Peter Gammons discusses the new baseball season

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I miss seeing Peter Gammons regularly on ESPN. Here he visits Morning Joe and discusses the new season, including the challenges facing the New York Yankees and the potential of the Washington Nationals.

Follow the Scores Report editors on Twitter @clevelandteams and @bullzeyedotcom.

MLB Playoff Predictions

This may well be my last post for a while on The Scores Report, so I figured what better way to go out than with some way-too-early playoff predictions? I’ll forecast each of Major League Baseball’s six division winners as well as each league’s two wild card teams. You know, so all my readers can come back and mock my wild inaccuracy in two months time.

Below, you’ll find the name of my predicted champion with their current record and place in the standings in parentheses. Also inside the parentheses is the percent chance that team will win their division (DIV) as well as make the playoffs in some fashion (POFF) as calculated by coolstandings.com and showcased on ESPN’s Hunt for October.

AL East: New York Yankees (72-52, First Place, DIV: 74.9, POFF: 96.5)

This is one of the easier predictions to make, as despite losing three straight to the White Sox, the Yankees hold the American League’s best record. As good as the Rays are, they’re simply not going to catch up with  the boys from the Bronx, especially with ace C.C. Sabathia returning to start on Friday.

AL Central: Detroit Tigers (66-57, Second Place, DIV: 31.0, POFF: 55.7)

This one’s a real toss-up between Detroit and the first place Chicago White Sox. The way I see it, the Tigers have been seriously underperforming. They should have been on top of the division all year, instead the AL Central race has turned into a competition to see who can be the most above average.

Although Chicago’s being given a 69 percent chance to win the division (83.3 percent to make the playoffs), for me, that’s the Tigers. They’re only two games back in, and 16 of the 39 contests left on their schedule are against teams with winning records. Detroit will play nearly a quarter of their remaining games, nine, against the Kansas City Royals, against whom they’re 7-1 so far.

The Tigers and White Sox will face off seven more times this year, and those games will be the key to the division. Both teams have a bit of extra incentive: there’s a solid chance that the one that comes in second place won’t make the playoffs at all, what with the Rays, Orioles, and A’s playing as they have.

AL West: Texas Rangers (72-51, First Place, DIV: 84.9, POFF: 96.2)

This may be the lone lock among these predictions. The Rangers are looking to return to the World Series for the third straight season, and I’d bet they’d like to win one after losing to the Cardinals and Giants in the past two championships. Will the third time be a charm?

We’ll see, right now we’re just talking about winning the division, and as of now, the Rangers have an AL-high 84.9 percent chance to do that. The Rangers have without a doubt the league’s best offense. They lead the league in runs scored (627), average (.277),  and on-base percentage (.340), while trailing only the Yankees in slugging percentage (.444). Lucky for Texas, the Angels have fallen off hard of late, and while the A’s have been quite a surprise, it’s unlikely they’ll close their five-game gap.

AL Wild-Cards: Tampa Bay Rays (69-55, Second Place AL East, DIV: 23.3, POFF: 79.1), Oakland Athletics (65-56, Second Place AL West, DIV: 13.2, POFF: 55.0)

The Rays will ride into the first AL wild-card spot with relative ease on the backs of their pitching staff. They’re tied for the best team WHIP (1.20) and batting average against (.232) in the majors and rank second in ERA (3.27).  Plus, they’ve been one of baseball’s hottest teams as of late, winning seven of their last ten.

The second spot is much tricker. The O’s have been perhaps the season’s biggest surprises, but I just don’t seem them making it given the strength of the AL East. Instead, it will be another team with a vowel-based nickname, the Oakland A’s, who have games with Minnesota, Tampa Bay, Cleveland, Boston, Los Angeles, Seattle, Baltimore, Detroit, New York and Texas remaining on their schedule. Ironically, they’ve only got losing records against the worst two teams on that list, Minnesota and Seattle, so they’ll just have to keep doing what they have been. Having recently acquired shortstop Stephen Drew from Arizona, the A’s aren’t going to just lay down and die.

NL East: Washington Nationals (77-47, First Place, DIV: 87.7, POFF: 99.7)

I’ve been saying it all year, the Nationals are doing it right. It’s been rumored that the team would shut down Stephen Strasburg after he reached around 160 innings, although GM Mike Rizzo has consistently said there is no set limit and that he alone would make the decision. Strasburg has 145.1 under his belt thus far, and the team recently announced that he’ll be sitting for two or three starts. We’ll see what the 24 year-old ace is able to do in the playoffs with all that rest. For now, John Lannan will take his spot in the rotation.

With the team six games ahead of the Atlanta Braves and holding the best DIV and POFF scores in the majors, they’re unlikely to miss Strasburg too much.The fact is they’ve got the league’s best pitching staff with or without him. Sure, Strasburg is a huge part of their league highs in ERA (3.23), quality starts (79), WHIP (1.20), and batting average against (.232), but baseball is a team sport, and the Nats aren’t going to fall off the map without him on the hill every fifth day.

NL Central: Cincinatti Reds (76-49, First Place, DIV: 87.5, POFF: 98.1)

Even without Joey Votto, the Reds have won seven of their last ten. Only the Nationals have a better record than Cincinatti, and that’s why only the Nats have a higher probability of winning their division or making the playoffs. But the Reds have a bigger lead in their division (8 games over St. Louis and 8.5 over Pittsburgh) than any other team in baseball, and nothing’s going to stop that train from rolling.

NL West: Los Angeles Dodgers (67-58, Second Place, DIV: 23.7, POFF: 30.6)

Much like the AL Central race, this one is going to be impacted in large part by the six games the Giants and Dodgers play against each other. Sure, L.A. is a game behind the Giants. And yes, they just got finished losing three straight to San Francisco. But losing Melky Cabrera is going to take a toll on the Giants over their next 38 games, although the effects may not have manifested quite yet, so I’m still picking the Dodgers to take the NL West crown.

NL Wild-Cards: Atlanta Braves (71-53, Second Place NL East, DIV: 12.3, POFF: 89.4), Pittsburgh Pirates (67-57, Third Place NL Central, DIV: 3.7, POFF: 35.7)

Much like the Rays, the Braves are going to have a relatively easy time taking the first NL wild-card spot. Atlanta is better than the record, if that even makes sense considering only four teams have better records. Unfortunately for the Braves, one of them is the Washington Nationals.

The second NL wild-card spot and final pick on my list is the Pittsburgh Pirates. Although they’ve got a fairly tough schedule moving forward, the Bucs will also play Milwaukee, Houston, and Chicago. Pittsburgh is going to have tough time moving ahead of division rival St. Louis and contending with the rest of the pushing and shoving going on for the last NL playoff spot. To be honest, this one is more of a hope than a prediction. I mean, the last time the Pirates made the playoffs was 1992. When else should the Bucs get their luck back, if not exactly twenty years later? If nothing else, their fans deserve it. So does Andrew McCutchen, who’s likely to be the NL’s most valuable player.

Follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman

Will the Nationals Shut Down Stephen Starsburg? Should they?

It’s been one of the franchise’s biggest questions since before the season even began: Will the Washington Nationals shut down Stephen Strasburg? If so, after how many innings? And even if the team is in the midst (or at the front) of a pennant race?

Since the preseason, it’s been floating around that the team would shut down their ace after 160 innings. Strasburg underwent Tommy John surgery toward the end of the 2010 season before returning to throw just 24 Major League innings in September, 2011. Throughout the season, the Nationals have maintained the line that they would limit Strasburg’s innings regardless of their position in the standings. But now, with Strasburg having logged 127.1 innings and the Nats sitting at 67-43—the best record in the National League—the moment of truth has finally arrived.

Everyone and their mother has an opinion on the matter, but there’s really only a few whose voices really count: the team’s ownership, management (both on the field and behind the scenes), and the man himself. During an interview on last week on ESPN’s “Pardon the Interruption,” Nationals manager Davey Johnson indicated that the team is likely to shut Strasburg down after 160 innings, stating that the team was not willing to risk the 24 year-old Cy Young candidate’s future for one playoff race. Last year, the Nats did shut down another great young pitcher, Jordan Zimmerman, after 161.1 innings, but as Johnson acknowledged on “PTI,” the team was in third place at the time. Johnson said that it’s “a little different this year. But you do what’s best for the player, not only for today, but for the long haul.”

General manager Mike Rizzo has claimed that their is no “magic number” for Strasburg, and that he and he alone would decide when the pitcher’s season would end. But in July, Strasburg, who’s 12-5 with a 2.97 ERA, 1.13 WHIP, and 160 strikeouts, told MLB Network Radio that if the team tells him he can’t pitch in the playoffs or World Series, “They’re going to have to rip the ball out of my hands.”

If the Nationals do decide to sit Strasburg down, the rationale is simple: they hope the All-Star righty still has a good many years of baseball in front of him (and preferably in a Nationals’ uniform). That said, it’s still a gutsy move to pull on a fanbase that has yet to see a winning season. Their best year to date since moving to the nation’s capital was their first, 2005, when they went .500 exactly, 81-81. Sure the Nats have the best record in the NL, but there’s a whole lot of season left, and at the moment they’re only four games in front of the Atlanta Braves. If, without Strasburg, the team fell into a wild card spot, well, they’d be putting themselves in a real uncomfortable position. As I discussed two weeks ago, playoff spots are no longer created equal. Even the wild card team that wins the one-game play in is put at a significant disadvantage as they have to put up their two, three, and four pitchers against their opponent’s one, two, and three. If Strasburg is already out of the picture, then they’re another spot back in the rotation when the “real” playoffs begin. And that’s all assuming they win that 163rd game. How quickly will Nats fans forgive Mike Rizzo if they lose the play in game with someone other than Strasburg on the mound? If they weren’t already second guessing his decision, which they are, imagine the fallout of playing just one extra game in what’s looking like it can be “their year.”

Perhaps protecting Strasburg’s arm for years to come is the right decision, it’s not going to change our culture of instant gratification. And while it’s easy to understand why the team would rather wait and see what their ace can bring them in years to come, there is an argument to be made for letting him off the leash. On Saturday, ESPN’s Beth Ann Clyde and Eli Marger laid down their case for letting Strasburg play.

First off, Clyde and Marger analyzed the stats of the 20 pitchers since 2001 who have fit a profile similar to Strasburg’s: they had to be 23 years of age or younger and in the midst of their first season throwing more than 150 innings. They found that there was no major statistical differences in those pitchers’ performances from the beginning of the season through the end of July and August through the season’s end. Secondly, they looked at two cases of young pitchers who underwent Tommy John surgery—A.J. Burnett and the aforementioned Zimmerman—and argued that they actually got better than time, not worse. Of course, the Nationals may be worried less about stats and more about Strasburg getting hurt.

The fact is we won’t ever know which is the right way to go. Strasburg is likely going to sit, and we won’t ever know what could have been.

Follow the writer on Twitter @NateKreichman.

 

 

The Washington Nationals are Doing it Right

In case you haven’t heard, the Washington Nationals are a thing now. No, really. At 36-23, they’ve got the second best record in baseball, the best team ERA, and as much as it pains me to say it, this little thing called Bryce Harper, luckily sans “skullet,” which makes it hurt a little less.

Here’s the thing about the Nats though, after Harper they don’t hit very well, or at all really. They’re at the back end of the majors with 230 runs (25th), a .243 batting average (24th), and a paltry .311 on base percentage (24th). How then are they at the top of the NL East, one of the league’s most contentious divisions, by a comfortable three games over the Braves and five over the Mets and Marlins? Well if it’s not the hitting…

Let’s talk about this Nats pitching staff. As mentioned, their 2.98 ERA is the best in the majors, they’ve also got a league best 1.14WHIP  and .220 batting average against. Here’s the thing about their rotation, Edwin Jackson (he of the 3.02 ERA) is their number four starter. Four. Ahead of him they’ve got Jordan Zimmermann (2.91), Gio Gonzalez (2.35), and phenom Stephen Strasburg (2.41). So if your team’s playing the Nationals on any given night, there’s an 80 percent chance they’ll be trying to hit a guy with an ERA of 3.02 or less. Think about that for a second. And as much as I love Johan Santana and R.A. Dickey, no team in the league has a 1-2 punch better than Strasburg and Gonzalez, who Grantland’s Shane Ryan called “the most dynamic Washington duo since Mondale-Ferraro fever swept the District in ’84.”

With a rotation like that, they’ve probably got an awful bullpen, right? I mean everyone’s got an awful bullpen. Nope. National relievers have the NL’s fourth best combined ERA, 3.12. But that’s OK, their closer’s injured and having a good closer means everything, right? Wrong. Even if closer was a worthwhile baseball position and not just a money-making tool, the absence of Drew Storen (the team’s first-round pick in 2009), who had 43 saves and a 2.75 ERA last year, hasn’t hurt the Nationals any. Since stepping into the role Tyler Clippard is eight for eight in save opportunities. As if that wasn’t enough, he’s got guys like Sean Burnett (1.35 ERA, 23 K’s in 20 innings pitched) and Craig Stammen (1.80 ERA, 32 K’s in 30 innings pitched) behind him.

But up there, when I said “the Washing Nationals are doing it right,” I wasn’t really talking about any of this stuff. Well, except the wins. What I really meant was the way the Nats are handling things behind the scenes. There’s only one way for a team that won 69 games in 2010 and 59 in 2009 and 2008 to be this good this year: making the right draft choices, spending money on free agents when it’s called for (without wasting it when it isn’t, well besides Jayson Werth), and pulling the trigger, without spending too much, on high-risk high-reward pick ups. Edwin Jackson is a perfect example of the final strategy, the journeyman has bounced around the league and had a few successful seasons here and there, but he’s never been able to really pull it together. But Jackson is only 28, and now he’s having his best year ever, so an appropriate suffix for the previous sentence just might be “until now.”

Despite the record and accolades, the Nationals are in the bottom third of MLB payrolls (20th, $81,336,143). Furthermore, three of the team’s four best hitters: Harper, Ryan Zimmerman, and Ian Desmond, as well as Strasburg and Zimmermann (note the second “n”) are homegrown. It took a while for the Nats to get their shit together following the move from Montreal, but it’s happened, and now the team is here to stay. Don’t be surprised if you see them in the playoffs (or at least the NL East hunt) for the next few years.

MLB Hall of Famer Robin Roberts

There’s been a lot of discussion lately of how the Washington Nationals might shut down phenom pitcher Stephen Strasburg after he reaches 160 innings even if they’re in contention for the pennant. While the debate is understandable given his past injuries, it still highlights the differences in the expectations for modern pitchers versus some of the all-time greats.

Consider the career of Robin Roberts, the great Hall of Fame pitcher for the Philadelphia Phillies. Roberts played for 19 seasons and compiled a 286–245 record with 45 career shutouts. He notched a lifetime ERA of 3.41, along with a staggering 305 complete games and 4,688⅔ innings pitched in 676 games. Even in a era when pitchers were expected to complete games and pitch on only four-days’ rest, Roberts was known for his incredible stamina. When interviewed after Roberts passed away, his teammate and fellow Phillies starter Curt Simmons said, “He was like a diesel engine. The more you used him, the better he ran. I don’t think you could wear him out. The end of the 1950 season, I was in the Army and I think Bob Miller had a bad back. I know Robin had to throw almost every day.” In a six-year span starting in 1950, Roberts won 20 or more games and pitched at least 304 innings in six consecutive seasons.

In many ways, Major League Baseball seems to be entering into a new era of the pitcher, as offensive production is decreasing and the game is once again being dominated by great pitchers like Strasburg. But it’s doubtful we’ll ever see workhorses quite like Robin Roberts again. Even the great Jack Morris pitched his amazing 10-inning game winner in game 7 of the World Series over 20 years ago.

While modern players will likely never match Roberts for his stamina, he remains a role model for all professional athletes for the class he displayed on and off the field. Just listen to the interview above for an example of why Roberts was widely respected as a true gentleman. When he passed away in 2010 at the age of 83, Marty Noble summed up the attitudes towards Roberts in the opening paragraphs of his obituary:

For the second time in three days, baseball lost one of its foremost gentlemen. Robin Roberts, as pleasant and gracious as any man in the game, died Thursday. As readily associated with the Phillies as any player has been with any franchise, Roberts was 83 years old when he passed away in Florida due to natural causes.

The most accomplished right-handed pitcher in the history of the Phillies, Roberts was a Hall of Famer, card-carrying member of the 1950 “Whiz Kids” and an active force in the creation of the Major League Baseball Players Association. Most of all he was an agreeable, genial man whose company was enjoyed by those who met him.

Like many players of his era, Roberts was a World War II veteran who broke into the big leagues after the war. He actually went first to Michigan State where he played basketball, but then tried baseball and was signed by the Phillies in 1948. In 1969 this seven-time All-Star was named as the greatest Phillie of all time.

When you consider what it takes to have a Hall of Fame career, durability, excellence and class are some of the most important characteristics. With his career and his life off the field, Robin Roberts should be an enduring example to the modern player. And while modern team General Managers try to protect “investments” like Strasburg, they should be reminded that the true great will rise to the challenge, if you let them.

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