By Ed Overend, Lead Baseball Writer
The All Star Break. The halfway mark in the six month slog of a regular baseball season. We all know it’s not really as every team has played more than 81 games, but it is the traditional point where clubs, fans and the media have a few days to reflect on what’s come to pass so far, good, bad, middling or downright bloody awful.
Just three and a bit months ago, most clubs set off with high hopes that this could indeed be their year. The extra wild card spots mean interest should be maintained much longer than was the case in years gone by. This is the era of parity after all, where those franchises that count every single penny seemingly have much more chance of challenging the big boys with their fat cheque books. Having wads of cash is just an opportunity to misuse it, overspending on the ageing veterans who are coming to the end of their days, rewarding players for what they have done rather than what they might provide moving forward. Or that’s what those without cash convince themselves, rightly or wrongly.
Sure, it would be lovely to ‘make it rain’ like those damn Yankees and Dodgers, but the Rays, the Athletics and the Pirates have all recently shown a bottom five payroll is not necessarily a hindrance as far as success is concerned. A well run club can compete in modern-day Major League Baseball. Or so we’re told.
And yet, looking at the standings, it’s mostly the behemoths that sit astride the divisions, the favourites, the expected. Other than the Royals, who lest we forget, got to the World Series last year, it’s the teams with the huge bank balances who lead. Even those surprising Astros, perhaps baseball’s best story of the first half, have limped into the break, losing their last six and ceding the AL West top spot to those city slickers from Anaheim.
Perhaps everyone can compete but the margin for error if you aren’t rolling in dollar bills is so much smaller. In order to win, nearly everything has to go to plan. The odd little thing here and there adds up to a crippling handicap, impossible to overcome.
So what are those little things? What derails the best laid plans? What signals the end of a club’s challenge?
Sometimes, of course, a season can be over before it’s even begun. The club won’t officially declare it thus but it’s obvious to anyone that here is a team in rebuild mode. They stand no chance. It’s a season to get over and done with, a year to shop around the few assets they have and pick up some prospects that might help down the line. The Phillies and Braves certainly fall into this category but not many others. Most of the thirty clubs will have had genuine hopes, realistic or otherwise.
Perhaps it’s the seasoned players that have not performed to expectations. This is to be expected to a certain extent. Not everyone can have a good season anyway but, if the ageing big bat in the heart of the order is the guy you’re banking in to drive an offense, doesn’t perform like he did five years ago, it can signal curtains.
Perhaps it’s the over reliance on unproven talent, on rookies or sophomores. By their very nature these guys are talented but anything but certainties. One half season of stellar production is by no means a bellwether of things to come, nor should it be. Nearly every major leaguer has difficulties and these seem to be exacerbated early on in a career for a youngster is still learning his trade, still has things to grasp, holes to iron out, pitches to refine and new ones to add to an incomplete arsenal.
Perhaps it’s an injury or two that has ruined the best laid plans. When you’re the Marlins the loss of Giancarlo Stanton is felt so much more than if you’re the Nationals and Anthony Rendon. It’s stands to reason that those with the money have more guys who can make a difference, more players who can take a club on their shoulders and carry the team for a couple of weeks. The same is true on the pitching side. A Tommy John surgery here, a strained oblique there and soon it’s a case of scouring the waiver wire for a guy deemed surplus to be the tenth starter on a deep club.
Maybe it’s a suspension. This is ultimately not the fault of a club but just as crippling.
Perhaps it’s a bullpen that hasn’t performed leading to lots of ‘unfortunate’ losses. Bullpens change as much as any part of a roster year to year. Great bullpens come together often by accident, fantastic for one season, only to regress the following year. However, if your method of building one is to find as many live arms as you can, throw them together and pray, the odds of it being ‘lock down’ are far less than if you can pencil in two or three known quantities for the end game.
A team might one having ‘one of those years.’ This year that club could be the Oakland Athletics. Oakland has a run differential of +44, 4th in the American League, and yet possess the AL’s worst win loss record. They ought to be much better and probably deserve to be. The A’s are also 8-22 in one run games so far. Some might point at the bullpen as a reason for this but I tend to think this is just bad luck, randomness. A couple of years ago, the Orioles had a historically great record in one run games, only to fall back to normality the next year. I refuse to believe this is a skill. Often things just happen that way.
Some may point to the reason for a team being bad as the manager. Certainly, the Marlins and the Phillies have relieved their guys already because they were losing. However, how much can an old codger sitting on his backside really effect a team’s fortunes? Maybe he can change one or two games a season with a decision here and there. Maybe. At the end of the day though it’s down to the players. Ned Yost is often ridiculed amongst the sabermetric community for his dumb moves and look where he and the Royals are. Move on.
The General Manager is certainly one place where blame can be placed. A ridiculous trade pushing unrealistically for a playoff spot that rids the club of its farm can put a club back years, just because the GM is looking out for himself, sacrificing the future. Prospects are the very things that small market franchises rely on. They need cheap guys at the beginning of their careers.
What about the malcontent in the clubhouse, a ‘cancer?’ Surely that makes it harder to win? Disagree. Baseball is an individual sport masquerading as a team one. Just because teammates can’t stand each other shouldn’t lead to losses. I’ll always take 25 Barry Bonds’ over a squad made up entirely of David Ecksteins. Talent wins out.
Last of all, maybe it’s that often disregarded and forgotten part of the game that is letting the side down, fielding. It’s easy to look at batting and pitching statistics and point to the problems there but fielding can often be just as crucial to the overall success or not of a team. It’s no surprise to see the Royals leading the way in this category this season just as its unsurprising to find the White Sox, Padres and Phillies down at the bottom. Fielding can make and does make a big difference.
We can all recognise some, if not all, of these instances. All teams suffer from them. No team breezes through 162 games without incident. It’s incredibly rare, for example, to only need to call upon five starters for an entire season. It’s never going to be the case that a manager can pencil in his lineup day-to-day without there being a niggle, a concussion, a loss of form, a family death or a birth. It just doesn’t happen. It’s just how a team copes when these things are thrown at them.
Sometimes you can get incredibly lucky. Everything goes right. The Seattle Mariners had just such a season back in 2001. No injuries, everyone played to the best of their ability, they got on a roll and win after win ensued. That team ended up with a ridiculous 116 win season but this is so much of an outlier as to not be at all realistic though.
Things go wrong. This is sport for goodness sake. They are bound to. It’s how a team responds to that godforsaken word ‘adversity.’
And this is where, the giants, the teams from the big markets, those who can flash that cash have such an enormous advantage over those that scrimp and save every cent.
The Dodgers might have been without Yasiel Puig for a big chunk of the first half but hey ho that just means they are ‘forced’ to wheel out Andre Ethier with his 6 year $96m contract. Stephen Strasburg might well have been missing from the Nationals rotation but that just meant a spot for Tanner Roark to follow-up his 2.85 ERA across 198 innings from last year.
The little guys can challenge. Yes they can. However, in order to do so, they require an awful lot to go their way, including down seasons from the preseason favourites. They need a largely healthy squad, performing up to and beyond expectations, with a few surprises thrown in. The behemoths are helped simply because of the anatomy of a baseball season, it’s nature as a survival of the fittest, the little guys handicapped by the nature of a six month slog.
Yes, when reflecting back on the first half, we can all point to where things have gone right, things have not and there will always be the unexpected and unexplained. But, as the standings tell us, more often than not it will be the haves, rather than the have-nots that will normally prevail.
The little guys just hope that this is not a normal year. It doesn’t look that way currently though.
Ed Overend is the lead baseball writer for Call to the Bullpen. You can find him on twitter @EdwardOverend, leave a comment in the section below or join in the conversation @CTBPodor on our Facebook Page.