Posted by: Mike Cornelius | October 25, 2015

Then There Were Two

It began, many months ago, with a 93 mile per hour four seam fastball thrown by Jon Lester. The first pitch of the 2015 season was a called strike to the Cardinals’ Matt Carpenter from the pitcher who was the Cubs prized free agent signing of the offseason. Now, 2,460 games later, the Great Game comes to its annual climax. As few as four games may remain; at most there are seven. Those contests comprise the World Series, this year matching the Kansas City Royals and the New York Mets, the two franchises to emerge from baseball’s postseason tournament as representatives of their respective leagues to this year’s Fall Classic.

From one perspective the fact that the Series will alternate between western Missouri and Long Island comes as no surprise. Over the final two months of the season the Royals and Mets were two of the hottest teams in the Game. After the July 31st non-waiver trading deadline only two American League clubs posted better records than Kansas City, and New York mirrored that position in the NL’s overall standings during the same period. Both clubs vanquished the team with the best stretch record in their league during the LCS. The Royals ended the Blue Jays hopes in six games, while the Mets swept the Cubs, establishing once and for all that “Back to the Future II” was not a documentary.

But a longer view makes plain that a season in which Kansas City won 95 games and New York triumphed in 90 was decidedly unexpected. Back before Lester threw that season-opening pitch at Wrigley Field, as all thirty teams worked their way through Spring Training, hope and anticipation was alive among the fans of every franchise. That is the time of year when it falls to the pundits, be they full-time sportswriters or former players turned analysts, to leaven that unchecked optimism with a hearty dose of reality and in many cases skepticism.

The latter was dispensed in fair measure when it came to preseason analyses of both the Royals and the Mets, as illustrated by three websites. ESPN, Sports Illustrated and CBS Sports asked a cumulative total of twenty-one experts to predict the outcome of the 2015 pennant races. Just two members of those panels saw the Mets finding their way to the postseason, and in both cases only as a Wild Card. The Royals fared only slightly better, receiving the same number of Wild Card votes as well as twice being named the likely winner of the AL Central.

It wasn’t just these select panels that gave both Kansas City and New York short shrift. ESPN also polled a larger unnamed group of eighty-eight experts. Exactly three named the Royals as their choice to top the AL Central, while only one saw the Mets claiming the NL East title.

The fact that Kansas City made the playoffs for the first time in nearly three decades last season, and then took San Francisco to seven games in the World Series before falling to the Giants in general and Madison Bumgarner in particular, earned the Royals no respect in the 2015 forecasts. The Royals lost designated hitter Billy Butler and starter James Shields to free agency, and the experts were generally unimpressed with their replacements.

A team built around speed and batting average is an ideal fit for the cavernous spaces of Kauffman Stadium, but pundits are fans too. They love to see hitters driving balls into the seats just as we all do, and a team that made the playoffs while hitting the fewest home runs in the majors was looked upon as something of a fluke. The very fact that Kansas City had surprised virtually everyone by winning one of the two AL Wild Card spots last season may have had an impact on this year’s predictions as well. Even in the notoriously difficult business of predicting what will happen over the course of the longest season, no expert likes to wind up looking foolish. Rather than embrace the Royals it was easy for most to dismiss them while confidently predicting a return to sub-.500 baseball.

As for New York, one didn’t need to be an expert to appreciate the depth and talent of the Mets starting rotation. But no team ever won a game by a score of 0-0, and plenty of pundits voiced serious doubts about the team’s offense. Their questions were fueled by the lack of offseason announcements coming out of Citi Field. In need of an outfielder, New York signed Michael Cuddyer early, which only led to media questions about his defensive skills. After that, the Mets were mostly spectators for the rest of the winter.

That in turn led to renewed laments about the inability of a team in the biggest of markets to compete financially because of the losses suffered by the owners the Madoff Ponzi debacle. If all of that wasn’t sufficient to dismiss New York’s chances, there was the added fact that the team shares the NL East with the Washington Nationals, the overwhelmingly popular choice of the pundits to win this year’s World Series.

Yet as already noted, preseason predictions are more problematic in the Great Game than in any other sport. So much can happen over the season’s long months, from injuries to call ups to trades, that the team that an expert is analyzing in March may not resemble the squad that takes the field in August and September.

No one could know back then that the Nationals projected Opening Day lineup would play together in just a handful of games over the course of the season, as Washington went on to be the most disappointing franchise of 2015. Mets fans could hope, but couldn’t be certain, that pitcher Noah Syndergaard and catcher Travis d’Arnaud, acquired from Toronto in the trade for R.A. Dickey after the 2012 season, would fully come into their own. And of course New York’s bold trade deadline deal for Yoenis Cespedes couldn’t be factored into those preseason calculations.

It might have been easier last spring to see that Kansas City was not just a one year wonder. Teams play half their games in their home stadium. Building a roster with the strengths to win there is certainly not a bad idea. But what no one noticed while focusing on the Royals lack of power was that in 2014 they had the best road record in the American League. This season they ranked second, while improving their home mark.

So on Tuesday night the World Series begins. Not in Seattle or Anaheim, but in the heartland. After the opening pair in the AL city, the action will shift to Queens, not to Washington or Chavez Ravine. Within the next couple of weeks one fan base that has been long denied will celebrate with a parade. Perhaps it will be through the streets of downtown Kansas City. Maybe it will roll up the Canyon of Heroes on lower Broadway. While just one team’s fans will rejoice on that day, the faithful of every franchise should take heart. This year’s contestants in the Great Game’s final act may be unexpected; but that only reminds fans once again of the immutable and beautiful truth of sports.  There is always a reason why they actually play the games.

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Responses

  1. Mets and Royals match up pretty well. I can’t even begin to predict how this one will go. As a Mets fan, I haven’t been this excited about their chances since ’86.


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