6 MLB Teams Guaranteed to Choke in the End
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This is the time of year in baseball when the chokers start choking. Most of them won't live to see October. Others will complete their choke jobs after the postseason arrives.
Even the best teams can choke away once-promising seasons. We saw it happen in 2011 when the Boston Red Sox and Atlanta Braves both fumbled seemingly secure playoff berths in September. In October, the Philadelphia Phillies followed up their 102-win regular season with a swift exit from the playoffs at the hands of the eventual world champion St. Louis Cardinals.
Since we know that there will be chokers, the question we should be asking ourselves now is, who the chokers will be this year.
I've identified six teams that are doomed to die choking deaths before all is said and done this season. The first four are teams that won't make it to the postseason (two for the AL, two for the NL), and the last two are teams that won't have what it takes to survive in October.
Be sure to leave your angry comments in the section below after you're done reading (keyword being after).
Note: All stats are current as of the start of play on Tuesday, September 4, and they come from Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
Chicago White Sox
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The AL Central has been the Chicago White Sox's division all season. Including off days and the like, they've held first place for 104 days.
Spoiler alert: They won't be holding first place in the AL Central when the season comes to a close.
There's a train of thought out there that the White Sox have just been keeping first place in the Central warm for the Detroit Tigers this season. Instead of proving otherwise, the White Sox have gone out of their way to prove that this train of thought is correct.
The White Sox have lost seven straight head-to-head matchups against the Tigers, who have won these seven games by a combined score of 43-22. There's no doubt that the Tigers are the better team between the two.
What the White Sox should be concerned about is the fact that the Tigers aren't done with them yet. A four-game series between the two clubs in Chicago is looming next week. If recent history is any indication, the White Sox are going to be out of their league.
It's not just the Tigers they have to worry about in the final month of the season. The White Sox have also lost five games in a row to the suddenly formidable Kansas City Royals, and they have to play them six more times before the season is out. They'll also have to tackle the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays, two teams that will be fighting for their playoff lives when they come across the White Sox.
The White Sox are going to need everything to go their way if they want to make the playoffs. That means they're going to have to win every time Chris Sale and Jake Peavy take the mound, and they're going to need good production out of Adam Dunn and Paul Konerko.
And therein lies the rub. The White Sox have lost three of Sale's last four starts and four of Peavy's last five starts. Konerko is a .260/.327/.396 hitter since the first of June, and Dunn is hitting under .200 since the middle of May.
Yes, the White Sox have been consistent this season, but not so much lately. They're 26-23 since the All-Star break. The Tigers, meanwhile, are 28-20 since the break.
In the end, the AL Central will go to them. Here's hoping they have the courtesy to thank the White Sox for keeping it warm.
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The Oakland A's were as hot as hot can be in July, going 19-5 and posting a run differential of plus-34.
They cooled down at the start of August, but they finished the month by winning 13-15 to finish the month with an 18-10 record.
All told, the A's are 33-15 since the break. They hold one of the AL's two wild-card spots, and they still have a shot at stealing the AL West lead from the Texas Rangers.
All hale the return of Moneyball!
Sure, but nobody should get too carried away. The A's may be the hottest thing around, but you have to take their recent hot streak for what it's worth.
Yes, the A's have won 15 out of their last 18 games overall, but look who they've scored these 15 wins against. They got to play seven games against the Cleveland Indians, three against the Minnesota Twins and three against the Boston Red Sox.
That's 13 games against three of the worst teams in the American League. In fact, Cleveland and Boston are the worst teams in the Junior Circuit at this juncture, so one would hope that the A's can beat teams like them.
I'm not faulting the A's for winning these games, but I will point out that wins over good teams shouldn't be taken for granted just because the A's can beat bad teams.
And the good teams are coming. In the month of September, the A's will tackle the Angels, Mariners and Rangers twice, and they'll also play series against the Orioles, Tigers and Yankees.
The only team of the bunch that's not in contention is the Mariners, and they have a 30-19 record since the All-Star break. They are not to be taken lightly.
The A's are going to hang around for a few more weeks, but their 10-game road trip through Detroit, New York and Texas later this month is going to be the death of them. The A's aren't a great road team to begin with, and American League road trips don't get any tougher than that.
No amount of Bernie-ing will save them.
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Am I cheating with this one?
Yeah, a little bit. Though they're still well within reach of a wild card spot, the Pirates are already gasping for air.
The Pirates have done just fine against the St. Louis Cardinals in recent weeks, winning two out of three in both the series they played against the Cards in August. One of the games they won was a 19-inning thriller that looked like it would serve as a springboard for an excellent run down the stretch.
Nope. The Pirates have won just three out of 13 games since then, and only one of those wins came against a team other than the Cardinals.
You don't need a magnifying glass to identify the problems afflicting the Pirates. Chief among them would be the sudden mediocrity of NL MVP candidate Andrew McCutchen, whose bat has gone cold since the start of August.
After hitting an astounding .446/.510/.739 in July, McCutchen is hitting just .250/.336/.342 with a pair of home runs in 30 games since the first of August. Of these 30 games, 19 have resulted in losses for the Pirates.
This is reminiscent of what happened in 2011 when McCutchen hit .227/.336/.416 over the final two months of the season. The Pirates went 18-38 in August and September, a dismal end to what was once a promising season.
That's precisely what is going on now, but McCutchen isn't the only one to blame for the team's struggles. Pirates starting pitchers went 10-13 with a 4.76 ERA in August, and their relievers went 1-4 with a merely decent 3.76 ERA.
To put that in perspective, Pirates relievers had lost just eight games in four months heading into August. In no small part because of the rotation's struggles, the shine is starting to wear off Pittsburgh's bullpen.
The same can be said of the team in general. They're still in it, but they haven't even been capable of beating the dregs of the National League in recent weeks.
When it comes to it, the Pirates will probably be playing just for pride when they wrap up their season against Cincinnati and Atlanta.
Los Angeles Dodgers
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In the beginning, the Dodgers were a very, very good team. They opened June with an MLB-best 32-19 record.
Ever since, the Dodgers are 41-44. They suffered through an 11-17 month of June and managed mere .500 records in July and August.
All signs point towards the team's hot start in April and May being a fluke. Indeed, Dodgers GM Ned Colletti and the team's ownership must have come to that same conclusion, as the Dodgers would not have gone out and added guys like Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, Adrian Gonzalez and Josh Beckett if they figured their team was already good enough.
The hell of it is that the Dodgers are still a flawed team even after they made all their big moves. That became apparent when they lost five of six immediately after their big trade with the Red Sox.
The concerns are plentiful. Gonzalez has a mere .616 OPS as a member of the Dodgers, a figure that actually makes him a downgrade from James Loney rather than an upgrade. Victorino has a mere .625 OPS as a Dodger. Waiver acquisition Joe Blanton has an ERA over 6.00 as a Dodger.
Complicating matters is the fact that Matt Kemp is hitting just .273 with three home runs since the start of August. All the new acquisitions are great, but he's the guy who's supposed to be carrying the Dodgers and he's not doing that.
Kemp had better get going. The Dodgers have done well to start September with three straight wins, but they haven't entered the gauntlet yet. Looming are consecutive series against San Francisco, Arizona, St. Louis, Washington and Cincinnati.
The only team in that mix that isn't a contender is the Diamondbacks, and they have a 10-6 record against the Dodgers this season. They'll be looking to play spoiler, and their track record says they'll be up to the task.
Meanwhile, the Dodgers' track record over the last three months says that the club peaked a long time ago. Their wheeling and dealing has done nothing to make the good old days come back.
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And now for the postseason chokers. We'll start in the National League with the Senior Circuit's best team (winning percentage-wise): the Washington Nationals.
As a team, the Nationals leave little to complain about. They lead all of baseball with a rotation ERA of 3.25, and that's thanks mainly to the excellence of Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gionzalez and Jordan Zimmermann. Their offense started slow, but it has since gotten healthy enough to rank third in the National League in runs scored since the All-Star break.
There's no set formula for winning in October, but great starting pitching and hot bats tend to work in one's favor. The Nationals have both.
As far as WAR is concerned (see FanGraphs), Strasburg is Washington's best pitcher. And as we all know, Strasburg won't be around when the postseason gets here. When the Nats are playing in October, their best pitcher will remain on the sidelines.
Which is too bad. A rotation of Strasburg-Gonzalez-Zimmermann would have been a sight to see in the postseason. A rotation of Gonzalez-Zimmermann-Jackson/Detwiler will hold its own, but it will have its work cut out for it against the rotations the Nats are bound to come across.
For example, the San Francisco Giants are going to have Matt Cain, Madison Bumgarner and Ryan Vogelsong at their disposal. The Cincinnati Reds will have Johnny Cueto, Mat Latos and Bronson Arroyo to play with. The Atlanta Braves have Kris Medlen, Tim Hudson, Mike Minor and Paul Maholm.
And so on. The Nats have better starting pitching than any team in the National League now, but the playing field is going to be a lot more level in the postseason.
The emphasis will thus be on their lineup to produce, and that's a tricky proposition. Hitters with postseason experience are in short supply among Washington's regulars, and that could be the team's undoing against battle-hardened clubs like the Giants, Reds, Braves and St. Louis Cardinals.
I really want to believe that Washington's Cinderella run is going to continue deep into October, but you get the sense that it's simply too soon for this franchise to win it all.
Evidently, they think the same thing. Otherwise, they wouldn't be sabotaging their chances by pulling the plug on Strasburg.
New York Yankees
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In the American League, 'tis the Yankees who shall choke in October.
The Yankees are no sure thing to even make it that far, mind you. They've lost 10 of their last 13 games and have watched their lead over the Baltimore Orioles in the AL East dwindle to a single game (pending the outcome of Tuesday's games).
But really, the Yankees' mediocrity is not so much a recent thing. After going a sparkling 20-7 in June, they went 13-13 in July, 15-13 in August, and are 1-2 so far in September. Over the last two months, the Bombers are a mere 29-28.
The Yankees' problems are just as plentiful as the Dodgers' problems. They only have one starting pitcher they can call a true ace, and it's concerning that his name is Hiroki Kuroda and not CC Sabathia. The Yankees' expensive lefty has had his roughest season in years, and you have to think no contender in the American League is scared to face him anymore.
Teams shouldn't be frightened of the rest of the Yankees rotation either. Andy Pettitte may not be able to help the Yankees in October. Phil Hughes is prone to shellackings. Ivan Nova never was that good, and he may not even figure into the team's plans for its October rotation after going 1-3 with an 8.59 ERA in his previous five starts.
In a strange twist of fate, the Yankees offense isn't all that scary either. The Bombers may lead all of baseball in home runs, but the homers haven't been coming all that frequently lately due to injuries (Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira) and slumps (Curtis Granderson).
When the Yankees aren't hitting the ball out of the park, runs are very hard for them to come by. Such is life when a team has a mere .250 batting average with runners in scoring position.
We've seen the Yankees struggle in the regular season before, only to go on and dominate in the postseason. The 2000 Yankees, for example, won just 87 games during the regular season before going on to win the franchise's third straight World Series.
But we may as well be talking about ancient history. The present version of the Yankees has been bounced from the playoffs earlier than they would have liked each of the last two years despite excellent regular seasons.
If the 2010 or 2011 Yankees weren't good enough to win it all, the 2012 Yankees certainly aren't. Their stay in the postseason will be brief.
Hey, at least I have them getting to October. Even Yankees fans should be able to agree at this point that trusting them to make it that far requires a leap of faith.
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