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April 5, 2011

Changing Speeds

The More Things Change...

by Ken Funck

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Hi everybody! I’m Evan Mendes. Thanks for joining me here at SportsFeed for this casual-level, commute-sized on-board preview of the upcoming 2031 AL season. If you would like more in-depth analysis, just say keyword “Sabre” at any time and I’ll return in a second with a more appropriate presentation. If you are viewing this in 3DP projection or video, remember that your driver’s side console will automatically switch to audio-only when your vehicle exits autopilot mode or is no longer traveling on a limited-access highway. Sorry—it’s the law.

Ready? Okay. Let’s take a quick stroll through each division of the American League, outlining a few of the contenders and stories that may interest you during the upcoming 2031 season.

In the East, the focus will again be on the defending world champion New York Yankees and their perennial archrival Boston Red Sox. The off-season signing of former Cy Young Award winner Bennett Soderberg to a Yankee rotation already featuring stars Ritchie Calderon and Minoru Chiaki makes them a seeming lock for their 40th-straight winning season, and many consider them the odds-on favorites to again win the AL East and a first-round playoff bye. Bryce Harper’s move to DH opens up room for rookie Jan Ter Horst in the Yankee outfield—if the Dutch phenom wins the Rookie of the Year award, 2031 will mark the third straight year that a veteran of an Asian or European professional league will have taken home rookie hardware.

The Red Sox hope to keep pace with the Yankees en route to their 34th straight winning season despite the absence of ace starter Eli Calderwood, who will miss most of the season recovering from an elbow injury widely blamed on Jeremy Vershaw, Boston’s former pitching coach. Vershaw was fired after it was revealed that he allowed Calderwood to continue pitching late in a key September matchup with the Orioles well after velocity, movement, and release-point data indicated a dangerous fatigue signature. To replace Calderwood, the Red Sox will rely on rookie screwballer Sridher “Googly” Arumugham, the latest product of their Asian development efforts. The Boston attack will again be spearheaded by left fielder Miguel Sano, who hopes to build on a late-career offensive renaissance that saw him among the league leaders in many key offensive categories, both traditional (on-base percentage, slugging percentage, home runs), and advanced (hit-profile percentage, batting runs added).

The AL Central looks to be a wide-open race with every team able to legitimately claim contention for at least one of the league’s three wild-card slots, but two teams stand out as the favorites: Detroit and Kansas City. Last year’s division champion Tigers squad again features the superlative keystone combination of J.J. Auriantal and Enrique Zapata. Zapata has won three Silver Slugger awards and four Gold Gloves, while Auriantal’s range at shortstop has become the stuff of legend. Gunning for his ninth straight Gold Glove, a streak that would match Omar Vizquel’s American League record, old-timers have taken to comparing Auriantal’s acrobatics to the legendary Ozzie Smith. While it’s impossible to reliably compare the new Wizard to the old, spatial data easily proves Auriantal’s glove work far surpasses that of his contemporaries. Last season he broke his own Lateral Range Score record, with his quickness, instincts, and arm producing 16 of the top 20 range plays of the year, while he again paced shortstops in Total Fielding.

Kansas City’s hopes to build on last year’s wild-card appearance were dealt a blow when Soderberg signed with the Yankees, becoming the fourth young Royals starter in the last 20 years to win the Cy Young award before leaving for big money elsewhere. The rotation may be a question mark, but last year’s stellar bullpen returns intact, with rubber-armed relievers Bobby Aguilar and Trey Locum leading the way. Together, Aguilar and Locum worked 225 innings of relief, pitching out of middle-inning jams or closing out games as the situation demanded. Locum led the Royals with 22 saves, but it was Aguilar who scored the league’s top relief honor, adding a second Wilhelm Award to his mantle while pacing the league in Big Outs Recorded.

Out west, the AL’s short stack will be hard-pressed to match the crazy finish of the 2030 divisional race. After the Angels came from five games back in the final week, the Rangers prevailed in a one-game playoff that turned on replay umpire Courtney Thao’s controversial trap call on a sinking liner off the bat off Silverio Ramos with two outs in the bottom of the ninth. The umpire on the field ruled that Alando Griffith’s diving attempt had resulted in a trap, not a catch, allowing the winning runs to score. Many viewers, especially those in Orange County, felt the 3-D replay showed a catch, but Thao quickly ruled the evidence inconclusive and let the call stand, giving Texas the division title.

The Rangers and Halos will once again be the favorites, but many observers will be watching what happens in San Jose, where the A’s hope to build on last year’s success with tandem starters to pitch their way back into contention. After years of minor-league trials, breakthroughs in the use of spatial data to identify pitcher fatigue, and the loss of ace starter Jamie Kilbride to free agency, San Jose committed to using three sets of tandem starters at the major-league level last year. The results were quite promising, with the club allowing fewer runs than they had in 2030 despite spending less on starting pitching than any team in the league. Julian Bohannon and rookie southpaw Asturiano Frias paired up to produce 33 “tandem wins,” while former journeymen relievers Tyler Wilkinson and Rashard Tompkins proved quite effective in their new roles. If the A’s can duplicate this success, they may be at the crest of a wave that changes pitcher usage forever.

Off the field, baseball will be wrestling with three big questions: umpiring technology, league expansion, and the debate over the use of Coil by major-league players. The Rangers/Angels playoff game re-ignited calls for further use of technology to give replay umpires more tools to help ensure correct calls. The league has bandied about the use of sensors in baseballs, gloves, bases, shoes, and even foul poles to ensure that replay umpires can rule on plays where the 3DP display is inconclusive. Traditionalists fear this will slow down the game and remove the human element. Numerous independent baseball researchers have demonstrated systems that can make these calls instantaneously, but many fans are skeptical of their accuracy—much like similar systems that have been developed to accurately call balls and strikes that also haven’t been implemented.

The league continues to discuss the possibility of adding two more American League franchises and splitting each league into four divisions of four teams, with the leading expansion candidates being New Jersey, Charlotte, San Antonio, San Juan, and Portland. Supporters of a team in New Jersey point out the positive effect a third (or even fourth) team in the New York metropolitan area would have on revenue parity, while San Juan would expand the league into the baseball-crazy Caribbean—though the current teams in New York and Miami would fight those moves tooth and nail. The smart money is on yet another year of lengthy discussion with no consensus.

The debate over Coil is also heating up. Some feel that any substance that increases nerve and muscle response by up to 50 percent changes the game’s competitive environment and should be banned, while others point out that Coil isn’t illegal and is already actively distributed by trainers in the NFL. Many doubt the reliability of tests to detect Coil usage, while many are concerned about the long-term health risks for users and the inequality of access due to Coil’s extremely high cost. The U.S. Senate will be holding hearings on the issue this May—expect lots of worthwhile, in-depth discussion and rational positions being espoused. (If you’re currently on audio-only, note that I’m rolling my eyes).

That’s all for now. Thanks again for choosing SportsFeed, and don’t forget to tune in to our doubleheader broadcasts each Sunday throughout the season, with three distinct versions: Natural, with no broadcasters; Traditional, with standard play-by-play and ex-player analysis; and Insight, with in-depth analysis and expanded graphics. Insight has been expanded this year to include Real-Time Pitch Prediction™, which displays the most likely type and intended location of each upcoming pitch based on the same data mining algorithm used by every major-league team. Look for upcoming contests where you can compete against the algorithm and other viewers to win prizes and be named the 2031 Pitching Seer.

 Enjoy the season! 

Ken Funck is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Ken's other articles. You can contact Ken by clicking here

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