Craig Calcaterra

CHICAGO, IL - SEPTEMBER 7: A drone flies above the scoreboard at  Wrigley Field during the seventh inning of the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates baseball game on September 7, 2014 in Chicago, Illinois.   (Photo by Jeffrey Phelps/Getty Images)

The Division races are boring, but that’s OK

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Yesterday we talked about the possibility of the NL Wild Card race ending up in a three-way tie when the season ends. It probably won’t, but it could, and that’s exciting! Last night ESPN’s Jayson Stark doubled up on that madness and talked about the possibility of a six-way tie in the AL Wild Card. Even more unlikely, but again, excitement!

The obvious reason we’re focusing on these implausible scenarios? There’s nothing else to really get excited about when it comes to this year’s pennant races.

As we woke up this morning, here are your division leaders with the number of games by which they lead:

  • AL EAST: Red Sox: 5.5
  • AL CENTRL: Indians: 7
  • AL WEST: Rangers: 9
  • NL EAST: Nationals: 8.5
  • NL CENTRAL Cubs: 17
  • NL WEST: Dodgers: 6

The AL East had been entertaining until recently, but the Sox’ recent winning streak put an end to that drama. The NL West had some potential to be a race if the Giants had decided to wake up but they’ve decided to stay asleep until September ends, it seems. The Cubs, of course, have already clinched. All of these races are over and most of them have been over for some time. Which kind of stinks. Playoff drama is good and playoff drama between good teams is even better, and all we have now is drama between the 4th through 7th or 8th teams in each league.

But it’s also the case that division races are often sort of anti-climatic. As Jay Jaffe at Sports Illustrated noted a week ago, in the three-division era, this year’s average spread between first and second place is a bit large, but (a) it’s buoyed in large part by the Cubs’ large lead; and (b) isn’t THAT much larger than many years in the past.

I’ll go further and note that, back when we only had two divisions and no Wild Card, close division races weren’t terribly common either. Indeed, during the four division era — 1969 through 1993, taking out 1981 because the playoff qualifying rules were messed up by the strike — the average division-winning margin was 6.37 games. Sure, we remember the 1993 NL West race between the Braves and Giants and the 1987 AL East race between the Tigers and Blue Jays because they were great. But they were also exceptions, not the rule. Don’t even get me started about the pre-divsional era, when a lot of pennant races were effectively over before September even began thanks to dynasties and the lack of free agency and many teams simply mailing it in for years at a time.

So, no, we’re not going to get a ton of drama in the last week of the season as far as division races are concerned. But we should be thankful for the Wild Card being around to give us something.

Never meet your heroes

SEATTLE, WA - MAY 28:  Steve Clevenger #32 of the Seattle Mariners heads back to the dugout after striking out  with two runners on base to end the fifth inning against the Minnesota Twins at Safeco Field on May 28, 2016 in Seattle, Washington.  (Photo by Otto Greule Jr/Getty Images)
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OK, I’ll grant that absolutely no one considers Steve Clevenger to be their “hero.” At least I hope not, and would have hoped so even before last night (dream bigger, kids!). But his racist comments on social media last night, followed up by his non-apology apology, do provide a good opportunity to remind us that, for the most part, we’re better off not getting to know sports figures, entertainers and anyone else who is famous all that well. At least not beyond the reasons for which we pay attention to them in the first place.

Jeff Passan of Yahoo gave us a reminder of why that is this morning, at least with respect to ballplayers:

Passan has talked to more ballplayers in the last couple of weeks than I ever have in my life, but based on my modest amount of interaction with players, and based on what other ballwriters and people who work in baseball have told me, this is dead-on. Baseball draws from rural areas and white burbs way, way more than the other major sports do. When you combine that with the cloistered world in which professional athletes often find themselves — traveling with and spending time in clubhouses with the likeminded — it’s not at all surprising that you’re not only going to get opinions like these but that the holder of the opinions will think there’s nothing wrong with broadcasting them. Most don’t, of course, because, as Passan notes, they have a modicum of sense when it comes to public relations and public perception. Clevenger must have called in sick on media training day.

What Clevenger thinks about race relations in the United States isn’t all that important, of course. He’s just a dude with his opinions and he’s got a right to hold them. It does remind us, though, that just because someone is good at something — and Clevenger is good at baseball compared to most other mortals on Earth — doesn’t necessarily make them wise about anything else. We forget that when what an athlete is saying is inoffensive or comports with our own views of the world, but the situation remains the same regardless.

Which isn’t to say we should ignore or totally discount what an athlete says. They have a right to say whatever they want and we have a right and, sometimes, an interest, in reacting to it positively, negatively or otherwise. It’s simply to say that just because they’re famous or notable doesn’t mean they’ve got any kind of special insight into anything than that for which they are famous or notable. This goes for Steve Clevenger just as much as it goes for Bono or Scott Baio or anyone else.

Why are so many homers being hit this year?

MINNEAPOLIS, MN - JUNE 21: Brian Dozier #2 of the Minnesota Twins hits an RBI single against the Philadelphia Phillies during the first inning of the game on June 21, 2016 at Target Field in Minneapolis, Minnesota. The Twins defeated the Phillies 14-10. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
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Way back in June we were talking about how home runs were on pace to match that of the record-setting year for dingers: 2000. Since then the homers have kept flying and the record pace has continued: at the moment, teams are hitting 1.17 home runs per team, per game.

Benjamin Hoffman of the New York Times takes a look at that and tries to figure out why. The ultimate conclusion of the article is “well, who knows?” but given the column inches and primacy devoted to the possible causes, it seems like he’s favoring PEDs as the most likely culprit:

One possibility is that players have continued to skirt antidoping protocols, despite the league’s efforts to strengthen them in recent years. (None of the current players cited above, except for Ortiz, has been linked to performance-enhancing drugs.)

As demonstrated in many Olympic sports, which generally have the most stringent antidoping programs, athletes are often undeterred by drug-testing programs. They adapt to new protocols and find ways around them, like computer hackers evading antivirus programs.

He also talks about speculation, unconfirmed at this point, that the ball is juiced. He likewise talks to players who tend to believe that it’s the swing-for-the-fences approach taken by hitters these days, paired with hard-throwing pitchers who have come to believe that they can throw their heat by anyone.

I’m skeptical of the PED-as-culprit explanation. The home run “spike” is not a spike as much as it is a broad-based rise. As Hoffman notes, there are no real individual outliers — no 50-homer dudes — but, rather, just a ton of guys who are hitting a few more homers than they did before. Even at the height of the PED-era it was not thought that everyone was juicing. Indeed, the most pessimistic assumptions said that maybe half of the hitters were. Baseball’s drug testing regime in place now is certainly not perfect, but if there was a new PED epidemic now, as opposed to just the usual handful of cheaters, I feel like we’d notice it and I feel like we’d see at least some freakish outlier individual home run totals.

I think the juiced ball explanation has more going for it than the PED thing. Not everything going for it, obviously — no one has been able to verify that the ball is juiced via testing or observation — but the homer surge in 2016 sure looks a lot like it did in 1987, which many suspect was due to a juiced ball. While no one has determined that the balls are made with different materials, it doesn’t take radical, easily observable changes to change a ball’s flight characteristics. Even subtle changes in the manner in which balls are stored can make a ball fly a few extra feet and a few extra feet are the difference between an F-7 and a homer.

Ultimately, though, I think about this the same way I viewed the offensive surge of the 1990s-2000s and, for that matter, almost any notable change in a given phenomenon: the product of a combination of factors.

Everyone wanted to blame Jose Canseco and a bunch of needles for offensive levels going crazy from 1993-on, but few wanted to acknowledge that smaller ballparks with shorter porches and radically decreased foul territory came online then too. People didn’t want to note how the strike zone had shrunk, at least for guys not named Glavine and Maddux. People talked a lot about “Moneyball” and take-and-rake approaches and a preference for all-offense, no-defense players in their own right, but they rarely paired those observations up with the offensive surge. Rather, it was “the offense is all about steroids!” in one conversation and “Moneyball is ruining baseball!” in a separate conversation. In reality, though, it was all of a piece.

Just watching baseball today it’s clear that guys are sitting dead red more and swinging for the fences. A lot of this likely has to do with the surge in pitchers’ velocity over the years. If guys are routinely throwing 97, you can either (a) try to guess when he’s going to back off to a changeup; or (b) assume 97 is coming and do everything you can to mash it. I suspect (b) is a bit easier to do and that results in more homers and more strikeouts. When you add that to some possible minor changes in PED use or the composition of the ball and then acknowledge that, well, sometimes stuff just happens, 2016’s home run rates likely have many contributors, even if we can’t do an accurate accounting.

It’s always tempting to look for a single explanation for a given event. Most of the time there are multiple factors at play.