The past few nights have been tremendous fun for baseball fans around the world. Obviously, the results did not go in the underdog’s favor, but several extra-inning games and a record 4/4 five-game division series make for tons of drama.
Just last season, fans would be amazed by the fact that the Washington Nationals, Baltimore Orioles and Oakland Athletics even made it to the playoffs, let alone pushed historical champions to the brink.1 Pre-2012, many would have considered the Cleveland Indians to be at least better than the latter two teams on that playoff exit list, but they faltered to an abysmal 68-94 finish.
Yes, all three of those surprising teams had their seasons end in the last couple days. But at least they made it to the October showdown. That’s something the Indians haven’t done since 2007 and the midges. So, despite annoying little insects, what do these three teams from meager backgrounds have that the Indians don’t? Well, three common trends are great leadership, great drafting and fantastic pitching. Let’s explore a bit more:
All-Stars: SS Ian Desmond (1st), OF Bryce Harper (1st), RHP Stephen Strasburg (1st), LHP Gio Gonzalez (2nd)
GM/Manager: Mike Rizzo (51) and Davey Johnson (69)
Storyline: Young team filled with top picks takes city, NL by storm; #Natitude
Over the past few years, no team in baseball has drafted better than the Washington Nationals. Sure, it helps to have two No. 1 picks that coincide with once-in-a-generation-esque talents in Harper (2010) and Strasburg (2009), but there are some other great homegrown talents on this team as well. Just in terms of top-3 round regulars, I could track down these names as well: Desmond (2004, 3rd round), Ryan Zimmerman (2005, 1st round), Ross Detwiler (2007, 1st round), Jordan Zimmermann (2007, 2nd round), Danny Espinoza (2008, 3rd round), Drew Storen (2009, 1st round).
That’s an awful good success rate in just the past eight years. Zimmerman was the first pick by the team after the move from Montreal and has been the unquestioned face of the franchise. Throw in a pair of great trades — for ace Gonzalez and eventual starting catcher Kurt Suzuki — and that leads to a 98-64 first-place finish in 2012.2 The Nats just happened to then run into the freight train that just happens to be the St. Louis Cardinals in October, but the sky is the limit for their future.
All-Stars: C Matt Wieters (2nd), OF Adam Jones (2nd), RHP Jim Johnson (1st)
GM/Manager: Dan Duquette (54) and Buck Showalter (56)
Storyline: Showalter leads ragtag team to playoffs with spectacular record in close games
Let’s take a look at these two incredible statistics: The Orioles led the AL with a 16-2 (.889) record in extra inning games and a 29-9 (.763) record in one-run games. At first, to the statistical mind, that screams flukey and unrepeatable. How on earth could a team possibly win 16 consecutive extra-inning games! Well, maybe it’s because of a bullpen that ranked fifth in baseball with a 3.00 ERA or a closer (Johnson) who set a franchise record with 51 saves.
Showalter, who became the team’s manager in July 2010, also has been credited as a source of the team’s late-game heroics. The veteran manager who had decently successful stints with the Diamondbacks and Yankees left a cushy job at ESPN to take over this long-time AL East doormat. But the team’s offense fluttered the stretch without injured slugger Nick Markakis, wasting their impressive pitching performances against the Yankees. I’m not as confident in the Orioles in returning to the postseason in 2013, but that’s more on the tough division than it is on their talent.
All-Star: RHP Ryan Cook (1st)
GM/Manager: Billy Beane (50) and Bob Melvin (50)
Storyline: A’s shock the AL West behind dominant young starting pitching
When speaking of difficult divisions, however, no one at all expected the A’s to be the last AL West team standing. The Rangers and Angels were the two high-profiled teams with major offseason transactions, while poor Oakland hadn’t been to the playoffs since 2006 and was just 26-35 on June 10. Billy Beane’s crew then went on a ridiculous 68-33 finish to win the division, led by a no-name cast of characters.3 Maybe they should make a movie about this comeback team, too.
An incredibly young starting rotation almost entirely acquired through trades/free agency — outside of 23-year-old A.J. Griffin — limited the fire power of their divisional opponents. Meanwhile, Yoenis Cespedes (.505 slugging) and Josh Reddick (32 homers) surprisingly slugged their way to near All-Star seasons in leading the mediocre offense. But Oakland couldn’t muster enough baserunners in the decisive Game 5 against Justin Verlander and the Tigers, but with the Houston Astros joining the AL West in 2013, there’s no reason why this team can’t compete for another wild card spot next season.
Looking these respective rosters, you see such young blooming talent on all three clubs. Whether it’s Harper/Strasburg, Wieters/Jones or Reddick/Jarrod Parker, all of these teams have under-25 stars that would be admired by any other team in baseball. The Indians just don’t have that type of firepower, whether acquired through impressive trades or scrupulous drafting. Jason Kipnis, Asdrubal Cabrera and Carlos Santana are good, don’t get me wrong, but they aren’t as dynamic or game-changing as these playoff contributors.
These teams all also have excellent pitching: Washington (2nd in MLB, 3.33 ERA), Oakland (6th, 3.48 ERA), Baltimore (14th, 3.90 ERA). The Indians posted a 4.78 ERA this season, good for 29th in baseball. And as I pointed out earlier, all three were led by excellent, deep bullpens — especially in Oakland and Baltimore. Outside of the trio of Perez-Pestano-Smith, Cleveland couldn’t hardly trust anyone with the ball after their below-average starters left the game.
But most importantly, when looking at the composition of these three playoff teams, you can really see what the Indians did poorly: Drafting and taking advantage of trades. Washington has easily been the best drafting team in baseball since 2005, Baltimore has developed its young talent perfectly leading up to the big leagues and Oakland sold off all its talent similar to Cleveland but recovered in no time. The right players make a huge difference, and there’s no reason the Indians couldn’t be in this position today if they had nailed down some of their recent major trades.
It’s going to likely be a while before we can discuss the Indians in the context of postseason baseball. Only Oakland had an incredibly short turnaround here in this list from doormat to playoff team, as Washington and Baltimore were on long-drawn postseason droughts. You’re going to have to give the Indians a few more years before any of their recent draft picks or new acquisitions could contribute to a major level toward a playoff run. And that’s a very, very sad sentence to write.
(AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
- Cincinnati doesn’t count as an underdog, they’ve been too good recently. Although as a fellow Ohio baseball fan, you have to feel for those fans — they are some diehards. [↩]
- It’s kind of funny to throw Suzuki in the same sentence as Gonzalez, one of the best pitchers in baseball. But that mid-season acquisition was huge in locking down the catcher position for the Nats, arguably their weakest spot on their roster. [↩]
- Let’s play a game. Before you read the next paragraph and after only seeing the name Ryan Cook above, how many players can you name off the Oakland A’s roster? You’re likely a trueblood baseball diehard if you can name more than three. And even that total might be a bit too generous for most folks. [↩]