No one in baseball saw these teams coming. Then, the impossible happened.
Baseball’s clock is about to strike midnight.
September nears, which means October isn’t far behind. Time is running out. For teams hoping to join the chaos of this season’s October madness, moves have to be made –and soon. Nothing yet is set in stone of course. Last year, the collapse of the Red Sox and Braves, and the most exciting collection of game 162s of all time, proved to us that baseball loves its fairy tale endings. Anything, until the 27th out of the 162nd game, is possible.
No teams know that better than this year’s Cinderella stories: the Baltimore Orioles, Oakland Athletics, Pittsburgh Pirates, and Los Angeles Dodgers. Amidst baseball’s ugly stepsisters (the powerhouse teams with powerhouse salaries and powerhouse expectations), these teams rose from the shadows, and suddenly, seem poised to play beneath baseball’s brightest lights. If the season ended today, two of these teams would make the playoffs; two of them would finish within three games of the final Wild Card spot. In short, as of August 29th, what should have been impossible is very possible –these four teams might all go to baseball’s October dance.
And no one saw it coming.
Not the experts. Not the numbers. Not the shamans, the clairvoyants, or the tarot cards. No one. With performances that must have shaken the foundations of Las Vegas, these teams have, thus far, defied the odds. They are teams of destiny, of transformation, of cinematic sequels and shooting stars. And they represent stories that will forever define baseball in 2012; these are the stories that movies are made of. Four teams –four chances for the clock to strike midnight, and for seemingly impossible to play out before our eyes.
The Baltimore Orioles; 2011 Record: 69-93, Last in AL East
Before the season began, ESPN brought 50 of its baseball writers and analysts together and compiled their preseason predictions. These were the best baseball minds at the most prolific sports network in the world. They looked into their crystal baseballs, foresaw the future, and prognosticated as to which teams would win the divisions, the Wild Card spots, and the World Series.
Fifty writers and analysts were represented. Exactly zero of them picked the Baltimore Orioles.
And to be fair, they were hardly alone. Sports Illustrated had a similar set-up with eight of its baseball writers. Once again, zero predictions involved Baltimore making the playoffs.
Even the raw, emotionless numbers didn’t see this coming. At TeamRankings.com, they ran the preseason projections based on copious amounts of data and statistical analysis. Surely without human incredulity, the computers would provide some insight in what was to come, right? Wrong. The numbers projected the Orioles to finish 2012 with a record of 73-89, giving them a 6.9% chance to earn an AL Wild Card Spot.
That’s why they play the games. As of August 29th, the Orioles are 71-57, standing atop the AL Wild Card race. And they haven’t shown any sign of slowing down or collapsing beneath their impossible defiance of expectations. They’re 16-9 in August. And they’re baseball’s team of destiny.
By all accounts, this shouldn’t be happening. The Orioles’ run differential, which shows that they’ve given up more runs than they’ve scored, projects their record to be 60-68. They’ve won 11 more games than that. Their offense doesn’t rank in the top five (in the AL) in any positive statistical category other than home-runs. Their pitching doesn’t either, except for saves.
Their best position player (according to Wins above Replacement) is not your storied fairy-tale hero of the sport. JJ Hardy is a career .259 hitter, a one-time All-Star. His WAR is three full points beneath the MLB’s top ten (2.4 compared to Ryan Braun’s 5.4), and most of his WAR doesn’t even come at the plate –it comes from his excellent defense at shortstop.
Their best pitcher is perhaps even more improbable than being 14 games over .500 while scoring less runs than your opponents, or your best player on a contender being a pretty good shortstop. Wei-Yen Chen has the highest WAR amongst Orioles pitchers. If you’ve never heard of him, don’t despair; he’s new –very new. Chen is a rookie, just 26 years old. But if this season has taught us anything, it’s this: age is just a number. Chen, despite his inexperience, is 12-7, has a 3.78 ERA, and strikes out 7.5 batters per nine innings.
And he’s been one of the more consistent forces on this Cinderella team.
So how is this possible? How are the Orioles defeating the notions of run differential and the adages that winning teams require players with some star power? The answer is both simple and frustrating.
The Orioles simply know how to win. They are 24-6 in one-run games. They are 12-2 in extra innings. When it matters most, they come through –they get the strikeout, the base-hit, the walk-off smash. Statistical gurus will call it a streak of luck; baseball purists will call it clutch.
Whatever you call it, one thing is certain: this team has a flare for the dramatic. That might be scary when the clock strikes midnight. Sometimes, there’s no defense for destiny.
Oakland Athletics; 2011 Record: 74-88, 3rd in AL West
The producers of Moneyball, Brad Pitt, and author Michael Lewis better start studying this story. They may have a sequel on their hands.
Less than a year after the movie depicting Oakland’s improbable 2002 season earned a nomination for Best Picture, the players on the field are defying odds in a way that’s usually reserved for the movies.
This past preseason, the Athletics served as a punching bag for baseball experts and analysts. They’d just signed Bartolo Colon and Manny Ramirez, spent risky dollars on Yoenis Cespedes, and assembled a roster, otherwise, of no-names and young bloods. Everyone had already placed the Rangers and Angels in the playoffs, and no one had given the Athletics a chance. Of those 50 ESPN baseball minds, zero picked the Athletics to make a playoff run. The same goes for the eight writers at Sports Illustrated. And TeamRankings.com crunched the numbers and decided this Oakland team was destined to go 80-82 and had a 6.5% chance of making the Wild Card.
Those are the doubts that screenplays are made of. Those are the foes that these fairy tale heroes decided to overcome –against all possibility.
So how did they do it? If you’ve seen Moneyball, you might have a guess. While many of the MLB powers-that-be were chasing wins with spending sprees, free-agent signings, and collections of stars, the Athletics decided to, once again, win by playing the game of dollars and sense.
This isn’t a cavalcade of superstars. It’s a collection of guys. It’s a bunch of names you’ve never heard of, that together, pushed the name on their chest to the place atop the AL Wild Card standings.
It’s a team whose best position player (by WAR) is a guy named Josh Reddick – a 25 years old in his fourth season, posting 26 HR, 65 RBI, and 10 stolen bases while making $485,000. That’s over 20 million dollars less than Vernon Wells makes this season. Wells hasn’t had a 4.0 WAR since 2006.
It’s a team whose best pitcher (by WAR) is another young guy named Jarrod Parker. He’s a 23-year-old rookie with a 3.52 ERA and the lowest amount of home-runs allowed per nine innings among all AL starters. He, too, arrived in a trade, and apparently has a salary low enough that it’s not even reported. He’s a key cog in a staff of pitchers that accept their roles –a staff on which an inexplicable eighteen different players have earned at least one Win.
It’s a team seemingly compiled on the island of misfit toys, filled with youth and unfamiliar faces –hidden gems that other teams didn’t want or threw away without much second thought. And these gems don’t cost too much. Only thirteen players on the entire payroll make more than one million dollars in 2012 (the Boston Red Sox, even after the great salary dump, have 21 such players). Oakland’s highest player (Stephen Drew) would be the 11th highest player on the Yankees’ payroll.
It goes against everything we think we hate about baseball. We think money wins games. But it doesn’t –players win games. The Athletics aren’t buying their wins; they’re earning them. The team that shouldn’t be in this position is 28-14 since the All-Star Break –hot at the right time. They are 22-15 against the AL East –beating the best. They are 9-3 in extra-inning games –not shrinking in small moments.
It’s Moneyball 2.0. But this time, the focus has changed. It’s still about low cost, high value. But this team, unlike 2002’s unlikely heroes, isn’t built on offensive runs and on-base percentage. In fact, the Athletics are 13th in the American League in both of those categories. This team, instead, found an even simpler formula; pitch well, win games. The Athletics are 2nd in the AL in ERA, hits allowed, and runs allowed. They allow the fewest home runs of any team.
Basically, they save all the movie magic for themselves. They do it without the A-list players or the cast of familiar faces. They do it without the high-budget stars or the action sequences and fireworks. And they do it when no one sees it coming.
It’s like we’ve seen this movie before. This script has been written. And yet, we can’t wait to see how this one, this time, ends.
Pittsburgh Pirates; 2011 Record: 72-90, 4th in NL Central
It’s been two decades since the story has been told: a playoff team in Pittsburgh, a chance to get this football/hockey town something to cheer about on a late night in October. After a while, the words “this is the year” became as empty as the outfield seats.
So it is with great trepidation and whispers that the people of Pittsburgh say, perhaps 2012, this season, this time, this is the year. Perhaps this is the year that it happens.
It’s something that none of the experts were whispering when the year began. None of ESPN or Sports Illustrated’s baseball analysts predicted a Pirate playoff berth. TeamRankings.com saw them as a 73-89 team with a 5.1% chance of winning a Wild Card spot. Those are the predictions. In reality, they are only two games back from that 5.1%.
And while the script of the Oakland Athletics’ unlikely surge involves an ensemble performance, the Pittsburgh Pirate fairy tale definitely has a well-defined hero. His name is Andrew McCutchen –MVP candidate, offensive machine, and perhaps the single most important player to his team in all of baseball. His WAR of 5.9 is among the best in baseball, largely culminating from his gaudy offensive numbers of .345/.410/.568 with 24 HR, 79 RBI, and 15 stolen bases. He also leads the league in hits (164) and runs scored (90).
To put it nicely, McCutchen is, in many ways, Pittsburgh’s offense. After all, it’s an offense that ranks 10th in runs scored, 13th in hits, 15th in walks, and 16th in stolen bases of the 16 National League teams. But none of that is Andrew McCutchen’s fault. With his bat and his speed, he has either scored or driven in 31.5% of Pirate runs. He may be one-ninth of the lineup, but he’s one-third of the offensive production.
He’s the Cinderella story within a Cinderella story –the player that rose from nowhere, and when the options of the world may have soon been at his doorstep, opted to stay in Pittsburgh and help make two decades of misery disappear. This season, as he carries the team on his shoulders, he does so still in his old contract, making $500,000 for the best season these fans have seen since Barry Bonds wore the yellow and black.
But despite all of McCutchen’s heroics, he can’t do this alone. It’s the story of the year thus far, but if other faces don’t come forward, the hopes of ending the Pirate drought may be slipping away. The team has a losing record since the All-Star break and a losing record in ballparks away from home. Neither is good news for a potential Wild Card contender. And their tepid offense isn’t offset by superb pitching –they only rank in the NL’s top five in hits allowed; all other stats fall at 6th or worse.
As of this morning, two games in the Wild Card race stand between the Pittsburgh Pirates and a Cinderella story twenty years in the making. If their MVP and fairy tale hero can continue to wield his bat, and more improbable stars can come forward, those Pittsburgh whispers may turn into roars of “THIS IS THE YEAR!”
Los Angeles Dodgers; 2011 Record: 82-79, 3rd in NL West
The past week has seen much ink spilled in discussing the Los Angeles Dodgers, their win-now mentality, and the three giant contracts and names they just acquired from the Red Sox. I even analyzed the possibility that the mega-deal could have mega-ramifications for their team and the game of baseball.
But let’s not forget why this trade happened. The Dodgers are in a position to win. And they’re going for it.
Every Cinderella story needs a little magic. The Dodgers got a big magic –Magic Johnson, that is. And ever since, optimism has found its way into the organization.
It’s easy to forget, then, how hopeless it once seemed to be an LA Dodger. And the preseason prognostications spoke to that hopelessness. Only one of the eight Sports Illustrated writers gave them a chance at making the playoffs –and only five of the 50 ESPN baseball minds. TeamRankings.com only allowed them a 12.7% chance at winning a Wild Card slot.
Today, only 2.5 games separate them from truly rising from the ashes of the Frank McCourt bankruptcy era and bringing the Dodgers back to relevance. From the shadows of doubt, a successful season for Los Angeles’ other team is now very much possible.
That being said, this isn’t your typical Cinderella team.
It isn’t a team of no-names with no expectations. In fact, this team has its fair share of stars, including Matt Kemp, Clayton Kershaw, Adrian Gonzalez, Andre Ethier, and a resurgent Hanley Ramirez.
It isn’t a team of small-market funds and big-market dreams. The funds in LA are very much big-market, with the team now committing to pay nine players over $10 million in 2013. But the big-market dreams –those are very much alive.
No, this isn’t your typical Cinderella team. What makes the Dodgers a Cinderella team isn’t relative obscurity in rising from doubt, or because their story breaks the molds of what’s supposed to be possible in today’s baseball. The Dodgers are a Cinderella team because they have transformed –they’ve become one of the most beautiful girls at the ball in the span of a single season.
Consider this; just this season, the Los Angeles Dodgers have added the following players to their roster: Bobby Abreu, Josh Beckett, Joe Blanton, Adrian Gonzalez, Adam Kennedy, Brandon League, Nick Punto, Hanley Ramirez, Shane Victorino, and others. Carl Crawford is on the way. Simply put, this girl is no longer recognizable. But she may just be beautiful.
Baseball’s clock is about to strike midnight.
Teams are lining up to claim the crown. Only one can be bestowed. Only ten teams can even play for a chance. Only ten teams will make it to the dance.
Once upon a time, we thought we knew which teams would be there. We thought we knew which powerhouses would remain standing as the night grew late in October.
But that’s the thing about Cinderella stories –no one sees it coming. And yet, every time the movie plays, the shoe fits. The unlikely hero rises to the biggest stage.
The Dodgers, Pirates, Athletics, and Orioles hope that story can play out on the baseball field. They hope they can follow Cinderellas of the past, like last year’s Cardinals, who went from impossible, to Wild Card teams, to champions.
They hope that this is the year. They hope that the ring fits.