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Welcome to the 2013 playoffs

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We still have one game left that, technically and statistically speaking, belongs to the regular season. But practically speaking — and in our hearts — we are into the playoffs now. Game 163 between the Rays and Rangers is do-or-die and very, very few regular season games can say that. So: toss your technical orthodoxy. It’s playoffs time.

And what an intriguing time it proves to be. In some ways for who is on the outside as opposed to the inside. The Yankees will be home watching the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and for only the second time since 1994. The teams which made big offseason splashes — the Angels and Blue Jays — lost all hope long before the weather turned cool. Everyone’s favorite in the National League — the Washington Nationals — finished strong but it was too little, too late. The 2013 season looked at all of the experts’ predictions and said “ha!”

Expectations notwithstanding, at the 2013 playoff party are 11 teams with pretty compelling stories.  Some of those stories are mere dramatic narrative which will be beat into the ground by playoff game broadcasters over and over again. Or, at least until the results on the field render those narratives nonsensical. Some of the stories, however, truly do tell the tale of 2013 and the lasting power of those stories will determine how long their authors continue to play.

Here’s an overview of the party-goers

American League

  • Red Sox: This club may have the biggest disparity between the storylines we’ll hear and actual baseball relevance. What we’ll hear? Beards! Chemistry! Redemption after the collapse of 2011 and the horror of Bobby Valentine’s reign in 2012! Bad seeds like Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford gone! John Farrell restoring order! The part about Farrell is definitely true. And there are certainly better feelings surrounding this team. But they also happen to have the best offense by far in the AL, a healthier, outstanding pitching staff and good team defense, and those things are way more important than any facial hair bonding.
  • Tigers: There are big stars here. The likely Cy Young Award winner in Max Scherzer and the likely two-time MVP in Miguel Cabrera chief among them. Cabrera was very ordinary and very hurt in September, however, and the Tigers as a whole stumbled to a 13-13 record in the month’s final season. That said, momentum is your next day’s starting pitcher, and the Tigers have had very good, very consistent starting pitching in 2013, with only five guys accounting for 156 of the team’s 162 starts. When they’re on, there are few teams better than Detroit. Jim Leyland just has to find a way to flip that switch after a quite ignominious end to the regular season.
  • Athletics: For the second year no one picked the A’s to win the AL West. For the second straight year they won it. Still, people will sleep a bit on the largely unknown-to-the-nation A’s (maybe unknown to Oakland too).  But after you get past decade-old “Moneyball” jokes about how this team is defying gravity and economics, know that they have the third best offense in the AL (after Boston and Detroit) and were third in home runs and walks. Know also that they allowed fewer runs than all but two teams in the AL (Kansas City and Detroit). It’s a very balanced team which, unlike Boston, Atlanta and Los Angeles, actually won its division last year too. Still: they’re likely to be treated as newbie over achievers because people love those kinds of cliches.
  • Indians: A new manager in Terry Francona and a new motivational leader in Nick Swisher will get the credit for their presence in the playoffs. A very solid outfield defense has helped the pitching staff rebound this year, and the biggest rebound came from starter Ubaldo Jimenez. The Tribe went 21-6 in September, though a lot of that came against poor competition. Expect them to get a lot of “they have the momentum!” talk. At least until they play the wild card game on Wednesday.
  • Rays/Rangers: One of them will make it in after tonight. If it’s the Rangers, it could very well be because of the return of Nelson Cruz, who will be activated following is PED suspension (and whose suspension coincided with the Rangers playing poorly in the final month and a half of the season). The Rays have good overall starting pitching which, unfortunately for them, has feasted on poor teams but not always come up so big against the contenders. Neither of these clubs seem like good bets for long playoff runs. But note the above stuff about the value of predictions.

National League:

  • Braves: A new look after the trade for Justin Upton last winter and the continuing dominance of closer Craig Kimbrel get the headlines. But the second banana in the Upton trade — Chris Johnson — hit .321 on the year and the offense was buoyed by Freddie Freeman and his .319/.396/.501 line. The real secret weapon on this team, however, is shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who may have just posted the best defensive season by a shortstop in baseball history. The Braves were noted for their ball-bashing ability early in the year, but they ended up allowing fewer runs than any team in the NL this season, and Simmons’ sparkling defense had a lot to do with that.
  • Cardinals: The best team in the National League just keeps rolling along, producing talented player after talented player from its exceedingly fertile farm system. Adam Wainwright is still the ace, Matt Holliday led the team in OPS+ and Yadier Molina will get a ton of MVP votes, but it’s not a team that is overly-reliant on their big-name players. Matt Carpenter, Shelby Miller and, if he makes the post-season rotation, Michael Wacha are some of the younger and, to some, unknown weapons at manager Mike Matheny’s disposal. Carlos Beltran has continued his wonderful play years after many considered him a top-flight star (note: he’s still pretty awesome). There are questions in the bullpen, but the Cardinals have been able to handle just about everything thrown at them for the past few seasons. Expect it to continue.
  • Dodgers: Derided in the spring as a chemistry-free team of high-priced parts assembled by owners with too much money to burn, the Dodgers’ amazing midseason turnaround has helped put lie to the notion that you can’t assemble a winner with high-priced free agents and trades for embattled (and highly-paid) veterans. Adrain Gonzalez and Carl Crawford were deemed part of the problem in Boston yet now find themselves on a winner. Flashy and, at times, controversial rookie Yasiel Puig is showing that young ballplayers can — shockingly — enjoy themselves on the field and still be productive. The real strength here, though, is the rotation. Clayton Kershaw should win the NL Cy Young. Zack Greinke posted a 1.85 ERA in the second half. If you’re playing the odds, you’re looking at the competition facing an 0-2 hole in a short series. A key concern, though, is the health of Hanley Ramirez and the absence of Matt Kemp, who will miss the playoffs. The Dodgers may have also played their best baseball in July and August (they were a mere 12-15 in September) and will be yet another test as to whether momentum matters.
  • Pirates: The Cinderella story of 2013. The Pirates sloughed off over 20 years of losing records and broke through this year, led by MVP favorite Andrew McCutchen, NL home run co-leader Pedro Alvarez and a stingy bullpen. If they win the Wild Card game against Cincinnati on Tuesday expect the bandwagon to overflow.
  • Reds: An up-and-down team this year which at times looks far better than the second wild card team that they are and other times looks a bit lost. The Reds were third in the NL in runs per game this year, but are pretty reliant on Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo. If they’re cold on Tuesday or beyond, runs may be hard to come by.

Those are the partiers. Now the party begins.

Rob Manfred on robot umps: “In general, I would be a keep-the-human-element-in-the-game guy.”

KANSAS CITY, MO - APRIL 5:  Major League Baseball commissioner Rob Manfred talks with media prior to a game between the New York Mets and Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium on April 5, 2016 in Kansas City, Missouri. (Photo by Ed Zurga/Getty Images)
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Craig covered the bulk of Rob Manfred’s quotes from earlier. The commissioner was asked about robot umpires and he’s not a fan. Via Jeff Passan of Yahoo Sports:

Manfred was wrong to blame the player’s union’s “lack of cooperation” on proposed rule changes, but he’s right about robot umps and the strike zone. The obvious point is that robot umps cannot yet call balls and strikes with greater accuracy than umpires. Those strike zone Twitter accounts, such as this, are sometimes hilariously wrong. Even the strike zone graphics used on television are incorrect and unfortunate percentage of the time.

The first issue to consider about robot umps is taking jobs away from people. There are 99 umps and more in the minors. If robot umpiring was adopted in collegiate baseball, as well as the independent leagues, that’s even more umpires out of work. Is it worth it for an extra one or two percent improvement in accuracy?

Personally, the fallibility of the umpires adds more intrigue to baseball games. There’s strategy involved, as each umpire has tendencies which teams can strategize against. For instance, an umpire with a more generous-than-average strike zone on the outer portion of the plate might entice a pitcher to pepper that area with more sliders than he would otherwise throw. Hitters, knowing an umpire with a smaller strike zone is behind the dish, may take more pitches in an attempt to draw a walk. Or, knowing that information, a hitter may swing for the fences on a 3-0 pitch knowing the pitcher has to throw in a very specific area to guarantee a strike call or else give up a walk.

The umpires make their mistakes in random fashion, so it adds a chaotic, unpredictable element to the game as well. It feels bad when one of those calls goes against your team, but fans often forget the myriad calls that previously went in their teams’ favor. The mistakes will mostly even out in the end.

I haven’t had the opportunity to say this often, but Rob Manfred is right in this instance.

Report: MLB approves new rule allowing a dugout signal for an intentional walk

CHICAGO, IL - OCTOBER 29:  MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred laughs during a ceremony naming the 2016 winners of the Mariano Rivera American League Reliever of the Year Award and the Trevor Hoffman National League Reliever of the Year Award before Game Four of the 2016 World Series between the Chicago Cubs and the Cleveland Indians at Wrigley Field on October 29, 2016 in Chicago, Illinois.  (Photo by Elsa/Getty Images)
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ESPN’s Howard Bryant is reporting that Major League Baseball has approved a rule allowing for a dugout signal for an intentional walk. In other words, baseball is allowing automatic intentional walks. Bryant adds that this rule will be effective for the 2017 season.

MLB has been trying, particularly this month, to improve the pace of play. Getting rid of the formality of throwing four pitches wide of the strike zone will save a minute or two for each intentional walk. There were 932 of them across 2,428 games last season, an average of one intentional walk every 2.6 games. It’s not the biggest improvement, but it’s something at least.

Earlier, Commissioner Rob Manfred was upset with the players’ union’s “lack of cooperation.” Perhaps his public criticism was the catalyst for getting this rule passed.

Unfortunately, getting rid of the intentional walk formality will eradicate the chance of seeing any more moments like this: