I’m back with the Champion Series version of my power rankings – the Final Four. All four teams have played seven games in the playoffs (Cubs played the wildcard game, but they were also the only team to clinch in four games) so I will be using the performances in the past seven games to rank our remaining contenders for the World Series.
Before we get started, I wanted to discuss an item that has been in the news as much as Kyle Schwarber or Clayton Kershaw – Major League Baseball’s rulebook. As I was watching one of the fantastic playoff games we have been treated to, I began explaining the game of baseball to my two-week-old. Clearly this was in jest, but as I began my “Intro to Baseball”, I stalled as I thought to myself, where do you begin? Do you start with balls and strikes? With the pitcher-batter battle? With an explanation of fair and foul? While an explanation of the sport may be easier if the student is able to ask questions, I am still a year away from that situation.
The book of baseball rules would be lengthy enough just to explain the basics. This isn’t even beginning to broach the “unwritten” rulebook, but I don’t think my daughter is prepared to learn the neighborhood play or the “eye for an eye” treatment of beanballs just yet. The most fascinating part of the actual written rulebook is that after thirty-one years of watching the sport, I have still been discovering new chapters throughout this postseason.
I would have never even thought to explain the intricacies of the catcher returning the ball back to the pitcher, as it seems as basic as anything else in the sport. After Russell Martin’s throw back to the pitcher struck Shin-Soo Choo’s bat, I had the same reaction as the home plate umpire. I just assumed the ball was dead. According to some rumors, the Rangers may have known the rulebook better than the umpire. There are reports that manager Jeff Banister had his players practice this play. That seems hard to fathom, but the whole thing does seem very Belichickian. Clearly Odor was ready, but he could have just been very alert and was going off instinct.
The throw back to the pitcher doesn’t feel like part of the actual game. Of course, I have seen it accidentally thrown over the head of the pitcher, but that seems to clearly fault the catcher. I do not believe I have ever seen a throw strike the batter, or his bat – and if I had, it never resulted in a runner advancing bases. With the umpire calling the play dead immediately, I figured I was correct in my understanding – play is dead, act like nothing happened, move on. Once the announcers explained that the rulebook does indeed define this as a live ball, my reaction was “whoops, the umpire screwed up”. In football or basketball, the officials have whistles, and any novice player is taught and enforced by their coaches to “play until the whistle”. Not only is this a smart strategic move, but it’s also used for player safety. You play until the whistle, but you also stop as soon as you hear that whistle. Baseball is of course different from those sports, having no whistles or timers. A whistle isn’t necessary in baseball because for the most part, every players’ eyes are normally on one spot – the ball. If an umpire is calling a play dead, they can usually make themselves visual enough for all involved to see. This is why I believe the call was still incorrect; if we are to treat the umpire’s calls as final, when the play is called dead, it needs to go back to before the play started. However, the mantra of many of these plays state the now infamous, “up to the umpire’s discretion”. In a game of inches, where almost everything can be defined as “fair or foul”, why is there so much discretion still involved in the rulebook?
Umpire discretion is seen everywhere in the MLB rulebook. Heck, each strike zone in every single game is up to an umpire’s discretion (that is until we finally get robot umps, which I think will happen in my lifetime). The most common use of umpire discretion is probably on ground rule doubles. Since often, a runner on base is already moving as the ball is hit, an umpire can declare a runner would have made it to a third base, instead of the standard two bases for every runner that a ground rule double usually constitutes. This is another area where I just have to ask – Why? Wouldn’t it make more sense for a hashmark to be added to the base paths and if the runner is more than halfway, they get an extra base? When there is a clear, logical way to make these rules much easier to define, why does baseball not go the extra mile?
I can’t have a conversation about baseball’s rulebook without bringing up Chase Utley’s slide in Game 2 of the NLDS. I grew up understanding that a player running from first is allowed, and encouraged, to attempt to do all they can to prevent an infielder from turning a double play. However, never once was “to the extremes of breaking the shortstops leg” even a thought that entered my mind. The spirit of the strategic play is you bust your ass down the line and perform a normal slide. If this causes the fielder to have to adjust their throw, or jump over you (since he knows where a runner should be coming from) – great work, you’ve done your job as a teammate. The move was never, as explained to me, run as fast as you can at the infielder, no matter where he is, and Liu-Kang-flying-kick him in the shin. Why is this type of play even close to acceptable by the league? Its borderline assault – baseball isn’t exactly a contact sport, right? The only contact people my age ever grew up seeing was the play at the plate. This was a glorified play – we all remember the scene in Major League II. That play has been removed because it was deemed too violent. Too violent for a person wearing full pads and a mask – but it’s still ok to do this to an un-armored shortstop?
Ok, rant over. Let’s get on to some rankings. Writer’s disclaimer – I planned on getting this article out before the Championship Series began, but life got in the way. Now that I’m writing it two games into each series, I have to say my rankings have been flipped on its head. I think many of us anticipated a Cubs-Blue Jays World Series, but odds are against that right now. Do my rankings agree?
*The span reviewed was October 5-18. 25 games were played in the span; home teams went 13-12.*
- Toronto Blue Jays (3-4 in span reviewed; 3-2 vs Houston, 0-2 vs Kansas City)
No bat flips for the Blue Jays in their short stay in Kansas City. The best offense in the league during the regular season will return home tonight with hopes that home cooking will change their fortunes. The issue here is that they are two losses away from returning to their actual homes, and they are facing the Royals ace. The Blue Jays already had their ace pitch one game in the series and even though for six innings, he pitched like the ace that he is, the seventh inning he turned into a pumpkin. David Price’s postseason failures showed up again, even if it took a botched popup to start the Royals rally. One of the most telling stats is that the Blue Jays have left nine men on base in each game. They just have not gotten the big hit (yet?) in this series. They have hit 3/23 (.130) with runners in scoring position in clearly a small sample size but also only hit 10/45 (.222) in the series against the Rangers. No offense to the Rangers, but they are not the Royals and coming back from a 0-2 deficit will be much more difficult to do. (Tragic Number = 2)
- Chicago Cubs (4-3 in span reviewed; 1-0 vs Pittsburgh, 3-1 vs St. Louis, 0-2 vs New York Mets)
The Cubs are in almost the exact same boat as the Blue Jays. Lost the first two on the road, returning home, but also will have to go against their opponent’s ace in Game 3. The Cubs have ridden the gopher ball throughout the playoffs but either Mets pitching or cold weather has put a pause on the round trippers. The weather will be a little warmer this week and Wrigley Field has smaller dimensions than Citi Field. Right now, it seems like maybe that will be all the Cubs bats will need. They have not done a great job with manufacturing runs (outside the help they received from the Cardinals in Game 2 of the NLDS). They are 2/9 with runners in scoring position against the Mets thus far. With their top two starters in need of a rest, the offense will have to score to provide the cushion probably needed for what is sure to be two bullpen-aided games. (Tragic Number = 2)
- New York Mets (5-2 in span reviewed; 3-2 vs Los Angeles Dodgers, 2-0 vs Chicago Cubs)
The Mets only have 46 hits in the seven games I’m reviewing, which may seem a tad on the low side. When you factor that four of the seven games are against the three pitchers that are involved with perhaps the best Cy Young race ever, it becomes more acceptable. Then when you also add that they won three of those four games, you realize what the Mets have accomplished this postseason. The Mets are playing as good as anyone (except perhaps my number one team). If I have one nit to pick it’s possibly the overuse of closer Jeurys Familia. His velocity was down a bit Sunday night, but he does have an off day Monday, and perhaps won’t be needed with deGrom pitching Tuesday. The Mets will certainly sacrifice Familia’s health for a trip to the World Series, but could the other shoe drop? Sunday was a day that others out of the bullpen finally earned some trust, but Collins seems to only want Familia, for good reason, to get the 3, 4, 5, or 6 final outs of the game. (Tragic Number = 4)
- Kansas City Royals (5-2 in span reviewed; 3-2 vs Houston Astros, 2-0 vs Toronto)
This selection may get criticized but keep in mind I do these rankings with a “what have you done for me lately” emphasis. I have one big reason I am putting the Royals as my number one team – and it can all come crumbling down in a few hours. Johnny Cueto has me convinced he has turned the corner after a dominant performance in Game 5 of the ALDS. With the Royals rotation having a true ace, the rest of the starters all become a little better. While I think starting Chris Young in Game 4 is almost a sure loss (homerun derby for the Blue Jays?) going back to Edinson Volquez in Game 5 leaves me convinced that the Royals are still in control. While the pitching has been great, the hitting has been even more impressive. Ever since escaping Game 4 of the ALDS, when they were left for dead with six outs to go, the Royals have gotten hit-after-hit in big situations. They have gone a phenomenal 8/20 with runners in scoring position the last two games – more impressive when you consider they only had 16 hits. This may all be attributed to cluster luck, but they did very similar things last year. The Royals were perhaps 90 feet away from winning the World Series last year; I think they will get another chance in a few days.
CRACK of THE BAT of the Week
I came very close in going 3-for-3 in Kyle Schwarber for this segment. The Cubs have already done enough memorializing for Schwarber’s blast in Game 4 of the ALDS. Instead I’ll go with the best bat flip I’ve ever seen. Perhaps it will motivate the Jays bats to get going in The 6 this week.[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-UdsVO7HaJg]