Baseball Notes

August 12, 2019

The 2019 regular season is roughly three-quarters done, which makes this a good time to elicit a few observations about what differentiates this season from others.

Among the major sports, baseball teams by far play the most games (162) in a regular season. Long before I found a calling in economics and currency market watching, I was attracted to baseball and, to be even more precise, the volume of statistics associated with the game. In the ups and downs of currencies from year to year, month to month, day to day and even hour to hours, I felt a familiarity with the high from following the baseball standings. And to underscore that the metaphor wasn’t mine alone, early in my career when working in the New York Fed foreign department, I expressed delight with a particularly big rise in one of the hard currencies — mark or Swissie — and the head trader in the currency trading room retorted, “hey kid, what team or you on?” The irony there is that a weak dollar then was perceived negatively because of mutually reinforcing accelerating domestic inflation and currency depreciation. In today’s context of lower inflation and softer growth than desired, a rising currency is the outcome to avoid. But I digress.

The 2018 baseball season was distinguished because of the very strong performances of the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. These teams play in the same American League division and constitute the biggest rivalry in the sport. The teams had each not won 100 or more games in the same season since 1978. Boston had 85 wins by August 12, 11 more than New York, and went on to win 108 in the season and roar through the playoffs, including a 4-1 edge in the divisional playoff against the Yanks, on their way to their fourth championship since 2004.

This season finds the baseball standings highly stratified and with only five of  the 30 teams having won at least three out of every five games played. Boston, which when the season began, was expected to win its division again, is not one of them. In baseball, just about every team ends up winning at least 60 games and losing at least 60 games. How teams do in the remaining 42 games generally separates the best from the worst. This year, the five teams with a winning percentage above 60% are the Yankees and Houston Astros with identical records so far of 77-41, the Minnesota Twins and Cleveland Indians, central American league rivals also with identical records of 71-47, and the Los Angeles Dodgers of the National League west, which at 79-41 has the best record of all.

The Yankees are the most surprising team of this bunch but not because they were not considered a realistic contender for the 2019 title when the season began. From spring training the Yanks have been plagued with a crushing slew of injuries. 27 players have put put on the injured list already, and the parade of mishaps hasn’t abated. Often, the nine-person batting order of late has included only 2 or 3 players who were on the active roster a year ago.

Moreover, the Yankees didn’t rectify their biggest weakness, which has been an inconsistent rotation of starting pitchers prone to leave the game before the sixth inning and spending time on the injured list. I believe that decision not to get a another starter for the final kick of the season and playoffs was understandably influenced by the history of pitchers acquired in mid-stream of other seasons. The most recent example was Sonny Grey, who pitch much better for Oakland before joining the Yanks in mid-2017 and for Cincinnati this year than he performed while in New York. Other disappointed examples of starting  star pitchers acquired mid-season that didn’t pan out were Kenny Holtzman and Denny Neagle.

The Houston Astros, by contrast, twice hit the jackpot with earlier pitchers acquired through trades late in earlier season. In 1998, the Astros got Randy Johnson. He had a 9-10 record with Seattle when that trade was made but won 10 of 11 decisions with the Astros the rest of that season and allowed less than 2 earned runs per nine innings pitched that postseason. Lightning struck again for the stro’s in 2017 when they got Justin Verlander. After going 10-8 with Detroit earlier that season, he won all five decisions with Houston after joining the club and was 4-0 in the first two rounds of the post-season. By acquiring elite pitcher Zack Greinke a few weeks ago, Houston are hoping to score a third bulls eye. Their history suggests that the acquisition of Greinke will prove a wise one, just as the Yanks’ bad luck in the past made their decision a sensible one, too.

The Dodgers are an intriguing club, hoping that threes a charm. The Dodgers represented the National League league in the 2017 and 2018 World Series only to lose both times. The 2017 team was ever better through August 12 than this year’s team with a record at that point of 82-34 but lost to Houston. Last year, L.A. had only a 64-55 record on August 12th but came on very strongly to make the playoffs and go all the way to the World Series but lost to the Red Sox. There are not many examples of a team winning the world series after losing it in each of the previous two years.

It’s less rare for the last team standing in the playoffs to be different from the team with the best regular season record. In fact, Boston did not in 2018. Strangely, the Red Sox roster is near identical to last year’s except for the loss of some late inning relief pitchers. The team’s offensive statistics remain quite good, but the starters have been much worse, and the overall won-loss record is barely in the black at 62-58.

Minnesota is a greatly improved team. On August 12th in 2018, the twins were 54-63, and two years ago the record was 58-57. The twins won the world series in 1987 and 1991 but haven’t reached that level since. The Cleveland Indians, which currently sport the same 71-47 record as Minnesota, lost to the Cubs in 2016, the Marlins in 1997, Atlanta Braves in 1995, and Giants in 1954 when that team played in New York. Cleveland’s last world series victory was in 1948.

Other contenders this year are the Braves, Nationals, and Mets, each of which plays in the Eastern Division of the National League. The strangest case from this group is the Mets, who were well below 0.500 baseball not long ago. No team’s been hotter since the All Star break in mid-July. That’s a small segment from a long season. The Mets have good starting pitching, some potent young hitters, and they are employing a cutting edge of baseball analytics to gain further advantage.

Copyright 2019, Larry Greenberg. All rights reserved. No secondary distribution without express permission.

 

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