It may seem like winter is lingering where you are, but don’t tell that to baseball fans. Because this weekend will mark the start of the 2016 season with all 30 major league teams optimistically looking for a date with destiny in October.
The baseball season, as all fans of the sport know, is a marathon, not a sprint. Over the next six months, the teams will all play 162 games, with the goal being to win a ticket to the post-season, where the World Series and the championship of all of baseball await. A year ago the San Francisco Giants were the defending champions, looking to win a World Series in an odd numbered year. They had won in 2010, 2012 and 2014, but had failed to repeat in 2011 and 2013. And they failed again last year, not even making the playoffs as the Kansas City Royals, the team the Giants had beaten in a thrilling seven-game series the previous October, took the grand prize, besting the New York Mets in a quick five-game series.
The Royals have a good chance to repeat this year, but they may have to outlast the Mets again, unless the Giants stay true to their every-other-year, every-even-year kind of a dynasty. Or will the Cubbies of Chicago, the team with perhaps the best young talent, put it all together for the first time in 110 years? Or will the Red Sox rebound from a miserable 2015, now that they have reloaded with the likes of pitching ace David Price?
The possibilities are endless, and I have long given up on trying to make post-season predictions, especially when my team, the Dodgers, look far worse than they did last year when the won their division for the third straight year, only to lose to the Mets in a tight five-game playoff series. My boys in blue are weaker on paper this year if only because they did not keep Zack Greinke, letting him slip away to the Arizona Diamondbacks (who also could end up in the Fall Classic).
The Dodgers and the Yankees are generally thought to be the game’s richest teams. They have the biggest fan bases, and their leagues’ largest payrolls. But on paper neither team is all that scary as the season starts. The Dodgers are beset with injuries (as they seem to be every year), and are relying heavily on a rookie, Kyle Seager, whom many are picking as the likely rookie of the year. They also have the game’s best pitcher in Clayton Kershaw, and the most controversial would-be superstar in Yasiel Puig. But those assets are not looking like enough from here.
And the Yankees are just plain old, as in over-the-hill. Oh, they’ll win their share of games and garner no small amount of attention. Having Alex Rodriguez continue his pursuit of 700 home runs (he’s at 687 as the season begins) will be reason enough to watch the pin-strippers.
And then there are the Cardinals, who just keep on winning year after year. They say the best fans are in St. Louis, which may be true, but having a perennial winning team will tend to produce that kind of following. Or will the Nationals of D.C. finally put it all together? Or maybe even the Pirates, although they look outclassed by the Cards and Cubs in the NL central.
In the AL, in addition to the Royals and Red Sox, the Rangers and Blue Jays are pre-season favorites. The Angels, like the Dodgers, seem down, despite having the game’s best overall player in Mike Trout. And the Tigers hope to have the same kind of bounce-back year as the Red Sox hope to have.
But most of the action might be taking place off of the field this year – in the front offices, to be specific. There, the new breed of GMs is working with the new analytics that have swept the sport. And if you aren’t familiar with WAR, you aren’t going to understand a lot of the action on trades and free agent signings. (Although, as a Dodger fan, I have to say, nothing can explain letting Greinke get away.)
But WAR (Wins Above Replacement) is the new stat of all stats. It’s what batting averages meant to a hitter and ERAs meant to a pitcher back when we were kids. Now those antiquated mathematical computations are more useful as a way to learn basic arithmetic than to figure out which players are the most valuable to their teams and deserve the biggest contracts as a result.
So, you might be wondering how to calculate a player’s WAR. And the answer is, nobody knows. (Actually, somebody does, but he/it (hey, we’re living in a computer world) is not telling the rest of us, and since the rest of us don’t even know who/what he/it is, we just have to accept the number that he/it says is the number. That number is supposed to represent the number of team wins the player provided to his team compared to a mythical “average replacement” player, which is a theoretical concept anyway, so don’t try to understand it. Just accept that a player with a high WAR is more valuable than one with a low one. Clayton Kershaw’s was 7.5 last year, which means, theoretically, that he was worth seven and a half wins for his team over the course of the year. A more mediocre pitcher might have a WAR of only 0.2, or maybe even -1.3, which means he cost his team over a game in the win-loss column over the course of the year.
Confused yet. The good news is you don’t have to worry about WAR if you are watching a game on TV because most announcers don’t mention that stat. They stick with the standard stuff, maybe throwing in a player’s OBP (on-base percentage) or a pitcher’s WHIP (walks and hits per inning pitched) just to show they aren’t complete Neanderthals.
The best place to pick up on the analytics side of the game, wherein stats like FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching) and BABIP (Batting Average Balls in Play) are most popular, is on a blog that specializes in that kind of stuff. Most teams now have fans who are into the analytics side of the game, and they have blogs where they post their analytic updates on their teams. Some of those blogs (the one for the Dodgers that I track is Dodgers Digest – http//:dodgersdigest.com) even provide charts of pitches that explain why a pitcher is getting hit hard or of hitters swings and misses that explain why a hitter is in a slump. I usually zone out on that stuff.
Of course, in the actual ballparks, it’s still just a game that counts runs, not points, and that doesn’t have a clock, and where you can be a kid again without even thinking about WAR. And it all starts again this weekend.