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Reidy: Breaking down the MLB playoff race

MLB Postseason Push: Two Weeks Out

Just over six months ago, commissioner Rob Manfred lifted the lockout and gave the green light for the 2022 MLB season. What a season it’s been. Between Aaron Judge’s record-breaking campaign, Shohei Ohtani’s unprecedented skills and a magical crop of rookie phenoms, this year has been truly captivating from all angles. However, as the dog days of summer give way to the chill and thrill of autumn, the spectacle of October baseball looms. 

This year’s installment of the playoff race features a mix of postseason regulars and intriguing newcomers. The format has been altered to include three wild card spots and a best-of-three between the wild cards and the third-best division winner. The next two weeks are loaded with make-or-break matchups and endless possibilities for the 12-team field. Here’s how it all looks today.

American League Divisions

The AL West is a done deal, as Houston has already locked up its fifth consecutive division title. Having won seven consecutive series, the reigning American League champions have surged past the Yankees to put a stranglehold on the top seed in the league. The Astros need just a few more wins to lock up the AL’s best record and gain the inside track to a sixth straight league ALCS appearance. 

Even after the Bronx Bombers raced out to a 61-23 start, the East is still very much up for grabs. The Yankees led the field by 15 games in early July, but the Blue Jays and Rays are now both within striking distance after a bumpy second half in New York. Beginning tonight, the Yanks will play ten straight games against division opponents, including three in Toronto early next week. The Jays have taken four of the last five head-to-head matchups, so there is plenty of room for fluidity down the stretch. Second-place Tampa Bay and third-place Toronto meet for four games this weekend, though, giving the leader a chance to pull away while the chasers stumble upon one another.

The most intriguing division battle lies in the Central, where Cleveland and its miniscule payroll of $58 million cling to first place. The Guardians have single-handedly brought Minnesota to the brink of elimination in September, taking seven of eight from the Twins over the last two weekends. Chicago, the presumed division champion prior to the season, is now the clear and present danger to first place. The White Sox are currently engaged in a three-game clash with the Guardians but dropped the opener on Wednesday night. Over the next two weeks, the cards are lined up in favor of the status quo. Chicago will embark on a tough final road trip in Minneapolis and San Diego, while Cleveland will close with six home games against Kansas City. The Royals have not once taken a road series from an opponent with a winning record in 2022.

American League Wild Card

Toronto, Seattle and Tampa Bay actively hold the three AL Wild Card positions, and that is not likely to change. The Mariners have the clearest of paths to the postseason with the four worst teams in the American League appearing in their final five series. Ability and timing alone can propel the Blue Jays to October, as Toronto is now undefeated in its last seven series. The Orioles and White Sox have a shot at the Rays, but the field of challengers may be cut down to one within a week. Baltimore is in a downward spiral, having started the month 5-10 behind an offense tallying just over three runs per game since August 24.

National League Divisions

The book is closed in the West, as the Dodgers have reclaimed the division after a narrow loss to the Giants in 2021. The final pages could take a dramatic turn in the Central, though. St. Louis leads Milwaukee by just under 10 games, but scheduling leaves a slim window open for the Brewers to storm back. The Brew Crew has only two games remaining against playoff contenders; both are with St. Louis. On the other hand, the Redbirds head to Dodger Stadium this weekend. Their pennant hopes will hinge on their ability to close out a Pirates ballclub that is 16-10 against NL Central opponents since June 15.

The NL East race has been and will continue to be the belle of the ball. The Mets have captured more headlines than any other squad since the All-Star Break, yet the reigning world champion Braves are neck-and-neck with them. Both teams are barreling toward 100-win seasons and have guaranteed themselves a seat at the postseason table. New York has controlled the division outright for all but three days this year, but the home stretch indicates that the final result is seemingly a coin flip. Atlanta is the slightly hotter team with four win streaks of four games or more since August 13, but the Mets have an easier closing slate with series against lowly Oakland, Miami and Washington. Fortunately, these two fireballs will collide in a season-defining set in the ATL next weekend.

National League Wild Card

Atlanta will undoubtedly walk away with the top wild card spot, so this contest will come down to San Diego, Philadelphia, and Milwaukee battling for the next two positions. The Giants have an outside chance with an upcoming string of winnable series, but they are nearly ten games back of the promised land at this point. The Padres play their final nine games at home, so expect them to remain consistent upon approach to October. A setback may be imminent for the Phillies, however, as they host the Braves this weekend after Atlanta swept them a week ago.

This views in this Sports Authority are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

Contact Tyler Reidy at treidy3@nd.edu.

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McGuinness: Taking stock of the MLB postseason race

There are few moments as exciting on the sports calendar as the final three weeks of an MLB season. The everyday nature of the sport captivates the emotions of fans and their teams whose destinations after the regular season ends on Oct. 5 remain unknown. Add in an extra wild card spot in each league to expand the number of teams still in the mix and the importance of finishing top-two in each league to avoid the expanded best-of-three Wild Card round, and there’s even more intensity than ever.

So, with just 20 days remaining in the 2022 season, now is as good a time as any to review where the key races stand. And there are a lot of them. Only one team, the Los Angeles Dodgers, has already punched their postseason ticket. A few others — namely the New York Mets, Atlanta Braves, Houston Astros, and New York Yankees — are all but assured to join them. But even those teams have plenty to play for down the stretch.

The West divisions in both leagues are all the easiest to analyze. The Dodgers have officially clinched the NL West pennant, their ninth in the last 10 seasons. The Houston Astros, who have won the AL West four of the past five seasons, won’t be far behind. They currently lead the Seattle Mariners by 12.5 games.

Every other division race has at least some intrigue to it. The Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals are looking like the safest bets, with six and and seven game leads over the next closest teams, respectively. The Yankees rebounded in September after a brutal August that saw a once comfortable division lead start to shrink. The Cardinals have been playing outstanding baseball over the last few months, and there’s more drama around whether Albert Pujols can slug three more home runs to reach 700 for his career than their status for the postseason.

Meanwhile, the AL Central and NL East are total dead heats. Cleveland has been in control of the Central for a little while now with the Twins going cold. Meanwhile, the White Sox are looking to avoid being labeled the season’s biggest disappointment, winning 10 of their last 14 to pull within three games of the Guardians. Cleveland’s outstanding pitching could make them a tricky Wild Card round opponent, but the Guardians have to get there first.

Like their New York brethren, the Mets have seen a once comfortable division lead dwindle to almost nothing. However, it’s not that the Mets have fallen into a significant slump. Rather, the Braves look simply unbeatable for about the third extended period since May. Both old and new faces have capitulated the Braves up the standings. Plus, two-time All-Star second baseman Ozzie Albies could return from the IL soon. A three-game head-to-head series in Atlanta from Sept. 30 to Oct. 2 could decide this race.

As is typical, the tightest races are for Wild Card spots in both leagues. The American League is largely about playing for seeding at this point, although that’s as important as ever since the best Wild Card team will host their first series. That would be especially significant for the Toronto Blue Jays, considering multiple teams have been missing players when going to Toronto throughout the year due to Canada’s vaccine mandate. Toronto’s also on a strong 7-3 run, which is tied for the third best record of any team in their last 10 games.

Just a half game separates Toronto from the Seattle Mariners and Tampa Bay Rays for Wild Card No. 1. The Rays have cooled off a bit after looking like legit challengers to the Yankees for a New York minute. Still, their depth is as outstanding as ever. And they’ll be even more dangerous if they get AL Cy Young contender Shane McClanahan back from injury soon.

Just getting in would be massive for the Mariners, who hold the longest postseason drought in the four major sports dating back to 2001. They came very close last year, missing by just two games. An aggressive offseason and infusion of youth looks like enough to push them over the top. The Baltimore Orioles are the only team within six games of the Mariners and Rays. And while it looks like the young O’s won’t have enough to make the postseason, this is still an incredibly encouraging year after losing 110 games a year ago. They could easily be on the right side of this mix in a similar article next year.

The loser of the Braves-Mets NL East race will almost certainly claim the first Wild Card spot. The other two, however, are still up for grabs. After years of not being able to make a big push from just behind the pack in September, it’s the Phillies who are currently in the best shape. Improved depth and production from their youth have pushed the Phillies, who hold the sport’s second longest postseason drought, to lead the Padres by 1.5 games and the Brewers by 3.5, holding the tiebreaker over both.

San Diego currently sits in the final Wild Card spot one year after missing the postseason in shocking fashion. The Padres are in a bit of a weird spot this year, too. They added star power in Juan Soto and Josh Hader (the latter ironically coming from Milwaukee) and quality depth in Josh Bell and Brandon Drury at the trade deadline. However, with Fernando Tatís Jr’s return spoiled due to suspension, the Padres aren’t as strong as they could be.

However, they’re still in a solid spot. The Brewers are as one-dimensional as any team still in the race. Their starting pitching is still outstanding and Devin Williams is lights out in the bullpen. But their offense lacks star power, with only one player (Hunter Renfroe) sporting an OPS above .800. Like the White Sox, that type of team can be very dangerous in the postseason if the right player or two gets hot. But they have to get there first.

Regardless of the results, it’s shaping up to be an exciting stretch run. At least three spots (AL Central champion, Wild Cards 2-3 in the NL) are undecided. And most of the other nine teams are in legitimate battles for seeding, which again is more important than ever under the new postseason format. All of it will somehow be sorted out in the next three weeks. What happens, of course, remains unknown. But whatever unfolds should be a blast to watch.

Contact Andrew McGuinness at amcguinn@nd.edu.

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Coolican: Major League Baseball rule changes a step forward for game

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred has often found himself in hot water with fans, from his handling of the Astros’ cheating scandal to using two types of baseballs, but he finally was able to enact change that will improve baseball for years to come. Of course, the new rule changes aren’t without controversy, but data in the minor leagues has proven that these changes will be a positive for baseball overall. 

One of the leagues’ goals has been to reduce the so-called “three true outcomes”: strikeouts, walks and home runs (which have seemingly taken over the league in recent years). The changes have been rumored for months, but they were officially announced on Friday. They range from a pitch clock to banning the shift to larger bases. I’ll outline the changes, and what they will mean for the game. 

Pitch clock

If you’ve been to an MLB game in the past few seasons, you’ll have likely seen a clock somewhere in the outfield counting down before a pitch was thrown. Next year, this will be enforceable, with pitchers having 15 seconds with the bases empty, and 20 seconds with runners on, to deliver the ball. Hitters must be in the box and “alert” at the eight second mark, and the catcher must be ready with 10 seconds to go. 

The timer resets with a pickoff throw, or when the pitcher steps off the rubber, although pitchers can only do this twice per batter. This effectively means they can only step off once with a runner on base, because if the runner knows the pitcher cannot throw over, they would be halfway to second base before the pitcher even starts his motion. 

A violation of this rule by a pitcher leads to an automatic ball, and vice versa for batters. This rule has proven effective in the minor leagues, where it has been implemented this year, with average game times falling by at least 15 minutes at every level. In some cases, game times dropped as much as half an hour, according to Baseball America. For reference, in rookie ball, where there is no pitch clock, game time has remained roughly the same. 

It is important to realize that the pitch clock does not mean less baseball, it simply means less dead time. We’re no longer likely to see a pitcher shake off the signs three, four, five times, or a hitter step out and adjust his batting gloves after every pitch. 

Another important aspect to note is that it will likely lead to slightly reduced velocity, because when a pitcher is throwing upwards of 100 miles per hour, even an extra few seconds of rest between pitches is vital. This leads to more balls in play, and fewer strikeouts, which along with a faster pace of play, is the league’s goal.

Larger bases

Traditionally, bases have been 15 inches; next year, they will be increased to 18 inches. In practical terms, this leads to a 4.5 inch decrease between the bases. This may not seem like a huge difference, but it will almost certainly increase stolen base attempts. Additionally, it is more likely players can beat out a ground ball, encouraging more balls to be put in play.

Again, the minor leagues have tested this rule and it has proven successful, with the rate of steals per inning rising from 0.65 in 2019 to 0.96 this year in Triple A, according to The Score. Another stated aim of the league was to reduce collisions and injuries on the base paths, and the bigger bases will give players more room to maneuver. 

Steals have increasingly fallen out of favor since analytics began taking over baseball, but these changes will perhaps bring them back this year. We may be witnessing the beginning of the small-ball renaissance, which I would argue is much more exciting than the baseball being played now. 

Banning the shift

This is the rule change that has created the most controversy among fans and players alike. Teams must have a minimum of four players on the infield, with at least two on each side of second base. The league aims to “increase the batting average on balls in play, to allow infielders to better showcase their athleticism and to restore more traditional outcomes on batted balls.”

The batting average on balls in play this year is 0.291, which is 10 points lower than in 2006 which was before the analytics and the shift had taken hold of the game. Some have expressed concern that this will merely help players who have struggled to adjust to the shift — think Joey Gallo — rather than improving batting average on balls in play (BABIP) league wide. The data has been mixed in the minor leagues as to whether this will have a great impact on batting averages, but it will certainly be interesting to see. 

Overall, Manfred and the league did a great job on these rule changes, and I believe they will make baseball a more exciting sport for years to come. Many baseball traditionalists will always argue against any sort of change, but baseball has been declining in popularity compared to other sports for a long time now. It was clear that a change was needed, and Manfred was able to do exactly that without compromising any aspect of the game we love.

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Sanchez Cordova: Appreciate Albert Pujols

The St. Louis Cardinals are a good baseball team this year. As I write this, they lead the NL Central by 6.5 games over the Milwaukee Brewers. They’re led by two National League MVP candidates in Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado who are in the prime of their careers. They’ve also got young talent all over the roster with players like Brendan Donovan, Nolan Gorman and Andre Pallante who’ve come up from the minors and contributed at the big-league level. 

But that’s not why I’m writing about them. I’m writing about the Cardinals because I want to talk about the old guys, specifically the oldest guy: Albert Pujols.

Pujols is 42 and he’s in the middle of a hunt for baseball history. Sitting at 695 home runs, he needs just two more home runs to pass Alex Rodriguez for fourth all-time. He’s also just five long balls from the 700 club. Baseball has been played professionally for over 150 years and only three players have ever reached that mark: Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron and Barry Bonds. And Albert Pujols fits in perfectly on that list of all-time great power hitters.

If you are someone who prefers other sports, you can think about as the equivalent of averaging 30 PPG for your career in the NBA (only MJ and Wilt) or having 80,000 passing yards in an NFL career (only Brady and Brees). That’s the kind of history we’re talking about here. It is an almost unfathomable level of consistent greatness.

If you break it down, to reach 700 career home runs you’d have to hit 35 home runs a year for 20 years. Only 19 players in MLB hit 35 home runs or more in the 2021 season. Those 19 players were the top 4.8% of the 400 or so position players in MLB at any given time. That means that to hit 700 home runs you’d have to be in the top 5% of power hitters for two straight decades, at which point you’d be at 700 on the dot.

Pujols is now just five home runs away from having completed that incredible feat. As such, I think it’s time to look back at how he got here. It all started on April 2, 2001 (over a year before I was born, by the way) when he made his debut at Coors Field against the Rockies. Batting sixth in the lineup, Pujols notched his first career hit in the 7th inning, a single up the middle against Mike Hampton. 

His first career home run came just four days later against the Diamondbacks when he hit a no-doubt 2-run home run to left field. The announcer’s call on MLB’s YouTube video of the homer proved prophetic: “First career big-league home run and after watching this kid in batting practice and that swing right there, it will not be nearly the last.” 

At the time, Pujols was the #42 prospect in baseball and the youngest player in MLB. By the end of the year, he was the cleanup hitter for the Cardinals. In his rookie year, he led his team in batting average, hits, doubles, home runs and RBI. He was an All-Star, won the NL Rookie of the Year Award and finished fourth in NL MVP voting.

That was pretty much the story of his first stint with the Cardinals: absolute domination at the plate. For the next 11 years in St. Louis, Albert racked up historically great offensive numbers. Over that period, he had a .328 BA, 1.037 OPS and hit 445 home runs and had over 2,000 hits. Maybe the most impressive fact about this period is that he had 10 straight seasons where he walked more than he struck out, an astounding achievement that speaks to how hard it was to get him out when he was in St. Louis. He even earned the nickname “The Machine” for his disciplined and methodical approach to the game of baseball.

Early on, his greatness was overshadowed by Barry Bonds who from 2001-2004 put together the best four-year stretch of baseball anyone has in the history of the sport. However, with Bonds hurt in 2005, Pujols firmly took hold of the title of best player in baseball. He also started racking up accolades, winning 3 NL MVPs from 2005-2009 and finishing as the runner up in 2006 and 2010. 

He also won two World Series with the Cardinals, putting together some legendary postseason performances along the way. Maybe the most iconic of all was his towering home run off Astros closer Brad Lidge in Game 5 of the 2005 NLCS. With the Astros one out away from moving on to the World Series, Pujols hit a game-winning home run to the train tracks at Minute Maid Park to extend the series and keep the Cardinals alive. For his career, he has a 1.007 OPS with 19 home runs in the postseason.

Following their 2011 World Series championship, Pujols entered free agency and signed a 10-year, $254 million contract with the Los Angeles Angels. Unfortunately, his time in Anaheim wasn’t even close to his first stint in St. Louis. His decline began almost immediately and by 2017 he was a below-league average hitter, posting an 80 OPS+ (100 OPS+ is league-average).

His time with the Angels ended unspectacularly when the team released him in May 2021 in the final year of his contract. Altogether, he did have some solid seasons with the Angels, including three 30-homer seasons, including 40 dingers in 2015 to make his only All-Star team with the Angels. On May 4, 2018, he picked up his 3,000th hit against the Mariners becoming just the fourth player ever with 3,000 hits and 600 home runs. During his time in Anaheim, the Angels only made the postseason once while he was there, getting swept out of the 2014 ALDS by the eventual pennant-winning Royals.

Last year, he was picked up by the Dodgers as he moved across town to a World Series contender. He put up good numbers for the Dodgers, finding a lot of success as a bat off the bench against left-handed pitchers. Their season ended in the NLCS with a loss to the eventual World Champion Atlanta Braves.

This offseason, he announced 2022 would be his last year and signed a 1-year, $2.5 million deal with the St. Louis Cardinals, returning to the place where it all began. To wear once again the cap he’ll have on his Cooperstown plaque. 

Entering the year, he was at 679 home runs, making 700 very unlikely. By the All-Star break, he had only hit 6 home runs this year. Then Albert got hot. In 30 games since the break, Pujols has hit 10 home runs and has an OPS just under 1.200. Simply put, he has been one of the best hitters in baseball during the second half. The stretch has reignited the chase for 700 and with 29 games to go, he’s got a real opportunity to make history.

Albert Pujols is 42 years old and he’s still contributing to the St. Louis Cardinals and lately he has been reminding everyone just how incredible he was in his prime. Yes, he’s not the perennial MVP candidate he used to be, but he’s a legend of the game. One day you’ll enter Busch Stadium and see his number 5 next to Musial’s 6 and Gibson’s 45. So, appreciate Albert Pujols while he’s here because there’s not long to go now.

Joche Sanchez Cordova

Contact Joche at jsanch24@nd.edu

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Moller: MLB World Series contenders by tier

With September starting this week, the playoff push for Major League Baseball is heating up fast. With that being said, it’s time to look at the World Series contenders by tier.

Tier I: World Series or Bust

Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers are currently flirting with a .700 winning percentage, and they have no doubt been the best team in baseball this season. Despite notable injuries among the pitching staff in Clayton Kershaw and Walker Buehler, the Dodgers have shown they have the depth to still be one of the best rotations in the league with Tyler Anderson, Julio Urias, and Tony Gonsolin at the helm. The Dodgers have a lethal lineup as well with Trea Turner, Freddie Freeman, Mookie Betts, Will Smith and Gavin Lux all having an OPS above .800. This combination of pitching and hitting makes the Dodgers the favorite to win the World Series.

New York Yankees

At one point this season, it looked like the Yankees were the clear-cut favorites to win the World Series. That isn’t the case anymore considering their current slump, but the Yankees should still consider anything less than a title a failure. Aaron Judge has been carrying this Yankees team on his back with his stunning 49 home runs and 1.048 OPS. D.J. LeMahieu, Giancarlo Stanton and Anthony Rizzo are great compliments to Judge to complete a lethal lineup. Pitching is an area of concern for the Yankees. Nestor Cortes and Jameson Taillon have been pleasant surprises for the most part, but Gerrit Cole and Frankie Montas will need to be better come October.

New York Mets

The Mets have controlled a challenging NL East for the majority of the season, and, like the Dodgers, they have a great combination of pitching and hitting. With a rotation consisting of Max Scherzer, Jacob deGrom, Chris Bassitt, Carlos Carrasco and Taijuan Walker, the Mets are poised for a playoff push this season. Behind the plate, the Mets have a plethora of quality players, and they are led by the likes of Francisco Lindor and Pete Alonso. Anything short of a World Series should be a disappointment for the Mets.

Atlanta Braves

The Braves are hanging around in the NL East, and they now sit just 3 games behind the Mets. After a slow start to the season, the Braves have been playing great baseball over the last few months, and it looks like they are poised to repeat for another title. The Braves have plenty of firepower behind the plate in Dansby Swanson, Matt Olson, Austin Riley and Ronald Acuña Jr. On the mound, Max Fried and Kyle Wright, and Spencer Strider have been fantastic, but the Braves will need the rest of their starting lineup to improve if they are going to repeat as World Series champs.

Houston Astros

Justin Verlander is having a Cy Young season with a 1.84 ERA, and he is leading a dominant Astros’ pitching staff consisting of Framber Valdez, Jose Urquidy, Luis Garcia and Cristian Javier. Behind the plate, the Astros have had plenty of production from Alex Bregman, Kyle Tucker, Jose Altuve and Yordan Alvarez. The Astros have been no strangers to late October runs, and this year should be no different.

Tier II: So you’re saying there’s a chance?

St. Louis Cardinals

This Cardinals team reminds me a lot of last year’s Braves team that struggled somewhat initially but got hot at the right time to win the World Series. It looks like the Cardinals will win the NL Central, and they have the potential to make a deep playoff run on the backs of Paul Goldschmidt and Nolan Arenado.

San Diego Padres

The Padres made a huge splash at the trade deadline, but it has yet to pay off. With a lineup consisting of Manny Machado, Juan Soto and Josh Bell, anything should be possible for the Padres. Joe Musgrove and Yu Darvish have been solid on the mound for the Padres, but they will need more from the rest of their rotation if they are going to go deep in the playoffs.

Toronto Blue Jays

The Blue Jays were my preseason pick to win the World Series, but they have been far too inconsistent this season to keep pace with the Yankees in the AL East. Despite their inconsistencies, the Blue Jays find themselves in a great position to earn a Wild Card spot. The Blue Jays have plenty of firepower at the plate, but they will need two pitchers to emerge alongside Alek Manoah and Kevin Gausman if they are going to push for a World Series title.

Tier III: Make the playoffs first

Philadelphia Phillies:

The Phillies are looking like a playoff team right now and are currently four games clear of the Brewers. They will have an uphill battle, though, if they are going to make a run against a loaded National League playoff field. The pitching staff has been good, but not great, so the Phillies will need to improve drastically if they want to win it all.

Milwaukee Brewers

The Brewers are currently out of a Wild Card spot and have been losing ground on the Cardinals in the division rapidly. With a starting rotation that consists of Brandon Woodruff and Corbin Burnes, anything is possible, but the Brewers need to win some ball games soon.

Seattle Mariners, Cleveland Guardians, Tampa Bay Rays, Baltimore Orioles, Minnesota Twins, Chicago White Sox

I lumped these teams together because all of them are in the playoff race, but all of them have some serious weaknesses they need to address. The Guardians, Twins and White Sox have all struggled in a horrendous AL Central, and the Mariners, Orioles and Rays have all dealt with some pretty horrendous stretches of baseball this season too. It’s a long shot for any of these teams, but they all have a chance of at least making the playoffs.