Category Archives: Baseball

The Abomination of the Universal Designated Hitter – A Rant

If, in fact, there is no 2020 season, perhaps the only silver lining might be that the National League fans will be spared the indignity of seeing a designated hitter in their parks for at least another year.  Those who are in the know, however, assure me that it is only a matter of time.  Eventually the American League sin will stain all of baseball as it is now known and practiced.

This darkness won’t come because the fans desire it.  In fact, National League fans are overwhelmingly opposed to it.  But as I pointed out yesterday, the wishes of the fans are increasingly nothing to be concerned with.  When the DH comes, it will be unapologetically shoved down our throats by the players, who covet those 15 extra “starting” positions.  If you want a barometric measurement of how little we mean to the players, this is it.  For marginally increased salaries for 15 players, they will happily betray the desires of millions and millions of fans.

With the DH discussion endlessly re-surfacing, it’s time that I laid out my case against it.  I warn you at the outset that I am not exactly a traditionalist, so my reasonings may not align with other National League fans.

Strategy

Honestly, strategy is not what I would lead with, but it is the most common refrain sung by the traditionalists.  They say that the DH removes strategy from the game.  Proponents say that it doesn’t, and have tortured various statistics in an attempt to prove their point.

They are wrong, of course.  The DH does significantly lessen the strategy element of the game.  Even in the daily decision of who to bat eighth and how to handle the opposing eighth-place hitter when he comes to the plate with runners on base – walking him is not an automatic decision.

But most of all, the pitchers presence in the lineup creates one of the few critical managerial decisions that baseball is capable of.  Take the following scenario:

Arizona is in Los Angeles, playing the Dodgers.  Madison Bumgarner is squaring off against Clayton Kershaw.  As is his wont, Mr. Kershaw is twirling a masterpiece.  Through six innings, Clayton has allowed just one hit, while striking out 10.  Unfortunately, the one hit allowed was a home run.  For his part, MadBum has allowed a few more hits, but no runs through five.

Now it is the bottom of the sixth, 1-0 Arizona.  With two outs, the Dodgers put together a couple of singles, and Bumgarner walks the eighth place hitter, bringing up Kershaw.  And here you have it.  Do you hit for Clayton or not?  There is no book here, no preferred way to handle this.  Both options are fraught with indeterminate levels of risk/reward.  If Kershaw bats, the rally likely fizzles and LA may not get another shot at Madison.  Conversely, if they hit for Clayton, whether they score or not there are still nine outs to be covered by a sometimes suspect bullpen.  Here, the manager is all alone – and if he makes the wrong call he almost assuredly loses the game.

There isn’t a moment to compare with this anywhere in the American League, so anyone who argues there is no loss of strategy that comes with the DH has little understanding as to what constitutes strategy in baseball.

And note that throughout all of this, no proponent of the DH has ever argued that the rule adds strategy to the game (it clearly doesn’t).  They only try desperately to maintain that no strategy is lost.

I don’t lead with this, though, because in all honesty this incident is exceedingly rare.  I would guess that, across the league, managers are put in this kind of pickle maybe a dozen times all year.  Most of the time, if Kershaw has pitched six inning of one-run ball he will be holding the lead.  And most of the time – unless the pitcher is one of the league’s recognized aces – six innings is about all you would get from that starter anyway.  The decision to hit for him and go to the pen would be nearly automatic.

Don’t misunderstand.  These are wonderful moments, unmatched by anything the American League can offer.  They are the only thing baseball has that approaches the fourth-and-inches decisions that football coaches are frequently faced with.  It just doesn’t happen often enough to be a principle reason for dismissing the DH.  I would begin the conversation with a discussion of:

The Pitchers That Can Hit

The ability to retire major league hitters on anything near a consistent basis is a rare and very valuable skill.  Likewise, the ability to hit major league pitching – at least to the level where you are a threat at the plate – is rare and valuable, too.  Since the two disciplines develop vastly different skill sets, it’s doubly rare to find a player who can capably do both (which is the outstanding reason why pitchers are generally poor hitters).

That being said, from time to time a player does come along who is capable on both sides of the pitcher/hitter confrontation.  Sadly, America doesn’t appreciate these athletes as they should.  Nevertheless, pitchers who can handle the bat are an integral part of baseball lore.  I’m going to take a minute to talk about four – although there are dozens of legitimate examples.

Don Newcombe – who passed away last year – was almost certainly a skilled enough hitter to have earned a living with a bat in his hands.  Newk only managed a ten-year career, but he won 149 games and led the Dodgers to their only world championship while the franchise played in Brooklyn.  He was 20-5 in 1955.  He also hit .359 in 125 at bats that year, including 7 home runs and 23 runs batted in.  He slugged .632 and OPSed 1.028.  For his career, in 878 at bats, Don hit .271 with a .705 career OPS.  He drew 87 walks over his career for a .338 on base percentage.  This included an intentional walk in 1959 one of only 17 intentional walk that we know of given to a pitcher in history.

More recent are the exploits of Zack Greinke and the aforementioned Madison Bumgarner.

Zach hit .328 with the Dodgers in 2013, and is coming off a season where he hit .280 hitting three home runs  with a .580 slugging percentage and an .888 OPS.  Bumgarner won 119 regular season games and 8 more postseason games while being part of three world championships in 11 years in San Francisco.  He has also hit 19 home runs and driven in 62 in about a season’s worth of at bats (594).

In between those pitchers was Cardinal icon Bob Gibson.  Over 17 season, Gibson won 251 games, threw 255 complete games (including 56 shutouts) while striking out 3117 on his way to an MVP award, two Cy-Young Awards and two World Championship rings (during which he was named the MVP both times).  Gibson also added 7 World Series wins in 9 starts (he completed 8 of those games).  The seven victories, by the way, came in seven consecutive complete game efforts – and he may have made it eight straight if not for a misplayed flyball.  His World Series wins are still the most of any National League pitcher, and only Whitey Ford had more – Ford won 10 times in 22 starts for the great Yankee teams.  Gibson, in fact, has more World Series victories than any non-Yankee.

A nine-time gold-glove winner, Gibby was also a dangerous and respected hitter.  In his last Cy Young season (1970), Bob hit .303 in 109 at bats with 19 runs batted in.  For his career, he launched 24 home runs in regular season play and added two more in World Series play.  His 13 career stolen bases is the most of any pitcher whose career began after 1903.  His 144 career runs batted in are the most of any pitcher whose career started after 1950.

I know that there will be many out there who can’t fathom this, but I used to look forward to Gibson’s at bats.  They were infused with this wonderful feeling that anything could happen.  Part of his domination of the game was his ability to provide the clutch hit as well as most regular hitters.  Lifetime, he was a .248 hitter (80 for 323) with runners in scoring position. This includes a .289/.279/.500/.779 batting line with the bases loaded.  With that runner on third and less that two outs, Gibby hit a resounding .310 (22 for 71).  His hitting exploits form a major part of his legend.

In point of fact, their hitting abilities added notably to the value of all of these pitchers.  I’m not the world’s greatest fan of WAR (Wins against Replacement), but according to that system, 7.2% of Greinke’s total value derives from his hitting.  Walter Johnson and Warren Spahn each derived 7.7% of their value with their bats.  Hitting added 8.4% of Gibson’s value, 12.5% of Bumgarner’s value, and a whopping 22.5% (8.5 out of 37.7) of Newcomb’s value.  Adam Wainwright – among the current Cardinals – swings the bat well enough for his hitting to account for 10.4% of his value.

These are skills that should be celebrated, not swept under the rug.  This is the very essence of team sports – the thing that separates them from chess.  In chess, all your pieces have exactly the same capabilities as your opponent’s pieces.  In sports, the game is in those things your pieces can do that your opponent’s can’t do.

If your quarterback can run, then you’ve earned that advantage over the team whose quarterback can’t.  Likewise, if your safety is an elite blitzer or your linebacker excels in man coverage.  If your third baseman is a gold glover, then you have that advantage over teams whose third baseman is an immovable slugger.

Lorenzo Cain plays center field for the Milwaukee Brewers.  Last year he was unremarkable at the plate (he hit .260 with 11 home runs), but was awarded a gold glove for the first time in his ten-year career.  Among his abilities, Lorenzo has a remarkable knack for soaring above walls to snare fly balls that might otherwise be home runs.

How much, I ask, of Lorenzo’s value to the Brewers lies in this impressive skill?  What if baseball took that away from him?  Suppose baseball decided that any fly ball that would have landed over the fence would be called a home run whether or not Cain or anyone else had actually caught it.  Before you dismiss this thought, consider that the arguments for this are exactly the same as the arguments against letting pitchers hit: it removes offense from the game and negatively impacts player salaries.  Suppose Kris Bryant has a hefty bonus clause in his contract if he hits 40 home runs.  Suppose he finished the season with 39.  Suppose Cain on three separate occasions stole a would-be home run from him.  Isn’t the players association as honor bound to defend Bryant’s bonus as they are to make sure 15 hitters who couldn’t win a regular job get paid like regulars?

I maintain that these separating abilities – these skill sets that distance players from their opponents – should be celebrated.  Pitchers that are dangerous with the bat in their hands are one of the sport’s most fascinating subsets.  And – unlike the strategy argument set forth earlier – this mini-phenomenon isn’t as rare as you might suspect.

While most pitchers don’t attain the levels reached by some of the pitchers I’ve referenced here, it is not all that unusual for a pitcher to hit well enough to make a difference.  Last year in the National League (of course) there were 15 pitchers with at least 20 at bats who hit .200 or better.  Thirteen of these were predominantly starters.  This total didn’t include either Bumgarner or Wainwright – neither of whom managed the .200 mark last year, but who remain very capable.

This number is fairly constant.  For most years, there are between 10 and 15 starting pitchers – about one per team – that will give his club some advantage because of his hitting abilities.  So, on average, about every fifth game some National League team will have earned some advantage over its opponent because its pitcher can do something that the other pitcher cannot.

This is a significant number of games.  Enough to impact a pennant race.  Enough not to be casually and thoughtlessly cast aside by the philistine phalanx that champions the DH in spite of its deeply flawed logic.

The Shallow Fandom and Jaded Reporters

While the ultimate threat is the union, they are spurred on by a pro-DH chorus of shallow fans who believe that any 15-13 game is automatically better than any 3-1 game.  They, in turn, are joined by a collection of jaded journalists who have been professional baseball writers for so long that they have lost all connection to actual fandom.  I pity this group.  I can’t imagine the excruciating experience it must be for them to sit through a baseball game.  Perhaps they dig their fingernails into their arms to keep themselves awake while waiting for the next home run.

At any rate, the shallow and jaded are not hesitant to fill the internet with arguments as shallow as they are simple.  Their favorite is that nobody likes to watch athletes trying to do something that they are not good at.  Pitchers (they say, ignoring the fact that many can hit) are not good hitters, and therefore shouldn’t even have the opportunity.

Oh, really?

Back in 2018, the Cardinals tried to make Jose Martinez their starting first baseman.  To say that Jose struggled in this role is a significant understatement.  The plan was abandoned after 84 games and Martinez was returned to the outfield.

My question is, where was the outrage (other than from Cardinal fans)?  Where from that great and enlightened army of DH supporters was any whimper of outrage over someone (Martinez) attempting to do what he clearly was not good at (playing first base)?  Wasn’t this the point of always hitting for the pitchers?  So that we wouldn’t have to suffer through their struggles?

The answer here isn’t as simple as saying that Jose should have been the DH.  Over the last couple of seasons, the Cards have been “blessed” with several questionable defenders.  In addition to Martinez, St Louis suffered through the exploits of Marcell Ozuna in left field.  In a prior life, Ozuna had been a gold glove winner.  In St Louis he got poor jumps, made bad reads, and displayed one of the weakest throwing arms in baseball.  In front of him, the Cards frequently played Matt Carpenter at third.  Matt’s arm has faded to the point that even average runners have an opportunity to outrun his high, looping throws to first.

In all this, no one made a peep.  No one at all suggested that the gloves be taken off of their hands.  However poorly they played, no one seemed at all offended.

The Cardinals, by the way, are not the only team with multiple defensive issues.  Over the offseason, they traded Martinez to Tampa Bay in the American League where he could perform the DH function.  The problem there is that the Rays already have a defensively challenged first baseman in Ji-Man Choi.  One of these challenged glove men will have to man first on any given day for Tampa Bay.  But if you are waiting for anyone to protest this obscenity, I hope you brought your lunch because it will be a long while.

Elsewhere in the Cardinals’ division, Ryan Braun in Milwaukee has been a defensive liability wherever he’s played virtually his entire career.  In Chicago, Kyle Schwarber turns every fly ball to left into an adventure.  None of this matters.  The shallow and jaded don’t care about defense.  You could send the eight worst fielders imaginable onto the field.  No one would care – provided that they can hit.

And that’s just the defensive end of it.  What about base-running?

In his younger days, Yadier Molina had a bit of spring to his step – he even stole 12 bases in 2012.  Still an intelligent runner, 16 seasons and 16,327.2 innings crouching behind the plate have pretty much drained Yadi of anything resembling foot speed.  Now, he is pretty much base-to-base, clogging the basepaths for everyone behind him.  You won’t hear a sound from the no-one-should-do-things-they-are-bad-at crowd. 

Sometimes managers will start players who are nursing injuries that inhibit their running.  For much of the last half of last season, Anthony Rizzo started (and hit leadoff) for the Cubs even though leg miseries reduced him to a station to station runner.  Do you think this disturbed the shallow and jaded?  Not a bit (Rizzo, you see, hit 27 home runs).

This is easily the most irritating thing about the DH rule, as far as I am concerned.  Nothing matters here but hitting.  Defense and base-running?  Please.  Those are those boring, inconsequential aspects of baseball that the shallow and jaded have to struggle to stay awake through until they can get to the next home run.

And another thing.  It’s apparently unendurable to allow pitchers to struggle at the plate, but there’s no problem with anyone else struggling?  Yes a National League DH rule would have kept Jack Flaherty and his .185 batting average away from the plate, but it would have done nothing for Harrison Bader and his .205 average.  Bader struck out 100 more times than Flaherty (117-17), but its Flaherty’s strikeouts that are too egregious to endure?

During the first seven years of his Hall of Fame career, shortstop Ozzie Smith hit just .235/.306/.293/.599.  Last year, there were 7 pitchers to register a higher OPS than that.  But the DH can’t apply to shortstops – even if the starting pitcher that day is a better hitter.

During most of Gibson’s best seasons, his shortstop was a gentleman named Dal Maxville.  In 11 seasons in St Louis, Maxy hit all of 6 home runs in 3087 at bats while carrying a .559 OPS.  In 1969 Dal hit .175 with a .492 OPS (Gibson hit .246 that year with a .584 OPS).  The next year, Maxville improved to .201 with a .510 OPS.  That was the year Gibson hit .303 with a .751 OPS.

Gibson was clearly a better hitter than Maxville, and a rule adjustment that truly was geared to artificially augment offense would have allowed Gibson to hit and have the designated hitter replace Maxville’s bat.  But the DH rule isn’t flexible enough to allow that.  The DH rule can only target the pitcher – regardless of how proficient he is.

This silliness will reach its height in Anaheim this season (if there is a season).  After missing a season on the mound due to Tommy John surgery, Shohei Ohtani is expected, finally, to be a fixture in the Angel’s rotation.  But when he pitches, he won’t be allowed to hit – or at least if he does, Anaheim will have to abandon the DH advantage for that game.  The stupidity here is that when Ohtani is not pitching, he will be the Angels’ designated hitter.

Now, even the fuzzy-thinking denizens of the shallow and jaded club can’t look at that situation without realizing that something is screwed up with the DH rule.

Let me add one more argument.  The starting pitcher in a National League game usually accounts for two plate appearances or less before his spot in the lineup is filled with pinch-hitters.  Between their home games and their road appearances in NL ballparks, the Cardinals (including playoffs) had 161 games in which their starting pitcher was written into the lineup.  In 132 of those games (82.0%) those pitchers managed no more than two plate appearances.

The fact is that even if you’re starting pitcher for the day was the worst hitter imaginable, you would be logically better off replacing the next weakest bat in your lineup with a DH, enduring two plate appearances from your starter, and then bringing on the pinch hitters.  This strategy would give your better hitters (on average) six of the eight at bats otherwise given to the two weakest hitters in your lineup.

But you can’t do that with the DH.  Under the dizzyingly illogical DH rule, you have to hit if you play shortstop – even if you struggle at the plate; and you can’t hit if you’re the pitcher – even if you are one of the game’s best hitting pitchers.  Even if you are Shohei Ohtani.

The question here isn’t how anyone can oppose the DH.  The question is how can anyone support it.  The only way is if you don’t think about it.  At all.

A Structural Violation

The root cause that links all of these problems together is structural in nature – and not terribly difficult to understand.

There are two basic structures for participant sports.  They can be two-way games (where the participants are expected to contribute both offensively and defensively) or they can employ a platoon concept.  Basketball, for example, is a decidedly two-way sport.  Like baseball players, basketball players have varying levels of proficiency.  Some are better as offensive players than they are on the defensive end and others vice-versa.  It is the coach’s job to weigh each player’s strengths and weaknesses and deploy the lineup that offers the best chance of success.

In this construct – in baseball as it is in basketball – you live with the trade-off.  If you want Schwarber’s bat in the lineup, then you have to accept his defense in left field.  If Harrison Bader is going to make miracle catches in centerfield for you, then you are going to have to accept his .205 average and 117 strikeouts.  And, if you want to profit from Jack Flaherty’s gifted right arm on the mound, then you will have to find ways to maximize his at bats (with bunts and so forth).  This simply is how two-way sports work.

Two-way, of course, is not the only viable design.  To date, only football has embraced the platoon structure, but you cannot make the argument that football isn’t better with this system.  As a platoon sport, football is a much better game now than it could otherwise be.

Imagine that Kansas City is playing New Orleans – it is Patrick Mahomes vs. Drew Brees.  Of course, both of these prolific offenses would be expected to do considerable scoring.  But now, imagine if both of those quarterbacks were forced to play free safety as well.  Imagine Brees trying to stay with Travis Kelce over the middle or trying to deny Tyreek Hill the deep middle in zone coverage.  Imagine Mahomes similarly disadvantaged trying to defend against Michael Thomas.

Even worse, imagine Mahomes coming up to make a tackle on Alvin Kamara – or Taysom Hill – and not getting up after the play. 

Even players who could play both ways (and a guy like Nick Bosa, I think, could) wouldn’t play as well at either position as they do playing just the one.  Unquestionably, the platoon system is the way to go for football.

Could baseball embrace a platoon system?  Easily.  Instead of the half-baked and ill-conceived DH, let me put my 9 best bats in my batting order – regardless of whether any of them might play the field; and let me put my 9 best gloves in the field – regardless of whether they are listed in the batting lineup.  Allow me to nominate standing pinch-runners for any batters that I fear might be negative baserunners.

Imposing this model on the 2019 Cardinals, we could have both Martinez and Ozuna in the lineup without having to put them in the field.  Rather than deciding between Tommy Edman and Matt Carpenter, we could probably find room for both in the lineup.  Bader could reign in centerfield without having to bat – but he might be the pinch-runner for Molina.

Here is the actualization of the thing the DH only leans toward.  All hitters (in this model) are professional hitters, all fielders are the best fielders I’ve got.  Nobody running the bases embarrasses himself or clogs the bases for the runners behind him.

Would baseball be a better game if it embraced a full platoon concept?  You could make a fairly strong argument that it would.

I am not supporting this idea.  I am perfectly fine with the full two-way version of baseball.  I’m just saying that if you’re going to platoon, don’t just pick unfairly on the pitcher.  Go all the way and platoon.  Not speaking for the traditionalists, I will say for myself that I could reconcile myself to this concept of baseball easier that I could swallow the designated hitter.

I get that some of my arguments are too esoteric for the shallow and jaded who are yearning for those two or three extra home runs a game.  To appreciate these concepts you have to have a deep feeling for the game – an attachment that has grown progressively weaker in the SportCenter highlight era.

So I will end coming full circle.  Whether the shallow and jaded can begin to fathom why we in the National League like to see our pitchers hit, the fact is that we do.  By an overwhelming majority.

In a just world, that should be all the argument needed.

Why the Owners Might Not Crumble This Time

At first, I thought of it as a kind of “Hail Mary” attempt.

Faced with rivers of red ink for the proposed 2020 half season, it would almost be expected that the baseball owners would at least float some kind of profit sharing plan.  It would be likewise expected that the union would have none of it.  And so, it would be at about this point of the negotiations that the ownership group would concede the fight, realizing that some money was better than no money.

Taking a deeper dive into the numbers, though, there seems significant reason to believe that the owners won’t cave this time around, and – with the players ever unwilling to move off their position – it seems that the 2020 season is exceedingly unlikely to happen.

For an example of the owners’ situation, let’s use my beloved Cardinals.

Like all major league teams, the Cardinals get TV revenue from two main sources.  They have a local TV deal, which provides them (on a 162-game season) with about $33 million dollars.  They also reap about $50 million dollars annually from the network contracts.  This $83 million of TV money is augmented by gate receipts.  How much do the Cards pocket off attendance?  Let’s make a generous estimate.

From the ballgames I’ve gone to, it doesn’t quite seem – all things added together – that a night at the ballpark should run $50 a person, but it does come fairly close.  So, $50 multiplied by the usual season attendance figure of roughly 3.5 million – they have fallen slightly short of that mark for the last four years, but – as I said – we’re making generous estimates.

That would add about $175 million to the coffers. For total revenues of (roughly) $258 million dollars.  There are some other minor income sources, but the TV money and the attendance money are the primaries.  Of course, they don’t get to keep all of the gate receipts – as the visiting team gets a slice of that.  But then, they also get a slice when they play on the road – even though this arrangement ends with the Cards giving more than they get.  Last year their home attendance of 3,480,393 (42,967.8 per game) was answered with only 2,385,586 attendees on the road (an average of 29,451.7).  Still, all things considered, were are probably looking at a little north of a quarter of a million dollars coming in – during a normal season.

From that sizable total, the Cards are on the hook for $165,375,366 in salaries to their major-league players (roughly 64% of revenues).  The team is also on the hook for all benefits, including insurance both on and off the field, as well as all airplanes, busses and hotels (major leaguers, by the way, don’t stay at Motel Six).  In addition to stadium upkeep and incidentals (like electricity and hot water – which are probably substantial bills), they also pay salaries for all coaches, trainers and scouts while supporting a fairly extensive minor league system.  This is not to cry poverty.  Just to point out that the fat-cat owners don’t get to pocket all that coin.

In general, the system works out better than either of the parties are likely to admit – enough money for both the players and the owners.

2020, of course, is a very different story.  The past winter and spring has noted the perishing of more than 100,000 Americans, with millions more losing their sources of income and thousands of businesses closing their doors for the last time.  There has been plenty of suffering to go around.

The specific damages to baseball will include the loss of half the season – and half the TV money that that would have brought in – and the loss of all revenue associated with the fans coming to the games as it is mostly inconceivable that baseball will have its fans in attendance this year.  Now let’s re-calculate.

For the Cardinals the $175 million or so from attendance has evaporated.  The $83 million normally expected from TV will now be more like $41.5 million.  The players have agreed to prorate the salaries, so instead of being on the hook for $165 million, the Cardinals’ salary obligations would be pared to $82,687,683.  But even so, weighed against just $41.5 million of expected income it’s easy to see the club operating at a significant shortfall.  Toss in the travel expenses and any additional expenses associated with all the COVID-19 protections – plus any increase in insurance that arises from the increased threat of the virus – and an expected shortfall in the neighborhood of $45 million dollars is not unreasonable.

The Cardinals, by the way, are not the only team in this position.  A quick glance at salaries and TV money show that 25 of the 30 teams can expect to lose money if there is a 2020 season, with total losses industry wide approaching a half billion dollars.

So now, I ask you, if this is your franchise and the deadline for rubber stamping the season is rapidly approaching, wouldn’t you at least have to think about this?  As much as you would like to play the season (and the Cards, having fallen just short of the World Series last year, would very much like to play the season), would you be all that willing to give the thumbs up when you know it will cost you more than $40 million dollars?

While not claiming that they are poor, the Cardinals are not one of those franchises that are making money hand over fist.  A $45 million dollar set-back will be significantly damaging for the franchise.  This is made all the more difficult to swallow, when you realize that none of the players will lose a cent.

And let’s be very clear about this.  Mookie Betts, for example, was scheduled to earn $27 million this year.  Under the latest proposal from the owners, that would be reduced to about $6 million.  So, in some sense you could say that Mookie would lose $21 million dollars.  But that is only against expected income.  At the end of the day, Mr. Betts’ bank account would be increased by $6 million dollars.  That is very much different from having Mookie open his checkbook and write a $21 million dollar check for the privilege of playing a year of major league baseball for no salary.

This time in the salary negotiations, it is actually the players who are in the position to decide that something is better than nothing.  I would be stunned, though, if they relent.  The Players Association is nothing if not consistent.  Even when their decisions are far more damaging to the rank-and-file of their members, they will seemingly support any position that plays out in the best interest of their wealthiest members.  One of the great ironies of this situation is that if the season never happens, all of the tier-2 and tier-3 players will owe the owners a debt of gratitude (not that they will ever admit it).

How this all plays out isn’t too hard to predict.  For argument’s sake, let’s say the owners relent and agree to pay the full pro-rated salaries.  So Mookie gets around $13.5 million (instead of about $6).  Players in the $6 million dollar range will end up with $3 instead of the $1.75 the owners would have liked to pay them.

This is all fine and well until the offseason preceding the 2021 season.  What will the climate be like?  Terrific – for Mookie Betts and the other top tier stars.  Teams will lay money in front of their feet as though the financial difficulties of 2020 had never happened.

All situations, you understand, are not alike.  Given the amount of money the Dodgers’ local contract calls for, it seems virtually impossible for them to lose money on a season of any length at all.  (The Dodgers, by the way, will get more from their local TV package alone than St Louis will from all sources of income.)  There are some other teams with significant resources (the Angels, Yankees and Red Sox), who will be in position to quickly recover from any losses they might sustain this year.  There are even teams like Cincinnati – likely to lose over $30 million – who might still make a big money play for a guy like Betts, who is the best combination of baseball talent anywhere not named Mike Trout.

Think of it as a gold-plated hog trough, with all the prime slop spread out for the moneyed teams to get first crack at.  These would be the “evil empire” teams – the Dodgers, Yankees, Angels and Red Sox.  They will feed until they are sated.

Behind the tier-1 free agents, though, are a whole host of secondary players.  These are very good performers – the kind of players that can make a significant impact in a pennant race.  Players who – under normal circumstances – might walk away with five-year contracts that call for $60-$70 million dollars.  But expecting a team that has just taken a $40 million dollar bath the previous season to line up to pay these guys $12-$15 million a year is a hard sell.  Eventually, all of these players will find a team, but only after their salaries descend to about the $2-$3 million dollar level that they would be playing the 2020 season for.  This is a situation that could take two-to-three years for the less moneyed teams to recover from, so the result of a union “win” in this negotiation could lead to the tier-2 players playing for far below their true value for several seasons.

All worth it, I suppose, so long as Mookie doesn’t have do without about $7.5 million this year.  Hopefully, he’s grateful.

There are a couple of under-the-radar aspects of this increasingly contentious negotiation that are more significant then are generally realized – if, for no other reason, than for what they reveal about the players and their relationship with the owners and the fans.

A Profound Lack of Trust

In most reports regarding the negotiations, you will frequently find at least one sentence that expresses the players concerns over any potential precedents these agreements might set.  They fear that the owners will take any concessions made here and try to make them permanent.  There is absolutely no reason for them to make this assumption.  The issues underpinning this entire proposal by the owners are the special circumstances that apply only to the 2020 season.  In no sense is there any material reason for the union to fear any lasting effects from these negotiations.

And yet, they do fear them.  This is because almost all of their past negotiations with the owners have been labyrinths of deception and ill-will.  From past experience, the players have learned that the owners will attempt to twist anything to their advantage – even a situation like a COVID-impacted season.

I don’t mean to absolve the players totally.  Their negotiations haven’t always been in the best of faith, either.  But clearly the owners have created this current circumstance.  Even their hesitance to open their books under circumstances like these is evidence of the abiding mistrust that exists between these two groups.

If this were a healthy relationship, would the players make more concessions?  Hard to say.  The talks, though, would be very much different.  This relationship is marked by drawing lines in the sand rather than a common search for solutions.

The Players Aren’t On the Fans’ Side Either

The other disappointing story to surface recently was a proposal by the players for a longer regular season.  Again, this was disappointing, but hardly surprising.  The ownership plan calls for 82 games played from early July through early October – with an eye on having everything wrapped up by the first of November.  The union wants to play 114 games through the end of October and then run the playoffs through November.  Through much of the country, the weather in these months is undependable at best.

So far this century, the Cardinals have played 19 World Series games in late October either at home or in Detroit or Boston (they also played 3 in Arlington, Texas).  Eight of the 19 games have been played in temperatures below 50 degrees, with a low of 43 degrees for Game Three of the 2006 World Series against Detroit.  Over the years, St Louis has had several home playoff games rained out – a workable inconvenience in the playoffs that would provide a major headache if a regular season schedule was to be adhered to.

Ironically, the original schedule for 2020 started the season at the end of March in hopes of avoiding playing World Series games in November.

There is little gained by pushing the regular season that deep into early winter.  As temperatures drop and conditions worsen it effects the quality of the game.  A 114-game season is no more legitimate a season than an 82-game season if the last 30 of those games are played fickle weather.

Details of their plan were not released, but it would likely be heavy on having the warm weather and dome teams playing at home for much of October – to their distinct advantage and their divisional opponents’ distinct disadvantage.  In the NL Central only Milwaukee plays in a dome, so they would presumably play nearly the entire last month of the season at home, while divisional foes in St Louis, Chicago and Cincinnati – all of whom have playoff aspirations – will be predominantly road teams (or play in bad weather at home).

It’s a plan that is very likely to tilt the pennant races for no appreciable gain.  Except, of course, that the players haven’t suggested this because they are under any illusions that the fans like watching baseball games in the snow (which could happen in Colorado).  It’s simply a money grab.

Players get paid for the regular season.  More regular season games mean more money.  If they play those games in November or December, then they play them in November or December.  If the conditions force a mockery of the game, oh well.  They still get paid.  If the particular circumstances (like Milwaukee playing the last month of the season at home) alter the playoffs, too bad.

In that situation, the only ones to suffer are the fans who are emotionally invested in their teams.  Sadly, this is a group that accounts for very little any more.  Generations ago, it was the game that was absolute, and millions of young boys hoped to gain the privilege of playing in the major leagues.  Now it is the players who are the absolutes, and we mere mortals are privileged to have them play before us.  And if, at any point, the game as presently constructed doesn’t suit them, then it is the game that is folded, spindled and sometimes mutilated to fit their whim.

By the way, adding games without fans only increases the disparity between the clubs’ income and expenses.  Under a 114-game season, the Cardinals’ seasonal deficit would swell to more than $60 million dollars, and the industry as a whole could see losses topping $700 million – a proposition that doesn’t move toward resolution.

Expanding the schedule into the winter is one mild example of the players’ general disregard for the fans.  It leads me nicely, though, to tomorrow’s rant on why the Designated Hitter rule is purely evil.  Stay tuned.

The Last Champions

America’s very first champion came with an asterisk.

In the fervent case of baseball fever that gripped America in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, it took us only 6 years to form the very first, official, professional baseball league.  That would be the National Association.

In 1871, nine teams formed the inaugural major league season.  There was no set schedule, but each team was expected to play each member a minimum of five times (none of them did) with the team with the most victories at the end of the year being awarded America’s very first sports championship.

Later scholarship has changed the final win totals to give the Athletics a clear victory, but at the time two teams (the other was the Red Stockings) both finished the season with exactly 22 wins.  The committee empowered to settle any disputes awarded the Athletics the title, as they had suffered fewer losses.  Thus, not quite 100 years from the time that representatives from the thirteen American colonies met there to separate themselves from mother England, Philadelphia claimed the country’s first unquestioned (mostly) championship.  In the official records of today, that Philadelphia team is credited with 21 wins to just 20 for Boston – another early bastion of liberty.

The curious thing to moderns looking back on that season was why they didn’t simply hold a playoff.  The modern sport’s scene is dominated by the pomp and circumstance surrounding the various post season tournaments, to the point where most leagues have been busily adding teams to the post-season (the NFL will be increasing their post-season openings by two teams this year).  But in 1871 it apparently didn’t occur to anyone.  (By the way, Boston and Philadelphia did meet four times that season, with Boston winning three of the contests).

You would think that – just from the mechanics of it – the playoffs would always have been a part of professional football.  It is, after all, realistically impossible to play all of the other teams in the league even once – so there will always be teams that won’t meet on the field.  Additionally, the shorter seasons encourage similar season records, forcing some sort of tie-breaking procedure.  Even so, the NFL – and its fore-runner, the APFA – took 13 years before they divided into two divisions and initiated a championship game – even though by that time the World Series had been a staple of baseball for roughly three decades.

With the nation beginning to stir out of its covid-imposed lockdown, talks of generating some kind of baseball season have picked up some intensity.  The logistics of this, though, still seem daunting to me.  The most glaring problem faced by baseball – or any other league looking to play games this year – is the testing hurdle.  The sheer quantity of weekly tests necessary to support major and minor league baseball would clearly stagger a system that is already overwhelmed.  In the face of the crisis still at large, it’s hard to justify the disproportionate allotment of this critical commodity to the baseball community.

Even as the NFL boldly announced its 2020 schedule last night – and with MLB set to send a schedule proposal to the MLBPA at any moment, I am still under the impression that baseball – and probably football – for 2020 is a long shot.  Although now, everything seems to hover around the nation’s capabilities to ramp up its testing program.

That being the case, I have been reflecting recently on the last champions in the individual leagues.  In retrospect, they are an interesting – and not at all representative – group.

Hail to the Chiefs

Last February, you will remember that the Kansas City Chiefs erased a 10-point deficit to eclipse San Francisco, 31-20 in Super Bowl 54 (LIV).  A participant in the very first Super Bowl, the Chiefs’ only other Super Bowl victory had come fifty years before in Super Bowl IV.  In fact, over the intervening half century, the Chiefs didn’t even make an appearance in the big game.  In Andy Reid’s first six seasons as head coach, Kansas City had qualified five times for post-season play – making it as far as the AFC Championship Game after the 2018 season (the first time in 25 years they made it that far).

For Kansas City and their rabid fan base, relief had certainly been a long time coming.  That championship – their second ever (if you don’t count the AFL crown they won in 1962) gives them the lead in all-time titles won by all the reigning champions of America’s other major sports.  The other three winners had never won before in the history of their franchises.

The NBA’s Toronto Raptors

What, I wonder, is the average number of years it takes an expansion team to win a championship?  The Arizona Diamondbacks played their first game in 1998 and were only in their fourth year of existence when Luis Gonzalez’ looping single brought them their only World Series title.  The then-Florida Marlins won it all in their fifth year.  The Mets also climbed the ladder rapidly, going from 120 losses in 1962 to a championship in 1969 – just 8 years.  They have won just once since then.  The Toronto Blue Jays won back-to-back titles in 1992-93 – the sixteenth and seventeenth years of their existence.  Not only have they not won since, they have only two playoff appearances in the last 26 seasons.

The Houston Astros, on the other hand, began play in 1962 and needed 55 years to finally claim the crown.  In their seventeenth year of existence, the Kansas City Royals were gifted the 1985 title (that, of course, was the year of the Don Denkinger call).  Otherwise, they would have had to wait until their 47th year to claim their first.  It took the Angels 41 years to win their only title.

And, of course, there a several baseball expansion teams that have yet to claim a title.  The Rangers will – if the season gets underway – be playing their sixtieth season in 2020, still waiting to wear a ring.  This will be 52 years for the Brewers and Padres.  The Seattle Mariners will be playing their 44th season still looking for that elusive championship.  Relative new-comers, the Rays and Rockies are still seeking titles, having played 22 and 27 years respectively.

For the Toronto team in the NBA (the Raptors) their title came in the 24th year of their existence.  On the one hand, that is quite a long time.  Imagine a ten-year-old fan who cheered their inaugural 1995-96 season.  He would be a 34-year-old man now – perhaps with his own ten-year-old son by the time his team finally got to taste the Champaign.

On the other hand – and in spite of the fact that they had never won one before – the players and fans in Toronto had – and by several decades – the shortest drought of any of the four reigning champions.  Testimony, perhaps, to how difficult it is to bring home the hardware – and what a special experience it is every single time.

The Saga of the Blues

Speaking of expansion prodigies, the St Louis Blues played in the Stanley Cup Finals in each of their first three seasons (they lost all three series).  They once went 25 consecutive seasons making the playoffs every year (from 1979-80 through 2003-04).  Even considering that playoff admissions in hockey have always been relatively easy to procure, that is still a remarkable achievement.  No one would have expected that this franchise would have to wait more than fifty years – fifty one, in fact – to finally be allowed to take Lord Stanley’s cup home with them. 

Arguably, the best team in Blues’ history was the 1999-2000 edition.  They went 51-19-11.  Their 114 points led the entire NHL (teams are awarded two points for every victory and one point for every tie and overtime loss). 

Their first round opponent in the playoffs that year was a mediocre San Jose Sharks team (35-30-10).  A cartoon on the sports page before the series started depicted an enormous, burly hockey player dressed in Blues garb standing on a boat and holding fishing gear while a tiny little shark swam off the bow.  The player was saying, “Here fishy, fishy, fishy.”  After the Blues lost the series, the succeeding cartoon found an enormous shark swallowing half of the boat – and half of the player.  The dialogue bubble this time this time was “Bad fishy.”

So it has gone for the Blues throughout their entire existence.  Until last year, of course.  I have told people that being a Blues fan was the closest a St Louis fan could come to understanding what Cubs fans were experiencing.

Perhaps nothing captures the recent season of upheaval more than the sight of the St Louis Blues skating around the arena carrying the Stanley Cup.

Washington: First in War, First in Peace, and (gulp) First in All of Baseball?

But, perhaps, none of these tales of waiting to exhale is more bizarre – and, possibly, more rewarding (or perhaps irritating) than the reigning champion of all major league baseball – the Nationals of Washington.

Back in 1969 – the same year the miracle Mets stunned the Baltimore Orioles for the title – the National League expanded into Montreal, Canada (and San Diego, too – by the way).  The then-Expos lost 110 games that year.  They played 36 years in Montreal with almost nothing to show for it.  Their lone Canadian playoff invitation occurred in the strange aftermath of the strike-interrupted 1981 season.  Coincidentally, the only version of the Montreal Expos to play over .600 ball – the 1994 team that went 74-10 – was denied their playoff opportunity when a players strike wiped out the entire postseason that year.

So was life for the Montreal Expos.

Shortly thereafter, Montreal and baseball gave up on each other.  As it became apparent that the ownership group was looking to sell the franchise to an American city, the fans decided to stay home.  The 2004 Expos – the last version of the team in Montreal – drew just 749,550 fans.  It was the sixth time in the last seven years of the Expos that their attendance failed to reach the one million mark.

So, where would this benighted franchise go?  Why the nation’s capital, of course.  Washington DC was a city steeped in baseball history – almost all of it bad.  Two previous franchises had called Washington home – and had moved on to greener pastures.

An original 1901 member of the American League, the original Senators finished at least 20 games out of first place in each of their first 11 seasons.  In seven of those years they languished more than 35 games behind.  This futility gave rise to the ditty that Washington was “first in war, first in peace, and last in the American League.”  For the next 14 seasons, things brightened slightly behind the fastball of Walter Johnson.  In 1924 those Senators won Washington’s only World Series until last October.  Thereafter, the franchise returned to its inglorious tradition.  After a final World Series appearance in 1933, the Senators finished in the lower half of the league in 24 of its final 27 seasons in Washington – including all of the last 14.  In 1961 they moved to Minnesota and were re-branded as the Twins.

But, not to fear Senators fans.  1961 brought a new version of the Senators in the form of a new expansion team.  The Senators 2.0 played 11 seasons in Washington – ten of them losing seasons.  In 1972 they became the Texas Rangers.

So it was that 35 years after baseball had abandoned Washington, the star-crossed Expo franchise arrived to call the District of Columbia home.  Through their first seven seasons in Washington, it must have looked like the Senators had never left.  They played .500 ball that first season (81-81) and followed that with six consecutive losing seasons – two of them 100-loss seasons.

But 2011 was the last losing season for the Nationals – who then moved on to the next level of frustration – playoff frustration.  Prior to last year, Washington had qualified for the playoffs in four of six season – losing in the opening round every single time.

So when, last October 30, the Nationals dogpiled on the mound in the aftermath of their Game Seven victory, it brought to a close a 95-year baseball drought for the city of Washington.  Whether their former fans in Montreal felt a similar sense of relief or a continued sense of frustration is anyone’s guess.

Continuing a Pattern

The National’s victory continued a curious pattern in the National pastime.  Looking back on recent baseball history, 2003 stands out as a watershed year.

As that season began, the Expos (34), Astros (41), Giants (48), Red Sox (84), White Sox (85) and Cubs (94) were riding a combined streak of 386 seasons without a championship.  But that year, there was a disturbance in the force.  A seemingly dominant Cub team – the Cubs of Kerry Woods and Mark Prior – sat, at one point, 5 outs away from a World Series date.  Their potential opponents could well have been the Red Sox – who also, at one point, sat 5 outs away from the series.

But then, forces seemingly beyond human control took over.  A bit of interference on the part of a fan named Steve Bartman and a surprising hesitancy on the part of the Red Sox to go to the bullpen contributed to the collapse of both of those teams.  Soon after, the Florida Marlins – just eleven years old – took home the hardware.  For the second time in their nascent history.  There probably aren’t words adequate to express the feeling of the fans of the Cubs and Red Sox – generations removed from their last titles – as they watched the expansion Marlins win it all.  Again.

But that would be the last year that baseball would honor the most ancient of its grudges.

On October 16, 2004 the New York Yankees pummeled their historic rivals from Boston by an embarrassing 19-8 score.  At that point the Red Sox trailed in the AL Championship Series three games to none.  No team in baseball history had ever come back from a 3-0 deficit.  But that blowout loss would be the last time Boston would lose that year.  After roaring back to win four straight against the Yankees, they swept to victory to win their first World Series since 1918 – when they were led by star pitcher Babe Ruth.  And that victory seemed to open the door for all the rest.

The following season (2005) it was the Chicago White Sox claiming their first title since 1917 (two years before the Black Sox scandal).  The Giants, who hadn’t won the series since Willie Mays made that catch in 1954 took home the 2010 title.  The Chicago Cubs ran their incomprehensible streak to 108 years without a championship before that treasured bastion of baseball stability fell in 2016 – yet another black mark in a black, black year.  Here, I mourn the expiring of the curse.  The droughts of the Astros and Nationals ended in 2017 and 2019 respectively.  (The Astros lone championship has, of course, been sullied by the sign stealing scandal that has recently come to light.  To date they have not been stripped of that title.)

Mixed in with the others were titles for Kansas City, Philadelphia, and a couple for St Louis – franchises that hadn’t suffered as much as some of the others, but had still gone more than 20 years without a title.  Both Boston and San Francisco won multiple titles over the last 15 or so seasons.

With the victories by the Cubs, White Sox and Red Sox, the Cleveland Indians now hold baseball’s longest stretch without a ring.  The tribe last claimed the prize in 1948 – 71 seasons ago.  In the interim, the city that has been variously referred to as the “mistake by the lake” has been the “other” team in 1954 to the New York Giants (the Willie Mays catch); to the 1995 Braves – the only title an Atlanta team has ever won; to the 1997 Marlins (losing the seventh game in 11 innings); and most recently to the 2016 Chicago Cubs when they had a first-hand look at the end of that historic 108-year curse.

It’s been a rough half-century in Cleveland.  The Browns last title came in 1964.  The now-defunct Cleveland Barons played 11 seasons in the NHL without a title.  Since 1964, only the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavs have balanced the scales somewhat in Cleveland.  Along with the near-misses by the Indians, the Cavs went to the finals in four consecutive seasons, losing three times, and the Browns lost three conference championship games in four years to Denver – twice when they had them all but beat.

Over the last couple of generations, there has been a lot of pain in Cleveland.

More Baseball Droughts

After Cleveland – and not counting the expansion teams that are still looking for their first win – there are four other teams in the 30-40 year drought range.  All of these title absences have come on the heels of some of the most iconic moments in recent World Series history.

Forty years ago, the 1979 Pirates – the “We Are Family” Pirates of Willie Stargell – upset the Baltimore Orioles for the crown.  They haven’t won since.  Seven years later the Red Sox almost ended their streak, but Mookie Wilson’s dribbling grounder snuck through the legs of Bill Buckner and sent the Mets on to the title.  The Mets haven’t won since.  Two years after that, Kirk Gibson hit his memorable home run off Dennis Eckersley to spark the Dodgers to the 1988 title.  They haven’t won since.  The year after that, Oakland won the bay area series against San Fran – the World Series that was memorably interrupted by the earthquake.  That was Oakland’s last title.

All of those teams – to some degree or other – looked like they would be contenders for several years to come.  But none of them ever made it back.  As former Cardinal Joaquin Andujar famously noted, “youneverknow.”

Baseball and 1918

With the many comparisons of the recent pandemic with the infamous Spanish Flu of 1918, I have been searching around for evidence of the impact of the flu on baseball.  The season was noticeably shortened – down to about 126 games each from 154 the season before.  But that was because of the war (World War I was winding down at that time), not the flu.  None of the histories that I’ve found for the league has any mention of the pandemic.

This research includes one of my favorite books – The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.  In this work, James spent 12 pages discussing the beginning of platooning, but made no mention of the flu.  One of the features of the book is a year-by-year listing of notables (baseball and otherwise) who passed away during a given year.  His listing for 1918 read: Jim McCormick, 62; Patsy Tebeau, suicide by gunshot, 54; Jake Beckley, heart disease, 54; Silent Mike Tiernan, tuberculosis, 51; Eddie Grant, killed in the Argonne Forest, 35.

It has been a bit confounding for me to reconcile the fact that a pandemic that would claim more than 600,000 American lives didn’t cause the cancellation of a single baseball game, while our current version of the plague has brought everything to a crashing halt.

The answer here lies in the delicate timing of the whole mess.  The very first case of “Spanish” flu probably originated in America, with the first reported case among the military in Fort Riley, Kansas in May of that year.  From there, it transported with the soldiers to Europe and did wide-spread damage there, but relatively little here until the soldiers started coming back at the end of the summer.

The crisis and the World Series of 1918 missed each other by days.  That year, the Series was moved up to early September, and was moving back into Boston at just about the same time the effects of the flu were beginning to express.  (Boston was, perhaps, the first American city to fully experience the second wave of the disease.) Only a little more than 15,000 people showed up to watch the series finale (as Babe Ruth pitched the Red Sox past the Cubs).  Within days, panic would grip the nation.  That October, nearly 200,000 people would perish in the much more virulent second phase of the flu.

The second wave of the 1918 epidemic peaked that October.  There was another brief third wave in November (as the soldiers returned home).  And then it was basically over.  While the flu lingered through the end of 1920, the deaths it caused fell off dramatically.  By the time teams were ready to report to Spring Training, it was yesterday’s news.

The Spanish Flu was – to be honest – never really cured.  It raged briefly until everyone had either died or recovered from it.  This article traces the timeline of the disease in America.  This article graphs the death rate per 100,000 on a week-by-week basis.  Here you can easily see how rapidly the pandemic came and went.  (The second article will require you to sign up for a National Geographic account.  The account is free, but you will get a steady stream of emails from them as a result.)

To these, I will recommend one more very interesting read.  This article ties together Babe Ruth, Boston, the World Series and the Spanish Flu in one revealing chronology.  Of particular note, here, is that Ruth reportedly caught the flu twice.  He seems to have been part of phase one as the flu was headed overseas, and then he caught it again in phase two after the season and recovered.  Viruses, I’m told, always mutate – sometimes to the point where it is different enough that even though you previously may have had it, that doesn’t mean you are necessarily immune to the mutant version.

Remember also that the second wave was particularly deadly to healthy young people.  Some scientists have suggested that the virus might have triggered a cytokine storm – best explained as a severe over-reaction on the part of the normal immune system.  Therefore, the healthier you were, the stronger your immune system was.  And the stronger your immune system was, the more deadly it became when it attacked you.  (Yes, this is a significant over-simplification of what a cytokine storm is.)

The point here is that COVID-19 could just be getting warmed up, and future generations of the disease could take on a virulence far beyond our experience with phase one.

Some Football Talk

The NFL still believes that it will play their entire schedule without interruption.  While I am skeptical, it has been a noteworthy offseason and it’s about time I address some of it.

Recently, football conducted its collegiate draft.  While the bulk of the pre-draft chatter revolved around an Alabama quarterback named Tua Togovailoa, the face of the 2020 NFL draft quickly became the ex-Utah State quarterback Jordan Love, drafted by the Packers with the 26th pick.  The gasps produced by this pick came because a) Green Bay is still led at quarterback by soon-to-be hall of famer Aaron Rodgers, who doesn’t look like he is on his last legs; and b) Love’s stock had fallen significantly on the heels of his FBS-leading 17 interceptions.  As one scout put it, there was just too much bad tape on Love for them to even consider him.  Green Bay, apparently, sees a greater upside here than other organizations.

Within days, there were internet speculations on where Rodgers might get traded to.  Let’s tap the brakes a little, here.  Remember that Rodgers himself was a first-round pick – taken at about the same part of the 2005 draft (24th overall) – even though Brett Favre (then 36 – Rodgers is now 36) was still going strong.  Rodgers held a clipboard for three years (throwing a total of 59 passes over those seasons) while waiting for his turn.  Jordan won’t turn 22 until November 2, and is clearly not ready to take over as an NFL quarterback anytime soon.  The most reasonable expectation here is that Jordan will repeat Aaron’s pattern.  He will sit and watch and learn for three or four years, and then the Packers will make a decision.

But anyone who is expecting anyone other than Aaron Rodgers to line up under center for the Green Bay Packers this season (barring some kind of pre-season injury) is badly misreading the situation.

Brady and Gronk to TB

Already one of the great retirement communities in America, Tampa Bay, Florida will welcome two of the NFL’s most decorated senior citizens.  In the talk of the offseason, Tom Brady (who will be 43 by the time the season starts) and Rob Gronkowski (30) have relocated to the Gulf Coast.  But Tom and Rob have not migrated to Florida to retire – in fact, in Rob’s case, he is coming out of retirement.  They have come to carry the Tampa Bay Buccaneers to the Super Bowl.

At least, that is the expectation in Tampa Bay – and, probably, elsewhere.

Gronk adds his talents to an exciting receiving corps that includes Chris Godwin and Mike Evans.  With the perception being that Brady’s 2019 season was limited by the lack of impact receivers, the bounty he will find in Tampa must seem like Christmas come early.  Tampa Bay has become the trendy favorite to make waves if there is a 2020 season.

A closer look, though, shows that New England’s offensive problems were less the lack of impact receivers.  After years of being one of football’s elite offenses, the Patriots offensive line had finally eroded to the point where it could no longer sustain the offensive brilliance that has been its trademark.

Coming now to Tampa Bay, Tom has receivers but no better of a line in front of him and no running game to speak of.  Tampa Bay did invest its first-round draft pick (number 13) on a highly regarded offensive tackle (Tristan Wirfs of Iowa), but adding Brady’s two-year, 60-million-dollar contract to their balance sheet doesn’t leave them very much cap room to improve the team around Tom.  Moreover, his defense in Tamp Bay won’t be nearly the group that supported him in New England.  The Bucs had only three games last year when they held their opposition to under 20 points.  And in two of those they were facing primarily backup quarterbacks. 

In Week 13 they beat Jacksonville 28-11 when Gardner Minshew relieved a less-than-effective Nick Foles.  Their Week 15 win over Detroit (38-17) came against backup David Blough.  The other time they allowed fewer than 20 points came in Week Two when they slipped by Carolina 20-14.  Cam Newton did play that game, but was obviously physically compromised.

In short, Tampa Bay isn’t necessarily the powerhouse that many are expecting.  Add in the loss of the play-calling of Josh McDaniel, and there is reason to believe that Brady’s introduction to the NFC South will be more challenging than advertised.

Again, if there is a 2020 season.

Rational Suggestions for the 2020 Baseball season

The shutdown could hardly have come at a worse time for baseball.  Perhaps if everything had held off until one or two regular season games were played before everything came to a screeching halt, that might have been worse.  But the timing for this is certainly bad enough.

Admittedly, it’s trivial to discuss the unrolling of a sporting season against the very serious backdrop of COVID-19.  Whether baseball – or any other sport – is even played at all this year pales in importance against the life-and-death battle that many people across the globe are facing every day.

That being said, for those of us who anticipated watching baseball games by this time of the year, the prospects for the 2020 season are a matter of some interest.  And as discussions about the upcoming season are on-going, I feel that I should weigh in here.

The NBA and NHL have both suspended their seasons just before their playoffs were to begin.  That is a very bad time for an interruption, but basketball and hockey are both indoor sports.  While it is fairly obvious at this point that the rest of their regular seasons are toast, both of those leagues could – if they wanted – wait almost indefinitely and then go straight to playoffs whenever sports get the all-clear to begin again.  Enough of their seasons have been played to make reasonable playoff assignments.

Baseball’s situation is much different.  Officially, the start of the season has been pushed back to at least mid-May, and it’s likely to be pushed back farther.  In all honesty, I rather doubt that we will see baseball at all this year, although it is still too early to pull the plug on the season.  In the interregnum – and amidst the swirling uncertainty – those closest to the process have consistently said that everything is on the table as far as putting together a schedule.  Since “everything” includes a lot of very bad ideas, I am going to chime in with a little guidance and a few commitments that baseball should make today.

All of the bad ideas in play have found their way into one suggestion by super-agent Scott Boras (read all about it here).  To sum up the bad in the plan, Scott is trying to play all 162 games, beginning in June and extending through the end of November, with the playoffs being played through December at neutral sites.  Game Six of the 2020 World Series – under this scenario – would be played on Christmas Day.

Since some of this senselessness appears in other plans – and since this specific plan has been submitted to the powers that be – it is worthwhile to understand how and why these ideas – individually and collectively – are bad for the game, its players and its fans.

Messing Up Future Seasons

Working backwards, let’s start with the impact such a plan would have on the 2021.  With the season not finishing until past Christmas, that would leave all of the playoff teams with a scant month or so before pitchers and catchers would report in early February.  Essentially, baseball would lose its offseason.  There is no one who looks at this that doesn’t agree that the 2021 season couldn’t begin any earlier than mid-April – forcing yet another season where meaningful games are played deep into November.  It is – on the face of it – senseless to allow whatever measures are selected to deal with the 2020 situation to negatively impact the 2021 season.

If, however, this were the only flaw in the plan, it might still be worth reluctant consideration.  But this is only the beginning.

Neutral Site Playoffs?

Really?

So, the Washington Nationals coming off their first ever World Championship – or the long suffering fans in Philadelphia – or the longer-suffering fans in Cincinnati (all of whom enter the 2020 season with the anticipation of a potential playoff berth) will be denied the opportunity to see their heroes play in their home ballparks?  You’re taking the playoffs away from Yankee Stadium?  From Wrigley Field?  From Fenway Park (although most prognosticators doubt that the Red Sox will be in the mix)?

In St Louis, home playoff games are held as a near religious experience as the Clydesdale’s make their way triumphantly around the perimeter of the playing field before a sea of nearly 50,000 red-robed worshipers.  Playoff baseball in these time-honored venues are the very fabric of the tradition of the game.  They are the sacred right of the local fandoms that uphold these teams with their collective faith (and wallets).  This is a heartless recommendation that defecates not only on the loyalty of the fans, but the traditions of a game where tradition means more than in any other sport.

Additionally, this plan deprives those communities of important revenue generated by the privilege of hosting a playoff game.  A neutral site playoff is so commonly mentioned that many believe that it is a foregone conclusion.  I shudder to think that this is true.

Since nothing written on this is terribly detailed, the neutral playoff plan raises another question.  Does everyone play neutral playoff games?  Say, for example, that the Dodgers qualify for the playoffs.  Their stadium is one of the selected stadiums.  Will they get to play their home games at home?  Or will they have to travel to Anaheim?  Suppose that they are scheduled to play Washington.  Where would the Nationals play their “home games,” Toronto?

Will the Nationals be expected to go into the frenzied environment of Los Angeles as the visiting team against an opponent very familiar with the surroundings, and then answer that ambiance with games in a nearly empty stadium in Toronto in a ballpark they are mostly unfamiliar with?

A whisper that made the news crawls a couple days ago suggested a World Series held in Dodger Stadium.  If the Dodgers should earn the right to represent the National League in the series, they would, indeed, play their home games in their home stadium.  And get this, the American League team will get to play their “home games” in Anaheim or San Diego.  Yeah, that’s obviously fair.

In fact, nothing about neutral-site, December (or late November) playoff games is either logical or fair.  This should be the first idea taken off the table.  And here is the second:

Regular Season Games in November

The December playoffs – under the Boras scenario – would be necessary because they would still be playing regular season games in October and November.  Baseball in November is a grisly thought.  Imagine – if you will – the Phillies playing an important series against the Mets in Shea Stadium in 20 degree weather with patches of snow and ice ringing the infield.

You can do this, of course.  You can bundle the players up and trot them out there and force them to play.  But what will the game look like?  Will it be an honest barometer of either team’s abilities?

Football, of course, is an all-weather sport, and NFL teams have to be ready and willing to play under any conditions.  Baseball is a different animal.  When the weather is uncooperative – or sometimes even when it’s just too cold – a baseball game will be cancelled and played later. 

The concern here isn’t that baseball players are any less tough or committed than football players.  The concern here is for the quality of the game.  Fans paying top dollar for major league baseball should be rewarded with more than pitchers struggling to get a feel for their breaking pitches and fielders trying to throw an icy baseball across the diamond.  In the era where so much of offense is dependent on the home run, would baseballs’ fandom be satisfied with the drop in offense that would be caused by dropping temperatures?

The Boras plan will try to maximize the warm weather sites and the domed stadiums during October and November – but that is its own can of worms.

Under the schedule as it was originally planned, the Cardinals were to play two important September series against their ancient rivals from Chicago (four at home and the last three games of the regular season in Wrigley).  Additionally, they had four potentially important games in Cincinnati.  If November is the new September, what becomes of these games?  Does the head-to-head aspect of the pennant race vanish?  Do the Cards, Cubs and Reds play all of their games against each other in July and August so that they can spend all of October and December playing San Diego, Arizona and Florida?

And what of Milwaukee?  Of the five teams in the Cardinal’s division, the Brewers have the only dome.  Do they get to spend all of October and November at home?  If so, then they will have to play almost all of July through September on the road.  Neither scenario is fair, either for the Brewers or the teams challenging them for the title.

And, of course, while they can try to maximize the warm weather/dome sites, no one pretends that they can be used to exclusion over the last couple of months.  So, under this and similar plans, critical end-of-season games will be played under conditions unworthy of pennant race baseball.

Yes, the early part of the season – March and April – are often plagued with poor weather.  But when conditions sink below acceptable levels, those games are simply postponed and played later.  That option exists with the early season games because the entire summer of improving weather lies before us.  That will not be the case in November.  If it’s 20 degrees in New York on November 29, what options are there?  The weather isn’t likely to be getting better the later in the year you go.

This is not how a baseball season should be decided.  The poor quality of play in the cold weather games is an important strike against this thought.  Even more so, the potential threat to those last-month rivalry games.  Has there ever been a season when the Yankees and Red Sox didn’t have a couple of big series in the season’s last month?

As you can see, all of these are very bad ideas – and all unnecessary.  And what, you ask, is underpinning all of these bad ideas?  Just this:

The Quest for 162

All of this is about somehow, some way, getting all 162 games played.  Details of the Boras plan were not fully divulged, but the plan does call for a dozen doubleheaders for every team.  My expectation would be that off days will also be few and far between.  This will also affect the quality of play.  Teams playing 21 games in 20 days are not likely to be playing at their best.

This is the consistent theme of this and many other plans – the emphasis of quantity over quality.  Get all of the games in, no matter how ugly they are.  While the full 162 is certainly optimal, baseball seasons have been played with fewer games in the past, and the sport has survived just fine.  A 100-game season, if completed before too much of October has passed, would be sufficient.  Even an 80-game – or 60 game – season would suffice in this era of global trial.  (If 60 isn’t doable within a reasonable time frame, that would be the time to pull the plug on the season.)

Much less important than the number of games played is the quality of play.  Bad baseball isn’t going to uplift anyone’s spirits.

There is one final potential hazard inherent in the rush to 162 that needs to be a part of the discussion.

A Dangerous Time for Pitchers

Again, few plan details have been shared.  Everyone agrees that there needs to be some kind of second spring to ramp up a little before the games start counting, but no one has voiced an idea of how much second spring we are talking about.  One week? Two weeks? A full month?

As there will be plenty of pressure to get the season restarted, I’m afraid that baseball will opt for the shorter end of the spectrum and allot two weeks or less preparation time.  If, indeed, it does shake out that way, it will almost surely lead to disaster.

When Spring Training was halted, almost all of the starting pitchers were pretty well stretched out.  They were up to five or six innings as they were nearly prepared to start the season.

And then, everything stopped.

Over the last several weeks, all of these pitchers have been trying to “maintain” their conditioning on their own.  They are trying to sustain that competitive edge without the benefit of competition.  As this is completely foreign to their normal preparation, I think it’s safe to say that the major’s starting pitchers are all over the map in regards to their conditioning.  If MLB now tries to pick up spring training where they left off, then all of these guys will go out there expecting to pick up at the five or six inning mark.  They will bring with them a sense of urgency to quickly prepare for the beginning of the season.

And when that happens, the echo of the collective snapping of elbows will resound from Miami to Seattle and most places in between.  Seeing as none of these pitchers has ever done this before, a stop-and-go spring will almost assuredly be catastrophic.  I freely predict that at least 20 of baseball’s 30 teams will lose at least one starter for not only this season, but for next year, too.

Complicating the cobbling together of some kind of 2020 season is the fact that at this point, spring training will need to start all over.  Anything less than a full month, with the starters beginning at the three-inning/45 pitch mark will be an invitation to record numbers of pitchers on the shelf.

Trust me, crowding in those extra games is just not worth it.  Baseball needs to take the long view.

Commitments Baseball Needs to Make

Here are my humble suggestions that constitute a sane approach to whatever 2020 season might be possible:

First, baseball needs to tell all of its pitchers to stop throwing.  Today.  Baseball has already lost Chris Sale and Noah Syndergaard for whatever 2020 season there will be – as well as at least half of 2021.  Baseball needs to protect the rest of its pitchers by having them stop throwing now.

Second, baseball needs to commit to a full month of spring training – allowing their pitchers to rebuild under a more normal regimen.

Finally, baseball needs to commit to starting the playoffs no later than the first few days of October, and to play all playoff games in the stadiums of the participating teams and in front of their fans.  There is one caveat to the “first few days of October” commitment that I will get to in a second.

Given this time frame, baseball will decide to play the most games that can be reasonably played, and that will be the season.

The summer of 2020 will almost assuredly be one of the most heart-wrenching in our nation’s history, with death tolls potentially reaching a quarter of a million (and perhaps much more).  This is another reason that I strongly doubt we will have any baseball at all this year.  MLB would be well advised to salvage what it can from this summer, and keep itself in the best shape possible for 2021.

One Other Option

I will offer this one alternate suggestion.  The LA World Series plan extends the regular season to October 15 before going into the playoffs.  This allowed for a 100-game season.  In spite of the reservations I expressed earlier about extending the season, this scenario could work if baseball were willing to streamline the playoffs.

Baseball’s playoff structure hasn’t always been a month-long second marathon.  WildCard games have only been a part of the picture since 2012 and prior to 1995 there was no division series.  From 1968 (the last year that the World Series was the only postseason series) until 1993 (there was no postseason in 1994) there was only one level of playoffs in between the regular season and the World Series.  Each league was divided into two divisions, and the division champions met for a best-of-five Championship Series.

It would take a little juggling – Houston would have to be invited back into the National League for this one season, but baseball could re-create this dynamic, play the 100-game regular season into mid-October, and still finish the World Series at about the same point of year that it is currently ending.

The irony, of course, is that the season was scheduled to start about a week earlier than usual in part to avoid playing World Series games in November.  While this was a noble idea, concerns larger than baseball have forced a re-shuffling of priorities.

If the last game of this year’s World Series could be played on October 30 (the date the World Series ended last year), baseball and the world would consider that a victory.

No Tears for the Cardinals

In the fifth inning of last night’s game, when Jose Martinez’ long fly into right-center bounced high off the wall and two runs scored, someone somewhere must have invoked the name of Pete Kozma.

Kozma, as you have probably heard, was the Cardinal bench player who drove in the winning runs in Game Five of the 2012 Divisional Series between these two teams.  Washington had held a 6-0 lead in that one at one point.

But 7-4 would be as close as St Louis would come.  They did load the bases with two out in the eighth inning – which is, I suppose, as much as you can hope for when you’ve fallen behind 7-0 in the first inning.  But, instead of letting Harrison Bader – who had drawn a walk and hit a line drive out – swing, Mike Shildt gave the at bat to Matt Carpenter, who ended St Louis’ last viable scoring opportunity of the season with a routine grounder to second.

One inning later, the ghost of Pete Kozma was exercised, and the Washington franchise (which had started out all those years ago in Montreal) was on its way to its first ever World Series.

With their 3 fifth-inning runs, the Cards at least made a game of it.  Those three runs also doubled the totality of the St Louis offense through the first three games.  Throughout, Washington pitching was dominant – holding the Cards to a .130/.195/.179 batting line, posting a 1.25 team ERA, and striking out 48 Cards over 36 innings.

It was a frustrating ending to a surprising season, but let’s not have any tears for the Cardinals.  This is not a veteran team seeking one last whiff of glory.  Far from seeing their window closing, the St Louis window is just opening.  This team counts no fewer than 16 high-ceiling players currently under 26 who got varying degrees of exposure to the pressure of the pennant chase and subsequent playoffs.  By contrast, there are only 9 players over thirty who made notable contributions to this team in 2019.

Watching some of the ups and downs of this team, one might forget how bright their future is – especially on the mound.  Jack Flaherty (who turned 24 yesterday) and Dakota Hudson (25) emerged during the course of the season to provide the foundation for the rotation for years to come.  Ready to join them as soon as next year are elite arms in Carlos Martinez and Alex Reyes (still just 25).  Both pitchers have battled injury issues over the last few years, so both will play under that shadow for a while.

Right behind them, though, are several other impressive prospects.  The list of potential starters include Ryan Helsley and Genesis Cabrera – both very successful out of the bullpen during the playoffs, Daniel Ponce de Leon and Austin Gomber (who also missed the season due to injury).

It isn’t at all difficult to imagine the Cardinals dominating some future playoff series (perhaps against Washington) in like fashion.

In spite of how it ended, the 2019 season saw several important steps forward for this franchise.  Most importantly, they re-took the division title, and did it standing up to the Chicago team that had pushed them around fairly regularly over the past three seasons.

If not everything, it is something to build on.  For now, that will have to be enough.

Cardinal Minutia

After Adam Wainwright’s effort on Saturday, St Louis threw no more quality starts.  So the 2019 team finished the season losing 33.8% of the time that they received a quality start (they were 53-27 in those games) including losing 4 of 5 in the playoffs.  Of the 19 previous editions of the Cards this century, only the 2008 team wasted good starting pitching at a higher rate.  At 50-26, they lost 34.2% of those games.

The high-water mark in runs scored was 17 in a 17-4 win against Pittsburgh on May 19.  Including the playoffs, St Louis scored 10 or more runs 18 times.

The most runs they scored in a losing effort was 8 in a 9-8 loss to the Giants on September 4.

They gave up ten or more runs 9 times – topped by the 13 they surrendered to the Cubs on May 5.  They did actually win one of those games – a 12-11 conquest of Cincinnati on July 19.

The Cards finished the season with three six-game winning streaks, and three five-game losing streaks.  Their longest stretch of games without losing two in a row was 30 games.  Beginning on August 9 against Pittsburgh (and just off a three-game sweep at the hands of the Dodgers) St Louis went 23-7 until they lost consecutive 2-1 games in Colorado on September 10 – 11.  That was pretty much the end of St Louis’ hot streak.  Beginning with those losses (and counting the playoffs), the Cards finished the rest of the season 13-15.

They also went 24 games without winning consecutive games.  This slump occupied most of May.  From the second until the 29th they were 6-18, finally winning the last game in Philadelphia and then sweeping the Cubs at home.

Their biggest lead in any game this season was 13 runs, achieved twice, on May 9 in the 17-4 win over Pittsburgh and in Game Five against Atlanta (an eventual 13-1 win).  They never lost a game where they led by as many as five runs, but they lost two that they had led by four runs – both to the Cubs in Chicago (6-5 on May 4, and 9-4 on June 8).

The maximum deficit they faced was 11 runs.  That happened twice, during a 12-1 loss to Cincinnati on April 26, and a 13-5 loss to Chicago on May 5.

In the 12-11 win over Cincy referenced earlier, the Cards came back from a 7-run deficit.  They also reversed two four-run deficits – the last of those coming on August 11 against Pittsburgh.  Toward the end of the season, they lost that ability to come back.  The last time they overcame a deficit of three runs came on August 22 against Colorado.  The last 5 times this season they fell behind by three runs (much less by more than three) they lost.

The longest game of the season – both by time and by innings – was the 19-inning marathon in Arizona on September 24, weighing in at 6:53.  The longest regulation game was the 9-8 conquest of Chicago in Chicago on September 21.  That game lasted 4:24.  The longest home nine-inning game lasted 4:05.  That was how long it took San Francisco to win that 9-8 game on September 4.

The fastest game the Cards played this season took just 2:11.  It was the night before the 4:05 game against San Fran, as Flaherty shut out the Giants 1-0.  The fastest road game also involved Flaherty pitching against the Giants.  This was his 1-0 loss on July 7 – the day before the All Star Break.  That game took 8 minutes longer (2:19).

All the Cardinal regular season games combined lasted 30,767 minutes.  If you watched every minute, it would have cost you 512 hours and 47 minutes (more than 21 days) – an average of 3:09.9 each.  The 9 playoff games added an additional 1823 minutes – that’s another 30 hours and 23 minutes.

The largest crowd St Louis played to was 53,070.  That was in Los Angeles against the Dodgers – the Cards lost that game 3-1 on August 6.  The largest attended home game was a Sunday afternoon game against Pittsburgh.  That May 12 game drew 48,555 – and the Cards lost 10-6.

Overall, St Louis played 82 times before crowds in excess of 40,000.  They won only 40 of those games.

The three smallest crowds of the season were the three games played in Miami, June 10-12.  They drew 6,585; 6,308; and 7,001 respectively.  No other game drew less than 13,000.

The smallest home crowd was the 35,819 that showed up on the evening of Monday April 22 to watch St Louis thump Milwaukee 13-5.  Overall they played 39 times to crowds of less than 30,000.  They won 25 of those.

The home attendance finished at 3,480,393 – an average of 42,967.8.  The total road attendance was 2,385,586 – an average of 29,451.7.

The hottest game of the year was Game Two of the Division Series – a 3-0 loss to Mike Foltynewicz in 94 steaming degrees.  The hottest game of the regular season came in Cincinnati on July 20.  St Louis lost that one 3-2 in 94 degrees.  The hottest home game checked in at 92 degrees.  That was a 3-0 win against Milwaukee on August 19.  The Cards were 10-3 when the game time temp sat at 90 degrees or higher.

The coldest game of the year was played in Pittsburgh on April 1.  The Cards outfought the Pirates 6-5 in 11 innings in 37 degree temperature.  The coldest home game of the year was the First Game of the Championship Series.  The Cards were almost no-hit in 45 degree weather.  The coldest regular season home game also came against Pittsburgh on May 11.  The Cards lost that game 2-1 in 49 degrees.

The Cards played four games in temperatures under 50 degrees and lost three of them.

The average temperature of all Cardinal games was 75 degrees – 77 at home and 73 on the road.

In going 50-31 at home, St Louis won 15 series, lost 8 and split 3 others.  They were 41-40 on the road, winning 11 series, losing 13 and splitting 2.  With chances to sweep 15 series, they pulled off the sweep 9 times.  They were 5 of 8 at home, and 4 of 7 on the road.

In danger of being swept 14 times, they wriggled off the hook in 9 of those series.  They were only swept once at home – although they were in danger of being swept five times.  On August 3 and 4, Oakland came into Busch and swept a two game series from St Louis.  We were swept 4 times (in 9 opportunities) on the road.

The Cards finished the season 8-8 in rubber games.  They were 6-4 at home and 2-4 on the road.

Of their 52 series, St Louis won the first game 29 times.  They went on to win 21 of those series, losing 7 and splitting one.  When pushed to a rubber game after having won the first game of the series, St Louis was just 3-6.

Of the 23 series where they lost the first game, they came back to win 5 and split 4, while losing the other 14.  When they lost the first game, but came back to force a rubber game, they were 5-2.

St Louis played 23 series against teams that had won their previous series.  The Cards were 6-16-1 in those series, winning 27 games and losing 41.  They had 23 other series against teams that had lost their previous series.  The Cards were 17-3-3 in those series, going 53-21 in the games.  They also played 5 teams that were coming off a split of their previous series.  The birds were 3-1-1 in those series, winning 10 games and losing 6.

They had the opportunity to sweep 4 teams that had won their previous series.  The only one they actually managed to put the broom to was – surprisingly enough – the Dodgers.  The Cards won four in a row from them April 8-11 after LA had just swept a three-game series in Colorado.

Six series sweeps (in 9 opportunities) came against teams that had lost their previous series, and they closed out both sweep opportunities against teams that had split their previous series.

On the other hand, teams winning their previous series had 9 opportunities to sweep the birds, and managed to do so in 5 of those opportunities.  Teams that had lost their previous series had 5 opportunities to sweep St Louis, but could never manage that last win.

St Louis was 2-8 in rubber games against teams coming off series wins, and 6-0 in rubber games against teams coming off losing series.

Injuries of Note

Every teams suffers through injuries during the course of the season.  In terms of games missed, here are the players who missed the most time and a note about what that impact might have been:

First is Brett Cecil – who missed the entire season with carpal tunnel syndrome.  The impact here is hard to gauge.  Brett has been mostly a disappointment, and it’s likely that Andrew Miller would have gotten his innings anyway.

Alex Reyes also missed most of the season with injuries – even if he spent most of that time on the Memphis injury list.  This could have been very significant.  Had Alex stayed healthy (including not punching out the dugout wall) he might have started to put his game back on track.  When the major league team went through something of a crisis regarding its fifth starter, Reyes might have taken hold of that opportunity.

Jordan Hicks (85 games missed).  If Reyes wasn’t the team’s most significant injury, then that title falls to baseball’s hardest thrower.  Jordan was the team’s closer – and growing well enough into that role – at the time his season ended due to TJ surgery.  Most teams don’t have the pitching depth to lose their closer and still win their division.

Mike Mayers (83 games).  Mike missed a bit more than half the season with a lat strain in his right shoulder.  Mayers is another who can pop the fastball, but has never managed to pitch consistently well at the major league level.  I’m not sure his absence was much noticed.

Jedd Gyorko (51 games).  A right calf strain delayed the start of Jedd’s season.  When he finally joined the team, he was stuck on Shildt’s bench – with all the minimal playing time that implies.  Things imploded for Jedd in early June when a lower back strain sent him back to the injured list.  Before he could make it back, he suffered another calf strain and ended up getting surgery on his right wrist.  Before the trading deadline, he was sent to the Dodgers.  In the 55 games he spent on the active roster, Jedd made it into only 38 games – making just 9 starts. He had only 56 at bats as a Cardinal.

Jedd, of course, had been a thirty home run guy in the past.  For a team that suffered through frequent offensive struggles (including in the playoffs), Jedd’s bat might have made a difference.  It is not clear, though, whether he would have gotten many opportunities – even if he was healthy.

Carlos Martinez (44 games).  The Cards caught a break when Carlos’ right rotator cuff was only strained.  He slotted in at closer for the rest of the season after Hicks went down.  Healthy, though, Carlos might have been part of the rotation – and might be next year.

Yadier Molina (37 games).  The indispensable Cardinal missed more than a month of games to two turns on the injured list with a problem with the tendon in his right thumb.  Yadi was healthy for the playoffs and hit the last Cardinal home run of the season.

Luke Gregerson (32 games).  A right shoulder impingement cost Luke the first month or so of the season.  He was on the active roster for 12 games before being released.

Tyler O’Neill (32 games) and Lane Thomas (28 games).  Two young outfielders who were starting to carve out roles for themselves before injuries (a right elbow ulnar nerve subluxation for O’Neill, and a broken hand for Thomas) curtailed their seasons.  These are two intriguing bats that figure prominently into the Cardinal future.

Marcell Ozuna (28 games).  Ozuna, of course, missed a chunk of games with fingers that he broke during a base-running mishap.

The last Cardinal to miss significant time with an injury was Matt Carpenter, who went on the shelf for nearly a month (23 games) with a right foot contusion – the result of multiple foul balls off of the same spot on the foot.  I’m not sure that anything could be more representative of Matt’s season than this.

Minor League Breakthroughs

(Players on the Major League roster for at least 100 games who played part of the year in the minors)

Giovanny Gallegos (9 games in the minors, 153 with the Cards).  Gallegos was something of a national sensation out of the St Louis pen for much of the summer.  He faded somewhat at the end of the season as his innings piled up, but Gallegos will go into spring training next year with a prominent spot in the bullpen.

Yairo Munoz (6 games in minors, 150 with the Cards).  Yairo makes this list because he was officially optioned to Memphis for a few games.  But Munoz has played most of two full seasons for the Cards.  Of course, since he sits on Shildt’s bench, it’s OK if you’ve never heard of him.

Tyler Webb (17 games in the minors, 145 with the Cards) Less publicized than Gallegos, Webb followed a similar track.  By season’s end, he had become one of Shildt’s most trusted releivers.

Harrison Bader (18 games in minors, 135 with the Cards) Bader went into the season as the starting centerfielder and spent nearly a month in Memphis trying to re-discover his swing.  An elite defender, Harrison hit notably better when he returned.

Dominic Leone (60 games in minors, 102 with Cards).  Leone was another on the opening day roster who found himself spending a chunk of the season in Memphis.  Leone was actually one of the Cards’ most effective relievers when he returned.  I was surprised that Shildt didn’t carry him on the post-season roster.

Tommy Edman (61 games in the minors, 101 with the Cards).  Edman was perhaps the story of the year.  Not even a highly regarded prospect, Edman forced his way into the lineup, and will figure prominently into the 2020 plans.

Nats Tighten the Noose

The game was still scoreless when Victor Robles opened the bottom of the third with a ground ball single up the middle (just out of the reach of shortstop Paul DeJong).  After pitcher Stephen Strasburg bunted Robles down to second, Cardinal pitcher Jack Flaherty struck out Trea Turner.  The Nationals did have the lead run at second, but now there were two outs.

During his remarkable second half run, batters were only 15 for 109 (.138) when batting with two outs against Jack, with only 6 of the hits being for extra-bases (4 doubles and 2 home runs).  The two home runs were the only two-out runs batted in against Flaherty since the All-Star Break.

But Flaherty and the Cardinals had now run into the scorching hot Washington Nationals – a team that is currently getting every meaningful bounce and exploiting every opponents’ mistake.

Jack’s first-pitch fastball to Adam Eaton tailed back across the plate, and Adam bounced it off the plate and into centerfield for the first run of the game.  There followed in rapid succession Anthony Rendon’s soft flyball down the left-field line that Marcell Ozuna couldn’t keep in his glove, a walk to Juan Soto, and a wild pitch that moved Rendon and Soto into scoring position.

Already ahead 2-0, Howie Kendrick all but iced the contest, as he stroked a fastball the other way – perfectly placed into right-center.  And Washington had four, two-out RBIs.

They wouldn’t stop there.  In the fifth inning, John Brebbia would serve up two more two-out RBIs on doubles by Kendrick and Ryan Zimmerman.  In the bottom of the seventh, Zimmerman would single home the final run of the game – again, with two out.  In their 8-1 win (box score), the Nationals would drive in 7 of the runs with two-outs.

For the evening, Washington was 4 for 18 before there were two outs in the inning.  They were 7 for 15 with 5 doubles and 3 walks – a batting line of .467/.556/.800 – before St Louis could get the final out.

This hasn’t really been a problem all season.  Again, according to baseball reference, St Louis tied with the Cubs for third fewest runs allowed after two outs in all of baseball.  But now 9 of Washington’s 13 runs in the series have been driven in with two-out hits, and the Cards are backed up as deeply as they can be.

Fifteen years ago, the Cardinals were slugging it out with the Houston Astros (then part of the National League Central) in the League Championship Series.  The winner (which eventually turned out to be the Cards) seemed like they would be facing the Yankees in the series – New York had jumped out to a 3-0 lead against Boston (with Game Three, by the way, being a historic butt-kicking as the Yankees piled it on to the tune of 19-8).  It was hard to imagine a team more dead in the water than the 2004 Red Sox.

And then it was 3-1, Yankees.  Then 3-2.  Finally of course, Boston – Curt Schilling’s bloody sock and all – overcame the Yankees and their 3-0 lead and, in fact, never lost again as they swept the series that year in four games from St Louis.

To date, that is the only time a team has rebounded from a 3-0 deficit to win a series.  All season, this team (the Cards) has claimed that it is special.  Few conceivable achievements could mark it as more than special than to match the Red Sox’ feat.  Should they manage that, it’s interesting that their world series opponent would be either the Astros or the Yankees – the two teams that lost those Championship Series’ back in ’04.

But first, of course, they will actually have to win a game against Washington.  A good first step toward that would be to score their first run sometime before the seventh inning.  We’ll see.

Jose Martinez

Inserted into the lineup to provide a little offensive spark, Jose Martinez did contribute a couple of hits and scored the only Cardinal run last night.  Jose is 4 for 6 now on the series, and actually has a five-game hitting streak built mostly on pinch-hit at bats.  Martinez is 6 for his last 8.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler is the second member of the usual lineup (Matt Carpenter was the first) to lose his spot because of the team’s offensive difficulties.  Dexter was hitless in four at bats last night (with three strikeouts) and is 0 for 15 since the first inning of Game Five against Atlanta.  Fowler is 2 for 33 (.061) during the playoffs.  Harrison Bader will get tonight’s start in center.

Wong and Edman

Spark plugs all season long, Kolten Wong and Tommy Edman are the other two members of the starting lineup who have gone hitless through the first three games of the Championship series – they are both 0 for 10 against Washington.

With a team batting line of .121/.167/.143 over their last 96 plate appearances, there are no shortage of bats that have been missing in action recently.  The Cardinal season has reached the point where there are no more tomorrows.  Some of these guys will hit tonight, or they will be playing golf by the weekend.

NoteBook

The 8-1 final was as badly as St Louis has been beaten in a while.  It was, in fact, their largest margin of defeat since August 5.  They lost to the Dodgers that day 8-0 – the first game of a three-game sweep.

The seven run deficit they took into the sixth inning was also the largest seventh-inning deficit in a Cardinal playoff game since they trailed San Francisco 7-0 after six on their way to a 9-0 loss in Game Seven of the 2012 Championship Series.  The Cards, of course, had led that series three games to one at one point.

Still Tipping the Cap

Throughout the first two games of the Championship Series, I have been unable to stop thinking about Mike Foltynewicz and Max Fried.  Folty and Fried, of course, are the two Atlanta pitchers who pitched in the first inning of the last game of the Division Series.  What must be going through their minds as they’ve watched the Washington Nationals snuff out the offense that routed them on Wednesday afternoon?

Folty and Fried allowed the Cards 10 runs in that one inning.  In 18 innings at home against Washington, that same Cardinal lineup has scored 1 run.  St Louis collected 5 hits (3 of them doubles) and 4 walks from the 14 batters that came to the plate in just that one inning in Atlanta.  Sixty-two Cardinal batters have come and gone in the first two games of this series.  They have a total of 4 hits (1 double) and 3 walks – a team-wide batting line of .070/.145/.088.

If nothing else, St Louis is getting proficient at tipping their caps.

If you have been watching, you will know that first Anibal Sanchez (in Game One) and then Max Scherzer (in Game Two) took no-hitters into the seventh inning.  These efforts – with just enough offense – have given Washington a daunting 2-0 lead in the series that shifts back to Washington tonight.

What must Folty and Fried have thought, especially during Game One, as Sanchez blew through 7.2 effortless innings, looking more like he was tossing darts at the pub than pitching in the Championship Series.  His most stressful moment of the evening may well have been finding a seat on the team bus.  Certainly the Cardinals didn’t cause him any concern.

All the while, the repeated formula was simplicity itself.  Strike one on the outside edge, and continuously throw the ball slower or faster than expected.  After the game, I believe it was Kolten Wong that said that Anibal never threw the ball over the middle.  Watching the game, that wasn’t really true.  Sanchez made his share of mistakes in the heart of the zone.  It was the hitters’ inability to time the pitches correctly that was the difference.  Sanchez gave up a series of line drive foul balls when Cardinal batsmen were geared too fast, and about a dozen sky high lazy flyballs when the pitches were coming in just a fraction faster than expected.

I think his fastest pitch of the night was about 93.  It was simply amazing watching this team get jammed with 88-mph fastballs.

On their way to dropping the first two games of the series, St Louis batsmen have gone 0 for 9 when they hit the first strike.  Hitting that first strike is usually a gold mine for the hitter.  According to baseball reference, across all the major leagues, batters slashed .355/.414/.643 – a 1.057 OPS on the first strike of an at bat.  Against the Braves, St Louis was 18 for 34 (.529) with 6 doubles and 2 home runs (.882 slugging percentage) when they hit the first strike.

But they could never get comfortable against Sanchez.  Not even for one at bat.

Jose Martinez

The lone offensive spark in the series, Jose Martinez has worked his way back into the starting lineup – at least for tonight.  He broke up Sanchez’ no-hitter in Game One, and drove in St Louis’ only run of the series with a double in Game Two.  He is 2-for-2 against Washington.  The rest of the team is 2 for 55 (.036).

Jose has actually been swinging the bat better for a little while now, it’s just hard to notice because he never starts anymore.  Jose has started only once since the first game of a September 1 double-header.  He is 8 for his last 14 (.571) with 2 doubles and 2 triples (1.000 slugging percentage) – but that covers his last 10 games.  He currently holds a four-game hitting streak – all in pinch-hitting opportunities.

Needless to say, no one else on the team has been trending up.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong chipped in with two singles in his very first playoff game.  Since then, his slump has taken back over.  One for six in the series so far, DeJong has had 21 plate appearances since that first game, managing 2 singles, 1 double, 1 walk (intentional) and 10 strikeouts – a .150/.190/.200 batting line.

Paul Goldschmidt

Paul Goldschmidt was 3 for 4 against the Braves with a home run when hitting the first strike.  He has yet to hit the first strike in the first two games against the Nats – evidence of how precisely Sanchez and Scherzer have been locating that first strike.  Goldy will jump on that pitch when it’s where he’s looking for it, but won’t chase it when it’s on the corners.

Yadier Molina

One of the season’s signature moments was Yadier Molina’s game-tying eighth-inning single in Game Four of the Division Series that prolonged St Louis’ season.  Yadi is 0 for 10 since that hit, and is just 3 for 28 (.107, all singles) over his last 8 games.

Against Atlanta, Yadi swung at the first strike in 17 of his 22 plate appearances, going 2 for 5 when he managed to put that pitch in play.  He has only swung at the first strike twice in 6 at bats against Washington, without putting either pitch in play.

Matt Carpenter

Matt Carpenter’s playoffs are following a similar arc.  Matt floated a dramatic game-tying eighth-inning single in Game One.  Like Molina, he is hitless in 10 at bats since.  In Carpenter’s case, this has cost him – at least for today – his place in the lineup.  He is 0-for-6 against Washington, 1 for 11 in the playoffs, and 2 for 19 (.105) over his last 8 games.

In 5 of his 6 plate appearances in this series, and 11 of 15 in the playoffs (73.3%), Matt has ended up in two-strike counts.  During the season’s second half, 61.4% of Matt’s plate appearances ended up in two-strike counts.  He batted .169/.275/.270 in those at bats.

Kolten Wong

Kolten Wong – as you know – was sidelined for the last ten games of the regular season with a hamstring issue.  He has jumped back into the starting lineup at the start of the playoffs – and while he has had some moments, his performance overall looks like someone who has missed a week and a half of at bats.  He is 0-for-6 against the Nationals and 5 for 26 (.192) in the playoffs overall.

Dexter Fowler

When Dexter Fowler came to the plate for the second time in that big first inning of Game Five, with the bases loaded and one out, he was riding an 0-for-13 streak (he had walked that first time up).  Dex took a ball and then jumped Max’s first strike, pulling it fair over third base for a two-run double that helped bury the Braves.

He is 0-for-11 since then.  Early in the playoffs, Fowler hit into some hard luck, hitting balls hard, but at people.  Lately, he has just been making routine outs.  He is 0-for 7 (with 3 strikeouts) against Washington, and 2 for 29 (.069) for the playoffs.

Over his last 23 games (counting the playoffs) Dexter is 10 for 87 (.115).

Marcell Ozuna

Marcell Ozuna is another member of the starting lineup that hasn’t managed a hit since that big first inning in Atlanta.  Marcell is 0-for-8 in this series, and hitless in his last 11 at bats.

Pitching Keeps Cards Afloat

However the series against Washington turns out, the Cardinals can be very proud of the way their pitching has shown up.  Going back to the last game of the regular season, the Cards have 6 quality starts in their last 8 games.  The team ERA over these critical games is a sparkling 2.25 – 1.78 by the rotation.  Unfortunately, as often as not they have been running into pitching on the other side that has been equally effective.  St Louis is 4-4 in those 8 games.

Miles Mikolas

As has become a Cardinal tradition this year (see the notes below), St Louis has wasted some pretty good pitching in the first two games of this series.  Miles Mikolas was the starter – and loser – of Game One, in spite of the fact that he went six innings giving just 1 run.  Miles has made 2 starts and 1 relief appearance in the playoffs so far, recording a 1.50 ERA over 12 innings.  Over his last 9 games (8 starts and 1 relief appearance) Mikolas holds a 2.64 ERA over 47.2 innings.

Adam Wainwright

Similarly, Adam Wainwright nearly matched Scherzer in Game Two.  He allowed just 1 run through 7 innings.  Waino has given the Cards quality starts in both of his playoff outings.  Adam has a 1.80 ERA during the playoffs – and an 0-1 record.

NoteBook

On the other end the masterpieces by Sanchez and Scherzer were Cardinal starters Mikolas and Wainwright – who tossed quality starts of their own.  In 7 playoff games, the Cards have gotten 5 quality starts – and have now lost 4 of them.  All of their playoff losses so far have come in spite of a quality performance from their starter.  For the season, they are 53-27 when their pitcher gives them a quality start – meaning they are losing the game 33.8% of the time.  The only Cardinal team this century that has done worse was the 2008 team that lost 34.2% of the time their pitcher threw a quality start.  They were 50-26 in quality start games.

With playoff baseball in St Louis comes the frigid weather.  Friday’s game – played in 45 degree cold – was St Louis’ second coldest game of the year.  On April 1 in Pittsburgh, they beat the Pirates 6-5 in 11 innings in a game time temperature of 37 degrees.  Friday was the coldest game in St Louis since April 8 of last year, when they lost a 4-1 game to Arizona in 43 degree weather.  I wonder if you had chatted with Paul Goldschmidt then about relocating to St Louis what his answer might have been.

Even against the standard of playoff games, 45 is frigid.  St Louis hasn’t played as cold a playoff game since Game Three of the 2006 World Series.  With Chris Carpenter on the mound, they beat Detroit 5-0 in 43 degree weather.

History With the Umpires

Bill Miller will get the plate in Game Three in Washington.  It will be the fifth time that Miller has had the plate during a Cardinal playoff game – with St Louis winning three of the first four: 2-1 in Game Two of the 2002 Division Series against Arizona; 7-1 in Game Five of the 2011 Championship Series against Milwaukee; and 3-1 in Game Three of the 2012 Championship Series against San Francisco.

The lone Cardinal playoff loss with Miller behind the plate came in Game Five of the 2013 World Series – a 3-1 loss to Boston.

All of those games were played in St Louis.

Counting the playoffs, they are now 27-22 lifetime (1-3 this year) with Miller calling the game.

Game Four, on the other hand, will belong to Phil Cuzzi who has seen St Louis lose two of three playoff games from that vantage point.  The only one of the three played on the road was the first one – a 2-1 loss in Houston in Game Four of the 2005 Championship Series.  He was behind the plate for St Louis’ 3-0 loss to Madison Bumgarner in the opening game of the 2014 Championship Series, and for St Louis’ 4-0 win against Chicago in the opening game of the 2015 Division Series.

They are 24-15 lifetime (2-1 this year) in Cuzzi’s games.

If we get to Game Six, Fieldin Culbreth with have the plate for a Cardinal playoff game for just the second time.  He was there for Game Four of the 2006 Championship series when the Mets trounced the Cards 12-5.

St Louis is 24-17 when Fieldin has the plate – including a loss the only time he had the plate for one of our games this year.  He was behind the plate on September 28 when the Cubs hung an 8-6 loss on the birds.

The other umpires in this series have never called a Cardinal playoff game until this year.  Our history (counting the first two games of this series) with them is as follows:

Mike Muchlinski – 10-13 (1-2 this year); Chris Conroy – 11-9 (3-1 in 2019); and Chad Fairchild – 19-12 (2-0 this year).

Seeing the Ball Well – Ozuna and Goldschmidt Having Their Way

It was the second inning of Game One of the Division Series last Thursday, and Marcell Ozuna was leading off.

Through seven major league seasons and 931 regular season games, Marcell had never had a whiff of the playoffs before.  But now, here he was, standing in against Atlanta lefty Dallas Keuchel.  The very first playoff pitch he would see would be Keuchel’s signature sinker.  Ozuna cut loose and took a hack at it – and tapped it easily back to Dallas for the first out of the inning.

Over the five games of the series, Marcell would come to the plate 22 more times.  He would never again swing at the first pitch.  Brave pitchers would tempt him with all manner of sliders and breaking balls, hoping that he would chase.  But Marcell is seeing the ball very well out of the hand these days.

After that initial groundout, Marcell went on to punish Atlanta the rest of the series, going 9 for his last 20, with 3 doubles and 2 home runs.  He drove in 5 runs in the five games – including the winning run twice.

Watching Marcell at the plate, one would guess that he would be one of the team’s more aggressive hitters.  The menacing way that he waves the bat at the plate, resembling a serpent looking for his first opportunity to strike.  And, certainly, when he does jump at a pitch, the swing itself is nothing less that pure aggression unleashed.  But, in spite of the visual evidence to the contrary, Marcell doesn’t chase the first pitch thrown to him any more than an average hitter – and profits significantly when he is taking that first pitch.

During the season’s second half, Marcell took the first pitch thrown him 73.1% of the time (163 of 223).  He hit .252/.380/.481 with 8 of his 9 second half home runs in those plate appearances.  He was just a .140/.183/.246 hitter when he did chase the first pitch.  His season numbers (.256/.361/.503 in 382 PAs when taking the first pitch and .217/.257/.414 in 167 PAs when he swung at the first offering) followed a similar arc.

In watching Marcell over the last two seasons, I’ve come to see this as a barometer of his comfort at the plate.  When Marcell is taking, he is dialed in.

Goldy, too?

I don’t think that, during his uneven regular season, we got to see the real Paul Goldschmidt – the Goldschmidt who was a constant thorn in the side of the Braves.  During 680 regular season plate appearances, Paul only took the first pitch 473 times – a 69.6% that was right about at the team average of 69.9%.  He hit .300 in at bats in which he chased the first pitch, and only .241 when taking.

Atlanta was subjected to a different Goldy.  In 23 playoff plate appearances, Paul watched that first pitch go by 18 times (78.3%).  He went on to go 8 for 16 in those at bats (.500) with all of his extra-base hits (4 doubles and 2 home runs – a 1.125 slugging percentage).  He had one single in 5 at bats when he swung at the first pitch.

As with Ozuna, Paul appears his most comfortable the more selective he is.

But DeJong Not So Much

The other everyday Paul in the lineup – Paul DeJong, on the oter hand, is at his best when he goes up swinging at the first pitch.  In fact, he hit .500 during the series when he swung at the first pitch.  Unfortunately, he only swung at 6 of his 20 first pitches.  For the season, Paul hit .277 when he swung at the first pitch, but did so only 21.7% of the time – about 10% lower than average.

DeJong likes that fastball early in the count, and (as the season has progressed) pitchers have learned that challenging DeJong early in the count doesn’t usually work out for them.

The 14 times DeJong didn’t swing at the first pitch during the series, he managed 1 single in 12 at bats (with 2 intentional walks) and 8 strikeouts.

The Washington pitching staff will present its own challenges – especially when they face Patrick Corbin and that elusive slider.  But several of the hitters in the meat part of the Cardinal order are seeing the ball very well right now.  We are looking forward to an interesting series.

The Trading Deadline Revisited

On Monday April 29 – when these two teams first met in Washington – few would probably have predicted that St Louis and Washington would be the last two teams standing in the National League.  The Cards were in the midst of their hot start, and carried a record of 17-10 into the series.  They currently held a 2.5 game lead over the Cubs.  But even though their record was second best to the Dodgers (LA was 19-11 at that point), St Louis had missed the playoffs during each of the previous three seasons, and the Cubs and Brewers were still expected to be the teams fighting it out for the playoff spots in this division.

Washington, on the other hand, had just seen superstar outfielder Bryce Harper join their division rivals in Philadelphia over the offseason.  Washington entered play that night just 12-14 and 3 early games behind the Phillies.  About 10% of the way through the season, most experts might have predicted that the Dodgers and Cubs would be preparing to do battle this evening.  But the baseball season is always full of surprises, and the Cards and National are two of the more pleasant surprises for 2019.

As St Louis takes its place tonight among the last four teams standing, I think it’s worthwhile to revisit the July 31 trade deadline.  Famously, the Cards stood pat, adding nothing to their roster in spite of the trading fury all around them.  From most corners of the baseball world, their inactivity drew a kind of quiet raspberry.  As with a shrug, the experts more or less concluded that the Cards didn’t really care about making the playoffs.

Clearly, the front office had a high level of belief in the team they had.  More than that, though, during the final moments of the insanity, the office stated publicly that they were unwilling to part with the promising parts of their future for a temporary fix.

In recent years, I haven’t been exceedingly complimentary of the management team in place.  In many ways, they have consistently misunderstood the real issues that faced their team – and all too often have seemed unconcerned about parting with pieces of their future for the immediate gratification of an “impact bat.”  For the rest of their careers, I think I will cringe every time I see Sandy Alcantara or Zac Gallen appear in playoff games or All Star games as I remember that both of these prime prospects (and more) were surrendered for what will probably be just two years of Marcell Ozuna.

So, to hear from them last July that these intriguing players that represent a fairly compelling future for this franchise are at least somewhat off-limits, is greatly relieving.

We’ll see if they can keep their hands off them over the long off season.

Jack and a Ten Run Inning Are More than Enough

On September 22, the Cards fought their way past the Chicago Cubs in Chicago by a 3-2 score.  The victory completed a pivotal sweep in Chicago that all but ended the Cubs’ post-season hopes, and gave the Cards what appeared to be a stranglehold on the division.  They were 3 games up on Milwaukee with 6 to play – a situation that would require an uncommon combination of Milwaukee hot streak and Cardinal losing streak.

A combination that almost came to pass.

After St Louis won their next game in Arizona (eliminating the D-Backs), the wheels came off.  Four consecutive loses dropped them to 90-71, one slender game ahead of the Brewers.

Now there is one game to play with all the marbles on the table.  Standing on the mound in the streaming sunlight of the last Sunday of the season (facing a Chicago team that was one game away from returning the favor to their ancient rivals), the man wearing the weight of the season on his shoulders was a 23-year old right-hander who had never before (in the majors, anyway) pitched in a game of this magnitude.

Seven innings and 69 pitches later that young monster – Jack Flaherty – walked off the mound in St Louis to a standing ovation.  On the scoreboard, the seven-inning totals for the hated Cubs read 0 runs and only 2 hits.  With 9 runs sitting securely in the Cardinal ledger, the result was no longer in doubt.  Two innings later, St Louis had secured a 9-0 victory and their first division title (and playoff berth) since 2015.

That division title earned the 2019 Cardinals a match-up with the Atlanta Braves.  Pushed to the brink of elimination on their home field, the Cardinals rose up on the bat of their storied leader Yadier Molina to send the series back to Atlanta tied at two wins a piece.  Once again, the Cardinal season would hang on one game.  But unlike the previous moment when a playoff berth had already been assured and the game was in from of a friendly crowd, this game would be pure elimination and played before a raucous crowd at Sun Trust Park in Atlanta.

Six innings and 104 pitches later that same young rising star walked off the mound having allowed just 1 run on 4 hits.  Again the game (a 13-1 Cardinal lead) was no longer in doubt.  St Louis would advance.  Atlanta’s season would end (box score).

In the aftermath, there was much discussion of St Louis’ remarkable ten-run first inning that set playoff records and mostly put the game out of reach before Jack even took the mound.  But the deeper and more important story going forward is a resurgent pitching staff – led by Flaherty – that will be at the forefront of any upcoming series.

Beginning with the last game against Chicago, St Louis has won 4 of its last 6 games, mostly on the strength of a 2.17 team ERA.  The last six Cardinal starters (three of whom have been Flaherty) have contributed a 1.45 ERA and a .195 batting average against.

With lots of elite offenses left in the playoff picture, this will be the great equalizer – if they can continue this pace.

Flaherty

The series clinching performance continues a stunning run of dominant pitching from young Mr. Flaherty.  Dating to the last game before the All-Star Break, Jack has made 18 starts (including the playoffs).  Sixteen of the 18 have been “quality starts,” but that only begins to describe the consistency of his excellence.  In 9 of the 18 starts, Jack has been unscored on.  In 13 of the 18, the opposing team failed to manage 5 hits of Flaherty.

Over the 119.1 innings that cover Jack’s last 18 starts, opposing offense have been left with just 16 runs scored (15 earned) on only 62 hits (8 home runs and 11 doubles are the only extra-base hits he has allowed since early July).  Against his 146 strikeouts in those innings, Flaherty has walked just 26, as he has thrown 66% of his pitches for strikes.  The ERA for this span works out to 1.13, and the last 443 batters to face him are hitting just .151 with a miniscule slugging percentage of .237.

Mr. Flaherty has been a tower when St Louis has needed him most.  This ability to rise to the most stressful occasions gives him a level that statistics cannot quantify.  Jack Flaherty has arrived.

Giovanny Gallegos

With Flaherty’s work done, Giovanny Gallegos took the mound for the seventh, delivering a perfect inning.  Whether it’s the innings load or some adjustments by the batters, Gallegos hasn’t been the dominant force that he was through most of the first half of the season.  Nonetheless, his recent outings have been encouraging.  Giovanny has given 1 run on 4 hits through his last 6 innings (over 7 games).  The last 24 batters he has faced are hitting .190.

Gallegos threw first-pitch strikes to two of the three batters he faced, eventually retiring both.  Brian McCann popped out on the first pitch thrown him, and, after swinging through the first pitch thrown to him, Matt Joyce ended up grounding out on a 2-2 pitch.

In the season’s second half, Gallegos tied Tyler Webb for the lowest batting average against after throwing a first pitch strike.  Batters were 9 for 69 against Giovanny when he threw strike one, and 7 for 54 in that same circumstance against Webb (a .130 average).

Paul Goldschmidt

Certainly one of the offensive heroes of the series was first-baseman Paul Goldschmidt.  If the regular season wasn’t really up to Paul’s usual standards, his post-season, so far, has been all that anyone could have hoped for.  Hitting in all five games, Paul was 9 for 21 (.429) – and it wasn’t a particularly quiet .429.  He slugged .905 during the series, with 6 of his 9 hits going for extra-bases (including 2 home runs).

Going back to the end of the regular season, Paul has a seven-game hitting streak intact as the Cards await the arrival of the Nationals on Friday.  Four of the seven have been multi-hit games, and two have been three hit affairs.  Paul is hitting .433 (13 for 30) and slugging .867 (4 doubles and 3 home runs) during the streak.

Paul is pretty hot at the moment.

Tommy Edman

With a double and a triple in Game Five, Tommy Edman ended his first playoff series with a .316 batting average (6 for 19) and a .579 slugging percentage (3 doubles and a triple).

Tommy was thrown a first-pitch strike every time up on Wednesday and in 14 of his 21 plate appearances during the series.  Tommy doesn’t really mind if pitchers go aggressively after him.  Edman finished 5 for 13 (.385) with 2 doubles, a triple and a walk in those plate appearances.

Yadier Molina

With his 0-for-5 on Wednesday, Molina officially finished the series with a .143/.174/.143 batting line – he had 3 singles in 21 at bats.  Of course, one of those singles saved the season.

It is, admittedly, difficult to throw a first-pitch ball to Yadi – who is one of baseball’s more aggressive hitters.  But when pitchers can get Molina to take that first pitch for a ball, the at bat seems to go better for them.  That only happened once on Wednesday.  As the last batter in that historic first-inning, Molina took Max Fried’s first pitch for a ball and eventually grounded out on a 2-2 pitch.  Only 5 times during the series did a Molina at bat begin with ball one.  Yadi was 0-for-5 in those at bats.

In the season’s second half, Yadi hit .325 (37 for 114) when his first pitch was a strike, but only .182 (8 for 44) when the first pitch to him was ball one.

NoteBook

The 12-run victory was the Cardinals largest since they slashed Pittsburgh 17-4 back on May 9.  The only other double-digit playoff win by this team in this century was a 12-2 victory over Arizona (in a game started by Randy Johnson) in Game One of the 2002 Division Series.

In playoff games, the 13 runs were the most scored by the Cards since Game Three of the 2011 World Series, when they dumped Texas by a 16-7 score.

The Cards had trailed at some point in seven straight playoff games, dating back to Game One of the 2015 Division Series – their only win against the Cubs in that series, 4-0.

Cards Answer Braves – Eventually

On Thursday evening, as the divisional series between the Atlanta Braves and St Louis Cardinals began, the visiting Cardinals routed a questionable Atlanta bullpen, escaping with a 7-6 win that momentarily gave the Cards the home field advantage in the series.

On Friday afternoon, the Braves did what good teams do after suffering a loss.  They answered with a 3-0 victory.

One of the enduring traits of championship caliber teams is that they are difficult to conquer on consecutive nights.  You rarely see them tagged with a string of defeats.

As the series shifted back to St Louis, it was now incumbent on the Cards to do the same thing.  They had to respond after a defeat.  Finally, after a brilliant stand by a courageous bullpen and the clutch bat of Yadier Molina, they did – fighting their way to a 5-4, 10-inning victory on Monday (box score).  However, that didn’t happen until after St Louis had suffered that second consecutive loss, 3-1 on Sunday afternoon, pushing them to the edge of extinction (box score).

For most of the season, staying out of losing streaks was a significant problem.  The back to back losses to the Braves were the thirty-sixth time the Cardinals were involved in losing streaks of at least two games this year.  Twenty-seven of those streaks graduated to at least three games; four of them went as far as four games, and they finished with two five-game losing streaks.

For the season (including the playoffs) the Cards are an uninspiring 40-33 (.548) after losing the previous game.  Of the 20 versions of this team that have played this century, the 2019 team would rank twelfth in this category.  For the decade (playoffs included) the St Louis Cardinals are 849-629 (.574) after a loss.

The story of the 2019 number, though, parallels the story of the 2019 Cardinal season.  Through the first half, they were a very dreary 22-21 (.512) after losing a game, but they opened the second half doing much better.  From mid-July through September 18, they were an impressive 16-7 (.696) answering a previous loss.

But, beginning with their last road series in Arizona up until Monday afternoon, they had lost 4 of 5 after losing the previous game.  For the most part, it was a pitching staff that allowed 5.6 runs per game through that span that short-circuited St Louis’ attempts to break the losing cycles.

Through seven innings on Monday, it looked for all the world like the Cardinal season would end with the team failing in five of their final six games after a loss.

But the bullpen that I have been expecting to collapse at any moment threw 5.1 stellar innings of relief, stranding 5 inherited runners along the way.  John Brebbia came in with the bases loaded and two out in the sixth and struck out Adam Duvall.  Then, after Brebbia was victimized by a ball lost in the sun (a gift triple for Ronald Acuna Jr.), Andrew Miller came on to strand him.

Pitching in the ninth, Carlos Martinez served up a lead-off double (Acuna, again), but Acuna was stranded as well.  For the game, Atlanta was 0-for-9 with runners in scoring position – most of that the work of the bullpen.

The rest was two clutch at bats by Molina, who drove in the last two runs of the game, and the Cardinals will live to play another day.

Now, the Braves will have to answer again, or their season will be over.

Adam Wainwright

Adam Wainwright scuffled a little bit over his last two regular season starts, but on Sunday afternoon he was vintage Waino, tossing 7.2 innings of 4-hit, 2-walk shutout ball, striking out 8.

In so doing, he was more reminiscent of the Adam Wainwright of most of September, who threw 4 quality starts, and went 5-1 with a 2.97 ERA.

Adam has always been elite in a stoppers’ role – pitching in games after a loss.  In the season’s second half, Waino was 4-2 with a 2.93 ERA in 7 after-loss starts.

Over his storied career, Sunday was the fifth time he has started in the playoffs after a Cardinal loss.  Of the five, the only Cardinal win was the only one he didn’t pitch well in.  In Game Five of the 2012 Division Series against Washington, Waino didn’t make it out of the third inning, being battered for 6 runs on 7 hits and 3 home runs.  That was the evening of the historic 9-7 comeback that sent the Cards on to the Championship Series.  Over the other 4 games, Waino has a 1.82 ERA over 29.2 innings, but St Louis ended up losing all three.

Adam himself only took the loss in Game Five of the 2013 World Series, in spite of the fact that he gave just 3 runs over 7 innings to the Red Sox.  In the other three games, Waino left with a lead that was then squandered by the bullpen – a 3-2 loss to Clayton Kershaw and the Dodgers in Game Two of the 2009 Division Series (Adam had given just 1 run over 8 innings); 6-3 to Madison Bumgarner in Game Five of the 2014 Championship Series (In spite of 7 innings of 2-run ball from Waino); and Monday against the Braves.

Dakota Hudson

Dakota Hudson wobbled a bit in the fifth inning of the Monday game, but overall pitched very well, under the duress of the situation.  Hudson was very steady down the stretch.  Including his playoff start, Hudson threw quality starts in 6 of his last 10 outings, putting together a 6-1 record and a 1.86 ERA.  The last 230 batters to face him are hitting .159, and 57% of every ball put in play against him has been a ground ball.

The next step for Dakota will be tighter command.  Hudson has walked 31 batters in his last 58 innings, and only 59% of his pitches in those innings have been strikes.  Only 44 of his 74 Monday pitches were in the zone.

Dakota was 2-1 with a 2.33 ERA in 5 September starts.  Four of those five starts followed a Cardinal loss.  Hudson responded with 3 quality starts and a 1.50 ERA that featured a .146 batting average against.

Carlos’ Big Inning

With the Monday game tied at four in the ninth inning and the Cards facing elimination, they turned again to Carlos Martinez.  The afternoon before, Martinez’ brutal ninth inning had given control of the series back to the Braves.  It was a crucial inning on many levels.  With the weight of the season resting on his shoulders, Carlos was tasked with mentally and emotionally turning the page on the Sunday disaster.  I will admit some concern when Acuna opened up with a ringing double, putting what might have been the winning run in scoring position with nobody out.

But Carlos pitched around it.  More than that, in fact.  You could see him visibly clear his mind of all that noise and focusing completely on the pitch to be made.  That was a very big proving step for Carlos Martinez.

Paul Goldschmidt

In case there was any question about it, Paul Goldschmidt has turned it on.  It’s kind of the eruption the team has been waiting for all year. With his three hits on Monday (all for extra-bases) Goldy has hit in every game of the series – and, in fact, has a six game hitting streak going.  He has multiple hits in three of the six, including a pair of three-hit games.  For the streak, Goldschmidt is hitting .440 (11 for 25) and slugging .960 (4 doubles and 3 home runs).

Marcell Ozuna

Right there with Goldy is the man behind him in the order – Marcell Ozuna.  Marcell hit his first two playoff home runs on Monday, and has two hits in all four of the games.  Ozuna now actually has a five game hitting streak, in which he has two hits exactly in all five games.  Marcell is hitting .455 during his streak (10 for 22) and slugging .864 (he has 3 doubles to go along with yesterday’s homers) and has driven in 5 runs over his last 5 games.

Tommy Edman

Tommy Edman doesn’t stay quiet for very long.  After a couple of hitless games, Edman singled, doubled and walked in Monday’s game.  Tommy was the team’s leading hitter (.350 on 36 of 103 hitting) and slugger (.660 on 6 doubles, 4 triples and 6 home runs) for the month of September.  Starting in 65 of the 74 second half games, Edman hit .308 with 8 home runs.

Tommy hit .328 this season (43 for 131) in 36 games after a loss.

Yadier Molina

Molina hasn’t honestly looked very comfortable at the plate during this post-season.  As he came to the plate with the tying run on second in Monday’s eighth inning, Yadi was just 2 for 15 in the series.

But never count him out.  Molina, of course, tied the contest with an RBI single and then tied the series with a sacrifice fly in the tenth.

Over his storied career, Molina has played in 40 playoff games after a Cardinal loss.  He is now hitting .322 in those games (46 for 143) with 3 game-winning hits.  Yadi may not always come through in those situations (nobody “always’ comes through in those situations).  But with Molina you can always be assured that the moment will never be too big for him.

Matt Carpenter

A recent hot streak brought Matt Carpenter briefly back into the lineup (at Harrison Bader’s expense).  Matt has since cooled off a bit, throwing his presence in the lineup back in doubt.  Matt was 0-for-3 on Monday, and is just 2 for 13 (.154) over his last 5 games.

Hitless in four at bats over the last two games, Matt has played in 20 career playoff games after a Cardinal loss.  He is 14 for 68 (.206) in those games.

Paul DeJong

Paul DeJong’s bat has been trending downward lately.  He was 0-for-4 yesterday.  He had singles in two of his first three at bats in the series, but is 0 for 11 since then with 6 strikeouts.

Paul ended September hitting just .175 (17 for 97).

In the last two games, DeJong sits 0-for-7.  Since the All-Star break, Paul is just 19 for 98 (.194) in games after a loss.

Dexter Fowler

Dexter Fowler started off his playoffs pretty well, with a walk and a single in Game One.  He is hitless in 13 at bats since then.

Fowler hit .183 (17 for 93) in the month of September.

Game Five and Beyond

In pushing the Braves – who were significant favorites – to a deciding game, St Louis has progressed as far as most experts would believe.  Everything that they achieve from this point on will be above and beyond expectations.  Should they survive the Braves, other excellent teams – both National and American – will be waiting.  From this point on, they will be even steeper under-dogs than they already are.  Going forward, expect to see the odds and expectations stacked strongly against them.

Given their playoff history, I can’t think of any team more comfortable in that setting than your St Louis Cardinals.

NoteBook

After winning the first game of the series, the Cardinals got consecutive quality starts from Jack Flaherty and Wainwright.  They lost both games.  This has been one of the strong memes of the Cardinal season – wasting excellent quality pitching.

They are now 52-25 this season when their starter gives them a quality start, losing 32.5% of those efforts.  If that number holds, this will be the second-worst Cardinal record this century when they get a quality start.  The 2008 team lost 34.2% of the time they got a quality start (50-26).

One day after they played in 94 degree heat (tying the season high to that point) the Cards played their hottest game of the year on October 4 in Atlanta – the game time temperature read 95 degrees.  It was the hottest game St Louis had played in since they lost to Cincinnati 8-2 in 97 degree last July 14 (Flaherty started that game, too).

It was the hottest road game played since a 2-1, 10-inning loss in San Francisco on September 2 of 2017.  That game was also 95 degrees at first pitch.

When the series came back to St Louis on Sunday, the temperature was 32 degrees cooler.  At 63 degrees, the Sunday game was the coolest the Cards have played since the last game before the All-Star break in San Francisco (July 7).  Although early July, the temperature in San Francisco that afternoon was a chilly 61 degrees.  They haven’t played in weather this cold at home since May 12.  They lost to Pittsburgh that day 10-6 in 51 degree weather.

Before the Friday shutout, St Louis had led at some point in 7 consecutive playoff games, going back to a 5-4, 10-inning loss to San Francisco in Game Three of the 2014 Championship Series.

The Sunday crowd of just 42,203 was the smallest for a Cardinal home playoff game in this century.  The previous low for a home playoff game was the 43,584 that came to see St Louis win Game Three of the 2011 Championship Series against Milwaukee.  The final in that was 4-3 Cards. 

Wednesday’s game will have umpire Tom Hallion behind the plate.  Tom has never called a Cardinal playoff game, but we were 2-2 with him behind the plate during this regular season.  Lifetime we are 15-14 with Tom behind the plate.