Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Predicting the AL West

And you thought I wasn't going to make it in time!

With just hours until the first pitch of the 2012 season in Tokyo, Japan, I find it an appropriate time to debut my predictions for the nascent season. This will be the first in a six-part series with my predicted finishes for MLB's six divisions—in case you haven't been seeing enough of those all around everywhere. (Hey, in order to be taken seriously as a baseball writer, I pretty much have to do these. Don't worry, I'll keep them short.)

I'll begin, as the season will, with the American League West, which might be baseball's most balanced division this year. Perhaps the safest of the many predictions you'll see on this blog is that the AL West will feature a clear first division and a clear second division. Indeed, the inequality could get so bad that the Mariners and A's may be forced to stage an Occupy Anaheim and Arlington rally. Without further ado:

1. Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim (100-62; 2nd playoff seed)
Everyone talks about Albert Pujols, but for me the Angels' biggest addition this offseason was CJ Wilson. Why? He allows the Angels to steal from the Phillies the title of most Fearsome Foursome of starting pitchers. Together, Jered Weaver, Dan Haren, CJ Wilson, and Ervin Santana allowed 306 earned runs in 926 innings in 2011 (an ERA of 2.97)—remarkable excellence as well as durability. If you picked the Phillies to win 100 last year, you better do the same for LA.

But wait, you say. The Angels have plenty of holes on offense, right? (So did those Phillies, by the way; pitching trumps all.) This is where Pujols does come in; between him and a healthy Kendrys Morales, who is looking very good this spring, the Angels are basically adding two MVP-level position players who can instantly catapult an offense to elite status. Yes, there is concern about Torii Hunter and especially Vernon Wells being black holes for outs, but the underrated Alberto Callaspo (.366 OBP in 2011) and Chris Iannetta (.370) should make up for that.

2. Texas Rangers (98-64; 1st Wild Card)
To be honest, I look at this team and I see virtually the same Rangers club as last year. Yes, they got the highly touted and supposedly dominant Yu Darvish from Japan—but he simply replaces the departing CJ Wilson. (An aside: I don't understand why everyone consistently undersells CJ Wilson. He is at least Darvish's equal, and probably better. He had a 2.94 ERA last year in one of the worst pitcher's parks in baseball; he was the AL's third best starter in 2011 according to ERA+. Darvish will be extremely lucky to match that.) The Rangers also converted the immensely talented Neftali Feliz to the rotation—but he simply replaces Alexei Ogando, who returns to the pen (a questionable decision, when the significantly less gifted Colby Lewis remains in that rotation). The performance of both pitchers is far from certain, giving the Angels a slight edge in my book.

Still, I don't mean to cast doubt on what remains a formidable team. Last year's rotation was good, and this year's very similar version should remain so. Its main advantage over LA's is depth, with Ogando and Scott Feldman (and maybe Roy Oswalt?) waiting in the wings in case of injury; the Angels have no serviceable starters after their top four. (Of course, the Angels' top four are better than the Rangers', by far.) And the offense—oh my, the offense. The entire cast and crew returns from 2011—all 855 runs of them.

3. Seattle Mariners (68-94)
The two teams doing battle in Japan this morning (or is it tonight?) will also fight for third place in this division, and I actually think it's an extremely close race—I'm not kidding when I say that the results of the two games in the Japan series could tell us something. But for now I'm going for the Mariners to narrowly squeeze past Oakland. However, neither will be spared the wrath of the two excellent teams ahead of them in the standings, who will likely spend the year beating down on the Pacific Northwest's win-loss record.

I'm actually being generous to Seattle with my record projection here; believe it or not, I do see some hope in the Emerald City. I'm a believer in their batting order's two-through-six hitters: some combination of Dustin Ackley, Ichiro Suzuki, Jesús Montero, Justin Smoak, and Mike Carp. Montero and Ackley by themselves guarantee that the Mariners will pack some punch, automatically improving on last year's historically awful 556 runs scored. Smoak is maligned for not developing as some would have hoped, but he's still a useful player, and Carp has more power than the Washington state grid. And everyone knows what Ichiro can do; I'm expecting a bounceback season out of the talented and prideful outfielder.

Seattle's pitching, especially after training Michael Pineda, could go either way, but there are some talented arms in the pipeline such as number-three starter Hector Noesi and likely summer callup Danny Hultzen. And the Mariners were actually sixth in the AL in ERA last year; many teams would envy this staff. The real difference maker, however, could be the team's excellent defense, projected to be second-best in baseball by the Fielding Bible. I suspect it will be that hidden edge that saves them from the cellar in 2012.

4. Oakland Athletics (64-98)
I admit that some of this could be just the team's negative perception—GM/movie star Billy Beane spent the offseason gutting his old team and shipping in spare parts to fill their shoes for 2012. It feels like a haphazard roster held together with glue and fishing wire, and at the risk of sounding like one of the scouts in Moneyball ("Who's Fabio?"), I just doubt the cohesion of this team until I personally see them working together to win ballgames.

The actual roster's not so hot, either; almost everyone is miscast. Coco Crisp and Seth Smith are two positive additions to any team, but they can't be the core of one's lineup as they are for Oakland. Luckily for them, I do suspect that Yoenis Céspedes will be the monster everyone hopes he'll be, but that's no sure thing either. Again, this has the air of an aimless team—at least until they can set that aim squarely on San José.

Like many people, I am interested to see what their young pitching can do, particularly ex-Diamondback Jarrod Parker. The Athletics' haul from the Nationals in the Gio González trade was also mighty impressive, but it just isn't likely that they'll all be able to contribute quality baseball at the major-league level. While this club had the AL's third-best ERA last year (3.70), you can throw all that out the window in 2012 because, well, that's what Billy Beane did. They could fall far short of that mark this year, or the prodigious talent of their many high draft picks could actually improve upon it. For bettors and simple appreciators of the game, the A's may be the division's most interesting—and most unpredictable—team.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

What Was the Most Important Election of Our Lifetime—Really?

In his Illinois primary concession speech last night, Rick Santorum made an attention-grabbing claim:
"And I’ve gone around this country over the past year now and said this is the most important election in our lifetimes. And, in fact, I think it’s the most important election since the election of 1860."
It's a line that we've heard countless times before—not just this year, but every year throughout, well, our lifetimes. But it got me thinking: what actually has been the most important election of our lifetime?

First, of course, you must define "important," which turns out to be the rub. Is an election "important" because it was judged to be by politicians, pundits, and voters at the time? Or are we allowed to look back retrospectively and say that an election was important because of what it begat? Can an election be "important" if its outcome was never really in doubt? And how can someone separate ideology from their perception of importance? People often communicate such urgency by emphasizing "what's at stake" in an election, which is usually code for one side or the other being an unacceptable, radical, or frightening choice. (This, of course, is the case of Rick Santorum and the current president he loathes.) When all is said and done, the term "the most important election of our lifetime" is always a subjective judgment—and almost always just an insincere, partisan throwaway line.

I do agree with Santorum on one point: the election of 1860 pretty clearly was the most important in American history. But since then, there have been several historic, highly contested, or just plain consequential presidential elections. With the caveat that such a list must necessarily be vague and that I have tried to divorce ideology from these rankings (thus rendering them toothless, in many ways), here is my attempt at ranking nine elections that seem to contradict Santorum's hypothesis. (Note: for neutrality's sake, I'm leaving out 2012—which I feel can't be properly judged until 2016 anyway.)

9. 2004
You remember this one, right? The first election conducted after the 9/11 terrorist attacks pitted one of our most polarizing presidents ever—George W. Bush—against Democrat John Kerry. This one makes the list because I still have vivid memories of people saying they would move to Canada if Bush won a second term—"what's at stake" was a lot for those folks. More objectively, there was much discussion about whether we should replace a president during wartime, as American efforts in Iraq were just beginning. It's no exaggeration to say that the fate of that conflict rested on this election's outcome.

8. 1980
The election of 1980 is rightly considered transformational; it swept away the tattered remains of the New Deal coalition (i.e., Jimmy Carter) and installed conservative scion Ronald Reagan in the White House. This election was perceived as important at the time because of the immediate issue of the Iran hostage crisis, but its primary significance has been historical; everything Reagan achieved in office has its origins in 1980, not to mention all the campaign rally cries of his name that have happened since.

7. 2008
I see 2008 as the Democratic version of 1980. Love him or hate him, Barack Obama has been transformational in his own right, implementing several major pieces of legislation and (at least initially) stirring up an enthusiasm among Democrats and young voters that hadn't been seen since John F. Kennedy. The election also rewrote the electoral-college map and, depending how the next few decades go, may signal a long-term shift toward Democratic dominance (just as Reagan did for Republicans in 1980). The 2008 election gets the edge over 1980 because of the added urgency of the campaign in the moment (the entire American economy collapsed only a few months before Election Day) and its barrier-breaking nature—notably, two prominent women coming very close to the presidency and our first African-American president ever.

6. 1864
We did 2008; now the other extreme. If Rick Santorum is such a fan of Abraham Lincoln, then he should have thought to give props to this election, which represented Lincoln's wartime reelection campaign against General George McClellan, whose pro-peace Democratic Party would have let the Confederacy walk. You read that right—if 1864 had turned out differently, we would be two countries right now. This election loses "importance" points because its outcome was never really in doubt, but a strong argument could be made to place it higher. (Honestly, any of my top six could have been ranked first.)

5. 1968
This is the one recent election when I would not have begrudged a candidate for using the "most important election" line; things were scary in '68. People in the midst of the campaign had every reason to think that nothing less than their future existence hung on the November ballot; ask anyone who was alive, and they'll tell you that 1968 felt like the world was ending. Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy were both assassinated; hippies championed free love and the dissolution of social norms; riots erupted in Chicago and across the country, often centering on race. The biggest issue in the campaign between Republican Richard Nixon and Democrat Hubert Humphrey was probably the Vietnam War, although the third-party candidacy of segregationist George Wallace ensured that that issue never left the public mind. Indeed, 1968 would easily win "most important" if only contemporary considerations were taken into account. Alas, we in 2012 have the benefit of foresight, and we know that Nixon's victory actually had few transformational effects; he continued the Vietnam War (as Humphrey likely would have as well) and largely left the nation's deep social wounds to heal themselves.

4. 1920
This is a forgotten election, but I stand strongly by its inclusion so high on the list; America has perhaps never taken such a sharp right turn. Republican Warren G. Harding's victory over Democrat James Cox signaled an abrupt halt to what has become known as the Progressive Era, the period from 1900 to 1920 when both parties became infatuated with idealism, internationalism, and even socialism. Specifically, Cox would have continued the very liberal policies of outgoing President Woodrow Wilson—most famously the League of Nations and his grand plan for world peace. Instead, President Harding adopted a strict isolationist policy, leaving the League for dead and setting the stage for World War II. Oh yeah, and Harding was the first of three Republican presidents during the 1920s to institute economic policies that would lead to the Great Depression.

3. 1964
This election scores points for offering a very clear contrast between its two contenders: incumbent Democratic President Lyndon B. Johnson and Republican Barry Goldwater. It also gets extra credit for being perhaps the most famous example of one side being completely terrified of the other. Fairly or not, Goldwater was painted as an extremist on virtually every issue—extremely pro-states'-rights, extremely anti-big-government, and extremely enamored with nuclear weapons. With "Daisy," the first political ad ever (another reason that year was important!), fresh in their minds, voters in 1964 might very well have thought that their lives depended on which lever they pulled. Furthermore, Johnson's 1964 win brought about the most consequential event of the late 20th century: the Vietnam War.

2. 1932
The textbook definition of the "most important" election, 1932 doesn't have the sex appeal of '64 or '68, but it can't really be ranked lower than 2 (I'm shocked that I have it that low!). This, of course, was the election that brought Democratic hero Franklin D. Roosevelt to power, displacing Republican Herbert Hoover, who in 1929 had brought about the worst economic crisis in American history—then spent the next three years not doing anything about it. It is impossible to overstate the urgency with which people must have gone to the polls on November 8, 1932; despairing for three years, possibly homeless and starving, they at last had something—or someone—to place their hopes in. Roosevelt also offered completely original and unique policy platforms (i.e., government programs and the New Deal) that stood out as very different from Hoover's. From a political scientist's perspective, this was also a crucially important election: it completely realigned the electoral map and kicked off almost 50 years of Democratic dominance of American politics. Finally, FDR's win set the stage for the growth of the federal government, a trend that has continued ever since and one that has obviously been profoundly influential.

1. 1940
Roosevelt gets most of his attention for the 1932 election, but I find it impossible to ignore 1940, in part because it is such a starkly simple argument. A war raged in Europe whose aggressor was clearly no friend to America, and by 1940 it was clear that he was winning. At a time when Great Britain was struggling to maintain its existence as the only thing between Adolf Hitler and the United States, American voters had a choice: a proven two-term leader in Roosevelt, or his Republican opponent Wendell Willkie—who had literally never held elective office in his life. Furthermore, Willkie was adamantly in favor of peace and isolationism at a time when that was probably the most dangerous course of action. Simply put, it's fair to be afraid of what would have happened—to the United States and to the world—if Wendell Willkie had been left to go mano-a-mano with Hitler. To me, that is the definition of the most important choice Americans have ever had to make.

Thursday, March 8, 2012

October Madness: How to Build a Better and Simpler Postseason

For many of the same reasons that others have cited, I am not a fan of Major League Baseball's new playoff format. It uses a one-game playoff in a sport that wasn't built for them. It crowds the schedule. It's unfair.

One thing I am OK with, though, is the increase in the number of playoff teams. To have more competition late in the year is good for the game and good for many perennially disappointed fan bases. In fact, I wouldn't have a problem if MLB wanted to expand the postseason even further—perhaps to 12 teams, or 16, or, eventually, all the way up to 30.

And instead of these easily upended one-game playoff series, the postseason should be expanded to as many games as possible. With these reforms, there are a maximum of 20 playoff games; let's stretch that out to a fairer 40 or 50—someday, all the way up to 162 games.

Yup, there's no getting around the fact of the matter: the fairest way to crown a world champion is through that 30-team, 162-game playoff tourney known as the regular season. Baseball is unique from (and better than, obviously) other sports in that it lasts so very, very long. Counting spring training and October, the boys of summer play for eight months, many of which are not the summer. In that time, averages and streaks even out, and all players and teams end the year playing at their true level of ability. Unlike those for a single game—when anything can happen—season statistics don't lie.

Consequently, there is little doubt in my mind that, in 2011, the Philadelphia Phillies were the best team in baseball. There is no doubt in my mind that the 2001 Seattle Mariners, whose total of 116 wins has never been surpassed, deserved to hoist the World Series trophy that year for that remarkable feat. Of course, there is no way to guarantee this short of canceling the playoffs and crowning the team with the best record after 162 games as the world champion. But how boring would that be? As a fan, the last thing I would want is the elimination of the World Series.

Therefore, as perfect and just as it may be, this blog post will not argue in favor of that. But, in my opinion, the best possible "reform" to the MLB playoffs is one that brings us as close to that model as possible—in other words, the biggest simplification we can stomach. (And if there's one thing that this new arrangement is not, it's simple.)

The postseason cannot guarantee that the best team wins, but its goal should be to try. (Note: this flies in the face of everything we have been trained to crave: upsets, underdogs, and the like. But we need to face it—the teams we all know are better deserve to win.) This means both that there must be fewer opportunities for the winningest team to be upset (i.e., fewer series played on the way to the championship) and that the seeding of teams in the postseason "bracket" (forgive me, it's March) must be straightforward and fair—rewarding the best teams and punishing the worst ones.

This is why the new playoff format is unacceptable from a fair-playing-field perspective: it actually falls shorter of both these standards than the current format does. Specifically, it makes what is potentially the second-best team in the league (the higher Wild Card seed) extremely vulnerable to immediate elimination by potentially the fifth-best team in the league. To treat these teams as equivalent just because neither won a division is pure folly; the 2001 Oakland A's (102–60) shouldn't even be in the same conversation as that year's Minnesota Twins (85–77), yet under this system those two teams would have faced off in a one-game playoff.

The current format (or should I say "old format") isn't much better, by the way. From 1995 to 2011, the fourth-seeded Wild Card team was the team with the fourth-best record (or tied for third-best) only 13 of a possible 34 times. No, for the simplest and fairest postseason, we have to go to an even older format: the setup of the original World Series.

Until 1969, the winningest team in the American League and the winningest team in the National League met in the World Series immediately after the regular season. There was a purity to this method, which ensured that the class of each league (which were much more distinct entities than they are today) would be represented on baseball's biggest stage. Today, however, divisions and their inherent non-parity (see: AL East) add a random variable to that equation; the division-winner-on-division-winner setup doesn't try hard enough for the goal of the best team winning. The solution is to eliminate the East, Central, and West and combine each league into one big division—as it was for the majority of baseball history.

In my perfect, purist, reactionary, fantasy world, the best team from each league would play a seven-game (or maybe nine-game!) World Series, and that would be that. However, allowing for modern tastes and teams' money-grubbing, it would be almost as fair to simply pick the top two (preferable) or four seeds in each league and set up a tournament (lowest seed at highest seed, etc.), extremely similar to the 1995–2011 arrangement, that culminates in the World Series. This eliminates any nonsense about better teams being punished for their geographic location (for example, if they are the four best teams in the AL, why shouldn't New York, Boston, Tampa, and Toronto all go to the playoffs?).

This system is not perfect. For example, if the AL is stronger than the NL one year (I don't even know why I said "if" there...), a 90–72 team in the AL might miss the playoffs while an 89–73 team in the NL snags a berth. But this is an inevitable problem arising from the separation of MLB into leagues—leagues that have such deep historical roots that even I am unwilling to blow them up. Besides, having only two leagues/divisions still minimizes the chances of this unfairness compared to today, when there are six chances to get screwed.

This realignment would necessitate a host of other changes too, like a switch to a balanced schedule (finally!). To put it bluntly, this will never happen (too much revenue is generated from 19 Red Sox–Yankees games a year, don't you know). And to be honest, as long as the playoff format is going to be unfair, it might as well be exciting—and I do admit that the one-game Wild Card Series (or whatever the networks decide to call it) is going to be a blast. Here in spring training, it's easy to put that emotion at arm's length and look at the game academically. But in October, while I'm riveted to the television, you may have to remind me that fairness is important, too. Maybe someday we'll have both.