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It’s been a long time, baby (bears)

On the surface, it may not seem like such an interesting story: the National League’s best team (and consensus preseason pick to win the World Series) will play tonight against the American League’s second-best team in game 1 of the 2016 World Series. But it’s incredibly unlikely, given the two teams representing their respective leagues.

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The AL champion Cleveland Indians, the class of the Central division from 1995-99, are making their first World Series appearance since their heartbreaking seven-game (extra innings in game 7, of course) loss to the Florida Marlins in ’97. They also appeared in the 1995 Fall Classic, their first postseason participation since being swept by the New York Giants in ’54. Their only titles came in 1920 and 1948; the ensuing 67 year drought is the second-longest streak in baseball.

The longest, every decent fan knows, belongs to the Chicago Cubs. Not only does their title deficiency stretch all the way back to 1908 (107 years!), they haven’t even appeared in the World Series since 1945. Game 7 was played October 10, just over one month after V-J Day–the official end to World War II.

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Cubs fans celebrating their latest National League crown. Or so I’m told…

Obviously, it would be too easy to put this historical awfulness in perspective by comparing modern amenities and conveniences with those available in ’45. “Gah! No smartphones?! What sort of cultural backwater was that?” “Forty-eight states? What’s up with that?!” “Politicians trying to drum up support among the electorate by singling out people different from them? Appalling!” (Okay, so that second example technically started in ’47. But, the more things change, the more they stay the same, and all that, amirite?).

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Instead, I thought it would be a little more fun and obscure to do so with baseball-specific trivia. So, without further, potentially one last jab at the expense of the Cubs and their fans.

  • Cubs’ skipper Joe Maddon (b. 1954) wasn’t born yet.
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    Uncle Joe with the letter ‘o’

    Same for owner Tom Ricketts (b. 1963). Maddon’s predecessors (Rick Renteria, Dale Sveum, and Mike Quade) weren’t born yet, either. Lou Piniella was 2 when the Cubs last represented the NL in the World Series. The last Cubs manager to likely have any memory of their participation was Don Zimmer (b. 1931); he was fired from that position in 1991.

  • Interleague play wasn’t even a faint glimmer in Bud Selig’s eye; in fact, he turned 11 the summer of the Cubs’ most recent postseason success.
  • The AL wouldn’t adopt the designated hitter, forever rendering that league inherently inferior to the NL, for another 28 years.
  • The streak turned 13 shortly after current commissioner Rob Manfred was born (1958).
  • Blacks were still banned from baseball in 1945. To put it another way, 69 years after Jackie Robinson integrated MLB, Chicago will finally have a black player appear in the World Series. Way to be behind the curve! Dexter Fowler (assuming he leads off for the visitors’ half of the first) will be the first; Addison Russell will also likely start, but Jason Heyward is a toss-up, considering he started NLCS game 6 on the bench and has had an all-around miserable postseason (.071/.133/.179). For whatever it’s worth, Cleveland’s Larry Doby broke the color barrier in the AL less than three months behind Robinson and appeared in the ’48 World Series.
  • Among its 16 member franchises, MLB had two teams in Boston, three in New York, two in Philadelphia, and two in St. Louis. Those four cities used to make up 56.25% of the league’s teams; now it’s 16.67% (5 of 30). Only the Red Sox, White Sox, Cubs, Cardinals, Tigers, Phillies, Pirates, Reds, and Yankees still play in the same metropolitan area.
  • The Boston Red Sox ended their futility (1918-2004) and have won the World Series three times (2007 and ’13, too)! Even Chicago’s south-siders, whose previous triumph came in 1917, won it all in 2005.
  • Six expansion franchises (est. 1962-present) screen-shot-2011-09-23-at-11-32-13-amhave won the World Series:
    • Mets in 1969 and ’86
    • Royals in 1985 and 2015
    • Blue Jays in 1992 and ’93
    • Marlins in 1997 and 2003 (see inset)
    • Diamondbacks in 2001
    • Angels in 2002
  • The clock on the NL’s second-longest title drought, belonging to the Giants, began ticking with their win in 1954 and lasted until their recent string of success started in 2010.
  • Connie Mack would manage the Philadelphia Athletics for another five seasons. He was born in December 1862, during the American Civil War. The Battle of Antietam had just been fought the previous fall, and Gettysburg was still over six months away.
  • Ty Cobb was baseball’s career hits leader, with 4189; Pete Rose would not surpass that mark until forty years later, in 1985.
  • Babe Ruth was baseball’s home run king, holding both the single season record of 60 (he’s now 8th on that list) and career mark of 714 (3rd).
  • Walter Johnson held the record for the lowest single season ERA recorded in the post-dead-ball era (1919-present): 1.49 in 1919. Any good Cards fan knows Bob Gibson was the first (and only) pitcher since to come in below that number, when he posted his remarkable 1.12 in 1968.
  • George Sisler of the St. Louis Browns laid claim to the longest hitting streak in baseball’s modern era, beginning in 1901, with hits in 41 consecutive games in 1922.
  • Lou Gehrig was still baseball’s “iron man,” and would be for another forty years.
  • Only three perfect games had been tossed since 1901; the current count is at 21.
  • The Yankees had already won ten World Series, and lost four more. Seventy-one years later, the Cardinals are the only franchise to have made it to double-digits, which they accomplished in 2006. To this day, only four other franchises (Giants, Cardinals, Dodgers, and A’s) have even appeared in at least fourteen Fall Classics.
  • The Red  Sox, Giants, White Sox, and Cubs are the only franchises that had won a World Series when the Cubs won their latest and last in 1908.

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Care to take any other cracks at the Cubs’ futility? Comments on this matter are most definitely encouraged below.

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Wayback Wednesday: ten years ago tonight

I still remember when the Cardinals first sniffed World Series success in my lifetime. I was one when Don Denkinger flubbed his way to officiating infamy in 1985, and three when the Cards succumbed to the Twins two years later. But 2004, that was a fun summer. St. Louis steamrolled its way to 105 wins, took out the Dodgers with relative ease in the NLDS, narrowly avoided an upset at the hands of division rival Houston Astros in the NLCS, then were summarily flattened by the Boston Red Sox in a quick four-game World Series. I was even in the bleachers at old Busch Stadium for game 4, where the Cardinals went out with a whimper, losing 3-0 to the Red Sox, who had just reeled off eight straight wins beginning with an unprecedented comeback against the Yankees in the ALCS and following it up with the Cards.

Boston Red Sox Vs. St. Louis Cardinals: 2004 World Series Game Four

The following season proved to be fun, as well. The ’05 Redbirds coasted to 100 wins and seemed to be on pace to make it back to the World Series; the second-best NL team, in Atlanta, finished with a mere 90 wins, and St. Louis would face the 82-80 NL West champion San Diego Padres in the NLDS. They handled that with ease, but the 89-win Astros surprised the Cards in 6 games in the NLCS.

By 2006, the championship dream shared by the “MV3” (1B Albert Pujols, 3B Scott Rolen, and CF Jim Edmonds) seemed to be fading. Rolen missed roughly two-thirds of ’05, and Jim Edmonds would end up playing only 110 games in ’06. Chris Carpenter and Pujols also made short trips to the disabled list, as well.

There was some turnover on the pitching staff, as well. Woody Williams left for San Diego after the ’04 postseason run, while Matt Morris departed for San Fransciso following the ’05 campaign. Holdovers Jason Marquis and Jeff Suppan combined for 65 starts, but Marquis’ 6.02 ERA didn’t do the slumping offense any favors. The team limped to the finish line at 83-78, barely allowing the Padres to retain their distinction from the previous season as the worst division champ and postseason contestant in a full season in MLB history. As September waned, it felt as though the Cardinals would likely need to enter a rebuilding phase after another unsuccessful attempt at a World Series title.

Compounding the team’s problems heading in to October was the fact that closer Jason Isringhausen, who was an integral part of the team’s postseason runs the two prior seasons (2.55 ERA and 86 saves from 2004-05), had been up and down all season, before finally heading to the DL in mid-September. Rookie reliever Adam Wainwright was thrust in to the closer’s role on September 7, but only had the chance to close out five games prior to the season’s end.

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The Cards skipped past the Padres in the NLDS yet again. The pitching suddenly seemed to click; the Padres only hit .225 and scored 6 runs in the four-game series. Carpenter and Suppan were the only pitchers to allow any runners to score at all, in fact (though Carp’s were over two starts and 13 1/3 innings, while Suppan took the sole loss in game 3, only lasting 4 1/3 innings).

 

Unfortunately, the path to World Series glory would have to go through New York.

The ’06 Mets possessed a fearsome, if not over-the-hill, starting rotation. Fortunately for the Cardinals, injuries to Pedro Martinez and Orlando Hernandez–both of them starting pitchers with substantial postseason experience–wiped the duo out of the Mets’ postseason plans in the last week of the regular season. Tom Glavine was still in the rotation, though, and had just posted a sub-4.00 ERA with 15 wins at age 40. Carlos Delgado, David Wright, and Carlos Beltran would combine to provide significant offensive firepower, hitting .285 combined, with each player contributing at least 26 HRs and 114 RBIs. Jose Reyes also joined the fun, leading off and hitting .300, and generally making pitchers nervous by swiping 64 bases during the season.

The teams split the first two games at Shea Stadium, but the Cardinals gave the home-field advantage right back, dropping one of the three games at brand-new Busch Stadium, heading back to New York with a 3-2 series lead. Game 6 went the home team’s way, meaning the Cards and Mets would square off in a winner-take-all Game 7.

Both Jeff Suppan and Oliver Perez would turn in solid quality starts, each lasting at least 6 innings and allowing only one run apiece. Entering the final frame, in fact, the game was still knotted at 1-1, the two bullpens having done their respective jobs accordingly. In the top of the 9th, Aaron Heilman struck Jim Edmonds out, but allowed Scott Rolen to single. Then this happened:

 

Of course Yadier Molina homered. He hit .216 during the season, and managed all of six HRs. But his timely tater to left put St. Louis up 3-1 with only three outs to go.

Tony LaRussa brought in his new closer to finish out the biggest game of his career. Wainwright would be facing the bottom of the Mets order. Jose Valentin, hitting .217 in the series, led off with a single; Endy Chavez, .154 in the NLCS, moved him over to second with a single of his own. Waino buckled down and retired pinch hitter Cliff Floyd and Reyes in succession. Unfortunately, he summarily walked Paul Lo Duca, which brought Beltran to the plate with 2 outs and the bases juiced. Any hit would likely tie the game; any extra-base hit would almost certainly win it for the Mets.

Fans in St. Louis may have fonder memories of Beltran now, after spending two All-Star seasons here in 2012-13, the latter of which included a trip to the World Series. But in 2006, he was one of baseball’s most fearsome hitters, particularly to Cards fans. Playing for the division rival Astros in ’04, he’d helped his club sweep the Redbirds in the regular season’s penultimate series, helping Houston leapfrog Philadelphia for the NL Wild Card, um, title in the final week. In the ‘stros’ near-miss in the NLCS, Beltran produced a ridiculous slash line of .417 / .563 / .958 with 4 HRs and 4 SBs; Cardinals pitchers walked him 8 times (only once intentionally). He also scored 12 of his team’s 31 runs in the series.

With all that baggage–Beltran was hitting .308 in the present NLCS, as well–it was hard not to be a little scared as a Cardinals fan. Rookie closer, bases loaded, noted slugger at the plate… it was almost too much. But Wainwright rose to the occasion and established a name for himself in his first full season with the big league club with a sick 12-to-6 curveball that absolutely froze Beltran:

 

Two reasons that make the nostalgia of that clip even more beautiful:

  1. Waino would follow up that performance with one slightly less apprehension in the World Series

2. Wainwright and Molina are still important pieces on the team, now one decade removed from some of their first big league success

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Unfortunately, we don’t get to cheer on our Redbirds this postseason, but at least we can remember some past postseason glory tonight.

And hope that the Cubs lose to the Dodgers again.

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Even Bruce finds it odd

A great deal of coverage has been given to the apparent even-numbered year (ENY) dominance of the San Francisco Giants. Prognosticators aplenty wondered, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, if the Giants would win the World Series this season prior to April. It was too coincidental, after all, when in 2014 they won their third title in five seasons, adding to the Commissioner’s Trophies they claimed in 2010 and ’12. Of course, they followed that up this year by narrowly surviving a second-half swoon–they were 57-33 at the All-Star break and 30-42 thereafter–to claim the National League’s second wild card over the St. Louis Cardinals on the regular season’s final day.

What’s even more unusual is that they followed up each championship with a postseason miss in the subsequent odd-numbered year (ONY). And while they finished just barely on the outside looking in during the ’11 and ’15 campaigns, they limped to the finish at 76-86, well out of contention. That season was marked by unexpectedly poor pitching from starters not named Madison Bumgarner–Tim Lincecum, Matt Cain, Barry Zito, and Ryan Vogelsong combined to go 27-41 with a 4.78 ERA. And with Bumgarner going 9 and shutting out the defending NL champion Mets, it looks like this could be another ENY to remember.

Wild Card Game - San Francisco Giants v New York Mets

What makes this trend so unusual is that, it hasn’t been going on for just a few years. Instead, it seems to have followed manager Bruce Bochy since he took his first job with the San Diego Padres in 1995. Students of the game might remember he managed them to an unexpected 98 regular season wins into the 1998 World Series, where they were unceremoniously swept by one of the greatest teams ever assembled, the 114-48 New York Yankees.

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So Bochy’s four World Series appearances stretched across 21 seasons (I’m excluding 2016) all came in ENYs. Unusual coincidence, right? Perhaps not.

I compiled a Google Sheet using Bochy’s managerial record as of October 6, 2016, according to baseball-reference.com. At the bottom, I split up Bochy’s respective tenures with the Padres and Giants by ONYs and ENYs, as well as his entire 22-year career. The results, you will see, are staggering. Some thoughts on what I see:

  • Bochy’s average winning percentage is 45 points higher in ENYs vs. ONYs.
    • Because the ’95 season was shortened by 18 games due to the players’ strike, it’s tough just to average the wins from each 162-game season together, but it works out to nearly 7 1/2 wins more per ENY than ONY.
    • That total was nearly 9 wins more per ENY during his dozen seasons with the Padres, which added up to finishing, on average, more than one position higher in ENYs than ONYs.
  • He has managed exactly three postseason games (all losses) in an ONY–the 2005 NL Division Series, in which the 100-win Cardinals dispatched the 82-win Padres in three games.
    • Interesting side note 1: Three NL East teams finished with better records but still missed the postseason that year.
    • Interesting side note 2: If not for the universally dreadful play in the NL West that year, Bochy’s team would have very likely missed the postseason altogether–they do, after all, hold the distinction of the worst regular season record ever to advance to the postseason in a non-strike-shortened season (to see why I needed that qualifier, see: ’81 Royals).
  • His teams have played seventy (70!) in ENYs, including last night’s wild card victory over the Mets.
  • Greatest win total for an ONY: 88, in 2009. That number has been at least equaled in six ENYs (1996, ’98, 2006, ’10, ’12, and ’14).

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Before I created this spreadsheet, I wondered if perhaps some of his ONYs were simply unlucky, the victim of a dominant division foe and stronger wild card contenders. But his overall winning percentage as well as postseason performance in ENYs compared to those in the ONYs indicate there’s something more than just luck. Perhaps it’s part of his strategy, to overuse players (pitchers in particular) who are doing well, burning them out after a lengthy postseason run, thereby harming any results the following, but allowing the player(s) enough time to recover for the next ENY.

If you think of it that way, it’s an interesting strategy that pays off if it works. He’s won three World Series titles in San Francisco after an abysmal ENY in ’08 (72-90). That kind of hardware haul allows a manager and his players some breathing room when it comes to dealing with management, local sports media, and fans.

Conversely, by going for broke every other season, missing the ultimate prize stings even more when failing to contend for the postseason the next year. After a pair of successful ENYs (’96 and ’98) in San Diego, the team held a fire sale and finished under .500 in the next two (’00 and ’02), and won only one of seven NLDS games in ’04 and ’06.

Following that last unsuccessful postseason run, incoming CEO Sandy Alderson permitted Giants general manager Brian Sabean to interview Bochy for their job. Bochy, of course, got the gig and, while he took it on the chin the first two years with San Francisco, he quickly transformed them in to the ENY juggernaut we know today.

Even though the Cubs basically wrapped up home-field advantage in the National League by Memorial Day and sauntered to 102 wins, their NLDS match-up with Bochy’s late-clinching Giants, beginning Friday evening at Wrigley Field, should prove immensely entertaining, if for no other reason than the inevitable championship feeling that Bochy’s club has this season.

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A brushback to blackness in MLB

As most Cardinals fans can attest, Tony La Russa had us scratching our heads countless times during his 16 year run in St. Louis. But by the time he retired after managing the Cards to their second World Series title since he took over in 1996, he was generally given a free pass by fans and the media alike, and deservedly so. You don’t become the winningest manager in the history of a franchise that dates back to the 1800s by making bone-headed decisions all the time, after all. We should not, however, give TLR the benefit of the doubt with regard to some of his most recent public comments.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past month, you’ve no doubt seen pictures and videos of athletes–beginning with San Francisco 49ers QB Colin Kaepernick and spreading to other football teams, from youth leagues up to the NFL–protesting police brutality against blacks by sitting, kneeling, or raising a single fist in the air while the national anthem is played prior to the game.

It’s no secret that white Americans have trouble grasping the magnitude of the race issue in this country. It’s partially because we’re in the majority and have long overlooked the concerns facing minority groups. It’s partially because, as history is written and re-written, we often scrub some of the unpleasant memories–like how the Civil War was really about states’ rights and not slavery. It’s also because, even fifty years after the Supreme Court struck down Jim Crow laws, we still live our lives largely segregated from people of color. Unfortunately, all this becomes second nature, not to mention irresponsible attitudes and beliefs we acquire from family and friends as we grow up–even something that some might find harmless, like joking about “CPT” or donning blackface–and so our knee-jerk reaction to seeing black people protest is to suggest that they’re insincere, not patriotic, don’t really have it that bad, or, among the most reprehensible, “if (they) don’t love America, (they) can get out.” As though their ancestors weren’t forcibly dragged and kept here for hundreds of years, while many of ours migrated in the 150 years since the war to *end* slavery…

In an interview with USA Today, in which Baltimore Orioles CF Adam Jones was asked why any baseball players had yet to participate in a similar fashion, he said, “We already have two strikes against us… so you might as well not kick yourself out of the game. In football, you can’t kick them out. You need those players. In baseball, they don’t need us… Baseball is a white man’s sport.”

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Within two days, La Russa appeared on ESPN Radio and, when asked about Jones’ remarks, gave the following rebuttal:

When he says it’s a white, like elitist, kind of sport, I mean how much wronger can he be? We have tried so hard, the MLB, to expand the black athletes’ opportunity. We want the black athletes to pick not basketball or football, but want them to play baseball; they should play baseball. And we’re working to make that happen in the inner cities. We have a lot of Latin players. We have players from the Pacific Rim.

 

He also said the following regarding Kaepernick and his protest:

I was there in the Bay Area when he first was a star, a real star. I never once saw him do anything but promote himself. And all of a sudden now he’s a second-stringer and he’s got this mission … and I just don’t trust his sincerity. And even if he was sincere, there’s ways to express your belief in some of the issues that face blacks around this country without disrespecting the country you live in or the flag that it represents.

 

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To the points made in the latter comment:

  1. Perhaps, in light of the fact that he knew he would rankle at least a few of the men who pay the salaries, Kaepernick waited until he got his guaranteed contract, fearful that he could be blackballed from the league without much to show for his (admittedly brief) successes. Perhaps his girlfriend turned him on to the plight that many blacks in this country face. Who knows? One thing’s for sure: I doubt TLR is close enough with Kaep to question his sincerity.
  2. It seems (and even going back to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his public protests, as evidenced in his “Letter from a Birmingham jail“) that many white people don’t understand the need for such a public display. It’s not as though Kaepernick and others woke up one morning and decided they weren’t happy and somebody should do something. Rather, it’s because people have been speaking out for a long time on the matter, but nothing is getting done. Innocent blacks (and, for that matter, legitimate suspects who would rather face trial for their misdemeanors rather than be killed) are still dying at the hands of law enforcement. Terence Crutcher, for example.

And as to the former:

  1. As the USA Today article notes, 8% of MLB players are black; at their highest percentage, they comprised between 17 and 19% of all players during the mid-’70s and ’80s. It should be noted that, at the time of the 1980 census, approximately 11.7% of all Americans identified as black; in 2010, that figure was 12.6%, with an additional 2.9% identifying as two or more unspecified races. So while 8% today doesn’t seem that far off from the general population, considering that blacks comprise more than two-thirds of all players in the NFL, and nearly three-quarters of those in the NBA, that’s one indicator that Jones is on the right track by noting it’s far easier to conspire against blacks in baseball than in football.
  2. The notion regarding an increase in Latino and Asian players (approximately 27 & 2%, respectively) is a red herring. At the start of this season, Dusty Baker and Dave Roberts were the only black manager in baseball (one other minority). Only two black general managers at the same point in time–Dave Stewart in Arizona and Michael Hill in Miami–along with two other minorities. And guess what: no black owners (and only one minority, Arte Moreno of the Angels, to boot).
  3. TLR appears to be oversimplifying the problem with attracting inner-city kids. It’s not as simple as “find a cool black guy to be the face of baseball,” the way the NBA has LeBron James or Steph Curry, or “make the game more fast-paced and action-packed.” Generally, those who have the greatest potential in baseball as kids move on to elite travel teams, basically playing ball year-round in warm weather states. That requires a significant time and money commitment from parents that may already be strapped with the normal demands such as rent, food, utilities, and the like.

To this last point, MLB would be wise to discourage year-round participation in baseball for multiple reasons. For one, many kids suffer overuse injuries from which they’re unable to recover. Having 14 year old pitchers trying to hit 80 on the radar gun isn’t doing them any favors in the long run. By seeking to restrict play to within a team’s own metropolitan area for, say, four to six months of the year, that could help to grow the sport in urban areas. And perhaps big league teams could even pitch in a little extra cash from the ridiculous cable contracts they’re signing in recent years.

One final La Russa quote I’d like to comment on:

I would tell [a player that wanted to sit out the anthem to] sit inside the clubhouse. You’re not going to be out there representing our team and our organization by disrespecting the flag. No, sir, I would not allow it. … If you want to make your statement, you make it in the clubhouse, but not out there. You’re not going to show it that way publicly and disrespectfully.

Tony La Russa

I’m not so sure he thought that all the way through. If he chooses to boycott, it’s pretty easy for the player to explain why he missed the anthem, then it basically becomes the same issue as what we have now. So even though the statement is technically being made in the clubhouse, it’s also apparent on the field. I will give TLR some credit because he didn’t go full-Tortorella, but rather noted he would not bench anyone who opted to boycott the performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner.”

In short, the vibe I get from La Russa’s comments is, “we’re not elitist because we’re trying.” But that doesn’t change the fact that Adam Jones made a valid point regarding the relative lack of clout black players possess in MLB, particularly with respect to their counterparts in the NFL and NBA. Ultimately, even if you despise Colin Kaepernick’s form of protest, or refuse to acknowledge the facts that he and others are highlighting, please at least recognize that he is exercising his first amendment right. Please stop throwing around meaningless platitudes about “support(ing) our troops” and “all lives matter.” And, most definitely, stop suggesting anyone whose protests and beliefs run counter to your own need to leave. In fact, perhaps you should. I hear North Korea is quite the haven for intolerance.

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The case to abolish the 2nd wild card

Prognosticators have been lumping the Cardinals in the 2016 wild card hunt dating back pretty much to last October, and despite a couple of minor rough patches for the Cubs that have temporarily given St. Louis and Pittsburgh a glimmer of hope, the NL Central has, to date, sorted out largely as expected, with Chicago pitching and slugging their way to the best mark in baseball with just over a quarter of the season left to play.

As a fan of the Cardinals, it’s been a maddeningly frustrating season. The offense, aided by baseballs that may or may not be juiced, has scored 4.93 runs per game in the 2016 campaign, a significant improvement over the 3.99 they averaged a year ago, despite no major free agent additions among position players. And while it should be no surprise, given the league-wide increase in offense, that the pitching staff and defense aren’t performing as well as the 3.24 runs per game allowed in 2015, they’re allowing 4.40 per contest this season, and are likely just 2-3 games away from surpassing the 525 runs allowed all last year.

Yet for all the defensive miscues and lapses, pitching woes, and general lack of run production against superior teams, at the start of play today, we, as Cardinals fans, can take solace that our Birds find themselves a half-game ahead of Miami for the NL’s second wild card. With a couple of good series, or a swoon by the Marlins, Dodgers, or Giants, St. Louis would have themselves in position for the winner-take-all wild card game come October. And I’m not so sure I like the idea of that.

Baseball’s postseason has always been more exclusive when compared to the other major professional sports leagues in the US. The NHL has allowed more than half of its teams to qualify for the Stanley Cup playoffs dating back to the 1920s; the NBA has, likewise, allowed over half of competing teams to qualify for the playoffs throughout its entire history. Even the NFL, which has had a 12-team playoff  since 1990, when 28 franchises comprised the league, allows a slightly greater proportion (37.5% to 33.3%) of teams to compete for the Lombardi Trophy.

Because it allows so few contenders to compete for the Commissioner’s Trophy every October, it’s evident that MLB values the emphasis on and importance of its grueling six-month long regular season. The scenario from 2015, in which the teams with the second- and third-best records in MLB as a whole qualified for the NL’s two wild card spots, was an aberration and highly unlikely to occur again for some time. This season, it’s entirely possible that one of the wild card teams will finish with fewer than 85 wins–the Marlins’ .517 winning percentage works out to 83.75 wins over 162 games, while the Cards’ .521 comes to 84.4 wins. In the AL, the Red Sox are on pace for a slightly more respectable 88 wins, but even the Yankees, who were cast as sellers leading up to the August 1 non-waiver trade deadline, are within 3 games of the second wild card.

Of course, any number of teams can catch fire in September and ride their hot streak to a wild card berth, but that scenario downplays the importance of the marathon that is baseball’s regular season. While I would love for the Cardinals to get hot over the final seven weeks, objectively speaking, it devalues what began back in April and raises the question as to why baseball even plays as many games as it does in the first place.

I created a table comprising the number of wins for wild card teams from the beginning of the wild card era (1995) through last season, including the teams that would have qualified for the second wild card from 1995 through 2011, had such a double-consolation prize existed. In both leagues, the second wild card (or wild card runner-up) has averaged about 89 wins. To get there, the Cardinals or Marlins would need to play their final 45 and 46 games, respectively, 11 and 12 games above .500, which doesn’t seem all that impressive until you consider they’re both currently only a few games above average.

Overall, I’m fine with rewarding the best team to not win their division with a chance to vie for the trophy. Over the course of 21 seasons, the 42 teams to have won the (first) wild card averaged better than 93 wins, and at least one wild card team regularly outpaces an inferior division champion over the 162-game schedule. Meanwhile, not making it to 90 wins doesn’t seem particularly noteworthy (sorry, fans of perennial cellar-dwellers!); of the 42 second wild cards or wild card runners-up, only 16 of these teams have won 90 or more. Given that teams have six months over which to prove their title-worthiness, it seems absurd to give them a chance to upset a superior club in the one-game playoff.

Dallas Stars v St. Louis Blues - Game Three

Wild card: St. Louis’ unending quest for Lord Stanley’s Cup

With two rounds just about in the books in the NHL’s “second season,” it’s hard, as a St. Louisan, not to get excited about our local club’s trek thus far. The Blues have advanced to their first conference finals since 2001. Any reasonable hockey fan knows they’ve yet to hoist the Stanley Cup in nearly fifty years in the league. Moreover, of teams 24 active franchises to have participated in the Stanley Cup Finals, St. Louis has the second-longest drought, dating back to 1970. Incidentally, the longest-suffering fan base can be found in Toronto (1967), but with thirteen titles to their credit, that relegates the Blues to the ignominious title “the Cubs of hockey.” Regardless, if the Western Conference representative wins it all, it will be that franchise’s first championship–the Sharks and Predators play game 7 in their series tonight; neither has advanced to the Finals in their shorter spans of existence.

Between the Blues’ thrilling seven game first round victory over the hated (and, over the past six seasons, very successful) Chicago Blackhawks and their second round upset of the marginally-better-but-still-top-seeded Dallas Stars, also in seven games, there’s plenty of fun facts to highlight. Starting with the ‘Hawks series:

Jori Lehtera, Vladimir Tarasenko, Corey Crawford

  • Six of the seven games were decided by one goal, including two in overtime. No big surprise there, as the Blues won the season series 3-2, with three games decided by a single goal–all won by St. Louis, in OT, of course. The outlier was game 6, which Chicago won 6-3; as such, they actually outscored St. Louis in the series, 20-19.
  • Brian Elliott faced an average of seven more shots per game (36.3 to 29.3) than Chicago’s netminder, Corey Crawford.
  • While the Blues had home-ice advantage for the series, they split the four games played at Scottrade Center, but managed to take two of the three played at Chicago’s United Center.
  • The home team won only three times.

 

And the more recent series vs. the Stars…

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  • The Blues won the regular season series 4-1, claiming three victories in OT. So, if you’re keeping track at home, the Blues went 7-3 during the regular season against their two divisional opponents, and won six of those games in overtime. For whatever it’s worth, they were 4-1 against the Predators, including one OT win, and 1-2 versus the Sharks, with no home team winning a single game.
  • Four of the seven games were decided by one goal (two in OT).
    • All three of Dallas’ wins came in these nail-biters.
    • The Blues won a crucial game 2 in Texas in OT; their other three victories were blowouts (two, away from home) by a combined score of 16-1. As such, they outscored the Stars 25-14 in the series. That’s got to be some sort of record for goal differential in a seven game series.
  • The Blues averaged 3.6 goals per game in the series after averaging 2.7 per game during the regular season, good enough for 15th of 30 teams; the Stars averaged 2.0 goals per game this series versus 3.3 per game, tops in the league.
  • A shaky first period in game 6 aside, Elliott certainly made his case for the Conn Smythe Trophy, turning away shots during furious action in front of his net and posting a save percentage 45 points better than his counterparts on the Stars, Kari Lehtonen and Antti Niemi.

 

In all, things are looking promising for the Blues. In years past, they’ve folded easily after surrendering a lead, but this team has come back on several occasions, notably against the defending champion Blackhawks. They’ve also shown, against the Stars, they can score in bunches and keep the intensity up when holding the lead. Not to get too excited with two rounds yet to play before any parade in the vicinity of 14th and Clark, but if the Cubs are currently the best team in baseball and inevitably going to win it all in 2016, why can’t the Blues?

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at St. Louis Cardinals

Cards’ April wrap-up

As the first calendar month of Major League Baseball’s comes to a close, we’ve begun to accumulate enough data to make spring training projections look silly. While the NL Central has already begun to pan out the way most experts projected–the Cubs leading the way, the Cardinals and Pirates in contention, and the Reds and Brewers bringing up the rear–the reason for the Redbirds’ moderate success appears to be the polar opposite from projections made in March.

The 2015 Cardinals allowed 525 runs all season, an average of about 3.24 runs allowed per game; the pitching staff’s ERA was 2.94 (478 earned runs allowed on the season), best in the majors by over a quarter of an earned run per 9 innings. Conventional logic dictated that, with Adam Wainwright, who lost most of last season due to injury, essentially replacing John Lackey, who departed for Chicago’s north side, and Mike Leake coming on board to fill in for the injured Lance Lynn, the Cardinals would still have the best starting rotation and one of the best overall staffs in the majors.

Unfortunately, this year’s team has already allowed more runs (92) through 22 games than last year’s did (91) in its first thirty. The team’s two youngest starters–Carlos Martinez and Michael Wacha, both only 24–are a combined 6-1 with a 2.51 ERA. The perennially-injured Jaime Garcia also showed why the Cardinals picked up his option for this season in his one-hit shutout of the Brewers in his second start of the season; he has posted a decent 3.73 ERA thus far. Instead, it’s Wainwright and Leake, far and away the most experienced starters in the rotation, who have dragged the rotation down thus far. Waino’s 7.16 ERA is particularly disconcerting in light of the 1.44 he posted before tearing his left Achilles running out of the batter’s box last April.

Given the problems of the pitching staff relative to last year–they are currently fifth in the NL in ERA and tenth in strikeouts–and the prevailing offseason concern that general manager John Mozeliak didn’t do enough to shore up 2015’s painfully average offense, the offensive output thus far has been a pleasant surprise. Mo’s moves, or lack thereof, were predicated on the following expectations:

  • Continued improvement over with regular playing time for Randal Grichuk & Stephen Piscotty. Piscotty is hitting .297 (.305 last year) with 4 HRs; his OPS is up vs. 2015, as well. Grichuk’s average is down significantly (.189 vs. .276) and, as a result, his on-base and slugging percentages have suffered.
  • A power surge for Matt Holliday, who only hit 4 HRs last season after playing in only 73 games due to two stints on the DL. Holliday has already gone deep three times this season, but his average is a little lower (.253 vs. .279) than last year.
  • Ditto for Matt Adams, who mashed 17 HRs in under 300 ABs in 2013, then managed two fewer while exceeding 500 ABs in ’14; missed over 100 games last season due to injury. He’s been used off the bench for the most part this season, and has only hit .244 with 2 HRs and 17 strikeouts in 45 ABs.
  • Better consistency from Matt Carpenter who, despite hitting 28 HRs and leading the league in doubles last season, went through a couple of slumps and power outages when shuffled around in the lineup. Marp’s average (.230) is well below that for his career (.286), but his on-base percentage would be a career high if today were October 2nd. While his slugging percentage is down versus 2015, his OPS is above his career average.
  • While 2B Kolten Wong has essentially been a singles hitter thus far in his career, he has provided some offensive and defensive stability at a position which the franchise has had little for quite some time. Unfortunately, he’s yet to contribute any extra-base hits in 51 ABs this season, and his four errors are tied for fifth in the NL.
  • Typically-excellent defense from Yadier Molina, and an uptick in batting average and, more importantly, power numbers. Sure enough, he’s been solid behind the plate thus far, and he’s hitting .341, albeit with 0 HRs. Still, Yadi’s on-base and slugging percentages, as well as OPS, are much improved over 2015.
  • A little more rest throughout the season for Jhonny Peralta, whose average was above .300 at the end of April and May, and even as late as mid-July, but fell off to .275 by the season’s end. So, Peralta got hurt in spring training. The Cardinals signed Ruben Tejada, whom the Mets had just released, to fill in. Then he got hurt, so manager Mike Matheny was forced to turn to Aledmys Díaz, a Cuban defector signed by St. Louis in 2014. Through twenty games played, Díaz’ .423 average leads baseball by a wide margin. Tejada has since returned from the DL, which will be advantageous as Díaz has provided suspect defense at short, committing 5 errors already.
  • Given Brandon Moss’ career numbers entering the season, a batting average above .250 is probably out of the question, so he was expected to provide some power off the bench or when filling in for Adams at first. Sure enough, he’s hitting .226 so far, but with 5 HRs in only 62 ABs, so he’s actually surpassed Adams a little in the pecking order; Adams is linked to trade rumors that have persisted since the offseason.
  • Did I mention more power off the bench? Led by Tommy Pham, and the odd man out between Holliday, Adams, Piscotty, Grichuk, and Moss on a given day. So Pham got hurt in game #1… enter Jeremy Hazelbaker, who’s hit .317 with 5 HRs in 63 ABs in his first action in the majors.

St. Louis Cardinals Jeremy Hazelbaker

Overall, the offense has improved significantly. They are currently 2nd in the NL with a .275 average, have scored the most runs (135), and are behind only Colorado and Arizona in HRs. They’re currently on pace to mash 229 HRs, only twenty off the NL mark set by the Astros (including Jeff Bagwell and Ken Caminiti, and a nifty little short porch in LF in Enron Field’s inaugural season) in 2000. On April 27, they scored 10+ runs for the sixth time, a mark which wasn’t achieved until July 18 last season.

What I do find troublesome is the offensive output in games against good teams. Don’t get me wrong, you’re generally going to score more runs against bad teams than against good ones, but this iteration of the Cards has been quite extreme. In 16 games against the Braves, Brewers, Reds, Padres, and Diamondbacks, they’ve pushed 124 runs across the plate, or 7.75 per game. They’re 11-5 against these teams with sub-.500 records.

However, may recall the opening-series sweep in Pittsburgh, in which El Birdos scored precisely one run in two of the three games and seven total. Two weeks later, at home against the Cubs, they managed all of six runs in three games, with five coming in the third game to avoid the sweep. And now, having lost the first two (again, at home) in the current series against the Nationals, they’ve only managed five runs. So, in eight games against teams above .500, they’ve scored 18 runs, or 2.25 per game. That wouldn’t be enough even with last year’s pitching staff, so it’s no surprise the Redbirds are 1-7 against the Pirates, Cubs, and Nationals.

Ultimately, while the pitching staff and defense do need to improve (for what it’s worth, they’ve allowed 4.5 runs per game against the three aforementioned postseason-bound clubs and 4.2 per against the five lesser teams they’ve faced thus far), the offense is only halfway to goal of improving. They’ve bailed out the pitching staff in several games, the reverse of the situation countless times last season. The 2016 lineup has proven it’s capable of hanging a crooked number against inferior pitching; now it must show it can manage to scratch runs across against the better pitching staffs the league has to offer.

Here’s to hoping May and beyond offer a *little* better than .500 baseball.