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Previewing the N.L. Wild Card Game

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The Wild Card, cosmically speaking, is usually thought of as a bonus. A playoff “in” for a plucky underdog club that, while falling short of the division title, has bested enough of its other intraleague competitors to have earned a lottery ticket that could propel them forward into the playoffs proper.

That’s usually the setup anyway. It’s certainly not the case for tonight’s Wild Card Game between the Rockies and the Cubs. Indeed, it feels like a consolation game, and both teams are likely ticked off that they have to play in it even if they’re grateful that they get to.

That’s particularly true for the Cubs who led or were at least tied atop the N.L. Central every single day from July 13 through, roughly, 4PM yesterday afternoon, when the Brewers vanquished them in the tiebreaker game. Heck, Chicago led by as many as five games in September. Their losing out on the division title is not really a “collapse” as we have defined that term of late — ask the 2011 Braves or Red Sox about that — but it’s certainly a deflation. Everyone outside of Milwaukee expected the Cubs to win the division and that they didn’t has to bum them out quite a bit. They were never playing for the Wild Card. For the 2018 Chicago Cubs, the Wild Card is a consolation prize. It’s the baseball equivalent of leaving a game show with a case of Rice-a-Roni instead of the brand new car.

It’s not quite so bad for Colorado, who only stood in first place in the NL West for a smattering of games in May and then shared it off-and-on with the Dodgers in September. Still, they had their destiny in their own hands as late as Saturday, before a bad loss to the Nationals forced yesterday’s tiebreaker. That probably does not sting quite as bad as the Cubs’ non-collapse stings, but the fact is they had to make a cross country flight last night with a bad taste in their mouths. They played in the Wild Card game last year. They lost it. They know how it feels to have to win a one-and-done game to move on and they did not want to be in that position again.

Still, they have to play this game and they have to win it if they wish to delay their offseason by another week or so. Let’s break it down, shall we?

The starting pitchers:

An easy call for Chicago. Jose Quintana got yesterday’s start because of how much rest everyone had (and because he usually owns the Brewers), but Lester has been their ace all year. If the Cubs are in an elimination game, and they are, Lester is who Joe Maddon wants on the bump.

Freeland has never pitched in the postseason and he’s pitching on three days rest, having thrown 96 pitches in the Rockies win over Washington on Friday. Still, he’s coming in hot, having gone 5-0 in September and 9-1 with a 2.41 ERA in 14 starts since the All-Star break. Like Chicago, Colorado has its ace working this evening.

The lineups:

The Rockies had the second best run-scoring offense in the National League this year — and Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story are a potent 1-2 punch — but the overall numbers are obviously affected by Coors Field and they are a team that certainly can be pitched to. The Cubs offense was sixth in runs scored, led the league in batting average and was second in OBP, but again, that feels misleading. The Cubs struggled mightily to score runs late in the season and couldn’t muster much at all against Milwaukee yesterday. Each team’s bats can go silent for long stretches.

The bullpens:

The Cubs need Lester to go deep and/or the lineup to put them up big early, because their pen is on fumes right now. Cubs relievers were needed to get 20 outs Sunday and Maddon used six relievers in yesterday’s loss. Losing both of their closers to injury — both Pedro Strop and Brandon Morrow are still on the shelf — has been rough for the Cubs. Look for Maddon to use starting pitchers in relief if this thing is close.

Colorado, meanwhile, has Wade Davis, Adam Ottavino, Scott Oberg and Jake McGee, all of whom are fresher than the Chicago relief corps (Oberg and McGee pitched yesterday, but tossed only eight and fifteen pitches, respectively).

Prediction:

Predictions are kind of meaningless in one-and-done baseball games. Anything can happen. One ball getting lost in the lights or one pitch failing to break as expected can change the whole game. As such, I won’t predict a winner here. I will say, though, that for the Cubs to have their best chance to win, Lester will need to be on top of his game to go deep in this game. For the Rockies to win, they will need, at the very least, a non-disaster start from Freeland and to get into the Cubs’ tired bullpen.

Both of these teams are entering this game grouchy. One of them is gonna be way more grouchy around 11pm Eastern this evening. Tune in to ESPN at 8PM eastern to see how that all plays out.

Lou Whitaker snubbed from the Hall of Fame again

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Long time Tigers second baseman Lou Whitaker has long been one of baseball history’s most underrated players. He and Hall of Fame shortstop Alan Trammell formed one of the best up-the-middle combos ever, teammates since Whitaker’s debut in 1977 to his final year in 1995.

Trammell is actually a great jumping-off point to support Whitaker’s candidacy. Here are their career counting stats:

  • Whitaker: .276/.363/.426, 420 doubles, 65 triples, 244 homers, 1084 RBI, 1386 runs, 143 stolen bases, 1197 walks (9967 plate appearances)
  • Trammell: .285/.352/.415, 415 doubles, 55 triples, 185 homers, 1003 RBI, 1231 runs, 236 stolen bases, 850 walks (9376 plate appearances)

Whitaker also had slightly more Wins Above Replacement over his career according to Baseball Reference, besting Trammell 75.1 to 70.7. FanGraphs’ version of WAR puts both players slightly lower but with Whitaker still in the lead, 68.1 to 63.7.

Trammell, like Whitaker, did not make the Hall of Fame through initial eligibility on the ballot voted on by members of the Baseball Writers Association of America, beginning five years after their retirement. Trammell was elected two years ago on the Modern Era ballot. Whitaker fell off the ballot in his only year of eligibility, earning just 2.9 percent of the vote in 2001. Whitaker was again snubbed on Sunday night, receiving just six of the 12 votes necessary for induction. Trammell became eligible on the BBWAA ballot in 2002 and had a 15-year run, with his support running as far down as 13.4 percent in 2007 and peaking at 40.9 percent in his final year in 2016.

Trammell and Whitaker critics cited things like never leading the league in any important categories and never winning an MVP Award as reasons why they shouldn’t be enshrined. That last reason, of course, ignores that both contributed to the Tigers winning the World Series in 1984, but I digress.

Trammell should have been elected to the Hall of Fame on the BBWAA ballot. And, since the distinction matters to so many people, he should have been inducted on the first ballot. Among Hall of Fame shortstops (at least 50 percent of their games at the position), Trammell has the eighth-highest WAR among 21 eligible players. He has ever so slightly more WAR than Barry Larkin (70.4), who made it into the Hall of Fame in his third year of eligibility with 86.4 percent of the vote.

Now, what about Whitaker? Among Hall of Fame second basemen (at least 50 percent of games at the position), Whitaker’s 75.1 WAR would rank sixth among 20 eligible second basemen. The only second basemen ahead of him are Rogers Hornsby (127.0), Eddie Collins (124.0), Nap Lajoie (107.4), Joe Morgan (100.6), and Charlie Gehringer (80.7). Whitaker outpaces such legendaries as Ryne Sandberg (68.0), Roberto Alomar (67.1), and Craig Biggio (65.5). Sandberg made it into the Hall in his third year on the ballot; Alomar his second; Biggio his third.

Among the players on the 2001 BBWAA ballot, the only player with more career WAR than Whitaker was Bert Blyleven (94.4), who eventually made it into the Hall of Fame. Dave Winfield (64.2) and Kirby Puckett (51.1) were elected that year. Also receiving hefty support that year were Gary Carter (70.1 WAR), Jim Rice (47.7), Bruce Sutter (24.1), and Goose Gossage (41.2) and each would eventually make the Hall of Fame.

WAR is not, by any means, a perfect stat, so the WAR argument may not resonate with everyone. Dating back to 1871, there have been only 66 players who hit at least 400 doubles and 200 home runs while stealing 100 bases. The only second basemen (same 50 percent stipulation) to do that are Whitaker, Hornsby, Morgan, Sandberg, Alomar, Biggio, Chase Utley, and Ian Kinsler. Additionally, Whitaker drew more walks than strikeouts over his career, 1197 to 1099. The only second basemen to do that while hitting at least 200 career homers are Whitaker, Morgan, Hornsby, Bobby Doerr, and Joe Gordon.

Whitaker was not without accolades: he won the 1978 AL Rookie of the Year Award. He was a five-time All-Star and took home four Silver Sluggers along with three Gold Gloves to boot. Trammell took home a similar amount of hardware: though he never won a Rookie of the Year Award, he did make the All-Star team six times. He went on to win four Gold Gloves and three Silver Sluggers.

In a just world, Whitaker would have been on the ballot for the then-maximum 15 years. In a sentimentally just world, he would have gone in side-by-side with Trammell in 2002. Whitaker’s candidacy certainly shouldn’t have fallen to the Modern Era ballot, and it shouldn’t have been further fumbled by a committee that gave him as many votes as Steve Garvey.