The Fab Four

They were the best of teams. They were the worst of teams.

In a baseball season of improbable happenings, including records for home runs and strikeouts, it shouldn’t be a surprise that the Los Angeles Dodgers reached the extremities of good and bad in the same season.

Through 127 games, after which their record was 91-36, the Dodgers had won at least 13 of 14 games three times and led their division by 21 games. From June 7-August 6, they went 43-7, the best 50-game major league stretch in over 100 years. They won virtually all the time, nearly every day, and in virtually every way, including ten walk-offs.

With the deepest starting pitching in the majors, including four lefties, young megastars Corey Seager and Cody Bellinger anchoring a power-hitting infield, the best closer (Kenley Jansen), and shrewd manager Dave Roberts pulling the strings, the Dodgers became the favorites to win the World Series.

Then, for reasons unknown, the roof fell in. No one has the answer. There’s been no finger-pointing, no explanations offered. But from August 26- September 11 the Dodgers lost fifteen of sixteen games. In one of them, starter Rich Hill lost a no-hitter and the game in the 10th inning. The other losses were more conventional. Their bats ran cold, their middle relief sagged. They displayed deficiencies in left field and at second base. They batted only .249 as a team.

One hard core Bums advocate offered a reason for the slump: “Lack of pressure and fear of injuries made them complacent. I am scared about the playoffs if they play Arizona in the first round. Arizona has beaten them six straight times.”

The Dodgers rebounded from their disastrous run, and won eight of ten to finish the season, ending with a league-best 104 wins. But the streak is a stark reminder of their vulnerability, as they enter the strongest post-season pool since the wild-card format was instituted in 1995. Great teams don’t lose 15 of 16.

Rookie Cody Bellinger sparks the Dodgers

At different points in the season, other teams looked like the best team in the majors. Coming out of spring training, the World Series winning Chicago Cubs appeared prime to repeat. But after the first two months of the season, the surprise answer to the trick question “What’s the best team in baseball?” was the Houston Astros.

Just three years removed from four consecutive 100 loss seasons, the Astros bounded to a 29-12 start and a 10 game lead in the American League West by the middle of May. They accomplished the transformation with an ace number one starter (Dallas Keuchel), a diminutive 3-time batting champion, 5’6″ Jose Altuve, a successful youth movement (Carlos Correa, George Springer), and one of the most productive offenses in years.

The Astros strike out less and hit for more power than any other team. As well, they had more infield hits than any other team and more extra base hits. Their team batting average for the year was .282. Twelve Astros had ten or more homers. Lead off man Springer had 34 homers and 85 rbi’s. Their team total of 238 taters is second only to the Yankees 241, and the Bombers had Aaron Judge (52).

To shore up their starting pitching, which was mid-level, the Astros acquired former MVP and Cy Young winner Justin Verlander from Detroit just before the waiver deadline. He arrived in Houston the same day that the team returned home after Hurricane Harvey, and he proceeded to energize the city and pitch splendidly throughout September. He pairs with Keuchel to give the Astros a formidable one-two punch. One sobering note: Tyler Clippard is their set-up man.

At about the time the Astros leveled off, in mid-July, the Cleveland Indians finally began to resemble the team which made the World Series a year ago without several of its best players. Injured starters Danny Salazar and Carlos Carrasco were back, along with veteran hitter Michael Brantley, and the Tribe added slugger Edwin Encarnacion in free agency; but Cleveland stumbled out of the gate and settled in at a few games over .500. Through 93 games, they stood at 48-45, in a tight race for the Central Division lead.

Then they turned on the switch. They won nine of eleven to close out July and open up a sizable lead in the Central Division. They acquired slugger Jay Bruce from the Mets at the trade deadline, and he provided an immediate boost. Their pitching stabilized. On August 23rd, they began what some analysts have referred to as the most dominating stretch of baseball ever played.

Over the next 22 games games, all won by Cleveland, they hit more home runs than their opponents scored runs, led by Bruce and Encarnacion. They didn’t just win. They pulverized opponents. Their run differential over the streak was greater than their run differential for all of last season, when they won 94 games. During the streak, they pitched to an era under 2.00.

After the streak ended, they won 11 of their last 15 to finish the season with 102 wins, second to the Dodgers’ 104. Their win streak overlapped the Dodgers’ losing streak, but despite the Tribe gaining almost 20 games in the standings on the Dodgers over that 3-week period, LA still finished with the better season record and the tie breaker should the teams meet in the World Series.

Are the Indians the favorite to win the World Series? Yes, acccording to the odds-makers, who have them slightly favored over the Dodgers. In the post-season, good pitching dominates good hitting, and the Tribe pitching staff has the lowest era in baseball (3.34). Its bull pen is air tight featuring the resplendent middle reliever and set-up man Andrew Miller, who will pitch at any time for varying lengths. Manager Terry Francona can match wits with anybody.

Andrew Miller can be the difference maker for Cleveland

Cleveland faces tough hurdles in the ALDS with the suddenly tough Yankees and with Houston, which Cleveland would meet in the ALCS; but the team which poses the biggest obstacle to the Tribe ending its 69 year World Series drought is, it says here, the Washington Nationals, the last of the four number one seeds.

At no time did the Nats capture the national spotlight, like LA, Houston, and Cleveland. There were no glossy winning streaks and no crucial series. But they are poised to eliminate the aftertaste of three brutal first round exits in the past five years. Bryce Harper is back from injury, Trea Turner is an ascendant star at shortstop due for a breakout series, and the other infielders – Rendon, Murphy, and Zimmerman – are having career years. The pitching staff is healthy for once, and the remade bullpen has put up good numbers. Their depth is superb. They must beat Chicago in the first round, for the sake of the team and the town’s collective psyches, and they should beat the Dodgers (or Arizona) because they’re the better team.

But the Tribe is strong in the areas where the Nats have question marks – starting pitching depth, relief pitching, and a history of playoff success. Plus, they have the secret weapon – Andrew Miller.

The post-season is Miller Time. Cleveland in seven.


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One Response to “The Fab Four”

  1. Thanks Mike for the excellent review and perspective regarding all of the significant contenders heading into the playoffs. For the Nationals to slay their demons they must get past the Dodgers, and while it is hard to overestimate the impact of Clayton Kershaw, I worry when I recall my most searing memory of the 2016 NLDS: Kershaw entering Game 5 IN RELIEF two days after a 110-pitch outing, and breaking the Nats’ back.

    http://www.latimes.com/sports/dodgers/la-sp-dodgers-reconstruct-20171005-story.html

    Hopefully Dusty Baker won’t be out-managed this time.

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