Passan: Inside a final week like MLB has never seen before

MLB

Just like that, the fastest, weirdest, pandemickiest baseball season ever has come and gone. Mathematics holds that a 60-game schedule is shorter than the standard 162, but the 2020 season has whistled by so quickly that in a way it feels more like it should be June than October.

And yet here we are, on the cusp of the playoffs, and the season that almost wasn’t and couldn’t be and shouldn’t bother trying is nearing completion. It’s been a neat trick, pulling it all off, and while the buildup of six months has been compressed, a three-layer cake can be every bit as delicious as its 10-layer counterpart.

In terms of packing a lot into a little, this last week kicked off Monday and churns into gear Tuesday with 16 games. There are postseason berths to be secured, awards to be won and questions to be answered. Here are 20 of the most pertinent.

What does the American League playoff situation look like?

The teams are all but set. Cleveland’s magic number for the first wild card is one. Toronto’s for the second wild card is three, and Houston’s for the second-place slot in the AL West is four. Oh, and for those who haven’t paid attention: Every first- and second-place team gets an autobid and the clubs with the next two best records in each league also make the postseason, leaving 16 total teams playing in October.

Of course, just because the AL field has been set for about a month doesn’t entirely suck the intrigue out of the season’s final week. True, seeding doesn’t matter as much as it did in the past because every game after the best-of-three wild-card round will be held at a neutral site, but quirks of the system could make being the No. 3 seed more desirable than No. 2.

Because of the playoff format MLB implemented, the wild-card teams can have lower seeds but better records than the higher-seeded second-place teams. Currently, Cleveland at 30-24 is slotted as the No. 7 seed while the 27-27 Astros are sixth. Even though the Astros’ pedigree and offense might make them a tough out, the prospect of facing Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac (or Aaron Civale or Triston McKenzie) in a best-of-three series is daunting for anyone.

Which makes the race for the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds that much more interesting. Going into Tuesday, Tampa Bay (36-19) is 1½ games ahead of Chicago for the top seed. Oakland is a half-game back of the White Sox. The A’s magic number to clinch the AL West is one, whereas Minnesota is 1½ games back of Chicago and New York 4½ behind the Rays. The White Sox aren’t exactly going to punt, with the Twins on their heels, but a matchup against the Astros might be preferable to one versus Cleveland, against whom Chicago is 2-5 this season.

How about the National League?

Chaos. Pure, unadulterated, beautiful chaos.

Technically, 12 teams remain in playoff contention. Colorado and New York are, for all intents and purposes, out. Los Angeles and San Diego have clinched the top two slots in the NL West. That leaves eight teams vying for six spots. Atlanta and Chicago have healthy enough leads in the East and Central, respectively, that they’d need epic collapses to give away a first- or second-place spot. So, for the sake of argument, let’s count them as in, too.

That leaves Miami (28-26), St. Louis (26-25), Cincinnati (28-27), Philadelphia (27-27), San Francisco (26-27) and Milwaukee (26-27) fighting for four positions. The East and Central teams have two paths: second place or a wild card. The Giants are wild card or bust.

What happens if there’s a tie?

Are you sure you want to do this?

Should I not be?

Take a deep breath. This is gonna get a little messy.

Let’s start with the tiebreakers. Unlike years past, there will be no Game 163 (or Game 61). If there is a tie within a division — Marlins and Phillies for second in the East, any of the three Central teams for second in the division or a wild-card spot — the first tiebreaker is head-to-head record. If teams from different divisions are tied, the team with the better record against its own division gets the nod. Here is where all of those stand.

Head to head:

• Marlins over Phillies (7-3 advantage)

• Cardinals over Reds (6-4 advantage)

• Brewers lead Cardinals (3-2 advantage with five games to be played this week)

• Reds lead Brewers (5-3 advantage with two games to be played this week)

Intradivision record:

• Marlins: 20-17

• Phillies: 20-17

• Cardinals: 19-16

• Reds: 20-18

• Brewers: 16-17

• Giants: 15-18

What does this say? The Giants are going to need a whale of a week to get in, and the Marlins are in the catbird’s seat because of their record, their tiebreaker over Philadelphia and their intradivision advantage.

OK. Let’s dive deeper into the rabbit hole. There’s a scenario in which the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds wind up with the same overall records. The tiebreaker then would be best record in head-to-head games among the three teams. Currently, St. Louis is 8-7, Cincinnati 9-9 and Milwaukee 6-7. If they all wind up 10-10 — which is eminently possible — the tiebreaker then would go to intradivision games. There is no scenario in which the three wind up tied. Two teams could tie, in which case they would revert to the two-team tiebreaker scenario. If it were St. Louis and Cincinnati, the Cardinals would win. If it’s Brewers and Cardinals or Reds and Brewers, that will be determined this week. Should either of those two teams wind up 5-5 against one another, and their intradivision record is tied, too, then it would go to the last tiebreaker: record within division over the last 20 games.

Here is the current situation there:

• Miami: 11-6 with three this week

• Cincinnati: 11-7 with two this week

• Milwaukee: 7-6 with seven this week

• St. Louis: 8-7 with five this week

• San Francisco: 6-7 with seven this week

• Philadelphia: 7-10 with three this week

If the Entropy Gods make that scenario a reality, MLB would simply go back one game at a time until one team has a better intradivision record than another.

Got all that?

No.

Then read it again, slouch.

But wait. The Cardinals aren’t even scheduled to play 60 games. They’re set to play only 58. How is that going to work?

Here’s the situation, according to sources: At the beginning of the season, MLB told teams that in coronavirus-caused cases such as the Cardinals’, teams would make up as many games as possible and that makeup games would be played only if they had a direct impact on which teams make the playoffs, not seeding.

Now, if the two games St. Louis could make up in Detroit on Monday could make the difference between them being the No. 4 seed and playing a game at home, that would be the exception. San Diego’s magic number over the Cardinals for that spot is one, so the chances of that happening are infinitesimal.

Thus, if St. Louis needs to play those two games to move into the postseason (or potentially out of it), it will travel to Detroit and play one (or both) games Monday. If the playoff field is set and the games would simply be for seeding, the Cardinals will not play them and will be seeded based on their winning percentage.

It’s entirely possible that no NL team will know until Monday night who it’s playing starting Wednesday. Which means four teams will travel Tuesday, shack up at a hotel and potentially play the early game the next day.

Who has the toughest week ahead?

Remember that advantage the Marlins had? Well, they travel to Atlanta and then up to Yankee Stadium for three to close the season. Yikes.

Cincinnati has scraped back into the race, only to follow two vital games against Milwaukee after a big win Monday night with three more against the dangerous Twins.

As if the Giants weren’t facing enough issues, they’ve got seven games over the next six days, including four against the Padres. At least they’re all at home. Milwaukee’s seven games are on the road.

The most games: St. Louis, of course, with two at Kansas City, five against Milwaukee and perhaps two more in Detroit.

What’s the best series this week?

Like, all of them? Except maybe Rangers-Diamondbacks. Oof.

A few that stand out:

• Milwaukee at Cincinnati, T-W: Brett Anderson vs. Sonny Gray and Adrian Houser vs. Trevor Bauer. Yes, please.

• Miami at Atlanta, T-Th: The Marlins probably aren’t catching Atlanta. But if they sweep the four-game series, they’re in first in the NL East.

Chicago White Sox at Cleveland, T-Th: The White Sox are setting up their playoff rotation, with Lucas Giolito going Wednesday and Dallas Keuchel on Thursday, while Cleveland has AL Cy Young winner-to-be Shane Bieber lined up to face Giolito.

• Oakland at Los Angeles Dodgers, T-Th: World Series preview perhaps?

• St. Louis at Milwaukee, Th-Su: A five-game series that could determine a playoff spot? It’s a dream scenario in a normal season and one that we shouldn’t take for granted simply because this season is shorter than usual and the playoffs are diluted.

Chicago Cubs at Chicago White Sox, F-Su: Very cool that they end the season against each other. Even cooler that both could theoretically cost the other the division title.

Who’s in trouble?

The Phillies are going to have to win games because their tiebreaker situations are grim. They have to close out the season against Tampa Bay, which may go full speed ahead to secure the No. 1 seed in the AL. And Philadelphia might have to do so without star catcher J.T. Realmuto and first baseman Rhys Hoskins, both of whom have been out since Sept. 12.

The hope was that Realmuto would return from a hip injury Monday. He didn’t. Hoskins is out with a damaged ligament in his non-throwing left elbow, and his return date is unclear. One bit of good news: Bryce Harper, who has been dogged by back issues in the midst of a stalwart season, was the DH on Monday. One bit of bad news: Harper entered the game showing previously unforeseen plate discipline: 41 walks vs. 36 strikeouts in 215 plate appearances. Against the Nationals, he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.

How is their rotation set up?

Actually, it’s quite interesting to see the choices the Phillies and other contenders face when trying to strike the proper balance of urgency.

Phillies ace Aaron Nola is set to pitch Tuesday. That puts him on schedule to pitch on full rest Sunday. If Philadelphia needs a win to save its season Saturday, would the Phillies consider throwing him on three days’ rest? If so, and if they make it to the playoffs, they could bring him back on three days’ rest for Game 1 or go with him on full rest for Game 2. If they stick with Tuesday-Sunday, Nola would go either in Game 2 on short rest or a potential Game 3 fully rested.

Some aces are primed to get extra rest. The Yankees’ Gerrit Cole is going Tuesday. He’ll start Game 1 of the wild-card series for New York a week later. Same goes for Bieber. The construction of postseason rotations is going to be a fascinating element of this October.

Why?

Because of the playoff schedule. There are no off days in the division series or league championship series.

AL wild-card series will run Sept. 29-Oct. 1. NL wild-card series will run Sept. 30-Oct. 2. The four teams that advance from each league will have four days in between the wild-card games to enter the league’s proto-bubble and get ready for the division series. AL teams will then play games on as many as five consecutive days, from Oct. 5 to Oct. 9, while the NL will do the same from Oct. 6 to Oct. 10. The ALCS runs Oct. 11-17 and the NLCS from Oct. 12 to Oct. 18. Game 1 of the World Series is Oct. 20, and only then are there planned off days Oct. 22 and 26.

That means, starting with the division series, teams that advance could play as many as 14 games in 16 days before the first World Series off day.

It means, whereas in the past, a pitcher could start Game 1 of a division series and pitch Game 5 on five days’ rest, this year returning for a fifth game would require doing so on three days’ rest.

It means the pitcher who starts Game 1 of an LCS and would not be on full rest until Game 6.

The fear among executives is that October is going to be a giant, messy, run-scoring abomination — especially if the teams that do have the pitching depth to survive the latter rounds falter in the first. It’s not inconceivable that a titanic team like the Los Angeles Dodgers could run into a pitching buzz saw — Bauer/Gray/Castillo of the Reds or Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff of the Brewers or Miami’s Pablo Lopez, Sixto Sanchez and Sandy Alcantara, just to name three — and get summarily run. Oakland, with its great bullpen? Susceptible. Cleveland? Beatable.

And what does the schedule do to the Braves, whose only reliable starting pitcher beyond Max Fried has never pitched in a playoff game (Ian Anderson) and who rely on what has been a very, very good bullpen that only has so many innings in its arms and no time to rest them?

One agent of a soon-to-be free-agent pitcher is concerned. “They’re going to abuse guys,” he said. And it’s difficult to see a scenario in which he’s wrong. The maximum number of pitchers a team can carry is 13. In reality, it shouldn’t be difficult to wring 63 innings out of 13 pitchers over the course of seven days, but times are different. Starters don’t last as long as they once did — especially against playoff-ready lineups that know grinding out plate appearances comes with great benefits.

Bold prediction: By the end of the postseason, teams will have averaged at least five runs per game. For context, last postseason the average was 4.03, the average this regular season is 4.65 and only seven times in the live ball era has the sport seen more than five runs per game during a full season.

What are the playoffs going to look like going forward?

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s suggestion that the playoffs would remain expanded created something of a stir, which was a touch surprising. Forget MLB and its priorities. When, in the history of business, has a company created something that’s going to make it billions of dollars long term and said, “You know, on second thought, we’re going to get rid of that”?

Expanded playoffs were always a Pandora’s box, and if the league and union can’t come to an agreement on what the format in 2021 looks like, it will simply become an item to bargain for in 2022. (Or, a cynic might say, whenever the impending lockout ends.)

Either way, any rational person would agree that whether it’s a 60- or 162-game season, putting the No. 1 overall seed on the same plane as the lowest seed in the field is outrageous. That’s what these playoffs are. The Dodgers are clearly better than everyone, and they’re going to have the same exact advantage as the two inferior division winners and even the second-place team in their own division: two or three games at home, depending on how long their wild-card series lasts.

This is untenable beyond the weakening of the playoff field, which is an entirely different problem and a reasonable one at that. One general manager recently said: “If I can have a mediocre team and still get in, why is my owner going to want to spend?”

Good question without a particularly reasonable answer. Which means that until MLB expands to 32 teams, fielding a 16-team playoff field is at best a bad look and at worst a problem. Twelve teams? OK. Fourteen? That’s pushing it, but at least it would offer opportunities to creatively reward the best teams and maintain the incentive to win.

The threshold should be at least a .500 record, right?

If you are, by definition, below average, being rewarded with a postseason berth feels wrong. It’s different in a sport like basketball, in which No. 8 seeds have beaten No. 1 seeds five times — and the regular-season records of the teams that won were 42-40, 27-23, 42-40, 46-36 and 35-31.

The whole .500-or-better notion got me wondering how playoff contenders across baseball have fared against the best teams in baseball this season — and the results are rather interesting.

The best teams: Tampa Bay (21-9), Oakland (13-6), Minnesota (21-12), San Diego (14-8), Los Angeles Dodgers (15-9), Chicago (22-18).

The worst: Houston (6-14), San Francisco (7-18), New York Yankees (10-15), Philadelphia (13-17), Chicago White Sox (13-17).

Enough on teams. I want to hear about awards. Who’s the AL MVP favorite?

Jose Ramirez?

Before mounds of debris come flying from the South Side of Chicago, let’s do some blind resume action.

Player A: .355/.390/.590, 10 HR, 21 RBI, 44 R, 5 SB, 2.5 FanGraphs WAR, 2.4 Baseball-Reference WAR

Player B: .290/.376/.595, 16 HR, 41 RBI, 41 R, 10 SB, 3.0 fWAR, 2.3 rWAR

Player C: .333/.381/.644, 18 HR, 55 RBI, 40 R, 0 SB, 2.7 fWAR, 3.0 rWAR

Player A is the White Sox’s Tim Anderson. Player C is the White Sox’s Jose Abreu. Player B is Ramirez, who added a three-run home run in the first inning Monday and since Aug. 26 leads the major leagues with 11 home runs and sports an OPS of better than 1.200. He’s tops in all of baseball in FanGraphs WAR, too.

Now, just as Abreu and Anderson could split votes, there’s a solid case to be made that Bieber deserves credit for Cleveland’s playoff spot every bit as much as Ramirez. But because of the bias in MVP voting against pitchers, Ramirez doesn’t run quite the same risk of getting support siphoned away as Abreu or Anderson does.

As good as Anthony Rendon, Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz and DJ LeMahieu have been, this race is coming down to the final week in the AL Central. And it’s looking like a really good one.

How about NL MVP?

Manny Machado?

You’re going to do that stupid blind-resume thing again.

Player A: .314/.376/.604, 16 HR, 46 RBI, 42 R, 6 SB, 2.7 fWAR, 2.6 rWAR

Player B: .303/.376/.597, 16 HR, 39 RBI, 42 R, 9 SB, 2.6 fWAR, 3.2 rWAR

Player C: .340/.460/.624, 11 HR, 48 RBI, 45 R, 1 SB, 2.9 fWAR, 2.5 rWAR

Player D: .278/.367/.565, 15 HR, 41 RBI, 47 R, 10 SB, 2.9 fWAR, 2.2 rWAR

Player A is Machado, Player B the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, Player C the Braves’ Freddie Freeman and Player D Machado’s Padres teammate Fernando Tatis Jr.

In a 10-week season, one great week counts for far more than it would in the typical 26½-week season. This race is going to come down to this week.

Who should win the NL Cy Young?

Player A: 69 IP, 7-3, 2.22 ERA, 2.22 FIP, 11.48 K/9, 1.70 BB/9, 0.65 HR/9, 2.7 fWAR, 2.3 rWAR

Player B: 65 IP, 4-4, 1.80 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 12.18 K/9, 2.22 BB/9, 1.25 HR/9, 2.2 fWAR, 2.5 rWAR

Player C: 55 IP, 7-0, 1.96 ERA , 2.62 FIP, 8.18 K/9, 3.11 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9, 1.9 fWAR, 3.1 rWAR

Player D: 63 IP, 4-2, 2.14 ERA, 1.99 FIP, 13.43 K/9, 2.29 BB/9, 0.71 HR/9, 2.7 fWAR, 2.4 rWAR

Player E: 56 IP, 4-0, 1.77 ERA, 1.79 FIP, 13.34 K/9, 3.54 BB/9, 0.16 HR/9, 2.6 fWAR, 2.1 rWAR

Player F: 65.1, 3-1, 2.07 ERA, 2.51 FIP, 12.26 K/9, 2.62 BB/9, 0.69 HR/9, 2.3 fWAR, 2.3 rWAR

This is a lot to digest. Player A is Chicago’s Yu Darvish, Player B Trevor Bauer, Player C Max Fried, Player D New York’s Jacob deGrom, Player E Corbin Burnes and Player F San Diego’s Dinelson Lamet.

Put it this way: I’m glad I’ve got an AL Cy Young ballot this year instead of NL. Because I don’t know who I’d choose here.

In a short season during which relievers have a ghastly 4.45 ERA — last year league-wide it was 4.46, the highest since 2000, the heart of the steroids era — innings really, really matter. So does ERA. And peripherals can say more about what the pitcher did under his control than ERA.

There isn’t a good choice. There isn’t a bad choice. There are just a lot of choices — too many for the five-man ballot — and a lot of points to be earned over these final seven days. DeGrom’s 14-strikeout performance over seven strong innings Monday was a good start. Should be fun to see who’s got the anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better gene.

What about NL Rookie of the Year?

No blind resume here. It’s a two-man race — with a sneaky three who could steal some votes away.

San Diego’s Jake Cronenworth is the favorite, though his .294/.295/.315 September has done him no favors. His season-long line of .303/.370/.516 in 173 plate appearances, though, matches up well with Philadelphia’s Alec Bohm, who is hitting .331/.389/.496 in 24 fewer plate appearances.

Worth considering: Milwaukee’s phenomenal right-handed reliever Devin Williams, he of the 0.39 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 23 innings, as well as Dodgers righty Tony Gonsolin and Sanchez, the Marlins’ right-handed fireballer, both of whom have excelled in limited use (40⅔ and 36 innings, respectively).

I’m tired of awards.

Hard same.

OK, then. Let’s at least stay on the young-player track. Who’s going to get the No. 1 pick?

While MLB has yet to announce whether teams’ 2020 records will determine draft order, a source familiar with the league’s thinking said that the clause written into MLB’s March agreement with the players’ association that gave the league the right to determine draft order was a contingency in case the season was canceled well before records were indicative of much. Even though 60 games doesn’t give the full picture of who’s really good and who isn’t, the source said it’s highly likely that the draft order will be determined by this year’s record.

If that’s the case, this is a big week for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their magic number to clinch the No. 1 pick is three. As of Tuesday, the draft top 10 would be:

1. Pittsburgh
2. Texas
3. Boston
4. Arizona
5. Washington
6. Kansas City
7. Detroit
8. Baltimore
9. Seattle
10. Los Angeles Angels

The top of the 2021 draft is loaded, with Vanderbilt’s two stud right-handers, Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, along with a Vandy recruit, Dallas-area shortstop Jordan Lawlar, who some evaluators believe might be the best of the three.

Who’s having the sneaky-best season in baseball?

Here are eight guys I’ve enjoyed watching this year: Kansas City’s Salvador Perez (.357/.374/.635), the Mets’ Dominic Smith (.315/.377/.605 with 41 RBIs in 183 plate appearances) and Michael Conforto (.328/.419/.525), Atlanta’s Travis d’Arnaud (.336/.396/.559 and part of a devastating Braves lineup with Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr., Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall, among others), Detroit’s Jeimer Candelario (sandwiched a .372/.424/.634 run between an 0-for-17 start and a current 0-for-14 slump), the Angels’ Dylan Bundy (whose 3.29 ERA and even lower FIP may get him down-ballot Cy Young love), the White Sox’s Dallas Keuchel (whose 2.04 ERA will get him upballot Cy Young love) and San Diego’s Zach Davies (2.69 ERA, career-best 8.2 K/9).

What’s an underappreciated story this year?

This is quaint and nerdy, but the amount of potentially elite rookie relief talent is a blast.

Caveat time: Relief pitching is notoriously volatile, and the idea that even half of the great rookie relievers are going to carve out long and productive careers is unlikely. That said, whether it’s Williams or his partners in hitlessness, Cleveland’s James Karinchak and Kansas City’s Josh Staumont; whether it’s the monster fastballs of the Dodgers’ Brusdar Graterol or the White Sox’s Codi Heuer; whether it’s the wicked slider of Cincinnati’s Tejay Antone or the not-as-good-as-Williams’-but-still-really-good changeup of the White Sox’s Matt Foster — all of these pitches have made the 2020 season that much more enjoyable to watch. Here’s to them and Toronto’s Jordan Romano, Oakland’s Jordan Weems, Tampa Bay’s Pete Fairbanks, Milwaukee’s Drew Rasmussen, Texas’ Jonathan Hernandez and many more.

Who am I going to miss watching in the postseason?

Juan Soto. That’s the answer.

I mean, Mike Trout is a great answer, but we’ve grown so used to missing him in the postseason it feels like an old hat now. DeGrom would be a perfectly reasonable answer, too. After Colorado’s hot start, it looked like Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon (remember when he was going to hit .400?) might be part of it as well, but nope. Rockies gonna Rockie. Any of Soto’s teammates from last year’s World Series winners would suffice, too: Max Scherzer, Trea Turner or Anthony Rendon, who’s now bummed out alongside Trout.

What Soto has done this year, though, is above and beyond. He didn’t play until Aug. 5 because of what wound up, Soto believes, to be a false positive for COVID-19. Since then, he has done things unlike any 21-year-old in the past 148 years.

Back in 1871, a 21-year-old rookie named Levi Meyerle joined the Philadelphia Athletics of the National Association. Over 132 plate appearances, he hit .492/.500/.700 with four home runs, 40 RBIs, two walks and one strikeout.

Since then, no 21-year-old has had an average as high as .348, an on-base percentage as high as .477 and a slugging percentage as high as .674. That’s what Soto is doing this year, and the closest was Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, who hit .354/.463/.625. Soto is taking what he did as a 19-year-old rookie, which was historic, and what he did as a 20-year-old, which was likewise, and upping the ante.

He is the best hitter in baseball. And it’s a bummer he won’t be playing in October. And yet because there are 16 teams that will, and because those teams are so infused with talent themselves, even if we’re missing Soto, we’ll have plenty of others onto whom we can latch. The improbable regular season of 2020 is almost done. Next up: the best month of all.

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