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.

Rob Manfred is prepared to implement a pitch clock unilaterally for 2018

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Rob Manfred has long been on record wanting to speed up the pace of play in baseball and, to that end, last year proposed a 20-second pitch clock. Pursuant to baseball’s Collective Bargaining Agreement, he could not implement that unilaterally last year. However if, one year after a proposed rules change, no agreement can be reached with the union, he has the power to impose the originally-proposed change unilaterally.

Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic says today that he is prepared to do just that — imposing that pitch clock and a rule limiting mound visits — for the 2018 season. He further says that the players might very well allow him to do that, despite the fact that they and Manfred are currently negotiating an agreed set of rule changes.

Why? Because, Rosenthal says, if they step aside and let Manfred do it by himself and the rules changes prove unpopular, he’ll take the blame for it:

If enough players oppose the changes, they could absolve themselves of responsibility and allow Manfred to force the issue by introducing the two key elements of MLB’s plan: a 20-second pitch clock and reduction in mound visits. The onus then would be on Manfred to deal with any public fallout and unintended consequences the new rules might trigger.

I’m not sure, based on the story itself, if that’s just Rosenthal’s speculation or if it’s actually a potential union strategy to do nothing and let Manfred own the rules changes. If it’s the latter, though, it’s a monumentally stupid strategy. For a few reasons.

The first and biggest reason is that it is not a union’s job to play public relations games. It’s a union’s job to make workplace conditions as good as possible for its membership via bargaining. Rob Manfred is required to engage with the union on these rules changes for a limited time and is doing so, apparently in good faith. The union, while not possessing great leverage here, has at least some ability to put its two cents in on a rule that impacts all of its members and could, conceivably, make the rules a bit better for them. Barring that, they could at least attempt to obtain some sort of concession in another area in order to get their agreement to the rule. Blowing the chance to have input on work rules because of a chance to win a public relations fight is an abdication of responsibility for a labor union.

Second: there is not going to be any sort of public relations win for the union regardless of what happens. Indeed, to even think there could be one is to ignore what has happened with every rules change in baseball history and how they have played with the public.

No matter how much some people complain about a change in baseball — and some people love to complain — most folks eventually get used them. The DH rule just celebrated its 50th anniversary. People moan, but it’s just part of life. Same with interleague play and divisional realignment and expanded playoffs and no-pitch intentional walks and the takeout slide rules and everything else. The complaints about such things are loud, but they’re not deeply felt or widely felt by any but a handful of self-proclaimed traditionalists. The game chugs on and most people get used to it without there ever being the kind of P.R. fallout that puts egg on the league’s face or which puts the players in some better light. If the pitch clock rule is imposed, people will complain a lot and lot of ink will be spilled about it, but it won’t do anything to substantially harm the league let alone help the players.

That speaks to a larger historical lesson about public relations and players, of course: they’re almost always going to be seen as the bad guys by fans, no matter what they do.

Owners abused their power for a century and fans didn’t care. Starting in the 1960s, when the players finally began to effectively assert their leverage, the players were cast as greedy mercenaries. An owner gives out a foolishly large contract and the player is blamed for taking it. The owners band together in an illegal scheme to harm the players’ interest and the owner who orchestrated it is inducted into the Hall of Fame. The DH rule gets imposed and players who excel as designated hitters are viewed poorly by the writers and the public when it comes time to consider their Hall of Fame case. A new rule gets implemented to deal with slides and it’s not “The Rob Manfred slide rule” it’s “The Chase Utley Rule.” The players are the visible ones. They bear the brunt of just about anything that happens.

Which is to say, if the pitch clock creates some weird situations or controversies, the players involved in those situations and controversies are going to be the ones to take the blame. Just imagine a Dodgers-Giants game that turns on some weirdness involving Madison Bumgarner taking too long to deliver a pitch to Yasiel Puig, forcing in the walkoff run. Imagine that both Bumgarner and Puig saying the other was to blame. Imagine that the umpires messed up the application of the rule. You think Rob Manfred is going to catch hell for it as opposed to the players and the umpires involved? Hell no. Giants fans will yell that Puig did something that should’ve caused the clock to be reset. Dodgers fans will blame Bumgarner for taking too long. It’ll dominate the news for a couple of days but it won’t be the league and its owners taking crap for it.

Against that backdrop, why in the heck would the union try to win some P.R. battle? Screw the P.R. battle. Union leadership — including Tony Clark and the player reps — should negotiate for the best rules possible for the players they represent and let the public relations chips fall where they may.

Will they do that? Based on how the last few management-labor battles have gone, I don’t have a lot of confidence. In recent years the union has seemed far more focused on relatively short term and picayune concerns while trying not to look like the bad guys to fans. Meanwhile, the meat and potatoes labor issues which sometimes require a union to take unpopular stances in the long term, big picture interests of the players have been dominated by the owners. Ask the free agents who can’t find a team because the luxury tax is far lower, compared to revenues, now than it was 15 years ago and is serving as a defacto salary cap. Ask the guys who are being lowballed because of the qualifying offer.

It appears as though we’ll have a pitch clock in 2018 one way or another. The players need to decide pretty quickly if they’re going to have some say in that process or if they’re going to allow themselves to be marginalized in the management of the game even more than they already have been.