Tuesday, July 29, 2014

FOX Has Baseball? Who Knew!?

I did something today for the first time ever.  I watched baseball on Fox Sports 1.  Evidently Fox Sports 1 has been covering baseball all season, but you'd never know it.  And I'm not sure that's exactly what FOX wanted when they decided to do that.

FOX is in the first year of a new contract with Major League Baseball, and in that new contract they made some changes.  Last year, there was a FOX game every Saturday afternoon.  This year there isn't.  In fact, the only games that have actually been on FOX this year were the All-Star Game and those couple Saturday night games they have right before the break.  Since the All-Star break has come and gone, so has baseball on FOX.  If you blinked, you missed it.

Instead, the Saturday afternoon games have been on Fox Sports 1.  I think.  The reason I don't actually know is because those games aren't exclusive.  So, for example, the Yankees-Red Sox game at Fenway Park on Saturday afternoon will obviously be a national game.  That means it'll be on Fox Sports 1.  Except people in New York and New England won't watch it on Fox Sports 1.  That's because it's also on YES and NESN.  If given the choice, fans will watch their team's game on their team's network with their team's announcers over a national broadcast.  So, since fans will be given that choice, FOX is giving up millions of potential eyeballs because its coverage isn't exclusive.

That's an incredible mistake on FOX's part.  They're trying to build Fox Sports 1.  I get that.  But this isn't the way to do it.  So far, the only event Fox Sports 1 has had exclusively that people made it a point to watch was the Big East Men's Basketball Tournament.  Some playoff games will be on Fox Sports 1, too, so that'll obviously be a big draw, but I have a feeling for many people trying to find Fox Sports 1 to watch the baseball playoffs will be just like trying to find truTV to watch the NCAA Tournament.  And it'll be just as confusing, too.

My solution isn't for FOX to stop putting games on Fox Sports 1.  It's their network and their rights, so they can do whatever they want.  The better option, though, seems to be fairly obvious.  Make all of the games exclusive, whether they're on FOX or Fox Sports 1.  That's the only way you'll get people in the habit of watching Fox Sports 1.  And it won't seem so random when a game is on that way, either.

Take the Sunday night game.  While I'm not the biggest fan of the Sunday night game (mainly because when the Yankees play in it, I have nothing to do during the day, then at the end of the season, it's on at the same time as the Sunday night football game), I at least know that it's on ESPN every week.  The ESPN Sunday night game has become an accepted part of the baseball-watching routine.  But would you believe it's the only exclusive national telecast of any baseball game in a given week?

When FOX shows games on the broadcast network, they are in an exclusive window.  Since FOX games are regional, however many games FOX is showing (usually three) are the only ones allowed to start within that window.  Until they started with the Saturday night thing, they did 4:00, meaning that if you weren't on FOX, you had to start at 1, 7 or 10.

While I'm not sure, I think that's still the case, which could be why Yankees-Blue Jays was the only 1:00 game in the Majors last Saturday (which is wrong on so many levels).  But again, I don't know.  Because it just seems like a regular game when you can also watch it on your regular channel.  I will give FOX this, though.  They have Saturday doubleheaders on Fox Sports 1, and I think they've done away with splitting the broadcasts regionally.  But with two games, that obviously means other games are going on at the same time as the Fox Sports 1 games that are on the teams' local networks.

Maybe this soft launch strategy is only for this first year or two.  The rationale might be that since not everybody gets Fox Sports 1 yet, this way they can still see the game.  When Fox Sports 1 gets greater distribution, FOX might make the move back to its telecasts being exclusive, whether they're on the broadcast network or the cable network.  And maybe FOX will figure out that more people watch baseball than the other crap they've been showing on Saturdays and start showing baseball again.

In the early 90s, CBS had the MLB TV contract.  Except very few people knew it.  Because it seemed like the only things CBS was interested in showing were the All-Star Game and World Series, with an occasional regular season game mixed in.  FOX paid an awful lot to renew its contract with Major League Baseball, but in year 1 of the new deal, it more closely resembles the CBS coverage in the early 90s than their own coverage of recent years.  That shouldn't be the case.

What I'm saying probably sounds a little weird.  I'm not saying that I think there should be more national broadcasts or even that I'd prefer to watch them over a team broadcast (which obviously isn't the case).  What I'm saying is that I think FOX is missing an opportunity here.  The only exclusive games on Fox Sports 1 are on random Tuesday nights in July.  Not the Saturday afternoon games that are the bread-and-butter of the package.  It seems backwards.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Impact of 15 to 10

As I sit here watching the induction of this incredible class to the Baseball Hall of Fame, I can't help but think about the news that came out from the Hall of Fame yesterday.  Starting next year, candidates will only appear on the ballot for 10 years instead of 15.  With next year's class sure to be as star-studded as this year's (Randy Johnson, Pedro Martinez, John Smoltz) and other sure-fire guys (Ken Griffey Jr., Chipper Jones, Trevor Hoffman, Mariano Rivera, Derek Jeter) to follow shortly thereafter, five fewer years on the ballot is only going to make it that much harder for everybody else to get in.

At first glance, this seems to be a reaction (and possible solution) to the ballot overcrowding created by Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens and the rest of the Steroid Era players who otherwise would be deserving, but the writers have made it pretty clear they're not going to elect.  So, by cutting five years off of their eligibility, you're clearing Bonds, Clemens, etc., off the ballot sooner, thus theoretically opening up spots for their supporters to vote for someone else.

But, as much as knocking the Steroid Era guys off the ballot earlier will help ease some of the congestion, it also just became a lot harder for the Craig Biggios and Tim Raineses of the world to get into the Hall of Fame via the traditional method.  Biggo and Raines are what I consider the "borderline" guys.  They obviously have Hall of Fame credentials, but they're not as good as some others on the ballot who deserve to go in ahead of them.  Biggio ended up one vote shy of election this year and still has eight years to go, so he'll likely get inducted eventually, but Raines only has three years left.  He's simply going to run out of time.  If he had eight years instead of three, though, who knows?

While they might not seem that significant, those five years that Raines is losing certainly are.  They made the difference between being in the Hall of Fame and not being in the Hall of Fame for several recent inductees.  Bert Blyleven was elected in his 14th year in 2011.  Jim Rice got in on his 15th and final try in 2009.  Jack Morris was just knocked off the ballot after his 15 years expired this year.  His voting percentage went up every year from years 10-14 before it understandably went down this year (again, too many more deserving candidates ahead of him).

Of course, being dropped from the writers ballot five years earlier means a candidate moves on to the Veterans Committee five years earlier.  But as we've seen, it might actually be harder to get into the Hall of Fame via that route.  And with the current structure of the Veterans Committee, candidates are only considered once every three years, so they're now only eligible a maximum of twice in those five years (for example, Morris won't be considered again until 2016 for the following summer's induction, then in 2019, etc.).

Don Mattingly, Alan Trammell and Lee Smith are all between their 11th and 15th years on the ballot, so they'll stay on until they reach 15.  Those three will never be elected to the Hall of Fame, however.  But there are players who could've finally drummed up enough support over those final five years (Blyleven is a great example of someone whose supporters grew over time) that now have a much smaller window of time, which might not be enough depending on the other candidates in a given year.

I get the idea behind this, as well as the argument that some people make when they say "either you think the guy's a Hall of Famer or you don't."  While that's a fair viewpoint, it's not necessarily one I agree with.  Take this year (or next year or the year after that).  There are more than 10 guys that I would've voted for if I had a vote, and as a result of the 10-vote limit, some players who you otherwise would've voted for had to be left off. 

How many years they have left on the ballot shouldn't be a factor when it comes down to determining a player's Hall of Fame worthiness.  But it is for many voters.  And it does those voters a disservice as well.  Instead of having 15 years to think about a player's career, and maybe reconsider his credentials one way or the other, they'll have to rely on their snap judgments.  If they come around about a certain player, they'd better do it quick before he's gone.

To me, it seems like there was another solution.  It wouldn't have eliminated the ballot overcrowding that I'm sure is one of the reasons for the new eligibility term, but it would've helped ease some concerns about it.  Eliminating the 10-vote maximum.  That number seems incredibly arbitrary, and it doesn't seem necessary. 

On average, only one or two guys gets into the Hall of Fame each year.  Increasing the number of candidates the voters can choose wouldn't change that.  And even if that average did go up to three or four, so what?  If those players deserve it, they deserve it.  Sometimes there are fewer than 10 players on the ballot that do.  And sometimes there are more than 10, leaving voters trying to figure out who to knock off.  I say, if there are 15 guys on the ballot that somebody wants to vote for, let him vote for all 15.  You're not going to get 75 percent of more than 500 people to agree on more than two or three players anyway.

Election to the Baseball Hall of Fame is the highest honor a player can receive.  It's the top 1 percent of the 1 percent of the population that's had the privilege of playing that great game for a living.  It's already hard enough to receive that honor.  Why make it harder?

Friday, July 25, 2014

Fumble, Goodell

A lot has been said since Roger Goodell announced yesterday that Ravens running back Ray Rice will be suspended for the first two games of the season.  The reaction has been overwhelmingly negative.  While I don't want to jump on the commissioner-bashing bandwagon (I do that plenty for plenty of other reasons), I've gotta admit I agree with the critics.  Goodell dropped the ball on this one.  Two games was way too lenient.

To recap, Rice was arrested in February after a physical altercation with his fiancĂ©e at an Atlantic City casino.  There's even video of the incident.  He knocked her unconscious and dragged her out of an elevator!

This was clearly grounds for Rice to be suspended under Goodell's favorite thing in the world, the personal conduct policy.  The personal conduct policy gives Goodell the power to suspend players even if they haven't been charged or convicted of a crime (keep in mind, Rice was charged here).  And evidently domestic violence is only serious enough to warrant a two-game ban.

From the start, the arguments against the personal conduct policy have been Goodell's selective enforcement of it and the arbitrariness of the suspensions.  Case in point, Ben Roethlisberger was accused of sexual assault in the summer of 2010.  Despite the fact that criminal charges were never pressed, Roethlisberger was suspended for six games, reduced to four on appeal.  So, to recap, Ben Roethlisberger is accused of sexual assault and gets six games.  Ray Rice is charged with domestic violence and only gets two games.  In other words, the one who actually committed a crime was suspended for four fewer games.  Something doesn't add up here.

Sure, Richie Incognito was suspended for the rest of the season when the stuff about him and Jonathan Martin came out last year, but it was the Dolphins that suspended Incognito, not Goodell.  And have we heard a thing about possible discipline for Colts owner Jim Irsay?  Irsay is facing charges for DUI, possession and a myriad of other things stemming from his arrest in March.  He's facing four FELONY counts, yet the Commissioner hasn't said "Boo" about that situation.  Why is this man technically around to be around the NFL right now?

Maybe Goodell is hesitant to drop the hammer after he went overboard on Bountygate, but that shouldn't be an excuse.  Back when the personal conduct policy was first introduced, it seemed like Goodell was suspending guys for arbitrary amounts of time based on whim.  That shouldn't have been the case then, and it shouldn't be the case now.  Because it sends the wrong message.  Especially when the NFL is making such an effort to appeal to women.  (Even going beyond that, how many women work in the NFL or other NFL-related professions?  What message are you sending them by handing out slap on the wrist punishments?)

Sadly, this suspension simply falls in line with the NFL's recent reaction (or lack thereof) to domestic violence issues across the league.  Rice is the most high-profile player to be involved in one of these cases, the number of which is simply staggering.  Yet the NFL does nothing about what is quickly becoming the league's most serious off-field issue.  What's it going to take for Goodell to finally take a stand?  Does it need to be somebody who isn't on Goodell's fantasy team?

The biggest joke of this entire situation is that the NFL acts like it does care about domestic violence issues.  It's one of the topics discussed at the rookie symposium, where they go over the personal conduct policy.  There are also plenty of former players who talk about their experiences on the subject, and there are education events and fundraisers at which players and coaches participate.  Educate all you want.  Does it actually make a difference when the league office is turning a collective blind eye when these issues happen in real life?

It's even gotten to the point where college teams are becoming stricter than the NFL.  How many guys has the University of Texas kicked off the team since the new coach took over?  Obviously there are individual team rules that come into play with college programs, but it still says something that college teams are becoming more no-nonsense than the NFL.

Perhaps there's an obvious solution here.  When a player violates the NFL's substance abuse policy, he gets an automatic four-game suspension.  No questions asked, no appeals.  Everyone is fine with that.  Maybe it should be the same for violating the personal conduct policy.  Four games, with the option to make it more for more serious offenses.  Don't leave it up to some vague interpretation of the rules determined only by Goodell.  If the personal conduct policy was more clear cut and less arbitrary, there would be less wiggle-room for Goodell and there would be less argument from all sides when suspensions were announced.

Something needs to be done.  Because the NFL has a problem on its hands with these domestic violence issues.  A message needs to be sent that this type of behavior towards women is unacceptable.  And, unfortunately, suspending Ray Rice for two games didn't send that message.

Monday, July 21, 2014

The Raiders' Best Move? Back to LA

Marcus Allen made some noise today when he said that the answer to the Raiders' ongoing stadium saga might be a return to Los Angeles.  While the Davis family has made no mention of it and, as far as anyone knows, this is simply an idea that Allen is floating around, it makes a lot of sense.  After all, they've already left Oakland for LA once.  And the NFL desperately wants a team in the second-largest media market in the U.S., so you'd figure the league office would be much more on board than they were in 1982.

One of the primary reasons the Raiders went back to the Bay Area after their 14-year sojourn south is because Al Davis wanted to build a new stadium in LA and the NFL wouldn't let him.  So, he convinced officials in the City of Oakland to renovate the Coliseum (and turn it into the crappiest venue in two leagues) with the promise of returning the Raiders to Oakland.  But now, the Oakland Coliseum is an even bigger hole (and not the "Black" kind) than it was 20 years ago.

The Oakland Coliseum is the only stadium shared by an NFL and an MLB team.  Except both the A's and the Raiders aren't happy, and they're both looking to leave.  The A's repeatedly tried to get approval for a new stadium in San Jose before they finally gave up and agreed to a 10-year lease to stay at the Coliseum.  So with the A's locked in, it looks like the Oakland Coliseum isn't going anywhere.  And that's bad news for the Raiders.  Because Mark Davis, Al's son and the current owner's, grand idea was for the Raiders to be the anchor tenant in a new stadium built on the Coliseum grounds (which would've been feasible if the Giants hadn't prevented the A's from getting their new stadium in San Jose).  With that plan out the window, the Raiders are back to the same problem: they're stuck in a crappy stadium and looking for a way out.

Roger Goodell offered one solution.  He suggested that the Raiders share the 49ers' new Levi's Stadium, much like the Giants and Jets share MetLife Stadium.  But the Raiders have no interest in that plan.  The Raiders hate the 49ers, and Mark Davis refuses to be their tenants.  In Al Davis's eyes, there were the Raiders and there was everybody else.  And Al Davis would be rolling over in his grave to see his Raiders sharing their stadium with another football team, let alone the 49ers!

So, outside of moving across the Bay to San Francisco (which will never happen) or to one of the Oakland suburbs, there's only one logical place for the Raiders to move and get their stadium.  Los Angeles.  And this time, there wouldn't be any resistance to such a move.

It's no secret that the NFL wants to return to Los Angeles.  There used to be two teams there.  There hasn't been any since 1995.  When the Texans came into the league seven years later, LA was actually the first choice for the expansion franchise, but they couldn't come up with an acceptable stadium deal and picked Houston instead.  Ever since then, the talk has been about how to get back in LA.  An expansion franchise wouldn't make sense, nor is it on the NFL's agenda, so the only way for LA to get a new team would be for someone to move.  And the only team that would be acceptable in that area is the Raiders.  It's a win-win scenario.

As for the stadium, that wouldn't be a problem.  In fact, there are at least two proposed stadiums ready to be built.  They just need a team to play there, then the construction can start.  During their time in Southern California, the Raiders played at the LA Coliseum.  That's probably not a long-term option now.  But is it conceivable that the Raiders could return to the LA Coliseum for a year or two before Farmers Field (or another hypothetical stadium) is completed?  Absolutely!

Moving the Raiders back would give the NFL the LA team it so badly wants.  It would also help if that team were the Raiders.  Because they owned the town during the 1980s, and this time they'd be the only show in town (well, them and USC, which has been LA's de facto NFL team for 20 years).  Plus, they've already got the fan base from their previous stay in the area (if there are any worries about fans coming back, they can ask the Winnipeg Jets).  Then there's the potential financial windfall and plethora of sponsorship opportunities that would come with playing the nation's second-largest city!  (And you know NBC would love the celebrity sightings at Sunday night games!)

From a football perspective, a change of scenery might be exactly what the Raiders need, too.  What used to be one of the NFL's most consistently successful franchises has turned itself into a laughingstock.  The Raiders haven't been relevant since they made the Super Bowl 15 years ago, and it doesn't look like they're going to be competitive in the AFC West again this season. 

But a move back to LA would get people talking about them for a good reason once again.  And who knows, maybe it would galvanize a once-proud team that has been languishing for way too long.  After all, it worked once before.  The Raiders moved to LA in 1982 and won the Super Bowl in 1983. 

Whether that can/will happen again remains to be seen, but just think of the possibilities of a revived Los Angeles Raiders.

Sunday, July 20, 2014

The Olympic TV Network

After years of the idea being floated around, it looks like an Olympic TV network is going to happen.  It's one of the big priorities of IOC President Thomas Bach, and he appears to have enough support within the Olympic community to get it done.  The TV network is just one of a number of reforms Bach would like to see, all of which are for the good of the Games.

One of the primary reasons the IOC wants to create an Olympic TV channel would be to promote Olympic sports in the years between Games.  And this is the No. 1 reason why this channel is a good idea.  How many sports do people only care about during the Olympics?  Let me rephrase that, how many Olympic sports do people watch other than during the Olympics?  (It's like how people only watch soccer during the World Cup.)  With a few exceptions, Olympic sports receive very little exposure outside of the Games themselves. 

Things have gotten better with the growth of 24-hour all-sports channels, but even with the existence of these channels, there are the sports that are seen on TV very infrequently, if at all.  Perhaps an Olympic TV channel would show World Championships, Olympic qualifying tournaments and other major events in some of these sports.  They also want to engage young people, and maybe by increasing the exposure of these non-marquee sports, it might encourage them to take up a sport they otherwise might not have.

I'm intrigued by the possibility of an Olympic channel for other reasons, though.  There's obviously plenty of Olympic history.  They could show documentaries and highlights, as well as news and magazine shows about all things Olympic.  Maybe even they'd rebroadcast old Olympic coverage!  Those interested would even get a chance to watch things like bid presentations and host city announcements live on TV instead of just online.  And the Youth Olympics could finally have a home after struggling to find broadcast partners in a number of countries.  There are so many possibilities it's intriguing, and they wouldn't be hard-pressed for programming, which is the problem most start-up TV networks run into.

While there would obviously be a lot of kinks to work out, Bach envisions an Olympic network as a sort of collaboration between National Olympic Committees, sports federations, broadcasters and sponsors.  He even cited the National Geographic Channel as an example, where the IOC would basically serve as a moderator and be the developer of online content.  (Although you can't help but wonder what role the various broadcasters might be willing to have, especially with the amount they pay for Olympic rights, and what an Olympic channel might show during the Games themselves, when these rights-holders would undoubtedly want their exclusivity to continue, and rightfully so.)

The ultimate goal of an Olympic TV channel is to expand the Olympic brand, which is one of Bach's top priorities.  And while I'm not sure about the possibilities of this channel in the U.S., it's definitely something that's worth a shot.  Besides, this would be a worldwide Olympic channel, and that's the reason why I think it would ultimately work.  But they've got to find the right model, which could be somewhat of a challenge.  Because Olympic fans in the U.S. and Olympic fans in Europe are very different from Olympic fans in China.

Another item on the docket for Olympic Agenda 2020 (the name for Bach's reform program) concerns the sports program.  More specifically, adding flexibility to the sports program.  Under previous President Jacques Rogge, the IOC capped the number of competitors (10,500) and sports (28) at the Summer Games.  Since that maximum number of sports had already been reached, the only way for a new sport to get into the Olympics would be at the expense of another.  That's why wresting was dropped and reinstated last year.

Bach isn't sure limiting the number of sports on the Olympic program is the answer.  He thinks there's a way to add sports to the program while maintaining the 10,500-athlete limit, which is important towards controlling costs for the host cities.  His proposal is to look at each sport and reexamine the events within each that are currently in the Olympics.  By eliminating certain disciplines within existing sports (for example, do we need 200-meter and 1000-meter races in flatwater canoe/kayak?) or reducing the number of entries in certain events (fewer weight classes in the combat sports?), that opens up the possibility of adding new sports, even if it brings the total over 28, keeping the program fresh and relevant without dramatically increasing the cost to host cities.

Speaking of controlling costs for host cities, Bach is very troubled by the lack of bids for the 2022 Winter Games.  Cities were scared off by Sochi's $51 million price tag, as well as how much it costs just to put together a bid.  It costs millions just to try and get the Olympics, then millions more if you win.  Cities and countries understandably don't want to shell out that amount of money when there's potentially no reward.

They haven't been too detailed on what kind of changes to the bid process might be in store, perhaps because they haven't figured out what they would be yet themselves.  But I have no doubt the Olympic bid process is going to change.  Starting with the 2024 cycle, the bid process is going to be much more streamlined and much more cost-effective.  The hope is that will make hosting the Olympics attractive once again.  There are plenty of long-term benefits to hosting the Olympics, but those can definitely be tough to see 10 years out.

It hasn't even been a year yet, and Thomas Bach has already left his mark on the Olympic Movement during his Presidency.  These proposals will be voted on by the full IOC membership after the Executive Board meets in October, but I already like everything I'm hearing about each one.

Friday, July 18, 2014

Second Half Baseball Predictions

It was an eventful, and surprising, first half of the baseball season.  I don't think anybody expected Oakland to be THIS good, and most predictions had the Brewers at the bottom of the NL Central, not the top.  Then there's the Royals, the Mariners, the Orioles and the Blue Jays, four teams in the thick of the American League playoff race that very few thought would be.  (I'm also not sure many people expected the Rangers to be this bad.)

With so many teams that are still "in the race," or at least think they are, the second half is certainly going to be fun.  Some of these races will go right down to the wire, while somebody's going to get hot and make a run.  The trade deadline is also going to be a big factor.  Who's going to make the right moves that get them into the postseason?

AL East: The Orioles are in first place, which is a little surprising because of Baltimore's pitching and the fact that they haven't had Matt Wieters for most of the season.  The Blue Jays were leading the way for most of the year until hitting a bump in the road over the past couple weeks, but I still like Toronto's talent.  They need to weather these DL stints by Edwin Encarnacion and Adam Lind, and they need to find other ways to score besides the home run (which is the reason for their problems), but I fully expect the Blue Jays to be involved in this thing for the duration.  Then there's the Yankees.  Inconsistent to say the least, but only five games out in what's turned out to be a weak division this year.  They obviously need to address the starting pitching situation and need to actually score in more than one inning per game to stay in it.  The AL East is very winnable this year, though, and you know the Yankees are going to be one of the more aggressive teams at the deadline.  They're not out of it by any means.  This will probably be a three-team race going forward.

AL Central: This is usually the point in the season where the Tigers begin to assert themselves.  Everyone knows that Detroit's the best team in this division, and they already have a 6.5-game lead over the surprising Royals.  The Tigers are simply too good and too deep for anyone else to legitimately think about anything other than a wild card.  It'll take a pretty major collapse or a historic stretch for somebody to catch them.  The Royals and Indians will have to fight each other for second place, because at least one wild card is coming out of the West.  Kansas City's a little better in my opinion, but the Royals haven't been in this position before, so I'm not sure they'll be able to sustain it.  They might be like last year's Pirates, though, so clueless about what's going on that it'll actually be a good thing.  Cleveland's not as good as they were last year.  I don't see the Indians keeping pace.

AL West: When Oakland traded for Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, they did it with October in mind.  They won't admit it, but they were thinking about the Tigers and those back-to-back five-game Division Series losses.  Well, the good news for the A's is that they probably won't play Detroit in the Division Series this year.  However, if they finish with the best record, which I think they will, that means they get the winner of the Wild Card Game.  And that could easily be the rival Angels.  Anaheim's the best team in the wild card mix, so I fully expect them to host the Wild Card Game.  In fact, they might be the second-best team in the American League, which exposes the only flaw of the current playoff system.  Barring anything unforeseen, the Angels will be in the playoffs.  Seattle, though, I'm not sure about.  The Mariners are finally good for the first time in Felix Hernandez's career.  Can they keep it going?  Seattle's the most interesting team in this race.  Because I think they can, but I'm not sure they will.  And if we do see all three AL West teams in the playoffs, that'll make things even more interesting...because they're probably the only ones that can beat each other.

NL East: As most expected, this is shaping up to be a two-team race between the Braves and the Nationals.  They're tied for first and the second wild card right now, and it wouldn't be a stretch to say we might see both of them in October.  As for which one will win the division, though, I like the Nationals.  The differences between these two teams are very minimal.  I just think the Washington rotation and starting eight are just a tick better.  The Braves will miss Evan Gattis, and their starting staff simply isn't as deep as Washington's.  The one advantage Atlanta has is that superior bullpen.  Much like the AL West, the bottom teams in the NL East are nowhere near as good as the top two.  However, the Mets, Marlins and Phillies might have a say in who wins the division.  One of them is going to beat one or the other enough to influence the race.  The question is: will it also cost Atlanta or Washington a shot at a wild card?

NL Central: Without a doubt, the Brewers were the most surprising team of the first half.  Milwaukee's been in first place pretty much all season, but can they hold off the three teams that made the playoffs last season?  My pick in the NL Central is still the Cardinals.  They're annoyingly good.  No matter what, they seem to end up in the playoffs every year.  And they've probably already started their run.  St. Louis is only a game back...with Cincinnati only a half-game behind them.  And the Pirates are still involved, too, just 3.5 behind Milwaukee.  Pittsburgh finally got over the .500 hump last season, and they might again this year, but I don't think they'll get back to the playoffs.  They'll need to overtake at least two teams in the division, as well as somebody from another, to earn a wild card, and I just don't see it happening.  I'm not sure I see Cincinnati making the postseason for a third straight year, either.  The Reds will be in the thick of things and might even pass the Brewers, but they're not going to pass the Cardinals, and with the Giants/Dodgers loser all but guaranteed to host the Wild Card Game, there's only one wild card available.  Then again, the Brewers have surprised me all year, so I half expect them to end up holding off St. Louis and winning the division after all.

NL West: Everybody's preseason pick to win the National League pennant, the Los Angeles Dodgers, is once again playing like the team to beat.  The Dodgers have unfinished business after losing the NLCS last season, and they've been looking towards October for a while.  There aren't three teams better than the Dodgers that can knock them out of the playoffs.  Except winning the division isn't a total guarantee yet.  That's because the Giants have been nearly as good, if not just as good, all season.  And I don't see that changing.  The Dodgers are better, so they should win the division by a game or two, but San Francisco's not going anywhere.  The Giants are going to join them in October (after all, it's San Francisco's turn in the cycle to represent the NL in the World Series).  What I'm anxious to see possibly happen would be these two meeting in the Division Series, which can happen if the Giants win the Wild Card Game and the Dodgers have the best record.  With that pitching, San Francisco could easily knock off their archrivals in the postseason.

Playoff Teams:
AL-Athletics (West), Tigers (Central), Blue Jays (East), Angels (Wild Card 1), Orioles (Wild Card 2)
NL-Dodgers (West), Nationals (East), Cardinals (Central), Giants (Wild Card 1), Braves (Wild Card 2)

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

MLB Midseason Awards

Now that we've moved past the All-Star Game, it's time to start thinking about the second half of the baseball season.  Thanks to the second wild card, so many teams are still in contention, which is going to make the trade deadline very interesting.  And those pennant/playoff races are probably going to go a long way in determining who ends up winning the major awards in November.  But who'd win those awards if they were given out right now?  As usual, there are plenty of options.

AL Manager: Bob Melvin, Athletics-The A's are good.  Everybody knows that.  Generally when a team that's good is doing well, it doesn't surprise anybody and the manager doesn't really get that much credit.  But I doubt anyone thought Oakland would be THIS good.  Yet Bob Melvin has taken his band of misfits and guided them to the best record in Baseball.  They had six All-Stars (seven if you count Samardzija), but don't have any superstars.  Yet they're the favorites to represent the American League in the World Series.  He won this award two years ago, and if the second half of the season goes the same way as the first half, he'll win it again.

NL Manager: Ron Roenicke, Brewers-Who thought the Brewers were going to end up fighting the Cubs for last place this year?  Probably a whole lot more than thought they'd be in first place all season.  They haven't just been in first place pretty much all year, they've had the best record in the National League for a good majority of the year, as well.  While the Brewers are going to need a second half nearly as ridiculous as their first half to hold off the Cardinals and Reds, if they do, Ron Roenicke will be an easy choice for NL Manager of the Year.

AL Rookie: Jose Abreu, White Sox-This went from tough to really easy, back to tough, back to really easy.  Abreu and Masahiro Tanaka both took the Majors by storm when they came on the scene in April.  Then Abreu got hurt and Tanaka continued dominating the American League.  Abreu came back, Tanaka proved that he's like us mere mortals, and suddenly it became a toss-up again.  But now that Tanaka is out for six weeks (and hopefully no longer), Abreu gets the edge in the AL Rookie of the Year race.  The fact that he leads the Majors in homers and ranks third in the AL in RBIs helps, too.

NL Rookie: Billy Hamilton, Reds-While the decision in the AL is tough because Abreu and Tanaka have been simply dominant, the choice in the NL is hard because there are so few candidates.  But the clear frontrunner is the Reds' dynamic center fielder, Billy Hamilton.  We've heard about him for a couple years, and he's certainly living up to the hype.  He's blowing away the NL rookie field in virtually every category, and his 38 stolen bases are third-most in the Majors.  Throw in six triples, 19 doubles and 38 RBIs and it's not even close.

AL Cy Young: Felix Hernandez, Mariners-Up until two weeks ago, Tanaka was looking at a potential Rookie of the Year/Cy Young double, which would've been unprecedented.  But the two rough starts in his last two games before he went on the DL knocked Tanaka out of the running (and the fact that he's out until September means he'll stay out of the running).  And just like the All-Star start then passed on to Felix Hernandez, so does the midseason Cy Young.  King Felix is putting up his typical awesome numbers.  In fact, he might even be better than normal this year.  Of course, there's one big difference, too.  The Mariners don't suck this year.

NL Cy Young: Clayton Kershaw, Dodgers-Just like there wasn't a wrong choice between Kershaw and Adam Wainwright as the All-Star starter, there isn't really much that separates them in the Cy Young race, either.  Wainwright leads the league in ERA...because Kershaw is 0.2 innings shy of qualifying.  Wainwright's got 12 wins.  Kershaw has 11 in five fewer starts.  But there are a couple other reasons why I'd give the nod to Kershaw, and not just because he's the best pitcher in the game.  The near-perfect no-hitter, the ridiculous scoreless inning streak, the 126 strikeouts, the .191 batting average against, the 0.83 WHIP.  And, most importantly, the Dodgers are in first place (with the best record in the National League).

AL MVP: Mike Trout, Angels-After back-to-back runner-up finishes to Miguel Cabrera, this might finally be the year Trout wins his first MVP.  There isn't really a need to spew out stats saying why Mike Trout is awesome, but I'll give it a shot anyway.  Second in the AL in slugging, second in on-base percentage, seventh in batting average, tied for third in RBIs, fourth in homers, tied for fourth in doubles, fifth in triples, second in runs scored, ninth in hits.  Yeah, he's pretty good.  And the Angels are actually playing the way the talent on their roster implies they should, so we might see Trout in October for the first time!  If he has a Trout-like second half, he'll have an AL MVP plaque to go with his All-Star MVP award.

NL MVP: Troy Tulowitzki, Rockies-I've seen a lot of different choices for NL midseason MVP, but mine is Troy Tulowitzki.  He's without a doubt the best player in the National League, and the team he plays for isn't very good, which has to make putting up the numbers he's put up that much harder.  Some of the non-Tulo people like to point to his Coors/non-Coors splits, but I ask, how much more bad would the Rockies be without him?  Yes, he's doing it in Colorado, but a .345 average (as well as league-leading on-base and slugging percentages) can't be overlooked.  Neither can 21 homers or 52 RBIs by a shortstop who has very little else around him.  Tulo wears No. 2 because of Derek Jeter.  In Jeter's final season, Tulo might get something Jeter never did...an MVP.

As it turns out, making these choices wasn't really that tough.  Some are open to debate, but I feel very comfortable that these eight have stood out the most in the first half of the season.  Of course, things, as always, are subject to change in the second half.  And with 17 teams within 3.5 games of a playoff berth, the second half is going to be mighty entertaining.