As the dog days hit, the guys check in on two aging, injured left-handers, chat about another exciting prospect promotion, and try to divine the competitive implications of the new Wild Card system.

Episode 19: Scraping Ice – Aug. 13, 2012, 17:11

The Style: No frills. The show continues to run past their original target for daily run time, but not for lack of trying. Ben notes that Sam jinxed Eric Chavez by bringing him up in Episode 18, as Chavez now has a sore back.

The Substance: Ben’s topic is CC Sabathia, who is facing an arm-related DL stint for the first time in his career. Sabathia sustained elbow tightness during several starts over the summer, but was able to work around it, as the elbow always seemed to loosen before he was due to take the mound again. At last, his wife made him tell the Yankees about the problem, and the DL was the result.

Ben asks how much Sam is worried about Sabathia in the long run, and how much about Sabathia and the Yankees in the short term, based on the injury. It’s clear, from Ben’s tone, that he’s at least moderately concerned. Sam, however, mostly shrugs off the long-term consequences. He notes that the injury does not seem terribly serious. Sam’s primary concern is for the Yankees, especially if Sabathia is out until or even through October. Ben agrees that New York will be exposed if forced to enter a playoff series without their ace.

They talk a little bit about Sabathia’s extraordinary durability in the years leading up to this problem, and whether that should play a significant role in the way they evaluate this bump in the road. They crack a couple of low-level fat jokes. It works.

Sam wants to talk about playoff odds. He notes that, for instance, the Giants and Angels have nearly identical playoff odds at the time of this conversation, around 70 percent. However, those playoff odds reports treat the Wild Card Game as a true part of the postseason, and Sam doesn’t think that’s proper. He believes the Wild Card Game will end up feeling like a staging area, and that appearing there should count as only half a playoff appearance—the other half being earned by whichever team wins it. By that logic, the Giants (who are 68-percent likely to win the NL West) have a very legitimate 70-percent chance of full participation in the playoffs, but the Angels (whose hopes rest almost entirely in the possibility of winning a spot in the Wild Card Game) have considerably less.

Ben generally agrees, and points out that one small thing even critics of the new system have begrudgingly praised is that it places a much greater relative importance on winning one’s division than did the single Wild Card approach. More than anything, though, the two offer this subject up as something to watch, a wait-and-see. Will teams act as buyers or sellers, if the trade deadline comes and they’re in the hunt only for the Wild Card contest? Will they be more aggressive about going for it every year, knowing the extra half-spot in the Postseason is a potential fallback, or will they more frequently look to build dominant teams that can win division titles, and rebuild when that seems a far-fetched hope? Will fans feel as though teams who lose the Wild Card Game have reached the playoffs?

The Supplement: Well, Sam just can’t catch a break here. He was wrong again, in not being worried about Sabathia’s arm. While Sabathia made it back, reached 200 innings pitched in 2012 and helped pitch the Yankees into the ALCS, he was never the same thereafter. In 2013, his velocity fell, he lowered his arm angle and he went from very good to pretty bad, right away. He might have been on the mound, but he was clearly damaged. He missed much of 2014 with a knee injury that eventually required surgery. He might bounce back—Lord knows his arm needed the rest he got from May through the end of the season—but he’s turned a corner in his career, and is unlikely ever to be a four-win pitcher again.

As for the second Wild Card, I think the jury is still out. The arresting thing to me has been how successfully the league has made each Wild Card Game a Postseason-caliber event. There’s never a dearth of coverage, fan enthusiasm or hype. I can’t say my questions about the legitimacy of the system are answered, but I must admit to being sucked into the drama of the better games, time and again.

From a fan perspective, have the losers of the six Wild Card contests been left with the sense of having reached the playoffs?

  • The 2012 Rangers clearly took no consolation from getting to play in the Wild Card Game. They were never even supposed to be there. It took a charge from the Athletics and a collapse by Texas to create the situation they were in. A particularly painful loss on the final day of the regular season, condemning them to face Baltimore, teamed with the letdown from their consecutive trips to the World Series prior to 2012 to make the loss in the Wild Card Game a crushing one.
  • The 2012 Braves are an interesting case. They’re the most blatant victims of the new system to date, having won seven more regular-season games than the Cardinals did, but failing to beat them and advance into the Division Series. They got to send their ace, Kris Medlen, to the mound that night. They were beat, in part, because of a questionable infield fly call that lives on in infamy. I think that team’s fans probably felt like they achieved the playoffs, even if they had the next step cruelly ripped away.
  • The 2013 Indians made a mad dash to the finish to take the first Wild Card spot, winning 15 of their last 17—and their final 10. They were shut out by the Rays in the Wild Card Game, but if the wild way they ran down that berth didn’t make them feel like a playoff team, nothing ever will.
  • The 2013 Reds, on the other hand, stumbled to the finish line, and in fact, this is the most clear instance of the second Wild Card completely robbing the end of a season of its drama, thus far. The Reds and Pirates entered a season-ending series in Cincinnati tied, with the Cardinals a virtual lock to win the division. Pittsburgh bashed the Reds’ heads in, sweeping them, but then had to play them a fourth time to prove their superiority, because the rules said so. The game will be forever famous as the night Pittsburgh got the playoffs back and Johnny Cueto dropped the ball because of a haunting, harrowing chant from the raucous crowd, but the Reds were not a playoff team—they just got to play in a playoff atmosphere. Dusty Baker was fired after the loss.
  • The 2014 Athletics… obviously, no A’s fan feels that great about the 2014 season. It started out gangbusters, looking like a third straight division title and the breakthrough season for a team so long frustrated in the playoffs. It ended with a team that moved a lot of future assets in order to land short-term help losing its only playoff game, on the road, in heartbreaking fashion. I dunno. It’s tough to peg the A’s. The roster turnover since the end of the season helps signal that they weren’t a true playoff team, by the time they played in what is technically the playoffs.
  • The 2014 Pirates should feel like a playoff team. They played their game at home, lost to the eventual World Series champions (and specifically, to the World Series and NLCS MVP), and are a team on the rise. Nothing lost, except a game.

So all in all, the loser of the Wild Card Game tends to come away with a sour taste in their mouths. That doesn’t preclude teams trying to reach that point, and it seems that the winners of the coin flip going on to the World Series this season has convinced some fringe contenders to push harder than they might have, otherwise. Teams seem to want the Wild Card as badly as ever. If the teams who get that, and only that, continue to walk away unhappy, that could change in a year or two.

Episode 20: Elephant – Aug. 16, 2012, 17:10

The Style: Sam bemoans having just watched Brad Penny pitch, and pitch badly. Ben rubs it in by mentioning that he just got to watch Derek Lowe pitch, and pitch well. Some clumsy humor ensues.

The Substance: Ben’s topic is the expected promotion of Jurickson Profar to the Texas Rangers. It’s an emergency situation, really, not an aggressive attempt to use a young prospect to push a team forward in the playoff hunt. Injuries have Texas thinned out across the infield, and Profar is simply their best option. Sam and Ben agree that the downside of the move is small, even if Profar seems unready to provide high-level production, since he seems to be nothing more than a stopgap. They discuss whether allowing such a valuable player to begin accruing service time and to get his first exposure under such strange conditions is wise, and decide that it’s fine. Sam also proposes that, perhaps, the Rangers aren’t sure they want to start Michael Young in the playoffs. They agree that it would be funny if Young requested a trade again, due to being replaced by a 19-year-old shortstop. However, as they acknowledge, no ambition to replace Young is evident. Profar is just filling space.

Sam’s topic is Johan Santana, who is already what CC Sabathia will soon become. Santana threw the first no-hitter in Mets history earlier in the season, beating the Cardinals, but it took over 130 pitches for him to do so. Since that outing, Santana’s numbers have been hideous. Sam asks whether Ben thinks Santana’s choice to keep pitching in that game has caused his sudden evaporation of talent. Ben notes that, if that is the case, it didn’t kick in right away. Santana was actually okay for nearly a month after the no-hitter, then took off to nearly two runs allowed per inning over a four-start stretch leading into this conversation. They mention, though, that Santana also already appeared to be somewhat in decline, and that (since Santana didn’t pitch at all in 2011) he might have been doomed to this poor performance with or without the no-hitter effort.

The Supplement: Of the Profar thing, little ever came. He would collect 19 unimpressive plate appearances in seven games, before being demoted back into the minors. He went on to struggle only slightly less in 2013, when he got half a season’s worth of playing time but rated out as a replacement-level player. The Rangers did start his clock rather early, but they stopped and started it again later. In 2014, Profar spent the whole season sidelined by a shoulder issue. He might be making his way toward free agency, but since he hasn’t yet proved he can provide value to an MLB team, the Rangers have to feel okay about that. The only problem is just how bad a reinforcement Profar was during his brief 2012 stint. He batted .176/.176/471.

The best of Santana was gone well before this show. He flashed his old self with that no-hitter, but generally had not been a front-line starter since 2008. He was also coming off a season-stealing injury. It seems impossible, to me, that throwing that many pitches in a game (especially one as stressful as the egg race that is the pursuit) can fail to have destructive impact on a pitcher’s arm. It also seems impossible, to me, that the particular damage Santana did in running down this milestone had anything significant to do with what came afterward. We’ve seen Santana’s career enough times, by now, to recognize it. He was one of those arms who dominate over a short peak, but flame out sooner than we wish they would. That’s all. Terry Collins and the Mets are guilty of getting Matt Harvey hurt—a much more serious offense—but they’re more or less blameless with regard to Santana.

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