The Baseball Races of 2016: Two Months to Go

August 7, 2016

If the baseball season were a race track, this year could be said to be leaving the backstretch and heading into the far turn, With slightly more than fifty games left to play, the teams that have floundered are spread out like listless mounts being ridden by wistful jockeys, while the superior teams are holding their respective positions at a steady clip. Here is a ten day spread of the total win records of the top teams in the National League:

Midnight, Thursday, July 28, 2016
Chicago Cubs – 60 wins
Washington – 59 wins
San Francisco – 59 wins
LA Dodgers – 57 wins

Miami – 55 wins
St. Louis Cardinals 54 wins
NY Mets – 53 wins
Pittsburgh Pirates — 52 wins

Midnight, August 7, 2016

Chicago Cubs – 68 wins
Washington – 65 wins
San Francisco – 63 wins
LA Dodgers – 61 wins

Miami – 58 wins
St. Louis Cardinals 58 wins
NY Mets – 56 wins
Pittsburgh Pirates — 55 wins

With the acquisition of Arnoldis Chapman for the duration of this season, the Cubs are virtually a sure bet to be in the playoffs. In a similar manner, if the Nationals and Giants fall short of making the playoffs, it will be a long winter for their fans. They will not be saying, “Wait til next year,” but “What the hell went wrong last year?” For the second quartet of teams, however, the allure of the only possible playoff spot has already reached postseason intensity.

The Pirates, sad to say, have emphatically run up the flag and signaled that their season is not going to finish in the post-season win, place, or show list. In trading Mark Melancon, their very consistently successful closer from the past two seasons, the management of the Pirates has all but said to their team’s locker room that they have fallen short this year. Three rookies have already started games this season as fill-ins for faltering or injured veterans. The majority of the starting rotation (Niese, Liriano, and Locke) has performed at a level that one would more often associate with the pitching staff of the Minnesota Twins the past couple of seasons. (Niese and Liriano have also gotten shipped out, in separate transactions from Melancon’s eviction.) Even so, if Andrew McCutchen was having another All-Star season, the team might still be in the Wild Card race. Unfortunately, McCutchen is having a season as disappointing as Bryce Harper’s. As it stands, it’s highly likely that the Pirates could revert to their more familiar pattern of a losing record.

In some ways, I feel as if I have already entered the Hot Stove League portion of the year. This is especially true since the presidential election is in full swing and getting more and more of the attention that it deserves. Still, one needs some means of keeping one’s distance from that which one has little control over, and my childhood affection for baseball still provides the best escape. I am not unaware of the irony that most fans of professional baseball teams are probably voting for Trump. Certainly those who attend MLB games on any regular basis are probably supporting Trump. All of us succumb to some level of cognitive dissonance, and I pretend that the company I keep in this hobby is not relevant to the pleasure I experience. On the other hand, my appreciation for baseball derives in part because at least the players are individuals whose talents are judged objectively. Unlike the fashion show of American poetry, in which talent and knowledge are far less important than your professional connections, baseball players have to make it on their skills and determination to get better. Poetry, as a public art, is a social game. The game of baseball is a democracy of merit.

Though I lacked any athletic skill as a youth, the abstracted and rule-bound choreography of the game always fascinated me. One youthful memory of baseball, in particular, involves rulebook questions. The idea of this language game was to test one’s knowledge of the rulebook by creating improbable situations and asking what you would do if you were the umpire. The historic triple play that the National pulled off against the Giants the other day, in which the first baseman snagged a low line drive (first out), stepped on first to catch the runner off the bag (second out), and threw to third, where the fielder stepped on that bag to nab the runner way down the line (third out), made me think of a variant on that play.

Suppose, instead, the runner on first keeps complete balance as the ball is hit almost parallel – and just barely fair — down the first base foul line, and he lunges back to the base so quickly that the first baseman doesn’t try to double him up after making a catch just six inches off the ground, but instead throws directly to the third baseman, where the runner has been more careless and anticipated too intensely the chance to sprint home. This runner, who plays catcher and has far below average speed, twists his ankle slightly as he scrambles back to third and sees the first baseman’s throw go astray, bouncing off the fence behind third base and rolling towards the left fielder, who is charging in. Both the runners on second and third use this error to tag up and advance, and when the left fielder fumbles the ball, the runner from second base decides to head to the plate, too, for he stayed closer to the bag and had tagged up in the instant the first baseman’s throw was darting towards third, and took off for third the instant the ball skipped past the third baseman’s glove.

Unfortunately for the team at bat, the exceptionally quick runner on second — sprinting head down once he sees the third base coach’s signal to head home — passes the runner hobbling from third before he gets to the plate (second out), and the runner on third ends up being tagged out on an extraordinarily precise throw by the left fielder. Now that would be the most unusual triple play ever.

One way this outcome could turn into a trick question would be to imagine that the throw from the left fielder hits the runner from second base, thereby allowing the runner from third to touch home plate without being tagged. Does the runner from second being out (at the instant he passes the runner on third) affect the status of the ball in play?

Whatever answer you might give, the chances are that this century will end without a 3-7-2 triple play (with an “E” inserted for the first baseman’s errant throw), except in my private tape loop pleasure of watching the slow motion uncoiling of each existential, imaginary pitch, and that is the exquisite solace this game has given me for over a half-century.