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Both the Cubs and the Indians have reasons to be optimistic heading into Game 7

November 2, 2016 Leave a comment

1205px-2016-world-series-svgEveryone is excited for Game 7 of the World Series tonight. Rightfully so, and I am as well, but I’m also feeling a bit glummy with the realization that this is the final meaningful baseball game for five months (unless you count the World Baseball Classic in March, which my baseball-starved mind definitely will come that time). 

One game left, and what a game it is. Two very worthy teams with — in case you hadn’t heard — two lifetime-spanning championship droughts. One from each side will fall tonight. Which ones? I’m not going to make a pick; let’s just enjoy the game without predictions. However, both the Cubs and the Indians should be supremely confident that they will feel the sweet, sweet burn of champagne in their eyes by the end of the night. Here’s why.

Chicago Cubs

Another late-series surge by the offense

Cub Fan was freaking out after Chicago’s loss in Game 3 of the NLCS. After being shut down by Rich Hill and the Dodgers, the Cubs trailed in the series, 2-1, and had scored one run in the previous two games. 

Then came Game 4. Anthony Rizzo and Addison Russell, who were in the slumpiest of slumps, both homered and the Cubs rolled from there. They won the next three games with the help of 23 runs (17 earned). 

This all feels familiar because the Cubs’ bats had taken an early winter hibernation for most of the World Series as well. That lasted until yesterday’s Game 6. Buoyed once again by an offense highlighted by home runs from Rizzo and Russell, the Cubs won easily, 9-3. We’ve seen very recently how this attack can heat up in a hurry and stay hot. It took care of Clayton Kershaw on short rest just 11 days ago, so what’s the big challenge of facing Corey Kluber on short rest (again) when this lineup is clicking?

They have their own advantage in the bullpen

The Indians have the better overall bullpen, sure. But tonight being Game 7 and all, everyone who can throw a pitch is available. That’s good news for the Cubs since, if Joe Maddon’s usage of Aroldis Chapman in the past two games is any evidence, they could use some more trustworthy arms in the ‘pen. So how about Jon Lester and John Lackey in relief? No matter how it works out after starter Kyle Hendricks departs, that looks good on paper. Both are World Series winners. As for Lester, it would be pretty cool to see the possible 2016 National League Cy Young Award winner come into the game in the sixth or seventh inning. Lackey, you may remember pitched one-run ball over five innings in a World Series Game 7 as a rookie. Granted, that was 14 years ago, but the point remains that he won’t have any stage fright if called upon. Cleveland’s bullpen is better, but the Cubs’ bullpen is as deep and has more talent than ever before tonight.

Aroldis Chapman is available

I am one of the millions who disagreed with how Maddon used Chapman in Game 6. Bringing him in during the middle of a seventh inning for the second consecutive game seemed like an unnecessary reach. Doing so with a five-run lead seemed like overkill. But I’m not concerned with how it will affect him tonight. Yes, he has thrown four innings and 62 pitches over the past three days. He has logged 6.1 innings and 102 pitches in this series, which he didn’t appear in until Game 2. 

And I really don’t think it matters all that much. The Cubs will call upon Chapman whenever they feel like it tonight, and he will try to give them what they want. He and his fastball will be amped, that’s for sure. Pain be damned. I wouldn’t be shocked if he is asked to get more than three outs. As a free agent-to-be and one who likely won’t be re-signing with Chicago during the winter, the Cubs will fire the Cuban Missile for as long as they can. 

They were the best team this season

The regular season may mean nothing now, but if the Cubs want a mental boost before tonight’s game, they need to remember how they got here: 103 wins. Third-most runs scored in the league. Fewest runs allowed. Largest run differential by more than 60. The better team doesn’t always win, but the Cubs should remind themselves that obtaining that lofty win total didn’t just happen by chance. 

Cleveland Indians

They are playing at home

This actually might be a plus for the Cubs given that the away team is 4-2 in this series, Chicago brings a massive fan base to every city, and we just saw in Game 6 how quickly the home-field advantage can be squashed. But if you gave each team the option of where they would want to be playing Game 7 of a World Series, of course they would pick their home yard, for good reason. The Indians had the league’s second-best home record during the regular season, tied with the Rangers and the Dodgers at 53-28. Only the Cubs were better at 57-24. For what it’s worth, the Cubs also carry MLB’s best road record, 46-34. That’s what happens when you win 103 games!

Home field isn’t worth much, but it’s nice to have in the most important game of the season. For some players, it will be the most important game of their career.

Corey Kluber is dang good

He’s on short rest for the second time in as many starts, and this will be the Cubs’ third look at him in eight days. OK, I got it.

Counterpoint: Corey Kluber is still a beast.

He has allowed just three runs over 30.1 innings this postseason while compiling a 0.99 WHIP and a 35:8 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Chicago got to him in the first inning of Game 4 for a run on two hits, but then Kuber didn’t allow a runner past second base for the rest of his outing. A first-inning pounce is probably a big key to a Cubs victory tonight. As we’ve seen already, Kluber can dominate on three days rest once he settles in. If that happens, look out, because …

Miller, Shaw and Allen are locked and loaded

What’s a good nickname we can give this trio? Miller had it so easy with “ABC” as a member of the Yankees. The possible three-initial combinations just don’t work as well here. Sigh ….

Anyway, while I don’t think using Aroldis Chapman in Game 6 puts the Cubs at a clear disadvantage for tonight, the Indians staying away from their Big Three on Tuesday leaves them in an absolutely perfect situation IF they can just be leading after five innings.

Kluber for 5, Andrew Miller for 2, Bryan Shaw for 1, Cody Allen for 1. 

Or Kluber for 6, Miller for 2, Allen for 1.

Or Kluber for 5, Miller for 4. Truly, the Indians should keep Miller in the game until he gives up consecutive hits or he tears his shoulder out — whichever comes first, and my money’s on the shoulder giving way. The run that he gave up in Game 4 was the first and only one he has allowed in 25.1 career postseason innings.

Miller has had three days off; Shaw and Allen have had two. Here is their collective pitching line for these playoffs:

38 innings, 27 hits, five runs (four earned), 11 walks, 62 strikeouts. That’s a 0.95 ERA and a 1.00 WHIP.

If the Indians are leading once the sixth inning arrives and lose this game, it will be pretty surprising.

One more baseball game for the next five months. It should be one to remember.

2016 Baseball Hall of Fame election: A great day for Griffey Jr., Piazza and many others

January 7, 2016 Leave a comment

 

109347Going into Wednesday, I held out hope that we might see a quartet of players inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame for the second straight year. Two players did get in — obvious choices in Ken Griffey Jr. and Mike Piazza — but the day’s results brought good news for not only them but for a bunch of players who hope to join them in Cooperstown at some point in the near future.

Griffey Jr. fell just three votes shy of becoming the Hall’s first-ever unanimous inductee. At first, I really wanted to know which three dummies left Junior off of their ballot, but finding such an answer isn’t important. It will be remembered that Griffey Jr., the Player of the ’90s, registered the highest voting percentage in Hall history: 99.32. The abstaining 0.68 percent will live on only in the form of a sports bar trivia question. And that’s a stretch.

As long as you get elected into the Hall, that is what matters. It’s a pass-fail grading system. Percentages are good for ego-stroking (and Griffey Jr. deserved his high vote total), but anyone who surpasses that 75 percent induction threshold will always be regarded as just as worthy as any other player with a bust in the museum.

Piazza, a dominating talent at the catcher position who had to wait too long to enter the Hall (Piazza will have company in that highly specific category, but I’ll get to that later), was listed on 83 percent of the ballots in his fourth year of eligibility. There’s no doubt that Piazza should have been elected in fewer than four years, but baseless steroid associations (concerns? assumptions? aspersions?) hindered his trek. That’s a shame, but again, it doesn’t really matter now because he’s in.

Although every other player fell short of 75 percent, many of them can probably smile tonight as they think about their future chances for induction. In this first election since the HOF culled the voting base of well more than 100 people who had not held active status with the Baseball Writers Association of America since the days when Morgan Ensberg was an All-Star, plenty of players saw their odds of reaching the Hall greatly improve.

Player Ballot year 2016 vote % 2015 vote % % difference
         
Mike Mussina 3rd 24.6 43.0 18.4
Edgar Martinez 7th 27.0 43.4 16.4
Jeff Bagwell 6th 55.7 71.6 15.9
Alan Trammell 15th 25.1 40.9 15.8
Tim Raines 9th 55.0 69.8 14.8
Curt Schilling 4th 39.2 52.3 13.1
Mike Piazza 4th 69.9 83.0 13.1
Fred McGriff 7th 12.9 20.9 8.0
Roger Clemens 4th 37.5 45.2 7.7
Barry Bonds 4th 36.8 44.3 7.5

When you see players jumping up 15, 16, 18 percentage points, understand what a gigantic leap that is. From 2014 to 2015, Schilling garnered the largest positive difference in percentage points at +10.0. From 2012 to 2013 — when the ballot was wide open and no one ended up getting elected — Dale Murphy gained the most ground during his final year of eligibility. However, it was just 4.1 percentage points, up to 18.6 percent.

Cutting all of that “dead wood” had a significant positive impact on the voting. Leaving just the baseball people to vote on baseball’s hall of fame resulted in more votes for worthy players and the greater likelihood that more players will see their enshrinement day come before their 10 years on the ballot has passed.

I don’t think I’ve seen a Baseball Hall of Fame vote in recent years that carried less controversy than Wednesday’s, largely due to those massive point gains.

Griffey Jr. got in at nearly 100 percent. Awesome.

Piazza got in by a healthy margin. He should have been in sooner, but cool.

Bagwell and Raines still have work to do, but given where they sit after the 2016 vote, it’s pretty easy to assume that they will get the call in 2017. That year will also be Raines’ final one on the ballot, so you know he’ll get some sentimental votes.

Trevor Hoffman was named on 67.3 percent of ballots in his first year. His time is coming.

Edgar Martinez, with only three years left on the ballot, probably doesn’t have enough time to gain 30 percentage points, but with the advances made by Mussina and Schilling, their candidacy is looking very strong, even if they have to wait past 2017. They will be taking just their fourth and fifth turns on the ballot, respectively.

In previous years, there’s been a ton of debate directly following the Hall of Fame announcement about who got jobbed, why voters are stupid not to vote for Player X and yada, yada, yada.

On Wednesday, there wasn’t much of that at all because the players who should have definitely gotten in did. And those who didn’t but deserve to — Raines, Bagwell, Hoffman, Schilling, Mussina — probably will and soon. So why complain about something that’s damn near inevitable anyway?

It was a little odd to not hear that much noise. 

Helping those on the outside looking in are the newcomers to the ballot in 2017 and beyond. Frankly, there is not a ton to love here.

Next year, Vladimir Guerrero, Ivan Rodriguez and Manny Ramirez will land on the ballot. I think Vlad can get in on his first try if for no other reason than this looks like a line drive in the box score, but it also wouldn’t surprise me if he falls between the 60-70 percentile.

Even with the more knowledgeable voting base, “Pudge” will probably get the Mike Piazza treatment: Totally deserving of your 75 percent but will probably have to wait because of PED anxiety (worries? connections? accusations?). Give him 2-3 years.

M176-461bkanny? Nope. Even the biggest apologist for Bonds and Clemens (I haven’t forgotten about them) won’t let him pass through the gates.

In 2018, Chipper Jones is a no-brainer, but what about Jim Thome? Will his 612 home runs be devalued by his lack of versatility and defense? Will the “slugger” tag hurt him?

In 2019, Mariano Rivera. But Roy Halladay and/or Todd Helton???

There have been seven first-ballot Hall of Famers in the past three votes. But over the next three, we might see only three or four at most. That leaves a lot of smart people with a lot of blank spaces to fill with the names of a lot of excellent players. And those players minus Raines have plenty of years to stump for votes.

Let’s finish this up by talking about the two most polarizing names on this year’s list and assess their chances of ever being inducted in Cooperstown: Barry Bonds and Roger Clemens.

I would vote for them. I don’t know if that makes me whatever a “Big Hall” guy is, but they are two generation-defining ballplayers who would have made it into the Hall if their careers had ended before the earliest record of them allegedly taking performance-enhancing drugs. Oh, and this is a good time to mention that, unlike your Mannys, your McGwires, your Palmerios, any talk of Clemens’ or Bonds’ PED use also has to include some form of the word “alleged.” With all of the dot-connecting that’s gone on, there is still no PED admission or otherwise solid proof with Clemens or Bonds.

That’s not to say that they didn’t take banned substances. I’m sure they did (as did many, many, many of their peers). But baseball never caught them. They never tested positive. That has to play a role into their candidacies.

But more to the point about how this year’s voting affects Clemens and Bonds. I’ve heard some people say that their seven-point jump is not enough, that they needed a bigger boost in order to clear the 75 percent hurdle. I disagree with this for a couple of reasons.

One: Time. It’s been a theme in this post. Like Schilling, Clemens and Bonds just finished their fourth years on the ballot. I know they each still need to gain about 30 or so percentage points and that’s a lot of votes, but they have time. After Tim Raines’ fourth go-around, he was at 37.5 percent. Bagwell was at 54.3 percent after his fourth year, and that was 2014. Now, once a player held down by PED chatter (whispers? conjecture? suggestions?), it’s basically a foregone conclusion that Bagwell will be making a speech in Cooperstown during the summer of 2017. That honor will be bestowed upon him during his seventh year as a candidate. In other words, with time to spare.

Time also has a tendency to make us gloss over the ugly and complicated parts of a person’s life. With time, perhaps the voters will do the same when it comes to Bonds’ and Clemens’ baseball lives and reflect more on their undeniable greatness.

Two: Bonds and Clemens will make it to Cooperstown with an addition of only about five percentage points over each of the next six years. And as stated above, the next few years aren’t exactly filled to the brim with obvious candidates for induction. Once Hoffman, Bagwell, Raines and possibly Guerrero graduate in 2017, I expect Bonds and Clemens to receive significantly more support because these smart baseball writers are going to have to vote for someone. Without a bevy of attractive new options available, I think more and more voters will give these two their HOF due. 

It may take until 2022, when David Ortiz’s name will probably appear for the first time on a Hall of Fame ballot, but I believe Bonds and Clemens will have their day in Cooperstown. And what a day that will be.