Thursday, October 4, 2012
100 reasons to watch the MLB postseason
By David Schoenfield
The only reason I don't like playing in the World Series is I can't watch myself play. -- Reggie Jackson
We made it through 162 games and what a 162 games it was: The A's shocked everyone, rallying from 13 games down on June 30 to win the division on the final day of the season; the Orioles shocked everyone just by making the playoffs thanks to winning 16 straight extra-inning games; the Nationals will be in the postseason for the first time since they were the Montreal Expos in 1981.
But now comes the postseason. We get one day to catch our breath. We get two wild-card games now to add to the excitement. In case you're on the fence, here are 100 reasons to get pumped up over this year's playoffs.
1. Can David Freese and the St. Louis Cardinals do it again? Freese hit .397 and drove in 21 runs in 18 playoff games a year ago, arguably the best postseason any hitter ever had. He has been hot and cold this year -- .330 in April, .211 in May, .458 in July, .213 in August. He hit .278/.402/.458 over the final month. He did miss four games last week with a sprained ankle.
2. Who will be this year's Freese? Here's my sleeper pick: Adam LaRoche of the Nationals. Quietly hit 33 home runs and had a hot September, hitting .324 with 12 home runs.
3. Miguel Cabrera. Did I really need to tell you to watch Miggy? Even though the Tigers lost in last year's ALCS, he was scary awesome: .400/.556/1.050, three homers and four doubles. He has been scary awesome down the stretch. He won the Triple Crown by doing this:
Good luck finding a place to pitch Miguel Cabrera.
4. Prince Fielder. His terrific season at the plate has been largely ignored in the dust of Cabrera's Triple Crown and MVP chase, but his offensive production nearly matched Cabrera's. His dad won a ring after leaving the Tigers; maybe Prince gets one after going to the Tigers.
5. That eight-part handshake those two pull around the batting circle any time one of them does something good -- which has been quite often.
6. Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour. The back of the Oakland bullpen was dominant down the stretch, with the hyperactive Cook and Balfour twitching and screaming their way through the late innings. Doolittle was a minor league first baseman -- last season! He resumed pitching in an instructional league (he pitched in college) and rose from Class A to the majors in a few weeks. Since losing his closer job in early August, Cook has been unscored upon in 22 of his 23 outings with 31 strikeouts and four walks. Balfour is a three-pitch closer with a big fastball and postseason experience with Tampa Bay.
7. The Metallica introduction when Balfour enters a game and the adjoining fan craziness. Something to behold.
12. Bryce Harper, the 19-year-old wunderkind. Over his final 44 games he hit .327/.384/.660 with 12 home runs. He will not be rattled by the big stage and while we can't call him a breakout star considering the attention already given to him, his presence in the playoffs is a huge positive for the sport.
13. Speaking of another rookie, Manny Machado has been a revelation for the Orioles. It's amazing how quickly he adapted to third base, showcasing terrific instincts, range and great arm strength.
19. Craig Kimbrel's slider. Unhittable. I mean, almost literally so. In 88 plate appearances ending with his slider, opponents hit .110 without an extra-base hit.
20. Josh Hamilton. Will this be the last we'll see of him in a Rangers uniform?
21. Derek Jeter. He's back in his usual prime-time spot in October.
22. Alex Rodriguez. Once again, all October eyes will be on A-Rod. He finally ended a stretch of 67 at-bats without an extra-base hit in the season finale.
23. The scrappiness factor! Never underestimate the importance of scrap. Here are the scrappy rankings from least scrappy to most scrappy:
Yankees -- Not with that payroll.
Tigers -- Definitely too much gross tonnage on this roster to be considered scrappy.
Rangers -- Did they really lose the division to the A's?
Cardinals -- Rated much higher last year when Nick Punto was on the roster.
Braves -- Haven't been overly scrappy since Mark Lemke patrolled second base.
Nationals -- There may be some scraps of a leftover pregame meal in Jayson Werth's beard.
Reds -- Hey, Votto has morphed into a scrappy little singles hitter down the stretch.
Giants -- Considering their lack of power (last in the NL in home runs), they scratch and claw their way to runs.
Orioles -- Made of scrap parts seemingly Scotch-taped together.
A's -- A roster full of rookies and cast-offs, their scrappy quotient is off the charts.
24. The possibility of a Bay Area World Series.
25. The possibility of a Beltway Series.
26. The possibility that the Yankees and Cardinals, the franchises with the most World Series titles, will meet for the first time since 1964.
27. The possibility of some classic World Series rematches: Reds-A's (1972, 1990), Reds-Orioles (1970), Tigers-Cardinals (1968), Giants-Yankees (1962). But please, not Braves-Yankees.
29. Yu Darvish. He'll start the wild-card game for the Rangers. He has dominated down the stretch, with a 2.13 ERA over his final seven starts, with 59 strikeouts, 10 walks and a .167 average allowed. He struggled with fastball command early in the season but he has shown lately why the Rangers paid so much to get him.
30. Jason Heyward. It's easy to forget he just turned 23 years old.
32. Kris Medlen's changeup. He's 5-foot-10 and his fastball runs up to only 90-91 mph on average, but that changeup, that beautiful changeup turned Medlen into baseball's hottest pitcher the final two months. In 12 starts he went 9-0 with a 0.97 ERA and 11 runs allowed. For the season, batters have hit .087 against the change (10-for-115). He'll start the wild-card game for the Braves. His heat maps for location and batting average against:
Kris Medlen's changeup is one of the best pitches in baseball.
33. The chance of a World Series in the nation's capital for the first time since 1933. The Senators, with players such as Goose Goslin, Heinie Manush, Ossie Bluege and General Crowder, lost to the Giants in five games. One thing about 1933: The names were awesome.
34. Max Scherzer's shoulder and ankle. He says his shoulder, which caused him to miss a start down the stretch and leave another one early, is OK. Then he sprained his ankle and missed another start. He was second behind Verlander in strikeouts in the AL, so the Tigers need him healthy and dealing.
35. Ryan Ludwick. The Reds' left fielder and cleanup hitter had a surprising season, hitting .275 with 26 home runs, but strained a groin on Sept. 19 and just returned over the final few games. He also hit only one home run in his final 100 at-bats.
36. A's fans. If you watched those last few games of the season, you saw how much noise they can make.
38. Orioles orange. Please wear the orange.
39. Watching the game with your friends or family and going crazy as your team takes a first-inning lead. And then realizing you have to sweat out eight more innings.
40. Second-guessing your manager.
41. Second-guessing the opponents' manager.
44. CC Sabathia. He carried the Yankees in 2009 but his overall postseason record is a mixed bag -- 4.81 in 16 career games with a 1.62 WHIP. Over the past two postseasons, his ERA is 5.84 in six games.
45. Tim Tebow.
46. Raul Ibanez, a professional hitter, classy veteran, clubhouse leader and guy who delivered some very big hits for the Yankees. He played in the past three postseasons with the Phillies but is seeking his first ring.
47. Brandon Moss and Chris Carter. Oakland's first-base platoon began the year in the minors but ended up combining for 37 home runs in fewer than 500 at-bats. Don't make a mistake against these guys.
48. Yoenis Cespedes. That $36 million contract looks pretty sweet. At $9 million, Cespedes is the highest-paid player on the A's.
50. Why the Reds may win it all. ESPN Insider Dan Szymborski discovered that teams that clinch early tend to outperform their expected playoff performance by a large margin.
51. Pitching on three days' rest. Will it come into play this postseason? Joe Girardi rode Sabathia and Pettitte in 2009 and Chris Carpenter made two big starts on three days' rest a year ago, including Game 7 of the World Series. At some point, a manager will have to make this decision.
59. Cincinnati's bullpen. Chapman is the dominant closer but the Reds have a deep arsenal of arms in front of him. The Reds led the majors with a 2.65 bullpen ERA and while they pitched the second-fewest innings in the NL during the regular season, no manager may have a quicker hook in the playoffs than Baker.
60. The 25th men. You never know when you may need him. In last year's all-time classic Game 6 of the World Series, the Rangers had to use reliever Mark Lowe in the bottom of the 11th inning. He hadn't even been on the postseason roster the first two rounds. Freese beat him with a home run.
61. Nelson Cruz. All he did last postseason was slug eight home runs in 17 games. In 2010, he hit six home runs. Is there an encore performance in the works?
62. Bringing back former stars to throw first pitches. For example:
Orioles: Cal Ripken.
Tigers: Al Kaline.
A's: Rollie Fingers.
Rangers: Nolan Ryan.
Braves: Tom Glavine.
Reds: Johnny Bench.
Cardinals: Ozzie Smith.
Giants: Couple of guys named Bonds and Mays.
Nationals: Umm ... Livan Hernandez?
63. FOX TV personalities singing the national anthem.
68. Tim Lincecum. OK, Tim Lincecum. He led the NL in losses and earned runs allowed. He surrendered a career-high 23 home runs while pitching 31 fewer innings than 2011. We get it: a bad season. He was a little better in the second half, but then gave up 12 runs in his final two starts, including four home runs. I don't think anybody has any idea what to expect from him.
69. Buster Posey hitting, catching, working the sushi concession stand and selling cotton candy. He does it all for the Giants. Absolutely sick second half: .388/.459/.688. Check out his heat maps:
Can you tell who had the highest batting average in the majors in the second half?
70. The Giants' offense. When was the last time we said something like that? But they scored the second-most runs in the NL in the second half -- despite ranking last in home runs.
71. Hunter Pence. Since joining the Giants he has hit .221 but his RBI rate prorated over 162 games: 125. That doesn't mean he has played well. It means he's hitting behind Posey.
72. Jay Bruce. He bats fifth in the Reds' order, making him an enormously huge factor as Votto gets on base at such a high clip. He's a streaky hitter with a lot of all-or-nothing to his game, especially of late. He has hit 13 home runs over the final two months, although with 17 walks and 64 strikeouts.
73. Extra-inning games that drag on past bedtimes, make you lose sleep, turn you cranky at work the next morning and remind you why you love baseball.
74. Being at the stadium when your team hits a big home run, the whole place exploding in joy.
76. Jose Valverde. Perfect a year ago for the Tigers. Not perfect this year. As my Tigers friend Chris told me, “That guy sends me off my couch like no one else in sports.” I don't think he meant that in a good way.
77. Speaking of closers, Jim Johnson had quite the year for the Orioles. But a weird year. He throws in the mid-90s, but doesn't register many swings-and-misses. What he does do is get groundballs. He has allowed one run in his past 25 innings.
78. OK, closers are important. Let's rank 'em:
Craig Kimbrel, Braves. Will Fredi Gonzalez extend him past three outs?
Aroldis Chapman, Reds. A little scare there but back throwing 100.
Sergio Romo, Giants. Past three seasons: 1.85 ERA, 29 BB, 203 SO, 0.853 WHIP.
Grant Balfour, A's. Looks like he's on a roll.
Jim Johnson, Orioles. Strikeout rate isn't impressive, but gets the job done.
Jason Motte, Cardinals. Closed it out last year.
Drew Storen, Nationals. Another successful first-round pick for Nats.
Rafael Soriano, Yankees. Great season filling in for Mariano Rivera but had a 4.50 ERA and five home runs last 15 appearances.
Joe Nathan, Rangers. Couple of big blown saves in September + shaky postseason = nervous Rangers fans.
Jose Valverde, Tigers. A disaster waiting to happen.
79. The Rangers trying to become the first team since the 1998-2000 Yankees to reach the World Series three straight years. And then trying to avoid becoming the first team since the 1911-13 New York Giants to lose it three times in a row.
80. Jarrod Parker's changeup. The A's rookie starter came over from Arizona in the Trevor Cahill trade and didn't win a rotation job out of spring training. He was called up after four starts and has been terrific, relying on a terrific changeup. Opponents have hit .169 in plate appearances ending with a changeup; among pitchers with at least 100 such PAs, that ranks fifth-lowest in the majors.
81. Ross Detwiler's hard sinker. You may look at Detwiler's strikeout rate and think he doesn't throw hard, but he regularly cranks it up to 93-95, generating a lot of groundballs. He throws that sinking fastball 80 percent of the time, by far the highest fastball percentage of any starter in baseball.
82. The Nationals' underrated double-play combo of Ian Desmond and Danny Espinosa. Desmond may have been the best all-around shortstop in the majors this season. Espinosa provides power and a slick glove at second base.
83. Ryan Zimmerman. The Nationals' third baseman battled a sore shoulder and then a balky back, but had a huge second half, hitting .319 with 17 home runs.
85. Adrian Beltre. In a normal year, he may have been the AL MVP.
86. Marco Scutaro. This makes perfect sense: He hit .271 for the Rockies. He gets traded to the Giants and hits .362. Of course it doesn't make sense! It makes no sense at all. Baseball, my friends: you never know.
87. Bunt or hit away?
88. Infield in ... or infield back.
89. An opposing team trying to close out a game at Yankee Stadium.
90. The hope that every Division Series goes five games, both LCS go seven games and the World Series goes seven once again -- only it's more like Game 6. (OK, I know that's a little too much to ask, considering that was one of the most amazing games ever played.)
91. Robinson Cano. Talk about a guy on fire. He finished the season with nine straight multihit games, going 24-for-39 (.615!) with three home runs and seven doubles. Cano had a great ALCS against the Rangers in 2010 (four home runs), but has hit just .258 with a .307 OBP in 42 career postseason games.
92. But that's nothing compared to teammate Nick Swisher, who has hit .169 in 38 career postseason games. And, yes, Yankees fans are aware of this.
93. Skipping out on work or school to catch an afternoon game.
94. The seventh-inning stretch when your team is ahead.
95. The unsung heroes in middle relief. Who will it be this year? Remember Marc Rzepczynski last year?
96. Johnny Cueto twisting and turning, à la Luis Tiant.
97. Johnny Cueto's pickoff move. It's a thing of rare beauty. He allowed one stolen base all season -- and picked off nine guys. And the one steal was actually a steal of home by the Dodgers' Luis Cruz.
98. The Nationals trying to become only the fourth team with the best overall record during the wild-card era (since 1995) to win the World Series.
99. The possibility that some team's long World Series title drought will end: Rangers (never), Nationals (never), Orioles (1983), Tigers (1984), A's (1989), Reds (1990), Braves (1995).