THIS IS THE ONLY POSSIBLE WORD, THEREFORE IT IS THE BEST POSSIBLE WORLD
We’re not halfway through the 2017 schedule, so it’s probably premature to characterize this baseball season as good or bad or “tastes like chicken.” Mostly it just seems weird and not all that compelling. It’s not that we don’t have great performances, but that the division races have been rather flat and seem unlikely to become much more compelling.
The American League West and National League East are likely over, barring a historic collapse by the Astros and Nationals, respectively. The AL East and both Central divisions are limping along, with the Cubs being particularly disappointing at .500. It’s too soon to dismiss them but here’s hoping that, if they stay where they are, there are as many books talking about how Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer, and Joe Maddon were undone in the year of their title defense as there were tomes about how they got there in the first place. We often assume that only the latter tale would be of interest, but as the Mets demonstrate on an almost yearly basis, failure is compelling too.
You can learn as much when something doesn’t work as when it does. One reason is that the difference between success and failure is often luck, and when luck disappears the only things left to evaluate are plans. They’re often not good enough.
That is not to say that Epstein-Hoyer-Maddon didn’t deserve every plaudit they received. They did. Rather, it’s that the world is a brutal and random place and you can know everything about baseball and still be undone by injuries or a good chunk of your lineup not hitting for no particular reason — Kyle Schwarber is a case in point — or your entire starting rotation sputtering and dying. The Cubs’ World Series opponents are a good example of that last bit. Cleveland’s starting rotation has an ERA of 4.71, 10th in the AL. Last year it was 4.08 and the Indians ranked second.
The only division we haven’t discussed is the NL West, where three teams are on a pace to win 100 games. It used to be something special when two teams in the same league or division won 100 games. It was one of baseball’s tragedies (tragedy with a lowercase t, that is) that two clubs would reach the single-season pinnacle but one would have to go home.
Just to name one example off the top of the gently sloping forehead, in 1993 the Braves and Giants finished one game apart, the former at 104-58, the latter at 103-59. The Giants missed the playoffs. Now, with three divisions and two wild cards in each league, everyone will qualify. That’s neither good nor bad, though it perhaps takes some of the do-or-die tension out of things; the clubs are merely battling for seeding.
We’re less than two weeks from July and trade talk has already begun in earnest. The problem is that even this year’s strong teams are probably not a revived Andrew McCutchen (thank goodness) or Jose Quintana away from being perfect. Quintana would give the Astros the third starter they need to make the playoffs less random, but that assumes Lance McCullers and Dallas Keuchel are both healthy and performing well. Or perhaps he goes to the Yankees.
Assuming Quintana’s peak form, that would give them two reliable starters, assuming we’re ready to put Luis Severino in that class. Otherwise, Masahiro Tanaka is broken, CC Sabathia is torn, Michael Pineda is unreliable, and Jordan Montgomery is inexperienced. Broken, torn, unreliable, and inexperienced describes me in high school fairly well, but it doesn’t sound much like a World Series-winning rotation.
This is, perhaps, a nihilistic summary of the 2017 season, but you’ll have to forgive me, I saw It Comes At Night yesterday, a film that, as the credits rolled, prompted someone in the theater to shout, “Worst movie ever!” It’s an inert mess with a theme that seems to be, “Strive all you want, we’re all doomed in the end.”
This is true in a certain basic sense, but not true of baseball teams in discreet doses like individual seasons. Well, unless you’re the San Francisco Giants, in which case, yes, you’re done. Lose 100 games and enjoy the first-round draft pick, as Job’s wife might have said. Actually, a better paraphrase of Mrs. Job would be “Curse the Phillies and die,” because they have an ironclad lock on that pick. Enjoy the second overall pick? That’s a pretty good pick, fellas.
Those two teams aside, someone can and will win it all this season barring the unlikely return of Bud Selig ’94, but unlike last year’s Cubs, this year’s champions hardly seems like it will be one for the history book. They’ll just be getting by. That description probably applies to more champions than most, but after last year’s apotheosis of baseball in the form of the Cubs’ championship, it’s especially disappointing. The last thing 2017, which began with a huge handicap, needed was to get even worse.
To boil it all down, some of these teams have to find another gear. The horror movie of our lives is that they won’t. You know what comes at night? Night games. That’s all they are, though, and once they’re over and the grounds crew turns off the lights all we have left is darkness. How’s that for mock profundity? You should thank me — I didn’t charge you $10 a ticket so you could find out something you already knew. Here’s hoping the trading season proves all that nihilism to have been misplaced.
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