Three exciting days left in the regular season

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We are down to the final three days of the regular season, and there is so much still to be decided. Here’s an overview for the craziness that will be afoot between now and Wednesday night:

The Races:

The teams involved in the playoffs are close to being set. The Yankees, Orioles and Rangers have clinched three of the five playoff spots in the American League. The Nationals, Braves, Reds and Giants have clinched four of the five in the NL.  All that’s left as far as the participants go are the identity of the AL Central representative and the final two wild card teams.

  • The Tigers have a three-game lead over the fading White Sox in the AL Central. One Tigers win in any of their final three games against the Royals in Kansas City or one White Sox loss in any of their final three in Cleveland gives the division crown to Detroit.
  • As for the wild card, in the American League, the Athletics are one win — or one Angels loss — in any of the final three games away from clinching.  The A’s play their final series at home against the Texas Rangers.  The Angels play their final three on the road against the Mariners.
  • In the National League, the Cardinals are two wins — or two Dodgers losses — in any of the final three games away from clinching.  The Cardinals finish up at home against the Reds. The Dodgers finish up at home against the Giants.

But making the postseason isn’t everything. Not in this new world of the one-game wild card playoff.  That’s what the Yankees and Orioles are playing for in the AL East. They are in a deadlock at 92-67, and each want like the dickens to avoid having to play that all-or-nothing wild card game on Friday.  The Orioles play their final three at Tropicana Field against the hot, hot Tampa Bay Rays.  The Yankees finish up at home against the Red Sox.

Technically speaking the Nationals and Rangers have not yet clinched their divisions either, but each hold a three-game lead over their pursuers — the Braves and Athletics, respectively — so any one win by the leader or one loss by the second place team ends those races as well.

The most likely playoff matchups:

The most likely outcomes right now would lead to the following playoff matchups:

  • Wild card playoff: The Cardinals vs. Braves in Atlanta and the loser of the AL East — my guess is the Orioles due to that tough series against Tampa Bay — facing off against the Athletics.  That game will be played in the home park of the team with the better record.
  • Division Series:  The wild card team that advances to the Division Series will face the team with the best record in the league.  At present, the Reds and Nationals have identical 96-63 records. Currently the Rangers have the best record in the AL, but both the Orioles and Yankees are only a game behind.  The upshot: we won’t know until Wednesday who the wild card playoff winner will face.

Awards:

  • AL MVP:  If the season ended today, Miguel Cabrera would win the Triple Crown. But it doesn’t end today, and his lead for the batting title (.325 to Joe Mauer’s .323 and Mike Trout’s .321) and the home run title (tied with Josh Hamilton at 43) are razor-thin.  Many suspect that if Cabrera wins the Triple Crown — a feat which has not been accomplished since 1967 — he will win the MVP.  Others — including your dear author — believe that winning the Triple Crown, however rare and admirable a feat that is does not make up for the fact that Mike Trout is the better all-around player, posting batting numbers that are close to Cabrera’s, but standing as the far, far superior defender and baserunner.
  • NL MVP: The National League has a close race for the MVP as well, although only one of the leading candidates — Buster Posey — is on a playoff-bound team.  Ryan Braun and Andrew McCutchen are still in the conversation.
  • Cy Young Award: The Cy Young Award races are fairly wide open. In the National League R.A. Dickey still has one start remaining, and we’re likely to still see appearances from the relief candidates who have bandied about: Craig Kimbrel and Aroldis Chapman.  The AL Cy Young is even more up-f0r-grabs. Neither Justin Verlander nor David Price will start again, however. Jered Weaver will pitch on the last day of the season and, though remote, it’s possible he’ll be trying to pitch the Angels into the playoffs.
  • Rookies, Managers of the Year: Rookies of the Year haven’t gotten much talk of late, but Mike Trout is a mortal lock in the American League. Wade Miley of the Arizona Diamondbacks looks to be the front runner in the senior circuit.  Most folks figure that Buck Showalter and Davey Johnson have the Manager of the Year awards locked up, and nothing that happens this week will change that.

Three days left. So much already decided, yes. But still so much to play for. Buckle up, everyone.

Justin Turner is a postseason monster

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A not-insignificant amount of the Dodgers’ success in recent years has to do with the emergence of Justin Turner. In his first five seasons with the Orioles and Mets, he was a forgettable infielder who had versatility, but no power. The Mets non-tendered him after the 2013 season, a move they now really regret.

In four regular seasons since, as a Dodger, Turner has hit an aggregate .303/.378/.502. His 162-game averages over those four seasons: 23 home runs, 36 doubles, 83 RBI, 80 runs scored. And he’s also a pretty good third baseman, it turns out. The Dodgers have averaged 95 wins per season over the past four years.

Turner, 32, has gotten better and better with each passing year. This year, he drew more walks (59) than strikeouts (56), a club only five other players (min. 300 PA) belonged to, and he trailed only Joey Votto (1.61) in BB/K ratio (1.05). He zoomed past his previous career-high in OPS, finishing at .945. His .415 on-base percentage was fourth-best in baseball. His batting average was fifth-best and only nine points behind NL batting champion Charlie Blackmon.

It doesn’t seem possible, but Turner has been even better in the postseason. He exemplified that with his walk-off home run to win Game 2 of the NLCS against the Cubs. Overall, entering Wednesday night’s action, he was batting .363/.474/.613 in 97 postseason plate appearances. In Game 4, he went 2-for-2 with two walks, a single, and a solo home run. That increases his postseason slash line to .378/.495/.659, now across 101 plate appearances. That’s a 1.154 OPS. The career-high regular season OPS for future first-ballot Hall of Famer Albert Pujols was 1.114 in 2008, when he won his third career MVP Award. Statistically, in the postseason, Turner hits slightly better than Pujols did in the prime of his career. Of course, we should adjust for leagues and parks and all that, but to even be in that neighborhood is incredible.

In the age of stats, the concept of “clutch” has rightfully eroded. We don’t really allow players to ascend to godlike levels anymore like the way we did Derek Jeter, for instance. (Jeter’s career OPS in the playoffs, by the way, was a comparatively pitiful .838.) Turner isn’t clutch; he’s just a damn good hitter whose careful approach at the plate has allowed him to shine in the postseason and the Dodgers can’t imagine life without him.