Sunday, October 19, 2014

2014 World Series preview

By Rick Morris

[NOTE: 4-4 record through the playoffs.]

So now the 2014 postseason has come down to Team Bret Saberhagen vs. Bret Saberhagen’s old team.  Like the hero of the 1985 postseason, San Francisco has this every-other-year deal down pat, seeking their third world championship since 2010.  In their way: the Kansas City Royals, making their first appearance in the postseason since their 1985 world championship!

While the national media is never going to be in a hurry to accord dynasty status to a team other than the Yankees or Red Sox, the Giants certainly qualify at this point, the first slam-dunk candidate since the turn-of-the-century Yankees.  As such, it’s fitting that in the year that Derek Jeter retires, Madison Bumgarner and Buster Posey each are making a claim for the torch to be passed to them – with both having helped to put the Giants over the top for the first time in this run as rookies in 2010.  Past FDH Lounge guest Jayson Stark makes a good case for Posey here, but he also noted that in a postseason that has been unkind to legitimate aces, Bumgarner has stood alone.  John Schlegel of notes that the two are in rare company in any event.

These two, along with Bruce Bochy – who is staking a claim as one of the game’s greatest managers ever – exemplify this San Francisco team that, like the Yankees of about 15 years ago, is built every bit as much on cohesion as eye-popping talent, if not more so.  The team has yet to make a deep run in a year when they were a legitimate big October favorite.  Recall how the likes of the Angels, Tigers, Nationals and Dodgers were dominating attention coming into this postseason and none of them even made it as far as the League Championship Series.

In fact, the Giants’ perceived vulnerability – with 88 regular season wins, they actually notched one less than the Royals (in a very weak division, no less), meaning that for the first time since 2006 the world champion will have won less than 90 before the postseason – undermines the theme of Dynasty vs. Destiny that so many media hacks are going to try to force on this series (David Schoenfield of ESPN even goes so far as to argue that this is a historically below-par matchup in terms of regular-season accomplishments).  This entire playoff run seems destined to go down as an anomaly, since baseball instituted the wild-card game in 2012 to disincentive making the postseason without winning a division and instead, for the only time ever except 2002 (which also included the Giants, then with the Angels), the World Series matches two wild card clubs.  Given that Garrett Richards’ season-ending injury further depleted an unusually thin AL playoff roster in terms of legitimate aces and that many NL aces weren’t as effective as hoped in October (looking your way, Dodgers and Cardinals!), having teams with lesser records slip through even with the burden of the extra winner-take-all game before the LDS round is more understandable – especially since, as noted above, Bumgarner has been the one real ace who has meant anything at all in this month.

This is also an instance of two teams having faced off in the regular season, which is not an every-year occurrence by any stretch of the imagination.  The Royals swept the Giants in Kansas City from August 8-10, most notably overcoming one of Bumgarner’s four complete-game efforts this season.  As they are now, the Royals were hot then; the Giants, not so much, so the games may not have much to tell us.

San Francisco was by far a pitching-first team in 2010 and 2012, and while we’ve previously noted that this year’s staff is not as good as its predecessors, but the hitting punch is superior, it’s still jarring to see that Kansas City (facing the DH all year, keep in mind), was almost equal to the Giants in ERA, 3.51, to 3.50.  There are few other pitching numbers that indicate a break one way or another, but San Francisco’s edge in KO/9, 7.5-7.2, reflects what you would think, that the Royals have more pitch-to-contact hurlers.

Of course, this does not include the back end of the bullpen, one of the greatest 1-2-3 combos in the history of the game.  Kelvin Herrera, Wade Davis and Greg Holland are arguably the three best Royals and they form an incredible wall of defense – to match the actual, possibly-best-in-the-game-defense – of late-inning leads.  San Francisco’s bullpen is nothing to sneeze at, but it does not inspire nearly the same amount of trepidation.

Kansas City’s defense is fueled mostly by speed (with the rest due to positioning resulting from an incredible application of hit-location metrics), which invariably leads to talk about their MLB-leading 153 stolen bases being the flip side of being a squad of slappies that brought up the rear in baseball with 95 home runs.  But Jonah Keri’s excellent piece at Grantland was right on the money; Point #2 of this column cites baseball guru Ron Shandler’s saying “Once you display a skill, you own it.”  A lineup that should have Alex Gordon, Mike Moustakas, Eric Hosmer and Billy Butler at its core (the phrase “should have” is used deliberately, since Ned Yost has been known to scatter them through the lineup as though they were shot out of a glitter cannon)  should not be worse than the lower part of the MLB bell curve in power, regardless of how many slappies surround them.  Had anyone told you three or four years ago that the Royals would be in the World Series, you’d have assumed that most or all of them would have become MVP candidates and only Gordon is even close right now.  The Royals were last in baseball in home runs because their power sources collectively underachieved horrifically and, given the opportunity to play more than 162 games, they have progressed to the mean.  Their continued success depends on the continuation of this trend.

After facing Detroit in 2012 and Texas in 2010 in the World Series, the Giants (who mashed 132 taters in the regular season) are in the unusual position of ranking as outsluggers instead of outsluggees.  A good chunk of the power came from massive Mike Morse in the first half of the season, but regression and injury have not been kind to him since.  And not that any two players can serve as a complete microcosm for purposes of team comparison, but it’s safe to say that Brandon Crawford’s 10 home runs represent San Francisco’s overachievement just as much as Billy Butler’s paltry nine home runs represent Kansas City’s underachievement. 

Both ballparks emphasize pitching and defense, indicating that there will be less difference than usual between AL-hosted and NL-hosted games this year.  However, as is generally the case, the Royals will be hurt by the lack of DH in San Francisco (either Hosmer or Butler must sit, further depressing the potential power supply available) more than the Giants benefit from tossing in one of their bench players as designated hitter in Kansas City.  Fortunately for KC, they have home field advantage, however, which lessens their plight somewhat.

In terms of less measurable aspects of the game, the consensus is that the Giants possess a great edge in the dugout with Bochy over Yost and that makes great sense.  However, as strange as many of his moves have seemed, Yost has had the golden touch this postseason and certainly deserves much credit for his role in Kansas City’s defensive alignments.  And seeing Yost add Bochy’s pelt to the wall would seem much less strange as the culmination of a crazy-hot run that previously saw Mike Scioscia and Buck Showalter victimized.

Not to be underestimated is the frustration factor that the Royals bring to the fore, a major reason that we picked them to get past Baltimore after deploying it on the Angels.  They are a very irritating squad to oppose, with so many hits that should fall in against them but don’t and so many extra bases obtained in ways that most teams cannot.  But, like the Yankees to which they were compared above, these Giants do not wilt mentally in ways that the Royals can exploit.  They have already beaten a much better team on paper (Washington) and a postseason-hardened team of comparable skill and tough-mindedness (St. Louis).  Compared to the recent postseason pedigree of the teams that Kansas City has beaten in the playoffs already, San Francisco does not seem vulnerable to letting the Royals get in their heads, even though the regular-season experience was pretty brutal.

Because of the number of strange factors brought to the World Series by these two unlikely participants, this feels like one of the hardest ones to forecast in many years.  The Giants dropped a game to both Washington and St. Louis, while the Royals have been perfect all the way through.  Facing the likes of Madison Bumgarner in Game 1 (and likely Game 5) will present them with a challenge the likes of which they haven’t seen this October, and whenever they do lose a game (which seems incredibly likely to happen at least once), unlike the Giants, they’ll have to confront how they deal with it for the first time.  Additionally, with Kansas City’s style pretty much unprecedented among World Series winners unless you go way back (probably to the 1980s?), there is a question in terms of sample size.  They have played only eight games this October and you have to think that the more they play, the more that their style will be exposed as beatable.  The prime question there is whether an additional 4-7 games will expand the sample size sufficiently for the Royals to regress to the mean in time.  The sense is that it very well may.  While you’d have to like Kansas City’s odds against almost any other team in the game right now, the grizzled, been-there, seen-that Giants may be immune to Royal Fever.  With questions remaining about the shoulder of ace-in-the-making Yordano Ventura and potentially some heroics from Tim Hudson (making his World Series debut at long last), look for the Giants to avoid the Royals’ late-inning trap enough times to become the first National League team in 68 years (the Cardinals were world champions in 1942, 1944 and 1946) to win their third World Series in five years.  Pick: San Francisco in 6.

2014 World Series notes/oddities

By Rick Morris

^ San Francisco’s return to the World Series for the third time in five years highlights perhaps baseball’s most-durable-yet-least-talked-about trend: having a handful of teams dominating pennants in one decade, followed by many different teams going to the Fall Classic in the next.  Rinse, lather, repeat.  Let’s go back to the early decades of the game: in the 1910s, nine teams made it to the World Series, followed by exactly nine again in the 1920s and then eight in the 1930s.  That’s a pretty consistent run.  But from there, 10 teams made it in the 1940s, down to seven in the 1950s (!), up to 11 in the 1960s, down to eight in the 1970s, up to 14 in the 1980s, down to 10 in the 1990s (albeit with one fewer World Series thanks to the strike of 1994, but that would not have made a difference), up to 14 in the 2000s.  Due to San Francisco nabbing three pennants this decade and two apiece for St. Louis and Texas, there have been only six teams thus far to win the pennant as we are halfway through the 2010s.  In order for this decade to feature more pennant winners than the last, it would take nine different teams in the World Series in the next five years – with none of the previous league champions from this decade represented, of course – which is a rare occurrence.  There were nine pennant winners in five years from 2005-09, 1984-88 and 1944-48, in decades remembered for much more parity than what we’re seeing now.  So you can lay money on the fact that the 2020s will see much more parity in terms of World Series representation than we’re seeing now and sportswriters will invariably freak out and proclaim a “new era of mediocrity” in baseball.

^ With their third pennant in half a decade, San Francisco is in some rarified air historically.  Before the hammerlocks that the Braves (five pennants from 1991-99, with the World Series strike year wiping out the 1994 postseason) and the Yankees (six pennants from 1996-2003) put on Fall Classic appearances around the turn of the century, you’d have to go back to the As of 1988-90 (three straight appearances), the Yankees of 1976-81 (four appearances in six years), the Dodgers of 1977-81 (three appearances in five years), the As of 1972-74 (three straight appearances) and the Orioles of 1966-71 (four appearances in six years) in the entire League Championship Series era.  But the Giants need to look across the Bay to find the only one of these teams to win all of these pennants in a short span and convert on all of them, the aforementioned Oakland team of 1972-74 that was the first team since the 1949-53 Yankees to win more than two consecutive World Series (although the 1998-2000 Yankees accomplished the same feat in the midst of their run).

^ This run has cemented the Giants, once again, atop the historical National League standings, with 23 pennants all-time.  They are part of a triad that has a collective hammerlock on the titles with 59 combined, the Dodgers with 21 and the Cardinals with 19 (the Braves have 17, but have only been in this rarified air relatively recently, having obtained theirs disproportionately in the 1990s with five).  Of course, had St. Louis won the 2012 and 2014 NLCS, there would be a three-way tie at #1 with 19.  The Dodgers actually had the lead for a long time, as the last of their 21 pennants came in 1988.  At that time, the Giants had 18 and the Cardinals had 15.  Prior to the “Bay Area Earthquake World Series” of 1989, San Francisco had been through its longest-ever pennant drought of 27 years, allowing their then-leading total of 18 to get surpassed, as the Dodgers went from 13 to 21 league titles in that span.  But based on their dominance in the earliest years of baseball, the Giants took the lead in pennants won from the White Stockings and Beaneaters franchises in 1913 with 7 and held on in first place until the Dodgers tied them with 18 in 1977 and pulled ahead the following year.  San Francisco’s resurgence atop the historical standings with three pennants in the last five years merely restores the franchise’s run on top from 1913-76. [NOTE: some of the pennants referenced above predate the establishment of the World Series.]

^ How does San Francisco’s 63 years of pennant dominance stand up to the franchise always held up as baseball’s gold standard, the New York Yankees?  Not too shabby.  The Yankees tied the Philadelphia As with nine pennants in 1937 and pulled ahead the following year, establishing a record that they still hold, 76 years later.

^ In terms of the top three NL franchises in World Series appearances, how have they fared against one another in the playoffs?  The Dodgers and Giants have never met in the postseason, aside from the 1951 “The Giants win the pennant!” tiebreaker.  The Cardinals lead the Dodgers, 2-1 in the NLDS, 2-0 in the NLCS and 4-1 overall.  The Giants lead the Cardinals 3-1 in the NLCS, after losing the first of their four matchups in 1987.  In terms of World Series titles between these three franchises, the Cardinals still fare the best, converting 11 of their 19 pennants successfully.  The Giants are 7-for-19, while the Dodgers are 6-for-18.

^ The Mount Rushmore of Modern Managing, Bobby Cox, Joe Torre, Tony LaRussa and Bruce Bochy, has been represented in 17 of the last 24 World Series now with Bochy’s fourth pennant.

^ There has still never been a World Series solely comprised of teams that were created following the 1961 expansion.  Of the last “old” (pre-1961 origins) vs. “new” (post-1961 origins) teams to meet in the Fall Classic, old has won the last five times (2011, 2010, 2008, 2007, 2005), so that’s an ominous mark for Kansas City.  The Giants are 1-1 in such World Series meetings, having dispatched the Rangers in 2010 and lost to the Angels in 2002.  The Royals are also 1-1 in such meetings, as both their unsuccessful 1980 run against Philadelphia and successful 1985 final against St. Louis met this criteria.

^ Given that both cities are still relatively “young” as major league sports markets – neither was really on the map until the early days of the second half of the last century – there is little connection between Kansas City and San Francisco historically leading into this World Series matchup.  The obvious main exception to this rule was their shared custody of arguably the best quarterback of all time, Joe Montana, as his fateful late-career injury with the 49ers led to a moderately successful coda with the Chiefs in the early 1990s.

^ Much has been made of Kansas City’s 29-year drought between World Series appearances.  They are, in fact, the first team to return after 29 years with no appearances in between.  Teams taking 29 years to return with appearances in between, however, are not rare.  It happened as recently as five years ago, when Philadelphia got back to the Series in 2009 after winning it all in 1980, with successful (2008) and unsuccessful (1983) appearances in between.  Counting that one, there are 14 instances of one team doing this, including the Red Sox (2004), Dodgers (1988), Yankees (1976), Red Sox (1975), Giants (1962), Yankees (1961), Yankees (1957), Yankees (1956), Yankees (1955), Yankees (1952), Yankees (1950), Dodgers (1949) and Cubs (1949).  Believe it or not, there are actually three instances of two teams staging a World Series rematch 29 years apart, albeit with each making other appearances in the interim: 1981 (Dodgers-Yankees), 1978 (Dodgers-Yankees) and 1951 (Giants-Yankees).  Ironically, it’s the latter World Series that’s been in the news over the past few days, as comparisons have been made between the aforementioned 1951 and 2014 “The Giants win the pennant!” home runs.

^ If the Royals win the World Series, they will be the 20th franchise to notch the accomplishment at least twice.

^ San Francisco now faces another team from Missouri after beating one in the NLCS.  The only other time that a team had to go through a team from the same state in both of the final rounds was 1981, when the Yankees beat the As in the ALCS and lost to the Dodgers in the World Series.  Kansas City also faces their second team from not just the same state in these playoffs, but the same market, as they dispatched the As in the wild card game.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Lounge on YouTube: 2014 Week 7 fantasy football preview

By Rick Morris
Here is Mini-Episode #479 of THE FDH LOUNGE, an edition of THE FANTASYDRAFTHELP.COM INSIDER, presenting Week 7 of our fantasy football coverage for 2014.





Lounge on YouTube: Mini-Episode #478 – 2014-15 NHL season preview

By Rick Morris                                          
As we referenced previously, our pals at Sportsology are hooking us up for live segments that we’re doing with guests and remote FDH Lounge Dignitaries these days.  We’re happy to report that we’ve been able to produce many segments on our own, but we’re thrilled for the help on some of these with guests and the thanks all go to our great friend Russ Cohen.
Mini-Episode #478 features a preview of the 2014-15 NHL season with FDH Lounge Dignitaries Steve Kallas and Keith Korneluk.