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Baseball’s Best Month: 2012 Edition

Under the Lights

The baseball playoffs are underway, with the first ever Wild Card games going today, before the League Division Series commence the first proper round tomorrow afternoon. The wild card play-in is an innovation I quite enjoy. Not only does it add two more games, but it adds an incentive to winning your division. Do that, and you’re guaranteed entry into the best-of-five division series. Come up short, and instead be forced to go through a single-game elimination, where anything can happen.

I love playoff baseball (as I do with nearly every form of baseball). Rarely does a year pass by without at least one or two signature, memorable moments. Last year gave us the Chris Carpenter-Roy Halladay duel in Game 5 of the NLDS, the unforgettable Game 6 of the World Series (with David Freese’s heroics), and other great moments. We don’t know what this year holds, but there are many exciting players and teams involved. Here’s what I’ll be watching for in October.

Before that, a word about the teams that just missed the playoffs.

The Los Angeles Dodgers accomplished two things that I appreciate. First, they took a bunch of bad contracts off the Red Sox’s books. Second, they rehabilitated Hanley Ramirez’s fantasy value after acquiring him at mid-season. Yet, I’m glad they missed the playoffs. With an ownership group that’s willing to spend a ton of money, they’ll likely be a regular playoff team for the foreseeable future. So, it’s nice to see some different faces, as we’ll soon get tired of seeing the Dodgers every October.

Across Orange County, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are another perennial playoff team, so seeing them miss out isn’t too disheartening. Yet, after what must be the greatest rookie year of all-time, I would have loved to see Mike Trout get a chance to continue that effort in October. Trout was also a part of one of my personal favorite moments at a ballgame.

At a Rangels-Angels game in Anaheim at the start of June, Trout managed to steal the show. He hit a triple that keyed the Angels’ comeback win, and when taking his spot in center field the next inning, our section in right-center gave him a standing ovation. Love little moments like that that won’t show up on the TV broadcast.

I do, however, feel bad for the Tampa Bay Rays. Despite finishing 2nd in the AL in run differential (and 3rd in MLB), they finished 3 games out of a playoff spot, behind the Orioles, whose run differential was 113 runs worse. There’s talk they’ll lose James Shields from the rotation, and while they’ll still have key players like Evan Longoria and David Price, their window to win on a small budget narrows every year they miss out.

Now, for the playoff teams:

Wild Card
As a child of the ’90s, it’s nice to see the Atlanta Braves back in the playoffs, and the Ted rocking at playoff home games. Closer Craig Kimbrel has had an outstanding year, after he looked burned out by Manager Fredi Gonzales’ poor handling of the bullpen down the stretch last year. It’s also Chipper Jones’ last season, and I’ll take as many bonus Chipper games as I can get. He’s been one of the best players I’ve seen, and one of the first I’ve been able to follow for his entire career. Seriously, I even had his Score rookie card as a draft pick in 1990 draft (I remember also having Mike Lieberthal, Steve Karsay, and Todd Van Poppel ones that summer in 1991). Suffice to say, he was on my radar even before he cracked the big league club. I’d love to see him go out on a high note.

On the other hand, I’ll be happy with St. Louis, one of the game’s great franchises, moving on as well. It’s nice to see them thrive after letting Albert Pujols go, only finishing 2 games of their 2011 pace.

In the American League, it was great to see the big spending Texas Rangers pushed into the wild card playoff after getting swept by Oakland in the season’s final series. I hope we see lots of shots of a frustrated Nolan Ryan in tonight’s playoff game.

Baltimore, with a +7 run differential, has to be one of the luckiest playoff teams ever. As an underdog, they’re hard not to like. Any vitriol I had against them for eliminating the Red Sox last year has since been redirected towards loathing the Sox themselves. That said, putting a finesse pitcher like Joe Saunders against a right-handed heavy, mashing Texas Rangers lineup is asking for trouble. I’d love to see an upset (tonight, then against the Yankees), but I’m not counting on it.

Jeter

Division Winners
The New York Yankees never seem to go away. If they win, I’ll be happy for Ichiro, and that’s it.

The Detroit Tigers are star-heavy, with Triple Crown winner Miguel Cabrera and ace Justin Verlander leading the way. Cabrera’s triple crown is a remarkable feat. It hasn’t happened in 45 years, and a batting triple crown is roughly twice as rare as a pitching one, which speaks to its difficulty to achieve.

It’s hard not to cheer for the Oakland A’s. They’re in the playoffs for the first time in 6 years, with their first true post-Moneyball playoff club. Still strapped with a small budget, they no longer have an underappreciated statistic to exploit (as far as we know). Instead, Billy Beane is exploiting the oldest market inefficiency in the game, general manager decision-making ability. He got Yoenis Cespedes for $9M/year, accumulated loads of young pitching talent in return for the old core of his rotation, and poached 30-homer Josh Reddick from the Red Sox for closer Andrew Bailey. While Reddick broke out, Bailey’s highlight (as far as Sox fans go) was his extended stay on the DL. Seriously. He posted a negative WAR in his brief appearance post-DL.

On another note, your heart has to go out to this A’s club. Brandon McCarthy was in life-threatening condition after taking a line drive in the head just over a month ago. Then, on the day the A’s clinched the division, he tweeted this photo and note about his dad’s terminal illness, which will probably make you cry at least a little bit. Then, that night, horrible news that Pat Neshek and his wife lost their son less than 24 hours after he was born.

In the National League, the San Francisco Giants are back two years after winning the World Series with a very similar team. They have a strong starting rotation, and Buster Posey, a successful rookie in 2010, is now a bona fide star. His recovery after a leg injury has been remarkable.

The Cincinnati Reds have finally cracked the playoffs, behind young stars like Joey Votta and Jay Bruce, and their pitching staff led by Johnny Cueto’s breakout year, and lights-out Aroldis Chapman in the bullpen. I’m happy to see them doing well after so many tough years. Mat Latos has been an excellent addition to their rotation, and it’s nice to see that his trade worked out for both sides exactly as it should. He has helped them to the playoffs, while the Padres are building around the young talent they got in return, such as Yonder Alonso and Yasmani Grandal.

However, I’m rooting for the Washington Nationals. I have an affinity for them as the zombie Expos, and I got to see perhaps their most exciting game of the year in person (like Trout, Harper hit a key triple that was absolutely thrilling to see in person). They have an exciting young team, and are building a following in what has been a tough market for baseball (they lost the Senators twice, and had few bright spots when they did have a team). Bryce Harper has started to break out in the past month (too late to save my fantasy team!), and even with Strasburg shelved, their rotation can compete with anyone. A World Series run from this team would be exciting for the sport as a whole, in my biased opinion.

Whoever wins, though, I think we’re in for an exciting month of baseball. It will be a great finale, then the wait for the first day of spring training will begin.

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Orioles and Game Theory

Camden Yards

Derek Thompson of The Atlantic makes a great point:

Should Orioles throw tonite’s game? Tying Yanks to force a rotation-busting 163rd game will hurt them going forward, no matter what.

They’re using Chris Tillman (the de facto ace) tonight in a game where they don’t control their own destiny, in hopes of being thrown into the randomness of a one-game playoff at home against New York that would win them their division, thus avoiding the wild card game and getting home field in the playoffs. They would then play the wild card winner in round one (New York or today’s Oakland/Texas loser).

However, if they lose, or if both Baltimore and NYY win tonight, Baltimore gets today’s Oakland/Texas loser on Friday in the randomness of a one-game playoff (at home if Baltimore wins today, on the road if they don’t). If they win that, they’ll play New York/Texas/Oakland without home field. MLB.com breaks it down.

Based on their rotation, if Tillman goes tonight, they’d start Tommy Hunter and his 1.40 WHIP tomorrow against New York (if necessary). Hunter or Joe Saunders are the likely starters Friday if they don’t win tomorrow’s hypothetical game.

Sportsmanship aside, it strikes me as a fascinating bit of game theory. Would they be better off using a spot-starter tonight and saving Tillman for a hypothetical one-game playoff tomorrow, or a certain one Friday? Either way, they’re playing the Yankees, A’s, or Rangers in round one or the Wild Card/round one if they win, and playing at least one one-game playoff to get there. So, in a sense, their strategy is built around how you put your odds of both you and the Red Sox winning tonight, then how much you value playing on your home field in the playoffs.

On Justin Trudeau

Justin Trudeau will announce his candidacy for Liberal leadership tonight. Since word leaked of the impending announcement, it has received what must be a record amount of attention for a candidate seeking leadership of the third party in the House of Commons. Without a word of his platform being leaked, he’s already being dismissed by some, while others have preached caution and a wait and see approach.

Justin Trudeau
Flickr/jbach

I don’t follow the business of the House of Commons closely enough to speak authoritatively on his record there. I have heard Justin speak a few times, and come away impressed. I think he’s being unfairly judged or sold short in some areas, even before he’s launched his campaign.

On Policy
I’ve previously written about the missing agenda I see for all centre-left parties (and progressives as a whole in Canada). Speaking to Trudeau specifically, I think he’s being unfairly maligned for having unclear positions, though perhaps this is the trade-off he has to accept in order to receive disproportionate attention.

In spite of their long resumes in politics, how many pundits could tell you clearly where Thomas Mulcair, Brian Topp, Peggy Nash, and Nathan Cullen stood on the 5-10 key issues at the start of the NDP leadership race? 6 months into his leadership, would Thomas Mulcair be strongly associated with any policy or idea but for the words “dutch disease“?

As others have said, at this point, it is simply too early to tell. Once launched, if Trudeau’s campaign is built around photo-ops and the “OMG Justin Trudeau” factor, it will then be fair to accuse him of being a lightweight. I suspect this won’t be the case, and that the policies and ideas he does put forward will be examined on their merits, no different than anyone else. Given his background, it wouldn’t surprise me to see Trudeau have a particular emphasis of environmental and youth issues, which – as far as I’m concerned – would be a very welcome addition to political discourse.

On Leadership
For me, a key part of leadership is getting people interested, engaged, and excited. Trudeau clearly accomplishes the first at this point, and should he accomplish the other two, what’s lacking on his paper resume won’t matter so much. Most of the hands-on, tactical management will be up to his Chief of Staff and the party executive director in any case. His biggest challenge will be to engage caucus, find meaningful roles, and get people interested and excited in the party. A key test I will be looking for, should he win, is whether or not he’s able to attract talented candidates who are also new faces to the party. Should he ever position the party as a serious contender to form government, then his executive decision-making style will be a much greater consideration.

On Experience
Yes, his resume is shorter than many other candidates. Legitimate contenders for 24 Sussex tend to take one of two approaches to build their resume. Let’s call them the establishment approach and the entrepreneurial approach.

The establishment approach sees candidates gain experience and rise through conventional institutions to get to higher office. Most likely, this is within government, working one’s way up through party positions, or in elected office from backbencher to a critic/cabinet minister, and so forth. Think Jean Chretien or John Turner. Alternately, one may eschew elected office for a time and build party credentials and alternative executive experience (such as Paul Martin and Brian Mulroney, who had real executive experience, though little to no experience in office prior to running for leadership the first time).

Alternately, there is the entrepreneurial approach, building a party from scratch, or taking a smaller one and building it into a big tent. This is where one gains meaningful experience, and demonstrates their credentials. Preston Manning had a fairly anonymous career prior to founding the Reform Party; Jack Layton was an academic turned long-time legislator on Toronto City Council, but the closest he came to being an executive would be as President (Chair of the Board) at FCM. Stephen Harper’s career outside of politics consists of leading a small office at the National Citizens’ Coalition. All three showed their credentials by building effective political parties. Once they had done that, it was irrelevant that they’d never spent time in the executive suite at Canada Steam Lines or the Iron Ore company.

Bringing this back to Justin Trudeau, should be elected leader, he will inherit a party in distant third place, and is, quite frankly, not competitive in enough parts of the country to form government, and virtually non-existent in some. If he ever becomes a serious contender for Prime Minister, it will be because he has led a team and organization that took a party and brand in disarray, and engineered a successful turnaround. In other words, at such point in time he’d be no less qualified than the sitting Prime Minister and two recent leaders of the opposition who were not dismissed as having thin resumes.

I have higher hopes for Trudeau than most. I’m not about to anoint him as Prime Minister-in-waiting, but am excited to see him jumping into the leadership race tonight.