Wednesday, June 4, 2014
In season of parity, one great team exists
By David Schoenfield
Pete Rozelle would have loved this baseball season.
The former longtime NFL commissioner loved parity in his league. He once publicly admitted dissatisfaction with the Pittsburgh Steelers winning three Super Bowls in five years, leading Steelers coach Chuck Noll to seethe after one overtime victory that "Pete doesn't want us to win." Rozelle created an unbalanced schedule in which the stronger teams would play more games against the stronger teams. NFL teams had long shared TV money, a decision made in the 1960s that allowed franchises like the Green Bay Packers to more equitably compete with big-market teams.
While baseball still lacks that kind of total revenue equality, we are nonetheless in the midst of a season that is shaping up as a Pete Rozelle -- and Bud Selig -- dream season: Just about every team is in the playoff chase a third of the way into the season. In the American League, more than half the teams are bunched within two games of .500; really, only the Astros are probably out of it, but even they are 14-8 since May 11. In the National League, only the Cubs and Diamondbacks are out of it (although the Phillies are getting there).
Now, some of this parity is misleading, a product of the wild-card race more than tight division races: Only the NL East, with the Marlins 1.5 games behind the Braves, is closer than a four-game spread. But even the division leaders appear to have some warts or uncertainty, although the A's and Giants are starting to look like solid playoff bets.
Drew Hutchison went toe-to-toe with Anibal Sanchez, further proof of MLB's growing parity.
Take the Blue Jays-Tigers game on Tuesday night, a battle of two division leaders. For seven innings, the game was a tense pitching duel between Drew Hutchison and Anibal Sanchez, as both spun zeroes while allowing a combined five hits and no walks. Those results didn't so much point out flaws on the Jays and Tigers as to reaffirm a couple beliefs: That Hutchison is developing into a solid No. 3 starter behind Mark Buehrle and that Sanchez has clearly surpassed the struggling Justin Verlander on the Tigers' rotation depth chart.
The other thing I like as we get into June and the weather warms in the north is that games like this one start getting a little different feel to them. How good are the Jays? Who is going to break out of the early-seasons slumps? Which hot starts are for real? And which problem areas will be exposed?
In this game, I'm looking at the Tigers' bullpen. Tied 0-0 entering the ninth, closer Joe Nathan entered and promptly gave up a walk, base hit and an RBI single to Jose Bautista. After a walk to Edwin Encarnacion, manager Brad Ausmus yanked him in the middle of the inning, with Nathan leaving to a chorus of boos from the home fans. ("They can boo me all they want," Nathan said after the game. "I'm way tougher on myself.") Still, after Ian Krol gave up a sacrifice fly and Al Alburquerque a three-run homer to Brett Lawrie, Nathan was charged with four earned runs for the first time in five years. His ERA is 6.86 -- higher than Phil Coke's! -- and he has four blown saves and two losses.
Still, a struggling closer is a minor flaw when compared to some other teams. Just about every team has some major holes. Just consider some stuff from Tuesday's games:
The Marlins beat the Rays 1-0 as Henderson Alvarez threw an 88-pitch shutout, his third of the season. His beauty doesn't sit in the dominating stuff of a Jose Fernandez but in his efficiency when he's on. Alvarez isn't the issue but the Marlins are 30-28 with their best pitcher sidelined for the season. Can Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi step up and become rotation anchors?
Casey McGehee has been the cleanup hitter behind all-universe Giancarlo Stanton, and while he's driven in 36 runs he also has one home run. The Marlins are trying to compete with a cleanup hitter who has one home run. In 2014, that doesn't even sound that silly, but it's also a warning: He's not going to keep hitting .426 with runners in scoring position.
The Mariners beat the Braves 7-5 as the bullpen tossed six scoreless innings against the hitting-impaired Braves (that's the first-place Braves). The Mariners are 30-28, essentially tied with the 29-27 Orioles for the second wild card. This is a team whose DHs are hitting .189 and its first basemen .218. And they have a better run differential than the Tigers. It's that kind of season.
A week ago, every Mets fan was fed up and wanted manager Terry Collins and GM Sandy Alderson fired. The Mets were a win away from reaching .500 on Tuesday before suffering a walk-off loss to the Cubs. Now Mets fans are asking who they should be going after at the trade deadline instead of who they should be trading away. It is that kind of seasons, where one good week makes a team interesting again.
Like the Indians. A little five-game winning streak has pushed them up to 29-30. That means they're in the playoff race. They beat the World Series champion Red Sox, who featured a lineup with first baseman Brock Holt, right fielder Alex Hassan and shortstop Jonathan Herrera. The Red Sox are 27-30 and happy to be there after that 10-game losing streak.
And so on. The Royals have two home runs combined from their first basemen and DHs (mostly Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler) and yet they're 28-30 after beating the Cardinals 8-7. That's the 30-29 Cardinals, a team barely better than a team that has two home runs from first base and DH. Yes, that kind of season.
Parity or mediocrity? Do you like it? In some ways, isn't this what the sabermetric revolution has wrought? As front offices match each other on multiple fronts -- evaluating players correctly, spending money in an efficient manner -- and Selig has chipped away at some of the financial advantages of the bigger markets, isn't this the inevitable result? That playoff berths will be determined by whether Casey McGehee hits well all season with runners in scoring position?
I'm reminded of what a friend told me about the Mets-Phillies games this weekend, when they played consecutive games of 14, 14 and 11 innings. I asked him if it was exciting baseball. "It was terrible baseball," he said.
In the midst of all this are the Oakland A's. The A's just creamed the second-place Angels in three straight games and Tuesday night they played a good game at Yankee Stadium, scoring a run in the eighth off nearly untouchable Dellin Betances to tie it and then three more in the 10th. Brandon Moss led off the 10th with a home run, his second of the game and the A's would tack on two more runs.
To me, the A's -- even more than the Giants -- are the one team in baseball without an obvious weakness. Moss is a legit masher in the middle of the lineup, with 15 home runs and a .598 slugging percentage. Third baseman Josh Donaldson is an MVP candidate. Scott Kazmir, who pitched well in this game, has been great in the rotation behind Sonny Gray. The defense is solid, the bullpen is good (other than deposed closer Jim Johnson) and the manager doesn't do ridiculous things like bat Endy Chavez leadoff or Wil Nieves second.
In this season of parity, we may have just one great team.