Fall is coming. Before you know it, the sports world will be buzzing like no other time of the year. And no, it’s not entirely football-related. In the world of baseball, fall means playoffs. We know it can be tough to keep up with such a long season so this MLB Season To-date Primer will get you ready for the home stretch.
*If you’re a new fan and/or looking to get up to speed on pro baseball, start with our MLB Overview*
We’ll take it one inning at a time…
1st inning: MLB has new rules to speed up game times
Of note, managers must stay in the dugout during replay challenges, batters must always keep at least one foot in the batter’s box (no practice swings between pitches) and a ‘shot clock’ of sorts limits the time allowed for new pitchers to enter the game.
The league didn’t try to take on the 900 lb. gorilla that is shortening the seemingly endless 162 game regular season, but these were steps in the right direction.
Is it working? Appears so… to some extent. Through the end of May, average game times were almost 10 minutes shorter than in 2014 – down to 2 hours and 53 minutes (Source: FanSided).
2nd Inning – Baseball is enjoying an unprecedented wave of young, likable superstars
Who said baseball cards are a thing of the past? Keep this vintage of rookie cards somewhere safe. When we look back at the 2015 season, we will remember it for introducing a class of future superstar rookies. 10 of the preseason top 15 prospects have made their MLB debut this season.
These new guys still have a lot to prove, but they are joining what is already an incredibly talented crop of young stars. Get to know these kids because they’re here to stay.
20 players age 25 or younger played in this year’s All-Star Game. That happened exactly zero times in the previous 85 Mid-summer Classics.
Here’s what a lineup could look like if you took just the best MLB players age 26 and younger:
3rd inning – Home runs may sell tickets, but pitching and defense dominate today’s baseball
From 2000 to 2014, the average runs per game decreased by over 20% from just over 5 to right around 4 per game. (Source: ESPN The Magazine)
Why? There are a multitude of reasons, but the most cited is the eradication of Performance Enhancing Drugs from baseball. Other (more interesting) drivers of the change:
“Shifts” on defense: Increasingly, teams are moving around the positioning of their defense to improve the odds of getting batters out on balls in play. In fact, in 2014 teams used shifts at over 5x the rate seen in 2010 and the trend is continuing in 2015. (Source: ESPN The Magazine)
More “breaking pitches”: The best pitchers are masters of their craft, throwing less straight fastballs and mixing it up with more movement to fool hitters. The result: strikeouts are up and runs are down.
*Fun fact*: Baseball’s best pitcher over the last few seasons, Clayton Kershaw, casually added a nasty slider to his arsenal in 2013 at the suggestion of his team, the LA Dodgers. Just a year later, the new pitch caused more strikeouts than any other slider in the league. (Source: FanGraphs)
4th inning: Teams that have been cellar-dwellers are ballin’ this season
There are still some familiar faces leading their division (e.g., Cardinals, Dodgers), but the playoff crop overall may surprise you. While household names like the Atlanta Braves and Boston Red Sox will be watching the postseason from their couches, these 6 teams will likely be among the 10 playing in October. None had a winning record from 2010-14, but they’re surging this season!
+ Kansas City Royals – included in this list despite making a World Series appearance last season (a loss to the SF Giants) because before 2014 they hadn’t made the playoffs in 29 years
+ Chicago Cubs – finished last in NL Central in 2014 and look like legitimate championship contenders this year
+ Pittsburgh Pirates – missed playoffs for 20 straight years before 2013 and 2014 – may have baseball’s best outfield (Marte, McCutchen, Polanco)
+ New York Mets – finished in the middle of the pack in the NL East in 2014, 17 games behind the Nationals who they now lead
+ Houston Astros – finished 4th/5 in AL West in 2014, 28 games behind the Angels who they now lead
+ Toronto Blue Jays – haven’t made the playoffs in 21 years but lead the AL East standings and the majors in total runs scored by a large margin
5th inning – Old guys Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols are partying like Taylor Swift is still singing country
Alex Rodriguez, 3B/DH New York Yankees: Coming off a season long suspension in 2014 for steroid use, A-Rod has enjoyed a bounce-back season hitting 26 home runs (his most since 2010). No one saw this coming from a player in his age 40 season after missing over a year and a half of action. Don’t forget he’s one of the best players in history with 680 career home runs.
Albert Pujols, 1B/DH Los Angeles Angels: The Angels went big in 2012 signing Pujols for 10 years and $240M through his age 41 season – a contract that is sure to bring some criticism in the out years. One of baseball’s best hitters of the last several decades is coming on strong in 2015 with 34 home runs. This is cause for some optimism in LA but 2021 still feels a ways away…
6th inning: The Home Run Derby got a new format and was *awesome* this year
This year, the Home Run Derby operated like a bracket of 8 hitters facing off in head-to-head competitions each round. Each hitter was allotted four minutes and one time out each round to hit as many balls out of the park as they could, earning bonus time based on the distance of their homers.
The new format was a huge hit with fans and contestants alike as the format pushed each hitter to top his opponent. In an ending that couldn’t have gone better if you scripted it, hometown hero Third Basemen Todd Frazier (affectionately known as “The Toddfather”) won the Derby by hitting a clinching home run in bonus time to defeat talented rookie Outfielder Joc Pederson of the LA Dodgers.
Video of his winning performance and celebration – it’s worth hearing the commentary
7th inning: The most active trade deadline in recent memory set the stage for an exciting playoff race
This year’s non-waiver trade deadline (end of July) sent more superstar players to new teams than any year in recent memory. We’ll highlight the biggest moves by focusing on the biggest winners (you’ll recognize these teams from earlier) in the flurry of deals:
+ Toronto Blue Jays: Toronto got red hot to climb to first place in the AL East following a pair of blockbuster deals. The primary adds were ace pitcher David Price from the Tigers and superstar shortstop Troy Tulowitzki from the Rockies.
+ Houston Astros: The Astros showed the baseball world that they are serious about winning now, making deals to strengthen their pitching (Scott Kazmir from the A’s) and adding a dynamic outfielder (Carlos Gomez of the Brewers) to their lineup and defense.
+ Kansas City Royals: Last year’s American League champions put themselves in a great position to challenge for the World Series again in 2015 by bringing in utility player Ben Zobrist from the A’s and ace pitcher Johnny Cueto from the Cincinnati Reds.
The losers at the deadline were mainly the teams that didn’t get in on the activity. The Cubs and Rays didn’t pull the trigger on any major deals to help their playoff push and the Mariners, Red Sox and Padres didn’t cash in on a seller’s market to improve in future seasons.
8th inning: Some major statistical categories are led by massive margins
Nelson Cruz, Josh Donaldson, Billy Hamilton, and Zack Greinke are distancing the field in their respective categories. Have a look at the overall leaders.
9th inning: Playoff races will be tight, and the Wildcard games will serve for high drama
Playoffs begin October 6th and 7th with the AL and NL 1-game Wild Card game. See the schedule
Three division leaders from each league make the playoffs, along with the next best two ‘Wildcard’ teams. Wildcard teams play a *one-game playoff* to see who qualifies. Yankees-Rangers and Cubs-Pirates would be two compelling Wildcard match-ups. Here’s what the playoff bracket would like if the season ended today: