How Astros' move to AL impacts interleague, playoffs and rivalries
Houston Astros are going from the National League to the American League
Playoffs expand to 10 teams, with a likely one-game playoff for wild card teams
Interleague play will lose much of whatever little luster it still had
Baseball got it right in deciding on one-game knockouts between two wild card teams in each league in the coming expanded postseason. Well, it's not officially done, but when Bud Selig gives it his public endorsement ("Dramatic," he called it), he knows the votes are there for it.
The shock Thursday was Selig saying the extra playoff spot in each league could be in place as soon as next season. It seems unlikely -- Opening Day is four months away and we don't have an established playoff format? -- but the commissioner did leave the possibility that we might see 10 postseason teams in 2012. The extra wild cards mean your team has a legit shot at the postseason with 89 wins, down about two wins from the previous average. It's easy for teams such as Toronto, Florida, Washington and Cleveland to think the playoffs are now within reach.
The other big news from a monumental day was the creation of two 15-team leagues with Houston getting kicked to the AL West in 2013 as a condition of its sale to Jim Crane. This one change has huge implications, and I'll give you quick takes on the biggest ones:
The players wanted this change even more so than the owners, some of whom complained about the illogic of some teams needing only to beat out three teams to win a division (AL West) and others needing to beat out five (NL Central.) The biggest complaints from players have been brutal travel schedules -- many of the problems are caused by interleague play -- and the inequity of intradivision rivals playing very different interleague schedules.
The 15-team leagues make for easier travel and (presumably) more equitable interleague schedules, so the players are happy.
Baseball looks bad for not having a general schedule format in place for 2013. How can you announce a huge structural change to the league setup and not tell fans what it means for the schedule? More interleague games? Less? What about intradivisional games? Will the Yankees and Red Sox still play 18 times? Nobody in baseball can tell you with any certainty. They say it's "too early" to know. In other words, they created a seismic shift in league structure and will figure out how it works later.
The best guess is that interleague games will stay about the same -- around 18 -- though natural rivalries such as Mets-Yankees and Cubs-White Sox are not likely to be home-and-home. Look for one series per year between interleague rivals.
Interleague play will lose much of whatever luster it still had. You'll get an interleague matchup every day of the season. The danger is that leagues will continue to grow less distinct.
Interleague attendance will go down. Why? Baseball always jerry-rigged it so the majority of the games were played on weekends after school was out -- prime drawing time - and then compared the attendance to overall attendance. Now you'll get a Pirates-Royals matchup on a 33-degree weeknight in April.
Houston might finally have found a rival in the Texas Rangers. The Astros somehow spent 50 years in the NL and never developed a natural rival.
Kirk Gibson and Ron Roenicke finish 1-2 in the NL Manager of the Year voting in their first full season on the job. The White Sox (Robin Ventura) and Cardinals (Mike Matheny) hire managers who never have managed anywhere before. The Cubs hire someone (Dave Sveum) with a dozen games of managerial experience. It sure looks like this managing business isn't all that hard, right? No experience necessary.
With Joe Torre, Bobby Cox and Tony La Russa retiring in the past two seasons, baseball general managers seem to be de-emphasizing experience when it comes to hiring a manager. Over the past two seasons, teams have hired eight managers who never managed a big league season before: Ventura, Matheny, Gibson, John Farrell and Don Mattingly -- all who never managed a full pro season of any kind -- and Roenicke, Sveum and Brad Mills.
(We still don't know about Boston, which might as well take its search on the road and turn into American Idol-style auditions.)
Is a rookie manager a good idea? Gibson certainly made the Diamondbacks look smart by improving the club's win total by 29 in his first full year, the largest improvement by a manager in his first full season since at least 2000. But overall, the results are mixed.
From 2000-11, clubs hired 45 managers who never before managed in the big leagues (not including in-season interim choices). -- that's more than managers with experience (39). What kind of initial impact did the rookie skippers make? Based on the first full season of those rookies, teams improved in 20 cases, stayed the same in two, and won fewer games in 23 of them.
But here's another measure that suggests teams have a low success rate when it comes to picking the right guy for his first job: of the 31 first-time managers hired and fired since 2000, 21 of them have not been re-hired for a second shot.
Finally, of the 45 rookie managers hired since 2000, only five took their team to the postseason in their first full season: Gibson, Roenicke, Ken Macha (2003 A's), Ron Gardenhire (2002 Twins) and Bob Brenly (2001 world champion Diamondbacks).
Back in June 2006, Clayton Kershaw, a lefthanded high school pitcher, was following the MLB draft on a home computer when the Tigers were picking at number six and the Dodgers at number seven. Detroit took University of North Carolina lefty Andrew Miller, who was considered the top talent in the draft but a difficult sign. Los Angeles then snapped up Kershaw with the next pick.
Why does that sequence of picks have such resonance today? The Tigers made it possible that Justin Verlander and Kershaw would be the first pair of pitching Triple Crown winners since 1924 -- rather than having Verlander and Kershaw on the same staff. Just imagine the Tigers with a modern-day Koufax and Drysdale.
But don't feel too badly for Detroit, which thought it was taking the surest thing and ponied up the money. The Tigers have company at the top of the 2006 draft in playing the painful game of "what if?" The Royals (Luke Hochevar at No. 1), Rockies (Greg Reynolds at No. 2), Pirates (Brad Lincoln at No. 4), Mariners (Brandon Morrow at No. 5) and Tigers (Miller at No. 6) all took pitchers when Kershaw, Tim Lincecum, Ian Kennedy, Max Scherzer and Daniel Bard were still on the board.
Total combined WAR for Hochevar, Reynolds, Lincoln, Morrow and Miller: minus-1.0. WAR for Kershaw: 16.7. Ouch.
By the way, the biggest bonuses that year went to Hochevar, Miller and Jeff Smardzija. Keep that in mind the next time you hear about hyped pitching prospects.