Staying up to date on the battles for all the various MLB playoff spots is a full-time job that requires daily attention -- and that's exactly what we'll be doing in this space, for the rest of the season. Today we begin a bit differently.
One thing that always drove me nuts about the BCS system in college football was how they would change the thing constantly to fix last year's problems. It would get three undefeated teams, or six teams with one loss, or an undefeated team in a smaller conference and a one-loss team in a bigger one, or great teams that would lose in conference championship games that other conferences didn't even have, and it would adjust the system accordingly. And while this sounds like the right thing to do, the truth is that the old problem never repeated itself, and new problems would emerge, and the system -- which was guaranteed to be unsatisfying anyway -- was always one year behind.
Baseball decided that it needed to fix the problem of the insignificant pennant race. It is a worthy cause. Baseball added a wild-card team in 1995 (well, 1994, but there was that whole canceling-of-the-World Series problem). And the wild-card teams, for the most part, were accepted as full-blooded members of the baseball postseason, with all the benefits of regular members, except that they couldn't have home-field advantage.
Well, while the home-field advantage benefit is nice, it is not necessary or even necessarily pivotal when it comes to winning a postseason baseball series, and in 1997, the Florida Marlins won the World Series from the wild-card spot.
In 2000, the Mets went to the World Series as a wild card (and the Yankees won their division and the World Series with just 87 wins).
In 2002, the Angels won the World Series over the Giants -- both wild-card teams.
In 2003, the Marlins AGAIN won the World Series as a wild card.
In 2004, the Red Sox won the World Series as a wild card, and there was joy across New England.
In 2005, the Astros reached the World Series as a wild card and lost.
In 2006, the Tigers reached the World Series as a wild card (and lost to a Cardinals team that won its division with just 83 victories).
In 2007, the Rockies reached the World Series as a wild card.
In 2011, the Cardinals won the World Series as a wild card.
The point of all of this is that being a wild card was just fine. And if you, as a manager, found yourself in a heated race for the division title, well, it didn't MATTER as long you had a good enough record to be in the wild-card spot anyway. This devalued one of baseball's greatest qualities, the September pennant race.
And so baseball people came up with a novel way to deal with it. Instead of getting rid of the wild card, they decided to add another wild card BUT take away full membership rights for wild-card teams. Now, wild cards have to face each other in a one-game caged match for the privilege of getting into the real postseason.
While many of us have trouble with solving the too-many-playoff-teams problem by adding more teams to the playoffs, it is undeniable that this new system has its charms. Now, there is absolutely no question that if you're in a pennant race, you will want to do everything in your power to win the division because that wild-card spot is fraught with peril. Anybody could lose a one-game playoff. Plus, even if you win the one-game playoff, you will go into the Division Series wounded, with your best pitcher burned out for three or four days. Like I say, the system has its charms.
But how is it actually working in real time?
In the National League, I would argue that it's not working very well. There are clearly four teams that are better than every other. The Nationals, Reds and Giants have won their divisions without much of a race. And the Braves are seven games up for that first wild card.
So, this year in the National League, the only thing the second wild card does is throw a second playoff team into the mix. I guess, that has added some excitement in St. Louis and Los Angeles, who are sort of battling it out. But it just adds a bit of contrived tension -- neither of those teams has played very well over the season -- and it invites another potential postseason wrecker into the party. If the Cardinals make it and beat the Braves in the one-game playoff, then somehow beat Washington in the first round, it will be fun in a March Madness sort of way … but baseball is not college basketball. It won't be a fair reflection of the long season.
In the American League, the system seems to be working amazingly well, at least at first glance. Suddenly we have four teams -- New York and Baltimore, Oakland and Texas -- playing for their lives (with the Angels in there as a spoiler. The Yankees and Orioles are especially fascinating. They are tied for the AL East lead, and that lead really matters this year because the loser will probably have to play Oakland in that one-game playoff just to get into the real postseason. That's cool and significant and seemingly a lot better than the old system.
But is it? What would happen if we were playing under the old system?
New York and Baltimore would still be tied for the lead in the AL East. But because Oakland is just one game behind them, the loser would be in danger of missing the postseason entirely. You would have those three teams playing for only two spots in a fascinating game of musical chairs. As it stands now, all three of them will probably make the postseason in SOME form or other. I think the old way would have been more fun.
It just feels to me that baseball -- like the BCS -- is solving last year's problem. And I fear that it will keep happening. A clearly inferior second wild-card team will end up beating the a first wild card, and baseball will decide that one-game playoff needs to expand to a three-game playoff. That will cause other problems and fail to account for other unforeseen circumstances. Then they will fix those. Then they will try to fix the new ones that arise.
It's an endless circle. I don't think they will ever get to the heart of it, which I think is that baseball has too long a season to keep adding teams to the playoffs.
* * *
The big news: Orioles win! Yankees lose! The American League East is tied with four games left. You really can't get a lot better than that.
The little news: Detroit wins to build its lead in the American League Central to two games. Oakland wins to cut its deficit in the West to three.
Who is in: Nobody. Well, Texas, New York, Baltimore and Oakland are all probably in, though there's no way to know yet HOW they are in … as division champions or wild cards. Detroit is looking more and more like the winner in the American League Central as the White Sox continue to fade.
Quirky stat: The Orioles won another one-run game, improving their record in one-run games to an almost unbelievable 28-9. But here's another great stat for you. The Orioles are now 72-0 in games when they are leading after seven innings.
How does this rank against other contending teams?
Record when leading after seven innings:
Tampa Bay: 72-3
San Francisco: 79-5
St. Louis: 76-5
White Sox: 69-6
Los Angeles Dodgers: 66-6
Los Angeles Angels: 71-8
* * *
The Triple Crown
Miguel Cabrera went 1-for-4 with a homer and three RBIs. And he's back in Triple Crown position:
Mike Trout .321
Joe Mauer .320
Josh Hamilton 43
Edwin Encarnacion 42
Josh Hamilton 125
The Angels and Rangers play a doubleheader on Sunday, which could play a role in the Triple Crown, since Cabrera's biggest batting average threat might be Angels outfielder Mike Trout, and his biggest home run threat might be Texas' Josh Hamilton.
If Cabrera ties for the lead in any of these categories -- home runs being the most obvious -- it's still very much a Triple Crown. A home run tie has happened twice in Triple Crown history -- Yaz in 1967 tied Harmon Killebrew in homers, and Joe Medwick in 1937 tied Mel Ott in homers. In fact, because we here at Today in the Pennant Races live to serve you, here are all of the Triple Crown winners, and in parentheses you can see the gap to second place in that category.
All in all, Jimmy Foxx in 1933 and Hornsby in 1922 and 1925 seem the most dominant, but you make the call:
1967: Carl Yastrzemski -- .326 (+15 points), 44 (tied with Harmon Killebrew), 121 (+8)
1966: Frank Robinson: -- .316 (+9 points), 49 (+10), 122 (+12)
1956: Mickey Mantle -- .353 (+8), 52 (+20), 130 (+2)
1947: Ted Williams -- .343 (+15), 32 (+3), 114 (+16)
1942: Ted Williams -- .356 (+25), 36 (+9), 137 (+23)
1937: Ducky Medwick -- .374 (+10), 31 (tied with Mel Ott), 154 (+39)
1934: Lou Gehrig -- .363 (+7), 49 (+5), 165 (+23)
1933: Jimmie Foxx -- .356 (+20), 48 (+14), 163 (+24)
1933: Chuck Klein -- .368 (+19), 28 (+1), 120 (+14)
1925: Rogers Hornsby -- .403 (+36), 39 (+15), 143 (+13)
1922: Rogers Hornsby -- .401 (+47), 42 (+16), 152 (+20)
1909: Ty Cobb -- .377 (+30), 9 (+2), 107 (+10)
1901: Nap Lajoie -- .426 (+86), 14 (+2), 125 (+100)
* * *
The big news: Cardinals lose and Dodgers win -- two more homers for Matt Kemp -- and so the second wild-card race tightened up a bit.
The little news: Washington won to drop its magic number for winning the National League East to one.
Who is in: Same. Washington, Cincinnati, San Francisco, Atlanta and probably St. Louis.
Pirates dance: Pittsburgh wins on an Andrew McCutchen walk-off homer in the ninth … the Pirates can still finish the season at .500 by winning their last four games. Pittsburgh has 19 consecutive losing seasons coming into this year.
Quirky stat: I have written here before that I think Alex Gordon is the most underrated player in baseball in the truest sense of underrated -- nobody seems to know, talk about or even care that he's become a really good player.
In this way, San Diego's Chase Headley might even top Gordon. Unless you're a Padres fan, a Padres loather or have Headley on your fantasy team, you might be completely unaware of the fact that he hit his 30th homer on Saturday, stole his 16th base and drove in his league-leading 112th run.
He's doing such things even though he plays half his games in Petco Park, which is so anti-hitting that the stadium itself actually echoes "Hey batta, batta, batta, SWING!" Headley is hitting .297/.388/.536 on the road with 18 homers and 62 RBIs. Even by raw numbers, Headley is probably having the third or fourth best offensive season in the National League (behind Buster Posey, McCutchen, Ryan Braun and, maybe, Joey Votto, who has been hurt so much of the season). Add in that he plays half his games the Hitting House of Horrors, and it's pretty remarkable.
* * *
The Dodgers finally seem to be waking up, though I suspect that it's too late for them to get into the postseason. Still, it has been fun to watch Kemp playing one-man wrecking machine again. The Dodgers have won four in a row, and in those four games, Kemp is hitting .529/.556/1.235.
I love doing that every so often, by the way -- putting percentages and averages up there for incredibly small sample sizes. Kemp is 9-for-17 with three homers in those four games, which is impressive. But it just feels more impressive when you say he's hitting .529 and slugging 1.235.