How Much Ya Bet?: Weighing in on MLB's Second Half
Honestly, I went looking for the Saturday Night Live skit simply because of the tie-in to the theme of the article (I'll get to that). Then I watched it and realized the implications are treacherous as well as infinite. I'll leave it to the reader to make the leaps because I'm as tired of typing the phrases as you are of reading them.
Besides, the performances make no subtle statements.
Anyhow, I first thought of the skit when sizing up the second half. There are a lot of intriguing first-half developments that bear watching over the final stanza of the 162-game slate.
When taking it all in, you'll see a lot of loooong shots that are being packaged as illogically probable. Consequently, Emilio Estevez' voice from the SNL masterpiece popped up in my noodle with the one transposed word.
I'm not saying it makes any sort of sense; I'm saying that's the way it happened.
The rest is just one of life's happy coincidences.
As for the second-half chances, I don't mean to be a wet blanket or rain on anyone's parade or any other trite metaphor. I just don't see why I've got to tell you Joe Mauer has a really good shot at replacing Ted Williams for it to be a fascinating spectacle.
Hey, that it's so bloody unlikely is the reason it would be such a phenomenal achievement.
With those journalistic land mines explained, onto the stories that took shape in the Show before the All-Star break and figured to shape its final stretch of baseball. It's not an exhaustive list, just some of my favorites (there are only nine in protest against the monopoly of the No. 10...or because I'm lazy—you decide):
1. Joe Mauer finishing the year hitting .400 or north of it: Five percent
Like I said, I'm not trying to be an a**h***; I'm just being realistic. There's a reason nobody's done it since the Splendid Splinter in 1941—it was damn near impossible back then, and it's only gotten harder.
You could argue this mark, along with Joe DiMaggio's 56-game hit streak, are the only hitting records safely out of reach of even today's suspect sluggers.
With the introduction of specialists from the 'pen, the combustible popularity of the intentional walk, increased travel, prevalence of night games, etc., there's a decent chance nobody ever finishes with a four starting his average ever again.
And Mauer's a freakin' CATCHER!
There have been 20 players since MLB's first official incarnation in 1876 to finish at or above the magic mark. None have been backstops—although Hugh Duffy played at least part of a game behind the dish in 1898 (four years after he posted his single-season record average of .440)
If the Minnesota Twin can persevere through a full season of that kind of abuse while matching Teddy Ballgame, I'll be a fan forever. That would be a feat too impressive for any non-MLB catcher to understand.
2. Albert Pujols winning the National League Triple Crown: 10 percent
Again, don't mean to be a killjoy. And this one actually looks like a distinct possibility with Prince Albert perched atop the Senior Circuit in home runs (32, leads by eight) and runs batted in (87, leads by nine). But the problem is average, where he sits in fourth place with a .332 clip.
That's good, but it's not good enough.
Not when the best player in baseball has to deal with Pablo Sandoval, Carlos Beltran, Hanley Ramirez, and the fallout from his newly minted moniker.
Leap-frogging the three other hitters will be tough, but St. Louis' pride and joy has plenty of time to do it. Unfortunately, that time will work against the king Cardinal just as mightily.
Opposing managers will connect the Barry Bonds dots sooner or later. The oh-so-subtle message will eventually get through—it doesn't matter who is hitting behind Albert Pujols, you simply can't let him beat you. Period.
Then the free passes will really start to flow, especially in spots where run producers most want to swing the stick. Bonds is the only player I've ever seen absorb that treatment without the attendant frustration sabotaging his numbers.
We'll get to see if Albert Pujols is up to the challenge.
3. Mark Reynolds breaking the single-season record for striking out: 90 percent
This is as much a sure thing as there is in the beautifully random game of baseball. Let's just get the ugliness over with—the Arizona Diamondbacks third baseman has already whiffed 123 times in 325 at-bats. Yes, you're doing the math correctly—Mr. Reynolds would be hitting .378 if the third strikes were his only hits instead.
Not to belabor the point, but the man is failing to put the ball in play over a third of the time. And he was almost an All-Star. Whoa.
His closest "competition" are titanic gusts like Chris Davis—who'd be the real story since his 114 K come in only 258 AB, but he was mercifully sent down—Carlos Pena (111), Ryan Howard (103), and Adam Dunn (99). Not exactly a disciplined bunch at the plate, and they're still not particularly close.
As far as the single-season mark is concerned, it sits on (guess who) the Snakes' third baseman's theoretical mantle and rests at 204. Reynolds set that last year in only 539 official trips to the plate.
That is almost the exact same percentage. Literally.
Figure on more at-bats this year because he's a year older, he's having one of the best years in the Arizona offense, and 539 is a low total for a dude who doesn't take an inordinate number of walks.
So figure on a new record.
4. Carl Crawford and/or Jacoby Ellsbury stealing 100 bases: 35 percent
This appears to be a matter of choice, and stolen bases simply aren't chic enough to make it a smart money bet. But if you're looking for an incredibly rare feat in the modern game safely within reach, the century mark in swipes is it.
Nobody's sincerely challenged the C-note since Vince Coleman stole 109 for the Redbirds in 1987 and Rickey Henderson fell just shy (93) for the New York Yankees in 1988. Since then, the high-water mark has been 78, and that's been done twice (though never in the American League).
If either Crawford or Ellsbury can claw his way onto base enough, either has the kind of celerity that doesn't require great base-running instincts. Since both guys have only been caught seven times, there's heavy indication a lack of instincts isn't an issue.
Superlative speed plus good guts on the basepaths means 100 thefts are doable.
Crawford is hitting .309 with an on-base percentage of .367, while Ellsbury is a shade lower in both categories—.297 and .347, respectively. All numbers concerned are substantially higher than percentages posted by the St. Louis speedster in '87, so it would seem the opportunities are there.
I just doubt Crawford, Joe Maddon, Ellsbury, and/or Terry Francona will green-light enough attempts.
5. Tim Lincecum repeating as the NL Cy Young: 75 percent
You've really got to like the Freak's chances despite getting touched up in the All-Star game a bit (thanks a lot Albert). Sure, it's hard to repeat an accomplishment as difficult as winning one league's highest pitching honor—if the pressure/bull's-eye were too burdensome on the right-hander's avian shoulders, we'd know it already.
Hmmm...the San Francisco Giants' ace is 10-2 with 149 strikeouts against 34 walks, a 2.33 earned run average, a 1.05 WHIP, two shutouts, and three complete games in 127.2 innings pitched.
That's not the line of a pitcher uncomfortable with a new reputation or the glare that accompanies it. That's the line of a terrifying force of nature crammed into a dimpled little maestro.
It bears mentioned that Arizona's own righty, Dan Haren, has Lincecum licked in ERA and WHIP while matching him in complete games. Like most reasonable baseball fans, I consider the ratio stats (ERA/WHIP) to be the most significant reflections of efficacy on the bump.
If the voting were today, you'd have to give the award to Haren.
The voting isn't today.
6. Zack Greinke further exorcising his demons with the AL Cy Young: 85 percent
The new rash of trips to the disabled list on account of psychological diagnoses is really odd, if you ask me, but nobody doubts the legitimacy of the tremendous struggles Greinke faced upon arriving in the Major Leagues. Hence, the sudden return to incandescent glory is one of baseball's absolutely best stories of 2009.
The Kansas City Royal right-hander seems like a good kid—quiet and humble, with a howitzer dangling off his shoulder. It's been barking to the tune of a 10-5 record with 129 K against 21 BB, a 2.12 ERA, a 1.08 WHIP, two SHO, and five CG in 127.1 IP.
As filthy as the Franchise has been in the Bay Area, KC's ace is arguably having the best hurler's year so far.
Also working in Greinke's favor is the fact that his most threatening contender, based on numbers as well as likelihood of finishing well, is Roy Halladay. Doc currently stands amidst a swirl of trade rumors, which is never an asset in terms of concentration.
And, should he not get traded from the Toronto Blue Jays, he's gotta run up a huge hill to catch Greinke—that being the AL East juggernaut.
7. Albert Pujols finishing the year as the new Best Clean Hitter in Baseball: 75 percent
Okay STL, listen carefully—I was born under the Gateway Arch, and I have no wish to offend or twist a knife in your back, but it's gotta be said.
Barry Bonds was the man until BALCO exploded in his face. Then it was Alex Rodriguez until he was taken down by Selena Roberts and the ballplayer's shady network of underlings. Then it was Manny Ramirez's turn to take the baton and faceplant several strides into his leg of baseball history.
Well, now it's Prince Albert wearing the mantle, and soon he'll have to endure the white-hot scrutiny that comes with it.
What makes the calm even more precarious is a look at the man's numbers and a comparison with Barry Bonds' at the height of his chemically-enhanced fury. Aside from the bloated OBP for Barry due to his insanely high walk totals, they compare pretty favorably.
Sooner or later, cynics and critics in the media will start asking how probable it is for a player to mimic a juiced-up, Hall of Fame talent—remember, Bonds was a shoo-in for Cooperstown before the alleged needle and cream—and still be clean.
Given the era of MLB we're in, the continued existence of HGH, and the continued absence of blood testing as part of the new testing policy, it's a fair question.
Unpopular, but fair. Whether Pujols or his fans or any of the other players like it or not.
8. Charlie Manuel burning in the Baseball Gods' infernal dungeons for the injustice he handed out from his cloud of judgment in Philadelphia: 100 percent
Nah, just kidding Phillie fans. Manuel jobbed a bunch of deserving players—I mean, really, Shane Victorino goes from Last Man Vote to starting?—but he's hardly the first and (sadly) won't be the last.
Shoot, as much as it ires me to admit, Chuckles probably wasn't even the worst offender this year. Tampa Bay Ray skipper Joe Maddon spent his tenure as the AL All-Star manager finding new and inventive ways to give Ian Kinsler the middle finger.
And Kinsler should've/could've been starting.
Regardless, it's time to move on.
9. Who will win the Wild Card races?
As fun as the rest of the arcs are, this is the most important, so I'll break form. This is the only question that has a direct and immediate relation to winning the real hardware, the World Series and those rings.
Additionally, since I've already dealt with the division races, this is the last piece of the second-half postseason puzzle to insert.
In the Junior Circuit, the contenders are easy, and the call is hard.
I tabbed the Boston Red Sox to carry the day for the division flag, and that leaves the Yanks and Rays to scrap over the scraps. With all due respect to the rest of the AL contenders, they're simply not built like the AL East also-rans. In previous years, the small-market minnows could rise up and overtake the big market sharks.
Unfortunately, 2009 is the dawn of a new breed of shark—at least in the AL East.
I'll stick with the Bronx Bombers because they're in the pole position now, and they haven't really been hitting on all cylinders. A-Rod will eventually come around to his extraterrestrial self, as will CC Sabathia.
That should allow guys like Mark Teixeira, A.J. Burnett, and the other Pinstripes to ease off the throttle even more—elevating their performances in the process.
All the youth in Tampa makes it a toss-up, though. You never know when studs like B.J. Upton, Evan Longoria, Matt Garza, and Scott Kazmir will stumble into the next brilliant phase of their still-green careers.
In the Senior Circuit, everything's a mess.
If you thought I was going to blithely pick my San Francisco Giants, you'd be dead wrong—despite the four-game cushion my boys have over the Milwaukee Brewers.
Forget the Colorado Rockies—they're just streaking at the moment, and somebody will hand them some clothes soon enough.
The Gents have as good a shot as anyone with their gnarly rotation, but the hitting is as bad as the arms are good. The sputtering production the City's club has been getting so far could wheeze its final breath at any moment—that makes the Orange and Black as risky a proposition as it is safe.
Especially since you have slumbering beasts like the Chicago Cubs, who have failed to deliver on their considerable talent thus far, yet still remain firmly in the NL Wild Card picture.
Or wounded wild animals like the New York Mets—they might look harmless because of all the injuries, but they can still be very dangerous.
The Brewers figure to have a say in the matter before it's all done as the inverse of los Gigantes—all thump, no bump.
Then there are the Florida Marlins, who are a poor man's version of their Floridian neighbors. While lacking Tampa's overall depth of talent, the Fish have some serious heat in the starting rotation, and Hanley Ramirez alone gives them a puncher's chance on O.
Plus, the St. Louis Cardinals might fall back to the pack from their spot atop the NL Central. If that happens, it will inject another balanced contender into the mix.
Not to mention the preseason darling Reds in Cincinnati, the Atlanta Braves, the Houston Astros, and even those Rox, who are all one good streak (or a bad one from San Francisco) away from the top Wild Card spot.
With all that to digest, I'm picking the San Francisco Giants to be the last organization standing based on the best pitching of the group and good defense.
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