Welcome to another season of Major League Baseball. For those of you who have been loyal readers of this column over the past few years, you’ll be seeing a slight change in our approach in 2015. Rather than daily picks, Unibet will be offering a once-a-week cheat sheet featuring key match-ups and stats to prepare you for success.
To lay groundwork for that weekly report, our regular columnist Josh Chetwynd goes sky-high and offers up a trio macro “what to look for” bullet points for the upcoming season. And away we go:
Don’t be afraid of difficult divisions. If you’re looking for the top World Series contenders, scrutinize the most competitive divisions. Conventional wisdom might suggest that a team from an easy division can slide into the post-season and run with it, but think again.
Consider this: since Major League Baseball expanded to two wild card slots per league in 2012, the World Series has had six participants. Five of those finalists came from a division that featured at least one wild card club. In other words the gauntlet that is the playoffs rewards the most battle tested. What does this mean for this season? MLB.com columnist Mike Bauman recently ranked the National League Central as baseball’s toughest division so odds are good that a prime World Series challenger (particularly among the St. Louis Cardinals, Pittsburgh Pirates or Chicago Cubs) will come from there.
Identify the team that will go from bad to fab. It’s become a regular occurrence that one team will transform a previous year’s miserable performance into a massive result the following campaign.
Last year, it was the San Francisco Giants. In 2013, that club went 76-86; in 2014, they won the World Series. Same goes for the 2013 Boston Red Sox. They won MLB’s title after putting up a 2012 record of 69-93. In 2012, the Baltimore Orioles were the turnaround team going 93-69 after a 69-93 record in 2011. What did all these clubs have in common? Well one thing that’s obvious is they made changes. That said, it’s important to note they didn’t make wholesale changes. For instance, both the 2013 Red Sox and the 2012 Orioles retained six of their nine regular offensive starters from their previous year’s bad run.
The 2014 Giants retained five full-time positional starters. That fact is a reminder that along with excellent off-season acquisitions there needs to be some foundational chemistry from holdovers. In 2015, there are a few candidates to be that Cinderella club. My favourite: the Chicago White Sox, which went 73-89 in 2014. This year’s version is expected to retain five starters (Adam Eaton, Jose Abreu, Alexei Ramirez, Conor Gillaspie and Tyler Flowers), but buttress that group with great additions like Melky Cabrera and Adam LaRoche.
Great starting pitching at the beginning of the season doesn’t necessarily mean World Series glory at the end. It’s a baseball cliché that pitching wins ballgames. I won’t quibble with that maxim other than to say it’s hard to gauge how what appears to be a great pitching staff in April will pan out in October.
Exhibit A: The 2011 Philadelphia Phillies. That team had what was considered one of the best rotations in modern memory with superstars Roy Hallady, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels and Roy Oswalt. Sure enough, those four led the team to 102 wins in the regular season. Nevertheless, the club didn’t even make it out of the National League Division Series round, losing to the St. Louis Cardinals. The reason: neither Oswalt nor Lee delivered in their NLDS appearances (both posted 7.50 ERAs). This is particularly relevant for Washington Nationals’ fans, who understandably are pumped to have a 2015 starting staff of Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Jordan Zimmermann and Doug Fister. But be warned: Even if they stay healthy, I wouldn’t buy a World Series championship t-shirts just yet.