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.

A jubilant American sailor clutching a white-unifo

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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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.

Old Birdos

Unless you’ve been living under a rock since the Cubbies eliminated the Cardinals from the 2015 MLB postseason, you’re probably aware that Jason Heyward recently departed St. Louis in free agency for a certain *hated* rival. Chicago formally introduced the J-Hey Kid on December 15; he wasted no time in taking a veiled swipe at his former employers, noting the aging core players in St. Louis as a big reason in his decision to pack his bags and head north.

As you might expect, Cards manager Mike Matheny took exception to this characterization of his ballclub. But while it might seem, at first glance, that the Cardinals stars–Adam Wainwright, Matt Holliday, Yadier Molina–are ancient compared to the Cubs’, was there really that sizable a gap last season, and did it really get worse this offseason?

According to Baseball-Reference.com, the Cardinals entire 2015 roster, whether participating in 155 games like Jhonny Peralta or 1 like Marco Gonzales, Nick Greenwood, and Dean Anna, had an average age of 28.4 years–27.8 among pitchers and 28.5 among position players. The Cubs were an average of 26.5 years old among position players and 29.5 years on the hill, for a total average of 26.7 years, or 1.7 years younger than the Cardinals.

To get a little closer, though, to Heyward’s actual meaning, I should really look at players who started more often than not. The Cards’ most common lineup, which, admittedly, only appeared in a grand total of 8 games:

  1. Matt Carpenter – 29 years old
  2. Jason Heyward – 25
  3. Matt Holliday – 35
  4. Matt Adams – 26
  5. Jhonny Peralta – 33
  6. Jon Jay – 30
  7. Yadier Molina – 32
  8. Kolten Wong – 24
  9. (pitcher)

Together, these eight position players average 29 years and 3 months.

The Cubs:

  1. Dexter Fowler – 29 years old
  2. Kris Bryant – 23
  3. Anthony Rizzo – 25
  4. Starlin Castro – 25
  5. Miguel Montero – 31
  6. Jorge Soler – 23
  7. Chris Coghlan – 30
  8. (pitcher)
  9. Addison Russell – 21

Twenty-five years and 10 1/2 months. Even when accounting for any and all position players who appeared in more than 81 regular season games, which replaces Matt Holliday with Randal Grichuk for St. Louis and adds Chris Denorfia to Chicago’s list, the Cubs still hold an advantage of about a year and a half.

When you start to look at pitching, however, the Cardinals seem to be more in-tune with any sort of “youth movement.” After Adam Wainwright tore his Achilles in the third week of the regular season, John Lackey, 36, led a group significantly younger starters for the bulk of the season. Lackey, together with Michael Wacha, Carlos Martinez, Lance Lynn, and Jaime Garcia, were an average of 27 years and 7 months.

Furthermore, occasional starters Tyler Lyons and Tim Cooney were 27 and 24, respectively. Additionally, four Cardinal relievers appeared in at least forty games on the regular season; three of the four (Trevor Rosenthal, Kevin Siegrist, and Seth Maness) were no older than 26 at any point during the season.

The Cubs’ pitching staff, meanwhile, was *significantly* older, especially in the more prominent roles. The four starters who barely missed a start the entire season–Jake Arrieta, Jon Lester, Kyle Hendricks, and Jason Hammel–were an average of 29 years and 3 months old in 2015. The fifth most-used starter, Dan Haren, was the oldest starter in the rotation following his trade from Miami before the deadline; he pitched for St. Louis over a decade ago!

Moreover, the six relievers to accumulate at least forty appearances on the season were an average of two months shy of 29; technically, that’s only slightly older than the Cards’ pen, but if we throw out crazy outliers like Randy Choate, who’s old enough to be Kris Bryant’s father, the Cardinals are overall younger on the pitching staff.

The other means by which to view Heyward’s recent comments are to look forward to 2016: how old are the projected lineups for each ballclub? Because, after all, that’s more or less what he was looking at, whether intentionally or no.

The Cardinals’ current projected lineup (as of December 21), according to RotoChamp, reads as follows (ages are as of Opening Day 2016):

  1. Matt Carpenter – 30 years old
  2. Stephen Piscotty – 25
  3. Matt Holliday – 36
  4. Randal Grichuk – 24
  5. Jhonny Peralta – 33
  6. Brandon Moss – 32
  7. Kolten Wong – 25
  8. Yadier Molina – 33

Twenty-nine years and nine months… ever so slightly older than 2015’s most commonly-used lineup. But, technically, slightly younger without Heyward; since Holliday was going to start irrespective of Heyward’s presence, Piscotty or Grichuk, both of whom are younger, vaulted in to the starting lineup with #22’s departure.

RotoChamp is currently projecting the following lineup for Chicago:

  1. Ben Zobrist – 34
  2. Jason Heyward – 26
  3. Anthony Rizzo – 26
  4. Kris Bryant – 24
  5. Kyle Schwarber – 23
  6. Jorge Soler – 24
  7. Miguel Montero – 32
  8. Addison Russell – 22

About two years younger than the Cards’ projected lineup. But what stands out to me, more than anything else, is the acquisition of Ben Zobrist. Pretty old for a “youth movement”-oriented team, no?

RotoChamp also projects likely or possible starters. Wainwright, 34; Wacha, 24; Martinez, 24; Garcia, 29; Gonzales, 24; and Lyons, 28, populate the Cardinals’ rotation. Together, they’ll be an average 27 years and two months old come Opening Day.

The Cubs, meanwhile, got older when they acquired John Lackey, 37, after he chose not to re-sign with the Cardinals. He’s joined by Arrieta, 30; Lester, 32; Hendricks, 26; Hammel, 33; Trevor Cahill, 28; and Adam Warren, 28. This projected rotation will be over an average of 30 years and six months old on Opening Day–more than three years older than the Cardinals starters!

Ultimately, it’s not terribly difficult to understand why Heyward chose the Cubs. When it comes to the age of core players, there’s substantially greater hype surrounding Cubs position players like Bryant, Rizzo, Schwarber, and Russell when compared to the Cardinals trio of Wong, Piscotty, and Grichuk. But let’s not forget the tear the Cardinals starters, even without Adam Wainwright, were on for the first few months of the 2015 season.

Perhaps even more important is the common knowledge with any sport involving free agency. Once a team loses that ability to almost unilaterally control the contract to which younger players are entitled, it’s faced with a tough decision: pay the player what he wants, or let him walk in free agency. Prior to that, some players are able to state their case at an arbitration hearing and their team is almost always required to pay more than they were paying under the player’s initial contract.

For the Cubs, unless they sign both players to contract extensions first, Addison Russell and Kris Bryant are arbitration-eligible in 2018, while Kyle Schwarber joins them the following season; all three are currently slated to become free agents in 2022, following Rizzo (’20) and Soler (’21). While those events may seem like the distant future, it perhaps does lend a clue as to why Jason Heyward’s 8-year $184 million contract includes opt-out clauses (for the player) following the 2018 and ’19 seasons. It’s one way to lock him down for a seemingly reasonable price for the next few years, but part of me wonders if the Cubs hope he performs well enough that he does elect to void the remainder of his contract around when they’ll likely need to empty their pockets for the aforementioned “core.”

And, of course, Cardinals fans also have prior history to fall back on. The team, despite several roster turnovers, has generally exceeded expectations for a market on the smaller end of the spectrum over the past two decades, and there’s no reason to believe that will suddenly cease. Likewise, we can only hope Cubs fans’ hubris over their young players leads to a karmic repeat of the era of good feelings that Kerry Wood and Mark Prior ushered in and Dusty Baker quickly dashed a decade ago.

Dusty Baker

Within the past few days, Dusty Baker was named manager of the Washington Nationals. He replaced Matt Williams, whose 179-145 record in 201415 wasn’t satisfactory for a team whose championship aspirations, with the likes of Bryce Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, Jayson Werth, and an opening day rotation (this season) of Max Scherzer, Steven Strasburg, Jordan Zimmerman, Gio Gonzalez, and Doug Fister, went bust when they missed the postseason altogether this year.

The inexperienced Williams appears to have been generally disliked in the Nats’ clubhouse; with Baker, Washington gets one of the most experienced (17th in MLB history for both games and wins) and best-respected (in the clubhouse) managers around. He is one of only two men to win National League Manager of the Year (established in 1983) three times (Bobby Cox is the other). However, if was a Nationals fan, I would not be thrilled with this hiring.

For starters, and speaking of starters, Baker came under scrutiny for his use of a pair of Cubs twirlers during his tenure in Chicago. In 2003, he ran the highly-touted 22-year old Mark Prior out for 211+ innings, while averaging 113 pitches per start over the course of the season (for the uninitiated, 100 pitches is generally when a manager will seek to remove his pitcher, rookie or veteran, from the game). From 2004-2007 Prior suffered pitching-related injuries, and was let go after that last season, all of which was spent on the disabled list.

Kerry Wood also had success and a high work-rate during the 2003 season, but, like Prior, made regular trips to the DL in the following three seasons, after which Dusty Baker was fired by the Cubs. Ultimately, during Baker’s tenure with the club (’03-’06), Wood went 26-26 in a mere 68 starts with a 3.56 ERA. Prior was 36-23 in 87 starts with a 3.55 ERA under Baker. But while these stats, missed starts aside, seem good, they certainly fail to live up to the hype surrounding both pitchers in their respective rookie seasons and thereafter. In fact, looking at 2004-6 alone, Wood and Prior went a combined 30-32 in 93 starts with a 4.12 ERA.

Baker is also staunchly “old-school,” insofar that much of his managerial style contradicts tenets held by the sabermetric community. That’s not to say that making decisions based on “feel” or traditional decision-making are inherently wrong, but in many cases Baker seems to refute otherwise overwhelming statistical evidence that points to the contrary (e.g. a sacrifice bunt).

Lastly, Baker, for all his regular season managerial experience, still has yet to claim the ultimate postseason prize: a World Series ring. In the aforementioned four seasons with the Cubs, they never won 90 games, and only made the postseason once–in 2003, when their inevitable championship was derailed by a bespectacled fan wearing a green turtleneck listening to the game on his Walkman.

Prior to leading Chicago, Baker oversaw the San Francisco Giants for ten seasons, from 1993-2002. Seven of those ten teams finished above .500, with five of those exceeding 90 wins. Yet for all that regular season success (89.75 wins per season in the eight not impacted by the 1994-5 players’ strike), the Giants only made the postseason on three occasions, winning only one of seven games before 2002.

And in 2002, of course, the Giants were sitting on a 5-0 lead (and 3-2 series lead) heading in to the bottom of the 7th inning in game 6 in Anaheim. After starter Russ Ortiz recorded the first out of the inning, the Giants had about a 97% chance to win the game and the franchise’s first World Series since moving to the Bay Area in 1957. Ortiz and the rest of San Francisco’s ‘pen couldn’t make that seemingly insurmountable lead hold up, and the Angels won that game, plating three runs later in the 7th and three more in the 8th. The Giants went out with a whimper the following night; after the season, the Giants elected not to renew Baker’s contract, and he moved on to Chicago.

After driving the Cubs in to the ground in just a few short years, Baker moved on to Cincinnati, where he would win two division titles and 90 games on three occasions in six seasons (2008-13). During his tenure there, he received familiar criticism for his overuse of Edinson Volquez. More to the point, in the Reds’ three postseason appearance, they went 2-7 under Baker.

Those two wins came in among the more epic postseason collapses in baseball history. Cincinnati won the first two games of their 2012 National League divisional series against the Giants in San Francisco. In the best-of-five series, all they needed to was win one of the next three at Great American Ballpark and they would advance to the NLCS. They couldn’t even pull that off, and the Giants won the series and, eventually, the World Series.

Overall, in his twenty seasons managing (one of which omitted the entire postseason due to the aforementioned players’ strike), Baker’s teams have made the postseason on seven occasions. Only two of those teams–the ’02 Giants and ’03 Cubs–advanced beyond the first round. Three teams–the ’97 Giants (NLDS), ’10 Reds (NLDS), and ’13 Reds (Wild Card)–failed to win a single game and were unceremoniously swept out of contention. He concluded 2013 with a 19-26 postseason record, and only two series wins to his credit.

Those 2013 Reds also lost their final five regular season games prior to the Wild Card round, including the final three at home against Pittsburgh, which enabled the Pirates to host their subsequent postseason showdown. General manager Walt Jocketty admitted the Reds’ abysmal week was a significant factor in the club’s choice to fire their manager.

In the end, it doesn’t seem as though Washington took a particularly close look at how Baker worked out at each of his previous three clubs. It’s not as though he took underdog clubs and ran with them all the way to the NLCS or World Series. He managed numerous MVP and Cy Young candidates and some stacked teams, but still has yet to win it all. Realistically, that’s what the Nationals are working with. They’re not a rebuilding franchise looking for a no-nonsense guy to straighten out a few bad apples; with the talent on their 40-man roster, there’s no way they shouldn’t have advanced to the NLCS this year (let alone made the postseason). And I’m not so sure, based on his track record, that Baker’s the guy to get them there.

Back to the Past

The Cubs have the Mets right where they want them.

“But, Ryan, the Mets have a 3-0 lead on them in the National League championship series!”

Precisely.

Let’s take a little trip down memory lane, back to 2004.  On this date, the Boston Red Sox were preparing for their World Series showdown with the St. Louis Cardinals after having completed the first comeback of its kind in MLB history the night before: a 3-0 deficit in a best-of-seven postseason series turned in to a 4-3 series win.  And, technically, that memorable game 7 had ended juuuuust after midnight on October 21 (bbref lists a start time of 8:30 and a duration of 3:31, putting the deciding game’s end at 12:01 AM).

Back to the present.  Surely, you say, the Red Sox’ improbable run in 2004 has absolutely nothing to do with this year’s iteration of the Chicago Cubs.  Not so fast.

Obviously, both franchises have/had extraordinarily lost championship droughts.  The Red Sox were staring 86 seasons in the face; they last won it all in 1918, two seasons before their owner sold none other than Babe Ruth to their hated rivals, the New York Yankees.  The Cubs, meanwhile, have been trophy-free since 1908, and haven’t even appeared in a World Series since 1945, the same year the owner of the local Billy Goat Tavern jinxed the Cubs after he and his pet goat were asked to leave a World Series game against the Detroit Tigers.

Both teams finished with win totals in the upper 90s (Cubs: 97; Red Sox: 98) and finished precisely 3 games behind their main rival and division champion (Cardinals: 100-62; Yankees: 101-61), thereby relegating the beleaguered club to the Wild Card (or, in Chicago’s case, the 2nd Wild Card and a one-game playoff).

Both teams defeated the Cardinals in four games in their respective postseasons–the Red Sox, of course, in the World Series and the Cubbies in the NLDS.

Both teams squared off against their respective league’s New York franchise in the LCS and dug themselves an 0-3 hole against said club.

And, really, that’s approximately where the eerie similarities end.  I was hoping, prior to researching this topic, that the Red Sox had beaten the A’s in the ALDS that in ’04, because then I could draw a connection between a former location from that franchise (Kansas City) and the American League’s likely World Series representative this season (Royals).  But it wasn’t to be.  The 2004 A’s finished a game behind the Anaheim Angels, whom the Red Sox swept out of the postseason in the ALDS.

Unfortunately, there were no players from that team who played for this year’s Royals or Toronto Blue Jays.  It would be far too easy to complete a “six degrees of a 2004 Anaheim Angel” with either of this year’s ALCS participants.  After all, a few players suited up for KC and Torotno as recently as two or three seasons ago.  But only four ’04 Angels were still active in 2015, most notably Bartolo Colon for the Mets and John Lackey for St. Louis.

Different managers, too.  I mean, Ned Yost and John Gibbons both played in the majors around the same time as Angels manager Mike Scioscia, who was far and away the most successful of the trio of catchers. Gibbons did catch a handful of games for the ’86 Mets, who prolonged Boston’s misery in that year’s World Series.  But I’ve otherwise given up on trying to connect the 2004 Angels to the 2015 Royals and Blue Jays, geographically, personnel-wise, etc.

Then there’s Theo Epstein and Manny Ramirez.  Epstein was the architect of Boston’s nearly-unprecedented postseason success as the general manager; he has also seemingly resurrected the Cubs in just a few short seasons.  Manny, of course, was a key figure in Boston’s postseason success.  Presently, he serves as a hitting consultant in the Cubs’ organization.  So there’s that.

Back to the future.  Either way, there will be an interesting narrative to write tonight.  Either the Mets will sweep the Cubs out of the 2015 postseason on the date to which Doc Brown and Marty McFly traveled in Back to the Future Part II, in which Marty initially conceives of his sports betting scheme after seeing the breaking news that the long-shot Cubbies won the World Series.  Or they’ll begin their epic turnaround tonight and surge to their first World Series title in 108 years, just as Robert Zemeckis and Bob Gale foretold some 26 years ago.

Combined World Series title drought

It’s fairly inevitable that any MLB postseason “final four” involving the Cubs is going to have a pretty long combined number of years between World Series titles for the teams involved.  But it’s not as though any of the other three teams rounding out the LCS slate have won especially recently, either.  The Blue Jays are the most recent champions, winning the Fall Classic in 1993.

List of ALCS & NLCS participants, 2000-2015, and a listing of each franchise’s most recent title and respective championship drought

One example on process of counting the number of years: when the St. Louis Cardinals, who won the 2011 World Series, appeared in the 2012 NLCS, their drought number would be 0, even though they didn’t advance to and win the title.  I’m essentially counting the number of postseasons played in their entirety from the season following the most recent championship through the postseason played the year prior.  To figure this out mathematically, using the column headers in the chart, take (Year) – 1 – (Last Title).  So, using the above example, St. Louis’ would be 2012 – 1 – 2011 = 0, because, when the 2012 NLCS began, the Cardinals hadn’t gone any years without winning a title since their most recent.

A number in parentheses under the “Last Title” column indicates the franchise has never won the World Series, and that was their inaugural season.  The formula for these teams is ever so slightly different: it’s simply (Year) – (Last Title).  If hypothetical Team X was founded in 2014 and was participating in a 2015 LCS, they would have a drought of 1 year (2015 – 2014 = 1).  Using the formula described in the previous paragraph would result in a drought of 0 years, which would only be possible if they participating in the LCS in their inaugural campaign.

I’m sure there’s some standard-deviation-fanciness someone could pull off with the averages and what-not, but I ain’t that guy.

Some observations:

Since 2000, the 2012 LCS participants combined for the shortest drought.  The Cardinals, Giants, and Yankees, after all, had won each of the previous three titles.

Only four teams have yet to advance to their respective league’s LCS since 2000, and all happen to be in the National League: the Padres, Reds, Pirates, and Nationals/Expos.

We’re now at the fourth consecutive season in which all four LCS participants have won at least one World Series title in their history (even if one of them was over a century ago and there were only 16 teams in all of MLB).  Nine of the preceding twelve seasons (2000-2011) had at least one franchise playing that was still searching for its first title.

And, of course, the notion that piqued my curiosity in the first place: the 2003 NLCS and ALCS teams actually combined to have one season longer of a drought than 2015’s teams.  That was the postseason when the Cubs missed out on a trip to the Fall Classic in epic fashion and Red Sox Nation actually seemed pleasant, especially when compared against the perennial Yankees juggernaut.

This season is unique, however, in that no other time in the previous fifteen postseasons have all four teams in the LCS gone at least twenty years since their last World Series title.  In 2003, even with the Cubs’ & Red Sox’ epic droughts, the Yankees and Marlins had both won it all within the past half-decade.  So if you get the feeling like it’s been a while since any of the four finalists have won gone the distance, you’re not crazy.  Unless you’re a Cubs’ fan.

Cards/Cubs Rookies

One constant talking point in the National League Central throughout the 162-game schedule was the quality of the young players and rookies on the Chicago Cubs’ roster.  Kris Bryant, of course, was a focal point from Spring Training on, but Anthony Rizzo, Jorge Soler, Starlin Castro, and Addison Russell, all under the age of 26 back in April, saw regular playing time this season.  Kyle Schwarber and Javier Baez, neither a regular starter during the season, both made immense contributions during the four-game NLDS.  Among pitchers, Kyle Hendricks made his mark, as well.  For the purposes of this discussion, though, I’m only going to look at players fewer than three full seasons under their belts; that omits Rizzo and Castro, both of whom have played since age 20 and were 25 in April.

The Cardinals also received important contributions during the regular season and in October from their youngsters, despite less acclaim from national media outlets.  Jason Heyward, who turned 26 in August, was in his sixth season, so is disqualified.  Kolten Wong was the Cardinals regular second baseman, and Randal Grichuk started regularly from mid-May to mid-August, between stints on the DL.  Stephen Piscotty, a late-July call-up, also received regular playing time with injuries to Grichuk, Jon Jay, and Matt Holliday.  St. Louis also received more significant contributions from young pitchers than did the Cubs.  Carlos Martinez, Michael Wacha, and Kevin Siegrist all have pitched fewer than three seasons, but Trevor Rosenthal, who has been a big-leaguer for about 3 1/2 seasons, is ineligible for this discussion.

For the purposes of statistical comparison, then, I’m looking at Bryant, Soler, Russell, Schwarber, Baez, and Hendricks for the Cubs; and Wong, Piscotty, Grichuk, Martinez, Wacha, and Siegrist for the Cards.

On offense, the Cubs received about 1.5 times as much contribution from their young players as the Cardinals–1700 ABs to 1100.  But, overall, the results aren’t that dissimilar, which is somewhat surprising given the hype surrounding Bryant and Russell, in particular.

If you don’t feel like following the link, let me break it down for you a little.  The Cardinals’ triumvirate strikes out significant less, though Kris Bryant (one shy of 200) hurt the Cubs the most there.  The Cubs’ players hit a homer about every 26 ABs; the Cardinals’, about every 32.  Overall, OBP and Slugging % were pretty similar, with Chicago leading the former category, and St. Louis, the latter.  The Redbirds also held the advantage in batting average, but overall, it doesn’t appear one set of players is more dominant than the other.

Pitching, on the other hand, swings quite obviously in the Cardinals’ direction.  Aside from the Cardinals’ pitchers pitching more games and winning them at a superior rate to Hendricks, most of the comparable “average” stats were similar (Hendricks led in FIP, WHIP, SO/BB ratio, and BB/9, but the Redbird trio held the advantage in ERA+, Hits/9, HR/9, and SO/9), but Cardinals fans should undoubtedly be excited that they have such a deep crop of young pitchers at their disposal for several years to come.

In their NLDS series, Wong, Piscotty, and Grichuk combined to go 10/38 (.263) with 5 HRs and 8 RBI.  The five Cubs, meanwhile, went 18/47 (.383) with 6 HRs and 12 RBI.  In fact, while the much-ballyhooed Bryant struggled through a 3/17 performance, Soler, Schwarber, and Baez (fewer than 200 games played between the three of them on the regular season) played a huge role in the Cubs’ victory, despite seeing comparatively limited action, going 12/20 with 5 HR and 9 RBI.

On the pitching side, Martinez was placed on the disabled list late in the season and missed the series.  Hendricks, though not credited with a victory because he was chased with two outs in the fifth of Game 2, did enough to keep his team in the lead before turning it over to the bullpen, which shut the Redbird bats down for the remaining 4 1/3 innings.  Conversely, Wacha and Siegrist greatly impaired the Cards’ chances: Wacha struggled with his command in Game 3, and couldn’t survive through five without surrendering the lead to the Cubs.  Siegrist started out well enough, striking out Chris Coghlan and Addison Russell to end the top of the 8th and preserve his team’s 1-0 lead.  But in Game 3, Siegrist, on in relief of Wacha, surrendered a crippling solo shot to Anthony Rizzo.  In Game 4, attempting to preserve a 4-4 tie in the 6th, he allowed the go-ahead homer to Rizzo, followed by another to Schwarber in the 7th, and was ultimately saddled with the loss in the deciding match.

Overall, not a spectacular four-game stretch for the Cardinals’ youngsters, especially compared to how their counterparts on Chicago performed, but it’s certainly far too soon to proclaim the Cubbies as the new standard-bearers for the NL Central.