Tagged: Boston Red Sox

Fold Them Sox?

Bernie Sanders vs. Joe Biden has nothing on the debate likely to erupt when you put two baseball fans – especially Boston ones – together in the same room right now. Of course there are topics aplenty that crop up like the fallout of the Astros sign-stealing in 2017, but the one on everyone’s mind currently is the big trade. The three-way trade between Boston, the Dodgers and Minnesota … which is yet to be finalized because the Red Sox are apparently balking a bit at the medical tests of one pitcher they should receive.

We’ll streamline the trade by only really looking at the two main players in it, L.A. and Boston. And boy, the one trade certainly exemplifies a lot of the dilemmas for baseball – its fans and its operators both – these days. Who won? Who lost? Is Boston being sensible or giving the middle finger to its loyal fans? Unfortunately, there’s probably no one right answer to these questions.

As a recap, the Red Sox send “name” stars outfielder Mookie Betts and pitcher David Price to L.A. in return for young outfielder Alex Verdugo, and Minnesota rookie pitcher Brusdar Graterol, while Minny in turn get Dodgers’ pitcher Kenta Maeda.

At the west coast end of the trade, there’s not really a whole lot to debate it would seem, and from here, it seems like their fans are happy. And why not? While the team has won 7-straight divisions and seemed to already be cake-walking to an eighth straight before they even set foot on the grass. But, they have also been frustrated in their attempts to turn that into a World Series championship. Last year, they bowed out unexpectedly in the NLDS to the Wild Card-winning Nationals. There was a thought that they really lacked enough hitting … they had decent hitting, sure, but not the type of combination of bats that would take them to the promised land. Getting Betts should give them that. Meanwhile, David Price, no longer in his prime should be an upgrade over Maeda. They give up a good youngster in Verdugo, but they have lots of minor league talent and Verdugo projects to be a star but not a superstar. The only downside to the deal for L.A. is it jacks up their payroll and probably puts them into the luxury tax bracket.

For the Atlantic end though, the picture is much cloudier. The Red Sox give up their best, and most-popular player plus a good, if not great, starting pitcher and get back that decent, but not great young outfielder and a hard-throwing young minor league pitcher. The roster is clearly weaker now… but they save a bundle of cash and perhaps look better two, three years down the road. They would argue they’re building for the future and just letting up on the gas a bit this year, a season when no one at all was picking them to usurp the first-place Yankees in the division. To the fans though, they’re giving up their heart and soul and throwing in the towel only one season removed from winning it all. Indeed, the Washington Post ran a headline after the trade that read “Red Sox seemingly concede AL East to rival Yankees.” That’s gotta “ouch” if you’re one of the Fenway Faithful.

Let’s look at the details. This was largely a money-driven trade. Seems there’s rarely a different type these days, unfortunately. Betts got an arbitration-awarded $27M for this year and will be a free agent next winter. Price has $96M left over the next three years on his contract. Verdugo on the other hand, isn’t even arbitration-eligible and will earn less than $1M this season, and little more next; Maeda was under contract for about $3M. The trade boosts the Dodgers payroll (per Sportrac) to $215.8M, second only to the Yankees this year. The Sox, on the other hand, drop below the tax threshold to about $179M, fifth highest. (For you wondering, Toronto is ranked as 20th with a $96M bill.)

For L.A., it’s clear. They want to win, they want to win now. Betts was the AL MVP in 2018, the runner-up in 2016, and they hope the even-year trend will carry on and cross league lines. And with good reason. Even last year, a supposedly “down” year for Mookie, he hit .295 with 29 HR, 80 RBI and a .391 OBP. He lead the league scoring 135 runs and won his fourth-straight Gold Glove. His mammoth 2018 season, an injury-marred one no less, he hit .346 and was worth a WAR of 10.9. Betts averages 94 RBI and 44 doubles a year over the past four years. He is as good a bat as they could wish for to add some real “oomph” to the lineup that boasts Justin Turner and NL MVP Cody Bellinger already.

Price may not be a Cy Young candidate anymore – he last won votes for that in 2015 – but with Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw already in town, he won’t need to be. He just has to be a decent #3 starter, which he likely will be. If he’s better than Maeda, it’s a bonus for the blue-and-white. Chances are he will be that too. Even though two of his past three years have seen him suffer injuries, he’s averaged 21 starts, 119 innings and better-than-average ERA through them. In 2018, the Sox World Series year, he was 16-7, with an ERA of 3.58 through 30 starts and a 4.4 WAR. He may not be the 6.6 WAR guy from 2012, or the one who pitched upwards of 186 innings every year from ’10-15, but he’s still a more than capable lefty who should excel in the pitcher-friendly NL West. Maeda on the other hand, while only four years into his MLB career, is 32 in April to Price’s 34, and has been on a slow downward-trajectory since his rookie season in 2016. That year he was 16-11, had a 3.48 ERA that was 58% better than league average and he hurled 176 innings. All those ’16 numbers have been his career best so far; last year he was consigned to the bullpen for a part of the year and had his ERA rise to over 4. Bottom line- L.A. is a better team, and one that has a greater chance of getting to the World Series than they were before the deal. It’s a financially costly one for them, but they are a rich franchise who will make the money back through increased attendance next year and merch sales if they finally bring a championship to SoCal.

Red Sox fans aren’t so sure they are better off though, and it’s easy to see why. Verdugo is a fine young outfielder. He hit .294 in his first full season last year (he had brief call-ups in both 2017 and ’18) and so far in his career, through a total 158 games (about one season in full) he’s .282 with 14 homers and a .784 OPS. Last year he got a WAR of 3.1 including a smart 1.2 with his defense. Athlon Sports last season ranked him as L.A.’s second-best prospect. He’s got decent speed, a good glove and will probably develop a bit of power as he matures. What he isn’t is Mookie Betts, or a likely MVP anytime soon. And the pitcher they get to replace Price is a youngster from Minnesota, Brusdar Graterol. He’s a flamethrower, according to scouting reports, with a 102 MPH fastball, and a very good slider. He’s a rightie and 21. Athlon ranks him as the 38th best prospect in the game. However, there are a few red flags. He’s listed as 6’1” and 265 pounds, which is a little offputting for a young pitcher. We remember how roly-poly Bartolo Colon was, but not everyone’s the Bartman. In addition, through four levels of ball last year (A-AA-AAA-Majors) he logged only 70 innings. Sure he was better than a K per inning in the minors where he had a 1.95 ERA, but he only started in AA. Apparently the Red Sox are having second thoughts about his health and see him as a bullpen arm rather than a starter to add to an “iffy” rotation alongside Chris Sale, Nathan Eovaldi, Martin Perez and Eduardo Rodriguez. Sale had a career-worst year and looked “off” last year, Eovaldi disappointed, Perez has never been more than an innings-eater and bottom of rotation guy which leaves Rodriguez as the closest thing to a sure thing in their rote now. He had 19 wins, 203 innings and the softest-contact rate off him of any AL starting pitcher last year. If Sale rebounds to his old self and Eovaldi improves, they might be OK. If those two see the downward spiral continue, the pitching could be a horror show. Either way, Graterol is unlikely to add much depth to the starting rotation, although he looks like he might be a good set-up guy. They will feel the loss of David Price either way. It’s easy to see why their fans are up in arms.

The Red Sox owners counter though that Betts is a free agent after this year. Sure he might have a monster MVP year, but he’s likely to walk away for 2021 anyway in search of a $400M contract. And even if they pony up that money to keep him, the result is likely going to be an albatross of a contract that no one in Boston would like four or five years into a nine or ten years. Ask Anaheim and their fans about that, vis a vis Albert Pujols. They get an outfielder who could develop into something special and will be around for five years anyway. In shedding Price, they unload an aging star who’s already overpaid in context of the league norms and might be terribly so by 2022. They’ve been prudent, they say, and if it costs them a few wins in 2020, let’s face it, it will only narrow the gap between Toronto and them since they weren’t going to be up there with Tampa, let alone New York. Fans should thank them.

It’s a tough call to make. Baseball is in many ways like poker and as Kenny says, “you’ve got to know when to hold them, know when to fold ’em.” Who is right, who is wrong? L.A. seem to come out clearly ahead, even if Mookie walks away after this season and even if they end up paying an extra $10M or so to the league in “tax” for bumping their payroll. The Red Sox hand was much more difficult to play. On the one hand, they in all likelihood were heading to an about 85 win, third place season out of the post-season, and paying tax on their bloated payroll. After this trade, they now will probably be no better than a .500 team and have every chance of falling behind the Jays into fourth place. But their payroll is trimmed and, if Betts ends up in New York pinstripes next year and if Price continues to show signs of aging; they still have two up-and-coming stars on their roster they wouldn’t have otherwise. Perhaps prudent but still a stinging rebuke to their large, loyal fanbase. One could hardly blame them for forgoing a trip or two to the park this season when it seems clear their team’s bosses have thrown in the towel.

Hold ’em? Fold ’em? It’s more and more a question for a majority of teams and it begs the question is it sensible to go all out to win as much as possible when no one thinks you’re going to be a champion? Owners usually say “no.” Fans usually say “yes!” One might think the 1990 Reds and 2015 Royals would agree.

Blue Jays Fans Green With Envy Of Red Sox?

Tonight Toronto starts their last series against Boston this year, and one can expect many in the (likely small) Rogers Centre crowd will be a little envious of the Red Sox. Not so much because of the season they’re having. Although certainly far and away better than Toronto’s, at 76-68 the Beantowners are a long-shot to make the playoffs, being 8 games out of the wild card race with only 18 games left. At best, mathematically, Boston can win 94… or 14 less than they did in last season in their World Series winning campaign. No, in that Boston has a lot in common with Toronto – a lot of disgruntled fans wondering what happened to their beloved team this year. Why Toronto might be envious is that the ownership of the Red Sox said “enough is enough” and did something about it. They fired their GM (although his title strangely enough was President of Baseball operations, the club lacking anyone with the title “General Manager”) Dave Drombowski.

Drombrowski is a great baseball man with lots of years experience, and the team’s own press release laud him for three-straight division titles and the World Series. But to them, it’s “what have you done for me lately?” They decided this year has been a bust in Beantown and someone had to pay for it and who better than the man who created the roster. Dombrowski was shown the door with 3 weeks left on the sched and another year on his contract. People were surprised.

Team manager Alex Cora said “surprised, shocked honestly” when asked for his reaction. Pity poor Alex, who’ll no doubt be looking over his shoulder a bit more for the rest of September. Star JD Martinez said about the same, that he felt “probably the same reaction you guys had – just a shock.” He added, “it’s a business and that’s their call” which hardly seemed like a strong endorsement.

MLB discussing the firing on their website noted that for all the success he’d had in the past, in the off-season he chose to let Craig Kimbrel leave and not replace him with a proven closer, that he re-signed Steve Pearce who’s been injured much of the time and that he gave a massive $145M contract extension to formerly-stellar Chris Sale, who in turn has struggled with velocity and elbow issues and tossed the worst year of his career, going 6-11 with a 4.40 ERA and few runs of consecutive good games. To counter-balance, they note he also extended Xander Bogaert’s contract and the shortstop is having his best year yet.

More damning, Dombrowski did nothing much at the trade deadline, not adding any significant impact players to a team with a decidedly weak bullpen and on-again, off-again rotation. The team rewarded that by going on an 8-game losing streak.

So the Red Sox have one “off” season and decide they need a change in direction to make sure they don’t have two disappointers in a row. If only Toronto fans were so lucky. Continue reading

“New” Jays Not A Hit At The Plate Nor The Gate

It’s early. That we all know. But with ten or so games under the belt, fans are starting to get a sense of what the season might hold in store. If you were, for example a Red Sox fan, you could probably begin reading all the screaming articles already written about their surprisingly terrible start and would still be reading them after the Blue Jays (who share the Sox last place 3-8 record) had come to town, played the series starting today and departed.

Here in Toronto Fanland, some observations are coming into focus at this early juncture. Again, only 11 games are done but some things seem increasingly obvious. Like that the pitching so many of us thought would be a weak spot is actually a good deal better than we’d expected. But likewise, the hitting so far has been atrocious and one has to begin to wonder soon if we haven’t horribly over-estimated the ability of the position players, new hitting coach Guillermo Martinez, or both. Perhaps worst of all however, is that the fans don’t seem to be screaming the sky is falling. Neither do the players or coaches for that matter. And that, more than say, a regular outfielder and frontline catcher each having one RBI apiece so far might spell trouble for the “New Jays” and the next year or two.

Toronto is 3-8, and worse, that comes after starting the year with a 7-game home stand against the supposedly dreadfully-bad Orioles and Tigers. The pitching has been better than any of us had likely really hoped… witness low-cost free agent pickup Matt Shoemaker who will be facing off against Chris Sale today. Who would have thought that the guy out of that pair that would have yet to allow a run after 14 innings would be the Blue Jay?

But the offense… oh my. It’s almost offensive to call Toronto’s hitting “offense”. While thus far, pitching has dominated in general in the AL(the league batting average so far, a paltry .231), there’s no good way to put a positive spin on the team’s .183 average … even if that somehow tops both the Tigers and Indians! Likewise, the number that matters – the runs scored – at 29 is not an attractive number for 11 games played. Seattle has scored nearly three times that already – 85. And pundits thought the Mariners were going to tank this year. Toronto have scored over 3 runs only three times to this point; they’ve been shutout once and notched only a single run three times. Not a recipe for a winning team. Ask Marcus Stroman, who’s had three excellent starts, boasts a 2.41 ERA and yet is 0-2.

The lethargic hitting isn’t something that can be pinned on just one or two under-achievers or slow starters. To this point, of all the regulars, really only little-known shortstop Freddy Galvis (picked up from San Diego in the off-season, presumably so the Padres could open up a roster spot for Manny Machado) is hitting well. He leads the team with a .324 average, 11 hits, 6 ribbies and sports a high-quality 1.025 OPS. He also is tied with Randal Grichuk for the high of 3 homers; Grichuk however is hitting .162, half of the Galvis number. Veteran Justin Smoak is hitting exactly the Mendoza Line (.200) and has launched just one longball to date. Brandon Drury, the third baseman with the Sword of Damacles (otherwise known as Vladimir Guerrero Jr.) hanging over him isn’t doing much to lobby for regular playing time once VG2 shows up… he’s hitting .179 and has struck out 17 times out of 39 AB. Danny Jansen, the young catcher labeled as the “hitting catcher” (Reese McGuire, at Buffalo is a bit behind in development and seems to be being labeled the “defense” catcher) is managing just a .143 average and one RBI. Which is still a ways ahead of multi-positional Lourdes Gurriel, a player with average at best defensive skills but a potent bat (witness his 11 game streak of multiple hits last summer) is hitting .074. Yikes! He’s K’d 9 times but walked once, so don’t look to the on base percentage as the silver lining there. And while there are players who have speed in the lineup and a coaching staff preaching a new, feisty attitude, they’ve collectively yet to steal a base.

Obviously, there’s lots of time for these guys to turn it around and start putting runs on the board left and right. But the lacklustre start is reason for concern. As is too, just how little seems to be being said about it so far.

At first glance it might seem a good thing for the team and a credit to the fans that there seems to be little panic out there. I’m not currently in the GTA so I can’t gauge coffee shop banter, but judging from Twitter and the Toronto newspapers, there seems to be no real outrage or even anguished concern over the slow start and awful hitting. Rewind three or four years and a single strikeout with bases loaded in extra innings could unleash a torrent of anguish and anger comparable to what some invading armies face when entering a foreign land. So maybe all of us fans are maturing. Understanding the team’s not designed to win the World Series this year and are comfortable with that. It’s quite relaxing not having to worry if the team wins or loses in fact.

I don’t see it that way though. Toronto fans are too passionate, too deeply involved in the team’s hills and dales. Or else they have been. I worry – and the front office should be terrified – that the easy acceptance of the mounting losses is more than understanding, evidence of a growing indifference to the team and its management. Consider the attendance. Two years ago they led the AL and were selling out most games. Last year they were still middle-of-the-pack attendance wise, but crowds had dropped by 26%. This year, according to Fansided, attendance has dipped by 305 over the first ten days last year! The writing was on the wall when tickets were still available for opening day as the team took the field; the paragraph was completed when the attendance of 10 460 on the first Monday was the lowest for any game at the Rogers’ Centre in nine years. As that site suggests, “management seem hellbound on taking this roster down to the studs and no amount of fan revolt will change that.” And as much as fans like a drink and snack while watching, no amount of reduced-price beers and hot dogs are going to lure them back to see a team of mostly unknown players who seem to have in common only an inability to hit and a relative lack of concern over that fact.

At least fans had something to cheer about yesterday. Edwin Encarnacion hit two home runs in one inning. Uh, yeah… for Seattle. Perhaps its time for the team to retire “Ace” the jaybird mascot and replace him with a guy in a toga carrying a violin… because the ownership seem to be fiddling while their Rome burns.

All Betts Off? The AL MVP Should Be…

Last but not least- the American League

MVP – you’d think they’d name it after someone like all the hockey awards. I mean, if the best pitcher award is the “Cy Young” maybe the MVP should be the “Ted Williams” or ‘Babe Ruth award”. Just sayin’… anyway, my choice for the big honor is…

Mookie Betts, Boston. Gotta admit, my first gut instinct at the end of the season was for the runner-up – J.D. Martinez – but upon studying the stats and consideration, Betts deserves to win out. Too bad an ab strain kept him out of the lineup for half of June or he might have been even more clear-cut best. But even with that, in his 136 games, he hit .346, launched 32 homers, 80 RBI and was tied for second in the league with 47 doubles. 81 walks helped his on base soar to .438 and all in all, he was second best in the majors with a 1.078 OPS. Gotta like that he only ground into 5 DPs all year too. Perhaps though the tipping point for me, making Mookie the most valuable on the best team was he played 131 games in the outfield, and rather well too. Which is something my second-place,

J.D. Martinez, Boston, couldn’t boast. Not that his fielding was bad by any means, but he had only 32 games with any fielding mixed in, being by and large the full-time DH. I don’t believe that a desginated hitter can’t be an MVP, but in a virtual tie, you have to give the nod to the more multi-dimensional player. That said, Martinez was a huge addition to the Sox and they probably wouldn’t have won it all without him. .330, 43 HR, major-league best 130 RBI, .629 slugging percentage, 188 hits (second in league)… he did all that New England hoped he would and then some.

third- Khris Davis – Oakland. the outfielder/DH led the world with 48 homers this year, in a division which isn’t terribly inclined to a lot of longballs, and drove in 123. Granted he hit only .247 but his .549 slugging percentage was quite stellar and the award does say valuable not all-around “best.” The A’s amazed, making it into the Wild Card with a, well, kind of lacklustre team, and one has to think that Khris’ dynamic hitting was the thing that lifted them there…. there weren’t a lot of other big bats on the Bay’s east side to back him up!

fourth – Luis Severino – New York. While he finished just out of my top picks for Cy Young, he was a powerhouse on the mound, being 19-8 with a 3.39 ERA over 191 innings. The Yanks had a balanced and talented postion lineup, with Aaron Judge, Aaron Hicks ,Giancarlo Stanton and rookie of the year choice Miguel Andujar all contributing well but none were head-turning or completely invaluable. But the starting rotation was shaky for the pinstripes, especially before J.A. Happ arrived, and one has to think that without Severino, digging deeper into their farm system or trying to recycle another aging starter in the Jaime Garcia ilk would have led to problems …and no triple-digit win tally for them this year.

Honorable mentions- Mike Trout – L.A. Anaheim , Blake Snell – Tampa Bay, Jose Ramirez – Cleveland, and yes a bad team but still, Whit Merrifield – Kansas City. How stinky would they have been without his infield glove, league-leading 192 hits and his 45 steals?

Well the owners will be meeting in a couple of weeks, free agents will be flying free and just hours back I saw that soar-backed superstar Clayton Kershaw did what most expected him to do, namely sign an extension to stay in L.A. We’ll look at the off-season, some free agent predictions and what Toronto should be doing this winter in the coming weeks….

So Ends The Season, Let The Countdown To ’19 Begin

First off, we have to start with congratulations to the Boston Red Sox on the World Series championship. While given their regular season record it should have been expected they’d win it all (and I did call them as the champs at the end of the regular season, although I had expected a Houston/LA rematch World Series way back in spring training), a lot can happen in October and the Red Sox never lost focus or let up a notch. Exactly what a championship team needs to do. What they also need is for an unexpected hero to step up, and they had that in Steve Pearce.

The 35 year-old journeyman, traded over from the Blue Jays mid-season had been a solid but unremarkable 12-year veteran backup player, conversant in hitting, playing outfield and first but never becoming a “star” at any of the above. In 50 games with Boston after being traded, he hit a decent .279 with 7 homers and a .901 OPS; on the year in total, he was .288 with 42 RBI and a .890 OPS. Both those numbers were second-best in his career, behind his 2014 campaign in Baltimore.

But when the pressure was on, it was Steve who rose to the challenge. He outhit the Sox duel MVP-candidates, Mookie Betts and JD Martinez in the entire post-season and really cemented the Championship last week. While Mookie hit a rather anemic .210, with just 1 homer and 4 RBI through the playoffs, JD fared somewhat better, going 15 for 50, a .300 average, with 3 HR and 14 RBI. Pearce through 13 games in the playoffs hit .289, added 9 walks leading to 12 runs scored. Of course he also hit 4 homers, three in the final two games of the year to seal the Dodgers fate, and tallied a huge 1.083 OPS. A rightful Series MVP if there ever was one.

A tip of the cap to the Dodgers too; they looked shaky at times this season but came through when they had to right up to the final week. Two straight league pennants is nothing to sniff at, though I expect many LA fans are doing that this morning.

****

On the homefront, the big news of course is the Blue Jays hiring Charlie Montoyo as their new manager. this came as rather a surprise, both in that it took them very little time and that his name really hadn’t been much in the mix of guesses from MLB pundits. More surprising, the amount of confidence shown in him by Toronto, giving him a 3-year deal right away for his first big league managing gig.

They rightfully point out that he’s not unqualified. He had 18 long years of minor league managing behind him and he was Kevin Cash’s bench coach this year with the far over-achieving Tampa Bay Rays. No one expected them to win 90 this year, especially when the Sox and Yankees got red-hot right out of the gates and when Tampa traded their supposed “ace”, Chris Archer in July. but win 90 they did, and as Ross Atkins of our guys points out, that’s largely because they are among the best teams at being “ahead of the curve” in using stats to analyze and stategize every at bat.

Montoyo’s bilingualism is also pointed to as a plus, definitely a consideration on a team with so many Latin American players including the top prospect Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

I hadn’t heard much of Charlie before but he does seem like he’s probably a good man for the job. I didn’t “like” the Rays ways this year, with their oddball pitching choices such as starting a reliever for one inning and severely limiting innings pitched for any hurler, and their reliance on defensive shifts. But you can’t argue with success, and succeed they did while Toronto and more traditional manager John Gibbons just didn’t live upto anyone’s expectations. So fingers crossed, and good luck Charlie Montoyo.

An interesting sidenote to that- the Jays website lists all the ’18 coaches as rostered still except for a hitting coach. Presumably this means they quietly let Brook Jacoby go, something that’s unfortunate but something I’ve argued has needed to be done for some time now.

Next up, we’ll be picking the deserving AL award winners.

The Series Looks Like…

Let the games begin. Finally we get to the Fall Classic, some 7 months from where we began, all full of confidence and excitement (even if you were somewhere like KC or Baltimore.) Now it’s down to just two.

As I predicted way back in spring, the LA Dodgers return to the World Series for the 11th time, hoping to win it for the first time in 30 years.LA deserve credit galore for staving off Colorado in a Game 163 and making it back to the World Series for the second year in a row.  This year though, unlike my prediction (which was for Houston to also repeat their appearance), their opponent, as we well know is the statistically best team in baseball this year- Boston.

I have some friends who are LA fans. As of yet, I have no one who’s a Red Sox fan. That said, I still have to pick Boston to win yet again. The Red Sox seem to be gaining momentum whereas the Dodgers seem to vary night to night. Mainly though, one has to like Boston’s advantages in having home advantage (an almost mind-blowing 57-24 at Fenway, although LA are a decent road team and one of the few teams with more road wins than home ones this year, being 47-34 outside of the City of Angels) and the accompanying DH advantage. MLB expect Matt Kemp to DH for LA when in the AL park. Nothing wrong with him as a hitter, but he’s no JD Martinez. And when in the National park, the Sox will find a way to keep Martinez’s killer bat in the lineup. Unlike the MLB site, I like Steve Pearce at first over David Freese too.

LA’s bullpen does seem better, and this year, one might think it’s all about the pens. Yet, Boston was the superior team in close games through the season too- 25-14 in one run games compared to LA who were a break-even .500 in such contests. And the X-factor… same as in the ALCS. Boston’s #2 co-ace, David Price. Price, as mentioned ad nauseum, has been historically bad in playoff starts for some weird reason. Finally he broke out of that last week to knock Houston out of the post-season, with 6 very strong shutout innings, 9 Ks and a ramped up velocity for his first post-season W in a start after 9 losses. I have to think that confidence will now spill over and bolster the Sox, even if wobby lefty Clayton Kershaw of the blue-and-white can outpitch wobbly lefty Chris Sale of the Clam Chowder Crew in game one.

My guess- Boston in 5. Unfortunately.

The Two X-factors To Watch This Weekend

Let the fun begin! The league championships kick off tonight in Milwaukee of all places, with the Dodgers taking on the central division champs. Tomorrow it’s the AL’s turn.

As you might recall, the matchups are what I’d predicted earlier this month, as was the rather quick folding of the Cleveland machine. Thus far, my only error in playoff picks was a last minute “gut feeling” that Oakland might top the Yanks in the one game wildcard, which seemed unlikely…and was, in fact!

If that seems like too much tooting my own horn, I’ll temper that by admitting that of my pre-season picks, I only got half the division winners right (Cleveland, Houston and LA) and in fact picked only 8 of the 30 teams in their correct position. Biggest faux pas- missing Oakland’s impressive 97 wins by 28 and picking them for last place in the AL West!

That noted, I have picked Milwaukee and Boston to advance to the World Series. I’ll stand by that but I won’t be utterly surprised if either, or even both, are wrong. Anything can happen in Ocotber baseball after all. To me the two things to look for are these:

NL: the series may go to 7 games, but I think we’ll have a good idea of the NL Champion by about the 5th inning tonight. LA are the better team on paper and in almost every respect (the bullpens may be a dead heat) …but the Brew Crew have been on fire lately. So, it comes down to can Milwaukee keep the momentum going, the roll that has them winning their last 11-straight games and top the Cubs in Wrigley Field for the division championship? If yes, if they come out of the gates like world-beaters full of confidence and ignorant of any obstacles, they will play for their first set of rings. If not, if the four day layoff has killed the momentum or made them stop and look at the rosters and think , Los Angeles will return to the Fall Classic.

AL: this one comes down to one man. David Price. The Astros are very good, needless to say, a well-balanced team with no huge holes anywhere. The Sox though, match them in several areas and are a better, deeper hitting staff than Houston…as the 16-1 bombing of the Bronx Bombers showed clearly. But Boston’s starting pitching could be a bit of a bugaboo for them. Ace Chris Sale has been limited to 6+ innings so far and is barely a month back from a shoulder injury that sidelined him for most of July and August. Then there’s game 2 starter, Price, who presumably would be asked to return to the mound Saturday for game 6 if it goes that far.

That doesn’t seem like a bad thing to the casual observer. Price is, after all, one of the best pitchers of the last decade, having good success with 4 different teams. Problem is, for whatever reason so far, he simply cannot do anything right as a starter in October. All the more strange, he’s been very effective as a relief pitcher in the playoffs, with Tampa in 2008 (his rookie campaign), last year with the Red Sox and one game for the Blue Jays in 2015. But as a starter in the post-season, he’s been historically bad. 10 starts, 0-9, about 62 innings (that’s not terrible), 69 hits allowed and an embarrassing 6.03 ERA. Go figure. During the regular seasons of those years, he’s made 224 starts, gone 1495 innings (an average of over 210 per year, a definite rarity these days) allowed less than a hit per inning every year and had a great 107-60 record and 3.24 ERA.

So why can’t Price start in October? Or can he? That’s the million-dollar question for the Red Sox. If it’s now a purely mental thing where he beats himself before he goes to the mound, they are sunk. If it’s just pure bad luck, the law of averages is bound to kick in, and he’ll have a good start and break the curse. One way or another, if Boston don’t get at least one quality start from him, they’re sunk.

Play ball!

Too Soon To Plan A Parade, But Early Returns Look Good

It’s too early to be arrogant or start planning out a November parade… but this year’s Blue Jays team offers a lot more optimism than last year’s edition! Through two weeks so far, as we know, the Jays are a pretty solid 8-4, behind only the redhot Red Sox (and notably, 2.5 games ahead of the much-vaunted Yankees.

There’s a lot to like so far. Aaron Sanchez’s flirting with a no-hitter last night not the least of it. That he lost the “no-no” bid in the 8th is irrelevant. The team pulled off a squeaker in style and more importantly, the third decent start from Sanchez shows that miraculously he’s seemed to have shaken off the nefarious blister problem that scrubbed his 2017 season. In so doing, he’s also reminded us that before those finger ouchies, he was among the very best of the league’s pitchers in 2016 (leading in ERA in fact.) Justin Smoak has had good games and nothing much games, but is tied for the lead league in RBI so far, suggesting that his ’17 was no fluke. In the same game, roberto Osuna became the youngest player ever to record 100 MLB saves. Congratulations to him!

The numbers back up the team’s resurgence. Last night’s 8th win of the year came a full 20 days sooner than last year’s (when they won on the final game of the month to ‘improve’ to 8-17.) So far this season, they’ve scored more than 5 runs, five times. Last year they did that just 5 times in all of April. That translates into 61 runs so far, second best in the AL to the Angels (although to be fair, Boston have 56 in 10 games, for a better average per game.) Their 3.62 ERA is 6th best in the AL but second to only Boston in the division and as a result their run differential of +17 is fourth best in the league. Last year by comparison, they had a dismal -91 on the year, allowing 91 more runs than they scored- a difficult number to have if a team wants to have even an outside shot at playoff glory!

Their .235 batting average isn’t showy, in fact it’s only 10th best in the league (real surprise – Cleveland are last with an atrocious .158, resulting in only 31 runs.) But the numbers that really matter are better in that department. Their .437 slugging percentage is third best in the AL and best in the division, Aaron judge and his Pinstripes notwithstanding. And as we already noted, the bottom line is they’re scoring runs almost as well as any team going, which is the number that counts.

The pitching is even more reason for optimism. The 3.62 ERA , which sounds stellar, is actually 6th best in the AL . there’ve been a lot of shutouts and low-scoring games thus far! But it is second only to Boston in the AL East and the relievers have been spot-on. thus far, they have a cumulative 2.66 ERA despite being called on for better than 3 innings a game so far. If and when Marcus Stroman hits his stride, the starters’ numbers will improve, bullpen may be required to eat up a few less innings and the team could be among the elite pitching squads of 2018. Even if they just kept the current performance, they’d be looking at 594 runs given up through the year, which was topped last season by only Cleveland.

In the field, the .982 fielding percentage sounds normal, but there seems to be an influx of Gold glove caliber defenders this season, so it ranks only 13th best in the league. Noteworthy though- the two teams they are ahead of in that category are 2015 world Champs Kansas City and the all-powerful Yankees.

None of these stats really count for that much. It is, after all, early. There are a full 150 games to play still. Cleveland is bound to start getting a few hits sooner or later; Giancarlo Stanton will almost certainly eventually adjust to the new league and hit a few dingers in the Big Apple. But likewise, Randal Grichuk may not be the new 2012-vintage Bautista, but is bound to get more than 1 hit a week for Toronto and Marcus Stroman (who missed half of Spring Training) might not be as good as he thinks he is but in no way is a pitcher who’ll cough up a run per inning over the long haul. So the Jays too have areas where they can actually get better. the important thing is that right now they are putting up “W”s and have a sense of possibility that was missing in the stands and on the field by this time last year.

Maple Leafs in the playoffs, Raptors with second best record in NBA, and our Jays holding tough in second place… it’s a good time to be a sports fan in the GTA!