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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.

Dee Gordon apologizes, is reinstated from PED suspension

Miami Marlins' Dee Gordon celebrates after hitting a double against the Detroit Tigers in the ninth inning of a baseball game Tuesday, April 5, 2016, in Miami. Derek Dietrich scored on the double. The Tigers won 8-7. (AP Photo/Alan Diaz)
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The Miami Marlins have reinstated second baseman Dee Gordon from his suspension.

Gordon, of course, has missed the last 80 games while serving his drug suspension. He’s coming off a minor league rehab assignment and will be the everyday second baseman for the contending Marlins. He was hitting .266/.289/.340 with three doubles, two triples, five RBI, 13 runs scored, and six stolen bases in 97 plate appearances when he was popped. He was replaced by Derek Dietrich, who hit a nice .275/.366/.398 with 22 extra-base hits, 30 RBI, and 26 runs scored in 314 PA in Gordon’s absence, so don’t expect a tremendous upgrade at second down the stretch, even if they get a nice upgrade in the utility and depth department.

To make room for Gordon, the Marlins designated utilityman and sometimes hero Don Kelly for assignment. Sad jams.

UPDATE: Gordon issued a video apology on the eve of his reinstatement:

Chris Sale called “a competitor” for stuff that gets most guys called “head cases”

SAN DIEGO, CA - JULY 12:  Chris Sale #49 of the Chicago White Sox reacts during the 87th Annual MLB All-Star Game at PETCO Park on July 12, 2016 in San Diego, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Chris Sale has had an eventful week.

On Saturday he was scratched from his start and subsequently suspended for five games for cutting up the 1976 throwback uniforms the team was scheduled to wear, making them unusable. That cost the team over $12,000 and cost the Sox their best pitcher hours before game time.

On Monday Sale gave an interview to Scott Merkin in which he apologized to fans and teammates and explained his rationale for the uniform shredding. Even if his act was over the top, there was a core of understandable motivation at least: Sale said he voiced his displeasure with the untucked jersey months ago and asked to not pitch on a night they’d have to wear them because he believed it would mess with his mechanics and/or mental state. The Sox didn’t heed his request and Sale took issue, as many probably would, with what he felt was the business of throwback jerseys taking precedence over on-the-field stuff.

Of course, there are still some pretty big problems here. Mostly having to do with the facts that (a) the Sox have people on staff who could’ve optimized his jersey any way he needed it to be optimized if he had asked; (b) ballplayers have been wearing throwbacks for a long time now and, even if they don’t like them, they tend to endure them; and (c) he’s a ballplayer who needs to suck things up sometimes like every single ballplayer ever has done. There are a ton of things ballplayers are expected to do which are insisted upon by the business folks. It’s part of the gig.

A little more seriously than that is the fact that Sale pretty publicly threw his manager, Robin Ventura, under the bus :

“Robin is the one who has to fight for us in that department,” Sale said. “If the players don’t feel comfortable 100 percent about what we are doing to win the game, and we have an easy fix — it was as easy as hanging up another jersey and everyone was fine. For them to put business first over winning, that’s when I lost it.”

An undercurrent to all of this is Sale being fairly obvious in voicing his desire to be traded.

Today Bob Nightengale of USA Today has a story about Sale’s week. It’s sourced largely by Sale’s friend Adam Eaton who defends Sale as a passionate competitor who just wants to win and how all of this stuff of the past week was about his desire to do so. The headline of the story buys in to all of that:

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We heard much the same along these lines when Sale blasted Sox brass following the Drake LaRoche stuff during spring training, going on an expletive-filled rant in a meeting behind closed doors but then bringing the same noise, albeit cleaned up, in front of reporters after it all became public.

Chris Sale is who he is, of course, and I’m not going to too harshly judge who he is. He’s an amazing pitcher and, as most athletes will tell you, the mental part of the game is almost as important or, maybe, even more important than the physical part. Asking Sale to be who he isn’t would probably be counterproductive in the long term.

But I am fascinated with the way in which someone who has behaved like Sale has behaved is described. He’s a “competitor” whose objectively disruptive and literally destructive behavior is explained away as merely a function of his desire to win. His friends on the team, like Eaton, are sought out for damage control and spin and his detractors, which there are likely some, aren’t quoted, even anonymously. He has publicly called out his manager as not wanting to win as much as he wants to please his bosses and he has likewise called out his manager’s bosses and has welcomed a trade, yet we aren’t seeing stories about how that’s a bad thing for the Sox’ clubhouse.

I don’t much care for that sort of stuff, actually, as I suspect most clubhouse controversy stories are somewhat overblown and overly dramatized. But those stories have been go-to tropes of sports writers for decades, and I am trying to imagine this sort of story about players who aren’t Chris Sale. Players who don’t have as friendly a relationship with the media as he has or who don’t have clubhouse allies who do. I feel like, most of the time, a story about a guy who who has done the odd things Sale has done both this week and last March would play a hell of a lot differently.

How does this all play of it’s Yordano Ventura? Or Yasiel Puig? Or Jose Fernandez? How does this play if it took place in the NBA and it was Kevin Durant who shredded up a bunch of short-shorts on 80s throwback night? How does it play if it’s Cam Newton?

I bet it plays differently.