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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