way of the people who actually might be trying to find real solutions that balance everyone's interests.
Don't you get it, Senator?
Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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