Posted by: Mike Cornelius | September 14, 2017

A Tale Of Two Teams

It is the nature of sports fans everywhere to live in the moment. So in Cleveland there are faithful followers of the local baseball team already staking out their viewing locations for the championship parade; while out west in the City of Angels habitués of Chavez Ravine grimly gird themselves for the end of days. It’s a Dickensian moment for the Great Game, for as the English author wrote, “It was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.”

While baseball was already being referred to as our national pastime when Charles Dickens penned that line in 1859, any thought that he somehow foresaw the bipolar runs by two division leaders so many decades later is the progeny of a wild imagination. And for all the excitement and the dread that currently pervade Progressive Field and Dodger Stadium respectively, it’s entirely likely that the same can be said about the present mood of both sets of fans. For the whole scope of the longest season remains a far better barometer of playoff success than any partial snapshot, even one taken in the closing stages of the regular campaign.

As this is written Cleveland has run off 21 consecutive wins, setting an American League record for the longest winning streak with a 5-3 triumph over the Tigers on Wednesday. Cleveland actually trailed in that contest, a situation that hasn’t occurred all that often during a stretch in which Terry Francona’s team has dominated in every aspect of the game. But after Detroit took a 1-0 lead in the top of the 1st, Cleveland struck right back, plating three in the bottom of the opening frame on a home run by Jay Bruce. That quick response added to one of the many amazing statistics related to the streak. Cleveland has now led at the end of 185 of the 189 innings played since last losing.

Detroit managed to keep this one close, at one point creeping to within a run of the home team, before a 7th inning Roberto Perez solo shot padded the lead. For that the Tigers deserve at least a bit of acclaim. During the streak Cleveland has outscored the opposition 139-35, tallying ten or more runs in six games, while the pitching staff has completed seven shutouts. The +104 run differential is not just the largest over any 21-game stretch in franchise history; it’s the fourth highest margin over that many games in the history of the majors.

As Cleveland went into the American League record books, topping the 20-game streak of the 2002 Oakland A’s, forever commemorated in the book and subsequent movie “Moneyball,” the Los Angeles Dodgers were finally proving that contrary to the worst fears of their fans, they had not entirely forgotten how to win a game, or even two. Tuesday night Clayton Kershaw picked up his 17th win of the season by scattering eight hits over six innings of work as L.A. topped the Giants 5-3. One night later Yu Darvish was even better, allowing just three singles in seven innings as the Dodgers beat their archrivals 4-1.

The two victories were the first back-to-back wins by L.A. in nearly three weeks. In that awful interim, the Dodgers first dropped five straight, recorded a sole victory, and then lost eleven games in a row. They lost to good teams like the Diamondbacks and bad ones like the Padres. L.A. dropped five one-run games in that miserable stretch, while also getting blown out by scores of 8-1, 9-1, and 13-0. On August 25th the Dodgers were 91-36, on pace to threaten the single season win mark of 116 games. By the time Kershaw and Darvish stanched the bleeding this week, they were more concerned about losing home field advantage in the playoffs to the Nationals than going into the record books.

Be it because or despite their recent streaks, both Cleveland and Los Angeles are right where most analysts expected them to be as October approaches, namely comfortably on top of their divisions. Cleveland’s hot play has helped the team get there after a middling start, while L.A.’s tailspin hasn’t hurt their place in the standings all that much thanks to a torrid stretch earlier in the year. Back in deep winter, the initial computer projections by Baseball Prospectus had Cleveland atop the AL Central with 92 wins and L.A. leading the NL West with 98. With Cleveland 13 ½ games in front of Minnesota and the Dodgers 9 ½ up on the Diamondbacks, both teams are now given a 100% chance of winning their division title by Fangraphs. Both should finish with a few more wins than that initial computer projection made last February.

But does the recent play of either presage their postseason performance? Over at FiveThirtyEight.com, the sabermetric mavens have produced a detailed analysis that says every win counts more or less equally, whether it occurs in September or April. In other words, a team’s overall body of work is a better predictor than what happens in the final few weeks.

That’s confirmed by looking at last year’s postseason participants. While no team matched either Cleveland’s or L.A.’s extremes, the best of the bunch over the final month was Boston, with a record of 19-10. But the Red Sox were swept out of October by Cleveland in the ALDS. At the other extreme Toronto was the only playoff team to post a losing record over the final month, going 13-16. But the Blue Jays won the Wild Card play-in game and swept Texas in the ALDS, making it all the way to the ALCS before finally succumbing to Cleveland. And the last team standing was the franchise with the best overall body of work, the 103-wins in the regular season Chicago Cubs.

Recent history and statistical analysis aside, in the short series that make up the playoffs strong starting pitching has always been the true key to success. Dickens would surely note that these last weeks have been the best of times in Cleveland, the worst of times in L.A. But were he a fan he’d also know that once the playoffs begin it’s a whole new season, with Corey Kluber and Clayton Kershaw likely to be far more important to the fate of their franchises than anything that happens in September.

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Responses

  1. Excellent piece, but I’m not convinced that the majority of your readers have any idea who Dickens is, given the person they elected president.

    • Thanks Don. Extensive surveying indicates that my readers skew heavily toward the erudite and enlightened. You of course being a prime example!

      M-

      Michael Cornelius
      603.498.527
      http://www.onsportsandlife.com


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