Posted by: Mike Cornelius | July 5, 2018

The Bronx Isn’t The Only Place Where The Future Is Now

For all the statistical information that is available to feed increasingly sophisticated computer algorithms, for all the years of experience watching the Great Game that leading analysts possess, the one absolute certainty of every season is that some of the predictions and forecasts made with such confidence in those first warming days of spring will be proven hopelessly and laughingly wrong by the time the furnace of summer heat is turned to high. Each trip through a calendar’s slow unwinding of the longest season brings its share of surprises. The 2018 campaign is past its halfway point for all thirty major league clubs, the All-Star break is rapidly approaching, and much of the country is under an excessive heat warning, so clearly, it’s time to acknowledge that a growing number of this year’s unexpected results are not mere aberrations, products of the small sample sizes of early season play. For better or worse, most of 2018’s surprises are for real.

The qualifying phrase of that last sentence cannot be ignored. Not all surprising performances bring joy to fans. The Minnesota Twins were one of last year’s pleasant surprises, rising from a 103-loss season in 2016 all the way to eighty-five wins and a spot in the Wild Card Game against the Yankees. Most predictions had the Twins roughly matching that showing this year. Instead Minnesota is thirteen games under .500 through Wednesday. That’s actually good enough for third place in the anemic AL Central Division but barring a dramatic turnaround there will be no return trip to the playoffs for this year’s edition of the Twins. Similarly, the Washington Nationals were touted as once again the toast of the NL East. Instead the Nats have sunk below .500 thanks to their current five-game losing streak and are in danger of losing touch with Atlanta and Philadelphia, the two franchises ahead of them in the standings. Washington has certainly had its share of injuries, but the Nationals have also been saddled by one of the most disappointing individual performances of 2018, that of Bryce Harper and his career low batting average and WAR rating.

Then there are the pleasant surprises. Topping that list has been the showing of one of the franchises Washington is looking up at. Through its first eighty-five contests Atlanta is a solid thirteen games over .500, a pace that will produce a ninety-three-win campaign if the team can maintain it over the next three months.

A potential division title and perhaps even the best record in the National League were not exactly top of mind for most Atlanta fans when their team broke training camp and headed north from Disney World. After dominating its division for a decade and a half, Atlanta fell into a period of mediocrity starting in 2006. Finally, adhering to the approach popularized by the Cubs and Astros, the two most recent World Series champions, management decided to gut the team and rebuild from scratch with young prospects. That meant four straight seasons of really bad baseball to close Turner Field and open SunTrust Park, including more than ninety losses in each of the last three. As unappealing as the major league product was during those years, the Atlanta front office was busy building up the team’s minor league affiliates, so that by this spring Atlanta’s farm system was the consensus pick as the best in the Great Game.

Still the expectation was that it would be another year or two before all those promising kids would be ready to make major contributions to the big-league club’s win total. This spring Baseball Prospectus projected improvement over last year’s 72-90 record, but only by a half-dozen games. The 78-84 computer forecast was right in line with the human predictions on a popular Atlanta fan blog, where only one of the ten writers dared to forecast a season finish right at .500, 81-81. Instead Atlanta won each of its first three series and the team hasn’t looked back since.

The computer models at Baseball Prospectus don’t like being proved wrong. The algorithms worship at the altar of sabermetrics, and so the frequently revised forecasts always predict a reversion to the mean for performances that are out of line either way. Thus, BP expects that the Nats’ Harper will improve his average over the balance of the season, and in similar fashion, that Atlanta as a team will cool off. But even with that bias, the BP forecast now gives Atlanta a 53% chance of making the playoffs, up from just 11% on Opening Day.

That was the team facing the Yankees in the Bronx over the Independence Day holiday and seeing two of the three games was like watching mirror image franchises on the field. Like their counterparts in Atlanta, general manager Brian Cashman and the Yankees front office rebuilt the team, trading off or releasing a core of aging veterans and bringing in the next pinstriped generation. Given expectations in the Bronx, Cashman didn’t have the luxury of a few years of last place finishes, instead having to complete the roster makeover on the fly. As improbable as accomplishing that task seemed, the rabbit was pulled out of the hat last year, when New York came within one game of the World Series at the end of what most analysts believed would be a down year.

This season the Yankees have returned to their familiar role as a World Series favorite, going back and forth with Houston and Boston for the best record in baseball, and Atlanta has taken the role of unexpected interloper. But what was clear on Tuesday night and Wednesday afternoon, as the home squad prevailed in two taut contests, was that these two teams, who met twice in the World Series in the ‘90s, should be vying to meet again for years to come.

On Tuesday Atlanta started six batters and a starting pitcher under the age of 30. New York went one better with its starting pitcher and seven batters in that age group. On the holiday Atlanta matched that lineup, while the Yankees settled for just seven young batters, entrusting the starter’s role to 37-year-old veteran CC Sabathia.

While the final scores of the games, 8-5 and 6-2, suggest they weren’t that close, in fact each could have gone either way. Tuesday night Atlanta rallied to within a run after falling behind 6-0, before a late Giancarlo Stanton home run added some insurance for New York. The next afternoon Atlanta threatened throughout the game, but Sabathia and the Yankee bullpen had just enough to prevail.

The defining statistic of the series shows the offensive strength of both franchises. Including Monday night’s game, won by Atlanta in 11 innings, the visitors put a runner on base in 23 of 29 innings. As impressive as that is, the home team did even better, establishing a base runner in 24 of 27 frames. And this was against very solid pitching that ranks second (New York) and seventh (Atlanta) in the majors in batting average against. Both team’s young hitters have learned to judge the strike zone and keep an at-bat alive by fouling off unwelcome offerings. The pitch count of the games was 12% higher than this year’s major league average.

Keep an at-bat going, make a hurler throw enough pitches, keep putting men on base, and sooner or later good things will happen. That’s a simple way to win often, and both these teams know it. By the time we Yankee fans headed off to see the fireworks over the East River, we felt not so much like we’d won a series as we’d survived it. Well played Atlanta, see you in October?

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