Major League Baseball

What to watch as Major League Baseball returns

cwright@newsobserver.comJuly 18, 2013 

The last playoff memory Pittsburgh Pirates fans have is watching Atlanta’s slow-footed Sid Bream rounding third, chugging for home and beating Barry Bonds’ throw from shallow left field to win Game 7 of the 1992 NLCS.

Bonds left town shortly thereafter and Pittsburgh hasn’t been to the playoffs since. They haven’t even had a winning season since.

Is this the year the Bonds Curse ends? That’s one of five storylines to follow as the race to October resumes Friday.

Reversing the curse

The Pirates have been here before. Recently even. Each of the past two seasons, they entered the second half primed to end their playoff drought, longest in the National League. In 2011, they followed a 47-43 start with a 25-47 finish. Last season was more crushing. The Pirates entered the All-Star break with a one-game lead in the Central Division. Andrew McCutchen was being discussed as an MVP candidate. Just like that, everything fell apart. The Pirates went 11-17 in August and 7-21 in September, sealing their 20th consecutive losing season.

This year feels different. The Pirates started 1-5 but rallied to claim baseball’s best record by July 3. They’re just 5-7 in July but still have the second-best record in the majors and, more important, ample breathing room in a wild-card situation.

The Pirates could finish 30-39 and win 86 games. That should be enough considering Cincinnati is the only other wild card contender that is more than 2 games above .500.

Money well spent?

Money reportedly can buy performance enhancing drugs from a strip mall clinic in Miami, but it won’t necessarily buy a playoff reservation.

If the playoffs started Friday, the three biggest spenders (Yankees, Dodgers and Phillies) and five of the top seven would be watching on their big screens.

Of those five overspending/underachieving teams (the Angels and Giants are the other two), only the Yankees have a winning record and a respectable chance of making the playoffs. The other four are a combined 13 games under .500.

On the opposite side of the financial spectrum, three of the five lowest-spending teams (Tampa Bay, Oakland and Pittsburgh) would make the playoffs if they started Friday, again proving it’s not how much you spend, but rather how you spend it.

Can Harvey win Cy Young?

Sabermetrics slowly is changing the way voters approach postseason awards. We saw it last year in the traditional (Miguel Cabrera’s Triple Crown) vs. new-age (Mike Trout’s WAR) AL MVP showdown. Tradition won, but the debate was intense. WAR, or wins above replacement, is a statistic used to determine how many extra wins a player brings to a team compared to a replacement at the same position.

Traditional stats such as wins and losses don’t carry the same weight in 2013 as they did in 1983. Still, Fernando Valenzuela is the only starting pitcher to capture the NL Cy Young Award without winning at least 14 games. He won 13 in the strike-shortened 1981 season.

Matt Harvey could challenge that this season, even though the former North Carolina ace is on pace to win just 13 games.

Harvey, who started the All-Star Game, leads the NL in strikeouts, is second in no-decisions, quality starts and WHIP (walks plus hits/IP), tied for third in ERA and fourth in batting average against. He has dominated areas within his control.

To illustrate the impact advanced stats now have on voting, consider 1987. That season, at age 40, Nolan Ryan dominated NL hitters in every way imaginable except one: his win-loss record. Ryan led the NL in ERA (2.76), strikeouts (270) and fewest hits per nine innings (6.5), among others. He was undone by an 8-16 record, which more Sabermetric-friendly voters likely would dismiss as irrelevant based on several factors, most notably his low run support. The Astros scored 2 or fewer runs in 13 of Ryan’s losses that season.

Ryan finished fifth in Cy Young voting, losing to a reliever. A similar season now likely would make him a front-runner. In 2010, eight AL pitchers who received Cy Young votes won more games than award winner Felix Hernandez. King Felix finished 13-12 but dominated other categories.

Baseball voters are changing, and that could benefit Harvey.

“Crush” Davis chases 61*

Baltimore slugger Chris Davis leads all of baseball with 37 home runs. He is on pace to hit 63. And he is on record as saying the number he is chasing is 61 – Roger Maris’ steroid-free home run total in 1961.

“It was obviously disheartening to find out down the road what came about in [the steroid era], but in my opinion, 61 is the record, and I think most fans agree with me about that,” Davis recently told reporters.

Former Durham Bull Ben Zobrist recently gave Davis’ chase a sentimental nod, telling Yahoo: “If it was proven the other guys who have all gone over 61 were all using performance-enhancing substances at that time – if it was proven – yeah, I’d have to say the natural record is 61,” Zobrist said.

Bonds holds the single season home run record with 73. He was convicted in 2011 on obstruction of justice charges stemming from his testimony before a federal grand jury during a 2003 steroid case.

Can Angels recover?

It will take something close to a 44-25 stretch run to make it happen, but the schedule provides a chance. The Angels play 26 games against the two teams they are chasing in the West (Oakland and Texas).

How the Angels got in this predicament after adding Josh Hamilton is puzzling. The Yankees and Phillies have been hurt by significant injuries. The Angels have no such excuse. They have just been hurt by poor play.

Hamilton and Albert Pujols, at times the best left-handed and right-handed hitters on the planet, have combined to hit just 29 homers. If they can turn it around, so can the Angels. If not, it might be this season’s most egregious example of money misspent.

Wright: 919-829-4643

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