NLCS Prediction and Preview: Los Angeles Dodgers vs. St. Louis Cardinals

Games, History, Management, Players, Playoffs, Stats, World Series

Los Angeles Dodgers (92-70) vs. St. Louis Cardinals (97-65)

Keys for the Dodgers: Get into the Cardinals’ bullpen; stop Carlos Beltran; mitigate the Cardinals’ big post-season performers; coax manager Mike Matheny into mistakes.

The Cardinals’ strength lies in its hot playoff performers and the starting pitching of Adam Wainwright, Michael Wacha and the potential of Joe Kelly. The Dodgers must get the starting pitchers’ pitch counts up to dig into the Cardinals’ weak point: the bullpen. The Dodgers have the depth in their offense to get to the Cardinals. They might, however, not have the patience to get their pitch counts up. They like to swing the bat and that might not be the best possible strategy against these Cardinals pitchers.

Beltran is a very good to great player during the regular season. In the post-season, he becomes a historic player. For his career against current Dodgers’ pitchers, Beltran has hammered Ronald Belisario and Ricky Nolasco. In the playoffs, it doesn’t matter who’s on the mound, Beltran is a constant threat. To the dismay and disgust of Mets fans, that excludes Wainwright, who he won’t hit against because they’re teammates. If the Dodgers stop Beltran, they have a great chance of stopping the Cardinals.

The other Cardinals’ post-season performers have history of their own against the Dodgers’ pitchers. Matt Holliday has the following numbers against some of the Dodgers’ top arms:

Clayton Kershaw: .303 batting average; .465 OBP; .424 slugging; two homers.

Zack Greinke: .346 batting average; .393 OBP; .577 slugging; two homers.

Nolasco: .462 batting average; .481 OBP; .885 slugging; two homers.

David Freese is hitting .333 vs. Greinke; and 500 vs. Nolasco.

Manager Matheny has done some strange things in his time as manager, especially with the bullpen and he doesn’t have a closer. He could be coaxed into panicky mistakes.

Keys for the Cardinals: Hope the Dodgers pitch Nolasco; lean on their playoff performers; get depth from the starters; hope the games don’t come down to the bullpen.

Nolasco is listed as the game four starter. We’ll see if that actually happens. If the Dodgers are down two games to one in the series when game four rolls around, I can’t imagine them pitching Nolasco with the numbers the Cardinals’ hitters have against him. In addition to Holliday, Beltran, Daniel Descalso, Jon Jay and Freese have all battered him as well. If he pitches, the Cardinals’ history says they’re going to bash him.

With the Cardinals, there can’t be any discussion without referencing Wainwright, Beltran, Molina, Holiday and Freese with their post-season performances. Very few teams can boast these prime time players.

Apparently, Trevor Rosenthal is going to close for the Cardinals. Matheny – with good reason – doesn’t trust seasonlong closer Edward Mujica. Rosenthal throws very hard, but was shaky in his save chance against the Pirates in the NLDS. Matheny will push his starters as deep as he can.

What will happen:

The Cardinals barely got past the Pirates and much of that was due to the Pirates’ lack of experience in games of this magnitude. The Dodgers won’t have the lack of experience going against them. With their lineup, the Dodgers will feast on the Cardinals’ bullpen. Kershaw and Greinke can match Wainwright and Wacha. Kelly is a complete unknown and the Dodgers have the veteran hitters – Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez, Juan Uribe, Hanley Ramirez – to get at the Cardinals pitchers, especially their relievers.

If this series comes down to a battle of the bullpens, the Dodgers have a distinct advantage with Brian Wilson and Kenley Jansen at the back end. The Dodgers’ bats have some post-season experience, but nothing in comparison to that of the Cardinals. The Dodgers’ bats aren’t youngsters, so it’s unlikely they’ll be intimidated. And Yasiel Puig isn’t intimidated by anything. In fact, he’s the type of player who’ll relish the spotlight and want to show off in front of Beltran.

The Dodgers have too much starting pitching, too deep a bullpen and too good a lineup. The Cardinals are a “sum of their parts” team. The Dodgers have the star power and depth where it counts.

PREDICTION: DODGERS IN FIVE

NLCS MVP: YASIEL PUIG




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Berkman A Great Signing For The Rangers On All Levels (If He’s Healthy)

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Lance Berkman is a great signing with limited risk for the Rangers. Let’s take a look at why.

He’s can still hit

Berkman, even at age 37, can still hit the ball out of the park and walks a lot. In his down years, Berkman’s on base percentage was consistently 120 points above his batting average. Last season, he missed a chunk of the season with knee surgery, but in 2011 he signed with the Cardinals, agreeing to play the outfield and losing the requisite weight to make it possible. His defense, while not good, was reasonable and he caught all the balls he could reach. Offensively, for the eventual World Series champions, Berkman was a low-priced and excellent bookend for the other Cardinals power bats Albert Pujols and Matt Holliday. For the Rangers, he’ll benefit from their friendly hitters’ park and wind up being a superior acquisition than trading the assets to get a Justin Upton, as well as a more cost-effective option than overpaying as the Red Sox did for Mike Napoli and Shane Victorino.

The knee problem and durability

Berkman has had issues with both knees in his career. For most players, this would be viewed as significant, but without this knowledge and looking at his annual tally of games played combined with consistent power and production, few would know he was ever injured at all.

Every season from the time he became a fulltime big leaguer in 2001 until 2011, he played in at least 145 games in eight of those seasons; the years he didn’t were 2005 (132 games), 2009 (136 games), and 2010 (122 games).

Can he be expected to play every single day in 2013? Probably not. But the Rangers should expect 125-135 with 25 homers and a .380+ OBP.

The Rangers needs

The talk of Berkman only being effective as a left-handed hitter is silly, but righty power wasn’t a glaring need for the Rangers with Nelson Cruz, Adrian Beltre and Ian Kinsler in their lineup. Berkman’s nowhere near as good batting righty as he is lefty, but with the loss of Josh Hamilton, the Rangers main need offensively was power from the left side of the plate. They solved that problem by signing A.J. Pierzynski and Berkman. They’ve also excised Michael Young from the lineup. Given how bad Young was last season, pretty much anything would’ve been a suitable replacement or an improvement.

They’ve lost guaranteed production because Hamilton’s not there, but in the long-term the money and risk they saved (and that was taken up by their division rival Angels) gives them financial and logistic freedoms they wouldn’t have had if they were saddled with the landmine-laden albatross of Hamilton.

They’ll need Mike Olt to produce in his shift to the outfield, but their lineup as it stands will hit enough for them to contend.

Money

One year at $11 million for Berkman compared with Mike Napoli’s (still uncompleted) $39 million contract with the Red Sox is a no-brainer advantage for the Rangers. They saved $6 million in dumping Young (paying $10 million toward his contract when he was traded to the Phillies), have the Hamilton allocation of around $20-25 million annually to play with, and signed Pierzynski for $7.5 million.

Tallying it up, the annual payout of $40-45 million vs. the $24 million they’re spending with these new players and the contribution to Young’s deal, it’s a significant savings for the Rangers and they’re still around a 90+ win team with room to operate from now to mid-season to make other additions.

The bottom line

A few weeks ago, as the Rangers lost out on Zack Greinke, Hamilton, Napoli and refused to surrender the package the Diamondbacks were demanding for Upton, there was panic stricken fear that the Rangers window was closed and they needed to rebuild. Instead, circumstance has smiled on them and they’ve filled their holes in a far less expensive fashion, altered their clubhouse to an edgier place and are still a legitimate playoff contender.

That edginess could be viewed as dangerous, but the Rangers core had been together for so long that perhaps the feisty personalities of Pierzynski and Berkman will liven the place up.

The key with Berkman is that troublesome knee. If he’s physically unable to perform, it was still worth the risk considering the Rangers limited options.

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Jason Bay and the Mets: Fact and Fiction

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Like a marriage of convenience, the Mets and Jason Bay wound up together before the 2010 season because the Mets were desperate to make a splash in free agency and needed a bat and Bay had nowhere else to go. They had something akin to a prenuptial agreement in terms of a 4-year contract. Since it went badly from both sides, they mutually ended their relationship yesterday as the sides agreed to an early termination of the contract. Bay will collect his full salary of $21 million and the Mets will get some relief due to deferments. Bay will be a free agent.

Of course, upon this news, the “experts” on social media who “predicted” Bay’s disastrous tenure with the Mets popped out of the woodwork and sought to bolster their credibility by referencing that which they “knew” would happen.

They didn’t predict anything. Let’s look at the implications at the time of the signing and the reality of Bay’s time with the Mets to see—factually—what went wrong and why.

The Mets overpaid for a flawed player with injury questions

I was onboard with the Bay signing. Having put up consistent power numbers in a bad hitters’ ballpark with the Pirates, handling the pressure and having an MVP caliber season and a half with the Red Sox, and being a well-liked individual made Bay a reasonable signing for the Mets. Much has been made of the Red Sox decision to let Bay leave after his 2009 season in which he had 36 homers and a .921 OPS and won a Silver Slugger. These power numbers were not a byproduct of playing in Fenway Park either because his home/road splits were relatively even with more homers on the road than he had at home. Bay’s health was said to be in question with the Red Sox doing what the Red Sox do and ripping a loyal player as he’s heading out the door. “His knees were bad; his shoulders were bad; and he was a poor outfielder.”

At least that’s what the Red Sox leaked. In its aftermath, Peter Gammons discussed the Bay situation on a radio show. You can read the transcript here and never once was his production said to be a worry. They didn’t avoid him due to an expected statistical decline; they didn’t sign him because they didn’t think he’d stay healthy. With the Mets, he spent substantial time on the disabled list, but it wasn’t because of his knees or shoulder—he kept running into walls and banging his head. He played the outfield well and was a good baserunner. He just stopped hitting and walking.

Health-wise, Bay had played in at least 145 games from 2005 through 2009. Injuries were not an issue until he got to the Mets and the injuries that the Red Sox were supposedly concerned about were non-factors in Bay’s stints on the disabled list with the Mets.

Options at the time and the Mets situation

The other big name outfielder on the market was Matt Holliday. Holliday has been a great offensive player with the Cardinals and received three more guaranteed years from the Cardinals with $55 million more in guaranteed money. He’s a hideous outfielder and was not going to the Mets unless they blew away that contract, which they were not going to do. At that time, the Mets were still perceived as contenders and their GM Omar Minaya knew that he was on his last chance in the job. He did something desperate that wound up being a mistake, but was it “predicted”? Maybe some thought Bay would struggle in the latter years, but no one—no one!!!—could have expected his dreadful three years as a Met in the way it happened.

Questionable assertions of predictably declining skill sets

More nonsense.

I was once in the camp of comparing players to one another based on factors that bypassed the individual and it is occasionally applicable, but the Yu Darvish debate changed my mind. Many were implying that they weren’t going to pursue Darvish because of the failure of another highly promoted Japanese import Daisuke Matsuzaka. But think about how ridiculous that is. It’s like saying a player with first round potential from North Carolina is automatically excluded because Brien Taylor was from North Carolina, got hurt and was a bust for the Yankees. It makes no sense.

If a player was a PED creation, then it was a predictable fall. Bay has never been implicated with PEDs, although anything is possible. Bay was a 22nd round draft choice of the Expos in 2000 who suddenly blossomed. He bounced from the Expos organization to the Mets to the Padres to the Pirates before getting a big league opportunity at age 25. Was there something we don’t know that accounted for his burst? Maybe. Unless there’s a PED revelation, Bay will be saddled with his career coming undone on its own merits or lack thereof.

Bay was a player who hit home runs and walked. There are reasons a slugger accomplishes this. First, he has to have a good command of the strike zone. Second, the league has to realize he has a good command of the strike zone and know that he’s not going to chase pitches. Third, he has to hit the ball out of the park making it necessary for the pitcher to be careful with him for fear of making a mistake and giving up a home run, leading to more walks.

With the Mets, once Bay displayed that he couldn’t catch up to a good fastball, pitchers challenged him. His numbers plummeted. This is not a new phenomenon with power hitters whose skills erode. Some, like Raul Ibanez, are able to cheat on fastballs by starting their swings earlier and still produce. Others, like Bay, are unable to adapt. This was a roll of the dice to see if he’d maintain some semblance of usefulness to the Mets in the last two years of his deal and he didn’t. Would it be reasonable to look at his numbers and suggest that he’d drop from 30 homers to 18; in RBI from 120 to 85; and slow down in the field? Yes. Would it be reasonable to think he’d hit .165? No. It’s idiotic second guessing.

The lesson

Given the lack of bat speed and inability to hit anything other than mediocre pitching if everything is working right, I wouldn’t expect much from Bay no matter where he signs. Perhaps if he goes to a good hitters park where he can platoon, that club (the Red Sox, Rangers, Orioles) will get something from Bay, but his days as an All-Star and MVP candidate are over. In today’s game, players lose it in their mid-30s. The days of a player getting exponentially better from the ages of 35-40 ended with drug testing. We’ll see more of this unless teams learn not to overpay for players in those years and it won’t be predicted, it will be inherent.

There is no lesson other than making sure that the baseball people are secure enough in their jobs that they don’t do desperate things to save themselves like the Mets and Minaya did with Bay; making sure that players who don’t want to be in a certain location are lured by an amount of money too large to refuse, especially when they have no other options. Like most shotgun weddings, it went badly. It ended prematurely and expensively to the club and to Bay’s reputation. Don’t make it anything more than that.

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The Giants Do It Old School

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With the tiered playoff system, single game play-ins, and short series, two World Series titles in three years counts as a dynasty in today’s game. By that metric, the San Francisco Giants are a new-age dynasty. That they accomplished this with decidedly old-school principles in the era of stat-based dominance and condescension, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michael Lewis—the chronicler of the paragon of stat-based theories of Billy Beane in Moneyball—step over Beane and saunter over to Giants’ GM Brian Sabean and declare that he always knew there were alternate methods to success in baseball, but simply forgot to say it; that Moneyball was about more than just numbers and Ivy League educated “geniuses” permeating (or infecting) baseball morphing front offices from cigar-chomping old men using randomness into put their teams together to something resembling a Star Trek convention. It was actually about value and was not a denigration of alternate methods to finding players.

Of course that would be a lie, but truth has never stood in the way of Lewis when he has an ending in mind and is willing to do whatever necessary to get to that ending—accuracy be damned.

The boxing promoter Don King was famous for his sheer and unending audacity in this vein of going with the winner, exemplified early in his career as a boxing promoter (and not long after his release from prison) when he walked to the ring with then-heavyweight champion Joe Frazier and rapidly switched allegiances to George Foreman when Foreman knocked Frazier out. King magically emerged as part of the celebration in Foreman’s corner.

But King is a genius and Lewis isn’t. In fact, King wallowed in his amorality; Lewis doesn’t realize what he’s doing is amoral to begin with. Masked by legitimacy and critical acclaim, Lewis is far worse than King could ever be.

Because the Athletics had a shocking season in which they won 94 games and made the playoffs, losing to the AL Champion Tigers in 5 games, Lewis and Moneyball again entered the spotlight as if the 2012 A’s validated a long-ago disproved narrative. As this Slate article by Tim Marchman shows, such is not the case.

Had the Athletics been as awful as many—me included—predicted, would Lewis have abandoned his vessel out of convenience? Or would have have stuck with Beane still trying to find a reptilian method of explaining away the fall of Moneyball?

I’ll guess on the latter, but don’t discount the possibility of a new book extolling the virtues of Sabean; his veteran manager with the 1880s-style mustache and grumbly voice, Bruce Bochy; and the way the Giants championship club was built.

Before that can happen, let’s get in front of whatever the latecomers and opportunists try to pull and examine how this team was put together.

Players acquired through the draft

Brandon Crawford, SS

Crawford was taken in the 4th round of the 2008 draft out of UCLA. He received a $375,000 signing bonus.

Brandon Belt, 1B

Belt was selected in the 5th round of the 2009 draft out of the University of Texas at Austin. He received a $200,000 signing bonus.

Buster Posey, C

Posey was drafted from Florida State University in the 1st round with the 5th pick by the Giants in the 2008 draft. He received a record (at the time) signing bonus of $6.2 million.

Sergio Romo, RHP

Romo was drafted in the 28th round of the 2005 draft out of Mesa State College in Colorado. Romo took over for injured star closer Brian Wilson and was brilliant.

Madison Bumgarner, LHP

Bumgarner was drafted in the 1st round of the 2007 draft with the 10th pick out South Caldwell High School in Hudson, North Carolina. He received a $2 million bonus.

Tim Lincecum, RHP

Lincecum was drafted from the University of Washington in the 1st round of the 2006 draft with the 10th pick. He received a $2.025 million signing bonus.

Matt Cain, RHP

Cain was taken in the 1st round (25th pick) of the 2002 draft—the “Moneyball” draft that was documented by Lewis as exhibit A of stat guy “genius” from Paul DePodesta’s laptop. He was taken out of high school in Tennessee—exhibit B of “mistakes” that clubs make when drafting players because selecting high school pitchers was presented as the epitome of risk and stupidity.

Cain received a $1.375 million signing bonus. The A’s took Joe Blanton out of college the pick before Cain. Blanton received a $1.4 million signing bonus.

Acquired via free agency

Pablo Sandoval, 3B

Sandoval was signed by the Giants out of Venezuela as an amateur free agent at age 17 in 2003.

Gregor Blanco, OF

The veteran journeyman Blanco signed a minor league contract with the Giants after spending the entire 2011 season in Triple A with the Nationals and Royals. He was an integral part of the Giants’ championship team with speed, defense, and a key homer in the NLDS comeback against the Reds.

Ryan Vogelsong, RHP

Vogelsong’s signing was mostly luck helped along by opportunity and the alteration of his game under pitching coach Dave Righetti. Vogelsong was a journeyman who has become a post-season star and rotation stalwart at age 35.

Jeremy Affeldt, LHP

Affeldt was signed as a free agent from the Reds in 2008.

Ryan Theriot, INF

Theriot signed a 1-year, $1.25 million contract before the 2012 season.

Aubrey Huff, 1B/OF/PH

Huff was a low-cost free agent signing in 2010 and was a large part of the World Series title that year. He re-signed for 2-years and $22 million and didn’t contribute on the field to the 2012 title.

Barry Zito, LHP

The Giants were in need of a star to replace Barry Bonds as they rebuilt from the “Build around Bonds” days and Zito was the biggest name available in the winter of 2006-2007. They signed him to a 7-year, $126 million contract that has $27 million guaranteed remaining for 2013. A pitcher being paid that amount of money is expected to be an ace, but Zito has been a back-of-the-rotation starter at best and was left off the 2010 post-season roster entirely. In 2012, he won 14 games and picked up the slack for the slumping Lincecum and Bumgarner to help the Giants win their 2012 championship.

Santiago Casilla, RHP

Casilla was signed as a free agent in 2009 after the Athletics non-tendered him.

Joaquin Arias, INF

Arias signed a minor league contract before the 2012 season. People forget about this, but in the Alex Rodriguez trade from the Rangers to the Yankees, the Yankees offered the Rangers a choice between Arias and Robinson Cano.

Neither the Yankees nor the Rangers knew what Cano was.

It was Arias’s defense at third base on the last out that helped save Cain’s perfect game in June.

Guillermo Mota, RHP

Mota has been with the Giants for three seasons and signed a 1-year, $1 million contract for 2012.

Hector Sanchez, C

Sanchez was signed as an amateur free agent out of Venezuela in 2009.

Players acquired via trade

Melky Cabrera, OF

The contribution of Cabrera will be debated forever considering he failed a PED test and was suspended for the second half of the season. He was eligible to be reinstated for the playoffs, but the Giants chose not to do that. It was Cabrera’s All-Star Game MVP performance that wound up giving the Giants home field advantage for the World Series

Cabrera was an important factor in the first half of the season, but the Giants were 62-51 with Cabrera on the active roster and 32-17 without him. The Giants’ success was based on their pitching more than anything else and they won the World Series without Cabrera.

Cabrera was acquired from the Royals for Jonathan Sanchez, who was talented and inconsistent with the Giants and outright awful for the Royals.

Javier Lopez, LHP

Lopez was acquired from the Pirates in July of 2010 and was a key lefty specialist on the two title-winning teams.

Angel Pagan, CF

Pagan was acquired from the Mets for center fielder Andres Torres and righty reliever Ramon Ramirez. Pagan had a fine year at the plate and in the field, leading the majors in triples with 15 and stealing 29 bases including the one in the World Series that got everyone a free taco from Taco Bell.

George Kontos, RHP

The Yankees traded Kontos to the Giants for backup catcher Chris Stewart. Kontos is a solid reliever who’s more useful than a no-hit catcher.

Hunter Pence, RF

Pence was acquired from the Phillies for minor league pitcher Seth Rosin, catcher Tommy Joseph, and veteran big league outfielder Nate Schierholtz. The Giants are set at catcher, so Joseph was expendable. Pence had a .671 OPS in 59 games with the Giants, but it was his stirring, wild-eyed speech before game 3 of the NLDS against the Reds that was widely credited by teammates as waking them up to make their comeback. His teammates were either inspired or frightened by Pence’s intensity, but whatever it was, it worked.

Marco Scutaro, 2B

Scutaro was almost steamrolled by Matt Holliday of the Cardinals in the NLCS, but he came back from that and batted .500 in that series, winning the MVP. Then he had the game-winning hit in game 4 of the World Series.

Scutaro was acquired from the Rockies in late July for infielder Charlie Culberson.

Manager Bochy was run out of his longtime home as a manager, coach and player with the Padres when the front office wanted someone cheaper and more agreeable to the new age statistics and doing what he was told. Then-Padres team president Sandy Alderson allowed Bochy to interview for the Giants’ job—a division rival no less—and made utterly absurd statements of his policy being to allow his employees to seek other opportunities blah, blah, blah.

The Padres didn’t want Bochy back because Bochy didn’t do what he was told by the stat guys in the front office. In exchange, they got a far inferior manager Bud Black, and the Giants now have two championships and the hardware (and parades) to say there are different methods to use to win. Sometimes those methods work better without the fictionalized accounts in print and on film.

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New Age Collisions and Matt Holliday

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The photo you see above is Graig Nettles kicking George Brett in game 5 of the 1977 ALCS. The Yankees eventually won the game and the pennant. A brawl occurred between the two teams following this incident. No one was kicked out of the game. (Get it?)

If that happened today, someone would have to be thrown out. I think. Although Roger Clemens was allowed to fling a projectile—a broken bat—at Mike Piazza in the 2000 World Series and didn’t get tossed. It’s a fine line between defending oneself and running the risk of getting ejected.

In last night’s game 2 of the NLCS, on a double play attempt, Marco Scutaro of the Giants was nailed and had his hip injured on a takeout slide by Cardinals’ outfielder Matt Holliday.

You can watch it below.

Holliday was past the base and his specific intent was to hit Scutaro hard enough to prevent the double play. He did it cheaply with a dangerous roll block and raised arm making it doubly treacherous for the infielder. This isn’t little league and there’s a reasonable expectation for hard, clean play. Infielders have their own little tricks they use to prevent this from occurring. In general, they use the base for protection because the runner is technically not supposed to pass the base; they also throw the ball sidearm and specifically aim it at the runner’s head (this is taught) so the runner has to get down to avoid getting beaned. Holliday’s play was arguable in its legality/line-crossing because the ball and Holliday arrived nearly simultaneously and Scutaro didn’t have the time to hop out of the way or use the base as protection, nor could he throw the ball at Holliday’s head. Holliday did go past the base to get Scutaro.

It wasn’t overtly illegal, but it was a legal cheap shot.

On the Fox broadcast, Tim McCarver—a former catcher, no stranger to home plate collisions—compared the play to Buster Posey getting leveled by Marlins’ outfielder Scott Cousins in May of 2011. Posey had his ankle broken, needed surgery, and was lost for the season. It was his absence that set forth the chain-of-events that might have cost the Giants a second straight World Series and forced them to search for more offense and surrender their top pitching prospect Zack Wheeler to get Carlos Beltran from the Mets.

There was no comparison between the two hits because what Holliday did was questionable at best and dirty at worst. What Cousins did was within the rules. Rules and propriety don’t always intersect and if that’s the case, then baseball has to step in and clarify the grey areas.

What creates the controversy is that it’s so rare in today’s game. In the Royals-Yankees annual ALCS matchups (4 times in 5 years between 1976 and 1980), Royals’ DH/outfielder Hal McRae took every opportunity to try and send Yankees’ second baseman Willie Randolph into the left field seats and break up a double play. It’s perfectly acceptable for a runner to run into a fielder if he has the ball and is trying to tag him, but the last player I remember doing it was Albert Belle.

With catchers and runners, it’s an old-school play that some former catchers like McCarver, Yankees’ manager Joe Girardi, and Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy would like to see outlawed, while Angels’ manager Mike Scioscia thinks it’s an integral, exciting, and necessary aspect of competition. No one will accuse any of the above ex-players of being wimps. All were tough, but disagree on the subject. Scioscia relished the contact and was the recipient of one of the most brutal collisions I’ve ever seen in 1985 when Jack Clark of the Cardinals barreled into him. Scioscia was knocked out; Clark was staggered as if he’d been he recipient of a George Foreman sledgehammer punch; and Scioscia held onto the ball.

Nobody runs over the catcher anymore. There’s a commercial playing in New York of Derek Jeter crashing into a catcher. When has Jeter ever run into a catcher? It’s almost never done, and when it is, it turns into a national catastrophe if one of the players gets hurt.

The camaraderie and brotherhood among the players also precludes these hard plays. Everyone knows each other now. With the limited degrees of separation and the amount of money at stake, few are willing to take the chance of ruining another player’s career. You don’t see knockdown pitches; you don’t see take-out slides; you don’t see busted double plays; and you don’t see home plate collisions.

It wasn’t an, “I’m trying to hurt you,” play. But an injury was a byproduct. It was legal, yet borderline. If MLB wants to make it illegal or come up with a way to constrain it, then fine. Until then, it’s acceptable. As long as the people in charge fail to make a concrete announcement and provide a clear-cut mandate to the umpires that certain actions won’t be tolerated, there will be players who are willing to do what Holliday did, injured players, and indignant reactions in its aftermath.

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NLCS Preview and Predictions—San Francisco Giants vs St. Louis Cardinals

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San Francisco Giants (94-68; 1st place, NL West; defeated Cincinnati Reds 3 games to 2 in NLDS) vs St. Louis Cardinals (88-74; 2nd place, NL Central; won Wild Card; defeated Atlanta Braves in Wild Card play-in game; defeated Washington Nationals 3 games to 2 in NLDS)

Keys for the Giants: Get depth from their starting pitching; keep the scores low; score tack-on runs; maintain their closer diversity; don’t let Carlos Beltran beat them.

Because they had to win the final 3 games against the Reds to make it to the NLCS, the Giants have listed Madison Bumgarner, Ryan Vogelsong, and Matt Cain as the first three starters in the series. It’s undecided who will go in game 4. I wound start Tim Lincecum, but Barry Zito is an option—a bad option, but still an option. The Cardinals can score in bunches, but the Giants have the starting pitching to turn out the lights on anyone’s offense.

The Giants are no longer the team that couldn’t score and relied on their starting pitching to a desperate degree in recent years. With Buster Posey, the Giants have a weapon in the lineup and behind the plate. That said, they can’t score in bunches with the Cardinals.

Carlos Beltran is a post-season machine. Early in the series I’d pitch around Beltran and make Matt Holliday beat me.

Keys for the Cardinals: Raise the Giants’ starters pitch counts up and get into the bullpen; get a better performance from Adam Wainwright; put up crooked numbers.

The Giants’ bullpen has depth, but they’re still shaky. If the Cardinals can put up big numbers against the starters, they’ll get into the Giants’ bullpen while simultaneously putting a limited offense in the position of having to score a number of runs they’ve shown finite capability in scoring. If the Cardinals put the Giants in a position of playing catch-up, they’ll be in a great position.

Adam Wainwright pitched well in his first start against the Nationals, but got shelled in game 5, nearly costing the Cardinals the series.

What will happen:

The Cardinals escaped the play-in game against the Braves—in part—due to the horrific infield fly call; then they got past the Nationals because the Nats’ bullpen blew up in a stranger-than-fiction manner.

Will that happen against the Giants? The Giants starting pitching is better than that of the Nats and there’s not the bullpen use by rote that doomed the Nationals. If the situation in the ninth inning calls for a lefty, there’s not going to be a “my closer is in the game” from Giants’ manager Bruce Bochy because their true closer, Brian Wilson, is on the disabled list. If the situation calls for Sergio Romo, Romo will pitch; if it calls for Javier Lopez, Lopez will pitch. Some see this as a disadvantage and in the regular season, maybe it is. In the playoffs, it isn’t.

Lance Lynn is starting the opener for the Cardinals. Lynn got off to a blazing first half of the season as a starter, but was sent to the bullpen in August. He seemed to run out of gas. The Giants have an edge in rotation depth and in the bullpen.

The Giants will not let Beltran beat them and if Matt Holliday isn’t hitting, the Cardinals offense is mitigated.

The Cardinals have been functioning with an inexplicable amount of magic and/or luck in the past two years. They’ve gotten by with miraculous comebacks, have lost star players, managers and pitching coaches, taken advantage of unforeseen opportunities, and walked away with a World Series title and are back in the NLCS.

Their luck is going to run out in this NLCS.

PREDICTION: GIANTS IN SIX

NLCS MVP: MADISON BUMGARNER

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Washington Nationals vs St. Louis Cardinals—NLDS Preview and Predictions

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Washington Nationals (98-64; 1st place, NL East) vs St. Louis Cardinals (88-74; 2nd place, NL Central; Won Wild Card Game over Braves)

Keys for the Nats: Don’t be overconfident; get good starting pitching; let the game come to them.

The Nationals have taken the tone of being very impressed with themselves. This stems from their large number of young players who’ve never been in the post-season, nor have they been on clubs that were as dominant as the Nats were in 2012. Manager Davey Johnson has always been somewhat egotistical to say the least. He’s been able to back it up in regular seasons past, but in the playoffs, his clubs have been disappointing considering talent levels.

Gio Gonzalez won 21 games in the regular season and shed the “wild” and “inconsistent” labels he brought with him from the Athletics. He strikes out a lot of hitters, allowed only 9 homers in 199 innings, and had a great innings pitched/hits ratio of 199/149—the entire tone of the series will be set by Gonzalez’s performance. With Stephen Strasburg having been shut down, game 2 falls to Jordan Zimmerman, game 3 to Edwin Jackson, game 4 to Ross Detwiler.

The Nationals will be excited to be in the post-season and with the number of first-timers and young players, there could be an aspect of trying to get it all done at once from the likes of Bryce Harper, Danny Espinosa, and Michael Morse.

Keys for the Cardinals: Take advantage of the Nats’ inexperience; catch the ball; don’t put manager Mike Matheny in a position where his strategic gaffes can cost them.

The Cardinals have plenty of playoff and World Series history behind them from the top of the roster to the bottom. They got by the Braves in the Wild Card play in game with Kyle Lohse starting and now have the battle-tested Adam Wainwright ready for game 1 and Chris Carpenter for game 3. The Cardinals have been here before as heavy underdogs and they’re feisty in their own right so the Nats won’t be able to bully them as Johnson’s teams have been known to do.

The Cardinals defense is not great and they don’t want to give extra outs or miss catchable balls to give the Nats baserunners for the bashers to knock in.

Matheny has no managerial experience and that is a factor when going against one as experienced as Johnson. The more times he’s in a position to make a mistake, the more likely he is to make one.

What will happen:

Gonzalez truly surprised me this season with his Cy Young Award-caliber season, but a game 1 playoff start is a whole new level for him. I still don’t trust his command and if his adrenaline is exploding the Cardinals will take advantage of walks followed by a fat, get-me-over fastball.

Fear and not knowing what to expect will not be a factor for Wainwright or Carpenter. Cardinals’ closer Jason Motte has gotten the big outs in the playoffs and World Series. Nats’ closer Tyler Clippard hasn’t.

The Cardinals are one of the few teams in baseball that have the offense to get into a shootout with the Nationals and win it. Carlos Beltran, David Freese, Matt Holliday, and especially Yadier Molina have—for the most part—relished the playoff spotlight. The Nats’ only key players with post-season experience are the veterans Jayson Werth, Jackson, and Adam LaRoche. It’s not necessarily a key component to winning. It helps more to have good starting pitching and a solid bullpen with an experienced closer. The Nats have the potential in the starting rotation, but I’d like their chances exponentially better if they were pitching Strasburg in the playoffs. They’re not. He’s doing the equivalent of taking violin lessons while his friends are outside playing ball.

Davey Johnson’s teams have a history of regular season dominance, lots of yapping, and a playoff flameout. The Cardinals starting pitching is deeper and more experienced and the offense can score with the Nationals. Those factors will get them through the first round.

PREDICTION: CARDINALS IN FOUR

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National League Wild Card Play-In Game Preview—St. Louis Cardinals at Atlanta Braves

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The starting pitchers are relatively meaningless in a one-game playoff. What’s most important is how the managers handle said pitchers. Will either wait too long before pulling him? Will one or the other panic and pull him too soon? It’s a fine line between letting the pitcher get a feel for the game and gain his bearings or leaving him in to blow the game up before the fans are in their seats.

This is not going to be totally about Cardinals’ starter Kyle Lohse or Braves’ starter Kris Medlen. It’s going to be about which manager hits the panic button and does something he shouldn’t do. Cardinals’ manager Mike Matheny has no post-season managerial experience and Braves’ manager Fredi Gonzalez is prone to gaffes and knee-jerk decisions to make it look like he’s doing something when he should sit back and wait.

The 34-year-old Lohse went 16-3 during the regular season with excellent on-the-surface numbers across the board, but he benefited from a large amount of luck with a .267 BAbip. He allows a fairly high number of homers (19 this season), and the Braves beat him around in their one game against him on May 30th as Freddie Freeman and Brian McCann took him deep. Lohse has a 5.54 ERA in nine post-season appearances. Matheny is adhering to his starting rotation by keeping Lohse in his turn, but Adam Wainwright is rested and in a one-game playoff, 100 out of 100 times, I’d start Wainwright over Lohse. If Lohse gets into trouble, one would assume that Wainwright would be the first one out of the bullpen, but by then it could be too late. Lohse has had a fine year, but Wainwright has the post-season bona fides that Lohse does not have and Wainwright should be the starter.

Medlen has been masterful since joining the starting rotation at the end of July, displaying a control and intelligence that has been compared to that of Greg Maddux, but with better strikeout stuff. He doesn’t allow many homers and has been masterful beyond the Braves’ wildest imagination. My worry with Medlen would be that he’s too amped up for the start and loses his feel for the strike zone, using the adrenaline to try and blow fastballs past fastball hitters in the Cardinals lineup such as Carlos Beltran, Matt Holliday, and David Freese. The Cardinals also have players who relish the post-season spotlight in Yadier Molina, Freese, and Allen Craig.

The divergent personalities and strategies in the dugout are likely to come into play if either starting pitcher gets into trouble early. Matheny is more likely to stick with Lohse; Gonzalez will have a quicker hook with Medlen and it could be a mistake on both ends.

In a battle of the bullpens, I trust the Braves contingent led by the searing fastball of Craig Kimbrel along with their set-up men than I do that of the Cardinals, whose bullpen has been a recurrent problem. Watch for Edward Mujica’s entrance into the game—he surrendered one homer since joining the Cardinals, but is notoriously homer-prone. In a late, close game, someone’s going to take him deep.

I have little faith in Lohse in spite of his fine season. As long as Gonzalez doesn’t do anything loony such as call for a squeeze play with the bases loaded or something similarly deranged and self-sabotaging, the Braves have too many weapons and the better pitching from start to end.

PREDICTION: BRAVES 7—CARDINALS 2

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Poor Billy

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So you’re trapped in a division with two powerhouses.

You play in an awful, antiquated and uninviting home park that, in spite of your best efforts, will never be suitably habitable for your baseball team, has few amenities and won’t attract the casual fans, season ticket holders and suite buyers looking to impress clients.

You have a few marketable players—young and talented—signed to reasonable contracts for the foreseeable future.

But the expectations are that you can’t compete because of the above factors.

What do you do?

Do you stick to the blueprint you created to combat these obstacles in your path?

Or do you give up the present and dream of a new ballpark; the ability to relocate; a bolt from the heavens to save you from your inescapable fate?

Well, if you’re the Rays you stick to what you have and try to find a way to win.

And you succeed.

If you’re the Athletics and Billy Beane, you continue the trend of playing the hapless everyman locked in the vacancy of a medieval prison and praying on a daily basis to the Baseball Gods that something, somewhere, someone, somehow will help you to escape this purgatory.

You move forward ably assisted by those in the media, fans and industry who are still immersed in your crafted reputation based on a skillfully presented piece of creative non-fiction that is becoming more and more absurd by the day; the same piece of creative non-fiction that was dramatically licensed into a film and made worse with mischaracterizations, twisted facts and outright falsehoods, yet is given credibility because it was made by an Academy Award winning director, Bennett Miller and has the “sexiest man alive”, Brad Pitt portraying you.

You’re still living off of Moneyball. You’re trying to alter the plot to make it appear as if nothing is your fault.

But those inconvenient facts keep popping up.

Of course there are those who still cling to this aura of genius and shield you to the last. They utter such inanities as “Billy Beane isn’t to blame for sad state of A’s” and Bruce Jenkins plays the role as the defense lawyer trying to defend the indefensible.

Through strategic leaks from devoted emissaries, it was made clear that you wanted the Cubs job. “Billy’s willing to listen to the Cubs,” etc. One problem: the Cubs didn’t want you. They never approached you. They had no interest in you. What made it worse was that they had their sights set on someone who might not have existed had it not been for you; for Michael Lewis; for Moneyball. Theo Epstein was their one and only target and they got him. Epstein’s rise came as a direct result of your somewhat understandable, part-family/part-prescient/part legacy decision that led to you staying with the Athletics.

By now we all know what would’ve happened had you followed through on your handshake agreement to take over the Red Sox.

For ten years, Red Sox Nation has had a paper bag handy to collectively hyperventilate at the carnage your tenure would have wrought both financially and practically. They offered you something in the neighborhood of $12.5 million and were going to allow you to spend a substantial amount of time running the team remotely from your home on the West Coast so you could be near your young daughter…and away from the stifling fishbowl that is Boston sports.

But luckily for them, you backed out.

Down the drain went your plans to trade Jason Varitek; to sign a nearly finished Edgardo Alfonzo; to sign someone named Mark Johnson to replace Varitek; to make Manny Ramirez a DH.

Who’s David Ortiz? Would you have known? Would your luck have been similar to that of Epstein to sign a released player such as Ortiz?

The Red Sox won a championship two years after you declined their offer and, as Moneyball the movie says, used the principles that you created.

Except you didn’t create them

You implemented them.

For that you deserve praise, but not to the degree where nothing is ever your fault; where you receive accolades for what goes well and constant, worshipful, caveat-laden pieces on every possible outlet giving you a free pass for what has gone wrong.

You get the credit.

You never get the blame.

What a wonderful world it is in Oakland.

Why would you ever want to leave? You’re an owner now.

Based on nothing.

You’re bulletproof to criticism.

Based on nothing.

You’re doing whatever it is you want looking toward the future ballpark, money, luxury suites, season-ticket sales, WINNING!!! that someday, someday, someday will come.

Based on nothing.

The Rays are living with the hovering terror of the Yankees and Red Sox in a division that is far more treacherous and hopeless than anything you’ve ever experienced and they’ve made the playoffs in three of the past four years.

What have you done?

They detail a plan and execute it.

You fling things at the wall, make your speaking engagements, wallow in the idolatry and reset the computer when too much malware accumulates.

And you make money.

To augment the young pitching you developed, you tried to win in 2009 by acquiring an MVP-quality bat in Matt Holliday, reaching into the past with Jason Giambi and signing a leader-type veteran Orlando Cabrera.

Your team was a disaster.

You retooled.

In 2011, you signed and traded for veteran bats Josh Willingham and David DeJesus along with established bullpen arms Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes.

Again to augment the young pitching you developed.

Your team was a disaster.

So you abandon the young pitching because, obviously, that was the flaw in your plan. Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey were traded away for that “future”.

At least you’ve kept Coco Crisp and are looking at Ryan Ludwick.

That’ll work because you’re a genius.

By my count, this is rebuild number five. The fifth time you’ve retooled and purged the club of any and all players making a reasonable amount of money as you purse your lips and nod, gazing toward the sun and stars.

Someday, someday, someday.

The ballpark, the young prospects, the drafts, the hope, the hype—one day it’ll happen. Then you’ll win. Then your resume will be legitimate and not based on a mythmaker with an agenda.

It’s lasted forever.

Where and when does it end?

When is someone—anyone—going to stop and look at you with the vaunted “objective analysis” that you harped on so ferociously like a hypnotizing mantra that your congregation and followers so avidly repeated and used to shelter you?

It’s enough.

You’re not staying in Oakland because you don’t want to abandon the team in its time of need. You’re staying in Oakland because the industry sees right through you and your propaganda and no one else wants you.

And it’s enough.

You’ve lived off of Moneyball for ten years. Now we’re approaching the logical conclusion as the only salvation you have left is the old standby of “bad ballpark, bad fans, bad competition, bad rules, bad, bad, bad”. Those who are either too stupid to see or too invested in your supposed genius to acknowledge the truth maintain their blindness, deafness, dumbness.

Your team is a train wreck; you gave up on 2012, 2013 and 2014 because you don’t have any answers left and are clinging to a sinking life preserver in a dark, unforgiving sea.

Yet there are no sharks.

Where are they?

Are they responding to editorial edict to continually show you in the best possible light? Are they afraid of the reaction to stating facts that a large segment of the baseball public doesn’t want to hear?

The plausible deniability you maintain in having allowed the disparagement of Art Howe in print and on film is more telling about your selfishness than anything else you’ve done; Howe, who absent the hyperbole you had as a player, had a workmanlike and respected career you could never have hoped to have and saw his reputation as a baseball man torn to shreds by Moneyball the book and then was made worse by tearing him apart as a human being in the movie. Never once was he contextualized. You never said a word when you could’ve and should’ve.

Nothing.

Because it was to your convenience that he—and you—be judged that way.

It’s terrific to use a reputation as a bodyguard; to never have anything be your fault; to receive credit and no blame.

Nothing’s your fault.

Let’s shed a tear and hold a moment of silence for Poor Billy.

It’s not his fault that his team is terrible; that Moneyball was written; that he’s facing the prospect of an Angels team with Albert Pujols now leading the way; that the Rangers—emerging from bankruptcy two short years ago—have taken his stat-based techniques, bolstered them with old-school strategies and scouting acumen and now have back-to-back pennant winners and won the bidding for Yu Darvish.

Moneyball is bankrupt as well, but there’s no Chapter 11 protection from its chapters full of lies. Being morally bankrupt doesn’t count I suppose even with the protections you’ve received.

Nothing’s your fault.

The Rays are in a worse situation than you.

But at least they try.

So wallow in the love. Accept the sympathy. Watch as your team loses close to 100 games.

And know the truth.

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The Genius Will Return…In 2015

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It’s almost biblical or a tenet of faith for any religion or cult.

According to the actions of Billy Beane along with whispers and reports from sources in the MLB front office—MLB Trade Rumors—the Athletics are likely to receive approval to build a new ballpark in San Jose. They’ll have to pay the Giants to relinquish their territorial rights, but they’re expecting to get their new park.

Until then, the apparent entreaty to suffering A’s fans is to endure; do penance; be patient; follow the great leader and put faith in him, trusting that he’ll show the way.

Support a team that’s going to be stripped down to its bare bones (again) in the hopes that someday, someday, someday the “genius” that is their overrated and propagandized GM will reappear and the team will rise to prominence.

Of course it won’t hurt that the A’s are going to have money to spend on players similarly to how the Marlins are now.

In 2015.

But for now, it’s a housecleaning.

Again.

I don’t care one way or the other what Beane says and does—I see right through him and his nonsense—but when is the mainstream media going to stop kowtowing to this man and see him for the snakeoil salesman that he is?

Since the last time the Athletics were relevant for reasons other than a celluloid bit of dramatic license or a crafty bit of creative non-fiction, Beane is on his third manager and second rebuild with one season of 81-81 since 2006 to show for it; they haven’t been contenders in spite of various attempts to recreate some semblance of competitiveness. That competitiveness from the early part of the 21st Century was based more on having three All-Star starting pitchers and stars at key positions than it was for finding “undervalued” talent and “genius” in doing so.

It’s a circular proclamation based on a lie and there’s nothing to replicate. He’s not a card-counter—he’s flinging darts at a dartboard while blindfolded. It’s partially his fault; partially due to circumstance; partially due to an attempt to maintain that veneer of brilliance that was never accurate to begin with.

Regardless of the positive analysis of the packages of young players Beane’s received in trading Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez (and presumably what he’ll get for Andrew Bailey and whatever else isn’t nailed to the floor), why does he have to tear apart what’s already in place in anticipation of whenever the new park is going to be open for business?

Is that the shining light off in the distance now? The new park?

The A’s spent years cultivating the young core of pitchers; they’re all in their mid-20s and the types of arms around whom a club should be built. Twice he’s tried to bring in veteran bats to augment those young arms and they’ve failed both times; but that’s a reflection on him and bad luck than it is a failing of the concept of keeping the young pitchers and trying to find someone, anyone who can produce offensively.

In 2009, he made what turned out to be a disastrous trade for Matt Holliday in which he surrendered Carlos Gonzalez; signed a shot-as-an-everyday player Jason Giambi and an out-of-place Orlando Cabrera.

It didn’t work.

In 2011 he signed Hideki Matsui, Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour and traded for Josh Willingham.

It didn’t work.

So now it’s another teardown? Another reconstruction? How many does he get? Three? Five? Ten? Thirty?

A normal GM judged on his accomplishments gets maybe two rebuilds—and that’s if he’s got a track record of success a la Pat Gillick.

Can Beane be mentioned in the same breath as Gillick?

Gillick’s in the Hall of Fame; Beane’s in the Hype Hall of Fame.

Or the Gall of Fame.

Is he Connie Mack or Branch Rickey where he can do whatever he wants with impunity based on success that was fleeting and had a limited connection to anything he actually did? Success that’s perceived to be more than it was because of that book and now a movie in which he was portrayed by the “sexiest man alive”?

He’s fired managers for reasons and non-reasons. He’s blamed others and used his image and roundabout excuses to shield himself from the ridicule he deserves.

Now it’s the new ballpark that will save him.

His drafts have been mostly atrocious and the rebuilding of the farm system by trading his established players for the crown jewels of other organizations smacks of desperation.

But he’s got a plan in place. They’re loading up the farm system with power arms and bats that hit homers and get on base. And they’re not done.

The new park is the key.

Then he’ll be on the right track.

Then he’ll put a team together that’s going to win.

But it’s not going to happen until the new ballpark opens.

“We may not be much now, but you just wait boy!! Wait until we have that new park and—guess what?—will be able to spend money to buy established players. Then we’ll show you.”

Believe it if you want. Compare the A’s situation to other clubs who needed a new park, got it and became powerhouses.

But you can’t compare the A’s to the Marlins because the Marlins, in spite of a terrible 2011 season of their own amid unrealistic expectations and capricious, Steinbrenner-like behaviors of their owner Jeffrey Loria, had a foundation of young pitching and bats that the Athletics didn’t; ballpark or not, the Marlins were pretty good because they have a gutsy baseball management team that is skillful at talent recognition and does something that Beane has been shoddy at doing: finding players.

Apart from being able to spin doctor his way out of anything and manipulate the media with deft use of the language, reputation and an intimidating bullying nature, what has Beane done to warrant the pass?

Nothing.

2015 is plenty of time for Michael Lewis to plan and complete a sequel to Moneyball with a new plot.

“Billy Saves Christmas”?

“Selig’s Choice”?

What will happen when they have the new park and the latest strategy fails?

Will there be increased scrutiny on what he is and what he’s done rather than the unfounded and illogical belief the he knows what he’s doing? That it’s all part of one grand scheme to rule the world?

Salesmanship is a form of genius and the people keep buying it.

I suppose that’s something to hold onto when everything else comes undone.

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I’ll be a guest later today with former MLB player Les Norman on his baseball show Breakin’ the Norm on the ESPN affiliate 810 WHB in Kansas City. I’ll link the appearance and post it here.

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