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The slow demystification of defensive statistics

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PHOENIX, Ariz. — A couple of weeks ago, I dropped into the seventh annual SABR Analytics Conference, a three-day series of panel discussions and presentations that hint at new frontiers of baseball research. The range of topics was impressive, extending well beyond the realm of statistical analysis.

Interested in the role of neuroscience in player development? How about the success of the sports media in communicating analytical precepts? The SABR conference has you covered. But, of course, it was an analytics conference first and foremost, and the meat of the event was in its statistical presentations.

There were a lot of good ones, but the two that stuck with me were related to a topic near and dear to my heart: defense. My takeaways, in a nutshell: We’ve never had better tools with which to evaluate fielders. And we’ve still got a long way to go to making use of them.

This is an issue in every sport, and always has been. We’ve developed tried-and-true methods for tracking how teams score. But we’ve not been nearly as successful at tracking how they keep opponents from scoring. And when you think about it, the latter is just as important as the former.

Defensive statistics have long been the bugaboo of baseball analysis. The problem has always been that the things that were tracked — putouts, assists, errors, double plays, etc. — didn’t tell you much about whether a player is actually any good. The same held true at the team level.

Those old measures might have been fine in baseball’s early days, when teams averaged more than two errors per game. Now that figure is edging toward a half-error per game. It’s such a rare event that almost no one judges a fielder based on errors anymore. That’s progress. Unfortunately, there still isn’t currently a consensus on how to rate fielders.

I’ve leaned heavily on defensive runs saved (DRS), a metric developed by Baseball Info Solutions and one that is readily available on baseball-reference.com, fangraphs.com and TruMedia, which we rely on heavily at ESPN. It’s a good but imperfect system, a fact that BIS itself underscored with its presentation at the conference.

DRS measures how many plays a fielder makes compared to the average player at his position. Each ball hit into play is tracked and evaluated for its likelihood of being turned into an out. The number of plays a player makes is measured against the number of plays he would be expected to make based on average performance, resulting in a simple plus-minus measurement. Convert that number to runs, and you have DRS.

DRS does have a positive correlation from season to season. In other words, a player’s DRS from one season tells you something about what you can expect him to do the next season. Unfortunately, that correlation isn’t particularly high and is far less than that of, say, strikeout rate or isolated power. The juice of any metric is in its predictability. DRS has predictive value but not enough to do what you’d really like it to do, which is forecast the pecking order of teams defensively with the same degree of confidence that you might with hitting statistics.

To illustrate, let’s look at the DRS career of the game’s consensus best player. Straight from the 2018 Bill James Handbook, here are Mike Trout’s DRS totals by season:

2012: +19
2013: -11
2014: -12
2015: +5
2016: +6
2017: -6

This is all over the map. We might not dare expect perfection from a defensive metric, but we’d at least like to believe it’s capturing the relative defensive value of the game’s best player. For his career, Trout is plus-1. So is Trout really about a league-average fielder? His year-to-year numbers range from great to terrible, and I wouldn’t be willing to wager much on what that number will look like in 2018.

Let me emphasize this again: DRS is a fine metric. So, too, is UZR (ultimate zone rating), the play-by-play-based system developed by analyst Mitchel Lichtman, which is also available at FanGraphs. (UZR has Trout 6.5 runs above average for his career.) These tools are superior to anything that came before them. But they don’t get us to where we want to be.

BIS introduced its enhanced DRS system at the conference, which they are calling “PART.” That’s an acronym: (P)ositioning, (A)irballs, (R)ange, (T)hrowing. This new system is designed to break off each discrete defensive skill into its own bucket, then combine them back together at the end for a new version of DRS. It will utilize Statcast data for player positioning and do a much better job of evaluating the range of players in shift situations.

Sounds great, right? Well, I have some bad news, too. This new system is being marketed to teams but won’t, at first, be available publicly. On our side of things, we’ll get the same version of DRS that we’ve had the past few years. That in itself underscores a problem in covering baseball these days from an analytical perspective. That is, the best stuff is behind the curtain. Teams put their quantitative hives on new data sets to develop any sort of proprietary edge they can find. You can’t blame them for that, but it’s a tease.

That doesn’t mean that the rest of us won’t get some new toys this season. At the SABR conference, the brilliant folks from the Statcast wing at MLB.com put on an expanded version of a presentation that they gave us at ESPN headquarters last month. There is a lot of exciting stuff going on with all of that data captured by the motion-tracking cameras in every park. For me, the best of them are the new defensive tools.

First off, they’ve fixed the problem that Statcast had with “wall balls” — balls that on the charts looked routine because the system didn’t recognize that the fielder had a wall to contend with. That’s been rectified, and it should make for a more accurate set of catch probability statistics going forward.

Even better, the Statcast crew is close to unveiling its system for measuring performance on balls hit on the ground. In other words, this season we should have data on infield play that is as compelling as the data that Statcast has been generating for outfield play. Plus, Statcast is unveiling new tools for looking at catchers — pop times, throw times, etc. We’re getting very close to having a complete data set of how fielders perform on the field of play based on the careful tracking of every move they make.

As that “wall ball” dilemma showed, there are always unforeseen nuances that must be addressed later. One thing a questioner at the conference brought up was the “Manny” effect. How much does having a player with super range like Manny Machado impact the performance and positioning of the players that play next to him? Right now, we don’t know, but we suspect that it can’t hurt.

These new metrics continue their slow crawl toward maturity. The introduction of Statcast positioning data into the BIS system should be a boon and, hopefully, we’ll eventually get to see if it results in better year-to-year correlation of the DRS metric.

As for Statcast itself, we have to remember how new these tracking data are. We don’t have enough year-to-year data to know exactly what to do with all of it. What are the run values involved? How strongly does catch probability correlate from year to year? How does a shortstop’s defensive aging curve compare to that of, say, a center fielder? At a higher level, just how volatile is defensive performance as compared to hitting or pitching? My intuition is that it’s less volatile, though right now there is no way I can reliably prove that to be true.

When defensive statistics reach their full potential — whatever form that may take — it could have a tremendous effect on how we view the role of fielding in baseball. Maybe it’s more important than we ever thought. Or maybe the impact is marginal, as a certain level of acuity has to be achieved for a player to reach the big leagues in the first place. And when we know our current measures are in perfect working order, we can then go back and hone our old measures and answer questions that have bugged us for decades.

We’ll know that defensive metrics have reached maturation when they’ve achieved certain benchmarks of stability. Predictability is one — when we have a handle of year-to-year correlations and aging curves, and confidence in our actual measures of runs saved and runs cost, we’ll be able to do a much better job of forecasting the pecking order of teams from a defensive perspective. Another way we’ll be able to tell that defensive metrics have matured is when the various systems start to agree much more frequently than they do now.

When that happens, perhaps we’ll finally know whether or not Mike Trout is a good, average or bad fielder.



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Can the best Dodgers team yet end L.A.’s World Series drought?

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Sixteen days ago, with their superiority already established, Joe Kelly declared that the 2020 Los Angeles Dodgers were the best team he had ever seen and quickly realized the weight behind his statement.

“That says a lot,” Kelly continued, “because I’ve been on a team that won the World Series, and this Dodger team, this 2020 team — I don’t care if it’s short season, long season. Long season, we would’ve broken all the records. Short season, we’re gonna break all the records. This is the best team that I’ve ever seen. Best bullpen I’ve ever been a part of, best lineup I’ve ever seen, best starting pitchers, defense, all around.”

The Dodgers, 38-16 heading into Tuesday’s game against the Oakland Athletics (9:30 p.m. ET on ESPN), have held baseball’s best record for 36 consecutive days. They rank second in the majors in runs per game, second in the majors in starters’ ERA, second in the majors in bullpen ERA and second in the majors in turning batted balls into outs. Their run differential, plus-119, is 42% higher than that of the second-place San Diego Padres and on pace to be the fourth best since 1900 on a per-game basis.

And yet the Dodgers aren’t promised anything more than a three-game postseason series. By Wednesday night, all of their players and coaches will have situated themselves in a nearby hotel to quarantine for the unprecedented baseball tournament that will begin seven days later, at which point the Dodgers will once again confront the only adversary they have not conquered — the short series that magnify the randomness that defines their sport.

The Dodgers have been eliminated by the team that won the World Series each of the past four years and could have conceivably beaten them all. The 2016 National League Championship Series turned on a hanging slider from Joe Blanton in the sixth inning of Game 5. The 2017 World Series turned on two blown leads by Clayton Kershaw in Game 5. The 2018 World Series turned on miscommunication between manager Dave Roberts and Rich Hill in Game 4. And the 2019 NL Division Series turned on late-game bullpen maneuvering that left Kelly in long enough to surrender a ninth-inning grand slam in Game 5.

The Dodgers have only themselves to blame for those losses, of course, but the team with the sport’s highest run differential has won it all only four times over the past 20 years. Baseball doesn’t lend itself to rewarding its best team with championships. Its playoffs are exhilarating, but often they feel arbitrary. A long regular season and a restricted postseason are required to negate some of that, but the sport is navigating in the opposite direction, expanding the playoff field — MLB commissioner Rob Manfred has already stated his intentions of doing so beyond 2020 — and thus compounding the volatility.

The Dodgers, nearing their eighth consecutive division title but still in search of their first championship since 1988, will ultimately be defined by whether they can master small sample sizes.

“I think so much of it is just controlling what you can control,” Dodgers president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said. “That’s putting guys in the best spots to succeed and knowing how we want to attack opposing hitters and having as good of a feel as we can for how opposing pitchers are going to attack us and how our positioning ties into how we’re going to attack. That’s really all we can control from a preparation standpoint. And then just bet on the talent and the preparation winning out.

“When you look back over time, it’s pretty clear that the Major League Baseball playoff structure is never something that’s going to be 0 and 100%, and so for us, it’s almost just having the casino operator mentality of controlling what we can control and betting that more often than not, good things will play out.”

The current Dodgers are not perfect, but for every blemish there is a remedy.

Kenley Jansen has been hot and cold, but the Dodgers possess what Roberts considers is easily his deepest and most versatile bullpen in half a decade as the team’s manager. Cody Bellinger, Max Muncy and Joc Pederson are batting a combined .203, but A.J. Pollock has significantly improved, Corey Seager is back among the game’s best shortstops and Mookie Betts has been even better than anybody on the Dodgers could have imagined. The No. 3 spot in the rotation is uncertain, but the three young pitchers vying for it — Julio Urias, Dustin May and Tony Gonsolin — have combined for a 2.70 ERA.

The Dodgers’ loss to the up-and-coming Padres on Sept. 14 served as a “punch in the mouth,” Betts said, and since then, the team has won five of six while outscoring its opponents by a combined 21 runs. Lately, Roberts has noticed a particular focus from his group.

“It’s time to go,” Roberts said, “and our guys understand that.”

They also understand — better than anyone, perhaps — that their dominant season can disappear with one bad night in October. The Cincinnati Reds are among six NL teams that could conceivably finish as the No. 8 seed, in which case the Dodgers could be staring at a three-game series against Trevor Bauer, Luis Castillo and Sonny Gray, who make up arguably the best rotation trio in the NL. But any of the other contending teams — the Miami Marlins, Milwaukee Brewers, San Francisco Giants, Philadelphia Phillies and St. Louis Cardinals — are capable of winning two of three at Dodger Stadium with only cardboard cutouts in the stands.

FanGraphs recently ran projections stating that the top division winner from 2012 to 2019 would have seen its odds of winning the World Series drop by an average of 5.3% under this current format.

“I don’t particularly like it,” Dodgers ace Kershaw said. “It doesn’t really give us any advantage at all.”

It’s easy to get caught up in the disappointment of not seeing such a thoroughly talented Dodgers team navigate a traditional season, but at several points during baseball’s three-month shutdown, Friedman found himself dreading the possibility of not seeing this team at all. It shifted his perspective and ultimately made him feel grateful for this season, however unconventional it might be. Friedman hasn’t found any one trait that correlates to success in the short series that make up baseball’s October tournament, be it contact hitting or deep bullpens or elite defense. He believes it’s “more narrative after the fact, because whatever you say is the best way, I can then give you a counter of that in the last however many years.”

Friedman will tell you this Dodgers team has as good a chance as any to win it all simply because it possesses the pitcher-hitter advantage more frequently and boasts incomparable depth, the type that could make an even bigger difference in a year with no off days within the division series and league championship series. But his team remains vulnerable, at the mercy of a postseason increasingly designed more for entertainment than validity.

“I get it from their vantage point, and if I worked at Major League Baseball, I would have different goals and incentives,” Friedman said. “From my vantage point, obviously a very biased one, I want to do everything that we can to make the playoffs less random. But they are still wildly popular, and I guess that’s what matters most.”

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‘This isn’t fun’ — How everyone in baseball has navigated a very different season

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A dear friend, a baseball purist in his late 70s, called recently. He was distressed.

“For the first time in 70 years,” he said, “I don’t care about baseball.”

He wasn’t angry. He was hurt and sad that the game he loves wasn’t delivering — it had somehow let him down. I tried to explain that this wasn’t the fault of the game; COVID-19 was to blame. It has changed everything in and around baseball — it has changed how we play, watch, perceive and consume the game. It has changed how we all write, report and broadcast the game.

“Everything is hard now,” said Indians manager Tito Francona, who is as gregarious as it gets.

So is Rays manager Kevin Cash, who said of the experience this year, “This isn’t fun.”

They are not complaining. And you’ll get no complaints here, no sympathy required. I remain the luckiest man on earth. I get paid to write about baseball and broadcast games a couple of nights a week. I am so grateful that I get to watch 15 games a night instead of another episode of “Succession” — which is brilliant and depressing.

But Cash is right. It hasn’t been nearly as much fun. No fans in the stands, players who have opted out of the season, the many others who have been injured, the mangling of the schedule due to coronavirus outbreaks (mostly notably with the Marlins and the Cardinals), making up rules on the fly and the threat that the season could end any day, perhaps without warning. And having to cover all of this from home has made it so much more difficult. Most players would rather play at home. I am longing for a road game.

There is no substitute for being at the ballpark. The things you see there, the things you learn there, can’t be found watching on TV, on your computer or even in the beloved box scores. It’s just not the same without fans in the stands; we have underrated and understated their importance to the game. The energy, the atmosphere that a crowd brings is clearly missing, and it has affected many players, including the Reds’ Eugenio Suarez and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich, who, like many, feed off the passion of the fans.

Before this season, I had never even heard of Zoom. Now I use it — with help — every day. But it’s just not the same as speaking to another human being face-to-face. My favorite part of every game is to arrive at the ballpark at 1:30 p.m. for a 7 p.m. game in case someone is taking early hitting or working out at a new position.

I really miss talking to the players before the game, standing at the batting cage and watching Mike Trout tear holes in the sky with line drives, marveling at the way Fernando Tatis Jr. moves at that size and being dazzled by the violent and precise stuff that Shane Bieber brings to the mound.

Now I am strapped into my home office, with a new at-home broadcasting system, which arrived shortly after I had finally begun to understand the one that I’ve had for the past 20 years. I am irreversibly entangled in my office chair amid a web of wires and cords — I feel as if I’m trapped inside an old golf ball. It also didn’t help that I attempted to do one game without air conditioning in my office. I felt like I did nine innings from inside a trouser press.

And I have been by myself, which is lonely. It is terrifying given that I’m 63 and have absolutely no technical savvy. There is no engineer in the room to help me if something goes wrong, which it often does. I have uttered the phrases “Can you see me?” and “Can you hear me?” into my microphone a thousand times the past two months, like a man lost in a cave. And I usually hear only silence in my ears.

Some TV game producers insist that the open to any broadcast is the most important thing; nail the open, the rest is easy. On Aug. 18, during the open for the Rays-Yankees game, two seconds into my explanation of how the Yankees have dealt with a variety of problems this season the iPad camera in my office studio went out. My audio did not, so I kept talking. I looked like a skeleton floating over a black background, an apparition, as play-by-play man Karl Ravech and analyst Eduardo Perez justifiably laughed out loud at the worst of my many technical issues. I finished my 15-second open in the dark, which was appropriate given that the game has been operating in the dark for months.

Ravy is broadcasting from the ESPN studio in Connecticut, 375 miles away from my house. Eduardo is at his home in Miami, 1,100 miles from my house. Other times the game has been 3,000 miles away.

We have worked together in the booth for five years. We have great chemistry. We understand each other’s body language. We can anticipate when someone wants to talk, but when you’re hundreds of miles away and there is a delay, well, it’s easy to verbally barge into someone, as I did multiple times on opening night this year. The only question was whether it was a block or a charge. Most times, it was a charge.

To cover a game on TV without being there is a challenge. When you’re at the game, with the action right in front of you, you can see if the center fielder got a great jump on the ball or if he broke in slightly instead of back. The constant shifting of the infielders is hard to see unless you’re there. And it is impossible, from home, to watch the right fielder charge the ball while simultaneously watching the runner rounding third base. Everything is easier at the park except going to the can. Now I just walk 6 feet rather racing out of the press box and getting in and out of the bathroom as efficiently as a cat burglar.

Still, ratings are good, so I am worried that TV executives will see that we can capably call a game from home and wonder why we need to spend all that money to send the crew to the site. As a writer, I wonder when I will be allowed into the clubhouse again. There have been several stories this season — how the COVID-19 outbreak spread among the Marlins and Cardinals, and exactly what happened when Indians pitchers Mike Clevinger (since traded to the Padres) and Zach Plesac broke curfew — that would have been covered in greater detail and with greater accuracy if the media were allowed in the clubhouse to talk to the players.

I am worried that the way we’re covering the game is the way that some of our brilliant new executives have been evaluating the game for the past five or so years: We have stopped watching the games. Too many of our answers come from a computer screen, a spreadsheet, a set of statistics rather that what is happening right in front of us on the field. The human element has been replaced by advanced metrics, or as Angels manager Joe Maddon says, “The art has been taken out of the game.”

We don’t see, or care about, first-step quickness on a route by an outfielder, or an infielder who always knows what’s going to happen one step ahead of everyone else. We don’t understand that Max Scherzer, and few others, are calling the game from the mound, rather than having a catcher look into the dugout for the right pitch to call. We care more about a catcher framing a pitch than actually catching a pitch. And apparently we don’t care about the craft of baserunning, because it is, by far, the worst I’ve seen in 41 years of covering the game.

But I can put up with it. I just want to watch and work games, be it from home or the ballpark. I can’t wait to see what a free-for-all it’s going to be down the stretch with 16 playoff spots in play. Every game, every pitch will matter. An unforgettable October is ahead: If all postseason series go the limit, there will be 65 playoff games in October.

I can’t wait. It’s going to be great, no matter how difficult and different things might be. All I ask is that during my 15-second open, my iPad stays on so I am no longer in the dark.

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Passan — Inside a final week like MLB has never seen before

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Just like that, the fastest, weirdest, pandemickiest baseball season ever has come and gone. Mathematics holds that a 60-game schedule is shorter than the standard 162, but the 2020 season has whistled by so quickly that in a way it feels more like it should be June than October.

And yet here we are, on the cusp of the playoffs, and the season that almost wasn’t and couldn’t be and shouldn’t bother trying is nearing completion. It’s been a neat trick, pulling it all off, and while the buildup of six months has been compressed, a three-layer cake can be every bit as delicious as its 10-layer counterpart.

In terms of packing a lot into a little, this last week kicked off Monday and churns into gear Tuesday with 16 games. There are postseason berths to be secured, awards to be won and questions to be answered. Here are 20 of the most pertinent.

What does the American League playoff situation look like?

The teams are all but set. Cleveland’s magic number for the first wild card is one. Toronto’s for the second wild card is three, and Houston’s for the second-place slot in the AL West is four. Oh, and for those who haven’t paid attention: Every first- and second-place team gets an autobid and the clubs with the next two best records in each league also make the postseason, leaving 16 total teams playing in October.

Of course, just because the AL field has been set for about a month doesn’t entirely suck the intrigue out of the season’s final week. True, seeding doesn’t matter as much as it did in the past because every game after the best-of-three wild-card round will be held at a neutral site, but quirks of the system could make being the No. 3 seed more desirable than No. 2.

Because of the playoff format MLB implemented, the wild-card teams can have lower seeds but better records than the higher-seeded second-place teams. Currently, Cleveland at 30-24 is slotted as the No. 7 seed while the 27-27 Astros are sixth. Even though the Astros’ pedigree and offense might make them a tough out, the prospect of facing Shane Bieber, Carlos Carrasco and Zach Plesac (or Aaron Civale or Triston McKenzie) in a best-of-three series is daunting for anyone.

Which makes the race for the Nos. 2 and 3 seeds that much more interesting. Going into Tuesday, Tampa Bay (36-19) is 1½ games ahead of Chicago for the top seed. Oakland is a half-game back of the White Sox. The A’s magic number to clinch the AL West is one, whereas Minnesota is 1½ games back of Chicago and New York 4½ behind the Rays. The White Sox aren’t exactly going to punt, with the Twins on their heels, but a matchup against the Astros might be preferable to one versus Cleveland, against whom Chicago is 2-5 this season.

How about the National League?

Chaos. Pure, unadulterated, beautiful chaos.

Technically, 12 teams remain in playoff contention. Colorado and New York are, for all intents and purposes, out. Los Angeles and San Diego have clinched the top two slots in the NL West. That leaves eight teams vying for six spots. Atlanta and Chicago have healthy enough leads in the East and Central, respectively, that they’d need epic collapses to give away a first- or second-place spot. So, for the sake of argument, let’s count them as in, too.

That leaves Miami (28-26), St. Louis (26-25), Cincinnati (28-27), Philadelphia (27-27), San Francisco (26-27) and Milwaukee (26-27) fighting for four positions. The East and Central teams have two paths: second place or a wild card. The Giants are wild card or bust.

What happens if there’s a tie?

Are you sure you want to do this?

Should I not be?

Take a deep breath. This is gonna get a little messy.

Let’s start with the tiebreakers. Unlike years past, there will be no Game 163 (or Game 61). If there is a tie within a division — Marlins and Phillies for second in the East, any of the three Central teams for second in the division or a wild-card spot — the first tiebreaker is head-to-head record. If teams from different divisions are tied, the team with the better record against its own division gets the nod. Here is where all of those stand.

Head to head:

• Marlins over Phillies (7-3 advantage)

• Cardinals over Reds (6-4 advantage)

• Brewers lead Cardinals (3-2 advantage with five games to be played this week)

• Reds lead Brewers (5-3 advantage with two games to be played this week)

Intradivision record:

• Marlins: 20-17

• Phillies: 20-17

• Cardinals: 19-16

• Reds: 20-18

• Brewers: 16-17

• Giants: 15-18

What does this say? The Giants are going to need a whale of a week to get in, and the Marlins are in the catbird’s seat because of their record, their tiebreaker over Philadelphia and their intradivision advantage.

OK. Let’s dive deeper into the rabbit hole. There’s a scenario in which the Cardinals, Brewers and Reds wind up with the same overall records. The tiebreaker then would be best record in head-to-head games among the three teams. Currently, St. Louis is 8-7, Cincinnati 9-9 and Milwaukee 6-7. If they all wind up 10-10 — which is eminently possible — the tiebreaker then would go to intradivision games. There is no scenario in which the three wind up tied. Two teams could tie, in which case they would revert to the two-team tiebreaker scenario. If it were St. Louis and Cincinnati, the Cardinals would win. If it’s Brewers and Cardinals or Reds and Brewers, that will be determined this week. Should either of those two teams wind up 5-5 against one another, and their intradivision record is tied, too, then it would go to the last tiebreaker: record within division over the last 20 games.

Here is the current situation there:

• Miami: 11-6 with three this week

• Cincinnati: 11-7 with two this week

• Milwaukee: 7-6 with seven this week

• St. Louis: 8-7 with five this week

• San Francisco: 6-7 with seven this week

• Philadelphia: 7-10 with three this week

If the Entropy Gods make that scenario a reality, MLB would simply go back one game at a time until one team has a better intradivision record than another.

Got all that?

No.

Then read it again, slouch.

But wait. The Cardinals aren’t even scheduled to play 60 games. They’re set to play only 58. How is that going to work?

Here’s the situation, according to sources: At the beginning of the season, MLB told teams that in coronavirus-caused cases such as the Cardinals’, teams would make up as many games as possible and that makeup games would be played only if they had a direct impact on which teams make the playoffs, not seeding.

Now, if the two games St. Louis could make up in Detroit on Monday could make the difference between them being the No. 4 seed and playing a game at home, that would be the exception. San Diego’s magic number over the Cardinals for that spot is one, so the chances of that happening are infinitesimal.

Thus, if St. Louis needs to play those two games to move into the postseason (or potentially out of it), it will travel to Detroit and play one (or both) games Monday. If the playoff field is set and the games would simply be for seeding, the Cardinals will not play them and will be seeded based on their winning percentage.

It’s entirely possible that no NL team will know until Monday night who it’s playing starting Wednesday. Which means four teams will travel Tuesday, shack up at a hotel and potentially play the early game the next day.

Who has the toughest week ahead?

Remember that advantage the Marlins had? Well, they travel to Atlanta and then up to Yankee Stadium for three to close the season. Yikes.

Cincinnati has scraped back into the race, only to follow two vital games against Milwaukee after a big win Monday night with three more against the dangerous Twins.

As if the Giants weren’t facing enough issues, they’ve got seven games over the next six days, including four against the Padres. At least they’re all at home. Milwaukee’s seven games are on the road.

The most games: St. Louis, of course, with two at Kansas City, five against Milwaukee and perhaps two more in Detroit.

What’s the best series this week?

Like, all of them? Except maybe Rangers-Diamondbacks. Oof.

A few that stand out:

• Milwaukee at Cincinnati, T-W: Brett Anderson vs. Sonny Gray and Adrian Houser vs. Trevor Bauer. Yes, please.

• Miami at Atlanta, T-Th: The Marlins probably aren’t catching Atlanta. But if they sweep the four-game series, they’re in first in the NL East.

Chicago White Sox at Cleveland, T-Th: The White Sox are setting up their playoff rotation, with Lucas Giolito going Wednesday and Dallas Keuchel on Thursday, while Cleveland has AL Cy Young winner-to-be Shane Bieber lined up to face Giolito.

• Oakland at Los Angeles Dodgers, T-Th: World Series preview perhaps?

• St. Louis at Milwaukee, Th-Su: A five-game series that could determine a playoff spot? It’s a dream scenario in a normal season and one that we shouldn’t take for granted simply because this season is shorter than usual and the playoffs are diluted.

Chicago Cubs at Chicago White Sox, F-Su: Very cool that they end the season against each other. Even cooler that both could theoretically cost the other the division title.

Who’s in trouble?

The Phillies are going to have to win games because their tiebreaker situations are grim. They have to close out the season against Tampa Bay, which may go full speed ahead to secure the No. 1 seed in the AL. And Philadelphia might have to do so without star catcher J.T. Realmuto and first baseman Rhys Hoskins, both of whom have been out since Sept. 12.

The hope was that Realmuto would return from a hip injury Monday. He didn’t. Hoskins is out with a damaged ligament in his non-throwing left elbow, and his return date is unclear. One bit of good news: Bryce Harper, who has been dogged by back issues in the midst of a stalwart season, was the DH on Monday. One bit of bad news: Harper entered the game showing previously unforeseen plate discipline: 41 walks vs. 36 strikeouts in 215 plate appearances. Against the Nationals, he went 0-for-4 with three strikeouts.

How is their rotation set up?

Actually, it’s quite interesting to see the choices the Phillies and other contenders face when trying to strike the proper balance of urgency.

Phillies ace Aaron Nola is set to pitch Tuesday. That puts him on schedule to pitch on full rest Sunday. If Philadelphia needs a win to save its season Saturday, would the Phillies consider throwing him on three days’ rest? If so, and if they make it to the playoffs, they could bring him back on three days’ rest for Game 1 or go with him on full rest for Game 2. If they stick with Tuesday-Sunday, Nola would go either in Game 2 on short rest or a potential Game 3 fully rested.

Some aces are primed to get extra rest. The Yankees’ Gerrit Cole is going Tuesday. He’ll start Game 1 of the wild-card series for New York a week later. Same goes for Bieber. The construction of postseason rotations is going to be a fascinating element of this October.

Why?

Because of the playoff schedule. There are no off days in the division series or league championship series.

AL wild-card series will run Sept. 29-Oct. 1. NL wild-card series will run Sept. 30-Oct. 2. The four teams that advance from each league will have four days in between the wild-card games to enter the league’s proto-bubble and get ready for the division series. AL teams will then play games on as many as five consecutive days, from Oct. 5 to Oct. 9, while the NL will do the same from Oct. 6 to Oct. 10. The ALCS runs Oct. 11-17 and the NLCS from Oct. 12 to Oct. 18. Game 1 of the World Series is Oct. 20, and only then are there planned off days Oct. 22 and 26.

That means, starting with the division series, teams that advance could play as many as 14 games in 16 days before the first World Series off day.

It means, whereas in the past, a pitcher could start Game 1 of a division series and pitch Game 5 on five days’ rest, this year returning for a fifth game would require doing so on three days’ rest.

It means the pitcher who starts Game 1 of an LCS and would not be on full rest until Game 6.

The fear among executives is that October is going to be a giant, messy, run-scoring abomination — especially if the teams that do have the pitching depth to survive the latter rounds falter in the first. It’s not inconceivable that a titanic team like the Los Angeles Dodgers could run into a pitching buzz saw — Bauer/Gray/Castillo of the Reds or Corbin Burnes and Brandon Woodruff of the Brewers or Miami’s Pablo Lopez, Sixto Sanchez and Sandy Alcantara, just to name three — and get summarily run. Oakland, with its great bullpen? Susceptible. Cleveland? Beatable.

And what does the schedule do to the Braves, whose only reliable starting pitcher beyond Max Fried has never pitched in a playoff game (Ian Anderson) and who rely on what has been a very, very good bullpen that only has so many innings in its arms and no time to rest them?

One agent of a soon-to-be free-agent pitcher is concerned. “They’re going to abuse guys,” he said. And it’s difficult to see a scenario in which he’s wrong. The maximum number of pitchers a team can carry is 13. In reality, it shouldn’t be difficult to wring 63 innings out of 13 pitchers over the course of seven days, but times are different. Starters don’t last as long as they once did — especially against playoff-ready lineups that know grinding out plate appearances comes with great benefits.

Bold prediction: By the end of the postseason, teams will have averaged at least five runs per game. For context, last postseason the average was 4.03, the average this regular season is 4.65 and only seven times in the live ball era has the sport seen more than five runs per game during a full season.

What are the playoffs going to look like going forward?

Commissioner Rob Manfred’s suggestion that the playoffs would remain expanded created something of a stir, which was a touch surprising. Forget MLB and its priorities. When, in the history of business, has a company created something that’s going to make it billions of dollars long term and said, “You know, on second thought, we’re going to get rid of that”?

Expanded playoffs were always a Pandora’s box, and if the league and union can’t come to an agreement on what the format in 2021 looks like, it will simply become an item to bargain for in 2022. (Or, a cynic might say, whenever the impending lockout ends.)

Either way, any rational person would agree that whether it’s a 60- or 162-game season, putting the No. 1 overall seed on the same plane as the lowest seed in the field is outrageous. That’s what these playoffs are. The Dodgers are clearly better than everyone, and they’re going to have the same exact advantage as the two inferior division winners and even the second-place team in their own division: two or three games at home, depending on how long their wild-card series lasts.

This is untenable beyond the weakening of the playoff field, which is an entirely different problem and a reasonable one at that. One general manager recently said: “If I can have a mediocre team and still get in, why is my owner going to want to spend?”

Good question without a particularly reasonable answer. Which means that until MLB expands to 32 teams, fielding a 16-team playoff field is at best a bad look and at worst a problem. Twelve teams? OK. Fourteen? That’s pushing it, but at least it would offer opportunities to creatively reward the best teams and maintain the incentive to win.

The threshold should be at least a .500 record, right?

If you are, by definition, below average, being rewarded with a postseason berth feels wrong. It’s different in a sport like basketball, in which No. 8 seeds have beaten No. 1 seeds five times — and the regular-season records of the teams that won were 42-40, 27-23, 42-40, 46-36 and 35-31.

The whole .500-or-better notion got me wondering how playoff contenders across baseball have fared against the best teams in baseball this season — and the results are rather interesting.

The best teams: Tampa Bay (21-9), Oakland (13-6), Minnesota (21-12), San Diego (14-8), Los Angeles Dodgers (15-9), Chicago (22-18).

The worst: Houston (6-14), San Francisco (7-18), New York Yankees (10-15), Philadelphia (13-17), Chicago White Sox (13-17).

Enough on teams. I want to hear about awards. Who’s the AL MVP favorite?

Jose Ramirez?

Before mounds of debris come flying from the South Side of Chicago, let’s do some blind resume action.

Player A: .355/.390/.590, 10 HR, 21 RBI, 44 R, 5 SB, 2.5 FanGraphs WAR, 2.4 Baseball-Reference WAR

Player B: .290/.376/.595, 16 HR, 41 RBI, 41 R, 10 SB, 3.0 fWAR, 2.3 rWAR

Player C: .333/.381/.644, 18 HR, 55 RBI, 40 R, 0 SB, 2.7 fWAR, 3.0 rWAR

Player A is the White Sox’s Tim Anderson. Player C is the White Sox’s Jose Abreu. Player B is Ramirez, who added a three-run home run in the first inning Monday and since Aug. 26 leads the major leagues with 11 home runs and sports an OPS of better than 1.200. He’s tops in all of baseball in FanGraphs WAR, too.

Now, just as Abreu and Anderson could split votes, there’s a solid case to be made that Bieber deserves credit for Cleveland’s playoff spot every bit as much as Ramirez. But because of the bias in MVP voting against pitchers, Ramirez doesn’t run quite the same risk of getting support siphoned away as Abreu or Anderson does.

As good as Anthony Rendon, Mike Trout, Nelson Cruz and DJ LeMahieu have been, this race is coming down to the final week in the AL Central. And it’s looking like a really good one.

How about NL MVP?

Manny Machado?

You’re going to do that stupid blind-resume thing again.

Player A: .314/.376/.604, 16 HR, 46 RBI, 42 R, 6 SB, 2.7 fWAR, 2.6 rWAR

Player B: .303/.376/.597, 16 HR, 39 RBI, 42 R, 9 SB, 2.6 fWAR, 3.2 rWAR

Player C: .340/.460/.624, 11 HR, 48 RBI, 45 R, 1 SB, 2.9 fWAR, 2.5 rWAR

Player D: .278/.367/.565, 15 HR, 41 RBI, 47 R, 10 SB, 2.9 fWAR, 2.2 rWAR

Player A is Machado, Player B the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts, Player C the Braves’ Freddie Freeman and Player D Machado’s Padres teammate Fernando Tatis Jr.

In a 10-week season, one great week counts for far more than it would in the typical 26½-week season. This race is going to come down to this week.

Who should win the NL Cy Young?

Player A: 69 IP, 7-3, 2.22 ERA, 2.22 FIP, 11.48 K/9, 1.70 BB/9, 0.65 HR/9, 2.7 fWAR, 2.3 rWAR

Player B: 65 IP, 4-4, 1.80 ERA, 3.15 FIP, 12.18 K/9, 2.22 BB/9, 1.25 HR/9, 2.2 fWAR, 2.5 rWAR

Player C: 55 IP, 7-0, 1.96 ERA , 2.62 FIP, 8.18 K/9, 3.11 BB/9, 0.00 HR/9, 1.9 fWAR, 3.1 rWAR

Player D: 63 IP, 4-2, 2.14 ERA, 1.99 FIP, 13.43 K/9, 2.29 BB/9, 0.71 HR/9, 2.7 fWAR, 2.4 rWAR

Player E: 56 IP, 4-0, 1.77 ERA, 1.79 FIP, 13.34 K/9, 3.54 BB/9, 0.16 HR/9, 2.6 fWAR, 2.1 rWAR

Player F: 65.1, 3-1, 2.07 ERA, 2.51 FIP, 12.26 K/9, 2.62 BB/9, 0.69 HR/9, 2.3 fWAR, 2.3 rWAR

This is a lot to digest. Player A is Chicago’s Yu Darvish, Player B Trevor Bauer, Player C Max Fried, Player D New York’s Jacob deGrom, Player E Corbin Burnes and Player F San Diego’s Dinelson Lamet.

Put it this way: I’m glad I’ve got an AL Cy Young ballot this year instead of NL. Because I don’t know who I’d choose here.

In a short season during which relievers have a ghastly 4.45 ERA — last year league-wide it was 4.46, the highest since 2000, the heart of the steroids era — innings really, really matter. So does ERA. And peripherals can say more about what the pitcher did under his control than ERA.

There isn’t a good choice. There isn’t a bad choice. There are just a lot of choices — too many for the five-man ballot — and a lot of points to be earned over these final seven days. DeGrom’s 14-strikeout performance over seven strong innings Monday was a good start. Should be fun to see who’s got the anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-better gene.

What about NL Rookie of the Year?

No blind resume here. It’s a two-man race — with a sneaky three who could steal some votes away.

San Diego’s Jake Cronenworth is the favorite, though his .294/.295/.315 September has done him no favors. His season-long line of .303/.370/.516 in 173 plate appearances, though, matches up well with Philadelphia’s Alec Bohm, who is hitting .331/.389/.496 in 24 fewer plate appearances.

Worth considering: Milwaukee’s phenomenal right-handed reliever Devin Williams, he of the 0.39 ERA and 47 strikeouts in 23 innings, as well as Dodgers righty Tony Gonsolin and Sanchez, the Marlins’ right-handed fireballer, both of whom have excelled in limited use (40⅔ and 36 innings, respectively).

I’m tired of awards.

Hard same.

OK, then. Let’s at least stay on the young-player track. Who’s going to get the No. 1 pick?

While MLB has yet to announce whether teams’ 2020 records will determine draft order, a source familiar with the league’s thinking said that the clause written into MLB’s March agreement with the players’ association that gave the league the right to determine draft order was a contingency in case the season was canceled well before records were indicative of much. Even though 60 games doesn’t give the full picture of who’s really good and who isn’t, the source said it’s highly likely that the draft order will be determined by this year’s record.

If that’s the case, this is a big week for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Their magic number to clinch the No. 1 pick is three. As of Tuesday, the draft top 10 would be:

1. Pittsburgh
2. Texas
3. Boston
4. Arizona
5. Washington
6. Kansas City
7. Detroit
8. Baltimore
9. Seattle
10. Los Angeles Angels

The top of the 2021 draft is loaded, with Vanderbilt’s two stud right-handers, Kumar Rocker and Jack Leiter, along with a Vandy recruit, Dallas-area shortstop Jordan Lawlar, who some evaluators believe might be the best of the three.

Who’s having the sneaky-best season in baseball?

Here are eight guys I’ve enjoyed watching this year: Kansas City’s Salvador Perez (.357/.374/.635), the Mets’ Dominic Smith (.315/.377/.605 with 41 RBIs in 183 plate appearances) and Michael Conforto (.328/.419/.525), Atlanta’s Travis d’Arnaud (.336/.396/.559 and part of a devastating Braves lineup with Freeman, Ronald Acuña Jr., Marcell Ozuna and Adam Duvall, among others), Detroit’s Jeimer Candelario (sandwiched a .372/.424/.634 run between an 0-for-17 start and a current 0-for-14 slump), the Angels’ Dylan Bundy (whose 3.29 ERA and even lower FIP may get him down-ballot Cy Young love), the White Sox’s Dallas Keuchel (whose 2.04 ERA will get him upballot Cy Young love) and San Diego’s Zach Davies (2.69 ERA, career-best 8.2 K/9).

What’s an underappreciated story this year?

This is quaint and nerdy, but the amount of potentially elite rookie relief talent is a blast.

Caveat time: Relief pitching is notoriously volatile, and the idea that even half of the great rookie relievers are going to carve out long and productive careers is unlikely. That said, whether it’s Williams or his partners in hitlessness, Cleveland’s James Karinchak and Kansas City’s Josh Staumont; whether it’s the monster fastballs of the Dodgers’ Brusdar Graterol or the White Sox’s Codi Heuer; whether it’s the wicked slider of Cincinnati’s Tejay Antone or the not-as-good-as-Williams’-but-still-really-good changeup of the White Sox’s Matt Foster — all of these pitches have made the 2020 season that much more enjoyable to watch. Here’s to them and Toronto’s Jordan Romano, Oakland’s Jordan Weems, Tampa Bay’s Pete Fairbanks, Milwaukee’s Drew Rasmussen, Texas’ Jonathan Hernandez and many more.

Who am I going to miss watching in the postseason?

Juan Soto. That’s the answer.

I mean, Mike Trout is a great answer, but we’ve grown so used to missing him in the postseason it feels like an old hat now. DeGrom would be a perfectly reasonable answer, too. After Colorado’s hot start, it looked like Trevor Story and Nolan Arenado and Charlie Blackmon (remember when he was going to hit .400?) might be part of it as well, but nope. Rockies gonna Rockie. Any of Soto’s teammates from last year’s World Series winners would suffice, too: Max Scherzer, Trea Turner or Anthony Rendon, who’s now bummed out alongside Trout.

What Soto has done this year, though, is above and beyond. He didn’t play until Aug. 5 because of what wound up, Soto believes, to be a false positive for COVID-19. Since then, he has done things unlike any 21-year-old in the past 148 years.

Back in 1871, a 21-year-old rookie named Levi Meyerle joined the Philadelphia Athletics of the National Association. Over 132 plate appearances, he hit .492/.500/.700 with four home runs, 40 RBIs, two walks and one strikeout.

Since then, no 21-year-old has had an average as high as .348, an on-base percentage as high as .477 and a slugging percentage as high as .674. That’s what Soto is doing this year, and the closest was Hall of Famer Jimmie Foxx, who hit .354/.463/.625. Soto is taking what he did as a 19-year-old rookie, which was historic, and what he did as a 20-year-old, which was likewise, and upping the ante.

He is the best hitter in baseball. And it’s a bummer he won’t be playing in October. And yet because there are 16 teams that will, and because those teams are so infused with talent themselves, even if we’re missing Soto, we’ll have plenty of others onto whom we can latch. The improbable regular season of 2020 is almost done. Next up: the best month of all.

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