Wednesday, October 6, 2021

Joe Sheehan Newsletter, October 6, 2021 -- "What I'm Watching"

Cardinals (Wainwright) at Dodgers (Scherzer), 8 p.m. ET

We’re going to hear a lot about how the system doesn’t work because of this matchup between a 106-win Dodgers team and a 90-win Cardinals team. Many people will notice, for the first time, that it’s a little ridiculous to make a team play a one-game playoff against a team whose record was far worse over a 162-game season. They will be right, of course. What they’ll miss is that this ghost has always been in the machine, and MLB just got lucky for a decade. From a piece I wrote all the way back in 2010:

“Let's play it out, though. The Yankees and Rays bust their humps all month, win a few extra games, maybe 99 for the Rays, 98 for the Yankees. With a "second wild card" to play for, the Red Sox make a couple of small additions, pick up some wins in September and get to 91. One of those extra wins comes at the expense of the White Sox, who fade a bit faster, enabling the Red Sox to lock up their spot in the Coin Flip Game heading into their last series of the year.

“Now, the #3 seed, the #4 seed are preparing for the playoffs, while the two best teams in the league are playing for the right to not be dropped into this unimaginably stupid Coin Flip Game against a team that, because the sixth-best team in the league is far enough behind the fifth-best, is itself resting! Moreover, after proving itself to be eight or so games better than than its divisional partner over a full season of play, the second-place team is now, after losing its run at the division title, shoved into a single-game playoff.

“The second-best team in baseball could go from fighting for a division title and the best record in its league to a one-game playoff against a team it was miles ahead of for six months. It may sound far-fetched, but it is not that far removed from what we would have had this year had the rule been in place. It's pretty much what you would have gotten in the AL in 2005, where the Yankees and Red Sox tied for first place while the "second wild card" would have been the Indians, five games clear of the A's for the #5 seed.”

It wasn’t far-fetched, it just took a few years to play out this way. The Cardinals clinched their wild-card berth Tuesday and had five days to play low-pressure baseball, rest the people who needed resting, and set their pitching up for the Wild Card Game. The Dodgers, by dint of being a whole lot better, played meaningful baseball through the last day of the season, when their first baseman suffered a terrible injury and they burned their #1...#1A if you pursuit of a division title they would be locked out of.

This is a very bad system, one that never should have been implemented, and one that is likely to go away next year. If in its death throes it finally invalidates six months of baseball in a single evening -- if the 90-72 Cardinals advance over the 106-57 Dodgers -- well, MLB will have gotten its just desserts. For the problem isn’t a single playoff system or any single decision, the problem is MLB’s 40-year streak of being unable to envision the consequences of its actions. There’s just never been anyone standing there to say, “You know, a wild card could kill great division races.” “If we go to interleague play, the All-Star Game will lose its luster.” “Trashing our players for two generations might eventually turn people off of baseball.”

This is a bad playoff system for a league that plays 162 games, and it always has been. I don’t know what comes next, but I do know this: It will have flaws that MLB won’t see coming, because MLB never sees anything coming.

What I don’t want to hear is that this isn’t fair. The Dodgers approved this and played ten seasons with it. Everyone knew the system at the start of the season. The Cardinals did their job, finishing with the fourth-best record in the league, in fact. If they are playing in San Francisco on Friday, it will be because they earned that spot.

It could happen. It’s crazy, the Dodgers, despite having to play an extra game, are the overall betting favorites to win the NL pennant and the World Series. I picked the Dodgers at the start of the season and I think they’re probably still the best team in baseball -- hold that thought -- but for them to be favorites starting from the wild card defies everything we know about the baseball postseason.

How could this particular apple cart be upset? Start with a Cardinals team that became the Gashouse Gorillas down the stretch: 56 homers and a .480 SLG in September, leading the NL and second in all of baseball. Max Scherzer has had an incredible bounceback season, arguably worthy of the NL Cy Young Award, but he does put the ball in the air.

Up (FB%, 2021, min. 100 IP)

Jameson Taillon   NYY   48.3%
Max Scherzer      2tm   48.3%
Triston McKenzie  CLE   48.1%
Marco Gonzalez    SEA   47.9%
James Kaprelian   OAK   47.5%

This isn’t an unusual season for Scherzer, either. He has been a flyball pitcher his entire career. To beat him, you have to go deep against him. Of the 53 runs he allowed this season, 34 (64%) came on longballs. Scherzer’s teams were 9-6 behind Scherzer when he gave up a dinger, and 13-4 when he did not. Tonight, it’s ball go far, Cardinals go far.

The Cardinals are as close to their best selves as they have been all season long. Obviously they’ve played well, but they’re also now putting their best team on the field. Trade-deadline pickups J.A. Happ and Jon Lester stabilized the rotation -- and yes, I remember mocking the acquisitions. Journeyman reliever Luis Garcia bolstered a bullpen that had been worked very hard. Edmundo Sosa mostly took over at shortstop for Paul DeJong, providing much more OBP at a small defensive loss. Tyler O’Neill had his long-awaited breakout at the plate, finding a spot on my MVP ballot in the process. Even Jack Flaherty, who has had a lost season due to injuries, may be available in limited roles throughout this month.

The Dodgers, on the other hand, come in hobbled. Max Muncy suffered an elbow injury Sunday on a collision that will keep him out of tonight’s game at least, and could cost him the whole month. Muncy is a key piece for the Dodgers, balancing a lineup that can list to the right, providing a high OBP, and giving Dave Roberts a lot of intra-game flexibility. With the collapse of Cody Bellinger, Muncy’s role only grew in importance. His loss changes the Dodgers' lineup in a way that will be felt tonight against a good right-handed starter in Adam Wainwright. The Cardinals’ deep stable of right-handed relievers -- Garcia, Alex Reyes, Giovanny Gallegos, maybe even Flaherty -- becomes more effective in the absence of Muncy.

One interesting aspect of this game is the way both fan bases are terrified of their manager. Dave Roberts, who overall is one of the best managers in baseball, has often had his tactical shortcomings exposed in October. He has a high-effort roster, with platoons and a middling bullpen, and sometimes that catches up with him in the playoffs. Mike Shildt has traditionalist tendencies -- staying with his starter too long, mixing in smallball -- that hurt him as well.

If there’s a danger spot for the Cards tonight, it’s Wainwright facing the Dodgers the third time through the order. Forget his 2021 splits, which are excellent (.180/.229/.304). The third-time penalty is immutable, as Wainwright’s career illustrates: his batting average, OBP, and slugging allowed all rise with each pass through the order.

As an analyst, I’ve dreaded this matchup. The Dodgers have been a dominant team for nearly a decade now, but until last year hadn’t won a championship. We don’t handle teams like that well anymore, emphasizing the losses in October rather than the wins that preceded them. Winning the World Series last year tamped down the criticism, but should the Dodgers lose tonight -- hardly a notable event given the Cardinals' quality -- it would ramp up again. There is a segment of media and fans aching to attach an asterisk to the Dodgers’ 2020 championship, and a loss tonight would allow them to do so. I find myself rooting for the Dodgers not out of attachment to the team or any dislike of St. Louis, but just to avoid what will be six months of absolutely miserable coverage of the Dodgers.

The Cardinals can make that happen by hitting a couple of homers off Scherzer and not leaving Adam Wainwright in too long. It’s a simple formula on the page, a bit harder on the field.

Red Sox/Yankees

The Red Sox continued their surprising campaign with a 6-2 win over the Yankees last night, advancing to the AL Division Series against the Rays. There wasn’t much to the game -- the Red Sox hit a couple of early homers off Gerrit Cole, who had good velocity and bad control. The Yankees were appropriately aggressive against Nathan Eovaldi with nothing to show for it through five innings.

The key moment of the game came in the sixth. A solo homer by Anthony Rizzo and an infield single by Aaron Judge chased Eovaldi. Giancarlo Stanton greeted Ryan Brasier with a long fly ball off the Green Monster, his second of the night. Judge, perhaps hesitant to make a baserunning mistake, didn’t run hard to second, picked it up when he saw the ball hit the wall, and decelerated again as he headed towards third base, expecting this to be a long single. Phil Nevin, seeing the play behind Judge, waved the big man home. Judge was out by...actually, he just reached home now.

I’ve written here about how teams are too conservative sending runners given the likelihood that the next batter will strike out or pop out, given the high rates of those events in today’s game. Philosophically, I’m with the idea of making the defense make a play, because baseball is hard and making multiple good throws and a tag isn’t as simple as it looks sometimes.

With all that said, this was a bad send. The run wasn’t critical -- Judge was the second run in a 3-1 game. Nevin may have read the play correctly, but he didn’t read his baserunner, who had gotten no jump and who wasn’t running hard into third. The decision was incredibly costly, turning first-and-third and one out into a runner on second and two out. The Yankees would make eight straight outs after this play and get their final run on a solo homer by Stanton down 6-1 in the ninth.

The Red Sox were the better team last night, which is what matters in October. There’s a lot of garment-rending in the zip codes around me today, but the Yankees won 92 games in the toughest division in baseball with no center fielder. They need to fix some things, and that might be hard given the contracts in play, but the idea that a team that has the third-best record in baseball since 2018 -- under Aaron Boone -- has to start over is nonsense.


With last night’s win on the first five under, Newsletter picks are now 7-0, which mostly makes me want to apologize to Rotowire for the first three months of the season.

I don’t have a strong opinion on tonight’s game and will pass. Maybe the over 7.5 if you want the action, but it’s really a pass.

What I have today are some Division Series and futures calls. The Dodgers being the betting favorite from the wild-card slot is mathematically indefensible and should be creating some value elsewhere, but the books take so much juice from the futures markets that I still don’t like the numbers. The Rays at +650 to win the World Series, though, isn’t bad. They’d be +700 (7-1) if everyone was equal, and they are definitely a tick above the field. The only team clearly better than them is the Dodgers, and the Dodgers have to play the extra round and don’t have Muncy (or Clayton Kershaw). I can recommend that one.

I gave out the Brewers at 25-1 to win the NL and 44-1 to win the World Series in March, so I can’t get excited about their current short odds. Here’s hoping you’re holding a ticket.

The White Sox are underrated coming into the playoffs and undervalued as well, a posted underdog to the Astros. You’ll see in the series preview how high I am on them, so getting plus money for them to win their series has value to me. White Sox +110 for the series, and if you’re feeling frisky, +850 to sweep.