Thursday, 10 December 2015

On Baseball, The Unsolvable Game

"In baseball, you don't know nothing," the inimitable Yogi Berra once said. And, like many of his famous malapropisms, that strikes at the very core of this game we love. Indeed, baseball is the ultimate conundrum wrapped in an enigma. We never know what's about to happen; we can't predict its future with any degree of certainty. It's somewhat unattainable, like a famous work of art. It's designed to frustrate and confound, beguile and mystify. It's the unsolvable game, the kryptonite of millions from innumerable generations. Baseball will never be totally mastered, which makes it an ideal font of escapism.

On the diamond, there are a set number of outcomes to every play. A batter can reach base or be retired in various ways. But, within that framework, chaos reigns, like a luxurious lottery, a crapshoot for elite athletes.

For instance, there is something satisfactorily grand and pleasingly anachronistic about a mammoth 162-game season being required to distinguish great from good, good from mediocre, mediocre from bad, and bad from terrible. In baseball, the margins between victory and defeat are so fine, the sheer unpredictability of outcomes so large, that teams are forced to play almost every single day from April to October for a worthy champion to be determined. On any single day, and in any individual week, a great team can struggle or a woeful team can succeed. Only after such an interminable campaign can the residue of luck be sufficiently subdued. 

Somewhat amazingly, fans buy tickets months in advance, when there is almost no way of telling what will happen. Sure, we know broadly which teams figure to be more competitive than others, and the various ballpark experiences are well documented, but when anybody wakes up and drives to the stadium, a world of unknown entertainment awaits. You could witness history as a no-hitter or perfect game is thrown. You could see the hometown nine walk-off in exciting style. You could experience a mesmeric pitching duel for the ages. Yet, conversely, you could also see a messy loss, or even have the entire game rained out. There is no way of knowing, because, to a large extent, the fate of any isolated baseball game lies in the hands of Lady Luck, with only slight influence and suggestion from the talent of those players involved. 

As the great Ted Williams once explained, "baseball is the only field of endeavour where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer." Indeed, Williams came closer than any player in history to solving the unsolvable game; his .482 career on-base percentage the greatest of all-time. Thus, in 2,292 Major League games, even Teddy Ballgame, the finest hitter who ever lived, had a 52% fail rate, which exemplifies the dominion of luck over ability in baseball. Even the immortals had, at best, a tenuous grasp of the game, a capricious ability to master its nuances. 

When success 48% of the time constitutes genius, it's clear that the task at hand is marvellously bewitching. When the absolute best fail six times in every ten, there's something humbling and unspoiled about the subject matter. When the same riddle has perplexed millions of people for hundreds of years without being decoded, interest is piqued, minds are engaged, hearts are opened. Baseball quickly becomes an obsession, a lifelong quest for answers and understanding.

I'm totally besotted by this disparity between success and failure. In baseball, the dividing line may be thinner than in any other sport. The brightest superstars are able to engineer only a fraction of daylight between the two extremes, to wrestle a semblance of autonomy away from fickle fortune. 

Accordingly, Joe DiMaggio's remarkable 56-game hitting streak in 1941 is perhaps the greatest accomplishment in athletic history. In a game that induces chronic failure with ease, Joe managed to succeed for fifty-six consecutive days, a tremendous fest of skill and determination. A research paper by Don Chance of Harvard University once found that DiMaggio's streak was a 1-in-3,394 occurrence. Moreover, Chance concludes that the probability of a 56-game hitting streak coming from any of the top one hundred hitters of all-time was 1-in-22, and that, on average, the top fifty hitters ever had just a 1-in-124,341 chance of hitting safely in fifty-six straight games at any juncture of their career. 

Thus, it's easy to see how DiMaggio's record transcends baseball and reaches far beyond sport. What he did was more than collect a base hit every day for almost two months. More accurately, he upset the balance between success and failure more profoundly than any ballplayer before or since. In a game where opportunity is perpetually killed, Joe DiMaggio ripped a hole in the luck-time continuum. For fifty-six days, he hacked the system, seized control of sporting fate, and presided over the machinations of baseball like an omnipotent, omniscient being. People often call Joe DiMaggio a God, and in the wonderful summer of '41, that's exactly what he was, juggling the balls of baseball probability in his cool, commanding hands. For that, he deserves our eternal fascination.

It can be argued that, of all the people on a baseball field, only one really has true control over what happens: the pitcher. According to the old adage, great pitching always beats great hitting, and most occurrences of hitting success can be attributed to a hurler missing his location. However, if an ace put every pitch exactly where he wanted, with the movement and velocity he desired, the game would die. Averages would tumble and scoring would plummet, as pitchers painted the corners to perpetual success. That obviously isn't the case, nor has it ever been in the history of baseball, which endures largely because humans make mistakes. As Curt Schilling once said, "I was always in control of everything until I let the ball go." Without natural mistakes, there would be no Shot Heard Round the World, no Ralph Branca and Bobby Thompson, no Tim Wakefield and Aaron Boone. There would be no baseball.

We're mesmerised by those rare occasions when a pitcher is flawless, when a perfect game is mixed into the frenetic chaos of baseball history. In June 2012, Andrew Mooney wrote a piece for exploring the phenomenon, and he discovered that, at the start of any one big league game, an average pitcher facing a lineup of average hitters has a .000983 percent chance of throwing a perfect game, based on historical OBPs and averages. That roughly translates to one perfect game every 34 seasons.

Additionally, Mooney found the likelihood of four perfect games occurring in a four-year period to be 1.77-in-100,000. Thus, the general probability of perfect games is 1-in-56,497. Working with those numbers, Wendy Thurm of SB Nation subsequently calculated that an amateur golfer has more chance of striking a hole-in-one than a professional Major League pitcher does of hurling a perfect game. Therefore, is there any wonder why we're so engrossed by this whole baseball thing? The nuance is endless.

There's something deeply humanising about baseball, something sweetly debasing. For a slugger, who is a millionaire, but who fails routinely before 40,000 pairs of eyes. For an umpire, who misses a solitary strike and is admonished from the stands. And for the fan, who regularly sees his or her predictions, tethered to no solid fact, backfire spectacularly. 

As a human race, we're drawn to things that may never be completed or solved. Mystery and intrigue are the great refreshers of our daily experience. Baseball offers those elusive qualities, nourishing the soul. We can never have a complete understanding of the game, or how to succeed at it. Nonetheless, we still endeavour to find out more, to discover new paradigms and unearth new theories. In this regard, baseball fandom is fairly analogous with religion; the pursuit of an unseen, intangible dimension of understanding giving us meaning, occupation and identity.

Without doubt, people have tried to solve the equation and crack the code for over a hundred years. There have been thousands of attempts by equally as many people to build a winning ballclub, and we still don't know the formula, we're still not precisely sure what it takes. The old maxim that 'good pitching beats good hitting' is generally true, and has been a basic guide for owners and executives since 1900. However, in the modern era, postseason baseball is a crapshoot, and even the best pitching doesn't always succeed, as recently proved by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Thus, we're still searching for answers to the largely unanswerable.

In many respects, Branch Rickey can be considered the godfather of this quest. A trailblazing executive, he ushered in a new era by inventing and honing the farm system in the 1920s, '30s and '40s. Under his guidance, the Cardinals owned as many as forty minor league teams at one time, which gave them a huge pipeline of talent, protected by the reserve clause, which bound players to one team for their entire career, barring trade or release. Therefore, Rickey was also able to indoctrinate a certain style of play, The Cardinal Way, and create a culture that yielded nine pennants and six World Series titles between 1926 and 1946.

In 1965, Major League Baseball took a first step to regulating the minor leagues and restoring competitive balance by instituting the first-year player draft, which became a controlled chute into the professional game. The draft order was based on the won-loss record, with the weakest teams picking first. This eradicated attempts to monopolise the best young talent, and once again restored a certain nuance to the art of building winning rosters.

The demolition of the aforementioned reserve clause catalysed another chapter in the odyssey to snatch control away from the Gods. Prior to 1975, rosters were largely stocked with homegrown talent, plus rough gems spotted while barnstorming and guys acquired by occasional trades. Yet, with the dawn of free agency, that changed almost over night, to a situation where teams could suddenly spend their way to glory and tilt the balance of power like never before. Of course, George Steinbrenner and the New York Yankees dominated this domain, signing superstars like Reggie Jackson and Catfish Hunter, cramming as much talent as possible onto the books and forging a critical mass that inevitable erupted into championships. Free agency gave teams greater freedom, and the richest organisations suddenly had a larger crumple zone in their increasingly audacious attempts at conquering the sport.

Once free agent spending spiralled out of control, and a great chasm developed between the big, medium and small-market teams, MLB conceived the luxury tax, designed to penalise front offices that spent too much. For instance, if the Yankees blew through the pre-determined salary ceiling, they would then be punished at 50% for every additional dollar spent. This made for a much more structured and disciplined environment, which naturally increased the difficulty of simply buying a championship ring.

Nonetheless, there was still a great disparity between the minnows and the giants, between the Athletics and the Yankees. For Billy Beane in Oakland, baseball wasn't only a highly unpredictable game, it was a grossly unfair one, played within the arena of luck, yet also on an uneven field skewed towards the elite. Faced with the daunting proposition of competing against New York and Boston with a fraction of their budget, Beane famously turned to Bill James' Sabrmetrics, the study and use of advacned analytics to find hidden value and market efficiencies. In essence, Beane's Moneyball philosophy was an attempt to decipher under-appreciated skill at a reasonable price, but also the most serious assault on the baseball vault we've seen in modern times. With the use of statistics and by looking at the problem from an entirely different angle, Beane came agonisingly close to cracking the code, before everybody caught up, imitated his vision, and restored the timeless equilibrium. 

Now, baseball is defined by the unending quest to find the next market inefficiency. Just as Beane prized on-base percentage while everybody else valued counting stats such as home runs and RBI, teams are now devoted to the idea of unearthing the next great difference-maker in the overall pursuit of baseball domination. The Pirates excavated pitch-framing, while many teams are currently working on a clearer understanding of injury prevention. These initiatives, these journeys into uncharted territory, are a major part of the overall tapestry to corral baseball and its slippery elusiveness.

Even now, what one team covets, another team may disregard, a concept present throughout the game's history. For instance, the 1990s Atlanta Braves were built around the tremendous pitching of Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz, but only managed to win one World Series title in that era. Similarly, the Seattle Mariners were built around incredible lineups boasting, at different times, Ken Griffey Jr, Alex Rodriguez, Ichiro Suzuki and Edgar Martinez, but they too failed to make an impression in October.

The great dynasties of baseball history, those teams that were able to upset the odds for consecutive years at a time, all seem to have one implacable, untouchable, ineffable quality that can't be measured or simply bought: team chemistry and cogent organisational culture. Think about the Red Sox teams of the 1910s; the Yankee teams from 1930-50; the 1940s Cardinals; the 1970s Reds and A's; and the millennium Yankees. In each case, there was a sense of brotherhood between twenty-five men who spent more time together than with their own families. There was a mutual sense of expectation, a guideline of style and effort laid down by the forebears in that tradition. Gehrig learnt from Ruth; Mantle watched DiMaggio. They explained how to comport oneself when representing that team. They set the precedent.

You see, beneath the numbers and money, the stats and contracts, baseball is a human game played by real men on a genuine field. It, just like all of us, is prone to whim and inconsistency. That's why we can never accurately know what will happen, just as we can't in everyday life.

Largely, Major League managers are tasked with putting out fires before they are lit. Throughout baseball history, field generals have tried to create their own style of play, but it can be argued that, at best, each only moved the needle three or four percent. Indeed, as the great Casey Stengel once said, "Most ballgames are lost, not won," which conjures images of Grady Little, who had the ability to lose his team the game by leaving Pedro Martinez in, but whose plan to help the Red Sox win extended little beyond sitting tight and hoping for a break.

Of course, managerial methods and playbooks have changed down the years, subtly in places, dramatically in others. In the early-20th century, when a ball was used until it was dark and soggy, strategy was absolutely crucial. In low-scoring games, the essence of baseball was different. Teams attempted to bunt, move runners, sacrifice, suicide squeeze, steal bases, and execute hit-and-run plays in an attempt to push runs across the board. Altruism, not egotism, was key, as Ty Cobb reigned with terror, contact hitting and ferocious speed. 

The Deadball Era was a product of its environment. Pitchers spat on the ball, scuffed it with sandpaper and long nails. Prior to 1901 in the National League and '03 in the American, every foul ball was a strike against the batter, making life immeasurably more difficult. And the stadiums! Boy, the stadiums were huge, like gaping canyons in the desert.

On thirteen occasions between 1900 and 1920, the league leader had fewer than ten home runs. Yet, by 1921, such profligacy ended almost as abruptly as it began. Scoring increased 40% and home runs soared by 400% as a livelier ball was introduced and certain pitches were outlawed following the fatal beaning of Ray Chapman. But the greatest contributing factor to baseball's changing landscape was the Colossus of Clout, the King of Crash, the Great Bambino: George Herman Ruth.

With his gluttonous swing for the fences and unprecedented strength, Babe Ruth changed the way baseball was played forever. After moving to the Yankees from Boston, Ruth hit 54 homers in 1920, breaking his own record of 29 set the previous year. No American League team hit more during the entire season, and only the Phillies managed ten more in the Senior Circuit.

When Lou Gehrig came along, crashing balls into the deepest bowels of the new, palatial Yankee Stadium, a new ethos of baseball management was born: playing for the long ball. Naturally, the Bronx Bombers' style drew criticism from traditionalists, who thought Ruth was cheapening the strategic war of attrition that was pre-war baseball. There was Cobb and Wagner and Shoeless Joe sliding hard, moving runners, taking outrageous gambles just to painstakingly help their team one play at a time. Then, there was Ruth, rocking up to the plate, overweight and loquacious, pounding one five hundred feet into the distance. Many thought the home run surge invalidated the game's minutiae, so long cherished, and amounted to a thumbing of the nose towards the establishment.

Nonetheless, sluggers became an integral part of the game, and little advancement was made until the 1940s and 50s. Since then, a race has ensued to find efficiencies and, to a certain extent, reinvent the wheel, in an attempt to solve baseball. The Oriole Way stressed fundamentals; The Big Red Machine hustled to glory; and Charlie Finley's Swinging A's did just that, hitting balls out of parks around the league.

In 1968, the Year of the Pitcher, Carl Yastrzemski won the batting title with a .301 average, such was the dominance of pitchers. It was clear that, somehow, moundsmen had titled the balance of control beyond a comfortable limit, so officials lowered the mound, perhaps artificially resorting balance to baseball's chaotic universe. 

The 1980s saw a huge increase in the specialisation of relief pitching, with the number of saves outstripping the number of complete games for the first time, as managers spied a new advantage. Tony La Russa led the way, introducing the one-inning save and, in some cases, the one-out lefty specialist. Again, this altered the distribution of dominance beyond the natural spread, until everybody else caught up and bullpen specialisation blended into the ever-unfurling portrait of a befuddling pastime.

In the 1990s and 2000s, the thirst for baseball autonomy and subsequent glory drove men to illegal steroids and other performance-enhancing substances. Once more, baseball's organic order was artificially distorted, only for rigorous testing to be introduced, nixing yet another method by which cheaters sought a head-start.

All of these attempts to change the way baseball was played had fleeting success, but a definitive equation for guaranteeing World Series titles was never discovered, and likely will never be. At best, a player, manager of executive can create something new, which will be unique for a year or two if they're incredibly lucky. Baseball is a copy-cat industry, and others will adopt vogue concepts if they see their rivals enjoying success.

Of course, due to the game's wild unpredictability, glory is often capricious and unexpected. In 1991, for instance, the Minnesota Twins went from last place to winning the World Series. The Red Sox went from worst-to-first-to-worst between 2012 and 2014, sandwiching a championship between 93 and 91-loss seasons. Of course, a decade earlier, Boston authored the most shocking comeback in sports history, coming back from a 3-0 ALCS deficit to beat the Yankees, who were one win away from winning their seventh pennant in nine years.

The examples of inexplicable success are endless. The 2008 Tampa Bay Rays not only went from cellar dwellers to pennant winners; they went from losing 90 or more games every season in club history to fighting for a World Series crown. To that point in their existence, the Rays had lost 97 games and finished 34 out of first place, on average, every year. Their best ever season produced just 70 wins, while the closest they ever came to first place was 18 games back. Thus, for Joe Maddon to coax a division flag from his $43 million, amid competition from the $209 million Yankees and $133 million Red Sox, was nothing short of miraculous.

In baseball, even money no longer guarantees glory. In 2015, the Dodgers spent $314 million on player payroll, a record for North American sports. However, despite spending at least $95 million more than any other team, Los Angeles only managed to reach the NLDS, before bowing out weakly. By comparison, the Mets spent $195 million less and won the pennant, while the Royals spent $189 million less and claimed the World Series. Moreover, in the past three years, the Dodgers have spent over $800 million in player salaries and won just eight playoff games, proving that money has only a slight impact on success in baseball.

One team that knows this too well is the Chicago Cubs, who've been searching for a conducive formula for over a century. As everybody on the planet knows, the Cubbies haven't won a World Series title since 1908. Chicago has lived through Al Capone, Michael Jordan and Barack Obama without snapping the drought, as a succession of executives and players have come up short. The Cubs have tried every trick in the book, experimented with every ingredient in the cupboard, but somehow come up empty every time. That, in an of itself, is emblematic of baseball's puzzling core. You just never know.

The Yankees' eternal success seems to fly in the face of everything we know about the game. The Bronx Bombers have partook in 36% of all World Series ever played, winning 40 pennants and claiming 27 titles. Between 1921-1964, they won 29 of 44 pennants on offer, for a staggering 65%. The Yankees longest ever wait between championships is just 22 years, from the team's inception to its maiden crown in 1923. Such facts are amazing, and speak to that team's thorough domination of baseball history. You could argue that the most predicate thing in the realm of this unpredictable game is that the Yankees will always win, no matter what.

Yet, ultimately, the whole concept of unpredictability in baseball rests on one fact: hitting a baseball is, scientifically, the most difficult thing to do in sports. With a pitcher throwing 95-miles-per-hour from 60 feet 6 inches away, a batter usually has 0.4 seconds in which to compute pitch type, location and speed, then go through the mechanics of a swing. If he gets everything right, the ball will hit the barrel and fly into the distance. But if he is a half-second early or late, the ball will hit a quarter of an inch above or below the sweet spot, resulting in a harmless pop-up or a routine groundout to second base. Thus, human skill and instinct can only take you so far in baseball. Talent can only account for so much. Luck has to play a factor. It just has to, when the margins are so ridiculous, when the mathematics are so incomprehensible.

In order to succeed, players must strike a perfect balance between science and art, calculation and reflex. That's why every home run is a minor miracle within itself. Over 18,000 men have played in a Major League Baseball game, but only 6 since 1900 have ever reached base more times than they made out in a single season. More than any fact or stat, that legitimises their immortal skill, and illustrates the monumental difficulty of their trade. Seriously, what game is harder than baseball?

Another layer of nuance is formed by ordinary players doing extraordinary things, by mortal beings producing moments that live in eternity. Take Bucky Dent, for example. A banjo-hitting shortstop, his average was .243 in 1978 with the New York Yankees, coupled with five home runs. Nevertheless, his pop fly dinger against the Red Sox in the legendary one-game playoff ranks amongst the most legendary swings ever taken. Likewise with Aaron Boone in 2003, when a man who finished with only 126 home runs in a 12-year career won the pennant with a soaring drive into the Yankee Stadium abyss, into indelible history.

Again, we see that, on any given day, any one player can achieve any one feat. That's why we're familiar with Bill Mazeroski, who averaged ten home runs per year through seventeen seasons, but who won the 1960 World Series with a famous blast. That's why we remember Jim Abbot, who no-hit the Indians in 1993 despite only having one hand. And that's why we recall guys like Jose Jimenez and Phil Humber, who tossed their own no-hitters amid chronically awful careers.

We're drawn to these stories, these possibilities, like a moth to light. Baseball, this uncut gem of a sport, has changed subtly through the eras, like anything else. But its propensity to surprise, and unwillingness to be mastered, remains intoxicating to this very day. There's no way of truly knowing the fate of any game or inning, which is a soothing concept in a digital world of omniscience. We love baseball because it frustrates us, because it cannot be controlled. We cherish its unconquerable core and salute its unsolvable spirit. Without baseball, the world would be a far more predictable place, our minds much quieter. You see, this game makes you contemplate, then tricks you at the brink of knowing. And that, dear friends, is why we always go back for more.

Monday, 23 November 2015

A Winter of Dreaming and Scheming: MLB Offseason Preview

This winter, there is more talent available, via trade and free agency, than ever before. There is also a wider swathe of teams with the means and desire to spend money than at any stage of the modern era. At the confluence of those two trends, a record-breaking offseason is about to unfurl, and it has the ability to dramatically alter the baseball landscape for years to come.

So, let's take a deeper look at the main offseason protagonists.

Red Sox Reconstruction
Every winter, one team overshadows the rest in terms of aggression and desperation to upgrade its roster. This year, that honour falls to the Boston Red Sox, who hunger for elite pitching to rebalance their lopsided depth chart.

Under the aegis of Dave Dombrowski, an overhaul has already begun on fabled Yawkey Way. Craig Kimbrel, one of the game's premier closers, was prised from San Diego in a trade that reverberated throughout the industry. Boston's newfound willingness to sacrifice the homegrown prospects of tomorrow in order to acquire elite performers for today amounted to a signal of intent. The Red Sox mean business, and they're heading straight for the jugular.

Following two successive last-place finishes, and one postseason berth in six years, Dombrowski was drafted in as an agent of change. The Theo Epstein bloodline of considered intellectualism ran dry in Boston, and a shift in philosophy was needed. Rather than merely accumulating materials, the Red Sox needed to build something, so they hired one of baseball's most proven architects. Dombrowski surveyed the landscape in 2015, discovering what needed to be addressed. Now, at long last, he has been granted planning permission, and construction on the next Fenway monster is well underway.

All major building projects need a cornerstone, a platform on which to build. In the Red Sox' case, that central nucleus will need to be a genuine ace pitcher, something Beantown has lacked since Jon Lester was traded midway through 2014. Last winter, Ben Cherington took an outrageous gamble when electing to construct a starting rotation of distinctly average pitchers, with Clay Buchholz being the de facto ace and various shades of mediocre following. Despite atrocious seasons from Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval, Red Sox were dynamic and often explosive offensively, as Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Blake Swihart formed an exciting new core. Undoubtedly, pitching was Boston's Achilles heel, which makes it Dombrowski's number one priority this winter.

Fortunately for the Red Sox, this is arguably the greatest free agent pitching class of all-time. David Price and Zack Greinke, Cy Young Award finalists in their respective leagues, are the headline-grabbing names, but Johnny Cueto and Jordan Zimmermann lurk in a strong second tier, and Doug Fister, Scott Kazmir, Mike Leake and Jeff Samardzija round out an intriguing pool of talent.

Dombrowski has already indicated that the Sox will be heavily involved in the ace market, with Price seeming to fit Boston immaculately. Regardless of who they eventually chose, the Red Sox are potentially one big acquisition away from boosting their failing rotation and surging back into immediate World Series contention.

Anaheim Rejuvenation
When Jerry Dipoto resigned as Angels GM amid chronic infighting last year, the outcry was vociferous. A narrative was spawned that few executives would willingly work between meddlesome owner Arte Moreno and taciturn manager Mike Scioscia, who wields more power than any field general in the game.

However, this is a mammoth oversimplification. Yes, the win-now environment created by Moreno can be tough, and yes, Scioscia's traditional style can grate, but the road to glory is rarely smooth. Contrary to popular belief, the Angels are a tantalising prospect to many within the game, not least because they possess, in Mike Trout, one of the most talented players in baseball history.

Earlier this winter, Billy Eppler was hired as Dipoto's successor and, more importantly, was tasked with enacting a vision and building a team around Trout, the greatest of all building blocks. A longtime assistant to Brian Cashman with the Yankees, Eppler has a strong reputation, and it will be interesting to see his simultaneous belief in advanced analytics and traditional scouting come to fruition in Anaheim.

Eppler has wasted little time this offseason, already trading for uber-talented Braves shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who will team with Trout and Albert Pujols to create an irresistible core. However, while such additions allow Angels fans to easily dream of their team becoming a superpower, the prospective 2016 roster does have plenty of holes, most notably at catcher, third base, left field and the starting rotation.

Nonetheless, if Moreno loosens the pursestrings for his new GM, and the Angels compete in the elite free agent market, plus maybe swing another trade, Anaheim could become a perennial contender pretty fast.

Tweaking in Seattle
After leaving the Angels, Dipoto spent some time in the Red Sox' front office, before succeeding Jack Zduriencik as the Mariners' GM. He inherits a talented roster, but also the longest active postseason drought in Major League Baseball. Seattle hasn't been to the playoffs since 2001, and last year's capitulation when heavily favoured was a familiar story.

Hoping for a swift retool, Dipoto hired a new manager, Scott Servais, and has already pulled the trigger on trades for Nate Karns, Leonys Martin, Joaquín Benoit and Luis Sardinas, filling a number of gaps on his roster.

While these new additions, plus a fresh manager setting a different tone, may enable the Mariners to rebound in 2016, a free agent pitcher or everyday left fielder would go even further to restoring optimism. After all, the Mariners have a very strong core, namely Felix Hernandez, Robinson Cano and Nelson Cruz, but the complementary pieces have all too often been unbalanced and inconsistent. Perhaps another elite performer, and another veteran leader, could push Seattle over the edge and force the Mariners to finally deliver on their enormous potential.

Giant Ambition
In 2016, the Giants will aim to secure their fourth straight even-year world championship. However, the roster that sets off on such a quest may have a distinctly different feel to recent times, as San Francisco seeks new blood and fresh impetus. Brian Sabean will have more payroll flexibility this winter, following the departure of Tim Lincecum, Tim Hudson, Mike Leake, Marlon Byrd, Jeremy Affeldt, Ryan Vogelsong and others. Accordingly, the Giants may play a major role in setting the free agent weather this offseason, which should be refreshing to watch.

Most notably, San Francisco yearns for an elite starting pitcher to pair with Madison Bumgarner in the creation of a deadly one-two punch. Thus, many within the industry expect the Giants to be heavily involved in the David Price sweepstakes, while Greinke of the rival Dodgers remains a fascinating possibility. If those aces ultimately become too expensive for San Francisco, they'll likely wade into the market for Cueto, Zimmermann, Leake or maybe even Samardzija.

In addition to a top-of-the-rotation arm, the Giants will also add starting pitching depth, while the need for a power bat in left field is glaringly obvious. In this regard, Justin Upton may be a possibility, and Yoenis Cespedes appears to fit San Francisco's preferred profile of strong contact hitting and impressive defence.

With two or three key additions, on the mound and in the field, Sabean may once again equip the Giants to compete deep into October. The difficult part will be inserting new players into the clubhouse without compromising the tremendous culture that has underscored the team's success in recent years.

Dodger Decisions
Last year, the Los Angeles Dodgers crashed through the $300 million payroll plateau, spending more money than any North American sports team ever has in a single season. Yet, quite disturbingly, Don Mattingly could only steer the Dodgers to defeat in the National League Division Series, a third straight failure that cost him his job.

Now, Andrew Friedman, Farhan Zaidi and Josh Byrnes, otherwise known as the most intelligent and trailblazing think tank in the Major Leagues, are faced with making difficult decisions that will have serious ramifications for the Dodgers' future. After spending astronomically to mitigate the parsimony of previous owner Frank McCourt, the Guggenheim group now wishes to transition away from boom-or-bust economics and towards a more sustainable model centred around younger players. Amid those overarching parameters, the front office will hope to provide a nimbler, more versatile team for incoming manager Dave Roberts.

Accordingly, it's difficult to tell whether Friedman will spend shamelessly to keep Greinke in Dodger Blue. Los Angeles likely needs to fill two or three slots in the starting rotation, so how those funds are distributed by ownership will go a long way to setting the tone for this offseason, in Chavez Ravine and far beyond.

The Dodgers would also like to perform surgery on a schizophrenic bullpen, while second base is currently vacant following the departure of Howie Kendrick and Chase Utley. Thus, all things considered, we may see the Dodgers be more active on the trade scene rather than the free agent market. Friedman certainly has a stash of tantalising assets, ranging from Yasiel Puig to Andre Ethier to Alex Guerrero, from which to potentially deal, meaning there is little restriction to his creativity in upgrading the most expensive team in history.

Captivating times lie ahead for the Dodgers, and thus for the baseball universe they so freely dominate these days.

Cardinal Crossroads
For generations, the St Louis Cardinals have been held aloft as the great paragon of consistency in Major League Baseball. The Redbirds have only missed the playoffs four times in the last sixteen years, and have reached nine National League Championship Series' in that span, all in a relatively small market, all with a fairly middling budget.

However, change appears to be on the horizon within the Cardinals' unique ecosystem, as the club generates more money from ventures such as the marvellous Ballpark Village, and prepares to benefit from a new $1 billion television rights deal that comes into effect in 2018. Furthermore, St Louis now operates in an ultra competitive division alongside the Chicago Cubs and Pittsburgh Pirates, two brainy organisations geared for long-term success.

Within these parameters, GM John Mozeliak also faces concerns about the tremendous core that has set the cultural temperature and delivered the statistical goods at Busch Stadium for so long. Matt Holliday will turn 36 before the 2016 season begins; Yadier Molina underwent thumb surgery this winter and has rarely played at peak physical condition in the past three years; and Adam Wainwright may struggle to carry an ace's burden moving forward. Furthermore, glaring holes exist in right field and first base for St Louis, while upgrades at shortstop and centre field wouldn't hurt.

Therefore, the Cardinals may be set to spend more money than ever before, as they seek to replenish an ailing core and extend their window of contention to match that of Chicago and Pittsburgh. Naturally, Jason Heyward makes perfect sense to satisfy St Louis' desires, while a run at one of the elite starting pitchers may be advisable.

Ultimately, these are the St Louis Cardinals. They always find a way, always concoct some kind of magic potion down on the farm that turns average prospects into elite performers. Nonetheless, some new energy may be needed if Mozeliak wishes to keep up with the player development juggernauts spawned by his division counterparts.

Theo in Transition
Last year was an untethered delight for the Chicago Cubs. Jake Arrieta dazzled en route to winning the Cy Young Award; Kris Bryant sparkled as Rookie of the Year; and Joe Maddon cajoled a 24-win improvement from his mercurial team to claim Manager of the Year. Throughout the strenuous rebuilding plan, Cubs fans dreamed of such days, but the rapidity with which they arrived was a pleasant surprise.

In 2015, the Cubs played postseason baseball for the first time in six years. However, they were swept by New York in the NLCS without so much as holding a lead in any of the games, bringing about a 107th straight fruitless fall on the North Side, which is sure to disappoint Theo Epstein, whose sole objective is to build a powerhouse capable of quenching sports' most fabled thirst.

So, where do the Cubs go from here? The Plan, to cram as much homegrown, cost-controlled talent onto a roster as possible, is already ahead of schedule. Bryant is testament to that, as are Kyle Schwarber and Addison Russell. Furthermore, the next phase of the systematic rebuild, calling for external supplementation, began in earnest last winter with the acquisition of Jon Lester, Miguel Montero and Dexter Fowler. Now, having demolished and rebuilt, it's time for Theo to furnish his mansion. It's time to transition to a new level. It's time to go all-in.

In 2015, the Cubs spent only $82.4 million, placing them fourteenth in baseball. Of course, they play in one of the league's largest markets, while the commercial rebuild to enhance revenue streams at Wrigley Field and through television rights is also coming on apace. Epstein has already said the Cubs may need to get "creative" this winter rather than simply throwing money around, but it would be logical to conclude that Chicago will feature heavily in the free agent market, seeking to compliment its prized core with pieces that may turn a swept NLCS team into a pennant-winning one.

Dreams in the Desert
To many baseball analysts, it feels like the Arizona Diamondbacks have spluttered and stumbled through an accidental rebuild in recent years, suffering an identity crisis but somehow tripping unconsciously into a window of opportunity. Even now, I'm not entirely sure if Dave Stewart and Tony La Russa know what they want to do with this franchise, but it appears to be cycling towards something big, if industry whispers are to be believed.

In Paul Goldschmidt, Arizona has a generational building block, the first homegrown superstar to help make the Diamondbacks marketable in the mainstream. The present team also has some pretty competent outfielders, but right now, the pitching just isn't good enough to enable competition with the richer Dodgers and Giants. Therefore, one wonders whether Arizona may swallow hard and become a stealth contender in the elite free agent pitching market this winter.

We already know that the Diamondbacks really like Aroldis Chapman, Cincinnati's flame throwing closer, so a game-changing trade may also materialise. Certainly, there appears to be sentiment within the Arizona offices to alter the landscape, change the outlook, and finally try to narrow the gap to San Francisco and Los Angeles in the chaotic NL West. What that looks like, and who that nets them, remains to be seen, but watch out for the Diamondbacks this offseason. They could be poised to strike, consciously or not.

Planning in Purgatory
As is the new norm in this age of two Wildcards from each league, many teams are still undecided as to their philosophical constitution heading into the key winter months.

In the Bronx, Hal Steinbrenner has taken it upon himself to impose relative austerity on the New York Yankees, which seems fairly egregious given the astronomical revenue their global brand continues to generate. It's perhaps understandable that Brian Cashman will look to implement a new core of Greg Bird, Luis Severino, Rob Refsnyder, Gary Sanchez and Aaron Judge while the humongous contracts of Alex Rodriguez, CC Sabathia and Mark Teixeira run down, but willingly refusing to spend from their endless resources represents a departure from Yankee tradition that should be cause for concern.

Meanwhile, in Toronto, the exit of Alex Anthopoulos and arrival of Mark Shapiro throws fresh doubt onto the plans of an organisation that was reborn in a flurry of stupendous bat flips last year. Will Shapiro take his customary cautious approach when Toronto is clearly geared for immediate gambling, or will he grasp the opportunity and continue striving for rapid success?

In Detroit, Al Avila and the Tigers are also teetering on the brink of a massive decision, as their window for continual contention narrows considerably. Will they continue to push for that long-awaited title, or begin transitioning to a nimbler, more cost-effective plan now that Dombrowski has left town?

Similarly, the White Sox, Twins, Rays, Orioles, Marlins and Padres find themselves in the annual quandary of whether to stick or twist. Each of those teams has finite resources and a tentative view of where they want to be in a few years' time. How they get to the Promised Land remains an eternal mystery.

Bottoming Out
Finally, we come to those teams who will likely feed the trade market with what valuable pieces remain under their control. The current Collective Bargaining Agreement has created an environment where it's actually profitable for certain teams to shed assets and 'tank' in the hope of amassing a poor record and securing high draft picks with which to build a new core. The Astros and Cubs took this route, and many other teams are trending that way.

Most notably, Atlanta is selling anybody with a pulse. In the space of twelve months, the Braves have traded away Evan Gattis, Justin Upton, Jason Heyward, Alex Wood, Bronson Arroyo, Chris Johnson, and Andrelton Simmons. In 2015, that group produced 13.4 WAR, which should raise eyebrows around the league. It's understandable that the Braves are looking to retool ready for the opening of their new stadium in 2017, but at what point does their persistent scrapping of Major League talent become anti-competitive?

Similarly, Cincinnati and Milwaukee look set to tear things down and start over again in the daunting NL Central; Colorado and Philadelphia are about to hit rock bottom as the farm system becomes a priority; and Oakland and Miami must seriously consider their future after fairly disastrous seasons.

Thus, it becomes apparent that Major League Baseball is set for an offseason that could rock its core. Who will bite the bullet and sign Price, floating into almost immediate World Series contention? Who will pull the trigger and pay Greinke or Cueto or Upton or Cespedes? Who will swallow hard in this age of prospect paranoia and execute a deal for Chapman or Sonny Gray or Jay Bruce or Carlos Gonzalez, should those players become available?

Like always in baseball, we have only the merest of inklings. Unpredictability will reign and dominos will gradually fall, revealing a little of the picture that will become the 2016 season. Many teams have expanded budgets and obvious needs. A few teams have a clear goal to lose now for glory tomorrow, and will thus supplement a trade market that shall bubble along nicely.

Essentially, we're set for another offseason of undulating momentum, another winter of dreaming and scheming. The discussion has reached fever pitch. Let the building begin.

Monday, 2 November 2015

Royal Atonement: 2015 World Series Review

Then, just like that, baseball had a new reigning monarch.

With one last rally, one final deluge of hits and heart and hustle, the Kansas City Royals blew the Mets aside and secured their first World Series title in thirty years.

Royal Joy. (Photo credit: AP)
On a fateful night in Queens, Matt Harvey, the embattled hometown ace, dominated for eight frames in Game 5 before coughing up a ninth inning run that sparked yet another Kansas comeback. Eric Hosmer forced extra innings with a daring dash for home on a groundout to third base, then the floodgates opened as the Royals scored five times in the twelfth inning to complete their emotional quest for glory.

In many respects, this World Series was a battle of the bridesmaids, as two perennial underdogs jostled on the biggest stage, beneath the brightest lights. Together, the Mets and Royals have just 99 years of history, most of which has been spent in the cellar. Yet, on this grandest of occasions, that's were the similarities ended. In every facet of the game, Kansas City was firmer, sharper and more confident. Indeed, the Royals were just explicitly better than the Mets, when all was said and done. They were deserving winners.

The tone of this Series was set on its very first pitch, as a drizzle besmirched Kauffman Stadium. Harvey uncorked a fastball to Alcides Escobar, who swatted the first offering deep into the left-centre field gap, where it was booted by Yoenis Cespedes. A breathing embodiment of the Royals' aggressive ethos, Escobar surged around the bases like a prize gazelle, flying across the dish in just fifteen seconds with a stunning inside-the-park home run, a feat unseen in the World Series since 1929. The pattern was set.

Through the entire five-game series, Kansas City pushed the boundaries and asked innumerable questions of New York, which all too frequently was devoid of answers. The Royals out-hit the Mets 47-35; stole seven bases compared to the Mets' one; and took the extra base at almost every available opportunity. The aggression of Kansas City put New York on the back foot. It made the Mets reactive rather than proactive, and reduced their existence to a mere teeth-gnashing fight for survival. A fight they eventually lost, somewhat inevitably.

One of baseball's great truisms is that, in a long series, the team which makes the fewest mistakes will win. In this often bewildering Fall Classic, we saw that play out before our very eyes, as the Mets held a lead in all five games, but were able to win just one of them. New York made six errors; Kansas City made two. While the Royals got almost flawlessly defence from infielders like Mike Moustakas and Escobar, the Mets kicked the ball around mercilessly, with critical errors from David Wright and Daniel Murphy costing them games, and, ultimately, a legitimate shot at the championship.

In the end, the Mets were just a little too satisfied with winning a pennant; just a little too content with enjoying their moment in the sun. By contrast, the Royals were famished for conclusive success. After losing to the Giants in seven excruciating games last year, Kansas City vowed to go one better this time. The pursuit of a world championship, and the banishment of those dark memories, came to define this city and its team. After watching the masters celebrate on their own turf last year, the Royals learnt how to comport themselves, and how to pull the final trigger. This season, they were consumed by a deep determination and a ferocious force of will. Kansas City was hellbent on winning, and the Mets were but a small block in the road, mangled and tossed aside as the Royal juggernaut rolled on through.

In the postseason, Kansas City produced eight come-from-behind victories, a Major League record. The Royals beat Houston in the ALDS and trumped Toronto to capture a second successive pennant. The Astros had more swagger, the Blue Jays more power, but no team had as much singleminded resolve as the Kansas City Royals, who united as one cohesive family behind a common goal: winning the World Series, and ending so many years of hurt.

This win was for Edinson Volquez, who pitched so bravely in the wake of his father's tragic death. This win was for Moustakas and Chris Young, who suffered similar heartache earlier in the year. And this win was for Ned Yost, who is a fitting patriarch for this team, and who finally has a crowning moment to validate forty years of blind baseball devotion.

This win was also for Salvador Perez, who couldn't get the tying run home from third base last year, but who returned to become World Series MVP this time around. No catcher since 1914 has caught more games in consecutive seasons than Perez, who earned his moment the hard way.

In retrospect, the only surprise from this Series was the Royals dropping Game 3. The disparity between the two teams, in terms of experience, readiness and command of emotion, was vast and awkward. Wright, Murphy and Cespedes, the heart of the Mets' lineup, went a combined 11-for-64 in the Series, while the entire offence mustered just seven extra-base hits in five games. When it really mattered, beneath the searing microscope of World Series baseball, New York just didn't have enough. They were an imperfect team that ran out of pixie dust at the worst possible time.

Meanwhile, the Royals had all the required pieces, and Ned Yost finally finished his jigsaw before the midnight bells tolled. It's worth taking a moment to comprehend the sheer improbability of that achievement just five or ten years ago. In the 2000s, Kansas City was a baseball wasteland, cast adrift by fan indifference and consigned to obscurity by a starkly unfair financial system. The Royals didn't have any money, so they were essentially doomed to a life of subservience to the alpha Yankees, Red Sox and Tigers. 

Between 1986 and 2013, there was no postseason baseball in Kansas City. Between 1995 and 2012, the Royals finished 25 games out of first place on average. The team lost more than 90 games in eight of the eleven seasons between 2002 and 2012, and nobody was interested in its plight. At one stage, to watch the Kansas City Royals was to submit oneself to three hours of morbid torture. They were that bad, that boring.

Yet, with such ineptitude came a slew of high draft picks, with which Dayton Moore slowly constructed a winner. Alex Gordon became a Royal that way, as did Hosmer and Moustakas. Young international talent was also acquired cheaply, with Perez and Yordano Ventura, the firebrand ace, coming aboard as teenagers. And so, while the Royals stunk at the Major League level for so many years, this new core, this new monster, was being assembled down on the farm. 

This homegrown team was tutored in a relentless, almost grating brand of small ball, with emphasis on contact hitting, aggressive baserunning and altruistic sacrifice that, hundreds of games later, congealed into a World Series-winning effort on the expansive terrain of Citi Field, New York. 

From the wreckage of constant despair and repeated failure, every single member of the Kansas City Royals organisation bought into one philosophy, united behind one dream. Last night, that philosophy finally delivered, and that dream finally came true. And when it was all over, and the dust of another season settled, the baseball kingdom had been turned on its head, and the most unlikely prince finally occupied the throne.

Monday, 26 October 2015

When Fairytales Collide: 2015 World Series Preview

The 111th World Series will begin tomorrow night in Kansas City, as is seemingly the norm in our post-modern baseball age. Twelve months ago, the hometown Royals played host to the mighty San Francisco Giants at Kauffman Stadium, authenticating a new era in our beloved game. Those upstart Royals were excitable, fresh-faced and raw, a radical by-product of fiscal equality in the Major Leagues. They eventually lost to a sagacious foe in seven attritional games, but, a year on, Kansas City seems wiser and hungrier for the experience. Now, the Royals enter their second straight Fall Classic not as sweetheart underdogs, but as slight favourites over the New York Mets, who have inherited the Cinderella role from their Series opponents.

The greatest show on turf. Image credit: Sporting News.
In 2014, Kansas City enjoyed the affection of the baseball-watching world. Their presence in the postseason was novel and refreshing. Their brand of baseball was alive and enthralling. They were fun. Yet, this season, much of that goodwill has eroded, to the point where neutral fans are likely to root against the Royals this time round. Many observers fell out of love with Kansas City as they brawled and sneered their way to another American League pennant, and many believe the innocent swagger of '14 has transformed into an arrogant strut this year.

Accordingly, the Mets will be the darlings of a nation over the next week. There has always been something inherently lovable about New York's “other team,” but those feelings are likely to intensify as the Amazins' participate in their first World Series since 2000.

In many ways, the Mets are similar in composition and character to the 2014 Royals. Terry Collins' team is young, precociously talented and set for a long run of sustainable success. Whether 2015 will be the first jewel in a potential dynasty remains to be seen, but this fascinating team bringing energy to Citi Field should make for an irresistible Series.

So, aside from the banner storylines, what are the actual keys to success on the field in this Fall Classic? Well, if this age of parity has taught us anything, it's that baseball is perhaps more unpredictable now than at any stage in history. From one day to the next, one pitch to the next, we're unable to predict the outcome of Major League Baseball games with anything approaching certainty. Thus, attempting to preview the World Series can be a perilous task these days, but let's give it a whirl.

First Pitch Boiling Point
The most important aspect of this Series, and therefore the most crucial in trying to predict an outcome, may be the Royals' offensive proficiency early in the count, and how the Mets combat that. New York has a superlative rotation of mesmeric young pitchers. Matt Harvey, Jacob deGrom, Noah Syndergaard and Steven Matz have ice in their veins and fire in their arms, but, on paper, their collective approach would appear to play right into Kansas City's wheelhouse.

The Moneyball enlightenment placed extreme emphasis on working the count deep and seeing as many pitches as possible to draw walks and wear down opposing starters. However, in our advanced age of specialised bullpens, with more relievers throwing 95-mph or harder than ever before, the incentive for knocking an opposing starter out of the game has been significantly diminished. This year, the Royals have eschewed the old approach of patience in favour of more aggression early in the count, when pitchers are often at their most hittable.

During the regular season, Kansas City ranked 29th of the 30 Major League teams in pitches-seen-per-plate-appearance, while their walk rate was the lowest in all of baseball. However, the Royals ranked 3rd in team batting average, 7th in runs scored, and were the hardest team to strikeout in either league. This speaks to an ultra-aggressive approach early in the count, which, coupled with a tremendous ability to put the ball in play, has fuelled the Royals' success.

In addition to being deadly early in the count, Kansas City is also a phenomenal fastball-hitting team. Indeed, only two teams scored more runs on fastballs than the Royals this year. From a New York perspective, this doesn't bode well, because Met pitchers threw a fastball 61% of the time this season, eighth highest in the Majors. On the surface, it appears that the Royals would have ample opportunity to showcase their greatest strength and deadliest weapon: fastball hitting early in the count.

If we dig a little deeper, those suspicions are confirmed. In his career, Matt Harvey has thrown a first-pitch fastball 63% of the time, and opponents have hit .336 and slugged .565 off of him in those instances. So, basically, when the Royals are most ready to hit, with no balls and no strikes, Matt Harvey is very human. You could even argue he's very vulnerable.

This trend is repeated with Syndergaard, who throws a first-pitch fastball just 38% of the time, but who sees opponents hit .333 and slug an absurd .714 off of those deliveries. Admittedly, Noah has only thrown 247 such pitches at the big league level, which is a less than adequate sample size, but this has to be worrisome for the Mets when mapping a strategy.

Steven Matz also struggles with first-pitch fastballs, allowing a .330 average and .550 slugging percentage, but his sample is even smaller than that of Syndergaard, so we can't read too much into those results. Jacob deGrom, on the other hand, is fairly good at minimising first-pitch fastball damage, with opponents hitting .262 and slugging .410 off of those pitches.

Of course, the Mets will have access to this data. They will know the tendencies of their own pitchers and the strengths of a deceptively potent Royals offence. Therefore, New York may alter its approach and gameplan in a different way, perhaps by throwing more off-speed stuff early in the count to get Kansas City off-balance at the plate. And once Met pitchers have indecision in their opponents, they're truly deadly, ranking 8th in strikeout percentage, 2nd in walk percentage and 2nd in WHIP.

Thus, the outcome of this World Series may hinge on the Mets' ability to nullify the Royals' hitters early in the count, and, subsequently, on Kansas City's ability to take advantage of their opportunities or adjust if they seep away.

Shorten the Game
The Royals' blueprint for success in this Series is fairly well known. In aggressive fashion, they will attempt to ambush the opposing pitcher early and put up runs either by running into a home run from one of their big boppers, or by playing small ball with the speed and selflessness native to Ned Yost's philosophy. The Royals then hope to entrust an early lead to their starter, before passing the baton to a formidable bullpen in the sixth or seventh inning. Kelvin Herrera and Wade Davis are an elite one-two punch that rarely coughs up a lead, so the Mets will be hard-pressed to come back once they're down in the late innings.

Therefore, much like last year, the first six innings of each game in this World Series will be crucial. While tremendously talented, the Mets starting staff can be uneconomical at times, throwing too many pitches and creating high-stress situations. In order to succeed, the Mets need to extinguish the Royals' desire for offensive blood early in the game, and get some length out of their own starters. New York has a very good closer in Jeurys Familia, but the bridge to him is shorter and more precarious than that which Kansas City has built to Davis. There is thus more opportunity for the Mets to slip and drown.

Home Sweet Home
Traditionally, a lot has been written about home-field advantage being less important in baseball, compared with basketball, gridiron and hockey. However, the ability to host the first two games of a Fall Classic always strikes me as crucial. Indeed, 23 of the last 29 World Series champions had home-field advantage, which is pretty compelling evidence.

Of course, the Royals hosted four games in last year's Series, including the pivotal opener and the sudden-death Game 7, but were still unable to win. Accordingly, you could argue that the overarching unpredictability of baseball, especially in modern times, is more powerful than any one individual case of home-field advantage, but I still like the comfort of playing in your own ballpark, with the support of your own passionate fans, twice before even jetting off to the other city. It provides a sacred opportunity to complete half the job in familiar surroundings, which anybody would be foolish not to covet.

Who Wants it More?
Once the postseason winds down and we're left with two teams ready to compete in the World Series, I always like to see which team is hungrier. Obviously, every player years to win. The attainment of a World Series ring is the ultimate reward, the Holy Grail of baseball. But once the pennant is won, I'm eager to see how content each team is. Do they celebrate excessively? How strong is their desire to progress even further? How intense is their will to win it all?

This year, the Mets have to resist the temptation to feel happy with all they've achieved thus far. In spring training, they were written-off. By most estimations, the Nationals were slated to win the division flag by ten, maybe fifteen games. Therefore, that New York should upset the odds and experts by storming to the pennant is a titanic achievement, but also one fraught with peril. The Mets are now the lovable underdog, the fuzzy feel-good story. Yet, they must not enter the World Series thinking they have nothing to lose, that they're just happy to be here. That would be the ultimate death knell. Every opportunity to win a ring is precious, as the Mets' fifteen-year pennant drought attests. Thus, they have a lot to lose, just like the Royals. They must forget what they've achieved in the past, and show that their appetite to write another chapter in the fairytale is equal to that of Kansas City.

As outlined above, trying to prognosticate baseball is fundamentally asinine. That's why I believe anybody who actually bets on ballgames should receive a free psychiatric evaluation with their receipt. Anyhow, since it's now fashionable to predict a winner before any major sporting event, here's my best effort:

Royals in six.

Friday, 23 October 2015

Happy Birthday, BYB Hub

On October 24th, the Bleeding Yankee Blue Hub will celebrate its first anniversary. While many of you may still will be unfamiliar with the concept, it has played a big part in some of my most successful articles here at Suicide Squeezin', and I would like to take this opportunity to thank everybody involved, and wish them luck in developing the network even further.

My first experiences with the BYB Hub came during research for this piece on the universal popularity of the Yankees' brand. I was able to interview some influential Yankee fans, experts and writers after initially reaching out to the Hub, and their insights are what made that article one of my most popular yet.

The piece was later featured on the BYB home page, where it received tremendous exposure and was welcomed extremely well by Yankee fans. I gained many Twitter followers through that piece, and struck up some truly brilliant conversations about the Yankees and baseball in general. I've made some great working relationships through the BYB Hub. But, more importantly, I've made some terrific acquaintances, and developed strong bonds with like-minded people.

Essentially, the BYB Hub is an opportunity for bloggers to share their work and gain greater exposure, by agreeing to cross-promote and have their articles displayed on the network. It is a great proving ground for new baseball writers to get their blogs off the ground and generate a real buzz about articles they're proud of, such as my project on the Yankees' brand.

If you're a baseball writer keen to get involved, don't hesitate to contact the BYB Hub through the main site. Moreover, if you're just a reader with specific interest in baseball, head over to the Hub, where you'll find a wealth of passionate and intelligent articles on a variety of subjects, from a slew of different perspectives.

Give the Hub a chance. I guarantee it will be a welcome addition to your baseball experience.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

On the Mystique of World Series Rings, and the Pursuit Thereof

For any baseball player, the ultimate aim is to win a world championship. A guy can have All-Star talent, produce at Hall of Fame levels, and win a slew of personal awards, but if, when retirement beckons, there is no World Series ring in the cabinet, his career will always be tinged with melancholic sadness. 

Without winning the ultimate prize, there will always be caveat, a qualifier, an imaginary asterisks floating in the public conscience. The player will always harbour deep regrets, because, more than anything else, triumph in the Fall Classic defines success and fulfilment in the world of Major League Baseball.

The Holy Grail.
Therefore, an actual World Series ring, awarded to each member of the winning team since the 1930s, is undoubtedly the Holy Grail of America's National Pastime; this almost mystical token of success rivalling the Olympic gold or World Cup winners medals as the most elusive and sacred in all of sport.

Without doubt, winning a World Series championship requires more toil, heart and commitment than almost anything else in the athletic realm, further imbuing the ring with an iconic, mythic quality. Clearly, it can be seen as the definitive accolade.

Omnipotent players: those who won a lot

If the attainment and possession of a World Series ring is the ultimate barometer of baseball success, the greatest players are arguably those with the most hand jewellery. Accordingly, let's take a look at the top twenty players with the most rings, throughout baseball history.

Most World Series rings as a player, all-time top 20
1. Yogi Berra, 10
2. Joe DiMaggio, 9
3. Bill Dickey, 8
4. Phil Rizzuto, 8
5. Frankie Crosetti, 8
6. Lou Gehrig, 8
7. Han Bauer, 7
8. Mickey Mantle, 7
9. Babe Ruth, 7
10. Johnny Murphy, 7
11. Tommy Henrich, 7
12. Herb Pennock, 7
13. Whitey Ford, 6
14. Vic Raschi, 6
15. Allie Reynolds, 6
16. Red Ruffing, 6
17. Joe Collins, 6
18. Lefty Gomez, 6
19. Jerry Coleman, 6
20. Eddie Collins, 6

The first thing that jumps out from this list is the New York Yankees' thorough dominance of baseball history. Of the twenty most-frequent World Series-winning players, the first nineteen won at least one ring with the Bronx Bombers. Moreover, of those nineteen players, all but Ruth and Pennock won all of their Series rings with the Yankees, a fact which further illustrates the pinstriped monopoly. 

Even by narrowing the timeframe of our search to the past thirty years, the Yankees' penchant for persistent success comes shining through. Here's the list of players with the most World Series rings since 1985.

Most World Series rings as a player, 1985-present, top 15
1. Derek Jeter, 5
2. David Cone, 5
3. Paul O'Neill, 5
4. Andy Pettitte, 5
5. Mariano Rivera, 5
6. Jorge Posada, 5
7. Luis Sojo, 5
8. Ramiro Mendoza, 5
9. Orlando Hernandez, 4
10. Chuck Knoblauch, 4
11. Tino Martinez, 4
12. Jeff Nelson, 4
13. Mike Timlin, 4
14. Bernie Williams, 4
15. Javier Lopez, 4

Thirteen of the aforementioned players won at least one championship with the Yankees, with the majority winning multiple rings in the Bronx. Mike Timlin, a longtime reliever with the Blue Jays and Red Sox, and Javier Lopez, a lefty specialist with Boston and San Francisco, were the only non-Yankees to make the list.
Magnificent managers 

In addition to the most successful players, I'm also fascinated by those managers who've won multiple World Series rings. In this regard, let's take a quick glance at the all-time top ten.

Most World Series rings as manager, all-time top 10
1. Joe McCarthy, 7
2. Casey Stengel, 7
3. Connie Mack, 5
4. Walter Alston, 4
5. Joe Torre, 4
6. John McGraw, 3
7. Miller Huggins, 3
8. Sparky Anderson, 3
9. Tony La Russa, 3
10. Bruce Bochy, 3

I find Bruce Bochy's presence on this list extremely intriguing. It really puts his recent achievements with the Giants into sharp historical perspective; their three World Series titles in five years catapulting Bochy into the same echelon as the true immortals of baseball management. That Bruce has been able to tie legendary greats such as La Russa, Huggins and McGraw is a testament to his skill. Bochy is clearly one of the greatest managers who ever lived, and watching him chase the ghosts of Mack, Stengel and McCarthy will be a major thrill in years to come.

Desperate pursuit: those who never won 

Such is the regard in which World Series rings are held, and such is the significance of winning a championship in defining a career, every player yearns to triumph in the Fall Classic. When a player reaches his mid-30s and still has no ring to show for years of exertion, desperation takes over. Late in a career, many players yet to win a championship will forgo extra money in the hope of signing with the Yankees or Red Sox and taking one last run at the a World Series mountain. For some, this ploy works. But for many, it doesn't. Accordingly, for the sake of balance, let's take a look at the twenty-five guys who played the most Major League games without even reaching the Fall Classic.

Most games played without a World Series appearance, all-time top 25
1. Rafael Palmeiro, 2831
2. Ken Griffey Jr., 2671
3. Andre Dawson, 2627
4. Ernie Banks, 2528
5. Julio Franco, 2527
6. Billy Williams, 2488
7. Rod Carew, 2469
8. Bobby Abreu, 2425
9. Luke Appling, 2422
10. Mickey Vernon, 2409
11. Buddy Bell, 2405
12. Torii Hunter, 2372
13. Ichiro Suzuki, 2357
14. Sammy Sosa, 2354
15. Jose Cruz, 2353
16. Brian Downing, 2344
17. Frank Thomas, 2322
18. BJ Surhoff, 2313
19. Chris Speier, 2260
20. Andrés Galarraga, 2257
21. Ron Santo, 2243
22. Tim Wallach, 2212
23. Joe Torre, 2209
24. Tony Taylor, 2195
25. Aramis Ramirez, 2194

Unsurprisingly, this list is dominated by the Chicago Cubs, who have infamously failed to win a World Series since 1908 and haven't even competed in the Fall Classic since 1945. Dawson, Banks, Williams, Sosa and Santo all likely rank among the ten greatest Cubs of all-time, but as the list demonstrates, they played a combined 12,240 games without ever reaching the World Series. Such is the tragedy of baseball.

It's also interesting to study a list of active players who've waited the longest for a mere opportunity to win a ring. Here are ten contemporary players with the most games played and no World Series appearance to date.

Most games played without a World Series appearance, top 10 active players
1. Torii Hunter, 2372
2. Ichiro Suzuki, 2357
3. Aramis Ramirez, 2194
4. Alex Rios, 1691
5. Adrian Gonzalez, 1648
6. Brandon Phillips, 1608
7. Adam LaRoche, 1605
8. Victor Martinez, 1579
9. Jose Reyes, 1562
10. David Wright, 1546

This list is very surprising, because all ten players were very good during their prime years. However, it just goes to show that baseball is a team game, with a player's fate resting largely in the hands of his teammates.

So, how about this year's postseason? We're currently at the League Championship stage, with teams just a few precious wins away from securing the pennant and advancing to the Fall Classic. The Mets, Cubs and Blue Jays are at this stage for the first time since 2006, 2003 and 1993, respectively, while the Royals are seeking a second successive trip to the World Series. Accordingly, let's take a look at those players still alive in the current postseason who've waited the longest for a shot at the Fall Classic.

Most games played without a World Series appearance, still alive in 2015 playoffs, top 5
1. Alex Rios, 1691
2. David Wright, 1546
3. Michael Cuddyer, 1536
4. Jose Bautista, 1403
5. Edwin Encarnacion, 1353

This list shows just how starved certain franchises have been in the modern baseball era. Bautista has played the majority of his career with the Blue Jays, while Wright is a lifelong Met. Those two teams have struggled for much of the past decade, so it's great that they're finally getting the opportunity to shine on a big stage. As for Rios? Well, the guy just seems to be plain unlucky. He's played for four teams in a twelve-year career, and, prior to this season, never even reached the playoffs! On average, Rios' teams have finished 15 games out of first place, a quite astonishing statistic.

Thus, you're now familiar with the true hard luck stories of Major League Baseball. But one of the great things about this beautiful and beguiling sport is its ability to convey emotion and tell stories of incredible human effort. Accordingly, if your team has already been eliminated, how about rooting for a guy who has never had the opportunity to experience a World Series? 

Root for Alex Rios or David Wright, consummate professionals who've given the game so much, and deserve their moment on its biggest stage. 

Root for Jose Bautista or Edwin Encarnacion, prolific entertainers who've authored many smiles, but too often in the baseball wilderness. 

Root for the underdog, because everyone loves a rags-to-riches story, especially when it comes to the World Series, that most mystical and elusive of prizes.

*All statistics correct at time of publishing. 'Games played' totals do not include postseason play. 

Thursday, 15 October 2015

Bedlam in Toronto as Blue Jays Advance

The mainstream said baseball was dying. It was too old, too boring, a jaded anachronism. Well, after watching the hair-raising, stomach-churning, mind-blowing war between Toronto and Texas in Game 5 of the ALDS last night, I will beg to differ.

This was more than a baseball game. This was grown men, rich beyond comprehension, straining and yearning and hungering for sporting success. This was prime athletes, united by extremes of raw talent, laying their bodies on the line to stave off agony and welcome euphoria at the end of a gruelling season. This was a city, starved of baseball glory, stomping and wailing and whining in the brutish throes of desperation, in the sweet utopia of success.

Jose Bautista and the greatest bat flip of all-time.
On a basic level, all the Blue Jays did was trump the Rangers and advance to the American League Championship Series. No trophies were awarded, no titles decided. Yet, to have such a parochial view would be folly. This meant so much more to those involved. It was the culmination of a remarkable comeback, from two games down to ultimate success. It was the exclamation point on a simmering summer of baseball fever; the moment when the will of a populace meshed with the talents of a team to create an unforgettable verse in this game's ceaseless symphony.

One day, somebody will write a book about this mesmeric Game 5, and it will be a bestseller throughout the sporting world. ESPN will probably commission a documentary about it, complete with drama and hyperbole. However, nothing could match the experience of watching it in real-time. There was a throbbing importance to the game, a clashing of strong desires that coursed beneath the action. It was trench warfare in cleats.

The game had more plot twists than a Mexican soap opera; more mood swings than a Stephen King novel; more drama than an episode of CSI. Texas had the lead twice and saw it trickle away twice, courtesy of defensive misplays and booming home runs. Toronto, on the other hand, was down on the mat twice, once in the most befuddling of circumstances, only to locate reserves of squealing determination and emerge victorious.

As the basic mosaic of a crazy game unfurled, an abundance of subplots added yet more intrigue and emotion to the wider experience. The gargantuan crowd of 49,742, oscillating between torrential hostility and rumbling jubilation. The brawling players, desperate to survive, advance and win. The smouldering city, totally engrossed with baseball for the first time in two decades.

Of course, every great movie needs a happy ending, a definitive crescendo, a crowning glory. Fortunately for Toronto, and perhaps for baseball, one bonafide megastar was on hand to provide it. With two on and two out in the seventh inning, score tied at three, stadium in anarchy, Jose Bautista saw a 97-mph fastball from Sam Dyson and swatted it high, deep and far into the left field madness. As Rogers Centre howled in the bedlam of achievement, Bautista produced the greatest bat flip ever recorded, before trotting around the bases as the diamond quaked beneath him. Just like that, the Blue Jays had a lead they would never relinquish.

So now, Toronto steams right on into the ALCS, where Kansas City, the reigning champion, awaits. Just five or ten years ago, this would've been a humdrum matchup, fodder for those who insist that baseball is an endangered species. But, right now, it's the bat-flipping, heart-stopping, pulse-racing embodiment of all that is great about the modern game.

Wednesday, 14 October 2015

Cubs Topple Cards in Wrigley's Greatest Night

A ballpark has stood at the corner of Waveland and Sheffield Avenues in Chicago's North Side for 101 years. A beautiful place, with an indelible legacy in the history of American sports. Wrigley Field, the ancient, ivy-covered burial ground of baseball dreams, has witnessed a lot through the eras, but never anything quite like yesterday, when its downtrodden tenant clinched a postseason series at home for the first time since time immemorial.

For the Cubs, this was a two-pronged catharsis. Not only did they finally prove an ability to win big games at home, but they also showed a capacity to beat the St Louis Cardinals, that sneering bully who has made their life hell in perpetuity. 

Glory at Wrigley Field. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
The Cubs and Cards have waged a lopsided war since 1903. Chicago holds a slight edge in the all-time series, but many conclude that this isn't a true rivalry. Rather, it's more akin to an older sibling picking on his younger brother. St Louis has finished ahead of Chicago every year since 2009. St Louis has won 11 World Series titles since the Cubs' last triumph, 6 since the North Side last hosted a Fall Classic game. And, accordingly, St Louis fans have grown with the birthright that we're always better than the Cubs, no matter how bad things get.

Finally, the Cubs have changed. Slowly but surely, they're defeating their demons, one round at a time. In this, the first playoff edition of a flagship baseball rivalry, Chicago mustered a hundred years of courage to topple St Louis at long last. With fearless play and deceptively precocious talent, the upstart Cubs proved that they can beat the best organisation baseball has to offer. From top to bottom, that's what the Cardinals are. They're the paragon of sustainable success, of exceeding means and markets to experience glory in the fall. Yet now, that aura has been demolished, at least in the minds of Cubs players, executives and fans. Rather like Theo Epstein's Red Sox defeating the Yankees in 2004, his contemporary Cubs have lanced a boil, destroying all narratives of Cardinal superiority in the process.

When Stephen Piscotty lunged and missed at a breaking ball in the dirt from Hector Rondon late last night, ending Game 4 of the NLDS, Wrigley was transformed into a maelstrom of jostling, jubilant humanity. It was okay to cheer. It was fine to smile. Hell, fist-pumping was encouraged. Where once fear reigned, belief now resided. Where once nerves percolated, excitement poured forth. Where once the Cubs lost, in excruciating and somewhat iconic style, they finally won, in a heart-stopping fashion all their own.

After losing the opening game of this series in St Louis, the Cubs buckled down and produced a remarkable fight back, winning three straight to secure a place in the National League's final two. In that opening encounter, Mike Matheny managed a flawless game for St Louis, pushing all the right buttons, entrusting all the right players, who triumphed through obscurity in true Cardinal fashion.

However, it was almost like Joe Maddon tipped his cap to Matheny at that point, acknowledged his masterful management, then proceeded to raise him. In games two through four, Maddon's genius was on full display. From daring squeeze plays to adroit bullpen management, Uncle Joe exhibited his boundless capacity for excellence, all with a cunning smile, all with a knowing calmness rare in Wrigley annals.

In the five seasons previous to this wonderfully enchanting one, the Cubs lost 57% of all games they partook in. Now, they are just four wins away from reaching their first World Series in 70 years. That is a phenomenal turnaround, an inspirational recovery. And it has Wrigleyville alive like never before.

Thursday, 8 October 2015

A Glimpse of the Future: Cubs and Astros Advance

The Wildcard round is baseball's newest, most exhilarating toy, and this year, it was deeply illustrative of our game in the modern realm. There was euphoria for the Houston Astros and Chicago Cubs, paragons of front office mastery both, and there was agony for the New York Yankees and Pittsburgh Pirates, franchises that cannot navigate October anymore. These contemporary Cubs and Astros originate from the same gene pool, with wonderful intellectuals building a sustainable, homegrown juggernaut from the ground up. Now, they're advancing in the playoffs, as their fans continue to dream the improbable dream.

Cub Courage
This Cubs team is different. We thought that in April, as Joe Maddon cajoled remarkable results from a young roster, and we thought that all summer, as Chicago braced itself for postseason baseball. Last night, in a raucous PNC Park, deep in America's industrial heartland, all that hope and belief fizzed and bubbled into something tangible, something finally worthy of unrestricted celebration, as Jake Arrieta bamboozled the Pirates and secured the Cubs' first playoff win since 2003.

It was billed as a baseball hipster's dream: the nimble Pirates, fashioned by Neal Huntington and managed by Clint Hurdle, against the upstart Cubs, created by Theo Epstein and managed by Joe Maddon. Two philosophically aligned teams; two division rivals; two cities straddling the border between excitement and paralysing nerves. 

The Cubs and Pirates have been going at it for hundreds of years, but rarely have these grand old dames of baseball been so good simultaneously. This Pittsburgh incarnation won more games than any other since 1909, while the Cubs secured more victories than they have since 1935. The Bucs had the second-best record in all of baseball this year; the Cubbies were third. 

Thus, in every respect, this was set up as a war of attrition, a winner-takes-all showdown between two teams alike in creation and virtually identical in production. Except, that narrative never played out, and this game was never that close. Not really. 

Essentially, Jake Arrieta scotched any such notion, burrowing into his own zone of immense concentration and pitching a stupendous shutout, the first by a Cub in October since 1945. And we all know what happened that year.

This game, this constant oscillation of drama, hinged like so many on the arms of two men, and the subtle juxtaposition between them. 

For the Cubs, Arrieta was supremely confident, to the point of serene belief amid the gathering cacophony. After producing the greatest second half by a pitcher in baseball history, he now has an approach striking in its simplicity: put the ball where I want to, and they don't stand a chance. For nine innings, that was basically the case, as Jake yielded just four hits while striking out eleven, en route to victory.

Arrieta stormed around the field and one could almost see his internal monologue of defiance. A fire raged deep within, but he maintained a cold, calm and calculating visage. He was in command, and nothing was going to stop him reaching the end goal of victory. Not 40,889 screaming fans. Not a bench-clearing brawl. And certainly not the Pittsburgh Pirates.

Meanwhile, for those Pirates, Gerrit Cole was just a little less confident, just a little less assure. And in October, when the merest inches and smallest twitches matter, that was just too much to overcome for Pittsburgh. Cole was animated and ever so slightly agitated from the start. He was human, while a strike-throwing cyborg lurked in the other dugout. 

Kyle Schwarber took advantage early, putting the Cubs up with an RBI single in the first, then mashing a long two-run bomb into the Allegheny in the third. The Cubs would add another run in the fifth as Dexter Fowler went yard, but it was hardly necessary. Arrieta was in complete control.

When the Pirates did muster an opportunity, with the bases loaded and one out in the sixth inning, Arrieta induced a sweet double play. Just as the Cubs could feel the ropes at their back, they came out fighting like a heavyweight champion. In previous years, under different regimes, they would've crumbled, succumbed to the schoolyard bully. Not anymore. Not this year. Addison Russell flipped adroitly to Starlin Castro, who heaved the ball onto Anthony Rizzo, ending the inning and extinguishing hope in Pittsburgh.

An inning later, following a messy brawl that resembled one last desperate attempt by the Pirates to penetrate Arrieta's stoicism, the Cubs got another huge double play. From there on out, it was pretty much a stroll to the finish line, which has rarely, if ever, been written about the star-crossed Chicago Cubs.

When Arrieta got Francisco Cervelli to line out softly to Castro on his 113th pitch of the night, the North Siders had their first postseason win in the post-Bartman epoch. More importantly, they took the next step forward in the enchanting quest to win a first World Series in 107 years.

Next up for Chicago? The St Louis Cardinals, a fearsome foe who the Cubs have played 2,361 times since 1892, but never in the postseason. The Cubs are evidently in the mood for rewriting history this year, and the greatest chapter of all just got a few pages nearer. 

Houston Heroics
The Astros continue to amaze. After losing 590 games in the six years between 2009 and 2014, Houston exploded in an orange blur of belief and precocious talent this season. Under the studious tutelage of AJ Hinch, the 'Stros kept playing their intoxicating brand of ball and kept winning games, even when experts said they couldn't, even when the odds laughed in their collective face.

All summer, Houston just kept rolling, an enflamed ball of raw talent and brash iconoclasm. On Tuesday, this carefree group of vibrant, fresh-faced youngsters stormed into the thunderous coliseum that is Yankee Stadium and just owned the night. Totally owned it. 

This was the Astros' first playoff game since 2005. This was the largest crowd for any Astros game since 2010. This was a sudden-death fight against the venerated Yankees, at prime time, in New York City, beneath the twinkling lights, before 50,113 sets of eyes. The Astros were supposed to be intimidated. They were supposed to run out of gas. Yet, the opposite happened. They were entirely unfazed, and they seized the moment with an energy and vitality that is impossible to dislike.

The Astros, dressed in lurid orange, were nimble, lithe, bristling with potential. The Yankees, worn down by the heavy pinstripes of history, were tired, heavy-legged, panting to the finish like a limp dog. Greatness occurs at the confluence of talent and bravery. The Yankees know all about that. Well, so do these Houston Astros, who matched impressive skill with the poise and guts required to breeze past the Bronx Bombers in October.

Consider Carlos Correa, the 21-year old shortstop who hit third on the biggest stage of all. He's never played anywhere like Yankee Stadium; he's probably never shared any building with 50,000 people before. Consider George Springer and Jose Altuve, who've never played a more meaningful game, but still managed to make telling contributions with the glove and bat. And consider Dallas Keuchel, the young ace who made the Yankees look foolish on three days rest, earning comparisons to Greg Maddux and soft-tossing Houston to the ALDS with six innings of three-hit, shutout ball.

On a night when this version of Yankee Stadium was louder than ever, with fans clapping and chanting like times of yore, the Astros rose to the occasion. Colby Rasmus and Carlos Gomez launched solo home runs, and Altuve knocked in another run, while the hosts managed just three hits and manipulated just two men into scoring position, as the light went out on another fruitless season in the Bronx. The Astros' remarkable victory was confirmed with three flawless innings from the bullpen, and Houston danced a victory jig on the Stadium infield. 

In many ways, this was even more dramatic than Moneyball, even more improbable than that cinematic creation. The Astros entered the 2015 season with a $70 million payroll, second-smallest in the Majors. The Yankees, meanwhile, paid their players $219 million. That the former should slay the latter and advance to the American League's final four is highly indicative of baseball's changing economic climate. Nowadays, the money a team spends isn't as important as the people it employs to utilise it. Intellectual firepower within the front office is just as important as superstars on the field. With Jeff Luhnow at the helm, the Astros are a prime example of how to build a Major League Baseball team in this age of parity; their core of cost-controlled, homegrown talent providing a lengthy window of sustainable opportunity. 

That window is now firmly ajar. With victory over the mighty Yankees, Houston advances to an ALDS meeting with the reigning Royals. It will be the Astros' first playoff series in ten years, back when their incumbent shortstop was just 11 and their current ace was 17. That says a lot about the Houston Astros, but it says even more about the shifting landscape of Major League Baseball.