On the eve of the season’s start, I discussed how a week of the baseball season is equivalent to a mile in a marathon. The first fortnight of the season represents the first two miles. It’s an interesting place in the long race. The body is just getting warm. A rhythm is being established. A little sweat may be starting. It seems like an appropriate interval to take stock. Unlike Section 222’s excellent analysis pieces at 18-game intervals this will be decidedly more offbeat and irreverent. So, what have we learned?
“NL Least” No Longer
One of the more tiresome conventions of lazy sports writers is to put an “L” on the front of East. The Division gets ridiculed as being incredibly weak. The truth is that most baseball divisions have two good teams and two or three weaker siblings. Go through the standings and the pattern repeats. The lone exception is the television-money-saturated American East. Want to see a really weak division? Look at the American Central. But, it’s a stern task to make a disparaging word out of “Central.”
We have seen the Phillies and the Marlins up close and personal these two weeks. There are two different stories with the same bottom line: They can play.
The Phillies are described as “Scrappy.” Recent history with them is dominated by the ill-fated decision to keep their core players until they all got old together. That’s an Organizational Development formula guaranteed to result in a dumpster fire. The most efficient way to maximize the damage is to give the helm to the Hall-of-Fame player who totally lacked the skill set to manage. Disaster completed, the team has moved on. Pete Mackanin is a solid no-nonsense manager. That team hustles to the end. Down 0-7 they fought back to make things very interesting. The starting pitching is good. The pieces and parts are more than serviceable. Howie Kendrick is an upgrade. The list goes on. This is a team on the ascent with plenty of spare payroll to spend.
The Marlins lineup is flat-out scary. They have hitters in quantity and quality. There are two All-Stars and a lot of good supporting cast. The Wyoming-sized hole at the top of the pitching rotation is the absence of Jose Fernandez. It places a lower ceiling on a squad that should have a higher aim point. The largest question is their nearly Hall-of-Fame player turned manager, Don Mattingly. Does he have the skill set to manage effectively? The Marlins from here just look like a team that should have better results. Still, they are no fun to face. They just took 3-of-4 games from the Mets and tied with the Nationals for 1st place.
We haven’t seen the Braves yet. But, we will in the next fortnight. Rebuilds from the ground up don’t always follow the schedule. There is no shortage of good young talent in their organization. Playing them early and often before they get their feet under them is probably a good thing. By July 9, the Nats will have played all but six of their games with the Braves. Those last games all happen during the last two weeks of the season.
We will also see the Mets soon. Apparently Yoenis Cespedes is on one of his patented hot streaks right now. Hopefully that will be out of his system by the time the Nats arrive in town. The weather should be better for golf by then as well. Tee it high, and let it fly, Yoenis.
Ok. This is division is weak? Seriously?
This Ain’t Your Daddy’s Cardinals
One of the most interesting aspects of the first fortnight was the series with the Cardinals. St. Louis baseball is a fascinating case study. The city is the #21 television market in the country. It bears the inglorious distinction of being the first of the MLB cities to rank below two cities without teams with Orlando and Sacramento being larger. That smallish size drives much of the self-image attached to the team.
The Cardinals have been blessed by consistent and caring ownership since their early days. They have had three owners since 1920. That consistency has been projected onto the team. Managers stay for long tenures. The results have been fantastic. The similarities to the football Steelers in an even smaller market are remarkable.
A four-hour drive away, Chicago and the Cubs have been a polar opposite. The Cardinals are like an old steak house that serves up solid, albeit simple thick Midwestern steaks and baked potatoes. It isn’t fancy. But, it is consistently good. The Ring of Honor has names like Musial, Gibson, and Brock. It has been the same menu for as long as anyone can remember. The place is always packed full. One can almost imagine the proprietors looking across the street at the Cubs’ place. The façade and signage never change. But, the owners have come and gone like passengers at a train station. They’ve changed cuisines more often than is worth counting all the while frittering away unimaginable advantages in resources and revenue.
Things have changed. Today those same St. Louis proprietors look winsomely across to a sleeping giant that has fully awoken. The Cubs are loaded with talent, are brilliantly assembled, and are flying a spanking new World Series Champion flag. The steak house is still packed. But, the hopelessly spoiled and gratingly smug crowd is unhappy. For years the Cardinals’ players have resembled the mold cast by rock-solid Red Schoendienst. There are some of them still on the roster in veterans like Matt Carpenter and Yadier Molina. But, there are also players like Kolten Wong who less resembles a Prime Porterhouse steak than a store brand hot dog.
The Cardinals are down. The Cubs are up. These are not happy days in St. Louis.
Trea Turner Is Smart
Sprinters live and die by their hamstrings. There has scarcely been a sprinter who has escaped a hamstring injury of some sort. The very vast majority of them try to soldier through it with disastrous results. Trea felt hamstring tightness and stopped. The organization then took temptation to rush him back off the table by putting him on the Disabled List. This should be unremarkable except that it is so rare you hardly ever see it. Most athletes and organizations would poo-pooh things and then would reap the whirlwind as the hammy would suffer additional insult. Seasons get lost quickly with such maneuvers. Trea and the Nats were smarter than that. Good on them.
Bryce Being Bryce
Finally, one of the big questions of the off-season was, “2015 Bryce or 2016 Bryce?” Let’s put a couple of images to that. Here was Bryce during the month of September 2015:
Compare that to Bryce during the month of September 2016:
Those are two different players. The drop in the number of line drives he hit is incredible. Late in the season last year he pulled off of nearly every pitch outside. Why? The only person that really knows is Bryce himself. If he was hurt he wouldn’t admit it. You have to draw your own conclusions.
What’s important is what’s happening now. He is hitting the ball to all fields with authority. As groan-worthy as it was to see his 94.8 mph bullet to third base get picked off against St. Louis there was still cause to smile. Bryce is all over that low-outside pitch again.
Early indications are that we already have our answer as to which Bryce will be here this season. Oh, and did I mention the walk-off? Bryce is Bryce once again.
That wasn’t a bad first couple of miles. It’s time to start settling in for the long haul.