After an off season of scandal, on again off again blockbuster trades, gigantic free agent signings, possible Minor League Baseball contraction, and the Mets being the Mets it is time to return to the diamond. Pitchers and Catchers report to Spring Training, the journey to October begins.
Expectations are high in the Bronx after signing Gerrit Cole. Houston is out to prove they can win without stealing signs, while the rest of baseball is out for revenge. The on again off again trade of Mookie Betts to the Dodgers showed how far Boston has fallen while searching for financial flexibility. The Red Sox continue searching for a permanent manager to replace Alex Cora after he was swept up in the fallout from Houston. Major League Baseball proposed eliminating 42 minor league teams, which immediately angered the communities potentially impacted, baseball fans, and even Congress.
The Mets once again managed to stay in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. Yoenis Cespedes reworked his contract after the revelation that his injury was the result of a run in with a wild boar. The Amazin’s General Manager Brodie Van Wagenen, Cespedes’ former agent, now had to alter the contract he negotiated, but from the other side of the table. Carlos Beltran never made it to his first workout of Spring Training as Mets Manager. His involvement in the Astros scandal followed him to Queens. The Wilpons were unable to sell the Mets because they wanted to continue making team decisions once they no longer wrote the checks.
The Cincinnati Reds are poised to climb out of the cellar and into contention after an active Winter. (Kareem Elgazzar)
Anthony Rendon got paid by leaving Washington, Stephen Strasburg got paid to stay with the Nationals. Zack Wheeler left Queens for Philadelphia for a chance to win and a large paycheck. Madison Bumgarner left the Bay for the desert, while Hyun-Jin Ryu left sunny Southern California and moved north of the border. Josh Donaldson added his name to the slugging Twins lineup, a new age Murderers’ Row. The White Sox and Reds loaded up on free agents, vaulting themselves into contention. Hundreds of other moves happened. Time will tell which moves helped teams, and which teams will come to regret.
Baseball lost the legendary writer Roger Kahn. Few, if any, possess his ability to write about the game. He was baseball’s writer. His ability to put the passion and beauty of the game into print will be missed.
It was an odd and harrowing off season, but now Pitchers and Catchers are reporting to Spring Training. The world is a little more perfect because we are getting back to baseball.
In 2008 the Tampa Bay Devil Rays dropped the Devil, becoming the Tampa Bay Rays. Changing their name also changed their fortunes. The Rays have a .535 winning percentage, much better than the Devil Rays, .399. Tampa is winning roughly 22 more games a season since the switch. In 12 seasons as the Rays, Tampa Bay has won at least 90 games seven times, made the Postseason five times, won the American League East twice, and reached one World Series. The Rays success has come while averaging 27th in team payroll.
Tropicana Field was not always home to success. The Devil Rays began play in 1998 and struggled through the 2007 season, their last as the Devil Rays. They averaged 25th in payroll, including ranking 10th in 2000. The 2004 season was the Devil Rays best, winning 70 games and did not finish last. Tampa Bay finished 4th, three games ahead of the Toronto Blue Jays.
Every expansion team has growing pains as they build a competitive team. Tampa Bay received no breaks in the Expansion Draft. None of their first five draft picks played more than three seasons in Tampa Bay. Teams need players to build around and the Devil Rays did not find a franchise player in the Expansion Draft.
The Devil Rays held the first overall pick in the 1997 Expansion Draft. Tampa Bay selected Florida Marlins pitcher Tony Saunders. In 1997, the 23 year old lefty started 21 games for the Florida Marlins, going 4-6 with a 4.61 ERA and 1.464 WHIP in 111.1 Innings, allowing 57 Earned Runs, 12 Home Runs, 64 Walks, and 102 Strikeouts. Saunders pitched in the Marlins Postseason run to their World Series victory. Saunders, a young lefty with Postseason experience, was a logical first pick.
The Devil Rays took Tony Saunders with the first overall pick in the 1997 Expansion Draft. (Jonathan Kirn/Allsport/ Getty Images)
The 1998 Tampa Bay Devil Rays struggled, finishing 63-99, 16 games behind the fourth place Baltimore Orioles. In 31 starts, Tony Saunders went 6-15 with a 4.12 ERA and 1.570 WHIP in 192.1 Innings, allowing 88 Earned Runs, 15 Home Runs, 111 Walks (league leader), and 172 Strikeouts. Saunders pitched 7+ innings in 10 starts, allowing 3 runs or less in nine of those starts. He won twice. In four of those starts, Saunders pitched 8 innings, allowing three runs or less, yet he lost all four starts. Saunders received 3.37 in run support, while Major League teams averaged 4.79 runs per game. Tony Saunders pitched well for the expansion Devil Rays, despite his record.
Tampa Bay and Tony Saunders entered the 1999 season full of hope. The Devil Rays sought to play more competitive baseball and Saunders looked to build upon his success. Entering play on May 26th, the Devil Rays were 22-24. An expansion team hovering around .500 a quarter of the way through the season had many hoping the Devil Rays would soon contend. The Texas Rangers were visiting Tropicana Field facing the surprising Devil Rays. In the Top of the Third Inning, the Rangers had runners on first and third with two outs, trailing 3-2. Tony Saunders had a full count on reigning American League MVP Juan Gonzalez. Saunders took the sign from John Flaherty and uncorked a Wild Pitch. Gonzalez trotted to first, Rusty Greer moved to second, and Luis Alicea scampered home to tie the game.
Tropicana Field fell silent except for Tony Saunders screaming, writhing in pain on the ground. The pitch broke the humerus bone, the bone connecting the shoulder and elbow, in Saunders’ left arm. Training staff tried helping Saunders up, but the pain was too much. He was carted off the field and taken to the hospital. His season was finished and his career was in doubt.
Professional baseball players are tough. They play through pain and injury throughout the long season. A year after breaking his arm Tony Saunders was pitching again. His rehab assignment began with the Charleston RiverDogs, Tampa Bay’s Single A team. Saunders pitched in two games, throwing 5 Innings, with a 1.80 ERA and 0.800 WHIP, allowing 2 Hits, 1 Earned Run, 2 Walks, and 3 Strikeouts. He was promoted to the St. Petersburg Devil Rays, Tampa Bay’s Advanced A team. Entering the Third Inning of his second game, Saunders had pitched 7 Innings with a 3.86 ERA and 1.429 WHIP, allowed 7 Hits, 3 Earned Runs, 3 Walks, and 3 Strikeouts. Then it happened again, Saunders broke his arm throwing a pitch. His Major League career was over.
Tony Saunders broke his arm throwing a baseball. The Devil Rays future rested on his left arm. (www.mlb.com)
The Devil Rays retained their rights to Saunders through 2004, when they released him. Less than a month later the Orioles signed Saunders. He pitched in Spring Training for the Orioles, but spent the 2005 season pitching for the Mesa Miners of the independent Golden Baseball League. He pitched 9 Games in relief, going 1-0 with a 1.80 ERA and 1.600 WHIP. He threw 10 Innings, allowed 9 Hits, 2 Earned Runs, 7 Walks, and 8 Strikeouts.
There are no guarantees in baseball. Tony Saunders is not alone in having his career cut short by injuries. However his injuries were particularly gruesome. The future of the Devil Rays rested on his left arm, it took years for Tampa Bay to recover. Tony Saunders’ efforts to continue his baseball career did not go unnoticed. He received the 2000 Tony Conigliaro Award from the Boston Chapter of the Baseball Writer’s Association of America. The annual award is given to a Major League player who best overcomes an obstacle and adversity through the attributes of spirit, determination, and courage. While the award cannot replace his career, it is important to recognize Saunders’ perseverance in his comeback attempts.
Tony Saunders’ final career statistics: 3 Seasons, 61 Games Started, 2 Complete Games, 13 Wins, 24 Losses, 4.56 ERA, 1.528 WHIP, 345.2 Innings Pitched, 343 Hits, 175 Earned Runs, 33 Home Runs, 204 Walks, and 304 Strikeouts.
Oh, what could have been in Tampa Bay.
Every year The Winning Run attempts to predict the upcoming baseball season. We are comically wrong every time. This year in our baseball group text we tried predicting each World Series game. The winning team and the score. This was purely for fun with no real research, just our gut feelings on which team had the best chance to win each World Series game. We were terrible at predicting single games. The more predictions we make the better, one would assume, we became at them. However, we do not have the budget or resources of the Las Vegas sports betting books, and it shows. The World Series is fading away, so is a good time to revisit our sad game by game World Series predictions.
Derek- Astros 4-2
Jesse- Astros 4-0
John- Nationals 2-0
Bernie- Astros no score offered
Derek- Astros 7-4
Jesse- Nationals 6-3
John- Praying to Saint Ruth
Bernie- Astros 6-3
Kevin- Tanning on the beach
Derek- Astros 6-5
Jesse- Nationals 7-2
John- Nationals 5-3
Bernie- Nationals 7-4
Kevin- Nationals 4-3
Derek- Astros 3-1
Jesse- Astros 3-2
John- Nationals 5-3
Bernie- Nationals 8-5
Kevin- Nationals 6-3
Derek- Astros 7-3
Jesse- Astros 7-2
John- Nationals 6-4
Bernie- Astros 3-1
Kevin- Building sand castles
Derek- Nationals 6-3
Jesse- Astros 6-1
John- Nationals 7-2 The only perfect prediction
Bernie- Nationals 5-2
Kevin- Watching the sunset
Game 7 with MVP
Derek- Astros 7-4, Jose Altuve
Jesse- Nationals 9-7, Juan Soto
John- Nationals 8-3, Anthony Rendon
Bernie- Nationals 6-1, Juan Soto
Kevin- Nationals 5-3, Stephen Strasburg
Correctly predicting the winning team, game by game:
Game 1: John
Game 2: Jesse
Game 3: Derek
Game 4: Derek, Jesse
Game 5: Derek, Jesse, Bernie
Game 6: Derek, John, Bernie
Game 7: Jesse, John, Bernie, Kevin
Number of winning teams correctly predicted:
Predicting the outcome of a single baseball game is difficult. The World Series is even more challenging. The outcome of a Yankees-Orioles game in July is much easier to foresee. New York was a juggernaut during the Regular Season and Baltimore was looking towards next season during Spring Training. New York won 17 of 19 games in 2019, the outcome was rarely in doubt. Predicting a single game with two good teams is much more difficult.
The joys of baseball turns grown men into little boys. (David J. Phillip/ AP)
Derek was the only one to believe in Houston in Game 3. He correctly predicted the outcome of Games 3 through 6, but his faith in the Astros led his astray in Game 7. Jesse was the only one to believe in the Nationals in Game 2. His winning ways returned in Games 4 and 5. After missing Game 6, Jesse predicted Washington would win Game 7. John began his predictions on fire, as the only one to predict Washington’s Game 1 victory. However he went cold until crunch time when he predicted Games 6 and 7. His Game 6 prediction was the only perfect prediction as the Nationals won 7-2. Bernie came on late, predicting the final three games correctly. Houston pushing Washington to the brink of elimination in Game 5 and the Nationals responded by winning Games 6 and 7. Kevin was on a three hour delay with his predictions from California, but he nailed his Game 7 prediction and Stephen Strasburg winning the MVP.
Looking at our inability to predict each game of the World Series should leave little doubt in the accuracy of our 2019 Regular Season predictions. We will revisit those predictions closer to Spring Training. Predicting baseball is hard, but we have fun in our futile attempts.
Congratulations to the World Series Champion Washington Nationals. If someone claims they knew the Nationals would win the World Series in late May they are one of two things. They are a delusional Nationals fan and a liar. Probably both. This is the beauty of baseball, undying faith in a hopeless cause. The other 29 teams and their fans know next year is their year.
Thanksgiving is most closely associated with football not baseball. The cool weather, football on television, and pick up games before the Thanksgiving meal. Baseball is over and Spring Training is months away. Thanksgiving is the best holiday, in my opinion. It is simple, come together with family and friends, enjoy each other’s company, and appreciate all the good in your life while stuffing yourself until you can barely move. The irony is obvious.
My family’s Thanksgiving menu usually looks like this: turkey, ham, stuffing, mashed potatoes, gravy, green beans, cranberry sauce, corn on the cob, macaroni and cheese, rice, dinner rolls, pudding, cookies, brownies, pies including apple, pumpkin, and rhubarb, followed by a nap. My brain wanders after the sudden halt of baseball. Lost in my thoughts, I wondered, could I create the ultimate Thanksgiving team out of players with food names? The players would return for one game in their prime. The only catch is their names must be on the menu.
This Thanksgiving game will take place in Philadelphia on November 23, 1899 against the Phillies. The Phillies complete their best season playing in the Baker Bowl, finishing 94-58, third in the National League, 9 games behind the Brooklyn Superbas. Our menu team will assume the identity of the Boston Beaneaters, there is no greater food inspired team name.
Every baseball field is beautiful. The Baker Bowl has been lost to history, but there is never a bad place to play baseball. (The Winning Run/ DJ)
Phillies owner John Rogers wants to capitalize on the teams’ success and put a few extra dollars in his pockets. Manager Bill Shettsline is looking for one more victory in his sophomore campaign with the Phillies. Shettsline submitted the following line up.
Philadelphia Phillies Starting Lineup
2B: Nap Lajoie (Hall of Fame)
RF: Elmer Flick (Hall of Fame)
LF: Ed Delahanty (Hall of Fame)
1B: Duff Cooley
CF: Roy Thomas
C: Ed McFarland
3B: Billy Lauder
SS: Monte Cross
SP: Wiley Piatt
Philadelphia Phillies Bench
1B: Billy Goeckel
3B: Red Owens
RF: Pearce Chiles
Partnering against the Phillies this Thanksgiving is future San Diego Padres owner Ray Kroc. Kroc and General Manager Billy Beane lured Philadelphia Athletics Manager Connie Mack to Boston. Mack submitted this line up:
Boston Beaneaters Starting Lineup
RF: Billy Hamilton (Hall of Fame)
CF: Ty Cobb (Hall of Fame)
1B: Hank Greenberg (Hall of Fame)
LF: Jim Rice (Hall of Fame)
3B: Pie Traynor (Hall of Fame)
SS: Barry Larkin (Hall of Fame)
C: Spud Davis
2B: Cookie Rojas
SP: Rube Waddell (Hall of Fame)
Boston Beaneaters Bench
C: Mike Napoli
1B: Stuffy McInnis
2B: Pumpsie Green
SS: Luke Appling (Hall of Fame)
RF: Sam Rice (Hall of Fame)
LF: Zack Wheat (Hall of Fame)
CF: Turkey Stearnes (Hall of Fame)
P: Smokey Joe Williams (Hall of Fame), Catfish Hunter (Hall of Fame), Bob Lemon (Hall of Fame), Rube Marquard (Hall of Fame), Rube Foster, Pud Galvin (Hall of Fame), Rollie Fingers (Hall of Fame), Jeurys Familia, Brownie Foreman
Baseball is unpredictable. The Beaneaters and their delicious lineup appear to have the edge over the Phillies. However, even the best teams lose. Simulating the game would never perfectly create such a game. Instead take a moment to appreciate the long history of baseball, the men who have played, their strange names, and be thankful for everything good in your life, especially baseball.
Spring Training marks the return of green grass, warm sunshine, and the crack of the bat. Before focusing on the 2019 season, let us reflect upon our disastrous predictions for the 2018 season. We continued our time honored tradition of failing miserably to predict the future. If we are good at anything it is making consistently terrible predictions. Below was our inept attempt at predicting the 2018 Major League season.
|American League||The Winning Run||Derek||Jesse||John||Bernie||Kevin||Actual|
|East||Yankees||Red Sox||Yankees||Yankees||Yankees||Yankees||Red Sox|
|Red Sox||Yankees||Blue Jays||Blue Jays||Red Sox||Red Sox||Yankees|
|Blue Jays||Blue Jays||Orioles||Red Sox||Orioles||Blue Jays||Rays|
|Orioles||Orioles||Red Sox||Orioles||Blue Jays||Orioles||Blue Jays|
|Royals||White Sox||White Sox||Royals||Royals||White Sox||Tigers|
|White Sox||Royals||Tigers||Tigers||White Sox||Royals||White Sox|
|National League||The Winning Run||Derek||Jesse||John||Bernie||Kevin||Actual|
We are awful at predicting the future. Consistency is critical for an individual or team to find success in baseball. We are consistently awful at making predictions.
A division by division breakdown shows how terrible we were in a Regular Season. Each division had a possible 30 correct predictions; five per person plus five from our aggregate votes as The Winning Run. The Yankees have the most loyal fans (John, Bernie, and Kevin), so one would expect we would successfully predict the American League East. Instead the American League East was our worst division with just three correct predictions. The American League Central was better, in part because of the clear hierarchy of teams. We managed 11 correct predictions. The American League West was our best division in the Junior Circuit with 13 correct predictions. Overall we made 27 correct predictions out of 90 in the American League, a 30% success rate.
We found more success in the Senior Circuit. Derek and Jesse are both die hard Braves fans, plus Atlanta is John’s backup team. Once again the expectation of successful predictions tied to fandom did not come true. We managed nine correct predictions, not great but not horrible. The Central was the toughest in the National League with only four correct predictions. The National League West was our best division in 2018. We made 17 correct predictions (56%), our only division above 50% predicted. We made 30 correct picks in the National League, three more than the American League. Across the regular season we made 57 correct predictions out of 180, 31.66%. A .316 Batting Average is a solid season.
Khris Davis and his perpetual .247 Batting Average led the Athletics back to October. (Nhat V. Meyer/ Bay Area News Group)
A scoring system was necessary to determine who made the best predictions. Regular Season scoring was straight forward, one point for each correct prediction. First up is Derek who managed seven points in the American League; two in the East and Central, and three from the West. He received five points from the National League; one from the East and Central, and three from the West. Derek picked four division winners, including every American League division winner. He tied with a Regular Season best 12 points.
Jesse did not enjoy predicting the American League. He received just two points; one from the Central and West. He completely missed the East. He found better success in the National League with six points; three from the East, two from the Central, and one from the West. He picked three division winners, two American League and one National League. He scored eight points.
John had a mixed bag with his predictions. He scored just four points in the American League; two from the Central and West. Surprisingly he whiffed on the East and his beloved Yankees. The National League was kinder, as he scored seven points. John scored two points from the East and whiffed again on the Central. However, he produced our only perfect division from the West. John picked three division winners, scoring a total of 11 points.
Christian Yelich sparked the Brewers to a surprising National League Central Division Crown. (Dylan Buell/ Getty Images)
Bernie struggled in the Regular Season. He scored just four points in the American League; one in the East and Central, and two in the West. He did not improve in the National League scoring only two points. He whiffed on both the East and Central, scoring only in the basement of the West. He picked only one division winner. Bernie had the worst regular season with a meager six points.
Kevin followed in John and Bernie’s footsteps by striking out on two divisions. In the American League Kevin scored four points; two from the Central and West. Another one of our die hard Yankee fans struck out on the East. Kevin was equally woeful in the Senior Circuit, scoring just four points; one from the East, swinging and missing in the Central, and three from the West. Despite his struggles, Kevin did predict three division winners on his way to eight points.
Combining our predictions we created The Winning Run’s official predictions. We scored six points in the American League despite our Yankee fans striking out in the East. We scored three points in the Central and West. In the National League we also scored six points; two in the East, one in the Central, and three in the West. We picked three division winners to equal the best Regular Season with 12 points.
|Postseason||The Winning Run||Derek||Jesse||John||Bernie||Kevin||Actual|
|AL Wild Card||Angels||Yankees||Royals||Twins||Red Sox||Red Sox||Yankees|
|Red Sox||Angels||Blue Jays||Angels||Indians||Twins||Athletics|
|NL Wild Card||Brewers||Rockies||Cubs||Rockies||Dodgers||Diamondbacks||Cubs|
|ALDS||Astros||Indians||Indians||Astros||Astros||Red Sox||Red Sox|
|World Series||Yankees||Nationals||Astros||Yankees||Yankees||Yankees||Red Sox|
In October everyone could run up the score. Scoring in the Postseason was: two points for predicting the Wild Card Game, four for the Divisional Series, eight for the Championship Series, and 16 for the World Series.
The Postseason is where legends are born and hot streaks go to die. There were 108 possible correct predictions, we made 32 correct picks, 29.62% We made two correct predictions in the Wild Card games. In the Divisional round, we made eight correct picks in the National League and 11 in the American League. In the Championship Series we made seven correct picks; four in the National League and three in the American League. In the World Series we made four correct predictions.
The Postseason separated the champions from the wannabes. A perfect October score is 104 points. No one is perfect. Derek made the worst Postseason predictions. He knew the Yankees would win the Wild Card game. He was correct the Astros would win and the Yankees would lose the Divisional Series. His predictions ended when the Dodgers won and the Rockies lost the Divisional Series. Derek made five correct Postseason predictions for only 18 points.
Justin Turner and the Dodgers could not finish their run through October to a World Series Championship. (Robert Gauthier/ Los Angeles Times)
Jesse fared better in October. He predicted the Cubs would win the National League Wild Card game. In the Divisional Series he had the Dodgers and Astros winning and the Yankees losing. His scoring continued with the Dodgers winning in the Championship Series and losing in the World Series. Jesse made six correct predictions for 38 points.
John did well in the early in October before falling apart. He predicted the Astros and Dodgers winning and the Indians and Rockies losing in the Division Series. Beyond the Division Series, John only predicted the Astros losing the Championship Series. He made five correct predictions for 24 points.
Bernie found his stride in October. He was on the money with the Astros winning the Division Series before losing the Championship Series. He predicted the Dodgers winning the Division and Championship Series before losing the World Series. Bernie made five correct Postseason predictions for of 40 points.
Kevin also hopped on the Dodgers train in October. He predicted the Red Sox winning and Cleveland losing the Division Series. Then it was all Dodgers. He knew the Dodgers would win the Division and Championship Series before losing the World Series. Kevin made five correct predictions for of 36 points.
The Winning Run’s predictions were successful thanks primarily to the Astros and Dodgers. We knew the Indians would lose the Division Series. Houston predicatively won the Division Series and lost the Championship Series. The Dodgers won the Division and Championship Series before losing the World Series. The Winning Run made six correct Postseason predictions for an October best 44 points.
Mookie Betts and the Red Sox celebrated another World Series victory. (www.CBSSports.com)
The baseball season is an arduous journey with many highs and lows. Champions are successful in the Regular Season and Postseason because they find a way to win. The final standings for The Winning Runs Predictions That Did Go Wrong 5.0. In last place, with a meager 30 points, Derek. He choked in the Postseason despite tying for a Regular Season high 12 points. A horrendous October left him wondering what could have been. In fifth place with 35 points, John. His solid Regular Season, 11 points, could not overcome a pedestrian Postseason. In fourth place, Kevin with 44 points. A weak Regular Season left too few options for the Postseason. He made the most of his October, but it was not enough. Tying for second place with 46 points, Jesse and Bernie. Jesse struggled in the Regular Season with just eight points. Riding the Dodgers deep into October, Jesse to edge out Kevin by a mere two points. Bernie overcame a six point disastrous Regular Season. Against all odds, Bernie used the few teams he had in October to make a deep run to collect 40 points in the Postseason. Despite our individual efforts, no one was destined to wear the championship crown as The Winning Run Predictions That Did Go Wrong 5.0 champion. We tied Derek with 12 points for the best Regular Season before dominating the Postseason with 44 points for a total of 56 points.
The 2019 Major League season is just around the corner. We will once again attempt to predict the future. This time honored tradition continually shows we are great at predicting what will not happen. Someday we could predict the future, but I doubt it.
DJ, JJ, JB, BL, & KB
February is not the most thrilling month of the year. It is cold, dark, and miserable. The only real excitement in February is the return of baseball. Pitchers and catchers report, full squad team workouts, and Spring Training games. Most of the country remains covered in cold weather and snow. However the end of the long, cold winter appears on the horizon. Winter’s grip remains, but it will not last much longer. This glimmer of hope makes the sad days of winter a little less difficult.
Baseball fans have long had the pitchers and catchers report date for their favorite team marked on their calendars. It is the most anticlimactic event in baseball, as there is nothing to see unless you are at the team facility. The same applies to the first full squad workout. You might see a video of players playing catch, nothing you could not replicate in your backyard. The beginning of Spring Training is about the building excitement than actual action.
The sun is shining, time for baseball. (www.nj.com)
Mark your calendars these exciting, non-events, begin February 11th as pitchers and catchers report for the Oakland Athletics. They conclude on February 16th as the Atlanta Braves are the last team to have their pitchers and catchers report.
The actual fun begins a few days later. Spring Training games begin on February 21st when the Seattle Mariners visit the Oakland Athletics in Mesa, Arizona to open up the Cactus League. The next day, February 22nd, the Grapefruit League begins in Port Charlotte, Florida as the Tampa Bays Rays host the Philadelphia Phillies. The Grapefruit League Opening Day will also feature the defending World Series Champions, Boston Red Sox, beginning their 2019 campaign by hosting the Northeastern University Huskies in Fort Myers. The third game of the day had the Detroit Tigers hosting the Southeastern University Fire in Lakeland.
The Cactus and Grapefruit Leagues help shape the regular season. Spring Training is short, and the regular season is fast approaching. Baseball is a train leaving the station. It slowly builds up speed as it races towards October. Climb aboard, it will be a fun ride.
This MLB offseason has unexpectedly been boring. Despite a marquee free agent class and a number of teams looking to make trades, since December it has followed last year’s offseason of inactivity, at least until Manny Machado and Bryce Harper sign. But as we countdown the days to Spring Training, this period of quiet affords us a perfect time to discuss another smoldering issue: the American League Central was garbage in 2018. While the division’s awfulness is apparent from a quick glance at the final 2018 standings — one team with a winning record, two hundred loss teams, and one 98 loss team — the level of stink went much deeper.
We’ll begin with Cleveland, the Central “Champions.” A cursory look seems to indicate Cleveland had a solid season. They put together 91 wins while finishing 3rd in the American League in runs scored, 2nd in batting average, 6th in OBP and SLG, and 4th in OPS. Their pitching staff was the only one to feature 4 starters putting up 200+ strikeouts en route to the 9th best ERA, 7th fewest runs allowed, and a collective 7.7 WAR, good for 6th best in the league. With the 5th best run differential in the league, Cleveland appeared to be a solid playoff team in 2018.
Francisco Lindor and Cleveland were not the World Series contenders their record said they were. (Ron Schwane/ Getty Images)
But this impression starts to fall apart when you take a deeper look into their stats, particularly when focusing on Cleveland’s splits again divisional and non-divisional opponents. In 2018, Cleveland put together a 49-27 (.645) record against their division and a 42-44 (.488) record against non-divisional opponents which included a 22-31 (.415) record against teams above .500. While their divisional record is to be expected given the sorry state of their opponents, the non-divisional record isn’t the result of bad luck, they were awful against better quality opponents.
Against non-divisional opponents, Cleveland was a sub-.500 team with a pedestrian +3 run differential. This is partly the result of a decline in pitching performance, as their staff’s ERA and RA/G against non-divisional opponents increased by over a run, falling below the league averages of 4.14 and 4.45, respectively.
|2018 Cleveland Pitching Stats|
They fared better offensively against non-divisional opponents, putting up a batting line that was above the league average in all categories but markedly below their overall numbers as a top offense.
|2018 Cleveland Batting Stats|
|Win-Loss (%)||Runs Scored||R/G||Avg.||OBP||SLG||OPS|
This split in performance was an outlier among the AL playoff teams. The other AL playoff teams, with the exception of Oakland, performed well against teams both inside and outside their division. The run differentials are against divisional and non-divisional opponents for each playoff team are broken out below with Tampa Bay added in to show how Cleveland compares with the best non-playoff team (Seattle was left out due to their improbable record in close games in 2018).
|2018 American League Playoff Team and Tampa Bay Run Differentials|
|Team||Overall||Against Division||Against Non-Division||Against AL Central|
With the exception of Oakland having a similar split in the opposite direction, no other playoff team was even close to the type of split that Cleveland put up, despite the AL East teams having the privilege of playing Baltimore more often. Houston may have even performed better against the AL Central than Cleveland, putting up a 102 rdiff against the division in 44 fewer games. That Cleveland played so poorly against opponents outside its division while the rest of the playoff teams did not, is not just the result of Cleveland being a weak playoff team but the division winner from one of the historically worst divisions in baseball since the beginning of the divisional era in 1969.
Corey Kluber may leave Cleveland if the team is going to become a real contender. (www.mlb.com)
In June 2018, The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh wrote an article detailing the strength of each division since 1969 using an analysis supplied by Dan Hirsch of The Baseball Gauge. The method is similar to the “Simple Rating System” at Sports Reference Sites and adds the average RDiff of a division against teams from outside its division (“RDiff”) to the average run differential of the division’s opponents in their own non-divisional games, excluding games against the division listed (“SoS”) to produce an overall rating (“SRS”). You can find the full list here, noting the AL Central results are from June 2018.
At the time, the AL Central was on track to beat the awful 2005 NL West (which the Padres won with a 82-80 record) for weakest division. Using stats from Baseball Reference to calculate the AL Central’s final 2018 SRS shows they managed to avoid the embarrassing mark of worst division by finishing as the second worst division since 1969.
|2005 NL West||-1.014||0.099||-1.005|
|2018 Al Central||-0.977||0.092||-0.885|
While this may seem as another historical curiosity produced by baseball, under MLB’s current schedule and playoff structure, having a division that performs far below the others could add to the trend of teams committing to lengthy rebuilds instead of improving to make a playoff push.
A good example of this is Seattle. The Mariners finished 2018 with 89 wins, good for 7th best in the AL, but 8 games behind Oakland. This offseason, Seattle has decided to undergo a full rebuild, seemingly concluding that they can’t make the necessary improvement to catch up to Oakland or Houston. But that calculus might have been different under a playoff system that sent the top-5 teams in each league to the playoffs instead of the division winners and 2 wild cards. Catching up to Houston and Oakland would still be out of reach in 2019 under such a system, but Seattle making enough smaller improvements to compete with Cleveland, Minnesota, or Tampa Bay for the 5th playoff spot seems attainable.
Cleveland has to point the finger at themselves and take a hard look at their team if they want to win in the Post Season. (John Kuntz/ http://www.cleveland.com)
Instead, none of those teams just mentioned are doing much to improve their rosters. Seattle is rebuilding, Minnesota has made a couple of tweaks (claiming C.J. Cron and signing Jonathan Schoop and Nelson Cruz) but hasn’t improved their pitching, Tampa is pursuing its usual strategy, and Cleveland is shedding payroll and looking to trade Corey Kluber or Trevor Bauer.
Maybe a Kluber or Bauer trade will bring back current players to improve their outfield and bullpen, it appears that Cleveland may focus on the future and seek prospects and young players. A prospects orientated trade would make Cleveland worse in 2019, yet they likely would still be favorites to repeat as AL Central champs. This is made possible because the AL Central is crud and, at a time when MLB revenues are rising, AL Central teams aren’t spending money to improve (all of its team’s 2018 payrolls were in the bottom half of MLB). This removes a playoff spot from being truly competitive, and may add to the growing list of teams undergoing rebuilds and results in less meaningful and interesting games for fans.