After the July 31 trade deadline passes and the cards have been shuffled and re-dealt, the blinds go back in and the poker game continues. Teams have declared their intentions and now for players and fans MLB becomes more focused and purposeful everyday.
This approaching stretch-run also applies to those of us offering analysis and prognostication, who now that teams have made their desired roster adjustments and shown us the elements (lineup, rotation, bullpen, defense, late-inning routines) they’ll be working with, have another chance to look at everything all at once and proclaim our October prophecies one last time.
Last week I wrote about the Cubs and their place in the National League. I mention this because in the American League I look also to the Central, at KC and Cleveland. Each had recent winning streaks, each made quality Deadline moves, and together they also represent the last three AL Champions (with 1 World Series win and 2 Game 7 losses).
The AL Central now, where the two scariest AL contenders reside. You probably haven’t heard them referenced this way. You wouldn’t be alone, because until very recently any noise about the two teams racing for the Central division title them has been drowned out by the noise from The Aaron Judge Show in the East and the Astros in the West.
That’s just how the Royals and Indians want it, though.
In Kansas City, it has been business-as-usual, which means three things–a pitching staff of anonymous starters and a powerful bullpen, a lineup of pain-in-the-ass hitters, and Salvador Perez.
The first–the success of their strange, specific pitching staff that included an AL Pennant in 2014 and a World Series title in 2015–may someday be credited as a turning point in the ‘team-building’ narrative of baseball history.
Though the gears had been turning toward this shift since the very introduction of relief pitching, in 2014 Ned Yost and the Royals began putting on blast to the rest of the league the new best way to build a pitching staff.
This new best way is to do the opposite of the old best way—which was to build it from the first inning on to the ninth inning—and to build it instead from the ninth inning on backwards to the first inning.
The Royals found starting pitchers who pitched well for the first 2 times through the order, give or take 3 outs, and then found much better pitchers who could dominate for the last 2 times through. Before long it will likely be the model that most and eventually all organizations follow.
And couple with this a lineup full of quality, aggressive contact hitters (most of it homegrown) who were also quality, aggressive baserunners, and the combination was the most effective in the league for two years.
Operating this way– by their pitchers being impossible to score on from the 7th inning on and by their hitters proving incapable of providing outs 22-27 to their opponent, seemiingly every game reminding us that three straight singles equals one run, and that every single after that equals another run–they first lost a World Series to Madison Bumgarner in 2014.
Then they won one in 2015.
And in Perez they have likely the most underrated player in baseball, simultaneously one of the league’s most valuable defenders and most dangerous hitters, and playing at their most crucial position. It would be foolish to think that the sustained success of their unconventional pitching staff—the anonymous rotation and the young, power arms backing them up—is not thanks in part to the savvy of ‘Salvy’.
I credit Terry Francona and the Cleveland Indians with having the best playoff manager in the American League, which is Terry Francona.
Francona’s ability to actively manage a series is clear to see. Players know their expected and potential roles and tend to thrive more often than not in both under Francona, especially in the playoffs.
This is not by accident. They are ready because their manager is ready.
For any contending team, when the regular seasons ends there should take over a new collective playoff mentality. In baseball, the cliché is “all-hands-on-deck,” the understanding that new roles may arise and that at any point in any game any player may be asked to do anything.
It requires players to be ready to step up when they’re asked, but before that can happen it requires managers to be creative and cagey enough to spot the right moments to improvise.
For instance, Andrew Miller. There is no debate that Miller is one of the best pitchers in baseball, and has been. Playing for Terry Francona, however, Miller becomes the most valuable one.
While other managers give Miller a role defined by the time of the game, having him pitch the eighth, or the ninth inning only, Francona gives Miller a role that is defined by the specific context of the game, which for every game may come at a different time.
Last year against the Red Sox, Francona–placing ultra-importance on winning Game 1 (which you should in a best-of-5)–brought Miller into the game in the 5th inning after Boston had pulled to within one run, and Miller surrendered nothing in 2 innings and got the win. Then in Game 3 he came into the game in the 6th inning after a leadoff single and left unscathed after retiring the Red Sox in the 7th.
While other pitchers are responsible for recording most of the outs, or the last outs, Miller’s job under Francona has been to get the most important outs.
Also recall that in the same series Tito gave Coco Crisp a start in Game 3 at Fenway and Coco answered the bell with a backbreaking home-run.
Most forgotten though, seemingly to everyone outside of Cleveland, has been that thing the Indians have that no other team in the American League has, and this is not a commodity any of them can trade for—that sting from last year’s Game 7 loss.
There is only one other team who knows the feeling, and that’s the Kansas City Royals. And what did they do with it? They shook it off and won the World Series.