Everyone loves a team that's better than anyone thought they would be. No one not immediately related to members of the Tigers gave them a chance of winning the American League Central Division, and now that they've overcome a perilous second-half fade and clinched their spot in the playoffs, the love-in can begin with fevered intensity. America, meet Jeremy Bonderman and Justin Verlander; fresh-faced young pitchers, meet America. Jim Leyland, you crusty old rapscallion, take your credit and your fame; baseball world, pay homage to the man you mocked as a relic when he was hired.
Just as everyone loves teams like the Tigers, everyone loves to scoff at teams like the Red Sox. With a payroll just slightly less than the Navy's procurement budget, historic seasons from David Ortiz and Jonathan Papelbon, a variety of stars old and new, young genius Theo Epstein firmly ensconced in power, etc., the Red Sox are unless you're a Boston fan a fascinating and even quite hilarious failure. A team that at the absolute worst should have played fiercely for the wild card down to the last weekend of the season has instead been testing out the kids and running apace with Toronto in the battle to not be embarrassed by a third-place finish.
That's a good story, and just like the vigorous play of the Tigers makes one feel good about life, so does the lethargic play of the Red Sox, albeit for different and altogether less noble reasons.
In between, though, is the ugly void teams that didn't do as well as people hoped, but about whom no one other than their fans really cares. There are a few of these this year the Angels, Cardinals, and Phillies, for instance, have all done worse than they probably should have, but all have been in pennant races and that makes up for a lot.The really interesting failures are the Indians and the Brewers. Both were among the mosthyped teams in baseball coming into the season, and with perfectly good reason. (I generated my modest share of the hype around both teams, I should admit.) As is, both entered last night's action with 7383 records.
The truly bizarre thing in both cases is that they got monster performances from some of their most valuable young players. Cleveland saw designated hitter Travis Hafner, who's quietly been Ortiz's equal over the last few years, absolutely destroy the league, posting a .308 BA/.439 OBA/.659 SLG line out of Jimmie Foxx's prime before going down with a hand injury earlier this month. Center fielder Grady Sizemore, meanwhile, put himself in a class with Jose Reyes and David Wright among the game's brightest young superstars, hitting .292/.378/.537 with great speed and good defense. Throw in ace C.C. Sabbathia's long-awaited breakout campaign (3.36 ERA), a solid rotation, continued success from slugging catcher Victor Martinez, and so on, and you'd expect the Indians to have at least done well for themselves.
The Brewers, meanwhile, ran into some bad luck in various areas sophomore second baseman Rickie Weeks was alternately injured and ineffective, oftinjured ace Ben Sheets was alternately injured and ineffective, etc. but had some excellent luck in other areas. Slugger Carlos Lee had a phenomenal first few months in his walk year, lefty starter Chris Capuano turned into vintage Tom Glavine, and Bill Hall, penciled in as a utility man at the beginning of the season, has thumped 32 home runs while holding down shortstop.This team didn't have the kind of expectations the Indians had placed on them, but for a team that was looking to break .500 on the way to legitimate pennant hopes next year, this has been a bitter season.
The Brewers and Indians have two big things in common, and one very big difference. The first commonality is that they have exceptionally shrewd general managers with excellent eyes for spare part-type players.This makes the second one all the odder these teams were largely done in by atrocious relief. Both sport identical 4.75 bullpen ERAs (Milwaukee's is worse in context) that are worse than they look because of bad closers. Milwaukee's Derrick Turnbow, who seemed to have established himself last year as a very good closer, ran up an ERA near 7 before being bumped out of his job by Francisco Cordero, a trade acquisition who's been phenomenal; Cleveland has saved only 23 games this year and was relying on Bob Wickman of all people to hold the door shut.
That Brewers GM Doug Melvin and Indians GM Mark Shaprio were unable to dig up better relievers when it counted, early in the season, is pretty uncharacteristic, and not too telling about either team's future. It's not as if neither team had any other problems, but bad relief pitching is (at least in theory) the easiest thing in baseball to fix.
That brings us to the big difference between these teams, which is that while the Brewers have been just flat bad, the Indians have been unlucky. They've won a truly preposterous 13 fewer games than you'd expect from their underlying statistics, a ridiculous amount that suggests they'll go into next season as a good bet to win 90 or so games even absent significant improvement.What all this means is that, provided Hafner doesn't trim off a finger with a hedge clipper or something, true believers like me can hype the Indians to the sky next spring, confident that whatever bad mojo was laid on them will evaporate into the ether.
The Brewers, though, have probably been set back a year; instead of being legit contenders next season, they'll likely be looking for the kind of modest breakthrough that was expected this year.Neither is a particularly dramatic story, but while we congratulate Bonderman and Verlander and look forward to their postseason exploits, it's fun to compare them to Sabbathia and Capuano. There but for the grace of random, flukish bullpen performance and the evil eye go the Tigers.