Sunday, July 26, 2009

Sunday Morning Coffee
("And Now the Fun Begins" Edition)

I admit to not having total recall of recent baseball seasons. But I don't think I'm going out on too far a limb and saying the American League East is shaping up as the best three-team playoff race in recent memory. And I'm using the word "best" for a few reasons. As this blog has morphed more & more into strictly Yankee-Red Sox commentary over time, an evolution that was probably inevitable given my time constraints & rooting interests, it should be obvious which division race I'm most focused on. But beyond the subjectivity, there is the clear quality of the three teams that make this race something special.

As they have since the first couple weeks of the season, the Los Angeles Dodgers lead the majors in run differential (+112). The next three teams in this category: Boston (82); Tampa (77); and New York (75). In stat rooms, run differential is generally considered a better indicator of a team's true performance level, as opposed to their actual win-lose record, and as a result is viewed as a good indicator of future performance. For example, the Yankees are in 1st place, 1.5 games ahead of the Red Sox, but are over-playing their expected record (ExWL) by 3 games. The Sox are right on target with their expected record, and Tampa is under-performing their ExWL by 3 games. Conventional wisdom would suggest things will balance out and the Yanks and Rays will end up meeting at virtually the same record at a future point in the season. Of course the fun part is no one knows exactly what is going to transpire; the main point is that as comfortable as that 5.5 game cushion over Tampa looks in New York right now, the most fundamental numbers of the game (runs scored, runs allowed) hint that divide is going to close.

The thing that's remarkable about this race is that you could make a case that these are the three best teams in baseball. No offense to the Dodgers whatsoever (and I would at least give them the benefit of the doubt and say they're in the top 3; they're having a great year), but they are in the National League, and sport an uncanny and incredibly lucky 20-9 record in one-run games. The only other team that is even close to this mark is Seattle, which is 23-13. You gotta figure the Dodgers would be dogs to Boston & New York in a World Series match-up, and probably slight favorites over Tampa.

No matter. Whatever the breakdown is, the season has taken on a day-to-day urgency that is rare for the last week of July, and is sure to continue for the final two months of the season. Sure the Sox struggled out of the All Star break gate, but you just knew they would right the ship with a 10-game batch of the Orioles and A's. The Yanks, winners of eight games in a row before yesterday's defeat, have built up their first real cushion of the year. But it's more like a pillow with its feathers taken out. You don't have any sense that there is a legitimate amount of breathing space. And the Rays, for all their seeming inconsistencies, have climbed to 10 games over .500 now. They never seem fazed and never take a day off as evidenced by yesterday's season-stamping comeback in Toronto, and the way they bounced back after their all-goose-eggs performance Thursday in Chicago. It's almost like a tennis match now, where you expect all three teams to hold serve everyday. It's a surprise when one of them loses.

Which makes the New York-Tampa series this week a must-watch. And it puts an appropriate epic feel into the upcoming Yanks-Sox series next week. It's a race that should keep us glued and at full attention into the late days of September.
Everyone's favorite small market club, the Minnesota Twins, are having a week from hell on the West Coast. They gave up a ton of runs again yesterday as they lost their 4th in a row, an 11-5 defeat in Anaheim. They've dropped to two under .500 and are now 5 behind the Tigers, who have asserted themselves (again) as the favorite to win the Central by taking three in a row from the ChiSox, just when it seemed the Sox were in better position than ever to give Detroit fits. The Twins remain plucky and all . . . but I don't know. This is the kind of week that can just knock the wind out of you. Five games doesn't look like much in the standings; it just feels a whole lot worse right now for the Twinkies.
For all the stumbling, bumbling and general lethargy that defined the Cubs first half, once they grab a first-place foothold they're going to be tough to dethrone. They're 7-3 in their last 10; their RD is +13 to the Cards' +27; and now sit just a 1/2 game out of first. The National League playoff picture is starting to look a lot like '08 with the Phillies and Dodgers in great shape, and now the Cubbies on the upswing. And if we're going to use RD as any indicator than the Rockies have nudged ahead as the Wild Card favorites. Their +59 is third in the league behind L.A. and Philly (+71).
Bill James, as he wrote in the New Historical Baseball Abstract, was once asked if he thought Rickey Henderson was a Hall of Famer. James' reply: "If you could split him in two, you'd have two Hall of Famers."

My one Hall of Fame-related comment today: when I think of Henderson, beyond the leadoff home runs and stolen bases, my mind goes to 1989 and this series.

As dominating a series I can ever remember a player having. In five games, Henderson went 6-15, scored 8 runs, hit a double, triple and two home runs, walked seven times, didn't strike out once and obliterated the Jays on the base paths stealing eight bags in eight attempts. His line for the five games: .400/.609/1.000.

In the World Series, a four-game sweep marred by the Bay Area earthquake, he put a beating on the Giants as well: .474/.524/.895 (double, two triples, home run), with three steals in four attempts.

If there was anything that crystallized the experience of being a young Yankee fan at the end of the 1980s, it was seeing Rickey Henderson traded for virtually nothing (even the bare mention of the three players the Yanks got back in the deal still makes me painfully cringe), and then go on to play in the post-season that same year and turn into a combination of Ty Cobb & Mickey Mantle.

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